[Published in the East Hampton Star, May, 2002]
Even through tears and the deliriums of half-consciousness, Larry saw the smoke from the gun, heard the deafening sound from it, and the mad screams that rose upon each shot. The shooter continued to walk up the aisle and Larry watched the man’s wide back while sinking to the floor of the subway car. This lowering of self was not done out of will. Larry’s legs had gone numb and when he slid down, his pants rolled up, exposing shins and the gray hairs on his bony legs. He slumped against a pole and remembered he was an old man. His hand stuck to one palm-sized portion of his chest as blood gushed through fingers in thick waves, rolling over knuckles and falling onto his sweater, a cable-knit recently bought by his wife. He perspired and wanted badly to reach into his breast pocket for his handkerchief, but he wouldn’t dare take his hand away. Besides, sitting in place seemed to ease the hurt. The pain was either dissipating or he was getting accustomed to it like the fit of new clothes.
He closed his eyes and took several long breaths and exhaled each slowly. Words came to his mind, despite the cacophony of his surroundings. Panicking passengers shouted and slapped at the subway doors and windows, trying to force them open. Several ran over him without consideration. They were the most bothersome to Larry, because he was ruminating while some of these people kicked his feet as they leapt, costing him his train of thought.
The gun fell with a loud thud and Larry turned toward the sound. He winced when he shifted his head and shoulders, and also when he saw the gunman being smothered by a group of purposeful men, who battered him with blows that looked painful to the extreme. Despite this man’s capture, people still screamed and scurried about. A large woman heading to the far end of the car stumbled after she nearly tripped over Larry’s size 10 Clark’s. His toes pointed right back up, like pieces of hard rubber, and he found it curious, not feeling pain when kicked. The woman was the last to pass him and the voices quelled in a matter of seconds, a change of volume Larry was grateful for.
With one wet hand still on his chest, he raised himself up a little, making it easier to breathe and concentrate. He coughed and began.
“Death,” he said. It was a murmur and wouldn’t do. He propped himself up some more, pressing his loose hand to the coarse floor and pushing his spine against the metal pole. He winced, coughed, and did his best to clear his throat.
“Death -.” The weary drone in his voice stunned him. It was a typical, sick, old man sound, but it would have to do. “Death,” he said again, “the undiscovered country, from whose bourn” -he paused to cough – “No traveller returns, puzzles the will, And makes us rather . . . rather . . .” -he coughed, without needing to this time, raising a clenched fist a few inches from his mouth – “rather bear those ills we have, Thus conscience doth make cowards of us all.”
He smiled and closed his eyes, even letting out a chuckle. Then he tried to remember the rest as the subway filled with more cries of agony and pleas for help. Larry, though hurt, wanted no such attention. His goal was to go back to the top, take the soliloquy from the start. Before he could get going, he realized he had garnered a listener, if not a fan. Larry opened his eyes and turned his head. A pair of soft brown eyes stared at him intently and Larry felt a rush of embarrassment. He looked at the boy, saw his narrow lips, long, black hair, thick eyebrows contorted in a manner that showed his worry, and concern in that unflinching gaze. He probably thought Larry mad, going on like that, and likely did not recognize the words. How many do anymore?
The boy touched Larry’s arm and kept looking at him quizzically. The train was travelling through a section of New York populated by immigrants and Larry wondered if he could converse with him. The boy took off his scarf and sat beside him. He reached up and took Larry’s bloody hand from his chest, then pressed the scarf against the wound. Larry looked more closely at the boy. He was handsome, and he was not a boy. College age, perhaps, like Larry’s youngest.
The young man’s eyebrows relaxed now that he was closer. He put his right hand behind Larry’s back and, without any hint of an accent, said, “You forgot a line.”
Larry screamed as he felt the hand push against the back of his shoulder. The pain was so fierce it made Larry tear up and when the young man pulled his hand back, they both turned ashen at the sight of the amount of blood on his palm.
Larry blinked and swallowed. He panted and with forehead raised and lips quivering, met his companion’s eyes. “What did you say?”
The young man turned his eyes back to his hand, then looked all around–at the billboards, on the grimy floor, and plastic seats – before wiping the blood on his pants.
“You forgot a line,” he replied, brushing his khaki Dockers as if he were attempting to get lint off it. “And makes us rather bear those ills we have, Than fly to others that we know not of? Thus conscience does make cowards of us all.”
“Well,” Larry said, with a frown, “everyone’s a critic.”
[To read the rest of The Prince, request the story.]