We hopped aboard the Empire Builder Amtrak from Portland, Oregon, to Chicago, Illinois. The line is called the “Empire Builder” because it traces along portions of the Lewis and Clark trail. Riding Amtrak cross-country was also the first time my wife saw an obese, naked black man sitting on the toilet in a public restroom.
Over 200 years ago, it took the Lewis and Clark Expedition two years to travel from the Great Lakes states to Oregon. Today, Amtrak covers that same distance in 46 hours, which includes fresh-air stops for smoke breaks. My lovely wife Grace and I took the train as a novelty, as a luxury, really. Compared to air travel the train tickets weren’t cheap pricewise, and would also expensive timewise. We would have to spend two full days milling about the sleeper and dining cars, along with occasional pit stops in the window-heavy observation car during the trip. We brought books.
The point of our trip was to meet with friends in Boston and New York while enjoying some old-timey train travel along the first half of our round trip. It was counted as a bonus along this pioneer trail that the threat of dysentery would be kept (mostly) at bay, and that there should only be a slim chance we’d need to ford a river in a Conestoga wagon.
Still, in a similar vein to The Walking Dead Episode 3, we had a “long road ahead.” Our train trip had surprisingly lively inhabitants compared to The Walking Dead’s zombies, yet both our journeys involved black men with deeper stories than readily apparent.
We’d been on the train a while before we entered Montana. The hills were immense and pushed our eyes up to mountains that seemed taller than the huge stretches of blue above them.
I sat with Grace in the dining car. Every booth seat was filled even though it wasn’t a meal time; it was simply a place where strangers could congregate and talk. She didn’t have a “baby bump” yet, but Grace was four months pregnant and feeling queasy. She’d finally gotten past her morning sickness but that was only a small consolation prize considering her usual motion sickness. She took it like a trooper though and didn’t let me or the strangers at our table know that she’d already puked a little in her mouth, twice.
The older gentleman I’d been chatting with at our table pointed over his shoulder at another person he’d introduced himself to earlier. “His name’s Jerome,” the old guy said. “I’m good with names, especially when a white guy has a non-white guy name. I’m all into networking.”
Everybody in the dining car was talking loud enough to be heard by everybody else. “I don’t buy nothing in Illinois because the taxes are off the hook,” one person said at another table. “They can lock you up and throw away the key, but you’ll always know what you know,” said a different table. In addition to those nuggets of information, the sound of shuffling cards filled the air.
It was almost time to eat. A soulful singer named Ms. Olivier stood behind the lunch counter and sang out the dining car rules like they were worship songs from a church hymnal. Grace, still feeling nauseous from the wobble of the train and the baby cells multiplying at an exponential rate in her womb, bolted for a restroom without saying anything.
“Motion sickness,” I said.
“Morning sickness?” the networking guy at our table asked.
“Oh. No no no,” I said. “Just ... motion sickness.”
I lied because we’d barely told our parents about the baby. This was my first, and I hadn’t brushed up on my What To Expect When You’re Expecting small talk. Besides, Grace and I had heard enough horror stories to know that the first several months of a pregnancy are precarious. A lot can go wrong. It would be better, we felt, just to keep details mum until they made themselves apparent; and like I said, Grace’s stomach wasn’t protruding enough to spark a maternity discussion.
As Ms. Olivier’s lunchtime gospel drew to a close in the dining car, Grace was moving as quickly as her “sea legs” could handle on the rhythmically wobbling train. Her hands grasped at the backs of seats as she moved along the coach car. Next she was in the observation car with its floor-to-ceiling windows, every seat full as usual. She went downstairs. The restrooms were in sight.
She opened the first restroom door she came to and there he was. An obese black man. Naked on a toilet. He filled the entire room.
He didn’t say anything. Grace didn’t say anything. He just sat there looking at her. Grace shut the door, ran to the other restroom, then threw up her bagel and cream cheese from earlier. She felt better.
Meanwhile, I sat in the dining car, wishing I had a deck of cards to pass the time. The old guy at our table had run out of conversation, and I’m not much of a conversation starter. I’d gotten stuck on his “morning sickness” comment, and I was too much of a chit-chat newbie to redirect the dialog. I was just there to people watch and take a few notes; something I didn’t do often. But, in retrospect, I’ve noticed that this old guy at the table looked a lot like Chuck in The Walking Dead games
Chuck is a hobo you meet on a train in episode 3. Chuck is a survivalist. He likes to take too many nips from the bottle, sure, but he imparts a few pearls of wisdom that deal sharply with age and gender issues. According to Chuck, survival in the zombie apocalypse has nothing to do with whether you’re old or young, nothing to do with whether you’re male or female. There are only two conditions a human will find themselves in: alive or dead. Chuck’s point was to inform Lee, the main character, that Lee had to stop viewing kids under his care as kids.
They are, to reiterate, simply alive or dead. Now go teach them some survival skills.
At month three, we announced to family and close friends that Grace and I were expecting a baby. “When’s the due date?” people asked. We had an idea, but the baby would show up when it was ready. “What’s the baby’s name?” We’d picked out a boy’s name and a girl’s name and would announce it when the child was born. “Well is it a boy or a girl?” Guess we’d find out when it’s born.
This was in 2010 and most people didn’t keep this many secrets about childbirth anymore. There weren’t any more surprises, and that disappointed Grace and I. We wanted surprises, for ourselves and for others. I’m quite certain we’d lost two, if not three, family friends due to -- in their eyes -- our inexplicable and offensive secrecy. Many people thought we were being subversive, perhaps even outright contemptuous, by not finding out and, subsequently, revealing the child’s gender.
But we felt, like Chuck the hobo, those details didn’t matter. While in utero, only one thing mattered when it came to the details of our child: it was alive.
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