Editors Note: the following short story was inspired by some time the author spent entertaining children at a Christmas event. The characters presented are entirely fictional but were inspired by a wide number of little moments observed over the course of many such events.
Paul sat with his back to the window pane, resting his frame on the narrow sill. They came in throngs, young children with parents, grandparents, most stopped and stared for 5 minutes or more, sometimes their mouths unconsciously hung open, their gaze fixed upon the tiny model train with its tender and line of box cars trailing behind as it ran around the wide oval track. Through the town, under the hill with the miniature cattle grazing upon it, across the glossy blue painted river, under a mountain and back out for another cannon ball shot through town. The tiny people in the town never broke from their routine: cars sat at rail crossings, parked at the gas station, the store, the post office and waited eternally at the stop light. A tractor was stuck in the middle of the field, in the middle of a furrow, with a tiny red hatted farmer merrily tending his plywood field.
It was usually the children who found Paul's smiling eyes watching them watch the train. They would smile back and ask, "can I touch it?" Paul would grin, shake his head and over the din of the little train say, "No, I'm sorry, it's older than I am so it's just to look at, not handle." It was interesting to note that the boys often made for the train before asking, and the girls usually asked before doing anything. It also struck him that the white children seemed content to watch, while it was the black children who were bold enough to ask to play, leaning on the partition, arms out stretched.
A round faced little girl with corn rows and pigtails looked decidedly downcast when she got the word, "not to handle." Paul got up from his perch and came around the train table and squat down beside her. "What would you like to know about the train?"
"How does it feel?"
Paul reached over to a side line and took an orange and black box car off the track and set it on the partition wall between the children and the train table, where this little girl was presently the only spectator. "Go on, you can touch this one. I brought it with me and it's not very old, but it is made the same way the others are."
"It's plastic!" She seemed so surprised and delighted, he had to chuckle.
"Yes, most are. The engines are heavy though so they can pull all of the cars around the track. They are plastic and metal and have lead weights in them."
Her curiosity satisfied, she beamed and trotted off to her grandmother to report the interesting news.
A boy of about 7 ambled in alone, blond hair spilling into his eyes. He didn't seem to see Paul, who had returned to his uncomfortable seat. He just leaned up against the partition, rested his chin on his hands and stared at the running train. He stayed for over an hour and Paul began to wonder where his folks were. The big train outside left every 30 minutes to take passengers around the park in a long loop, puffing steam and belching coal cinders into the air.
"How do you like the train?" Paul asked.
The boy nodded, mouth shut, not smiling or looking up.
"Your folks here today or did you drive yourself?" The boy's eyes flickered up to meet Pauls and a smile spread across his face revealing a missing front tooth.
"Momma brought me. Daddy's working."
The boy watched for another 20 minutes before Paul interrupted his meditations again, "Is your Mom still here or did she drop you off?"
"She's working over there.", he gestured towards the train depot and small hot dog cart where a petite blond girl, probably not much more than 20, was making hot dogs.
"Where's your dad work?"
"He drives a train. He's gone most of the time. I got to ride with him once when I was real little."
The boy kept watching the train go around and around as Paul watched his imagination carry him along in the Engine riding on his Dad's knee. Eventually the lunch rush subsided and the boy's mom called to him and he peeled himself away with some reluctance but admirable discipline.
Later that afternoon a bird like woman entered the museum. She was older than Paul but her sprightly gait caught his eye with its unearthly quality. She signed the guest book and went back out. Paul wondered what sort of personality accompanied a physical lightness of person so evident that you appeared to weigh nothing more than a feather. She momentarily returned with a young lad in a wheelchair. His hands were crumpled, his expression unusual and his gaze constantly wandered, maybe staring blindly or lacking comprehension, Paul couldn't tell.
She wheeled him over and set him where his gaze just cleared the partition and as the train would come along through the town nearest the spectator station, she would point and ask, "See the train, Davey?" "There it is, look at the train!" Forced cheerfulness carried clearly over the rattle of the little train and its load. The boy convulsed and slipped lower in his seat so that he could not see over the partition. She set her jaw, and lifted him up again and almost sang, "there's the train! There it goes!". Again, the little man's gaze was lost on the wall behind and above Paul's head. He smiled sympathetically at her, but she never looked at him.
Soon, she took Davey out to continue his big day at the train museum. Paul hoped some of the images his eyes rested upon were interesting to him. He thought he knew now why she was so frail.
A larger group came in comprised of teachers and children from the nearby city, a mix of black, white and latino. One little girl wore a headscarf. The children streamed in an a tangled happy mass but lined up neatly, shoulder to shoulder along the partition. The head teacher asked Paul several overly simple questions regarding the train: "Which town is this?" The model was of the very town they stood in, 60 years prior. "How long have you worked here?" Paul had been volunteering for a year, retired from the auto factory. "What does the train run on?" Track. The children giggled.
Paul turned it around and looking at a black boy with glasses who had been keenly watching the train and asked "what do you think this train runs on?"
"Electricity. But the real one ran on coal."
"You're right! Good. Do you know when the real steam engine last ran here in town?"
"Yup! 1934. My granddad was a porter. I know all about it. He told me all about it when I was just a kid." The boy went on to recite and impressive catalog of trivia that caused most of the children to begin to edge away from him and eventually the head teacher interrupted him. "-that's good enough, Grant. Let's give the gentleman back the rest of his afternoon, shall we?"
The girls giggled, Grant smiled tolerantly, nodded politely to Paul and the whole troop headed out to the platform to catch their ride on the train, the last run of the day.
Paul set the throttle for the train to 'OFF' and drew the curtains around the table. His job provided no monetary compensation, but he felt he had been exceptionally well paid this day. The joy of the children clung to him like a warm vapor as he headed out to his parked car and echoed in his ears well past the time he finally laid his head on his pillow that night.