This story is by Paul Nader and was part of our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
I was on my way to Slidell, Louisiana, not only because that was where the train station was but because that was where I left my soul all those days and months ago. I tossed all the belongings I could grab into two beleaguered duffle bags and I threw my essentials in a well worn Quicksilver backpack.
”Don’t go like this.” My mother said with tears in her eyes as I climbed in the taxi.
The parts of me that counted were already long gone.
Even though it was in the days pre-touch phones and iPads I was still able to secure my one-way ticket online. Since 9-11 was months away I didn’t need ID to pick up my ticket. I didn’t even have a driver’s license. All those small things didn’t matter anymore. I had just enough to make my destination.
Once again I would get a fresh start. I had no room to worry about the bridges I burned to get there. I settled into my seat in the exceedingly boring Amtrak carriage. I checked my gear one more time. Ritalin, rolling-papers, a carton of Camel Wides, as much marijuana that I could cram into the hidden compartments in my shoes plus one joint rolled and ready in my hat. What little spending cash I had sat safely in my front pocket. I tried not to think about having just enough to get back to the New Orleans area. A double scotch would distract me in the lounge car.
The first drink went down quick, on my budget I could have maybe one more. I planned to sip on it for hours while I smoked cigarette after cigarette. I retired to the smoking cabin in the robotic fashion of someone just killing time.
A middle aged woman joined me soon after. Her craving for distraction equaled mine and serendipitously she lit up joint and beckoned me to join her. She was quite comfortable sparking up in such a public place, always nice to bump into a Rastafarian. We finished her doobie. After I offered up mine she obliged me to accompany her to the lounge car for a drink.
I slipped into oblivion past the eighth double…
Knock, Knock. ”Wake-up time!” I heard through a door.
Bang, bang went my head. The flushing of the oncoming hangover washed over me when I attempted to crack open my eyes. I must have blacked out, again. There was no sensation of movement. I wasn’t on the train anymore. That wasn’t good. I felt the bed beneath me, well I smelled it first, so I wasn’t in jail. That’s a push. I’ve started days off worse than this I thought.
I stumbled to the door. I already knew it was a budget motel by the air-conditioned smoke smell. I did my routine pocket and gear check on the way, tapping my pockets, checking for items I couldn’t stand to lose. I still had my emergency hundred dollar bill in my sock. I caught a glimpse of my trusty back pack on the chair in the corner. So far so good.
I flung open the door in the unguarded way someone does post massive brain cell loss. The sunlight blasted me. The moment sobered and sobered more with the sight of the tan and brown Florida Sheriff’s Department uniform that stood before me.
He was smiling, oddly enough.
”Found your Marine Corps ID in your back pack.” The deputy said over his shoulder, already walking back to his cruiser. I was meant to follow.
It wasn’t the first time that military ID got me out of trouble. Too bad it would expire before they finalized my bad-conduct discharge. I reminded myself to alter the date later, maybe squeeze a few more years out of that get out of jail free card.
‘Listen Paul, first night is on the house. Now go see Darius at the front desk to settle up for the rest of the week. Train service runs through Tuesday afternoon and I suggest you avoid the lounge car next time. Semper Fi.” The deputy said.
”Yes officer, thank you officer.” I couldn’t formulate much else.
”Don’t thank me. Thank the train conductor. He never heard a story like that before, thought it best to let you off easy.”
Man, what story did I tell him? I didn’t even remember a train conductor.
Okay, now where exactly was I? The sheriff’s uniform told me Florida. I could see a river past the highway so probably North Florida, the Pan-handle. If I was past Tallahassee I knew there wouldn’t be much in the way of civilization nearby. Namely a casino or decent pawn shop where I might have a chance to increase my outlook. I saw a gas station down the road and nothing else. Only a blowing tumble weed would complete the desolation.
I needed coffee and a map. I didn’t waste time hoping for internet access in the motel lobby.
”Good morning.” I said when I entered the lobby.
”Good afternoon. I’m Darius. You must be Paul, room 8.”
Good afternoon! Shit. What time was it? Reesy would be waiting to pick me up by noon and I was far and gone from Louisiana.
”Yes, I think I will be needing a room until the train comes through. The sheriff told me it comes on Tuesday. Is there another station nearby with a sooner train?”
Darius stood slowly from behind the desk. He stood well over six feet and wide like a line-backer. This large black man moved and spoke so gently it confused me at first.
”Well, I’m sorry to tell you but there ain’t no train station, just a rail change where they swap freight cars about ten miles away. Passenger trains only go through on Tuesdays. There is a bus stop way out west in Ponce de Leon. Other than that we got Suzy’s Truck Stop down the road a piece and bingo every Saturday night at First Baptist.”
”Could I use your phone?” I remembered Reesy waiting for me.
”Sure, local calls are free. For long distance calls I need a deposit.” He needlessly explained.
He sensed my deflation.”You can use my cell phone to send a text message.” His Georgia accent became apparent to me.
I simply text Reesy that I missed the train and would call her later. She was used to more drama than that from me on a usual day. This was not a usual day. I should have been roaming the streets somewhere in the French Quarter trying to find the pieces of myself that I left there, those half-lived dreams and regrets I couldn’t’ stand to die with.
“How much are your rooms per night?” I ask, still typing on his phone, distracted by the realization that I’m stuck in the middle of no-where and my appetite for killing time had run dry.
“Thirty-five bucks per night but in your case the weekly rate will be cheaper at about $175. Will that be cash or charge?” He asked.
“Um, yeah, cash but for tonight only. I might try to get to that bus station rather than wait a week. I’ll be right back, left my money in the room.” I said.
I didn’t know how far exactly that bus station was, if there was even a taxi in this one road town, when the bus left and most importantly how much all that would cost. I didn’t even see a computer anywhere in the lobby. Options were dwindling.
Suddenly I am aware of how quiet it was, no other guests, not even a cleaning lady about. Instead of full-blown stimulation amongst fellow deviants on the streets of debauchery waiting for me in Louisiana I was trapped in limbo.
I returned back to the room. The motel was laid out in one giant rectangle with rooms on the exterior, only a locked ice machine breaking the monotony of the building. I forgot to check for coffee in the lobby, prescription stimulants would suffice but my stash would disappear rapidly if I tried to burn these six days on Ritalin. I had to get my mind straight so down went a handful of pills with some questionable tap water.
The first thing I always look for in a hotel room was not there, no paintings or pictures or even a mirror hanging on the walls. Almost religiously in any rented room I found myself in I take a picture or mirror off the wall, even when bolted down to scrawl my tag behind it, a sort of calling card, marking my territory. That tradition began on a bad acid trip when I was sure there were hidden cameras in the room so I proceeded to remove everything from the walls and it just seemed fit to leave something behind. A great many hotel rooms around the country had my graffiti hidden beneath their wall hangings but this room would not be one of them. Perhaps I could carve something on the underside of the table, it was Formica, forget that. Some other replacement would come to mind.
The dreaded boredom started to peak it’s nasty head. Six days and six nights to fill while I repeatedly damage my lungs. It was time to go and level with Darius and see if I can make that bus station. Hours on bus sounded better than a week wasting my stash. There was no way I could stomach a near week of the inevitable soul searching that would ensue.
I composed myself, which consisted of a splash of cold water to my face and some body spray to mask the funk creeping in. The area still devoid of life while I walked back to the lobby to try for my escape.
”Hi Darius. Listen, I’m in a bit of a pickle here. I have about ninety bucks on me. I can’t afford the room for a week. Do you think I can get a taxi to that bus station and still have enough for a bus ticket to Louisiana?” I asked
”Oh, geez. I would say you don’t have enough for the taxi. It’s about sixty miles to Ponce.”
A long pause. I shuffle my feet, exhale and prepare further hopeless questions about a Western Union or a pawn shop. I had a few trinkets I could hawk.
The emotional awareness from Darius was uncanny.
”I can give you the room for four days with no maid service at $90 and if all goes well you can stay in my house for a couple of nights till the train comes back.” He said.
For what karma I was being repaid I did not know. Here, this stranger would take me into his house. That sheriff didn’t take me to drunk tank in the first place and I still had a spot on the train albeit six days from now.
I graciously accepted his offer. He said “if all goes well.” So, for four days I restrict my pot smoking to the long walk to Suzy’s Truck Stop where I sustain myself with buy-one-get-one-free salt and vinegar chips and free refill fountain drinks. By the fourth day that soda cup was about to disintegrate.
During those last two days I adjusted to the requisite sober time and passed it teaching his six young children how to color in between the lines of their coloring books. He shared his food-stamp bought groceries with me. His family hardly had anything yet he opened his house to me.
Still, on that last night, after everyone slept, I crept into his living room, removed the bland mural from his wall and began to draw my graffiti with his children’s crayons. I suppose a thank you note would have been better but I could not resist the urge to leave my mark.