Today, I am taking the Amtrak Coast Starlight Superliner on an 11-hour trip from Hollywood to San Francisco to spend a week with my friends Sean and Laura. Sean and Laura will be happy to see me. And I’m looking forward to seeing them. But none of us are kidding ourselves. The three of us are all perfectly aware of what I am most excited about. Riding the train.
Have you ever noticed the face of a little kid when the family car gets stopped to allow a train to pass through town? Is there anything more exciting for that little kid than counting all the cars, waving at the passengers, and imagining where they’re headed and all the fun they’ll have when they get there? Even when that little kid is old and gray, there’ll always be something in that experience that will bring them back to the excitement and endless possibilities they believed in when they were young.
There is no mode of transportation more romantic and open to mystery than a train. Anything is possible. That’s why every time I’m on one, I cross my fingers and pray that someone will get murdered.
You may think it’s just wishful thinking on my part, but it’s more likely than you might realize. After all, the setting is ideal. A cross-section of complete strangers paying no attention to one another. The constant blowing of whistles ready to drown out any gunshots, screams or pleas for mercy. Tiny, isolated restrooms practically jumping up and down, screaming, “Hide a corpse in me!” Toss in foreboding passageways, multiple stops allowing easy escape, and an unlimited supply of booze, and I ask you… who wouldn’t want to kill someone on a train?
That’s why from the minute I step on board, I immediately suspect everyone of evil intentions. Where others just see a kindly grandpa in the Bar Car, I see an assassin who’ll fool me into looking out at the mustard plants and then slip strychnine into my Alabama Slammer. And there’s clearly a lust for blood in the eyes of that potty-mouth lady with the playing card earrings and the t-shirt that says, “Fresno’s Got It!” Dan, my Sleeping Car attendant brought me the complimentary bottle of Martinelli’s Sparkling Cider even after I’d declined it because he claims, “you never know.” He might as well just show up at the door of my roomette wearing a knit cap and a glove that doesn’t fit.
I always take extra precautions to make sure I’m never murdered on a train. While everyone else is in the Observation Car blindly staring at abandoned water towers and the skeletal remains of sheep, I’m mentally cataloging everyone’s distinguishable facial features and checking them for noticeable limps or scars. I know that the authorities will appreciate this, and besides, I like to be prepared.
Eventually, the day will come when the train makes an un-scheduled stop so the police can board to question all the passengers. While everyone else is frantically trying to recall something suspicious to try and sound interesting, I’ll just lie back in my little roomette and await my chance to shine. And when the cops finally do reach me, I’ll have more details than a fashion show emcee. “The perp was approximately five-foot-eight, wearing eggshell denim shorts and a button-down shirt depicting papayas and hula girls in a style resembling that of Rodney Dangerfield. His two loafers were tasseled and complimented by white knee socks and a matching baseball cap on which was embroidered a can of SPAM.”
Because anything can happen on a train, it’s possible that my usefulness in the murder investigation would lead to weeks and weeks of high-profile testimony, a series of interviews on cable news, a book called On Time for Terror, and then ultimately the chance to be a game show panelist. Each week, I’d be introduced as “That inimitable personality and a man whose never thrown off the track…” as a nod to my keen insights as well as the timeless story of my rise to the top.
These are the thoughts I have when I’m on the train, and I notice that I never have them anywhere else. Just when I’m on a train, by myself, coming from somewhere, heading for somewhere else, but at the moment, nowhere in particular.
Though the likelihood of a homicide occurring on my train is minimal, I still hold out hope. And I remain open to things not going exactly the way I’d prefer. If it isn’t a killing it could be a jewel heist, or an atomic threat, or even a couple of cowboys riding up alongside with their horses to pull off a good old fashioned robbery. And those would inevitably lead to different outcomes, but I could find a way to be ok with that. It’s a train. Between here and the next stop, there’s still a chance anything can happen.
An employee from the Restaurant Car knocked on my door and asked me what I would like for dinner. I immediately notice from the tag on her blouse that her name is Erika with a “k.” I sum her up as approximately six feet tall, one hundred forty pounds, long blond hair pulled to a bun, probably Northern European with a wide-bridged nose, one blue eye slightly darker than the other, wide protruding incisors and thighs so thick they could probably snap my neck in a heartbeat. I smile and order a hamburger, and as she walks away I know I better keep a good eye on her.