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College


by Con Chapman


The boy was a man now, his mother told him, and he could start earning his own money.  He liked that, but he was afraid of going out in the world; away from home, away from the workshop where he'd learned to follow orders, and sit still for a long time, and make things with his hands.

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His mother went with him the first day, down to the train station at the bottom of the hill.  She introduced herself to the conductor and rode with him into town, where they found the van parked outside the terminal that would take him to his first job.  Before he got in she grasped him by the arms and told him she was proud of him, then she kissed him goodbye and they parted, he teary-eyed, she with a lump in her throat.  She took the next train back to the suburbs and found herself staring out the window after a few stops.  She was a practical woman, and tried to keep herself busy at all times, but she had fallen into a sad reverie, imagining what would become of her son once she and her husband were dead, unable to get her mind off the uncertainty of his future.

When she went down to the station to pick him up at the end of the day she was surprised and pleased to see him get off the train with a big smile on his face.  The conductor—a different one than on the morning train—had apparently befriended him, and he spoke to her briefly before the train departed.

“The man on the morning train told me about him,” the conductor said.  “Don't worry—we'll look out for him.”

“Thank you very much, you don't know what this means to me,” she said with much grace and gratitude.

“No problem, ma'am,” the conductor said to her, and then to the young man: “We're working men—right buster?”

The boy snapped off a sort of salute at the conductor and said “Right!”

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“You want to give the signal?” the conductor asked the boy.

“Yes!” he replied eagerly.

“When I stick my hand in the air and say ‘All clear,' you relay the signal down to the rear conductor, okay?”

“Okay,” the boy said seriously, then turned his head to see if he could see the conductor in the last car.

“Here we go,” the conductor said as he raised his hand.  “'All clear!'  Now you do it.”

The young man turned, raised his hand, and shouted “All clear!” down to the conductor at the end of the train, who raised her hand and waved back at him.

“We good to go?” the front conductor asked him.

“All clear!” the young man said, and the train began to roll westward, towards the further suburbs.

“It looks like you made a lot of friends your first day,” his mother said.

“I did!” he said, his round face beaming.  “The work isn't hard, but riding the train is more fun.”

“Well, that will be something for you to look forward to each day.”

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They walked to the parking lot where the other commuters gave the mother and son affectionate nods and smiles, letting them go first as if they were visiting dignitaries.  The mother didn't mind.  She would have preferred to go unnoticed, but her life had turned out differently, and she was used to it.  The young man was oblivious to the attention of the others and chattered on, at times almost out of breath, his tongue hanging out with excitement as he spoke, like a dog's.

The train crews grew familiar with the young man, and they all played along with the routine that so pleased him, pretending he was one of them and empowered to hold the train up if something was wrong.  Each night he would hop off the iron lattice steps from his car and turn towards the rear of the train, where the woman conductor would wait until all the passengers had exited, then wave her hand in the air.  The young man didn't understand the sequence—that the two conductors signaled to indicate that everyone who wanted to had gotten off—but he grasped that this meant the train could move again, and he liked the feeling that by a wave of his hand he could set a gigantic machine rolling down the long steel tracks that brought him home each night.

The young man's status as an unofficial conductor made his life something more than mere drudgery.  Each day he would take items out of five bins, and place one from each into a succession of boxes that were then passed down to the next person on the assembly line.  It was not as pleasant as the school he had graduated from in the spring, where he was free to move around more, and where the activities were more fun; coloring, building with blocks, making things out of clay.  He sometimes wished he was still in school, but then he would think about how much fun it was to be a conductor, and he didn't miss it as much.

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When he first started riding the train there were three conductors; one in the front, one in the middle, and one in the rear, but when summer came and the number of riders fell as students left town and people went on vacation, the third conductor was eliminated until the fall.  The young man almost didn't get off the train in time one night because he had sat in one of the middle cars, and had to run half the length of the train to the front car; you were only allowed to exit from the front and rear cars.  He told his mother how he almost didn't make it, his eyes welling up with tears, and she told him if that ever happened she would drive to the next station and meet him.  She would miss him, and she would know what happened.

From that night on he made a point of sitting in the front car so he would never miss his station.  He could sit in the back car and be just as sure, he thought, but he liked the order that had been established his first day on the train; man conductor in front, woman in the rear.  The man conductor would raise his hand, the young man would wave to the woman, and she would wave back to him.  It wouldn't be the same if he sat in the back, he thought, because then it would be the man who waved to him, not the woman.

One day after the train rolled to a stop at his station he got off and waited for the man conductor to give him the sign, but there was a delay.

“What's the matter?” the young man asked the conductor.

“College kids are starting to come back,” the man conductor said.  “They don't know you can only get off in the front and the rear.”

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There was a commotion on the train as some boys started to move towards the rear of the car and, thinking they wouldn't make it, they opened a door in the middle of the train.

“HEY!” the woman conductor yelled, running up to where the boys were perched on the top step of the gangway, ready to jump to the platform.  “You exit from the front or the rear, not here—understand?”

“Sorry,” one of the boys said, as the others snickered.

“That is VERY dangerous,” the woman said as the boys turned and began to head to the rear of the train.

A frown formed on the young man's face.  He was disturbed by the boys' misbehavior, and the disruption to his routine.  He had never seen the woman conductor so upset—he knew it was a serious matter.  He began to follow her back to her end of the train—he wanted to help her.

She was scowling with disgust, and his face took on a look like hers.  When they reached the rear exit the young men were coming down the steps, suppressing smiles as they came.

“Don't ever do that again, guys,” the woman conductor said, a cloud of disapproval shadowing her tanned face and pink-colored lips.

“We won't,” one of the boys said over his shoulder.

The woman conductor shook her head, then looked up to the front of the train and waved her hand.

There was nothing for the young man to do.  He looked at the boys, now heading towards the stairs, and grew angry at them.  They didn't seem to care that they had broken the rules, and had made the woman unhappy.  They even seemed to be laughing again.

He started to walk towards them, going faster so he could catch up to them.  One of the boys turned around and looked at him, then muttered something to his friends.

At last the young man could stand it no longer; the outrage they had committed, and their indifference to the feelings of others, was too much for him.

“HEY,” he yelled at them as the train started to roll away.

“What?” one of the boys replied, but the others pushed him along, not wanting to get into an argument with an apparently crazy man.

“You, you”—the young man had more to say, but he couldn't say it at first.

“C'mon, let's get out of here,” one of the boys said loudly enough so that he could hear.

“You—COLLEGE!”

The incoherence of what was intended as an insult struck the boys as funny, and they began to laugh as they ran up the steps, although there was no need to.  The young man was heavy and clumsy, and not about to catch up to them.

“Michael!” his mother called, out of breath from the effort of hurrying down the platform when she hadn't seen him from the parking lot.  “What are you doing?”

The young man looked after the boys, who had now climbed the stairs and were visible on the bridge above the tracks, walking into town.

“Those boys,” he said, then began to cry.

“What sweetie?”

“They were . . . college!”

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