Took a train from Chicago to California. Amtrak’s “California Zephyr.” Part of what’s great about it—besides that you get to say Zephyr a lot—is the Zephyr has no Wi-Fi. All that downtime and no one to spend it with but the wife and kids. Or a book. Or a nap, or a mountain range.

Or three dozen noisy Amish in bonnets and suspenders eating aromatic beef-and-cheese snacks in the observation car, playing inscrutable card games, trash-talking auf Deutsch.

Or you might quietly spend part of Nevada puzzling out a song idea nobody knows you’re working on.

Towns, plains, mountain tunnels. Sunsets, Cup o’ Noodles, clanging crossings demonstrating the Doppler effect. Colorado River rafters mooning the train.

Five stars.

I’m not stingy—six stars for the Zephyr!

Something about a train. Everyone is instantly envious. “I’ve always wanted to do that,” they say, leaning forward. Is a locomotive pulling passenger cars through our full-scale model of America intrinsically romantic?

Or do we ourselves supply the hope, restlessness, ambition, nostalgia, possibly a little regret?

“Everybody loves the sound of a train in the distance,” sings Paul Simon, commenting on what country stars from Jimmie Rodgers to George Strait know well, even if it makes us so lonesome we could cry. But wait: “I hear that train a-comin’,” complains the most-name-checked-man-in-country-music, Johnny Cash, seething, jailed, covetous of big cigars in fancy dining cars, rebuking Simon.

“On a train bound for nowhere,” staring into the darkness, is where songwriter Don Schlitz’s gambler becomes so bored he offers up advice now repeated at every single poker night in every nation.

Then there’s one of Elvis’s best Memphis tracks from Sun Records days, when the fence was down between country, rockabilly, rock-n-roll and R&B: that spooky, black, sixteen-coach-long “Mystery Train.”

“Train, train, comin’ round, round the bend/Well, it took my baby/But it never will again.”

So—did you two break up? Is she. . . dead? Did you destroy the train, Elvis? What’s happening here?

Dad thought he was on a train for a couple weeks, there at the nursing home.

Bound for nowhere?

For glory?

Generally, he behaved what you might call normally, but he thought people passing by the room were moving between train cars. “This is a reproduction of my room, even right down to that little picture there you like,” he’d say, pointing to a picture I don’t particularly like. He was impressed everything had been replicated and placed on the train. “It’s very cleverly done.”

Living the dream.

Actually, the first time I found him dwelling in reality-twilight there was no train. I tried to catch the disjointed details and thumb-type a long text (I’m a gifted thumb-typist) to my sister:

He was dozing when I came in; I said “Hi” he said, “Well, Charlie Hopper’s here,” in his droll way. I started to talk about how cold it was outside when he leaned over, put out his hand to interrupt like he had a real interesting story for me, and said, “Funny thing…”

I was arranging his burger and shake. “The Shell station at the corner… at the corner of… (he wasn’t sure)… they locked me in there all night.” He seemed so matter-of-fact I thought it was an old story. I’d surprisingly never heard. “People kept passing by that I knew. They didn’t look in. I didn’t call out.” I was cautiously half-buying this as a childhood story. “Wow. Where did you sleep?” I said. He thought about it. “I had a bed just like this one.” Then I understood. At one point he said, “…it’s strange that you’re involved in it…”

He ate some of the burger, drank most of the shake.

“Anyone come with you? Marj with you?” “Just me.” A normal exchange. He nodded as if that made sense. “So from the street, does this look like a Shell station?” “No it’s the nursing home.” “Well, it’s very puzzling.”

He motioned toward the door, around the corner, out of view. “They have three grades of gasoline out there, don’t they?” I didn’t know whether to play along and said, “Just the nurses’ desk.” He shook his head as if he couldn’t figure it out.

My sister texted back: “Hmm… Is this the beginning of another episode? UTI? [In the past, urinary tract infections have made him paranoid and dangerous-seeming.] Dehydration? New norm for his dementia?” I replied:

He’s very calm. Gentle. Not wild-eyed. He considered it a remarkable coincidence that a nurse happened by the gas station to help him sit up and eat. “I’m not sure how I got here. I’m glad you found me,” he told her.

I sent a photo. My sister texted back: “It’s really surprising to see him sitting up. It’s a good thing.” I kept texting events as they unfolded:

“Is this… is it a Shell station attached to the nursing home, or a nursing home with a gas station?” Vivid nonsense. I said it seemed like a dream was sticking with him, even though he was awake. He nodded, but not like he understood. “I thought maybe your mother was with me. But, no. No, I suppose not.”

A convincing virtual experience. Something people pay for, and Dad was getting it free.

Not Alzheimer’s. It’s called vascular dementia. Less devastating.

He was on the train my next visit. First thing he said after greeting me was, ‘My mother’s dead, isn’t she,” as if quietly confirming something he’d suspected for awhile. “Yeah,” I said. “1967.” He nodded, as if that explained some things. Then he described the train situation. “If you sit here and watch, you’ll see people we know pass between the cars.”

Back when he could ride his wheelchair around, he’d wheel down on his own and buy Baby Ruths from the candy machine, despite thirty years as a borderline diabetic.

He used to make a fuss about sugar at every meal. Years ago I’d bring my girlfriend-now-my-wife out to the farm for dinner. She’d pick up one of the rolls my mom set out and he’d say, too assertively, “White bread turns to sugar the INSTANT it hits your bloodstream.” She’d wait to see if there was more. “The carbohydrates convert INSTANTly. Your pancreas manufactures insulin as soon as you eat that roll, but I have ‘maturity onset diabetes.’ My pancreas doesn’t produce enough insulin.” She’d say “Okay,” then butter the roll and enjoy it less.

This happened at essentially every meal.

And still she married me.

Year after year, visit after visit, he couldn’t stop himself from taking a bite of kid’s birthday cake or brownie that nobody was forcing him to eat. “This is going to send my sugar sky high,” he’d say, accusingly, as if we were insisting he eat it. Later he’d make a big show of pricking his finger and smearing blood on a test strip to measure his levels with a little device he kept on the bookshelf next to where he liked to sit. Snap! [The skin pierced, he’d squeeeeeeeeze his big finger till a crimson bulb gathered at the tip so he could dab the paper rectangle.] …pause… beepbeepbeepbeep. “A hundred and forty-two! High.”

All the worry about sugar went out the window once he was diagnosed with prostate cancer.

He was always out of candy money.

Then he hurt his back, stopped getting out of bed and started eating less nursing home food. He waned. Occasionally he’d get an IV bag of fluids as a boost.

One day a nurse brought around a cart full of treats. My sister bought chocolate bars and he positively gobbled them. “He likes sweets,” she texted. “A lot.”

We worried about nutrients. My wife—who holds grudges but doesn’t act on them—suggested I take him a Starbucks smoothie, where they put in protein and a banana. Great idea. Except he’s always been suspicious of brands he perceives as “new,” so after Starbucks I drove to McDonald’s for a cheeseburger and got an empty cup to put the smoothie in.


Nothing is as it seems.

What is reality?

When I arrived with the healthy-shake-in-clown’s-clothing, he was dozing. I said “Hi.”

His eyes flew open. “Well, I’ll be damned!” he said, as a friendly greeting. “Hello. Glad you came to see me.” He indicated the area behind his bed. “Is there anybody in that cage back there?”

“What cage?”

“Back there.”

“That’s …the wall. The bookcase? The bookcase and the wall and the bedside table with the lamp.” I think we’re supposed to play along but it always catches me off guard, because he’s casual and normal(ish)-seeming. “No cage.”

“Oh.” He thought about that. “Would you do me a favor?”


“Can you move that robe to the center?” His robe was hanging on the side of the bathroom door, so I hung it on a hook in the middle. “Yeah. Yeah, that’s better. That’s sort of… that’s sort of the symbol of the show…” Turned out we were still on the train. Waving his hand to indicate the detailed replication of his room we were in, hurtling along the rails, he said, ‘Jimmy Johnson, I don’t know how much of this was his idea…’ ‘How much of what was his idea?’ ‘I don’t know. But he’s in some of the key scenes.’”

A cage. A show. A train.

He didn’t eat the burger this time. Just a couple fries. But he sure did drink the shake. It took awhile and all his attention, so I texted my sister about The Symbol of the Show.

“Why is he so much weirder with you?” she texted back.

That week she and I were supposed to meet with the nursing home to talk capital-P Plans.

She was valedictorian of her high school class. For years now she’s been valedictorian-ing this elder care thing with binders full of medical terms, pill dosages and protocol notes she jots legibly. Me, I was only salutatorian of my class. I’ve just been salutatorian-ing around the edges, like a slacker.

She suggested we discuss The Plans.

A phone call has become kind of an event. Usually we just text. I sat on our chilly three-season porch, closing the door to spare our youngest my half of the conversation.

Dialed her cell, chatted, eventually she started down a list of elder care considerations she’d been given and hadn’t misplaced.

Heroic measures, no. Oxygen, yes, as needed. And so on.


Literally bargaining with Death, on Dad’s behalf.

Most people, I think, feel once they’re merely lying in a bed running up a bill, it’s time to go. “Why stretch things out?” they might say. Not Dad. He’d spent his whole life worried, warning us, obsessing over regular bowel movements, puncture wounds leading to tetanus, bad vs. good cholesterol, the vulnerability of carotid arteries and vigor with which they’d spurt upon rupture, clots in deep veins of thighs on airplanes, staying alert to blood poisoning as a lethal darkness working its way in a line from a wound toward your heart, frequent consumption of adequate heme iron and, of course, dinner rolls that turn to sugar as soon as they hit the bloodstream. He’d consult the medical dictionary shelved at his elbow at the slightest ache and had us check moles on his back to see if we thought they were getting bigger—“Can you look at this?” he’d say, hiking his plaid shirt.

Portrait of a man who wanted to stretch things out.

“Basically, I think as long as the hallucinations aren’t troubling and he can eat from the treats cart, he’d say, ‘Let’s keep going. Next station.’”

My sister pointed out his dementia was getting worse. He doesn’t pay attention to TV, doesn’t read cowboy novels anymore, doesn’t get out of bed. How long before his quality of life is zero?

“Still,” I said, thinking aloud. “He’s not that religious. He’d want to stick around and have these waking dreams. Dreams and candy. That’s what I’d tell the nursing home ladies. That’s ‘The Plan,’ if they need a guiding principle. ‘Dreams and candy.’”

My sister agreed.

Dad was enjoying the show—rail travel and camouflaged smoothies.

All the sugar he could want.

Dreams and candy.

That’s livin’.