Inside the big marble station human voices floated out from behind the frosted glass of the ticket booths. A few bodies drifted at the far end of the concourse. Newspapers lay scattered on the benches and floors, yellowed by a sun that bled through dirty cathedral windows. Ashtrays were filled with butts and used gum. A massive schedule board hung over the platforms for DEPARTURES.
A couple of cops stood talking to a porter. I folded my arms and hunched away from them.
‘What can I get you?’ asked the lady with horn-rimmed glasses at the PURCHASE booth.
‘Chicago’ I said. I knew that if I went back to NYC it meant that life as I’d known it for the last six years was finished: at least going to Chicago gave me the illusion of making a move because I didn’t know anyone there and it meant I was committed to nothing. In reality of course it was cowardice: I couldn’t go back to NYC and face my father and friends who would only make my failure worse by loving and mocking me without condition.
I had no real faith that life could start over simply by pointing it in a different direction and asking it to but it seemed the only way to go: I had a hazy idea of what I’d done back there and knew it was only a matter of time, maybe a couple days, before the cops came looking for me. My girlfriend was fed up with my antics. Plus I was still drunk and possibly in the middle of a clinical nervous breakdown.
‘Chicago’ she repeated, punching it out on her keyboard. She had her eye on my polyester shirt and thin houndstooth jacket. ‘You don’t look dressed for it. It’s cold there.’
‘Is it really’ I said. I hadn’t thought about it.
The sun’s almost down on the palomino rug of the desert. Snow’s pooled in the hills and it circles the scrub plants; stunted black trees shake in the blowback from the train. Up ahead darkness floods the sky and the first hard stars are out. Behind us an icy pink-gray light rims the horizon.
I pull out my wallet to get money for another small bottle of red wine and there’s a picture of Laura and me on the boardwalk in Venice Beach wearing black sunglasses and mugging in front of the bodybuilder’s cage. We’re both wearing hats: she’s got on a wide-brimmed Pollyanna straw number to go with her yellow dress and mine’s a green pimp model with a black band and gold buckle. My hair’s dark and hangs in my face like a veil.
That was our first weekend together. We spent our money eating shrimp cocktail and drinking margaritas in a beachfront restaurant then went swimming off Zuma Beach. Driving back to Hollywood she climbed onto my lap and stuck her long legs out the driver window, nearly crashing us.
But the picture in my wallet is changing. Now it’s just me: mummy-gray with wine-stained lips, sitting with a toothless old man, headed god knows why for Chicago: a picture of me looking at a picture.
‘That all you got?’
Bill points to my half-filled duffel bag sitting on the floor next to me. If he was a younger man my twinkling paranoia might make me wonder at his question but I can see he’s just drunk and looking to gnaw away at the hours, sorta like me.
I stare down, pick up my bag and drop it with a thud. ‘Yeah’ I confirm ‘that’s all I got.’
He streams smoke up to the green fluorescent lights. ‘That’s good. That’s admirable. Seem like most people gotta drag along TVs and radios, little flags and postcards and shotglasses to show where they been…I got a collection up here’ – he taps his temple – ‘one they can’t steal when I ain’t lookin.’
I wonder who ‘they’ is and if half Bill’s collection hasn’t already gone missing.
He’s seen me checking into my wallet and must think I’m broke because he leans back in his chair and drags a thick tongue of worn-out bills from the front pocket of his jeans. ‘Gimme a favor, son. Black coffee and Jack Daniels and get somethin for yourself.’ He pats his two walking canes and says ‘it’s a bitch to get up and down.’ He puffs a cloud on his cigarette and stares through slitted eyes.
‘Listen I got money’ I say getting up ‘I got next round.’
He waves his hand. ‘Don’t trouble yourself.’
The bartender, a tall stooped man with eyes the color of rainwater, blows smoke through his nostrils in a tight stream as I walk up. He nods. His nametag says SAM.
‘What time you close here?’ I ask.
‘Mostly two AM’ he replies ‘but sometimes we bend the hours.’ In the pale green fluorescent light Sam looks three days dead. We all do.
‘Hear that?’ I say to Bill. ‘You stay awake that long?’
‘I’m drinkin coffee, ain’t I?’
‘So where is everybody?’ I turn back to Sam. ‘This train— it’s like it’s deserted.’
Sam shrugs. ‘Winter’s always dead.’
‘Man, you ain’t kiddin.’ I tip him and deliver the drinks, sitting diagonally across from Bill. I put my scuffed black boots up on the table and lean back. Old Bill watches and then mimics me, putting his own broken brown construction boots up on the chair next to me. It takes a while. ‘Table too high for these old legs’ he says ‘even when I’m oiled up. You got people in Chicago?’
I shake my head. ‘Nope.’
‘What you gonna do there? J-O-B?’
‘Get away for a while.’
‘Then it’s back to the hole, huh?’
‘Hole’ I repeat tonelessly as my pulse explodes and Laura leaps up at me like a specter in a blood-stained yellow t-shirt— it scares me to shit and shakes me from my chin-to-chest funk and then she’s gone. I drop my feet to the floor and stab my cigarette to pieces in the cheap foil ashtray.
‘Means back to business is all, man’ he says softly. He’s looking at me with one eye closed as if he’s just formed an opinion. ‘Anyway, that’s for you young fellas to worry about. That’s what good about bein old. Nobody expects you to do a damn thing. I’m done.’ He slaps his leg. ‘I done enough.’
‘You have, huh.’ Bill’s been sucking down the coffee and whiskey like a storm drain and I know he’s ninety per cent bullshit but it beats watching TV. My own percentage ain’t so hot either.
‘I member once when my wife kicked me out I hitched from Pennsylvania to Vegas. Back when I lived in Allentown. Took me six days.’
‘Oh I guess twenty-five, thirty years now. It was Fall. Cold rain a good part of the way.’
‘How come she kicked you out?’
‘She hated me goin anywheres, couldn’t take the gamblin.’ Bill looks up at the ceiling. ‘She was a beautiful woman’ he says to it ‘a kind woman. Better than me in every way, and deservin of better too. Just bein with me made her sad. She stayed though.’
Outside the train is running alongside a highway and I can see snow coming down. ‘Look’ I point it out to Bill.
‘Yeah’ he grunts. ‘Snow.’
I put my forehead against the window and a mist stains the glass down by my mouth. ‘Been a long time since I seen snow.’
The last was six years ago when I headed for LA in a driveaway car, blasting through a continental blizzard that started in Roanoke and ended in Palm Springs. A silver Buick Riviera, the exact car I drove on that first ride, flashes past, heading west. ‘I drove that same car on that same road.’ I close my eyes and the glass is cool against my wine-hot skin. ‘Probably bout the same time of day.’ I see my own face floating over a green-lit dashboard, smoking to stay awake. I hear the beaten teeth of the transmission grinding down those cold white miles.
‘Yeah?’ he says and just for a second I know he’s embarrassed for me.
I pull back from the window and put my feet back on the table.
‘Anyways, man’ he goes on ‘bout when I went to Vegas…I’m just outside Oklahoma City and I run into this other guy hitchin. He’s hunkered under a overpass cause the rain is pissin down. Got a beat-up suitcase and he’s dressed in like a all-white suit cept you can tell he’s been walkin some cause it’s awful dirty and his shoes are split. Bad day to be out I say to him and he says yes it is. Asks me if I got anything to eat. So I break out a can of beans, big family size, and we split it cold. I tell him I’m goin on to Vegas and don’t you know that’s where he’s goin too. He knows people out there, says his name is John. You can walk along with me I say to him and we make it the rest of the way in about two days, maybe three. Two.’
‘A guardian angel’ I say ‘with the white suit and all.’
‘Well’ he says ‘it was me had the beans…anyways I had some money besides, enough to last two days at the blackjack table. That’s why I hitched my way out instead of takin a bus, cause that’s all I had.’ Bill makes a blue-veined fist. ‘My wife, she wasn’t gonna hep me out, hell that’s why she lef me. The gamblin. But then she come back and stuck.’
‘Yeah so you said. Where’d you end up stayin?’
‘Now that’s the beauty of the whole thing. This guy I meet, I figure he’s just another bum like me.’
Bill puts a hand to the back of his neck and closes his eyes.
‘But then he says y’know let’s go down to the Desert Inn cause I know some people there. Well we walk in and all these folks in red vests come runnin over, how you doin sir is there anything I can get you sir your room is ready sir.’
Bill’s eyes open and he gives the table a knock knock knock.
‘I thought I was hallucinatin! I said John what’s goin on here and he puts his hand on my arm and says Bill I got a confession to make. My name’s not John. It’s Howard. It’s Howard Hughes, Bill.’