Craig Watson made the train with about two minutes to spare. He'd had to run through Chicago's Jefferson Park terminal to do it, and he was irritated. The fact that he'd had to borrow five bucks from one of his roommates to afford the ticket hadn't improved his mood.
Seating was surprisingly scarce for a Saturday morning. He had to search two cars before finding a window seat in the third. An overweight man in an overcoat, his ample cheeks reddened by the stinging November wind, quickly filled the empty aisle seat next to him. Craig snorted and pressed himself against the wall of the car to give the man's frame space to fit on the bench.
He was tired. Craig Watson had opted for a fall semester course called "Urban Studies" to start his senior year of college. The curriculum required students to share apartments in working-class neighborhoods on the North Side. Mornings were spent in class or attending lectures; afternoons were reserved for internships with business or civic organizations. The experience was designed to give students a sense of what big-city living was really all about.
For two of Craig's roommates, it was also a chance to party all night for fifteen weeks at their parents' expense. That was why he was tired.
Staring out the window, he thought about the semester ahead. This one was almost over, thank God, and one more would put him out on the streets-along with thousands of other fresh-faced grads. It didn't look like the job market was going to bend over backwards to find a place for him, even if he came up with a clue about what he wanted to do. Grad school was out-no money.
Worse, in about an hour he'd have to listen to his dad tell him he was being brainwashed by his liberal-no, communist-professors. As the train pulled away from Jefferson Park, Craig had come to the conclusion that life definitely sucked.
His wandering mind was snapped back to the present by the sound of skin hitting skin. Hard.
"Stop it, you little brat!" A child's cry pinpointed the source of the slap: Two rows ahead, a well-dressed woman was twisting the arm of a young boy standing in the aisle.
"Mom, I " the boy protested.
Slap! "Don't 'mom' me! Sit down and be quiet!" The boy, about eight, reluctantly joined his mother and a little girl in the seat.
The woman immediately whipped out a cigarette case and lit one up. As she turned her head to exhale, Craig could see her in profile. Mid-thirties, trying to look mid-twenties. Expensive clothes, what he could see of them. Her expression made it clear that she wanted to be somewhere else.
Her children were dressed well, too. The boy and girl, now arguing over a GameBoy or something, looked like miniature adults. Craig felt his mouth pull into a grimace of distaste. Like most college students, he felt a natural revulsion to pretense, or so he thought; maybe, deep down, he was just irritated by the fact that their mother had money to waste on expensive designer-label clothing that the kids would outgrow before they would even show wear.
The battle over the GameBoy rose in pitch with each telephone pole that sidled past as the Metra train dieseled west. Around Cumberland, the mother swatted the boy again. "Jimmy! I've had enough!"
"It's miiiiinnne!" Jimmy wailed.
The GameBoy clattered to the floor of the train.
"Pick it up! Now! Or I'll spank you again!" The rage in the woman's voice and body language was barely controlled. She looked as though she detested the very obligation her children represented.
Craig turned to look out the window again. No wonder the world was in such crappy shape, he thought. Some people should be forcibly sterilized.
"What's that, Daddy?" A small, soft voice from the seat behind caught Craig's ear.
"That's a water tower," said a deeper voice, gently.
"And what's that?"
"Those are electric power lines."
"And what's that?"
"That's a dump truck."
And so it went. Question and answer, mile after mile, the young voice curious and questioning every strange thing that passed his portal, his keyhole into the world outside. And always the man answered gently, lovingly, never tiring of his role as tour guide to a first-time traveler. Past Arlington Heights they rolled, then Palatine, and Barrington, where the woman dragged her whining children off the train, which didn't surprise Craig at all. The man next to him also got off at Barrington, which gave Craig an opportunity to discreetly turn toward the aisle far enough to see the seat behind.
On the aisle was a man wearing a stained, battered parka that had seen far too many Chicago winters. His dark hair and beard were unkempt, or maybe just trimmed by unskilled hands. His son, maybe four years old, was glued to the window. A tuft of brown hair stuck out from the earflap of a hat that looked like the Kyle wears in "South Park". His clothes were too big, obviously second-hand, and his left pants leg sported a knee patch that didn't match the color of the base fabric.
And the little boy was having the time of his life, just riding on a train with his daddy.
Craig looked back at the boy's father, who caught Craig's eye and smiled. Craig smiled back, just as the conductor announced the stop for McHenry. That was his.
He collected his knapsack from under the seat and then turned around, hoping to say something to the man, but father and son were already at the back of the car, holding mittened hands and making their way down the steps to the station.
Hoisting his bag, Craig started toward the door. He remembered Cubs games, campouts, and Whiffle Ball in the backyard, all shared with the man waiting for him on the platform. He smiled again. Life could be worse.