The heat was oppressive and unyielding and it was five hours past noon. On the streets, folks ducked into hotel lobbies to suck cool manufactured air deep into their exhausted lungs. The station however had no such air, just lazy fans fatigued by rising heat, high above in the rafters. A number of trains had been cancelled due to electrical issues and the elderly occupied most benches, wheezing in wait – a collective, labored exhale. On the platform few stood but those who could bear the humidity, saw the quickly building thunderheads climbing far above skyscrapers to the West and hoped that relief may soon blow through this suffocating station. It was now time to board the train which was heading straight into the storm.
As expected, it took longer to get everyone seated but the mood in the car was noticeably better given the intermittent air. The wind came first and the rain followed just as the doors closed and I suspect some felt cheated, not having been caught out in it. Across the aisle from me arrive two, he full of energy and wide eyed . . . taking it all in. She is spent, tired and worn. She wipes the perspiration from her brow into her dark matted hair and sits while managing a soft smile towards her son, staring intently out the rain lashed window. I suspect he is ten, maybe twelve and marvel at his fascinated enthusiasm. She entrust him with their tickets and baggage claim and asks that she may get a little rest. He nods in a manner politely routine, suggesting that this trust has been earned over time.
The conductor is but a shadow as he comes by and is quietly impressed at the young boy’s behaved efficiency. He gives him some extra stubs, should the boy wish to play with or draw on. The conductor moves on, following the rattle of the tracks beneath us, down the aisle. It is then, in the half light of the car that lightning flashes with a fury outside and I see the boy standing in his seat, staring my way with a most mischievous grin and a devious shimmer in his eyes.
Before the clap of thunder, he has lifted himself over his sleeping mother and is crawling forward amidst the luggage overhead. ‘What in the world?’ . . .I want to shout out, reprimand, protect and chase the little monkey down . . .but I am pinned in by an old timer finally sleeping soundly and all around me, it is quiet. Besides, where can he go? The bathroom, no, that is the other way – towards the conductor . . . my worry then grows as he drops to the aisle up ahead and opens the adjoining doors to the car. ‘The cafe car . . .why, that little devil!’. I recall now, seeing his small hands return the baggage claim . . to his mother’s purse. . .’I’ll be damned’.
Five minutes, ten . . .the next stop is approaching and it is mine . . . my concern grows. The conductor walks quickly by towards the cafe . . . ‘game over kid’ – I am thinking. To my astonishment however, just as the door closes and behind the conductor, the boy darts back into our railcar with a big box of snacks in his left hand. He calmly walks the aisle like some fancy waiter and maneuvers into his seat, causing not a stir from his mother.
The great locomotive has by now punched through the rain and is racing towards a brilliant setting sun. As far as the eye can see, the soaked land is lush and a bright green.
The boy is licking his fingers and hiding wrappers when I look back next, as the train slows into my station. I deftly step over the sleeping gentleman and look down towards the mother and her son. She has awakened and looks up, half expecting me to say something – and I am tempted. Something like: ’best leash this lad towards NYC ma’am’ . . . but the boy has leaned back and smiled up at me . . . he winks with a wide grin while placing his right forefinger over his chocolate covered teeth and I just smile back, as his secret is now mine too. I nod to them both as the doors open and bid them ‘a pleasant journey’.
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