I had a mental breakdown midway through my first year at San Francisco State University; I couldn’t hack it in the city after living in the suburbs my entire life. After sobbing over the phone to my mom, I dropped out of school and moved back home. My parents were unconditionally loving and sympathetic even though I’d wasted a lot of money and time. It would have been easier if they were angry. My dad’s catchphrase was “Bill Gates dropped out and look at him.”
I didn’t tell my friends I dropped out. In high school, I talked big to everyone about how my life in the city would be better than anything we’d experienced in conservative Temecula. No one could know I gave up after one semester.
Not long after I dropped out, I got a full-time job driving a children’s train at the Promenade Mall in Temecula. I chose the position because I needed to save for an apartment. I also thought if I took a moronic job, no one would talk about me dropping out. Everyone would assume I was a burnout by choice and leave it alone.
Conductors had to give a “Train Fun and Safety” speech before every ride. Mall management called it a speech even though it was three lines long, and we weren’t allowed to deviate from the script except to include our name after “Conductor.”
The shift I decided to slash the train’s tires, I started my first speech of the day with as much enthusiasm as I could muster.
“Welcome aboard the Promenade Express! My name is Conductor Rita—”
A dad in a Ralph Lauren polo yelled, “I knew you were too pretty to be Bill!” He sat smiling next to his son in the caboose. He was referencing my blue and white striped overalls, which had “Bill” stitched on the front from the last conductor. Bill also left behind a smell resistant to any detergent I used.
The toddler was using his face as a paintbrush to smear a picture in chocolate ice cream on the caboose. My customer service face slipped, but I kept going with the speech.
“—Please keep your hands and feet in the train at all times. We are not a shuttle service; we do not stop at stores.”
I checked the safety locks on the cars—red, yellow, blue, the black coal car—and climbed into my seat. The engine operated like a slow golf cart that pulled the rest of the train behind it. My eyes watered, and I pulled my blue and white striped conductor’s cap lower over my face as I began my loop around the mall. I rang the shoddy silver bell hanging above my head, which mall management added after the “train whistle” button broke, to signal I was leaving the station.
Management fired Bill after he ran over a teenage girl’s foot. No drugs or alcohol were involved, and the girl was fine. He looked the wrong way at the wrong time while driving past the wrong family. The train wasn’t on a track, and no special license was required to operate it. Though marketed as a safe, fun, kiddie ride, conductors didn’t even need a clean driving record.
On that ride alone I narrowly missed two shoppers. The only way to let people know they were standing in the path of a train was with a bell hastily attached to the engine, which we weren’t allowed to ring too much after a customer complaint. I was hungover that day, so I avoided using the bell at all. Instead, I snaked in between families; the zig-zags made the ride more fun anyway.
When Bill trained me, I learned more about him than I asked. He cared about the job deeply. He was married to a woman named Emily. They had two kids who lived out of state. He had never done drugs but smoked Marlboro 100 Golds. He had a cat named Skip and drank a maximum of two beers a day after work.
The train was lightweight and went about a mile an hour. Bill ran over the girl’s foot right before my shift started, so I saw the aftermath. She kept telling him it was okay as he apologized profusely, but her dad threatened to sue. Management immediately let Bill go. They claimed since he was older, he wasn’t fit to run the train, but everyone who worked the train hit something at some point: a planter, trash can, or a person.
Bill was sitting on a bench with Emily when I pulled into the station. That wasn’t unusual. I waved, and he waved back. Bill started visiting the train a few weeks after being fired. At first, it freaked everyone out; we thought he might do something. When we realized he had just missed the job, we tried to be cool about it.
I unlocked the cars. Kids jumped out and ran around while parents slowly stretched their cramped limbs. I remembered the chocolate ice cream in the caboose and grabbed some wipes from the engine. My knees popped as I crouched to clean. I knew Bill would want to talk, but I wanted to avoid that for as long as possible. He was quick, though.
“You have a minute, Rita?” he asked.
I nodded and threw the dirty wipe onto the floor of the car. “I just have to lock up,” I said.
According to Bill, Emily had left for Starbucks to get an iced green tea. That was her only vice. He walked toward the dumpsters where smokers congregated. I grabbed the keys and chained the engine to the metal flagpole that marked the station.
Bill had already lit up. He held the pack out to me—still Marlboro 100s—and I took one.
“What’s up?” I asked.
“Em and I felt cooped up.” He took a drag. “How have things been here?”
“Steady. Gearing up for the holidays.”
“Think they’ll take me back for Christmas?” he asked.
I laughed awkwardly; this was one of Bill’s non-jokes.
I asked, “Are you looking for another job?”
“No. I’m technically retired.”
We stood and smoked quietly. That’s likely what Bill wanted: silent company while he smoked. When he finished, he crushed the butt with the heel of his boot, shifted his weight uncomfortably, and said, “Em probably has her tea by now. Nice seeing you, Rita.”
“Yeah, good seeing you too.”
The job took me on as a college dropout satisfied with coasting through her days. I figured I’d gather myself and plan the future in my free time. Bill’s visit marked three months at the Promenade Express, and it was clear I was going nowhere.
The mall wore me down. Physically, it was kind of my fault. Most customer service workers are addicted to nicotine. Every mall employee I knew constantly snuck out for cigarettes or ducked below the register to hit their vape when the manager wasn’t looking. Three months of chain-smoking and sun had aged my skin. I had wrist problems from holding the steering wheel and bad knees from crouching to clean the cars. The catcalling and harassment were worse than the physical pain, though. Dealing with Temecula’s upper-middle class all day exhausted me too much to plan a future beyond my next shift.
On bad days, I fantasized about taking a sledgehammer to the train. I knew where the security cameras were (and weren’t).
That day, I decided I would do it. I didn’t have a criminal record, and we kept the train half-hidden in the parking garage at night. Mall management would assume the high schoolers who skateboarded in the parking lot found it.
I plotted, realized I didn’t own any tools, and decided to slash the tires. Heavy-duty vandalism felt too extreme anyway. When I told my parents I would see friends that night, they were relieved; I hadn’t hung out with anyone since dropping out. I was hyperaware of my dad’s hunting knife in my pocket as I walked out the door.
I parked across the street away from the security cameras. The guards went home at 10:00 P.M. and it was almost 11:00. The gravity of my plan finally hit me, and the neon red light from the Edward’s Cinemas sign made everything look sinister. I tucked all of my hair into a black “Wayne’s World” baseball cap and pulled it down over my eyes, then tied a black bandana around my face like a highwayman in a western.
The train was in the back of the parking garage covered by a tarp. As I rounded the corner, I saw Bill. He was standing still with the tarp at his feet, directly in sight of the cameras. I stopped dead and hid behind a cement post.
I thought he had finally cracked. Mall management wouldn’t forgive trespassing, even if it were harmless, and the police would be involved. I noticed he held a key in his right hand as he climbed into the driver’s seat that used to be his.
Bill tried the train whistle button, which still didn’t work. He turned the key in the ignition and slowly drove out of the parking garage, ringing the bell. When he reached the stop sign, he turned left onto the road that looped around the mall.
I trotted after him, careful to stay out of sight. Emily was waiting on the corner at the next stop sign. She wore a dress that whipped around her legs in the breeze and held a cup that probably contained iced green tea. Bill stepped out of the engine to open the door of the coal car for her, then continued his odyssey.
They stuck to the bike lane. No one drove on the loop after the mall closed anyway. Joyriding a mall train had to be illegal, and maybe I should’ve called someone, but I didn’t see how I could explain why I was there. The only responsible thing to do was trail them from a safe distance.
Bill and Emily took a while to make the loop; the train ran better on pedestrian walkways. He opened the door for Emily, tucked the train under the tarp, and slipped the keys into his pocket. The two held hands as they walked across the parking lot. I hid until Bill’s truck reached the main road, then walked back to my car and tried to parse out what any of it meant.