Amtrak’s Cardinal lumbered past the sleeping trees of West Virginia’s mountains. I sat in my compartment — feet propped up on the seat facing mine with Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited in my lap. The car rocked back and forth on the rails — our passenger train but an interloper on these smooth coal lines.
I drank in the faded November beauty. Flurries fluttered about in the tremendous gusts of air generated by the train as it barreled down the track. Far up ahead, the engine blew its horn. We crossed a road and dove into a tunnel.
I love trains. I always have.
A wooden train set was the sole toy at my great grandparents’ house. I’d rearrange the interlocking wooden tracks a dozen different ways. My mouth full of whistles and chugging noises, the engines would bustle the various cars (connected to one another by magnets) hither and yon through the enormous rail depots of my imagination.
At home, long after I should have retired it, I pushed around a green train — the kind on which a toddler would sit and shuffle his feet to move the train about — through tunnels (TV trays covered with blankets) in the Rockies and across the vast, wintry plains (the linoleum in the kitchen) and deep into the thick forests of Maine (a grayish shag carpet my mother longed to get rid of).
I watched Thomas the Tank Engine, read The Polar Express, and stared at my battery-powered train circling round and round the Christmas tree.
Lest you think I left this obsession behind with the other trappings of boyhood like a normal person, when my parents took me to Washington, D.C. as a sort of graduation trip, I may have been more exited for the 52 hours in total my dad and I would spend on the train getting to and from the city than I was to visit D.C.
For me, trains are part and parcel of an overarching anachronistic theme that colors my life: hand-written letters to friends, excitement about checking the mail, a pocket watch, Latin Mass, and a preference for getting my news from paper and the radio waves.
Over and above that, there’s a humanity to train travel. There are no security lines with dour agents scanning, patting, inspecting. No men in nice suits heaving exasperated sighs at the elderly woman who seems to have not flown since before 9/11.
When you’re on a train, there’s space.
When I fly, my American spatial perception basically puts my seatmates in the danger zone. Can’t interact. Too close. Just cast awkward half smiles. Be mutually apologetic if a bathroom visit is required. Hope that it’s over as soon as possible.
Not so on a train. There’s space to walk around. There are tables for games. It’s a coffee shop on wheels. You’re forced to dine with strangers! It’s balm in our isolated worlds of earbuds attached to little screens on which our eyes are fixed rather than looking into the faces of new-found friends.
It was with some disappointment that I was seated by myself for breakfast. This train wasn’t very full (hence why I got my sleeper for such steal), and it was possible for passengers to sit in the dining car by themselves. Absent a conversation partner and assured of many uninterrupted hours of reading, I did the next best thing: people watched.
There was a man, a little older than me — so maybe late 30s — with shaggy brown hair reading a copy of Poetry. I immediately began weaving a story for him — a professor of English just starting his career at a small college in West Virginia somewhere along the line. He has been visiting friends and family back home in Alexandria.
A family with two kids. The parents look tired but content. It was a trip to Washington that they thought would be educational. Mid-trip they discovered that their boys weren’t quite old enough to appreciate it, but they were thrilled to be back on the train playing with their little toys from the Air and Space Museum.
Across from me sat a man in his 70s with neatly trimmed white hair. His wrinkled face was kind. He wore rimless glasses. Delightfully, he wore a dark blue button up, a tweed jacket, and a flat cap. He settled into his seat, took out two books, a notebook, a pen, and a picture. He set one book on the table and propped up the picture on it. He opened the notebook, unscrewed the cap of a fountain pen he produced from his jacket, and began to write.
He looked up from his work and gazed at the picture. His face was placid, but a tear coursed down his right check. He blinked rapidly, looked around as if ashamed, and grabbed a handkerchief from his pocket. He stared out the window.
I went back to my compartment unable to get the elderly man off my mind. I didn’t invent a story for him because I wanted to know the real one, but it seemed crass to barge into such a fragile, private world. I told myself that I could cheer him up, but maybe he didn’t want cheering. Sometimes we just need to swim in our grief.
At lunch the man didn’t appear. I was again seated with no one. There were surely new passengers about whom I could create stories, but paid them no mind. After nearly a month with friends in up-state New York, Boston, and Newark, this extended indulgence in introversion was quite a treat. Still, though, between paragraphs of Brideshead, my mind wandered off the page and away from the indulgent Oxford days of some clever dandies and down the corridor to the gentle, lonesome old man in his room.
On we rolled past the back doors of Charlottesville, Clifton Forge, White Sulfur Springs and tiny human enclaves in between — momentary interlopers sneaking peaks at bucolic vistas of faded red barns and open pastures intermixed with yards of dilapidated trailers bestrewn with the detritus of poverty.
The dinner announcement came as our train neared Prince, West Virginia. I wobbled to the dining car and found a few sparse diners finishing as well as the kindly old man just getting to his table. The attendant seated me by myself across the aisle from him. As before he set up a picture and took out a notebook. I wanted to sit with him and know his story but feared being intrusive. In what, for me, constitutes a bold stroke, I cleared my throat and spoke to him.
“Excuse me — please feel free to say no, but would you mind if I joined you?”
His face lit up. “I’d be delighted! Please, come. Come have a seat. My name’s Edward.”
“I’m Paul. It’s nice to meet you. I don’t mean to intrude, but I just noticed…” And then his story unfolded before me.
“You wondered what the story of this eccentric old man was!” he chuckled softly — his eyes nearly disappearing into the crinkles of his skin. “Well, I’m on my way out west to visit my daughter and her partner, and I was supposed to make the trip with my wife, Sandra,” he gestured toward the picture.
“We hatched the plan earlier this year. She filled this notebook,” he gestured to the black Moleskin anchoring the picture, “with little tidbits about towns and things we’d see along the way.”
“For example,” he propped her picture up on his cup and grabbed the notebook and opened it clearing his throat, “Prince, West Virginia is a town of 100 and is one of the smallest towns in the country with an Amtrak station. It is one of the most populated communities of the New River Gorge.’ It continues, but I don’t want to bore you.” He smiled at this little bit of trivia then turned more serious.
“I also brought the book with me that she wanted to read.” He picked up a copy of Sense and Sensibility from the seat next to him.
His voice caught just a little bit in his throat as he continued. “I’ve been reading it to her along the way.”
We lingered over our dinner as the world passed by: Thurmond, Montgomery, Charleston — with inky blackness in between.
He was a retired Episcopal priest who’d spent his most of his life moving about New England. He told me about his (adopted) daughter and her coming out and how pleased he was that he beat the Episcopal Church to acceptance but that he was glad the hierarchy came along.
Like me, he was an Anglophile. We talked about murder mysteries and our favorite books. (Cadfael and Dickens for him; Midsomer Murders and Waugh (maybe C. Bronte) for me.
He talked about Sandra and some of his favorite memories with her — a trip to Niagara Falls when they were young and poor, the adoption of their daughter, their time at an Episcopal mission in Zambia, reading at her bedside near the end.
I said very little. He needed to share Sandra, and I was happy to serve as a reliquary for his treasured memories.
For a few moments, he stared out the window.
Without looking at me, he continued, “It was cancer. Pancreatic. We found out three months ago but we found it too late. It was already spreading everywhere and I lost her. Just like that. In the blink of an eye. She went from perfectly healthy if maybe a little more tired than normal to desperately ill in a matter of weeks.”
He looked back at me and I at him. “I’m sorry for your loss.”
“Thank you,” he turned his head slightly to gaze out the window and fumbled for his handkerchief.
“I have my hope that I’ll see her again when it’s my time to go. I still feel her with me. Near the end she made me promise to go on this trip, so here I am — eating with her, reading to her and,” he reached over and patted my hand, “meeting new friends here in my life’s final chapter.”
Our waitress came by and told us that the dining car would be closing at nine. “Can I get you anything else before then?”
“Nothing at all, my dear. Thank you,” Edward replied with a warm smile. She departed and we made ready to retire.
“Paul, thank you for the pleasure of your company. Sandra would have liked you a lot. If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to read her a little bit more Austen before bed. God bless you.”
He gathered up his things, stood, and ambled out of the car.
I sat there alone for a minute or two collecting my thoughts. Before returning to my compartment, I walked the length of the train — a little postprandial perambulation. A group of Mennonites talked quietly with one another. A young couple shared earbuds and an iPad screen for a film. A woman sitting by herself jabbed at her screen gleefully crushing candy. Hundreds of strangers and I with our complicated lives of joy and suffering rumbled along.
Impermanence can makes things all the sweeter. We cross in and out of one another’s lives, and so we should strive to leave a wake of kindness — weave a tapestry of affability and good will.
I headed back to the sleeping cars, nodded to dining car staff, said goodnight to my attendant, changed into pajamas, and settled into bed.
I knew that I would never see Edward again; I’d disembark early the next morning. He and Sandra would continue on the train with its revolving door of souls and stories to Chicago and then onward to California under a capacious western sky.