Photo: Williamburg's train station.
Though I’ve been trying to avoid the necessity of using a tiny public restroom on a crowded train, my pea-sized bladder won’t let me wait until we arrive at my destination. I realize I’m going to have to get up and make my way down the length of the aisle because the restrooms are located at the back of the car.
Walking on a train isn’t as easy as it looks. While on a plane you might encounter the occasional bump, on a train you have to deal with a steady side to side movement as well as the occasional bump.
Though I had hoped to leave my seat without calling any attention to myself, I find myself lurching along like a slap-happy drunk. More than once I have to grab the headrest on a nearby seat to keep from falling, and none of the passengers resting on said headrests take kindly to finding their necks bent and their chins suddenly jutting toward the ceiling. I murmur “Excuse me” at least a dozen times, trip on at least two straps dangling from backpacks or purses, and wake at least a half dozen dozing passengers.
And my reward for all this trouble? A long, narrow restroom with a smelly toilet, a push-button sink, damp toilet paper, and wadded up paper towels strewn around the bottom of the trash receptacle.
After returning to my seat, I look at the man riding next to me for the first time. He’s older, probably in his sixties or seventies, and sleeping like a baby, which leads me to believe that he must be a frequent train traveler. White whiskers on his upper lip vibrate softly as he breathes in and out, his arms are crossed, and his hands firmly tucked into his armpits.
Leaving him to his rest, I pull up the footrest beneath my seat and find that it’s not quite long enough for me to extend my legs. I can either bend my knees and ride like a gigged frog, or I can let my feet hang over the edge.
Since neither position is attractive or comfortable, I give up and lower the footrest. Maybe I shouldn’t sleep. Maybe I should pull that novel out of my purse, or boot up my computer and see if I can catch a wireless signal from some passing coffee shop . . .
I go for the book. I’m two paragraphs into chapter one when an ear-splitting scream pulls me from the story and yanks me back to reality. My eyes fly open, and for an instant I’m convinced that our train is being commandeered by terrorists, but after leaning sideways to peer down the aisle, I see a boy and girl, probably grade school age, running toward the front of the car as if the devil were giving chase. I glance behind them, expecting to see a stern-faced mother or maybe even a grandmother, but the aisle is empty.
Someone’s little darlings are running loose on this train. Great.
I lean back and close my eyes, warning myself not to look up again no matter how loud the scream. But it’s not a child I hear approaching from the rear, but the steady, heavy steps of an Amtrak employee. I look up as the steps slow, and for a moment my mouth goes dry—is he stopping at my seat?
No, not at my seat, but at the seat directly in front of mine, where a dark-haired man has been quietly murmuring into his cell phone ever since we boarded at Union Station.
“Sir,” the grim-faced conductor or attendant or whatever says, “May I speak to you for a moment?”
I know it’s rude, but I can’t resist the urge to eavesdrop. Did this guy board without paying? Did he use a counterfeit ticket? Or did someone inform security that we have a dangerous fugitive aboard?
I straighten in my seat and close my book, not wanting to miss any details.
The passenger holds up a finger, then tells whoever’s on the phone that he’ll call again later. “Someone here needs my attention,” he says, his voice calm and assuring, “so hold down the fort for me, okay? See you in a few days.”
I tilt my head, hoping to catch a glimpse of the man’s profile. He’s very smooth, far too polished to be an escaped convict or a terrorist. But he could be guilty of some white collar crime.
The man pockets his cell phone and stands, shifting his attention to the man from the train. He’s at least five inches taller than the man from Amtrak, and I smile when I realize that he stood for a reason: intimidation. “Can I help you?” he asks.
“Yes, sir.” The uniformed conductor lifts his chin. “I believe you boarded with two children, is that right?”
So he’s not a fugitive after all—he’s a parent. If he’s responsible for those two screaming hellions, he’s not a very good one.
The conductor shows his teeth in an expression that is not a smile. “Where are your children now?”
The man turns to look up and down the aisle, then reaches up to brace himself on the railing of the overhead baggage compartment. “Do you have a problem with my children?”
“Actually, sir, we have a problem with you. We require children to be supervised by a parent at all times.”
“But I am supervising them.” The man glances up and down the length of the train again, as if he could will his children into appearing. “They were just here, so they’re probably in the restroom.”
The conductor moves his hand to the radio hanging from his belt. “No, sir, they are not. The cafe car attendant has barricaded them into an area in the lounge. We are not going to release them until you take custody and remind your children that these cars are not playgrounds. It’s not safe for children to run amuck on a train.”
The conductor’s speech was polite enough, but at the word amuck, the dark-haired man straightens and narrows his gaze. Fascinated, I stare at his profile, which has morphed from handsome to unquestionably perturbed. This last expression strikes a chord in my memory—I know this man. I saw him and his kids at the Chinese restaurant a couple of nights ago.
“I beg your pardon,” he says, his tone icy, “but my children have never ‘run amuck’ in their lives. They are constantly supervised and exceptionally well-behaved.”
Remembering the flying dinner plate, I choke on a cough.
To his credit, the attendant does not argue, but takes a half-step back and extends his hand toward the front of the car. “If you please, sir. After you.”
As a current of whispering flows through the seats around me, I watch as the man straightens his suit coat, steps into the aisle, and walks toward the front of the train without once needing to balance himself on another passenger’s seat. After he passes, people lean into the aisle and comment to their neighbors—a couple of people smile, but at least six or seven scowl. One woman doesn’t even bother to lower her voice: “That’s the man with those two noisy brats. Have you seen them runnin’ down the aisle? Like unleashed terrors, both of ‘em.”
When the man and the conductor have disappeared into the next car, I recline my seat and stare at the ceiling overhead. My eyelids grow heavy, and I am just about to doze off when I feel a subtle change in the atmosphere. I open my eyes and peer toward the front of the car, where the man and his children are coming down the aisle.
The little girl—who looks like an angel with her brown eyes, round cheeks, and long hair—is skipping toward me, her arms inadvertently jostling people as she passes. The boy is stamping his feet, his steps heavy on the carpeted floor, his lower lip jutting forward in a pout. The father, who I expect to look embarrassed, wears an expression I’d have to call uncomfortable as he drives his offspring forward.
When he arrives at their seats—the row in front of me—he grips his children’s shoulders and points to the two empty seats across the aisle. “This is where you sit,” he says, his voice strong and resonant. “Roman, Emelia, into those chairs you go. Now, if you please.”
The kids obey, reluctantly settling into their places, and when they have obeyed the father pulls two packages of M&Ms from his pocket and tosses a bag to each child. The little girl purses her mouth when she gets the brown bag, and looks as if she might scream again.
“Emelia doesn’t like the chocolate ones,” the boy says, quickly exchanging his yellow bag for the bag in her lap. “She likes peanut, I like plain.”
The little girl smiles, her dimples winking as she rips off the top of the bag with her teeth.
I cover my mouth with my hand, smothering a snort of disbelief. What kind of father is this?
The dad sighs and looks around, undoubtedly aware that several people have turned and are watching the scene with undisguised interest. “Let those with perfect children,” he says, his stentorian voice carrying over the hum of the moving train, “cast the first stone.”
Then he drops into his seat and I find myself staring at the back of his head. Immediately he picks up a newspaper and opens it, and I have to wonder—is he truly interested in the fine print of the classifieds or is he copying my trick and using the paper as a shield from prying eyes?
I close my eyes and hug my book to my chest. In moments like these, I’m glad I don’t have children.