Bethesda Magazine | July-August 2017

Gray Worlds By Jack Kiyonaga

High School Short Story Contest Winner, Gonzaga College High School

Illustration by David Owens

It was gray and cold, but I had my earbuds and insulated jacket. I liked the gray more anyway. Walking around Dupont Circle, I passed boutique coffee shops, cool bars, a misplaced Subway and a number of rather attractive women. My breath was cloudy, eyes watery, as I muttered Chance the Rapper lines to myself. I had just exchanged some gray flannel pants. Off-the-rack pants don’t usually fit my lanky frame. Damn, those were some expensive pants. Lost in my own world, I strode down the escalator into the Metro. 

Maybe it was due to the lifeless, opaque sky, but the Metro was filled with a grim, grungy light. I loaded my card and headed down to the platform. Let me tell you, Dupont Circle Metro at 2:30 p.m. is not very crowded. Soon though, I was not alone. Backlit, a figure approached. Tight black braids crossed his head like horns and trickled down to his shoulders. His voice was soft and smooth, as if he had been a musician at some point in life.

“Hey man, I’m going to Rockville, you see, I just need a little bit.”

Ah, the age-old “just going to Rockville.” I had three dollars in my pocket.

“I really don’t have anything, but here, let me check.” I lamely drew a quarter from my pocket.

“Cool. Hey man, thank you, anything helps,” he said almost lyrically as he reached up a closed fist. I lightly bumped it with my own. As nonchalantly as possible, I meandered about 20 feet to my right and awaited my train. Racist? Maybe. Practical, sure.

The train arrived with its usual melodramatic whining and screeching. I sat down on one of those nasty orange seats and pulled out The New Yorker. Yeah, I read The New Yorker for fun. The man with the horn braids got on the other end of the train. A kid that looked about my age sat across from me. He was white and wearing a white button shirt and black jeans, but was given away by an almost rebellious rhinestone encrusted hat, black earrings and a bad case of acne. 

A few stops into our ride, a young man and woman shuffled onto the train, drained passengers on a joyless joyride. They had heavy eyes devoid of any expectation and wore ill-fitting sweatshirts of teams they had probably never cheered for. Their demeanors were tired and ashen, yet somehow focused. They locked eyes with each other, and before they even opened their mouths, I knew they had something to say.

“Ladies and gentlemen.” His pale gray eyes swept the car. “My fiancée is pregnant and we are starving. Please, anything helps. Any change, food, water. Please.”

The man with the devilish braids got up and walked over to them. They spoke in low voices for a minute. We locked eyes as he pulled out my quarter and held it up, not unlike the Eucharist. 

“This man,” he said, pointing at me, “gave me this, and now I’m giving it to you. Pass on what is good, what is beautiful.”

I still had my three dollars in my pocket and tried to press myself into the puke-colored seat. Damn it, I knew I couldn’t give these people any money without exposing myself as a fraud. If only I had been more generous with that man, he could have given this couple more.

The couple walked down the aisle toward me. The acne-faced kid sitting across from me slipped them 30 bucks in the most nonplus way possible. I was shocked. All I could do was nod my head as the couple came by. I tried to look back down at The New Yorker, but its words, its intellectual arguments supported by such glamorous tones and thoughtful verbiage, now seemed paper thin. What had just happened seemed so purposefully directed at me. I sat thinking for a few minutes, my article on Julian Assange folded across my lap. I dreamed of God.

“You know she’s not pregnant.” The kid with acne had a coarse voice, like sandpaper.


“She’s not pregnant. They come through here every day.”

He had silvery tears on his cheeks. He had been crying. 

“They don’t stop asking you until you pay them.” He sounded fragile.

“Oh… I’m sorry to hear that.”

“Are you new to D.C.? I ride this train every day.”

“No… I, I usually have practice.” He looked lonely as he gazed around the Metro car. My voice was quieter, more controlled than I would have liked. I wanted to shake him. To scream at him, “Why the fuck are you crying? Is it their pain you cannot take? Is it their lies and manipulation? Are you crying because you just gave in to their weekly toll? You paid them off, simple as that, not to bother you anymore? Do you weep for me because I’m cynical, because I cannot ever, truly understand?”

I looked around at the empty car. Distorted reflections melted by on the blacked out windows. We both got off at Bethesda, but didn’t say anything more or walk next to each other. I put my earbuds back in as I rejoined the placid world from which I had come. Chance the Rapper seemed too upbeat, I needed something contemplative. I settled on Nirvana. 

To the cacophony of power chords and Kurt Cobain, I walked by Booeymonger, Starbucks and Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School as I headed for home down East West Highway. Heart flushed, I re-spoke the words I had heard that day. My pace quickened. Desperate faces filled my mind. My inner turmoil must have shown on my physical appearance as a woman I passed shot me a concerned look. Unable to satisfy myself with worldly thoughts, I turned to the profound. I tried to think of Jesus on that Metro. Was he in the radical generosity of the braided-hair man? Or the desperate longing of the young couple? Or in the robust humanity of the acne kid? Or maybe all three. Regardless, I tried to ask him why he was crying, if I should be crying. And as I climbed to the top of my hill, as Kurt Cobain yelled about entertainers, as I felt shards of glass in my stomach, the questions finally became too much. So I accepted the gray and noticed that it had started to rain. 

Jack Kiyonaga


Lives In: Chevy Chase

High School: Graduated in June from Gonzaga College High School in D.C.

Age: 18

Previously published in: Bethesda Magazine as the winner of the 2016 high school essay contest

Favorite place to write: “Next to my bed on the floor.”

Favorite author: J.D. Salinger

Up next: Attending the University of Pennsylvania. “I rowed for the varsity crew team at Gonzaga and am looking forward to continuing writing and rowing at UPenn.”