*I cozy into the window seat, close my eyes. Finally, I’ve gotten away from constant (corrosive) talk of politics for a few days. I’ve taken Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited. Tomorrow morning, in Chicago, I’ll walk over to the Art Institute, have a look, have lunch, then catch the Southwest Chief for Los Angeles. I’m counting on spending three solitary nights and days on the train, reading and staring out at the changing landscape. After the first hours of traveling up along the Hudson River, I walk to the overheated cafe car to read Paul Theroux’s Dark Star Safari. I pour cranberry juice ( it’s all they have) over plastic cupfuls of ice. Between reading and sipping, I gaze in blank reverie out the window at the wintry beauty of the Hudson River. At one point I carry a tray for an eighty something woman with narrow shoulders and silvery hair cut in a pageboy that makes her look very much like a geriatric June Allyson. (Or, for those who don’t remember June Allyson, a geriatric Drew Barrymore.) On her tray is a Sanka and a cinnamon roll that she’s quartered. There’s a pillow tucked under her arm.
There are some people who have no sense that someone reading a book might be busy. She’s one of these people. She offers me a quarter of the sweet roll with a dry voice, plops down her pillow, and sits across from me on top of it. I’d been saving this book for just such a train ride, had just marked — aging can be startling too; the sapling grown into a great oak, the vast edifice made into a ruin — but I give in to the cinnamon roll.
“Where are you going?”she inquires.
“My. That’s quite a trip. What do you do?”
“I write books.”
Her Windex-blue eyes narrow. “What are you writing about?”
“Suffice to say I’m writing about the heart.”
“Perhaps you know about this. They’ve discovered a new, uh, device. It’s for the human heart that’s enlarged or may be sagging. It’s like a pair of support hose.”
“You know, panty hose. Support hose for the heart. It wraps around the heart and holds it together, supports it.”
“I’m not writing about medical issues related to the human heart.”
“Then what? You look like a doctor.”
“I do? I’m writing about middle-aged people and love.”
She now has my full attention.
She doesn’t answer directly. Instead, she explains that she’d been visiting her daughter Gwendolyn in Albany. It seems that Gwendolyn divorced her first husband when she was middle-aged but has remarried.
“What’s wrong with the new husband ?”
In a flat voice she says, “He’s a Democrat!”
At this point I close my book entirely and ask, “Beside being a Democrat, what’s wrong with the new husband?”
I hope I’ve kept any tone of irony out of my voice.
“Don’t let me get started. She’s turned things inside out. She used to be so normal — a Republican like her father and me, sang in the church choir. Until she met him. She calls him Snoopy. They believe they were personages in the Old Testament in a past life. A psychic told them that they originally met in Babylon long before Christ. But if that isn’t enough, they collect teddy bears and stuffed animals.”
“I counted seventy-five stuffed animals. If that isn’t bad enough they dress them up and talk to them. They brought one to the dinner table and sat it on a chair. I moved it — it was a gray wolf — so I could sit down, and my son-in-law said in a little voice that pretended to be a wolf ‘s voice, ‘Hey, Grandma, be gentle with me,’ and my daughter chimed in, in a little-girl voice, ‘Sorry, Ecclesiastes!’ Then in a normal voice she said, ‘Mother, that’s Ecclesiastes’ chair.’ Then Snoopy went into the kitchen and brought a kitchen chair out into the dining room for me, and the wolf remained in the good dining room chair that should have been mine for the entire meal.”
I ask, “Do you think she’s happy having a new life that’s so different from her earlier life?”
“If bringing handfuls of autumn leaves into the living room and throwing them all around, and playing jacks and tops on the floor with a man who has arthritis is happiness, then l guess they are. Her effort to explain was to say, ‘Mother, Jesus said we can’t get into the Kingdom of Heaven until we are like children.’ “
I empty my plastic cup of juice, ask if she’d like another cup of Sanka.
“One’s my limit. But this train doesn’t go to California!”
“In Chicago I change trains.”
“I get off in Chicago.”
It has gotten absolutely black outside; the cafe car is closing for an hour to give the barman a break. l hear the train whistling urgently as it speeds past clanging barriers while red lights flash. l offer to walk her to her compartment. She holds on to my sleeve. She jokes that, like the song says, we’ll be having our ham and eggs in Carolina but she substitutes Chicago for Carolina. When I’m back in my own seat, head tilted toward the window, another song about trains washes through my mind as I doze off.**
sung by Josué Teodoro – Music by Peter Paul and Mary]
Love in the Second Act: