I glanced out the window on Amtrak’s D.C. run, my thoughts on other things. I’d switch trains in Baltimore and then cab-dash into the district to be there by five p.m. I saw rolling fields of early corn that stretched all the way to the mild hump of horizon. Gray hills continued into the distance. The fields shimmered with June heat.
My pen hadn’t made many marks on the pad I held in the last hour. I became aware of a crick in my neck. I wish I’d bought that cheap laptop I saw at Staples last week. Best price I’d seen in months, but it’d still cost me close to a thousand and my frugal-bone told me I’d better wait on the money. I didn’t have it.
I consciously moved my neck back and forth and rubbed it with a negligent hand.
The article wasn’t coming easy this time. I couldn’t get the right amount of worry into my words and Tim Roderick; my editor at Time had admonished me at our last meeting.
“Rich, this one’s time has come. Make it bleed and I’ll feature it in the center section. We need this one and you do, too.”
I got his meaning. My last several articles weren’t up to my usual slash and burn style. I knew it, but that last episode with my ex-wife threw me way off. I leveraged my mind out of there.
I stared at the rolling hills, felt the rushing train. I rode rails; fear of flying. Up to now I’d blocked out the monotony of train sounds. Now I let in the regular clack-clickety-clack of big steel wheels ironing out the unvarying track separations. Soothed my mind. My eyes drank in the greenery.
Out there patterned fields flicked by; corn standing like leafy green soldiers, row after row, separated with hedgerows like Army battalions. Others with straight stonewalls separated one owner from another. The greenness subtly changed as I watched. The next several fields were a little yellower and the corn not as tall and I knew that the farmer working them needed money. Probably stretched his fertilizer too far.
I felt a pang. Right there, another example. I pulled out my map and tried to estimate exactly where we were. I marked the spot with a yellow highlighter and put the map away. Maybe I could use it some time.
I shrugged. Enough about other people’s money troubles; I’d have more of my own if I didn’t. Time to get back to work. I picked up my steno pad and grabbed the ballpoint. With the economy in the toilet and the damned politicians in Washington about to pull the flush handle on the American economy hard enough to include two or three future generations, I didn’t want to deplete my nest egg any more than I had. Might have to live frugally again. I had done that in my youth and I knew how, but it went against my grain. I’d always been a responsible citizen. I'd minded my money, paid my bills and kept my obligations within pretty strict limits.
Had fun, though. Doesn’t take money, not all the time.
The fellow next to me shucked into a better sitting position and I noticed him for the first time. He had on a worn tweed coat, mismatched corduroy pants, and a blue denim shirt with a rumpled collar. The shirt pocket sported a dark blue stain from a leaky ballpoint. His shoes needed attention, but not as much as the rest of him.
The train felt cool enough, but the guy had to get off sometime and when he did, how uncomfortable could that be? Thirty-five degrees, oh yeah, but ninety-seven in Baltimore, from what I heard. First impression, nobody’d be waiting for him at the station.
Not my problem. I had to construct an emotional piece that would bleed all over Time’s centerfold. I went back to work, staring at the two hundred or fewer words I’d written and looking for a sign of blood.
No blood. I squeezed my eyes shut until they hurt, opened them and looked at my neighbors a bit closer.
Across the narrow aisle a boy and his mother sat. Mom looked careworn and the child appeared listless. Mom wore a fading red dress. I’m not a style horse, but I knew that one had passed years ago along with its better days. The boy wore worn, ill-fitting hand-me-downs. I grew up with a lot of that and I got a little lump thinking back. Neither looked my way. They seemed oblivious, sunk into themselves. The word “desperate” came to mind.
Funny what people can project without doing a blessed thing. I’m a writer and my life is mostly on paper. I don’t talk much except through my fingers, but in a sudden paradigm shift the beginnings of excitement surged someplace inside.
I looked at the lady. “Ma’am?”
I broke her reverie and she slowly turned toward the sound of my voice.
“Are you addressing me?” She had a soft and elegant voice that belied the rags I’d stereotyped and her voice had a deep-south accent I tried to place immediately. It’s something I do, a game, I guess. Alabama? No, more Tennessee. Memphis maybe, but city, not ridge-runner. Gotta be careful with stereotypes. The accent and manner caught me off guard. She didn’t smile, but her face gentled as she focused on something beyond lassitude. She seemed younger then, effecting a small, significant transformation.
“Yes, ma’am. I’m a writer for Time Magazine and I’m writing an article about the bad economy. I’m stuck, and as I glanced around for the first time since taking my seat, I realized there are three people around me and I’m sorry to say I may have stared. It came to me that my three companions may have what I’m trying to develop. May I ask you a few questions?”
She hesitated, “Why, I don’t know…”
The mismatched man came to life. “Mister, them’s my sister and her little 'un. Muh names Ollie…Ollie Pratt. Why not you ask me your questions?”
He had the same accent, but his voice had an unusual, gravely texture to it, like maybe he’d been a miner and got a snoot full of coal dust over time.
“Why, sure,” I said. We introduced around; Ollie, Mary Beth and eight-year-old Derwood. After I broke the ice they came out of their lethargy.
I proceeded to ask about them where they were going and where they had come from. I got that they came from a little village a few miles from the big metropolis of Memphis, Tennessee. I chalked up one for me. I asked them about their jobs and their opinion of our government and if they favored what it had in mind for the economy. I asked the questions gently, almost apologetically. I held in my excitement, because these were people, real people living just what I needed to hear about.
And while we talked I got to know them and they began to smile and trust me. Ollie’d been a miner in West Virginia, but when the mines closed he had to go all the way to Memphis to find work.
“Gas station, pumpin’ gas, sellin’ candy and cigarettes.” His expression said he didn’t like it. “Mining, yuh got dirty, but yuh had yer crew keepin’ yer back all the time. Scarier selling gas with all them robbers out theah then workin’ under the ground.”
“Yes, I understand. This country’s gotten to be a dangerous place. It’s part of what my article is about. There is a correlation between tough times and crime.” And other things, I thought, but didn’t say it.
“We aren’t well off,” Ollie said. “Done visitin’ tuh oldest sister and her Fancy Dan husband. He’s a stockbroker in New York City. We proud, but with the government bailin’ out all them big banks and fat companies, I figured we’re worse off altogether, so’s we went north to see if sister’s man could help us a bit. Turns out he’s lost a good bit himself and he’s concerned about carryin’ his family. Goin’ tuh sell his boat and the summer place. Don’t know who’d buy it, but somebody’s got money somewheres.”
“Yes, sir,” I said.
“Well,” he stopped to take a long breath, “we’re on our way home none the better. I figure if the fat cats are down in the dumps, where’s that leave us? Nowhere, I think.”
Ollie had started to get animated and then thought better. I wasn’t the enemy. He figured it’s the government and I knew some part of that would creep into my article and become the part that bleeds.I lost track of time and when the whistle sounded ahead to warn an intersection, I realized we were entering the outskirts of Baltimore. I thanked these down to earth people and wished them well. I had my story now and I knew just how to get it into that centerfold. I’d earn my pay, this week anyway.