Scotty was a dreamer, a raconteur of tales at sea, a bullshitter.  He stood about the same height as myself, maybe slightly taller, with a stubbly, red beard, a face tattoo of a diamond pointing inward towards his left eye, and a hummingbird decorating his neck.  An assortment of other various tattoos colored his forearms like The Illustrated Man.  I studied his hands and could tell he had served time in prison from the spiderweb tattoo spun across the thenar web between his fingers.

Scotty noticed me staring soaking in his tattoos under the malevolent sun.  He just smirked, clenching his fists, pointing his knuckles towards me with this big grin chiseled into his face.  They screamed “REEL LIFE” in big, bold, capital letters.  

Naturally, the artwork embroidered across his canvas of skin piqued my curiosity because for every tattoo held a different story.  I wanted to hear the mighty tales of Scotty.  He looked like a Dirty Kid with stick and poke tattoos drawn all over his body, but he knew nothing of the streets, only of the sea.  I learned most of his ink reflected the life of a sailor and it all made sense after that.

If I didn’t hear him blabbering on about his Irish heritage I’d have guessed it through him finishing off three bottles of Chardonnay, treating it like water.  Despite all of his tomfoolery, juking and jiving, shadow boxing in the mud at the cemetery by the hop out, falling down and laughing, standing up glazed in brown globs about his pant legs and shoes; he spoke of the calmness of nature.  He spoke of the butterflies, the leaves, the creatures, both innocent and tame, vicious and vile.  Those moments in time where for a split second you feel at peace with existence because no one else can hold onto those precious sights except your eyes.  He firmly believed that people only exist because of God’s loneliness.  God created the earth and from there branched good and evil.  It was poetic and deep.

I sat there with my back against a mausoleum, currently under construction, in the heart of a cemetery looking out at the Avondale Yard.  Scotty wanted to fight me for no other reason than to spar, show off his chic moves, and confirm his masculinity as a small guy who suffered from, what I call, Little Man Syndrome.  But, I declined multiple times.  My days of unnecessary fighting had left me marred with a torn tricep and many black eyes from past nights of rage fueled by public drunkenness due to naivete as a youth.  I used it for alleviation.  It never ended well.  Even roughhousing amongst friends and new acquaintances never boded well either, so I chose peace instead.  He obliged, despite not understanding the big deal of it all.

“We’d just be messin’ around man, showin’ you my moves.  I’ve taken on guys twice my size.  Had my fair share of mishaps, but I’m a fighter…I keep gettin’ up and never quit.” 

So instead of fighting he gave me a rundown on Boxing 101 like the announcer of a match.  He kept his elbows tight towards his ribcage, planting his feet in the mud and released a series of quick jabs while exhuming grunts.

“I go for the quick jabs my friend, keepin’ my fists low and close to my body.  I dance around, light on my feet.  Since I don’t have any reach, I bounce in and out like a cat, lookin’ for a hole to land some quick punches.  I’m not a haymaker kinda guy, but I pack some power behind me.  Come on, man.  I can show ya.”

“Nah, trust me, I’m alright.”

I’ve always been more afraid of the silent blokes, the guys who didn’t want to fight, didn’t exchange words, and stayed calm under duress.  Those were the types who kicked ass, if and only if they absolutely needed to.  Scotty was harmless, so I just watched him and laughed, as we waited on our westbound train for Houston.

He was drunk, stoned and apparently high on crystal which he banged just before meeting me in the Wendy’s parking lot a few miles from the yard.  I had no idea.  He didn’t seem like a tweaker.  I had met many before under bridges across the country spewing nonsense, pushing around shopping carts of broken bicycle parts, frames and worn tires, living in squalor, looking for money to support their next fix.  Scotty left this detail out of our conversations.  Otherwise I would’ve never traveled with him had I known.

After much exertion he tired out and lay across the concrete pad using his small bookbag as a pillow.  He slept frequently in a series of 30-minute cat naps, much like the military, adapting to a polyphasic sleep cycle.  I guess he felt comfortable enough around me to let his guard down.  While he slept, I just listened to the shrieking squeals of steel as junk trains worked the yard preparing for imminent departure.  I wanted to bag an Intermodal for a hotshot straight to Houston without much delay, but in the eight hours we spent waiting by the yard, I only saw junk trains stop on the mainline before galloping onward.  So my plans changed and I adapted to this.

With a multi-day forecast ahead of us including thunderstorms and cold temperatures, and the rapid swarming of blood-sucking mosquitoes, I wanted to get far away from Louisiana and shoot for the deserts of Texas.  Scotty was clueless.  He didn’t care.  He was just along for the adventure and had no fuckin’ idea what he was gettin’ himself into.

So, as the mottled gray clouds faded to black, and the freight became colossal silhouettes of latent beasts, we drifted closer to the yard, lying beneath the draping limbs of a hardwood tree.  The roots crawled out across the ground like medusa’s hair and we each found a little groove by the trunk to lean against, resting on our packs.

Scotty fizzled in and out of thought, curled along the cool ground, hugging his bookbag as soft snores expelled from his nostrils.  I just sat there on guard, tired, but not willing to sleep next to a stranger until I knew more about him, until his sobriety kicked in and he opened up about his life.

He leaned over ever so often, swigging the last drops of Chardonnay, before sitting up and pulling out a six-inch bowie knife.  I cringed.  What the fuck is he doin’.  Where did that come from?

“Look man, I traded for this earlier.  Gave away most of my fishing gear for a bowie knife and food…got twinkies, trail mix, and Reeses cups.  You can have some if ya want.  So we got a weapon in case ya needed one…”

“Nah man, I have my own food.  If ya need anything though let me know.”

He twirled the knife around in his fingers before jamming it into the side pocket of his bookbag.  It stuck out several inches, shifting side-to-side, not fully secured, but I didn’t say anything.  I didn’t travel with a weapon.  I saw no purpose for it, but traveling with a stranger who had one didn’t set so well in my stomach.  So I remained vigilant around him.

The guzzling of engines idled from the yard beyond the hedges of the cemetery and the road.  

“Come on Scotty…let’s head over to the other side of the tracks.  I wanna see if there’s a better spot by the patch of woods there.”

Scotty yawned and nodded, slinging his pack over his shoulders as I took the lead.  I didn’t see a bull near the throat of the yard, but just to be safe, we made a run for it.  I scuttled up the ballast with my head on a swivel, Scotty close behind, and tiptoed track-over-track until reaching the other side.  Blinding lights glared in our direction from idling front engines, but I didn’t see any bright orange vests from workers or engineers in sight.  Even if I had, we blended in with the night.  My worry focused on the sky above and a dry place to keep us out of the imminent rain.

Swarms of mosquitoes buzzed from the patch of woods, but the main deterrent was the pool of swamp water along the ditch that ran parallel to the tracks.  This made it even less ideal for waiting compared to the hardwood.  Instead, I drifted off towards the freshly cut field of grass behind a roadside gas station with Scotty in tow.  My shoes squished through the damp muck, sinking by the edge of a culvert, after I tried long jumping across it.  I failed miserably with the ground swallowing each foot like chocolate pudding.  I watched Scotty walk straight through it, his shoe soles flapping, shooting up moist crud with each sloppy step.  He didn’t seem to mind.

I walked towards the only pile of junk in the middle of the field.  Rusty scrap metal and pieces of concrete foundation circled the dead tree that shot up from the epicenter.  Night dew from the thick, cold air, made the ground too slick to sit on.  So I pulled out my bedroll and tucked away inside of my bivy.

I couldn’t sleep.  Not because I didn’t want to, but because Scotty sat down next to me, chattering on, and opening up more about his life.  Even though I was in no mood for his tirades and wanted to rest; I listened anyway.

Scotty choked on his words.  “You ever just hear things or see things that you know aren’t there?”

“Like, hallucinations or voices inside your head?”

“Yeah…like that.”

“I mean; not really man.  Unless I was on drugs.  I’ve had paranoia before, where when I’m by myself near groups of people, I think they’re talking about me behind my back, even strangers.  But, most of that shit was just in my head.  I really just think it was a byproduct of getting picked on as a kid for being small in school.  I grew out of it.”

“Eh…yeah I have that too I guess, but I get these visual hallucinations sometimes…they’re so fuckin’ real…I can’t explain it…Doctor says I have schizophrenia.  The voices crawlin’ around inside my head, and the people I see who aren’t there…not much I can do about it.”

“Do you wanna do anything about it?  I mean, why are you even out here, man.  I’m cool with takin’ you wherever you wanna go, long as you don’t do any shady shit, but really…I gotta know.”

“It’s a long story.”

“We got all the time in the world my dude until we hear the next train start rollin’ then I’m outta here.”

“Well, I fucked up, man.  I really fucked up.  I’ve been in and outta jail since I was a kid…ain’t nothin’ I can’t handle and shit, but man, I just can’t kick my one and only love.  Like I want to, but I don’t want to.  The only reason I wanna is cuz it’s wut’s keepin’ me from seein’ my daughter.  She’s lovely.  Just the most precious thing you ever did see.  But, I can’t be around her like this, man.  I’m a fuckin’ animal.”

“Then make a change my friend.  I’ve been down that path of depression, drugs, booze, loneliness, feelin’ so low you can’t dig yourself outta it and so high you don’t want to.  Your friends and family can’t make the change for you…only you can do that Scotty.  I’m not gonna tell ya what to do man, but runnin’ around on the streets, bangin’ dope, isn’t gonna lead you back to your daughter.  Hell it might even end you…ya keep it up.”

“It’s deeper than that though, man.  I’m 30 fuckin’ years old, Brian.  I got no money…spent it all on drugs.  My baby mama out there fuckin’ everyone in town cludin’ my best friend or people I thought was my friends.  I loved that ho.  I’m not a playa.  I’m a one-girl-kinda-man and I let it slide in the beginning when I knew she was cheatin’, caught the bitch doin’ it…gave her chance-after-chance, especially since we have a kid together, but I just couldn’t do it anymore.”

“Bein’ out here ain’t gonna change any of that man.  You can’t keep runnin’ away.  It won’t get your kid back.”

“I know that now, man.  Originally when I packed up a few weeks ago with the little stuff I had, I thought it’d be a fresh start, a new adventure, I’d get sober and go back home and get my daughter.  But, since I been gone, it’s only been easier to bang crystal.  Ya know, I flew a sign the other day, and ya know what I did after I got a hundo? “

“Nah, wut?”

“First thing I did, I scored a bunch of meth and ripped that shit until I went to the moon…and to be honest…if it wasn’t for my daughter I’d stay on the fuckin’ moon every chance I got…it’s the only thing I love.”

“There’s more to life than drugs, Scotty.  Not everyone you’re gonna meet is your best friend, even a friend for that matter.  Sometimes the people closest to ya are the one’s who hurt you the most.  I’m not a therapist or a preacher, but it’s only gonna get better if you choose to make it better.  Sittin’ in the dirt with a random bum, runnin’ around the country scorin’ drugs, is not gonna make you see that light.  It’s only gonna shield darkness and pain until you get high again.  That’s not love.  That’s not happiness.  You’re just avoiding sadness.”

“Why you tellin’ me all this and bein’ so nice to me?  You have no reason to.”

“Why wouldn’t I be nice?  You haven’t done anything to me for me not to, unless you pull that fuckin’ bowie knife on me…”

“Hahaha…I wouldn’t do that.”

Just before he shed tears from unlocking his past through sentimental jabbering, I heard the grumbling of a train, the guzzling of three engines, and the vibrations of the ground shooting up through the soles of my feet like pins and needles.  Scotty looked defeated and vulnerable like he wanted to give me a hug, but I ignored him, too focused on hastily rolling up my bedroll and securing it to my pack.

“What’re you doin’?”

“This is our train, Scotty.  We’re gettin’ on this one once she stops.”

“Hell yeah, we’re really doin’ this…”

“Just follow my lead and don’t do anything until I tell you too.”

The train crept past us at a creaking speed and this time I didn’t care as much about traversing through the muddy culvert.  Scotty’s nonchalant attitude towards everything had rubbed off on me.  Now my boots wore slippers caked in globs of chocolate ice cream covering each foot.  But, in a short time we made it up the ballast, creeping through the block shadows of freight cars slowly inching by us.  If you’re taking someone under your wing to ride trains, you better make sure they’re safe, they’re your responsibility.  Scotty was my responsibility.  So normally I would’ve just caught the train on the fly, but instead I waited until there was no chance of error.

The loud squeal struck the air and the wheels halted after thirty cars or so.  Scotty looked at me with a solemn grin of accomplishment.  I hadn’t even found a ride yet and he wanted to celebrate, but such is the spirit and innocence of your first train.  I didn’t hold it against him.  It actually brought me back to my first train and the mix of emotions that came with it all, the anxiety, the fear, the excitement, the adrenaline.  I knew he felt the same way.

I walked the line quietly under the dark, pregnant clouds, stopping at the sight of a highwall grainer.

“Here’s our ride man.  Just follow my lead.  DO NOT and I repeat DO NOT STEP IN BETWEEN THE CARS FOR ANY REASON.  Wait until I climb up the ladder and step onto the porch and then you can follow; three points of attachment at all times.”

“Aight.”

I pulled myself up, rung-after-rung, climbing into the enclosed porch and motioned for Scotty to follow.  He actually listened to me for once and no sooner he sat down, the train jerked backwards, clanking the cars together like dominoes, but she never aired up.  Instead, she pulled back into the yard and sat there idling, waiting for departure.

“What’s goin’ on?”

“Train is probably gonna sit until mornin’ waitin’ on the next crew…it’s junk…it’s not a priority.  Just lay down, pull out your sleepin’ bag and go to bed.”

“Aight, but this is all I got, man.”

“Whaddaya mean it’s all ya got?  You don’t have a blanket or sleeping bag?”

“Well…I…uh…needed food and….I was real sick, man…like real sick.  Didn’t think I’d need it much, last few days been nice out.”

“Duuuude…you’re serious now?  You’re gonna fuckin’ freeze.  Why didn’t you tell me this earlier?  Here I got some hand warmers for ya.  If you need anything else, lemme know…but dunno if there’s much I can give ya…I’m wearin’ all of it.”

“I ain’t no pussy, man.  Gonna take more than the cold to beat Scotty.”

 He stuffed the body warmers inside his shirt pressing them against his core.

“Fuuuck…these really work…they’re warm.  Thanks, man.”

He stopped chattering, snuggled into the corner of the grainer, and scrunched up against his pack.  I lay there immobilized in my cocoon, watching the rain splatter against the roof, droplets falling gingerly in a nice pitter patter before a clash of rage ensued in the clouds, billowing like thunder.  The sky fell like a thousand marbles shattering the earth.  I looked over at Scotty, curled up with his jacket draped over his legs, fast asleep, and snoring.  I snickered.  Guess the warmers worked.  Shortly thereafter, the battering rain calmed to a lullaby putting me fast asleep.  When I woke up we’d be on our way to Livonia or at least I hoped so…

Previous articleRiding Freight through the Clouds
Brian Cray is not a cyclist. He’s not a hitchhiker. He’s not a train hopper or an adrenaline junkie. He’s just an ordinary man with gypsy blood in his veins, who can’t seem to settle down. Nothing defines him. He goes wherever this world takes him on this journey we call life, roaming the world, at will, by any means. He aspires for a life of indefinite travel, a tiny home in the woods for him and his wife, and any work that keeps him wanderin’. Brian Cray is a travel writer at heart, sharing his stories with the world one keystroke at a time.

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