When the Train Lurched by Jenessa Abrams

When the Train Lurched

On the train en route to the burial, the air vents pump loud and fast and blisteringly cold. I always imagine train rides more romantic than they are. I always imagine more space. I imagine my head pressing gently against the windowpane, a mug of coffee warming my chest, a biscuit breaking apart in my fingers, a blanket draped over my legs.

On this train, there is no space. The coffee is served from a bucket and tastes like mud. It is freezing here and there are no blankets, only cold sweat and the half-nutty-half-citrusy smell of the woman sitting next to me. I purchase candy from the bar cart.

The woman is Canadian. She is in the window seat. I know she is Canadian because of the way she says eh when she asks if I’m liking my chocolate bar. If I say: I’m not liking my chocolate bar, she will be devastated. She has the type of face that looks hungry for greeting cards. I make a motion like I don’t speak English. She tries again in French. I shrug. She uses her knitting needles to indicate the wrapper in my hand. She looks like she’s conducting a small orchestra. I smile in a way I hope will say: Sorry, I don’t understand. She does not give up. She pokes her knitting needle inside the packaging. Now she looks like she’s dissecting a frog. The needle enters the chocolate. Melty pieces fall apart. I smile in a new way, which I hope will say: It’s time to stop. Her mouth folds into itself. She picks up her yarn and mutters, fuck off.

I wonder if now she believes I cannot hear.

It is my turn to examine her. She holds the needles like she’s knit her whole life. She is an expert. I can see her knitting in a stone cottage in Canada. I can see the circular window that looks out onto a small but tidy patch of grass. I can see her sitting on a big burnt orange sofa chair with the velvet fabric peeling back. By her feet there is a cat that purrs and brushes against her when she is interested in a snack. The Canadian spends her days like this. She and the cat talk about small things and share an appreciation for softness. The cat reminds her to eat. The Canadian spends long hours on the phone in her sofa chair. She sticks the phone between her neck and her shoulder and knits the whole way through. She was sitting like this, not talking to anyone except the cat, but holding the phone just so, in case it rang, so she wouldn’t have to stop.

This was how she looked when she got the call that her father had died. He had died while she was knitting, which could mean that he had died anytime. The knitting needles locked between her fingers. It now looked like they were chopsticks and that she was eating rice. She asked the person on the other end of the line to please repeat the previous statement. Her father had died. It was true a second time.

The cat leapt up to lick the needles. They tasted of aluminum. The cat was disappointed and returned to the chair leg. The Canadian wanted to hold the phone in her hand. She didn’t know what to do with the needles so she stuck them in her hair and forgot about them. She buried her father looking like she had antlers. Her sisters never said anything. About them or their father. That Christmas the Canadian knit everyone something. No one liked the colors of the scarves and all the sweaters were either too small or too large. Her sisters’ children disappeared underneath the ugly material, all anyone could see, if they could see anything, were tiny feet waddling under yarn.

Of course the Canadian had to use new needles. The old needles were still in her hair. Knotting her curls, weaving together the strands. Sometimes she used them to massage her temples. Sometimes the cat sat on her shoulders and stroked against them. Out of habit, the Canadian made a sweater for her father. It was an unpleasant shade of green and would have been too tight on him. She left it in front of the circular window and half expected him to come for it. When he didn’t return, she decided to keep it for herself.

Just as I imagine her lifting the sweater over her head, the train lurches.

Everyone oohs and ahhs at the swirls of green out the window. I turn towards it, the first time I’m looking at the view. The Canadian is looking out there too. I imagined I would be staring at it the whole time. It was supposed to settle me, supposed to help me forget where I am going and who will no longer be waiting for me. But until now, I hadn’t looked. It was still so cold. There was chocolate on my lap, stuck to my clothes. The squeals continued, so I tried to make out what was so beautiful, but I didn’t see it. Instead, I saw what must have been plain to see the whole time, pinned to the Canadian’s tray table was a set of knitting instructions, straight from the package. No creases. It was new. She was not a lifelong knitter. Maybe she was just learning. Maybe she had just started today.

Then the train started up again and the needles fumbled out of her hands.

I wonder what else I am wrong about.


When the Train Lurched


Jenessa Abrams is a Norman Mailer Fiction Fellow and has been awarded fellowships and grants from the MacDowell Colony, the Ucross Foundation, the Vermont Studio Center and Columbia University, where she earned her MFA in fiction and literary translation. Her writing has been published in Tin House, Guernica, Joyland, Carve Magazine, BOMB Magazine and elsewhere. Currently, she lives in New York City, where she is pursuing a subsequent graduate degree in Narrative Medicine at Columbia University.


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Image: Aimitsu Public Domain