Southbound, 1975 by Katie Daley

view of train tracks from outside train window - grass and trees

 

We saunter up and down the platform at the Raleigh train station, swinging our arms, smoking cigarettes, and stopping every once in a while to strike poses in front of the fun-house mirror on the ice machine door. It’s a balmy evening, and the warm breeze ripples my shirt with a kindness that both reassures and excites me. I’m not sure exactly how it’s going to happen, but I’m counting on this Key West adventure to sling-shoot me too far from home to ever even think about turning back.

Even though the train must still be at least 50 miles out, I can feel it chugging towards us in the darkness. It’s out there like an old friend in the night who’s got the means to come gather me up and take me away. Away from three weeks of nightmares about my brother Walter, moldy and worm-eaten from the grave, coming back to tell us he’s sorry but goodbye, he’s going to kill himself again. Away from my stupefied afternoons, stuffing myself with Little Debbie cinnamon rolls and handfuls of Fritos to squash the hollow, zombie feeling. Away from my embarrassing new attraction to dumb, good-looking strangers and the urge to rub myself out against their dumb, perfect bodies.

But tonight, I don’t feel any of that. I just feel lucky. Lucky to be waiting for a train on a warm April night. To be finally, truly starting out on my journey. I’m 18 years old, and I’m about to become anybody, anyhow, anyway. And I’m traveling with the best possible road buddy when you want to do that: my hometown friend Roxanne, whose husky voice and bawdy sense of humor remind me of a Wild West saloon madam. Roxanne, who slides like Log Cabin syrup from one moment to the next, who’s always thinking of some way to twist what’s happening like a balloon into something else, something more funny or interesting, something we can laugh with. Daring, voluptuous Roxanne.

She wasn’t in my original travel dream, but nobody was. If I was brave enough, I’d be on my own for this journey. That’s how I’ve pictured myself from way back—a solo traveler making discoveries by myself with no brilliant, devastatingly funny brothers or beautiful friends by my side to eclipse me. But I’m too chicken to actually do that. Too scared to hitchhike by myself, too shy to meet a world full of strangers without someone I know by my side–someone to share the shyness with, to egg on or be egged on by, to confess to on a nightly basis as we brush our teeth under the stars.

So Roxanne it is. She only has a couple weeks off from her nanny job, but two weeks on the road with her is a whole life better than hanging around in the vacuum of my brother Tom’s apartment, writing monotonous letters to my friends about how I feel about Walter’s suicide. I tell them, I’m sad but doing okay, but that line’s got a drone to it, like a politician’s lie. The truth is, I don’t feel sad, but I don’t know how else to describe this vacant feeling. And I’m definitely not doing okay. But at least I’m saying it on paper: Yeah, you heard right, Walter killed himself. And I’m still alive. This way, next time I see them, there won’t be this awkward, self-censoring gap between us. I got enough of that just from Walter being schizophrenic and dumbed down on Thorazine.

The PA system crackles on and a southern, nasal male voice announces, “All southbound passengers waiting for southbound train 91, the Silver Star–that train will be coming in on Track 2 and will arrive at the station in approximately 20 minutes.”

Roxanne chuckles. “You think he’s talking to us by any chance?” She gestures to the platform around us, which is empty. We’re the only ones waiting for that train.

“Yup, I sure do,” I nod vigorously, too beside myself with excitement to be ironic.

I never meant to start my travels with a such a sure thing as a passenger train. Hitchhiking across the country was my main dream, and it still is. But since Roxanne only has two weeks and it might take us too long to get to Key West with our thumbs, we went straight for this part of the trip, scraped together our savings, and bought two one-way tickets to Miami. We’ll hitch to the Keys from there.

When our train huffs into the station, it’s bigger than life. It takes a deliciously long time to sashay to a complete stop. As I watch the lit-up passenger cars glide and joggle by us, my heart blams in my chest in sync with the shuffle of steel wheels against the tracks. Suddenly, my face is strangely wide and relaxed, almost like it’s spreading itself out into the night. After a few moments, I realize I’m grinning. I’m pretty sure I haven’t felt a grin on my face since before Walter died. I beam it at Roxanne, who’s also grinning, then back at the train.

When we climb aboard, the cars are filled with chatter and laughter, as if all the passengers know each other from way back. Even the porters and engineers are goofing around, cracking jokes as they pass out pillows and punch our tickets. As Roxanne and I settle into our seats, I look around at our new neighborhood. The prospect of spending the night and sleeping under the same roof with all these giddy strangers is downright inebriating.

And the bar car—boy, do I love the bar car. To be able to ask for and be handed a cold beer by the bartender, who greets Roxanne and me like old friends. To feel the weight of the Budweiser can in my hand, the drops of condensation cooling my palm. To taste the tinny suds in my mouth and the way they buzz my throat on the way down. To feel each thought lose a pound or two with every swallow, each day since Walter died break loose, bob up to the surface and take a deep, clear breath.

The lights in the seating part of the bar car aren’t working for some reason and there aren’t any free tables, so we approach a murmur of low, male voices.

“Hey guys,” Roxanne breaks in, warm and sure. “Any free seats here?”

“Come on and join the party, girls,” a voice drawls as a few silhouettes scoot over to make room for us. “We’re all strangers on this train.”

We sit down and make fast friends with the voices, loosened by the darkness, the beer,  and the sway and clack of the train that reassures us we’re all going somewhere other than here.

Around what feels like midnight, a porter strolls in and sits down at the upright piano parked against the wall. His silhouette is tall and ropy, and while he plays, his arms and shoulders move like the tree branches that were nodding in the balmy wind back at the Raleigh train station. He’s playing boogie-woogie and blues. Straight-up, skin-tickling, butt-bumping blues. The kind of stuff Walter used to play. As I lean back from the table to listen, the porter’s low, rollicking bass lines snake through me like steam through a cave. I start dancing in my seat. I go from rock to water, water to air.

I look around and feel Walter at every table, in every red tip of every cigarette. The tobacco smoke might as well be him curling through the car. He could so easily be the silhouette sitting across the table from me, doing an impression of a southern white boy on leave from the military. And those ropy arms at the piano could be his, too.

I lean into the two or three conversations at our table. “Hey, everybody—shhhhh. Listen to this guy play.” Their murmurs trickle to a stop. “Roxanne,” I whisper after a few bars, “doesn’t this remind you of Walter?” My first impulse is to ask everyone at the table the same question, but I catch myself and keep my eyes on Roxanne’s silhouette, waiting for her reaction.

She laughs a little, nods, then raises her can of Miller Lite. “Here’s to Walter.”

I raise my can and clink it with hers. As I tilt my head back to drink, I catch a glimpse of the moon out the window, full and still. The Georgia sky is a deep, hopeful, nighttime blue, as blue as the piano notes that roll out like a warm river under all our talk. I’m struck with how united we are between the two: we’re all hurtling through the night in the same train, all headed in the exact same direction, all bobbing to the exact same pulses of the train against the tracks. And even though Roxanne and I are the only ones here who technically knew him, the whole train misses Walter right now, his ragtime rumble and his boogie-woogie heartbeats. The night has dissolved the strangeness of his dis-ease and now I’m standing up to my chest in his blues. His Walter Daley, white-boy- in-America blues; his pent-up, I’ve-got-love-enough-for-three-worlds blues; his rolling thunder, it-don’t-look-like-anyone-wants-it blues.

When I think about Walter before his first psychotic breakdown, I usually picture him seated at the piano, playing a soundtrack beneath me and my high school friends as we sat around my family’s living room, talking about life, puffing on cigarettes or joints, and stopping every once in a while to belt out a few lines along with Walter: It ain’t no use in turning on your light, babe/That light I never knowed/And it ain’t no use in turning on your light, babe/I’m on the dark side of the road. After a while, he was one of us, not just “Katie’s big brother, the funny guy who plays piano.” But most of his life, he’d had a hard time making friends, and I had a lot of them, so he got jealous of me sometimes.

We hardly ever fought, but one day he was jealous enough to aim the words to Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” right at me while a bunch of us were hanging out in the living room: You’ve gone to the finest school, all right Miss Lonely/But you know you only used to get juiced in it. Usually, he glanced around at everybody while he was singing, but he leveled his gaze only at me this time, his face smoldering with a sneer. How does it feel? How does it feel? To be a complete unknown? It was clear, no doubt about it: I was the clueless oppressor, the rich chick throwing bums a dime and not seeing the frowns on the jugglers and the clowns as they did their tricks for me. I was the doll about to fall. Walter went to the same finest school as me–Shaker Heights High, one of the top ten public schools in the country at the time–but he didn’t get juiced in it like I did, and he didn’t hang out with all the pretty people thinking that they’ve got it made. I squirmed internally and tried to get out from under his accusations by ignoring him, but armed with Bob Dylan’s lyrics and that slitted glare, he was un-ignorable.

There was one night, though, when Walter wasn’t at the piano and none of our friends were around. I had bought B.B. King’s L.A. Midnight from the bargain bin at Record Revolution a few weeks before, and something about the night made me want to hear it right then. Or maybe it was Walter who had the sense to put it on.

The record player was in a small dark room off the living room stacked from floor to ceiling with books. While my mother and aunt talked in the living room, Walter and I stood in the library with the lights off, bopping our heads to B.B.’s funky beat. Then, without me thinking about it, my hips started in. Then my knees, dipping down low.
Even though I was part of it, I couldn’t believe it. My body was moving to music after years of feeling baffled by the act of dancing. In eight or ten measures, I’d shaken off the few pre-planned moves I used to shoe-horn into my shy visits to our junior high school dances, where Top 40 hits blared across the cafeteria. But now, with L.A. Midnight at the wheel, all plans fell away. B.B.’s guitar strings were attached to my pelvis, and every time he twanged a note, my pelvis gyrated out to follow the twang. My shoulders shrugged slow circles in the air, having a good, low chuckle with the bass notes. My hips swirled out from the saxophones, my feet and hands rippled out from the drums.

I opened my eyes and saw that Walter was dancing, too. And grinning to himself in the dark. I’d never seen him so unselfconscious. He looked as amazed as I felt.

We doh-see-dohed around each other in the library and at the entrance to the living room, echoing each other’s moves. For once in our lives, we were sure of ourselves, not thinking twice or even at all. We weren’t even afraid. Sadness, loneliness, rejection? No big deal. Our bodies knew how to shuffle and slide with that. The music was our oxygen, and we were breathing deep and slow, taking our time, knowing that’s all we needed—just this beat, just B.B. King’s band, just this darkness and the laughter of our giddy aunt in the next room, a Friday night in Shaker Heights, in the universe, no clever comments required, no comedy, no posse of friends, no applause, none of that. Just the body and the blues talking back and forth like they do.

I want to keep thinking about Walter, so I lean back from our bar car conversation and gaze out the train window again. The white disc in the sky wavers, divides and becomes two moons. I realize how drunk I am and try to put the two moons back together, but they keep pulling apart. I get up and stumble to an empty table so I can press my cheek against the cool glass of the window and focus better, but no matter how I look at it, there are now two moons suspended up there.

Walter had a moon in one of his songs:

The moon comes flying down

Comes flying

And gives me light to read

I’m hearing music as I write these words

And watch the ocean feed

On all the love I’ve ever known

The souls that I have touched

The people that have made me cry inside

I need you so damn much

Those last two lines usually rub me the wrong way–the idea that we need the people that make us cry inside. I’m on this train, headed for nowhere I’ve ever been, to get out from under all that. But now I think I get what he was saying. Being brave enough to care about people is what makes us alive–not the fact that they love us back. Or not.

I squint up at the two moons again. It seems right: one for feeling inwards and one for living outwards. The double vision makes my stomach buck and kick, but everywhere else in my body, I’m blissed out, my jaw hanging open with this new idea that everything is perfect exactly as it is—this dark, flickering bar car, the porter who’s stopped playing the piano and strolled out of the car, my brother who’s finally strolled out of his torment, me who’s finally strolling into my journey, and the two moons that are strolling after me through the sky.

~~~

    When I wake the next morning in Florida, the train is at a full stop. The world outside the window teems with vegetation I’ve never set eyes on before—long, prickly-tongued bushes, voluptuous flowers with centers as big as my face, and groves of ballerina trees intertwined at their roots and trunks. At some point, while I slept, the train must have jumped the tracks and rocketed me to another planet. My family, my suicided brother, my shyness and competitiveness, my dumb, glacial mourning—all of that has vanished to another galaxy.

Stunned, I wait for the train to start moving again to release me further into this jailbreak that has my body humming. But the wheels don’t glide, the cars don’t sway, my seat doesn’t thrum beneath me. Even the rhythm of last night’s puking, which reminded me of all the sobbing I haven’t done, would be more companionable than this stillness.

One of my fellow passengers tells me, in an excited voice, “The train hit a car at a crossing. They died–the girl and the old man in the car–they died.” I silently correct him and say sternly to myself, We just killed somebody. But my body is still too far from the crossing to muster even one true pang about their demise.

I sit back in my seat and imagine the two of them, the girl and the old man, off on some errand with no inkling that this would be their last day on earth. I picture them in the car, their last few seconds alive. They must have made some kind of sound, but nobody heard it. Their cries have vanished along with my zombie grief into that other galaxy where there is only one moon flying down from the sky.

What about Walter? What sound did he make as he ran off the top of that ten-story apartment building? Or as he fell to earth? I hope it was less like a scream and more like laughter. Or song–a phrase bellowed from one of his songs. But as I sit on the train waiting for the witnesses to be interviewed, the police report to be filled out, and the dead to be cleared from the tracks, I can’t hear him laughing, or singing, or even bellowing. Maybe it’s a little like dancing to the blues at that point–the body gets back to its animal self and has no need for speech anymore. He just comes flying down. Without a word, he comes flying down.

Katie Daley

Although she could name literary magazines she’s been published in, Katie Daley thinks it’s more important for you to know that in her time, she’s scrubbed the toilets of poets and mowed the fairways of gangsters. She’s performed her one-woman show of poetic monologues across the U.S. and received two Individual Creativity Excellence Awards from the Ohio Arts Council and a fellowship at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Currently, she’s working on a memoir about the 18-month journey she took in 1975 hitching and migrant-working her way through America. “Southbound, 1975” is an excerpt from that memoir.

 

STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Mark Turner
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  • JetCityOrange

    Wonderful piece and a fine tribute to Walter.