My head came up, my gaze sweeping over top of the screen that had absorbed my attention as the miles rolled past. I took a deep breath in through my nose as I scanned the lounge car. Whiskey. I definitely smelled whiskey and it sang to me like Odysseus’s siren. It had been a long day.
I’d come into the lounge car just before the train began rolling east out of Denver under the threat of dark clouds and a ribbon of red sunset. Two groups of young men played competing beats drowning beneath animated conversation. An older couple played cards. A lone man typed steadily away on his shiny, white MacBook. Kids half a car up were alternating between a portable DVD player and finding their own fun using the fixed lounge furniture as a jungle-gym.
It was all a far more welcome scene than the dark, quiet, closed coach class seat I’d been assigned three cars back. The one that smelled like fast food from the dinner brought on board by the large guy in the next seat, the one who advised me, I’d better let him have the aisle because he tended to get up a lot in the night. I didn’t feel like being trapped in those confines between him and the small window, so I swung my pack back up onto my shoulders and hugged my sleeping roll close as I made my way forward.
Now it was night. I’d watched the scenery roll by, industrial at first, then suburban, then just the empty plain of eastern Colorado. I’d scanned the sky for lightning and watched the spectacular sunset between dark mountains and darker clouds. Then I’d opened my laptop and begun to write. I wasn’t writing anything in particular, just letting my mind rest in the steady tap of keys, reinventing the story of my life yet one more time.
I noticed when the gentleman came and sat down facing me, one booth other. He had white hair and a tall, trim build. From his bag came a little black notebook, which he soon became as absorbed with as I with my digital version. So we wrote in companionable silence (but for the noise going on around us), until that telltale smell tickled my nose.
I considered for a few minutes, inhaling that sharp perfume, then got up and made my way forward, careful of the rocking train. I refilled my mostly empty water bottle, but that was mostly an excuse. As I made my way back, I noted the small bottle and an actual glass tumbler of amber liquid, and I stopped facing him.
“What are you writing?”
“Oh, just journaling,” he commented, without any surprise at my interruption.
“I was doing to same and wondered if you were, too. But the smell of whiskey got my attention.”
He smiled. It was Lagavulin, as it turned out, Scotch. And would I like some. I slid into the booth opposite him. He had noticed me when he came in, just as I had noticed him. We had recognized each other as writers from the start. We raised our glasses in a toast.
We talked about where we were from and where we were headed, family and writing, jobs and hobbies, books and authors. His name was Theo and he was going from Salt Lake City to New York. After decades of teaching high school in California, he had retired, married, become the instant father of teenagers, and moved to be with his new family in Salt Lake, where he’d been invited to join a writer’s group.
“What do you write?” I asked, genuinely interested.
“Mostly memoir. I’m not so interested in getting published as the other members of my group. Right now I’m working on this piece about a painting I bought, a portrait of a woman.” He told me about the portrait and how his fourteen-year-old stepson though it was spooky.
We passed a comfortable hour just chatting. This seemed to be something of an adventure for him, taking the train just to see what could be seen, to meet his brother and sister in New York and say at his sister’s place in Manhattan for a while. It sounded lovely. To take the train that far is a journey of some days, and to be worth anything at all, one needs to be willing to make friends. Trains are good places for that.
We bid our goodbyes and thank you’s after a time and I returned to my seat. Theo continued his writing for a while yet and waved me good night on his way forward towards the sleeping cars. A bunk costs many times more than an airline ticket, so only someone interested in travel for its own sake (or a deathly fear of flying) bothers with them.
I never saw Theo again. After a time, I went downstairs and stretched out in the quiet lower lounge. I wasn’t so deep in sleep that I needed the three o’clock alarm I’d set. I cancelled it a few minutes before it went off and rolled up my sleeping roll, making my way back to my assigned seat just as the familiar streets of Crete began to roll by. Shortly after that came Lincoln, my stop, and I hoped Theo was getting a better night’s sleep than I.
I’ll probably never see him again, but I’m glad to have met him.