December 31, 2015
When I got back with the train, the Lonely Guy was still sitting there on the bench across the way, his elbows on his knees, his palms supporting his chin.
I had one passenger, a three-year-old girlchild in a red velvet gown, her platinum-blonde hair done up in dainty little curls. As I helped her out of the little red caboose, I said, “Wow, this is going to be a big year for you. In this New Year, you’re going to double in size and quadruple in brain-power!” To her mother I added, “You might make a smartphone video today, so the two of you can watch it this time next year. She’ll be amazed, by then, by how much she will have changed.”
To this the mom replied nothing, but the little girl gave me a tiny wave as they walked away, saying “Tankyew!” over her shoulder.
I smiled. “Happy New Year, sugar.”
I looked back over at the Lonely Guy, to let him know I was watching him. He cocked his head with a silent “Yo,” the way men have of letting each other know that they have seen each other, and that was that – for then.
I had three rambunctious brothers to deal with, each of whom wanted to ride in – perchance to disassemble – his own train car.
And, yes, Uncle Willie is driving the choo-choo train at the mall this holiday season. It’s a carney job, my favorite kind: Few-questions-asked. And it’s technically a sales job, even though the train, brightly painted in the colors of Lego blocks, sells itself.
“Nothing sells the train like the train,” I say to exasperated parents as their little darlings climb into the train cars on their own, waiting for me to drive them on their five-minute circuit around my corner of the mall. And the chuffa-chuffa choo-choo sound effects, augmented with the high white whine of the woo-woo wail, draw those little darlings to my kiosk in droves.
To the Brothers Rambunctious, I said, “Gentlemen. Remember that you have to stay seated. Do you know why?” Children never know what I’m getting at, but they almost always listen up. “Fun is fun, but a head injury is forever. And who wants to spend New Year’s Day in the hospital, anyway?”
That’s just me blowing smoke. Children can’t fall out of the train’s tiny coaches. And they can’t take them apart, either, no matter how hard they try. Until they get to be about eight years old, they can’t even figure out how to unlock the doors, once I’ve closed them.
“Meanwhile,” I continued, “I need for you gents to keep your eyes peeled for train robbers, desperados at the mall.”
“What do they look like?” the youngest of the boys asked, while the oldest rolled his eyes at him.
“Look out for guys in cowboy hats. And teenaged boys, too, just to be safe. And be sure to wave at everybody, so they’ll know that you’re on the train and they’re not.”
And that’s the real value on the shopping mall choo-choo train: Visibility. The kids think they’re going for a fun ride, but the real fun for them is having everyone looking at them, waving back at them. There is a sweet four-year-old kid inside each one of us, and that kid responds like a four-year-old when you take the time to really see a child.
I always do that, of course. I see everything I’m looking at, and I see children especially well – mostly because everyone else ignores them almost all the time. I wave at them as they roll by, imprisoned in their pricey strollers, and they wave back – sometimes with a delighted smile, but too often with a wary, half-committed hand gesture, preemptively rejecting me out of fear that I might be mocking them somehow. That’s sad, but there’s only so much lifelong pain you can wash away with a smile and a wave.
I shot another glance at the Lonely Guy as I pulled away with a loud woo-woo wail. I wanted him to know I had my eye on him.
And the mall is dying, in case you didn’t know. The Hustling Bustlers are long gone, having taken almost all of their shopping online. Likewise the Bargain Hunters, who have web-browser plug-ins to dig up the best deals on everything. Who’s left to clog the aisles are the Schmoozers, who come to the shopping center as a family social event, and the Proud Walkers, the perfectly-appointed folks who prance back and forth to show off the perfect appointements they bought on their last trip to the mall.
And it could be I’m jaded. I spend too much time people-watching, and too much time trying to thread the needle of massed inattention with my five-car choo-choo, and much too much time watching how parents celebrate their children by captivating and then neglecting them. I’ve always liked kids better, anyway: Until they get to be about eight years old, they can’t lie comprehensively, with the result that they can be refreshingly honest – with me, anyway.
And the Lonely Guy was still there when I got back with the train. I didn’t think he was a child molester. He looked sad, not agitated, not acquisitive. But unaccompanied adults have no business hanging around the choo-choo, and normally a glare or two from me, with a glance up at the half-domed security camera mounted in the ceiling, is enough to make suspicious-looking creeps vanish.
When I had reunited the Brothers Rambunctious with their proudly-indulgent grandparents, I sauntered over to the Lonely Guy, to assert my authority as the in loco parentis loco engineer.
“Busy day today,” I said, sitting down beside him. “The kids are out of school, but mom and dad still have to work, so it’s unofficially Grandparents’ Day at the mall. That much is good for all of the kiddie attractions – the toy stores, the Build-A-Bear emporium, Dairy Queen – since grandparents strive to buy love in concentrated doses.” The Lonely Guy was in his forties, old enough to be a grandfather, so that seemed like a good place to start.
“Don’t mind me,” he replied. “I’m just looking for my son.”
That gave me a start. Escaped kids are never a problem, and no child will be kidnapped on my watch. But I keep an eye out for lost kids all the time, especially since I work at the absolute best kid-magnet in the mall. “Oh, my goodness! How long has he been missing?”
He looked at me directly, and the sadness in his eyes seemed to deepen as I watched. He smile a tight, bitter little smile, saying, “Twenty-seven years.”
The first thing I felt was relief. Lost adults are not my problem. But then I thought about why he would have been sitting there, watching the choo-choo train for what must have been an hour by then. So I took a stab in the dark. It’s what I do. I said, “Abortion?”
He looked at me with shock and wonder in his eyes. “How’d you know?”
I shrugged. “Fifty-million dead kids are easy to miss, if you like children.”
He winced at that observation, but I didn’t care. When you do the wrong thing, you should feel bad about it. Remorse is the worst way – and yet too often the only way – of learning to do better.
He looked at me with an earnestness I rarely see in putative grown-ups. He said, “It’s silly, isn’t it? My son would be way too old to ride your train, except with his own children, with my grandchildren…” He sighed. “Everything that is – it is what it is, right? But everything that isn’t, that always seems like it can be anything at all.”
Almost I grinned. I’ve had this conversation before. I said, “Everything that isn’t – isn’t.”
He slumped in on himself a little. “I know that – but still…”
“How long have you been doing this, looking for your son?”
He smiled weakly. “Every day for twenty-seven years now.”
The mall traffic was winding down. Time to get the kiddies home and party-up for New Year’s Eve. I said, “I have time, if you want to talk.”
“What are you, some kind of father confessor?”
At that remark I did grin. “That could have been my job once, a long time ago. For now I drive the choo-choo train.”
He shrugged. “It’s not much to tell. High-school sweethearts. Too much in love, and too much out of the control of our parents. We got pregnant, but she got the abortion. It was so easy for me to do nothing, so that’s what I did.”
I let those words hang in the air for a while before I said, “Except you didn’t.”
“Except I didn’t. Instead I look for my son everywhere I look, knowing full well that he’s in none of those places, knowing that he might not even have been a boy…”
“You aborted your child, but you aborted you, too.”
“You know, that’s right. In some ways, I’m still that goofy, dumb-ass kid, waiting around for a do-over that never comes. We still both live in the same neighborhood, but I can’t even bear to look at her – still, to this day. She might have been the love of my life, but I’ll never know. I’ll never know any of that.”
I waited for him to look up at me, to lock his eyes with mine. I said, “Everything that isn’t – isn’t.”
“I know that. Of course I know that. But still…”
I smirked, mocking my own past, the past that’s always right here with me, just like his. To the Lonely Guy, I said, “So it turns out I am your father confessor. I’m going to give you absolution, but you have to promise to pay your penance to the letter. Deal?”
He looked at me with something approaching awe. “Are you a priest…?”
My smirk turned into a wry grin. “Dude. I drive the choo-choo train at the mall. And yet, you’ve never told anyone any of this before, have you?”
He smiled. “You win.”
I nodded. “Here’s what you do: You’re right to mourn the dead, but you’re wrong to waste your whole life in mourning. So from now on, for your remembrance, leave a bite of food on your plate for your son, every time you eat. Don’t look for him, not at the mall and not anywhere, just leave the last bite of steak, the last morsel of chocolate cake, the last slurp of your milk-shake – leave that as a tiny share for the tiny life you never got to know. Just do that, every meal you eat, and stop mourning all the rest of the time.”
“Is that it?”
“Not hardly. That’s just the easy part. The hard part is making things right with your old sweetheart – and with her parents and yours. All of you lost a child, all because you didn’t say the words that make a man a father: ‘You’ll kill my kid over my dead body.’ It’s time you said you’re sorry for that.”
He scowled at me. “That’s a lot harder.”
I shrugged. “The only thing harder than doing the right thing is doing the wrong thing – for life.”
He grinned at that notion. “Are you sure you’re not a priest?”
“There’s one more thing,” I went on. “You wanted to be a father. It’s all you’ve ever really wanted. You want to be a grandfather, but that ship has sailed, too. But the world is awash in boys who need a grown-up man’s strong, steady influence.”
“You mean like being a Big Brother?”
“I mean taking a daily interest in the life of the goofy, dumb-ass kid growing up with the single-mom who lives down the street from you. Don’t ask me how I know he’s there. He’s everywhere. That boy needs you, but you need him, too. You can’t be a father, but you can be a Dutch Uncle, and that’s what you need to do to get on with your life.”
The Lonely Guy looked at me for a long, long time. Finally he said, “I’m glad I came here today. I feel better, despite everything.”
“If you follow through on your penance, you’ll feel better and better, every day from now on.”
“Can you say the words for me, Father?”
I smiled at that. “I’m not a priest. They won’t mean anything.”
“They’ll mean something to me…”
So I took his chin in my hand, with my thumb and my index finger, forcing him to look me directly in the eyes. I said, “Te absolvo, my son. Go forth and sin no more.”
I could see the wetness in his eyes, and I could feel it in my own. He said, “Happy New Year,” then stood up and sauntered away, his hands in his pants pockets, his dancing eyes taking in every twinkling wonder of the mall at New Year’s, like the sweet four-year-old kid inside each one of us.
I walked back to my choo-choo train and pressed the little black button on the dashboard to make a long woo-woo wail. Everything that isn’t – isn’t. And that’s why you have to learn to live for what is, even despite everything.
Happy New Year.