Undercity by Renato Barucco
He might as well be a ghost. His appearance is as close to invisibility as human features can get. Something to do with proportions and colors. His movements are delicate, noiseless. In high school, a few years ago, kids used to call him a loser. Nowadays, co-workers and neighbors say he’s an odd man who keeps to himself. True and true. Most folks don’t even notice him, though. He doesn’t complain. The opposite. Blandness is his superpower. He moves through spaces like a whiff of smoke, sometimes perceived, mostly ignored.
People are supposed to sense eyes on them thanks to a gaze-detection system of sorts engineered by evolution to protect them from predators. The skill is lost in modern humans, as far as he’s concerned. At least in the big city, certainly in the subway. The women he chooses, for example, never realize he’s watching. Case in point: Alessia. She works at the register, too. Every day, she asks his name. Every day, he says his name is Bob, a lie intended to expedite her work. Bob is easy to understand, write and remember. He’s not interested in that last bit, though. He succeeds. There’s never a vague trace of recollection on her part. Not even today, and he’s wearing a suit for the occasion, his pointy shoulders and ostrich neck engulfed by fabric. He looks ridiculous. It doesn’t matter. He’ll get rid of it as soon as he’s done. He already picked out the trash can in the bathrooms of the Time Warner Center, second floor. He carries a change of clothes in his gym bag. More than one, to be exact, elements of a procedure he refined year after year, encounter after encounter.
Men who look like a shadow find ways to make up for the lack of memorable traits. Career, money, a lively personality, other debatable strategies. Not Invisible Bob. He fully accepts his nature and relative solitude. He knows no irony. And though his life may seem joyless, he knows what gives him pleasure. He chases that pleasure.
He’s been studying Alessia for over two months now, coming to the coffee shop every day at 6:30 on the dot, ninety minutes before closing time. That’s how dedicated he is. He orders a cappuccino even though he doesn’t drink coffee. It’s a small investment in the grand scheme of things. It gives him time to hang around the counter and, as the other girl froths milk he won’t savor, observe Alessia from a vantage point. Drink in hand, he sits on a communal stool in the middle of the concourse, a little to the side, and checks his phone, reads a magazine, pays attention to the comings and goings of the underground market at Columbus Circle. All in all, all an act. Truth is, he has eyes only for her: Alessia.
The other girl seems nice enough, all dimples and head nods. She gets off at seven when foot traffic slows down, and the shop stops serving coffee. Alessia spends the last hour of her shift by herself selling bottles of water, pressed juices, the occasional cupcake. He stays until she pulls the shutter gate, then watches her vanish down the staircase to the downtown trains. Tonight, however, will be different. He’ll follow her all the way to the platform and make his move.
There’s something different about her. Either that or anticipation plays tricks on him. She’s wearing makeup, keeps checking her phone. He swears she’s excited about something.
“At what time is he getting in?” asks the other girl. Words aren’t clear. A dull rumble is the place’s piped music. He 9 relies on lip reading, a skill he developed growing up with parents whose voices were never louder than whispers.
“He’ll be landing any minute. I can’t wait.”
She is meeting someone, someone she knows well. The discovery excites and worries him in equal measure. He takes another pretend sip of his cappuccino.
“Is he meeting you here?”
“No. I figured by the time he gets off the plane, takes a cab, and gets to Brooklyn; I’ll be home. I planned out the entire weekend.”
“I’m glad you finally decided to take time off.” The other girl takes off her apron. “When was the last time you saw him?”
“Christmas. Dad doesn’t like to travel. It’s his first time in New York.”
Her father. What an enticing scenario. Though, it adds urgency to Bob’s plan. She took the weekend off. He won’t be able to wait three more days.
Alessia has been working at the coffee shop all summer, Tuesday to Sunday, two to eight. From overheard conversations, Bob learned that she wants to keep the job through the fall, classes permitting. How can she deal with it on a daily basis? She must need the money. A vibrant young girl, spending sunny afternoons below Eighth Avenue, in the subway, in front of hordes of strangers. All those eyes, all the time. Prying. Watching. Glancing. In the evening, she must be disoriented. He would be. Humanity is thrilling and draining.
After meeting him, she’ll no longer need to work.
Dad’s trip was a surprise. Alessia tells the other girl her old man hasn’t seen much of anything outside of Akron. First, he didn’t have the money to travel, and then he lost the will because of what happened to her mom. What exactly remains unsaid. Something tragic, likely an untimely death. Leaving Dad alone in their empty house the day she left for college had been excruciating. Alessia, poor angel.
“I’m about to leave. Are you going to be okay?” asks the other girl. Alessia nods, but Bob has the feeling she doesn’t like to work alone. She gets keyed up. The shop isn’t busy; it’s not that. It’s not fear, either, not quite. There are workers in the other stores and at the kiosks. Cops show up often. But still. The subway wasn’t meant for people to linger.
The other girl leaves. Moments later, Creepy Guy shows up. He’s a regular who comes around most days, always late in the afternoon. Bob noticed him from the beginning. How could he not, as overt as he is? He orders a lemonade, leans on the white column, watches her. Worse, he stares at her. On Monday, he stayed for forty minutes, ample time to finish a lemonade. He hung around even longer on Wednesday. Occasionally, he smiles, his lips stretched in a mad grin. Because of an unfortunate face tattoo—a mime-like blue tear on his left cheek, his smile feels equivocal, threatening. He’s enormous, too. Tall and broad, thick arms covered in monochromatic ink.
He orders the usual. Alessia asks for the name, which is strange this time of day. Perhaps knowing it makes her feel secure. Creepy Guy unsettles her, that’s for sure. She doesn’t know Invisible Bob is watching over her.
The guy’s name is Jay, or so he says. Upon enunciation, the mad grin makes its first appearance. He has the nerve to ask for her name in return. She doesn’t say a word, just points at the name tag on her apron. He leans forward.
“Alessia. Where’s that from?”
She doesn’t look at him, doesn’t want to engage, writes the name on the cup and pours the drink.
Invisible Bob takes a sip of his cappuccino, a real one this time. Jay is not his name, he thinks. Certainly not the way she spelled it on the cup—JAY. Maybe J, just the letter, the initial of his name. He stares at Jay staring at Alessia, the only person with a real name. What does he think he’s doing? The creep should call it a day and go home. Bob bets he lives off the A train somewhere in Washington Heights. From the look of his boots and pants, he’s a painter contracting jobs through the union. His tattoos point to troubled years, street gangs and time in juvie. He has no discretion and no class. Like a beast cornering his female, his presence alone invades her space. He is arrogant, entitled, careless, all the things Bob hates in men. Alessia has one responsibility in this: She’s irresistible. Orchid mouth, porcelain skin, eyelashes like petals of a rose, and that sadness, a blue aura. Not outward despair, an inner supplication. Bob often wonders what’s that all about. Her vulnerability makes her precious, more so in the subway, an unforgiving microcosm. Among harsh noises and fetid odors, greasy humans and hungry rats, Alessia is a restorative vision.
It’s been thirty minutes. Creepy Jay isn’t moving, isn’t drinking his lemonade. He’s just gawking. Alessia glances at him on occasions, an observation that baffles Bob. He’s been there more often than Jay and for longer. Not once has she laid eyes on him. It’s fine. Alessia is not interested in the guy; she’s afraid of him. When a woman is scared, her eyes change. They acquire a specific luminosity, a liquid restlessness.
Alessia looks at her phone one more time, pouts her lips ever so slightly. Is it because she still has forty-five minutes to go? Perhaps Dad hasn’t texted, or she just can’t wait to go home, take a shower, wash the smell of subway and coffee off her hair.
A group of girls comes by, high school age. One buys a cake pop, another a raspberry cupcake, nothing but iced water for the other three. They laugh and yell, talk to each other and live stream their downtown adventures through devices. Bob knows these girls. The type, at least. They stroll up and down Simpson Avenue in the Bronx, hang out by the entrance to the station, meet boys at Grand Concourse. Their words—accent, topics, cadence—give away their journey. Uneven skin, thick backpacks, funky hair. They are appealing to him, almost distracting. He already had one of these girls two years ago. Tatiana was her name. Brown eyes, dyed hair, a nose piercing. He remembers her rib cage more than anything. Tiny, delicate. She used to commute for school from the South Bronx to Harlem. 4 or 5 train. She met her a late Wednesday afternoon at the Jackson Avenue station. It was October. The sun shined orange and low above the city. Trains run above ground there. Not a pretty view and, yet, such a delicious memory, one of his best.
The girls head to the 1 train. They’ll transfer to the 2 at 96th Street. Bob has spent so much time in the subway system he can recreate its people’s past, predict their future. He looks at the girls as they walk away, and so does Alessia. Creepy Jay is still leaning against the column, a different expression on his face. Frown borrows, darker eyes, tight lips. What’s on his mind? Alessia must be thinking the same. She wipes the counter with unrequired vigor. It didn’t need cleaning.
Only twenty-five more minutes. As Alessia starts storing the goods left from the day, Jay’s hand moves. He brings his right pointer finger in front of his lips, taps them three times, and points at her directly, unequivocally. Accompanied by a sly smile, the gesture shakes her to the core, Bob can tell. He’s upset. Should he intervene? Right. And do what? Alessia leans over the counter and takes a look around. It’s the time of day when commuters transit through the concourse speedily, in waves. They have a schedule and a destination, somewhere out of here, above ground. Even subway stations can be deserted for a terrifying minute. She sees only the woman who sells greeting cards, and she’s shutting down her kiosk. She looks in Bob’s direction, past him, as though he and his suit camouflaged perfectly with the background. Her phone beeps, distracting her. Finally, a smile appears on her face. Was that her dad? She takes a deep breath.
“New York City,” she says out loud, shaking her head. Hard to tell what she meant by it. In any case, this is not New York. It’s the subway, the city’s dirty conscience with its own rules, its own crimes.
Bob puts his pretend book away and walks down the hallway. He stops at the kiosk that’s closing, checks out greeting cards, a farce. It’s almost eight, and even if she hasn’t noticed him at all, he doesn’t want to be too obvious. He’ll meet her soon enough. Just a matter of minutes, unless Jay turns out to be a real problem.
At closing time, she turns off the lights, pulls the shutters, locks up the store. She looks taller from this side of the counter, stronger even. Bob observes the scene from a safe distance, not wanting to be seen until it’s time. From his location, he can’t see clearly, but it seems she’s stalling, monitoring Creepy Jay over her shoulders, hoping he’ll go away. From the look of it, he isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
Her phone lights up, and again she smiles. It has to be her dad. A wave of travelers floods the concourse. She walks against them, through them, energized by their presence or by the text message she just received. She heads to the trains with a spring in her step. Jay leaves the plastic cup on the floor and follows her. Vulgar is what he is. Maintaining an appropriate distance, Bob walks in the same direction. He waited for this moment all week. The next few minutes are crucial.
Beep, click-click. Alessia flies through the turnstile. Beep, click-click. The telltale sounds of someone swiping right behind her. Without turning around, she takes the stairs to the platform. Warm air blows through her hair. Jay is only a few steps behind her. Bob enters the station, too, walks down the stairs, turns sharply left. He stands under the staircase, facing the uptown track. He has a good view of the platform. It’s mostly empty. A train just left the station. Alessia passes a guy lost in his phone, his concentration guarded by noise-canceling headphones. She walks towards the north side of the platform. Behind her, Jay slows down. Bob is too far to stage a casual contact. He considers aborting his plan entirely, but Alessia stops in her tracks. She turns around heavy on her heels to face Jay who keeps walking in her direction one slow stride after the other. She looks straight into the stalker’s eyes, marches backward, toward Jay. A challenge indeed. They walk past each other in the middle of the platform. Immobile under the staircase, Bob watches unseen, a few feet from them. Unexpectedly, Jay ignores Alessia. Not a word, a wink, nothing. Her chest raises as she takes a sigh of relief. She’s the one staring back now, perhaps trying to determine the origin of her fear. She looks at Jay’s chest, at his dirty boots. She shakes her head. Bob can see beads of sweat on her forehead, that’s how close she is now. He relishes her proximity until he hears a noise in the distance, another downtown train approaching. The subway current of putrid air intensifies. Alessia leans forward, her feet on the yellow line, peeks into the tunnel, hoping to 15 see a bright letter A in a blue circle. Bob has to act. Now or not today.
He walks decisively up to her. From the corner of her eye, Alessia takes note of an expected, jerky movement Creepy Jay makes. He brings his hands to his head, squeezes his eyes as he sees Bob for the first time and at his best, approaching Alessia from behind, a certain intensity in his facial expression. Jay’s eyes open wider and wider. Not surprise. Not curiosity. Fear, terror, horror. Those are the words.
It’s impossible to guess what goes through Alessia’s mind as Bob grabs her by the shoulders. Likely, she wants to turn around, find out who or what is behind her, the reason Jay appears frightened all of a sudden. Everything happens fast. She looks down at her legs, moving forward against her will. The bony, sweaty hands on her skin, the push. Then, only a series of sensorial flashes: Bright lights, the train horn, violence. Until she feels no more because Alessia is no more.
Ah, the sweet pleasure. It almost makes Bob cry. Almost. He wishes he could capture the essence of the moment, confine it in a vase, taste it slowly, a little at a time. But great pleasures never last long. The body in his hands, the surprise, the chaos, the blood: It’s art he depends on, impossible to explain. He doesn’t have to. No one will know the girl didn’t kill herself or didn’t fall on the tracks by accident on her way to meet Daddy. Creepy Jay is a witness who won’t remember a thing. Men who drop to their knees, cry and shake their head no-no-no-no-no never remember. Bob recognizes a void when he sees one. He knows all too well the sorts of tricks trauma plays on the mind of the weak. He bets Jay won’t talk for a while. Perhaps he’ll move to another town, never set foot in the subway again for sure.
Depending on the camera’s angle, it’s possible the whole stunt was caught on tape. It wouldn’t be the first time. Most platforms have video surveillance nowadays. He’ll get away with it, as always. He knows how to find ideal spots, how to transform. Right before the accident, a small man in an ill-fitting suit walked into the station and vanished. Later, a teenage boy in shorts, tee, and baseball cap ran up the stairs, entered the Time Warner Center, went to the bathroom. Now, a regular New Yorker in jeans and polo walks to his apartment on West 72nd Street listening to the sound of approaching sirens. An angel’s absence registers immediately. That’s his gift to her. The sky is generous, a cotton candy pink. He’s feeling energized and powerful, still invisible, already onto his next project. An easier station this time. Perhaps in Brooklyn.
Renato Barucco received an MA in Psychology from UCSC in Milan. He currently conducts research on gender and sexuality at Columbia University, Department of Psychiatry. His nonfiction has appeared in The New York Times, The Daily Beast, The Advocate, and elsewhere. He lives in Brooklyn.