by Michael Palmer
Finalist : 2010 Nonfiction Contest
Ishare my small one-room basement apartment with another guy, Chris. Our room is next to the garage where Adjacent to the Lord, the Christian metal band, practices. The members of the band live upstairs. When the landlord paid us to tear out the carpets upstairs so he could replace them, we nailed the scraps up on the garage wall to insulate the sound, but you can still hear everything. The carpet didn’t do a lot to keep out the weed smell, either.
They are playing one of the songs I’m familiar with by now, at least the chorus—
After an hour of drinking Keystone Light and enjoying Adjacent to the Lord’s practice firsthand, Chris walks inside and falls face-first into the pile of blankets and dirty laundry he uses as a bed. There isn’t room in the apartment for actual beds, so he sleeps there, and I sleep on the couch. There is a black tiger blanket on the wall and a lava lamp in the corner. There is a table on the wall opposite the couch which holds a thirteen-inch television and a perpetual assortment of cereal bowls. I am not able to sleep so I turn on the television. It is late and a rerun of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is on. Villains called The Gentleman are floating through the streets of Sunnydale. They have stolen everyone’s voices. Now they want their hearts.
I’m resisting the urge to roll off the couch, walk over and punch Chris in the ear, as if that will help me sleep. I haven’t been in a fight in nearly two years, but I am starting to feel this urge more and more. Chris is the one who assured Adjacent to the Lord it was “no problem” if they practiced at night as long as they kept the refrigerator in the garage stocked with beer, which they do. I still try to talk them into daytime practice, but they say it is “too hot” and that “there are no chicks in the day.”
I like Chris but he and I are within fifteen feet of each other too often. Chris is an argumentative person, not in itself a bad thing, except that he prefaces his points by saying “allow me to elucidate,” and when he gets the impression he’s moved the argument to a conclusive place he says, “Check. Mate.” Two words, just like that. Also, even though there are only twenty things total in our tiny apartment, when he is looking for something, he gets desperate fast and starts taking everything out of the cupboards, as if the shirt he wanted to wear that day could be hidden there. Finally, he plays computer games all day and sometimes coerces me to play so he can laugh his ass off as I send my orcs into stupid places and get slaughtered by a thirteen-year-old from Oklahoma City, who tells me that if I can’t build up my city and attack faster and more efficiently than a thirteen-year-old, maybe I should kill myself. Even though I tell myself I don’t need to feel too bad about it since he spelled kill with one l, those comments are actually kind of persuasive to me and I do feel worse about myself after playing.
Buffy is wrapping up. Soon Riley will know Buffy’s secret identity as the slayer.
I have a hard time being awake in the apartment for longer than an hour without showering, and since I can’t fall asleep I put on some jeans and go outside for a walk.
I walk in the direction of the train station a mile west of our apartment waiting until the urge to punch Chris in the ear has subsided. It’s after midnight, and nobody is outside. I can hear the occasional car a few streets over and sometimes the punctuation of a train horn, but those sounds are for the most part sewn into the nightscape seamlessly, no more distracting than a dim star. When I get to the train station, I walk down the overpass slant and start walking on the train tracks running through alchemist landscape that mixes marshland, dirt road, broken bottles, gravel, weeds, and trailers with inhabitants undetermined. I always hope a train will come by and meet me eye to eye, and at night, sometimes that happens. I wait in the quiet for twenty minutes and I’m about ready to go when a train starts to approach. I watch the light move closer and listen to the space between train horns. Even though I can never see him, I looked for the conductor in the front car as it gets close and wonder what I would look like to someone seeing me for the first time, sitting next to a moving train at midnight.
I am young and over-caffeinated and hate not moving so I took the first job I found where I wouldn’t be sitting still. The job: “vacuum specialist.” The routine: carry a portable vacuum and empty trashes at the building down the street from our apartment. Rent in our apartment is practically nothing, but tuition is expensive. During the day I go to school at Brigham Young University. I am still thinking about transferring away from BYU, or just not showing up anymore. Every week I make false promises to myself, saying the next time I see a girl scrutinized for not looking modest enough, I’m out. Or the next time I have to read C.S. Lewis.
But then those things happen and I stay because without school all I had was the custodial work. And without the custodial work my life would just be getting high or drunk with Adjacent to the Lord and Chris in the garage.
In the job interview I told them that I wanted the job because it looked like “good work.” That sounded like something my mom would say. They seemed happy with the answer and handed me a blue, stapled manual providing instructions for operating a vacuum safely and effectively. I work four-hour shifts, from 3-7 and 8-12, sometimes both during the same day, sometimes only one. Today, it’s just the 3-7.
Blake isn’t here today, so I get straight to work. All I have to do is empty the trashes and vacuum the basement of one building. On my own, I can get all of that done in an hour and a half out of a four hour shift, never mind the fact that if the trashes went un-emptied one day, the classrooms un-vacuumed, I doubt anyone save the Lord would notice. So I finish fast and walk into the computer lab, set down the vacuum, and read for a while.
On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays I can do this with no concern because I am on the supervisor Brad’s good side. When he walked up to me and asked me if I liked music, I’d said yes, and he started burning me a variety of mix CDs—one every week or so. Even though my claim to liking music was revealed as a bigger and bigger lie the more CDs full of long-ass ballads featuring a probably bearded guy telling me how to live my life in between swigs on the harmonica I received, I still said they were all “maybe not my thing, but definitely interesting,” and Brad and I got along.
My mom told me that if I worked, I would notice beautiful things that the rest of the world wouldn’t. She wasn’t prone to much hyperbole or poetry outside of what could be found in the scriptures, so I believed her when he said it, even though she was a tax accountant who took phone calls all day to listen to people express concern that they weren’t getting enough money back from the government. She would have been ashamed to see me cutting out on cleaning, even if it was to do homework.
Unfortunately, it’s Tuesday and David, not Brad, is the supervisor. I’m not paying attention and he startles me by sneaking up on me and asking if I’m getting paid to work or to dilly dally on the computer. I look around me as if I’ve dropped something and have been searching for it, and then I look at the computer screen as though it might have clues.
David is old and turtle shaped, that characterization accented by his slow movement and the green shirts the supervisors wear. He thinks the two-man dynamic is the most efficient way to do the job, which might be true for him since he is old and can’t really do anything except push around the garbage can on wheels and wash windows at eye level. He always insists that we work together and it’s hard to shake him.
We take the elevator to go up one floor. David waits out the ride by whistling, and once the doors open, he says they should charge for that kind of fun. I feel pity for him as a result, and also because he is old. I don’t know any other old people. About that demographic I knew only that their hands turned translucent and sometimes they talked about how one day you just wake up, it’s all passed you by—that’s how they describe it, “you just wake up,” as if you haven’t been paying attention the whole ride and suddenly it’s over. Nothing scares me more than waking up translucent and having to take the elevator one floor. All of my grandparents were dead by the time I was eight. I was sad to see Grandma Thomas go, but sadder about the time we cemented over the snake’s home underneath the porch in our back yard for a patio and thinking about a snake coming home and not being able to get in, or worse, being cemented in there alive. I never saw my grandparents sin or do anything except watch Parry Mason reruns on Sunday when our parents made us visit them at the nursing home. As a result, I thought they were probably in heaven now in bodies or spirit bodies or something that could still move more than one step every minute, so there was nothing to be worried about.
David actually says, “Good day, sir,” to the guys in suits in their offices instead of just staring until they hand over the trash. With all other employees there was at least the option of sharing contempt via exchanged glance, but David genuinely seems glad to see each suit.
I tell David that Brad told me to wash the windows outside this week. I forgot until now. I knew he couldn’t do that since it required a ladder.
I take the ladder to the intersection of a right angle at the back of the school where nobody can see me, extend it all the way and climb up. The metal ladder rungs drag against each other and then clank on the roof. The ladder shifts slightly with each tier I climb and my breath shifts with it. It’s almost the end of my shift and the sun is going down. Orem and Provo used to be the headquarters of Geneva Steel, and though production has died down a lot recently, it is still big enough that I see fire and pollution in the air, and with the sunset, it lights up the whole sky as if everything had been turned upside down while I was emptying trashes and hell was now above.
I knew Blake before he started the vacuum specialist job because you just knew him. And because his band Parallax once played with Adjacent to the Lord in a cavernous building with paintings of fish and parrots on the outside perimeter. Maybe an ex-pet store. Blake told me he took the job because they didn’t make him fill out any questionnaires asking him to evaluate his own trustworthiness, or inquiring how he’d respond if a co-worker wanted to engage in a long conversation with him even though he was on the clock.
Blake described himself as an anarchist, even though I never asked him. I have not met many anarchists before, and none besides Blake who I’ve liked. Part of that is because I envy the idea they hold that work is inessential, but another part is because I imagine the day most of the self-proclaimed anarchists I’ve met walk out of their jobs for good will be the same day they swing open those corporate doors and walk straight back into the doors of their parents’ basements.
Blake has brown eyes with stored energy focused in the middle, a black collapse of mostly excitement and some anger. Talking to him can be intense.
Early in our friendship he told me that if I would jump on the train with him, I would see things differently forever. He was often describing things that way. He said the same thing about dumpster diving, said it would refashion the way I looked at culture. I didn’t believe that either, though I didn’t mind jumping over the green chain link fence into a dumpster at Blockbuster and coming out with a VHS containing several weird short films about robots that I guess no one was renting.
Since that went well I agreed to go with him to a train station in Helper, Utah, but I wanted to drive, not jump on a train. He said that the train really was the best way, but okay.
I drive. Along the way I ask Blake if he ever goes to the train station by my house. He says he’s been there lots of times. “You can see some of my work on just about all of those cars.” Helper has even less attachment to civilization than that train stop, he adds; some of the oldest trains and the best graffiti in the state. He talks about it like it’s some kind of promised land, a magical discovery unknown to society at large. After a while he says there is nothing he can say about Helper that will give me the right idea, so he should just be quiet until I see it myself. And he is. It’s just the zip of my truck and the blurry white lines on the highway until we get there. We stop at the only restaurant in Helper we can find because I’m hungry. There is nothing except for coffee, an apple, and a banana for a vegan like Blake to order in a place like that, but he doesn’t complain. He seems to like the sound of a fork being placed on a wooden table, the tones and colors of the coffee as he watches it pour from the pot through the dim restaurant light into his dark brown mug.
The train station is just a place with train tracks and parked trains—no other markers. He tells me to park the truck several hundred yards away because the trail that leads to the tracks is too narrow for it. We walk that trail and cross through a field of weeds until we get to the rusty tracks. The railroad ties feel thick and dull under my feet. The sun is falling and the railroad tracks and broken bottles to the side of them are bright.
Soon we come to a place where there are a lot of trains that look like they haven’t moved in a long time. Blake says some of them never really moved and that this is a playground for graffiti artists. There is a dilapidated cement structure not far away for practice as well.
We have to walk through a swamp that comes out of nowhere to get there. The abandoned cement is sinking into the wet ground. There is a pond nearby and a two-story abandoned barn on its humble coast that looks like the set of a horror movie. There is a noose-like rope hanging from the ceiling in the barn, adding to the effect. A path around the side of the barn winds past an empty silo to the shallow water in the back. Blake brought a backpack full of paint and starts practicing on a few open places in the cement. I can’t tell what the building used to be. Rebar is sticking up everywhere, and there are a few caverns with water in them. He points to some skulls he has painted, and to some of his favorite murals by other artists.
He tries to get me to paint but I try to write my name and it looks even worse than my regular handwriting so I just walk around and see what others have done.
It gets dark fast. My flashlight is weak and yellow, a dull push into the thick night. I am used to seeing stars, never living in a city where they haven’t been visible somewhere close by, but those stars are dusty shards of glass in an old fire pit. Here the whole sky is bright. The stars spill right into the open train cars and don’t stop spilling, as if they were falling from a river that would keep replenishing until it froze over in the winter. I wouldn’t have been surprised to walk over there and find tiny stars next to the broken bottles on the ground. Looking in the sky it is harder to find pockets of sheer darkness than bright starlight. I start to look for them.
I receive that message on the back of a postcard stamped in Elko, Nevada. On the front of the postcard is an old guy standing by a gas pump with a ten cent sign above it. Blake quit the vacuum specialist job a week ago, apparently to go to Elko.
Thanks a lot for the recommendation. Maybe I’ll ask Shannon from my study group, who makes sense of everything by bouncing it off of Jane Austen first, if she wants to drop by my squalid apartment after school, and since I have no money, maybe for fun we can walk down to the oily train station, jump on a fast train and spend a few days not showering. I don’t know how Blake talked Jen into doing that with him. I went to high school with her, and back then she would no more get oil on her hands than she would stay quiet in class if someone said something that made her angry.
Before he quit, Blake told me he relied on the trains and the mountains to ensure him that he would always be made well again. I was hostile to him for the rest of the shift after he said that, but I thought about what he said.
They rode out from the station by my apartment and I met them there. The colors of the place were much different in the daylight. Instead of sleek and liquid night, it was bright hues all over, the train tracks and immobile trains being lit up by the sun. The sky was a thorough, straight-up blue, so unvarying it seemed to surround us like a large plastic dome. There was a light piercing breeze moving along the tracks.
The place they jumped onto the train was about a mile further down than I usually walked. There was a station of sorts there, surrounded by trailers. Next to the trailers were large netted cages full of an assortment of unlikely animals—ostriches mingling with pigs, peacocks, and deer. We weren’t far from the freeway, but trees blocked the view. I never knew this place existed.
I didn’t know where they were heading. Blake as usual acted as if there was nothing else to do but what he was doing. He was still trying to talk me into going with them; trying to describe the exhilaration of jumping on a slow-moving train, crouching, getting comfortable and watching the colors change with the angle of the sun as you blur through places where cars don’t drive and people seldom walk. He smiled and stared brightly—his eyes looked scary when he smiled like that, adventure and invincibility swirling through the coffee brown before focusing in the black pupil center. Jen was less verbose, and her eyes stayed their usual calming color of lemon and water, but she looked excited, too—if a little more nervous about the actual jumping onto a moving train. I mentioned that I’ve known Jen since high school, but I don’t know her well. We were in a few classes together, were co-DJs on Pleasant Grove High’s KPGR radio station. And even though I used to go home from our show and write in my journal about how one week I wish she would just stop talking for even half a minute during songs, I did always admire her ability to say what she was thinking. And I was surprised to see that she had taken so well to jumping on trains, and to Blake’s personality. They looked good walking side by side in on the train tracks, skin glowing with sun and excitement.
I said I needed the money at work and so I stayed behind. Also, I was nervous that somewhere along the rail a guy wearing sunglasses at night being led by a German shepherd would notice us and hunt us down. The dog is what worried me. As the train approached, I asked if I should duck or hide or something, and Blake said not at this station. Once the conductor passed, there was nobody watching. I watched them hop on a flat part of the train in-between two loads of cargo and waved goodbye as the train started to pick up speed again. I could see Blake pointing to something in the distance and I thought he might be pointing for me. I looked in the direction of his finger for a long time and didn’t see anything except vague field.
Blake looked impressed with what he was looking at as he faded from my sight but he was too far away to ask him about it.
Whatever it was I was supposed to see, I don’t think I saw it.
It’s 3 a.m. and I just watched a commercial in which a woman with a long arrow sticking out of her back was examining herself in the mirror. The commercial’s narrator asked the viewer to think about how the effects of a bad night’s rest might go beyond just the one night.
I think about the woman with the arrow as I walk outside and up to the balcony where Chris, Adjacent to the Lord, and Jason have been drinking. As I’m walking up the stairs, the singer in the band says, “I write my saddest songs about chicks like her. Well, also Satan and evil.”
Everyone is tired, including me, and I think we’re about ready to drift into our respective dreams of small minded misdemeanors. I close my eyes.
And then open them again when I hear a thud in the driveway. I look down, and Jason is in the windshield of a car.
I look at Chris and ask, “Why did he do that?” Chris says, “I don’t know. He’s on some kind of angel dust. He’s been like this all night.”
Jason has been here a lot lately. Three nights ago he woke me up and asked me if I had any matches. I told him, “No.”Then he started looking through all of the cupboards and drawers, just like Chris does when he can’t find something. I put a pillow over my head and went back to sleep.
Now his legs are dangling in front of the glove box and he is stuck. Chris asks, “Are you OK?” Jason says, “Get me out of here.” We look at him for a while and then go into the garage to get a hammer to try to break the windshield up so he can get free. Since I am the only one remotely sober, I am the one who has to drive him to the hospital. Along the way, he keeps trying to jump out of the truck. I have to grab the collar of his shirt with my right hand while steering with my left. The experience is intense enough that it keeps me awake all night at the hospital until Jason is released.
Maybe I need a closer look.
The day after Jason is released from the hospital I mimic Blake and quit my job. Well, I tell them that I need some time off immediately, and I understand if they have to fill the spot with someone else. We’ll see.
I am waiting at the train stop and it’s quiet. It’s 6 a.m., summer, and my hands taste like metal from climbing around the immobile train in preparation for jumping on the moving one that will be running on adjacent tracks. I’m not sure where I’m going. There is water the color of tea on the train tracks leftover from rain the night before. There are bullet-scarred old carts on the other side.
I am nervous as I hear the train the first time. But I think about walking back to my apartment and quit wobbling.
The train is barely moving at all by the time it gets to me. I’m almost disappointed by how easy it is to climb on such a lethargic train. But fear of the German shepherd focuses my attention, so I put all of my life and the rest of the world out of my mind except what is happening between me and the train.
Then I’m waiting on a flat, empty car. Gradually, the tired shopping carts at the train station become generalized specks and then the whole thing is reduced to geometrical segments and lines and points. I look back and it is as though I’ve never been there.
Nothing really to see when the train is moving except color and sky, and that is nice enough, though what I really like is the wind on my face. OK, train. I can live like this. Bring me quiet rhythms and speed. Let me feel the wind in my ears.
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