Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 111 in 2006.
Adrienne and I were having breakfast at the table. She was telling me about her grandfather.
“Well,” she said, deftly stitching a button onto her teal blazer. “He’s always told us these amazing stories about his life. He loves to tell them. He’d definitely talk to you. He’s been telling them to us since we were kids and we’re always like, ‘We know Grandpa.’ But that’s just because we’ve heard them so many times. He’s done some real interesting things. He invented the electric toothbrush.”
“Really?” I said. I leaned forward and lit a cigarette. Adrienne left the table and waved her hand through the smoke, continued to explain Elmer’s achievements while she washed dishes at the sink.
“Yeah, and the first battery powered watch. He did both of those while he was at Elgin Watch Company. He invented the wedding registration too.”
“The wedding registration?” I said.
“Yup,” she said. She turned off the water and dried her hands on a dishtowel. “At Marshall Fields in Chicago.”
“But what do you mean he invented the wedding registration?” I asked.
“You’ll have to ask him,” she said. She draped her arms across my chest and cuddled her chin into my shoulder. “I think we should go and you should interview him. It could be a road trip, although I don’t want to take my car. Let’s take a train. Come on, it’ll be adventurous. And if we go down there you’d get to meet my father.”
Adrienne and I had been dating for seven months. We were in love, and spent afternoons sprawled in bed as the seductive dusk tinted the windows. I had met her mother, with whom I shared an affinity for literature, but her father was a man who was not accessible, a man who would undoubtedly criticize my nicotine-stained teeth, and a man who invoked trepidation when I considered visiting south Florida. Adrienne was nervous too. I could not help but notice the tension that formed in her face as she imagined our meeting. Her father was an esteemed dean of dentistry at a university in south Florida, an ex-race car driver, and the owner of a sturdy and handsome physique, with teeth, in their sixth decade, which made mine appear to have descended from nineteenth century London.
“Do you want to go next month?” Adrienne called from the computer.
“Alright,” I said, stubbing out my cigarette and using my tongue to swab the coffee from my teeth.
She came into the kitchen and said, “It’ll be eleven hours on the train. But we can handle it.” She was wearing her teal blazer and a camouflage wife-beater. She stood next to the window and let the sun fall into her eyes. She blinked dreamily, sifting through the images of us on a train. “It’ll be interesting, don’t you think?”
A month later, we carried our bags to the taxi as the last layer of darkness peeled back from the morning sky. The air was moist, moving, and mysterious, with a sinister quality that reminded me of mornings in San Francisco, and the taxi-driver’s face was somnolent, sallow, and staunch, with a grimy quality that reminded me of hangovers. On the deserted highway he said, “Aren’t you a little early for the train?”
“No,” Adrienne said. “It’s coming at five.”
“Did you call to make sure it was on time?”
“Well, those things are notoriously late,” The taxi-driver had an indistinguishable accent that, with this new information, irritated me. I reassuringly rubbed Adrienne’s thigh.
“It’ll be there,” I whispered.
“I bet it seems I’m going fast, huh?” the taxi-driver asked. “But I’m barely going the speed limit. You always get there faster when you’ve got time.” Our eyes met in the rear-view mirror. He turned and showed me a crooked, creepy smile. When he dropped us at the train station he said, “You kids have good luck.” And then he sped away, leaving us in a wake of exhaust that seemed to laugh at our foolishness.
The short middle-aged woman behind the counter checked our ID’s and stamped our tickets. At the last possible minute, she said, “Your train’s not coming ‘til 9:30.” It was five a.m. We stood at the counter and watched the woman move to her next task. I wanted something, compassion, or the woman to acknowledge her joke, but all I got was the sudden realization that traveling by train held much more allure when rolling across the sunny hills of imagination.
The waiting room was crowded. People sprawled across the blue plastic chairs with their heads pillowed on their packs, couples leaning on the other’s shoulder, disheveled businessmen raking their fingers through their snarled hair, and conservative women patiently checking their watches. Adrienne and I sat on our jackets and settled in for the wait. At the front of the room, perched atop a table, a giant television delivered the morning news. It was the twentieth anniversary of the Challenger’s space shuttle tragedy. I looked at the images of the astronauts and said, “God, I remember that. Twenty years ago.” It was the first time in my life I could say that, and I felt very much like an adult.
In my opinion, traveling by train sits on a romantic throne. I think anyone who enjoys relics of the past, or the nostalgia of a younger America, can relate and support this theory. The fascination of a person, or a craft, or a mode of transportation that is aging and splitting at the seams is attractive because through its demise its insides are exposed. Did Icarus understand himself better in his climb to the sun or his descent from it? Does a cobbler explain his skills more thoroughly when he doesn’t have any other business to attend to? Does a train company, when it funding is slashed, and its equipment damaged, and its employees disgruntled, paint an accurate picture of its sluggish state when all the managing skills fail? Adrienne and I are seekers of vintage, that’s why she makes new clothes out of old ones, why I tell new stories about old people, and why we took the train to south Florida. It was difficult to admit, but our theory of train travel was different when we put it into practice.That didn’t matter, though, because we had plenty of time to think it over, and plenty of people to influence our experience.
The woman sitting behind us tapped me on the shoulder and asked me if I’d watch her luggage while she went and got something to eat. She was taking the same train as we were, and I obliged, inspired by a sense of camaraderie that rejuvenated me in lieu of caffeine. When the woman left I looked over her ragtag luggage, the suitcase with the broken zipper, the bed linens stuffed in garbage bags, and the spiral black notebook split open on the seat. I wondered what was on the pages of the notebook, where she was traveling, and if her going to get something to eat was really just an excuse to disappear. I glanced around and considered my fellow travelers, curious to think that any one of them might be running away from something, that the short pudgy guy dressed in black denim might finally have found the woman of his dreams, while the young mother cradling her newborn was secretly proud of the cunning way she’d left her deadbeat boyfriend. It was a period of languid anticipation, but one that would be punctuated by the personalities that lent our romance of traveling by train an aspect of justification.
Adrienne’s grandfather, Elmer Fritz Antonson, was born September 30th, 1917, in Chicago, to parents of Swedish descent. After graduating high school, he worked in a butcher shop. It was a job that he was good at but never really liked. In 1936, when Elmer was nineteen, a friend visited him. It being the Christmas season, the friend spoke about how busy he was over at Marshall Fields, the colossal department store on State Street in Chicago. When Elmer inquired whether a seasonal position might be available, the friend encouraged him to apply. Shortly thereafter, Elmer was employed at Marshall Fields, working in the Oriental Arts Department, his formative career years molded by the capable hands of one Genevieve Myers. Ms. Myers proved to be tough, a lady whose skirts never frilled, a Katherine Hepburn of the retail world, and my image of her running an arts department in Chicago, back at the beginning of the twentieth century, with such a wonderful name, strutted across the floor of my mind with the mesmerizing steps of a heroine. She had a strong impression on her employees, and she instilled a business ambition that later in his life lofted Elmer into the societal ranks of Chicago’s elite.
I had done research on Elmer. His contributions to such innovative ideas as the electric toothbrush, battery-powered watch, and the wedding registration impressed me and piqued my curiosity. However, when I searched for his name with these items, it never emerged, and so I felt I’d discovered a secret that discredited Elmer’s claims. I didn’t want this to be the case. I wanted desperately for all of his claims to be true. I wanted it for Adrienne and her family, who spread his stories to an admiring public. I wanted it for Elmer, who in his eighty-eighth year ushered the recognition of his achievements through his body like young blood. Finally I wanted it for myself, who, sitting in the train station at five thirty in the morning, needed something to make this trip worth my while. Thinking about alternate versions of the truth, I realized that the competition must have been rigorous when anything and everything needed to be invented, that whoever got the idea patented first enjoyed adulation and affluence. Keeping this in mind, it was possible Elmer’s ideas were stolen and patented by somebody else. It was possible Elmer sold his ideas and used the money to stabilize his financial life with his young wife and daughter. It was possible, anything was possible, and I felt comforted by these alternatives.
“Oh Jesus Lord in Heaven,” gasped a voice behind me. It was the woman whose luggage I’d been watching, and she was commenting on the images of the exploding Challenger that flashed from the television screen. Her mouth was full of the breakfast sandwich she’d bought, and when she said again, “Oh, Jesus Christ Lord have mercy,” I almost puked because she chewed with her mouth open and chomped up bacon and eggs marred her words. I looked at Adrienne with a face that asked, “Is it wrong if I stick my gum in that lady’s hair?” I turned around and the woman smiled and laughed as she covered her stuffed mouth. “Thanks for watching my stuff,” she said, and flicked her eyes back to the news. It dawned on me that the train company wasn’t a bunch of idiots after all. Give people a big TV and fast food and waiting all morning doesn’t seem so bad. I tucked a piece of hair behind Adrienne’s ear. She made a fist and started writing on her hand.
“Why do you always do that?” I asked.
“Lists keep me focused,” she explained.
“Why don’t you write it down in your notebook?”
She examined her fist and said, “I figure I’m going to die anyways. It might as well be from ink poisoning.”
“Do…You…Have…Any…Food or Water…In…The…Boxes?” the woman behind the counter belabored to a Latino couple trying to check their luggage. The unresponsive couple silently endured the interrogation, their full moon faces trying not to crack.
“Food…Or…Water? Does anyone speak Spanish?” the exasperated woman asked. The woman behind me tried to put an end to the miscommunication. “Agua in the boxes?” she yelled. “Agua? In the boxes?” Finally, a young Asian girl spoke up and resolved the situation. The Latino couple affectionately cuddled and then the husband left. When he’d gone, the wife, as if donning another personality, slipped on black Isotoner gloves, a set of old, speaker-like headphones, and put a magazine on her lap. She flipped through the magazine and rocked back and forth. Suddenly, I heard Celine Dion’s “All By Myself” belt through the waiting room. The wife tapped her gloved fingers against her acid-washed jeans, moaned the melody of the song, and appeared as happy as a girl in her bedroom. Adrienne and I stifled our laughter. I wondered if the wife understood the lyrics. The TV was quiet and the room seemed to be waiting, waiting, waiting, until “All By Myself!” sounded at last, the wife’s guttural moans telling each of us about the struggle of her loneliness. Adrienne wiped the tears out of her eyes. My jaw hurt. It was almost eight thirty.
Traveling by train is like reading a novel whose protagonist strikes close to home. At the center of the story is you, leaving point A and heading to point B, with all the situations and experiences that occur in between. The other passengers serve as satellite characters whose antics spice up the story, give it a bit of surprise or sadness, joviality or excitement. Traveling with someone, especially someone who is your partner in crime, by train, while all this is going on, tends to create a sub-reality, a reality that only exists inside the moving vessel that, with its dimly-lit cars and poorly ventilated air, is as shocking when you board as when you get off. Adrienne and I found our seats and looked around. Along with the passengers from the train station were new people, many new people, people we hadn’t had the pleasure of observing yet. We leaned back and watched Georgia’s rust-colored landscape slip by. The wait was over and we were on our way, content for the moment to massage our temples and rationalize the desire for a cocktail.
By eleven thirty we were in the lounge car drinking gin and tonic, bouncing deliriously along, our minds fiery with the incendiary combination of sleeplessness and alcohol. Adrienne wrote down everything that interested her. We passed dilapidated silos and piles of discarded automobile tires, picturesque barns and trailer parks, graffiti painted walls and prisoners in orange jumpsuits cleaning trash from the sides of highways. She took photographs of passengers, snapping the camera with a cavalier grace that avoided my detection. My favorite picture was of a droopy-faced man who had been in the train station with us and had, upon boarding, immediately started drinking Bud Light. Sitting in the last booth, newspapers spread before him, he had a keg cup of beer in his hand, looking without retention at his surroundings. His red face was as bright as the fire alarm above his head. When he spoke—a loud gurgling that bubbled from his throat—the fire alarm threatened to sound.
“Bud Light!” he gurgled from his booth.
“You about drank me out of it,” said the bartender.
The droopy-faced man laughed, tossed back his head with pleasure, and with an incoherent toast saluted the bartender.
When nobody is watching, a person’s true characteristics are revealed. The droopy-faced man didn’t care if we watched him. He didn’t conceal his true characteristics. In fact, he celebrated them, for better or worse, as being his poison and elixir. It made me feel sad to laugh at him, and then foolish to feel sad. On the train the most important conviction is compromise.
“I’d be dying for a cigarette if I still smoked,” I said to Adrienne. The train had stopped for one of the three smoke-breaks of the trip and the lounge car was empty.
“It’s good you quit,” she said. “You look healthier.”
“People keep saying that.”
“My grandfather used to smoke. That’s probably why my father hates it so much. That, and he has to see the damage it does to people’s mouths.”
“I can see Elmer with a cigarette,” I said. “The smoke crawling across his face as he works on some project.”
“He was always well dressed. Nice suits, hats, everything was immaculate. I’ve seen pictures of him in fancy-colored suits, smoking one of his pipes.”
“So he was a pipe smoker?” I asked.
“When he was promoting his pipe idea, he came up with an idea to have the bowls of his pipes be different colors so that they matched the color of his suit.”
“Are you serious?” I said.
“Certainly,” she said. “It came to him in his sleep. So, you see, he also invented the pipe dream.” I stared as her perfect incisors crunched an ice cube.
In the late fifties, Elmer had a friend named Bill Munce. Munce sold televisions. His business did well and he needed more space for production. Munce had a barn in McHenry, Illinois, that was perfect for his warehouse. That is if he could get all the crap out of there. Munce complained to Elmer that the barn was filled, from floorboard to rafter, with horseshoes, and that it would take too much time to unload all of the crap. Elmer’s foresight sparkled. He told Munce not to worry. He’d have the place cleared out in a jiffy. Munce was skeptical. He bet Elmer that he couldn’t complete the task. If the job can be done, Elmer explained, then I can do it. Munce went away on business and Elmer agreed to keep him posted on his progress. Elmer hired a group of men and together they hauled all the horseshoes out of the barn. They washed them off, polished them up, and packaged them. It was a big job but Elmer got it done. When Munce called, Elmer said that the job was bigger than he anticipated, that Munce had been right to doubt him, and that he might need more time to finish. Munce, though slightly disappointed, seemed happy to have proved Elmer wrong. A few days later, Munce returned and Elmer took out a full page of advertisement in the Chicago Sun Times, marketing his horseshoes with the slogan, “Send Good Luck To A Friend.” An immediate demand for the horseshoes turned a profit for Elmer. Later that week, he showed up at Munce’s house with two packages. The first was one of the horseshoes, and the second was a mushroom brooch. Elmer pinned the brooch on Munce’s lapel. “What the Hell is going on?” Munce asked.
“Bill,” Elmer said. “You are now an honorary member of the mushroom club.”
“What do you mean mushroom club?” Munce asked. “I haven’t seen you in a month. You told me the job needed more time. I get home and the barn’s cleaned out and there’s this ad in the paper.”
Elmer put his hand on his friend’s shoulder. “How do you grow mushrooms, Bill?”
“I don’t know,” Bill said.
“You keep them in the dark and feed them a lot of shit,” Elmer said, and handed Munce a horseshoe.
Adrienne and I were on our third cocktail. Our initial amusement of the passengers had worn off. Now, we were sitting with them, drinking with them, no better or worse, and our isolation turned into community. A frail woman with obsidian eyes and greasy silver hair sat in the booth across the aisle. She introduced herself as Pearl. Adrienne asked her where she was going and Pearl said, “To visit my boyfriend.”
“Oh,” Adrienne said. “That’s nice.”
“Not really,” Pearl explained. “I’m seventy-eight and he’s eighty. But he’s looking for a younger woman, a girl in her fifties. Men want that, you see, I can’t find a man who wants me.”
In an effort to boost her esteem, Pearl took lipstick from her purse and applied a generous amount to her lips. Doing so, she exposed her pink and white gums, her cavity-ridden teeth, and a habitual concern for appearance that stemmed from her weary vanity.
Adrienne left for the bathroom. Pearl’s eyes followed her. She turned to me, smiled, and said, “I think she needs a new pair of pants. Those are all torn on the ends.”
“Oh, well,” I mumbled. “Those are her traveling pants. Believe it or not, she’s actually a fashion designer.”
“Oh, yes,” Pearl realized. “I’ve seen her in a magazine. Is she American?”
“I thought I heard an accent. It’s these damn hearing aids,” Pearl griped. “Only one of them works. If I want to get new ones, it’ll cost me twenty-five hundred dollars.”
“Well,” I said, with mustered charm, “That’s not a price you want to hear.”
Pearl turned, waved her hand as if she was disgusted, and kissed a napkin. I couldn’t tell if she’d heard my joke and waved it away, or simply missed it. Either way, at that moment, as I waited for Adrienne to get back, I realized how much I cared for her, not because she was young and had nice teeth, but because she listened to and laughed at my jokes.
Adrienne’s father greeted us at the door of his home. With a tight-lipped smile, I said hello. Inside, we sat at the table. He poured us red wine. We discussed the trip and got along easily. He was pleased I was interviewing his father. I was glad to have a unique, forthcoming opportunity to meet the patriarch of their family; the man who had been telling stories for years, the man, who, through the spreading of his tales, I already felt I knew.
“He’s certainly got some good stuff in that head of his,” Dr. Antonson said. “And he’s inquisitive, his mind’s sharp. Adrienne, you should show him the photograph of the Chinese Wedding.”
We went down the hall to a framed photograph. About three-dozen people, dressed in traditional Asian wardrobes, posed for a picture at the Stevens Hotel in Chicago. In the top left row, looking severe and handsome, stood Elmer, his brilliant blue eyes distinguishable despite the black and white film.
When Elmer worked in the Oriental Arts department at Marshall Fields, he took a look around and decided, “Hey, we ought to get a couple Orientals working in here.” He hired two Chinese Americans and together they forged a productive and friendly relationship. In 1937, when China was reeling from Japanese attacks, the group decided to conduct an official “Chinese Wedding” at the Stevens Hotel in an effort to raise money for the ravaged lives of Chinese civilians. Marshall Fields provided the artifacts and wardrobes. The marrying couple enjoyed a ceremony in a regal American hotel, and all the proceeds went straight overseas. The event was a tremendous success, garnering over one million dollars. As a sign of gratitude and good faith, an exclusive Chinese society granted Elmer official membership. He and only one other American were inducted.
The next morning, Adrienne and I walked to Elmer’s building. It was a sunny day in January, airplanes flying through the blue Lauderdale sky, and I was nervous. Elmer’s wife, Laverne, had a doctor’s appointment. I wondered how to get an honest, revealing interview with a man whose history is painted terrifically gray? I figured the man liked to talk, that his eloquence would usurp any discrepancies, and was eased in my apprehension when, Elmer, eyes ablaze, answered the door. The girls left for Laverne’s appointment and Elmer and I retired to his office.
I turned on the tape recorder and Elmer, without instruction, began. “My name is Elmer Fritz Antonson. Born September 30th, 1917. Chicago, Illinois.” At times his voice was gruff, at others sweet, and he enjoyed a mischievous giggle that made me wonder what he had up his sleeve. His hair’s part had slipped, he needed a shave, and his rolled shirtsleeves described a man who worked, a busy man with big ideas, a man who, even now, in his eighty-eighth year, had no inclination of slowing down. His breast pockets were jammed with index cards. Throughout the interview, he consulted the cards for dates or names or references. He marked them with a knobbed pencil, slipped the pencil behind his ear, and contemplatively considered what he’d written. “It’s my computer system,” he said, patting the cards.
As the interview continued, Elmer’s natural story-telling ability carried me along. He moved effortlessly across the points of his life’s chronology, until the images fluttered through my mind like thousands of photographs. Yes, I realized, this is Elmer’s world.
“Marshall Fields, Elgin Watch Company, these places were the world for me,” he said. He explained his role in the development of Elgin’s electric toothbrush, Elgin’s battery-powered watch, and Marshall Field’s wedding registration. I realized that his efforts, though limited to the companies he worked for, were pioneering in their spirit and original in their conception. It didn’t matter who had patented the ideas, Elmer had invented them, and for all those living with him, Elmer’s world was their home as well.
His powerful memory engineered a monologue that was startling in its clarity. I was amazed by his recitation of names and dates, the things people said and the way they said them. It made me appreciate what he said, and what I replied, in stricter terms. The only time he stumbled was when he described some kind of argument.
“But I guess it doesn’t matter if I only forget the names of the people I hate,” he chuckled.
That night, as I lay in Adrienne’s little brother’s bed, I stared up at the glow-in-the-dark stars and thought about Elmer’s life story. It was a big story, a good story. A story meant to be told. Then I thought about my story, where it began and would wind up, and I imagined telling people about the time Adrienne and I took a train to south Florida, about our ingenuity, our craziness. All of a sudden, a glow-in-the-dark star shot from the ceiling. I leaned over, picked it up, and held it between my fingertips. The passing of tales continues. Our worlds meet others. The granted wishes of shooting stars turn up in most unlikely places.
The next day, Adrienne and I went to say goodbye. We stood in the parking lot outside of Elmer’s building. He pulled me close when he shook my hand. “Before you get on that train there’s someone I want you to meet.”
A neighbor walked up to us. “Roberta,” Elmer said, pointing his cane at me. “This is Kevin Murphy, and he’s writing my life story.” Elmer turned and patted me on the back. I smiled, happy that he remembered my name.