Boxcar Blues – Out of Durango

I had taken the last boxcar out of the Durango rail yard that day. As I crossed into New Mexico, the sky was there—just like the sky one would expect to see in the Southwest—bright blue, dotted with little-bitty cotton ball clouds. The wind in my face and the awe I felt at the desert brought a cowboy tune to my head and I whistled. I felt the rush of exhilaration I get when I see the wide open spaces, the distant mountains, the moon silhouetted in white on the afternoon sky, sagebrush and cactus dotting the land—life was grand.

At night, the phosphorescent shadow of the Milky Way lit the evening sky. Snug in my sleeping bag, I watched it spin from the open door of the car.

Suddenly, in a grinding crash of sparks and twisted metal, the train jumped the track. It stopped. I didn’t. Through the cargo door and into the wash I landed, crumpled in a heap with a numbing pain in my leg. I finally came to and dragged myself over the rocks and prickly cactus.

One look was all I needed. The train was a wreck, but fared better than the engineer. He had taken the worst of it. Mangled and crushed against the control panel, he was dead. The conductor and brakemen were trying to pull him out, slipping in the mud from the fuel car’s spilled diesel. By now, the fire trucks and emergency vehicles had arrived and were giving the crew a hand to extract him. Of little help, except to get in the way, my eyes searched the surroundings.

The line of lights of a small city shone in the distance. I headed for the lights.

Originally published on: Aug 26, 2017


Boxcar Blues – The Diner

        In town, the lights didn’t seem to shine nearly as bright or as big as they did from far away. The last line of pick-up trucks rushed off to the wreck, grinding gears, leaving the place a ghost town.
       Everything was quiet. I saw the neon sign of a coffee shop ahead.
       The diner stood on the corner of the main intersection. From inside, light shone like a soft halo welcoming a hardened stranger on an even harder night.
       I walked in and turned toward the men’s room. I needed to wash off some of the wreck grit, patch up my leg as best I could from the makeshift first-aid kit I carried in my rucksack. I wanted to make a clean impression when I hit the counter. Friends come from some of the oddest places. Who knows how long the trains would be delayed, how long I’d be stuck here?

       “Hey, pardner,” the guy behind the counter introduced himself. “Hank’s the name.”
       “Nick,” I replied. “Nick Dade.”
       “Just passin’ thru’?”
       “Yeah. I lost my ride, I guess.”
       “Hey. You weren’t in that wreck, were ya?” His eyes glimmered with hope. Tell me about it, he seemed to say. Was there any blood? Did ya see any bodies?
       “Sure,” I answered his unspoken questions. “The engineer bought it. I barely made it alive myself. Cut my leg.” He stretched over the counter to see. My jeans were torn and bloodied. “Just a scratch,” I told him.
       “Hey. You look like you could use a doctor,” he stared at me, his eyes wide with speculation. “You work for the railroad?”
       “Nah. I was riding shotgun on the freight,” I smiled. “Banditos everywhere, ya know. Gotta help out where you can.”
       “A hobo, eh?” From the far end of the counter someone called out. “Good thing the bulls didn’t get you!” He stood from his stool and lumbered toward me with the authority of an undercover cop. I waited for the worst.
       “Ever been to Phoenix?” The words blurted from his mouth like a child asking if the moon was really made of green cheese.
       He was sweating though the night was cool. His breath was short and deliberate. Bad heart, I supposed, and overweight. The smell of stale cigar whispered from his breath. “I hear it’s booming in Arizona. Ever been there?”
       “No. I’m heading to California. I’ve got friends there. They tell me there’s work on the Coast.”
       Hank turned to the man and grinned. “Not here in Claypool City! Only opportunity here was on that train. And now even it’s gone.” Both of the men laughed at the joke.
       Looking around I noticed a couple sitting at a window booth watching us. The woman looked away as soon as our eyes met. Her boyfriend started to say something but she kicked at his leg. She whispered in his ear and they both slid from behind the stall. That raised my eyebrow.
       “Don’t mind them.” Hank turned toward the sink and dried a coke glass with the towel hanging from his apron. He watched my reaction in a wall length mirror at the back of the galley, then turned and took the check from the young man.
       “Thanks Bud. See ya later.”
       “Yeah,” Bud replied.
       The young woman spoke. “Goodnight!” she said with a flip of her long auburn hair. Though she looked at Hank, I felt she directed her words at me.
       “So, what’ll ya have?” Hank turned his attention to his new customer.
       “You got fresh coffee?”
       “Just brewed!”
       “And a wedge of that pie,” I motioned towards a glass-covered dish on the counter.
       By now the heavy breathing fellow had managed to struggle up on the stool next to me. “Give me a cup, too,” he wheezed. He reached his hand out to shake mine.

As he started to introduce himself, he stopped. His face turned blue. His eyes bugged out of their sockets as he collapsed to the floor.
       “Oh, my god!” Hank was over the counter and kneeling next to the old guy before I realized what was happening.
       “Get on the phone!” he shouted at me. “Dial the operator. Her name’s Juanita. Tell her to send the Doctor to the Main Street Diner, quick!”

Boxcar Blues – Hotel

       James Claypool never did get an answer to his questions about Phoenix.
       His funeral services were held at the Desert Memorial Chapel. I went to see him off out of an odd sense of loyalty, I suppose. I mean, I stood right there when he croaked. Maybe I felt I owed it to the old guy. But, more importantly my curiosity was piqued. This strange little town, the City of Claypool was apparently named after its founder, Miron Claypool and had remained under the grip of his offspring through the hundred or so years since its founding. James Claypool was one of the those children of the great patriarch. This was important.
       The city was small, population 3500. With births offset by deaths, newcomers balanced out by the dying, its numbers stayed steady.
       Black asphalt boulevards, neatly painted with yellow and white traffic markings and dotted double lines were a quaint touch. Garish on a hot summer afternoon when the heat waves made them seem to bend like confetti, on a normal day they could be considered decorative. The town managed to keep a 1950s pastel stucco motif. Buildings painted pink and green, or made of light brick, with tinted glass storefronts were straight out of the Kodachrome era.

       At the funeral, his nephew the local Sheriff, gave the eulogy. Bill Richardson’s memorial speech for old Claypool was eloquent.
       “…honest and always ready with a kind word. Those who knew him well…” he narrowed his gaze in my direction, “ought to know what his dying wish might be, had he the chance to utter it.” Every eye in the small chapel turned to me.
       Don’t look at me, I glared back. It somehow seemed to make sense to everyone that I was responsible for the stroke that killed him. I was just a spectator after the fact. I countered their glares with my own dull look of innocent amusement.

       After the service I stepped out on a sunny winter’s day. The cotton ball clouds remained suspended in the afternoon sky, helping me shake the eerie drama played out in that stuffy parlor. I strolled up D Street to Second, where I had rented a room. The trains wouldn’t be running for a while, so I’d decided to stay at the Hotel. No name, just “Hotel”.
       It wasn’t too bad as far as small town hospitality goes. But it needed sprucing. The cactus palms arranged in the entrance were dry. The floor was dusty, tracked by the prints of countless loners and transients running from their pasts. Ripples ran in waves across the carpet, setting a path to the staircase, like the wake of a lonely ship at sea. The walls were smoke-stained. The ghosts of long dead cigars wafted from every crevice.
       I got my key from the clerk. I’d learned her name was Mei Lia. She’d landed in the City of Claypool when her parents bought the place with money her father saved from his Merchant Marine days. Behind the hotel desk, Mei Lia was a flower growing among weeds in a garden of desolation. I smiled at her as she handed me the key, a young woman who seemed as out-of-place in this Twilight Zone set as I felt.
       “Nice day outside,” I said, hoping to bring some cheer to her gloomy surroundings.
       “Ten yiu,” she said in broken English. Even though I’d spoken to her many times in my week in town, I still felt she wasn’t quite understanding everything I said to her. But, she had that smile, childlike and innocent, but as voluptuous as a movie star from an exotic island you only imagine in a dream. Without a word, she could light my day,
       From the Fujian Province in China, her family migrated to America by way of the Philippines. They settled in a village in Northern Luzon Island, where she grew up knowing nothing but wild tropical beaches and palm groves all her life. That is, until Claypool City.
       I could easily get to like this kid, I sighed to myself as I walked past the front desk.
       “Later,” I waved, the key in my hand.
       “He he. Yie.” She nodded, lowering her gaze, smiling, as if trying to comprehend every nuance of this strange new land and its people.
       “Don’t be too hard on yourself. It’s just as strange to me.” I consoled her, knowing how difficult it was having to learn ‘America’ the hard way—in a small town like Claypool where no one spoke your language.
       I walked up two flights of stairs to my room. The hallway sported an avocado green floor covering. Or, was it mold? I never slowed my pace to check. Carpet, I assured myself.
       Inside, the room looked worse. Yellowed sheets on the bed and worn hardwood flooring, a single light bulb overhead, add the peeling plaster on the walls, the only thing missing were lights flashing outside through the window. I checked. Nope, no broken neon signs.
       But wait a minute!

Boxcar Blues – The Red Dog Saloon

       The three globes of a pawn shop caught my eye from across the street. This burg has a hock shop? I wondered what they wanted for the guitar in the window. I ran back downstairs, throwing a smile Mei Li’s way. “Nice day!”
       “Yie. Ten yiu, hehe.” She placed a delicate hand to her mouth, her eyes smiling the way one only sees on Chinese silk screens. She was the authentic item.
       I stepped out and crossed the pavement to the other side.
       Inside the store, the pawnbroker pulled the guitar from the display. “Now this here’s a nice number,” he spieled, eyeing my clothes, sizing me.
       “Solid maple back, spruce top, I’d say it’s at least, hmm.” He took another look at me. “It’s going for seventy-five dollars!” He said it in a hurry. Maybe he thought the market might drop before he finished.
       It was a time when everything was on a downturn, money tight. They called it the Seventies. And back then seventy-five dollars meant mucho moola.
       I ignored his pitch and lifted the acoustic in my hands. It was an old Gibson jumbo with a natural finish. I hefted it and noticed it had a good solid feel. Strummed, and a nice, smooth deep tone rose from the soundboard. Tested it with my idea of country-western, a bouncing blues with complicated changes and a rock-and-roll beat.
       The storekeeper asked, “Where do you play?” He looked impressed.
       “In New York,” I lied. But, I did play in New York, in my room that is. Before coming West I lived in a hamlet in the Catskills. The economy there bottomed long before the rest of the U.S. During the OPEC pinch we lost everything.

       “Sure! And I win a thousand bucks every time I’m in Las Vegas.” He turned his back. He thumbed through a  receipt drawer, making busy.
       I calculated my meager budget and figured what I could spend. “Will you take fifty?” I was serious.
       “I thought you New Yerkers were rolling in cash?” He sneered. “Sorry, no less than sixty-five.”
       “All I’ve got is fifty.”
       “OK. Give me fifty now and when you get a job playing at the Red Dog, pay me the other fifteen and it’s a deal!”

       The Red Dog was a rowdy saloon that kept a regular clientele of railroad men drinking away their weekly earnings. I’d never thought of using my guitar-playing to make a living, but the thought stuck.
       In no time, I was making a few dollars a night with my fingers flying like bees around the fingerboard. I used every trick I ever learned, and licks I didn’t know I had in me.

       It was a sweet trap. Several months passed before I even realized I’d forgotten my goal to reach California.

Boxcar Blues – Hammond’s Summit

       Beyond Hammond’s Summit is a flat desolation so vast and lifeless that “Badlands” won’t even describe it. There, you’ll find a meandering scar that cuts across the landscape. It’s a muddy swirl of tepid water that runs from an underground spring east of town. They call it a river—the Willow River. The random outcrop of red rock and the hot distorted waves of air that rise from the surrounding surface, create the illusion that water is a stone’s throw from where you stand. But, not the case. Aside from the Willow river, there is no water except what they dig from underground wells. The city has a few pumping stations and a tower that bears its name, but that’s it. The rest is an endless stream of nothingness called the Colorado Plateau.
       The train passes through every couple of nights, stops to fill its water tanks and refuel, then leaves. No one gets on, no one gets off except the railroad workers that live here. There is a quiet bustle of people on avenues that lead nowhere. Except for the boulevard to the County Road and the State Highway, they all end in dirt roads that break past the boundaries, as if trying to escape.
       From above, these 4-wheel drive trails wind aimlessly out in the open like the mangled tentacles of an octopus writhing in the heat, suffocating in the agony of a slow death. It’s no wonder the most popular pastime here is whiling the hours away, think of where you’d rather be, then rinse off those dreams with a fifth of cheap Bourbon, Scotch, or a case of Old Milwaukee.

Boxcar Blues – Pancit, Baluts and San Miguel

       Mei Lia and I used to take her father’s green and white Corvair panel van, the kind with an awning that stretches over the doors, to the spring. We’d watch the river swirl along the red clay sandstone as it rippled its way north to the San Juan. She sunned her smooth olive skin; laughed and splashed water while I chased her around the bus, and we’d end up in the creek kissing.
       We got married in a traditional Filipino wedding. All her relatives came. A few of the local townspeople acted on my behalf. Bud Claypool agreed to be my best man. We struck a solid chord. Or, so I thought.
       He often invited me to his house and proudly showed off his vintage blues records. Even Angela, his wife, always the perfect hostess, served us beers late into the evening without a complaint. She seemed to share her husband’s interests. Soon it became obvious how much she wanted to share those interests. She took a liking to me, and Bud didn’t seem too happy with it. He couldn’t help see how readily she sat next to me, laughing and joking, giving me attention she should show him. Ever since that first night at the diner, I tried to ignore the flirting. I told myself, it’s nothing, it’ll pass.

       The wedding was great. Some musicians I put together for pool parties played at the reception. Mei Lia looked gorgeous in her puff-sleeved gown. When she smiled, her face lit up like a child’s. Her proud uncles and aunts cried throughout the ceremony. Her nanay held on to tatay, blushed with joy.
       Her kin danced and laughed and sang the songs of their ancestors. They fed me foods I never experienced like balut, a fertilized egg cracked open to find a cooked embryo inside; San Miguel beer, octopus and squid with piles of rice; pancit, a stick noodle dish with lechon, chicken, shrimp, cabbage and lots of soy sauce. It was a day of palm trees waving in a tropical breeze, soft music from a gut string guitar and the smell of the sea, salt and sand.
       My head spun with expectation. Her Uncle Mindoi performed the ceremony. He spoke only tagalog, so Mei Lia’s brother, Lorenzo, prompted me with an elbow jab when my turn came for the “I do’s.”

Boxcar Blues – Honeymoon in Las Vegas

Mei Lia’s sister, Yu Le, paid for our honeymoon. We were going to Las Vegas! Las Vegas!

        Only it was the wrong Las Vegas. This Las Vegas was in New Mexico, just east of Albuquerque. I guess the attraction was it had a lake. I should have realized right away when the directions she gave us started with ‘head East’, we were going in the wrong direction. It was going to be a long drive. Mei Lia wanted to stop and stay at every hotel we passed, but I insisted we go the distance. The wind picked up. Dust was blowing wild by the time we were half-way there. It was a sandstorm. I drove on to the place I imagined in my lovely honeymoon fantasy. Five and a half hours later we arrived.

        Talk about disappointment. It was a cheap roadside motel. Whitewashed, trimmed with a pastel green that looked like it needed several new coats to bring it back to its color. The bathrooms were outdoors, marked MEN’S and LADY’S. I thought we’d checked into a Phillips 66 by mistake. I kept waiting for an attendant to knock on the room door and ask if we wanted a fill-up—or were we staying the night?

        Despite the digs, we managed to have a good time on Storrie Lake. Mei Lia enjoyed the sun, and we spent a lot of time on the water in a rented pontoon boat. Out in the middle of the lake, or on a secluded beach, we sunned and loved and swam in the crystal blue waters. I will never forget the delight watching her lithe body diving off the boat’s deck, sliding into the water without a sound. Like the women on the Chinese swimming team, effortless in their grace and simplicity of form, I mused.

        In our room, I’d watch her make tea. She prepared the brown clay teapot with matcha and roasted rice in a silent ritual. Careful to let the boiling water overflow, she immersed the pot as she filled it. Swirling the infusion, she set the vessel in the tray and patiently waited for it to steep. Intrigued, I noticed the quiet conscientiousness with which she made an effort not to disturb the spirit of the moment; refusing to drink from the bottom of the cup, as if the last drop was sacred. I finished the sesame cookie as I took my last sip and felt calm, revived.


the crooked picture
on the wall
never moves. . .
until a hand reaches
to touch it
(then it straightens

Oh, sorry—sometimes my thoughts get away from me.

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