I was taken from the base in an unmarked white van, alone except for the driver. She remained on her phone all the way to the train platform. She spoke once, “take the L downtown.” I clutched my full and wrinkled paper bag. On the wooden deck, I was not alone. The platform was infected with new graduates from the base. Each of them in their formal dress. Some I recognized, most I did not. I was, though, the only one still wearing recruit blues. I put on my sweatshirt. I pressed myself against the back corner.
I crossed the street, there would be another train soon. That’s how trains work. If you miss one there will be another.
“No, son. Not ‘til tomorrow. I can transfer your tickets for you, or call you a cab, that’ll cost you though.” He explained that the one ticket was for the train that would bring me to the bus station where the little packet of tickets I had would grant me access to a succession of busses across the country. He would transfer each of them to the following day.
I gaped at the empty platform. The old man in the window blinked in a way I recognized. My grandfather on my mother’s side blinked that way when he was trying to understand a complicated film, and my mother’s brother, my uncle, blinked that way the time he caught me smoking his weed in high school. It was a huge comfort, no matter how small the gesture.
There was not another train.
“is there a place I can stay for cheap?”
“Motel, right over there.” He pointed across the street with his thin lips at the Comfort Inn. A bright sign made to look like the sun rising over a field of blue advertised vacancies. I didn’t have Comfort Inn money.
“I guess transfer the tickets, please. When does the station close?” the old man looked over his bifocals at me. Guessing my intention, he replied, “It’ll be cold tonight on that platform. Windy, too.” The base had been frigid at night. More than once there had been alarms in the middle of the night and everyone on the base scrambled out of bed to stand at attention, outside, in their underpants on the icy blacktop. The first time it happened many of us tried to dress quickly. The division was punished. Each time after, we gathered in untied shoes with our thin wool blankets for warmth. The man at the base repossessed my blanket when I was released. They call it a release. I call it kicked out.
“6am good for you?” The man in the window handed me a little packet with all new tickets. The ticket window would close in an hour, he said. I was welcome to sit. I sat on a bench out of sight of the window and the old man. The train tracks were unusual. They seemed too narrow. There was too much steel and concrete. The sun was setting over an old tall row of houses. The long row was broken where the tracks came through and picked up again on the other side. At the gap the tracks disappeared from my actual sight. The gap was not wide enough. The homes were close to the tracks. I wondered if anyone ever stepped out of their window onto the rails, they would end their personal everything where so many other everythings were in transit. I wondered if that was technically irony.
There weren’t any trees, not wild ones. All the trees I’d seen since coming to Chicago were jammed into large planters in highway medians, parking lots, and alongside military tarmacs. I’d never been to the city. Every property, home, apartment building, and convenience store was the same ubiquitous landmark from every film I’d seen set in the place. A cold wind rushed to push out the setting sun. It was heading my direction, chilly Lake Michigan to the east, three thousand miles left to go, to the west.
“It’s getting late, son.” The man had snuck around the corner to shoo me off the platform before he left. “Can’t stay here. It’s gonna be real cold, people die, you know.” People die.
“Yeah, I get it. Is there, like, a Denny’s around here?”
“I-Hop. ‘bout a mile, straight away. Can’t miss it. Big yellow sign.” He blinked at me again. “Say, I see a few kids every week come through here lookin’ ‘bout the way you lookin’ but I ain’t never seen one sit out his train. Most’a these kids seem real excited to get goin’ home. Well, son, you don’t know it now but you got some livin’ left. This ain’t so big and bad.”
“I just missed my train is all. I know it’s no big deal.”
“Have it your way, son. Moving along now, can’t have you staying here.”
I had been paid for two months at the agreed upon pay grade, but all my money was in a checking account and the bank card was back in Arizona, everything was in Arizona. It had all been shipped back after the initial intake process. They said we would have everything we needed right there on base. All I had was what was left of the maximum cash-out that I was allowed before the remainder was directly deposited to an account I could not access, a little less that fifty dollars. The bus ride from Chicago to Flagstaff is a four-day trip. I had been flown out on a commercial airliner. Things change.
At first the waitress smiled so big I was worried she would burst into laughter every time she refilled my mug. After an hour or so she would nod and show a little grin. By 9pm she had stopped offering to refill my coffee. At 11 the refills stopped all together, and by midnight the cook came out from the back to ask me to leave. I ordered a coffee to go and paid my bill. I guessed my best option would be to curl up at the platform. When I returned, there was a stack of wool blankets on the bench. They smelled like mothballs and whiskey.
I woke to a foot jabbing my ribcage.
“Boy, what in the hell do you think you’re doing? Get on! Get!” I barely saved my paper bag from a savage punt. I waited for the one that would do it, the kick to the ribs or my head that I couldn’t just walk off.
“Wait, wait!” it’s all I heard myself say, I was yelling. The man beating on me was muttering between attacks about opening the booth. He was not the same man from the night before.
“Get up you goddamned bum. Piece of shit drunk!”
“Wait!” I shouted. The kicking stopped, “I have a ticket.” The man’s eyes were bright.
“You think you can sleep out here because you got a 6-dollar ticket? Boy, that’s Lake Michigan over there, people fuckin’ die! I don’t want no dead body startin’ my day off.”
“I know, I know. I’m sorry, okay. I’m sorry.” The man looked at me like my mother did when she thought she caught me in a lie, uncertain but determined.
“I guess you just walk around with all these blankets, too. Just a paper bag and some big ass wool blankets.”
“No, I found them here. Honest.”
“Boy, that shit is straight bullshit. Get this crap off my platform.” As he spoke, I noticed the familiar red, white, and blue Bank of America sign looming in the twilight before dawn.
“Sir,” I begged. He was in the little window now, “when does the next train come?”
“Can’t read neither?” I was directed, mystically, to the chart on the podium style display counter. Most of what the map showed I really couldn’t read. That wasn’t my fault, the paper was torn and old and I had never seen this city from above in multiple referential colors. When I looked back to the man he shrugged.
“Jesus, boy. Noon, it leaves here at noon.”
“Great, can I transfer my tickets, please. I need the greyhound ones pushed back, too, please.” I really wasn’t sure how I should talk to this man. I guessed being polite was to my benefit. I’m not sure.
I settled into a bench in the back corner of the platform, so the man couldn’t see me, with my paper shopping bag. In the bag, I carried a change of clothes identical to what I was wearing. There was one light blue long-sleeved work shirt, my name printed across the right breast, a pair of trousers, my name printed across the right rear pocket, my underpants, name printed across the waistband, my nameless socks, a toothbrush, razor, soap, a towel, a disc-man, one lightweight FUBU hooded sweatshirt, and one CD titled Now That’s What I Call Music vol. 6. I carried those things and a stuffed tan, tabbed folder in a paper bag from the department store on base where I picked up the sweatshirt and the CD player.
A boy whose name I never got plopped down next to me. He was wearing the same recruit uniform I had on but the name over the breast pocket was redacted in permanent marker. I call him Dean, after a wild character from a book I liked.
“You smoke?” I shook my pack at him, he took one.
“No, man, I mean weed.” He patted his chest pockets as a follow-up question. I carefully nodded, yes. I passed him my lighter.
“You got some?” his eyes met mine, I shook my head. Dean stuffed his hand into his pocket and pulled out a bag I took to be pot and threw it in my lap. “Son of a bitch ripped me off.”
The little bag felt all wrong. I unwrapped it privately and stifled a little chuckle when I saw hay. A small handful of thin amber hay had been stuffed into the sandwich baggy.
“Maybe you should just throw that away.”
“Yeah, yeah, it’s all yours. You come from Great Lakes today?”
“So, you’re out?”
“Looks like it.”
“I guess, You?”
“I’m from Arizona.”
“So, we’re heading the same way! You feel like kicking in on a sack? I got a guy once we get downtown.”
“It’s not the same guy, is it?” Dean looked hurt, “I’m playing man. No, I got no money.”
“That don’t matter, we get a quarter, smoke a bowl, then sell it in grams. We get high, and make a quick come up.” A horn blew. “What do you say?” I shook my head. The train was getting close, we could hear it making its mechanical approach through the gap in the buildings.
“I don’t have a ticket for this train. I’ll take the next one.”
Dean jumped up with a slight devious look and made a move off the platform and a few feet down the tracks, toward the oncoming train.
“I always wondered if a Chicago train could smoosh a penny as good as the BNSF!”
“How you gonna find out? You’re getting on.” He shrugged.
He scribbled his number on the stub of his ticket. “You can call me.” He placed his penny.
Dean climbed back onto the platform just as the gap darkened. It was a shadow on an already dark morning, the blue-ish between the buildings went dark. I said goodbye to Dean. He told me to remember his penny. He reminded me he would have some weed. Then he was on the train. I was left there, again, with my bag.
The penny wasn’t smashed. Not like the big freight trains did it. It was oblong but I guessed I could still spend it. I put it in my pocket. Things are just different, I was beginning to accept that.
The teller at BofA gave me a little trouble when I asked to withdraw $500. “No, sir, your shirt can’t be a second form of I.D.” I explained my situation. I spoke with a manager. I left with my money stuffed into my front pocket.
The man in the window rolled his eyes when I asked him to transfer my tickets to the next day.
“What other hotels are there? I need a really cheap one.”
“Boy, do I look like the fucking yellow pages?”
I took the opportunity to walk slowly. Every house and building was aged farther than it should be. Like many of the people, there had been too many Great Lakes winters on the faces. I had my paper bag tucked under my arm. The sun was bright. The air was chilly but the sun felt nice. It didn’t take long to find what I was looking for. The sign was not a home-made job, but it was clearly hand painted. The vacancy sign was missing an A and the C. Vancy.A tiny woman with broken English explained to me that It would cost me was 20 per hour, 40 for the night, and 200 for the week. I gave her my money. I found my room. The window opened to a dirt alleyway littered with rebar and other construction waste.
The shower was hot. The towels were clean. There was a T.V. set. I hadn’t seen any T.V. for months. I would leave it off. After my shower, I sat on the toilet and just breathed the clean smelling steam. The red bulb glowed behind the dribbling bars on the mirror. The floor was dewy and puddled a bit where I had stepped. Some flowery wallpaper was pealing and bubbly.
The tiles were shining beige squares with cut corners. Smaller black squares filled in at angles. That’s almost how the tile was at home. I got to help dad install it. The floor was different though. Some of the tiles were raised and others sunken. Dad would have cringed at the workmanship, he would have laughed at the imperfect spaces between the tiles which, instead of being on a grid, seemed to come at each other at angles. I sat on the toilet thinking on it. When you lay tile, the end matches the approach and every step is obvious, forever.