Crazy Train | Our Town | Chicago Reader

Crazy Train 

The people make the difference on a long railroad ride.

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By Adam Langer

She wore a chocolate brown fake fur coat over a black T-shirt and black shorts, and she was using a big oatmeal-colored teddy bear as a pillow. She looked about 50, and black roots showed beneath her whitish blond hair. She'd been on the train since San Antonio, she told the man who'd slid into the empty seat next to her. Now the train was pulling out of Pontiac, Illinois. In Chicago she was getting a train to Connecticut to visit her son. He didn't know she was coming, she said. If she'd told him, he would have told her not to come.

They must not have noticed me scribbling away as they chatted. "I just like to have fun and have a good time," she told the man. "I'm just a dandy. I met this man once. I called him my grandfather. He wasn't my grandfather. I just called him that. He used to stop in to the restaurant where I was workin' and he'd just give me stuff. One time he just gave me the keys to his Ford Bronco. He just gave me the keys. I said, 'What do I have to do to keep this?' He said, 'Nuuh-thin'.' That's how he said it. He said, 'Nuuh-thin'.' He said, 'I just like you. You're just a dandy.'"

"I sure would like to see you again," the man said. "But I'm not sure I'm ever gonna."

"Don't say that," she said. "Where do you live?"

"I live all the way out in Oklahoma."

"I live there too."

"You don't."

"I really do. Oklahoma City. What do you do there?"

"I work in a tire store," he said, sounding vaguely sheepish.

"No kidding. I know lots of people who work at tire stores. I know someone who works at Bridgestone. You work at Bridgestone?"

"Naw, it's just a little place. Out by the airport."

"Well, I still might see ya. Give me your number just so I've got it."

"You won't call."

"You never know," she said. "I even surprise myself sometimes. Sometimes I call people I never thought I'd be calling at all."

"I'm gonna go smoke a cigarette," he said. "You wanna come?"

"Of course I'll smoke a cigarette with you."

But the smoking lounge was closed. Word had it the train had picked up some newly released prisoners in Pontiac and there'd been some sort of disturbance in the lounge. One woman wearing cornrows and a Dallas Cowboys jersey with Emmitt Smith's number was shouting at one of the porters. "You can't tell me when I can and cannot smoke," she said. "I ain't no child. I want your full name and your full title because you have verbally assaulted me." He ignored her and headed downstairs. She followed him. The train was running about four hours late because of freight traffic; the cars were really filling up now, and tempers were growing short. Our car was poorly ventilated and was beginning to smell. A woman who'd gotten on in Saint Louis with two kids was snarling, "We came all the way down to this shithole city and all they've got is Mark McGwire and the arch. I didn't see Mark McGwire, and who gives a shit about the arch?"

A couple of guys in their mid-20s sat across from each other, boasting that they'd finished off a 12-pack of Miller Genuine Draft before getting on at Peoria. Now they were drinking cans 13 and 14. "Three dollars for a fuckin' beer," one said. "Three dollars." They'd been picked up by the cops the night before for smoking pot, they said, but when they started cracking jokes, the cops had laughed so hard they wound up letting them go.

One of the two, who said his nickname was "Bump," sat next to a 50ish bearded man, calling him "my roadie" and "Mr. Keaton" (he looked like Michael Gross, who played the father on Family Ties). One day, he told Mr. Keaton, he'd be starring on Def Comedy Jam. Bump started hitting on a nearby schoolteacher, yelling, "Yo! Teach me somethin'." Mr. Keaton started laughing. A teenager with an immense Afro walked back and forth from car to car. Each time he passed by, Bump shouted, "Yo, Seventies! Yo, Seven-O! Yo, my boy be lettin' it haiiiiinnnnnnngggggg!"

A woman passed by with her young daughter, who wore a halter top with spaghetti straps. "Day-umn!" Bump yelled. "She looks like a model! You like a model!"

"Keep your eyes to yourselves, boys," said the girl's mother with an odd tone of pride as the two of them scurried out of the car. "She's only 13. That's what I've been telling everybody all day."

Another man, wearing jeans and a dirty white T-shirt, had settled into the seat next to the woman with the white blond hair. He had a bushy brown mustache, and his feet were bare. "You remember me?" he asked.

"Of course I remember you," she said. "It hasn't been that long."

"Too long for me," he said. "What're you doing now?"

"Well, I gotta go get changed. We're comin' into Chicago soon."

"We're not even close to Chicago," he said, as the train approached Joliet.

"Well, I gotta go get changed anyway."

"You can change right here. Just slip off them shorts."

"Right here?"

"You can put that coat on over yourself," he said. "You just put that coat on over, slip off them shorts, and I'll let my fingers do the walkin'."

"Well, I'm hungry."

"I'll buy you somethin'."

"You said you were gonna buy me breakfast and you didn't."

"I'll buy you somethin' when we get to Chicago. I'll buy you a hamburger."

"Yeah, that's what you said last night."

"I couldn't find you."

A moment passed. "Whew," she said. "Smell that. You smell that?"

"That's Gary," he said as the train passed through Lockport. "That's steel processing. I know that smell."

"It smells like diesel."

"That ain't diesel."

"Well, it smells like some dirty fuckin' trucker to me."

"Hey," the man snarled. "How about I wring your damn neck?"

"I got a long neck. There's a lot of it to wring."

The man got up and walked off, swearing softly. The train had moved onto a side track to let a freight train pass, and the Sears Tower was visible in the distance. Bump walked back to the woman's seat. "You want a massage or something?"

"I want somethin' to eat," she said. "I don't know why when you're friendly that makes everybody think you want a boyfriend or sex."

"When's the last time you had it?"

"A boyfriend or sex?"

"Sex."

"Two and a half years."

"Day-umn," said Bump. "For real?"

"For real."

Bump took a seat next to her. "You're just about the prettiest woman I ever seen."

"Well, thanks," she said. "What's your name?"

"Bump. That's what they call me. It's a nickname."

"They shouldn't call you that."

"I don't mind. You shoot pool?"

"I love shootin' pool."

"I knew it," he said. "I knew you liked playing pool. You look like you like to have a good time."

"I just love people," she said. "I love 'em all different, all different levels, but I love every one of them."

"It's the same with me," said Bump. "Some people get off on killing people. I just get off on making people laugh. What kind of pool do you play?"

"I like straight pool. One of my girlfriends, she won the championship. They flew her all the way out to Vegas."

"Well, maybe you and me should play. How old are you?"

"Forty-eight."

"You ain't that old."

"I am."

"You got kids?"

"I got grandkids."

"Day-umn!" said Bump. "I was thinkin' 37, 38 or somethin'. That's OK, though. I like older women. You're a vet."

A long moment passed. "What're you doing?" she asked.

"I'm looking at your face. Because I don't ever want to forget it. I just want to make sure that even if I never see you again, I'll still remember your face."

"That's real sweet." She took out a pen, snatched a card from a magazine, and scribbled something down.

"What's that?"

"That's my phone number," she said. "If you're ever in Oklahoma, you give me a call."

"I'll do that. This ain't one of those phony numbers you give to any guy?"

"That's my number. You give me a call."

"I will," said Bump, "if I ever get to Oklahoma."

"I hope you do."

"I know I will now." He returned to his seat, and his buddy across the aisle slapped skin with him. "I got me a new bitch now," Bump exclaimed. "You hear that shit? I got me a new bitch in Oklahoma. She's gonna be holdin' some spear! You gonna call me up and ask where I am and they're gonna say, 'He's in Oklahoma. He's in Oklahoma with his new bitch.'"

The woman sprang up from her seat and retreated down the aisle. She was heading for the stairs when a porter looked up at her.

"Where're you going?"

"I'm goin' to the smoking lounge," she said. "I need a cigarette real bad."

"Smoking lounge is closed."

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