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Sizing up lives as time ticks by

Published September 28, 2003

The third time Davy threw his bronze plastic action hero under the table at my feet in the Jacksonville train station, I couldn't decide whether to hand it back to him, hoping for a smile, or to his dad. The latter would surely mean another spanking for Davy. I felt I had to choose sides.

Fair-haired Davy looked to be around 5 because of the tiny baby teeth that showed when he winced, cried or grimaced, all of which he did a lot. His brother, Eric, 7 or 8 , was darker, happier, with big new teeth. Eric was busy with a Game Boy, but Davy's only occupation was to drive his guardians to distraction. The two boys, sporting new haircuts and coordinated shorts and button-down shirts, had three hours to kill in the station before the Silver Meteor left for New York City at 4:05 p.m. Three well-dressed elderly folks were with them. I was waiting there, too, headed for a writers' conference in New England.

To pass the time, I pieced together who I thought was who in Davy and Eric's family, but it didn't figure up. The couple they called Mom and Dad were old folks, old enough to be their grandparents. An old woman the boys called Auntie Ruth sat next to Mom. They kept their heads together talking conspiratorially while tall, stooped Dad, in Bermuda shorts, routinely remonstrated Davy and laid the small, frail child across his bony knees and whacked him with the palm of his hand until Davy cried out "Dad! No, Dad!" and flailed his hands, throwing his action figure once again.

Child abuse, I thought.

That's when the action figure landed at my feet for the third time. Choosing to ignore it, I looked away toward an obese woman subsiding into a wheelchair and wearing a purple caftan and matching cloth headpiece, and her young companion, about Eric's age, wearing gray sweats. The woman had a phone and was speaking loudly, asking that someone on the other end come pick them up and get them to Ocala to the funeral that afternoon. The boy stood close, listening, and then put his arms around her neck and kissed her several times about her mahogany-toned, fleshy face. She smiled and patted his back and whispered into his ear.

I put my head back on a seat cushion and dozed.

I awoke when the station began filling up a half-hour before the 4:05 train was expected. Always early, I got my carry-on bags and stood second in line at the ticket-taking counter. Glancing toward the alcove, I saw the big woman, wheelchair facing outside, eyes shut, nodding her purple headpiece rhythmically to the beat from a set of headphones. She seemed entirely at ease.

I looked toward the train tracks and saw several people standing around outside smoking or looking southward down the tracks. From behind a column, Davy jumped out, squealing, and flung the action hero as high as he could, laughing as the boy in sweats caught it on its descent and threw it aloft again. Eric joined the game, and the three laughed and hurled the hero again and again, to the limits of their unrepressed enthusiasm and gaiety.

Auntie Ruth, one of the smokers, stubbed out her cigarette, came inside, and got in line behind me.

"I feel so terrible for them," she whispered to me raspily.

"They're in their 80s, and the boys are their great-grandchildren. . . . They're so much to handle; I feel so bad for them."

The woman Davy called Mom joined us in line and continued the story, involving me before I could say a word.

"We're their foster parents. My granddaughter is so beautiful and intelligent, but the drugs. . . . We're their only blood. We couldn't let them be separated. My daughter has Eric, but we often keep him, and they get so rowdy. . . . We just hope" - she slowed down and looked across the waiting room at her dozing husband - "we'll be able to raise them well enough during the formative years, before. . . ."

"I'm sure they're going to be fine," I said, wondering why they were confiding in me. Maybe they had seen the earlier disapproval on my face. As if I knew anything. I regretted taking sides and wondered how much of the truth I really wanted to know.

The train arrived and we departed. Auntie Ruth was bound for Newark. The next day, as she prepared to disembark, I stopped her in the aisle and told her I was holding her sister and the boys in my heart. She smiled as I held out my hand to her, but the train lurched, and we lost touch.

- Alison Iglehart is the coordinator of the Tallahassee Community College writing center.

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