Water is water

His friend told him to come to LA. Told him that she had an extra room and a pool and a view. Told him that everyone is born again in California.

He had lost his job, the store no longer economically viable, and the company gave him a severance which he blew on an Amtrak ticket because he had never ridden a train before. Well, not a proper train anyway. He once rode the train around the zoo with his mother and sister when they had come in from Iowa to visit. But it only went in circles, past the lion and elephant cages. It wasn’t the same as this train which had a destination as exotic and far away as California.

This train—silver and sleek and running on diesel fuel—was very modern indeed. But he wondered what the big deal was. It stopped often. At every small town between Chicago and LA, picking up and disgorging passengers. It also stopped in the middle of the night, in the middle of the day, shunted off to sidings so the Union Pacific hauling two-miles of coal and oil could roar past. The doors sealed shut so nobody could wander off to be left on the plains waiting. If he had booked with Southwest he would’ve been in LA three days ago. It was only a six-hour flight. He would’ve been given pretzels and Dr. Pepper. Probably there would’ve been a movie to watch.

He had spent the extra money for his own compartment. The suckers out there in general seating, it was like riding on a bus for six or seven days or how ever long it would take to reach LA. His bag held nothing but clean underwear and socks and an extra pair of pants. And six bottles of whiskey. He was happy to have the whiskey, had to admit you couldn’t carry this much whiskey onto a plane. The TSA would’ve thought him a terrorist and renditioned him to some third-world hellhole never be seen again. Not that James cared to ever be seen again.

But he had to be somewhere, had to be doing something. So he drank whiskey from the bottle and watched the sun bake New Mexico. His bare feet on the window making smudges the conductor would come by in the morning and wipe away.

He knew it was very hot outside because it was hot inside. The train when idling not providing air conditioning. He took a long swig of whiskey. Coughed. Fell asleep.


Sweating, he woke. The train moved slowly along the aging track. California seemed an impossible nightmare. Why was he on this train? Why wasn’t he back home looking for a job?

But he had no home. His girlfriend, his ex-girlfriend, asked him to leave after he got fired. He wasn’t sad to be fired. Working ten-hour days dressed in black slacks and a white shirt trying to convince people of the efficiency of this lawn mower over that lawn mower. And then the store closed and he realized that this shitty job was the only thing that gave his life any meaning. The company gave him $500 to go away quietly and he filed for unemployment and slept until late afternoon on the couch in his underwear and fell behind on his student loans payments. He stopped shaving, stopped brushing his teeth or brushing his hair and she finally told him he had to go.

The train picked up speed, swaying gently back and forth. A soft knock on his door and he stumbled to open it.

“Dinner is served.” The conductor, an aging man with regal white hair, walked away. Knocked on the next door.

James threw some water on his face, checked his whiskey inventory. Two bottles left. Christ, when did he become such a heavy whiskey drinker? He put on his pants and a fairly clean shirt and lurched his way toward the dining car.


There was a line. There was always a fucking line. He waited.

Eventually, he found himself at the front.

A friendly waiter named Walter who sometimes gave him free whiskey motioned to him and sat him down across from a beautiful woman reading a magazine. James smiled and thanked Walter with a ten-dollar bill.

“Hi,” he said, sitting down. “What’s good tonight?”

She looked up from her magazine, blue eyes and brown hair tied into dreadlocks, and gave him a tight smile. The food on her plate untouched. She went back to reading.

He ordered a chicken ceaser salad and looked out the window, watched Arizona race by. The sun was setting and a full moon rising and he watched the red rocks turn pink and the stars blink on. He ate. And she left.

A man with grey hair and grey teeth sat down across from him. Asked him about his insurance.

“I don’t have insurance,” James said. “I think it’s a scam.”

The man looked hurt. “It’s no scam, young man. You need to insure the things you love.”

“There’s nothing I love.”

“What if your car gets damaged?” the old man said, cutting into a steak. “What if, God forbid, you were to die on this trip. Who will take care of your family?”

“I have no family. I have no car.” James felt lonely for his cabin, lonely for his whiskey, lonely for his loneliness. He stood up, dropped two fives for a tip, walked away.


James had never seen an ocean before. Only a great lake. His friend out in LA told him a lake was no ocean. Told him the ocean would change his life.

“Yeah?” he had said, over the phone. “How?”

“I can’t explain it,” she said. “It’s the salt, it’s the waves. It’s the way it seems to spread out until there’s nothing left.”

“Lake Michigan is as big as an ocean,” he said. “Water is water.”

She sighed. “Water is not water.”

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