This story is by Susan Reasner and was part of our 2020 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
NO WORLD ORDER
When did this old woman grow tired of smiling? Maybe the first time I road this train. I was adamant about sitting near a look-out. I didn’t realize then that the train’s speed obliterated what lie outside the drool and snot smeared window.
I used to smile at passers on the street with the hope of brightening a stranger’s day, and a hope that they might return the gesture to brighten mine, subconsciously acknowledging a pride in our world, our nation. It wasn’t a perfect world, but it had been worse when I was a child some seventy-five years ago. For a short time, we reveled in change, in a world that began to balance the axis, rise to protect itself and all of its inhabitants. It took but thirty years for the idiots at the helm to steer their raging egos toward grandiosity, to attempt to fix what wasn’t broken, and to stiffen my lips and apparently the lips of the many disenchanted to a permanent frown.
I don’t smile at these strangers on this train. I know nothing about them, not even their pride in any altruistic values of their nation for they have no nation to beam about. There are no boundaries, no smile that says, “I, too, am proud of being an American, an Italian, a German, whatever. We are now all Citizens of the Earth, devoid of distinction, free to go wherever, whenever we can choke up the funds to travel through the most expensive planet in the freaking Universe on a train without romance, a train that has no respect for the journey, just the destination.
On one of my first rides on the hell train, an older gentleman was able to grab the seat next to mine, a feat considering there was standing room only for those that boarded at a later station. He looked at me when he sat, offered no smile. He simply said, “Ain’t this just the shite” in what sounded like a Scottish or Irish accent.
I nodded and said, “not sure what you’re referring to but whatever it is, it is certainly shite.”
His chortle seemed an effort. “Do you remember the days of passports, of being proud of your red one or blue one or whatever color branded you?”
“I remember wishing I had a red one because I thought it was so cool.”
He outright laughed this time, spoke louder. “And I remember wanting a blue one because it seemed that being an American held great privilege.” His laughter continued. I think it actually felt good to him.
I smiled, a bit surprised that my face didn’t crack. “I think there was great privilege in each color. So, what color was yours? Where’s your homeland?”
“Homeland? Earth, I guess, the same as every single wanker on this train. How mundane is that?”
I realized I was suddenly getting a piece of my own crusty philosophies thrown back in my face. “We still have our homelands, our birth places, for heaven’s sake. I was born in what was the United States of America. I’m too old to not think of myself as an American, a Yank. It’s ingrained.”
“Huh” was all he cared to muster.
I watched him slowly rise when the train reached his stop. He turned to me and nodded. The gleam of happiness had left his face for what I imagined to be a lifetime.
Several weeks later on a trip to visit with my sister, a young brown man found the seat next to me. He had to be several generations behind me, ignorant to boundaries, respect and social graces.
“Hey. What’s your name?” were the first words to hit the seat.
I will admit to being somewhat pleased that English had been designated the world language. The young man’s accent was slight. I couldn’t place it.
“My name? It’s Alice if it matters.”
“Ha. It doesn’t really. I just wanted to hear you speak so I know what region you come from. Mine’s Arlan.”
“That’s nice.” I turned my head to the greasy window.
“I’m originally from the mid-eastern Earth. Live here, now. I’m a gamer.”
I looked at him. “Son, I seriously don’t care. I don’t ride this hell train for chit chat.”
“That’s a bit sad, Alice. You can meet interesting people on this train.”
“I don’t want to meet interesting people, Arlan. And by the way, interesting is a highly subjective word, is it not?”
He smiled, fidgeting with his bag eventually pulling out some kind of hand-held device. “I especially enjoy speaking with old people, like you. I like the stories about what it used to be like when nations existed and people wrote messages on cave walls.” He thought that last bit to be hilarious.
I knew he wasn’t about to leave me in peace. “Okay embryo, what’s a gamer?”
“Embryo? That’s funny, Alice. See? Curiosity is a great connector. I create complex computer games”. He held the device to my face. “I love it.”
“Always good to love something, I guess. I don’t play computer games, myself.”
“I’m working on a game that includes the past, your past when individual nations were a thing.”
“Son, my past is not a game. It’s a great source of melancholy.”
“You liked it better then? Huh. I think it sounds stuffy and limited. There was great famine and poverty.”
“Yeah? Now we’re all poor.”
“Poor? No, no. No one is poor. Everyone has food and shelter.”
“How do you think that comes about? We all pay for it and it leaves those of us that have any financial wherewithal very wanting.”
“You’d rather people starve than you go without luxuries?”
“The world would have been better served had we invested in education to teach people to grow sustainable foods and produce less babies. Over-population had much to do with starvation. I do not see how destroying boundaries and national pride was a reasonable fix. I do not want people to starve, but I would like to feel a few rewards for the hard work I put into this life for almost seventy-six years. Luxuries I can live without. A life worth living I cannot.”
“Sounds to me, dear Alice, that you are opposed to change. Most old folk are, ya know. I enjoy the freedom to travel without restriction and see all others as mates. We’re all a part of a very large clan. Where you headed?”
“You’re wrong, Master Arlan. I am not opposed to change that makes sense. I’m opposed to fixing things that aren’t broken. I’m going to visit my sister, if you must know. You?”
“New York to catch a flight to the western world.”
“Ah, Europe. Nice.”
“I read that there was a time that the French people didn’t like Americans and vice-versa. Actually, I read that most of the world didn’t like Americans. Why would you be proud of being American if no one else liked you?”
“Good question, I guess, but not everyone disliked us and some were simply envious.”
He laughed at that. “Of what?”
I waved him off. I felt very tired of the conversation.
There was nothing to see beyond the blur and nothing to discuss with the ill-informed zygote any longer. The only thing left as a reminder of a heart still beating was the freedom and the burden of feeling. I stared at my hands and arms that were resting on my lap, eventually closing my eyes counting liver spots like sheep before dozing off. Anymore, sleep seemed the great escape. The harsh hiss and slam of air against the train’s momentum startled me into the present. The young man had disappeared into the crowd disembarking for whatever creepy adventure awaited him in New York City, Capital of the new world. I shivered at the thought of having to slither my way through a herd of cattle.
I felt relieved when the hell train began its familiar, monotonous flight, like an arrow to a battered, abused bullseye.
The train had emptied, only a few remained to journey’s end. I had forty-five minutes to ruminate, to remember and grieve a time I had purpose if only to know myself as an American, to be driven by the heart-pumping fascination of the art of cultures, and to revel in the celebration of difference. In time, art would meld and diversity would become simply a word in the dictionary. In truth, the world will never truly become one. It will rise violently to demand a cultural degree of separation, or implode from loss of distinction. Souls cannot be incorporated. They will forever be as individual as snowflakes, just as the Universe intended.