Nine-Tenths3/11/03 @ 8:36 PM
Lisa removed a book from her purple duffle bag before stuffing it in to the overhead. The sleeping woman in the window seat stirred slightly, shifting her also sleeping baby a little higher on her shoulder. Taking her seat, Lisa flipped through the book briefly and turned back to her seatmates. The mother had the weathered look of someone who had been pretty once, but who had aged prematurely. The high, wide cheekbones were still prominent under the crumpled skin. The eyebrows arched just so, ends precisely plucked and tapered. Light brownish blond highlights iridesced through her mahogany hair which had been mashed down here and there from sleep.
Lisa turned back to her book.
Let not thy mother lose her prayers.
I pray thee stay with us
And immediately she felt her eyelids get heavy. Closing the book, she sighed and stuffed it into the seat pocket. The quote test tomorrow shouldn't be that hard anyway. She turned sideways in her seat and looked past the old sleeping couple across the aisle and out their window. The blackness of the midwestern night galloped by, breaking only occasionally by a farm house vapor light. The yards and buildings of each stood out in a bluish-white glow like islands in a dark sea of corn and soybeans.
Movement beside her. A small groan. Lisa turned in her seat to see the mother squirming and trying to maneuver the still sleeping child into a more comfortable position. She seemed to give up, and settled for loosely cradling the child across her lap. Glancing around, she spotted Lisa and gave her a sad smile. Lisa mouthed a 'hi,' and looked down at the face poking out of the light blue blanket. The fine, blonde hair almost indistinguishable from the creamy-white skin.
"What's his name?" she whispered.
"Hamlin. Eleven weeks."
Lisa looked at his blonde hair. "Is that Swedish . . . or German?"
"French, actually. Named after my great-grandfather. I'm Georgia, by the way."
They spoke for a while about those things of which passengers typically speak. A conversation of destinations and origins forced by the strange social rule that proximity necessitates intimacy. Georgia offered a story that explained at least the current weariness in her face. She had boarded the train in California, a little over 50 hours ago. That much time on a train with an eleven week old child would make anyone look a little beat down, Lisa thought. They made small talk over Hamlin's statistics: 9 lbs. 3 oz, 22 inches.
"Oh, please do. I think my arm is falling asleep." The sleeping Hamlin fussed briefly as he changed hands. Lisa rocked him gently with his head against her cheek, his fine hair partially hidden under her blonde curls. He was asleep again before he even opened his eyes. She closed her eyes and smelt that unique baby smell. A combination of powder, lotion, and something vaguely like salt.
"Would you . . . ."
"Nothing, I just . . . I haven't had a cigarette all day. Would you care to watch him for five minutes?" She hurried on, "the smoking lounge is just one car up."
"Sure. I'd be glad to."
"Thank you. I'll only be a minute."
"My pleasure." Lisa turned sideways to let Georgia into the aisle. As Georgia disappeared through the sliding door, a conductor and some other employees passed her and made their way through the car. The train began to slow down.
"Is there a problem?" she asked the last employee.
"No." He pointed through the window at another train. "We're just switching crews with the west-bound train."
Well, because Amtrak doesn't want to pay to put us up in a hotel, and this way I get to go home and sleep in my own bed." He smiled. First time on this train?"
"Yeah." She felt herself blushing.
"Well don't you worry, you two just sit back and enjoy the ride."
She smiled back at him. A few minutes later the new crew passed her from behind and the train started rolling again. She eased her seat back and let the swaying train rock them both. With her eyes closed, the smell of the baby and the muted click-click cadence of the wheels seemed to completely envelop her.
She awoke, a little startled, and glanced around. The old couple across the aisle had been replaced by a rather large woman and a boy of about eight playing a Game Boy. Twisting in her seat, she scanned the passengers behind her in the dim cabin. Strangers. She didn't recognize a single face. Her watch, although she couldn't believe it, said she'd been sleeping for almost two hours. The baby was sleep heavy in her arms so she laid him on his back in her lap. The seat beside her was empty and Georgia's purse was gone. I bet her arms really were falling asleep. Must have snuck out for another smoke.
She looked into the little boy's face. His skin was so white and perfect. "I hope you don't burn as easily as I do when you get older," she whispered. Hamlin brought a tiny little fist up to his face and fussed in protest. She stroked the little arm and tried to soothe him with whispers. The conductor appeared, walking toward the rear of the car, and stopped when he saw the little boy.
"What's his name?"
"Don't cry Hamlin, we're almost there little guy."
"Yep. Were coming into Chicago right now."
Lisa looked out the window at the barrage of lights. "Have you seen . . ." she started, but he was already gone. Hamlin's fussing turned into a full-on cry.
"Shhh" she bounced her knees a little, but he only seemed to cry louder. The woman across the way was glaring at her, and her son contorted his face, pressing his hands to his ears. The rail yard appeared outside the windows and Lisa realized the train had slowed to a crawl. She put the baby to her shoulder and started for the front of the car. The other passengers were getting out of their seats, stretching their legs, and retrieving bags from the overheads. A man in a tweed coat elbowed her in the arm while getting his laptop, and Hamlin wailed at the jolt. A woman in front of her was backing up as she tried to extract a huge wheeled suitcase from between the seats.  Lisa, in turn, bumped into the person behind her trying to make room. Hamlin's perfect white face was now an angry scarlet. Lisa felt the train lurch to a stop and faintly heard the release of pressurized gas over his screams. Someone behind her was propelling her forward with their carry-on.
"Watch your step ma'am" the conductor said, motioning towards the stairs with a pained smile.
"But the woman . . ." She looked over his shoulder into the smoking car, which didn't look like a smoking car, just another passenger car full of passengers trying to get off the train.
"Did you see the lady that was sitting beside me?"
"Ma'am? Please step out of the walkway." He pulled her over to the luggage shelves, and the passengers scowled their way around her. "Ma'am, you were sitting alone."
"No! There was a woman, Georgia . . . his mother, sitting beside me. She got up to go to the smoking car just before they switched crews . . . just before you . . ." Lisa was only vaguely aware of her knees giving way, of her back sliding down the wall, of the thump as she hit the floor. They didn't see her. This crew hadn't seen Georgia.
"Ma'am? Are you alright, ma'am?"
She looked past him into the strange, glaring faces of the exiting passengers. No one on this train had seen her. "She went to the smoking car . . ."
"Ma'am, this train doesn't have a smoking car."