Immediate Needs

Well, here's a cautionary tale with a woeful, baleful, awful, pitiable plotline that runs from left to right and up some steps.

Like all modern tales, it starts with the back-story.

The growing-up girl, who was too old to, but who still climbed trees and ate stolen Milk Duds with boys. This girl who let the boy from seventh grade homeroom put his sweaty hand on her big white cotton pointed and quilted bra cup– the left one. For her, it was nothing much. But she still can remember the boy's face (his name was Pete Parker) as he slowly, unflinchingly, touched the hollow point of her big bra. Afterwards, they shared some more Milk Duds and grinned at each other.

The bigger girl who did a half a Quaalude in the roaring '70s and spent the night with a guy on the roof of his banged-up Pinto in Ocean City, Maryland, way up at about 89th Street. Waking up with dew dampening the two of them as they looked around at the empty crab-house parking lot. Waking up to wonder how they hadn't fallen off the car. Perhaps, because dead out drugged people don't move a lot when they "sleep." But a quick swim in the ocean in their underwear and a quick chunk of day-old crab cake from the dashboard brought the world back to order. Such as it was in those days.

The little bit older girl who married. White dress, seven bridesmaids, big rocking reception, and then a small kitchen and the chores associated with bringing a family into existence. Change sheets, wash clothes, iron clothes, buy food, cook food, clean up mess. Comb hair, brush teeth, read stories, sing lullaby, go to dentist, go to vet, to gyno– new baby. Lots of chores in those days, and many of them were pleasant enough. Nice to see her pretty little children playing in the summer green yard. Nice to watch the husband cook burgers out by the pool. Nice even to have other couples to dinner and chatter about movies. It was good.

The late 30s woman who looked across the pillow one morning and saw, not her husband, the good-enough-looking, up-the-ladder stockbroker with JP Morgan, no, not him, but an ugly guy. With a face distorted and harsh. The one who told her lies, whose temper made her afraid, and generally the one she didn't like at all ... anymore. What to do? The kids, the dogs, the pool, the grandparents, the car payments, the tennis club membership. The kids. The kids. Reality seemed gigantic. Freedom seemed ethereal. So she shot for the clouds and became one of those typical single moms who could have had the pool and the carpool but now had the job, the stress, and the stigma.

Then the lovers. Sex, her own Mars Rover crawling deliciously over every bump and crevice on this particular and heretofore unknown planet. One guy with an accent; what's his name. One guy she would have crawled across the surface of a hot skillet to see. And then there was Frank. Turbulent, exhausting Frank. But she moved on. Then there was Art, an artist, for god sake. Big bear paws. Big ego, the shadow of which cast a refracted and dimly glowing light on her. Lucky woman to be the lover of this ego freak. Women friends were jealous of what they imagined. Let them wonder.

Enough of the back-story. You know her enough. Now it's some years later. She's in a different place. Here's what happened:

It was a dark and stormy night. Actually. She had gotten off the Rue Kléber metro stop, clumped up the steep and unusually high­stepping escalator steps that were (once again) on the fritz, and had run about 50 meters to the huge medieval door that stood in the way of her finally getting to this party. Her expensive shoes were soaked. Probably ruined. She was not fashionably late like she'd planned. Her compulsive Great Plains-Puritan upbringing forced her into a promptness that shamed her. And with a downpour pestering her, she pushed in the code on the door and heard the faintest click.

Jack, a skinny old guy from St. Antonio who served up these frequent parties, would pour her peach-tinted champagne, the likes of which, well, ambrosia. His apartment was the kind that even in Texas would have been called large. Flooring made of old planks from a monastery from god knows when; real Navajo rugs from around the time Custer got his 144 arrows; a winding, crooked stairway to a massive second floor where guest suites pleased the most Princess-and-the-Pea types. A view of the churning traffic around the Arc de Triomphe. An altogether swell place. And Jack was particularly happy to see Lily there, wet shoes and all.

"Well, Thomas and I, we discovered you really can't buy much here for under a million," the plump wife said to the huddled cocktail few who nodded their heads with compassion. "I mean, we've looked everywhere, well, in the Seventh and a little bit in the Fifth. But it's just not a good time, I think." Lily moved on.

"It's ironic. Really, so ironic. Every time we're in the country, I realize my city cave is where the bottle I really want is. Like some karmic thing. We wanted this Pino that my son had given us for Christmas. But no go." To fill a pause that no one else cared about, she went on. "My country cave is superior to the city cave, but what to do?" The stout woman with silvery hair flung her free hand in the air in mock despair. Lily stood her ground.

"So what makes a good cave?" she asked with sincere curiosity.

"Darling, the angle, the direction. All good caves face north-south. And, of course, the temperature and the consistency. No light, no drafts, but the angle to the sun–yes, I know; there's no sun down there. But it knows!" She laughed at her own cleverness.

Everyone took a sip, appreciating all the hard work that goes into a good wine cellar and a good wine. In the moment of quiet, Lily moved over to Pierre's group.

Pierre, Jack's driver, was always at the parties. He was there just to handle whatever might come up. Like once, when one of the wives started dancing with, or clutching at, one of the bartenders. A young cool-looking guy, a well-built Algerian with just a bit too much machismo for his own good. Here's this Monday-through-Friday good wife, who on a Saturday night gets sloshed in her designer dress and smart little pumps. Pierre steps in, feigns a gentleman's dancing posture, the little wife spins into his arms, and he adroitly dances her over to the sofa. Done. Done well. The husband nods a thank you to Pierre. Pierre will get several hefty French francs stuffed into his breast pocket at the end of the night.

The party went on; conversations meandered, circled around; guests consumed good food, all supplied by Thiery, one of Paris's top caterers; Jack's CD player, on shuffle, kept non-intrusive jazz playing; people found their raincoats; and by a little after one, everyone was gone except Lily.

Pierre, of course, put away the leftovers, put the empty wine bottles in a bin, and quietly left the apartment.

One more glass of peach champagne and the two rolled around in bed for a while, heaving and thrashing, having a grand old time.

Lily liked Jack– she'd met him three years ago at his oldest son's second wedding. Lily had gone to school with the new mother-in-law. They both had agreed that second weddings were so much more fun than first ones. First time weddings were too earnest. Everyone trying too hard.

Then Lily– thinking of Jack's boring 20-minute morning ritual of bending and stretching, his hour long jog in the Tuileries, his return to the apartment for his bran muffin and self-sifted green tea– decides to take the last metro home to her little 300-square-foot apartment in the noisy North African neighborhood between the city's most famous cemetery and its most "real" outdoor market. She has papers to grade for her 10th grade English class at École St. Madeleine.

The number 9 line ran until 2:30am on weekends. Plenty of time. Lily holds the handrail and quickly descends the metro steps. Slides her ticket into the mechanized ticket slot, walks the long winding corridor and enters the platform to wait for her metro. One homeless man sleeps on the floor beneath a bank of orange plastic chairs permanently affixed to the wall. His dingy German Shepherd lies awake beside him. A young couple makes out across the way, on the other side of the track. Lily stands and wishes she still smoked. Time to waste is a good time to smoke.

Her memories rush to smoking on the phone, smoking while cooking, smoking with coffee, smoking with wine. Now, she has to endure waiting for a metro with her hands in her pockets. Healthier maybe. But empty. Her children, now grown and newly invested with healthy habits, had forced her into this non-smoking thing so that here in this town, in these smoke-filled cafés, passive smoke was all Lily could count on.

Entering the platform area from the long twisting hallway comes a disheveled old woman. Stiff gray hair, bare legs stuck into worn men's shoes. Cotton house dress ripped under the arm in a huge tear, revealing filthy undershirt. Everything about her damp and soggy. Walking unsteadily and carrying a huge plastic trash bag over her shoulder, she comes wearily and slumps down on the plastic chair above the sleeping man and his surprised guard dog.

The man remains still. The dog looks up at the woman as she sorts through some of the possessions in her ripped and taped-together trash bag.

Lily watches with awe, shamed by her own good life. How does that happen? How does a person get that dirty?

The woman stands, walks two or three paces, lifts her skirts, squats down and takes a piss near the wall where a small gutter accepts the hot stream.

Lily walks quickly down the platform away from the scene. She's unable to avoid the cold tension and the budding fear that jumps her heart. She is struck by the force of the stream of urine. She had watched it more closely than she wanted to. She realizes the woman really needed to pee. She can imagine the relief. And, at the same time, she's disgusted at the sight, upset at having to share the distress of the poor ragged and filthy woman. Lily is assaulted by the vulgarity.

Immediately the sleeping man, having heard– smelled?– sensed the pissing woman, rouses himself, staggers to his feet, and begins to curse and shout at the woman who, with her skirts gathered about her, is dragging her plastic trash bag off to a safe distance. The two of them old, raggedy, soiled, and rank.

Lily's French is not good. But everyone knows attitude. Anger, justifiable rages, quick trigger passions, over-the-top scenes that never should be played out.

The man picks up his own smaller trash bag and yells that it has her piss on it. The gestures alone show the man's utter disgust at her soiling his things, his only things in the world. She responds with scorn, flipping her shoulders as she turns her back on him with disdain. This cavalier move enrages him further, and now the dog barks at her. Standing with his four legs stiff and distanced, the German Shepherd, accustomed to protecting his master from marauding stragglers in the metro or under bridges, barks and barks, steady and resolute.

The lovers across the tracks break from their sloppy kisses and elaborate tonguing and stare. Lily wonders if she should be there at all. She moves farther away, but casually, as if she were merely now more interested in the metro map on the wall at the far end of the platform, down to the right. With feigned calm, she glides away from the raggedy pair's violence.

With a familiar rumbling, the metro arrives on the far track, and in the momentary din, Lily cannot hear the yelling of the man nor the woman's taunting. The lovers board and stand glued together embracing the chromium pole between them. Their kiss is prolonged, and Lily watches them until the train moves into the tunnel, out of sight, leaving her alone.

Clutching her shoulder bag, still feeling the damp of her wet shoes, Lily worries now that somehow the metro will not come at all. Had she read the sign wrong? Samedi– Saturday. 2:30am? Is the number 9 line under repair? Another one of those French strikes? As she stands idly reading the map, the dog's barking suddenly becomes a snarl– vicious, rapid-fire snapping and snarling.

As Lily whips around, the woman and the dog collide, two savage combatants, each confident of victory, with flashing eyes and bared teeth. The dog jumps at the woman, grabbing hold of her skirts. With fierce and surprising strength, the woman yanks the material from the dog's jaws, flinging him to the side. He lunges at the plastic bag holding her possessions. Clutching her bag now gripped tightly in the dog's teeth, she begins a circle of centrifugal force. Like two strange dancers, they go round and round. She leaning back into the hold, the dog holding steadily to its prey. Round they go. She cursing with epithets and spittle, the dog snarling and foaming as he grips the bag.

Suddenly something changes. Something very decidedly changes. The woman thinks. Lily observes it. The woman knows she can end this; she knows how to win.

The dog holds on. He knows of no alternative. The woman, silent now in her menace, leans far back into the partnership of the dance, and as the dog's arc comes nearer and then very close to the edge of the platform, the woman lets go.

The dog, 75 pounds of mean, city-street savvy, of loyalty to his ever-endangered master, flies headlong onto the metro tracks, along with the bag. And, as if a stagehand had drawn the cue, a train barrels out of the far tunnel to Lily's left. All players in this drama now stand mute. The dog, flying through the air. The metro's velocity measured. Lily, stunned. The woman, stock still. And the man, his mouth wide open, his arms spread out, mute.

The thump of a large living beast, one surprisingly small yelp, the quick crackling of bones or gristle under the wheels, blood spraying on the side windows of the first few metro cars. And then the metro, just as at every stop along the number 9, pulls to an efficient and clean stop. Arrêt.

 Did anyone see? Did the driver feel the impact? Does a dog mess up the track enough to halt the progress? Will they call the police? What will happen next? What should Lily do?

Lily quickly steps in to the metro car and sits down, hugging her shoulder bag to her chest. No one is on the metro car with her. She has no way to avoid the blood on the window. But through the window, she sees a blur. She sees raggedy people entwined, arms flailing and pounding, hair pulled, fingers bitten; she sees the raggedy pair fall to the floor and roll, still pounding and biting and pulling. The blood on the window doesn't hide enough of what she sees.

Somehow, then, from within the struggling jumble, the fighting tangle on the filthy platform, a fist rises in a mortal gesture. Whose fist on that long stringy arm? What glint of steel? Lily can't tell. Then the fist, slamming down toward disaster. Up and plunging again. Once more, a tiny flash of blade. And the raggedy, smelly couple stop moving. Like sleeping garbage. Not a movement in the tattered heap of rags.

The metro driver is out on the platform now, using the metro emergency phone in a little alcove on the wall. His back is to the beggar combat. He is reporting a dead dog. He is going to have to fill in a report about a large dog being hit by a metro car. And meanwhile, 30 paces away, behind his back, the old woman, gasping for breath, rises from the smelly heap. She is unsteady and bent forward; it looks like she might vomit or fall over. Hands on her knees, she pushes herself upright. She steadies herself and walks down the platform and into the long winding hallway toward the stairway to the street, and she is gone.

Lily looks at the heap of old clothes on the platform. Just a mess over there near the orange plastic chairs. A shank of an old leg, shiny skin tight on the shin, can be seen sticking from the tattered coat. Is that a shoe? Lily cannot figure out what it is she sees. But she sees enough. She puts her head down on her shoulder bag. The metro driver, finished with his phone call, walks back to the train, and Lily hears the automatic door slide shut.

With eyes closed, she feels the forward movement of the metro begin. She feels the dryness of her mouth, thick and gummy. Dead saliva on her teeth.

The metro picks up speed. Lily looks up at the sign showing seven stops until she's home. Her apartment is only one street away, then up two flights, and into her nest of books and pillows. She will put shoetrees in these shoes. They are expensive and only worn about four times.


Susie Langenkamp

 "We all have immediate needs," says Langenkamp of her story, which took its inspiration from a "disturbing" incident she witnessed years ago in the Paris subway: an elderly homeless woman urinated out in the open.

She says she was struck by how little someone's suffering affects other people's lives. "You can see something so modern-day tragedy," she says, "and then you can go later that day to have a glass of white wine."

The Hook's judges agreed that LangenKamp's story had impact.

"I loved the verbal energy of this story," says Boykewich, editor of Meridian, a literary magazine. "There aren't many authors who can make you laugh with an adjective."

For editor and writing teacher Langenkamp, a self-described "woman of a certain age," writing is nothing new; winning, however, is a different story.

"I've never entered a contest before," she says. "I've written many stories, got a box of genius beginnings."

Langenkamp says her winnings could end up as food for thought: "Maybe I'll take a friend out for a really fancy meal."

Since her winnings include a gift certificate to Al Dente restaurant, that seems quite possible.