A Cave Filled with Books

A cave filled with forgotten books and people sifting through them, heads down, panning for lost treasure.  Sleet and snow filtering down through the sliver of sky visible through the walls.  Laptops and telephones lighting up faces.  The squeaking of wheels from a book trolley, an electric motor whining as it pushes open an elevator door.  Two explorers in light winter jackets –– darker skin than most of the rest of us –– walking in, talking.  Their voices echoing off the stone walls, creating a chorale, a canon of rhythmical chanting.  One lifting his arm, pointing out at the sliver of city visible through the wall, his voice an older brother’s.  The rest of us looking up from our treasure hunts, sighing to ourselves –– but since they don’t look like us we don’t want to hurt their feelings; we suffer in silence and shake our heads and imagine that where they come from, people don’t know how to behave in caves full of books.

Them looking my way.  Me putting my finger to my lips.  Them opening their eyes wide, whispering, showing me the palms of their hands, turning and leaving.

A Train Platform

Six men, darker and skinnier and younger than me, taking turns running and throwing themselves against a vending machine.  Shoulders drumming into the plexiglass-fronted monolith –– two guys tossing themselves into it at the same time.  The bubbling of a language between them.  The pigeons in their dusty winter coats walking past, bobbing their heads, ignoring them.  The rest of us winter pigeons –– faces framed by the glow of phones or lighters.  Watching. Thinking: where these guys come from, people obviously don’t know how to act on train platforms.

Me walking over and pointing to a phone number at the top of the machine, explaining that they should call and tell the company the code number on the machine, and the company will send a gift certificate to their phone.  One of them putting an arm across my shoulders and pointing at the guilty chocolate bar. A mix of English, Swedish, a language that might be Somali.  Me repeating myself, others watching.  Me shrugging, walking away, them slamming themselves against the machine again until as the train pulls up –– them erupting in a soccer-goal cheer, them dancing, one of their arms held high, the chocolate bar raised in salute to the Stockholm night.

On the Train Home

On the train home, sitting as usual revising the manuscript in my lap. The facing seats like the booths at a bar, people nurturing the day’s defeats, tucking their heartaches and unfulfilled desires into their phone cases and slipping them into their pockets.  A man like a tree stump growing out of the seats across the aisle.  Footsteps behind us, a young woman’s voice in Swedish, she stands in the aisle next to me, she looks like one of my students, blond hair and an upturned nose, too young to be selling homeless magazines on the train –– no, not selling magazines, staring straight ahead and asking in a monotone if anyone can help her with a place to stay for the night.  And every one of us thinking about our empty trips home from the station, empty guest rooms and sofas when we get home… every one of us silent, ignoring her, waiting for her to walk on past.

Her walking on past.

Under the Station

The train moulding the night with hands of steel, blowing life into streetlamps, houses, mud-and-snow landscapes in the woollen winter nighttime.  Whispering secrets with spinning wheels on rails, with generators and transformers and electrical motors whining, pulsing.  Wishing my town into being, just for me, just for tonight, me a stranger at home in this country, this language, these thoughts.

The train lurching, seizuring,  winding down and stopping, splitting its sides open and us spilling out, yanking open glass doors and tumbling night-drunk down flourescent-tile train station stairs, to the viaduct underneath where half a dozen cocoons, mothers and fathers and grandparents lay bundled on damp foam matresses and swaddled, mummified, in winter coats and hats and thick rag mittens, empty paper cups and plastic bags bulging with clothes standing sentinal at their feet… and them not asking for a place to stay the night, only begging to be ignored for being here, forgiven for being poor.