UNITED STATES—Lee stood up from the seat and yawned. Good god, the man was big as a polar bear. He put the faded baseball cap back on the head of dark wavy hair streaked by gray.
“Would you like anything from the snack bar?”
“No thanks,” Raveendran said. Lee was so generous, he knew now that Lee would get him anything he asked for. To the vegetarian Raveendran occurred to ask for a hamburger with the meat patty removed, but that might be too complicated. Then again he wouldn’t mind another chocolate bar. Sharing it with his neighbor made it yummy, even if he was breaking his vow to refrain from sugary confections.
Our traveler from the sub-continent took advantage of Lee’s departure and left the observation call to make a phone call. Feeling toasty from the tallboy, he walked through the train cars, swayed two and fro like a lotus blossom on an ocean. At the very last car of the train he phoned his rich Uncle Nayan who had made a fortune importing toilet paper from Mexico to a chain-store in the United States. But that was before free-trade and now his uncle was in the motel business, managing a seedy motel in south Los Angeles that catered to couples needing a passion pod.
“We are two hours behind after we waited for a train in Kansas City,” Raveendran sighed. “And we lost another 20 minutes in Grand Junction Colorado. We’re terribly behind.”
“It doesn’t matter,” said Uncle Nayan calmly. Nayan had seen it all—and a little bit more. “The motel can wait. You have to pay for the ice: that is the policy. No, I’m not talking to you, nephew. I’m talking to YOU, hooligan Get out.”
“Uncle . . . “
“I’m not talking to you. It’s the horrible people who aren’t guests and they come to steal our ice.”
Raveendran hung up the phone and burped. The funny hat lady who had refused to sell him a few almonds the previous sleepless night was dozing off. The pinkish red cherries would be very nice. They were peeking out of a plastic bag on the seat next to her. He took one with a pang—after all it was a theft, he knew—and it delighted his tongue all the same.
Over the loudspeaker came the announcement that the next stop was Ratón, New Mexico. Here the landscape had changed: the clouds were swirling, soaring and the houses were simple adobe with logs sticking out of the top. The coarse walls spoke of lives poor but clean. It reminded him of settlements outside of Punjab.
“There will be a brief stop here, to stretch,” said the fuzzy loudspeaker voice. “But don’t light up. Don’t even think about it.”
Raveendran stood at the very back of the train and watched the ribbon of rails pass behind, mesmerized and hypnotized, all the way to the other end of the continent.
As the Southwest Chief came to a slow stop, the main Western street of Ratón beckoned, and in the chalky afternoon sun, there baked a collection of stone and brick buildings on a mesa below outcroppings of hills.
Raveendran took the stairs down to the open hatch on the lower car level, and walked outside. He saw the people, smoke-deprived smokers for the most part, stretching and fingers writhing as they itched to light up.
The arid New Mexico air was refreshingly warm compared to the chilly air in the train where the windows couldn’t be opened.
Quick as a Billy goat, Raveendran loped over rocks on the ground and avoided the small train depot the size of a cabin, a relic of the 19th century. Over rocks and crevices he scrambled and saw windows for a market down the dusty street but he didn’t trust it; the windows looked blank and papered over and it was too far away to risk it. The train could leave without him. Closer, he saw a bearded man in front of a store, watching the day pass by. His establishment purported to be a general store, if the sign was to be believed.
Raveendran’s eye was riveted by a hand-lettered sign that said ‘apples.’
“An apple!” he said, winded. The man looked at him, squinted, and pointed to an empty box. “Oranges,” again the man pointed to emptiness. “Cucumbers.”
“Nyet,” he said. “Mister. I don’t know what language you understand. But the produce truck didn’t come this week.”
The red-bearded man took in the anguish in Raveendran’s gaze.
“Look, I can make you a burger,” the man said.
That’s when Raveendran looked over his shoulder and saw the porter lifting up the stepping stool and the hatch closing with finality. The Southwest Chief had left without Raveendran.
To be continued…
Humorist Grady Miller is author of “Late Bloomer,” available on Amazon. Please reach Grady at email@example.com.