Here's a selection from a story called "Train'd Peoples" from my first short story collection, Not Immediately A Parent, available this fall on Amazon.
New Canaan, Connecticut, a place where pressing one button will bring four lanes of opposing traffic to a dead standstill for twenty two seconds, allowing the plastic pusher a brief and unsatisfying stroll across memorized lanes, barely escaping the exhaust trying to run them over after the light turns green. A bicycle-clad officer stands by, offering pre-printed assistance to those unfamiliar with New Canaan’s buggy and horse traffic laws. “It don’t make no darn sense,” you find yourself saying on the inside, a primal response to stupidity and lack of fast-food convenience. One would think that walking with traffic would suffice as a pedestrian flow for the modern age, but it appears that the inhabitants of this backward Connecticut hamlet like to count to twenty two before asking, “Who’s head is this that I run over before me?” As charming as all of this four-wheeled wonder is, I find that it serves as only the gateway to a much grander play on words, the loco motives, or “train’d peoples” as my wife casually refers to them as. In short, there is a train that brings the inhabitants of civilization to this sleepy burb, and in some ways acts as the cultural exchange between those with a little money and those with so much money that tupperware feels uncomfortable visiting it’s faberware cousin from the country. I’m not blaming the money for New Canaan’s bankruptcy of compassion or burgeoning asswiping, I do however think that a little more curiosity about why everything has worked in their favor might erase some of their scowls and short tempered smiles.
It’s not really fair to make fun of them because they sit next to me, unaware that my typing will begin to undress their lack of humility and self-awareness. Basically they don’t give a damn, which should give me license to apply the same mantra, but there is a bit of guilt, enough to press the computer screen “dimmer button,” making it more difficult to read over my shoulder and into their bent lives. My little silver laptop has given me a place to put their idiosyncrasies, and for this I am grateful. There are three particular instances, in no particular order, that have driven my non-ipoded ears into a raged typefest. They all took place on the aforementioned train, and they all strike me as unfortunate and unloverly. I hope that my indifference doesn’t remove me from their foibles, but it does seem as though it might be the only way for us to feel their pain, however insignificant it might seem.
LIKE THE FOLDS THEY WERE
There they sat, three across from a weekend of greater than normal length, not quite important enough to need the extra day away from the office. Their sense of humor, as it stood, was currently standing outside of a shopping mall, ringing a loud bell shouting, “sharing is caring, caring is sharing...won’t you please help.” I imagined that they neither stopped nor offered money to the tiny red holiday can.
It’s not that their tone that annoyed or perplexed on a regular basis (of course there has been no study as of said wrote) however, it was where they placed their conversation that has me writing sheepishly in a corner, afraid of misspelling a little red line beneath a simple grammar rule that I’ve since forgotten. It’s the train goddamnit, the locomotive rules that they’re choosing to ignore, and for that they will pay dearly in mocking prose and overly verbose sentencing.
“Number One,” being the one that is currently talking, has a son. Not very bright, it seems, but plenty ready to take a lacrosse stick to the head of some kid that might be. This man’s slightly woolen sweater affords him the luxury of buying a tutor’s time for the upcoming SAT test, the only thing standing in the way of a surefire scholarship at an Army/Navy type education with symbolic ivory growing on the pages of a slightly right-wing school publication. “Number Two,” the recipient of Number One’s musings, will send his son to a slightly more expensive school than Number One, as his child will excel in neither academics nor literature, but has the potential to foreplay his way into a large glass of suds or the creamy sticks of some equally dumb box, whose box has been, well, around the box. Number Two has an important matter to discuss this morning; the slightly Mexican/Hispanic workers who might or might not understand English well enough to finish a job properly, and the time in which it has taken to add a sixth bedroom and screened in porch to his already burgeoning household. He admits, somewhat sheepishly, that he has not had the time to research the price of “C-B-X plywood,” but shouldn’t it be less expensive than drywall if there were fewer forest fires in Canada this year?
“Number Three” drinks a sip of his latte.
Number One adamantly agrees with Number Two about the time in which it takes to train Mexicans to build a proper frame. His sister’s husband, a contracted stooge turned stoogey contractor by choice, has worked with several hundred of these migrant workers and has a somewhat unkind take on the ability of our southern neighbors. According to this brother-in-law, it’s not his fault that “those people” choose to work at a lower wage than what the Republican-elected House of Representatives has set as the national minimum. Number Two nods his head and looks at Number One, who nods his head, and glances at the “Black Guy” sitting two aisles closer to the front. He’s reading a New York Times. Number Two wonders if the Black Guy has any Spanish-speaking friends and decides to change the subject to sports.
“So did you like the quarterback switch?” Number Two says, reading the back page of Black Guy’s NYT. Number One did not, and although the current quarterback is a bit too young, he observed that the previous quarterback was a bit too Christian.
“But that will change,” Number Two retorts, suddenly wary of the fact that Number One has brought both religion and ageism into a sports only conversation. Number Three won’t like this at all, no not at all.
Number Three takes off his glasses and wipes them with a handkerchief he keeps in the front pocket of the long brown trench coat remaining on his body. Suddenly Black Guy sneezes. The conversation drops for a minute or two as Number Three folds the handkerchief back into his coat pocket.
Number Two asks about Number One’s wife. Number One still has his first one, Number Two is with his second. “I just hope they don’t fire the current baseball manager” Number One states, somewhat more loudly than expected. It appears that Number One has thought quite extensively about this subject and begins a slow, but thoughtless string of comparisons that would have sports’ radio stations scratching their heads and programming more commercials. Number Two and Number Three sit and listen, noting imperceptibly that Number One wore the same sweater two days ago, although with a different tie that didn’t match any better than the one he’s wearing now. Perhaps if he spent more time on his wardrobe, and less time in front of ESPN, his son might not need to work so hard on the sports’ field. But as I said, it was imperceptible, so Number One continues his tirade through crystal-balled predictions stretching well into the playoffs of next year. Number Three looks out the window as the train passes the harbor where his grandfather used to bring him as a child to look at all of the rich people’s expensive boats. The sun’s hopeful attention stretched light upon these flickering waters, the blue matching his grandfather’s eyes and collar. Number Three remembers the Sundays when his Grandfather would talk about his boyhood home, showing his grandson how to measure when the tide would be high, and describing what the clouds could tell you about the next day’s weather. On the following day, his grandfather would return to that harbor without him, selling his experience of winterizing skiffs to the wives of men who rode the train and were too busy to deal with such mundane nautical details. These women would flirt with his grandpa to get him to lower his price, robbing him slowly of a dream they would sometimes call American. If only his grandfather had spoken better English, he might not have had to work so hard. His grandfather, it seems, did not mind the hard work, his son was doing better than he, and spoke English quite well.
As the train approaches Harlem, Black Guy stands up and puts on his long, black, leather jacket. He places his New York Times on the seat in front of him, and exits towards the door as the train doors open at the stop.
Number One watches all of this carefully, waiting patiently for the train to begin moving again. “I guess they don’t sell the Times in Harlem, huh?” This makes Number Two giggle like a little kid in church, unsure if Number Three found it amusing.
Number Three gets up slowly and stretches over to pick up Black Guy’s paper.
Thirty six years before, an old Sicilian sailor showed his grandson where he could find a free paper on the dock and listens as the boy slowly starts to read that day’s headline about three commuters who had tragically lost their soul on a train ride into the city.