California Trains

Short Story

I had first met Taai on a freight train, on the way to San Francisco – he had shuffled in whilst I was sleeping, my head sore against the miserable pack that I carried with me. He had claimed his corner of the container and just sat there. The bells blew loudly as we settled into a little siding, and I woke, with some shock, with a man sitting opposite. The night was cold, and the wind whipped my face whilst the steel chilled my ribcage thoroughly.

I thought he was staring at me, so I stared at him, but he didn’t flinch or anything. He was just staring. Not at anything in particular though. His skin dark but not quite black, he had wooden eyes that were shrewd yet welcoming, on high cheekbones which ended with a neatly kept goatee, matching his closely trimmed hair – he could get his kicks if he wanted to, that was for sure. That was what everyone was about in those days, just getting kicks from bennies and tea, girls and music, trying to be ‘in’ whilst never actually just being. To be fair, that described me pretty well at the time.

I had heard it was meant to be warmer on the West Coast, but the ‘warm’ valleys were covered with a frozen mist which could douse most fires. I’d planned on getting up and moving about, to avoid my face from getting any bluer, and I did so slowly, just to gauge what he would do. He didn’t move or anything, and I started to run up and down my side of the container, swinging my arms about, running on the spot, you name it. It probably looked like I’d suddenly been dosed and was feeling the urge to move, but I didn’t really care. Neither did Taai it seemed. He just sat in his tattered shawl, wasn’t even shivering. That would surprise me later on, as in when I’d meet him years later back in New York, where I’d learn that he was from where he’s from.

The train had picked up speed, and we’d just passed Monterey, so I knew we’d be arriving sooner or later. We stopped in another siding, and the bells blew loudly once more, and another train came rolling down the mainline. I decided to hop out to try and lift some wine from this little shop I saw across a ways before we got into the city (the bastards would reach and steal from your pockets if you didn’t know where to look for juice). In hindsight, I was stupid for just leaving my pack there, with some guy who I hadn’t uttered a word to – that isn’t to say I had much of value in there, just some books, an extra pair of clothes and a pack of smokes. But as I grazed my knees jumping back onto the train, he hadn’t moved – still staring, not doing a thing. I sussed him to be one of those hobo travelers who had failed in life, just searching for the end of the road, but I quickly withdrew my conclusion. I’d been taught not to judge too quickly, but, hell, I still do today.

I’d decided that I liked Taai, and I offered him some of my wine –  he was still doing nothing and saying nothing. I thought he hadn’t heard me, what with the wind shouting at us and every bone in our bodies being rattled as we rode over every tie.

“Hey, you want some wine? It ain’t the best but it’ll warm you right up.”

“No, thank you”. His reply was simple enough, and he didn’t say a word more for the rest of the trip. His accent intrigued me – like I said, I hadn’t learnt of his background back then, and so I had the greatest of difficulty trying to place him. I gave up and moved on to wondering why he wouldn’t take the offer. Not many people turn down free wine. I imagined him to be a religious drag who tried to ‘maintain connection with God’ and ‘had not the time to revel in the delights of temporary man’, but I caught myself again. I’d met plenty of these types during my travels. America, and indeed Europe, had no shortage of them. I’d come to learn that I wasn’t too far off the mark with this judgment of Taai. The religious part, I mean, not the drag.

Monterey was interesting to me, home of many influential people, home of the people who were rich enough to buy a lot by the sea – I’d heard Steinbeck had grown up in the larger city area, and then decided to move right on the coast later on. I shan’t pretend I’ve read his works, but a lot of my pals back east dug him. The music that would stem from here would be beautiful, though it only really got rolling in the 60s after James Lyons did his thing. That stuff interested me much more than pages in a book. It was a good distance off for me to make good of what was going on in the city, but it looked nice enough, nice enough to make me visit in years to come, to wade through the sea and kick sand about and just sit there.

I’d nodded goodbye to Taai when we arrived in San Fran. He returned the nod as I hopped out of the container. There weren’t any cops on duty, none that I could see I mean, so I just slipped past the barriers and in no time I was on the streets. The buildings shone like jewels in the night, and in the distance I could hear the faint notes of people going mad for some colored fellow, yelling and screaming. I wasn’t feeling up for that at that particular time, so I paid no mind to it and found the nearest bar – the only sound that snuck through the air there was the sound of this bearded hipster tapping his fingers in no discernible pattern; not discernible to me anyhow.

After buying some cheap beer that tasted like piss, I slid into a booth near the door and sunk my head into my arms. I still rattled to the beat of the train, to the beat of the fingers. It felt rather therapeutic. Better than the screaming wind, that was for sure. I caught this girl making eyes at me from across the room, but I was too tired to get up and talk to her – I didn’t bother asking how much a bed was, I knew it would be too much, so I just took my chances. The keep didn’t seem to mind – it was a slow business day anyhow.

I considered wiring my brother the next morning for some bread, to get back home after this visit, but I decided against it – patronizing bastard would have sent a lecture instead. I’d hitchhiked plenty of times before. Stuff like that you don’t plan, it just happens. This time wasn’t much different.

***

A prequel of sorts to my ‘New York Scenes’ 

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