issue fourteen

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(1900 words)
Oregon Trail
Tony Press
[Updated monthly on the full moon]
"No, I used to have long hair like yours. Longer. But then I got it cut because I had to, you know," the second man joined him: "get a job."

"I do yardwork," added the second man, "so it never made any difference."

The man who no longer had long hair was sitting in the last seat on the train, sketching on a Strathmore drawing pad. His rapid strokes suggested he knew what he was doing. The man with long hair stood just behind him although most of the seats were empty. His shoulders rested high against the door.

I hadn't caught the beginning of their conversation but I hadn't missed much, because the long-haired man and I had been outside waiting for that train just a few moments earlier. In the low afternoon sun I'd seen in his face what I myself would have become, had I not, years ago, finally ceased my cravings for all manner of intoxicants. If he had quit once or twice, as everyone generally did, I had little doubt that his last quitting was a long time passing, no longer fixed in his memory. I suspected he was close to my age but his face was a bad ten years beyond. He towered over me, chalk-skinned and gaunt.

He had dumped four or five bags - flight bags, duffel bag, canvas bag - on the pavement in front of our bench, and sat down according to a law as strong as gravity, at the far end of the bench.

After five minutes of neutral silence, he muttered: "Watch my back," and ambled toward the shrubs at the north end of the platform. I assumed he was asking or telling me to keep an eye on his stuff. Possibly he had said "watch my bags," but I think he just put the two phrases together. I remembered the time a client told me that "the hand was writing on the wall" and it was hours before I realized what he was talking about. Back at the station I just figured this man had a sudden need to urinate, and everybody knew the restrooms were locked tight on weekends.

But when he returned he was clutching a fair approximation of a bouquet, culled from the meager offerings available in the sparse landscaping. He sat again, pulled out a phone, and called someone named "Babe." He told Babe he'd be leaving Palo Alto at 5:29, so "just jump on the train in Millbrae." After a pause, he continued: "Just get on the first one after 5:29. …  No, I'm not getting off, I'll be on it. …  We will not miss each other, because I won't get off. I'll be all the way in the back. … No, not much. But I have enough. … Okay, see you soon. You're ready, right?"

"We're going to Oregon tonight," he said. His phone was shut now so if he were speaking to anybody, I was the one. "We'll take this all the way to the city, then bust ass over to Greyhound for the 7:40 to Oregon. We're gonna stay there for sure. We've had about enough of this place. Too much history. Way too much drama. If it's close, I'll pay for a taxi to get to Greyhound. I can't miss that bus because the next one has a five hour layover somewhere."

Fooled again. I peered at this stringy-haired romantic with bad teeth and a Northern California history I could recite in my sleep and be ninety percent accurate. But it was the ten percent that I was always getting wrong, when I slapped my labels on someone and thought I knew all there was to know.

We returned to our books - mine was a thin paperback, a P.G. Wodehouse farce bustling with butlers and artistes and young lovers. I bought it for all of three dollars in Know Knew Books across from my office, my treat to myself for going in on a Saturday, and I almost laughed out loud at one point, but before I could, he did. A few moments later, he laughed again. Was he reading his own book or looking over my shoulder? My book was as funny as anything I'd read in months, but I still couldn't imagine that this guy would see it the same way. I looked over. It was his book that had him going, an oversized hardback on the San Francisco 49ers. He turned to me.

"You should read this! You a football fan? Man, I can't wait until the real season starts again. This book is great. Why can't they play one exhibition or practice game, or whatever the hell they want to call it, every week, all year, until the regular season? Hell, I don't care who's in the uniforms; high school kids, scrubs, it don't matter. I just like to watch. You a football fan? This book cracks me up." A small flat bottle materialized. "Hey, you want some?"

"No," I said. "Thanks, though." He took the smallest sip possible. The bottle disappeared into a jacket pocket and we resumed our reading but Jeeves keep getting tackled by Matt Hazeltine and Leo Nomellini, 49ers from my childhood, from, from, no, could that be right? I watched those guys on a rabbit-eared black and white television, and five times in person, forty years ago. More! When was the last time I'd thought about those giants, and that one season of Sundays that we walked through Golden Gate Park to Kezar Stadium, my father, my grandfather, and me? This guy's football book wasn't doing my British drawing room comedy any favors, but I welcomed the nostalgia. Those stadium benches were a lot like this backless bench, and I stood to loosen my stiff body.

The train, our train, finally arrived. Saturday is not a big day on the commuter line so you wait a long time, almost two hours in our case. We boarded through different doors but I found myself moving toward the back where he was standing, perched over the artist.


       I eased into a seat that faced the rear of the car, the artist, and the daisy-grasping shadow of the sixties - we probably saw Hendrix on the same nights - his menagerie of bags again resting in a clump, and then, as if a master-switch had been flipped, his face burst into an extravagant, crooked-teethed grin. You don't often witness an epiphany, but that's what I saw.

"Hey, in a couple of stops my girlfriend's getting on. See these flowers? She's a beautiful black woman with the coolest hair you've ever seen. Listen. How about if you draw her for me? Would you do that? I'd pay you - and she wouldn't even know about it until it's finished! God, that would be great! Would you? What would it cost? I've got the money. Ten? Twenty? I've got the money. We're going to Oregon."

Even as the artist smiled with a "Sure, man, no problem, glad to," another guy across the aisle offered up his seat. "You and your girlfriend should sit here, where he can see her, and she'd have no idea." The donor took a new seat, staying close to the stage he'd set.

"Wow, thanks, man, that's perfect. Here, I'll sit over here, where he was, and when she comes, I'll make her sit across from me, so you'll have a good look at her. God, she's beautiful. She says I look like Dracula. Once she said 'What am I doing with a white man who looks like a dead white man?' But I tell her she's gorgeous. And she is. Remember, we won't say anything - we'll act like we just met - hey, we did just meet. What's your name, man? I'm Victor. Then, when you're done, you'll give it to me, and I'll give it to her. And I'll pay you, too."

We waited. One stop. Two stops. Which stop was it? He'd told me, but I couldn't remember, and I was getting nervous. He was mellow, chattering with the artist about the Oregon trip, about his girlfriend, about the folly of cutting perfectly good hair to get a job, but with each stop I wasn't so sure. I'd heard his end of the phone conversation so I was reasonably sure she existed, but you never know. And even if she did exist, would she get to her station on time? Did she really want to? Was she on the same page?

The stops kept coming.

"There she is. Just act natural." At his instructions the artist promptly looked out the window. The other guy raised a crumpled Chronicle. She reached the back of the car.

"Hello young lady, don't I know you?"

"Well, I don't think so," said a tall dark-skinned woman with braids in all directions.

I'd been afraid to look at her because I didn't want to be the one to ruin things. I had to laugh at myself, since nobody else knew that I knew, but I was excited. I wished I'd seen her face.

"I think you might be a friend of a sister of a cousin of mine."

"No sir, you're wrong, but I'll take a chance and sit next to you anyway."

"Ahh, no, sit across from me, so I can figure out where I know you from. Besides, you're one sweet vision in a sour world, and this way I can gaze upon you all the way to San Fran. Does your mama know where you are?"

"My mama is a million miles away, so you don't need to worry about her."

"Well wherever she is, she's got one fine-looking daughter - you can take that to the bank and live on it for a month. How about letting me try on those shades of yours, they hide too much of your face. Hey, look what I have, pretty flowers for you."

"You're a sweet talker, mister. You can charm the glasses right off me, and maybe a whole lot more. You are one dangerous man."

She released her two suitcases and situated herself where he, where all of us, willed her to be. I watched the exchange of dark glasses and white daisies. Across the aisle, the artist shifted slightly and made graceful swoops with his pencil. Bits of conversation reached me but now it was mostly whispers. The artist continued to work as the conductor called 22nd Street, my refuge for the next thirty-six hours. The trail from the tracks to my own love's door took exactly nine minutes when I walked quickly and we hadn't touched in ten days and ten nights; still, it was with hesitant steps that I crossed the tracks and headed east.

She hugged me, had seen me coming, had run to the gate. "Besame mucho," her throatiest voice, "como la primera vez." She crooned the classic ranchero lyrics we both mocked and treasured, and we did, we kissed like the first time, our hug turning into a grinding embrace, outside in the still warm evening, beneath the lone eucalyptus that filled her yard. When we reached her door, our shirts unbuttoned and my fingers already tugging at the snaps on her blue jeans, I managed to say: "I should have brought flowers, I know. But I did bring a story."


M  C  R

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