The Center of the Universe

Submitted into Contest #186 in response to: Write a story within a story within a story within a ...... view prompt


Fantasy Fiction Funny

This story contains sensitive content

This story contains mental health issues and adult language; discussions about drug use and sexual references.

I cast a spell on men with such limited vision that despite being the Roman goddess of architecture, they created an arena and train station that spans Midtown Manhattan with all the grace of concrete herpes.

"You created this ugly place, so dwell here you shall."

So, dwell I do. Father gave me wings. He made me long for things, like a moth to a flame. Trite, I know, but truth is often trite. Symbolism, too, with this whole wings- as-chains-shit. He took one wing in a big ceremony with lightning blah blah blah, which means there's no way to reach anything I want. Dad believes my creativity demands containment. He said I see the light without the kindling. He said I'm worse than Icarus, so grounded I shall remain.

I don't know who Icarus is, but I would slaughter a million commuter-lambs just to make sure he feels as miserable as me. Company, you know, as vestal virgins no longer exist. Virgins no longer exist. Humans are born knowing something that helps to pass the time.


In the 1960s, Pennsylvania Railroad executives demolished the original Penn Station. The Beaux Arts Style of the original Penn Station made catching a train an event worthy of posing for photos while drinking champagne. The current Penn Station reminds most people that the trains take them to work, where they eat a tuna fish sandwich for lunch.

However, janitor Robert James, a man of forty-seven years old with $27.56 in his checking account, was a man who never complained about work or a tuna fish sandwich for lunch. Or dinner. Robert always ate his sandwich, tuna fish or not, with the ghosts that gathered around the vintage iron screen of beveled-glass windows adorned by a pattern of leaves. Penn Station commanded the grace of a steel outhouse, but that outhouse contained remnants of the original station, like the iron screen. Bits of glass flooring. Vintage staircases. The one-winged woman.

Robert told the other janitors that the one-winged woman needed help and that he intended to help her, but he was in no position to do that yet because he knew nothing about magic. He knew about time travel. That day, after telling everyone on the subway that the Earth was flat and time travel would help to prove that, Robert went home to Google "magic".

That is what a man in love does. He helps the woman he loves. Robert's mom told him that. Robert's dad told him that. It must be true if they each said the same thing even though they didn't help each other. They told him that once a person loves with all of his heart, he can die. They each lived a very long time.

The next day, Robert rolled his cart below his love and stared as she glistened in the air. He gripped his cart handle so hard that he feared she heard his bleach-stung hands crack. He took one last breath and spoke.

"Excuse me, I don't want to come off as rude, but you're my favorite ghost here…probably my favorite ghost anywhere. But you seem stuck, so I think that maybe one wing means you can't fly far. And, um, I wondered if maybe, you know, you might be in some kind of trouble, so I Googled magic to help you. I want to help you because --- " 

Robert's heart clenched. His phone fell to the floor as he slumped headfirst into the garbage can attached to his janitor cart and died. The one-winged woman watched Robert's soul drift from the garbage can to heaven, cursing him for mistaking her for a mere ghost and leaving before she did. The ghosts waved him into the light but showed no interest in leaving with him. In fact, one of them asked Robert if he packed a tuna fish sandwich for lunch. 


"That guy floated through the ceiling…I mean, what the fuck?"

"I don't know how hard you hit this shit, but keep your mouth shut. There are cops all over the platform."

"Yeah, well, if you would've stopped for just a moment, I could've shown you."

"Look, we're fucking late as it is ---"

"Because of your heels ---"

"--- and I'm not calling my sister to tell her we missed another train because you saw a janitor floating through a ceiling with some kind of winged creature watching him."

"You really don't believe I saw a dead man floating through the ceiling or a woman with a wing?"

"Before we got married, I told you I believe in science. I've never believed in these things you see."

"I mean…wow. Wow. I think maybe we should see a marriage counselor. That's a thing that any couple as bad off as we are can see together."

"Look, just go home. I'll go to my sister's. No, just go. I can't keep pretending because being with you is killing me. We should … I.. God, I wish this stupid woman would quit eavesdropping."


I told the woman I'm no eavesdropper. I told the woman I'm a goddess without magic. I told her I used to move mountains. It's the truth, but the truth always makes people move away from me on the platform. 

I gotta admit, though, that the part about eavesdropping, that was a lie. Maybe the goddess part was, too. But maybe I am a goddess if some janitor is flying through the ceiling at Penn Station. That's what the man I eavesdropped on said he saw. He seemed honest. He looked sick, though. His wife, she's too healthy for him because she only focuses on herself. My mother told me to always focus on yourself because it keeps you alive. Now I am going to focus on my inner goddess.

"Who do I call about my goddess inheritance, help me find them and I promise to buy everyone here a piece of something that makes them fat or fatter, ha HA. They have an upstairs like a mall you can take all the stuff I will buy that shit for you once I find out where my goddess gold is but please don't sit with me on the train FUCKERS, though, just eat the food I buy you like I am a goddess you please so you know how that goes I do love you all but don't fuck with me by messing up the seats I want I'm tired and need to sleep so I wanna stretch out thank you someone give me a coat for a cover, but thank you. Food's arriving shortly. Cream douches."

When I was a girl, I spoke to lots of people in a room. I showed them an experiment I made. Models of mountains. I moved them. The people clapped then gave me a ribbon. They told me I had a brain for science. Now my brain hurts. I asked if science caused that and a man on the subway told me that God did. Now I complain about sleeping in the slush in the winter and the heat in the summer. Now I beg the masses I planned to boss around in a lab for money to buy heroin at the bodega.

"Science makes things, not feelings. Give me my gold!"


I do like to sleep on the train, but like I SAID, I also enjoy bodega heroin and catching a stray chicken or two that dares to escape the confines of the housing project courtyard. I hate confines and I can always entice a chicken that hates them, too. You might not believe me but as I explained it is true SO LISTEN: I moved a mountain before Jesus Christ began to bore everyone like that man on the subway so why wouldn't I be able to entice a chicken to sit with me while I enjoy some heroin?

It's time to cut loose, though.

"Fuck you all, if you get on my car I will jump!" I dangle my foot off the platform. That gets them every time. Look at them run. The train doors open for me like a sweet hotel in heaven. 

One day you move a mountain. One day you move masses of people across the platform, so they don't get on the train car you want to sleep on. One day you entice a chicken to sit with you while you do heroin. Such is life


My neighbor, Robert, has been talking about Wings all night. Every since he got home from work. I hate that band. My granddad loved them and that's the only reason I know them. Robert always goes on about things. The walls are thin, and his rambling keeps me up at night. I'm pretty busy, just like everyone else. Well, except for Robert apparently. School is hard enough with sleep so I'm really in a bad space now and I wish he'd just leave. Don't get me wrong, I don't want anything bad to happen to him. I just wish he'd move. Like, I wish someone would find him a place to go to so I wouldn't have to listen to him ramble all the time. 

I have a good deal here. I don't want to move. I already had to change my train station so I wouldn't run into Robert on my way to work. I have school and work to think about so I can't be bothered by other people, especially Wings. Fuck Wings.


The night before Robert died, he made himself a herbal tea by sprinkling dill into a microwaved cup of Lipton's then settled into a hot bubble bath. 

He swirled his hand through the water so that the colors from the other dimension would shine in the bubbles. He always felt renewed when the colors popped up, his hand twirling the water like a liquid kaleidoscope. He couldn't give up on love even though he didn't always glimpse it. Maybe the magic would help him with his time travel. Maybe it would take them to the original Penn Station, and he could show his true love how the iron screen looked then. Love brings possibilities.

February 25, 2023 04:28

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Delbert Griffith
12:03 Mar 06, 2023

Let's take stock here. Powerless Greek goddess. Check. Ghosts. Check. A janitor who believes in time travel and may actually know how to do it. Check. A bickering couple. Check. A homeless woman with mental issues. Check. A college kid who hates Wings. Check. Toss in a little coke from the bodega and you have a story worth reading. This was a delightful tapestry of humanity, woven skillfully around a goddess who had her wing clipped by an arrogant dad (Kronos, I think) and wanted nothing more than to be what she was meant to be. I was entra...


Tara Leigh Parks
01:12 Mar 07, 2023

Delbert, Thank you! I've always wanted to put my loathing for the current Penn Station into a story and this prompt let me do that. I no longer live in the city, but I still feel like a New Yorker sometimes. It's so funny you saying that you learn from me because I'm learning from exciting writers like you. I look forward to your next piece.


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Tara Leigh Parks
03:12 Feb 16, 2024

Hi, Delbert. Hope you're well. I'm on Substack and I rewrote this. It's in two parts; Part I is posted now and free to read. If you're on Substack, please have a look when you get time. You can search my name or my publication: NO ASTERISKS. Or copy and paste: The story's renamed: The Janitor and the Goddess: Love & Legacies Lost, Part I


Delbert Griffith
16:04 Feb 16, 2024

Pulled it up, and gonna give it a read. Thanks!


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Wendy Kaminski
16:51 Feb 25, 2023

Tara, this was such a fun and wild ride! Truly an original piece, and delightful to read. The voice of the various characters was incredibly good and distinct, weaving just an absolute gem of a stories-within-stories. Two favorite lines, and it was difficult to choose: - I cast a spell on men with such limited vision that despite being the Roman goddess of architecture, they created an arena and train station that spans Midtown Manhattan with all the grace of concrete herpes. - Her disgust is palpable! - I moved a mountain before Jesus Chr...


Tara Leigh Parks
22:09 Feb 26, 2023

Hi, Wendy. Thank you so much! This is a combination of people I knew/encountered in NYC or experiences I had while living in NYC for a decade. Also, I have always hated Penn Station. I mean, I really hate it. So I thought to add the Roman goddess of architecture to this story. The actual story of Penn Station is historically noted as one of NYC's great archtectural/city planning disasters. It seemed to fit since a train station has many stories and offshoots of stories.


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