The train was scheduled to leave at 11:00 p.m., but by the time it pulled into the downtown Amtrak station from Cincinnati, it was already ten past midnight. The platform was crowded, and Jen moved with the crowd toward the doors - stepping up on the conductor's wooden box and then onto the metal steps.
Tuesday, October 21, 2008
Write about a trip or an excursion that left you changed in some way.
All the seats were full, and she followed the others into the next car. And the next. Weary passengers slept, heads leaning against windows, or looked apprehensively at the new arrivals, mostly students, heading home for the holidays. As Jen made her way along the aisle, car after car, she could see ahead as the seats filled, and the line kept moving.
Suddenly the line stopped. The message fluttered back. Seats available. Go the other way. The line joggled, turned, and retreated through the cars.
Through a sliding door onto a platform, a door and - tables, benches, linens - "It's the dining car!"
The train lurched. "Whoa!" The guy in front of her grabbed the back of a seat and slid into the bench. Behind her someone pushed, so she slid in next to him. "Hi. I'm Jen. Where are you going?"
"Kev. This is crazy. I just decided to go to New York this morning." He looked around the car. "Who takes the train? This your first time?"
"Nah," said Jen. "Millions of times. I hate flying." She wondered if he believed her. "My folks live in Jersey. I get off in Philly."
The tables in the dining car filled. "Hey is the bar open?" said someone.
Soon the train was rocking through the Ohio darkness. Someone put a cassette in a tape deck, punched PLAY.
A deck of cards appeared - a game began, in the bright pool of light from the reading lights clicked on overhead, the car otherwise dim all around.
Eyes met across the tables and aisles. You at State? No, I'm at Antioch, took the bus to meet the train. Graduate school? What's your major? Getting out in Pittsburgh... Charleston... Newark... Do you know....?
Laughter, changing seats. Some couples made out in the darkened rows. Walk the lurching aisle to the bathroom - the smell of marijuana from this end of the car.
Someone swapped seats - can I sit here? I'm Jen. Cool. Want to share my bag of chips? Aren't you in my math class?
The door banged, a conductor walked into the car. "OK, ladies and gentlemen, thanks for your patience, the holidays are always overcrowded but we're glad we could accommodate you guys and get you home for Christmas. Now we need to prepare the dining car for breakfast, though. There are some seats available - please follow me." Back in the direction they'd arrived from.
Another conductor. "OK," he said, "You - you - you - and you!" He pointed to Jen and about a dozen others, "follow me."
To the back and out, and another car - curtains lining the aisle. "Hardly anyone pays for a sleeper," he said, "Take a berth for the rest of the night - just be sure you're up and out by Harrisburg when the next shift comes on."
Jen climbed a narrow ladder three steps and parted the curtain. A tightly made bunk, a pillow, a maroon, logo-stamped blanket. She closed the curtains to the aisle. There were curtains at the back of the bunk too - she turned off the little sconce light and drew these apart.
Outside the night landscape hurtled past. Crossing gates, cars with headlights. Deserted factory yards. The backs of houses beyond fences. Stone walls. The shapes of trees against the moon.
She thought of home. "Mom," she'd said on the phone, "don't worry about the plane ticket. I know they cost too much, now Dad's laid off. I'll arrange something for the break. I have a friend who's driving to New York. I'll be perfectly safe." There was no friend with a car, but she'd set aside her tips from the restaurant and they were just enough for the train fare.
Home for Christmas. She was traveling all on her own for the first time in her life. Her head fell back on the small pillow. She looked out the window, the train rocking gently, cradled in the upper berth. She was all right. She fell asleep.