Bump…Bump…Sway and Bump…Rumble…Bump! That last bump was a doozy, Daphne thought. It made her open her eyes. She was in the dark, but she could feel a blanket wrapped around her neck and upper body. Her stocking feet were sticking out of the sheets. She was in a box. No, as she lifted her head. It’s a small room. Ah, she was starting to remember. She was pretty sure that she was on a train. Yes, I’m not dreaming, she said to herself. I’m on my way home! Home? It always surprised her to say that word. What and where is home really?
Enough of that and she shook her head to clear out the thoughts. She disentangled herself from the blanket and sheets; then yanked open the window curtains only to see nothing but dark shapes. The day too was pulling back the night’s shades but at a more leisurely pace more like gauze than the thick blue folded train curtains. She had slept okay. She remembers getting up at 12:40 am because the connecting door to the next room was rattling again. Sounded like a crazed woodpecker. Before going to bed, she had folded the Welcome to Amtrak safety brochure and stuck it in the door and the rattling had stopped. She felt very can-do gal at the time. Very proud of herself. But it had fallen to the ground, so she folded it once more and wedged it back in. She had woken up again at 2:40 am. But, by and large, it had been a good sleep albeit a rough one. The only thing that went “bump in the night” were the actual bumps of the rails on the tracks. If there were any ghosts, they must have been the friendly kind.
It was close to 6:00 AM according to her phone, so she needed to get up and at ’em if she wanted to have breakfast by 7:00 and ready for arrival in Chicago at 9:50 AM CT. She got up, squirted her nose with nasal spray, found her makeup bags and started her daily routine of toner, creams, primer, base, blush, eye shadows, eyeliner and mascara. It was something she had not stopped for one day of this whole self-quarantine slog. Since the bed was still down, she had to unlock and open the door and then lean back in to look at the mirror. Basically, her body, butt first, was in the hallway and she prayed that Robert, the only other passenger, was not going to need to get past her. She was applying the last bit of mascara when David appeared.
“Would you like me to fix up your room?”
“Yes, indeed, David. It’s time for me to shake a leg, as my Mother used to say!” she laughed.
David smiled indulgingly and went about deconstructing the room, restoring the sofa and whisking the sheets and dirty towels and washcloths away. As he worked, she walked up and down the hall for a little exercise. A very little exercise since David was super-fast. As he exited the room, Rachel appeared, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, as my Mother used to say.
“Good Morning! Ready for breakfast?” she said.
“Yes, indeed. What can I have?”
“Well, then, I guess I’ll have everything. The egg sandwich, yogurt, oatmeal, rolls, and fruit.”
“Juice?” Rachel queried.
“Yes, apple juice and lots of coffee. I’m assuming you don’t have lattes,” Daphne said with her best Dutchess pouty face.
“Sorry,” said Rachel with her sweetest “No-Miss-Fancy-Pants” face. “I will see you at 7:30. You’ll have the place to yourself again. Robert’s eating now,” she whispered. And then sidestepped down the hallway swaying to and fro. She didn’t go “Poof” and disappear this morning. “Must be a night thing,” Daphne mused.
She squeezed back into the room and plunked down on the sofa by the window and smiled. She realized that David and Rachel, besides Kevin, were the closest human contacts she had had in over three weeks and the energy that gave her was palpable. These were her first “Close Encounters of Some Kind” and she was very grateful. The gloom and surreal nature of the evening and the night of yesterday melted in the light of this new day, April 5, day 21 of her quarantine and great escape. As she watched the sun rise over the farmland of Ohio, she thought back on how she found herself on this empty train with its ghostly crew and mysterious passengers, herself included.
(Voice Over begins.)
At this point I bet you have a lot of questions as to how I, I mean Daphne, had made the decision to get on a train in the middle of a pandemic and make her way almost the entire length of the country. This was a trip of slightly over 2,000 miles and over 40 hours. And the only train she had every been on was the 2-hour train ride between Hudson, NY and New York City and some fast trains in France and Italy.
Well, Daphne had been a bit ahead of the curve in following what had been going on in Wuhan, China. She had been reading her contrarian blogs and being a contrarian herself who was hard-wired since birth to have that different drummer rat-a-tat-tatting in her head, she was concerned about this new flu.
Daphne asked her massage therapist, Arlene, on January 15 how to keep the flu at bay. She had recommended “Thieves” oil. “Put some drops in a spray bottle with water and then spray your airline seat area. Use Wet Ones to wipe off the armrests.” Daphne hightailed it to the health food store to purchase the witchy oil. “Thieves” gets its name, by the by, from medieval times. Legend has it that four thieves got caught robbing the dead and dying afflicted with the highly contagious “Black Death.” The authorities wondered why the thieves never seemed to get it themselves. They (former spice and perfume traders until the plague hit) said that they applied an oil made up of cinnamon, eucalyptus, lemon and rosemary. They put it on their hands, feet, temples, ears and sprayed it on a mask to cover their eyes, nose and mouth.
When her friend Lisa, who had just returned from Bhutan (IN ASIA!), asked her to join her for Taco Tuesday at the New York Restaurant and Bar (Daphne’s hangout), she reluctantly said “Yes.” It was January 28, 2020.
“There’s this flu in China. Where did you fly through on your way back here?” Daphne queried from not far enough across the table.
“Hong Kong. They took our temperature and we were all fine except our guide. They pulled him aside, but then they let him go,” she smiled and then coughed.
“Yikes!” Daphne thought. She signaled the waitress for the check.
Daphne was also a bit of a Cassandra and was often singing out warnings to the people of Greece; well, that is to say, anybody in her immediate vicinity whose ear she could bend. She couldn’t keep quiet about this flu. During the first week of February, Daphne started bringing her Magic Mist to the bar and spraying people.
“You’re not just going up and spraying people?” her husband Clay had said with alarm.
“Oh Honey, I always ask them first,” she chirped.
Daphne decided she should go to Montana for doctor and dentist appointments. She felt a Spidey sense to get ‘er done. She flew there on February 16. While she was there, the Verizon guy who came to fix their internet was coughing into his elbow.
“It’s allergies,” he said.
Two days later she had lunch with a friend who was also coughing into her elbow. “I had a bad cold, but I’m not contagious anymore.”
She flew back to Newark on February 25 packed in a plane with foreigners who sneezed and skiers who coughed. On her way home to Catskill from Newark, she decided to stock up on supplies at Trader Joe’s and Costco. First time she used the sanitizing wipes to wipe off her cart.
By the first week of March, Clay and Daphne talked about her coming back to Montana, but thought it safer to stay put in upstate New York than get on another planeload of skiers coughing and sneezing up a storm. On March 5, Daphne orders a Toto washlet toilet seat that washes your tush just in case she is locked inside her house like the people of Wuhan and Italy. She begins a regime of spraying her nose with aloe and saline mist; taking zinc lozenges twice a week, drinking Echinacea tea and using a mister on her nightstand filled with oils that boost the immune system. Back on the ranch, Clay has his first calf but the cow tries to kill him. On March 6 at the Bar, she chides a young person for hugging her. Everybody thinks she’s nuts.
By the second week of March, people who had poked fun of her (I’m looking at you, Frankie) were beginning to ask for the recipe for “Thieves”. ‘Nuf said.
By March 10, Daphne was in full hypochondria mode. She was blowing her nose too much. Was it allergies? She threw up some Kombucha but it was way past its expiration date. And…well…stress. But she was also wondering why everybody was still fixated on the November U.S. election and not on this virus. Maybe, after all, she was just having a bad reaction to stupid. Two days later, the movie and television business shuts down. She’s out of work along with a lot of other people.
On Monday, March 16, Day 1, Daphne’s self-quarantine begins. On Day 6, March 21, she weeps as she walks up and down Williams Street listening to “Slow Dance in a Parking Lot.” She is missing Clay. She doesn’t cry much. She cried like this out of nowhere when she talked to her dying sister on the phone and knew that would be her last conversation. That scares her.
By Day 9, she’s writing poems about feeling like a dog watching for her 2 leggeds (Hat tip to the talking Schnauzer Pluto on the YouTube) to come home from work. She trots from window to window looking for people or other dogs or squirrels or anything that moves. The highlights of her day are sightings of the mailman and the occasional UPS guy. On Day 10, people started checking in on her. Clay calls and wants her to come home. Day 11 she coughs twice and scares the shit out of her. Just something caught in her throat. Day 12, Clay says, “I wondered whether I’d ever see you again.” Whoa! She didn’t say anything, but it shocked her. He thinks she’s going to die? Or is it that she could get trapped in New York forever? That’s more likely as Clay had been consistent about how healthy she was and that any worry was “All in your head,”. She knew that!
Day 15, March 31st, somebody she knows dies in London and officials say the next two weeks in New York are going to be very very bad. Soon she would learn an old friend would die in her apartment in New York. Her friends Joanna and Bruce had flown back to Italy the week before and were quarantined in their casa. The stakes were getting higher.
On Wednesday, April 1, 2020 on Day 17, Daphne listens to the White House press briefing and a reporter asks if domestic travel would be banned. The President said they are considering it. Traveling to and from hot spots might be banned. The reporter then asked, “Train travel too?” Yes, they are considering that too. Wow! A big light bulb went off in her head! The train! A private car and room? No sneezing skiers?
After researching sleeper car options on the YouTube, Daphne focused on the weather in Montana as the train travels through northern Montana, almost four hours from the ranch and Montana roads are treacherous if there’s snow. This Sunday still might have snow, but Monday, April 6 looked good. So, on April 2, she books rooms on the Lakeshore Limited and The Empire Builder for that Saturday, April 4. She would have a four-hour layover at Chicago’s Union Station. That would put her in Havre, Montana on April 6 with over 3 weeks of self-quarantine behind her. That would also protect her husband.
For somebody who had in the past jumped off the deep end i.e. chucking a Hollywood career and moving to a cattle ranch in Montana, she felt a thrill and excitement. For somebody who has trouble making up her mind, there was also a sense of relief and joy. So, I find myself, I mean Daphne finds herself hopping around the kitchen, then skipping up the stairs and starting to pack. She feels like a character from a Chekhov short story at the beginning of something rather mysterious but grand. She must pack wisely.
(Voice over ends)
“Breakfast is served, Mam.”
“Thank you, Dimitry.”
Daphne turned from the window and wistfully said, “Of course. David. Sorry, but I was thinking of someone and somewhere else.”
Daphne grabbed her phone and lurched down the hallway. Suddenly a man appeared from around the corner. Both stopped dead in their tracks. Daphne backed up and into her room and let the man pass by. “Probably Robert,” she thought. She felt torn between a wish to talk to another person and the thought that the two were fugitives of some kind. Best not to know anything more. Much better to keep things to ourselves.
After adding a spray of her medieval virus protecting mist to her neck scarf, she lurched once more down the hallway to the dining car. She settled in to the booth as the train stopped in Waterloo, Indiana. Looks like she had missed most of Ohio. Rachel brought her breakfast which, quite frankly, was about as grand as last night’s meal. More plastic with a limp egg sandwich and a bowl of instant oatmeal. But she wanted Rachel to feel good about this whole stupid thing; this empty car, this empty train. So, she ate heartily and decided to savor her cup of coffee with a smile. But, oh for a nice china cup and a white linen napkin. If she ever did this again, she would make sure to take a napkin and maybe even a nice cup. Just like the wives of the homesteaders who went West over a hundred years ago. A bit of grace for a life on a cruel barren land.
“Oh, for crap sake, “Cowboy Up,” she heard Clay whisper in her ear.
And with that, she thanked Rachel and lurched and bumped her way back to the room. She decided to pack everything up as they were not that far from Chicago. Maybe an hour or so. She settled in with her notepad and pen to make a record of this journey. What passed by out the window for the next hour were farms, acres and acres of farmland. She passed silos and barns and John Deere tractors. She was in the Heartland. She was rushing right through the heart of the country. She was not flying over this so-called “fly-over country.” Here they grew corn, cantaloupe, cabbage, cucumbers, squash and celery. In fact, friends of hers were one of the grand farming families of Celeryville, Ohio. She consulted her online map and looks like she had passed north of Celeryville around 4:30 AM.
Back in Catskill, Daphne thought, friends and neighbors are shuffling single file, one at a time through the aisles of the Price Chopper; trying to stay six feet apart while they try to decide on fresh, canned, or frozen corn or squash. Those veggies come from places like these. Rather than being bored, she felt comforted by the endless sameness of one greening field after another; by the tractors driving up and down the fields; the rows of apple trees; the ubiquitous silos that stood like sentinels watching over the crops. Born in Iowa, raised in Illinois, and schooled in Michigan; this Middle Earth, this Midwest was the roots from which she sprang. She leaned against the window and sighed. It feels like home. Home. That word again.
The train plowed on through Indiana. And around 8:45 AM Eastern time near South Bend, the scenery began to change. Barns were turning into factories. Silos were turning into gas and oil tanks. Steel and iron works pumping out plumes of steam and smoke took the place of open clear skies.
And then there it was in the distance. A tall building that she knew as the Sears Tower. It was Chicago. And it was her hometown. She took a picture and sent it to her sister in Michigan. She took another as the train entered the south side and passed near the old south side neighborhoods of Pullman where the Pullman railroad cars were made and Roseland and right through Englewood. A whoosh of nostalgia came over her. She wished her high school friends were with her on this leg. She felt a tear in her eye, but then the train passed by what she knew as White Sox and Comiskey Park and she knew she better pack-up quickly. They would soon be arriving at Union Station. She wound up her cords and threw phone and I Pad into her purse and put her notebook in her suitcase. She took a final look around and settled back in her seat and watched as they huffed and puffed their way into the big shouldered city of Chicago at 9:30 AM.
She started to feel unsettled. She had felt safe in her private car. Now she had to get off this train and find the lounge for sleeper car patrons. She would have to figure out the social distancing thing and wear a mask and god knows what else. And what about lunch? Lions and tigers and Chicago Bears, Oh my!
David and Rachel appeared and Daphne asked, “Are there porters here for my bags?”
“Oh, yes, should be one,” David said.
“This is it for me,” said Rachel. “This is home.”
“Home, yes. This was my home a long long time ago. Thank you for everything, Rachel. Hope things get better for all of us,” Daphne smiled. She admired how non-plussed Rachel had been through this whole strange trip on the ghost train.
Rachel nodded. Then David took Daphne’s two bags off the train and put the smaller one on top of the other. Daphne stepped out and felt a blast of cold Lake Michigan air. She looked down the long platform towards the front of the train and wrapped her scarf tighter around her neck. New York had been a balmy 54º when she left and now it was at least ten degrees colder. When she turned to wave goodbye, both Rachel and David were nowhere to be found. She was all alone with nobody else except two women way down the platform near the front of the train. Seemed really far away and no porter in sight. With a sigh, she started down the cold and deserted platform lugging the two suitcases behind her. This was not very grand. Not at all.
(Intermission or The Four Hour Layover in Chicago.)