We were waiting on the platform for MAX, the Portland city train. It was raining, and we were the only ones not under the crowded canopy. My hooded raincoat kept most of the water off me, but this lady perched hatless on a metal bench, out in the rain, clutching a soggy MAX pass. The notice said we had 15 minutes before the next train, and I figured it was even money whether she’d jump the tracks and flee before it arrived, or drown.
“We’re getting wet,” I observed, “Do you think we should move under the canopy?”
She cringed back and glared at me, grasping the end of the bench, and shook her head. “I’m not going back.”
“Back where?” I asked.
She wore an ancient Pendleton jacket, the drenched Mondrian plaid looking more mathematical than warm. Her black pants were torn and stained almost to the point of chic, but the salmon-colored t-shirt under her jacket looked brand new. She’d been in this cold drizzle for awhile; her hair straggled lankly down her back and, as I watched, steadily dripped water onto the bench.
Her accent was pure glassland, which seemed wrong, and I wondered why I’d expected a southern twang. Then light dawned: Her face wore the same pinched, tired look of the Appalachian women I’d seen in WPA photos. Where they looked determined, though, Rose looked…beaten. Anxious. Afraid.
“Back where?” I repeated, and her eyes narrowed. “There,” she insisted, pointing down the tracks, “You can’t make me go back.”
“I don’t think I want to,” I said, “I’m Cynthia,” and held out a hand. She looked at it a minute, curiously, then grabbed it, hard and tight, yanking me toward her. I wasn’t expecting that, and struggled to regain my balance. A smile flitted across her lips, and her eyes settled on something behind me. I turned, didn’t see anything except a Portland Rose Festival poster.
“Rose. My name is Rose,” she said softly, carefully, as if she couldn’t quite pronounce the words, “They want me to go back, and I won’t. My friends live here. I don’t like their place. It’s too sad.”
Another woman approached the bench, and Rose’s head swiveled wildly, trying to keep us both in view. This one DID sit down, and Rose moaned…loudly. The woman curled a lip, then snorted and got up. Rose claimed the field, stretching across the bench and nearly lying down as she grasped the opposite end in clenched fists.
“You’re getting awfully wet,” I observed, and Rose ignored this, still glaring at the interloper.
There was a little plastic cup under the bench; I glanced at it and she hissed. “Leave it alone, that’s mine,” she warned, “That’s my medicine. If I don’t take my medicine I will die.”
I didn’t see anything in the cup but rainwater, spattering in and out.
“Crazy bitch,” muttered the woman Rose had displaced. Rose ignored her. I gave the woman my patented “shush” look which never seems to work. Didn’t work now, either.
“Crazy bitch,” said the interloper again, louder, “You don’t OWN the chairs.” Rose didn’t respond. But her head ducked, she drew in, folded her arms tightly across her chest and began a singsong muttering. She stared at her knees and, slowly, tilted forward, then back. Forward, then back, until she was rocking in time to her music. I looked up and saw the train approaching, and our platform-mates getting ready to board.
The interloper walked back to the disputed bench and Rose rocked faster. The woman spat, nearly into the medicine cup.”Hey,” I said, sharply, and the woman’s head swiveled toward me. “Shut up,” she said, and walked onto the train.
“Rose, it’s time to get on the train,” I said, but Rose just rocked faster and faster, and the volume of her song increased. “Away away away away,” she sang. The train pulled away from the platform and when it left, Rose sighed heavily. Then she bent over, carefully bundled the plastic cup into her jacket and stood.
“Goodbye,” she said, clutching my hand, “Enjoy your stay.” She walked off the platform and headed down the sidewalk in the rain.
I went under the canopy to wait for the next train.