published in Columbia: The Magazine
of Columbia University, Spring 1990. Out of the darkness and into the light. Swaying a little, his hand clenching
the cool metal railing of the car, Wilcox blinked twice as the subway burst
out of the tunnel and continued its climb. A few moments later, its transformation
into an elevated train was complete. It hurtled noisily along the tracks
while, underneath, automobiles, trucks, and buses seemed to swarm in a slow-motion
jumble. Wilcox peered as straight down as he could, nose almost pressed
to the glass of the door. But the street swept by too quickly, making him
a bit dizzy, so he lifted his gaze to the housefronts going past at a more
leisurely pace. Many needed fresh paint. And he glimpsed some rotted wood,
some burnt-out windows, too. Well, this train line was not known for the
elegance of the neighborhood it intersected. But at the final stop, Wilcox
and the remaining commuters on this autumn afternoon would surge out of
the car and surge up the stairs toward the suburban buses waiting to take
them the last leg of the way home. It was a boring time. It was always a
boring time. Wilcox stifled a sigh. The train began to slow down for the
It was a boring life -- and one that seemed lacking in other things,
too: rewards, financial and otherwise; a sense of mission, of purpose; excitement.
Wilcox braced as the train decelerated, awaiting the inevitable last-moment
Wilcox glanced idly at the strip of advertisements above the door in
front of him. The same old thing. One advised you to change your life --
Now! -- by calling the School of Office Technologies. Another extolled a
hair-straightener. A third promised a new world of springtime taste in a
menthol cigarette. Wilcox's gaze moved from the ads to the commuters on
either side of him. One, a well-dressed man of about forty-five, was wearing
a pin-striped suit. He looked like a financial analyst or banker -- one
of the moneyed, that is, one of those who had made it. Wilcox felt a twinge
of envy. His own job . . . not very fulfilling, and certainly not rewarding.
Wearing conservative horn-rimmed glasses, Mr. Success was reading a paperback
novel, holding it in one hand while he grasped his briefcase in the other.
He maintained his balance by leaning against the side railing of the seat
On the other side of Wilcox, looking cool even in the muggy atmosphere
aboard the train, was a young woman with sunstreaked blond hair. Her lips
were painted a pale red, her cheekbones were fashionably gaunt. She held
on to the railing overhead as she perused a folded Wall Street Journal.
In her dark sunglasses, she seemed perfectly indifferent to the rest of
What was it, Wilcox asked himself. What was it that separated some people
from others, that helped them find their way with ease and style, while
other people -- like him -- stumbled along, blundered, frittered away time
and energy. Got nowhere -- and didn't look very good getting there, either.
He shook his head and found a new spot on the railing to grip. There had
to be some secret. There had to be something they had that he, for one reason
or another, had not been given. These two people, for example, were so self-assured,
so collected, as if everything were all right. Well, things didn't seem
all right to Wilcox. He frowned at the newspaper in the woman's hand: He
had glanced at it earlier and found nothing there to help him. And Mr. Success's
novel: That, too, was nothing remarkable. So what was it? How could he become
like them? How could he become one of the blessed?
Suddenly, the commuter beside him made a strange noise: a kind of gurgling,
then a sharp intake of breath. Turning to see what was the matter, Wilcox
felt the man fall awkwardly against him. It was the financial analyst, the
man in the pinstriped suit. His face had gone sickly pale, and his eyeglasses
were slipping from his nose. Wilcox caught them before they fell, then tried
to keep the man himself from collapsing. But he was too heavy, the angle
wrong, and the two of them were brought nearly to the floor. "Help me!"
shouted Wilcox, still struggling to support him. "He's sick! Make room!"
And all at once there was turmoil: people scrambling to clear the way,
people shouting, people offering help, people giving advice, people loosening
collar and tie. In another minute, Wilcox found himself on the periphery,
as more experienced or more assertive passengers took control and tried
to revive the man. Or to make his last moments less painful? Wilcox could
not tell. In any event, he stood some feet away and watched. The next stop
arrived, the doors opened, and someone yelled out for official help. Then,
quickly, the man was carried off the train. Others got off as well, the
doors closed again, and on they went. It was all over so fast.
The car was less crowded now, and they were only a few stops from the
end of the line. Wilcox relaxed a little. He glanced again at the innocuous
advertisements, then at the scuffed rubber flooring where the man had lain.
Then, with a start, he realized that he still was holding the man's glasses
and novel. In the confusion, he had neglected to give them back. Back: to
whom? The man had been in no condition to accept anything. Wilcox shrugged.
What to do with them?
He hefted the glasses, examined their evident quality. Then, for no
particular reason, he raised them to his own face and tried them on. Oddly
enough, they did not appear to be prescription lenses; he found his view
undistorted. Peculiar, he thought. Then he looked up at the advertisements
again to make certain. He blinked. Something was very strange.
In the middle of the humdrum ad for the menthol cigarettes, there were
several words in boldface: "YOUR PLACE IS ABOVE -- THEIR PLACE IS BELOW."
Wilcox almost did a double take. But when he looked again, the words --
how was it possible? -- were still there. Then he tilted his head so he
could peer over the glasses; to his great surprise, the words had vanished!
He shook his head. The only thing he could think of was that he was
suffering some kind of hallucination, perhaps brought about by the shock
of the man's collapse. Then he glanced at the ad for the School of Office
Technologies. The same perplexing thing occurred: A new message appeared,
plain as could be when he looked through the stricken man's glasses, but
otherwise invisible. This time the words were more ominous: "REPORT ALL
THOSE WHO ENDANGER THE STATUS QUO; THOSE WHO FAIL TO DO SO WILL THEMSELVES
SUFFER SEVERE PENALTIES." What in the world was this, he wondered, staring
at the message. Then, timorously, half expecting to see something more frightening,
he looked at the young blond woman who had taken up a position nearby again.
She continued to peruse the Journal, all right, but there was a major difference;
where Wilcox had read a rather bland report on pork futures, he now could
discern a minutely detailed report on what stocks to buy and sell during
the next few days -- for a substantial profit!
Wilcox peered over the glasses again. Sure enough, this confident prediction
was gone. He did not know what to think.
Scarcely aware of what he was doing, he opened the paperback and started
to read. By tilting his head just right, he could see that there were two
discrete texts there: one visible to the naked eye, another able to be viewed
only through the baffling lenses that had fallen into his hands. Wilcox
read on. This was no escapist fare, it soon turned out; the book was a subversive,
alternative history of the present day. One bit in particular caught his
eye, about the "electors" who met periodically to arrange who would be running
in which political contest -- and who would win. He recognized a few names,
and he was shocked.
Nervous, Wilcox made a survey of the passengers in the car. Was anyone
watching him? Did anyone else possess such marvelous glasses that brought
access to a hidden realm? He stared at a black man who was wearing silver-rimmed
aviator glasses. He considered an elderly white man in a turtleneck, his
eyes hidden behind dark sunglasses. Like the blond woman.
Her! Wilcox turned, edgier now. If anyone on the train was likely to
belong to the secret organization, it was she. And there would be contact
lenses, too, Wilcox decided a moment later, catching sight of a square-jawed
man in a suit who was slowly turning the pages of Gourmet magazine. A definite
candidate, even without glasses. Wilcox briefly wondered whether he should
move closer and peek at the magazine -- to see what it really said. While
he thought about it, he pushed the glasses down the bridge of his nose,
allowing him to see without looking through them. It was wearying to view
things in this new light, to have essences revealed.
How did it all work? What was the system? He recalled those amusing
gimmicks from his childhood, the scrambled messages concealed behind a mass
of squiggly lines. When you placed a piece of transparent red or green plastic
over the message, it suddenly became clear. Could the stricken man's glasses
work in some similar, but infinitely more sophisticated, way? But who hid
the messages in the magazines, the books, the newspapers, the advertisements?
How was the whole enterprise supported? (But they were the elite, establishing
contact with their peers, weren't they? Expense was no problem.) How many
people were privy to the truth? How did one join them?
Then another question occurred to him: How did they guarantee that no
outsider gained access? Or, in a more troubling form: What happened to those
who stumbled upon the secret?
Wilcox could barely restrain a shudder. He stared at the faces in the
car. It all looked so peaceful, so familiar: commuters on their way home.
But now he knew the truth.
Wilcox wheeled around. It was the young woman. How did he look: pale,
nervous? Was it so apparent that he was not truly one of them?
"That book, those glasses -- " she began sternly.
"Take them, they're his! Take them!" And he flung them both away. The
train was just coming in to the next station; he held his breath for a moment,
then burst through the sliding doors almost before there was room enough
to pass. She was shouting: something about police? He did not stop. He dashed
toward the stairs, pulse racing. He flew down the steps recklessly, half
expecting to twist an ankle. He had to get away. Then - then -- he could
think things over. His heart was beating so loudly that he swore he could
hear its frantic throbbing in his ears. He swept by a startled black woman
who had been slowly ascending the steps and lunged through the turnstile.
Without a thought, he hurried a few blocks from the station.
Minutes later, as he caught his breath just outside a small pharmacy,
he started to laugh. The fear and panic seemed to have dropped suddenly
from him like a stifling cloak. What in the world had got into him? Secret
messages, conspiracies -- the whole thing was absurd! He must have been
imagining things; the man's heart attack or whatever had triggered some
kind of odd delusion on his part or a sympathetic reaction of sorts. That
had to be it. Frustration, exasperation, the daily grind. Yes, that was
definitely it. He laughed again. But he needed something to calm his nerves.
He needed to reassure himself in the midst of quotidian life.
He looked around him, taking in the unfamiliar streets. At least he
had a vague sense of the direction he wanted to walk. There was an advertisement
plastered on the side of the drug store: escape to balmy Florida and splash
in its sunsparkling waves! Inside the store, behind the cash register, a
middle-aged woman looked up as Wilcox entered. Despite his self-exhortations,
Wilcox was relieved to see that she was not wearing glasses. She smiled
brightly, then turned to adjust the volume on what looked like a large and
impressively modern portable radio. But Wilcox had not heard any music or
chatter coming from it. Odd. He shook his head and forced himself to concentrate
on all the bright packs of candies, mints, and chewing gums on display.
After half a minute, Wilcox approached the cashier with his selection and
she gave him change. It was then that he noticed for the first time that
she had a pair of eyeglasses hanging around her neck by a clear plastic
cord. He restrained a nervous laugh. No nonsense now! It's just like what
the librarians wear, he told himself. Time to get going.
"Can I interest you in a lottery ticket?" she asked.
"No thanks," he replied, trying to achieve the same bright tone. He
turned away, heading for the front door.
"Suit yourself . . . Mr. Wilcox," she said.
He froze. He would have looked back at her, but there were three solemn-looking
men hurrying through the door.