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Whole Earth Review

American mantra

American mantra – short story

Bryan Higgins

LOOKING BACK THERE WERE SEVERAL LITTLE THINGS that should have made me suspicious. I think the first one was when she changed the color of her toenail polish from black, my favorite, to pink. Claimed, what with warm weather upon us, that black was “too hot,” and like an idiot I bought it.

When I used to have to work swing shift at the Kwik Stop I would bring home dinner for the two of us. Well, she started to not be interested in the food some nights, but would just sit there watching “Perry Mason,” all preoccupied. Didn’t even seem to care how many rubbers I had sold that evening. Even on Fridays, when I used to bring home the Colonel’s Big Bucket o’ Chicken Lickens, which we used to look forward to all week. Claimed she was “on a diet,” but I thought maybe she had been eating a big meal earlier in the evenings, and it seemed to me I could smell garlic on her breath sometimes. I mean, dieting and her just didn’t ring true. She had never worried about her weight before, and what I loved about her was how she could fill out my size 50 Kwik Stop shirt, not like one of those skinny little gals. And we still went through a quart of Aunt Jemima syrup every week, so what kind of diet is that?

She used to wear my old white Kwik Stop shirt (“Roger” above the heart} as a nightie, but one evening she came to bed with a Domino’s Pizza. shirt on instead. Again, my polyester shirt was “too hot”; seems the Domino’s shirt was 100 percent cotton. “Roger” was replaced with “M.G.,” which she insisted stood for “My Guy.” She claimed she got it at a garage sale from that nut down the street. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that by this time our lovemaking was down from every single Saturday to maybe once a month or less.

One day I went through “her drawer” while she was over at the fool Diane’s doing each other’s hair. I found a box full of those little plastic mushrooms they put in the middle of pizzas to keep the box lid from getting in the cheese. Couple of dozen. On the round flat part of each one of them she had painted stuff with pink toenail polish. She always put the date (these were all from the last couple of months) and underneath the date were various kinds of symbols which I didn’t really understand. Sometimes there’d be a happy face, or sometimes. two or three stars or exclamation points. A few of them had other weird stuff. I was beginning to get suspicious.

It continued off and on like that for months. She’d get moody, and withdraw to watch “Perry Mason” (“brought to you by Domino’s Pizza. Call now for free delivery, and you’ll be opening our box before Perry closes his case, or we ‘default’: you get the pizza free!”).

The hard thing was, “Perry Mason” had been “our show” back when we were courting. We knew the shows by heart, and could even recite a lot of the dialog along with the show. Perry would be in his office, discussing his just-departed troubled client with Della, when a knock would come at the back door. “There’s Paul!” she’d say to the big guy along with Della; “Hiya, beautiful!” I’d say with Paul as he entered the office. “Incompetent, irrelevant, and immaterial!” we’d both shout along with the DA during the trial. And I’d use Paul’s cheerful shave-and-a-haircut knock when I went calling on her at her parent’s house.

She’d get in a bad mood, be uninterested in the food I’d brought home, and would instead go in and turn on the show. There was some kind of contest being put on by the sponsor. A couple of times during the show, a letter would appear in the lower right corner of the screen and she’d carefully write it down. Different letters of the alphabet each time; some kind of code. She was very intent on this, and would get mad if I distracted her while she was seeing to it. And she had started to do the “Jumble” puzzle in the morning paper, and had me bring home the new Dell Jumble Jamboree every month as soon as we got it down at the Kwik Stop. During the day she did these puzzles while watching the soaps.

Now, one time when our favorite episode was on (“The Case of the Bad Heir,” with a young rocket-brassiered Joan Collins as the gardener’s wife), she started crying at the part where Joan breaks down on the stand and confesses to the murder of the rich old man after being badgered by Perry (who knew her high heels would sink in the soft ground). Thinking she was acting along, I yelled “I’ll clear this courtroom!” along with the judge when the gallery erupted, but it turned out she really was crying. She ran upstairs to the bedroom as I pounded an ashtray on the table along with the sound of the gavel. Around this time her birthday was coming up and out of desperation I decided to surprise her with a new Sony 29-inch Color Diamond-Vision Trinitron Dolby Stereo Wireless Remote-Control Cable-Ready Projection TV to replace the old Philco black-and-white with the coathanger antenna we had been watching ever since we got married. To scrape up enough cash I had to sell some of my valuable underground Kirk/Spock Homo Star Trek comics, and so she wouldn’t get suspicious I decided to drive all the way to Cleveland and back in one day to the Trekkie convention that was going on there. I was in such a hurry I sold “Naughty Enterprise,” “Rod ‘n’ Bury,” “Star Date,” and “Beam Me Up, Scotty” for a fraction of their worth to the first geek I found who was interested. But I was able to raise just enough cash.

She always goes out on her birthday to Denny’s for fried liver and onions with the fool Diane, ever since they were in high school, so while they were doing that I moved in the TV and got it all set up. The timing was perfect; just as she was getting home the suspenseful opening music of “Perry Mason” was booming out through the hi-fi. She looked like she had been crying; there was mascara running down her face. But she just looked annoyed when she saw the TV. “Finally, we’ve got color! “I beamed. “It’s a black-and-white show, you idiot,” she snapped back.

It was a good episode, too, the one with a young Barbara Bel Geddes (“The Case of the Wisecracking Widow”), but she just went over to the table and ignored the show, working a Jumble puzzle instead. “What about the code?” I asked. “Contest over,” she mumbled.

Well, you knew it was going to happen: one Friday night I came home from working the closing shift and she was gone. The place was a mess: dresser drawers pulled out, stuff scattered on the floor, coathangers on the bed. Most of her stuff was missing; she had been in a terrible hurry, but she was definitely gone.

I freaked. I dropped the Chicken Lickens I had brought home in the middle of the living-room floor, ran back out to my car and drove back to the Kwik Stop. Unfortunately I had already made the bank drop on the way home, but there was $300 petty cash in the safe. I grabbed this, a box of Kit Kat bars, all the half pints of booze we had (bourbon, scotch, tequila, vodka, gin, and rum, a couple dozen bottles in all), a bottle of Future Acrylic Floor Polish, a couple of tubes of Score Hair Cream, and a box of Purex Dry Chlorine Bleach.

I favored the half-pint-size liquor bottles because I could chug an entire bottle in one shot and not have to worry about driving with an open container. I threw the stuff in a bag, put the bag in the car, washed a Kit Kat down with a bottle of Early Times, and headed over to the fool Diane’s.

I pounded on the door and Diane answered. “Where is she?” I screamed and pushed my way in. “And then, didn’t you return to find her there alone?” came Raymond Burr’s voice from the television. “I don’t know where she is. How dare you come bursting in here like this at three in the morning,” Diane said. “No! Yes! she was dead when I got there, but I didn’t kill her! I swear I didn’t! I swear it!” came the voice of a young Larry Hagman out of the tube. “Fuck you! You know where she is! Where is she?” I screamed at the fool Diane.

Dennis, Diane’s old man, came running out of the bathroom. His pants were down around his ankles and he was kind of waddling. He was carrying a plumber’s plunger and waving it at me. “You son of a bitch!” he yelled as he hopped across the room at me. “Your Honor,” began Perry. Dennis was hopping my way and I ran back out of the house. He tossed the plunger at me and the rubber part hit the back of my head and bounced off.

I jumped in the car, tore out of there, and got on the freeway, headed north towards Cleveland. I emptied the contents of the bag out onto the passenger seat, squirted some of the Future into the now-empty bag, put the bag over my mouth, and breathed the fumes in and out, in and out. I chugged a couple three bottles of booze, ate a few Kit Kat bars and was feeling pretty charged on the Future, sugar and alcohol.

Around the state line I pulled off for gas and there were these kids, guy and girl, hitchhiking to the Cleveland Arena to a Metallurgy concert. They had left early to get good tickets and had gotten dumped at the gas station. They begged me for a ride and promised to share their hash with me, so I told them to get in the back seat and pulled back

I got back home Tuesday morning after a long weekend of drinking and sex in Cleveland. I don’t remember much, but I had gone to the Metallurgy concert with the hitchhikers on Saturday. The petty-cash money, the Kit Kats, and all the booze were gone, as was two-thirds of the Future. The Score and Purex were on the floor of the car, unopened.

Pete was furious, of course, and I was out of a job. I owed him $500, by his calculation, considering the trouble I had caused, and if I paid it right away he wouldn’t call the cops. I took the remainder of my Kirk/Spock Homo comics down to Hatlan at the record store and he advanced me $150 for them, on the agreement he would give me more if he sold them, but I didn’t expect to see any more, though “He’s Dead, Jim” alone was worth a couple hundred. Dennis gave me $250 for the new TV, I sold the stereo to that nut down the street for $100, and I paid Pete off.

There was an army of ants marching between the Chicken Lickens and the front window. As I said, stuff was strewn everywhere. The new box of Hefty Trash Bags, which I had just brought home the night before she split, was empty but for one bag. We had always used Herties for luggage when we took a trip, and she must have packed twenty of them. All her clothes were gone, except for my old Kwik Stop shirt she had used as a nightie. The bathroom was cleaned out, except for a lone curlet forgotten in the shower stall.

I was trying to straighten up the place a bit, putting drawers back in the dresser, when I saw it: a Woolworths bag in what had been “her drawer.” Inside were a bunch of the pizza box plastic mushrooms. These were painted in nail polish, but were different from the ones before; with a single exception, each of these had a single letter painted on it in pink polish. The odd one, painted in black, looked like this:

At the bottom of the bag was a piece of paper, on which she had put:

__ _____ ,, ____

I arranged the letters on the kitchen table:

HILL TOP BEAN

Was this some kind of Jumble puzzle?

I was up most of the night arranging and rearranging the mushroom letters on the table:

AIN’T BELLHOP

LOLA BENT HIP

BOIL THE PLAN

NIL BATH POLE

BAN THE PILLO

That last one didn’t even look right, but I went out in the garage and looked at that inflatable green thing we take down to the lake to float around on, and sure enough, it said “U-BIo Air-Pillo.” Blo.

BLO IN THE LAP

I always wanted to, but she never would.

At 3:00 I turned on “Perry Mason” to watch for the code letters on the screen. Good one: “The Case of the Loquacious Lowlife,” with a young Jack Klugman as a derelict who witnessed a murder. Paul had to not shave for two days and pretend to be a wino in order to get to the hermit-like Klugman. You’ should have seen the look on the DA’s face when Della got Jack cleaned up, shaved, and into a checkered coat and Perry called him as a surprise witness! At 3:27 an M on the screen, and at 3:52 a G, but I didn’t know what the hell they meant.

Then I remembered the piece of paper in the bag and I fetched it from the bedroom.

__ _____,,____

Of course! The answer must be a two-letter word followed by a five-letter word followed by a four-letter word.

IN HOTEL.: BLAP

AT PHONE.: BILL

LA PINTO.: BLEH

ON TABLE.: PHIL

That last one! I looked for the TV Guide and there it was, on the tablet “Donahue” was on at 3:00 in the afternoon. Phil’s topic tomorrow: “Women who cheat on their husbands with much younger pizza delivery boys”.! I decided to t ry to get some sleep, and set the alarm for 2:58 so I’d wake up in time for the show.

It was 3:12 when I woke up. The radio had been playing for fourteen minutes but I had dozed through it; it wasn’t until Van Morrison came on singing “Oh, woah, oh, Domino!” that I realized what time it was. SHIT! I jumped up and ran into the living room.

I had forgotten that I sold the TV to Dennis and had to run out in the garage and find the old Philco buried among all the junk. At about 3:20 I had it in the living room, plugged in, and turned on. Just as the tubes warmed up I heard Phil Donahue say, “Let’s take a break…”. The picture was fuzzy without any antenna, and I ran into the bedroom and grabbed a coat hanger. While the commercials were blaring, I unwound the coat hanger and managed to get good enough reception to see the picture if I held the two ends of the hanger against the broken leads on the back of the set. In order to do this and see the picture at the same time, I had to sit on the floor with the set between my legs and my face six inches from the screen.

“We’re back,” said Phil, “with women who have cheated on their husbands with pizza delivery boys. Once again, we’ve disguised the identity of our three guests to protect their privacy. Number Three, let’s talk to you now … “Three was sitting on the stage in the dark along with the other women, and when she spoke her vice had been electronically altered to make her sound like Everett Dirksen. “I was so lonely,” she croaked, “I wasn’t even hungry, but I ordered pizzas because it would get someone there fast.”

You couldn’t see her face but y6u could make out her general shape, and I knew it wasn’t the wife. Her story droned on and on, with Phil chiming in with stuff like “And you didn’t feel the slightest guilt?” from time to time. “We’11 be back…” he said, the audience applauded, and there on the screen they flashed a number, 1-800-927-PHIL.

I dropped the antenna, ran to the phone, and dialed the number. It rang about thirty times, during which time the show came back on. I could hear the sound but the picture was just snow without the antenna; I couldn’t reach the TV from where the phone was. Number One and Number Two argued about the best-tasting pizza; there was something oddly familiar about One’s manner. Just as Phil was saying “We’ll take some calls after this…” the phone was answered and a voice said “Would you like to talk to Phil?” “Yes! “I replied; “Please hold.” he said. I set the receiver on the table, ran back, grabbed the coat hanger and once again wrapped my legs around the TV.

“Let’s go to some calls. Hello caller, you’re on the air.” “Hello, Phil?” “Yes, go ahead.” “Uh, Number Two: you said your husband was also a pizza delivery man…” and the silhouette of Number Two appeared. Too thin to be her. Et cetera, et cetera. “… the slightest bit of guilt?” Phil was saying. “We’ve got about twenty seconds, let’s take one more call. Hello caller, you’re on the air… Hello? … Caller, are you there?”

I heard some squawks coming out of the receiver over on the table, and realized he was talking to me! I dropped the antenna and made a dive for the phone. “Hello? Phil?” “Turn your TV down, caller,” Phil’s voice said. “Do you have a question for our guests?” “Number One!”I shouted. “Baby, it’s me; why did you leave like that last week? You gotta come home! It’s killing me!” The picture was all snow. “Caller, haven’t you been paying attention? Number One married her pizza man three years ago. Well folks, we’re out of time; see you tomorrow.” “Travel accommodations arranged through the courtesy of Delta airlines. Delta is ready when you are. And by … Domin” [click]

FUCK! I kicked in the Philco screen. There was a loud pop, but the contents of the room weren’t sucked in like my old man always said would happen. It smoked a little bit, but the sound continued with Phil’s theme music.

I dialed the Domino’s number. “Large peperoni! 482 Ohio Street!” I barked at the guy and slammed down the phone. I looked at the plastic mushrooms and the piece of paper on the table:

HOTPINEBALL …….. : ….

SHIT! I raked them off the table with my forearm. “Guys like us, we had it made!” — “All in the Family” was coming on.

The doorbell rang in about twenty minutes. Highschool kid, about six feet and a hundred and twenty pounds. “T.R.” on his shirt.

“Uh, here’s your pizza.”

“Where’s the usual guy, M.G..?”

“Uh, I don’t know…”

“WHERE THE FUCK IS HE.?”

“He quit, er, he transferred to the Baltimore Domino’s. He was in some kinda trouble or somethin…”

I ran over to the table and got down on my hands and knees and gathered up the mushrooms. My hands shaking, I spread them on the table: IN BALTO .: HELP

The punctuation in the middle was the mushroom with the domino painted on it: “In Baltimore Domino’s. Help!”

“Hey, you gonna pay for the pizza.?” The guy was still standing in the doorway.

“What? Look, kid, how much money do you have.?”

“Er, we don’t carry no change.”

I went over to the couch and pulled out two large cartons from behind it. “Hey fuckhead, you like girls? I used to work at Kwik Stop; I got hundreds of magazines here: Playboy, Hustler, Oui, Stroke, Gerk … you name it. Now, how much you got? You can have them all.”

The kid came over to look. “Gosh. Uh, about fifty dollars.”

I grabbed the money from his hand, went to the bedroom, and packed a few clothes in the Hefty bag. The kid was on the couch looking at the mags. “Lock the door when you leave,” I told him and ran out and jumped in the car.

I drove over to the Domino’s place on Washington . Avenue and parked in the alley next to the store, pulling my car as close to the building as I could. The Score hair cream and Purex dry bleach were. still on the floor and I squeezed both tubes of Score out on the passenger seat and smeared it around. I opened the bleach and sprinkled it over the glistening green gel. It sizzled a little bit and vapor started to rise off the seat.

I went inside the Domino’s. “Call me a cab!” I told the guy.

“Hey, man, call it yourself.”

“Look, I got too drunk to drive on your fucking beer. Call me a goddamn cab.”

“This is a take-out place!”

“Look, ‘P.N.’,” I read his shirt, “If you don’t call me a cab I’m calling Monaghan personally and complaining.” Tom Monaghan is the eccentric founder and president of Domino’s Pizza.

He seem impressed with this and called the cab. I went outside to.wait. I peeked around at my car side and saw that the interior was filled with smoke. The cab pulled up and I ran out to the street. “Bus station,” I told the driver.

Just as we were pulling away there was a huge explosion. Glass from my oaf’s windshield rained on the cab. The three geeks working in the Domino’s ran out into the street as the store burst into flames.

“Hey, what happened?” said the driver. “BUS STATION, ASSHOLE!” I yelled and stuffed $40 into his hand. We took off.

As the cab drove away, I looked back and watched the Domino’s guys gesturing and shouting at us from the middle of the street. A man bringing out his garbage &opped the can with a clatter when he saw the fire, and I realized I had left my Hefty Bag of clothes on the back seat of the burning car. “How much to Baltimore.?” I asked the driver. He must have thought I was bidding, as Baltimore was over 500 miles away, for he said nothing. I looked back and saw flames shooting fifty feet into the air as the large supply of lunchmeats in the Domino’s burned. I watched .the Future go up in smoke: I had left about a third of a bottle on the floor of the car, and wished now I had thought to bring it, even more so than the Hefty bag.

“Hey, man, you got any Future.?” I said to the cabby. He reached up and turned a clasp on the ceiling of the cab, and a plexiglass partition swung down, separating the front of the car from the back; it locked into place on top of the seat. “Floor Polish!” I shouted, beating on the glass.

We were a couple of blocks away when I heard sirens approaching. The driver pulled over quickly and shut off the lights. When they had passed he drove off again’ in a hurry. At the bus station he pulled up to the curb and stopped, staring straight ahead.

“How much to Baltimore.?” I yelled at the glass, but he pretended not to hear me. “Floor Polish! “I screamed. I pulled out the ashtray and beat it on the partition, trying to scratch the glass. Butts and ashes went flying, and a good deal of it wound up in .my hair. The driver remained totally still.

I opened the door to get out and a porter came up. “You got any luggage.?” he asked. As soon as I was on the curb and had. shut the door the cab took off with a squeal of tires. “Hooee, Jim, that man in a hurry!” mused the porter.

It was $107 for a bus-ticket to Baltimore, which was about $80 more than I had. I thought about reaching into the ticket window and making a grab for it, but thought it too risky; the pizza geeks may have heard me yelling about the bus station to the cabby, I bought an $18 ticket to Cleveland. From Cleveland I could hop a freight on the B&O railroad to Baltimore. I thought of Monopoly (“Chance: Take a ride on the B&O”} and my heart sank when I remembered that had been our game.

The bus didn’t leave for two and a half hours, so I cashed my remaining money in for quarters and walked over to the video arcade. “HoboHunt” beckoned. I imagined being one of the hoboes, hopping an eastbound freight. I fired phosphor projectiles at myself while I waited for the bus.

It was getting late, and the only patrons in the bus station were me and a kid playing another video game. The man and woman working the ticket counter had gone in the back to mess around. At the other end of the lobby the young guy running the newsstand was studying the latest issue of Gezk. The place was quiet except for the video-game sounds and the laughter coming out of the back room from the ticket woman, who sounded like the backup alarm on a piece of construction machinery. Hobo Hunt was next to the window, and I could keep an eye on the driveway in front of the station as I played. Across the street was the Kwik Stop where I had worked. I confess it: I’d played Hobo Hunt through eight years of breaks and lunch hours. I hardly had to look at the screen any more, though there was still a considerable element of luck. But tonight I was on a roll, and had racked up a number of free plays. I was to level five: a railway watchman riding the caboose. A realistic belch! came out of the speaker on the side of the machine as I scored a direct hit, followed by hualp!… hualp! — I had won yet another replay.

Looking at the Kwik Stop I really wished I had a bottle of Future. I had several dollars in quarters in my pocket, but I knew Pete was working and would throw me out if I went in. As I was contemplating this, a squad car pulled in front of the station, lights going but no siren. Out of the car got two cops, and with them, talking a mile a minute and gesturing wildly, was my driver, the man who had said all of two words in the cab. The kid came over to the window to look.

“Hey, you can have all these replays if you keep quiet!” I told him, and started down the lobby away from the ticket booth. “I ain’t squealin to no pigs,” he called after me. At the end of the hall was a door ‘ upon which was written my salvation:

WOMEN

There were two stalls, and I took the one on the left. I locked myself in and crouched 9n top of the toilet. In this position I was pretty sure I couldn’t be seen. I waited there most of the two hours before my bus was to leave, and in all that time I got only one customer. She was so close on the other side of the partition I could hear her straining as she moved her bowels. I had to keep very quiet and take very short breaths to avoid detection. As she was leaving she laughed to herself, “Ernt! Ernt! Ernt! Ernt!” and I recognized her as the woman working the ticket counter.

After a while I fell into a kind of reverie, marveling at the lack of grafitti in the women’s stall, and thinking about Perry Mason. “Your honor… Della, have Paul Drake put a taft on her… calls for a conclusion on the part of the witness… yes, your honor, Exhibit A has the Lieutenant’s mark on it… there’s Paul’s knock… knock knocka knock-knock … knock knocka knock-knock…” when all of a sudden I realized someone was knocking on the stall door! A man’s voice said something I couldn’t understand. Shit, I’m toast, I thought to myself and

But instead of a cop I found myself face to face with the janitor. “S’app’nin’!” he said matter-of-factly and began wringing his mop out to wax the floor. Wax! I looked down, and there it was, a nearly full gallon of industrial Future, double the strength of the home stuff. I traded him my Doily Patton keyring-flashlight for it. “Wait, just a minute!” I said and took the keyring back, removing my keys. I returned the keyring to him and flushed the keys down the toilet. “For good luck,” I said.

“Schedule 722, now boarding for Cleveland,” came over the loudspeaker, and giving the janitor a big thumbs up, I picked up my bottle of wax and headed out the door. I stopped at the newsstand and spent the rest of my quarters on Kit Kat bars, fourteen of them. I was the only passenger on the bus. “You an Indians fan.,'” asked the driver with a big smile, obviously lonely. “Who isn’t?” I mumbled, and took the seat at the extreme right rear of the bus. “Yes, sir,” yelled back the driver as we pulled out onto the road for the three-hour trip. I grabbed a barf bag from the seat pocket and poured in a little Future. Putting the bag to my mouth I breathed in, out, in, out…

I awoke to the faint sounds of a radio playing off in the distance. “Good Morning! Super-WARF

I awoke to the faint sounds of a radio playing off in the distance. “Good Morning! Super-WARF Baltimore time is 5:57. Deputy Dan McGrew here with you with laughs, traffic and music ’til seven. Now to take us to the six o’clock hour here’s Fats Domino… ‘I found my thrill’…”

I was lying in an alley. It was dawn. My brain was in a fog; I couldn’t remember how I got there, or indeed much of anything. The smell of Future was overwhelming. My shirt had been drenched with the stuff, as had my hair. It had set up, and shirt and hair were both stiff as cardboard. My head hurt unbelievably.

The radio was coming from a Lincoln Continental parked across the street. There was a heavyset guy behind the wheel, with an attractive brunette next to him. In the back seat was another man, with white hair, but prematurely so, for he appeared to be in his forties. He opened the door and the radio got louder. He got out and started to walk over toward me. I tried to get up; my shirt cracked.

“It’s all right pal, I’m not a cop,” he said. “We know you didn’t kill her. We just want to help.”

“What? Kill who?” The radio. seemed to be getting louder.

“Your wife. Look, the cops don’t know for sure you were in that pizza parlor, and they don’t have to — yet.”

“What?” He was standing over me, looking down, but I wasn’t sure I’d heard him right over the music coming from the radio. My wife? Pizza parlor? Baltimore? My mind reeled; I was still pretty stoned on Future.

The guy in the Lincoln rolled down the window. “Better get him into the car, Paul. The lieutenant might be by any second now.” He was shouting to make himself heard above the sound of the radio, which by now was so loud it was bordering on painful.

The white-haired guy shouted back, “Perry, will you turn that radio down? Turn it down! Turn the radio down, caller, turn your radio down!” and I realized it was Phil Donahue standing over me! He turned back and shouted down at me, “Keep it down, pal, keep it down!”

I awoke to see the bus driver walking back up toward the front of the bus, zipping up his fly. “Christ, you’ll have the cops coming in here. We’ll be in Cleveland in about twenty minutes.”

The smell of Future had been replaced by the smell of shit, a pretty strong smell — the driver had been relieving himself in the bathroom next to my seat. We had pulled off the road; the bus was parked with the engine running. The radio up front was faintly playing a top-40 station.

As he pulled back onto the road I struggled to wake up. In the seat next to me someone had left a golfclub bag, one of those over-the-shoulder jobs. The jug of Future fit neatly in the bottom, though the bag,was about four feet tall and I couldn’t reach all the way in with my arm. I tossed the Kit Kat bars in after the polish, reserving a couple for my breakfast. Twenty minutes later we pulled into the Cleveland Greyhound station. I slung the golf bag over my shoulder, thanked the driver, and got off.

The train tracks ran right outside the bus station, as luck would have it. I knew/tom listening to my old Walter Brennan records that you can’t hop a freight in a freight yard in town, because the railroad Watchmen are on patrol and watching for vagrants. No, the best place is just outside of town. Freight trains are so heavy that it takes ‘them a long time to get up to full speed, for the first few miles they are traveling under ten miles an hour, and it’s quite easy to run alongside and hop aboard.

So I started walking east along the tracks, which ran through a mixture of foundries and slaughterhouses. The smell from the latter was overwhelming, even more so than the Future of my dream or the waste products of the bus driver’s protein-heavy meal from the previous night. The stench was accompanied by the simultaneous lowing and bleating of several unidentified species. I tied my handkerchief around my mouth and nose like I had seen them do in Westerns, but it was of little help.

After several miles of this the city began to give way to greenery and I finally came upon a Shantytown at the mouth of a tunnel that ran into a hillside. I could see light at the other end of the tunnel but it appeared to be pretty far away.

“Hey, look everybody, it’s Arnold Palmer!” I heard. someone laugh and I remembered the golf bag I was carrying. Not that I exactly forgot it, for it must have weighed twenty-five pounds with the nearly full big glass bottle inside.

“What, did you slice your tee shot? Is that what brings you out here, Arnold, looking for the ball?” said a guy about my age. My age, but about twice my weight. He sneered at me. “Where are your plaid pants?”

“I want to hop a freight to Baltimore. Does that train come by here.?”

“Look, I know you’re a B&O cop. We don’t know nothing about hopping no freights.”

“Honest, man, I’m trying to get to Baltimore to find my old lady. Some guy in a Domino’s uniform dragged her there.”

“You gotta prove it. You pass the test, we’ll help you hop the freight. You don’t take the test, you’re dead meat.”

“What’s the test.?” I asked.

“You see that tunnel? In about fifteen minutes a tram’s gonna come through there heading this way. He’s going to Toledo, so he ain’t gonna be slowing down. When the red light above the tunnel goes on, you start running in towards him. A couple hundred yards in, on the right side, is a cubbyhole. It’ll be dark, but there’s a blue light above the hole. You make it there before he does, you’re safe. You don’t… well, you might try standing against the side wall of the tunnel, but he’ll be churning so much wind it will probably suck you under the wheels. But if you’re fast, and you don’t trip on the tracks or the railroad ties, you can probably make the cubbyhole.”

Well, what the heck. I might be able to make a break for it back towards Cleveland and get away from these guys, but I’d have to abandon the golf bag and the Future and wouldn’t be any closer to Baltimore. I unloaded the golf bag off my shoulder and dumped out and ate the remaining eleven Kit Kat bars for energy.

Fifteen minutes later I heard the train’s whistle coming through the tunnel and a bell started ringing on the signal platform. “Soon as the red light goes on, you can go,”‘ the guy shouted above the noise. I stood in the middle of the tracks and got as close as I could and still watch the light. I could see the train now through the tunnel, and as it approached the opposite mouth the halo of daylight around it got smaller and smaller.

The train was in the tunnel now, instead of daylight from the other end, all I could see was the headlight of the locomotive, which swept back and forth. Finally the red light came on and in I ran.

As I entered the tunnel a big gust of dust and debris came flying out into my face and eyes. The train was like a piston, pushing the column of air in the tunnel ahead of it at fifty miles an hour, which made running very difficult. It was pitch black inside, except for the train’s headlight, which, rather than illuminating the inside of the tunnel, only blinded roe further. The engineer must have spotted roe because he blew the whistle.

It was so loud I could feel my ribcage vibrate and I clapped roy hands over my ears in pain.

I continued to run towards the train with ray hands over ray ears, and running in this position caused me to lose ray balance. I fell down on the tracks, and my head hit the steel raft. The railway bed was vibrating, and the train was now so close that the noise of the locomotive rivaled that of the whistle. My head was cut, and blood was running into one eye, but I managed to get back on my feet and run toward the approaching locomotive.

Thing is, you see, my life didn’t flash before my eyes. At least that would have been some recompense for the cut on my head, my almost certainly perforated eardrums, and the sheer god-awful terror, which I cannot begin to describe. I was about to be run over by a train, but instead of being treated to a replay of my entire life — which would have put everything in its proper perspective and made sense of everything and provided the answer to “why the fuck am I doing this?” — all I could do was imagine the grisly details of what was about to come and speculate as to how much I would feel and how long

I would experience it as I was run over by those wheels which were capable of flattening pennies into foil.

The train was about twenty feet ahead and I decided to take my chances at the side wail. I headed right and, well, you’ve guessed it, there was the blue light. I fell into the cubbyhole and vomited up the Kit Kat boxs as the train whistle fell in pitch a half step and the cars went by a few feet away.

COPYRIGHT 1993 Point Foundation

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group