Wednesday, August 26, 2009

How to See the Elephant - Part III

Traveling across Pennsylvania by train, the relationship between Thetis and Sheba breaks down further:
Juggling the doughnuts, and licking my fingers, I came back to find Sheba standing right where I had left her, staring at the women on the washroom line.
“What are you doing here?”
A skinny woman in a roughly-pinned shawl turned from the line and said:
“Is that one yours, miss?”
I didn’t know how to answer this. The woman went on:
“You better watch her, that’s all.”
“She tries to go in there,” another woman said, nodding towards the latrine, “there’ll be trouble!” I sighed. “No, she’s going in the bushes. Sheba, I told you…”
A thin, fluttering woman, with gold-rimmed glasses and false curls, rather like my old Sunday-School teacher, came out of the line and put her hand on my shoulder.
“I don’t know where you two are going, or where you’re coming from, but for her own good, miss, you ought to teach her what she can and can’t do.”
The washroom door stood open now, temporarily forgotten. All the women on the line were agitated, and I saw we had attracted the attention of a few young boys, too.
“I’m sorry,” I said to them, “I told her not to…”
“You let it happen once and they’re all over the place, next,” another lady said.
“I know, ma’am.”
I couldn’t take Sheba’s arm because of the donuts, but I went up to her, gesturing with my head, and tried to hurry her down the platform towards the stairs. She stood there, sullen, staring around her, not willing to move until one of the boys stepped forwards and pushed her, yelling “Get out of here!” She stumbled after me, and as I hurried her away I heard something hit the ground behind up with a sticky gluck. Mud. High cackles of laughter followed.
“I told you this would happen!” I hissed to Sheba
I could feel my face going hot and cold. Some of those women would surely be on the train – perhaps even in our car – and I didn’t see how I could face them again. I had tried to explain it wasn’t my fault… Perhaps I they would take pity on my youth. Perhaps they would realize, on reflection, that I wasn’t the one…
We got to the end of the platform. I pointed silently down the stairs and waited for Sheba to go ahead of me. At the bottom of the stairs I pointed again at an area of brush and waist-high weeds. She disappeared into it. The half a doughnut I had eaten was stuck somewhere between my mouth and my stomach. I was getting coffee if it was the last thing I did. Sheba came out and I handed her the doughnuts and went myself. (After all, I wasn’t going to wait on that long line.) We climbed the stairs silently. People were getting back on the train. The washroom line had shrunk and only a few hostile faces looked towards us. I saw Sheba to the car and made sure she was seated.
“Now you stay there. I’ll be right back.”
I dashed away, up to the big silver coffee urns inside the now-empty restaurant.
“With cream, please.”
“Train’s about to leave, miss.”
“I drink fast. Come on now, lots of cream.”

He was already pouring the coffee. I scooped up the cup and stood drinking – nothing ever tasted so good – warm, milky, scalding my parched tongue and throat. The train whistle blew a long woo-woo. I set the cup down empty and tossed three cents next to it.

No comments: