The people on the train were all scared of me. I could see it in their eyes as I walked down the aisles. The men would look up nervously but never too long. The women kept their children close. The poor man who shared the compartment with me earlier had constantly glanced over his book as if I was going to jump across the tiny space and strangle him. If I wanted to strangle him, he couldn’t have possibly done anything about it. He left, fled out at a town called Woodbine, grabbing his coat but forgetting his hat. I reassigned it to my head. It looked comically small and my drab mouse-coloured hair stuck out from under it in tuffs.
These people in their seats were no better than the Woodbine man. Little people with fearful eyes, sensing danger and sniffing nervously. I didn’t enjoy their fear, but I did enjoy that none of them recognises me. In America, I’m simply a very large, scary looking man. Back home everybody in the street recognised me. I’m known throughout Australia, India, Africa, and, for some bizarre reason, Japan. I remember walking down a street in Hiroshima and being stopped by a pair of boyish, blocky-looking Japanese school girls who wouldn’t leave me alone until they had pictures of themselves standing next to me.
Maybe trains were better than airplanes, I thought as I opened up my compartment and then stepped inside. More leg room, less people, more food. Almost happy with this thought I stepped inside but the feeling quickly dissolved.
A blonde teenage girl sat across from my seat. Her frame was light and tinny. Wrists as thin as wires, and flat blonde hair. Couldn’t have weighed more than fifty-two kay-gee and probably a whole lot less. She was staring out the window at the passing countryside. I hadn’t locked the door before my quest for booze and now I had paid for it. I did a quick inventory. My laptop, jacket, suitcase, copy of my book Tracking the Bihar Tiger, and my cellphone were all undisturbed. Wood paneling met neat green seats and the overhead rack held nothing. Everything shook slightly as the train rattled on the tracks. The only thing out of place was the girl. I cleared my throat.
If I expected a response, I got none.
I cleared it again.
“Hey,” I said.
I stood in the doorway unsure what to do for the first time in years. Tap her on the shoulder? Yell? Grumble around to my seat and sit down?
“Hey,” I said again, louder. “Who are you and what are you doing here?”
She didn’t turn but instead waved her hand in the air to silence me.
“Quiet,” she said, a very young voice. It was very soft spoken, but more than that it was fresh and I hated it.
“I like this part,” she continued.
“What’s to like?” I said. “It’s just a bunch of farmland.”
Before now, I really hadn’t bothered to look outside. Yellow was yellow and not my favourite colour, if I even had such a thing as a favourite colour these days.
I looked out the window and made a face as I realised she could probably see me reflected in the window.
“What are you doing in here?” I ask, returning to my original topic.
She dug into her jean pocket and came out with a ticket and held it up. “This is my compartment.”
Annoyed that she still wasn’t watching me, I moved my laptop on the seat and sat down. The seat bent under my weight. I didn’t like how small the cabin was. For a little girl like her that wasn’t a problem, but I found it uncomfortable. I grumbled. I fiddled with my hands. I wondered how one got rid of a teenage girl who didn’t want to be moved. I could pick her up and toss her out, but my publisher would probably not like another incident. When landing in San Diego I had nearly been arrested for disorderly conduct and my publisher had called and suggested I take the rest of the way by train.
Maybe the girl would look out the window the entire time and I could just ignore her.
“When did you get on? Why haven’t you been here for the last half hour?”
“This is my favorite part,” she said into the glass. The glass wasn’t a single image. There were smudges from her nose, shine from the sun outside, the racing corn or wheat outside, clouds beyond that, and a blue backdrop. An awful view.
“Your favourite part?” I asked. “You like flat farmland?”
“There’s a grain silo that looks like it will fall over,” she said. “Every time I go this route I check to see if it’s still standing.”
The grain silo went by. It did look old and rickety. Slouched to the side it reminded me of an old man I had seen in India somewhere. I remember autographing the only videotape in an Indian village, once. The town elder kept it in his house with the village’s only VCR. It was an old documentary on dangerous African wildlife I had made when I was still young. It wasn’t very good, I think. I’ve not watched it in years. It could be brilliant, but I doubt it because my younger self was enthusiastic about shooting things and once I had shot every animal there was to shoot the magic of big game hunting left and my documentaries got more morose. There were some who have called me the anti-Steve Irwin. Animal rights groups hate me. One, the Aussies For Animals or something like that even put a bounty on my head in the ‘80s. I don’t think anyone ever tried to collect. Some television show once tried to get Steve Irwin and me on for a live debate. I turned them down because I could see exactly how it would go. There’s the cheerful man with the charming Aussie accent and boundless energy talking to the sullen man whose charming Aussie accent has been replaced by a chilling Transatlantic Accent until every bit of Ocker left in it was dead. They invited me to Steven Irwin’s funeral too. I turned that down as well.
“Okay,” the girl said, turning from the window. “What were you asking?”
“I wanted to know who you are and why you’re in my compartment,” I said, adjusting the hat. The new head ornament bothered me, but I supposed I’d get used to it.
“I’m in this compartment because I have a ticket for it and my name is Denver,” she nodded, emphasizing her points with her head. I hated these blonde, blue-eyed kids that were so clean cut they might as well be Nazis.
“You’re not going to introduce yourself?”
“No,” I said. I hoped that would shut her up.
“That’s okay,” she said, “because I know who you are anyway.”
“Martin Dowling, hunter and maker of sub par documentaries.”
I bristled. The Mogadishu Adventure at least had not been sub par. Denver was looking at me with a nasty smirk. There was no fear in her eyes even though my hands were bigger than her head.
She had seen the book, obviously. If the train had Wi-Fi, she could have looked me up on one of those Wikipoad sites. I looked for her laptop. Something sleek and white and covered in stickers, but the only laptop in the room was my own and that couldn’t be broken into unless she knew its password’s absurdly long random strings of numbers and letters.
“That so?” I asked.
“I did like the one about the rain frogs,” Denver said, tapping the window glass. “I think that’s because you weren’t trying to kill the frogs.”
I remembered the film she was talking about. I had only done the narration. The film had been written mostly by some pommy bastard. I couldn’t remember how much I got paid for the film, but the work was mostly sitting around in an English sound studio trying to get the natural Australian back into my voice by talking like I did when I was a child. I remember saying things like “post addee” and “tuck’n on his boiler”. I hated that accent.
“I was barely in that film,” I said.
“You talked all the way through it. The frogs were nice,” she said. I did not like the way she said this at all. Her voice picked up something nasty as she spoke like she was being sarcastic with the compliments and truthful with the insults.
“I think you’re trying to get a rise out of me,” I said. I was very glad I hadn’t been able to get a drink now. If I had come back loaded, I might have tossed the girl off the train and then I can imagine the bad noise that would have made. Good thing the train didn’t have a bar. I wondered vaguely if anybody could stop me if I tried.
“Offense is the best defense,” Denver said. “If I strike too close to home, get offended.”
I leaned as far away from her as the compartment allowed, and finding that not far enough, got up and tried to pace in the narrow space between the door and the seats. I could only turn around slightly. Outside the flat countryside passed in waves. The landscape, wide and open, looked like heaven compared to this little box. I grumbled, wishing my arms could hit something. My bulk filled the compartment up from corner to corner. I bristled and she smiled. One hit would be all I needed. The space was too small to escape from. I growled again, and sat. I could break her neck if I did that but I strongly suspected that by this point I had killed enough of God’s creatures that I would have a hard enough time explaining myself to Saint Peter without compounding my sins with murder.
“You’re down right queer,” I said, taking several breaths to say it. I picked up my book from where it was setting and turned it over in my hands. It looked like a toy in my hands. Done in amusing miniature, the cover was a nice shade of blue and embossed with bamboo leaves. A dim silhouette of a tiger could be glimpsed through the leaves. The title was done in black.
“So,” she said. “Why are you here anyway?”
“You don’t talk like a teenager,” I said, ignoring the question.
“Home schooled,” Denver replied.
“Really?” I said, skeptical.
“Why are you all the way out in Kansas?”
I held the book up to where she could see it.
“Book tour,” I said. “I’m supposed to talk to a bunch of gun nuts in some small place. Ted Nugent is going to be there.”
“Who’s Ted Nugent?” she asked.
I thought about it. “I don’t know,” I said.
“I don’t like the cover,” she said dismissively and turned back to looking out the window. There was a fly trapped in-between the double panes of glass and she started tapping at it, sending the creature into an aggravated state. It buzzed up the glass and down it, but got nowhere.
“What’s wrong with the cover?” I said. “I like the cover.” And I had better too, as I had spent a good portion of what could have been a good day in Brisbane arguing with the publishing company’s art department. The original cover had been pastel with a goofy looking tiger-like thing in the centre behind bars of bamboo. I thought it was disrespectful to the tiger. Noble animals should be depicted with dignity.
“I don’t like the color,” she said.
“I think the colour is fine.”
“If you say so,” she said. “I personally think that I’d be embarrassed going up in front of all those people with a book with a bad cover, but I’ve seen your films and I don’t think embarrassment is something you really know anything about.”
“What do you know?” I said, adjusting my hat.
She looked amused at my anger rather than frightened.
“Don’t worry,” Denver said. “I’m sure everybody there won’t mind. Probably can’t read. Is your book better than your films?”
“Look, if you’re going to do nothing but insult me, I think I’m going to go to the observation deck, or whatever they call it,” I started to rise again.
“Don’t take your book with you,” she said. “I want to read it.”
“So you can make fun of it?” I asked. “No, you can sit here alone while you head to wherever it is you’re going.”
She held out her hand. It looked absurdly miniature. Well groomed, short nails, and a plastic ring with a butterfly on it.
I handed her the book. Sitting down, I watched her riffle through it. She stopped at a spot somewhere near the middle and began to read the words out loud. I remember a writer friend tell me he never lets people read his work in front of him and now I knew why. The worry that somebody might not like what you have to say, that they might be overly critical, that they will maim the words somehow took over and I shook in a way that no tiger, bear, or lion could induce.
“It must be terrifying for the people living in these tiny villages. The tiger is so beyond their capability to deal with that they must get outside help. Nice,” she said looking up at me. “So the poor natives can’t but help get outside help. Sort of like the Seven Samurai.”
“Or the Magnificent Seven,” I said, irked because I did think the situation was a bit like those movies.
“Or a Bug’s Life,” she said.
“Or Wolves of the Calla,” I said, tilting the stolen hat down so I could no longer see her. The girl’s knowledge of film was adequate, but that didn’t mean she knew anything.
She continued reading, “First their dogs start disappearing, then small children, maybe a man or two vanishes while out in the forest. It must seem as though the forest itself has turned against them.”
“And?” I asked, moving the hat back because its new position confined my head too much.
“It’s all right,” she said, handing the book back. “I’ve read worse.”
“Thanks,” I said dryly.
Denver nodded absently and pointed to some object outside that was going by. I looked. It was a collapsed barn.
“It’s a barn,” I stated, the comment entirely without inflection. There had been a subtle change in the landscape. It looked drier and the farms were no longer corn or wheat farms but dairy farms. The cows were not interested in the train, only in the short grass they were chewing.
“I like broken things,” she said. “Broken buildings, broken objects, broken people. I like you, Mr. Dowling.”
“I’m not broken,” I said.
“A man like you, stuck on a train, don’t you wish you were out in the jungle hunting down tigers?”
“The jungle wasn’t anything like you would imagine it,” I said. “Biting flies, more humid than a sauna, nightmarishly hot, tracking a beast that could easily double back around and kill you. You can keep your little farmlands, where pigs are the worst you can find.”
Denver smiled as if this went over her head, but I knew she got it. She shrugged and got up and then walked to the door. The number of steps was less than four and she looked disappointed. She added a few steps by walking sideways.
“And a book!” she said, turning to look down on me. “Did you write it yourself,” she continued, “or did you get a ghostwriter?”
“Of course I wrote it myself.”
“And you’re going to a big city to promote it?”
“Where do you live?” she asked.
I started at the sudden change of topic.
“Do you live in a city?”
“I live on a ranch, when I’m not in hotel rooms.”
“Why don’t you live in a city?” she asked.
“Because I hate them,” I said. I was beginning to hate the train. The compartment was far too small and the constant rocking made me sick.
“Because it’s business,” I said. “Something kids like you don’t understand.”
She giggled. This sound was girlish and high pitched.
“I’m going for business too,” she said. “I have to see my mother.”
“That’s not business.”
“It’s business,” she said. This was said with earnest head bobs.
“Bullshit,” I said.
“Yep,” she agreed. “It’s a lot like your book signing, something you have to do, but aren’t looking forward to.”
“I’m going to the dining car,” I said, rising. “I’ll probably not be back.”
I gathered my things, shoving them into my carry-on bag and left. The people you meet on trains! She wouldn’t last a day in Kansas without a roof over her head. I’d braved jungles, deserts, and tundra. I had a book out, I had made films.
I was even more irritated when I nearly ran into a business man in the hallway who wasn’t the least bit interested in letting me by. No fear there. My bulk did not intimidate him even though he had to turn complete sideways to squeeze by.
I got to the dining car and shoved open the door. Outside the rural countryside passed, close things fast, far things slow. The girl was right about one thing, I thought. I didn’t want to be on this train going to a book signing.
“So don’t go,” I said aloud, causing a few people at the booths to raise their heads. When did they get so brave?
I went to the service counter, which looked very much like a bar, but didn’t have booze in it.
“Do you have bottled water?” I asked.
The girl behind the counter was a bored twenty something who looked like somebody who hadn’t anywhere to go or anybody to return to. If she had a boyfriend, she probably didn’t think much of him.
“Yes,” she said. “Two-fifty.”
“I’ll have twelve,” I said.
She didn’t even raise an eyebrow.
“Thirty dollars,” she said.
I paid her and fit the water bottles where ever they would go on my person. Into pants, jacket, bag. I walked toward the doors of the train.
Outside the land was passing fast. Rolling hills of yellow and brown, giving way to green in some places. An azure sky with pink clouds being set upon by sunlight. Beautiful.
The doors’ handles were latches. I knew I could pop them open just by forcing the door. I could even kick them down. I could jump off the train, go roaming free to one of those tilting barns, try to catch rabbits or whatever passed for edible animals out in this part of the world. I could do that. I could.
But the book signing was important. The book was four hundred pages of caged paper in cheap binding and I was going to read from it.
I turned and walked back to the bar and sat down on one of its stupid green stools and began to drink the water I’d bought. I drank each and every bottle, all while watching the barns outside passing by. I hated them all.