Then the feeling moves on. It does not collapse; it is not whisked away. It simply moves on, like a train that stops at a small country station, stands for a while, and then continues out of sight.Michael Cunningham, The Hours
I was smoking a cigarette in the café car of a Minneapolis-bound Amtrak train, watching Wisconsin race by through the window, when a nearby conversation distracted me.
A middle-aged woman with her tween son at her side asked a simple but very specific question of a grey-haired man sitting closer to me: “You ride a Harley?” The man was wearing a denim jacket with numerous patches, including one indicating affiliation with a certain motorcycle club.
He told her yes, he rode a Harley.
“My husband rides a Honda,” she said in a friendly tone.
He looked right at her and said with a broad grin, “Hondas are for pussies.”
That conversation successfully thwarted, the Harley rider turned his attention to me. He sized me up with a skeptical squint, then his eyes fell on the book I had out on the table, On the Road. He shook his head and said, “Kerouac! What are you doing with that pretentious bullshit?”
What I was doing was rereading it at the age of 24, having first read it in high school, when I found it inspiring and subversive like many teenagers before me. In picking it up again for this weekend trip from Chicago to Minneapolis and back, I was attempting to recapture a sense of adventure and spontaneity that three years of 9-to-5 cubicle jobs had beaten out of me. An opportunity for spontaneous adventure arose at that moment as my new biker friend invited me back to his seat to share a bottle of Jim Beam.
Between swigs of cheap bourbon we shared the basics about ourselves. When I told him I lived in Chicago, he responded that there were “too many potato-eaters in that town.”
“I’m actually Irish myself,” I said, more amused than insulted.
“I know,” he said. “I recognize a mick when I see one.”
His name was not Gary, but that’s what I’ll call him here. Gary lived in Key West. He was about 6’3” and broad-shouldered, with a full grey beard, a red face and a gruff voice. It’s possible that 20 years earlier he was ruggedly handsome in a young-Kris-Kristofferson kind of way, but it was hard to tell for sure. He had lived in Minneapolis after serving in the Vietnam War, and was headed there to reconnect with people he hadn’t seen in decades. I was on my way to visit a friend who was in the MBA program at the University of Minnesota.
Gary had recently gone through some tough times, he told me. After a kitten that he loved was gravely injured, he shot it to death to put it out of its misery. That triggered a PTSD reaction that brought back terrible memories from the war. He barricaded himself in his home in Key West for a while, not wanting to interact with other people, afraid that he was in danger from the authorities or other people who were out to get him. While he’d gotten past that episode, he told me he was still feeling bad about things that happened in Vietnam.
Robert McNamara, the defense secretary who oversaw much of that war, had just admitted in a memoir that he knew early on that the U.S. had no chance of winning. I’d heard about this somewhere—NPR, most likely. I felt confident telling Gary that no matter what he had done there, none of it was his fault. He was sent to Vietnam because of the folly of McNamara and other men like him, power-mad creeps with no empathy for their fellow human beings, and he didn’t have to feel responsible for his actions. But his experiences had scarred him too deeply for some kid’s well-intentioned attempt at absolution to have much effect.
“I killed people,” he said, sounding guilt-ridden and distraught.
Having zero experience with war or anything like it, I didn’t know what else to say.
Along with the bottle of Beam, Gary’s duffel bag held a couple of surprises. One was a small turtle with two legs missing. He pulled it out and stroked its shell gently, telling me he’d found it on the side of the road. The other was an extremely large knife. I don’t even know what type you’d call it, but it was the longest and sharpest knife I’ve ever seen (and pretty wide too).
Gary pulled the knife out of the bag and and said he’d show me how they killed the Vietcong “over there.” I’ll never know if he was serious or just trying to impress me with a story, but he grabbed me under my Adam’s apple and pressed the knife up to my throat. I figured he probably wasn’t going to hurt me, so I didn’t panic. But I was scared. We may have bonded over whiskey, but he was a drunken stranger with questionable emotional stability who had just admitted to killing people. He pulled the knife about a half inch away from my throat and moved it slowly sideways as he explained how they’d slice the carotid artery “just like this” and watch the blood spurt out. Then he let go of me. After putting the knife back in his bag, he sensed that I was somewhat shaken.
“Did you think I was gonna hurt you?” he asked.
“Nah, I’m okay,” I said.
“I would never hurt you,” he told me. “You remind me of my son.” His son, from a long-ago-ended marriage, had just graduated from an Ivy League college. I think it was Yale.
Gary asked if I had a girlfriend. I said no. “Are you queer?” he asked. That was a question I’d been expecting someone to ask me for a long time. I had admitted to myself when I was around 19 or 20 that I was into guys, but thought of myself as bisexual in theory. Not because I was attracted to women at all, but because I thought it might make sense for me to one day marry a woman who would be cool with me having sex with men on the side, because, you know, marrying a woman was what guys were supposed to do. I was actually comfortable with the fact that I liked men, but I was nervous about how other people would react to it and how their perceptions of me might change. More importantly, I was so painfully insecure that I was convinced no one, male or female, could possibly find me attractive, and consequently I had made zero effort at dating either sex. After years of not telling anyone about my attraction to men, but obsessing over it constantly inside my brain, it was a huge relief to have someone else bring it up.
“I think I probably am, yeah,” I told him.
“What do you mean, you ‘think’?” he asked. I said I hadn’t tried fooling around with a guy but I thought about it all the time.
“Well, if you ever come down to Key West, I know people I could introduce you to,” he said.
That would be something, I thought. Head down to the far corner of America, land of Hemingway, Jimmy Buffett, tourists in flip-flops and eponymous lime pies, and let this 50-something biker set me up with a man. Take that, Kerouac.
Gary took the turtle out of the bag again and began petting it. A conductor walked by and said, “Sir, you’re going to have to put that back in your bag. You’re not supposed to have it on the train.”
I had to laugh, thinking, “If he only knew what else was in that bag.” But then I realized I was probably very lucky the conductor hadn’t walked by a few minutes earlier and seen the knife at my throat. Even though Gary may have had no intention of hurting me, it wouldn’t have been hard for the knife to accidentally slice my throat if the conductor misinterpreted what was going on and turned it into a confrontation. There’s me in an alternate reality, bleeding out on the dirty carpet of a northwest-bound Amtrak train. Goodbye cruel world…but thanks for the bourbon!
That didn’t happen, of course. Gary and I talked some more about his son, about Florida, about Minneapolis, and then we arrived there. He wasn’t sure whether his friends were going to show up, so he asked if I could get him a ride to where he was going. I told him I didn’t think that would be a problem, but that I didn’t want him to mention the whole “queer” thing as my friend didn’t know about that. When we got off the train, though, Gary’s people were there to greet him with smiles and hugs.
I finally came out of the closet about a year and a half after that, but I didn’t take Gary up on his offer to set me up in Key West. I never saw him again, and I haven’t met another train passenger one-twentieth as interesting since. I never finished rereading On the Road either.
TrainWrite turned 4 today!
Your keyboard fingers rest
on the chestnut colored cushion.
It’s your capsule and it zips you up
like a suitcase, turning your eyes
inside out. The other passengers
are pencil outlines by the time
the whistle blows. You reach for
James Joyce in your pocket, skinny
and spotted, still smelling of wine
and copper hair. You open him
and he opens you, heating up your insides.
This page says father, and that page
says hell, and the two intermingle
like soot and eyelashes on a
beggar’s face. The scene takes you
and twists the coils in your legs
to a nearly unbearable tightness.
Nearly, but not quite so much
that you cannot feel your brain
bursting blood behind your cheeks,
your fingers pinching the cushion,
your shoulders curling forward
like scythes. Black spots blind you
as you feel the wheels stop churning.
Coats and purses and children
are shuffled around. The darkness
passes like a fish. You get up and leave,
your forehead sweat evaporating
into the evening air.
Sara Henry is studying English at the University of Chicago, where she is a Senior Editor of Euphony Journal. In 2010 she was named a Foyle Young Poet by The Poetry Society and her work has appeared in The Chaffey Review. "The Train Home From Work" first appeared in the UK magazine Magma in April 2011.