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Umbrella.
Cliff Aliperti

The train went dark as lights flashed outside in the East River Tunnel, or maybe they flashed inside my train car. Whichever, my eyes betrayed reality and focused instead on surroundings akin to an experimental film. The rough rails tossed me about my seat, bouncing me against the indifferent passenger beside me, a stranger who may sit next to me most mornings, but I don’t even remember what she looks like. Eyelids bounced shut by reflex, window shade eyelids of childhood cartoons shielding what felt like a Superball bouncing inside my skull. I became convinced the Long Island Rail Road had given me brain damage: the LIRR gave me CTE, sounded like a Ramones song. 

It was a black and white world of ferocious noise that quickened my pulse and sharpened me for the coming day. It beat coffee.

Exiting the train was polite by routine. We all did this, every morning, and it was always the same unless some thoughtless outsider dared join us on some one-off personal jaunt that disrupted the established order for regular riders. So far, as I stepped off the train, I was relieved that this was just another standard morning. One climbed the stairs or rode the escalator into Penn Station proper, where that one was absorbed into the mass many. I joined this crowd at its pea soup thickest each morning and rushed through it to make my desk by nine. The only upside: while the crowd was one big jellied blob at its origin, and remained so all the way across Seventh Avenue out onto 33rd, it naturally thinned the further one walked from Penn Station. By the time I reached my place of business, just across Park Avenue, most others were vacuumed into their own work spaces, and I could claim my fair share of elbow space. One almost felt like an individual again.

Rain disrupted. It could ruin a morning, ruin a day. It was so bad that if I had advance knowledge of the forecast, I would take a later train just to evade peak morning crowds. My boss was cool that way. Truth was, I don’t know if she even paid attention to my comings and goings. So, torrential headline news-type storms turned into vacation days. But on this day, the black and gray and purple cloud appeared over Manhattan too late for me to have taken any action. The ride up the escalator, balance attained by cramming tight as a porno orgy—intimate and professional, while also distant and meaningless—yielded darkness at its end this morning.

It was at this point on these most cataclysmic mornings that my fellow commuters ceased to be fellow members of the human race.

Nobody slowed their gait—that was the norm for any weather—but the umbrellas opened on reflex as they passed from under the Penn Station overhang into the pelleting rain. My ears practically popped as dozens and hundreds of umbrellas slid open in what seemed like coordinated waves, all that fabric going taut with a great poof. I’m tall, so I bobbed and weaved like prime Ali to avoid being swiped or swatted by them. It was like a nature film covering some giant bird flock spreading into the wild in an orderly, almost choreographed pattern. They reminded me of pterodactyls, sharp and violent; I wondered if pterodactyls had flocked.

I did not carry an umbrella that morning. The weather was a surprise. I did not carry an umbrella any morning as I preferred getting wet over becoming … one of them.

I had tried to join them in the beginning, when I was new to my job and the City and sought success in conformity. But when a gust of wind all at once turned my umbrella inside out and stole it from my grip, I watched it blow down Fifth Avenue where a respectable looking middle-aged woman performed an Olympic-grade leap before shouting Olympian curses at me. My umbrella continued skidding past her and disappeared under a passing yellow taxi. 

I was annoyed. Wet. Mortified. 

Never again.

Now I was caught within their gaggle, marching down 33rd, a sea of soft umbrella tops, all black, all the same—except for my naked head poking out from their midst. At six-and-a-half feet tall, I could walk Manhattan with not quite a bird’s eye view, but a better view than most. I usually appreciated my height. Usually. Not on days like this one, when the pterodactyls steered me along the soaked city streets. Today, I hated my height; this was when a normal morning could turn hazardous.

It wasn’t the soft black fabric that threatened me: it was the metal skeletons that fastened that fabric into place, each weapon boasting eight or more such ribs, each of those extending to a pointed tip. At my height, every tip from every umbrella threatened to maim and blind. In a pack such as this, my heart-rate jumped. I was back in the animal kingdom, the weakest of a species trying to blend in so as not to fall behind or fall prey to my own kind in their ruthless quest to conquer the landscape. I was both alike and unalike—ironically, stronger than most of them on other days when they need not brandish their umbrellas.

Safety was not sure until I reached my office, where I forgot about everything except how goddamn wet I was. I undressed in the men’s room, rung out individual items of clothing in the bathroom sink. Eventually I stood barefoot in my jockeys and banged the hand dryer over each article of clothing that I hoped to reduce from sopping to at least damp. It never quite worked and today was no exception. My clothes still clung coolly to me by five o’clock. The wet underwear didn’t help, but I had to sacrifice some comfort to modesty—no?

I tried to forget what felt like a wet diaper as I went about my day. I had coffee with Charlene, whose daughter was applying to colleges, and I talked sports with Jeremy, who had tickets to an upcoming Yankee game. I sat at my computer, ordered vitamins from Amazon, read the local weather reports, looked out my dark window, and cursed their inaccuracy. I handled some emails my boss had forwarded with boilerplate replies. I casually left my desk to use the bathroom the one time my phone dared ring. When I came back, I spun my chair away from my desktop and watched the rain, glanced at the clock, watched the rain some more. I skipped lunch because—weather, then talked to Thomas about the weather, all the while trying to remember if his first name was Thomas or his last name was Thomas. After Thomas, I joined a small crowd and listened to Zach tell a somewhat off-color joke involving a vulture and some politician I had vaguely heard of, reduced to carrion in Zach’s punchline. My boss emailed that I should come to her office, and then she talked about what she had watched on TV all week before spending one-tenth the time explaining the edits I’d have to make to a very long file. I could wait till tomorrow to get started. Then I went back to my desk and watched the rain, glanced at the clock, watched the rain some more. I heard cheery voices telling one another goodbye as coats were slipped on and umbrellas retrieved.

And I was still damp.

Five o’clock ushered on the return trip. It was still raining on this particular day, which made my walk even worse because the bottleneck only grew more congested near the station, the morning crowds now reversed, masses rushing for mass transit like ants rushing spilt food. Or was it lemmings pouring over the side of a mountain imagining the safety of home?

Speed was key because the few umbrellas I encountered during the early portion of the walk back were easily passed, even if I later had to zig-zag through the swelling throng nearer to Penn. Speed was also required if I held any hope of making my usual train—a two-minute delay might cost an extra half hour wait for an even more crowded train. 

Standing room only, dear God, no. 

I dreaded the thick umbrella masses that the final block promised, yet I raced in that direction.

The station appeared within view, perhaps two hundred feet away, when the surrounding umbrellas all began to spin, threatening eight-toothed power-saws buzzing my direct line of vision. I could take no more: from the middle of the pack I shoved those at my left to clear a pocket of personal space by causing a few of them to topple. This only increased the speed of the other umbrellas which took up the cause of their fallen brothers by closing the briefly vacated space. And so I shoved to the right.

With this second shove the crowd became aware of my aggression and, ironically from my position, saw me as the aggressor! And so the sidewalk became the Roman Senate, myself Caesar, as sixty or more Brutuses and Cassiuses attacked with weapons either opened to spin and saw, or closed to poke and stab, one of them skewering my right eye, that olive on a toothpick my left eye watched with dread. I fell to the sidewalk, my blood mixing with rain water and city grime as they beat and stabbed and sawed at my fallen body, the pterodactyl flap of their umbrellas mixed with an increasing hum, hunger perhaps, or maybe satisfaction. I was fated to be that damn farmer, that gored corpse, who Jessica Tandy came upon in The Birds. My remaining eye seemed to be all that still functioned as I watched my blood stream through a crack in the pavement and wash down the grating while the shower theme from Psycho played in my expiring mind.

They marched like Storm Troopers, either of the two types you may now be thinking of, only interrupting forward momentum for pauses of violence.

“Excuse me,” said the woman who had slashed at my cheek.

Distracted by both imagination and determination, I ignored her. I kept careful time in the midst of the crowd hoping to avoid further assault and wound up thankful that I was no more than soaked to the bone with a light scratch upon my cheek when I reached the overhang leading into Penn Station. There, I was the only one who could keep on walking without pause as everybody else had to stop and close their umbrellas and regroup before finding their trains. The 5:15 ran thirteen minutes late that afternoon anyway.

About the Author.

Cliff Aliperti is a Long Island-based writer, who has blogged about classic film for several years at his site Immortal Ephemera. He has a story forthcoming from Alternating Current Press (Footnote #9), and his fiction has appeared in After Dinner Conversation, the Under Review, and elsewhere. You can find more about Cliff at cliffaliperti.com. Twitter: @IEphemera.

Interview with the Author.

I think in a lot of cases, it is easy to find fear in the mundane when not much changes. What inspired you to turn a concept like umbrellas on a rainy day into something more horror-esque?

The terrible truth of umbrellas and my personal battle against them is right there in my story: I’m 6’ 6”, and, oh boy, I’ve been poked and scraped more than a few times! All those umbrellas seem to pop open level with my face. Now, one or two people nearby in a rainstorm, not a big deal. But a crowd—crowds are scary enough, make it a rainy day, and suddenly they’re an armed crowd!

 

In a fast-paced world, it is certainly easy to experience anxiety like the narrator’s fairly often. Do you imagine that he experiences moments like this often?

This is one of those stories where the narrator is largely an extension of myself, in a situation I’ve experienced, but with the circumstances exaggerated as much as I could imagine. So it’s hard for me to distance myself too far from this particular narrator, which leads me to hope that he doesn’t have too many moments like this! We all have our little phobias and while, no, umbrellas have never given me actual shivers or sent me to therapy, placing menace on an inanimate object seemed like more fun than running from rats or spiders or werewolves.

 

You’ve created New York City as a place of danger, where many fictional works paint the space as the birthplace of dreams. What inspired this contrast?

I worked in Manhattan for about four years at the turn of the century. The commute was an hour-long ride on the Long Island Rail Road twice a day. It sucked! I don’t have any problems with the city, still love to head in for concerts or other hijinks every so often, but when I worked there, even on sunny days, I was just walking the quickest and same path every morning and afternoon to get to and from the office. It was routine and any hazards, such as weather, could really up the misery level. 

 

If you had to pick any single thing that your readers would take from this story, what would it be?

The narrator is bogged down by routine, yet at the same time fighting against conformity. He doesn’t want to become “one of them,” but I have a feeling if he keeps this up he will. Maybe that happens the first stormy day when he says, the hell with it, and grabs an umbrella of his own. That fear of the routine turning him, I don’t know—soulless—was always in the story, but honestly, your edits and suggestions made me concentrate more on those aspects as I went forward. Hopefully, the story became a little more than just umbrellas=scary, which was where I began with the very first draft.

 

What is something about this story that your readers might not pick up on the first read? Or, what do you as the author want your readers to know about this story?

The birds and The Birds. A big flock of birds, all looking the same, okay, it fits, but right from the start I kept finding birds naturally slipping into my story. Actually, the Hitchcock references during the fantasy sequence were a late add, as originally I had used a line about Fulci’s infamous eyeball scene in Zombie (or is it Zombie 2?), but I figured Hitch’s fame carried me across the finish line more effectively than Fulci’s more obscure infamy. And while the Fulci better expressed the gore I was trying to call to mind, I eventually saw so many birds in the story that the Hitchcock movie seemed a more natural reference anyway.

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