. . . the clack-clack of a moving train. I pulled my left cheek from the worn wooden floor. The planks smelled of tar, dirt, and hay. The open boxcar door rattled as the green countryside zoomed by.
I winced as a splinter pierced my palm. I shook my hand up and down to abate the pain. Bales of straw lined the front and back of the box car. In the distance, I heard a soft twittering sound. It reminded me of music producer Brian Eno’s synth line in the opening measures of “Once in a Lifetime” by the Talking Heads. How did I get here? I thought.
I climbed the straw bales in the front of the car to look for a false ceiling or access hatch to the roof. No exit. Not like the movies, I thought.
The countryside continued to whip by. I walked to the open door and peaked out around the corner. Wind blew my cheeks wide open, like goddamn puffer fish. The cold wind stung my eyes. A tree branch buzzed by my head with a whoosh. Careful. Gotta be careful. I spotted a small ledge along the base of the car. Two cars lay ahead of the box car--what looked like a passenger car and then a steam engine in the front. A hiss escaped the steam spout of the engine, floating Eno sputter flutters.
I can’t do it, I thought. But I had to. I had to get to the front of the train. What was I going to do, sit on the hay bales until we pulled into a station? My stomach growled. My mouth was dry. I had to know. How did I get here?
The hand hold on the outside of the box car was thin and troublesome, but the lower ledge offered enough foot support to sustain the wind and rumble. I sidled along the outside of the train. A flock of birds screamed at me and my left foot slipped. Damn. I pulled myself up and continued along the side. Halfway to the front access of the box car I thought, Maybe I should go back? Half way there, I pushed on. I had to get to the front of the train. Had to.
After scaling the side of the box car like a spider on a web in a windstorm, I bargained my way to the front of the box car. I landed on its front access, climbed over the connecting joint to the passenger car in front of the box car, and opened the passenger car door.
The smell hit me first. Smells like jail, I thought. The combination of bleach and Pine-Sol burnt my nostrils. The metal of the passenger car reflected bright sunlight. The hot metallic surfaces throughout the car were polished and immaculately clean. I stepped to a passenger seat and sat on its red velvet cushion. It was soft and full of feathers.
The sound system in the ceiling played a later-era Led Zeppelin song. What was that record called? Seance? Apprentice? Something like that. The cover was cool. On it, a family sat at a 1970s marina restaurant and stared at a black obelisk in the center of the table. I could never remember the titles of the later era Zeppelin songs. Whatever the song was called, Zeppelin grooved like a train bobbing back and forth. A one and two and a three. Ba-da-ba da-ba-da-ba.
Where is everybody? I thought. As I walked up the aisle of the passenger car, I saw no bags, no trash, and no half-drunk drinks. No magazines, no ticket stubs, no signs of life whatsoever, just a freshly cleaned train car. The wall of the passenger car met the ceiling in a curved steel that ran the length of the car. Instead of advertisements—like the ones you’d see on a subway train—two words were etched in big, block letters along the entire length of the the right side run: ROYAL ORLEANS.
I walked to the front of the passenger car, over the threshold to the engine, and on to the access platform of the front engine car. A ladder gave entry to the top of the engine. I climbed the ladder and, at the top, a rush of wind hit me in the face. My cheeks didn’t puff out this time. The steam silo pumped out soft plumes of moisture ten yards ahead. The engineer’s compartment lay just before the silo.
I climbed to the top of the steam engine and crawled on the top toward the front of the train, hugging its curvature. To the right of the train was vast wilderness countryside that ran all the way to the horizon. To the left of the train and through less dense wilderness, a large lake lay few miles away. The train track curved a little to the left. On the track, way in the distance, a tunnel allowed the track passage through an impossibly big mountain. I inchwormed my way to the front of the train, with a constant eye on the lake. Are we circling the lake?
I arrived at the front engine compartment and dropped down a second ladder. The compartment was empty, just like the rest of the train. Plates of cast iron steel lined the front of the train where, you’d think, some kind of steering or speed controlling devices would be. But here, there was nothing. Just blank sheets of iron. By the left window, a verse was etched in the metal:
"One time love, take care how you use it.
Try to make it last all night.
And if you take your pick
Be careful how you choose it.
Sometimes it's hard to feel it bite.”
I couldn’t see over the steam silo or through the frontage of the train. I guess that's why you see conductors and engineers tilting their heads out of the train windows in pictures—its the only way to see where you’re going.
I stuck my head out the left side of the engine compartment. Wham! Everything went dark. I awoke to . . .