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Empire Builder

Someone spoke of . . . Prŏgress . . .
“Oh! said my father, “why do you pronounce the word like that? Pray give the ō long.”
     —Alfred Lord Tennyson

What to make of a diminished thing
     —Robert Frost

I forget the sound of the wheels grating against their track until the whistle blows, and I remember how far I wanted to go in this life. I ride this train named Empire Builder and settle into my sleeping car, where I’m given J. Rogét American Champagne. After a bite of banana, the “champagne” fizzes into soapy layers until I feel the rapid birth of every bubble turn into a dying and quiet, pop and gone; it’s so awful in my mouth. And I just want more.

We move at a fine pace until a wheel on our train cracks. It shakes one of the train cars so badly that an elderly man tells a woman it reminds him of the war. He doesn’t say which one. He doesn’t hear her when she tells him we’ll have to stop and remove the car in order to keep going.

The train rumbles and slows. The engines cut. Power off.

In the unexpected stillness, I can hear the other people on the train with the intimacy usually reserved for private rooms where people hope and grieve. A man in the next sleeping berth coughs up his illness. A woman unzips her suitcase. A kid whispers, “How long we gotta wait here?” A bottle cap opens and the pills spill out. “I don’t know,” says his mother.

In the night beyond the train, a slight, single streetlight flickers yellow through the dark. An electronic sign reads 11:14 p.m., -17 degrees. Two dogs roam the streets. A man runs beneath the trees. He isn’t wearing a coat. I see the bare flesh of his arms, pumping forward until he disappears behind the only building in sight at the edge of this town, at the edge of this state of Montana in a country called Reservation.

I know of this place, but I don’t know it. I could say its name, and I will still be warm inside of this train while the man runs through the freezing cold. A couple nearby complains about the stagnant air, and I’m silently wishing for more of that American champagne even though I know of a girl who once froze to death here and wasn’t found until spring.

“That’s where they found her,” a woman told me once. She nodded toward a clumped shrub as if noting a road sign. “Over there,” she pointed with her chin.

I followed her gaze, wanting to hide my everything white, my everything suburban: my dead-end street; my father, dead too when I was five; my everything sad girl and Georgian, where the ground seemed only to vibrate with loss for me; ancestors and slaves, the wounded and terrified. I felt them wherever I went. They bubbled under the surface of the soil and under the surface of my skin. I had to feel something else. I would become a new girl by coming to the elsewhere in my mind that was the home of light and dust and the sound of constant hooves and motion, propulsion, forward into the green. Into the sun. Westward I came. Westward I come. America could be the greatest poem. It would revise me.

The woman pointed in a new direction. “They found another man, there,” she said. I listened to her like I was learning to speak. “Found him close to the place where another woman had an accident and lost her arm. There.” Even before she had finished talking, she turned away. “Her dog got shot over there.” She noted each one and then moved on, popping between death-landmarks without explanation. She turned and walked into the elementary school, where she would make sure there was enough lunch for all the children to eat.

I stayed behind, pretending I could think about death this way. There is where the girl died, I told myself. There is where the man died. There is where the woman lost her arm. There. There. This is what people used to say to soothe each other. There, there, I say, believing that I can learn how to speak of the grief I come from. To say names as if they are landmarks and not lineage—as if grief is a landmark best used for orientation.

But I stood there, feeling exactly what I feel now. I cannot escape the backstory I keep having to tell even though I’m sick of it. I’m sick with it. I am infected by the sadness of the country I come from with all its sad mothers and my suicide dad; I come from a long line of poor white southerners whose twins died and parents ignored them and who hung the tobacco to dry in barns, and they just barely survived. I come from Welsh and German immigrants and maybe a few French, and a tribe we call Mississippi mound builder and another called Cherokee. Somewhere, back in the way-back of my history, I come from this tribe that was forced to leave their land and died on the way. But not my ancestor. She didn’t go that way. My great-great-grandmother escaped into the North Carolina hills where she married a white man named Petree. Like the dish where little microbes leap without a clear destination and sometimes end up making something other than themselves.

I’m embarrassed by my desire to claim this grandmother. I’m like too many other white kids who claim the killed to speak of their own margins. I say “Cherokee” and I’m all the other loud, white kids on the playground who holler “Me too! I’m Cherokee, too.” We jump around like this means shit, but I’m still white. Taught Jesus. The Pledge of Allegiance. The words that promised grace and never delivered.

I stopped using those words and came to the still part of this country. It filled me with an empty vastness I want to call “spirit.” Another ridiculous thing for a white girl to say. “Spirit,” and I’m read as Romantic, as romanticizing. But I’m not a fucking Romantic. I am searching for a way to speak of the dead and the ills of this country that is mine and still make room for the living, the good. I hear so many good mouths in corners. I say “spirit,” and maybe I’m not a rabbit whose ears are blown. I feel my sad infestation and feel the bugs moving beneath the bark of the tree and the blood in me. Even now, when it is -18 degrees outside. 11:30 p.m. The man is gone. The frozen girl is gone. There have been too many like her and too many like me, but I still cry when I hear the poem “America.”

I tell myself that I love the country. Not The Country.

I tell myself it’s OK to love the voice of Whitman.

I tell myself that the sound behind the voice of Whitman is the scratch of a wax record and not the sound of trains that come only to go.

I tell myself all of this, but I listen to a version of “America” that I found without struggle. I didn’t even walk to the library to put on headphones and search for it in the presence of others. I stayed at my desk at home and searched the Internet, clicking through icons until I found a version that was a voiceover for a video of children doing back flips in fields and riding bareback on horses that kick up the dust from this land of possibility. A tattered flag waves between telephone wires. “Go Forth,” it reads. “Levis.”

This version of “America” is an advertisement for jeans. And I return to it. I know the comfort of that broken-in cotton and the way it feels to stand beneath fireworks that pop and burst into the dark emptiness. The voice of Whitman calls out, “Grown. Ungrown.” Endure. I can’t. I want to. “Strong. Ample.” The children’s muscles flex, fair in the light. “Perennial with the Earth, with Freedom, Law, and Love.” I wear these lines like a T-shirt, and outside it is -19 degrees. The man wanders back into view and stands under the streetlight. Not even his hands are in his pockets. He just stands there in a cold that circulates like suffering, without progressing.

I want to sit out this part of the journey. I return to the sleeping car and tuck myself in, just another American girl, soft in the middle and squishy with all the sweet promise that comes with white skin, middle class, clean hands, and the endless stories of how a girl can overcome any grief to make sure others don’t suffer. I grew up sad, but I grow into privilege. And look how I shine. I live in a land crisscrossed with as many intersections as a leaf, but I ride this train named Empire. I don’t have to do anything but arrive.

Kisha Lewellyn Schlegel has published essays in Iowa Review, Gulf Coast, Orion, and elsewhere. She teaches creative writing at Whitman College.