Little Rock, Arkansas
Tuesday, November 6
Shielding my throbbing cheek and eye socket as discreetly as possible, I drop my credit card into the well beneath the attendant’s window. “One adult ticket, please.” My voice is far more unsteady than I would like. “Coach.”
The bored-looking woman behind the glass picks up my card and glances at me. “Where to, ma’am?”
How should I know? I take a step back and glance around, my gaze passing over several posters taped onto the window and others tacked to a utilitarian bulletin board. All of them feature silver and blue Amtrak trains set against dazzling scenery, but one headline catches my eye: Ten-day Southern Heritage Tour. I couldn't care less about southern heritage, mine or anyone else’s, but ten days away from home sounds like heaven.
I prop an elbow on the counter. “I’ll take the ten-day tour.”
I point to the poster on the window. “That one—ten days in the south.”
The round-faced girl lifts both brows, leading me to assume that Amtrak doesn’t sell many package deals, but she types into her computer keyboard, then looks up at me. “And when did you want to take this trip?”
I glance at the double doors of the building, half-afraid someone I know will walk through them before I can complete this purchase. “As soon as possible, please.”
“That tour departs out of Union Station in Washington, D.C. You want to go directly to Washington from here?”
I prop both arms on the counter and nod.
“You’ll be traveling over thirty hours straight—you want a sleeper car or a roomette?”
“How much are they?”
She clicks at the keyboard again, then shakes her head. “The roomettes are sold out. But I can get you a bedroom for an additional $200.”
I swallow hard. I’m about to spend money we don’t have, so I ought to cut corners whenever possible.
“I’ll pass. I can sleep in my seat.”
“Most people do. They’re actually pretty comfortable.”
The girl types again, then reaches toward a shelf divided into cubbies, each compartment filled with a stack of brochures. She plucks one from a stack, then steps over to the noisy printer and rips an accordion of folded cards from the tray. “You’ll be takin’ the 22 Texas Eagle, departing at 11:39 p.m.,” she says, folding the accordion cards as she returns to her stool. “Be sure to sign each of these tickets. You’ll arrive at Union Station in two days, then you’ll go to your first hotel—the voucher is with your tickets. Throughout the tour, you’ll disembark at the stations marked on the schedule, spend two days in each city, then get on the train to travel to your next destination. Hotels and onboard meals are included in the tour package. Details are spelled out on the brochure.” She stuffs the tickets and brochure into a paper jacket, then slides it through the opening beneath her window. Finally, she rips a credit card slip from her machine and pushes it toward me. “Sign at the bottom, and you’ll be all set.”
I gulp when I see the total at the bottom of the receipt. I thought a train tour would be cheaper than a nervous breakdown, but now I’m not so sure.
But it’s too late to change my mind. I scribble my name at the bottom of the slip and slide it back through the window well. “Is that all?”
“You got any bags you want to check?”
I look at my hurriedly assembled collection of luggage. I can check the big suitcase, but if I’m going to spend more than thirty hours in these clothes, I’ll want to keep my toiletries bag with me. “Just one.”
“Take it over to baggage drop, then. And have a nice trip.”
I grip the handle of my rolling suitcase, then drag it over to a window where a uniformed man is leaning against the counter. He smiles and hefts my bag onto a scale, then touches two fingers to his forehead in a jaunty salute. “That’ll do it, ma’am.”
I thank him and extend the handle of my smaller bag, then look around the crowded reception area. If the train to Washington is on time, I’ll have to wait for more than three hours—long enough for Harry to come home from the neighborhood progressive dinner and notice my absence. He might assume I’ve made a quick run to the grocery store, but he’ll probably call to make sure I’m okay. If I’m not home by nine, he’ll call again. If I’m not home by nine-thirty, he’ll start phoning the neighbors to ask if anyone’s seen my car. By ten he’ll be in a full-fledged panic, and by eleven he’ll consider calling the police. I don’t think they’ll do anything, though, because in all the cop shows Harry and I watch on TV, the authorities don’t become truly concerned until a person has been missing for at least twenty-four hours . . .
By this time tomorrow night, I plan to be smack dab in the middle of nowhere, anywhere, as long as it’s miles away from Little Rock, Arkansas.
I don’t want my husband to worry, but neither do I want to give him an opportunity to talk me out of this. I simply have to get out of the house.
I have to run away.
I drop into an empty seat and set my small suitcase next to me, then park my purse on top. My limbs feel like jelly and my hands begin to tremble as soon as my thoughts veer toward home and what happened tonight. I feel as if there are hands on my heart, painfully squeezing the love from it, and for a moment I’m not sure I’ll be able to dredge up the courage to make an important call. But I need to tell Harry what I’m doing. Despite all the turmoil in our home and despite my throbbing cheek and eye, I love my husband. I just can’t live with him right now, not until I find an answer or . . . things change.
Realizing that Harry might answer if I call the house and certain that his cell phone is tucked away in his briefcase, I take my phone from my purse and dial his cell number. After the beep, words tumble out of me like drunken gymnasts: “Harry, I’m going away for a couple of weeks. Don’t worry if I don’t answer my phone, I might turn it off for a few days so I can think. Know that I love you. I’ll call you . . . sometime. When my head’s clear and I can talk.”
I want to say more, but my throat closes up and fresh tears threaten. So I click off the call, turn off the power, and drop the phone back into my purse. I can’t be distracted now; I can’t let mother guilt and marital obligations drag me back to the house. I’m going to sit and wait, and then I’m going to get on my train. I’m going to ride wherever it takes me, and in a week or two or three maybe I’ll be able to see our situation clearly.
Perhaps I’ll discover a few answers, find a little hope.
I prop one elbow on the chair’s armrest, then press my hand to my head. I wince as my fingers inadvertently brush the swollen area around my eye, so I drop my hand and try to arrange my face into a mask of calm contentment. I ought to be able to do this, but my chin keeps trembling and the emotions whirling inside me are prone to leaking through my eyes . . .
I close my eyes and direct my unspoken cries to heaven. I don’t think you want me to be a quitter, Lord, but you understand why I need time away, don’t you? I need a few days alone; I need time to think. I can’t go on living in that house, not any more.
I open my eyes, afraid I’ll find someone staring at my bruised face, but a train whistle whines in the distance, sending a current of expectation through the waiting area. The ticketed passengers stand and gather their belongings, then begin to move through the wide doors and walk toward the tracks. Most of the people here will soon be gone, and I will finally be able to enjoy solitude.
I must be invisible, because no one at all is looking at me.
I support my chin on my hand, my gaze running over the twenty or so people moving toward the arriving train. My fellow passengers represent every ethnic group in Little Rock, and I appear to be the only one traveling with a set of matched luggage. The copper-skinned woman nearest me is transporting her belongings in a plastic laundry basket; the Asian man across the aisle is carrying a suitcase seamed with duct tape. An older woman shuffles toward the double doors, one hand clinging to a little girl, the other carrying a paper shopping bag. A young man clutches a guitar case with two hands, a backpack hanging from his shoulders, his long hair tied back with a leather cord. Chirping like chickadees, a pair of bright-eyed young women stroll by, both wearing University of Arkansas sweatshirts, each traveling with only one small bag.
With a start, I realize that we are well into November. Two days to reach Washington, ten days for the trip—I won’t be home until the eighteenth, at least, which means I’ll probably encounter lots of travelers heading home for Thanksgiving.
The realization leaves me with an inexplicable feeling of emptiness. We ought to celebrate the holidays, but Harry and I have begun to ignore them as much as possible. For some reason, holidays result in more strife, more mayhem, and more disappointment. I can’t see any reason for this coming Thanksgiving and Christmas to be any different unless—
I don’t go home at all.
Until this moment, I had not considered the possibility of leaving forever. I don’t want to abandon my family, but if I can’t find answers on this trip, if I can’t unearth some reason to hope things can be different, that we can be a normal family—
I close my eyes, unwilling to consider the option that dangles before me like a shiny ornament. With my eyes closed, I hear an odd sound—beneath the noise of the announcer calling over the loudspeaker, beneath the shuffling steps of the crowd and the wails of tired children, beneath the dull roar of the approaching train, I hear an insistent tapping.
I open my eyes to see an elderly black man coming toward me, his white-tipped cane swinging left to right in a wide arc. He approaches steadily, a baseball cap on his head, dark sunglasses over his eyes, one hand gripping the cane, the other reaching forward, swaying gracefully in the empty air. His cane taps my suitcase and he adjusts his steps, moving slightly to the right, expertly avoiding the obstacle in his path. Then, as unerringly as any sighted man, he backs himself up to the empty seat at my left, then slides into it and telescopes his cane until it fits in the palm of his hand.
I’m sitting next to a blind man . . . and grateful that he, at least, won’t be tempted to say anything about my bruised face. But why is he sitting when nearly everyone else has gone outside? If he intends to catch this train, he’d better start walking out to the tracks.
“Hello?” He speaks to the empty air and smiles. “Anyone there?”
How did he know I was here? “Sir?” I lean toward him. “Are you traveling on the 8:15 train?”
Like a flower seeking the sun, his face turns toward me, a wide smile spreading across his lips. “I knew you was here. I could smell that honeysuckle perfume.”
“It’s shampoo, not perfume.” I look around and wonder if he is traveling alone. Maybe he has family nearby, or maybe—horrors!— he’s been overlooked and left behind.
“If you’re supposed to be on this train, sir, you’d better get aboard. I could ask someone to help you—”
“Lord have mercy, I’m not goin’ on no train. I came here to talk to you.”
I blink. “To me?”
He grins again. “I have a message for you. The Lord said I should go sit next to a pretty lady and tell her this: Speak truth to the others. They’ll help you find your answer.”
I stand, alarmed. This poor old man is confused or lost, but nobody in the waiting area seems to have noticed him. Nearly everyone is out by the tracks now, the train has stopped, and a tide of arriving passengers is just about to reach the doors—
I sit back down and place my hand on his arm. “Sir, are you with someone? Would you like me to call someone to help you?”
He laughs. “Honey, I’m blind, but I’m not helpless. Now—did you get the message?”
Staring at him, I struggle to remember what he said. “I can tell you one thing—if you’re looking for a pretty lady, that’s not me. If you’ll wait here, I’ll go ask at the desk and see if someone’s looking for you—”
“Honey, you’re the one he meant. So did you get the message?”
I lift my gaze as a flood of new people stream through the open rear doors. Dozens of detraining passengers—young, old, white, black, disheveled, well-kept—sweep into the reception area and file out the front doors, most lingering no longer than a minute or two to claim their bags. The train whistle wails again as the conductor announces that the Texas Eagle is pulling out, heading south toward Dallas and Fort Worth.
I squeeze the crazy old man’s arm. “I’m afraid you missed your train.”
He leans toward me and lowers his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “I have to be sure you didn’t miss your message: Speak truth to the others, the Lord says. They’ll help you find your answer.” He tilts his head and smiles. “I can’t leave until I know you got that.”
“I got it . . . but it doesn’t make any sense.”
“It’ll make sense in time.”
He straightens his spine, then braces his hands on his knees as if he’s preparing to stand. But before he does, he turns to me again, a hint of mischief playing around the corners of his mouth. “You may think I’m full on crazy,” he says, a smile gathering up the wrinkles by his ancient mouth, “but I’d like to know—are you black or white?”
I’m tempted to bark a laugh, but somehow I manage to repress the impulse. I want to ask why it matters, but he is a nice man and I’m not in the mood to engage in a debate about American race relations.
“I’m white.” I place my hand on his. “And thanks for coming over.”
He chuckles, extends his cane to its full length, and stands, then begins to tap his way toward the doorway. I watch him until he vanishes into the darkness outside the station. Should I chalk this up as a random encounter with a dotty old man or have I just been given a gift?
If he wasn’t senile, and if that message was meant for me, then I’ve rarely received such a prompt or confusing answer to prayer. Speak truth to the others? What others? And how am I supposed to help anyone in my condition? My world is falling apart, I’m leaving my family, by the tips of my fingernails I’m dangling at the end of my rope. In thirty years of marriage I’ve never been this upset, this desperate, or this broken-hearted, so how can I even think about helping anyone else?
As new tears spring to my eyes, I pick up my purse and search for a tissue. After I have blown my nose and gently dabbed at my cheeks, I look around the mostly empty waiting area. Now that the old man has gone, his message makes less sense than ever. I don’t see any “others” to speak to and this is the last place I’d go to find an answer for my family. This is a hub for cheap transportation, a place where transient people can toss their bags into a berth and ride away, usually without even making a reservation.
I came to the train because this is the last place my husband would ever expect me to be.
Angie here again: so? Whaddya think? What do you think of this woman? How old do you think she is? Why do you think she has to run? What do you think is going on in her life? Do you like her? Why or why not?