【明報專訊】IN fits and starts, the train travelled through the night, and at dawn she was disappointed to learn they were still in Indiana. She went to the washroom and tried scrubbing the grime from her face, but the oily substance seemed resistant to soap and water. And as for her clothing, well, everything would have to be taken to the cleaners as soon as she arrived and could change. Returning to her seat, she looked out the window to see that they were crossing the Ohio River and entering the state of Kentucky. And once across, the train pulled into a siding. With much jolting and shuffling about, it finally came to a stop.
After a long wait, the door at the front of the carriage opened and several men entered carrying wrenches and a number of steel rods. It was apparent they had done this before because they moved knowingly down the aisle and began to methodically fix steel rods to the back of a number of the seats. Not to all of the seats, just to a few rows at the back of the coach. A porter — a large black man with grey hair — came down the aisle. "I will help you to move, Miss Vivian," he said, and with her pillow under one arm and with her suitcase in the other, he led her to the back of the carriage. "You see, Miss Vivian, we have now crossed the Mason-Dixon Line," he said softly, "and down here we black folks will ride in the back."
Vivian sat down. The window was open, and for the moment the air off the river felt refreshing. The workers with the wrenches and steel rods quickly finished their work and moved down the aisle and out the door. Then, with a series of jolts, the train changed tracks. She sighed. "Well, damn it, I'm in the back now, so let's get on with it," she said to herself, and leaning back she tried to adjust the seat to make it more comfortable. But the seat wouldn't budge, and looking behind her at the back of the seat she understood the purpose of the men with the tools: they'd slipped steel bars across the backs of the seats reserved for the blacks. "Miss Vivian, you're in the south, and they don't want any of our kind getting comfortable," the porter explained. He slipped a fresh pillowcase on her pillow.
There was the sound of a muted whistle and she could hear the spinning of wheels. She pressed her head against the pillow and closed her eyes. "Miss Vivian, you are in the south," she repeated to herself, and the journey of her life was underway.
(C) John Bell Smithback
■by John Bell Smithback