CHICAGO: BELMONT EL STATION

BY BEVERLY OFFEN 

This essay is part of the Great Lakes Review’s Narrative Map project.

You have walked by that picture for years. Always avoided looking at it. Something forbidding about it. Today, you make yourself stop and look.

It’s a large oil painting, four-by-sixteen feet. There is a lot to look at. It was painted by Patrick Miceli. Maybe he’s famous, but you’ve never heard of him. The painting shows people standing on the platform at the Belmont El Station in Chicago. You’ve ridden by that El station.

The painting is realistic, but it’s a blurry realism. What you might have seen out a window of the El train as it passed by.

You look at the faces, searching, as you always do, for someone familiar. But, of course, they are all strangers. Next you count the people. Nineteen women and eight men. They are spread out along the platform. Only two people, a man and a woman, seem to be together. They face one another at an angle but are not looking at each other. No one is looking at you or at anyone else in the picture.

All of the people have closed their eyes or are looking down or are wearing sunglasses, although it is not a sunny day. Everyone looks sad, or maybe just resigned. They are waiting for a train, but they don’t seem to expect one to arrive. You know that they have been waiting here for a long time. The people are frozen in small separate spaces. No one is moving. A man is about to light a cigarette, but he is caught motionless, holding a match he cannot strike. At the edge of the platform is a red sign reading, “DANGER—KEEP OFF.” Beneath the platform is a black void.

You imagine standing among these people. You look for a way to enter the painting and a place you might occupy. You think that this is a space where there would be no demands from other people. You would not have to speak to anyone or touch anyone. Near the center of the painting, you see a small woman. You must have seen her before because you had counted her.

But you hadn’t looked at her. Now you notice that her arms and legs are swinging, and one foot is off the ground.

She becomes the only person in the painting you can see. Her head is lowered and her eyes are downcast, exactly like the others, but she is moving quickly. She will soon disappear behind the shelter near the back of the platform. You know that she will not appear again.

She will leave the painting and escape. Maybe she was the only person in the painting the artist could not control. Or maybe he painted her, hoping that you would see her and be warned.

Beverly Offen lives near Chicago. She recently earned a Certificate in Creative Nonfiction from the Writer’s Studio of the University of Chicago. She has been published in Still Crazy, Front Porch Review, Nostalgia Digest, Hippocampus, and other small journals. She was a community college librarian but now calls herself a writer.

Find Patrick Miceli’s work at his website.