I woke to the train’s thrumming, and the clickety-clack of her wheels. The tapping of rain struck against the roof as she rolled out of the yard towards Livonia. Puddles of raindrops swished around between the metal ribs on the porch of our grainer. Vonnegut helped me mop the floor through the pages of The Eden Express, a book which I had hoped to read, but suffered its demise from the brunt of the storm, becoming waterlogged through the night. I swept rampantly, pushing the pools towards each of the two orifices on the grainer floor, watching the brown dirt smear against the metal as more rain trickled in, dripping down from the sloping roof of our freight car. Scotty layout now with his ass plopped on his book-bag, and his head slumped against the wall. He slept through the jarring jerks accompanied by her endless, piercing cries, and the loud plunk of rain without even the slightest noise of discomfort. But, I knew he had suffered from the wind and the rain with water slowly creeping up each pant leg to his shins as the floor whirled around like the bottom of a cauldron.
The smell of thick and cold swamp permeated the air as the train rung along down the steel on one of my slower rides. The blur of open woodlands switched to green pastures and cultivated fields ready for the coming season’s crops. I felt at peace watching the scenery fly by, knowing that in a few days, I would meet up with Billy, share train stories, and see the city of Houston with a night’s rest out of the dirt.
But, for now, I worried about Scotty. Where was he going, and what was he doing? I knew about as much of his destination as he did, Florida or California, a long journey for a newbie with no gear. With the temperatures dipping into the 30s and 40s at night, I didn’t want him to become a victim of frostbite and lose his feet to gangrene, especially with him wearing wet shoes and clothes.
Over the past day, he drank only a few glugs of water from my jug (he didn’t have one of his own), ate a few Twinkies, trail mix, a packet of tuna, and basked in three bottles of Chardonnay. He needed much help out here, and I felt somewhat responsible for bringing him along on his first train. So I did all I could. Whether construed as a false generosity or a good deed, I didn’t know. I just didn’t want his hardships on my conscience. I’ve had frostbite, hit the lowest dips and valleys of my life in the wind, rain, snow, and mortifying desert heat where the tears have melted my face in crippling depression. The midst of a caring soul could only help fill the hole from a dark past instead of digging one’s grave. I sat there ruminating on his life, and when I glanced over at him, I saw a furrowed brow, most likely suffering from the worst hangover ever, not to mention the withdrawal from crystal.
“Bro…where are we?”
“No idea, Scotty. This line goes to Livonia. It’s low and slow. We’re ridin’ junk. It’ll take a while dude, just lay back, rest, try to stay warm and outta the rain if ya can. If ya need anything, let me know.”
I handed him some food from my bag and tilted my water jug in his direction, but he shook his head and fell back asleep. The day stood still like time had stopped in the pages of an unfinished novel set aside on a shelf for future reading. The train sided several times for higher priority traffic. When we finally reached the outskirts of Livonia, about ten miles out, she stopped on a sidetrack as the rain fizzled out, and the mottled gray clouds faded to the grueling night.
Every frozen breath dissipated into thin air, and Scotty sat there, hugging his legs, shivering in despair. I sprang up and made my way to the adjacent farm, scouring around for dry hay, blankets, or anything to give him warmth, rummaging through the nearby woodlands and luckily stumbled upon a blue tarp. I bunched it up into a huge ball and ran back through the sloppy mud, covering my boots in the muck.
When I hopped up on the grainer, I shouted at Scotty, “Yoooo…this is for you, man.”
His eyes fluttered opened and widened at the sight of the tarp.
“No way, bro…you stole for me? Now yer just makin’ me feel bad…”
His face drooped for a moment, but once he wrapped himself in the tarp and I handed him another body warmer to get him through the night, he seemed to overlook that minute detail.
“I’d like to think of it as borrowed…after all; it was off in the woods…looked discarded to me.”
Night came, but it didn’t go as quickly for either of us as we had hoped. The tarp helped Scotty for a few hours, but with nowhere for the warmth to escape to, he became a victim of condensation. I heard the crunching of nylon ringing and the chattering of his teeth as Scotty shifted back-and-forth, trying to keep warm. I felt genuinely bad for him, but I had nothing else to give than food and water, which he had already declined.
The morning sun peeped through the clouds, and the splash of orange sky tickled my eyes, waking me in a tired stupor. Scotty rested peacefully, no longer trembling or moving to keep warm, just lying stone-cold, snoring.
Our train hissed, filling the hoses with air for imminent departure, and off she galloped down the line, chugging and rolling and squealing along. It still took us about an hour before we entered the yard. She never stopped for clearance, so I waited for the right time to hop off with Scotty, but that moment never came. I watched strings of freight cars as we rolled by, and I thought for sure she would bypass the yard, continuing to Beaumont and then on to Houston, but I had never been here before. I had no idea.
She rolled on well past the myriad tracks full of low priority freight cars and latent strings. I smiled, happy we didn’t need to get off and could continue our journey in one, long, slow, stretch. Suddenly, her ginger roll turned into a cacophonous screech, and she stopped. Her army of freight cars followed behind, clanking and smacking together like the sound of thunder in the clouds.
God dammit…this is just great…we’re gettin’ humped.
Scotty still lay splayed out along the porch oblivious to what was going on, content with merely sleeping. Regardless, it was probably for the best; because then I didn’t have to worry about him hopping around as much and could pontificate a plan for us to break free from the yard, presumably without going to jail and fleeing unscathed.
She roared backward, plumes of diesel filled the air past the yard tower, and when she hit the hump, we sailed away down the line only to crash into another string of grain cars, flinging our bodies against the wall. It felt less than comfortable getting body slammed against metal, bruising my shoulder, and dinging my elbow. It wasn’t even funny. It probably hurt more for me than Scotty because of the way we were laying.
That loud bang finally woke him up out of his stupor.
“Whaaaa…what’s goin’ on…what the fuck was that?”
“We went over the hump. Our train died, and we’re in the yard now, dude. I was waitin’ for her to stop cuz I didn’t feel comfortable makin’ you get off when we were rollin’. Just follow my lead. I don’t wanna end up in jail.”
“Well…dohn’t worry…they try to charge us…they can put it on me bro…you’ve done enough for me…dohn’t even really know why?”
“We can get all sentimental later man…we’re gonna have to make a run for it and go through these eight to ten strings to get to the road and off the property. You cool with that?”
“I guess…if we got to, we got to…”
We jumped over latent strings that could move at any moment’s notice, looking for tankers to climb up and down the ladders safely, maneuvering between the tracks to get us closer to the roadside. I saw a worker at a glance, a car knocker, but we kept moving, keeping up a steady pace to get out of there as quickly as possible. When we finally reached the last string, I realized thick brush and shallow swamp separated Scotty and me from our freedom.
I noticed a white SUV by the yard tower now and wasn’t sure if the bull had seen us. He probably had, but we were safe, nearly out of the yard, so I didn’t care.
“Whaddaya wanna do, bro?”
“Just get down, catch your breath, hide in the brush here, skirting the tracks. I’m walkin’ through this shit to get to the other side…not goin’ back over 40 to 50 strings to reach the other side of the yard, too dangerous, makes no sense. Take off your shoes and go barefoot…it’ll be cold, but it doesn’t look too far. I can vaguely see the road through the splotches of leaves.”
“They’re already wet…fuck it…I’m goin’ in…followin’ yer lead.”
I shook my head and proceeded to take off each of my shoes and socks, tying the laces together and throwing them around my neck to keep them dry. Sharp twigs and wet leaves shot cold chills up through my toes and feet, jolting up my legs. As each of my legs sloshed through the black, murky water, it only got worse, but eventually, each went numb, staunching blood flow. Scotty trounced along, stomping and flinging branches, barging through there like a barbarian making as much noise as humanly possible given his small stature. He always had a way of making me laugh in the most undesirable situations.
When we reached the road, I wiped off my feet with my shirt and immediately shimmied each foot into my wool socks, putting my boots on afterward. Imminent warmth shot up through my flat feet in nauseating, tingling sensations, the same trembling that results from oncoming frostbite. Scotty walked on ahead, his shoes squishing with water shooting up out of each flapping sole, and I laughed as he proceeded to stick out his thumb to hitchhike.
What the hell is he doin’? We’re still on railroad property and just got off the train…hahaha
Livonia! We finally made it. Scotty and I moseyed along the desolate roads, eventually reaching the nearest gas station. No sooner I bought a few snacks to tide us over, an employee came outside and kicked us off the property for sitting in public and eating. You always get treated differently with a backpack, whether you’re homeless or tramping around, that’s America, land of the free, home of the slaved. I didn’t much care.
I walked back in to use the restroom, scribbling my tag inside the bathroom stall door. I wasn’t the first one to leave my mark either. Other travelers over the years heading eastbound to NOLA had scribbled their tags there too. I always wondered about the men behind the masks, the minds behind the pens, where they’d been, and where they were goin’? That mystery kept a subculture of wanderers alive through the writing on the wall as they lived on the fringe of society. Those monikers stared back in plain sight for the public eye, often overlooked.
I filled my water jug and walked through those swing doors out of the store. It felt like a blaze of fire shooting down from the sky, much different from the cold monsoon we experienced yesterday on our freight train into town. I moseyed on over to the intersection, looking for Scotty.
He stood ways down the road, squinting with sweat dripping from his short, receding hairline, into his brow. Scotty looked miserable moping there, back-and-forth, completely exhausted, with lavender pits beneath his craggy eyes, barely mustering enough energy to hold his cardboard sign by a pull off.
An area I specifically told him not to fly because no one would stop as it wasn’t close enough to the traffic signals.
But, Scotty didn’t feel comfortable flyin’ there for whatever reason, he just didn’t.
I don’t fly signs, but I’m not opposed to anyone who does. In this instance, Scotty needed to, but his stubbornness to listen reflected from his failure to succeed. He didn’t make a dime because he wouldn’t listen, adapt, and move closer to the stoplight. People needed to feel his pain and see the struggle in his bloodshot eyes from the many cold, sleepless nights, to care and give a helping hand. Otherwise, they would just drive on by and ignore him. They didn’t have a reason to stop. Brushing him off before one’s guilt set in, completely swallowing any heart and empathy, took time to consume a stranger before digging into his wallet. But he never fuckin’ listened.
I walked towards him, and despite his small stature, he held his own. His presence was that of a giant, a little Herculean Popeye if you will. He always held this insatiable desire to talk, continually rambling nonsense even off the crystal.
Maybe his loneliness encouraged this behavior. Perhaps his recent spell of homelessness, being exiled from his home in Grand Isle, LA, becoming a wandering pariah, made him a loquacious rambler of thought. Or maybe, just maybe, I could some it all up into one word, meth?
Regardless, Scotty held this charming presence, this twinkle about his eye, and he spoke with gentle thunder about his voice. It always made me stop and listen, even if his provocations made no sense whatsoever; it was the execution and delivery that reeled in my attention every damn time. It’s what got me to take him on the damn train to Livonia, to begin with.
Scotty wasn’t just a broke, lost fisherman kicking dope, standing there in wet shoes, damp socks, one pair of sweatpants, a hoody, flannel jacket, t-shirt, and a zipper-less backpack with a tarp ballooning out of it. No. No. No! There stood a man holding the deepest heart, looking for love, bearing the kindest, lost soul.
Now, if you ask him, he had found love in his life. Her sinister spell, that undying poison that pierced his flesh, that drip of blood, the fluid dispensing through his veins, the euphoria that sent the pain below; it was merely an addiction. He called her his crystal persuasion, and that’s when he finally opened up about the downward spiral, a phase of life we all experience at one point or another, myself included.
“Brian, I gotta kick this dope, man. I lost my kid. I lost her for no other reason than the dope, man. And to tell ya the truth, if ya were sittin’ here holdin’ and asked me if I wanted to bang some dope right now. I don’t care where I’d have to shoot it, arm, leg, rectum, I’d do it. I’d do it, and I’d keep doin’ it till there wasn’t any left. Then I’d search for more. Hell, if I didn’t have a kid all, I’d do is bang crystal babbbby, but I know I gotta stop. I got to.”
Scotty didn’t have a water jug or a sleeping bag, and what food he had, he had traded his tent, clothes, and a blanket for, which is why I began calling him, “Scotty Doesn’t Know.”
Regardless, he was a tough bastard, kicking dope on a freight train as it pissed rain, and dropped into the low 40’s the previous night wasn’t for the weak. I offered to lend him some gear, but he just kept saying, “Mannnn…I ain’t no bitch…” as he stood there by the roadside.
I just laughed.
“Well, frostbite is a bitch…it’s not a crime to be cold dude…”
Scotty was a stubborn jackass with no direction. He didn’t listen to my advice at all. He didn’t take off his wet shoes and socks to let them dry. He didn’t wash his feet, only allowing them to breathe for a few moments until squishing each foot back into a soggy, white sneaker.
The bottom of each foot looked like white, wrinkled prunes, with inflamed brown and yellow toes flaking off the skin. It looked like he suffered from the early stages of jungle rot due to poor hygiene from countless days of walking around in damp footwear. But, he was lost in pain and confusion, oblivious to the concept of gangrene, frostbite, the importance of hydration, and the need for acquiring gear to stay warm at night. He had a one-track mind about scoring drugs. Everything else just got in his way.
Shortly after this juncture of standing by the road under the shade-less sky, we parted ways. Scotty roamed further down the road towards Baton Rouge to fly a sign. I sat there by the train bridge, basking in the sun by the calm, muddy river, washing my feet and socks while waiting for him to come back, but he never did. That was the last time I saw him.
As such, I made my way to the northern throat of the yard, wandering west down the train tracks to check out the WYE for a westbound to Houston. I tiptoed on the wooden ties as traffic whipped by on the adjacent highway. Little cover through the dead thicket of trees made me visible to the law loving culture of La-ez-anna, but I took the path of least resistance, with the least walking, mainly due to laziness.
In doing so, I stumbled upon an abandoned house by the railroad tracks. It sat off in the marshy weeds. The white metal door creaked from the wind, cracking open between a facade of wooden shingles and broken windows. It felt eerie with the cold wind brushing the hairs on my arms. I almost didn’t enter. But inevitably, I surrendered to my curiosity sneaking around the back, climbing up the steps to the charcoal-colored porch, which looked like the byproduct of a scene from “Breaking Bad.”
“I had seen this scenario once before, when I lived in the closet of an airport hangar at the Drop Zone in Western New York. My wife woke me to, “babe, the house across the street is on fire…”
I nodded and fell back asleep. Police ended up discovering traces of methamphetamine in their shed that had caused the fire.”
So when I first set my eyes on this scorched patio, the blackened trail of fire crawling up the side of the house, I scrutinized the various plastic items burnt to the floor and assumed it was a meth lab. But, it was only speculation.
I wandered in through the doorway and realized it looked quite livable. Dust, clean the floors, throw away loose garbage and debris, and you’ve got yourself a nice squat with intricate cherry wood cabinets, a few holey couches, a television, bed, dresser, stove, fridge, and a toilet.
It was a shame that Scotty had wandered off. That house was the perfect place for him to rest, get out of the cold, and off the ground. There were even blankets and pillows and enough shelter to keep him free from the wind and the rain. He could have called it home while he panhandled and collected supplies to move onward. But, there was nothing I could do now. He was long gone, with no phone, and no way to contact me, simply gone with the wind.
My heart sank in my chest and a lump formed in my throat. I had hoped Scotty found shelter and a warm place to rest his head that night, but I didn’t know. I never saw him again.