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Child Abuse

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It's midnight on the northbound Howard el. Two boys riding together are sitting on separate seats. They're 11 or 12 so it's too late for them to be out, and they're making the most of it, cracking jokes and sprawling across their seats.

The train fills up downtown--this is the cleaning ladies' express--and some people have to stand. But no one tells the boys to move their feet. The train sits at Washington longer than usual. Those of us in the last car can see the headlights of the next train coming up behind us.

The boys shout and poke each other, pointing at the oncoming train. "It's gonna get us," says the one with dimples. They hide their eyes dramatically and then burst into boisterous laughter.

From time to time they make a joke and look at the rest of us, standing above them. We are tired. They know they are the show and we are the audience.

The conductor finally gets on the mike to tell us that we're going express to Belmont. Both boys hoot. Some people get off the train to wait for the next. Then the doors close and we're off toward Belmont.

The boys gape out the windows, pointing at the blurs of people waiting on the platforms. "So long, sucka," the boys call out as we pass each stop.

When we reach Belmont, a large crowd piles in. The train is so full the doors have trouble closing. One boy grows bored and hits the other one on the shoulder. The dimpled one leans over the seat to hit the other boy. When he does this, the seat next to him opens up and a man who has been standing since we left the Loop sits down in the empty spot.

He puts his hand on the dimpled boy's thigh, lightly, then takes it off and says, "So, you're having some fun tonight, eh?"

The boy looks at him angrily.

"Don't touch me."

The man seems surprised. "Oh, I'm sorry. I was just watching you two having fun."

"Don't touch me again," the boy says.

The man sits up straighter in the seat, keeping his eyes forward.

The dimpled one looks at the other boy.

"Something smells," he says, smirking. The other one laughs.

The dimpled one closes his nose with his fingers and says, "Smelly," which brings on a new wave of laughter from both boys.

Around the Wilson stop, the dimpled boy unfolds one long mitten and puts his nose deep inside, breathing hard as though it were an oxygen mask. Periodically he raises his face and takes a deep breath in the open air that ends in laughter and with his nose back inside the mitten.

The man keeps his eyes straight ahead and tries to make himself invisible.

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