When the train stops, Sue knows what she has to do. During the hours stalled on the track while the freight train with luxury goods goes first, she must keep the passengers from boredom, the stealthy time-assassin. At her compartment, Sue reaches into a box and pulls out three smaller boxes. Not the matryoshka doll from her unstable youth, but still a distraction. She takes one box with her.
Sue looks right and left, as if she is being interrogated. “Clown nose?”
A woman shakes her head without looking up.
“Cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs,” says a gray-haired man. But really he says, “It’s not the apocalypse.”
Sue passes his row and continues. She holds out each tightly wrapped nose, tipped up like a precious egg.
A woman hands her a crumpled tissue, and a child begins to cry. “I don’t want a shot!”
She continues down the aisle, bumping the box periodically on the headrests as she goes, offering everyone a chance for a nose. When she did housekeeping, people left stained notes with excuses why they didn’t have any spare change for a tip. When she worked in the bookstore, people wanted their desired book taken lovingly off the shelf and carried to the register for them, while others just wanted to unload their shitty day. What she is doing now is almost laughable.
A man and a woman each hand her their used coffee cups. She ignores them and talks over her shoulder.
“There’s a bin at the end of the car. Clown nose?”
A woman accepts the nose. “What is this?”
“You wear it,” Sue says. She realizes she has not donned one to demonstrate: the first rule of customer entertainment and invisible worker humiliation.
“It is supposed to be funny,” says the man next to her.
Why does management think this is a good idea? Food might be a good idea. Lottery tickets, even better. In the next row, a person is painting an apple in a journal next to another apple they have already painted. It looks like there are other pages, each with an apple on it.
“Clown nose?” Sue asks. The person looks up.
“Oh! I’ll take one home for my baby sister.” And they reach down to tuck a nose into their backpack.
Sue turns across the aisle. “Clown nose?” She hasn’t had to do this for several months, and she has forgotten what happens when she repeats the words. Am I saying it right? Does it really mean what I think it means? Is this the right language? Am I emphasizing the correct syllable? What are the things a clown knows?
“Miss? Miss? How long are we going to be stuck here?” An older man in slacks and sport coat snaps his fingers at her. She drops a nose in his lap.
She is out of noses. No, wait, a few are left in her pocket that she doesn’t remember putting there. She doesn’t blame the passengers. Not entirely. Maybe their buddy just died, or they have a life-threatening illness, or they just broke up with their partner, or got an eyelash in their eye. What is it the Dalai Lama likes to say? Something about how every person is not a potential enemy but a potential friend? Nice thought.
“Miss! Something horrible!” A woman points.
“That vulture seems to be enjoying it,” says a man behind her.
“A squirrel, do you think?”
“Not a rabbit, a hare.”
“There's a difference?”
Passengers gravitate toward the windows that frame the huge bird’s dinner.
“The poor creature! You have to do something,” demands the woman who sounded the alarm. Sue closes the woman’s curtain.
“It’s a turkey vulture.”
“They don’t kill; they’re scavengers.”
“That looks like killing to me.”
“It’s cleaning up.”
“I heard they pee on their legs.”
“It’s nature,” says someone.
“It’s very red.”
“This isn’t the kind of nature I was hoping to see,” says another.
The passengers cannot stop looking.
“Clown nose?” Sue carries on, but she wishes she could juggle. Maybe she will look up a tutorial. Surely someone has made an excellent video. What has two hands and three noses?
The family at the front of the car is laughing hysterically. The dad sports two noses on his head like mouse ears.
“Clown noses?” She offers the last two noses to two related-looking men.
One accepts. “Fantastic!” he says. He immediately rips open the plastic and places the clown nose in the center of his face, beaming.
“Yes. It’s really you,” says his brother.
Well, it has got to be somebody. After checking her pockets again, Sue turns around to go get more noses. But there is no need. The tearing of flesh is keeping the passengers completely absorbed. For now.
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