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2006-05-13 9:57 PM
Train ride to Baltimore
My window seat was all the way to the right, facing the front of the train. To my left, a guy around my age was reading a book about mutual funds. To his left was the aisle.
In front of us, across all four seats, were four sailors or soldiers. I'm not sure which. Two of them were wearing black shirts with the same person's name embroidered on them in white thread: Officer Somebody Schiaparelli, something like that. The one all the way to the left was a kid with a buzz cut. Next to him in the aisle seat was a woman with a short haircut and those little pointy sideburny things some women have.
Across the aisle from her--in front of my mutual-fund seatmate--was a shaven-headed white guy in glasses and mustache, and in front of me was another shaven-headed guy, swarthier and stockier.
These four, and several others scattered nearby, all knew each other. They were on leave, or something to that effect. Their conversation consisted of profanity, dirty jokes that weren't clever, and buzzphrases and bits of lyrics from pop culture. The one in front of me made loud jokes with another of their party, across the train car, about the other being involved with the elderly woman he was sitting next to. When a baby cried elsewhere in the car, he crowed to the white guy next to him, "Put whisky on that lady's nipples. That'll make him quiet down."
Then he got confused. "They use whisky, right? Or is it rum? Do they use rum or whisky?"
His friend, who was married with children, didn't know.
They hooted and told more dirty jokes and discussed who'd recently made Master Sergeant. When the woman with the pointy sideburny things went to the restroom, the one in front of me said, loudly enough for all his buds and a bunch of the rest of us to hear him, that they should get her drunk.
"All four of us?" The buzzcut kid snickered. "Gangbang?"
This went on for two hours, from New York to Baltimore. I had my headphones on for a chunk of that time because I was editing video on my laptop, but once they came off, I got the angry adrenaline surges.
I ended up in the snack car line behind the mutual fund guy.
"I guess our train fare includes entertainment," I said.
He rolled his eyes. "The ones I feel sorry for are the older ladies sitting between them."
"Did you hear them talking about whether whisky or rum makes babies shut up?"
"I was thinking of seeing if I could get a little bottle of whisky, and handing it to him, and saying 'It's whisky that makes babies shut up.'"
He laughed. Then he said "I think he's probably already got a bottle of it on him."
I said, "I think he's probably already got a bottle of it in him."
He laughed. He ordered. At the counter, I looked to see whether they sold whisky. They did. Little bottles.
"Are all the little bottles of booze the same price?"
"Same price," said the man behind the counter.
"I'll take the Jack Daniels, please. And coffee and yogurt."
He put out the teeny bottle and a plastic cup of ice.
"I don't need that," I said. "It's for a joke."
I like conflict, but I also hate it. It makes my chest buzz and my leg muscles loose. The little bottle hung in my shirt pocket. It was forty minutes before we'd get to Baltimore, and I'd get off and they'd keep going.
In forty minutes, a lot can happen. A man can put spin on his anger and nerves, which will poison satisfying humor and turn it into combativeness, and convince himself it's stage fright instead--which he knows how to deal with.
He can think of things to say:
He can consider deliveries:
He can ask himself important questions:
The last question was a good one. I put my train ticket behind the bottle so it wouldn't be against my skin.
Ten minutes to Baltimore Station. The sailors or soldiers weren't getting off there, but it triggered their urination instincts anyway. One by one, they made bathroom trips. Or once, two by two, which made it necessary for the guy in front of me to yell funny things.
Novelists make up people doing things, so that's what I did. I made up all the endings I could think of. Violent ones, emotionally satisfying ones, me-as-clever-outsider-kid ones. Endings where I win. Endings where I lose. Endings where my friend in Baltimore wonders why I'm not at the station to be picked up for the film festival.
I'm also a non-novelist. I know life doesn't have fictive shapes. So none of those would happen because they were too well-formed and therefore false. But what would? What do two soldiers (or sailors) on leave do when the man they've been angering all morning insults them in front of their peers and an entire car full of people who probably don't like them either?
I had no idea. But Baltimore Station was coming up.
It was no longer a question of whether to do it, but what exactly to say, and how they'd respond. The train slowed. The station flowed past the window. I said "Pardon," to my seatmate and got my backpack down from the overhead luggage rack and slung it over my shoulder.
I slid the bottle out of my pocket and held it down in front of them.
"Whisky," I said. "Not rum."
They didn't look at me as they took the bottle, and two gleeful voices exclaimed "Good man!"
I don't know whether I spoke too quietly for the mutual funds guy to hear me. I hope not.
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