Summer Shorts: Train Station

Tickets please – flash fiction by Anthony Tao


It’s too humid to be raining. The water caught in the sky doesn’t fall so much as appear on our skin, so that it feels like we wear another person’s sweat. We turn into a narrow entryway, the thick orange characters transomed atop informing us that the station is ahead, past jewelry shops, milk tea stands, and a side entrance to Kentucky Fried Chicken. The air here is different, hefty and choked with presence, as if, according to some law of physics and society, it pushes back against our breath.

Travelers sleep on the grubby linoleum in the lobby. One man lies with his head pillowed by his single-zippered rucksack. A crowd has begun to pool around the only two functioning gates. Slowly we sift, our bags serving as bumpers against elbows and shoulders. Near the bottleneck, an old man urges, “Don’t squeeze, don’t squeeze, we’ll all get there eventually.” He’s right: we do, though some faster than others depending on their size and wile. Our bags are conveyed through a scanner while we cross the gate, which beeps for everyone. At a table marked “manual security check,” a uniformed woman commands, “Take a sip of your water, please. Open your water and take a sip, please.”

“Take a sip of the water?” asks a passenger.

Past halls one, two, and three, four, five, and six, cutting through the smell of peanuts and instant noodles and bodies, we are reminded that even pebbles in China’s Mother River have a purpose known only to the pebble, and gods, whether they take the form of snakes or fish. Waiting Hall Seven is the largest, like a canteen after an earthquake when it must be used for purposes other than food. A woman shouts, “Fast food, box meals. Fast food, box meals.” She sells eggs and sausages on a roller grill and rice meals inside Styrofoam boxes.

In the bathroom, urinals line each of three walls. Underneath each is a small grimy puddle, forcing us into wider stances. Hard plastic mesh line the inside of each urinal so that urine, coming in at an angle, sprays, possibly onto the ankles of neighbors with their intruding feet. At the faucets, an old man is bent with his mouth underneath a stream of water, gargling. Another leather-skinned man wipes his hands after cleaning five plastic containers, some still slick with grease.

“Fast food, box meals, corn on a cob,” says a different vendor offering the same fare. The box meal is rice with cabbage, preserved pickle slices, and a cut of beef from the t-bone.

In the waiting hall, the passengers and passersby are young, old, and middle-aged. One man wearing a skin-tight white shirt with adidas written along the chest reaches for the hand of his girlfriend, whose face shuttles indecisively between bewildered and amused. A chubby young man’s short-sleeved gray shirt reads VICTORY SHALL BE MINE.

Come boarding time, a group of older travelers encounters trouble at the gates. One of them inserts his ticket, but a red light flashes, accompanied by a beep. Someone from the group, an elderly woman, is pulled out of line. “We’re going to miss the train!” she clamors in a harsh accent. An attendant swipes her card and lets the group through an alternate gate. One among them, who had already passed, smiles exasperatedly under duress and sweat, lugging a suitcase. “This is what we get for leaving so late!” He disappears around a pillar, then pokes his head back and shouts, “There’re stairs!”

These would not be problems for the foreigner, he from America who has backpacked across Europe and much of Australia and southeast Asia. Yet when he slides in his ticket, patiently standing behind the red line, avoiding the mistake of those proles who couldn’t get through – they who were aggressively disquieted, needlessly assertive – a red X flashes, accompanied by a beep. Entrance denied. Denied?

Feeling the pressure mounting behind him and the hovering sighs of anxious passengers, the foreigner practically shoves the ticket into an attendant’s hand, challenging her to do better. She looks at it and, changing nothing about her expression, says in English, “Sorry, mister, but you’re at the wrong station.”

Anthony Tao is editor of the blog Beijing Cream, and you can follow him on Twitter @anthonytao

He recently hosted the Beijing Cream Flash Fiction for Charity competition at Great Leap Brewery