Lights dangled from the ceiling at Seattle’s King Station, illuminating the white granite walls. A small-scale elegance compared to the Union Station where my two-month trip began, but still beautiful, iridescent, awe-inspiring.
“Have you taken this train before?” I asked the man beside me, eager for conversation. Traveling alone, I learned, was exhilarating, empowering, and very quiet. I craved human interactions that transcended “hello,” “thank you,” “please.”
“No. I took the Empire Builder.”
“Me too,” I squealed.
“Yeah, my wife and I,” the man started, clearly establishing boundaries, as he explained his trip to Florida. His ring finger, I noticed, was bare, and he was on the other side of the country, alone, with a small suitcase and a guitar. He had a story, I imagined, but everybody does.
When the Amtrak employees arrived, we stood for check-in.
“Abbott,” he finally said, introducing himself. He had a child’s smile, a scruffy beard, and a mole identical to Marilyn Monroe’s.
When I boarded the train, I bid Abbott adieu, and went to my Sleeper Car. I hung up my coat, pushed my backpack to the corner, and peered out the window, as the train sped past Poverty Bay. Abbott had mentioned a viewing car, reserved for Sleeper Car passengers only, which was the closest I’d ever gotten to First Class. I closed the door to my room and veered down the hallway to get a better view of the snow-covered mountains. As soon as I entered the car, I saw Abbott at a booth with a GoPro attached to the window beside him. He pulled his headphones down to greet me.
“Long time, no see,” I laughed. I took a seat at the booth beside his, sliding my book across the table.
“So where are you headed?”
“San Fran. Then Lake Tahoe. Then Salt Lake,” I said, stopping. Nobody wanted to hear my whole itinerary which spanned more than 15 cities. “Where are you headed?”
That’s when he explained the heart of his trip. Abbott had gone to Chicago on behalf of James J. West, a famous lawyer, and then he took the Empire Builder to Seattle to pay homage to Howard Schultz and the Starbucks chain. He was following other people’s dreams. Why, I didn’t know.
“Does that really work?” a man asked from across the aisle, pointing at Abbott’s GoPro which was attached to the window. Him and, I later learned, his wife sat on opposite sides of their booth. Lou, the man called himself. A former California policeman. With white hair, an oblong face, and a wide smile. He hadn’t stood, but I knew he had the height of an NBA player. His wife, Julie, dressed plainly. Brown hair cut below her chin with blue metal-framed glasses. She had a small notebook filled with spare papers.
As they talked about the GoPro, Julie turned to the window. “That’s Mt. St. Helens,” she motioned, talking to me.
“Beautiful,” I said, as an Amtrak employee came through the car. He dipped his head down as he passed. “We rarely see that. It’s usually too foggy.”
Abbott pulled his GoPro from the window and moved to the other side of the aisle to get a better view.
“Yeah, you won’t see this again,” Lou said aloud. “Julie, get a picture.”
Julie fumbled with her phone. Feeling compelled to join in, I stood and prepared to get my own.
“Come right here,” Lou said, moving around the booth to slide in next to his wife.
“Thanks,” I said, taking the invitation to kneel on the seat across from them. In proportion to its surroundings, Mt. St. Helens was obviously very large, but from where I was kneeling, I could have blocked it with my hand. Fog circled the mountain and the snowy peak. A long river ran alongside the train, making it appear as though the mountain had grown out of the muted green water.
After the mountain disappeared, I remained at the booth.
“When you asked me why I was taking this trip,” Abbott said, from the booth behind me, “Well, there’s more to it than I said.”
“Oh really?” I asked, curious. Lou and Julie, across from me, were chatting amongst themselves, still distracted by the views.
“Yeah, my daughter died last year,” Abbott said.
He shared it so casually as if he’d said it a hundred times before. His smile faded ever-so-slightly as he looked out the window.
“That’s awful,” I said, because what else could I say? I had learned time and time again that I’m sorry meant nothing when it came to losing a loved one.
“So, Sarah,” Lou began, pulling me back into his conversation, unaware of Abbott’s unexpected confession. I wanted to say more, to assure Abbott that I was listening, that I cared even if I didn’t know him or his story, but there I was, on a passenger train, torn between two conversations, two virtual strangers, so I tried to balance both conversations, as if they were equal.
After I answered Lou’s questions, I turned back to Abbott. “I’m sorry. Nobody should have to go through that.” I said it quietly so Lou and Julie couldn’t hear. “I don’t want to ask you more questions, but I’d be happy to talk to you about it, if you want.” I didn’t know this man, but he’d just offered me a piece of himself and I felt obliged to take it.
“We can talk about it later, when I have some wine in me,” Abbott said with a soft smile.
Abbott put his headphones back on and when he stood up to leave, he looked over at the three of us and said, “I’ll see you guys later?”
“Yeah, why don’t we all meet for dinner,” Lou suggested.
We agreed on a time.
After Abbott went back to his sleeper car, I stayed and talked with Lou and Julie.
“We’re done with Europe,” Lou said. “It’s not safe anymore and this country is so beautiful.”
“I agree with that,” I said.
After Lou retired from the police force, he started a distribution business with his son who was a few years older than me. Lou and Julie were grandparents. When their three children were young, they bought an RV and traveled around the West and up to Banff National Park. Lou was a talker, Julie, a listener, but often Lou referred to Julie on things he couldn’t remember and every time, she picked up where he left off, a habit they must have perfected over the years.
When I told them about my two-month adventure, they asked the parental questions. Was it costly? Was I safe? How long did I stay in each city and where did I stay? Their curiosity and concern comforted me. They mentioned their daughter, who had once lived in a nice neighborhood in San Francisco – my next destination – and whose apartment complex was broken into again and again. I’d lived in Boston for many years and I, too, had city stories – there was a time I lived below a drummer and another time I came home to find a homeless man sleeping against my apartment door.
“Don’t worry,” I assured them. “I’m a very cautious traveler. If a place isn’t safe, then I change my plans.”
Out of nowhere, Lou said, very matter-of-factly, “I’m proud of you.”
He looked at me, then, as a father would.
I didn’t need Lou’s reassuring words, but they felt good, and for a brief moment I imagined what my life would have been like with a father like Lou.
I went back to my sleeper to relax before dinner. I attempted to read, but couldn’t. The changing scenery – the jagged mountains, the reddish-brown dirt, the lakes, the rows of trees, the empty highways passing by in flashes – gave me such a high.
How often do you get to watch a sunset from start to finish? I had seen my fair share of beautiful sunsets, on ocean landscapes, on city skyscrapers, and flower gardens, but this was an entirely different experience, because I had nowhere else to be. I watched the sun fall over the mountains and turn the sky into a lovely pink sorbet color. With some hues of red and orange, it looked as if a child had dipped his hand in different paints and spread them across the sky in one big swoop.
When my reservation time for dinner was announced over the speaker system, I put on lipgloss and a necklace – my only attempt at “dressing up,” then tucked my laptop under my pillow, and closed my door so other passengers would think I was asleep. The hallway was narrow so I pressed my hands to both sides as I moved toward the dining car.
For dinner, the tables were covered in white tablecloths and white paper sheets. Vases of fake flowers adorned each, along with salt, pepper, and ketchup and mustard packets.
I saw Julie and Lou sitting on one side of a booth. They were smiling, as Julie waved to me. She had changed into a different sweater and put on a strawberry-colored lipstick.
“Hey again,” I said, as I slid into the booth. Earlier, the surrounding sights had made the car seem large and full of light, but now, with darkness outside – and no views in sight – it felt more intimate. If there was a lull in the conservation, there would be nothing else to focus on. Nighttime in Oregon was deserted. Rows upon rows of farmland. No lights to be seen.
Abbott arrived in khakis and a button down shirt. Gel had been added to his blond hair. I felt unfitting in my clear lipgloss and cheap necklace. I was still wearing the black leggings and oversized sweater I had slept in the night before, but nobody seemed to care.
Our server was Gerry, a forty-year old Jamaican who lived in L.A. with his wife and kids. For over fifteen years, he had been working for Amtrak. For his tenth anniversary, he had received a thick silver watch from the company, which he proudly showed us. The Amtrak logo – smaller than a Cheerio – was printed in the top right corner of the watch’s face. For his fifteenth anniversary, he received nothing.
“Maybe I’ll get a gold watch for my twentieth,” he said. Then he let out a big hearty laugh, knowing exactly how to charm us.
“I’ll get the steak,” Julie said, when it came time to order. “In honor of you, Gerry.”
“Me too,” I said.
“Good choice,” said Gerry.
When Gerry had gone, the four of us clinked wine glasses. I felt like I was reconnecting with old friends who I hadn’t seen in years. This was the beauty of the train, and something I hadn’t considered when I booked my tickets. I expected scenery, sleepless nights, reading and writing, but not the people.
I quickly learned that Abbott worked in marketing. He did research on the millennial generation and learned that my generation – above all – wants experiences. Statistically, if we donate money to a charity, we don’t just want to hand over the money. We want the experience of actually volunteering for that charity. We spend less and less money on houses and physical things, unlike our parents’ generation, and are willing to live in smaller, cheaper apartments. We are more likely to take chances and to switch careers multiple times over the course of our lifetime. I was living proof of that research – I left behind an apartment and a full-time job in order to travel, to pursue writing, and to find meaning in my day-to-day life. I didn’t own anything other than some clothes, bedroom furniture, and a savings account. The only charities I supported were ones that I truly believed in.
Gerry took away our plates, brought dessert, and refilled our wine glasses. We had been sitting for over an hour, but I knew this wasn’t the end. We weren’t going to leave after the dessert plates were taken away.
We had only just begun.
Lou mentioned a friend of his who had lost his teenage daughter in a car crash. She had been driving her younger sister to bible school when she jutted out a little too far past a stop sign to get a better look at the oncoming traffic, when – BAM – a truck slammed right into the car. The youngest sister survived, but the driver did not.
I hadn’t told Lou or Julie about Abbott’s earlier confession and as I sat there, listening to this story, my cheeks burned.
“How did the parents take it?” Abbott asked. He leaned forward, resting his arm on the table, as he gripped the half-empty wine bottle.
“My friend drank a lot. He actually checked himself into rehab, so he had a bad spell, but he’s back on track and doing better.”
“They were so positive about it, though,” Julie said. “It’s all about balance, right?” She continued,“They honor her, but they don’t focus too much on the loss, because they have another daughter, you know?”
I was begging to know Abbott’s thoughts, but I remained quiet.
“Yeah, that makes sense,” Abbott said, as he picked up his glass and took a swig of red wine. His smile disappeared. “I actually lost my daughter last year.”
Lou and Julie’s eyes widened.
“Wow,” Lou said. Like me, he didn’t say he was sorry. “That must be incredibly difficult. How are you doing?”
I looked at Abbott. His cheeks were flushed from the wine. He slowly revealed the truth to us, a truth he could’ve kept to himself. Abbott and his family had just moved to Dallas for a new job. A week in, they had health concerns regarding their two-year-old, so they went to a doctor. Turned out, she had cancer. Luckily, Abbott and his wife had the financial means to get her the best treatment, which meant flying back and forth to Manhattan. Eventually, she was declared cancer-free.
“I remember the night so clearly, because we’d been living in Dallas for over a year and we had no friends,” Abbott said. “We were so lonely, you know?”
He continued. “We were invited to a party and we decided to go. We decided that we deserved to go. We needed friends. We needed our lives back so we went.” He took another sip of his beer, which he’d switched to, in the middle of his story. The three of us leaned in.
“I was sitting fourteen feet away. The people who invited us had a jacuzzi and our oldest daughter was upstairs with another group of kids. We didn’t know. They put those signs up for a reason, but we didn’t know. She was in the jacuzzi with the other kids and I guess her body was too weak from the cancer.”
“Did she drown?” Lou asked, when Abbott paused.
He nodded. “Yeah, the kids didn’t notice.” He said it matter-of-factly. It was clear he had shared this story before. “Child protective services came. I know they had to and I don’t care that they had to question me. Whatever; they couldn’t hurt me anymore than I already hurt. But they wanted to go and tell my oldest daughter. And I,” he stopped. He shook his head. “I didn’t want those strangers waking her up and telling her what happened. I wanted to be the one to tell her, you know?”
“I understand that,” Lou said.
“That’s horrible,” I said. Abbott just wanted a night out. He just wanted one night to feel normal, to feel less alone, and then this happened. How could you blame this man, this man who had struggled for a year to keep his daughter alive only to lose her in a manner like this? My insides ached for him.
“Is that why you took this trip?” Julie asked.
“Yeah, it’s been one year since her death. I went back to work after it happened, which was good. It kept me distracted. And I just went to Florida with my wife and daughter, but I had to do something on my own. I just had to.”
“I get that,” Lou said.
“Yeah, I’ve learned how to survive. I’ve proven to myself that I can survive, that I can get up in the morning, but now I have to move,” he said. “I don’t want to move forward. I just want to learn how to move.”
Every fiber in my being hurt when he said that. I had experienced the death of family members, friends, but I did not understand this man’s pain and if I were lucky, I never would.
“You can’t change what happened. You’ll always feel the guilt, but you can’t let that overtake you,” Lou said.
“Are you religious?” Lou asked.
“That’s another thing. I’m a pastor’s son,” he said. “Most of my family turned to religion, but I just couldn’t. It’s been really hard for me to understand.”
After his daughter died, a woman from the funeral home called Abbott’s house and his wife answered. She told Abbott to pick up the phone but he refused.
“I’d given her my credit card. I’d paid for everything. I wanted nothing more to do with it,” he said, but the woman insisted on speaking with him. Finally, he picked up the phone. She let him know that every funeral expense had been taken care of. She needed his credit card again for incidentals, but the rest was paid for by Abbott’s boss.
“That says a lot about you as a person,” Lou said.
“He told me, ‘Nobody should ever have to go through what you’re going through, so this is the least I can do,’” Abbott said. Turns out, that same guy paid the hospital expenses for Abbott’s daughter, too. It didn’t change anything, but it meant more than I’m sorry and doesn’t that count for something?
We stayed at that booth for hours, long past the last dinner reservation, and long past closing time. We stayed after the servers had cleared the tables. We stayed and listened as Lou shared stories of his police days – of going undercover and arresting drug dealers – and we stayed in our seats, talking and laughing, while Gerry and the other servers sat at booths on the far side of the car playing games on their phones, sorting supplies, and getting the car ready for breakfast.
I didn’t sleep that night, and I didn’t want to. When I made the last-minute decision to travel across the country, I knew I was searching for something and it wasn’t myself and it wasn’t a city to live in. No; I learned that night that I had been searching for stories, for other people’s stories. I wanted to connect with strangers and I wanted to understand how people endured in the face of heartache and biases and loss and fear and the unknown.
Living doesn’t always mean moving forward and looking for the next best thing, be it a career, a place to live, an adventure, or a partner. It is important to have goals, to have dreams, but at the same time, it is important to live, and sometimes, living means more than simply surviving; it means moving at your own pace and that’s what I was doing. I was moving on my own terms and for the first time since I had quit my job, I felt like I was doing something right.
Sarah Sheppard is a Michigan-based writer. She earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Lesley University and has published in The Juggler, Chimes, Narrative Northeast, and Santa Clara Review. She is working on a novel.