Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Family Portrait

They boarded the train in a cluster, hands on the kids' shoulders, the only five people who seemed to be enjoying the rush hour crowd. All smiling, they had the casual, bright-eyed look of the happy tourist, enamored of everything the locals consider obvious and mundane. The oldest boy said "Rutgers" as he grabbed an unclaimed piece of silver rail.

"Good one," said Dad, genuinely proud. "Okay, Mom's turn."

Mom was petite, questionably blonde, tanned, pretty, put together. A few commuters separated her from the rest of her family. She didn't like the game as much as Dad, but she didn't mind playing along.

"Syracuse. How 'bout that?"

"Hmm. Sounds fake," said the youngest one. He was maybe five and his voice squeaked like a little bird. He couldn't reach the rail so he was steadying himself with a handful of Dad's gym shorts.

Dad laughed. "No kiddo, it's a real school. Your turn."

Kiddo looked up and smiled a big bashful smile. "Ummmmm."

"All right. I'll help you," Dad said. "This one's easy. Just tell me where you live."


"Oh, come on. Where did we drive in from yesterday?"

"TennesSEE!" Several startled commuters turned, wondering who had taught a parrot to name states.

"Right," said Dad. "Good job. Tennessee State. Michael's turn."

Michael was the middle kid, less straight-laced than his older brother, with shoulder-length frizzy hair and ratty skate shoes. "Geez," he smiled, "I always get the easy ones. University of...I don't know, Michigan."

"There you go," said Dad, unfailingly supportive. "Okay, my turn."

It got quiet as the family and a few strangers who were discreetly following the game awaited his response. Kiddo, still dangling from Dad's leg, looked up in anticipation. The train car swayed back and forth, humming along the tracks while Dad's wheels turned.


It wasn't Dad's mellifluous drawl, but the voice of a middle-aged businesswoman who was standing near him in a pale gray suit. "Class of '73," she explained, with a look somewhere between pride and embarrassment.

"Well, fine!" said Dad, his voice full of mock indignation. "Go ahead and steal my thunder!" Then he flashed a smile that seemed to sum up the whole tradition of slick Southern charm.

"Gotta love school spirit," he said. "I'm a Tulane man myself."

"My brother went there!" said the woman. "Such a shame about Katrina."

They shared a few elegiac words about The Big Easy before the train jerked to a stop beside a sunny, crowded platform and opened its doors.

"Oh, this is us," said Mom. "Come on, guys. Hurry." She and the older boys politely excused their way toward the doors.

"Okay, time to get off," said Dad, taking Kiddo's hand. "Very nice to meet you." He gave the woman another dose of Confederate gallantry as he squeezed by.

Kiddo, happily overwhelmed by the prospect of resuming their city tour, began to chatter rapidly in his birdlike falsetto.

"Are we there yet, Dad? Are we getting off the train? Dad, who's Katrina? Where did Mom go? Are we gonna see the real Red Sox?"

"Yep, we'll see them tonight," said Dad, smiling apologetically to the passengers around him. They threaded through the bodies and exited the train, Kiddo chirping the whole way, and met up with the rest of the family outside.

As the doors closed, Dad unfolded a map of the city and the five of them clustered together again, Mom saying something and pointing at the street, the older boys examining the 2D sprawl with Dad, and Kiddo looking plaintively at both his parents, his mouth talking and talking, offering up a string of eager questions.