Fiction by Nicholas MacDonnell
The train was Granddad’s idea.
“This is one of the last great runs in America,” he said as we boarded at Chicago’s
Central Station. “You’re lucky your mom agreed to let me take you out like this. When I
was a boy, this was the only way to travel. Still is, if you ask me.”
I hated it when Granddad talked like this, like everything that came before was
better than what I had. Ten years on earth had given me enough perspective to know that
the world I lived in was pretty great, well, that was until my dad died and my mom
decided we had to leave the city that so reminded her of him.
For all I cared, Granddad could keep his nostalgia because to me, the train
smelled like the stale breath of an over-crowded school bus. Who were these people, I
wondered, and what made them as unlucky as me to be stuck on this stupid train? At
least I had my phone, not that Granddad saw it that way.
“Why are you staring at your crotch like that?” he said after we’d sat down in the
dining car. “You didn’t bring a book?”
“I have books on here,” I told him.
“Not real books,” he grumbled before opening his paper as the train got
And so it started, our failed departure born of resentment over the train and my
move from all I’d ever known. The trip would take two days broken up by thirty-one
stops along the way. From Illinois to California, we’d pass through states and time zones
and so much more.
But not at first. At first, all we found were fields of corn and soybeans buried
beneath the gray November snow. Black soil broke through in tufts, and in-between,
little towns I’d never heard of rose up all on their own.
“I grew up in a town like this,” Granddad said as we passed through one of many.
“It wasn’t so different from Chicago. To be honest, I missed it after we left.”
I knew Granddad wanted me to ask him about his childhood, about what his life
must have been like in such a place, yet silence was my sharpest form of protest. It hurt
him, me acting like this, but he should have known better.
He should of let us fly.
The sun passed overhead as we headed south and west. Four stops in Illinois,
each one further from the only home I’d ever known, certified a harsh truth that I wasn’t
going back. When we crossed the state border, I told myself that I could do this, that I’d
make due eventually. That I wouldn’t cry.
I promised myself, even when it felt like a lie.
We crossed into Iowa just after lunch. At a depot in Fort Madison, our lone stop
in that lonely state, I looked out at who was holding us back and stared down at gathered
magpies, the long beards and prairie dresses and children the likes I’d never seen; boys in
straw hats, girls dressed up like recreations of their moms.
“Who are those people?” I asked with wonder.
Granddad looked out the window as I saw his eyes fix on the buggy and horses
“I’ll be damned,” he said. “I didn’t know the Amish rode on trains. Those are
Amish people. It’s a sort of religion. They shun technology and live a simpler way.”
“Like you?” I asked.
“Not even close,” he said, laughing. “More like my granddad’s granddad. I
wonder what they’re doing here?”
The Amish family boarded and then passed us where we sat in the scenic car. As
they made their way back towards coach, I caught eyes with their youngest son, a boy
around my own age. His face revealed little, just that he was stoic, or sad.
I spent the rest of that afternoon holed up inside our private cabin. I’d
downloaded a couple of movies on my phone, and between them and all the games I
already had, I was able to avoid any long talks with Granddad, punishing him further by
missing out on the so-called landscape that rolled on by. By the time we’d loaded and
unloaded in Kansas City, it was time for dinner.
Passing through first class and then the glass-domed scenic car, I found Granddad
seated in the dining car with a half-empty glass of whiskey in front of him, his eyes red
and blurry as he talked with another man about the election. I told him to order me a
sandwich before I went to use the bathroom.
Yet my purpose for leaving wasn’t just relief. Visiting first class had inspired me
to see the rest of the train, and that meant exploring coach. And for some reason, the
term coach had created an expectation of squalor. Mom wasn’t wealthy, just
comfortable, and when we flew, it was in coach. But coach on a train? Such a notion
made me recall pictures I’d seen in school of chicken crates stacked ceiling-high in
Bangalore. Stepping between train cars, that was what I thought I’d find.
Yet what I discovered was that which I’d known, just more travelers, more
crowded riders, and more stuffy air. Rows and rows of seats, many filled, fewer empty,
stretched from start to end of the railcar.
I walked past nuns and soldiers and single men who rode alone
When I reached the next car, all those passengers were repeated once-over in a way that made it feel as
though I was looping through an old cartoon. I made up my mind to trek one car further,
and if nothing caught my eye, to go back. But upon entering, the train changed at last as I
found our Amish counterparts.
Seated in the back of their car, I watched them having dinner as their eyes stayed
as low as their voices. There was something so familiar and yet so foreign in their
actions, a family so close I could touch them that at the same time felt a million miles
As I readied to complete my loop, at the last second, again I locked eyes with the
boy. And in that fleeting glance, surprising me as much as if he’d taken flight
,he smiled back with a smile I knew, one of two boys brought along on a trip without their consent.
A smile of having to grin and bear it while their family went along.
I smiled back before I turned and left the car.
We should have woke in Colorado while on our way to Santé Fe. At least that’s
what Granddad told me, stirring me from my slumbers that next morning as I arose to a
feeling I hadn’t expected, one of not moving, of a train parked and waiting.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“Track’s out,” Granddad said. “A cattle truck dislodged a section outside of
Dodge City. Lucky they caught it. We could have been in real trouble.”
When we left our cabin, I sensed a feeling of distress in my fellow passengers,
like being stuck on the tarmac when no one knew what was happening. We tried
reaching the dining car, but the queue of passengers lined up to pester the beleaguered
staff kept us from getting far.
“You have any idea how long we’re stuck?” Granddad asked another man.
“Could be a day,” he said. “I’ve heard Amtrak is offering hotel vouchers for
people with time. If you’re in a crunch, they’re paying for the bus.”
Unlike his fellow passengers, Granddad wasn’t dispirited by this news. I knew
him well enough to recognize the glint in his eye. To him, this was an adventure.
“Looks like you’ll have to spend some extra time with me,” he said.
“I can’t wait,” I said and rolled my eyes.
A silence settled upon the train as scores of passengers took up the option to get
off and be bussed into town or towards their next destination. For Granddad and me, all
we did, in his words, was hunker down and man that hatches.
So naturally, I headed out. It took four laps around the train before my exploring
wore thin, but I had still not gone outside. Normally, this would have been an
impossibility, yet for those of us who’d chosen to stay, the conductor had announced that
doors off the viewing car would be open, presumably for the smokers and their kin, but
also for parents with children driving them insane.
With my coat buttoned and strict instructions for Granddad not to wander too far,
I made my way to the exit. A train worker helped me out the steps leading to the
embankment, and from there, I was greeted by the November winds.
Kansas resembled Illinois in many ways, mostly that it resembled nothing at all.
Browns and whites stretched off into the landscape as the gray cloud cover overhead
concealed the sun’s passage. The wind ripped around me, finding holes in my outfit and
testing my resolve to stay outside and kick the dirt.
My adult counterparts smoked or made phone calls while I took pictures on
Snapchat. It was a different vantage, seeing the train like this. Set amidst the fields and
endless sky, it took on another form, like the tracks before us were somehow laid just
yesterday and we were explorers in a strange land, and this train, this vessel, was here to
carry us on to glory or calamity, a future none could tell.
I thought I’d left the crowds as I neared the end of the train when the sound of
sliding gravel made me realize someone else had made it this far. As I rounded the
caboose, I was surprised to find the Amish boy throwing pebbles at a post.
“What are you doing?” I asked when I saw we were alone.
Looking me over before deciding I wasn’t a threat, he pointed at the fencepost
with one hand, his other full of stones.
“I’m trying to hit that notch. You wanna try?”
Throwing rocks at a fencepost in Kansas was an experience I’d never foreseen.
Yet somehow, here it felt natural, like this was where I was meant to be.
“Sure,” I said, taking a couple stones and testing their weight in my hand before
throwing and missing by a mile.
“It’s harder than it looks,” I said.
“Yeah, I’ve had some practice. I have a sling on the farm, but I’ve killed a rabbit
“You killed a rabbit?”
“Sure did. Mother was angry, but I think it made my Pa proud. We skinned it
and ate it for dinner.”
“I’ve never done anything like that,” I said. “What’s your name?”
“I’m Jebediah,” he answered, “But everyone calls me Jeb.”
“Nice to meet you, Jeb. I don’t think I’ve ever met an Amish before.”
At this, Jeb laughed before turning back to the fence.
“I’ve never met a Chicago before,” he said as he chucked another rock. At this, it
was my turn to laugh.
“We’re on our way to LA,” I told him. “What about you?”
“We’re going to the Grand Canyon.”
Meeting Jeb had filled me with a whole slew of questions, yet at that second, from
far up ahead, the piercing whistle of the train paused our chat.
“We should get back,” I said in place of probing further. Jeb nodded his reply.
Together, we walked back through the snow and rocks to where the smokers inhaled their
last puffs before we set off again.
“Maybe I’ll see you again,” I said.
“Maybe,” answered Jeb. “I’d like that.”
Once the track was repaired, we traveled west across Kansas, crossing into
Colorado and a landscape that didn’t change. Granddad handled the calls to mom, telling
her we’d been delayed, telling her not to worry.
“I’m good,” I said we he handed me his phone. “It’s been pretty flat so far.”
“How is your Granddad,” my mom asked. “He’s watching over you, right?”
“He has,” I told her, which was mostly true. “He really likes being on the train.
He keeps telling me stories about when he was a kid.”
When my mom sighed, I could almost picture her smiling.
“You boys be good, and I’ll see you in a couple of days.”
Mom hung up, and when she did, I noticed a gleam in my Granddad’s eye I
hadn’t seen before.
“Free men,” he said. “Let’s get to dinner. I’ve got a surprise for tonight.”
I followed Granddad out of the car, noting that he’d pulled a small container from
his suitcase and tucked it in his pocket. As we made our way to the dining car, we passed
by familiar faces we nodded towards, yet Jeb and his family remained absent from our
travels on the train.
Dinner that evening consisted of a reheated quesadilla and a steak, that as
Grandad put it, ended up being ‘tougher than a ten-dollar whore’.
That Grandad would speak so loose, not just because of his scotch, but because of
something more, revealed the bond he felt between us. This was more than Christmas
presents or calls on his birthday. The way he looked at me, it felt as though he was
looking at a mirror, one full of hope and wonder.
When we finished dinner, Grandad ordered us ice cream sundaes before reaching
into his pocket and pulling out the box he’d tucked inside.
“I’m not going to see you or your mother much anymore after this move,” he said.
“Just in case something ever happens, I wanted you to get this from me so that you’d
remember what it is, what it meant, to have something for after I’m gone.”
Granddad opened up the small box. Inside was a silver wristwatch tucked down
amidst a case of purple velvet. Granddad then removed the watch as though it had secret
powers, both dangerous and glorious at the same time. Holding it up, he looked at the
metal band and face as they reflected back the dining car lights overhead. Eventually, he
set it back down.
“My company,” he said, “Gave me this watch on the day I retired. For forty
years, I worked at that mill. I was eighteen when I got the job, and I got a draft
deferment to make shell casings for the war in Korea. Everything I ever earned was
because of that place. My home, your mother. My whole life came out of my time at
that factory, and on the day I left, this was what they gave me.”
Granddad handed me the watch. Unlike the cheap knockoffs my friends wore on
Sundays, this was a timepiece that had been crafted with care.
“I want you to take this with you in Los Angeles,” said Granddad. “I want you to
remember that the things that will build you up can come from humble places.”
I thanked Granddad before silence overtook us once more. Eventually, he had
another drink before saying he was tired. I wasn’t sleepy yet. I wanted to look outside at
the curving mountain track set by moonlight. When I finally returned to our cabin,
Granddad was snoring away like the night had never been.
“That was the one. You know, I left some friends behind when we moved. My
best friend was a boy named Charlie Witmore. You never really know when you’re in it,
but I tell you, some of the things we got into.”
“Like what?” I asked, knowing I couldn’t pass off Granddad any longer, that I
needed to listen, if just for this short time we had left. Granddad smiled as his eyes went
to the ceiling before returning to find my own.
“Well, it wasn’t so different. We certainly didn’t have the technology like you do
today, but we had our fun. We’d ride bikes or go fishing at the lake. To this day, Charlie
was the best fisherman I ever knew. I feel like we worked more back then, but that might
be me just being old. We sure talked about what our lives would be like, planning out
things we had no way of knowing or controlling.”
Granddad’s eyes misted over once more as he smiled and patted my hand.
“But you know the rest of the story. When the mine closed, my dad took work in
Chicago, and Charlie’s dad took them east to Cleveland. We promised we’d write, but
we never did. It was harder in those days finding where people fell. But I still remember
“But I’m sure it will be different for you,” Granddad said, pausing as the overhead
announcement declared our arrival to LA. “You’ll keep in touch. Maybe not with the
Amish boy, but with all the others. I’d bet on it.”
“Let’s get going,” he said at last. “It’s time we get off this train.”