By Eddy Cook
Chris and I made our way to the Kansas City Southern rail yard and caught a southbound. We were broke, hungry, and were in no mood for the derailment we got caught in later that day. I t was a super low-speed accident. Some tracks were out of alignment and caused the slow-moving train to derail right in the middle of a small town. A crew came out and used a hydraulic lift to raise the three derailed grain cars one at a time as they rebuilt the track beneath them. We laid low and smoked in the back corner of the open box, deep in the shadows so as not to draw attention.
It was some hours later when the train started moving south again. We rode into the night and decided to jump off at Garnet, Kansas, the first town that the train moved slowly enough through to leap off. We figured that maybe hitchhiking was a better option, in which case we would be able to talk our way into a little cash.
At first light we made our way out to the south- bound county road and stuck out our thumbs. Chris and I had hitched before – across the country from Minneapolis to Manhattan, but we had never done it this far south before. We could see right off that salt and pepper was too exotic for Garnett, Kansas. If looks could kill, Chris would have died four times an hour and me maybe just three.
Some local boys in an El Camino came from the North and swerved so close to us that we had to jump in the ditch, and then fantailed dirt on us from the shoulder of the road while the driver tried to keep it on the pavement. They weaved up the road and took a right onto a dirt road. We figured they’d be back, so Chris found a baseball sized rock and I got hold of a stump that I could swing like a mace into their windshield. We put our weapons in the grass nearby and tried again to catch a ride. Traffic was sparse and not having us. Then the El Camino came squealing and spitting back towards us again from the North.
They weren’t playing with us this time – the boy in the passenger seat struggled his way out the open window to get a shot off at us from a sawed-off and Chris and I took three steps and a dive into a heavy bramble of bushes, heavy thorns ripping at our flesh and clothing. They fired but they must have shot high, we didn’t catch any of the scatter shot, and then they were laughing and yelling
“Nigger Lover!” As they blew by and out of distance.
We discovered that tracks ran parallel to the south bound road right behind the bush line that we jumped into, so we stayed on them and headed back North until we got near and intersection were a train would have to slow down on it’s way through town.
Chris’s eyebrow was gouged and an earlobe was streaming blood. Thorns had driven through the webbing of two of my fingers. We were a sight when the local law rolled up and crooked a finger at us when we neared the crossing.
“We’re trying. Figured we’d get off the road and try the train.”
“I’ll bet. Heard about that. I could round up those yahoos if you like.”
“No, but we sure would appreciate it if you would come by and check on us now and then while we try to catch out.”
“Will do. Stay off the road.”
We built a small fire near the tracks, between a crossing and a short bridge that crossed a river, and turned our backs toward the couple houses in sight, just to set them at ease. We were trying to stay off everyone’s radar. Broke, hungry and nearly out of Bugler tobacco.
A train went by soon after we made camp, but it was going about five miles an hour too fast to catch while we were running with gear. After dark, another Kansas City Southern blew through and we realized that they were all too fast. We got off in this town, but it didn’t look we would be able to catch out.
The slowest mover came at around 2 a.m. and we were ready. I would catch one and then roll by Chris, reach out to him, and help him on. I let half the train go by before I decided that there wasn’t going to be an open box and I was going to have to catch a ladder and get in the end compartment of a grain car.
I ran to keep pace with the iron horse, timing my grab on the ladder. My pack was heavy but I was going to make it. Then the ground dipped about a foot deeper just as I leapt for the ladder and I was stuck holding the bottom rung.
The train spun me and dragged me, snapping one of my backpack straps – the pack banging off the side of the car as I came into Chris’s view. He yelled and then covered his face. My shoes ripped off my feet, my heels were shredding on the coarse railroad rock and the shining screaming steel wheels were less than a foot away from my head. I remembered the bridge when I saw Chris cover his face, and I turned to see that it was about 30 yards off and coming at me fast. I had one shot, so I bunched up muscles and sprung as hard as I could away from the grinding wheels. The back pack, one strap still on my shoulder, softened my roll a little and I landed about 5 feet away from the bridge abutment.
I was fucked up. I laid in the rocks doing a slow damage assessment. No breaks. My heels were in agony and I caught gravel and road rash on both cheeks and my chin. I hurt everywhere and just laid there. Cussing. Moaning.
Chris had been looking for me along the tracks and tripped over one of my feet.
“You dead, Soldier?”
“Negative. Got a smoke rolled?”
Chris helped me up and half-carried me back to where we had been camped, found my shoes along the way, and started a fire. He left with a plastic jug that we used for water, filled it at the restroom in the Sonic down the road, and brought it to me to bathe and doctor my feet. He’d also bought two cigarettes for a quarter from a teenager, and the teenager got a “I sold two cigarettes to a black guy” story. We had a good long smoke and cooked the last of some coffee we carried. I bathed my feet, pulled the rocks out, and then ripped a t-shirt in half and wrapped each foot. I could put them in shoes if I didn’t tie them. We slept hard and hungry that night.
The next day Chris and I spent staying off the street and waiting patiently by the tracks for a slower train. But we were hungry, out of smokes and feeling mean. If something didn’t change soon, we were going outlaw. We needed wheels.
At about five in the evening, we heard the screen door on the back porch of the nearest house slam shut. We watched as a father, a little boy and a little girl each with a container of food, started a slow march through a little field toward us. Dad carried a crock pot, the little boy was in charge of a big salad, and the little girl hustled toward us with a pan of corn bread.
Dad was explaining to us about how his wife couldn’t watch two transients go hungry while they ate so well, but both Chris and I were openly bawling and hardly heard him as each kid left food in front of us and said,
“God bless you, Hobos!” and Dad said to put everything over by a tree when we were done. We spoke of God and so did he, and they went back to their house.
We ate pot roast with potatoes and carrots, and corn bread, and salad, and we wept thankfully and bitterly. We didn’t go outlaw in that town. A train stopped there in Garnet, Kansas that night and we went on to New Orleans both feeling closer to human.
I was six years old when we gathered in the living room to watch Neil Armstrong walk on the moon on our black and white Zenith in 1969. It was just four years after the Watts riots, a year after the murder of Martin Luther King Jr., Vietnam was happening, and Woodstock, and a little later in the early seventies was Helter Skelter, the fall of Saigon, Watergate and Wounded Knee in ’73 and every man that I grew up around were MEN.
My Father’s generation-men who fought in the Korean War, sat at home waiting for their sons to return from Vietnam, and the young men of that war set the standard for my generation as far as what a man is. But the ones who took over after we stepped back dropped the ball.
The door was wide open for books, movies and music to step up, and they did. Hard boiled movies like Death Wish, Dirty Mary and Crazy Larry, Vanishing Point and Walking Tall and Dirty Harry, Foxy Brown, Mr. Majestyk, Billy Jack, Shaft and Jeremiah Johnson, Hang ’em High, The Sting, Serpico- all had what the public was hungry for, and then there were the fiction writers like Mario Puzo, Leon Uris, Kurt Vonnegut, and Norman Mailer. Bold essayists were on the scene like Gloria Steinem, Maya Angelo, Charles Bukowski, and Susan Sontag and they were breaking all the rules.
Men handled their disputes with other men toe to toe and women handled their business face to face. We were strong, a spiritual movement was emerging in Christianity, Buddism, Hindu, Tao, Wicca and we were waking up as a nation again.
Since then, it is my contention, there has been a drought on every level. Somewhere along the way women got therapists, and spent time getting in touch with their inner child and wrote about it, while the men were shaving their chests and doing their hair while they developed politically correct scripts and novels, being careful not to offend. Anyone. Until now.
Women are making movies, fighting in wars, pastoring churches and running multi-million dollar companies. Men are becoming men again, but now it’s okay to be a whole, well rounded and intelligent badass.
There is a resurgence of historical fiction in film and books and it’s a violent history portrayed in every film and series that appeals to both men and women, and I believe we want back what we’ve lost in the last couple decades.
To be politically correct is a process that requires you to lie so as not to offend or rile-up the other. There is no truth on pages or in conversations if the words don’t evoke passion. I see us evoking passion again. I am encouraged.
The neon over the bar blinked out and he heard the door open behind him. He kept walking, not turning as he heard footsteps behind him, the sound echoing around the canyon of brownstone buildings and wet streets and drowning out the sound of his hammering heart. He rounded the corner and stopped until she turned the corner and he was able to swing an arm around her neck. His hand covered her mouth and choked off her scream as he drove the knife between the c4 and c5 vertebrae and whispered into her hair,”Th-th-thank you!”
It came to my attention that I show an affinity for waitresses and bartenders in my stories. I looked at each story and these men and women have walked in to every tale with a stiff drink, coffee, food or flirt.
An excerpt from Further due out 2016
I made it to Buster’s at 4:45 ahead of a 5 0’clock meeting and had the place to myself. The manager, an extra-large black woman everyone called Miss Sheline, was my waitress. She closes at six, before the drunks find the place, and is usually the last person on the floor that late in the afternoon.
She waved when I came in, grabbed a pot of coffee and waddled her way to my table. She flashed her pearly whites at me as she poured a cup and said.
“Somethin’ to eat, Vin?”
“Aww! Come on now. Fine young man like you, you need your portions! Oh…or
is it business today?”
“A’ight then. Someday I’m gonna give you some business. Mmmm mmm, you have no idea…” She let that trail off as she winked and laughed and steam-rolled her way back behind the counter.
An excerpt from Rusk
I walked by a sign over a door that just said “Drink.” I was ready for one. I had never been much of a drinker, but since I arrived in New Orleans a couple years earlier, I liked it more. I had spent my life in the most antisocial circumstances, but drinking helped me communicate with other humans. I tried to understand them.
It was 9 a.m. and I would have had the joint to myself if it hadn’t been for the bartender. He looked at me when I came in and did a barely perceptible double-take. I ordered a double rum and coke and studied his face for a moment.
“Do I know you, pal? Seems like you know me.”
“Darkest big Negro I ever seen come by here a couple days back and described you, told him I wouldn’t serve his kind, but he gave me a buck to pass you a message.”
He opened his cash drawer and handed me a note. Thelonius, Tom Anderson’s house man, was looking for me here in Memphis.
I put the folded note in my shirt pocket, grabbed my untouched drink and tossed it over my shoulder. Glass, ice and liquid flew everywhere, and the bartender almost came over the bar. Almost.
I caught him by his hair and jerked his head back.
“Hey! Hey! Hey! What the hell? What gives?”
“That man you wouldn’t serve? He was more of a man than you’ll ever be. I served with him in the French Foreign Legion, survived five days stranded in the Sahara with no food and the only water was what he shared from a half-full canteen. I fought side-by-side with him, trading shots with Egyptian slave traders. He was born a free man, had his education at Oxford paid for by the Archduke Ferdinand himself, and is one of the world’s best fighting men both with weapons and hand-to-hand. You’re not fit to wash his skivvies. Let’s call that his drink laying there. Now, clean it up
“He’s dead! Swanson was in there!”, he heard from a bystander as he approached the scene. A Fire Wagon, pulled by a four horse team with the large bell mounted by the driver clanging loudly, passed by Luke Rob as he continued on past the explosion site without slowing down and on towards a sign that read Alfie’s Eats. He edged past a young fresh-faced girl in an apron at the door gawking down the street and tipped his hat on his way by, smiling politely. He nodded at the cook, a giant of a man with a keen look in his eyes and forearms the size of hams, who was deftly deboning a large hunk of beef on a long table behind a low dining counter. “Sit where you will, Mister. Angie will be along,” the cook said in a heavy Finnish accent loud enough for the girl at the door to hear.
“Oh My! So sorry, Mister!” Angie said. As she approached him across the dining room she decided that she liked the look of this stranger. A black unusual Stetson type hat atop very dark well trimmed hair with salt and pepper in the side-burns. Striking green eyes, with just a hint of crow’s feet at the corners shone from a deeply tanned face. His back was straight and his shoulders were broad, straining a little in his well- tailored black suit made of a material she had never seen before, but knew must be expensive. A very striking man, she thought.
The restaurant was painted in gaudy shades of purple, gold and green and the customers ranged from low budget travelers, to high powered business men and women. All present were in good spirits, and a live jazz band in the corner kept the mood up-beat.
When his waitress came by, Vin ordered a Hurricane, his first alcoholic drink, and a sampler platter of Oysters Rockefeller, Oysters Creole, and Oysters Manhattan, all baked on the half-shell.
His dinner proved to be one of the best he’d ever had, and the twenty-four ounce Hurricane, now half empty, was fast becoming his favorite drink. He liked the fuzzy feeling of his first buzz. Colors seemed brighter, the waitress was getting cuter, and the musicians were now semi-gods.
This truck stop was a place I had been to twice before, and I had a melancholy moment of coming home. Before I was a Robineux, I was a 16 year old kid that spent nearly a year hitch-hiking around the country, on the road for the deed I had done to my bio-father, and never stopping anywhere for more than a few weeks. I had spent my entire childhood moving around the country in an RV and it was in me to keep moving. In the Toolies held all those memories for me. I recognized two of the waitresses- the young farm fresh cute one, and the tall rode hard and put away wet cougar with a two-inch scar that started under her eye and went over her cheek bone. We sat in her section.
“Well, you must be him.” My eyes had adjusted just enough to see the skinny, colored bartender. This was another joint that I would have had to myself if not for him. I was beginning to realize that folks started drinking late pretty much everywhere besides New Orleans.
“I might be him.”
“Thelonius, he say, watch for a big scary-lookin’ white man who walks into this Negro joint like he just don’t care.”
“Can’t tell this is a Negro joint.” I looked around at the empty tables and stools.
“Will be, shortly. I expect Thelonius will come by soon. He usually shows up around ten. What’ll you have?”
I ordered my second rum and coke of the morning, hoping that maybe I’d get to finish this one. I told him to make it a double. I needed to make up for the last one.
I nodded, hoping he would not want to talk.
“Wasn’t called Beale Street ‘til last year. Used to be Beale Avenue.”
My hopes exploded into flames.
“W.C, Handy, he wrote that ‘Beale Street Blues’ and it caught on all over the country, so the City changed the signs.”
“That Handy, he never did come around here. Too good for us, I guess. Always went down the street, went to all them blues places. Swanky places. Too good, that’s what he is.”
I got up, turned my back on him, walked to the back of the room and squeezed my oversized frame into a booth in a corner where I could see the front and back doors.
Forty-five minutes passed. I had made my way back to the bar for another double, then went back to squeezing and snapping my way back into the booth before Thelonius walked in. Just as I did, he stepped to the side just inside the door until his eyes adjusted. Men who lived on the edge were always cautious, never wanting to have our backs to a door, not wanting to enter a dark place blindly, observing and evaluating everything and everyone around in one visual sweep. Letting your guard down could mean death.
He didn’t stop by the bar but made his way straight to me. He was taller than me by a couple inches and twenty pounds of muscle heavier than me. He tried to join me in the booth and the booth screeched, snapped and clattered apart, sending both of us in a shoulder roll away from the wreckage.
“Awww, sumbitch!” came from somewhere behind the bar. We both dug in our pockets, laid a fin apiece on the wreckage to pay for the pile of cushions and lumber, went to another corner and found a free-standing table and chairs.
They brought their coffee with them and I ordered one from the fluffy middle aged waitress with one milky eye. The three of us got up to smoke outside and as we passed my waitress carrying my coffee, she flashed me a smile showing off a grill of five teeth. They looked like burned corn kernels. The movies, especially the ones made in the 80’s, glamorized the people of the streets, but reality was my waitress.
Whenever I tell a story I want the reader to be swept away, intrigued. To feel the exhilaration that the protagonist does, to be able to smell and taste the darkness, or to feel the concrete in the back alleys or the wind blowing along forested trail. It’s my hope that the reader had a good ride.
Some folks miss the adventures in this short life and others will die rode hard and put away wet with a smile on their face. I’m writing for both and I hope your experience is like a 14 year old boy seeing Jeremiah Johnson for the first time.
This story is begging for a screenplay writer