I didn’t mean for the kid to fall out. He just did.
I was working at the mall when the accident happened. I was the guy who drove the kiddie train all over the place – circle after circle after circle on the top floor of the Paradise Mall down in the valley. It was 50 cents for a kid and a dollar for an adult. I couldn’t let fat people on though, there was a weight restriction. Really tall people couldn’t ride the train either. It was a small train, made for kids and one or two reasonably-sized adults.
I had to go in real early in the morning one day to learn how to drive the train. It was a “safety course” according to the manager. I also had to take a written test before they released me to the world. I got one question wrong. It had something to do with not running over people.
The manager said that was okay because it was pretty much common sense not to run over people and he had a “gut feeling” that I was a fairly sensible person. He gave me a nametag with one of those labeling machine stickers on it that said: THAD.
“But my name is Chad.”
“Chad? Really?” the manager said, looking at me like I must not know my very own name.
“Actually it’s Chadwick. I shortened it.”
“Chadwick won’t fit on the nametag.”
“Just Chad is fine.”
“Look, just wear this one today and I’ll make you a new one later,” he said, just before he plopped a silly little engineer’s cap on my head. “Good luck.”
My name remained THAD for the entire duration of my employment at the mall because he was too damn lazy to ever change it.
It was on a crazy weekend near Christmas when everything went wrong. I was stuck on the afternoon shift and the Paradise Mall was filled to the brim with people. The train came with a whistle you could blow if people were in your way. Most people were in tune enough to step out of the way of a kiddie train racing through the mall, but a lot didn’t. I’ve clipped a few heels and gotten bawled out about it, but nothing as bad as that last day.
I was getting real tired of just being able to drive the train on one level and so I decided to do something about that. I had eyed the escalators many times as I rode around and finally decided that they were wide enough to accommodate my train. I took slow aim and steered the locomotive toward the escalator opening near a Dick’s Sporting Goods store. Someone yelled out, “Hey! Look out!” Then there was a loud ka-klunk. The downhill grade of the escalator was a lot sharper than I expected and the grinding movement of the teethy stairs soon caused a derailment. I heard screaming and crashing behind me and that’s when the kid was bounced out and went over the side of the escalator rail.
He would have been smashed up on the floor pretty good if it hadn’t been for the nice lady who caught him. But people were still pretty mad at me. My boss yelled and fired me right away. They took my entire last paycheck to help cover the damages. I still owe them a lot more but I can’t pay because I don’t have a job. The family of the kid who fell out is trying to make my life hell with some civil suit over “trauma.” The mall no longer has a train because I totaled it.
I sat sipping egg nog on a chill Christmas day watching distant traffic out my bedroom window. The rest of the family was on a Caribbean cruise for the holidays. There was my father, my mother, my younger sister Sadie, and my younger brother Hermes. I couldn’t go because I had to drive the train. The accident happened two days after my family left. I was 22 years of age and suddenly all alone in a big house with nowhere to go.
The house was on the outside of the suburbs. We had a large wooded lot and a long driveway that came in off the main road and curved. You could barely see the house through the pines. I looked out the big living room window and I could barely see the road. The sun was shining but it was cold out. Patches of white littered the landscape. I put on a coat and went out the front door. I could see my breath steam out of me and it made me think of the mall train. I really wish I wouldn’t have crashed it. But then again, maybe it wasn’t my entire fault. Mall management should have picked up on something after that psychological test they gave me. They had a question on there that asked if I had ever eaten food out of a trash can. I answered yes. Maybe that’s why I got the job.
It was real quiet outside except for that winter wind filtering through the green boughs and knocking into me. I pulled a knit cap from my coat pocket and slipped it over my head. I didn’t like my head. It was too round. I didn’t like my hair. It was too curly and it looked like I had a perm. Society classifies me as a redhead but my hair color is actually orange. Jesus, I have orange hair. I have to keep it cut short so I don’t look like a clown. I was never very popular in high school and the girls were never attracted to me. I wanted to play football, but I never did. I was a good athlete, but I wasn’t one of the crowd. Graduation day was sweet freedom.
I smoked a cigarette as I walked around the yard. The sun was slipping and the air was growing colder. My shoes crunched in the patches of snow. My father told me before leaving on the family boat trip that I better start thinking about college. He was getting very impatient with me. He told me other kids my age were close to finishing up college and that I was allowing myself to be left behind.
“There’s no future in train driving,” he lectured. “You need a solid education and then you can own the train drivers.”
I didn’t want to own anything.
I once told him that I wanted to move to Kansas and run a sunflower farm. He told me to get my head out of the clouds and get a MBA.
“You can never go wrong with business,” he said. “The world will always need good businessmen.”
He’s a regional vice president for a chain of banks. He makes a lot of money. I don’t know exactly how much, but I’m sure he’s swimming in it. Mom doesn’t work. She’s never worked. She stays at home and bakes and drinks and sometimes goes down to the community center and helps out with a neighborhood rummage sale. My sister Sadie is in junior high. She’s an obnoxious little member of the “spirit squad” and vice president of the student council. Father loves her ambition and energy and her social power. He’s already grooming her for Harvard. My brother Hermes is lost in the shadows. He is a dark, brooding young boy who spends countless hours by himself writing plays and then he acts them out with Sadie’s hand-me-down dolls. My father yells at him for playing with dolls.
“If I ever see you playing with another doll,” he screamed at him one day. “I’m going to ship you off to the queer farm!”
I had to walk by Hermes’ bedroom door to get to mine and it was always closed and he cried a lot. Our father often vocalized his concerns about Hermes turning out just like me.
He’d say things like, “I already have one son heading down the path to being a nobody … I don’t need two.”
I sighed at the thought of telling him about the train accident. He’d really let me have it for that one. I thought about packing my bags and getting on a real train and going to the other side of the world – anything to spare his disapproving wrath. But then I figured a train ride to the city for a couple of days would be just as good.
Two days later I phoned my friend Brick. Brick was a jock, but the only jock that ever befriended me and stayed in touch after graduation. Brick had a truck and he drove me to the station. He turned down the radio so he could hear what I had to say.
“I just want to get away for a little bit … so I can see new things.”
“What kinds of things do you want to see?”
“Girls who wear dresses.”
Brick smiled and agreed.
“If you meet some, don’t forget to tell them about me … the most handsome young man in all of Lubricant County.”
He was a bit dumb, but he was right. Brick looked like the guy every guy wanted to look like – the perfect male specimen from toe to head. Back in high school all the girls swooned in the halls and smacked big glossy smiles in his direction every time he strolled by. He was a star player on the football team and helped our school win some state swimming meet. The girls loved the swim meets. They gathered in the front sections of the bleachers and cheered for his lean, wet body with giggling vigor. Brick was constantly distracted by the sex. He already had one illegitimate child with a former cheerleader and another on the way with a different former cheerleader. I could tell it all weighed heavy on him, but he smiled through it.
“Whatcha going to do about that?” I asked him.
He turned to me and grinned, pushed his cowboy hat back on his head.
“You mean the kids?”
“Yeah. The kids.”
“I don’t know. Suppose I better start lookin’ for a second job. You think that mall you worked at is hiring?”
“Not for a driver of the train.”
Brick laughed out loud and slapped at the steering wheel with the palm of his hand.
“Oy yeah. I guess you wouldn’t be a very good reference to put down on my application, would ya?”
“Zip it, Brick … and just drive.”
The station was a little red house beside the tracks with clean windows and empty flower boxes. There was one man inside and he sold me a ticket to the city. I found an empty bench on the platform and waited. A college girl sat down beside me and started to read some chick magazine.
“Hello.” I said to her.
She looked up from her mag, turned her head and smiled to me.
“Are you going to the city as well?” I asked her.
“I live in the city. I just finished visiting a family friend.”
“Who are they? Maybe I know them.”
“The Scotts on Hairpin Road.”
I shook my head. “Nope. Never heard of them.”
“They’re very fine people. They know my uncle and have a daughter about my age. Don’t you know Charlotte Scott? I’m sure she went to school around here.”
“No. I don’t know her, but it sounds like I should.”
“She’s very popular.”
“Well, that makes sense because I’m not.”
She tucked the magazine away and turned to face me with more interest than before. Her eyes were big and blue and her skin looked perfect.
“Do you go to school in the city?” she asked me.
“No. I actually don’t go to school. I have no idea what I want to do with my life. What are you going for?”
She proudly raised her head and smiled. “I am going to be a graphic artist.”
I was impressed by that. “That’s a really honorable career path to take.”
She scrunched her nose and grinned at me. “Okay. Thanks.”
The train began to pull in and she quickly stood up and extended her soft hand. “It was very nice talking to you.”
“We could sit together on the train,” I eagerly suggested.
She rubbed at her nose and glanced away.
“I suppose that would be all right … Who are you?”
“Well, Chadwick Smith, I’m Aspen.”
“That’s a tree. I like that name. Do you quake gently in the wind?”
Aspen looked at me like I was crazy. “We better get on board.”
She took me by the hand and pulled me along the platform and we got on the train. She pulled me down a long aisle of sad and frustrated faces to a row near the back. We sat facing each other, pressed tight against the window. She fumbled through a satchel for a bit and then set it down beside her and moved her perfumed face close to mine. Her breath smelled like roses as she spoke.
“Are you going to look for a job in the city?” she asked me, her blue eyes catching a glint of cold sunlight, and all sparkling.
“I just got fired and taking a bit of a break, that’s all.”
Her eyes widened with interest. “Why did you get fired?”
“I tried to drive a kiddie train down an escalator at the mall.”
A hand went to her mouth as she broke out in a wide grin and laughed a bit. “That was you?”
“I have to admit, I thought it was pretty funny.”
“You know about that?”
“Yes. It was in the newspaper. There were even pictures. Don’t you read the newspaper?”
“No. I’d like to have a clipping and frame it and hang it in my room, though. Do you think you could get me one?”
“I’ll work on it.”
“It was a real tragedy.”
She laughed again. “No one was killed … Right?”
“I almost killed a toddler. I don’t think it’s very funny.”
She snorted. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I won’t bring it up again during the whole trip.”
“Thank you. I appreciate that. It’s a very bad memory for me.”
She got quiet, looked down at her lap and crossed her hands, but I could see her lips stretched wide across her face in the form of a grand smile. I stared out the window and I could see her reflection in the glass, even as the trees whipped by and the winter sky swam high above us.
“Where do you live in the city?” I asked her.
“I have my own apartment.”
“Could we go there?”
She got a serious look on her face. “I barely know you, Chadwick Smith,” and her lips closed tight and with real purpose.
“I just thought it might be fun. I have no plans. I don’t even know where I’m going to stay for the night.”
Aspen leaned back and studied me. “You’re not going to kill me, are you?”
I feigned a sorrowful sigh. “Why do all the girls ask me that?” I smiled back at her for the first time. She shook her head, rolled her eyes and showed me her sparkling white teeth. I wanted to eat them like peppermint Chiclets.
Aspen lived in a tall building of glass near the center of the city. We rode an elevator in silence to the 19th floor and stepped out. The hallway smelled like a garden and when she opened the door to her apartment there was a sudden flood of sterile, white light.
“Take a seat,” she said to me as she walked into the kitchen area, her shoes gently clomping on the hardwood floors.
I fell into one of the sofas and looked around the place. She had a collection of C.S. Lewis books shelved upon a bookcase above the fireplace of modern ignition. One of the walls had a giant painting of a ladybug on canvas, but instead of the ladybug being red, it was blue. Large rectangular windows offered up a stunning view of the city and beyond.
“Do you want something to drink?” she called out from the kitchen.
I thought about it hard. “Apple juice.” She stepped out of the kitchen and looked at me like I was high.
“Sorry. I don’t have any apple juice.”
“What are you having?”
“A beer. An imported beer.”
“I’ll have an imported beer too.”
I heard her pop the caps and then she came in where I was and sat down on the couch. Her hand barely swept across mine when she handed me the bottle.
She got uncomfortably close to me. “So, what should we drink to?”
I took a sip of the beer and looked at her. “I don’t know.”
“How about … to new friends?”
“Aren’t we friends yet? I mean, here you are, in my apartment and I barely just met you. That seems pretty friendly to me.”
I nodded my head and gulped down the rest of the beer. “Can I have another one?”
“Help yourself. I’m going to go change into my pajama pants. They’re so much more comfortable.”
She bounded off to another room with the delicacy of an elvish princess and I hunted another beer. Something on the door of the refrigerator caught my eye before I yanked it open. There was a picture of a man and it had a red heart drawn around it. I looked around for other clues of steady male companionship until she snuck up behind me and busted me for peeping in drawers.
“What are you doing?”
“I was just looking for something to set my beer down on. A coaster.”
“You can just set it on the table; it won’t hurt it.”
I felt rather embarrassed walking back to the couch but didn’t hesitate to ask her about the photo. “Who’s that a picture of on the refrigerator?”
Her face flushed nearly instantly. “Oh. You saw that I guess. He’s … Just a guy I like.”
“Is he your boyfriend?”
“But you would like him to be?”
“Hell yes! Did you look at him? He’s so hot.”
“And what do you think of me? Am I hot?”
I could sense her becoming more unsettled as she hesitated. “I think you’re really cute. I like the freckles on your face. They’re like constellations.”
“But am I hot? Would other women consider me hot?”
“Sure … Of course they would.”
“You’re lying, I can tell.”
She became frustrated. “Look, I don’t know why you are becoming so upset about this; I just want to hang out and have a little fun.”
“Are hot guys more fun?”
“Jesus fuck! Okay, you’re hot!”
“That wasn’t sincere. It was forced.”
“Chadwick please, quit being a dick and just relax … or maybe you should just leave.”
“No. I want to stay. I like you and I want another beer.”
Aspen moved her hands in a gesture of ughhh! and rose from the couch. She moved into the kitchen and went to the picture on the refrigerator door and removed it. She turned around, opened a drawer and dropped the picture into a pile of other pictures of men, all encircled by a big red heart. The drawer was nearly overflowing and she thanked God Chadwick hadn’t opened that one when he was rummaging through her personal belongings.
She came back, knelt beside me on the couch and handed me another beer. I tried to tug on the ties of her pajama bottoms. “Hey!” she yelped like a lovesick seal. “What are you doing?”
“I just wanted to see what you have hiding in your pajamas.”
“That’s creepy, Chadwick. I don’t think you know how to talk to women. It’s not very romantic.”
“What am I supposed to say?”
“Tell a girl that she’s beautiful or her dress is really pretty.”
“That sounds stupid.”
“Maybe to you, not to a girl. Is that why you are all alone?”
“I never said I was alone. I could have a girlfriend, you don’t know that.”
“Girls know when a guy doesn’t have a girlfriend. And you do not have a girlfriend.”
I sucked the beer down and held the empty bottle in my hand as I gestured. “I don’t need a girlfriend.”
Aspen moved close enough that parts of our legs were touching. “Oh really? Why is that?”
“I couldn’t stand the frustration.”
“Hmm, I see. You know what? Maybe you are better off alone. You could spare us ladies all the frustration.”
“Women only care about muscles and money – and I don’t have either one.”
“I seriously hope you don’t truly believe that.”
“Oh come on. It’s not bullshit. A man with muscles and money has way better of a chance than me of bagging some hot chick like yourself.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t think of women as only animals to hunt. That would be a fresh start for you.” Aspen got up off the couch and went into a room and closed the door. I guessed it was the bathroom because I heard water running. I sat there for a minute before going over to the door and knocking.
“What are you doing in there?”
“I’m going to take a shower.”
I pondered what a real man would say in such a situation.
“Can I take a shower with you?”
“No, you may not!” And I heard her yank the shower curtain in place.
While Aspen showered, I stepped out onto the veranda with another drink. I looked over the rail and the city roared far below. The sky was a stew of pink and blue hues – melting cotton candy from a circus. I thought about Brick and the fact that if he were here right now; she’d already be rolling around naked in the bed with him. I’m not Brick, I’m Chadwick, and I have orange hair. I suddenly wanted to ask her a question and went back to the bathroom door. The water had stopped. She was toweling off when I barged in.
“Hey! What the hell are you doing!?”
“Look at that. The door was unlocked the whole time.”
She wrapped herself tightly with a towel and then glared at me. “I think you should just go.”
“But wait. I wanted to ask you something first.”
She brushed past me and into her bedroom. “What do you want to ask me?”
“Could you dye my hair a different color?”
“Because I hate it. Look. I have orange hair.”
She was drying her own luscious locks with a plush hand towel. “So.”
“It makes me not hot.”
“Looks aren’t everything … and besides, it wouldn’t go with your skin. You’d look even worse.”
“I knew you didn’t think I was hot. You think I’m ugly.”
“It doesn’t matter what I or anyone else think. The only thing that matters is what you think. You have a problem with low self-esteem.”
“Nice cliché. It’s a bunch of garbage though. Why don’t you just be honest and tell me I’m not good looking!?”
“Okay, Chadwick. I’m not attracted to you in a physical way. Not everyone in the whole damn world is going to be attracted to you for Christ’s sake. It’s just the way things are so get over it!”
“You asked for it.”
“Maybe I should go.”
“Do you have enough money for a hotel? Hotels in the city can be very expensive.”
I reached into my pocket and showed her what I had.
“That’s not enough.” She went to her dresser and pulled open a drawer. She reached in and then handed me the money. “Take it. It’s a gift.”
“You must be rich.”
“I get by. Do you have a map?”
“The first thing you should buy out there is a good map.”
“Maybe I’ll see you again?”
“We could bump into each other on the train again someday; who knows?”
I bought a map at the drugstore around the corner and had a soda and relieved myself in a dirty restroom. I found an old-time barbershop with a real pole outside and I went in.
The barber grunted at me. “What can I do for you?”
“I want my head shaved.”
“Easy enough. Hop in the chair.”
He wrapped the plastic cape around me and his clippers came alive with a buzz like one million bees ready to sting me. I watched as the clumps of little orange hairs quickly fell to the floor like feathers.
I finally asked him, “Is there a good hotel around here?”
“The Brimstone Inn is a pretty fine joint. It’s just on the other side of the park.”
“And what about a bar? I want to go to a good bar with good people, not drunken animals.”
“There’s a bar right there in the hotel. A lot of sophisticated ladies frequent the place, if you know what I mean.”
He turned off the clippers and placed a warm, moist towel on my head and patted at my scalp through the terrycloth. “I think you’re done. Wanna take a look?”
He whirled the chair around and I could see myself in the mirror. I moved my head around as I looked at my shining dome and the shadow of orange stubble. “Looks great. Just what I wanted.”
I paid the man and went out into the chilled end of day. I hurried across the park and found the entrance to The Brimstone Inn. A man in a circus costume held the door open for me and said “Good evening, sir. Welcome to the Brimstone.”
I went to the front desk and ordered up a room for one and paid the man in cash. I was in room 333. It was a very nice room. It was probably the nicest hotel I had ever been in and the window offered up a fine view of the park. It was dark outside after I had showered and buffed my head and I looked like the main dude from that band Live. I chewed on some gum and then went downstairs to the lobby bar. There was a black man in a tuxedo playing a piano and lamenting about lost love and some women were leaning on the piano listening to him with tears in their eyes. I sat at the bar, away from other people, and ordered a vodka over ice and a rum and Coke. After downing a few drinks and no luck with human contact, I suddenly became very hungry for egg dumplings and tomato soup. I asked the bartender about it.
“Hey barkeep. Where could I get some really good egg dumplings and tomato soup?”
He thought about it as he wiped a beer glass with a bleached towel. “Try Jenny’s. It’s just down the street.”
I thanked him and paid him for the drinks. I went out into the lobby and again the man in the circus uniform opened the door for me. “Enjoy your evening, sir,” through a restless wind he said, and he tipped his silly hat to me. I walked down the street and then I found Jenny’s near the end of the block. It was a small place made of aluminum and it had a Jenny’s sign in neon red above the door. I made my way in and sat at the counter. A beat up waitress in orange came over and asked me what I wanted.
“I heard you have the best egg dumplings and tomato soup in the city. How ‘bout it then, can you dish me up a bowl?”
She sarcastically smiled and her wrinkled lips popped. “I’d love to. Do you want anything to drink with that?”
“I’m aching for a Mr. Pibb.”
“Mr. Pibb’s off this week, how ‘bout a Coke?”
“Whatever you recommend, Jenny.”
“I recommend you drink a Coke ‘cause that’s all we have right now. And I’m not Jenny. Jenny signs the checks I work so hard for. Can’t you read my nametag? I’m Mary.”
“And you’re just as pleasant as the Virgin Mother herself.”
“Are you makin’ a crack at me?”
“I’m sorry, Mary … Havin’ a bad day?”
“Shit. You could say that. Jenny back there keeps hiring these dingy broads as waitresses and they come in here to work and all they do is jerk off all day. Then guess who gets stuck with all the work? I hadn’t had a day off in three weeks.”
Someone invisible person from the back called out. “Shut your filthy trap, Mary. I’m doing the best I can!”
Mary rolled her eyes. “See what I gotta put up with? Anyways, these dumb little broads last for a coupla days, maybe, and then they up and quit. They complain it was too hard. I’d like to show them hard … Bam! Right in their stinky little faces!”
She set the Coke down in front of me and I took a sip. “Why don’t you just quit?”
“Quit!? I only wish. I’ve got bills to pay, sweetheart. Don’t you have any bills, cowboy?”
“I have one.”
“One!? God, what I would give if I only had one bill.”
“Yeah, but it’s a big one.”
“Ya gotta gambling problem, sweetheart?”
“No, it’s nothing like that. I had an accident at my job, well, the job I used to have.”
“I crashed the kiddie train at a mall.”
Mary burst out laughing and could barely control herself. “Oh my God. That was you?” She turned and yelled toward the back. “Hey Jenny, you gotta come out here. This is the guy who crashed that kiddie train at that mall!”
“Jesus! Do you have to make such a big deal about it? How did you know about it way down here anyways?”
Mary almost fell over from laughing so hard. “It was in all the papers, you silly goose! They even had your picture like you were some mean criminal or something. I thought I recognized you.”
A bulbous lady with a blonde mullet and unintelligent breasts came waddling out of the back room smacking gum in her small mouth. I guessed it was Jenny. She put a pencil behind her ear and looked at me. Her voice was tough. “You’re the guy who smashed up the kids’ train? Man, that was funnier than hell.”
I took another sip of my Coke and bowed my head in what I guess could be best described as happy shame. “I don’t see what’s so funny about it. Why does everyone keep laughing?
“Man, you must be bat shit crazy to do something like that,” Jenny sarcastically advised me. Then saying to Mary. “I heard he almost killed some poor kid.”
“Why aren’t you in jail?” Mary barked. “You almost killed a kid!”
“I’d rather not talk about it around all these people. Could I please just have my egg dumplings and tomato soup!?”
Jenny left a trail of husky laughs as she returned to the back of the restaurant. Mary ripped a piece of paper off her order pad and slid away to the kitchen after giving me a pissed off look. I took another sip of my Coke and looked at myself in the mirror behind the counter. What had I become? I almost killed a kid with my juvenile antics.
The egg dumplings and tomato soup weren’t that good and I think they made the food crappy on purpose just to piss me off. I guess I was a little rude, but hell man, I didn’t want to talk about it with pure strangers. It was 9:36 in the night and I was back out in the street wondering what to do. I wanted a beer and so I walked around a bit because I knew there would be a bar somewhere not too far off. I stumbled upon this Irish place called The Micks at the corner of some dead end and dimly lit street. I went in and it was pretty quiet and still except for some old man sipping a big glass of milk at the bar. A weepy song about four-leaf clovers moaned in the background. I took a seat about three stools away from the guy drinking milk and I ordered a big imported beer. He sipped. I sipped. The sipping sound of silence. Then he pushed the empty glass in front of him, smacked his lips and looked over at me.
“That was damn fine milk,” he said, and he made a clicking sound with his face.
“Do you always come to a bar to drink milk?” I asked him.
He slowly made his way closer to me and sat down. His breath smelled like a dairy under a hot New Mexican sun.
“Let me tell you about that, son. See, my body don’t allow me to put the booze in anymore, but I still like comin’ to the pub. There isn’t nothing wrong with that is there?”
I held my glass up to him and nodded. “You got a point there. But isn’t it lonely?”
He was suddenly sad and struggled for an answer. “I suppose it is. But it wasn’t always like that. All my friends from the old neighborhood used to come here. Now they’re all dead and I’m probably not far behind.”
I joked with him. “But you’re probably pretty healthy from drinking all that milk though, right?” He smiled and chuckled at that and I could see that he had really bad teeth. “It’s supposed to soothe the ulcers, so they say. At least that’s what my wife used to tell me. But she’s dead now, too.”
“Man. I’m sorry to hear that.”
He waved it away into the air like it was really no big deal. “Everybody has to die some time.”
“Death seems to be weighing heavy on your mind tonight, my friend.”
He sort of lost his shine. “I was at the doctor this morning, like I had always promised my dear wife I would regularly do if anything ever happened to her, and it wasn’t good.”
“Are you sick?”
“They said I have the cancer … in my testicles for crying out loud. I got dick cancer they said. I could drop dead here tonight.”
“Shouldn’t you be in the hospital?”
His old eyes danced in his head as he looked at me and then around the empty pub. “I should be here. Where I matter … I don’t want to die in a hospital.”
“But, can’t they treat it?”
“Their idea of treatment is more like torture if you ask me. I don’t wanna go out like that. I know the awful things they do and I don’t want to be just another experiment.”
“Can I buy you another milk?” I offered.
“Yeah sure … Hey Tommy, can I get another moo juice over here? This guy is paying for it.”
“I think I would do the same thing?”
“What’s that young man?”
“I don’t want to die in a sterile void like that. I think you made the right decision.”
“The docs don’t think so. They said I’ll come runnin’ once the pain really kicks in.”
The bartender placed a moist mug of milk down in front of the old man.
“Hey,” I joked. “Maybe the milk is better than the medicine.”
He grunted. “Or maybe I ought to try some of that medicinal marijuana everyone is talking about.”
“Sure. You’re obviously old enough.”
“Thanks a lot. Hell, we smoked plenty of that shit during the war.”
“I’ve always wondered about that. How did you guys manage to shoot straight if you were stoned all the time?”
“That was easy. We just imagined the enemy was a hot piece of tail, if you know what I mean.”
“I know what you mean.”
“Hell, back then it seemed like all the women were hot pieces of tail. Nowadays most of ‘em look like skeletons.”
“And you don’t get off on that sort of thing, do you?”
“The only place I want to see bones like that is my Sunday chicken dinner.”
“I agree. I like a little meat, too.”
He chuckled sincerely. “So, what’s a clean young man like you doing in a place like this?”
“I came down from beyond the suburbs for a night or so. I suppose I’m a little lost and I was thirsty for a beer.”
“Had to get away?”
“Something like that. I don’t have a job anymore and my family is on a Christmas cruise.”
“What happened to your job?”
“I don’t really want to talk about it. It’s pretty bad.”
“Oh shit lad. You’ve got to tell me now.”
“I crashed a kiddie train at a mall.”
The old man exploded with a gush of giddiness. “Oooh hoo hoo! That was you? Oh, darling lad, that was a good one. What a riot that was! Oooh hoo hoo!”
“Do you read the newspaper?”
“Every chance I get. Oooh hoo hoo! They even had a silly little picture of ya too. Like you were some devil!”
I slammed another beer. “Those god damn newspapers. Why don’t they mind their own damn business! I’m not any more of a devil than the real devil himself. Bastards!”
“They wrote that you nearly killed some poor little kid trying to drive down the escalator like ya done.”
It was just then that the old man tipped back a big gulp of milk into his smiling rot. He wiped at his mouth with his sleeve and then he began to choke and he suddenly dropped to the floor.
“Call an ambulance!” I yelled to the bartender. “I think this dick cancer has finally got the best of him.”
I rode in the ambulance with him all the way to the hospital because there was no one else to do it. He looked pale and frothy lying out on that gurney the way he was. I thought he was already dead for sure as the paramedics hung out all over him, but he had a smile on his face. Once at the hospital they made me wait outside in a room with a bunch of empty chairs in it while they worked on him because I wasn’t kin. After a while I got restless and wandered around the quiet hospital. I went up and down elevators and walked up and down white hallways and once in a while I looked into a room and saw sick people and heard them cough and moan. I went down to the cafeteria but it was closed and all you could do was get something from a crummy vending machine. I got a granola bar dipped in yogurt and a bottled water. I was worried the sound of change dropping would wake the ones close to death.
When I returned to where I was waiting, some teenaged nurse told me the old man wanted to see me if I was still around. She led me through a door and down a bright hall and to a room where he was lying in a bed like he was in grave pain.
He struggled to speak. “I’m not going to die yet they said. They promised me they would get me out of here before that happens.”
I sat in a chair at the foot of the bed. “They’ll kick you out soon enough. I’m sure of it.”
“I hope so. I don’t like it here. They’re all just pretending to be nice.”
“That’s their job.”
He kind of rolled his tongue and studied the ceiling. “You don’t have to worry about it so much,” he told me. “Life that is. It all works out in the end.”
“You think I’m worried about things?”
“Sure you are. I can tell you’re worried about what the world thinks of you.”
I studied my shoes against the shiny tiles of the floor.
“I suppose I am.”
“Listen to me. No matter what happens or no matter whatcha do, you still end up right here where I am – at the end of the road. It don’t matter if you’re rich or poor or what ya done your whole life. Everyone comes to the end.”
“So are you saying what I do with my life really doesn’t matter?”
“Of course it matters, you still have to do what’s right and just, but you don’t have to be so twisted in knots about it the whole way through. It isn’t worth it. Perfection is merely a mirage. Can I tell you about something that’s bothered me almost my whole life? … And I shouldn’t have let it.”
“When I was a boy, maybe about ten years old, I stole a candy bar from a department store. It was some kind of chocolate bar. I wanted it so bad, but I didn’t have any money. I just took it and put it in my pocket. But when I walked outside a man was following and he stopped me right there on the street. He was very tall and professional looking and he scared me. He grabbed me by the arm and asked me if I had something in my pocket I didn’t pay for. I started crying a little bit and I reached into my pants and pulled out the candy bar and handed it to him. It was sort of squishy by then. He yelled at me some more and got my name and said he was going to call my folks about it and maybe even the police. I was a scared as shit kid let me tell you. I knew my father would come at me like a hurricane. The tall man told me I wasn’t allowed in the store for the rest of my life and I never went back in, ever. I went home and couldn’t sleep for days worrying about the phone ringing. Nobody ever called. The place burned down a few years after that and I was glad because it sort of erased the memory for me. I suppose it sounds stupid and I’m not sure why I’m telling you all this except to say when you get older you’ll probably realize that no one is perfect. And so what if you’re not perfect; the hell with it. Who cares? Life’s too short to waste away trying to live a fairytale life. That’s what I think.”
He stopped talking and closed his eyes. I could tell he was very tired. I stood up and leaned over him. “I’m going to go now,” I said. He didn’t answer and just started to snore a little bit. I stopped short of the abandoned hallway and closed the door in front of me. I turned back to him and I don’t really understand what came over me but I took a pillow and forced it over his face. When he began to struggle I pushed down harder. His legs were kicking and he tried to claw at me with his old hands. I pushed down harder again until he stopped moving completely. When I finally removed the pillow and looked at him he seemed peaceful enough, except for his eyes, his eyes were wide with sufferings I couldn’t understand.
I left the hospital without any trouble and walked back toward The Brimstone Inn. It was very late and there was no one there to open the door for me. A desk clerk looked up as I strolled through the lobby toward the elevators and he nodded. “Sleep well, sir,” he said. I slept better than I had in a long time.
In the morning I dined on a breakfast of fresh scrambled eggs, toast, bacon, delicious coffee and a plate of fresh fruit. I gathered my things and checked out from the hotel and walked to the train station. I couldn’t believe it but I saw Aspen there, sitting on a bench with some hot guy and openly flirting. I walked over to them and they looked up at me like I was crazy. Maybe I was. Maybe I wasn’t.
“Hello,” I said, not even looking at the hot guy.
Aspen nervously licked at her freshly painted lips. “Hi, Chadwick. What a surprise. Are you heading back home so soon?”
I stared at the guy. “Yes.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. This is my friend, Glenn Pearson. Glenn’s an architect.”
The hot guy named Glenn Pearson extended a clean hand and smiled. “I’m studying to become an architect, actually,” he said, like a prick.
I clutched his hand and embraced it. “I’m very happy for you.” I left them and stood all by myself on the platform waiting for the train. I looked at my watch. I wasn’t happy or sad. I just was, and I guess that’s all we can ever be. The train groaned to a stop and I got on and took a seat in the back. I watched the other people get on and then there was Aspen and Glenn and they paid me no attention because they were too giddy about each other. I stared out the window as the city slowly disappeared behind me and the world was trees and cold blue sky again. It began to lightly snow and I started reading an old newspaper I found tucked in a seat pocket. I flipped through it quickly but then stopped when I saw the picture of myself lodged in an article beneath the heading: Man crashes child train at mall; boy saved from certain death.
I laughed out loud in front of no one. “I could do a lot worse than that,” I told myself – and the world rolled on beside me and so did I.
And it’s all ancient history now. But it’s still history.