The Red Line Home by Michael Ellman

It’s summer, yet he wears an all-season tan suit with a dress shirt and tie—shooting his cuffs as he speaks, just like the way I do. He is younger than me, but not by much. A mellow speaking voice and a new White Sox cap worn with the bill pointing backward like a teenager preening on the street corner. 

The bill is supposed to protect you from UV rays headed toward your eyes and forehead—think skin cancer and cataracts, you dummy, I want to tell him. But he speaks first, looking at me decked out in my own White Sox get-up—a multi-colored Minnie Minoso shirt and black Sox cap worn correctly.

“I need help,” he says. “Please, I need money.”

My fellow passengers on the CTA Red Line become still, their routine is interrupted. The background rattle and vibration switch to a clickety-clack, while we ascend from the underground to the open-air elevation near the Armitage station. 

The Red Line has its own language. Background rumbles mix with polyglot sounds, no one speaks to one another, but into phones connected with tubes, some black, some white, spiraling into ears, emitting song lyrics or spouses barking urgent food pick-up orders.

“I just came from my doctor,” the well-dressed interloper says. Looking at me, but his voice echoes throughout the car. 

“I have this rash, a skin rash. I can show it to you. It’s on my legs. It’s bad. I have prescriptions for it from my doctor, expensive prescriptions, but I don’t have money for the medicines.” 

Followed by a well-timed pause.

“Please help me—be generous.”

I hadn’t heard this kind of plea before; and I have to admit, I’m impressed. The presentation is good: specific, to the point, and with the promise of a demonstration. We also have this baseball connection, plus he’s dressed so well—like a person I should know.

I used to work in marketing. The bumble bee flying around boxes of honey-coated oat cereal and pond frogs croaking about beer came from my desk. This guy has a sense for my kind of work. 

Another thing, and it comes from a generosity I found in a Robert Parker detective novel. Keep dollar bills ready in your pocket for veterans and other unfortunates sitting on the sidewalk next to their drugged dogs and hand-written cardboard signs pleading for help. They shouldn’t have to beg for food money. 

“Hey fellow,” I say, pulling out my pocket dollars—difficult to do when squashed in train car seats designed for anorexics and munchkins. “Here’s two bucks. Let me see your rash, my daughter is a dermatologist. I have her card with me.”

My dollars are snatched from my hand, and skin rash guy moves on without pulling up his pant leg or anything.

“What are you, some sort of goddamn pervert wanting to see my shit?” he turns back to me and yells.

“Are you a tourist? Soliciting on the CTA train is frowned upon, you know. It’s illegal, actually.” My fellow passenger, sitting to my right is talking, her face angled almost 90 degrees toward me. “This guy comes daily at about this time.”

I notice the shady looks directed my way from the other commuters, especially the large stern-faced lady sitting across the aisle. I wouldn’t have been able to fit in next to her—her behind spread across several seats like a hungry amoeba. 

 “In a few minutes, Darryl, the blind guy,” my neighbor says, “will come through the same door—how he manages that, well that’s a mystery—but no hand-out—please. We’ve talked to him. He needs to stay on the platform before he kills himself.”   

“Please, can’t someone help me? I’m blind.” Darryl was on-time, working his way into our car, slashing his red-tipped cane over everyone’s ankles, as he makes his way toward us. “Please help,” he says again.

A nudge from the lady to my right, her Margaret Atwood book now turned face down on her lap and her hand across my arm, shushing me.

“Darryl, no soliciting,” she says. “It’s dangerous for you to walk between the cars. We’ve told you to stay on the platform.”

“Darryl, stay on the platform!” shout the other commuters. 

“You’re new here,” the lady says to me, “and there’s a protocol to follow. You’re probably coming from White Sox park, my favorite team, by the way, but there’s no excuse for handing out charity here on the train. Stella, the gospel singer, stationed at the north-end of the Randolph stop is a better one to help. When she sings, “Shall We Gather by the River,” you’ll want to be generous.”

I study the advertisements papering the walls, for massage therapists, dental assistants, and radio and television announcers. The schools hawk golden opportunities and hefty incomes. 

Maybe that’s something the skin rash guy should look into. 

Widowerhood is not the same as being single, but still…….

“So you’re a White Sox fan?’ I ask my fellow passenger, our bare arms touching. “Do you attend many Sox games?  And I like your reading choice.  I wonder if….”

“Shush,” she says, as she lifts her book. “I’m married.”

I travel to the end of the line—Linden Street in Wilmette. A narrow passageway guides me to the exit.

I bump into Mr. Skin Disease Guy.

He gently pokes me in the shoulder as if we’re old acquaintances.

“I thought you would be good for more than two bucks, what with our White Sox connection, and here you getting off in this wealthy North Shore area,” he says. “I didn’t make much money today, not like after a Cubs or Bear game. Cubs win—big bucks! My wife’s waiting outside in our car. She’s thrilled to get me out of the house. We can give you a ride home if you need one.” 

“I’ll walk, thanks,” I say, while weighing the afternoon adventures.

6 thoughts on “The Red Line Home by Michael Ellman”

  1. It’s believable. That this really happened and that the main character really fell for it. I like that the reader is left to his own feelings and that the author doesn’t intrude by supplying them. Good story!

  2. Nice read with a couple of twists.
    How to extend this into a novel, tell the story of each participant, put them on the train, and twist the end to show a previous relationship between the two Wilmette guys, or, leave it as the lovely story it already is.

  3. Is Mike Ellman a mensch or a sucker? I would have asked “How did you pay the skin Dr.?
    Did you tell the DR. that you could not afford the medication? I would have responded my usual refrain, “I give my charity through church” I really enjoyed the short story.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *