Get ready for a long post! I have been enjoying watching the Olympics, and all the gold medals the US swimmers and gymnasts have been racking up. I’ve also enjoyed seeing some more eclectic sports like weightlifting (enormous, enormously strong people!), wrestling (intense hugging!), and indoor track cycling (trying to go as slow as possible without falling!). Also, I know I’m a day late, but good luck with senior year!
I planned a little writing project for visiting our extended family, and this is part one. I asked Pau Pau and Gung Gung to each give me a word. Pau Pau gave me the word eccentric, and Gung Gung gave me the word faith. I used the words as the basis for a short story, which I’m posting here. Hopefully they enjoy this gift as a way of saying thank you for having me over and for showing me around the wonderful city of Philadelphia.
An Eccentric Faith
When a train pulls into the station at dusk, you usually expect that to be the last stop, unless the station is located in a tiny town next to a big city. If this is the case, you feel a sense of impatience, rather than rest, as if this penultimate stop’s only purpose is to prolong the stressful uncertainty of travel. This is precisely what Lisa, the captain of the Madison County Senior Chess Association, felt as she waited in Smithsville, New York.
The day had started well enough: twenty elderly chess enthusiasts had met at 8 AM, ready to swap stories and share chess accomplishments on the way to New York City. Many of them were traveling with the group for the first time; attending this tournament was a privilege reserved for those good enough to compete at a respectable level. Their excitement built over the course of the trip; the train rushed by the farms and factories and forests, bringing them closer to the most important building in New York City (at least for the next few days), the Javits Convention Center. The energy lasted until they entered Buffalo, at which point a combination of dining car food, friendly chit-chat, and the rocking of the train drew them into a stupor.
Lisa watched over them with a warm mix of maternal care and condescension. Now that the train had come to the penultimate stop, she started to rouse her team. The trip had always been a high point in the year, she thought. She loved figuring out the best value hotel and relished the challenging matches. She could always play others online, of course, and sometimes that held more appeal. But it never really matched the tactile feeling of taking a knight with a tricky gambit, feeling the weight of the captured piece in her palm. Here she was again, on the way to another weekend in New York, but it was getting tiring.
Lisa reached across the aisle to shake the shoulder of the dozing sixty year old man sitting opposite her. “Come on Phil, we’re almost there. There’s a comfortable bed waiting for you at the hotel.”
“Okay, okay, I’ll help get the luggage off. Don’t worry about me, I can sleep on anything. I didn’t even have a mattress until I was working at the factory.” With a bit of effort, Phil straightened up and began to stretch out his legs.
“That’s no reason to pass up a nice bed now. We’re a stop away; you don’t have to get up just yet. Just be ready for when we get there.”
“Why did you have to wake me up now then, if we’re still a stop a way? I could have slept some more.” Phil turned over in his seat to face the window.
Lisa took a deep breath and let go of some of the tension that was building up in her back. Phil was a solid chess player, and his mastery over pawn structure was impressive. Still, Lisa decided, it was an intelligent choice to put him in his own hotel room. It was worth the cost.
The rest of the team members were marginally more receptive to Lisa’s prodding encouragement. She was answered with a jumble of “Thank you, Lisa”s and “Mmmhmm”s and “Huh? Oh, yes”s. She finished her rounds, and walked back to her seat along with the few passengers who were boarding at Smithsville. Lisa knew she could be overbearing, but there were so many things that could go wrong if she wasn’t on top of this trip. Did they think that it was fun to be responsible for all of them? Looking around, half of them had trouble responding to her email about the trip. Lisa leaned back and closed her eyes. They were almost there.
When she opened them again, there was a woman trying to slide past her into the window seat. Lisa remained stiffly still until the woman took her seat.
“You know, if you are trying to get to a seat, it’s generally considered good manners to ask before you stick your rear end into some one’s face.” Lisa’s clipped speech was painfully articulate.
“I’m sorry, I thought you were sleeping and I didn’t want to disturb you.” The other woman whispered. She appraised Lisa, then took out a sketch pad and began to draw.
Still disgruntled, Lisa sized the other woman up. Lisa wasn’t a spring chicken, but this woman looked ancient. Lisa kept close watch in the corner of her eye, examining both the woman and the sketch pad. Her hair, substantially thinning, was twisted up into a tight bun which did nothing to help disguise her hair loss. Her shoes were heavy black clogs and her hosiery, a bland combination of beiges, seemed on the verge of bursting from the pressure of her thick legs. She even had a monogrammed bag: FHC.
However, her right hand, clutching the charcoal pencil with which she drew a confident black line, was strangely limber. They were by no means pretty hands, marred by discolorations, calluses, and several faint scars along the fingers. But the way she held the pencil was simply graceful. The pencil continued to slide over the paper, but there didn’t seem to be any order to the lines: a slashing arc in the lower right corner, a series of wavering fragments in the upper left. Finally, the woman dashed off a line at the bottom, and in one continuous motion tore the page out and extended it to Lisa.
“I am sorry I didn’t ask earlier. I hope this makes up for it.” She gave Lisa a crooked smile and an exaggerated wink.
Lisa gingerly took the thick sheet of paper. The scrawl at the bottom turned out to be cursive: Faith Henrietta Cunningham. “Thank you, you didn’t have to, you know, give this to me. Just next time… It’s lovely.”
“Hah, it’s you!” Phil’s rough voice came from behind her back. Lisa, who had been facing her seatmate, turned to face him.
“No, it’s obviously not me. It’s- It is…” Lisa reached up and turned on the overhead light. Instantly, the negative space on the paper before her resolved itself into a portrait. It was her, but not quite. Were her eyes really that bright, her mouth really that stern? Her nose was almost a beak, it was so narrow. And her brow was marred by more worries than she remembered. She was a marble bust, ready to be placed in a museum. “Oh, well, it certainly could be mistaken for being my portrait, but it must be one of her friends. Who is this drawing of, Faith?”
“You’re right, it is a drawing of one of my friends.” Faith smiled again, proud that Lisa was able to identify the image.
“Lisa, you’ve got an identical twin out there somewhere, because that is the spitting image of you.” Phil was still leaning into the aisle, trying to get a better view of the drawing.
“Thank you! I try to capture the soul of the person when I draw portraits. It’s more interesting that way.” Faith glanced knowingly at Lisa. “I’m glad I captured my new friend so well.”
Lisa tried to recall how they had talked. She had been anything but friendly, but she didn’t need to be making friends on the train, she was just trying to get to New York. Besides, it’s not appropriate to call someone a friend if you don’t know them well.
“I don’t think we’re friends yet. But that’s very nice of you to say that.” Lisa spoke calmly, trying to avoid any conflict that might arise. It was hard to tell with this woman. She was quite an eccentric.
“Oh, it’s quite alright, I know some people are finicky about saying they’re friends. It’s just that after drawing you, I feel like I know you well, and I thought it appropriate to call you my friend.” Faith earnestly gazed at Lisa.
At a loss for words, Lisa merely nodded her head in vague agreement. How could she argue with that logic when it was exactly what she had been thinking? The drawing wasn’t really all that dissimilar. It was proud, stately even. Lisa’s hand drifted up towards her mouth. She furrowed her brow, mirroring what she saw in the sketch.
The train continued on, and the car where the Madison senior chess team and Faith Henrietta Cunningham sat quieted down. The overhead lights had dimmed, and Lisa’s earlier admonition to be ready to get off once they reached the station was forgotten by half the group. Lisa tried to relax, and even closed her eyes at one point. Faith, meanwhile, had reached a happy dozing state, and held her sketchpad in her lap with the weight of her resting arms.
Phil, having failed to find a seat position comfortable enough for sleep, glanced out the window at the dusk. The sun had disappeared behind the horizon about a half an hour ago, and now the faint halo of lingering light was quickly fading too. He loved this part of the country, which had a nobility that was absent in the empty plains of Madison County and the glittery, flamboyant skyscrapers of New York. The small lakes and mountains raced by, a marvelous background to the blur of the trees lining the track. If he could have gotten off at Smithsville, he would have been perfectly happy.
A motion in the reflection of the window caught his eye: Lisa. She was definitely tough, he’d give her that. He had been to enough of these types of clubs to appreciate how good she was at organization and working with a crowd. Hell, she had gotten him on this trip, hadn’t she? But he was worried that some of the older team members would try her patience with their absentmindedness. She wasn’t the type to sympathize.
Lisa was wondering whether they were going to get in soon enough to make their hotel reservation. She reached down into her handbag to pull out the printout of her receipt, but fumbled with Faith’s drawing, which slid off her lap into the aisle. She found the receipt, and as she unfolded it, she reached down with her left hand to pick up the drawing.
“Here you go.”
Lisa felt the smooth surface of the sketch pad paper in her hand. “Thank you,” she muttered absentmindedly. The reservation was for 9 PM, so they should get in with plenty of time- she realized who had put the drawing back in her hand.
“Phil, thank you, that was nice of you.” It would be good to encourage him to be nice whenever possible, she thought.
“No need to thank me, just being polite.” Phil gave a wry smile in response. “You’ve clearly got enough on your mind with this trip.”
“I am expecting a good showing from our group this weekend, yes.” After a pause, Lisa added, “from you, in particular.”
Phil suppressed a smile. His chess prowess was one of the few things in which he allowed himself to take some pride. “I’ll give it my best try. You did drag me all the way out here. Thank you for setting up the trip,” he allowed. “Just a word of advice, if you’ll take it. We’re a grumpy group of old people, but we do ok taking care of ourselves. Even if we’re forgetful at times.” Phil chuckled. “That’s just how I see it, and I call it like I see it.”
“Of course, I am glad to have your input any time.” Lisa inclined her head and smiled at Phil. She didn’t really need any advice about leading the group, but she always considered suggestions when they came along. She didn’t want to be accused of arrogance.
Lisa looked down at the drawing. Her face seemed different. It had the same strength, the same severity, but it was tempered by a gentleness she hadn’t seen before. Her mouth had the hint of a smile in the wrinkles of her lips, and her eyes, though no less bright, revealed a transparent soulfulness in their distant gaze. Strangely, Faith’s signature had moved as well, from the bottom of the page to the top. No, that was impossible. She rotated the sheet. Faith’s signature returned to its proper place, and the marble bust that somewhat resembled her returned as well. Lisa flipped the drawing upside-down again. It really was a clever trick. She liked it better this way, and she was sure Faith wouldn’t mind.
The conductor called out that the train was approaching Penn Station, and the lights in the car flickered back to full brightness. It would take some time for all of them to get to the hotel, Lisa decided, especially some of the older members. She should probably check to see how they were doing.
Faith smiled as she continued to doze, only half-aware of their imminent arrival. Lisa had been such a good subject to draw. For some reason, all of her best portraits were of people who had initially disliked her. There were just more sides to the person, more perspectives to draw. When you get on a train one stop from the city, she thought, there’s no telling the type of people you’ll meet. You feel a sense of excitement for the short ride ahead, and for all the souls you meet at the end of the journey.