Mystery Train

posted Sep 30, 2008

I boarded the Amtrak in Portland on my way
To Seattle and searched for an empty seat—
Hopefully an empty row. In Coach Car C,
I saw a seat next to a teen. The train swayed

As I approached him and asked, "Can I sit here?"
He wouldn’t look at me. His face was blank.
Asberger’s, I thought. "I must warn you I’m weird,"
The kid said. "I’m weird, too," I said and thanked

Him for his kindness. I worried he would talk
Too much, and he did, but he was charming and rude.
He said, "You’ve got a big head and face, dude."
He said, "I like rap music more than I like rock

Because I like blacks more than whites,
Especially when I play the royal game, chess."
With Asberger’s, I knew the kid might obsess
Over certain objects or ideas, like

The boy I know who collects Matchbox cars
And recites the manufacturing history
Of thousands of them. "It’s not too far,"
The Train Kid said, "We are on a train journey,

But I take it twice a month, on weekends.
I’m sorry I’m weird. I don’t have many friends.
My mother and father love me, but they
Got divorced when I was ten. You could say

They hate each other as much they love me."
He told me his father lived in Portland
And his mother in Seattle. "It’s kind of fun
To ride the train," he said. "I like to see

The landscape out the window. Pretty soon,
There will be a yellow truck parked outside
A blue and red house." Of course, he was right.
As we traveled north, the kid always knew

What was coming next. I asked, "What’s your name?"
He ignored me and said, "There used to be
A dog that lived in that junkyard. It’s a shame,
But I think he’s dead now." Then he looked at me,

Made eye contact for the first time, and said,
"In seven years, I have taken this trip
One hundred and nine times. I have only missed
Two trains because I had the flu in my head."

Jesus, the kid had become a nomad
Riding rails through the ruins of a marriage,
And, at first, I was eager to disparage
His parents, but then I realized that

His folks must love him as obsessively
As he loves them. They put him on the train
Because they need to see him. It was lovely
And strange. I wanted to ask this kid about pain

And what that word meant to him. I guessed
He could teach me a new vocabulary—
I was vain and wanted to be blessed—
But then he asked, "Are you old and married?"

"Yes," I said. "I’ve been married for ten years."
He nodded his head and looked out the window
At the sunlight flashing between tree rows,
Then whispered, "I have cried a lot of tears."

I was breathless. Stunned. I wanted to take
The kid into my arms, but I knew he’d hate
The contact, so I could only smile
When the kid said, "In a little while,

We are going to see the Mima Mounds."
And there were thousands of those things, six
To eight feet tall, dotting the South Sound.
Created with gravel, rocks, dirt, and sticks,

Those mounds escape explanation. They’re not
Indian burial sites. They’re not homes
For gophers or insects. They don’t contain bones
Or fossils or UFOs. They’re just odd

Geologic formations that will keep
Their secrets no matter how hard we try
To reveal them. When our train arrived
In Seattle, the kid walked beside me—

I had quickly become a habit, I guess—
Until he saw his Mom, short and pretty,
And pulled her tightly against his chest.
He said something to her, pointed at me,

And she smiled and waved. I walked home,
Chanted the first lines of this poem,
And committed them to memory.
And if a few strangers thought me crazy

For writing poetry, aloud, in public,
Like another homeless schizophrenic,
Then fuck them for wanting clarity
And fuck them for fearing mystery.

Sherman Alexie is the author of 19 books of poetry and prose, including The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, the National Book Award Winner for Young People’s Literature.

His new book of poems, Face, is due out in early 2009 from Hanging Loose Press.

He lives in Seattle with his wife and sons.