Last Train Home

by Melanie Kitzan

“No, no, nonononono!” I muttered under my breath as I ran, dragging my bag over the rough gravel next to the train platform, the wheels getting caught in the small rocks. The conductor frowned at me as he snagged my ticket and I heaved my bag on board. The train hissed accusingly as it sat on the silver rails. It slowly pulled away from the station, a slithering dragon reflected in the wavy windows of the old downtown Seattle building. We glided in a ribbon of track along the water, then turned abruptly and headed into the mountains, the silver beast exhaling as we went.

I settled into a seat. A man in a fishing hat sat at the window opposite me. He smiled and nodded. I smiled hello.

“Where are you headed?” I asked, the common question of train travelers emerging immediately.

“Home,” he said. “I had a doctor’s appointment in Seattle, and now I’m heading home.” I nodded. “I’m on dialysis, I’m a recovering alcoholic,” he added. I said I was sorry, and we went on to talk about our kids, all of whom were close in age.

A while later I made my way to the dining car and joined three men at a table. One was a twenty-four-year-old new father, heading back to the oil fields in North Dakota, having just visited his newborn son in eastern Washington for the first time. The two men across the table were both from northern Wisconsin. One was a DJ named DJ. He laughed when he told us his name and said, “I’m not making that up!”

The other one was a retired college professor named Ron. He had wire rimmed glasses and a gray ponytail that hung from a shiny bald head. Ron said he never flew anymore, “because of my FBI file, which is mostly because I was involved with Greenpeace…mostly.” Then he added for good measure, “And when you guys go through airport security, never let them take you to that little room in back!” We all nodded.

They asked me where I was headed, and I said simply, “Home.”

We finished dinner, and I wandered over to the observation car, walking with wobbly sea legs in the narrow corridors as the shifting beast heaved from side to side. I sat staring out the windows, watching the heavy shadows as the sun sank in between the Rocky Mountains.

“Mind if I sit awhile?” came a voice. I looked up, surprised to see someone standing next to me. “I’m Cheryl,” said the woman, as she stuck out her hand. Cheryl was a tall, older woman with thin, white curly hair, that made her look a little like a poodle. I grasped her pink skinned hand, her long nails painted bright red.

“Of course, sit down,” I said, as I followed her eyes to the seat next to me. “Where are you headed?” she asked.

“Home,” I said. She nodded.

She said she was from the Twin Cities, and just celebrated her seventy fifth birthday skiing at Whitefish with her boyfriend. That made me smile. They were heading back home, too. I looked out the window at the vivid sunset reflected in an inky lake. A bald eagle circled overhead.

“My mom is dying,” I said, “I’m on my way to see her.”

I looked at Cheryl, her face stained orange from the glow of the sunset outside the window. It felt like I had made a deep confession.

Cheryl smiled and said, “I’m sorry to hear that. I lost my mom when I was twenty five years old. I still remember losing mine. We weren’t really close. She was a traditional mother and didn’t understand why I wanted to be an engineer--a Rosie the riveter she said. She used to tell me that I wanted too much, didn’t know my place in the world,” Cheryl said matter-of-factly. “But I never listened, and the last time I saw her, I had just loaded up my Volvo station wagon, and was heading off to Madison to graduate school. She was killed in a car accident the weekend after I left.”

Cheryl paused and looked at me. I exhaled, not realizing I’d been holding my breath.

“That all sounds pretty familiar,” I said as I wiped my tear-stained cheeks with the back of my hand.

“Well, what I realized many years later,” she leaned in and looked at me over her glasses, “after I got married and divorced, and raised two sons, is that you have to forgive your mother for loving you only in the way she knows how, regardless of whether it is in the way that you need. I hope my sons forgive me for the same sin.”

I nodded, gazing out the window at the residue of color gradually darkening into a deep purple, cloaked in the shadows of the mountains.

“And what about you?” I asked Cheryl, turning to face her. “Did you forgive yourself for not loving her like you thought you should?”

“Eventually, I did,” she said. “But that is the hard part.”

We sat in silence until the sun melted into the earth, then Cheryl stood and said she needed to head back to her boyfriend and her sleeper car. She patted my shoulder and said, “As we used to say when we rode the rails in Europe in college, ‘You’re almost to Amsterdam,’ which meant soon you would reach the junction where you chose which way to go next on your journey. Good luck, my dear.” And Cheryl turned to unsteadily walk off as the cars swayed and shook. 

I watched the horizon until the grey of night settled in like dust, turning to an opaque black. Stars popped out and a bright moon cast its pale light over the land.

When I saw my mother for the very last time, we embraced. Just before I left I whispered, “You’re almost to Amsterdam, Mom. Have a good journey.”

She passed away a week later.

 

Melanie K. Kitzan was born in North Dakota, and now makes her home near Seattle in the House of She with her daughters and dogs.  She has at times in her life been a scientist, lawyer, mother, and vagabond, not necessarily in that order. Melanie has a passion for hiking, traveling and coconut gelato.  

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