“On the Train” — first published in North American Review


On the Train

 When my aunt calls from Denver to say my great-uncle died, I’m not exactly surprised. He was eighty-nine, smoked a pack a day, and I hadn’t seen him since I was twelve, so I wasn’t sure if he’d already died and someone forgot to tell me. Because of my brother Ian, Mom can’t go to the funeral. Because of Ian, I need a reason to get out of my apartment. The round-trip train ticket is cheaper than flying, and I need an overnight ride and an evening of thinking.

 Mom has made Ian her career, but I won’t do that. The problem is how to tell her without being ostracized. She’s my mother and I don’t want her to hate me forever, but I wonder if my parents had me, a second child, to take care of Ian. It’s been a fleeting suspicion since I was thirteen and Mom and Dad started talking about what would happen to Ian when they were gone. Mom hasn’t stopped talking about it for twenty years. Thus my reason to escape.

 I leave four days’ worth of first grade lesson plans for my sub, then stuff my duffel with sweaters, underwear, an extra pair of jeans, a skirt, granola bars, and apples. After smashing two books on top of the pile, it still zips.

 6:15 AM: Leaving Toledo

 Good-bye gray Midwest, hello snowy mountains. The train ride to Chicago is four hours long, as is my layover there. I page through a newspaper without reading and wonder if Ben will behave for the sub. He’s the smartest kid in class and a loudmouth. Any teacher can tell you he’ll be a brilliant scientist or a bank robber. I know where to draw the line, but he crosses it to see if I’ll keep him in at recess. I give him books at the sixth-grade level, so he cuts up to stay with me. It’s almost touching.

 2:10 PM: On the way out of Chicago

 The guy next to me on the train asks where I go to school. I tell him Michigan State, but don’t admit I graduated ten years ago. I look young for my age. He says he’s a graduate student studying photography at the University of Nebraska. I glance at his finger for a wedding ring. None. Once the train starts moving he pulls out an MP3 player and a book, retreating into his head.

 I retreat to one of the conversations I had with my mother last week. The usual script.

 “You’d be so good at nursing,” she said. “You’re very good at caring for people.”

 “Which I do since I teach first grade,” I reminded her.

 Mom harrumphed. “It’s not the same.”

 I was smart and lucky enough to pay my way through college on scholarships, and I hoped that when I got a job Mom would get realistic. That hasn’t happened. Her initial soft sell and gentle suggestions have become hard and heart-rending, culminating with Mom in tears.

 “I want you to take care of him,” she weeps. “Who will love him like family?”

 I will continue to love Ian like family because he is family, but that doesn’t mean I’ll make him a sun and orbit around him. I feel awful for thinking like that. It sounds cruel, but the truth is often cruel, which is why we avoid it when possible.

 My brother is a puzzle. He might like watching TV, he smiles and laugh when it’s on, but not always. Mom says it depends on his mood. The doctors say Ian has the intelligence of a two-year-old. He’s been this was for thirty-five years. Mom changes his diapers, makes sure he’s fed through his tube, and repeats that he’s happy. I think he’s happy, but Ian doesn’t tell us.

 3:50 PM: Leaving Princeton, IL

 Illinois in winter is very white. The train smells stale and sanitized, like the air in the car has been sitting here for weeks, but someone recently sprayed fabric deodorizer on my seat.

 I’m looking forward to mountains like I did when I was little and traveled west with Grandma to see Great-Uncle Clarence in Denver. I never knew Aunt Henrietta, Clarence’s wife, since she died before I was born, but her pictures smiled at me from his coffee table. It wasn’t spooky since she looked nice. Aunt Henrietta’s coffee table photos were surrounded by her ceramic chicken collection. Great-Uncle Clarence let me gallop the chickens across the couch while he mumbled at me to be careful.

 I haven’t been to a funeral since my dad died three years ago. He was sixty-seven and had a heart attack. After Dad passed away, the pressure from Mom intensified. She wanted me home, and had already hurt her back trying to lift my brother in and out of bed. I said she should hire a nurse, but the look in her eyes made it clear that if she had to resort to outside help, she’d hate me forever. Mom is sixty-seven, the same age Dad was when he died. I think about that a lot.

 Ian wasn’t supposed to live. My mother says he’s a miracle, a blessing in disguise, and has taught her patience. By the time he was born, doctors had learned to defy nature a little too well. They can keep candles burning, but Ian’s flame is low and guttering. He will be two years old when he’s sixty. By the time I’m sixty I will have been teaching for thirty-six years and had eight hundred fifty kids in my classes.

 I wish it didn’t sound like I was trying to judge the worth of people like this.

 6:10 PM: Waiting to leaving Mount Pleasant, IL

 A couple days ago I bought a book of useless facts. It sounded fun and distracting. On the train I learn that to ward off other males and declare their territory, orangutans in southeast Asia burp loudly. I’m sure I’ve seen human males in bars perform a similar ritual. I also discover that 8,800 Americans are injured by toothpicks every year. Likely the same guys who sit in bars burping loudly.

 The guy beside me takes off his headphones. He ruffles through his backpack and pulls out a pillow shaped like a stingray. I say it’s neat. He smiles and says his girlfriend gave it to him. I smile back and hope it’s not too strained.

 I’ve never had a real boyfriend. Never had time for it. Still don’t. My life is school and grading and emergency Ian calls from Mom that happen once a week when she needs help or just a break. Mom talks about me taking responsibility for Ian like it would be the easiest thing in the world.

 “Just quit your current job,” she says, as if teaching is nothing more than bagging groceries. “You’ll get paid from his monthly disability allowance. The house is paid for. Everything is paid for. You can both live here forever.”

 Mom has to lift Ian in a sling to move him from his bed to his wheelchair. She changes his diaper six times a day. He’s a full-time occupation, no lie.

 Two middle-aged guys behind me eat cheeseburgers from the snack car. I smell the mustard and onions and listen to them gossip about their kids’ marriages. I thought only moms did that. One guy says his daughter married a real asshole but she doesn’t have the sense to divorce the bastard.

 The day before I left, Mom said, “If you don’t want to live here and help me with your brother, I don’t want you here at all. You don’t care about either of us.”

 She slammed down the phone. It was like a tantrum a six-year-old would have, full of emotional pleas and you-don’t-love-mes. I felt awful just the same, so I guess it worked.

 1:07 AM: Lincoln, NE (running an hour late)

 My seat mate gets off the train while I’m trying to sleep, so I don’t say good-bye to him. I miss a lot of chances to connect with people. On the train I slip in and out of consciousness and think about my friend Max, the special needs teacher at school. He’s thirty-five, divorced, and was hired the same year as me. We chat in the lounge at lunch. He gardens and builds model airplanes and plays drums in a jazz quartet that performs at a local bar on the weekends. He says I should come see them and he’ll get the guy at the door to wave the cover.

 Max knows the situation with my brother. I think he’d like to ask me out, but hesitates because he understands the weight of my responsibility. I’ve left parties and staff meetings to help with Ian. That’s stunted friendships in a way Mom doesn’t understand. If I took care of Ian and he died when I was fifty, what would I have left? If Ian died tomorrow, what would Mom have left? Does she ever consider that?

 3:05 AM: Indeterminate field in Nebraska

 I wake up. The train has stopped but the engines are running. I’m warm since I dressed for Colorado cold in a sweater and two pairs of long underwear and flannel-lined jeans and two pairs of socks and a heavy coat and mittens and boots. There are no announcements from the conductor. The car is dark. Wind gusts outside. I hate waking up in the middle of the night because my mind wanders to things I try not to think about during the rest of the day.

 People have whispered that my mother is crazy, even wasteful, for devoting herself to Ian. Some of those comments were meant for her to hear, like the time she got into a fight at a pool party. My mother and another lady had consumed a couple beers, perhaps more than they usually drank, because the lady screamed that Mom was ignoring me as she kept adjusting the umbrella over my brother’s wheelchair.

 “Your girl could die and you wouldn’t know it,” she screeched. “Focus on the kid who can make something of herself!”

 Three other parents had to hold Mom back or she would have tackled the loudmouth lady. I kept quiet, but my ten-year-old brain agreed with everything the other mother had said.

 5:10 AM: Same random Nebraska field

 People wake up and float whispers around the cabin. Why hasn’t the conductor made an announcement about why we’ve been stopped for two hours? I wrap my scarf around my head to shut out speculation, but a few train rumors solidify. The guys behind me say we’re stuck in a snowbank. The intercom is silent and scary. Where’s the conductor? The half-lucid side of me believes we’ve been hijacked by outlaws on snowmobiles. Soon men with helmets and ski masks will parade through the car and demand valuables.

 One of the guys behind me keeps kicking my seat, but I’m too tired to protest. I try to sleep and fantasize about Max kissing me after school in the lounge.

 8:03 AM: Nebraska field identified as being near Hastings

 The conductor announces that we ran into a snowdrift in the middle of the night. The first engine went out, then the second engine went out, then some other important train parts that weren’t supposed to get wet got wet. We’re stranded.

 The crew has been working on the problem, but no one made an announcement earlier because they didn’t want to wake people up. The conductor says this is company policy, but the guys behind me mutter that there’s company policy and there’s common sense, which involves telling us what the fuck is happening.

 The conductor says two freight train engines are driving to our rescue. They’ll haul us backward ten miles to a juncture in the track where they can skirt around and attach to the front of the train. Everyone takes out cell phones and beeps calls to family and friends, informing the world of our situation. I don’t care to tell anyone.

 In the new sunlight we see white whirling around the train like we’re trapped in a huge snow globe being shaken by a three-year-old. One of the guys behind me wonders aloud if we’re on the news yet. The other guy calls the conductor a jerk-off and kicks the back of my seat. I’d like to tell him to shut up since it isn’t the conductor’s fault that we’re wedged in a snowbank, but I was raised to be Midwestern nice so I keep mum and move to the empty seat beside mine. It doesn’t stop the tremors from his boots.

 12:25 PM: Same Nebraska field

 When the freight engines arrive to pull us out, it feels good to be moving even if it’s backwards through a snow globe. The conductor walks through the train, pausing to tell us they’re doing all they can. He has a beard and mustache and middle-age-guy paunch and looks like one of the fifth grade teachers at my school. There are tired half-moons below his eyes that make me think of my mother.

  1:18 PM: The Nebraska field where we stopped ten hours ago.

 When the conductor announces that we’re back where we started, I decide to believe this is progress. That loudmouth behind me kicks the back of my seat and threatens to sue the train company. I put on my headphones and turn up the volume so his words blur behind Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring. Good enough. Max loaned me the CD a month ago. I keep promising to give it back to him. He says not to worry, just take my time.

 3:35 PM: Hastings, NE

 We stop to let off some passengers, collect new ones, let people have a smoke break, and allow mechanics to examine the freight engines because they’re not working. The conductor explains the passenger and freight engines don’t have compatible software. I wish for the days of coal shoveling and wonder who will be at the funeral to mourn Uncle Clarence. I wonder who my mom will call if she has an emergency with Ian. She needs to learn how to call someone who is not me. I imagine her and Ian in a dark room with the flickering TV and suddenly I feel awful to have left her alone while this loudmouth kicks my seat and swears about how awful things are. I start to cry. The lady across the aisle stands up and rests her arm around my shoulders.

 “Don’t worry, honey,” she says, “it’s going to be okay.”

 She smells comforting, like almond hand lotion. I nod and dry my eyes on a clean paper napkin. I wish I had a glass of wine. Red wine is supposed to be good for you. I get drunk on wine sometimes, then I get weepy over my brother for small stupid reasons. He will never know the small joys of pizza, french fries, chocolate, or running down a hill. He will never dance or clap his hands. Mom says he smiles at classical music. When I’m in a snarky mood, I tell her it could be gas.

 8:35 PM: Ten miles outside of Holdrege, NE

 We stop moving. Again. The conductor says he doesn’t have good news. Everyone wonders how the fuck things could get worse. The conductor and engineer can’t be on duty any longer because they’ve worked twelve hours and can’t exceed federal labor guidelines. They’re bringing in a relief crew, but it’ll take two hours. And things are still wrong with the engine.

 Across the aisle from me, a father and his young son watch a movie on the dad’s laptop. Ian and I watched movies together when we were little, and I took him for walks with Mom in his wheelchair. She said I was wonderful, behaving just like a big girl. When I was in high school I wanted to be in drama club and French club and work on art projects and babysit to earn extra money like my friends did. Mom gave me two afternoons a week for myself, but once when I got home late from play practice, she accused me of being neglectful and not loving Ian or her.

 I yelled that she didn’t love me. All I wanted was to be a normal teenager and have a life. I stomped up to my room and slammed the door. Dinner was quiet. We never apologized, but I don’t think we would have meant it if we tried. Not until years later.

 I started resenting Ian after that. I stopped reading to him. Stopped narrating TV programs. Got out of taking him for walks. I didn’t hate him, but I was jealous. He tied Mom to the house. Half the time she couldn’t come to see my plays, too tired at the end of the day to bundle him for an outing. Dad never missed a production, but I felt like the less favored child.

 I want my brother to die and come back as something better. He deserves to return as a superhero. That makes me want to believe in reincarnation instead of heaven. Ian needs another shot at life. I’m glad people can’t read my mind about this. Not even Max.

 10:37 PM: Where else but ten miles outside of Holdridge, NE

 A member of the on-board staff walks through the cars to explain that a repair crew has arrived and they’re working on the engine but no one knows when we’ll get to Denver. The loudmouth behind me has consumed at least five beers from the bar car. He stands up and swaggers into the aisle, positioning himself six inches from the train employee.

 “You’re a fag,” he yells, “and we’re going to take over this train because we need food.”

 He continues the barrage of words, doesn’t realize or care that he’s been kicking the back of my seat for twenty-four fucking hours, but he raises a hand like he’s going to smack the train employee in the face. My fingers have been clenched around the arms of my chair, but I’m unglued from my seat in a blast of anger. Because I’m small it’s easy to wedge myself between the two men, hands on my hips and my face hot with all of the words I’ve been meaning to say.

 Don’t you care about anyone’s needs but your own?

 Don’t you realize we’re all hurting?

 Can’t you shut up for a moment and think?

 I’m not sure whether to lecture or smack him, but his eyes are the same color brown as my mother’s. I tackle the bastard in a hug and he releases a woosh of air. I have never hugged someone so aggressively, or yelled so loudly, “Shut the fuck up.”

 This wins me the attention of everyone on the train car. They probably think I have serious mental problems. They’re partially right. Loudmouth peers down at me, cocks his head, and for what is probably the first time today he looks more confounded than outraged.

 “Well.” The train employee pats my shoulder. “It’s been a long night for everyone.”

 I let go of Loudmouth and sink into my seat, facing away from him. Later in the bar car he’ll probably call me a freaking hippie chick who needs to be on Ritalin, but I don’t care. In five minutes we’re rolling. Again. I wrap my scarf around my eyes to shut everything out but an image of Max in the teachers’ lounge. I miss him. I hope he misses me. He has very nice hands. I dream myself in a cocktail dress going to one of his jazz performances and having a drink with him afterward. Red wine.

 6:15 AM: Denver, CO

 I wake up as my train crawls into the city. Back home it’s seven-fifteen. I imagine my mother in the solitary kitchen drinking coffee, eating corn flakes with bananas, and watching the morning news where there’s a seven-second note about a train that got stranded on the way from Chicago to Denver. Soon she’ll check Ian’s diaper. He will gurgle and smile. That will make her happy.

 Twenty minutes later I disembark, wrestling my duffel bag down the slim staircase. We should have been here twenty-three and a half hours ago. I’ll call my aunt and apologize for missing Great-Uncle Clarence’s funeral. We’ll get lunch and she’ll tell me about sorting through Great-Uncle Clarence’s smoke-scented house. I will ask about the ceramic chicken collection.

 I step into a coffee shop that’s kittycorner from the train station. Yesterday I read that in 16th and 17th century Turkey, drinking coffee was punishable by death. Now that’s a risk I’d take. I order sixteen ounces of sanity, flip open my cell phone, dial my aunt’s number, press Send, and take a huge gulp of caffeine. It pulses through my arms to my fingertips. I will call Max later and see when his band is playing next.