Yes, it’s another BART vignette.
I got on the train this morning and sat towards the back, cracking a brand new massive tome, my Christmas treat The Best American Mystery Stories of the Century. Please note the title here – it doesn’t say “Twentieth” Century, but simply “the” Century, as though it were clear to everyone that there was one American century and it’s over. After all, the annual series by the same name uses numbers to indicate which year is being chronicled. Seems they’re betting there won’t be a twenty-first century edition. Interesting stuff.
Anyway, I’m settling into a familiar (I must’ve read it at least twice before) O. Henry piece about a safecracker when a family I’ve seen once or twice before on BART gets aboard and arrange themselves in the seats behind me. Classic American fifties family – mom, dad, three-year-old son, infant daughter. The Best American Family of the Century.
And the dad starts reading a book to the son almost immediately. It’s an Arthur book, from perhaps one of the most warm and cuddly series of books (and now TV shows) around. Some of the kids at Seneca used to read Arthur and I’ve been impressed at how universally relatable this vaguely amorphous child animal character is, even though when someone was watching it was loudly called “baby stuff” or worse.
And as he reads the book, it’s an interactive experience; the son asks questions about word meanings or motivations for decisions made by Arthur or his friends or family. The dad takes time in his explanations, in no hurry, clearly enjoying himself. Personal pet peeve that the dad uses some sort of inflated hyperactive not-quite-baby talk with the child, though a couple glances at him indicate that he may be the type who uses such speech in many forums, including probably the bedroom. His prerogative, I’m sure.
Next stop, a young woman boards the train, probably just over high school age but definitely younger than I am. The fact that I can immediately recognize her as younger than I am may indicate she’s still in her teens, but I’m slowly becoming acclimated to the fact that I’m almost thirty. Very slowly. She sits down in the seat diagonal from me, facing the family.
And she doesn’t pull music or reading or anything out of her stuffed orange backpack – she surveys the surroundings and starts to fixate on the family and their interaction. A few glances sideways from my sunglassed eyes away from my book reveal that she’s pretty much openly staring at them. And over time, this contentedly bemused smile creeps into her mouth muscles, almost forlorn if it weren’t so sincerely appreciative. Something like admiration might be the best label.
And suddenly I can see the whole story. I know the dad that didn’t read to her and may be missing or gone by now. I know the mom who was overwhelmed, stressed out, couldn’t make it work. The fights and eventual dissolution. The struggle associated with the word “family” that this woman has lived.
And yet, here she is, and she can appreciate it all the same. She can take in this moment without bitterness and with minimal focus on her own story, her own angle. She can just be happy that someone else is living the family she didn’t have.
And she just doesn’t stop staring and her face doesn’t fall, the whole way to her stop.
(It should be noted that I’m inclined here to talk about how this family’s success and happiness may be fleeting, or is even likely to be fleeting given the age of its participants and the state of the economy. I believe it was Jess Hass who told me years ago that I had a gift for finding the dark lining on the silver cloud. If I were writing the short story, it would end with the daughter in the stroller ending up just like the watcher twenty years hence, but somehow unable to forgive her parents or get past her own history and fate. Maybe she’d even yell or say something quietly rude to the family on her way off the train, two decades after a bliss with her brother that seemed so permanent on a train ride in 2009.
But it should also be noted that life is not always the way I, or even O. Henry, would write it in a short story.)