Slight Panic on the Midwest-Bound Express Train

Xiaochen Su

© Copyright 2019 by Xiaochen Su

Photo of a stalled train.

The interregional express train from Boston bound for Chicago suddenly ground to a halt, jolting me awake as I was napping away on the slow weekday afternoon.

Rubbing my eyes, I stared outside the window for clues to what could have brought the regular long-haul Amtrak service to a halt. The setting sun was painting the sky a glowing red, as the wheat field below, ready for their fall harvest, swayed gently in the wind. No station, no town, not even a dirt path that a truck can drive up to. It was, quite obviously, not a routine stop a train would take to unload passengers.

Seems like we are still in Ohio. We just passed Cleveland not that long ago.” The man sitting next to me calmly quipped, without bothering to even take a glance of the window from his aisle seat. He simply looked ahead to the seat in front of him, sitting in the same front-facing position as he has been for hours since boarding at one of the stops in upstate New York.

Granted, it was not easy for the guy to move. His black dress shirt loosely hung over his massive belly that spilled over the armrests, and his legs were visibly scrunched against the not-so-generous leg space. The man no doubt had great difficulty turning his body in, for him, the tiny area of his seat. Breathing heavily, he still seemed quite cheerful in his uncomfortable position, “Don’t worry, I take this train often, and this kinda thing happens all the time,” he was quick to assure his fellow passenger on the windows seat.

Maybe to prove that that there is nothing unusual about the sudden stoppage in the middle of nowhere, the man stopped the train attendant as she was coming down the aisle, announcing mechanical malfunctions to the aging locomotive. “Hey, can I get a cheeseburger meal? With a Diet Coke please.” He looked slightly up toward the uniformed attendant, still without turning his body from the regular front-facing position.

The attendant, displaying surprise to the timing of the request, nonetheless acquiesced with the demand. She jotted the order in a little notebook she produced from her shirt pocket, quoted the man a price, and quickly headed out of the carriage when the man nodded in agreement with the price.

See, the kitchen is still working, so the malfunction is no big deal,” the man remained calm and slow in his utterance, turning quiet as he seemed to drift off to sleep, all the while remaining in the same position.


Here you are, sir.” It wasn’t long before the attendant came back with the man’s meal, in the process filling the carriage with the pungent smell of melted cheese and grilled meat. The passengers, speaking in irritated murmur as to why the train is still stuck in the same spot after close to an hour, traced the attendant with blank stares as she and the cheeseburger meal moved down the aisle to the man in the black shirt.

Thank you, here you go,” the man pulled a twenty dollar bill from the front pocket of his shirt as he looked up and smiled at the attendant, “just give me five for change and keep the rest.”

After shoving the five dollar bill back in the front pocket, the man wasted no time digging into his meal. With a tiny napkin placed in front of his chest, he brought the unwrapped burger directly to his mouth while sitting in the same position. The burger and the fries where pulverized in mere minutes, as he cracked open the Diet Coke and sipped it like a post-supper cup of tea.

Good stuff,” the man monotonously said to no one in particular, as he dozed off again in the still-stationary carriage.


And then the smell came.

It is not easy to get strong smells out of a full-enclosed, air-conditioned train carriage, and it took what seemed to be an eternity for the carriage to return to its normal stuffy smell of AC-filtered air after the cheeseburger dissipated.

But just as the last hints of cheese drifted away, a much more putrid one quickly filled in the void.

And it came without a pip of sound.

As the passengers, tired of quietly remarking on the now-hours-long halt in the train’s progress toward Chicago, grew silent, the humming of the AC units was gradually joined by sounds of more and more people fidgeting in their seats. Many of the fidgeters displayed discomforting frown on their faces, and their bodies were moving in a way that seem to instinctively ducking an incoming threat.

I, being right next to the origin of the smell, was extra aware of the new sensory overdose that inundated the carriage. It was an all-encompassing one, blanketing the passengers, just as the night fall upon the wheat field outside the carriage. No one can escape its reach. All they can do is sit there and tolerant its unavoidable presence.

The man sitting next to me, woken from a long post-meal nap, initially refused to address the way he announced his return to consciousness. Trying to make small talk about Ohio, Boston, Chicago, and his little hometown in upstate New York, he simply ignored the elephant in the room.

But the march of the elephant was relentless and unending. As the smell permeated the carriage, it was clear that it was not a single dose, but multiple ones, launched silently in regular intervals from the same source. As more and more passengers unwittingly glanced to the source of the smell, it was more and more difficult to not acknowledge the olfactory presence.

Hoo, quite a wind, isn’t it? Hahaha,” amid his endless small talk with me, the black-shirted man broke into laughter all the sudden. Wiggling in his seat and fanning the side of his body furiously, he finally made it publicly known that he is the culprit of the stench. “That cheeseburger certainly did quite some damage...hahaha.”

By this point, the passengers around us were no longer interested in the still-strong smell. As night grew deeper and the wheat fields no longer visible outside, the train finally clanked into action, taking the collective mind off the smell as all looked forward to the fresher air of Chicago.

Xiaochen is a Chinese-American hailing from San Diego, CA.  He previously lived in London, UK, where, as a Master's student, he backpacked throughout the European continent during school vacations.  

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