by Gina Briefs-Elgin
Sleeping on a train can be a mystical experience, or a challenging one.
According to Hasidic tradition, thirty-six “saints” (lamed vavnik) are hidden in the world at all times, holding it together through their secret good deeds. Disguised as socially marginal figures—peasants, porters, and homeless, nameless wanderers—they appear among strangers and, through their seemingly trivial actions—or even through nuisance they cause—bring about shifts in people’s perception that create community and lighten human sorrow.
I wish I could sleep every night on a train. Not alone in a berth, but in the coach with everyone else, our seats tilted back, the long car dim. I love listening to the sound of the rails at night, that da doom, da doom, da da doom and sometimes chuh chuh CHUNG, and the way you sometimes get that little shuffling, wheezing noise, or maybe a sharp little bark like a small dog. Or a little piping noise, like somebody hiding between the coaches with a flute.
I enjoy most of the sounds the passengers make, too, when it gets dark and they turn on the little rectangular white and cobalt night lights in the ceiling—the blue end pointing in the direction of the train so nobody gets lost coming upstairs from brushing their teeth. People rustling and whispering as they get ready to sleep, dropping their pillows in the aisle, lifting up their foot-rests, reclining the backs of their seats. “Put on your socks!” “Do you want some more?” People stealthily zipping and rezipping their fanny packs, someone eating something out of a box, trying to be quiet. It’s cozy and it makes the world seem not so lonely. It would be good to sleep every night on a train.
Some nights aren’t as quiet. The Capitol Limited had pulled out of D.C.’s Union Station in the early evening. At eleven we were just beyond Martinsburg, Pennsylvania, the lights dimmed, the coach snug. I was sleepless as usual, trying to look out the window but mostly seeing us passengers reflected back, young sweethearts curled up tight under a thin pink blanket, friends stretched across a whole row with their feet in each other’s faces, old couples asleep holding hands. And then me, alone, the only one awake, with my glass of Merlot, looking out onto the dark river, maybe an occasional houseboat light or a lighted buoy bobbing alone on the dark water. The seat next to mine was empty: my son was sleeping in a vacant row he had found far down the aisle on the other side.
It was summer. My twelve-year-old son and I were riding the train home from Washington, D.C. via Chicago after settling my mother’s estate. I was shaken by my mother’s death, and on this trip, I’d hardly seen my son at all; from early morning to very late the kids joined up, all backgrounds, all ages, and roamed the train (under the kindly eyes of the coach attendants) teaching each other card games, sharing their Skittles, and laughing at Coyote and Roadrunner cartoons in the downstairs café.
You’d think I was the only mother whose boy ever grew up. Because that evening I kept remembering this same trip with him when he was six, how we’d leaned together against the window and pointed out the scrap metal barges, the horses galloping away from the train, the colorful tags spray-painted on warehouses. How we’d shared little pepperoni pizzas from the café. And when it got dark, after we’d brushed our teeth and put on our sweatshirts, how he’d put his head against my shoulder and needed a story. You’d think I was the only woman whose marriage ever faltered. . . . I was feeling lonely, the kind of existential loneliness where you feel the wind blowing through your insides, and you’re so desolate you’ve got to hug yourself and double over.
Suddenly I heard a loud snore two seats up. Then a gurgling sigh like a bad drain. Silence for a moment. Then a passionate bellow-snore, wet, vibratory, with a choking gasp of panic at the end. Now everyone was awake. Rasping, chain sawing, “I’m-going-to-die-now” snores. The train was slowing and I read “Three Rivers” on the station wall. The snores abruptly stopped.
A lanky man in a flannel shirt helped himself to water in a tiny paper cup at the stair-head water fountain. While he sipped it, he turned with friendly eyes to inspect the snorer. “I thought I saw a sign that said Three Rivers, but I’m not sure. You going to Chicago?”
“No,” responded the snorer, now awake, and he and the man exchanged a few more words. The train pulled on. I put away my wine glass, tucked my pillow into the corner between the seat and the window, and tried to sleep.
Suddenly I–we–were wrenched wide awake by an alarmed snortle from two seats up. Then another volley of raucous, wet snores. I looked at my watch–one a.m. We were passing the West View Authority Water Treatment Plant; a chimney pumped out orange flames.
“Give his seatback a good shove!” I whispered to the woman in front of me. Several seats around us suddenly emptied as people rethought their seating arrangements. I wandered, sleepless and dizzy, downstairs to the bathroom. There I amused my haggard self by practicing mobster faces in the mirror. Should we loom over him and hiss, “Stop snoring, or we’ll have to kill you”?
I came back up the stairs, paused near his seat to glare at him. Fast asleep, his mouth open, he looked pasty and unshaven, like somebody homeless or just out of jail. Vulnerable. His right arm was lying flat and white down his big belly. And now I noticed that it wasn’t an arm at all, just a white fin that tapered at the end.
I stopped at my son’s seat. “That man is making me crazy,” I whispered.
“It’s really kind of sad,” he whispered back. “His arm is mutated.” Then he re-wrapped his head with his ingenious noise-abatement device–two little train pillows tied together with a length of string–and shut his eyes.
I continued up the dim aisle to my own seat. The woman ahead of me had moved her son to a quieter row, but she stayed behind the snorer. “Me he don’t bother at all. My husband snored for twenty years,” she announced cheerfully to the coach. Again I felt the pang of deep loneliness.
Now the snoring had stopped. Up and down the aisle, seats were tilting back again. Meanwhile, the Monongahela River gleamed by. A gibbous moon rose on a long, silver, rippling stilt, and three lights on the flank of a dark houseboat threw on the water three rippling shafts of illuminated gold. I began to drift off. . . .
A raucous snort broke the silence. Then a tense quiet in which one passenger said, under his breath but distinctly, “Dickhead.” Then abruptly the snorer was at it again with renewed vigor. The ones who hadn’t noticed his hand were no doubt wishing him dead, and we, the elect who had, were exchanging gently pitying smiles with strangers. Elect or not, none of us slept.
Early the next morning, passengers from our coach began to wander into the lounge to get coffee and exchange amused or exasperated notes about the night’s ordeal. We smiled and nodded or shook our heads at the wonder of having made it through the night at all, and then struck up conversations. We had been kept awake half of the night, and yet everybody seemed cheerful and refreshed. At an unusually early hour, the lounge car was alive with conversation.
When the snorer himself walked into the lounge with his white flipper hand tucked against his belt, everybody was really nice to him. We were nice because of his hand and because all of us shared a secret to keep from him: that at 2:00 a.m. he had innocently had every one of us wide awake, cussing in our seats. And we were grateful to him because his snores had brought us together. His snoring had transformed a coachful of strangers into a community–and had made me forget my lonesome sorrow.
Everybody was nice to his buddy, too–a jowly, seedy, middle-aged, outgoing man who looked like he’d done time–because he was his buddy, bringing him a soda from the downstairs café, striking up friendly conversations with other passengers and then drawing his disabled friend skillfully in. So with corn fields and crossroads passing outside the big windows, and the golden morning light streaming into the lounge, and Porky Pig cartoons playing cheerily on the tube, with cups of sweet hot coffee, we all felt tender towards the man with the flipper hand. There he was, salt and pepper stubble on his round blanched face and a stale white undershirt, like a vagabond, really, an ex-con, most likely–and all sorts of people from our car, simple or sophisticated, were chatting warmly with him and his buddy. Diffident at first, he gradually expanded in the warmth, smiling and nodding, and soon he was circulating shyly in the lounge as a sort of guest of honor.
His buddy turned to him affectionately. “You were sawing logs pretty good there last night, pal. So loud I got up and went down to the café car.” I held my breath; I felt all our coach holding our breaths. Our secret was out: his phenomenal snoring was exposed. Would he and his buddy suddenly shrivel up–poof!–and disappear, leaving us all strangers again? But their magic was good; if anything, the camaraderie in the lounge car increased–soon people were sharing their life stories and ham and cheese sandwiches.
“Ah, got a book, eh?” the buddy said when I walked past them. They were both drinking beer now and chuckling at the cartoons. I suddenly felt that they had no destination; they were just riding the rails.
“Yes,” I said, showing them the cover. “Nonfiction Prose. It’s a collection of essays.”
“Oh, yeah, I read this book once–I recognize it,” said the buddy, taking it gently in his hands and turning it over. “It was white, like this. Yeah, I’m pretty sure it was the same book. Had a white cover.” From then on, whenever they’d pass my seat, they’d stop. The snorer would smile and the buddy would ask me kindly, “Still reading that book, eh?” They asked me so many times, I began to dread their passing. I put my book away. Then I felt bad because they were so friendly and trying to be kind, so I got it out again. Perhaps they thought I was lonely since I was reading a book. Well, Chicago in a few hours was the end of the line. My son and I would board the Southwest Chief, and they’d be getting on another train or a Greyhound bus. And I was lonely: now that the day was wearing on, my loneliness was creeping back, so much that I was already dreading the night, wondering whether I’d be able to sleep at all.
At Chicago, as the crowd gathered at the gate for the Southwest Chief, I was a little disconcerted to suddenly find them just a few yards away. But it was a long train, dozens of cars, and no doubt they would be assigned seats in a faraway coach. They both looked pale under the fluorescent lights, different from the other travelers, as if gravity were somehow heavier for them. The snorer reminded me suddenly of a merman lost on human shores with liquid warm brown eyes and a desolate white flipper. Now I felt certain they had done time. When they saw me, they both nodded, smiling approvingly at my book.
We left Chicago. In a few hours I was sitting in the lounge car, looking out the picture windows. To our right, the sun was setting scarlet. Our train ran along the Mississippi River, flushed rose and silver from the almost full moon on our left. The river was a mile wide with low forested banks on the opposite shore. Huge black tree trunks floated on the silvery water; rusty, flat barges slid slowly and imperceptibly down the middle of the river, pushed by a white boat. Big lotus swaths lay wherever the shore curved in, their pale blossoms shut up for the night. Little black islands. White herons. One or two lights blinked on the distant wooded shore. Shreds of mist lifted off narrow inlets. The sky dimmer, the moon now radiant yellow. Slow, the quiet wide dusk river. So lonesome, wandering without a home. So peacefully flowing, so softly by.
“Five minutes to Fort Madison,” the attendant announced. There was a stir in the car. According to the route guide, we were about to cross the Mississippi on the world’s largest Double-Track, Double-Decker Swing Span Bridge. I loved the phrase; I wrote it down–a talisman against grief. We crossed, and darkness fell.
The coach was dim and half empty when I went back to my seat. Everybody was asleep, my son down the aisle in an empty row he’d found for himself. For a long time I sat with my glass of Merlot and my white book, watching for the dark river outside the window. Finally I closed my eyes, but as I had expected, sleep refused to come. I turned the little reading light back on and, hoping to catch glimpses of houseboats with their golden lights, pressed my face against the window. But of course the river was far away now. Loneliness swept over me again, seized me, and I hunched down in my seat, wide awake and desolate.
Suddenly our coach door slid open and two men came bumping down the aisle toward me. The buddy and the snorer. Dear God. I closed my eyes and pretended to be asleep, afraid they would stop at my side. “Still reading that book, eh?”
“Here’s our stuff,” said the snorer in a thick voice. “And our seat.” They must have been drinking all evening in the café car. They stumbled into the row directly behind me, next to the stairwell.
The buddy said, “Hell, we’re not going to sleep at all with that fucking stairwell light.” They may have thought that they were whispering, but they weren’t.
The snorer laughed and asked whether the bathroom was still locked downstairs. When the buddy said yes, the snorer yelped. “You mean I have to go all the way to the next car every time I wazoo? I’m not going to make it. I might just have to wazoo right here.” Oh, God, I thought.
“Man,” the buddy laughed, “I feel sick. I just might puke.”
The snorer was struggling with his foot-rest. “I can’t get it to stay up!” he laughed.
And the buddy said, “You can’t keep it up? What do you want me to do? Hold it for you?” He giggled. “Can’t keep it up, huh? Maybe she”–and I knew they meant me because I was pretending to be sound asleep–“maybe she can get it up for you.” Alarming giggles from both of them.
And then the buddy belched and said, joking but not laughing now, “I hope some gang-bangers don’t come up those stairs and sit on my lap.” As they settled bumpily into their seats, it suddenly seemed to me that they were like men secretly carrying a terrible cargo, one they could discuss only between themselves, late at night, when everybody else was asleep and only, perhaps, when they were drunk.
Then I realized I was the only one in the whole car awake, and these men, so gentle and kindly during the day, were now staggering drunk and making lewd remarks. Men who’d probably done time. What if they made a pass at me? What if the buddy threw up on me (I pulled my sheet right up under my chin) or if the snorer snored all night, right behind my head? At the same time, I felt oddly braced and cheered by my position, like the heroine in a fairy tale facing the Three Dangers. What should I do, then, with ex-convicts at the back of my neck? Get out my Mace?
But I felt too cozy to move, and besides, if I moved, they’d ask me about my book.
Then I thought, what dangers? Why, these men are like the wandering Mississippi. For us secretly-awake or peacefully-sleeping passengers they are carrying the weight of innumerable dark and broken things, things we cannot guess: black uprooted trees, the world’s debris, barge-loads of loss and loneliness and grief. Homeless, nameless, they carry our burden, keeping the darkness at bay, so that for us the darkness scarcely presses outside or inside the windows of our quiet coach.
And then I knew, both, that this was unfair beyond all human understanding–and that we–all of us in the coach–were blessed by these two drunk and seedy men. Blessed that of all the coaches in a long train, it was our coach they’d found. And my heart was suddenly comforted, light and free and protected. I let the sheet slip down, carelessly from my chin. “Da da doom, da da doom, da da da doom,” went the train in the beautiful night.
Then the buddy whispered to the one with the white flipper, bitterly and passionately, like someone in a Shakespeare play: “Those fucking gang-bangers. They’ll tear the heart right out of your chest.”
And we all fell asleep.
Gina Briefs-Elgin is a writer from New Mexico. This story won the Grand Prize Bronze Award in the Fourth Annual Solas Awards.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.