Amish kids are eating sandwiches that taste better than mine, wrapped in wax paper and pulled from metal lunch pails they carried on to the Amtrak. They don’t have luggage, just the sandwiches on thick slices of bread, adorned with slabs of meat and cheese that smell curiously clean. They’re in the lounge car, waiting for daylight to fade along with the rest of us, anticipating the night time insanity of passed bottles of booze they won’t drink from and long-winded stories about the death of an innocence most of us never had. Four of them are packed into a single table, just barely men, wearing suspenders and collared shirts and sensible-looking shoes with bowl hair and bangs cut clean across. They have really earnest conversations with people of the same sex and women over 50. Their beards are like what I’ve seen on hipsters at recent music festivals, and the one with reddish brown hair catches me staring. I wonder if I brushed my cheek against his if it would feel less polluted than Portland beards, all gravel filled and pubic rough from too much bad attention. If I brushed my cheek against his would I pull back and know that his eyes weren’t blue but were piercing anyway, that his smile was endless and drawn from some serene place, that his hands and body were shaped by work and not sitting and thinking and wondering. And would he know in a single glorious second that all the thoughts he’d carefully masked and thought were his alone to die with were poised to unravel in the company of greedy me? No: I’m vulgar. He knows it. There’s nothing to explain.
The plot thickens when one of them produces a deck of cards, and an older woman with bright smile, age-faded eyes, and silver-rimmed glasses asks to get in on a game of Hearts. They nod and answer her politely and make eye contact and she’s in. Damn. As they laugh and listen the woman asks some of the questions I’ve written down in my head, but none of the good ones. If I only got one question I couldn’t resist: How do you react to someone saying “I love you,” having never seen it on television? Then before I can wonder and wander any deeper someone taps my shoulder with a whiskey bottle and I smile and refuse because I don’t drink anything brown, but still I retreat to the familiar temple of loud laughter and tales of travels unfinished, partners met, and how life is just long enough to assure us in an instant that our hearts will never stop breaking.
There’s a man reading Blood Meridian while knitting a consistent pearl stitch that would have my grandmother’s envy. He’s got hypnotic fingers, crazy magician’s hands with long digits and a broad palm. Air hands in palmistry. The man works either oblivious to my attention or uninterested in it, and I don’t care so long as he doesn’t pause his looping green weaving. In a second the trance of watching his hands takes me back to my last encounter with a raccoon. She stood on her haunches with her paws in the air, her inflated biped self blocking me from harming her brood of two slow-moving kits waddling their way across the street behind her. I turned my bicycle away from her and took the long way home out of respect for mothers everywhere, and resolved to remember how she lowered her paws when I surrendered without a fight, and how it felt like thanks. As I pedaled away I thought her children would struggle enough, between cars and sealed garbage cans and dogs and traps set in gardens with peanut butter tricks, and men coming in work boots to take their caged bodies some place unfamiliar and lonely. No: they didn’t need to worry about me. Back in the present the man’s progressing scarf or hat or something else drowns me deeper into my own head as I recall a time when my eyes were ringed red. I was finishing my master’s thesis, and I don’t remember eating at all as I rearranged words in sleepy sentences and adjusted margins and running headers and footers and purchased 20 pound paper with a watermark. I wore out my printer, all the while wearing my sleep deprivation mask that mirrored the raccoon’s face, that called her essence into my body. Everything I wrote then was waking dream to make up for what night didn’t have; it was sitting prisoner in a chair made of seven-fingered hands that activated when my eyes got heavy; it was spying trolls crouched in corners with hammers for hands, waiting for the right moment to swallow my cats. Now: I shake my head awake and swallow a mouthful of cold coffee polluted by stray grounds, and the magician-man turns a page and unwinds another ring from the rapidly fading ball of green. Today, this weaver unravels me in an instant.
Sending chapter after chapter to my younger sibling, who has an evil advice giving style that essential amounts to either, “send me another chapter” or “I’m bored.” Since neither is complimentary and one is fist-slam bad, I’m left perpetually chasing the damn dangling carrot. Good call, Rachael. In another month I’ll either be basking in book-done glow or throwing my orange painted body against an empty canvas hoping to map a new career.