Saturday, November 24, 2012

THE WRONG SIDE OF THE TRACKS


Reposted 11/24/12
in response to a prompt at
Write on Edge for the Weekend Linkup:
"Link up any post you’ve written that you’d like other eyes to see.
No word limits, no genre restrictions, and no prompts."

Originally posted 2/20/09
In response to a writing prompt on
Include a train in your writing today
and also for
CREATIVE EVERY DAY

Click on the link(s) above to add your own response to the
challenge(s) or to view those submitted by others

        With a sideways lurch of the train, I was jerked into consciousness from an uncomfortable snooze. My neck was stiff, my back in pain, my ankles swollen, and my mouth felt like giant roaches had been crawling on my tongue.
        I opened one eye to see if Tyrone was asleep. He sat against an adjacent wall. "Sleepin' beauty has awaked," he said in his low, resonant voice. His toothless grin was surrounded by a scruffy beard.
        "Yeah," I mumbled, rubbing my eyes. "What time is it?"
        "About six. Just started light'nin' up." He dug in his hip pocket for a match. After exhaling a cloud of smoke, he asked, "Feelin' better, Sal?"
        I rubbed my stomach and sat up. "I don't feel worse." I tried to muster a smile for Tyrone.
        We were three days out of Pittsburgh, heading toward California. We had probably traveled twelve hundred miles forward and twelve thousand miles side to side. The swaying boxcar and the foul odor of whatever must have occupied it recently, made me feel like everything I had eaten was still in my throat, just waiting for one more lurch of the train to dislodge it.


        After midnight on a chilly morning, I had hopped the train as it slowed, almost to a stop, at a crossing in Pittsburgh's West End. I wore my entire wardrobe ---five layers of clothes covered with a shabby winter coat, mismatched gloves, a knit hat, and vinyl boots from the Goodwill Store. I carried the rest of my belongings in a grubby, but sturdy, canvas bag I stole from an unlocked car. The tote held three bottles of cheap brandy, a half gallon of water in a plastic milk bottle, plus plastic utensils and packets of ketchup from McDonald's. I had pilfered a roll of toilet paper from a port-a-john and shoplifted four packs of cigarettes. I found a soggy book of matches on the street. A guy smoking behind a grocery store had given me stale bread, dried-up cheese and a bunch of apples from a pile of stuff he was supposed to throw in the dumpster. My left coat pocket was filled with panhandled change. I kept a rusty pocket knife in the other one.
        After pulling myself into the next-to-last boxcar, I had taken a gulp of brandy, then curled up in a corner, ready to sleep through the rest of the night. A voice from the opposite corner boomed, "Hey. Where you headin'?" Startled, my body twitched. The deep voice echoed in the empty boxcar, vibrating the wooden slats. It sounded like the voice of God.
        "Anywhere this train is going, I guess."
        "Toward San Francisco, I hope. Never ain't much below sixty degrees out there," said the voice. "Leave here soon's the baseball season's over or the weather turns."
        "Baseball? You a fan or something?" I asked.
        The rickety train passed a warehouse with parking-lot lights blazing. By the greenish light that streamed through the open door, I saw my traveling companion's huge eyes and white-tipped hair atop a wide, black face.
        "Hell, no. Man owns a parkin' lot near the stadium. Lets me collect parkin' fees for him. Gives me fifteen dollars. Ten, if I ain't sober. Could stay for the rest of Steeler's football, but gets too cold at night 'round here come October, so's I head out t' California." The man crawled closer to my corner of the boxcar. When he struck a match, I noticed his plaid shirt stretched tightly over his bulky chest. 
        "Why you leavin' town?" he asked.
        "I can't stand being close to my daughter and not being allowed to see her. They took her away 'cause I don't have a place to live. She's in a foster home." I swiped a tear from my cheek. "They said I was an, an unfit parent." I fumbled with the cap of my brandy bottle, then took another gulp. I wiped my mouth with the back of my coat sleeve. "I just want to go someplace far away. Someplace warm."
        "Havin' no place t' live must be hell for a woman."
        "You get used to it."
        "You ain't never get used to that," he said.
       "It's better and worse than I thought. I survived three winters, but don't want to go through another one like last year."
        After a pause, he said, "Name's Tyrone, Miss." He held out his hand for a friendly handshake. A real gentleman, that Tyrone.
        "I'm Sal," I answered.
        We talked the rest of the night. I sipped from my bottle. Tyrone drank some rot gut wine. He told me about San Francisco, the shelters, soup kitchens, and safe places to spend the night outdoors. I told him how I lost my job and then they took the house away and how we lived in the car until they found it an hauled it off, too. 
        "We stayed in a shelter in a church basement for a couple months, but they kicked us out 'cause they smelled booze and cigarettes on me and I wouldn't say grace before dinner. Hell, we had nothing to be thankful for, did we?" I fought back tears, then added, "I promised the judge I'd stop drinking and follow the rules at the shelter, but he said if I loved my daughter, I would have done that in the first place."
        In the morning, I took in Tyrone's massive frame, his worn trousers, and ripped flannel shirt with gray long-underwear peeking through the holes. A black hooded jacket lay on the floor beside him. He had a moth-eaten khaki blanket around his shoulders. His large, dark fingers poked through holes in his filthy gloves.
        I looked at my own hands, so boney and pasty white compared to Tyrone's. After sharing some of my brandy, I dozed off somewhere in Ohio, waking with an upset stomach.
        For the next two days, Tyrone forced me to eat a little bread and drink some water. Despite his intimidating size and appearance, he was real kind. He covered me with his blanket and scraped straw from the floor to put under my head. He politely looked away when I sat on the edge at the open door, to relieve myself.
        The days had grown ugly, the way it does at the end of October. Constant rain and sudden cold turned the world gray and sad. Leaves had changed to dull brown and plummeted to the ground, leaving outlines of hopeless bare branches against the ash-colored sky. The train crawled along real slow, like it had no place to go. 


        The fifth morning, three others joined us during the predawn hours, two tough-looking men in their twenties and a girl who must have been about fourteen. They were three long-haired blonds dressed like identical triplets in black T-shirts, denim jackets, jeans with split knees, earrings, and high lace-up boots. B.C. and Hog drank out of a whiskey bottle and munched from white bags of generic pretzels and chips. The guys ignored us. The girl, Candy, sat beside me for a while and told me she had left home because her stepfather beat on her.
        "Shut up, will ya'?" Hog yelled across the boxcar rubbing the stubble on his chin. "I'm sick o' hearin' that crap about your old man. You're a real pain in the ass, kid. Probably deserved it."
        Candy sulked between Tyrone and me for about an hour huddled under Tyrone's blanket while Hog sharpened and resharpened a large hunting knife, then she timidly tiptoed over and nuzzled up to Hog, begging him to forgive her. Tyrone and I exchanged glances as the two fondled and kissed. B.C. smoked a joint near the open door. He sat with his back to the cozy couple watching the gray landscape pass by.
        Hog alternately smacked Candy and petted her like a puppy, calling her "Stupid", "Bitch", "Honey", or "Babe". He ordered her to shut up, sit down, or retrieve a bag of chips. I didn't like it, but I was afraid to say anything. B.C. said nothing either, but I could tell he was steaming inside about something. For hours, Tyrone stared at Hog with a look that could melt ice, but Hog paid no mind to him.
        That night, the rain finally stopped. A full moon peaked through misty clouds to create a hazy glow. Low fog spread across the ground outside our temporary quarters. Tyrone and I sat smoking, drinking, and whispering while the train lurched onward. Finally, when my speech was slurred, I dozed off to the clacking rhythm of the rails with my head on his huge thigh.
        Before dawn, I heard rustles and groans from the far corner of the boxcar. Hog's body pumped up and down over the girl. I lifted my head and fidgeted nervously. Tyrone patted my arm with a reassuring hand. When I couldn't stand it any more, I sat, covered my ears and yelled, "Stop it. She's only a child."
        B.C. jumped up and screamed, "Let her alone, you rotten bastard." His foot landed on Hog's back with a dull thump.
        Pulling up his fly, Hog leaped to his feet, then circled B.C. with clenched fists. In the dim light from the moon, two dark shapes wrestled. Silhouetted against the open door, they struggled, swaying side to side with the movement of the train. Tyrone patted me on the arm again, then slowly rose, leaning against the wall of the boxcar to steady himself, inching his way toward the men who looked so much alike, I couldn’t tell them apart in the dark. Finally, one broke loose and pushed the other backward through the open door into the foggy night. Leaning on the frame of the door, Hog yelled, "Good riddance, you wimp." He howled a devilish laugh. "The little whore is all mine now."
        Before Hog had a chance to turn around or catch his breath, Tyrone thrust his huge arms at Hog's back, pushing him through the opening. He stood in the doorway, watching, then announced, "They're too far back t' climb back on." He turned toward the girl. "You okay, kid?"
        "Uh huh," she answered, sobbing.
        "Okay, then," Tyrone said, rubbing his big hands together.
        "Thanks," I said, pulling myself unsteadily to my feet. I handed Tyrone my almost-empty Brandy bottle. Staggering toward the girl, I said, "You're going to be okay, Candy."
        I sat beside her. Then I removed one glove and stroked her hair. "Tyrone and me, we'll take care of you. You can stick with us as long as you want." I reached into my pocket. "Or when we get to a town, you can call home. I'm sure your Mother misses you," I added, folding her fingers over a handful of change.
        Looking very much like my own little girl, she fell asleep with her head on my lap, rocked by the movement of the rambling train.
(©2009, C.J. Peiffer)
This is a work of FICTION.
It is not based on actual persons or events.

5 comments:

Word Nerd said...

Heartbreak and hope...a good combination.

amy@SoulDipper said...

As I read, I kept wondering how you, the writer, would know, so well, about the feelings and actions of these characters in such dire circumstances. You write very well and I was compelled to read every word. It's not easy for me to read off the screen - especially white on black, but I simply had to stick with it.

Great read - many thanks.

Yvonne said...

Two things in life that we will always have. Great write!

Yvonne said...

Oops! I forgot to add the two things we we always have!

1. Heart break
2. Hope

CJ said...

Thanks for your comments, everyone.

To Amy,
I don't have personal knowledge of being homeless or hopping trains. Most of us don't know what it's like to lose a child or be desperately poor, but we can imagine it. Most emotions are universal.

We've heard about people with addictions that control their lives, even at the expense of family. I traveled on a train once from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia. I had motion sickness from the side to side motion ---so I included that. I started to write and it just came out. (an assignment for a writing class to write something that takes place on a train ---I chose to use a box car because I figured no one else would think of that ---and I was right.)

The closest I have ever been to poverty was when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer. I lived in an area where, by our standards, the people were in poverty. But most had close families, a place to live, and enough to eat. They didn't have electricity, running water or a sewage system. Most didn't have cars or fancy clothes, but then they didn't have TV to make them think they needed those things. I can't say anyone I knew was unhappy. In fact, at times, I long for the simple life I lived there. I had a place to live, enough to eat, a little money to travel. The Brazilians treated me like a daughter, so I sort of had family, too.