An old maid with a red beanie was installed outside the subway station on Franklin Street, two steps from the vending machines. James caught a glimpse of her performance as he hurried to catch the six o’clock train. She was encircled by a cluster of observers—fish-eyed tourists and nine-to-five commuters and matinee-goers in their Sunday best. James only saw the tip of her cap, bobbing and weaving above their heads.
The next evening, the woman was still there. He slowed his step to observe, minding the ticking of the watch and his approaching train. James was lured in by the tinny violin emanating from an unseen source; it was a neat trick. There was only a bench, strewn with blankets. It doubled as a bed and makeshift stage. There was also a grocery cart full of clothes, crippled in one wheel. It spun in lazy circles.
The drifter in the red cap danced in the centre, her blond hair stringy and gray roots growing past her ears. Her neck and shoulders were stiff, tightly strung with wiry muscle. She waved her arms, out of sync with the music, long and wooden like a pair of chopsticks. She leaped and turned and crouched so low her knees creaked, her sock-clad feet trailing muddy circles in the dirt as the crowd laughed.
It was a spectacle, but there were also the cinema lights and the subway announcements, and those present, James included, lost interest quickly. The moment was short-lived. Though James would often see the woman by the bench, the current of people filing into the station inevitably washed him away.
On a particularly frigid night, snow fell from the dark sky and covered the ground in a doughy blanket. For the first time, James saw that the vagrant was resting. Even the neighbourhood children, who usually ran to their parents for spare change to play with the dancing woman, were absent.
Her eyes were closed. She was sitting on the bench, slumped forward, blankets drawn up to her chin. Her fingers and nose were a mottled blue.
James searched his slacks pockets and came up with a shiny dollar coin, leftover from lunch. He thumbed the coin, rolling the copper edges against the pads of his fingers. Then he leaned forward and found where her greasy hair parted and inserted the coin into the slot at the base of her neck.
The coin clanked. It rattled hollowly inside her skull. Her head shuddered, and the music softly commenced. Then she threw off her quilt, and under the assault of the hail and snow, she clicked her heels and danced.
Young Tanoto is a 21-year-old undergraduate student that writes to satisfy his fascination with the bizarre and the uncanny. He currently studies English and Psychology at Tufts University. His short story, “When Words Fail”, received a gold medal in the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards.