The Stranger

(Based on an actual incident and its retelling as a short story by my son, Daniel Ference, this poem deals with the darkness we must sometimes unexpectedly wrestle with both without and within ourselves.)

The subway train sluiced out of the tunnel
to an impatient stop. He boarded, as always,
the third car from the end, lips still vibrating
with venom; nerves, muscles, veins, lungs–all drumming
with the thunder of a racing heart; adrenalin
still surging like a tsunami; thoughts smacking
into each other like dozens of pinballs
launched together into clamorous anarchy.


Fifteen minutes earlier, exhausted juggler
of academic and family demands, he sat sleepily
on a bench in the empty underground station,
spongy thoughts drifting in and out the vodka ad
across the tracks promising good times and sophistication.

Gimme two dolla’. Reverie fractured,
he strained for focus and double-clutched
before exhaling, What? to the stranger
in the down coat and couple-hundred-dollar sneakers
suddenly looming over him. Gimme two dolla’–
this time tellingly precise, a razor-sharp edge.

The air shimmied with ominous vibes, and
he had little hope I ain’t got it would cap
the matter, but he laid it out there anyway
like an angler casting a fly onto a fished-out pond,
landing only heckled speculation that he was
both a liar and maybe a gang banger as well.
He sensed he was being jacked into a clash
of wills, and a panoramic sweep of his aloneness
rapidly turned his mouth into a desert,
his tongue an outsized slab of meat.

More demands, refusals; plays,
counter plays; voices louder, words
uglier. Suddenly, practiced fingers
snatched his wife’s gold Christmas gift
from his neck with the speed of a serpent’s strike,
blasting his animal instincts into high gear.
Flying to his feet, he collared the assailant’s wrist
with one hand, coat with the other. Back and forth
they muscled, strained for advantage, inching
toward the platform’s edge like tightrope walkers
drawn to the scent of danger. Finally,
cued by the grumble of an approaching train,
the mugger surrendered the prize, uncoiled
and retreated, bravado intact, but now
lacking substance and bite.

For months after, the young man inhaled vapors
newly released, for he had never been in a fight
before; was content to share the planet
with all manner of things. But that fateful morning,
a bomb had gone off in his head, and these days
he could not say for certain, that given half the chance,
he would not have sacrificed his antagonist
to the indifference of a speeding train. And
in this awakening, he became, for the present,
a stranger to himself.

© 2009 Dennis Ference

25 thoughts on “The Stranger

  1. I love this story because it illustrates to me how hard it can be to see an adversary as a human, with the same feelings and needs that we all have.

  2. Tense, vivid and compassionate all at once. It is scary indeed sometimes when lifelong cracks us open and puts our values into realtime scrutiny, when the luxury of philosophizing is stripped from us. It is a stark opening we face, a wound right to the center. You captured this beautifully.


    • Thank you, Michael, for your thoughtful response. It is so in sync with my thoughts as I tried to capture the impact of this event on my son’s, but also my own life. I return often to the memory of this event as I weigh the intricacies of life’s challenges to meanings and values. Thank you again. Peace. –Dennis

  3. This piece held me breathless and captive. I will be pondering that last stanza for some time and reflecting on times I too have been a stranger to myself.

  4. Oh, Dennis. This is exactly the type of darkness I have been contemplating…things that appear frightening. ..things that I was not completely aware lived inside. Beautiful poem…great comments after. I’m so happy your son was okay…He must have been a bit shocked by this. Thanks for sharing 🙂

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