Boxcar Blues – The Last Ride

The dust cloud on the horizon veers toward town. It’s getting closer. I tell myself, It’s the Calvary come to rescue me locked up for a crime I didn’t commit. “Fat chance,” the little voice in my head replies.

        Every day, Mei Lia brought me something to help take the chill out of this county cooler. One day she carried a tray covered in a red and gold silk handkerchief. My lawyer also came that day.
        “The judge won’t grant an appeal.” Josh Feathers gave me the bad news. Tatay had even offered to get his attorney from Philadelphia to help, but neither he nor I could afford it. Mei Lia’s smile made up for all of it.
        In the tray was pancit, the same dish we’d had at our wedding.
        But wait a minute! As I served up a forkful I saw the unimaginable. The round end of a metal object stuck out from under the soft mound of noodles. She had covered a skeleton key inside the dish. I grabbed it and shoved it under the mattress. I looked in her soft, almond-shaped eyes, afraid to ask. She made no acknowledgment. She just smiled.
        After I finished my meal we kissed. It was long and tender. We said our goodbyes. She and I knew it was the last affection we would ever share. There was no turning back from this.

The Chinese apothecary shop on the corner of D Street and Second has a sign that gives a proverb for every day of the week. That night it read: Make the most of an unexpected opportunity.

        I made my way out of town the same way I’d come in. I hopped a boxcar on the first westbound freight train. Inside an oversize wooden crate of farm equipment, I peered through the slats as two cargo handlers checked the load. The train had just crossed the state line into Arizona.
        “Why do ya think they didn’t shut this door?” one worker asked the other.
The loader pulled a pack of cigarettes out of the pocket of his jeans and shrugged. “I dunno. Maybe they just forgot t’lock it? It opened by itself? I dunno.”
        As they moved boxes and crates, making sure everything was secure, they seemed to find a sense of satisfaction in their work. Thinking back, it may have been the contentment I felt as I clung to the canvas of the duffel bag Mei Lia had packed for me. After I unlocked the door to the cell, I had ducked out of the jail house while the dispatcher went for coffee. I found the bag stashed in the bushes in back of the county offices. That girl knew exactly where I’d run. She had an uncanny sense that way. I cried inside with a terrible pain in my heart. What was I going to do without her?

In my dreams, a young man manipulates levers and belt drives that operate an escalator made of molybdenum-steel, raising and lowering people cut in half at the torso, only to become whole again at the end of the ride.

A middle-aged woman at a bus station reminds me that there are still details to work out, pieces to put together. Don’t despair, she winks while pouring used oil around fence posts. To preserve them, she says.

        I woke up to the rhythmic rattle of the Southern Pacific against my back. I stood up, forcing open the door of the boxcar, and saw the landscape as it flew past.

At sunrise, the Arizona desert comes to life in a soft purple contrast of shadow and light. The camel colored mountains display a palette of gold and red, stretching the long shadows of tumbleweed across the land like fingers flirting with the new day. I followed as thousands of sun beaten sagebrush swayed in the morning breeze, waving that yellow ball toward the western sky.

        As I put a part of my life behind me, the thought crossed my mind—Nick Dade will make California, after all.

Boxcar Blues – The Perfect Crime

       The Red Dog wailed that night. Bud and Angela Claypool were in top form. She had turned out to be of good cut. And I swear, her hospitality was just that. She had a kind heart. Why she looked at me the way she did, I would never know—and neither would anyone else.
       Bud, contrary to my original opinion, had no class. He got her nice and loaded at the bar. A fireman for the railroad, he spent his off hours at the club with his cronies. She accompanied him from time to time. This would be the last.
       As the evening went on, he again invited me to their place to listen to some blues records he’d just bought at a swap meet in Farmington. He thought I’d be interested. I took him up on the invitation. But I should have sensed things weren’t right.
       We got in his car. Angela complained about her seat belt. It wouldn’t lock. Bud paid no attention to her. I sat in the back seat.
       As we got on the road, I noticed Bud driving fast, too fast.
       “Hey, slow down!” My alarms were going off. He kept racing faster, faster. Suddenly the car veered, and we headed straight for the Rock.
       The Rock. That’s what they called it. The only natural formation on the flats higher than a tree, it seemed significant. A large dolomite deposit on the side of Highway 371 in the outskirts of town, it stuck out of the desert floor like a sore thumb. It got its name from the fact it looked like it sounds, a big rock. We hit it. She flew through the windshield.
       Bud unbuckled his belt and jumped from the car. I sat, dazed. I didn’t understand why he’d open my door and unbuckle my belt. But, I got out. A car rolled up. Some friends of Bud’s had followed us.
       “Hurry up! Get in!” The driver called through the window. Bud threw himself into the passenger’s seat and the tires spun, tossing gravel into the air.
       “Hey. Where are you going?” I screamed. None of it made sense till I got over to Angela’s crumpled body. Any life in her vanished with the impact on the big rock. Then it all made sense. Bud wanted Angela dead.

       He had committed the perfect crime: A drunk driver’s passenger takes it. That’s par for the course. It happens all the time. He’d lose his license for a year and have to take some drunk driving classes; attend a 12-step course and do a stint with Alcoholics Anonymous. A piece of cake if you want to get rid of dead weight, who in this case, was his wife.
       I could hear him tell the Sheriff, I told her to buckle up. Oh God, I didn’t realize I was so drunk! Put me in jail, I don’t deserve better! He’d listen to condescending words from the court. Heads would shake all around. And he would walk. But with me in the equation, it would be no sweat.
       Nick Dade was just extra insurance. Guess who was driving? Not Bud Claypool. No, in this scenario good old Nick was the fool behind the wheel. Who were they going to believe, a drifter off the train wreck, or Claypool’s Favorite Son? All-star and former quarterback for New Mexico State? He was the Great-great-grandson of one of the founding fathers of the town, for god’s sake. I was up the creek and my canoe had sprung a leak.

       I could tell the balloon ride Bud and Angela were on was running out of air. Ever since that first night in the diner, when I didn’t leave town right away suspicions flew. Everyone in town had distrust for the stranger, I was just too naïve to catch on. The side-wise glances, the forced hello’s on the street, whispers in the background. Snickering, joking; only, they never let me in on the joke.
       New York City had made me too innocent if you can believe it. I was from a town where everything was out in the open. Hate, love, fear, whatever you felt, you wore it on your sleeve. But, here, I was caught up in the middle of the intrigues of small-town-USA social politics.
       Maybe Angela gave me the eye every once in a while. But was that reason to leave her dead, like so much road-kill? Was it a reason to put her away? There was obviously more to it. Was it for the insurance? Or, was Bud taking those trips to Farmington on business, as he claimed? Maybe it was monkey business.
       Maybe he’d found a new Lolita on his rambles to the flea markets in Farmington. Maybe he wanted to live the single life again. Maybe they weren’t getting along. But if that was the case, they sure didn’t show it. She treated him like a king, putting up with his late nights stumbling into bed drunk, reeking of booze, stale cigarettes and other women’s perfume.
       A lot of things were going through my mind. But the big question was, what’s wrong with this picture?
       There I was, holding Angela in my arms when Sheriff Richardson pulled up in his squad-car, lights flashing, siren blasting. Oh, he knew what he would find. Funny thing, I wondered who called him?
       At the jail house, I heard some words regarding my lack of responsibility. OK, I could deal with that; but the stolen car angle shook me, and the talk of kidnapping? Whoa, hold on there! I rode in the back seat. Bud drove. Ask him.
       Bud came rushing through the Sheriff’s Office door. He punched me, kicked me, screamed and yelled.
       “You murderer! I’ll kill you!” Sobbing, weak and listless, he acted the perfect grieving husband. I knew I would take the rap.

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.

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 – 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 – 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 – 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!

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