Copyright © Diane L. Schirf
For some reason, it seemed to me that Territorial Woman should have filled my quota for encounters of the mundane yet strange kind — at least for this trip. I was, as usual, mistaken. Sometimes one is, indeed, in a groove. This time, at least, it wasn’t my seat mate. Not that it was an improvement.
For the return trip to Chicago, I had a very definite plan for how I wanted to spend my time on the train. I had two goals — to write and to drink lots of beer — the first because I was trying to work some things out in my mind and the second because I was thirsty and beer suddenly sounded good.
After showing my ticket and ascertaining that I really did have my own seat not shared by luggage or by ego (and a seat mate who was detraining in Pittsburgh — a mere three hours from Altoona), I once again took myself to the dinette, looking forward to a quiet and productive evening of writing and drinking — two activities that, in the history of modern literature, seem all too often to go together.
The train itself was not as crowded as it had been the previous weekend (Memorial Day) and the dinette was mostly empty. It’s surprising how people, bored with spending hours on the train, will manage to convince themselves that 9 p.m. is a good time to go to sleep — just to kill the tedium. After all, at night, the train is darkened, and there’s nothing to see out the window — no scenery; only the occasional parking lot spotlight from a warehouse or the lights at the train crossing. When trying to sleep, you soon get used to the train’s persistent whistle at every small-town crossing — as well as the murmurings of people traveling together who insist on chattering into the night. With the semi-darkness, the slightly disturbed quiet, the background rumbling, the lurching of the train passing over points, and the splayed legs of sleepers dangling in each car’s aisles, train travel at night borders on the surreal.
Only the usual handful of night owls were in the dinette, plus a few members of the crew. I picked the last table and settled in to write and to quench.
It went well for about a half hour — both creativity and beer. This was going to seem like a short trip. Or so I thought.
I wasn’t paying much attention to what was going on around me. People passed back and forth intermittently to get food or drink from the attendant. Every now and then, a crew radio would sputter. An older member of the crew was trying to train a young member on some finer points of train lingo.
I noticed that a man, perhaps in his 50s, wearing a homespun-type blue shirt and suspenders and sporting a long beard, had taken the table across from mine. The Amish and Mennonites frequently travel on this particular train, and I assumed he was an Amish or Mennonite farmer. I had a fleeting, irrational thought about being a little embarrassed being seen drinking beer — as though I should be ashamed at engaging in an activity that he might see as immoral. I did say it was irrational. It also did not last long.
“Do you like writing? I hate writing. I don’t even write letters.”
I looked. There was no one else around. This was clearly aimed in my direction.
“Yes.” Having satisfied the man’s curiousity, I went back to it.
“Are you a writer?” Apparently, there was more to his curiousity.
“No, not really.” I plowed back into it again, hoping that my burning need to pen would be obvious. It wasn’t.
“What do you do?”
I began giving up. “I’m an employee benefits communications consultant.”
“Oh . . . what’s that?”
“We write and design materials to help employees understand things like their retirement and health care benefits better.”
“You must like to write. Not me.”
“I’ve been up for a couple of days, taking trains.”
I set the pen down. There was no escaping.
“Yep, I spent the other night in the bus station in New York.”
“Some people told me it gets dangerous after a certain time and that I should be careful.”
“I think they were right. Really late, all these people showed up.” He lowered his voice. “Men who like men and women who prefer other women.”
Wisely, I thought, I chose not to expand his vocabulary.
“Anyway, I think I’m going to go to Sea World in Cleveland. I like Sea World. I’ve been to the one in San Diego. And to the zoo in San Diego, which is a really good zoo. Have you ever been to Sea World?”
“No . . .”
“I like Sea World. I like going to all kinds of different places.”
“Where are you from?”
“Chicago. I’m from western New York, but I’m in Chicago now.”
“I’m thinking of going to Chicago.”
“I was told I should visit this one area where there’s a lot of night life. But I can’t remember what it’s called.”
“Yes, it’s a street downtown. Or north of downtown. Is it dangerous? I want to know ahead of time if it’s dangerous.”
“Do you mean Rush Street?”
“Yes, that’s it. Is it dangerous?”
“I don’t really know. I don’t go there much. Probably not any more than anywhere else.”
“You could probably teach me a lot.”
“I doubt it.”
“Can I sit with you? Or am I bothering you since you’re trying to write?”
My passive nature asserted itself. “Go ahead.” I figured he seemed harmless, if annoying. I never was very good at figuring.
He picked up his food and coffee and sat across from me.
“Are you sure I’m not bothering you?”
“Ummm.” I hoped it sounded more noncommital than negative.
“Now you say something.”
“I don’t have anything to say.” It had occurred to me fairly early in this conversation that we didn’t have much in common. “Where are you from?”
“Indiana. A pig farm in Indiana.”
Our common interests were not increasing.
“Pig farms really smell, you know. One lady came and went in with the pigs and the smell got into her hair. Her hair smelled like pigs the rest of the time.”
“Yes, I can imagine . . . I’m a volunteer at the zoo, and if you go into the large mammal house, you do tend to absorb the odours.” I realised this was my longest effort of the evening. I wasn’t sure that it was a good thing to have glommed onto animals’ bodily odours as a bond.
“What do you mean, volunteer?”
“Oh, lead tours, give talks, and things like that. Once a week. On Sundays.”
“Oh . . . you have really beautiful hair.”
“If you went in with the pigs, it would smell, just like that other lady’s did.”
Well. “Just like it does at the large mammal house. The smell comes out.”
“Ah. Hi, there!” This was directed to a man in a stretched tshirt passing by.
“I met his wife, too. I like to talk.” (Really, I hadn’t noticed.) “She’s got real nice hair, too. Wears it in one of those things you pull it back with.” He made some gestures near his own bald head. I finally figured out he meant a hairband. “Do you ever wear yours like that?”
“Hey, there she is! Hi!”
A woman with thick, dark, wavy hair pulled back under a hair band stopped at the table. She said, “Oh, you found someone to talk to.” She smiled at me somewhat pityingly, but with a tolerant smile. It was not reassuring.
“Yep. This is that guy’s wife.” Somehow, I had already deduced that.
“Hi,” I said. There didn’t seem to be much else I could add. She said, “Hi” and then went to get food.
“I’ve been talking to her. She’s really nice.”
“Do you have any kids?”
“No.” By now, my ability to figure was increasing. Maybe it was the little red flags going up.
“Oh, too bad. Kids are a really good thing. Where are your parents?”
“My dad’s in Pennsylvania; my mother’s dead.”
“When did she die?”
“When I was 21.”
“You can’t be much older than that now.”
Here we had clearly crossed the line of credulity. “Oh, yes, I can. I’m almost 36.”
“Do you have a husband?”
I wasn’t aware I should, but I said no.
“You really do have the most beautiful hair. Is it natural, or do you perm it?”
“You’re probably pretty picky about boyfriends.”
“Am I bothering you? Do you want to write?”
Yes and yes. But I couldn’t bring myself to say it.
“You shouldn’t deprive all those poor men who want to be your boyfriend.”
I didn’t recall saying anything about depriving anybody of anything. I’d been sipping my beer. Now I took a slug.
“Do all your boyfriends like to stroke your beautiful hair? Do you slap them when they do?”
“Do you let them?”
This time, I didn’t answer. I picked up the pen absentmindedly.
He took a sip of his coffee, which he said was cold. He then asked, “What are you drinking, if you don’t mind my asking? Is that beer?”
“Yep,” I admitted, guiltily. I took another slug to hide the guilt.
“Coffee smells so good.”
“Well, it smells better than it tastes.”
“I really like the smell of beer, too. Does it taste as good as it smells?”
“I don’t think it smells particularly good, so I can’t answer that.”
“Mind if I smell your beer?”
“Uh . . . okay.”
He took a rapturous sniff of the stuff.
“It smells so good.”
“If you say so.”
“Can I smell it again?”
In all, he whiffed my beer three or four times, each time looking happier and happier. The little tune of “Simple Gifts” came in to my head.
“If I keep smelling your beer and get high and pass out in the aisle, would you pick me up?”
“Would you even say you know me?”
“No. Well, anyway, I have to make a phone call.” Technically speaking, I didn’t have to make a phone call, but I had been planning to, and at the moment this seemed like a really good time.
“Oh. Well, maybe I’ll talk to you later.” And maybe not . . .
After my call, I emerged cautiously from the booth and looked around. No sign of him. I ordered another beer.
Later, I noticed an attractive young man in his late 20s or early 30s talking to the dinette attendant and I wondered what a chat with him would be like. He didn’t seem to wonder the same about me, however, athough he did look once or twice. He eventually sat with another young man and they began an animated conversation. Suddenly, the words “marital infidelity” and laughter drifted through the air from their table.
Of all the conversation companions I could have had on this trip, I end up with Hair Man. Next time, it’s Marital Infidelity Men or bust . . .