Astrid went up the spiral stair and, keeping her knees bent, made her way to the back corner of the deserted observation deck where her mother sat knitting and frowning at Nebraska.
“This state is endless,” her mother said, an expression of abject disgust in the turned-down corners of her mouth. “And boring. I have to agree with you on that.”
Astrid sat down with a sigh and pulled her brown hair back into an elastic band. “You’re the one who wanted to take the train. I wanted to fly, remember?” She looked at the cornfields sliding past, a carpet of unruly green to the horizon. In the distance, a miniature water tower proclaimed the existence of yet another small town. The name had faded from the side of the cistern. Only the red diamond-shaped background was visible. Astrid wondered if the town was named “Diamond” and if there were hidden diamond mines under the corn. The thought made her smile, but her smile vanished when she looked back at her mother.
“I’d rather be bored than be dead,” her mother said, returning to the indeterminate woolen something she’d been knitting since before they’d left San Francisco for Virginia two weeks ago. They were on their way back to California from visiting Astrid’s father in Arlington National Cemetery. This was the third summer they’d made the trip.
“What’s the difference?” She stood up again and had to catch herself on the metal pole beside their booth when the train lurched.
Astrid never met her father when he was alive. In fact, most of what she knew about him, she’d learned from the movie that showed how he and his buddies crashed their helicopter in the desert and fought their way back to a US outpost. Sean Penn had played her father. And as much as Astrid felt it was probably a good thing that people paid their respects to men like her father who’d died serving their country, she suspected her mother made her come wholly because she hated Astrid’s boyfriend, Julian. They could have flown just this once. But she knew her mother had insisted on the train again because it took up more summertime that Astrid could have been spending with him.
“You want some money for the dining car?”
Without looking back, Astrid made her way to the other end of the observation deck where the little spiral staircase led down to the main body of the train. She could feel her mother’s eyes on her and a faint smile passed over her face. It wasn’t over. It wouldn’t be over until she called her mother a stupid, desperate whore obsessed with a dead man who’d never loved her and wouldn’t marry her. Astrid was saving the words up, rehearsing them over and over in her mind. It had become a way to pass the time while the Midwest slipped behind the train hour after hour. Every time Astrid imagined her mother’s reaction, a spark of malicious joy flared in her heart.
This was the third time she’d walked the length of the train from their sleeper compartment in the back to the observation car up front behind the forward engine. She had a key card that opened the sleeper, but there was only so much sleeping a person could do. And whenever she sat in there by herself, listening to music or to the faint hiss of the air circulating through the vents and the thump-clack of the rails, all she could think about was Julian. She’d written him three letters during the trip, each about 15 pages in length. When she got back, she planned to give them to him in a big envelope with a red bow on it and say, read these—then we can talk because otherwise they’d be out of synch and things would go bad and she’d feel stupid, like her mother had won.
She bought a Coke in the concession car and sat down at one of the tables. In the evening, the observation deck would be crowded by those who hadn’t paid for sleeper compartments and couldn’t get comfortable enough to fall sleep in their seats. But, during the day, people would linger at the concession car tables—all long-distance travelers, all bored to death and willing to make temporary friends in order to pass the time. It could become a party atmosphere, especially given the number of Marines onboard, and Astrid wondered whether the train made more money from alcohol than it did on tickets.
Sitting at the table across from her, a man in a wrinkled green suit drank canned martinis with a fat red-faced biker sporting a gray ponytail and a Harley Davidson muscle shirt. She counted six of the thin white cans on the table between them. They spoke but hardly moved their mouths as if they’d been injected with a slow setting concrete.
At another table, three enormous Marines played cards and traded their own cans of Budweiser out of an large baby blue Playmate cooler they kept in the aisle. Their voices filled the car and when the enormous blond Marine with the scar on his jaw won a hand, he half-stood and whooped like a cowboy. People had to edge around their cooler to get to the concession counter, but people did and no one complained. No one even looked their way—except for the man in the white button-down and khakis sitting by himself at a far table, who’d look up from his laptop with a level stare whenever they got particularly loud.
Astrid watched the Marines, pretending she was looking past them or at the writing on her Coke can, which she held in front of her face from time to time like it was a fascinating alien artifact that required further study. She decided that none of them were handsome, exactly. But they had an unstable, rollicking energy that magnetized the air around them—an invulnerable wall of sand-colored fatigues and muscle. If the train derailed and everything turned sideways, she imagined they’d still be sitting there, laughing and tossing each other beers while everybody else screamed for their lives.
“Fuck off, Smits. You got shit and you know it.” That was the one who had stubble and squinted a lot like he didn’t believe anything at all. His name was Leitner. Smits was the big blond with the spiked up hair. And the other one—shaved completely bald, even his eyebrows—was Johnson. That’s how they addressed each other: Smits, Leitner, Johnson, not private or lieutenant. Astrid wondered if they were old friends from high school who’d met up in the Midwest after being on duty in different parts of the world and decided to ride the train somewhere together and play cards all the way.
Julian’s last name was Kettlefield. She tried to picture him sitting at their table in sandy fatigues with Kettlefield on a rectangular patch over his heart, saying Fuck you, Johnson or Gimmie two, you cheatin’ bastard, but she couldn’t. Julian was wiry, an inch shorter than her, with beautiful eyelashes, long black hair, and a cousin who was a pro skater. His two deepest secrets were first, that next year, after they graduated, he planned to steal a bunch of money from his dad and move to Hawaii so he could go into business in a skate shop with his cousin. And second, that he’d gotten Astrid in black cursive tattooed on the flat smooth place right above his pubic hair.
She couldn’t imagine Smits with a tattoo like that. He have a name like Rosy or Sheresse or I Love You Mom in barbed wire around a bleeding heart. And it wouldn’t be above his pubic hair. It would be on the hard slab of his thigh or the side of his neck or high up on his shoulder above a skull with a knife in its teeth. She noticed that Leitner had a blue scarab tattooed in the webbing between his left thumb and fingers. Johnson had a black thorn pattern inscribed around the back of his neck, the kind she’d seen posted up as examples in the windows of tattoo parlors in Berkeley.
Smits won again. This time he jumped out into the aisle, gyrating his hips like Elvis, saying, “That’s right! That’s right you sonsabitches! Keep makin’ me rich!” The other two tossed their cards down and cursed, but they were still smiling as if it didn’t mean a thing. Smits sat down and scooped up the pile of dollars on the table. The scar on his jaw was long and pale. The rest of his face shone red with beer and joy.
They traded up more cans of Bud from the cooler. And she noticed that the biker and the businessman had also reprovisioned with six more little white cans between them. Now they were slouched way down in the circular booth seats around their table, looking sedated and completely unaware of anything in the world, least of all the soldiers directly beside them.
Astrid smiled at her empty Coke can. This was far more interesting than staring at Nebraska with her mother or listening to sad songs on her iPod in the sleeper while she worried about Julian.
It got even more interesting when the man in the white button-down cleared his throat and said, maybe a little too loudly, “HEY GUYS. You think we could dial it down? I’m doing some work over here.”
Leitner and Johnson turned around in their seats and looked back at him. Smits just sat where he was, his enormous freckled hands folded on the table beside his beer. And there was a moment of silence in which the air in the concession car seemed to have solidified in a way that would hold them all there forever: the businessman and the biker with drooping eyelids, the old train guy sitting over behind the concession counter, the Marines glaring at the man in the white button-down, and Astrid.
Then Smits frowned. He knitted his eyebrows in a look of intense deliberation and said, “Fuck it. He’s right.”
Johnson nodded slowly and scratched the top of his bald head. “Excuse us. Sorry to have bothered you.”
Leitner just turned back around. The three of them looked at each other for a moment. Then they burst out laughing just as loud and as violently as before. They laughed for a full minute with Smits slapping the table and Leitner losing his unbelieving squint while he rubbed a hand over his stubble and listed against Johnson.
That was when Smits looked across at her and said, “That’s some funny shit. I love this train.”
Astrid felt a bolt of white hot electricity explode in her chest. The three Marines were looking at her, grinning, expecting her to say something. But her mind was blank. She was now a senior at North Beach Preparatory Academy, and Astrid felt she had better judgment than most girls she knew. She could certainly call things better than her mom, who was a sad stress case most of the time and only seemed to come alive on these miserable summer trips to Virginia. Astrid also felt she had an extrasensory awareness of when guys were looking at her like that. And she didn’t mind when they did because looking at girls like that was part of being a guy. But the like that of Smits, Leitner, and Johnson seemed overwhelming in its suddenness and their good humor did nothing to lessen its impact. Astrid knew she was blushing and hated herself for it.
“Yeah,” she said, giving them a weak smile.
The man in the white button-down stood and slammed his laptop shut so hard that it sounded like a bullwhip. Leitner and Johnson turned to watch him go.
“Have a nice day,” Leitner said to his back. The man didn’t turn around and the far door of the concession car hissed shut behind him.
Smits was still looking at her. He thought for a moment, then made up his mind and slid into the circular booth on the other side of her table. “What’s your name?” he said.
Johnson slid into the booth next to Smits. And Leitner moved in next to her, shifting the Playmate cooler two feet to the other side of the aisle. He handed out a round of beers and smiled at her with the squint back in his eyes. “Drink?”
She gave a half-nod and Leitner immediately replaced her empty Coke can with a full can of Bud, opening it for her with a flourish.
“Astrid,” she said to Smits.
“Astrid,” he repeated as if he were savoring the way it felt on his tongue. “Ever hear of a name like that?” he asked Johnson, who scratched his head and said, “Can’t say that I have. What is it, a name of a flower?”
She smiled and shrugged. She touched the side of the beer can with her thumb and felt the little nubs of ice stuck to the metal.
“She don’t know,” Leitner said. “Right on. Americans don’t know that shit.”
“Yeah,” Smits said. “Well, if it’s a flower, it’s got to be a pretty flower.” His face was wide under his short crown of spiked blond. He had lines on his forehead and a dusting of freckles there and over the bridge of his nose. Astrid looked at his pale blue eyes and smiled down at her beer.
“I’m just fuckin’ with you, Astrid,” he said with a shrug and another grin. “Let’s play some cards. You play cards?”
When she hesitated, Johnson said, “Don’t worry about it. We’ll teach you.” And he slid a small square of lined paper across the table to her. It had a fairly realistic line drawing of her face in the center of a sunflower with the sun laughing down at her from one corner and the moon weeping from another like comedy and tragedy. Under the drawing, he’d written Astrid in over-exaggerated script.
“Oh my god. Thank you. That’s beautiful,” she said. “Did you do that just now?”
“I did.” Johnson bowed, clicked his ballpoint, and put it in his pocket. She noticed a Gothic E.I. tattooed on the inside of his wrist. “I’m quick on the draw,” he added.
“He’s a quick shooter,” Leitner said.
“A real speed demon” said Smits as he brought out the deck of cards and started shuffling them.
Astrid took a sip and remembered she hated the taste of beer. She swallowed it anyway and pushed a loose strand of hair away from her face. “What’s that tattoo mean?”
Johnson looked down at his wrist then back up at her and smiled. One of his eye-teeth was dark silver. “That? That’s Latin. Stands for Ex Inferis. All you need is love.”
“That’s the goddamn truth,” Smits said, drinking half his beer and dealing cards around the table. “That’s all you ever need. Right, Astrid?”
She laughed. “Right.”
“And beer,” Leitner said.
Johnson pointed at Leitner and made his eyes big and round. “Truth. Cold beer and warm women.” Then he winked at her.
For her benefit, they played a few test hands of hold’em, described by Smits as “the purest game of cards given to man by god.” But when they started to take out their wallets, she still felt hopelessly lost. The way they spoke was so full of inside jokes and loaded references that when they’d gone over the rules, it was like they were trying to explain the grammar of one foreign language by using another.
The half-can of beer she’d drunk in polite sips had made her woozy and tired. Astrid thought she might want to crawl back to the sleeper compartment and take a nice long nap until dinner, but the incomprehensible bulk of Leitner was blocking the way—a squinting, beery pile of cinderblocks dressed up like a Marine. And now they’d been debating something and they were looking at her, expecting an answer.
“What?” She raised her eyebrows and tried not to burp.
“Do you have any money?” Smits said, leaning back in the booth and gesturing to the freshly shuffled deck on the table between them.
“Look,” Johnson said, “she don’t have no cash. How old are you anyway, honey?”
“21,” she lied.
“Exactly,” he said to Smits, “you can’t take no money from a 16-year-old girl.”
“But you can give it.” Leitner nodded at her, a faint smile at the corners of his mouth. “You can sure as hell give it.”
Smits held up his hands, palms open, in the universal gesture of diplomacy and reason. “All I’m saying is this is a pure game. You don’t bet, you’re not really playing. Might as well play checkers. But, shit, I’d want to bet on that, too.”
The three of them laughed and Astrid laughed along with them, thinking that she should have understood why it was funny. She noticed that the businessman and the biker and all their little canned martinis had gone. Their table was deserted as if they’d never existed. The sun had slipped farther toward the cornfield horizon on the other side of the train, and the shadow of the concession car had gotten deeper and thicker on the gravel beside the tracks. How long had she been sitting here? She wondered if her mother were angry, walking through the train looking for her, holding her cloth knitting bag in front of her like a Geiger counter as she swayed down the aisles.
“Alright. I have a solution.” Johnson took out more of the paper that he’d used when he drew the picture of her. Astrid saw that it wasn’t a pad but an extremely long sheet Johnson had meticulously folded into three-square-inch sections. When he put it on the table, it expanded like an accordion. He carefully tore off the top section and then tore that into quarters. He did the same with two more pieces. Then he wrote Astrid Chip $5 on each little square and pushed the pile towards her. “This is Astrid credit,” he said. “Every $20 you’re in for pays out a kiss. Okay?”
“Always thinking, Johnson.” Leitner smirked and replaced Johnson’s beer.
Smits sighed and held up his hands again. “Well, it’ll fuck up the natural rhythm of the game, but I guess it’s better than nothing. What do you say, hun? You okay with that?”
Astrid hesitated. But this time Smits didn’t shrug and grin like a schoolboy or say he was just fuckin’ with her. He waited for her answer along with the other two, the new breath of seriousness between them completely unlike the mock solemnity they’d shown the man in the white button-down ages ago. Was it ages? It felt to Astrid like a different lifetime.
She thought of Sean Penn playing her father in Fallen Arrow, a film Astrid had seen many, many times because her mother watched it whenever she was feeling depressed. There was a part where Penn and his surviving chopper crew—a farm boy from Missouri named Lieutenant Barnes and a British intelligence agent named Mr. Streeter—are captured and held in a cavernous dungeon by the Taliban. The night before they’re scheduled to be executed, the local village girl tasked with feeding them and tending to their wounds helps them escape—but not before lifting her veil to share a passionate kiss with Penn, who swears he will return for her someday. Only he doesn’t. He dies in a firefight, sacrificing himself to save 20 men pinned down by a sniper in the last scene. Her father got a bronze star for that.
“Okay,” she whispered.
“Atta girl,” Leitner said, drinking the rest of her beer and putting a new one in front of her. “Game on.”
“Game on,” said Smits.
They played a few hands and she was surprised that she’d won more than she’d lost, always folding before having to contribute more than $15 in Astrid credit. Finally, Johnson threw down his cards in disgust. “Beginners luck,” he said. “Thus, I must go take a piss.”
“Don’t be a sore loser.” Leitner came back to the table from the concession counter with three six-packs of Bud to restock the cooler. He started pulling the cans out of the plastic rings and placing them in the ice, which was now floating in a miniature arctic sea. The cans made a koosh sound when he dropped them in.
One of the cans slipped out of his hand and missed the cooler, rolling down to tink against the base of the concession counter. The concession man brought it back and handed it to Leitner.
“Concession’s closing now,” he said. “You want to eat dinner, the dining car’s opening back that way.” He nodded, put his hands in his pockets, and then paused to look at them. He had a white handlebar moustache and a shock of unruly white hair. It took Astrid a moment to bring him into focus but, when she did, she thought he looked like Mark Twain—a guy who’d stepped out of a different time, someone who seemed right at home standing around on a train with his hands in his pockets. All he was missing was a pocket watch on a chain. He looked at her. Then he looked at Leitner and Smits, who gave him a blank stare in return.
“Check,” Smits said.
“Sounds good,” said Leitner.
The concession man looked at her again and raised his eyebrows. “Okay,” he said. “Whatever.” Then he was gone and Johnson came back.
“What’d I miss?” Johnson looked from Smits to Leitner.
Smits shook his head. “People never cease to amaze me.”
Leitner dropped the last can in the cooler. “Which is the source of your troubles,” he said.
Astrid had never drunk three beers on an empty stomach. And though that might have explained her eventual losing streak, it could also have been due to what Smits called the “beginner’s curse”—the moment when your beginner’s luck runs out and you have to pay your dues. He said you never knew how deeply you were going to be cursed before you started winning again. By the time the sun disappeared completely and the train’s interior lights turned the windows into scuffed black mirrors, Astrid had been cursed enough that she owed both Leitner and Johnson a kiss.
When she kissed Leitner, that sense of him as a mountain of bricks returned, the roughness of his stubble, the smell of beer and deodorant. Then there was Johnson, who let her give him a peck on the top of his bald head and bowed to her over the table—a grinning tattooed knight with a dark silver tooth.
But it was Smits who took her back to her compartment when she fell asleep. Later, she’d have a vague memory of holding onto his enormous neck while he carried her through the darkened coach cars. People were wedged uncomfortably in their seats, trying to catch a few hours before the next stop, and he’d said, “You gotta be quiet now, hun. There’s people trying to sleep.” But she felt it was important that she explain to Smits about her mother and their trips to Virginia and how Sean Penn was probably nothing like her father and how he’d gotten the bronze star even though he’d never come back for the woman he loved.
When she woke up at 10 AM the next day, her mother had already eaten breakfast and taken her place on the observation deck. They’d left Nebraska far behind in the night and were now well into Iowa, the noticeable difference being that the fields were brown as often as they were green and the water towers were closer.
She would no doubt have to work up an explanation for being carried to the sleeping compartment by a strange beer-doused Marine. But that could wait. Astrid walked through the upper and lower decks of the train several times, looking for her three friends, lingering in the concession car just in case one of them came back to restock their cooler or even look for her.
Astrid waited there most of the day before she realized that they must have gotten off at one of the nighttime stops. And although she tried to focus on Julian that day, she couldn’t. When she discovered a few of the little pieces of paper that said Astrid Chip $5 in her pocket, she felt that something precious had come into her life and then disappeared forever before she could understand it. She looked at the little drawing Johnson had done of her as a flower between a laughing sun and weeping moon and wondered where he was and whether anyone had ever given her mother something like that.
* Note: this story first appeared in Small Print Magazine, Winter/Spring 2014.