Drunks and writers ride Amtrak. Classy drunks (the kind who don’t drive) and amateur writers. The type of drunks who don’t mind spending six dollars on cans of Budlight to wash down the flask of whisky they tucked into the inside of their winter ski jacket.
The writers are young and hopeful. We all gather up in the observation car sitting with our paper notebooks, ink pens, and hardback novels spread across the dining tables like sentence physicians—our vintage leather suitcases claiming the seats in front and to the side of us, lest some fool should try to join us, interrupt us; so our orange peels, Nalgene waterbottles, and of course our papercups of black Amtrak coffee crown our paperstuff, nudging us on and warding off talkers.
The young writer (actually he is a graphic novelist) behind me is passionate and excited in his seat. His shoulders are jumping and he has a faraway look as he fishes for inspiration. The train engine revs and be begin our travel from Portland, Oregon to Malta, Montana (me). As the train moves down down down the tracks, the jumpy novelist turns to me, “Excuse me.” he asks, “Do you know if it’s always this bumpy?”
Personally, I’d never much noticed the bumps. But I guess we were kind of bumping along. “Bumpy?” I respond, looking up from my poem.
“I don’t know, I’m sorry.” I tell him. Poor guy. Thinks he’s going to be the next Art Speigelman beginning with an epic trainride across the west, where ideas will come to him just like Christmas gifts from lonely, wealthy, overzealous relatives and he will lay them down onto the page like Jack Kerouac did, his words timely and brilliant and bold. How sad, I think, as the young artists puts his pencil to paper and the train jerks and shudders. I look at my own paper and there are circle scribbles and big black holes and lines, missing letters and arrows.
In the front of me is a poor sap whose head I keep looking above and all around. He’s a pretty boy and so he probably thinks I am admiring him, although he seems to be a writer too (pens, a wallet size notebook, a crown of snacks) so he just might know what I’m doing staring off like this. Thinking. Fishing.
He’s a bouncy fellow (maybe I think they’re all so bouncy because we’re on a train?) and for a spell he stares back at me and out the boxcar window, scribbling words or pictures, I don’t know. We begin to roll along side the navyblue Columbia, a river I have never truly rolled alongside before. Soon the jumpy fellow (pretty boy) is distracted by his cellphone—poking at it—and then he gets or makes two phonecalls and as I cannot help but eavesdrop I find that he has a “crazy” ex-girlfriend which reminds me, aren’t they all? Men use crazy to describe “unideal” or “just didn’t work out” like we women use “lazy” to describe men who ignore us or have too many indoor hobbies and “cheater” to describe men who lie or have pretty friends.
He eyes me back but I am not eyeing him, just eavesdropping and fishing. There’s a more handsome man with a big smile and a greasy cowlick sipping a cocktail from a tiny plastic cup in a seat to the right and up a few. And beyond that there is my very own boyfriend who is waiting for my arrival way down the tracks in frozen Malta, Montana. And it is him who I set my sights on.
It is Christmastime. There is a man who stops at every chance to smoke and drags into the freeze his oxygen tank and Camels. Back at my assigned seat is a large man in cowboy boots and hat, nice enough guy, rank breath, offered to buy me a beer, likes to show you things on his phone. I politely excused myself to the obs car. Pretty boy and cowlick have struck a conversation and the graphic novelist behind me converses with a gang of old folks—and they all cheers to the grand Columbia.