You see before you a dust-covered laborer, slumped and asleep in his subway seat, surgical mask wedged under his chin. He’s wearing a baseball cap that reads FBI JESUS. And his hat reminds you of something a subway preacher had posed, through an N95, to a train of masked riders who could barely understand him: If Christ returned today, to this Queens-bound R train, what might He make of what’s going on in this world, anno domini 2021? Moments earlier, on street level, you’d heard a popular Christmas carol, knew all the words, you’d heard His name mentioned, but you didn’t sing or hum or mouth the lyrics. You didn’t tap or register the tune. Instead you recalled fuzzy lights, green and red, and you saw them above a bar at the holidays. That place in the Village, remember? Remember that place? Remember those times? With your many friends—when you had friends—women and men you used to know but no longer speak to. Fancy drinks with cinnamon in them. Bourbon. Steam heat. That bartender—what’s his name? Windows of cut glass. Wood paneling. Tin ceiling. A clanking noise somewhere in the subway car causes you to recall the clanging of radiators and the snowstorms of youth. And what snow meant then. It meant joy. You say to yourself: pure unmitigated joy. But is that what it really meant? Or are you assigning a new emotion to an earlier, very different memory? Who knows, but you can at least recall distinctly the blue glow of pond ice. You remember not really understanding the true meaning of Christmas and not worrying for a moment about your ignorance. It didn’t matter. No one ever checked if you knew. No one checks now if you remember your St. Paul. Your Aquinas. No one cares, including you. Vaguely you recall midnight masses. Singing and standing. Standing and sitting. That weird infant-Christ doll in the manger. Where did he come from? Piles of real straw around it. Paintings of donkeys and cows in the background. An electronic beeping sound emits from somewhere and you realize that what Christmas really means is another year has come and gone. A calendar event: you remember that Christmas is the beginning of the liturgical year as well as the ending of a real one. You’ve forgotten Christmases. You know you’ll forget many more and soon you’ll have forgotten decades of them. It’s happening already. You used to misplace a year or two but recently, when talking to someone, you skipped over an entire set of ten. You check out that FBI JESUS hat again. Maybe Christ works in a field office in Newark? Or in White Plains? You want to laugh out loud at your damn dumb dad joke and, by extension, at the laborer’s baseball cap. You like to amuse yourself. But instead you get all serious and tell yourself that in all likelihood, if Jesus Christ returned to earth today, to this Queens-bound R train, to this city and this country, His available data would be collected and held in the Hoover Building or elsewhere in perpetuity. His activities would be tracked and monitored and His data cut and analyzed, like everybody else’s, and eventually He’d be framed and executed, just like the first time round, today not by cross but by lethal injection in Florida or Alabama, as so many of those poor bastards are, without fanfare, with hardly a notice in the daily news. Doors are opening. The train is in your station. When did we arrive? How did this happen? All your day-dreaming is how. As you exit, you look closer at the sleeping man. You observe a green tattoo on his neck, beneath the surgical mask, and you notice additional text on his baseball hat, below the FBI but above the JESUS. Firm believer in, in small imperceptible script and initial capital letters.
Kevin Nolan is a writer. He is at work on a novel.
Art by Bob Schofield @anothertower