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12:22 to Chicago

12:22 to Chicago

 

By Craig Davis

Published by St.Celibart Press at Shakespir

23 Castlerock Cv. Jackson TN 38305

Copyright © 2012 Harry Craig Davis

 

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher

Davis, Craig, 12:22 to Chicago

 

[email protected]

www.StCelibart.com

 

 

12:22 to Chicago

By Craig Davis

The bench Dan Robeson chose was cold and hard, but offered ample room for his suitcase underneath. The sun headed toward setting, and he hadn’t yet decided what he should do. The chill air in Newbern sunk into his bones, even before dusk, and he was still shaking anyway.

Dan hadn’t eaten all day as he scrapped his way up from Finger, but he didn’t really feel his hunger. He had the money, but supper could wait – first he had to settle on his best plan. One thing was sure, he had to get out of there. He removed each shoe to massage his swollen feet for as long as they could stand the cold; then restored the shoes for as long as he could stand their pinching. Only half hitch-hiking, he’d turned down a number of rides along the way, and walked the rest.

“Where ya goin’, kid?” the driver asked. He peeked out from the passenger window, out from under skeptical eyebrows.

“Just north. Any room for my grip?”

“Not much. You can stow it in the trunk.”

“Naw,” Dan said, dodging his eyes. “No thanks. I’ll just walk.”

He knew he could have caught the bus in Milan, but he feared being stopped in a town as large as that. Just the place they’d expect him to go. Newbern, small and destitute, was much safer, he thought, but it had no bus depot. Traipsing up Highway 77 with his burden, he’d passed through the town’s odd collection of traditional houses, its mom and pop businesses that appeared about to crumble to dust, and all sorts of Churches of Christ, and churches of Baptists and of Methodists. Dan’s choices now, as he shifted on his bench, were to continue walking or take the train. He contemplated the large concrete fountain blurbling insipidly before him.

Sitting within the somewhat triangular island in the town’s center, he eyed the depot, directly to his right. He wasn’t sure if he trusted it. A blend of solid brick structure and dilapidated wooden ramps, the building straddled time what with its sterile metal Amtrak sign that appeared to have been put there sometime in the future. Ever since Dan had arrived, not a single soul had entered the building – a good portent, he thought. To his left, City Hall loomed like a vulture, and he guarded against looking in its direction. He could afford no false moves before city authorities had left for the day. He imagined eyes upon him, and nervously sought a sanctuary.

With one exception, the businesses around him were all a forlorn gray or brown. On the street directly in front of Dan, what looked like an empty mattress warehouse featured a couple of stained-glass windows, like earrings on a pig. The effect had not helped it prosper. Also suffering the rigors of capitalism was Mom’s Buffet, just a few doors down, the window bearing a “closed” sign that had faded from long days in the sun. But nearby stood the City Café and Pool Room, the lone bright building on the square, a sickly orange color painted upon a pressed-metal façade. Garish beer signs proclaimed it open, and told Dan it would likely remain so for hours to come.

This one time won’t hurt, he thought, I’ve got to eat something. It’s not like I’m throwing my life away in there, like those drunks do. All those down-and-outers, in there all day already, probably, they’ll get so wasted they couldn’t leave town if they wanted to. He couldn’t afford that, especially not today. Thanks be to Jesus he wasn’t tempted that way – at least he wasn’t tempted that way. He could go in there and not have anything to drink. It couldn’t touch him. He knew that soon, though he’d have to step inside the City Café, he would triumph over it. At least there was that.

For now his gaze returned to the train station. He carefully fished the suitcase from under his bench and stood. His mind was mostly made up, but first he would check out the depot from the inside.

The flimsy door had no latch to speak of, and swung open a little too willingly. Dan walked into a single long room, two wooden benches like pews, back-to-back running down the middle, and another along one side. On both walls hung bulletin boards, encased in glass, and Dan grimly studied the curling notices within. The train would come in northbound, eventually leading to Chicago. He could get his ticket from the conductor. Newbern stop, 12:22 a.m. The cover of darkness drew quickly closer, and Dan liked the idea of traveling by night. No one could see him vanish into the dark.

Chicago would be perfect, Dan thought – in such a massive city, he would disappear into the teeming population. By ceasing to be seen, being absorbed into a vast body, he would no longer be exposed and afraid. He would find a place to fit in, to escape scrutiny. He didn’t belong here anymore, that was for sure.

Dan suddenly felt the weight of the suitcase, still dangling from his arm. An old leather job, his parents had received it as a wedding present, and the years very nearly used it up. The leather straps that had once bound it together had been replaced by a collection of men’s belts, and they now in turn were cracked and frayed with wear. All his life it had periodically disappeared from its place under a bed, sometimes with his father, sometimes his mother, only to return eventually with the wayward parent. The deep mystique of its history fascinated Dan, along with the chafing miasma of rotten leather, and the lining turned to dust. Now it was joined to him. He checked the empty benches behind him and set the case down for a moment, shaking the circulation back into his hand – but only for a moment. His parents’ suitcase seemed foreign to him, and yet felt like home, and now he could not let it go.

Dan’s feet ached again. His arrival in Newbern and the train’s schedule clearly merged into one, a confluence of events that God had prepared beforehand. That settled it – he would continue his journey by rail.

He rather limped toward the City Café, the suitcase swinging from his other arm. Dan worried about his timing – the café would hide him from public view as long as it took for City Hall to empty out, but he also didn’t care for a company of rowdies to see him. Suspicious types are always suspicious. Perhaps that crowd came in later. He walked past the windows a couple times and tried to casually peer in to see what was going on, but the darkness was too much. Hanging out on the sidewalk is just the kind of thing that will draw attention to me, he thought. He’d just have to go inside and trust that nothing would happen, trust the shadows within.

A bell rang cheerily, but the dim light still prevented him from seeing. The smell of cigarette smoke hit him like a wall. He could barely make out a figure at the bar turn to look at him, then away again. A wash of voices, clacking sounds and bad music came from somewhere inside the bowels of the building. Small booths lined the front window, and Dan chose the one in the corner. He clumsily kicked his suitcase as he tried to squeeze it and his feet into the confined space under the table.

“Hey, bub,” a grizzled man said as he set down a single piece of greasy paper. It was a menu. “Want a beer?”

“No,” Dan croaked. “Just water.”

“Sure.”

Dan’s eyes slowly adjusted, and he held the menu up to the window’s light. He found nothing on it he particularly trusted.

“Here.” The water came in a plastic cup that was either once colored and now badly faded, or once clear and now yellowed. “What’ll ya have?”

Dan imagined worms crawling out of the hamburger, and fries swimming in 20-year-old grease. “Does your bologna come from the store?”

“Do I look like I make it here?”

“I’ll have fried bologna. And chips, in the bag.”

“Sure.”

Dan peeked through the window, and now the outer light burned his eyes. By this time he could see the billiards area in the café’s shadows, the players walking slowly around the table, like elders with mighty staffs. A couple of old black men, in stained clothes that once had been in style, joshed with each other in unknown tongues as they took their turns and threw back beers. Dan scoffed under his breath. No telling how long those sots had been here, drinking their day away. Probably got up early to cash their Welfare checks, he thought, then headed straight here. At least he wasn’t going to waste his whole life. At least he was white, he thought, if he had anything to be grateful for, at least there was that. There were black Robesons back in Finger, but at least he was from the white Robesons.

He chastened himself, I shouldn’t think things like that. God will certainly punish me for such thoughts – such thoughts lead to worse. Jesus put me here to give me a train, He blessed me with a train, and here I go provoking Him. Why do I think those things, he wondered.

A heavy stoneware plate, cracked and chipped, clunked in front of him. Dan gazed upon the spare feast, the whitest of bread embracing grilled bologna, with plain potato chips. He called for a second glass of water just to get the little supper down, then a third to make him feel full. The soft song of balls doing battle upon a lush cushion of felt serenaded his meal. As he paid at the register, legs straddling his suitcase, he carefully pulled a single bill from his pocket and left no tip.

Dan stood in front of the café waiting for traffic to clear; a driver gave him a long look, then drove on. He grasped his suitcase with both hands and drew it up before him slightly, something of a shield, and watched after the car’s rear end as he crossed back to the grassy island. The sun had set, and no lights remained in the windows of City Hall; he felt the weight of human eyes seem to lift from him. A short walk delivered him back to the train station.

Again the door swung freely to allow him entry, and he found the waiting room his alone. Happy in his solitude, he settled into the far end of a bench and set the suitcase under his elbow. The seat was well-worn and polished by long decades of patience, and Dan fought to keep his posterior from sliding forward. The floorboards too were smooth and grooved – their joints now loose, allowing the planks to bend and flex under the weight of footsteps – bearing the scars of the years. Dan looked about himself distractedly, gazing at the quaint mural of a diesel engine, the ancient coal stove, the Victorian clock that said 4:19. He didn’t have a watch, but he knew that time couldn’t be right. He stared at the clock face, as if peering deep into its works, finally realizing that it had stopped, leaving him in an eternal lurch until the train’s arrival would signify 12:22.

Dan was left with nothing but judgment to entertain his thoughts. What a broken-down mess this is, he said to himself. What town would force a traveler to wait in such a dilapidated place, a decaying, ramshackle dump? Looking around, he spotted a patch in the ceiling where the plaster had fallen, exposing the laths. Whoever’s supposed to be maintaining this building is sure doing a bang-up job, he thought. Bet the stove doesn’t even work; probably would burn the joint down if it did. The water fountain beckoned, and boredom persuaded him to believe he was thirsty. Its cracked porcelain veneer spoke to its long service, and the fixtures promised a gay gush of water straight into the air. But it came up dry, and Dan stood there feeling parched and foolish.

I don’t know what I expected, Dan thought. Denied a drink, he decided instead that he needed to take a leak. He wrestled his suitcase down a narrow hallway, bumping back and forth between the walls, until he found the restroom. The door was no more secure than the depot entrance, and Dan was not able to make it stay closed. The archaic urinal loomed before him like a great marble sarcophagus, and he neatly tucked the suitcase against its huge bulk. Quietly he left his mark in the vast receptacle, keeping a wary eye upon the door.

Going down the hall again, he noticed the pay phone. If I needed to call someone, that’s the way I’d do it, he thought. If I had a cell phone, I wouldn’t use it, ’cause they could trace me with it. I’d use the pay phone, and they’d never know it was me. If I needed to call anyone.

Dan re-entered the waiting room, horrified to find someone else had come in – a worn out old man, wearing clothes that didn’t fit and holding a crumpled paper grocery bag, sitting on the bench along the wall. He looked at Dan and smiled, which Dan ignored. “Waiting for the train?” he asked.

Why else would I be here, Dan thought. “Yeah.”

“Some folks just come in to get out of the weather. Some folks got nowhere to go, no reason to do nothing but live, but they don’t like the weather.”

Dan grunted and sat with his back to the man. He tried to put his suitcase under the seat, but it was too cumbersome. He ended up tucking it under his knees, more or less extending the bench, and as a result he could not comfortably lean back. So instead he set his hands upon the bag and thrust his weight forward onto his stiff arms, letting it support him.

“Me, I don’t come here often myself,” the old man kept on, “but today my bunions are hurting me.”

Can’t you tell I don’t want to talk, Dan thought.

“This room ain’t a bad place, though it’s got its faults. It gets a body out of the wind. In the old days, used to be the waiting room just for black folks.”

No wonder it’s so run-down, Dan thought. But that’s got nothing to do with it, he hastened to add.

“They turned the white-only waiting room into a museum,” the old man threw a thumb over his shoulder to indicate the next room over. “But they keep that one closed all the time – can’t nobody get in.” He started to laugh.

This man is crazy, Dan thought. He tried to draw his suitcase more securely under him.

“Ain’t that the way? Ever’body’s equal now, ever’body’s equally cut out.”

The man’s prattling made the minutes even more excruciating, and Dan tried to sort his thinking in between the distractions. Distracted, he scanned his surroundings, noticing the detail of the smudges on the door window, the papers on the bulletin boards hanging askew, the intricate designs of the cobwebs overhead. He remembered sitting mesmerized by the fountain outside, the dying sunlight dancing upon the water, as he waited for a hint of what to do. He thought about Chicago, his perfect sanctuary, now only hours away. The events of the past would be forever forgotten there, the burdens that had fallen upon him in recent days, and he would never have to worry again. The background noise of the old man’s voice grated on and on.

“No, ain’t a bad place. Ain’t cozy enough to want to stay, neither, but you can’t really expect anything more. Worl’ don’t make no promises.”

Suddenly it was black as ink outside, and Dan thought maybe he had dozed off. His wrists buzzed with that sleepy numbness of being constricted too long, and he shook his hands alive again, happy to find them still upon the suitcase. The old man was gone, but a small collection of others had gathered. A distant horn blared, and he knew the train had awoken him to its arrival, like a thief in the night.

He dragged his suitcase out to the platform, and waited for the sleek locomotive to ease to a halt. The porter set down a wooden step by the door for passengers to use. The conductor took tickets as the people filed aboard.

“How much to get to Chicago?” Dan asked him.

“That’s an $87 fare.”

“Uh –” Dan tried to sort one-handed through his money.

The conductor considered the wad of bills. “Fifty dollars gets you to Centralia, and sixty to Mattoon.”

Chicago was out of his reach, at least for the moment. Dan had never heard of Mattoon, but it sounded small and obscure to him. It wasn’t perfect, but it might do for now. “I have to get to Chicago,” he said.

“You’re cutting it close, son.”

The pressure to decide ticked against Dan. “Mattoon, then,” he said, frustrated. At least he would get far out of reach of Finger. At least there was that.

“Take your luggage, sir?” the porter asked.

“No, I’ll keep it.”

“That’s a little big for carry-on, sir. You’ll have to check it.”

“No,” Dan’s eyes grew urgent. “I have to hang on to it.”

“Sorry, sir – ”

“I have to. I have to keep it – it – it’s mine, and no one else’s.” Dan lifted the suitcase into the cradle of his arms. I don’t have to justify myself to these people, he thought. No, stop thinking that way. I’d better not make them angry.

The porter looked to the conductor. “It’s not terribly big,” he said.

“I’ll keep it under my feet,” Dan offered.

“All right, then, get aboard. It’s okay, Gaston, I’ll write the report,” the conductor said. “Do you have everything you need now?” he asked Dan, an edge to his voice.

“I believe so.”

Dan found his seat and settled in, propping his feet upon the suitcase, which drew his knees uncomfortably high. But he didn’t trust the porter – he would try to stay awake so the man couldn’t sneak his suitcase away. He hoped nobody would sit next to him at another stop; the car was nearly empty, so he thought it unlikely. Perhaps soon he might arrive at the place where he would belong. The train lurched forward, and soon its hypnotic motion was rocking his head side to side. The rich blackness outside passed by silently. Try as he might, Dan could not keep his eyes open.

A tremendous screeching howl jerked him awake, and his world churned violently into sudden chaos, catapulting and tumbling through the deep.

Dawn broke on the wreckage, railroad cars sheared open when the derailment shot them into a bridge abutment. Shining metal peeled back like a sardine tin revealed a jumble of seats, packages and bodies. Emergency workers picked their way carefully through the jagged edges, seeking signs of life and retrieving mangled personal effects.

“Holy crap! Look at that suitcase!” one said.

A ragged leather suitcase lay on the ground, its weary lid popped open by the shock of impact, its contents scattered and exposed.

“What the hell’s that?” said another. “A head?”

“Oh, God, it’s a head. Looks like some little black kid.”

“How’d that happen to a passenger?”

“A passenger? This head packed in a suitcase?” The man’s eyes hung open, incredulous at the thought. “No, this used to be somebody’s baggage.”

***

“12:22 to Chicago” is a featured story from the upcoming collection Red Hair Rising, spiritual gothic tales by Craig Davis.

 

 


12:22 to Chicago

A man takes to the road with a secret he can neither escape nor release. A featured story from the upcoming collection of Spiritual Gothic tales, "Red Hair Rising." First prize winner of The Talent Among Us Volume XII: Visions and Dreams competition.

  • ISBN: 9781310124532
  • Author: Craig Davis
  • Published: 2016-02-05 19:20:07
  • Words: 3415
12:22 to Chicago 12:22 to Chicago