Two strangers on a train meet, share something in common in this chapter.
|6. A young boy in a little league uniform sits alone in a fast food restaurant. Three men in their young twenties approach him and entice him to go for a ride.|
7. Several average appearing people are passed through airport security quickly. An African American youth, attired as a well-dressed hip-hop kid, is searched and scanned extensively. He’s then escorted between two security officers to an unmarked door.
8. A child is seen bringing a cold beverage to an old man laboring in a vegetable garden.
Two people sitting side by side on a train discover they are reading the same book.
For the third time the woman’s eruption of laughter brought my eyes up to hers.
“I’m sorry, really. This book is just so funny!”
I smile at her and mumble ”That’s OK.” My eyes go searching for the line I left off at and I try to pick up my own story. I’ve read it before, but it’s still very entertaining. I’m about finished with it as the main character has already rounded up the usual suspects and dispensed with justice. Just tying up loose ends.
I’m on my way to Portland, ME, on the Amtrak train called the Downeaster. Don’t ask me why. Why it’s called the Downeaster I mean. It doesn’t get anywhere near the Downeast part of Maine, which is actually up the coast beyond Portland, so I don’t get that one either. It’s twenty passed eleven in the morning in late March and Dover is behind me. God I hate that town. I’ve heard it described in unique and unflattering ways. Me? I think it’s a dead end town for a bunch of punks who never grew up. Head into any of the local saloons on any given night and you’ll find most of the patrons wearing too-small high school letter jackets, talking about their glory days of nailing a cheerleader or drinking until they puke. Ah, youth.
Another chuckle brings my eyes up to my seat partner. She’s totally unselfconscious about her laughter. It ain’t Dostoyovsky she’s reading, but I can’t tell what it is. It’s a light green hard cover with a cerulean binding. No dust jacket. Why do people take those off? It bugs me.
“I’m really sorry,” she says. “I just can’t help it. It is so funny! I’ll be quiet, I promise”
The woman has a pretty face and I’m willing to bet if she used the online personals she’d describe herself as ‘voluptuous.’ ‘Voluminous’ might be more accurate but then no one is completely honest with those things. It looks like blue-gray eyes with a ring of gold around the pupil. Her hair bobbed short, glasses the shape of rugby balls, she reminded me of a paunchy, myopic Delphic Sybil. Big eyes that see everything with a touch of amazement.
I look up to the conductor looming over my shoulder. “Right.” I hand him my ticket. The train is crowded, which surprises me. Usually we have the pick of our seats but commuters from Boston had spilled over from the business cars.I was sharing a family four-seat section with a woman who was reading something funnier than a Reader’s Digest Laughter’s the Best Medecine page.
“I need to see a picture ID, sir,” he says.
“Oh, yeah, right.” I hand him my state ID. The stupid rainbow colors make the thing look like a joke. The woman across from me is fumbling through this enormous purse. The thing could hold a parachute.
“I can’t find my ticket!” she says. Her searching becomes frantic as cosmetics and other detritus spill from her gunny sack.
“Here you go, sir,” the conductor says, holding out my ID.
“Thank you,” I say to him, and to her I say, “Excuse me.” I reach next to her leg and pull her ticket out. She’d been sitting on it.
“Oh! Thank you!”
The conductor does his thing, conducting I suppose and moves on down the car. The woman starts repacking her tent.
“My name’s Jen, by the way. Jen Stylos. Going to Portland?”
“Um, yeah. My name’s Harold Nix. Actually, I live in Portland.”
“Oh, Portland’s a great city!” Jen gushes. “I just love walking the waterfront. All those little shops!”
“Yeah, it is good walking down there, especially in a salty fog. Haven’t done it myself in a while.”
“Uh huh, Portland’s a great place. I’m hoping to land a job up here.”
“Oh? Do you have an interview today?”
“No,” she says. “Tomorrow. I have an interview at the University of Southern Maine at 9AM.”
“Really? A teaching position?”
“For an adjunct professor in History.”
“Huh. So what made you choose Maine?” I ask.
“No special reason. I want to stay in New England if I can. I just finished a year of teaching at UNH. Unfortunately, budget cuts left me high and dry.”
“Yeah, my classroom budget for this year will be $68. That’s almost a third of what it was three years ago. I’ll have enough to buy pencils, white board markers and staples. Maybe some Scotch tape, too.”
“You’re a teacher, too? What do you teach?”
I chuckled. “Not your kind of students. Mine are the ones your mother forbade you to bring home. I teach in a day treatment program, middle school.”
“Oh. That must be interesting.”
“Well, it’s never dull, I’ll give you that. Extremely challenging, a high burnout rate, but it can be very rewarding too.”
“I understand burnout, believe me. The way universities use up adjunct staff is awful.”
I let that one go. Burnout in my school comes from ducking flying furniture, being sworn at, bit, spit at, hit, kicked. Everyone gets abused by administration or management or whatever. But working with my kids just sucks the life out of you. So I changed tacks, altered the course of the conversation.
“Yeah, it’s tough. So what are you reading that’s so funny, if I can ask?”
“Oh, it’s a mystery I just started. One of the characters is a lesbian and she’s trying to get a date online with these personals called ‘Date-a-Dyke’ and--”
“No way! It’s a Bernie book! Burglar on the Prowl,” I say. I move forward to the edge of my seat.
“What? How’d you know that?”
I pull my copy of it out of my backpack. “Read this one twice already. I’d been waiting three years for Block to get off his block and push this puppy out. Is this your first Bernie book?”
“There are others? A friend handed this to me when he dropped me off for the train two days ago. I just remembered I had it as I pulled out of Boston.”
“This is the tenth in the series.” I held up the paperback I’d been reading. “The Burglar in the Library was his last for a couple of years. After I finished his latest (here I gestured to her book), I got out the rest of them to reread. It’s a fun series.”
“So far I’ve liked what I’ve read. But the lead character seems to be a little too, I don’t know, brainy? for a thief.”
“Bernie? Well, he’s an antiquarian bookseller. He reads a lot.”
“The lesbian, what’s her name? Carol! seems to read a lot, too.”
“Carolyn,” I corrected. “Yeah, and they really tease a few authors too. Sue Grafton and her alphabet mysteries seem to be a favorite target of Block’s.”
“I wondered what that was about. I ‘m not familiar with mysteries myself. So obviously you like this author. Am I right?”
“I’d say so. Among others, but Block’s a decent writer. I’ve enjoyed his wry sense of humor. So what material do you read?”
Jen moved forward in her seat to me and her eyes sparkled with a flash of electric energy. “I read anything about the 60s really. That was my focus in my major. I received my doctorate in American History last December. My dissertation was on the use of public space and how the hippy movement was actually a political movement during the 60s.”
“Interesting. Don’t know if I’ll ever get to the doctorate; working on the masters in special eduation. But I’m in no hurry to get there.”
“Oh, I agree. After my undergraduate degree I took courses here and there before I decided to go for the doctorate. It was so stressful trying to maintain a job and take courses full-time. School was so much more enjoyable taking classes as I liked.”
We’d been so engaged that I looked up and saw we were pulling into Old Orchard already.
“Um, Harold? Do people call you Harold? Or Harry”
“No, not usually. And it’s not Harry either. When I was a kid it was ‘Spud.’”
“As in the potato, Spud?”
“Yup.” I dropped my head momentarily. “I think my Dad thought he was cute. Spud Nix, get it?”
“Oh, like the Russian--”
“Yeah. He was a space fanatic. Mostly, I go by my middle name, now. It’s Peter.”
“Yes, that suits you better. So you were in Dover for a conference or something?”
“No, I needed a couple of days to put my parent’s house on the market, work out some details with my sister.”
“Oh, your parents died. I’m sorry.”
I shrugged. “My Dad died a few years ago and my Mom has been failing with Alzheimer’s. We got her in a nursing home a couple of months ago and we’re trying to sell the house. Most of the furniture and stuff we’ve either taken or given to friends, some we’ll just leave behind. It’s kind of sad, but there will be some closure to it all.”
“I-I didn’t mean to pry. I’m--”
“It’s okay, really. These are facts of life. I count myself lucky. My grandfather moved in with us when I was a kid, and the eight years he was there were no fun. Sucked actually. Mom made it on her own until the last six months or so but she saw she was failing. And she chose the nursing home. The only fight we’ve had with her was getting her keys away from her.”
“Car keys? Would she forget where she was going?”
“Na, nothing like that. Mom has probably been legally blind for forty years. She drove by Braille.”
“Braille? Raised print for the blind Braille?”
“Yeah. Drive forward slowly until you bump something, backup until you bump something else. My brother-in-law said watching her pull out of a parking lot usually involved a three-bump plan.”
Jen chuckled. “I drive like that now and I have 20-20 vision. That’s why I take the train when I can.”
“Well, I hope I’m that lucky when my parents are ready for that.”
“Oh, don’t worry about it. You take these things as they come.” Mr. Wisdom-of-the-Ages I am. “Hey, I just had a thought. What are your plans when we reach Portland?”
“Um, I have reservations at the DoubleTree. They told me it’s near the train station. After that, nothing. Why?”
“Bet they didn’t tell you it’s about a quarter mile walk without a sidewalk. Well, we’ll get there. Anyway--How would you like to meet Lawrence Block? He’s at the Portland Library this afternoon from 1pm until 2pm. We can drop your stuff at the DoubleTree and catch a bus in-town. What do you think?”