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John William Tuohy lives in Washington DC

Short story: Boomers on a Train



     “Metro Center doors open on the right” the trains operator announced from a speaker in the subways cars ceiling. The crowd of almost a hundred that had been waiting on the platform flooded into the trains fifteen cars and scurried to the nearest plastic seats for the ride out of the city and back to the suburbs.
     “Doors closing.” the disembodied voice announced “Next stop, McPherson Square”
      Unable to find an empty seat, Katherine and Tillie, independent of each other grabbed a hand rail while the train slowly lurched forward, holing their briefcases and pocket books under their arms while they struggled against the car uneven rhythm on the rails. A young man, perhaps he was just 18, caught Tillie’s eye, smiled and sprung to his feet and gestured for her to take his seat. She returned his smile and gladly accepted his offer. “You’re very kind.” she said to him “It’s been a long day, my feet hurt.”
     “Yeah, that’s OK.” the kid responded “My mother says the same thing when she gets home from work” At that, a second young man stood and in a gesture more sweeping than he probably intended offered his seat to Katherine who, for reasons she didn’t really understand declined his offer “Oh! Um...no I’m okay, but thank you”
     “It’s okay” he said “we’re getting off at the next stop anyway” and that, she took his seat and said quietly  “You’re a very considerate young man, thank you”
     Tillie, who had taken out a magazine to read, put it down and nodding at the boys said “Their good kids, this generation.”
     “They are.” Katherine agreed.
     From across the aisle, Dickie Judd, who had watched the seating arrangements added “You know why? Their parents haven’t declared a culture war on them like they were with us. It makes a difference.”
     “You’re right.” said Stella Daly who was seated near him “That’s true. Very true.”
     “You forget how young they are” Katherine said “The other day I told this girl in my office that Americans were held hostage in Iran. She was appalled. She goes “We need to get them out of there!”
     “Do you realize” Dickie asked  “That they have no recollection of the Wall coming down and what that meant. The Cold War. They don’t know what that was. They have never known the fear a nuclear war. Khrushchev. The Cuban missile crises. Hell, Tiananmen Square means nothing to them. I think they view the Vietnam War the way we viewed World War 1.”
     The women nodded  and Tillie added  “Wow. You’re right. Am I that old?”
     “No.” Katherine said  “They’re that young. In their world, there have always been computers, and Internet. MTV.... AIDS...... “
     “McPherson Square” the conductors voice blared, interrupting her and the two young men exited the train
     “What astonishes me” Stella said “is how much younger their making adults these days. You know, most of my co-workers were born the same year I was hired at this job. When did we become the old people? You think the government would send out a notice something. I’m over the hill. Which is cool, but I wish they had told me when I reached the top of the damn hill, cause I don’t remember it. I suppose it’s universal and timeless that inside every older person is a younger person...wondering what the hell happened. The other day it struck me, I was old, when my daughter called me at 9 o’clock and asked "Did I wake you?"
     “Today” Tillie responded  “I got into in a heated debate over pension plans” causing them all to shutter a bit “On the other hand” she added placing her glasses on to read her newspaper “the AARP is hot for me”
     There was a momentary silence broken by a man sitting a few rows down who asked “You know you stoop down to tie your shoes?” causing the group to look at him with interest and nod “Well” he continued “Do you find yourself wondering what else you can do while you're down there?” causing them all to wince in familiarity.
      “I’m starting to have a hard time” Katherine said “remembering simple words like um......so anyway..........I bought some pills to improve my memory”
     “Well that’s alright” Dickie said
     “I forgot where I put them.” she continued  “You what would be a good invention? If we born at the age of 80 and gradually became 18. But I’ll tell you what really shocks me. The other day I was in an antique store in Kensington and they had Malibu Barbie in there. Remember Malibu Barbie?”
    They all smiled and fell silent recalling their childhoods.
     “Somebody should come up with Barbie’s for us as we are now” Stella said  “like Bifocals Barbie, Hot flash Barbie, Flabby Arms Barbie!”
     “Divorced Barbie” said the man in the back “It comes with Ken’s house!“
     “McPherson Square doors open on the left”
     They smile at each other
     “Do you remember”” the man in the back asked  “when nobody and I mean, nobody, owned a purebred dog?”
     They all nod.
     “Next stop Foggy Bottom”
     “Maybe I’m wrong” Tillie said to no one in particular “but I can’t remember our house doors ever being locked”
     “Ours either” Dickie added
     “Well that’s because they weren’t locked” Katherine said  “nearly every one's Mother was at home when you got there from school.”
     “Our minivan was the station wagon.”  Stella said  “You rode in the back facing the cars behind you. (beat) It was kind of nice, looking at other people and having them look at you. The keys to the car were in the car. In the ignition. Can you imagine that today?”
     “The Trans Am.” Dickie said wistfully  “What a great car...with a hula girl on the dashboard and an eight-track tape player. Now that was boss cool. The cops warning you to slow down.” He paused and, looked out the window in the blackness of a tunnel and said “Now my doctor warns me to slow.”
     “You didn’t have to worry about the price of gas.” Katherine said  “You and your girlfriends could cruise all night on weekends.”
     “Peeling out!” said a middle aged voice from the back of the train
     “Laying rubber.” another man shouted and pressed his foot to an imaginary gas pedal 
     “A driver’s license was just a piece of paper with no picture on it.” Dickie said
     “You know” Stella countered “by then end of the week I actually look like the picture on my driver license.”
     “I remember being worried about passing the driver's test.” one older man said to the another older man sitting across from him  “Now I worry about passing the vision test. “
     “Best card game ever invented?” someone shouted above the rails noise
     “Go Fish.” several voices shouted back
     “Playing baseball in the street and having to stop to let a car go by.” the man in the back said
     “Football in the snow.” Dickie countered  “No adults. If an adult tried to enforce the rules of the game, you stopped playing.”
     “Remember when the worst the worst thing in the world, no matter who you are, was being picked last for a team?” Katherine said
     “No” said Tillie
     “No” Stella repeated
     “Yeah, me either.” Katherine concluded
     “Remember” asked an older man from the front of the train  “when you had to ask for permission to use the Hi-fi in the pallor?”
     “Slow dancing” Katherine said dreamily
     “Dancing close.” Dickie said with one eyebrow raised
     “I went to a grocery store yesterday” Katherine said “and they were playing the Muzak version of "Stairway to Heaven".
     “Well” Tillie said “actually....the other day...I found myself singing along with the elevator Muzak.”
     They all shook their heads in admittance
     “That’s nothin’” a voice from the middle of the car said  “last week I thought “You know, accordion music’s not that bad”  and then the man hung his head in shame.
     “I worry a lot” Dickie added  “that the guy who thought up Muzak may be thinking of something else to invent”
     “Farragut doors open on the right”
     “I remember” Stella said looking out the window  “when going downtown seemed like going somewhere important. It was kind of a big deal. They even had a song about it.”
      “Petula Clark!” somebody said quickly
      “All the pictures from my childhood are in black and white.” Dickie said “I see that and I go “Wow, dude, you are so ancient”
     “When I was a kid” Stella said  “every television in the world was black and white. It took five minutes for the TV to warm up. I don’t know why, it just did. So, if your show came on at eight o’clock, you sent your little brother down to turn on the TV at five minutes to eight. If a storm came, my mother made us turn off the TV because it attracted lightening. That probably wasn’t true but it was scary enough......the thought of a bolt of lightning coming through your TV set and zapping you dead in your living room.... that you listened to her and turned it off. “
     “You know what else was in black and white?” Dickie continued, talking to himself more than the others “Sneakers. And there were two kinds, boys and girls .Every sneaker in the world was made by Keds and only by Keds and the only time you wore them at school was for gym”
     “Catching fireflies was important.” Katherine said “So was spinning around, getting dizzy, and falling down. No reason, you just did it. Sometimes I would run until I was out of breath and you know why? Not for health reasons...just...I don’t know...just because... that’s why...and then you’d collapse on the ground and laugh about it. Today you do that, you’d get arrested.”
     “I used to stop and stare at clouds” Tillie said. “Sometimes I’d try to see things in them, like shapes, or sometimes I’d just stand there and watch the wind blow the clouds around and a lot of times, I don’t know, I just watched the clouds because...why not? When was the last time you uttered the words "That cloud looks like a..."?
      “Yeah” somebody whispered loud enough for all to hear.  It was a good whisper
    “Popcorn balls at Christmas!” Stella said “What was on those things? Shellac?”
    “oly-oly-oxen-free!” Tillie said loudly “What did that mean anyway? Was it “All the Ox in for free?” and why?
    “Running through the sprinkler!” Katherine countered
      “We actually made decisions by going "eeny-meeny-miney-mo". Tillie declared and then added “Do kids still do that?”
    “I hope so.” Dickie answered “I still do. Remember when the kids on the next block around the corner seemed like another culture in another universe?”
    “Where I lived it was true” a voice from the middle of the car said
     “Remember sitting on the gutter yelling at each other across the street.” someone asked from the front of the car “Wasn’t it great to yell?”
     “Going steady.” Stella added with a smile as she looked into yesterday “It wasn’t a theory. You actually declared it. Out loud. Girls wore their boyfriend’s class ring with an inch of wrapped Band-Aids to keep it from falling off. “
     “Ironing your hair!” Tillie said
     “Fallout shelters” Dickie added and then said “Wait a minute...ironing your hair? Why would you do that?”
     “To make it straight.” Katherine answered for her “It looked granny glasses and white Go-go boots”
     “We had a corner store” an older man towards the front said loudly “sold wax Coke-shaped bottles with colored sugar water, two cents each. You could buy a box of candy cigarettes. Imagine that? Candy cigarettes for children! Blackjack chewing gum...what redneck neo-Nazi thought that up? Who bought that stuff and why?”
     Tillie replied that “School had smells that were all their own.” She paused and added “I used to love to laugh so hard my stomach hurt.”
     “The ice cream man!” someone in the center rows said
     “I was not above reaching into a muddy gutter for a penny.” Katherine added “There was no telling where I would reach for a lost nickel and a dime. Forget about it. A quarter was big money.”
     “Yeah but, you could do a lot with a quarter.” Stella reminded her
     “A pack of baseball cards and Beatle cards and Man from Uncle cards only cost 11 cents plus tax.” Dickie said “They came with a slab of pink bubblegum that was as hard as cardboard but you ate it anyway.”
     “Oh!” a man towards the rear of the car said with a raised finger “Black lights. Lava lamps. Tie-dye T-shirts. Mood rings. Love beads. Platform shoes. Bell-bottoms. Did I really wear bell-bottoms?”
     “I used to worry about seeds and stems.” a man towards the front told his seat mate “Now I worry about roughage. My search for killer weeds been replaced by my search for a really good weed killer. In fact, the only time I even mention good grass is when I’m talking about somebody’s lawn”
     “We walked to the movie theater from home.” a lady towards the back said to anyone  “When was the last time you did that? “
     “I can remember which episode of "The Brady Bunch" it is by the first scene” another woman added “Laundry detergent had free glasses, dishes or towels hidden inside the box. Milk came in bottles. They came with cardboard stoppers to seal it back up again after you opened it. Stuff from the store came without safety caps and hermetic seals, because at that point no one in America had yet tried to poison a perfect stranger. Would you drink something that was left on your doorstep today? And there was only one kind of milk. The regular kind. No one percent, diet, ten percent of whatever, there was just milk.”
     “Balsa wood airplanes” Dickie said to himself
     “Tinkertoys.” a voice in the room replied
     “Erector Set that never erected anything unless your parents helped you.” said another 
     “The Fort Apache Play set.” Dickie answered “and Lincoln Logs.”
     “Climbing trees.” Katherine said “and Mosquito bites... Jumping down the steps...how long has it been since you jumped down some stairs?” Tillie pondered “and being tickled. Being tired from playing ...what a great notion isn’t it?
     “Court House, doors open on the left. Clarendon. Next stop Clarendon”
     “That’s me” Tillie said, standing to leave 
     “Me too” Stella added, also standing.
      “That’s me” Katherine added
     “Sometimes I wonder” Stella said  “how the world will judge our generation. You ever wonder about that?
     “Well this is me” Dickie said and stood to leave the train as well “You know, there’s this story about how, after the end of world war two, this English duchess or something was at party and she kept pestering Dwight Eisenhower about how the US really won the war and what was our secret weapon an all. So, like she just kept going on about the this secret weapon. So after a while, Eisenhower turns to her and goes “Lady, I’ll tell you what America’s secret weapon is  America’s secret weapon are the best God-damn kids in the world”  I kind of like to think that describes us too. Overall, we were pretty good kids, I think. We did okay. I mean we didn’t blow up the world or anything seriously bad like that. Anyway, take care, mouseketier”
     As the train slowed, they walked towards the doors together. As the doors opened and they left and the train slowly pulled out of the station.
     “Next stop, Dunn Loring- Merrifield doors open on the left”