Grade: 11th grade
Age: 16

The Subway is an Incredibly Long Story

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A thousand words isn’t enough, not nearly, but you’re going to try anyway. Even as the picture sits in front of you, even as you bring the pencil down to paper, you know it’s too little — but you’re nothing if not determined.
The point of the photograph had been, originally, the teenager smoking a cigarette too close to the subway tracks. He’s all gangly limbs and shaky fingers and eyes that have seen too much. He’s just enough to make you want to look. His placement — right in the middle of the chaos — makes its own statement. If you had more words, you’d dream up his story. Bad parents or friends, no parents or friends, maybe both or neither. Either way, you won’t judge him. You imagine yourself standing beside him, offering him a light.
But six feet behind him, standing on the edge of the pack of commuters waiting for the G-train, a woman stands with her hands crossed in front of her, her jacket wrapped so tightly around her that it seems a second skin. Her hair is pinched into a painfully perfect bun. If you look closely enough you’ll see that though her head is turned away, her eyes are still trained on the photographer — on you.
As you’re pondering why she cares about someone holding a camera in the middle of a very busy subway platform, the bright spot catches your eye. You would have dismissed it as an error in photo development, but it becomes clearer the longer you study it that it isn’t. Rather, it’s the reflection of tunnel lights off of a ring, sitting in the muck of the subway rails. It’s close enough to the darkness beyond what the lights of the platform can reach that your eyes are immediately searching through the people standing closest to the mouth of the tunnel.
You see him then, the fifty year old man bulldozing his way through a mother and her disobedient toddlers, trying to get away from the tracks.
His hair is cut so that it sits on his head the same way a model’s would, gray hair frosting the edge of his hairline in a way doesn’t take from his looks. The camera doesn’t catch the finer wrinkles in his face, but you can still see the valiant effort he’s made to hide the deeper ones. His shoes, save for the dust of the subway, are meticulously cared for. He, you realize, has meticulously cared for them. What a bad day it must have been, for him to have let himself go out in public with his shirt improperly buttoned and his pants wrinkling.
If he’d walked just a little faster, the camera might not have spied the thin tan line on his ring finger, or how he clenched his hands into white-knuckled fists, or squinting his eyes like no one would notice that he was crying. He would have been lost in the crowd, but there he is, immortalized as the inconsiderate brute that didn’t watch where he was going. The mother, still reaching for her toddler, would remember him as just that for the rest of eternity.
She’ll never see the ring, or know his heartbreak. She has her own problems: one of her kids is hunched over, trying to track the line of ants that’d marched their way between his little legs. The other kid, to the first’s dismay, is trying his best to squash them. The mother is beyond exhausted.
Closer to you, there’s an empty guitar case sitting at the foot of another teenager. She’s not looking at the people that pass her by, or at her fingers as they pluck at both E strings. Her head rests against the column behind her, eyes closed. The guitar case is supposed to be black, but it’s more a sad gray now that it’s sat there long enough to collect the filth of the ground. The girl isn’t like the boy at the tracks, not sad or angry or too grown up for her age. Her shoes aren’t quite as clean as the man who threw his ring into the subway tunnel, but they’re trendy and fit her well. Her cheeks, round and soft beneath clear skin, say enough about the people who no doubt give her what the boy with the cigarette doesn’t have. The guitar case is not there to collect money.
It’s naivete that lets her close her eyes in the middle of the subway. That necklace around her neck would give way with one swift tug, and the dirty old man sitting at the bench a few feet away seems to be aware of it. The photograph says nothing of his intentions. These people are only what the camera had seen in the eighth of a second between you putting your finger on the button and the flash of the camera going off.
Looking at the photograph, you can still feel the grime of thirty people trying to push past and around you at once. Someone’s elbow juts out at the very edge of the picture, its owner having jammed it into your side half a moment before. This stranger (his elbow, really) was the reason this picture existed. You’d only been trying to focus the frame, but in your haste to squirm away from the stranger, your finger had pressed the button prematurely. Your interest had initially been piqued by the boy with the cigarette, but now . . . you’re wondering if you would’ve cared to look at the picture this closely if the taking of it had been fully intentional.
The tip of your pencil’s been whittled into a rather useless nub. There are five other faces you can make out in the photograph, but there simply aren’t enough words in the thousand you’ve allowed yourself to tell their stories. You think to yourself that next time you might find a less complex subject to photograph than humankind.

3 thoughts on “The Subway is an Incredibly Long Story

  1. Great voice, control, imagery. Not a fan of the 1,000 word “frame,” but it works with that powerful last line.

  2. Some wonderful rhythm of language here, and more than a few vivid images: ‘ her jacket wrapped so tightly around her that it seems a second skin’ … ‘the grime of thirty people trying to push past and around you at once.’

    But opening with a reminder of a 1,000-word limit was a misstep. It reminds people that you’re at a keyboard. The best writing can you and take you to a different universe. This story had a chance to do that. So don’t say, ‘If you had more words, you’d dream up his story.’ Go ahead and dream up the story!

  3. narrator is too intrusive–images are vivid and real, shame the author didn’t work these into a real story because he/she has a terrific imagination.

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