He was washing his hands when they came in all ha ha and he tried to ignore them, focusing on the scum pink soap and grotty tiles around the rim of the sink. Washing your hands in a place like that seemed counterproductive at the best of times and now these funny guys were here horsing around. But he’d touched the tap now and the soap dispenser too, so he lathered up and rinsed and lathered up again, wishing the water was hotter.
Hey, skipper, sing us a song, one of the men said.
He put a smile on his face in case they looked in the mirror. A subtle crinkle of a grin, like a mother might show in spite of herself as her wild children roamed.
Any song in the world, said the other.
The water stopped and he didn’t want to touch the button again, so he turned toward the men, hands dripping.
Any song at all, said the first man. They stood close together, nudging with their elbows.
He smiled again, wider this time. Alright fellers nice one, the smile said. Alright boys just leave me be.
The men grinned like fools. Like crazy people. The tight involuntary grins of the dead.
The dryer’s out of order ’til you sing us a song, they said.
He wanted no part of this. The strange men and urine reek of the floor. The constant dirty dripping. The phone numbers scratched into cubicle walls and the mild derangement of public bathrooms, the sense that you had sunk to some lower level and might easily sink deeper still. He made for the door.
Hey, wait up a second, they said.
On the platform he found his train waiting, hissing and clicking as it cooled on the rails. He climbed aboard but the carriage was empty at this hour and unmanned and of course the pair had followed him.
One song mister is all we ask.
The first man was hairless and gaunt, an alien grey in a purple windbreaker and unlaced boots. The second was neckless and crazy-eyed. Both had the air of oil spill seabirds, alive and breathing beneath some clinging black.
They stood close and laughed in his face and he tried to disassociate, avoiding their eyes. He imagined the scene as caught on security tape, captured from above in stop-motion jerk. He imagined the burnt-out guard, watching.
A whistle sounded on the platform and he saw an opportunity, stepping off as the doors began to shut. Without looking back, he darted through the ticket gates and onto the street, down an alley he didn’t know existed until he was in it and running.
His feet slapped on the wet road. Dumpsters sighed hot air into the night. His breath steamed visible from his mouth, ascending.
The alley smelled bad and looked no better but he thought he might have lost them. He gave himself a moment to rest, bent double and gasping.
Only he hadn’t lost them. The alley was a dead end and as he turned two silhouettes approached, shuffling lopsided and strange.
Okay, okay he said.
Sing, they said.
He raised his palms and laughed as though to say, good one you got me. He got serious and tried to push past. But the men, unmoved, pushed at his chest and forced him back.
Sing, they said.
What had he done to deserve this? Had he brought this upon himself? He’d just wanted to take a leak and get on the train and go home but instead he was in this alley with these men, this pair of jack-o'-lanterns, wicked and hollow and burning from within.
Sing they said. Sing, sing.
He didn’t want to sing. Singing was the last thing he’d do. What do you want? he asked, reaching into his pocket. He rifled through his wallet and threw notes at the men, then emptied the coins into his palm and threw those too. They were not satisfied so he took off his watch and wedding ring and threw them. He unlaced his shoes. He took off his jacket and tie and shirt and socks and he stood before the men in his underwear and asked:
What do you want from me? Huh? What else can I do?
The men cackled and stepped forward, and though he tried to step back there was nowhere to go, hemmed in on all sides by walls as damp and cold as dead things on the shoreline.
The first man extended a finger and ran it ever-so-gently along his cheek. The second placed his palm over his forehead. Soon, they were touching him all over.
Sing, they demanded. Sing.
Their touch was gelid and wet and left a silver-slime trail.
What song? he asked. I don’t know the words.
Then hum, they said, fingers reaching into his mouth. If you don’t know the words, then hum.
But he didn’t want to hum either. He didn’t know the tune. But the men would not leave him alone, would not stop touching him. His bare arms and legs and chest. His face and tongue. And so he started humming. The hum of the traffic and the trains and the trash heaps. The hum of the city itself. And a sound came to his lips, dredged from nowhere, somewhere within, and with it the realisation that, yes, he had known the tune all along.
Jon Doyle’s writing has appeared in The Rumpus, Hobart, 3:AM Magazine, Full Stop, The Coachella Review and other places. You can find him on Twitter @Jon_Doyle.