A TRAIN AND A FARMHOUSE
My bag is heavy. The train is nowhere in sight. It is late, that iron behemoth upon which I have purchased a ride. But it will come, because I have nowhere else to go. A few other early morning passengers mingle about. Like me, their mouths are set and their fingers clenched tight against the day.
The straps of my overstuffed bag dig into my skin, alerting my shoulder to the careless disregard I must hold for it. I put the bag down on the platform, near my feet, and shuffle to and fro.
"Maíam, can you spare some change?"
Iím not old enough to be a "Maíam," I think as I turn slightly away from the vagrant to dig around in my wallet for something less insulting than a dime. My best friend, who no longer has time for me because sheís in the throes of lust with yet another pretty face, tells me that Iím a soft touch, a walking advertisement for con artists and carnival acts. She exaggerates.
I donít tell the vagrant what to do with the money I give her. Itís not my place to do so. Once it leaves my hand, it no longer belongs to me. She looks relieved not to hear another admonishment to "Buy some food with it, you hear?" As if sheís concerned about keeping weight on her bent frame. She thanks me with a trembling smile. I nod silently.
The book, which peeks out of the half-zippered side of my bag, vies for my attention, but Iím too occupied with the taste of the spit on my tongue. Itís coppery and laced with uncertainty. Am I afraid? I wonder, almost out loud, but catch myself lest I appear out of place. I should read a few pages, just to calm myself. Find a place where I can rest my back and maybe stretch my legs. Quiet my thoughts.
A man walks by in front of me, one finger depressing the flair of his right nostril, while he forces a short stream of mucus out the other. Iím impressed by his accuracy, but disgusted by the thought of someone stepping on what he has left behind. I would be unable to invite him to lunch, knowing what I do about him now. He could never convince me that heís clean enough.
When I woke up this morning, groggy from the heaviness of my dreams, my eyes showed me things I didnít want to see. An unshared bed, the National Enquirer, the silent black and white T.V., ready to spring to life at my command. Without a thought, I packed a bag and wound up on this platform, surrounded by strangers. My ticket is covered in hieroglyphics and I examine it carefully, away from the prying eyes of my platform companions. I try to divine its meaning, but decide that Iíd have just as much luck reading fortunes or setting up a psychic hotline. Holding it upside down, I think that it must be stamped with as yet unlived adventures. Yet when I hold it sideways, I see the writing on the wall.
It was time to leave Seattle. Unwashed dishes were piling up and the cat had adopted herself out to a neighbor. The innocuous black box on my bedside table beeped with nauseating regularity, warning me that its clogged innards held too many unanswered telephone messages, while yellowing newspapers marked the weeks gone by since my natural curiosity turned their pages. I hold my ticket up to the light, but the train still does not come.
"Youíre all alone out there. No family, no friends, no husband. How do you expect me to behave?"
My mother is like liver with onions and gravy. She means well and has a lot of good qualities, but the actual experience of her is awful.
"I donít expect anything of you, Mom. All I ask is that you stop insisting that I have no one but you in my life."
"Oh, so I donít count anymore? Living on the other side of the country is so great, that youíve forgotten who brought you into this world?"
Whatís to forget, I think to myself, as I scrape the congealed remnants of breakfast off my plate. Feeling heartburn coming on, I pull in a stream of air through clenched teeth. I wait for it to ground me, help me get centered, help me to not cuss my mother, and help me to not replace her with a sportier model.
"Of course you count, but Iíve been..." I catch myself, realizing with a pang that Barbara is gone. "I was with Barbara for five years. Remember Barbara?" I say, placing perhaps a bit too much emphasis on the word "Remember." I donít want to hurt my motherís feelings, but I think she must be the first case ever of Alzheimer's at forty-eight. She can recall all of her Jell-O recipes, and recite with unnerving accuracy every mistake I made ten years ago when I washed out of the junior tennis finals, but she refuses to remember the rich life I have.
"Donít get fresh with me, young lady. I can still turn you over my knee."
Yes, but do you remember Barbara? I think wryly, pressing my lips together so nothing damaging spills out. Or what about Janice, the woman who took me to the hospital last year when my appendix nearly burst? She lives in Seattle, too. That place you think is on another continent. And I would be remiss, I tell my mother in my head, if I fail to mention Sheri. The woman who taught me the difference between caring and protecting myself when Barbara finally left. And by the way, theyíre lesbians, too. Capable women who warm my heart and who often love me more than I know how to love myself.
"Iím not getting fresh," I say, deciding to change the subject and ask her about her life. But I donít get the chance. Sheís gnawing on the topic of me, and thereís no dissuading her. I may as well be a stand-in for all she cares. Sheís got things that need to be said and she wonít stop until she says whatís on her mind.
"Look, dear. Iím sure Barbara is a nice person and all, but can she give you babies? Can she fix your car? And what if you get sick and lose your job, heaven forbid. What can she do to support you?"
I feel my jaw taking on a familiar shape. A granite outcropping carved into a wedge of defiance. It only happens when Iím at my motherís house, this stubborn resistance to her ministrations. Her home--which she insists is mine, too--suffocates me. I grew up in this farmhouse, but donít feel solidly connected to it or to her.
A gasping wind blows through the ubiquitous dried stalks dotting the mid-western winter landscape. Thereís a hum inside of me, and I pull on it like a harp string, elongating its sound into a woolly blanket of comfort. Itís starting to thrum now, the tinny pitch of my motherís voice setting it off, although it sometimes resonates by itself, building slowly into a crescendo of elastic need. I take care of it just like those parent-for-a-day experiments in high school, where students carry around uncooked eggs, pretending that theyíre newborn babies.
Itís too early for crops, but I stare out the window just the same, wondering if the wind will blow through this old house and cleanse it of my motherís expectations; a zillion of them impaled on the walls where she puts her memories on display in gilded frames. There are five pictures of her first grandchild, sandy-haired, blue-eyed, and staring at me with just as much comprehension as the uncooked egg I too carried around in high school. There are also numerous pictures of my other sisters who dutifully popped out second and third and fourth grandbabies. They smile gamely and hang onto the arms of men who squint into the camera, wondering when theyíll be able to head down the street for that special pack of cigarettes. My motherís voice drones in the background, but I continue to ignore her because itís easier than looking at the space on the wall where my picture and Barbaraís will never hang.
The train pulls out of the station. Iím in the sixth car back, having heard once that itís better to be somewhere in the middle, just in case thereís a wreck. I donít recall who told me that. Probably an engineer on the make, trying to impress me; save me before anyone else could.
A young man is sitting across from me. To his right is a young woman wearing a faded blue denim cap over her short, jet-black hair. My eyes skitter over her in a fast appraisal. I donít want to appear hungry for conversation or contact, but neither she nor the young man takes any notice of me. Itís unclear if they are together. She reads a book, the title of which I canít see. He reads the newspaper.
My hand is in my pocket. I touch my ticket and pretend that itís stamped in Braille. The tip of my right forefinger swirls over the surface of the thin, rectangular piece of cardboard, trying to divine its hidden meaning. I grasp its edges with my one hand, and fold it in upon itself. When I look up, I see that the young man is gone. Moved to another seat that gives him more leg-room for his six-foot frame.
The woman has laid down her book in the place where the man sat only moments before. I see the title. Itís the same as mine, but Iím too shy to point out the irony of this fact. She would think me too eager to shirk off my loneliness at her expense, and besides, thereís something in her eyes, which suggests that conversation comes at a high price.
The wind whistles over the iron back of the train as we hurtle through the countryside. Itís November. Time for pumpkins and hollow memories to be harvested in time for the ritual of giving thanks. I recognize some of the passengers from earlier in the day. They move through the train, hunting for just the right seat. The one that will give them an unfettered view of how smartly they are journeying through life. But their stops will veer off from mine and deposit them in places I donít even know how to dream about. Turning away from my thoughts, I see my face reflected in the thick glass of the window. Restlessness becomes me, I think, as my features take shape and then distort to mush.
"Where are you heading?"
Startled out of my reverie, I realize that the woman in the denim cap is speaking. I donít know what to say.
"I couldnít help but notice that you and I have the same book," she says, the smile on her face widening. Iíd forgotten that my bag is on the seat beside me, the book sticking out from where it had been before. Unread.
"Book..." I stammer, pointing to myself like an idiot who is unable to sort things out.
She continues smiling, waiting for me to get over myself.
"I donít believe Wittigís work is widely known to the general populace," she says with what sounds like great authority on the subject. "Perhaps one must be an academician to be familiar with who she is, yes?"
The idiot thing happens again. She pretends not to notice. My knowledge of Wittig is purely accidental. I tend to select books based on titles, cover art, and the potential for titillation. Unlike many of Wittigís loyal fans, I donít speak French, and I wonder if the woman, who decides Iím worthy of conversation, does. Her black hair. The unaffected look she gives me. The slight lilt to her voice.
A rush of saliva opens up my locked throat. I reach for my copy of "The Lesbian Body" and marvel at how strange it is that much like babies and puppies out for a romp with their caretakers; a book is a conduit for human connection. Is that what I want? A connection? Wittig as conduit to a life Iíve ignored?
"No particular place," I say, in response to her first question. A fleeting look of sympathy tugs at the corners of her sweet mouth. I suppress the urge to remove my ticket stub from my pocket and examine it for the tenth time. I already know that its coded language has not changed, even when held to the light or read backward.
The train lurches awkwardly around a bend in the tracks, then smoothes out. Thereís an open package of crackers in my bag, tucked carelessly against the purplish fabric of one of only two silk shirts I own. Reaching for it, my stomach is alerted to being hungry. I offer the package to the woman in the denim cap, then take one for myself. I estimate that by nightfall, I will have figured out how to untie my tongue.
"Take a ride with me to the general store. Itíll give us a chance to have a proper visit," my mother says, as if the last two hours have never happened.
"I donít really feel like it, Mom. If you donít mind, Iíd rather stay here and get some rest."
Placing her hand on my forehead like she used to do when I was a kid, my mother tells me I don't have a fever, and that when I die, there will be plenty of time to rest. How can a grown daughter argue with that kind of logic? I put on my jacket and follow her out the door.
Starting up the old heap of a truck my father insists on keeping, I have to double clutch just to get the damned thing in gear. Mom hates driving it, but Dad has her car today. Neither one drives worth a damn, so whenever Iím home on a visit, I insist on being the one behind the wheel. In fact, the first time Mom drove her car into a corn field, and Dad rearranged Mr. Dickersonís silo with his truck, I wrote to the DMV asking that their licenses be revoked. But, since my folks live way out in the country, and everyone else drives just like they do, I never heard back on my complaint.
The general store doesnít carry much of anything useful, even though progress came to Montana years ago. Still, the old folks living in the two nearest counties, which support the store, refuse to let the meager inventory of the general store bother them. I think theyíre too damned old to care, or too blind to notice the Jolly Mart Super Grocery sitting within striking distance up the road.
"Honey, hand me that rag your father keeps over there by the clutch. I want to wipe these windows. Things get so dusty around here."
Figuring my mother doesnít bother to calculate that if I reach down to the floorboard of the truck and hand her the rag she wants, my chances of crashing the truck increase in direct proportion to her asinine request. Sighing, I donít bother stating the obvious. I retrieve the rag and hand it to her.
"You seem so sad, sweetie. Whatís wrong?"
"Nothing, Mom. Just trying to get us over to the general store in one piece, thatís all."
I notice that my mother is humming a song she used to sing to me whenever Iíd get sick and have to stay home from school. It occurs to me that sheís too happy for her own good, and thereís not a thing I can do about it. Her reality has nothing to do with whatís happening around her.
"Thereís a pre-Thanksgiving dance at the church tonight. Why donít you go and have some fun?"
"Who would you suggest I have fun with, Mom? Barbaraís back home in Seattle," I say, not bothering to clarify that sheís at someone elseís home. "And besides," I remind her with only the thinnest veneer of civility, "weíre not Catholic and Thanksgiving is still a week away!"
My mother has chosen not to hear what Iíve said because she keeps talking, regaling me with stories about how wonderful the last Thanksgiving dance was, and how she and her friends decorated the church basement with streamers and cardboard turkey cut-outs. Youíd think she was going through her second childhood.
"I want to pick up some hard candy. Donít let me forget, okay? The general store has the best hard candy for miles around. I hear they have it shipped in from Maryland."
Biting my lower lip and gripping the steering wheel until my knuckles turn pale, I pray for a meteorite to fall from the sky and pay us a quick and decisive visit. It would be all over before I have time to take back my prayer.
The general store is really an old three-story house, spruced up to resemble a business establishment. Pulling up to the west side, I flip off the ignition and leave the truck in reverse gear. I want to make it easy on myself when itís time to drive the old jalopy back down the road.
I canít say that the general store does poorly, located the way it is near the railroad tracks. The owners have even expanded the place to accommodate travelers. A small ticket office is in the back of the store, and cheap souvenirs await the gullible and the mentally infirm. The porch that usually plays host to old local men sipping sodas and complaining about government interference in their lives, has been outfitted with long benches for ticket buyers to sit on. The old timers mostly show up these days to gawk at the tourists.
Thereís a faded train schedule tacked precariously to one of the posts holding up the porch. Itís speckled with bug guts and smeared with the hundreds of greasy thumbprints, which mustíve smoothed it down for easier reading on a windy day. I have to get up close to make out the lettering. From what I can tell, it looks like something is due to roll through any minute. I amuse myself by wondering what it might feel like to give my mother the slip and stow away on it all the way back to Washington state.
Weíre on the express train. The one that doesnít stop at every tiny town along the way, but instead makes one forty minute stop if its final destination takes more than a day to reach. Passengers are allowed to get off and stretch their legs, but not for long. If they wander too far away and donít hear the two short blasts that signal the trainís departure, theyíll get left behind at whatever Godforsaken place they got off at.
Iíve run out of crackers and hope thereís a store within walking distance of the first of our three stops. The train serves food, but Iíve decided not to get too comfortable with my surroundings. The woman in the blue denim cap hinted earlier that we might travel together for safety, but she doesnít look at all defenseless. Maybe sheís just tired of traveling alone.
Sheís asleep now, yet I discovered that once my tongue became unstuck and my mind righted itself, we had talked easily about how much we both loved reading. I had let her do almost all of the talking, mostly because her voice was a low rough purr that reminded me of my cat, Hortense.
She was friendlier than I had at first thought, and my face flushes with embarrassment as I remember the urge Iíd had to reach out and feel her skin. Find out if she was real. As we talked, the night flashing by outside the train became a backdrop to the interactions taking place inside. I noticed that men stood between cars, smoking cigarettes and laughing at the moon. Well-behaved children bowed their heads in concentration over school lessons. Wives, mothers, sisters, daughters, and aunts compared ports of call. And women like us--my seatmate and I--filled our bellies with highfalutin words borrowed from brilliant people weíd never met. Funny, but thereíd been an odd comfort in the intimacy of those stolen phrases.
Everyone on the train was frozen in a scene that couldíve been plucked from the script of the Orient Express. I guessed that as our train spun blithely past sleepy little towns, the residents would only be able to catch a glimpse of a well-manicured hand, or a silvery mane tossed back in delight. But inside, the tinkling laughter might be accompanied by a remembrance of a first kiss, and the silvery mane reflective of the hundreds that followed. The stories would unfold and become richer with each telling. And weíd hurtle through space so fast that time would stand still and weíd be nothing more than a captured moment, unspoiled by anything save the limited imaginations of anonymous townsfolk, looking in.
The conductorís voice prods the dozing passengers. Itís a manly voice, filled with the importance of his position. It brings to mind the friendly gruffness of my fatherís voice after a hard day of work and a good night of sleep, but it reminds me that I havenít slept at all. Curiosity about my seatmate had compelled me to forestall the comfort of that easy escape.
She and I had skirted around obvious conversational traps, choosing instead to light upon obscure theories and tantalizing literary nuances. Our words blended seamlessly into the false familiarity often created by close quarters. Yet, as I was coming to believe in the carefully constructed images we had fashioned for each other, she turned to the safety of sleep, leaving me alone to ponder the twists and turns that her words had unleashed in me.
The conductorís steady voice eventually arouses her. Itís too late to avert my eyes, so she catches me staring. But I can tell that sheís not disturbed by the intrusion, because she stretches and smoothes her hair as if Iím entitled to watch. I look away, but thereís a pulling sensation in my belly that unfurls like soft, sweet taffy. My head spins.
Leaning across the space that separates us, she wipes her hand against the window in a slow circular motion, breathing on it and rubbing with a studied concentration. She hesitates for a moment, raking her all-seeing eyes over my exposed thoughts. An involuntary shudder courses through me, but sheís already back to her task of blowing and rubbing the small town into existence. With one huge burst of air, she fogs the window again and writes something in the hot steam. She beckons to me, and without thinking, I respond. There are no words for what you are seeking. The train grinds to a halt.
Sacks of rice, nuts, flour, and dried beans are lined up on the floor next to the old-fashioned soda machine that works only when it wants to. The owners have rigged it so itíll take just the two nickels kids used to feed it thirty years ago. Itís a good way of drawing in the old timers, or striking up conversations with people you may not ever see again.
Boxes of roofing shingles, bubble gum pink insulation, hacksaws, hammers, nails and chicken feed, vie for the once steady hand of good old boys who are now long past their prime. The wood floor is buckling in places, but it simply adds to the rustic charm the owners are aiming for. Off to the rear of the store where a tiny square window lets in the half-light of a fading day, a surreal picture unfolds. A row of old women, their slightly bent backs pulling them down over dusty bins that hold outdated bolts of fabric, cluck and gossip in counterpoint to the time their men keep from across the room. My mother is one of them, her back yielding to gravity like a piece of overworked Vietnamese bamboo. I have no right to be embarrassed, but I am, and my own back straightens in confused sympathy. She seems happy, which reminds me that I could use some happiness myself.
I want to make sure that I donít get stuck following my mother around the store while she makes up her mind about what she can and cannot do without. Itís my opinion that the limited selections donít require the amount of time she puts in here every week. As I head over to speed things up, the whistle of an approaching train draws me outside.
Ashmore, Montana isnít anything special to tourists, but to the old timers who live here, itís the best place on earth. Farmland is squared off into forty or one hundred acre parcels of corn, alfalfa, wheat, and beans. Some of the surrounding land is used for grazing, and horses and cows dot the landscape. But the factories have moved in, busting up families and turning farming into an afterthought. Fields that used to produce high yields, lay fallow every couple of years or so, mostly because the government got into the business of paying folks a lot of money to create food shortages. That didnít sit too well with some people, but trying to fight the government was always a losing battle.
If I close one eye and squint past the gleam that shoots off the iron fenceposts surrounding the Thompson farm, I can see the very edge of where our own hundred acre property ends. Times havenít gotten any better, though. What used to seem like wide-open land shored up by the very breath of life itself, has become grist for the insatiable greed of automation. The tall grey factory buildings suck up the daylight that used to fall gently over food crops, replacing it with dark clouds of soot, misery, and clanking machines. I no longer recognize my home.
I watch people get off the same train Iíd been on only one week before. They swivel their heads around, loosening the kinks in their necks and swatting at the flakes of soot theyíve innocently mistaken for flies or mosquitoes. Most head towards the general store, but a few sit on the grass, removing their shoes and jackets like theyíre going to have a leisurely picnic lunch. They donít seem bothered by the cold.
A lone woman catches my eye. Sheís tall and looks to be about my age, although sheís still too far away to tell. As she gets closer, I can see that sheís beautiful in a way that makes you know itís both a burden and a blessing. Her loose fitting jeans, black boots, and heavy grey sweatshirt cover her lanky frame to perfection, but itís easy to tell by the way she walks, that she doesnít give any of it a momentís thought. When she reaches the top step, I move aside to let her pass, but I still canít get a clear look at her face. Even so, a faint memory stirs inside of me. Like maybe sheís someone Iím supposed to know. I shut my eyes, trying to tease that elusive thing to the surface, but itís no use. Whatever recollection it was, has skittered away. When I open my eyes, sheís gone.
The wire mesh of the screen door is cool against the palm of my hand. I hesitate before pushing it open, only half-wondering what I might find on the other side. The lingering smell of rose water hangs lightly in the air, as if waiting for me to go in search of its owner. A man exits the store. I turn away from his friendly glance, and prop my foot up on a wooden milk crate thatís filled with stained rags, baling wire, and coca cola bottle caps. He heads back to the train.
My thumb works its way over to the smooth band of jade Barbara had given me for our commitment ceremony. I remember telling her that I wanted to call our ceremony something else because I didnít think "commitment" sounded quite right. I told her it was a word that I associated with people getting locked up against their will. She thought it was the funniest thing sheíd ever heard, but conceded that what we were doing was sort of like getting locked up, except that instead of having to live in a ward full of crazy folks, it would be just the two of us driving each other loony. Now sheís committed to someone else.
Back in the store, my eyes are slow adjusting to the artificial light. The excited chatter of too many people in too small a space presses insistently against my ears. Some of the locals look mystified, as if theyíve never quite gotten used to the idea of commerce on any scale. Maybe I havenít gotten used to it either, because even though thereís no one right next to me, I feel cornered. Trapped in the annual re-enactment of my least favorite holiday: Thanksgiving.
One more train will come through town tomorrow morning, bringing last minute travelers home to turkey feasts, televised football games, and long-standing family feuds. My sisters and their brood will be among the passengers, but for now, the day has become far too long for me to manage with grace. The train whistle blows, rounding up its human cargo for the next leg of their journey. For those whose destinations canít be defined by towns or crops or memories of the past, the lowing of the whistle is their only call home.
Ashmore, Montana isnít the kind of place anyone would visit if they didnít have to. Itís just an arbitrary stop along the way to someplace else. As the lone woman boards the train back to where she came from, she dons a blue denim cap and turns to wave goodbye. Taking a seat six cars back from the front of the train, she first notices my dog-eared copy of "The Lesbian Body" and then she notices me.