Orlando to Washington DC, Silver Meteor, Train No. 98
On a hot sunny afternoon, two short whistles sound and the train lurches forward from the Orlando, Florida train station. A bulky woman with chin length blonde hair reaches over my lap while apologizing for leaving her things scattered between the seats. Cigarette smoke perfumes her canary yellow peasant blouse. She tells me her name is Sherry.
Sherry’s neck is branded with a tattoo bearing a man’s name. Three stars circle it. Other tattoos streak down her arms like rivers with boat docks. I’m wearing my conference clothes – a pencil skirt and boat-neck shirt. Small gold hoop earrings dangle from my ears.
Sometimes when on a train asking a question may lead to a complicated and prolonged account of life events. You have to be ready to listen.
“Are you going to Washington?” I ask.
“New York,” she says. “I got on at Sebring, Florida. I was visiting my 22-year old daughter. She’s having trouble with her second pregnancy. I’ve been there since early July. I have a son who is also 22, but they’re not twins. He was born nine months after his sister. My two youngest are girls, 15 and 6. They live with their father and me. I have one grandchild who is two years old. I live in a small town where the biggest attraction is the live lobster tank at the grocery store.”
Without enthusiasm she says, “This is the first time I’ve ever ridden on a train.” I’m excited for her because there are only so many firsts in life.
She continues: “I’ve never flown in an airplane either. I usually take the bus. I prefer the bus. It stops a lot, so I can smoke. My daughter in Florida purchased the train ticket for me. She sent it through the mail.”
The Japanese man across the aisle from us pulls up his seat’s foot flap. “Hey, look at that,” she says with surprise. “Why are the station calls from the conductor so low? I can barely hear what he’s saying,” she complains. “I have to wait until the train stops before going to the Lounge car. I hurt my leg and I’m afraid of falling.”
In a seeming response to my attire she adds, “I don’t work. Neither do my two married daughters. One daughter’s husband is ‘controlling.’ He insists she stay home. No daycare for my grand daughter,” she agrees. “My other daughter’s husband makes enough money so she doesn’t have to work. I’ve been with my man for 17 years. Never married though.”
I remain silent while trying to keep up with all the thoughts she tumbles before me. Like her fidgeting physical movements, our conversation jumps from topic to topic randomly. She once took in a homeless man who was sleeping by the river. She moved in order to transfer her teenage daughter to another school district. She believes she got food poisoning from eggs bought at a dollar store. Everything about her physical appearance is tough and tethered, yet there is a sweet and gentle nature to her as well.
Slowing, the train creeps up to the Jacksonville station. We move so lightly, floating gently rocking back and forth on the tracks in an air brake dance alongside a busy six-lane highway.
The conductor Sherry has been joking with during the trip taps her on the shoulder indicating this is a smoker stop. She jumps up and leaves the train. When she returns her nervous energy seems satisfied. “I didn’t know you can drink on trains.” When she smiles at me I see she is missing her two front teeth. The Lounge car becomes her destination. My eyes follow her until she disappears through the car door. No falls.
An announcement from the service attendant serves as a precaution: “Please don’t throw paper towels in the toilet. They clog up the toilets which can’t be fixed until we get to New York.”
When Sherry returns I ask: “What do you like so far about train travel?”
“The people. The wide seats. The Lounge car.”
I make a dinner reservation for 6:00pm and ask her if she wants to join me. She declines, “I don’t have any money.”
Everything in Florida is green. Lush forests with tall trees line the rail bed with houses tucked in every so often. My eyes follow a river then move upward to watch the sky. White cotton ball clouds meander across the bright blue canvas. I struggle to describe the sensation of moving below such a serene skyscape. Reverie.
Sherry returns grasping her cell phone at her ear. Her voice is muffled. “Tell me,” she says urgently. “Tell me, now. Tell me,” she insists. Her lips are shut tight pulling her cheeks back towards her neck. She mouths the words “My daughter” to me. Black clouds are looming. “I’m going to bash his teeth in.”
She gets up and leaves, angry and disheartened. She will let her feelings simmer for a while. When she returns to her seat, it is dark outside. My view is only that of the train car and its occupants.
“He’s cheating on me. I knew it. Same whore he picked up with years ago.” I hesitate to get drawn into her drama. “When he broke up with me then, I tried to kill myself. Not this time. My daughter said we could live with her. I’ve lived in shelters before. Damn.”
“It may be hard to understand the whole situation based on a phone call from your daughter,” I say.
“He’s trying to call me, but I’m not answering.”
“I’m sure you have skills. Why not get a job and start over? What are you good at?
“In high school there was an art contest and my drawing won. Out of all the people who entered, mine won.” A smile crosses her face as if she were holding a newborn baby.
Her thoughts ricochet back to the present. “I could get off the train in Wilmington and meet up with a friend of mine.”
“What friend?” I ask.
“Someone I met on Facebook. We talk on the phone all the time. I told him what happened and he said he’d pick me up in Wilmington.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea. Does he live in Wilmington?”
“I’ve never met him in person. I don’t want him to see me like this. You know, with my teeth missing. He says it doesn’t matter. But it matters to me.”
She tells me her boyfriend punched her in the mouth, knocking her teeth out. “I got some fake ones but my daughter’s dog chewed them up. I was glad to find out Medicaid will pay to replace them.”
Sometimes I wish I could wash all my privilege away and see what remains. Sherry disappears again. I fall asleep using both seats as my bed. The constant hum reminds me of where I am.
In the morning, Sherry tells me her boyfriend has asked her to marry him. Will she stay or will she go? She’s learned to live life with an open wound. As a couple they move towards and away from each other like this train does at any point along its route. The conductor calls out: “Washington.” I withhold my opinion and disembark.