The train leaves at 4:25, very close to “on time.” Half an hour later a scratchy voice demands those people with five o’clock dinner reservations come to the dining car. Had my stepfather/personal train guide who I’ll call “Rick” (though his real name is Chas.,) told me to get a dinner reservation as soon as I got on the train? I couldn’t remember.

Figuring staff is busy, I wait until 5:30 to meander through the several cars to ask. At the dining car I am greeted by a very plump guy named Tom who asks “Do you want to eat now?” As he demands this, he looks over his shoulder then back at his lists.

I had hoped for an 8 p.m. slot and say so. Tom says I have no choice … and motions to an empty space at a table for four. I wonder how the foreign visitors ever figure out this system. Is it in fact a system?

Tom sits at one end of the car and plays with paper lists while a young athletic guy named James waits on the entire carful of tables.

My tablemates and I decide we should be sure to put our tips directly in James’ pocket. James explains later he normally has an assistant but today he is on his own. As a result he doesn’t get to our order for quite awhile and forgets to offer us dessert.

None of us has anywhere to go, being stuck on the train until Salt Lake City at least, so we just chat. As I contemplate the gross injustice of James’ situation—having to serve too many tables therefor serving them poorly therefor earning less in tips while working harder—the others at my table lose my interest.

The man in the corner facing me asserts that the woman seated across from me with lipstick-red hair looks like Barbra Streisand.

I agree.

Lipstick-hair, I learn, runs a sewing school out of her home in Las Vegas. She would be taking a bus from Salt Lake City—and 8-9 hour ride—once she gets off the train. Corner guy tells me what he does for a living –he is from South Dakota-and his livelihood seems unlikely. But I immediately forget what it is. Guy next to me is an insurance fraud investigator headed for Salt Lake City from his home in Milwaukee.

He orders seafood. South Dakota orders pesto tortellini as do I.

Lipstick-hair orders the expensive steak.

“How would you like that cooked?” James asks.

“Walking,” she replies, her clear eyes looking straight at the African American young man, who confirms it twice with a friendly laugh.

“Walking?”

“Walking.”

The steak, when it arrives has been briefly sizzled on each side and I see that it was probably cool in the middle. Lipstick hair reports it excellent. All three of my tablemates, none of whom knew each other, order lava cake. I do not, despite James’ best efforts. After he has delivered all the others their cupcake-like carmel-filled desserts, he returns with one for me, stating it is “on the house.”

I felt that he felt that I was uncomfortable, which I wasn’t. So I obligatorily eat half of it and slip a $2 bill in his pocket when I leave.

 

An hour later, as I am putting my seat back –to sleep– Lipstick Hair appears at my side. She shows me pictures of some of her sewing students. And pictures of her with her nude friend; Lipstick-hair is wearing a witch costume. Her friend is ‘dressed as a nudist.’

“I belong to a nudist group,” she explains.

She shows me her website and speaks about her sewing students—she teaches them how to use a machine in their first 3-hour $60 class–and how to make an apron.

I ask her advice on how to fix a hat I’d made someone for Christmas which seems too lumpy to give as a gift. I pull it out of my backpack. She suggests, in the now complete darkness, that I use yarn to stitch an accent around the edge.

She types in my phone number and texts me a hello, commenting that she felt we had a budding friendship. I thought of my few friends in Las Vegas, and how I still trip on the name because my family has always called it “Lost Wages.”

“I will tell my friend, Josianne, about you,” I said. “She lives there.”

Finally lipstick-hair returns to her seat and I wish her safe travels, announcing that I was trying to go to sleep and would miss her departure in a few hours.

A nudist who teaches people how to make clothes for a living, I reflect.

This is why I’m not a fiction writer. I couldn’t make this up.