Trains at Night


There I was, driving to the trailer park way down Montana Avenue in a car that wasn't mine.  It belonged to Bertrand, a man in the Pre-Release Center.  He was the only person I knew from Missoula.  He cooked for a while up there.  I had agreed to do business for him, even though I would've rather died than do dope again.

I looked like this: shaved head, pierced septum, nasty, purple scar from where I got kicked in the chin.  I had this basement apartment at the time, though I can't remember much about it except that the lady above me was a cow.  Every time she walked I could feel it in my spine.

Blanche got me that apartment and paid the rent for the first six months.  I had to promise to stay sober.  No loopholes, she said—this is the last time.  She'd been keeping an eye on me ever since Ma died.  I'd heard the "last time" thing before. 

Sobriety wasn't going well.  I'd relapsed a dozen times.  The dopers smelled me coming.  The day Blanche dropped me off I walked to a gas station.  An attendant with bags under his eyes and a nasty canker sore on his bottom lip tried to bum a cigarette.  I don't smoke.

"Cheyenne," he said, and he looked familiar; I knew him.

"Bertrand," I said.  I hadn't seen him in two years, maybe three.  I remembered that he had a son, that he liked the Smiths.

"You wanna get high?" he asked.  I never knew how to say no to that.


The woman upstairs sometimes left me notes:

I couldn't get to sleep last night because of your slamming and carrying on.

Or

I woke up last night (at two!) and heard you speaking loudly.  I think you should be considerate of your neighbors (especially those who work!) and keep your voice down.

I don't know who I was talking to.  I didn't have any friends.

But I did have a job.  I worked graveyard at Safeway.  If I didn't, I would've been able to keep my promise to Blanche.  If I had stayed inside, locked the door, and cut off my legs, I would've stayed sober.  I would've made her proud. 

I went down Montana Avenue that day because Bertrand had asked me to do a run.  "Shouldn't be hard," he said over the Pre-Release payphone.

"I'm not gonna do it," I said.  "I hate this."

"This guy goes way back with me," he said.  I imagined a herd of men in orange lining up for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  "I'll give a gram and fifty bucks for the trouble."

I was broke at the time, I do remember that.

Bertrand's car was a tan Ford Escort wagon.  The smell of its seats always reminded me of a part of my life I couldn't quite recall before Blanche took me in, back when I lived with Ma.  Cigarettes and booze.  The car had slow leaks in two tires, and the back passenger side tire was just a donut. 

It was four in the morning; I was the only one on the road.  I got stopped by a train halfway there.  There was a train track by Blanches' house.  When I first moved in, her husband still lived there.  He suffered horribly from Alzheimer's.  When I was ten, he kissed me on the lips.  He used to sneak off all the time.  Blanche put child safety locks on the doors, but he'd get through those, no problem.  She'd tear her hair out worrying about him getting on the tracks.  One night, she ran out of the house without saying a word.  A train was coming and I chased her.  I caught her and held her while she sobbed into my shoulder.  The train roared past, its blazing lights mocking Blanche's misery.  When we got back to the house, he was there, sitting in the living room like nothing had happened.  A few days later, maybe a week, Blanche took him somewhere and I never saw him again. 

Since I'd been in Helena, Blanche kept sending cards with butterflies and biblical messages.  Each card had a short sentence from Blanche written in a delicate hand congratulating me for another month clean.  I'd been going to meetings here and there, slinking in late and weeping.  I don't remember anyone's face.  A million people had gotten sober.  I remember a man who wore gray cowboy boots.  He always reached down into them and pulled his socks up.  There was also a woman who usually took off her high heels and stretched her legs out as far as they could go.  She had rings on several toes and a camel tattooed on her ankle.  I'd steal tokens that were given to people with one, two, three months of sobriety and send them to Blanche.  I bet she waited by the door, staring at the mail slot, hoping and praying for the next nugget of proof that I was doing right. 

Waiting for the train, I realized that if I put the car in reverse, turned around, driven two blocks, and took a right, I could've been in front of a church that had a meeting at six.  I could've made it another pathetic, measly day.  I was going to pray for the power to do that, but then the train passed, the crossing lights stopped blinking, the arm lifted.  And I drove on.

The park housed four ancient trailers.  No one shoveled their driveways.  A lone street lamp slapped C-7 with dirty yellow; there was a purple limo parked right in front of the steps.  The windows of the place were foiled off.  There was just a hint of light coming through the cracks of one window.  Briefly, I thought maybe Bertrand gave me the wrong address.  Maybe inside there was a mechanic, his wife, their two girls.  Maybe the mechanic loved his family more than he loved dope.  Maybe the wife volunteered at the library.  Maybe the daughters were dreaming of winning the spelling bee, of singing in the opera or dancing ballet in New York City. 

A woman answered the door.  She had enormous breasts that hung like sacks of flour.  They were much bigger than mine.  Sweat shined on her forehead.  She glared at me through the doorway.  She didn't say anything; she just stared, grinding her teeth. 

"Let her in, Amber," a man said. 

Amber shifted from foot to foot, spit on the carpet, then obeyed.  Cradle of Filth was playing low from a portable CD player sitting on a cardboard box.  I hadn't listened to music in a long time.  The man had on overalls and boots, and was stooped over a table.  He was stapling jigsaw puzzle pieces together.  An Insane Clown Posse poster hung above the couch.  A shotgun with silver duct tape around the handle leaned against the wall.  The TV was on, but it wasn't connected to anything; the screen emitted an ugly blue.  There was a dog with a sick gray muzzle, ribs showing through its fur. 

"Is this your new bitch-whore?" Amber snarled.  "She doesn't got any goddamn hair."

"You're Bertrand's guy," the man said.  He looked up from his puzzle.  His cheek was bleeding. 

"Yep," I replied.  He shook my hand, then ran his hands up my shirt.  Looking for a wire, I guessed.  I stood there, smiling at Amber. 

The dope had a venomous pink tint.  The man told me I had to take it up to Rodney Street by Jester's Bar. 

"You know where that is?" he asked as he crinkled a piece of tinfoil.

"Yep," I said.

The man sprinkled a line down the center of the foil.  Amber came over with pliers and lifted the foil up carefully.  He had a butane lighter with a Confederate flag on the side.  The whoosh it made when he clicked down made my cavities ache.  "First?" he asked.

The tinfoil cracked as the flame singed the bottom; the pink dust let off a white cloud, and I took the first, just like always.  The pink grit evolved into charred black tar.  Science.  We were the same, the three of us.  The man got the cut on his cheek from Amber earlier that night.

"He kept lookin' out the damn window," she said.  "Should've been lookin' at me."

"She's a fuckin' firecracker when she's been up for a few days," the man said, playing with a loose piece of her hair.  Amber started coughing, then smacked her lips.

"My tongue's so dry it could be pulled right outta my ugly face," she said.

The two started kissing.  Amber's hand glided around the waistband of the man's sweatpants.  My head thumped like a bass drum. 

Five in the morning.  Blanche would be waking soon.  She would get up, go to the bathroom, start a pot of coffee, get on her knees, and pray for me.  Maybe I would call her, maybe I wouldn't.  Maybe I was telling the truth, maybe I wasn't.  It didn't matter—she prayed for me no matter what.

The man and his lover retreated to the bedroom.  I smoked another foil and started plucking the hair on my arms.  I took off my shoes; I wanted to break my stupid, ugly toes.  There was a squeaking coming from somewhere.  It sounded like a cat, but I couldn't find one.  It wasn't coming from the sink.  Not from under the stapled-down carpet.  It wasn't the ceiling tiles growing fatter in their metal brackets.  I thought it might've been the couch.  Under one of the cushions I found several photos of Amber and her lover screwing.  Under the other I found twelve hundred dollars. 

The noise made me think of the woman who lived above me.  She was very strange; sometimes I could hear her yelling.  One freezing morning—twenty below, not including the wind—I came home from work and heard a cat.  I found it in my window well.  Its eyes were starting to freeze shut.  We snuggled all day.  I heard the woman calling for the cat in the stairway, even heard her crunch by my window a few times.  Before I went to work I put it in the stairway, just in case it had to shit.  It was gone when I got back, and before I went to sleep I heard the woman yelling again.

Dope doesn't make you hallucinate.  People think dope smokers rip their skin off trying to get at imaginary bugs dancing on their muscles because of the drugs.  Man, that's bullshit; the lack of sleep does that.  When you first smoke you feel nervous, queasy.  Blood flows like lava through veins.  The heart sputters like a helicopter propeller spinning for the first time.  You think that if you stop concentrating for just one second, your body will lose control; bowels will open and breathing will quit.  But if you hold on, if you stay focused and live, everything else—jails, rehabs, Blanche—seems as important as breaking a shoelace.  I'll never forget this feeling if I quit for good, I kept thinking.  I'll miss this feeling like I miss my mother. 

Montana Avenue was starting to come to life as I headed back.  A man was salting the driveway to a gas station.  A woman with a cigarette dangling from her lips changed out the ad on the Osco Drug sign.  I got stopped at the same track on the way home.  Gray clouds hung in the sky.  I could feel the cold through the frosted windows even though the heat was on full blast.  My hands were sweating.  My feet were trembling.  The train was taking longer than usual.  SWAT teams were about to smash through the windshield.  Amber and her man were going to pull up behind me in the purple limo and shoot off the back of my ugly, bald head.  Blanche was going to open the passenger door, slide into the seat and start sobbing. 

I stopped at JB's to eat.  I wasn't hungry.  A meth cook once told me that the best way to keep your teeth was to eat afterwards.

"It'll save you lots of heartache," he said.  He only had one tooth, a pathetic-looking thing off to the right side of his mouth.

I hated the waitress.  When she turned to take my order, she put her hand to her chest.  "Can I getcha anything?" she asked.

"Waffles," I said.  Everyone in the restaurant turned towards me.  Maybe they were staring because I was bald.  A big fucker kept moving his lips.  Who was he talking to?  He seemed to be speaking into his sleeve while he kept his big, dull eyes on me. 

"Who the fuck're you talkin' to?" I yelled.

A minute later a man in a bow tie asked me to leave.  I didn't get anything to eat.

"My teeth are as good as gone," I told everyone.  They weren't staring now.  They were doing everything they could to not look my way.  I was back in my car again, with a pocket full of drugs that weren't going to Jester's Bar and a wallet full of money that wasn't going back under the couch cushion.

I didn't feel like going home.  I felt if I kept driving, I would eventually wake up in my apartment still sober.

I went up the wrong road that took a sudden turn into the woods.  Most of the trees lining the road were bare.  They hadn't had leaves for months, and I could see for miles.  I could see the bottom of Montana Avenue, where I'd just robbed two lovers while they screwed the speed out of their systems.  In Missoula, my ex-boyfriend and I used to stuff our backpacks with Pabst, cocaine, and Lord Byron and hike up to the M.  I'd put my head on his lap while he read to me. 

Blanche insisted I needed a new start after I broke up with him.  That's why I came down here.  He sang for Lazy Boring Sex.  He was tattooed from his wrists to his neck.  We never slept.  We listened to old reggae albums on his record player.  We went to shows.  When the punks started getting crazy, heaving against us like waves against a cliff, he gripped my hand tight and put his body against mine.  He broke up with me after I disappeared for two weeks, and I wanted to tell him that I respected his decision.  Instead, I locked myself in the closet with a kitchen knife and our bag of cocaine.  He kicked in the door and yanked me all the way outside.  I heard he got a tattoo of my severed head on his calf.  I don't blame him. 

I made my way back to town.  I stopped at a gas station and stared at the payphone.  I wanted to call Blanche.  Bertrand told me to call him at eight.  It was nine.  I felt my pockets for change and started over to the phone. 

"Hello?" Blanche said.  I hung up.  Don't ask me why.

I wasn't sure if the car could make it to Blanche's house, but I could stay there if it did.  I couldn't stay in Helena, I knew that.

I kissed my front door goodbye before I went down the stairs to my apartment.  There wasn't much to bring.  I had sold all my records already.  Even Rancid's . . . And Out Come the Wolves.  I could sing first track to the last word for word.  I stuck my toothbrush and deodorant in a plastic bag and surveyed the kitchen.  The pots Blanche bought me had never been used.  I left them.

I heard something in the hallway upstairs.  I imagined Amber's man and a pack of his pals creeping towards my door.  I imagined them with matching cheek wounds and sweatpants and armed with duct-taped shotguns.  I grabbed the shower rod from the bathroom as quietly as I could and tiptoed up the stairs and yanked the door open.  I didn't look.

"You bastards!" I screamed, swinging with eyes shut.  The rod connected and vibrated in my hands.

I opened my eyes and saw the woman who lived upstairs sprawled out.  She didn't look at me.  She had her arm above her face.  A roll of tape and a note were in her hands. 

The streets were icy and bleak and I was driving too fast.  The tires kept slipping and catching.  I steered clear of all the busy roads: Eleventh, Montana, Prospect.  The Henderson stoplight was down.  A cop was standing in the middle of the road directing traffic in the clogged intersection.  As soon as I saw him, I slammed on my brakes, causing a Dodge Ram to honk and swerve around.  I swung into the Van's Thriftway parking lot, ran into the market and bought a roll of aluminum foil, drove around the building, walked behind the row of dumpsters, and got high all over again.  It was the only thing to do.

Next to Van's was a music shop, so with some of the money I bought Blanche a keyboard.  When she drove me up to Helena she told me her fingers were getting too weak to play the Eavestaff in her living room.  She learned how to play "I Wanna Be Sedated" when I was in high school.  The clerk insisted on taking it to the car for me.  I realized I didn't know what was in the trunk.  Could've been a dead body or a case of chocolate almonds. 

"I'll get it from here," I said.

"Your tires're about flat."

"Thanks."

The cop didn't look twice as I drove through.  A half mile later there were no more houses lining the road, just mailboxes with driveways promising homes on the other end.  Every time I let go of the wheel to finger my drugs or money, the car veered sharply to the left.  I knew I'd make it, though.  I had a gift to deliver. 

I felt guilty then, but about the stealing.  About Blanche—I was going back to her, and she'd be sorry she let me in again.  Last chance, she would tell me.  No more fooling around.  But I would fool around.  I would ruin my chance.  My throat swelled and I wanted to pull over and pray.  If I stopped, I knew the car would never run again.  I would be stuck until the cops came.

But then I changed my mind.  Everything would be repaired—I was sure of it.  If I ever got sober, if I ever got to making amends, I would pay them all back, everyone.  The fat woman, Amber and her man.  We would become friends.  I would send all of them Christmas cards.  I could picture Blanche answering the door: She'd be excited at first, then she'd square me up, notice my jaw grinding away, my eyes shining and suffering.  At the 90 I took a left and headed towards Butte, that city of rot and comfort.  This would be better for both of us.  

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