THE LATE TRAIN
The rugged old gal behind the bar squinted against the smoke of her cigarette butt, cracking open her Tammy Faye makeup, and flashed me her leathery cleavage as she leaned over with my drink. The bar was empty but for the two of us, which was odd: a night like this surely called for a stiff one. No sooner did I think it that the door opened, letting in wet chilly air and two large brothers in hooded parkas. The pointed gun froze the scotch in my throat and one thought in my head: this can't be happening to me. Then I heard the bartender laughing. Even more amazing than her sang-froid was the hoods' reaction. They stopped in their tracks, as if transfixed by the sight of her, and began to back out in slow motion. At the door they recovered and ran like the wind. Unperturbed, the old woman chuckled and lit another...
Many years before, a friend had told her: if you're going to end it all, go out in style. Have your last act be something you never imagined actually doing - something out of a sick nightmare that reveals your darkest desires, or… hell, whatever your fantasy is. Look at it this way: a traveler who never again plans to visit this hick town called Life can afford to break the local rules. If nothing keeps you here, who cares? Have yourself a few thrills, you got nothing to lose... She was very young back then, alone and desperate. She made the decision.
That April night she stood staring into a store window, wondering where to begin. What should it be, her unthinkable act, the line of demarcation that would cut her off from those staying on? Winter still lingered in the air, but she was unaware of the icy wind that chased the crowds off the street. Then she felt lewd eyes on her body and looked up to see the fat guy. She took him to the park. Afterwards, he kept trying to stick a folded twenty in her hand. He fumbled and avoided her eyes, and even in the dark she could see he wanted to be done with her as fast as possible. Could he tell she wasn't a pro? Did he think an angry husband was on their heels? She got up, patted the man's frigid cheek and briskly walked out of the park, squeezing the twenty in her hand. Her attempt at a downfall had failed. The sense of freedom and detachment she craved eluded her.
Frustrated but full of resolve, she cruised the East Side for another chance to get her final kicks. Her eyes fell on some newspapers laid out in front of a convenience store. The owner, a scruffy Arab type, leered at her from the doorway. Well, hell! If she'd flopped as a fallen woman, there were other ways to indulge. She walked in, nearly shoving the man out of the way. Nonplussed, he hurried to the cash register-and froze there with his mouth open. It wasn't a real gun that she held to his suddenly ashen nose, but the Arab wasn't even looking at the two fingers jutting out of her pocket. Whatever it was that he saw in her eyes made his teeth chatter as he shuddered and slumped, abruptly shriveling up. His fine-boned hand opened the cash drawer.
She was surprised at how much money there was. It filled the brown paper bag which the store owner thoughtfully provided. She put it under her arm and moved on. The incident struck her as a little more interesting than the sad stab at sin on the park bench, but it too had been too fast, too easy, too casual. She'd barely caught the thrill. There'd been no fear, no ringing in her ears… So when a flat raspy voice called to her from an archway, she took a gleeful plunge into its maw. A lone lightbulb shone down on a crumbling playground, beyond which lay a dismal landscape of old brick and defunct construction gear. The four shapes that circled her bore little resemblance to human beings, except for their eyes, which glowed with the dull joy of greed. Well, that's that, she thought when one of them reached for her. Harsh fingers groped at her and found the paper bag. A moment later the derelicts were wrestling for it, their astonished glances flickering between her and the money. Then, as if on cue, all four cackled and vanished behind a fence.
She stood awhile, listening to their voices die off in the distance, and felt herself getting high on a kind of cheerful rage. How to savor this desperate night, her farewell gift to herself? Not to worry: the city that never sleeps was full of opportunities. She'd get hers. She'd be a fool to leave this world without knowing the rapture of release. And frankly… Hell-bent on making death the biggest trip of her life, she'd kind of lost track of why she'd wanted to die in the first place. She walked the night streets at a leisurely pace, regarding the rare passers-by with amused sympathy. The poor bastards had no clue how pathetic they were, reined in by laws and fears and obligations, stuck at a godforsaken way station from which her own train was about to depart, taking her into the vast unending night of freedom… But she alone would decide when to blow the departure whistle. And if that's the case… what's the hurry?
The old woman swept my change off the counter, wiped her hands on her stained apron and gave me a rascally wink. What's two juvenile delinquents to a woman who watches life out the window of a departing train? Sure, her train's a little late. So what? If you think about it, forty years is not such a long time…
I got up and headed for the door, realizing I'd had one too many. The floor was reeling under my feet, and it had to be the pounding in my head… but it sure sounded like the rumble of a moving train.
The bartender chuckled behind me, not a care in the world.