1: GOODBYE PORTLAND
I had a couple of hours before my train was due to leave. I also had a few joints in my bag which I wanted to smoke before we hit the California border. I sat on a bank overlooking the Willamette River a few blocks from Union Station. I wasn’t sure if I was hungover, high or possibly still drunk, perhaps I was a bitter combination, regardless Portland seemed lost in a haze. I took the first joint out of my bag and lit it up while sitting mesmerized by the Broadway Bridge. I couldn’t help hoping a ship would come along to force the bascule bridge to open up in all her glory. The waters were calm and there were no ships in sight. I quickly grew tired of waiting for ships to come along, so I backtracked to a bar I’d walked past on my way to the river.
I sipped tentatively at a piss colored beer, as I let words wander through my mind aware of my deadline. I had a thirty-something hour train ride ahead of me to write the poem. I was too distracted to think clearly, certainly too distracted to feel present, I was too busy letting the tape of the previous night play out in my head to think about much else.
My friend was asleep when I stopped by to pick up my bag the following morning, so I left him a note, thanking him for the couch I’d been crashing on for the last few nights. I didn’t realize I’d be out so late. The night kind of got away from me.
I ended up in a place called Bar of the Gods, surrounded by noise and looking to find some escape, the smoking area was louder than the bar, as it was occupied by the friend I’d been visiting and a whole bunch of new friends I’d made over the last three days I’d been there. I took a minute to sit at the bar when I noticed a girl come and sit a few barstools from me. She had a tender beauty about her but she also had an air of toughness surrounding her, a quiet confidence that could pause a room. She too had been outside, but she wasn’t with my group. She was at the center of another group. I’d noticed everybody in her group seemed to want to talk to her but she had a plastered smile that painted a picture of politeness and interest but her eyes seemed to want to be anywhere else.
The bartender asked what I wanted but I let her order first. She ordered a double Makers neat. I ordered a beer. She seemed too relieved to sit at the bar to head straight back outside but I still sort of expected her to. She didn’t, not immediately anyway. She sipped from the whiskey and placed the glass gently on the bar.
“You seem popular,” I said with a sense of curiosity but I didn’t want to impede upon her moment of peace.
She wasn’t cold when she spoke, furthermore I was taken by the warmth in her voice when she answered back. “I’m not in town very much.”
In our quest for silence we became lost in each other’s words and before too long, I too, was drinking Makers neat and we each let the liquor unscrew our lips as we spoke.
A bartender wearing a perfectly ironed white shirt, with a sickly pristine white smile, snapped me from my thoughts and asked if I wanted another beer, but his clean complexion and sterile bar was a stark contrast to the dark and grungy Bar of the Gods which I’d inhabited the previous night, and the featureless environment I now found myself in had worn on me. Besides I didn’t have much time to smoke another joint and make my way to the station. The Coast Starlight doesn’t run every ten minutes, it’s a once a day kind of deal and I really wanted to get back to Los Angeles in the hopes of seeing her again.
2: UNION STATION
I approached the toy set looking clock tower, which had the words ‘Union Station’ hanging above the clock face like a conical hat shielding the time from the few rays of sun peeping beyond the smothering cloud of the overcast day in Portland. I walked past the yellow taxi cabs with nothing but a Joni Mitchell song in my head, which was a timely distraction from the million other thoughts jostling for priority. I couldn’t allow my thoughts to tangle for too long as I had to manoeuver my way to wherever my crumpled ticket needed me to be, to board whatever locomotive was set to take me back south.
The trip had been far from successful financially speaking, I wasn’t too surprised, in fact I wasn’t surprised at all. If you are inclined to believe poetry readings are a big money market you are sadly highly mistaken. I was under no such illusion. I just needed to get out of Los Angeles for a few days. To justify my excursion north, I had a few meetings set up, all but one was canceled and the one that wasn’t, cost me $35. For that handsome sum of money, I received the pleasure of a bitter taxi driver who bordered on racist and clinically insane and managed to drive me to a location that was not the location I needed to be in, which led me to the following taxi driver who couldn’t speak a lick of English but he knew his way through the city, like a seamstress weaving the stitches of a dress fit for Marie Antoinette. When I finally made it to the deli, I had five minutes and a soggy pastrami sandwich to console the rejection from a man in a suit lacking sufficient syllable construction to form an original thought. He never took his Bluetooth headset from his ear the whole time we spoke. He acted like a carbon copy city business type that had transported himself into Portland with little regard for the city’s wishes but at least I was out of Los Angeles, away from the ghosts of my memories locked behind every step of the L.A. sidewalks, which I was due to return to once I made my way to the correct platform.
A few people sat scattered on the church-like benches located in the middle of the station, a family appeared to be collecting tickets at a window off to the side, I tried to pay the people little attention as I hid my stoned eyes behind the lenses of my aviator sunglasses. I walked outside onto the platform to see the silver and blue steel beast sitting patiently waiting to charge forward on the tracks like a roaring bull. The train began its journey north in Seattle so a few passengers stretched their legs and smoked cigarettes as the new additions to the journey tentatively made their way aboard. I had ten minutes before it was set to depart so I joined the few smokers huddled at the other end of the platform, to suck down a cigarette like I’d never taste the nicotine kiss ever again. I didn’t know when my next smoke would be, so I smoked it to the bone. I hoped we stopped before Dunsmuir because I had one joint left sitting in an otherwise empty pack of Camel Blues, which I supposed ought to be smoked before crossing the California border. Once the burning cigarette paper met the filter I flicked the butt onto the track and stepped aboard the Coast Starlight in all her glory.
3. PORTLAND, OR. TO SALEM, OR.
I prowled through the belly of the beast to locate a perfect seat. The train seemed unusually empty, I’d been on this train before but never this far north, but I heard many times the luxury was reserved for the cabins, whilst us minions were forced to sit like sardines, but there was only me and a handful of people occupying the carriage. A seemingly strung-out woman sat alone towards the door, she was rake thin and the years looked as though they had been unkind but she had motherly eyes that caught mine as I walked by. A man had already found comfort enough to sleep behind his flat top baseball cap, sunglasses and a hoodie with ‘Oakland’ written across it had been transformed into a makeshift blanket. A couple of others lay dotted about but I slid into two seats by themselves toward the far end of the carriage. I put my bag on the seat next to me, I pulled the small flask from the back compartment containing whiskey and put it in the pocket of jeans. I had a larger flask in the bag too but I didn’t want to be drunk before sundown. I had a poem to write.
Before too long the train was in motion and Portland was left in the rear view. I watched the truss bridges disappear from sight and we were truly Salem bound.
I’d been to Portland before but hadn’t had much chance to see the city, I didn’t get too much chance this time either, but I did have a few days. Brendon used to play with his band in a bar off Hollywood Boulevard. They were pretty good, but Los Angeles had taken her toll as she does, the wicked mistress that she is. He moved his music up north and seemed pretty content with his new life. I got to see him play a show on my second night at a bar downtown, he played by himself, with only his acoustic guitar, the music was softer and more delicate than I used to hear him play back in Los Angeles, but he appeared at home.
I’d met Brendon a couple of years prior, I was friendly with the bass player in his band, so we occasionally crossed paths. Then I found out he lived a few blocks east of me, off Franklin Avenue near Vermont. Before too long we were meeting up in bars and running into each other at coffee shops. When I told him I’d be in Portland a few days he immediately told me his couch was my couch, we always had a mi casa, su casa kind of attitude. My first night on his couch he came along to my reading and we closed down a nearby bar, before banging on the door of his local bar an hour after close, to be let in by his friend who’d just closed the bar. We drank in there till sunrise. The second night we ended up in some downtown bars after his gig and my last night started in the Belmont neighborhood which led to Brendon and I meeting up with a cluster of his friends at the Bar of the Gods. We’d been there about an hour before she came in and about two hours from when she sat a couple of barstools from me and we began our conversation. I noticed a tattoo of a small white rose on her shoulder hidden beneath the waves of her silk auburn hair. She’d later tell me it represented a fresh start, a notion I was growing too familiar with.
I pulled the flask from my jeans pocket, opened it up and took a sip, I watched the trees rolling by vacantly and wondered to myself why I opened my mouth and why my mouth sometimes acts quicker than my brain seems to acknowledge. Now I had a poem to write and nothing but static in my head. I figured I’d get my notebook out after Salem.
4. SALEM, OR. TO ALBANY, OR.
I didn’t even consider a cigarette at Salem. A few passengers were quickly ushered onto the train. A man and a woman boarded my carriage dragging their bags behind them like useless bulging anchors weighing them down as they clambered their way to their seats. The man short and rotund, with an authoritarian voice stood next to his seat and fumbled with his bags in the overhead compartment as he loudly asked his heavy-set wife who appeared dizzy from cheap white wine. “Do you have the sandwiches?”
“Yes, the food’s all in here.” She responded as she fiddled with a cooler bag she’d placed on the floor between her legs and continued to ask her husband if he would sit down.
To which he snapped. “I’m getting my book.”
She went back to fiddling with the bag and tray table in front of her. He eventually sat down as she laid out a picnic in front of them. The train had barely left the station and they were already prepared to dine.
I considered pulling the notebook from my bag, but how could I write poetry whilst being fixated on the couple who had just joined the journey? I stared at their sandwiches that looked to have been constructed by a professional but the aluminum foil wrapping, the coach seats and cheap bottle of wine peeping from above the cooler bag suggested they had been made at home. I must admit sandwiches seldom inspire me, but it was beginning to frustrate me not knowing what kind of sandwiches they were. I sat distracted pontificating over sandwich fillings until I couldn’t take it any longer. I sipped from my flask and decided to make the walk a couple of carriages down to the lounge car to buy a beer.
I walked past the man still sleeping beneath his baseball cap, the couple knee deep in sandwich meat and the strung out looking lady who was calmly watching the scenery pass by. I continued the walk through the next carriage, the muffled chatter of sporadic conversations buzzed through the air, surrendering any clarity to the roar of the train’s engine. Eventually, I came to the steps leading down to the lounge car. Frozen pizzas, chocolate bars, juice boxes, small bottles of wine and a few cold beers stood on display. $6.50 for a domestic beer and $16.00 for a half bottle of wine. I wasn’t sure how the attendant had mastered the art of holding a straight face whilst stealing each hard-earned dollar from us trapped passengers being held to ransom. I handed him the $6.50. The spotty faced scrawny wretch of a human told me to have a good trip as he sent me on my way with my six-dollar beer, while I reconsidered the entire notion, fuck Bruce Reynolds and Ronnie Biggs, this was indeed the Great Train Robbery.
Once I was back in my seat, I noted the sandwich eaters were now clearing their trays away temporarily. I slumped back in my seat, every sip of beer made me feel like a stagecoach victim of the James and Younger gang, but I cleansed it with sips of my contraband flask whiskey which made me feel like Jesse James himself.
The announcer informed us that we were approaching Albany, the second planned stop in Oregon and not a single fucking poetic word was within my grasp. The page wasn’t only empty but incarcerated in my shoulder bag wanting to breathe but scared to be free.
5. ALBANY, OR. TO EUGENE, OR.
I meant to buy a map on the way to the station but somewhere between the weed and the beer it slipped my mind. I wasn’t expecting to navigate the journey. I figured between the driver and the tracks they had it covered. I was only hoping I could know what I was potentially looking at, from beyond the dirt sprinkled windows. Klamath Falls introduced Crater Lake National Park and Mount Shasta would appear somewhere beyond in Northern California, apart from that I didn’t have any real idea of what I was looking at.
Trains always had some sort of mystique to me. In movies and books there’s always a murder or an affair or some nefarious behavior which seems to set off a chain of events and like dominos, characters would fall. In reality, everyone was keeping themselves to themselves.
The couple with the buffet were now tucked behind their individual iPad screens. Her screen was almost entirely hidden from my view but I could see the gunfight taking place on his. They certainly weren’t going to ignite this carriage into an all-night party on stadium priced beers. The sleeping guy was an unknown quantity, he’d been sleeping since I boarded and it was still light out. The scraggly woman who was looking out of the window had now taken to reading from a book, she occasionally stopped to take notes, on one particular occasion her note taking was so in depth, she placed the book she was reading on the seat next to her. I took the final swig from my six-dollar beer and placed the empty bottle in front of me, as I noticed the lettering on the book the woman was working through read, Alcoholics Anonymous. Perhaps if we met a few years ago on this train, we may be getting drunk on eight dollar spirits or more likely passing this old flask back and forth.
I wanted to talk. I wanted to tell people of the girl I’d met at Bar of the Gods, drinking Makers Mark, her friends, my friends, the Irish goodbye we gave and the night we had talking under the stars, I wanted to tell anyone that would listen. I thought about harassing the spot faced miscreant in the lounge car but I feared his knowledge of women was limited and my situation seemed unique.
I put the whiskey to my lips as I noticed the man in the Oakland hoodie had taken the cap from his head. His short coarse hair disrupted by the cap, but as he held the hat in his hand, he pulled a brush from his pocket and ran it over his head a few times, put his cap back on and went back to sleep. I fastened the lid on my flask, slid down in my chair and gazed beyond the windows.
6. EUGENE, OR. TO CHEMULT, OR.
We were running exactly on schedule apparently, according to some mysterious voice mumbling through a muffled speaker, this meant there wasn’t going to be a smoke break till the crew change at Klamath Falls, which meant my joint was still good for smoking and I remembered a couple of edibles I had in my jacket pocket. I figured I’d save them for California the following day. If I sensed any inquisitive police or if a dog with a job appeared and started sniffing around I figured I could swallow them whole and handle the consequences.
Eugene, Oregon is named after Eugene Franklin Skinner an American settler who made his way to the Willamette Valley from New York followed by his lawman days in Pittsburgh. Apparently, he built on the higher ground to avoid flooding. The train was making its way through those lands and once it left Eugene and past Springfield it was nothing but forests to Chemult. If I’d had my map I would have known I had been staring out at Willamette, Deschutes or possibly Umpqua National Forests. In my ignorance, I settled on buying another beer and focusing my mind to the task at hand — the poem.
My beer sat freshly toward the window side of my tray and my notebook rested on the edge as I sat gently tapping a pen against my head. I couldn’t make the poem seem like I’d just written it so I didn’t want to mention trains, Oregon, California or anything we specifically talked about apart from the topic.
I ran through our conversation in my mind, the one that followed directly after she sat down and I told her that she seemed popular. She told me she’d also been in town for three days. She lived in East Nashville but was touring with a band. The band were a pretty big deal. Not Rolling Stones big deal, but they’d just played three nights in a row at the Aladdin. The band consisted of a singer with a guitar and a banjo, another man who also had a guitar, a woman with a drum kit and a man with a fiddle. She did not play with them, she was the opening act, she only had a guitar. Her shows were limited to the Portland shows and she was joining them in Sacramento while I was travelling on the train and she was due to play the El Rey with them in Los Angeles on Wednesday night before flying back to Nashville with her guitar. The band were heading to Europe but she wasn’t able to travel with them. I told her about my trip and I asked if I could buy her a drink but she bought me one, then I bought her one. After we’d both completely ignored our friends for a while we reunited with them and she told me her name was Lola. I asked her if she was staying at the bar for a while and she said they’d likely be there till close, I told her we would be too.
I followed her out to the smoking area, her friends were huddled around some seats to the left, my friends almost mirroring them to the right. Clowns and jokers everywhere like a Stealers Wheel song. I occasionally caught her looking over at me and she caught me looking at her. I longed to be stuck in the middle with her. The bar was due to close and a crowd began to build to bustle for last orders, I didn’t too much feel like fighting through it when I noticed Lola walk up and stand beside me, so I decided to wait with the crowd. But little did I know she was as impatient as me, and asked me a question I never needed time to ponder. “I have some drinks and some weed in the van, do you wanna ditch?”
My face loosened and my eyes widened as I responded firmly and seriously. “Yes, yes I do.”
We ran into the night like school children. She’d parked her van a few blocks away so she could leave it overnight. She warned me it was a little distance so I offered her a joint I had rolled, for the walk. We passed the joint back and forth as we strolled into the night under a spell of childish wonder.
After we’d stopped by the van, we found ourselves walking through Mt. Tabor Park. I may be a bum, a degenerate, a drunk, a pothead, hell, I’m no saint but I’m also no liar. However, in a split second of shrieking madness, my mouth reacted before my brain engaged, which is not unusual, but this time my mouth was a bold-faced liar. Scum of the earth, if I could have torn my lips from my face in protest of their dishonesty I would have but that seemed dramatic. Lola told me she had a new album, I asked her what it was called, she told me and my mouth responded. “No way, I wrote a poem called that.” I had written no such poem.
No more words had made their way into my notebook, the train was approaching Chemult, my second beer was empty, I was due to meet Lola at her show at the El Rey on Wednesday and show her the poem I wrote and I still couldn’t remember the name of her fucking album.
7. CHEMULT, OR. TO KLAMATH FALLS, OR.
I wasn’t always such a fuck up. I certainly didn’t used to be the mess I saw staring back at me from my reflection in the train window as we waved goodbye to the platform of Chemult. I’ve never been the sort to put ducks in a row, but I’d never felt so out of control, yet steady. The insane lifestyle, the moving pieces, the removal of reality had become normal. A tornado had come along and I stood in the eye for as long as I could until I was wrapped in her arms doing somersaults trying to hold onto anything I could.
The man with the baseball cap had woken, he straightened himself out and stared out the window resigned to his new temporary life on a train. My body was growing weary from lack of sleep, the weed had long worn off and my first flask of whiskey was running dangerously low but my mind was still awake.
My notebook was back in my bag so I was ready when the train drew to a halt, even though I had some time ahead before our stop. A newbie joined our carriage with a tentative grace, she must have been in her early twenties and she moved like a small deer, a fawn finding her legs with an elegance beneath her painted eyes. I imagined an entire backstory for her in which she was escaping a marriage to an older academic man played by Bill Murray, The Wilson brothers were there and Wes Anderson was directing. Anyway, she sat with headphones looped over her silken hair listening to music, I presumed.
There was nothing raucous on the train so far, nor was there a Christie mystery or a Hitchcockian thriller, just expensive beer and admittedly astonishing views. I noticed the lady with the AA book start to shuffle her belongings around. She put an old, worn, faded pink sweater over the gossamer thin skin of her pale white shoulders. A pack of Marlboro Reds peeped out of a pocket in her sweater. I too had my cigarettes ready and more importantly the joint. My hope was for the platform to be long enough for the smell to be lost or enough pot smokers would have the same idea and my scent would be lost amongst them.
We were over seven hours into the journey, the sun was long gone and the night was approaching. The married couple had put their iPads down, only to pick them up again, after a very loud conversation about what time they should sleep. I personally learned too much about their body clock goals to possibly have any desire to sober up in the nearing future. It was decided they would plan on sleeping around eleven, which would give them a good couple of hours of iPad time before the eye masks and neck pillows were brought into play.
Lola would be close to Sacramento by now if all were going well with her drive with Brian, her tour manager, who she went to pick up after dropping me near the station, so they could make the drive for the show the following night. I hadn’t thought about anybody like I’d thought about Lola in a while. She was etched into my mind, standing in front of every thought. I’d been numb since Rachel, but a series of relationships followed her which were nothing more than a blur. I tried to feel something but feeling was becoming a memory. The whiskey was starting to take hold, so I was relieved to hear the muffled son of a bitch announce that we were approaching Klamath Falls, our last stop in Oregon. After a cigarette, a joint and an introduction to Darlene the woman with the AA book, we would be California bound.
8. KLAMATH FALLS, OR. TO DUNSMUIR, CA.
The train doors opened and the smokers burst out wild and rabid like zombie dogs. I lit a cigarette as my feet hit the platform and walked off to the side as people drifted off the train for fresh air and cigarette smoke. Darlene had walked in the same direction, which at first annoyed me because I wanted to smoke my joint and I didn’t think I should smoke weed near someone studying AA literature. I was firmly in the midst of a moral dilemma. I puffed away at my cigarette while holding the unlit joint in my other hand.
All of a sudden, the strongest blast of marijuana smoke hit me, followed by Darlene’s croaky voice. “You want some?” I couldn’t help but smile, I showed her my joint and lit it up. She returned the smile but hissed back. “Mine’s better.” I walked over to her and she reiterated. “Kid, you still wanna try this.” She seemed adamant but before I could tell her not to worry she cut me off. “I’m telling you kid, I’ve got cancer, they give me the good stuff.” She quickly noticed I didn’t know how to react to what she said and before I could offer any words she practically placed the joint in my hand. “Try it, it’s the only fuckin’ perk.”
I inhaled and quickly learned Darlene was a truthful woman. She continued on as I passed her joint back to her. “I beat it once, came back. But at least they prescribe the good shit.” She was maybe in her late forties at oldest but the years rested heavy on her skeletal frame, she had a fierce, authoritative snarl to compliment.
I told her, “that sucks” as if she wasn’t aware already.
She blazed on. “What sucks is I have to go take care of a warrant in Sacramento, don’t drink and drive kid.”
“I don’t have a car.”
Her eyes darted back at me. “Well don’t get one.”
We talked back and forth, but it was mainly her talking to me. The weed began to grip my brain and make my head float in a way weed hadn’t done for me in a long time. I tried to keep track with Darlene as she continued to tell me, she’d been sober for three years and found out her cancer came back, the same night of her eight year old daughter’s birthday, she held the party for her that she had planned. One of the mothers brought her a bottle of wine not knowing of Darlene’s sobriety. Darlene said she was planning to drive to the liquor store once the party was over, she couldn’t stand to hand her daughter over to her ex-husband again, but since she had the wine already, she got a head start on the drinking. She still drove to the store but instead of driving for alcohol she drove for more alcohol. The cops pulled her over. I had so many questions but I didn’t know what was appropriate to ask, I was also high as all hell. I asked her why she was up north but people started boarding the train and she suggested we best make our way.
I wanted to talk further but once we boarded the train she got to her seat. I told her if the joint wore off I had some edibles in my jacket, she responded through a broken smile. “Not as strong as the one’s in mine, enjoy kid.”
I took my cue and made my way back to my seat allowing the high to take hold as we boosted out of Klamath Falls and chugged on towards Dunsmuir. Thoughts filtered through my mind like images through a View-Master, each a fleeting photograph I couldn’t seem to hold onto, until I fixated on the image of my friend. I barely remembered the last time we spoke. I couldn’t remember the last words I uttered to him. I could see him obnoxiously grinning at me in a way only he could. A grin now limited to my memory and the memories of those who knew him. He was reckless, joyful, chaotic and downright infuriating.
I first met Elliot in a coffee shop in Venice, California. About eight years prior to me finding myself stoned out of my mind trapped in the barrel of an Amtrak train. I’d just moved to Venice back then and started bartending at this joint on Main Street. I’d hang out at a coffee shop a few doors down and so would he. The barista was a regular at the bar I tended, so my coffee quickly became free and his liquor suddenly became cheap. He was friendly with Elliot and introduced us, but we’d seen each other around, Elliot occasionally came in my bar but he preferred drinking a few blocks down and I couldn’t blame him. After our introduction, we started saying hello and our conversations developed into a friendship of sorts. He poked fun at me and vice-versa, his bravado made it hard to like him on the surface, but I saw his large heart and deep sadness shine through his boasts and brags.
I wondered about the life beyond the windows of the clammy train, considered the notion of me being good for nothing as I failed to write a poem because I couldn’t remember the name of Lola’s album which I forgot in a haze of whiskey, weed and wonderment. Then my goddamn mind fixed itself back on Elliot. It was too late to amend the past.
I was convinced, despite my flaws I was an honest man, but since my lips worked so quickly with Lola, I began to doubt myself. I no longer trusted my words and barely trusted my thoughts. The Oregon trip was planned but I could have canceled. Instead of meeting Lola I should have been at Elliot’s funeral, but I couldn’t stand to see his sister broken hearted again. I also couldn’t stand to tell her I’d been smitten with her since we met. Even if I did, she’d made it clear that she didn’t want to talk to me.
The train was marching forward but the passengers were settling in for the night. The high began to mellow and my brain was too active to sleep, so I let my body melt into my seat, pulled the larger flask of Jack from my bag, took a swig and let the train march toward California.
9. DUNSMUIR, CA. TO REDDING, CA.
Somewhere behind a sheet of blackness we’d crossed into California and had begun our march away from the Dunsmuir station a little after midnight. I don’t know if my sadness grew out of a sickness or if I’d grown sick from sadness, but my mind rested heavy on my shoulders and barely allowed me to breathe. I tried to pass my wretched thoughts off to the world of sleep, but my eyes only closed temporarily to be jolted open by another unwanted thought.
The whole car had taken their cue to sleep, apart from me and the girl with the painted eyes who joined a couple of stops ago at Chemult. I never learned her name but I called her Margot in my mind. I could see the light above her head shining down on the pages of an old tattered paperback that she appeared transfixed with. Her silhouette unmoved as her eyes combed the page until the page had served its purpose and her delicate fingers turned to the next page leaving the previous words in an ill remembered past.
I figured if I slept a bit, I may dream up some inspiration. However, my body had grown used to the increasing deprivation of sleep I’d subjected it to. That wasn’t a recent phenomena. My uneasy mind began long ago, long before meeting Lola, before Oregon, Elliot and Elliot’s sister. I struggled since I was nothing but a hopeful child. But I really struggled after Rachel and I’d been holding on since.
Rachel and I met a few weeks after my nineteenth birthday, a little over a decade prior to me roaring through the California wilderness in the steel vessel where I sat pontificating life as those slept around me.
I’d been crashing on my friend’s floor in a two-bedroom apartment off Melrose. I worked at a retail store on Melrose and Rachel was working at a salon a few blocks down, she was in her early twenties. On her break she’d browse through the boxes of vinyl’s in the store I worked, she’d then peruse the racks lined with old band t-shirts. Eventually, we got to talking once my mouth ceased to trip me up.
We first kissed under the Santa Monica Pier two days after my twentieth birthday. Before we had time to let the world stop spinning we were living together in a studio near Atwater Village. Two broken fools in love and in our loving haze we’d neglected the building pressure we’d placed on ourselves and after two years our resolve had been depleted. We each had a few failed attempts at romance and found ourselves back in each other’s arms after a few years rolled by. Countless bottles of wine and ounce upon ounce of marijuana later we were drowning rather than staying afloat. After that went to shit she met a guy who worked in the movies. You wouldn’t find his name in the credits of a Scorsese feature, but you might see his name in the credits of some indie movie that almost got into Sundance. He made a living and it was much more stable than mine. She’d been living with him in Studio City for a couple of years.
The night I found out Elliot died, I called Rachel to let her know. She knew him, but only through me. She left their home in Studio City and drove out to Venice to meet me at a bar Elliot and I used to drink at. After the bar, we walked to the beach, the Pacific Wheel in the distance but we were a million miles away from our first kiss under the Santa Monica Pier, although our lips would find each other again. I’m not sure where he thought she was, but the following morning we awoke in my apartment on the Eastside, off Franklin Avenue, her hand in mine, our bodies naked and molded together. When the sobering air snapped us awake the word ‘sorry’ left her lips like rapid fire from an automatic weapon. I said ‘sorry’, she said ‘sorry’, sorrow was in the air like a bastard fog clinging to itself. We’d both moved on from our past attempts of making a relationship work between us, but that didn’t stop us on that particular night. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss the taste of whiskey on her breath, the smell of weed and nicotine in her hair and the look of cocaine in her eyes. I suppose some nights are for remembering and some are only good for forgetting. I’d tried to call her a couple of times since that night, once before leaving Los Angeles and once while in Portland but she didn’t answer.
10. REDDING, CA. TO CHICO, CA.
The weed had completely worn off. My mind was rattling faster than the train charging through the night. It was in the midst of this rattling that I had the belligerent idea, that wine may make me sleepy. So, I decided to pay the spot-faced boy another visit. I walked through the darkened carriage till I made the lounge car, a couple sat playing cards sharing a half bottle of wine. They only looked up from their cards long enough to notice me but not to acknowledge me.
I walked over to the drinks but no one was there to serve, I could have grabbed what I wanted and left but I’ve never been one for stealing, especially with nowhere to run. I picked up one of the half bottles of wine I’d earlier scoffed at. As I turned toward the register an old man appeared wearing full Amtrak garb. I responded to his presence before I knew it. “Jesus, you’ve aged.”
He appeared confused. I told him there was a young kid working earlier that I considered asking for his ID myself to check he was old enough to serve alcohol. The old man was short with a gray goatee, he appeared to be in good shape, he told me he was only working as far as Sacramento, he’d get off with the crew change, then he got a glint in his eye when he realized I was good for listening. The man continued on as I proceeded to open my wine and sip along as he told me about his life with Amtrak, his love of trains, his wife, his grandkids, and he insisted Joe Montana was the greatest quarterback of all time.
My wine and I returned to my seat, I pulled one of the two edibles I had from my pocket, each supposed to be four doses. They were small little chews in a sweet wrapper, tasted and looked like a damn tootsie roll. I figured if I ate half it would have kicked in by Chico and I’d be passed out shortly after to catch a couple of hours before the smoke break after Roseville. I plugged my old tattered flip phone into the outlet by my side. I could see the bags drooping beneath my empty eyes in the reflection behind the cracked screen. I laid my leather jacket over me and let my hair fall down my face as I drifted in and out of sleep as we made the approach into Chico.
11. CHICO, CA. TO ROSEVILLE, CA.
My mind had shut down and I’d drifted to sleep following the dark in on itself. All the chaos of my thoughts tucked themselves away. Elliot’s untimely death, the thought he would never see thirty, his broken-hearted sister Brooke, Rachel’s naked body laid in unison with mine and the poem I’m no further along with writing, each jostling thought temporarily buried themselves like hibernating bears nestling themselves inside the hollowed-out fire cavity in a nearby tree.
The relief of course was temporary and when I’d eventually awake each consideration would rush back with a jealous vengeance, hell bent on revenge for being forgotten for a few sleeping moments.
I hadn’t spoken to Brooke since she told me her brother died in a phone call I received while I was at a bar with some friends. The barroom features were starting to blur as I noticed a number of missed calls from Brooke. We’d barely talked in over a year and certainly hadn’t spoken as intimately or openly as we once did. Curiosity and concern had come over me, so I stepped out into the parking lot and called her back. My initial thought was she’d broken up with her boyfriend and was reaching out for her crutch as we’d reached for each other in the past. When shit would hit the fan, her number used to be the first I’d dial and my number used to be at the top of her list too. So, when she answered I quickly realized she was hysterical in a way I hadn’t heard before. I tried to ask if she was okay but she was inaudible through her tears. In between her sobs I was able to make out the word ‘motherfucker’. It seemed like the word ‘motherfucker’ was directed at me. I was more confused than before I dialed, until the phone fell quiet and the words ‘he’s dead’, escaped her lips in a single exhausted breath.
Before I could ask who, she angrily continued through her crying. “You motherfucker, he’s fucking dead.”
In my utter confusion, I snapped back. “Who? Who’s dead?”
My not knowing only perturbed her more but in her exasperation her voice calmed briefly as she continued. “Elliot… Elliot’s dead.”
The news had drained the life from me. I was lost for words. I wanted to offer comfort but what could I say other than, “I’m sorry.”
Once I moved back to the Eastside I’d barely seen Elliot, I’d run into him a few times and we were always friendly but not as close as we once were, in fact, I’d considered Brooke a closer friend than Elliot as the years moved on. Elliot was always a bit of butterfly that never seemed to land in one place or fly too close to anyone for any amount of time. I started to blame myself too for allowing myself to fall so out of touch. But that wasn’t what Brooke blamed me for.
“How? What happened?” I blurted out with little regard for sensitivity and this was seemingly enough to dissipate any sense of calm.
Brooke hissed back. “How d’you fuckin’ think, asshole?”
I stuttered to respond. “Brooke, I genuinely don’t know.”
“So much for always telling the truth, asshole.” Her tears had eased in her anger towards me.
“I’ve always been honest with you, I really don’t know what’s going on.” My confusion continued to evolve.
“Elliot fuckin’ told me.”
I was perplexed but I responded. “Told you what?”
Brooke didn’t answer me instead she continued. “I can’t do this right now, I don’t fuckin’ want talk to you, just stay the fuck away from me. Asshole.”
The phone went dead. I stayed outside the bar and called Gabrielle, Brooke’s friend, in the hopes she’d shine some light on the mystery. She reluctantly answered my call and after convincing her I was oblivious to whatever happened, she told me Elliot had overdosed.
Sure, I smoked pot and had the occasional dalliance with other drugs. I’ve had my problems but thankfully never a needle in the arm. Elliot on the other hand had always been a little more of a trash can, he’d take whatever the hell was placed in front of him. If smoking a caterpillar could get you high he’d grind one up. As far as I was aware he’d calmed all that shit down, some time ago. He’d started hanging around some old friends who had graduated to junk and because he knew his friends were fucking dirt bags he’d been telling everyone he was hanging out with me a lot. When Brooke had found a baggie at his apartment, he said it was mine and I’d left it at his place. I pleaded with Gabrielle to set the record straight, but the truth didn’t matter as much as wanting to ease the pain in Brooke’s heart.
I understood why Brooke was pissed. It wasn’t much of a stretch to picture me held up with Elliot in some den of an apartment trying to inject myself steady. Thankfully, I always avoided heroin’s hateful embrace. My friend was not so lucky. Sadly, I also wasn’t as innocent as I thought, I’d completely forgotten running into Elliot a few days prior in a drunken haze outside a bar on the Sunset Strip.
I still had some time before I had to awake and start thinking about everything all over again. My thoughts continued their hibernation as we rolled through Roseville.
12. ROSEVILLE, CA. TO SACRAMENTO, CA.
My body had further etched itself into the seat as I fell into a deeper sleep, until Darlene would eventually tap me on the shoulder ten minutes prior to arriving at Sacramento. She was leaving the journey at Sacramento. My eyes were heavy like millstones. I thanked Darlene through my croaky morning voice. She told me to take care of myself and I couldn’t help but think I hadn’t seemed to take care of myself for a while. I wished her good luck with her warrant and began pulling myself together to grab a smoke at the station.
After Darlene’s words, I wondered when exactly it was that I last took care of myself. I had it pin-pointed to a couple of months in the summer of 2012. I injured my back in my early twenties. The pain killers worked until they didn’t and I didn’t have money or insurance but I did have a friend, a weaselly little fellow and a dope fiend nonetheless, he had access to any drug you could think of, you’d just have to snatch them from his squirrelly little fingers before he inhaled them first like a rabid Chihuahua. He worked cleaning dishes at a bar I was working at, off Abbot Kinney Boulevard. Before I knew it, I was taking Oxycodone like skittles. I don’t know if I could have quit without Brooke. Elliot’s sister and I did the whole NA/AA thing for a few months. We didn’t stay sober but I haven’t touch Oxy since and it is my understanding that Brooke doesn’t take anywhere near as much cocaine as she used to.
When I first met Brooke she was engaged to some guy, after that broke up there was another guy, then some other dude, while they came and went, we grew closer friends. It was during this time we had begun to lean on each other. Elliot and I were more likely to get drunk and throw an axe at a tree than discuss the finer details of life, Brooke and I seemed to exist within those fine details.
I put my jacket on anticipating the cold of the station as the morning air was set to hit my face. Darlene was already stood at the door ready to face her realities ahead. The announcement arrived and the platform began to appear as we were grinding to a halt in Sacramento.
13. SACRAMENTO, CA TO DAVIS, CA.
My long hair felt greasy against my face, I was unshowered, disheveled and my clothes smelled like a goddamn skunk farm on fire. The train had come to a standstill and the doors opened, I walked towards the door as if the train was still moving beneath my feet and hobbled onto the platform. I leaned against the closest pole and began smoking till they told us to stop.
I kept the sunglasses on my face as I got back on the train and the first signs of sun arrived. We were due into L.A. around nine at night. I thought about sleeping again but now the scenery was no longer obscured by the blackness beneath the blanket of night, sleep felt wasteful. Once the train got going, I stumbled down to the lounge car to get a coffee from an utterly lifeless woman, who threw the coffee at me without so much of a smile and there was no talk of Joe Montana.
A couple more people scattered around the carriage contained within their own worlds. The stocky fellow in the Oakland hoodie was awake and playing with his phone, he had headphones on and occasionally let out the slyest of laughs. I sipped from the lukewarm black coffee that had a Styrofoam twang as I watched the world wake up on itself. The magnificent beast of a train was a mere speck in the landscape it maneuvered itself through, which was only a fraction of the universe providing the lighting. I was just a person inside the train, one of many people, one of many trains and one of many landscapes.
The name of the album started coming to me like a bastard child looking for pocket money, I wanted to give the poor little bastard all the money I had, he just had to grab it from me. It was on the tip of my tongue but my tongue still felt wet with whiskey. I looked out the window and thought back to the moment Lola told me the name of her album. We had been talking about what she does and how many songs she sings, how she chooses them and then she said she was playing mainly from her newest album. I said, “shit, how many albums do you have?” She told me it was her second. Then I asked her what her album was called. She told me and my mouth responded. “No way, I wrote a poem called that.” And I thought to myself well it depends where you are looking because the name of the album was…The View from Outside. I finally remembered the name of the goddamn motherfucking album! I was finally free to write a poem entitled The View from Outside, I just had no fucking idea what to write. From the moment I realized the name of the album, the view from outside began to mock me, as I couldn’t let Lola believe I’d just written the poem on the train, so the scenery in all her beauty became useless in my quest.
My coffee cup was long empty and my mind was dry. Thankfully, I still had plenty of time. Davis was fast approaching. We still had twelve or so stops to go, including the glorious California coast. Time was still on my side.
14. DAVIS, CA. TO MARTINEZ, CA.
It wasn’t long before I was draining my money on overpriced coffee again, each cup tasting more watered down than the last. My mind continued to wake but my thirst for the day was being drowned by my utter lack of control.
The short rotund man with the iPad prodded his wife awake to tell her he was going to go to the lounge car. She told him to wait for her and she’d join him. They shuffled their way out of the carriage and dozily walked towards their breakfast, of which I’d later overhear a full review of but such wicked and dastardly conversation ought never to be repeated for fear of sending someone into a deep everlasting sleep. Ultimately, they did not recommend the breakfast.
It seemed a good time to write, so I grabbed my pen and my notebook and scribbled down the words:
A View from Nowhere
Then I realized her album was called A View from Outside.So I drew a line through it, then another and another until I was scribbling the words into obscurity never to be seen again. Once I’d done that I wrote down the words:
A View from Outside.
Then I underlined it, so it read:
A View from Outside.
Then I sat for a while, and then I sat some more, no words fluttering around my mind were good enough to share with Lola. Why do I give a shit? She does live in a completely different state and I’d only met her once, but we spoke like we’d known each other for years. Whether I liked it or not she was firmly imprinted onto my mind. I simply had to see her again and I couldn’t bring myself to let another person down, so I’d eventually write that damned poem even if it were to kill me or at least that’s what I would tell myself. I kept seeking reassurance from myself as I continued to be lost in thought more and more, each one tangling themselves up inside my brain as my body woke and the sobering buzz off the coffee made my legs feel light but my shoulders heavy.
I wanted to teleport myself to Los Angeles so I could rip the band aid off and deal with life. I also longed for the train to slow down, or perhaps run itself off the goddamn tracks.
15. MARTINEZ, CA TO EMERYVILLE, CA.
The train paused in Contra Costa County as we embarked upon the Bay Area. Life was beginning to spark its way around the train. It was awake and alive, bustling with life in a way I noticed but couldn’t comprehend. I could worry whenever I wanted but I wanted to ride the train south, I wanted to leave my worries where I laid them.
My legs had grown restless and I could no longer contain them to the seat I had made my own. I decided to wander through the train and check out the views from the observation deck. I’d stumbled through there in the night but it was empty and the view lost to the dead of night. The only difference in the observation carriage to the other carriages, is the seats are facing the windows and they swivel slightly, to make it more comfortable whilst gawking out at the nature the train tracks have carved their way through.
As I wandered through the carriages up to the observation area, I started noticing some families dotted around wearing what seemed to be handmade clothing, which impressed me as I’ve never been savvy with a needle or thread. In fact, one Halloween I attempted to dress as a ghost, three ruined bed sheets later I abandoned all ghostly plans and dressed as Iggy Pop, which basically meant I dressed how I normally do but without the shirt. As I entered the observation area, I noticed a couple of families huddled around the seats at the far end of the carriage peering out of the observation windows. The men were predominantly bearded and wearing broad-brimmed hats, the women were donned in blue cotton dresses and bonnets and I realized there were Amish people everywhere.
I couldn’t help but think how different our lives may be. Even my facial hair would fall foul of the Ordnung. My beard was full and I was surely single. I’d met an Amish kid on his rumspringa when I was staying in New York for a few months. I remember him being inquisitive but polite, I however, asked questions like machine gun fire oblivious of tact and wrapped up in my own curiosity. I remember him telling me it was only the married men who grew beards but their upper lips would need to be shaved and I never fully understood what harm the moustache caused. I don’t know if the families noticed me, they certainly didn’t pay me any attention as I sat in one of the outward facing chairs, searching for my own kind of inspiration.
I suppose it makes sense travelling by train as they are prohibited from buying cars or travelling by air. I’d strangely always been curious to visit an Amish settlement. I find it appealing to break from the electricity that has begun to charge our planet into its own confusion. I no longer had any concept of a God I wanted to know and I certainly wasn’t interested in any Mennonite or Amish conception either. Besides, I always made a very poor follower. I’m also sure I’d make an incredibly poor Amish convert. Although conversion seldom happens in an Amish community because they are not a blood thirsty religion like the Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses, who make conversion efforts a priority, more members equals more power and most importantly more money. The Amish don’t prey on the vulnerable with a lie of hope and a stolen life, they simply live life in a simpler form. Simpler was a concept I now found myself searching for. A simpler place or a simpler time, perhaps I was just longing to sit down with my long-lost innocence again just to remember what it looked like.
The train navigated its way around the tidal estuary named San Pablo Bay. The water was calm and shallow. One of the Amish families had made their way further through the train, the other family sat peacefully, a mother and father with two girls that could only be separated by a couple of years, they didn’t look as if they’d hit their teenage years yet and a boy in his early teens who was probably approaching his rumspringa, which I felt like I was living some bastardized hedonistic version of but I never made it close to returning home. I was tangled up, chewed around and spat out by the world. The Bay Area views started to let a glimmer of hope cut through the stale sweat-filled air as we charged toward Emeryville.
16. EMERYVILLE, CA. TO OAKLAND, CA.
Brooke and Elliot had a younger sister who was taken away with an idea, as much as her older siblings pleaded, her mind was made up. Cass was a young pretty girl with wide blue innocent eyes, she smiled so wide it made her whole face seem hollow. Rumors began to circulate that she was being held in a building on Sunset near Kaiser Hospital. I heard she’d joined the Sea Org and I’d also heard she’d been auditioned to marry a movie star, but I never heard anything from Brooke, once Cass left, a part of Brooke also seemed to leave. She’d always wanted to keep her safe but they’d drifted apart as the church got their hooks into Cass and getting her back would prove an impossible mission.
I’d only met her a couple of times before she disappeared. Her roommate said she didn’t give a forwarding address, she’d paid rent in advance for the following two months, all her belongings were gone, as if she never lived there, her make-up, clothes, her guitar, her records and Dianetics books. When Brooke got word of this I went with her to visit Cass’s roommate but she knew about as much as us. Cass hadn’t left so much as a note.
The train came to a halt just outside of Oakland as it waited for permission to glide forward, we weren’t stationary for long as we picked up speed again. I could overhear the man with Oakland hoodie on the phone. “Nah, I ain’t got shit man. Just the clothes on my fuckin’ back.” He paused presumably as the mystery voice on the other end of the phone spoke back, he soon continued calmly. “I don’t give a fuck man, I’m just fuckin’ happy to be comin’ back bro.”
I wondered what may have led to his curious situation. Where was he coming from? Where was he going? Oakland? His hoodie says ‘Oakland’ but his hoodie isn’t a ticket. One summer I found myself in London and I was introduced to a guy wearing a t-shirt that said Venice, CA. I told him I lived there, he asked where, I pointed to his t-shirt and he said, ‘cool.’ I asked if he’d been, he said, ‘no’ and our conversation died before it began, thus proving the writing on the hoodie may mean diddly shit. He continued talking into the phone. “Nah man, I slept like a baby bro, y’all better have some beers ready for me.” I was intrigued but before too long he was saying goodbye and was back to listening to music beneath his headphones.
My own phone was flipped open in my hand as I scrolled through the contacts, till I caught myself staring at Brooke’s name, I flipped it closed and put it back in my pocket. I wondered if I would ever find out who Elliot was with when he overdosed in some shitty motel up in Ventura, his body found by a maid because his cocksucker junkie friends were too scared to get help. I wanted to know their names, if they still had them. Who was with him in those final moments? Alas, who was I? If not another helpless soul thinking I can find meaning in the meaningless.
17. OAKLAND, CA. TO SAN JOSE, CA.
Jack London Square seemed a good place to resume drinking. I had a few sips from my second flask left, but I also had the remainder of the bottle in my bag, so I decided once we’d hit the road again I’d replenish the flasks in the cramped train toilet. I’d picked up a copy of Call of the Wildmany years ago in a book store downtown and I didn’t leave till I’d finished it. Thinking of Jack London wasn’t helping me write my poem for Lola. In fact, to the contrary it was inhibiting me, every word more useless than the next. I was a fake, a phony, a fucking tourist in comparison.
The train continued to follow the Bay towards San Jose attempting to circumvent San Francisco. The tracks felt like they were on the water as we glided through the land, which was comprised of a battling landscape of rich golden rock, dust and grit and plush greenery fighting for limelight, each hoping to be the focal point of the scenery, but the spotlight was stolen by the mysteriously calm waters watching on through the lens of their own beauty, power and peril.
The last time I was in San Francisco I ate vegan food at this small café somewhere in Lower Nob Hill, got drunk at a bar in Fisherman’s Wharf, damn near burst my calf muscles walking up Lombard Street and found myself getting a ticket driving across the Golden Gate Bridge, apparently, there is a toll you have to pay to cross it, but I drove right through unaware, lost in the magnificence of the bridge which was half obscured from the fog on that particular day. I felt the same way about the Golden Gate Bridge as I did when a taxi drove me from Newark and I saw Manhattan for the first time. It felt like a movie set. Something didn’t quite seem real, I’d seen the Manhattan skyline or the Golden Gate Bridge so often in posters and recorded on film, the reality was somewhat detached from its actuality. I waited for someone to tear down the screen, rip away the poster, reveal the cameras and rename me Truman, but no one came.
The marijuana edible began to take hold as the train sauntered by the Levi’s Stadium, home of the 49ers. I knew it had taken hold because I could hear the crowd at the empty stadium. We left the Bay behind as quickly as we arrived and carried on rolling through, bound for San Jose.
18. SAN JOSE, CA. TO SALINAS, CA.
Salinas was the next smoking stop, so not only was I looking forward to stepping out onto the platform there, I also had fond memories of Salinas from a road trip I took with some friends up to Yosemite some time ago, but that was somewhere between nowhere and now, it was another lifetime, almost a different person, unrecognizable to the person heading south on the Amtrak. Perhaps I was wilder but my mind wasn’t so careful and now I seemed to understand more about the consequence of decisions, perhaps too much so and it may be that very understanding which has me stuttering and skipping like a broken record, a torn film, a half-painted painting, a soundless melody, an unfinished poem.
The Bay Area views stopped me from filling my flask, so I made my way with my bag thrown over my shoulder to the restroom. I walked past the intriguing gentleman in the Oakland hoodie, who didn’t flinch as we passed Oakland and remained with us seemingly bound for Los Angeles. I ignored the newcomers to the carriage who seemed like part-timers in my new-found long-distance train travel snobbery. I saw the married couple had found new movies on their iPads to absorb themselves with. The slight deer-legged girl I called Margot had resorted to the piss water coffee I earlier endured. The restroom door was locked, so I stood casually aside. I began daydreaming about the cigarette in Salinas, praying to my absent God for no delays or obstacles.
The toilet door flew open and out popped a spritely gentleman, wearing cream leisure pants, a sickly lime green polo shirt, a deeply bronzed tan, a fake gold watch and a fugazi smile which revealed his clinically white teeth. He swaggered past me on his way to his seat, leaving behind a rotten smell of shit in the busted up old restroom. I drained the remnants of the bottle of Jack Daniels into the bigger flask leaving a couple of drops in the bottle which I swigged down. I worked as quickly as I could, spilling sips of whiskey as I moved quickly and clumsily to escape the stench that had been left behind. Then all of a sudden worry gripped my thoughts, if anyone was waiting for the toilet and I were to walk out, I may be blamed for the atrocity of the smell which had been callously abandoned by the man dressed like a key lime pie. Perhaps, the gentleman before me had stumbled upon the scent too? Although his smile was too sinister to be innocent. There was no one waiting as I made my great escape back to my seat.
It was Elliot’s birthday about seven years prior to this journey, when I first met Brooke. I joked that she reminded me of a raven. I saw her darkness, her tenderness and we both seemed to understand each other. I was already badly broken hearted because Rachel and I had just broken up for the second time. I didn’t know that night but I later found out Brooke and her fiancé were struggling too. It wasn’t long after that night, that whenever Brooke struggled, I struggled and vice versa. We tried to guide each other through the waters of friendship but we knew from the start, we were the true definition of the blind leading the blind. I never had any idea where we were going but we tried. However, at Elliot’s birthday she barely noticed me, well that’s what I thought but I’d later learn that wasn’t true.
The muffled God of a man spoke over the radio to the entire train, announcing our early arrival into Salinas. I could have kissed him. I needed to escape the train temporarily, I needed to escape my thoughts, escape the past, escape the future, escape whatever was due and lose it all in a puff of smoke.
19. SALINAS, CA. TO PASO ROBLES, CA.
Stood still on the Salinas platform smoking my cigarette in the midst of Steinbeck’s world. I was holding onto the idea of love like Lennie Small holding those damn rabbits. I never dreamt of white picket fences, children and jet skis, although if I had the choice, I’d take the jet skis. I longed for stories and perhaps that was always my downfall. I suppose I believed in fairy tales more than I ever cared to imagine. Maybe one day, I too, with the gentlest of kisses could make someone’s troubles dissipate. I smoked cigarettes back to back as quickly as I could until the last passenger had boarded, in my haste it had made me feel quite nauseous, but given the chance, I’d have done it again. As we pulled out of the station I noticed the sign which read ‘Welcome to Salinas’, the cut out confused the hell out of me, three adolescent teens holding a basket of fruit, the smiles on their youthful faces were enough to cause concern, the smiles seemed insincere and forced and whoever painted them had no regard for the sweltering heat that had begun to barrel down on the ‘Salad Bowl of the World’.
We closed the bar down on Elliot’s birthday. Elliot had left with a girl he’d casually been seeing. Brooke and her fiancé were about to leave but they were looking for her friend Roxy, who had come with them, but Roxy had latched herself to me. Brooke pulled Roxy aside and asked if she needed a ride, Roxy drunkenly refused. Then Brooke insisted further that she came with her. Roxy was beyond reasoning with, so Brooke decided to talk to me. I tried to help Roxy go with Brooke but she was adamant that she wanted to come home with me, Roxy may have been a lot of things but persuadable was not one of them and her mind was made up.
Roxy and I dated for about two months. I broke it off with her at The Galley on Main Street. I tried to be as easy as I could, I was still too broken from Rachel and had already started to forget the meaning of feeling. She stormed into the night and I walked down to the beach. After I’d walked as far as the pier, I decided to get a drink.
I recognized Brooke drinking alone at the other end of the bar. Her and her fiancé were in the midst of an argument of grandiose proportions and she’d walked out and found herself at the bar I’d found myself walking into. I warned her I’d just come from breaking it off with her friend Roxy. She asked me two questions before our night of conversation advanced, ‘why?’ and ‘how?’ I found myself explaining more than I’d ever explained to anyone. I told her how I was still thinking about Rachel. I told her I thought I had moved on quicker than I actually did, I told her Roxy needed too much and I knew it would break me not being able to give her what she needed, I told her I was lost in a tornado and I didn’t want to drag anyone else into its chaos. I don’t know why I told her every word on my tongue, but I’d said it all before I’d thought about it. She paused, I could tell she was tipsy as she slurred while twizzling the straw in her cocktail. “And how did you break up with her?”
I explained how we had a couple of drinks at The Galley and I tried to be as honest with her as I could but every uttered word sounded rehearsed. She didn’t want to hear the words and I didn’t really want to say them but as the rum sank beneath the rocks of our Mai Tai’s I could see the tears build in her eyes, I wanted to cry too but the well was dry. We were no longer one instead we were back to being two. She still wanted me to go home with her but I told her I couldn’t. Not this time. I suppose saying ‘no’ becomes easier to do when your feet are leaving the door but it didn’t feel easy. Brooke signaled to the bartender and before I knew it we were drinking a shot of tequila. We sat on the beach till sunrise talking, we spoke until she realized she didn’t want to throw everything away. She went back to him and they tried until they couldn’t try anymore. I’d dreamt of her leaving him since I met her. Not only because I was smitten but because she deserved better than him, she also deserved better than me, but she also deserved better than him, too. I may not be perfect but I at least felt I was better than him. When she eventually called me to tell me they’d broken up, Rachel and I were packing our bags for Paso Robles, trying to save ourselves in wine country, supposing the third time may be the charm it was promised to be. The train approached Paso Robles, I couldn’t help but let Rachel walk herself across my mind.
20. PASO ROBLES, CA. TO SAN LUIS OBISPO, CA.
We were firmly within the grasp of wine country. The deeper we got into California the more the memories of mine seemed to live in the soil. Rachel and I had been back together but years of mistakes and missteps tend to wear heavy. One of her clients had recommended a winery in Paso Robles owned by some people the client knew. We were trying to make a relationship work on new foundations but the building bricks were already shattered. However, it can never be said we didn’t make a valiant effort. We drove to Paso Robles and left our troubles in the city.
The wine we drank in Paso Robles couldn’t possibly be the same type of alcohol that resided in me from the previous night’s excursion to the lounge car. The train wine tasted of sugary syrup with a dash of vinegar whereas the vineyard wine was complex, living and breathing while we sipped. Once Rachel and I checked in they started us on the whites and graduated us to a pinot noir then a cabernet till tipping off with a cab franc. The lady pouring wine generously in our glasses explained that merlot was dead since the movie Sideways, so they tended to only use the grape for blends, because of that scoundrel Paul Giamatti. I suppose movies do affect us. Our night was perfect but I knew and I’m pretty sure Rachel did too, beneath the wine, under the smiles and in between the laughs, we were miles apart from where we used to be.
Brooke had spoken to me at length how I needed to let Rachel go, but she knew even her most earnest attempts at a relationship were never particularly healthy but Brooke never seemed to cut me much slack, besides she was never the greatest fan of Rachel, not many people were. She was my kryptonite and I was Superman but in all actuality, I was more like a helpless kid with a nut allergy and she was a giant peanut M&M. I was a moth, she was an open flame. I don’t know if I was her weakness too, but for a moment I became her strength and she was mine, the scales balanced perfectly in a way I’d never seen before. The strength soon crumbled as it always used to and I was returned to ash.
If I didn’t go to Paso Robles, if I had waited and maybe said ‘no’ for the first time, the stars may have aligned for Brooke and I but life happens on its own spectrum and Rachel and I were determined. I don’t know how happy I truly have ever been but when Rachel and I were in Paso Robles that’s as close as I’d been to happiness in as long as I can remember. All our problems evaporated into steam as we laid on a grassy bank in a wine drunk haze staring out at the vineyards that seemed to extend as far as our eyes could imagine. Everything turned to shit shortly after that trip, it was almost as if we knew Paso was the peace before the storm which was due to roll in. We even extended our stay a night to prolong our crashing back to earth in Los Angeles.
The train stormed on with zero regard for my memories. Leaving Paso Robles I wanted to look back but I feared if I did the fondness of my memory may turn to salt quicker than Lot’s wife after turning to peer at Sodom, so I kept my eyes locked forwards until I could see the white stucco walls and terracotta shingles of the San Luis Obispo station.
21. SAN LUIS OBISPO, CA. TO SANTA BARBARA, CA.
The afternoon sun was now beating down, I’d taken refuge behind the lens of my sunglasses as I stood inhaling my cigarette on the platform. I hadn’t seen a single Amish person since Salinas. My head was starting to feel light from the smoke. I figured we had another five hours or so on the train. I seemed to remember it being about a three-hour drive from L.A. I walked away from the Spanish architecture and back on board the train.
Every person on board appeared faceless to me, insignificant background noise clouding my entire experience. I rummaged through my bag remembering a Snickers I bought when I picked up the whiskey. I hadn’t eaten and quite often eating had become something I forgot to do from time to time. My eating schedule is normally uncertain but since Elliot’s death I’d been forgetting almost altogether. I took my first bite and all of a sudden the man in the Oakland hoodie interrupted me as I chewed the caramel center in between my teeth. “Yo’, how much was that?” I told him I bought it before the train. He responded. “That’s how you do it bro’.”
My mouth now clear I told him. “It’s probably ten fucking dollars on here man.” He laughed and agreed and went back to his music or podcast or whatever he was listening to.
I didn’t enjoy the rest of the Snickers, I may as well have given it to him. I wondered about asking him where he was going or who he was but he didn’t really seem too concerned with me apart from a curiosity over the price of a candy bar. I threw the empty wrapper on the tray in front of me so I’d remember to throw it in the trash when I was ready to move. I felt my phone vibrate. It was a text message from Lola. It read:
You still coming to the show tomorrow Bukowski? 🙂
As soon as I told her I was a poet and lived in L.A. she asked me if I was another wannabe Bukowski, which stung a little more than it probably should have. I told her I liked his work but the drinking problem was merely coincidental. I sent a text back.
Sure thing Miss Joplin 🙂
I don’t think either us realized how fucked up my response was, Lola certainly didn’t. Elliot said to me he wanted to die at 27, well he made it a couple of extra years unlike poor Janis. Lola told me I was on some sort of list to get into her show, then threatened me if I was to take her somewhere shitty afterwards she would forever judge the entire city. I hadn’t even thought about after the show. What did I truly know about her after one night of conversation. I knew she liked old movies, obviously she was fond of music, she lived in East Nashville which is very different to the other parts of Nashville, she was quite adamant about this and I believed her. I also knew I told her I’d written a poem that was growing closer and closer into becoming a goddamn haiku.
22. SANTA BARBARA, CA. TO OXNARD, CA.
Elliot used to call me ‘Skunk Tail’ with zero regard for my given name because of a natural streak of pure white hair on the back of my head. I always liked nicknames so it didn’t bother me. I published my poems under a pseudonym because I never felt like I belonged with my real name, my given name was a conversation starter for sure, which usually resulted in me explaining, with an ‘a’ not ‘-er’, like the singer. My mom took a lot of acid in her youth, why the hell she couldn’t call me Frank was beyond my comprehension. I preferred ‘Skunk Tail’ to ‘Zap’ as a nickname. I was doomed from birth. But I couldn’t blame my mom for being taken away with the 70s in Los Angeles and that’s where she stayed. Maybe I was the Moon in my mom’s Valley Girlor perhaps I was the drowning witch the ship showed up too late for.
I didn’t know the extent of Elliot’s problem. I tried to think about the last time I’d heard from him and I was gripped with a terrible horror as the memory started coming back to me. I’d been drinking at the Rainbow and Elliot had been at the Viper Room to see a friend’s band. I was heading with a few friends into the back of a cab to take us to an apartment somewhere north of Hollywood Blvd and east of the Capitol Records building. I heard someone shout, “Skunk Tail!” I instantly knew it was him. He jogged away from two friends who stood like shadows. I hadn’t heard from him in a few months, so we caught up briefly and he told me he’d just paid his first month’s rent in his own apartment. He also said I should swing by to check it out. I should have seen through him but I certainly wasn’t sober and my friends were hurrying me into the taxi. I wanted to invite him but I didn’t know his friends and it wasn’t my apartment we were headed to, so I tried to finish his sentences quicker for him and draw our reunion to a close but before I could, the bastard told me his car had broken down and he was a hundred bucks short of fixing it. The taxi driver was now shouting and I had cash in my pocket for once, so I just handed Elliot what I had, which was about eighty dollars. Since the taxi door closed I hadn’t given it another thought, I wasn’t rich but I was less broke than I’d been and he’d lent me money plenty of times. I had no idea he was going to fill his arm with it. I hoped I was wrong but in the pit of my stomach I knew it. I’d just grown too out of touch to realize.
The whiskey burned in my throat and swirled itself through my body to the tips of my toes. The sun always made me feel drunker than I was. Possibly, because I was starting to forget what it felt like to be sober. The views from Santa Barbara to Oxnard were possibly the most stunning, at least for me, my gaze was lost to the beauty of the ocean but I felt covered in grime and dirt. I wanted to leap from the train and catapult myself directly into the Pacific Ocean. I wanted to swim till my arms gave up and hope I was far enough out to find myself lost.
I’d visited Santa Barbara by train a number of times, but despite my familiarity with the views, they always managed to stun me but I always found a way to compare every bit of ugliness inside me to the purity of the nature staring back.
Santa Barbara was nice to visit but it was lost to its money and everything was too clean, whereas Oxnard was a shit hole with a beach and a pretty decent fish taco place. We pulled away from the ocean which meant we were much closer to Oxnard than I cared to be.
I still had time to pay a brief visit to the lounge car, I wanted a break from sipping whiskey and figured a beer would do the trick. I handed the beer over to some sour faced lady who asked if that was all? I noticed a Snickers bar staring back at me so I asked the lemon sucking lady. “How much are they?”
She said. “The candy bars?”
She looked at them and looked back at me, her facial expression didn’t alter and she seemed to remain utterly unimpressed. “It depends which you want.” She spat at me with a contempt that probably didn’t exist.
I grabbed the Snickers, handed her a ten to cover the beer and candy and said. “Don’t tell me how much it costs just tell me this enough.” She opened the register and she placed a few coins in my hand. The exchange didn’t seem fair but I didn’t want to know any more than I could already figure out.
I made my way back to my seat before the station announcement and threw the Snickers bar on the seat next to my friend in the Oakland hoodie. He grabbed it and shuffled in his seat to hand it back to me. “You don’t need to get me this.”
I shook my head back at him and told him not to worry about it but then he asked me how much it was so I told him. “I asked the woman not to tell me, I figured it came with the beer.”
He clasped his hands together to gesture he was thankful, then asked. “How much is the beer?”
I responded without missing a beat. “More than the fuckin’ Snickers.” We both laughed and he placed the candy bar in the pocket of his hoodie, I supposed he would have something to eat for the remainder of the journey, I hadn’t seen him barely move in almost thirty hours, I also hadn’t seen him eat so we were at least on some form of an even keel. Barely a minute passed as Oxnard was announced and my new friend gathered his belongings, uneaten Snickers in tow and thanked me while walking himself towards the exit, to await the doors to open, allowing him off the train. I know for a fact, there’s a liquor store a few blocks from the station where you can buy a Snickers for under a buck.
23. OXNARD, CA. TO SIMI VALLEY, CA.
Once we’d stopped at Oxnard I was firmly within familiar territory, Brooke and I used to take the train up to Oxnard every few months. It’s not exactly the Bahamas but it always felt like far enough outside of Los Angeles to allow us both to breathe, besides she had a friend who lived in Oxnard. Brooke’s friend used to have to go out of town for work occasionally, so as long as Brooke wasn’t working she’d stay in her friend’s apartment for a few days. I’d often go with her. It was a two-bedroom house, so there was a spare room but normally Brooke and I would talk till we were passed out on the couches. We’d walk the dogs along the beach and pending on where we were with our lives, we’d ride bikes, watch movies, go to NA meetings, go to bars, get high on the porch or repeat our resentments to each other in the hot tub. Once Rachel and I had broken up for the final time, I realized I’d started comparing every girl I met to Brooke, but Brooke had finally found someone who seemed to look at her the way I did and she was the happiest I’d ever seen her. I’d say I made less effort to see her but in all honesty, I actively avoided her. I wanted her to be happy but I needed to move on.
The desolate scenery was full of forgotten intricacy. Each grain of sand and dust was rich with memories but ground down to nothing. I didn’t know if it was just the train passing through Oxnard but I decided it was time to try and call Brooke again. The signal on my phone seemed as strong as it would be. I was left with an answering machine to talk to, I hate answering machines and I always have, I’ve never felt I’ve managed to successfully navigate such devices or even manage to relay a message close to the actual message I cared to leave, so I began my rambling. “Hey Brooke, this is… my name never feels appropriate to say when I’m trying to be serious, you know who it is…erm…I don’t know what to say…can we talk sometime? I’m sorry, I had no idea. I’d just like to talk to you, but I get it, if you need some time. Just know I’m thinking about you. Did I say I’m sorry? I’m really good at messages. Just…I’m here and I hope you’re okay, okay, bye, bye.”
I wanted to smash the phone into smithereens, I didn’t have the correct words to articulate all I wanted to say and my stuttering had built up a ball of fire burning in my gut. Once I’d called Brooke, I kept feeling phantom vibrations in my pocket where my phone resided and I nervously kept checking it. Almost as if I expected her to respond.
The couple with the iPads began packing themselves away as I sat hoping for the phone to ring. They were destined for the whiteness of Simi Valley. I haven’t been there many times but on one occasion I remember tripping into a conversation with a gentleman who was telling me, ‘abortion was murder’, I told him that was a strange thing to obsess about over morning coffee at a Starbucks. He then told me, ‘Obama is an Arab’ and continued to tell me, ‘the damned democrats were turning everybody into fags’ all before the poor employee had chance to pour my filter coffee. I made a note to myself that maybe Simi Valley wasn’t a place for me. Not because of the guy speaking utter nonsense to me but the passive agreeance that seemed to surround his words from those around. I was tired of arguing myself into a vacuum with such folk.
The train drew closer to the grips of Simi Valley, I was following the train’s direction but I was lost wanting to hear from Rachel, wanting to hear from Brooke and hoping I would write the damn poem for Lola. We’d arrived, the couple waddled into the evening as the sun thought about reclining and calling it a day. The doors were about to close as I received a text message from Rachel:
Hey, what are you up to?
24. SIMI VALLEY, CA. TO VAN NUYS, CA.
The barren station peered inside the windows of the train to watch me ponder over the simplicity of Rachel’s text, which was littered with potential subtext. I knew our next conversation wasn’t going to be good and if it happened at all, I truly believed it would merely be a courtesy to me, a courtesy that Rachel neither owed or deserved to have to offer. After typing and retyping a series of words I settled on the following:
On a train, will be in L.A. tonight. You ok?
It was shorter than the previous essays I’d typed out but I didn’t quite know how to handle the situation. It was her in the relationship, she had the most to lose, so I followed her lead as she responded:
I’m fine, what time are you back?
We hadn’t landed in L.A. and the problems existing in the city had already begun to find their way onto my ever portable doorstep. I wanted her to blurt out the words but I appreciated her need to say them in person. There were a lot of years and experiences between us. All of a sudden, we engaged in the briefest of back-and-forth’s over text:
Me: About 9, why?
Her: How you getting home?
Her: Want me to pick you up?
Me: It’s no worries
Her: Do you have plans?
Her: I’ll pick you up
Me: You don’t have to
Her: I wanna talk to you
Oh shit. She wanted to talk. I knew it was coming and it seemed better to rip off the band aid than watch it rot away. After a few more messages we arranged for her to pick me up at Union Station. I’d smell like shit on not much sleep but I suppose she’s seen me look worse. I wondered whether she’d tell me her boyfriend was looking for my blood, or if he didn’t know, perhaps she’d tell me she’d never want to see me again. Whatever it was, it wouldn’t be good. People never seem to be able to wait to tell you good news but bad news tends to stall.
Brooke and I were as close as friends could be but Rachel and I were as close as lovers could be and sometimes closer. We’d loved each other so much we’d grown to hate each other but we still managed to remember the love over the hate, which never felt normal. It was as if we were two magnets locked together when we should have resisted each other and latched onto anything else, like my eyes latched onto the young couple in their early twenties sat near the train doors wrapped inside each other’s arms, laughing, touching and kissing like only young lovers could do. I didn’t want to be approaching Van Nuys, I wanted to be at Union Station or I wanted to be going anywhere else.
25. VAN NUYS, CA. TO BURBANK, CA.
Reality started to hit me with uppercuts Mike Tyson would be proud of. They seemed to land heavier the closer I came to stepping off the train which had become a part of me. Its movement was in my feet as I stood and its windows acted as a filter between me and the world.
Rachel was jealous of Brooke and Brooke was jealous of Rachel and I was jealous of the both of them. I couldn’t walk away from myself in a way they could. After they’d spent some time together both of their jealousies turned to admiration and I was left feeling jealous. I was always slow to follow.
Night had started to fall and there wasn’t a drop of whiskey left in my flask. I wanted to stay somewhat level headed as I spoke with Rachel. So, I visited the lounge car for the final time walking away with another coffee and a miniature of Jack, which made me think backwards to the basement of a guitar store in Venice when Brooke and I got tickets to see none other than Ramblin’ Jack Elliot in the flesh. There was no bar, so we had coffee cups and a variety of whiskey miniatures we procured from the closest liquor store. As he sang about Pretty Boy Floydwe sipped from our cups and I couldn’t help but stop when he sang one of my favorite Dylan songs, Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.I’ve been thinking much more than twice, but that particular night we only thought once. After the show, we drank down the street. Elliot met us at the bar, he didn’t care much for folk music. Brooke and I loved the stories inside the lyrics and the feeling inside the heart. Elliot liked a beat in his chest and euphoria sounding in his mind.
Elliot, Brooke and I made our way to the beach once the bars were closed. Brooke and I sat in the sand while Elliot swam about in the ocean like a shark caught in a net, he was chaotic and wild. He was naïve but playful in a way I never wanted to forget. After sitting with Brooke for a moment I dived into the water to join my friend. He once dyed his hair to have a skunk tail like me, but he never knew I wanted to be like him. I followed him into the water and I copied whatever he did because he was having more fun than I’d ever cared to feel.
Soaking wet we walked to Brooke’s place because it was the closest. Elliot passed out on the couch and Brooke and I sat on the balcony smoking a joint. She asked me as bluntly as a person may care to ask anybody anything. “Do you think everything will work out?”
She was serious and she truly meant the question she asked me that night and I truly meant it when I told her. “I don’t know anymore but I’d like to think so.”
We then sat in silence for a minute as she thought and I wondered. She puffed the joint and passed it back to me while following up on her initial question. “Why is life so fucking complicated?…I mean…fuck…like now…now’s a perfect example.”
“How so?” I asked.
“This is perfect, we see Ramblin’ fuckin’ Jack fuckin’ Elliott then we get to hang out with my brother and fuck around on the beach, why can’t we do that every night?”
I responded before I thought, “I genuinely don’t know.”
We knew we were high but we meant what we were saying so we paused between our words, she continued. “I don’t see El as much as I should, I see you more than I should, I don’t know, I wish we could have nights like this every night.”
Whatever appears simple in the evening is so much more complex in the morning but I knew what she meant, I knew what she meant all too much. All I could say back was. “Me too.”
She leaned back against the sliding doors of the balcony to where I was already rested. I put my arm around her. Once the joint was done I thought about moving but Brooke and I stayed where we sat. We looked out at the night and fell asleep under the starlight.
26. BURBANK, CA. TO UNION STATION, CA.
I didn’t give a fuck about Burbank station, nor the train that housed me for the past day and then some. I had the fun of beer, the calm of marijuana and the feistiness of whiskey in me but my body felt still, agitated but calm. I was ready for Rachel to tell me she needed to leave me alone, I was ready to knock on Brooke’s door till she let me in to explain what a fool I’d been. I was set to right all of my wrongs and set the entire city of Los Angeles straight.
The night cast its shadow around the railroad tracks but I couldn’t shake the image of Rachel standing, waiting for me like I was a death row prisoner or a Make-a-Wish kid, either way I felt I was waiting around to die. I reached into my bag and fumbled around until I could place my fingers on a stick of deodorant, as I was doing so I felt my phone vibrating. I tried to reach it in time, but I didn’t. I flipped my phone open to see who was calling but I didn’t make it in time to even consider answering. It was Gabrielle, Brooke’s best friend.
I’d been waiting on her call but we were going in and out of signal. I could only help but be amused that I had nothing but time for almost the entire journey but as it was drawing to a close, my phone was starting to buzz, pestering me like an excitable puppy needing to be let out. Like the city could smell my return and laughed at every question thrown into the air. I sat back in my seat and attempted to be as nostalgic as I could about the seat I’d been sat in, the worn faded fabric I’d become familiar with was preparing to turn itself into a memory to me, as we prepared to say goodbye.
The city began closing in on me as the few belongings I had were gathered next to me. My foot began twitching and my knee started to bounce, I resisted the urge to bite at my fingernails. My mouth was dry and tasted of alcohol and my throat felt scratchy like I’d swallowed dust. The L.A. skyline was in the distance, a pocket of wealth surrounded by the sidewalks lined with gold and covered in shit. The broken dreams only made easier by watching people’s dreams break them regardless of the success they achieve.
A message came through from Rachel telling me she’d parked in the West Lot wherever the fuck that was. I’d been to Union Station countless times but never paid attention to parking, it always seemed ridiculous because I’m pretty sure they charge by the second. Although I guess Rachel was willing to take the hit, normally getting picked up or dropped off at Union or LAX cars didn’t tend to stop but slow down.
The train pulled to a stop, aligned with the platform and all the remaining passengers stood huddled at each door, apart from a few stragglers still gathering their belongings but I remained seated, bouncing knee an’ all. I let people start filtering out before I joined the very back of the line and sauntered onto the platform. I was in no hurry to walk to Union West to meet Rachel but I did want a cigarette and I felt I was ready for whatever she was about to say. I couldn’t have been more wrong because sometimes words hold different meanings when they’re spoken aloud.
27. UNION STATION
It’s hard to cry when you’re numb, in fact I’d started to find it impossible. The evening at Union Station was no different. I noticed Rachel standing through a crowd of bustling people who were all walking around in their invisible bubbles, eyes either locked on screens relaying train times and platforms, or their eyes transfixed with the screens on their phone while all narrowly avoiding contact with one another.
Rachel always found a way to dress that made her appear part cowgirl and part hippy, she was clumsily elegant, she was so attractive people didn’t realize how awkward she was, as I got closer I could see she had reapplied her mascara attempting to cover the sadness behind her eyes, her lips were tight and her face like porcelain. There was a time we both didn’t cry when we were at our worst but I could see she’d been crying that day. I didn’t know whether to hug her or not but before I’d decided she threw her arms around me, while asking if I was okay with the slightest tremble in her voice. With my hand still on her waist I looked at her letting myself smile and said. “It’s okay.” And I really meant it.
There was something in that moment that brought all her tears back, none of the passing travelers seemed to notice, Rachel went on to talk through her tears as she told me they’d found Brooke in Oxnard with no blood left in her veins and a note on the nightstand. In the midst all the hullabaloo my world fell still. There wasn’t a tear in my eye, I didn’t know what I was feeling but it didn’t feel like anything. I was numb. Rachel threw her arms around me again and we stood breaking down in Union Station.
We walked to her car without saying a word. I sat in the passenger seat I’d sat in many times before, but the side doors were now filled with someone else’s belongings. I didn’t recognize the coffee cups in the cup holders or the receipts on the floor. Rachel asked if there was anywhere I wanted to go but I couldn’t think of a single place so I told her just to take me home. I did still have a poem to write. My only plans before seeing Lola were to try and make everything right with Brooke so I suppose I had more time. Time I wished I could breathe into Brooke, time I wished I could give to Elliot, time I no longer knew how to spend.
Driving north on Vermont a couple of blocks from my plac, Rachel asked if I wanted to be dropped off while she looked for parking or whether I wanted to stay with her. To which I bluntly responded. “You don’t have to stay.”
“I don’t want you drinking all that alone.” She looked towards the back seat and I noticed some shopping on the back seat, filled with liquor store snacks and a bottle of Jefferson’s Bourbon.
I looked back at her as she turned on my street. “Is that a good idea?”
She shrugged off my question with a resigned honesty. “Probably not.”
But I saw the look in her eye and felt the determination in her voice and I wasn’t prepared to lose an argument so I helped her find parking. It was street sweeping the next morning so finding a spot was an impossible mission but we got lucky as a car was leaving near the entrance of my building.
We decided to take the liquor store bag to the roof, stopping by my place to pick up some glasses and roll a couple of joints. Before I started rolling, Rachel tossed me a bag from the dispensary she stopped by on the way to the liquor store and I wondered to myself how we ever broke up, but fairytales aren’t sustainable and they certainly aren’t stable.
We drank and smoked on the rooftop till our tongues started to move and we began talking about everything apart from anything that had to do with something. Avoiding Brooke, avoiding Elliot, avoiding the other night, avoiding all of it. We even managed to laugh as I told her about the poem I hadn’t written and meeting Lola. Then I apologized, I couldn’t even say what for, I was just sorry. I told Rachel I was sorry about everything, she told me I didn’t need to be. I sipped deeply from my whiskey.
Some point after the Jefferson’s was empty and the liquor cabinet was raided we passed out on my bed fully clothed. I woke up before Rachel and made some coffee and smoked a joint on my couch as she laid peacefully asleep disconnected from reality. I had woken too plugged in so I poured a dash of Jameson’s in my shitty coffee to help appease the sickness I was feeling. It was in this time I finally scribbled down something I could call A View from Outside.
28. HELLO LOS ANGELES
Rachel woke up to the sobering morning. Once her thoughts were collected she sat next to me and I made her a cup of coffee too but I left out the whiskey. Her mind was bothered and her mouth didn’t seem to know how to work, so I told her. “Just say it, please.”
She said. “Okay.” Then paused again before she continued. “I’m always here for you, I just don’t know how many more times I can do this, I mean for both of our sakes, I don’t want to hurt you.”
I stopped her and told her it was okay and whether I did truly understand or not I still don’t know but I told her I did.
After the coffee, I walked her to her car and she reiterated that it was okay to call her if I needed her but I knew what that meant. She told me she’d always love me and I told her the same, I kissed her forehead and she hugged me like she only ever did when we were saying goodbye.
I’ve never known the ‘right thing’ to do in any given situation and I’m not sure anybody truly does, perhaps I shouldn’t have gone to the El Rey but I found myself standing on Wilshire Boulevard staring at the neon sign that had Lola’s name beneath the name of the band, with a handwritten poem folded in the pocket of my black jeans.
I’d found a place to stand with my beer near the sound desk, wondering if I should be here at all. The lights lowered and Lola walked on the stage and began singing the words of one of my favorite Dylan songs.
It ain’t no use to sit and wonder why, babe
It don’t matter, anyhow
Her voice washed over me and for the briefest of seconds I was taken away, lost inside the moment, oblivious to the surrounding shit-storm and centered in the now, in the present, away from the chaos, not outside the tornado but peacefully standing within its eye, serene.
After she played I didn’t quite know what to do, so I went for a smoke and grabbed a beer and went back to standing near the sound desk. Eventually Lola made her way to the merchandise stand and once she got done selling some things she appeared at my shoulder. “You came!” She said as she gave me a brief hug.
She had to run backstage for something, she said I could go with her but she also said I should check out the band and she’d come back out to listen to their set with me, so I stayed put. I was in no real mood to meet people. My body felt shaky and weak from the constant flow of booze, I’d have slowed down when I got back into town but I was still lost in the winds.
During the third song Lola was standing next to me. I did go backstage afterwards because she didn’t want me waiting around outside while she packed up. She continued saying goodbyes and meeting people again like at Bar of the Gods for an hour or so, while I sat engaged in idle chitchat with whoever was in proximity. As the time passed Lola was trapped in her umpteenth conversation. L.A. is one of those cities where the suits show up to gigs like London or New York and they have a way of rinsing people out like tea towels. Lola was deep into one of those conversations as she rolled her eyes sarcastically at me from across the room as if I’d known her a lifetime. I jokingly looked at my wrist as if to say we were running out of time, which technically we were as she had to go to LAX at some point. An older gentleman in a suit sat next to me, I’d recognized he’d been talking to Lola earlier. I could tell he wanted to talk before he opened his mouth but he didn’t leave me much time to figure that out before he was saying. “I was talking to Lola and she was telling me you’re like an encyclopedia regarding Bukowski, I personally never cared for his writing, I met him once y’know, at a bar not too far from here.” He continued for what felt like an eternity, Lola had set me up, which we’d later laugh about.
We walked out of the El Rey. I asked her if she wanted to go for a drink but she opened up a bag with a few beers and a full bottle of Crown Royal and a bottle of Jack with about two thirds left. We walked a few blocks to the Tar Pits which were closed, so we walked through LACMA’s Urban Light sculpture and circled back to enter Hancock Park. I used to live near the La Brea Tar Pits and I always found the place strangely calming. We sat on the hill near the George Page Museum. We talked openly without the risk of each other actually knowing each other.
Before the night turned itself into morning the security chased us out of the park. We ended up on my rooftop as I did the night before. There wasn’t much of a better view unless you lived in the hills, you could see the Griffith Observatory lit up, you could also overlook all of downtown, shit, during the day you could see the fucking ocean. As we passed a joint back and forth she told me she had a felony which is what stopped her joining the band in Europe. When she was younger she was caught carrying a backpack of marijuana across state lines. Not only did she spend some time in jail for it but now she wasn’t able to leave the country. I thought it impressive, that despite the world pulling her down she was now singing for crowds of people who found themselves hanging on each of her words and I told her that, to which she responded beautifully. “What the fuck else was I going to do?”
I suppose she was right, employers don’t treat felons the same way folk music tends to do. I spoke to her briefly about Brooke but I only shared the happiness she brought me, I figured I could leave despair for another evening.
We talked until her cab came to take her to the airport. I offered to drive her but I didn’t currently own a car and I was probably steaming drunk. We hugged goodbye and as she sat back in the cab and closed the door, I gestured for her to lower the window, she rolled it down while I reached into my pocket and handed her my poem. Her eyes seemed surprised as she said. “You really wrote a poem called The View from Outside?”
“I figured that was bullshit.” She took the poem out of my hand as she asked. “You write this on the train?”
I laughed as I could tell she didn’t care and I told her. “I tried to but I had to write it this morning.” I told her I’d let her know if I was in Nashville and she told me she’d let me know if she was in Los Angeles and maybe one day, we’d see each other again.