Don’t Expect by Kevin Coons

I check my watch again, if only to make sure that time its self has not stopped. There is nothing moving here. There is wild straw grass growing up and down the hills, but in the absence of any breeze, the strands stand eerily still, as if posing for a painting. The world in front of me is golden. I stand with one hand in each pocket and one foot on each side of the tracks. I look out ahead and as far as I can see, there is no beginning and no end to the rusty iron path I’m straddling. There is no past and no future, just a stretch of track.

I’ve been here for hours, waiting. I must of had wondered along the tracks for miles. The station, the city, the people, they were no longer in sight, not that it mattered. This is what I tell myself: In time, a train is bound to come. When that happens, I am bound to run beside it. I am bound to reach out my arms until I can grab onto something and pull myself up. I am bound to make it, with my feet dangling from the side of an empty boxcar as we roar through mountains, valleys, and whatever else this track brings. In time, a train is bound to come.

I never really had a plan for this. The walls of my bedroom were paper-thin and the sound of a garbage truck woke me up that morning. After that, it was the dogs barking down the street that kept me awake. I rolled over and saw that I had forgotten to set up my alarm clock.

On its own, my body has never been able to consistently regulate when I should or shouldn’t be sleeping. When I woke up, I thought that it must still be the middle of the night. The sun’s presence outside informed me otherwise.

The curtains of my bedroom window were not fully closed and the light sidled in through the cracks between them, forming several straight lines of light that stretched across the room like prison bars. Laid out on top of my bed they felt as heavy as iron. I resignedly sighed. If I’ve learned one thing it’s this: the sun won’t wait for you.

I tried to shake off the morning. I trudged out of bed and made my way down the hall, towards the bathroom. I walked with a long stride, leaning my chest very far forward in an attempt to hide the embarrassing fact that I had an erection. I knew that nobody was home but me, and if I had wanted to I could strut around naked aiming my penis in every direction but, nonetheless, I was self-conscience about it. This place didn’t feel safe for things like that. This clumsy gait, in a way, resembled the awkward, jealous strut of a flightless bird, or the painful hobble of a wounded animal.

In the bathroom mirror, I noticed that I was thinner than before. My arms had turned dark and reddish. My hair was long and disheveled, as was my beard. I was pleased to see that I still looked like me, even if I didn’t feel it. I still looked like a free man.

I was back in my parents’ house and it felt so much larger than I had remembered it. I walked through the halls like I was a visitor in a museum. Everything was cleaner, even the walls were whiter. At least they seemed whiter. All of my shit was in boxes in the garage. My brothers’ rooms had been changed into an office and a workout room, respectively. My bedroom was now the guest room.

One thing I liked about my parents house was that it was located just a few blocks away from the train tracks that split the town in half. From inside the house you could hear the train’s whistle echoing beautifully over the hills at random times throughout the day. It was especially loud in my bedroom, and when I was younger I often stayed awake in bed at night and listened for the sound of the train. I often imagined that it was the voice of God himself answering my prayers. Sometimes, I could not fall asleep until I heard the train ‘s “Amen” ringing down from the heavens.

This morning there was a note waiting for me on the kitchen counter. “I won’t be home for lunch, there’s turkey in the fridge. I circled some classifieds for you. Good luck, I love you.-Mom” It was nice how she mixed resentment with hospitality. I was a bit hungry, though and a sandwich kind of sounded good. I laid out two pieces of bread on a white porcelain plate and pulled out the sliced turkey from the refrigerator. I held one slice between my fingers and twitched it back and forth for a while. It felt cold and dead. I put it away. Maybe I wasn’t so hungry anyways. Sometimes, I just can’t decide.

I went into the living room and turned on the t.v. I switched through the channels back and forth for a few minutes without settling on anything. It all felt cold and dead. I turned the t.v. off , put on a Woody Guthrie record and sunk down into the couch. I focused my attention on the pictures hung up on the wall above the television. There was one in particular that grabbed my attention, even though seen it hundreds of times. It was my father, but when he was about my age now. This was before kids, before he started working at Texaco, before male pattern baldness. There is a lake behind him, he is holding a bass and grinning ear to ear. In his sunglasses you can see my mom holding the camera. The whole photograph was tinted yellow like it had been soaked in sun-light. I thought this is what the whole world must of looked like back then. I don’t know why, but my eyes welled up and I started to fill nauseous. My throat felt like it was being tugged and twisted by rusty pliers.

That’s when it came to me, like a steam engine starting: I was going to hop a train. Why in the hell wouldn’t I? Without thinking about too much, I arose from the couch in a mad rush, wiped my forehead, and quickly filled a backpack with some food, clothes and water. I dug out my hiking boots and laced them up. My heart raced, and I tried to sort out a plan in my head.

It was a mile and half walk along the tracks to the station, where all the trains passing through would have to stop for crew changes and such. I had seen them here before, all you had to do was hide in the bushes wait for one, find an empty boxcar and hold on, simple enough.

When I arrived at the station it was empty, so I walked a bit down the tracks, still within the city. I sat down on a bench and settled in with a book. I watched the tracks for a few hours and nothing passed but time. It was just a bit off the road from a busy side of town though, and I could see plenty of people bustling betweens cars and buildings. A bit later I watched a man get off a bus down the street and walk towards me. I put my book away as he kept coming closer and closer. I wondered when he was going to turn away, but he didn’t. He just came up and sat down right beside me, under the oak tree, without acknowledging me in any way. I wondered if it was him or me who wasn’t really there.

After a silent nervous minute, he turned his head and introduced himself. I think his name was Ben. His hair was longer than mine, so was his beard. The clothes he was wearing were old and dirty. Judging from my own appearance I deduced that in me he saw a friend, someone who wouldn’t judge, a fellow free man.

We made small talk, about weather and such, how sunny it had been. He told me he was waiting here for his friend to pick him up and then he’d be off to Santa Cruz for a few days then up to Humboldt. I told him I knew the town, Santa Cruz, had friends there, that my band had played a few shows there in the past. He looked at me as if I were lying. I might as well have been. What’s the difference now?

We made small talk, about music and such. Then after a lull in the conversation he asked me, “So where is it that you’re going?”

For me, graduating from college felt like wandering through a huge mansion. I walked through hallways and doors, up and down stairs until finally I walked through a door and realized I had stepped outside and there was no going back. I had spent my summer in a van, playing music for tens of people a night, and had traveled around most of the country. The money ran out pretty quick. I moved in with my parents. I had been back home for a couple of months. I wasn’t working, or doing much of anything. I read a lot. I went to beach and took naps for hours. I saw my friends when I could. I drank and stared at walls. I didn’t want to be tied down with a job. These were supposed to my wild years, my wild rambling years.

I didn’t know how to answer Ben’s question. I told him that I was waiting for a train to hop and that I have never done it before but that I was going to give a try. He seemed impressed, he had friends who had hopped trains all over but had never tried it himself. I told him that I figured south would go to L.A. and north would probably go to Oakland, and either way was fine by me.

He asked me if I wanted to smoke a blunt with him and I accepted. He pulled out of his bag a box of cereal and from that he pulled out the bag of cereal, and reached under to find his stash. He rolled a cigarette and I asked if we should smoke it right here on the street, he said behind the tree would be fine.

Ben took a large hit and passed it to me. I breathed it in. I tried to hold the smoke in my lungs as long as I could. I started coughing. After a couple of passes, some men in business suits walked by and looked at us suspiciously. I felt nervous, but kept going. Then I saw a police car down the street away but coming towards us. My heart raced, I put out the cigarette with my fingers and put it into my pocket. “What happened?” he asked. The police car turned onto another street before it got close to us. “I saw a cop, and I panicked a bit, but he’s gone” I said. We both looked around and saw nothing. I started to feel sick again. I was embarrassed and wanted to run away.

Instead, I told him I was going to get something to eat and come back, and if I missed him, then good luck. I offered him what was left of the cigarette, there was enough left for it to be relit. He told me I should keep it, for later. I thanked him, put it back into my pocket, picked up my backpack and left. I walked quickly down the street, and hid away in a little cafe.

I ordered an apple pie and ice cream. I suspect that this homage was lost on the waitress. After I was finished, I walked back towards where I was, but saw that Ben was still there, waiting. Avoiding him, I walked back down the street, eventually my path converged with the tracks and I continued walking. I just kept going, and going until I was well out of this city and could see nothing but track. That, and the golden hills.

I find an oak tree to sit under and I play a little harmonica. I only know a few songs but it sure feels good to play. There’s a bird singing somewhere, and I try to mimic his song. When the train finally comes, I know I’ll have the guts to do it. I stay alert and ready to strike, my prey will be arriving any minute.

I listen for the train as the sun starts to set. It’s starting to get cold and frustration starts to set in. Waiting on destiny is a tiring game. I think about my parents getting home from work, eating dinner. They’ll set down their plates and fill them with food. They’ll ask me about my day. They’ll ask me to pass the potatoes. I won’t know what to say. I don’t want to go back home, not yet at least. I’ll call them tomorrow from Los Angeles, or wherever and tell them that I stayed the night with a friend. Everything will be fine.

The stars are out and the moonlight is bright. The golden hills have turned blue and grey. Wind blows through me. I take big swigs from a bottle of water and pretend it’s whiskey, wiping my mouth with my hands after I’ve finished. Why aren’t there any trains coming? I have been out here all day. I yell out into the void. “Where are you? Where the fuck are you?” I listen for the whistle and there’s nothing but the faint sound of wind and dog barking somewhere far away.

I know that eventually a train is going to come. These are active tracks. I see them running all the time. Hell, I can barely drive across town without being stopped to wait for a train. I just need patience and in time, things will come my way. I pace back and forth in an attempt to stay warm. I think about Santa Cruz and drinking wine on the beach. I could sleep there, listening to the waves. The Pacific Ocean is only 30 miles away, but there are mountains between us and it feels so far away that it might as well not even exist.

“Where the fuck am I doing? Where the fuck are you?”

My eyes get tired and I think it might be time to quit. I don’t know if trains usually come this late or not, but there is nothing coming now. I look back towards the city and the lights are all out. My parents are sleeping. I have been here all day and there have been no trains. I don’t know what time it is but it feels like the sun should come up soon. So, I resign myself the fate that has been given to me. There’s no climax to the story, just an unsatisfying walk home.

I will wait just a little bit longer and then I will start the walk back home. I will enter the house quietly not to wake anyone. I will set down my backpack and go to the bathroom. In the bathroom I will stop and look at myself again. I’ll take the marijuana cigarette out of my pocket and put it in my mouth. I’ll pretend to smoke it a few times before I flush it.

After that I’m bound to climb into bed like a box-car and once again listen for the sound of the train but there will only be lingering quiet. Even the dogs will have all fallen asleep. Then it is bound to happen. From my chest it will rise, up through the darkness. The whistle of air being breathed in and out through my noise and the pounding of my heart on some unseen tracks, speeding through night, winding around hills and over mountains, railing relentlessly towards some grand, foreign destination. This will carry me.

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One Response

  1. Neat. I liked this.

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