“Oh wow, you look far too young to have a son in his fifties!” Maria says to Beverly. If we were in England now Beverly would say, “thank you”. We aren’t in England anymore Toto. “I was the victim of a violent crime you see, I’ve had a lot of reconstructive surgery on my face.” If we were in England Maria would say “oh I’m sorry”, and we would all get back to eating our burgers in uncomfortable silence. “If you don’t mind me asking…what kind of violent crime?”. in America people’s stories reside just behind their lips and they slip out with the most gentle prompt. I don’t resent it, I eat up their stories so that I can regurgitate them later like this, but something about it feels too easy. I’m used to having to work at somebody to get their stories, pry them out over weeks or months like an awkward oyster from it’s shell. Shuck shuck shuck away. In America it can be the first thing a person offers you up, their worst moment, their biggest sorrow, their broken heart on their sleeve for anyone to see. Eat it up, they want you to. Get fat on their stories, get sick on them, just make sure you ingest them, swallow them whole.
We are strangers, eating dinner together in the dining cart of the Southwest Chief Amtrak train. The train pulled out of Los Angeles a few hours ago and wont be getting into it’s final destination of Chicago for another few days. To my right is a woman who is in her seventies called Beverly, she looks her age to me. We are sat opposite a couple, Michael and Maria, he is older than she is and has a glitzy looking walking stick leaning against the table. Beverly is getting off in Arizona to visit her sister, Michael and Maria are heading back home to Chicago after a long vacation in California and I’m getting off in Lamy, New Mexico to get two buses and a ride in a truck to stay in an old school bus I found on Airbnb in a town called Madrid. There aren’t many tables in the Amtrak dining cart and there’s a lot of people who want to eat so they’ll sit you together with strangers, it’s one of my favourite things about riding with Amtrak. I’d be so down for eating like this in restaurants more, speaking to strangers over food.
Beverly tells us about the violent crime. There is nothing to say, “sorry” feels tiny in the face of this. We ask more questions instead. Did he get caught? Did he go to prison? Where is he now? I respect her bravery in telling us about this but it’s hard to know what to do with the conversation when someone drops that kind of bomb mid dinner. We are all eating 12 dollar burgers with a side of crisps and salad, only Michael and I manage to finish everything on our plates. “I should weigh 500 pounds, the amount I eat” Michael announces while rubbing his belly, “I’m sick though”. We’re all friends now, no questions are off limits, Beverly asks Michael what he is sick with but you know the answer before he speaks. He was given three years to live eight years ago but some kind of trial drug has given him some extra time to stick around and take long vacations, go whale watching or visit Disneyland. Maria seems at her most comfortable when talking about Michael’s illness, it is her and not him that tells us about the trial drugs and the machine in his back that stopped working and the sentence that the doctors gave him.
We manage to wrestle the conversation away from disease of the body and into disease of the nation, Trump. I am relieved that they are all anti the orange monster. Beverly thinks they should build a garden instead of a wall, an organic garden. Michael thinks Michelle Obama should be president with Oprah as vice president, “We need a woman in charge” he says. When American people talk to me about Trump they want to know how they are seen by the rest of the world. What do we think of what they did? They’re far more interested in looking in the mirror than out of the window. Who am i? Who are we? What does this mean? What do i mean? America, Americans, still looking for a way to define themselves.
Our waitress comes to take our plates, as she gives us our bills she tells us about her first husband getting killed, how her second husband gave her son a hard time, how her son forgave her. I’m exhausted, emotionally drained from the dining cart conversations, I just want to sit in my seat and stare at my phone or read my book. It’s dark outside as the train moves through the quiet desert, I know it’s crawling with life though; owls and rats, coyotes and snakes, all kinds of bugs are taking up the space that humans aren’t inhabiting. I put my Amtrak blanket ($10 from the onboard shop) over my body, move my chair back to reclining, take a swig from my mini bottle of red wine and attempt sleep.