Criterion

by Penny Skillman, August 10, 2016

The handicapped woman and the Florida tourist got on the bus in the sleepy Florida Panhandle city of Fort Walton. The one, a dark haired slow-moving woman with a dishabille air, by playing the handicapped card — cane in evidence, small steps, extreme pall — and the other playing the “caretaker” card, got the first seats by the door. The handicapped woman, once they got moving, talked on in a low ramble. The companion couldn’t decode a lot of it, yet the cane woman didn’t notice the lack of response.

At the layover in the bus station in Mobile, Alabama, the caretaker got a hot water drink, referred to as coffee on the menu, while the other woman did dinner.

“This may be the last hot meal I get before San Antonio,” the cane woman says, ordering a big helping of deep-fat fried chicken strips covered in yellow batter and served on a hill of thick French fries. She moves through the dining area picking up from a jockey table over a dozen packets of ketchup and barbecue sauce. Her free hand balances a super-size Pepsi in a Styrofoam cup. The caretaker sips her coffee, putting her feet up on the nearby chairs with relief — the hound doesn’t have much heart when it comes to leg space, and she’d developed a briar patch of twitches.

The cane woman eats with purpose, methodically polishing off the pretty caked pieces, dipping each in ketchup and barbecue sauce. The caretaker continued reading her Lee Stringer book about a crack addict who lived below Grand Central Station in New York, collecting thousands of empty soda cans to make money for his next crack hit. In that time, Stringer tells about how he discovered his potential as a writer; this the companion thought a fine segue, since crack would keep one alert and focused and able to notice details, surely more than alcohol or cocaine. Winter in Grand Central Station is as truthful as a man with a crack habit can tell it, she thinks. Noo Yawk, that city of boundless immigrant dreams and pipe seams. Donald Trump and Lee Stringer, New Yorkers strung out on their chosen drugs, extracting money from the real estate, in Stringer’s case, plucking and packing throwaway metal in trash bags and schlepping them to grocery store refund stations. To go to his job, Stringer needs reliable shoes and correct chemical tension, Trump need only suit up, carefully comb the quiff and put on a tie. Does Trump work harder? Trump’s got easier come-downs, softer traveling, higher quality drugs, if he were to take them, and pillows under his bum whenever he sits. Stringer gets higher peaks but lower gutters, he doesn’t sail the calmer mid-way seas. And he can’t rest in between waves.

Carefully, the cane lady’s fingers pluck at them until the last fry is pulled from the cardboard platter and dipped in the last blob of ketchup from the packets. Some of them have been opened with the companion’s small orange exacta knife, the same she uses now to peel the juicy organic orange she’d picked from the tree back in Florida, where they’d both stayed with Gary’s and her brother before embarking together on the bus to New Orleans.

For the caretaker her days of cavalier dietary escapades were all over. Including the old two-day Margarita holidays — she missed that most. Nowadays she tries to be aware of every swallow.

But the caretaker, giving in, does try one of the chunky fries; and it’s delicious, reminding her that in her college years she’d once lived for weeks on French fries alone. Far as she was concerned the fat brown salty ones were the only ones that merited mention.

The cane woman has brought bottled water and drinks most of it, transferring the remainder into a plastic bottle with the AA logo on it which she’d gotten at the AA meeting hall in Texas. She’d gone from being an AA participant to becoming a volunteer counselor, then also a cook. She adds the ice from her cup of soda and sips from it. Three-hours fifty-five minutes pass. Eating, reading, peeing, drinking, repacking, trying to stay warm in the cold of the hound’s unheated doghouse. Conversation between the two women is erratic, low-key in the post-midnight station, and punctuated by the half-dozen video machines behind them emitting electronic whines and explosive blasts non-stop, and kids, babies, and the TV hanging from an upper wall over the doors that’s permanently on a station where a guy demonstrates a turkey and chicken slicer between sections of old movies. They’re awash in noise. The caretaker feels wonder bordering on awe at the extreme obesity on display around her — might it be contagious? This apparent blowing up of the gluteal area into cartoon balloons? Might it be a cultural infection? She walks into the ladies room, washes her hands, which she does every chance she gets. The heat from the hair dryer is a welcome relief in the night. She spends ten minutes plunging her hands under the big silver nozzle; then another ten. Monkeylike she’d copied this trick from a lethargic teenage girl wearing only Dockers and a T-shirt whom she’d found earlier kneeling beneath the hand dryer, her back to the wall in order to catch the blast of hot air on her chest and arms. She’d stayed there for almost a half hour. Right now that young woman with the sloe eyes was in one of the stalls talking, imploring the ceiling, “Please Jesus, I’ll do anything, please help me, please.” The caretaker now sat in a stall also since the restroom had heated up throughout. She was grateful to the young innovator. She thought it proved the Id doesn’t always disintegrate along with the ego, the Id can wing it when it needs to.

Once again, when the bus leaves Mobile, the women play the “handicapped and caretaker” card, and a young woman vacates her seat just behind the driver. They place their baggage under their feet, settling in.

This section of the trip, 3:10 AM until 5:30 AM, has both women snoozing, or trying to. Once in Nawlins the lady and companion book the train to San Antonio and San Francisco respectively, and pay for the tickets. They’ll wait 6 hours 25 minutes. The caretaker strolls away to search out a cup of coffee, while the cane lady props herself up in one of the plastic chairs. The companion finds no coffee or tea offered in the one sandwich shop in Union Station, she’s told that earlier a bulldozer had raked a hole in the main water pipe and the water had been turned off throughout the building.

The New Orleans station is old, unburnished, a post-Katrina survivor with one sandwich shop and a souvenir shop. The caretaker had taken a bit of water out of the faucet in the restroom, sipping it before she noticed a handwritten warning over the sink. She promises herself never to use unfiltered water again if she can help it. When she wanders back to the waiting room she finds the time has been chipped away to five point nine hours. The cane lady is still trying to snooze in the plastic bucket.

The two women decide to walk out to the street in front of the station, and move toward Poydras Street, where there are no coffee shops opening before 6:30 AM. But then they see a hole-in-the-wall shop where two women watch the morning news on a big TV hanging on the wall, watching with such concentration the caretaker wonders whether North Korea has followed through on its recent threat to start a war with South Korea. But the proprietors are looking for football scores from their beloved Saints, whose paraphernalia, including banners and metal and cloth souvenirs, are stashed in every corner of the shop. The cane lady asks about playing cards and is directed to a rack, where they find each card of the pack offered has a different cocktail recipe on it, the images of the drinks are green, bright rose, wild pink, silver or blue, shivery-looking, as though they required silver confetti in the mix. She remarks that she thinks gold shimmers might be attractive as well.

The more severe-looking proprietor leads the way to the back of the narrow space and gives the caretaker a paper cup for the dispenser. The coffee is so bad that later she abandons it on the sidewalk. On the way out she looks for the store’s name on the front — Mom’s. Wasn’t it Satchel Paige who warned, “Never eat in a place called Mom’s”?

Meanwhile the cane lady had purchased those cocktail recipe cards, and now, on close inspection they see that quite a few require liqueurs like Schnapps, Chartreuse, Grenadine, as well as bright-dyed simple syrups. The cane is of course a member of Alcoholics Anonymous, she’s been dry for three years now.

“The cards are a gift for Alfredo,” she says, referring to her present off-and-on San Antone man, who has Parkinson’s and recently got out of the hospital having been treated for severe diabetes, the same disease the cane lady has. The caretaker can’t prevent a thought from recycling in her mind. Had this woman gotten Gary drinking again when he’d been sober for two years?

Poydras Street is awakening, people appearing on the sidewalk, noises of traffic and transport picking up, car horns tooting tentatively. The two women walk back in the direction of the Amtrak station. At the intersection of Poydras and Loyola Streets there’s a big modern office building and through the glass windows they see an espresso cart, a sign boasting Cappuccino and espresso. It’s the same tasteless stuff.

“What’s in this swill?” the companion asks, after they’ve settled down at a tiny faux marble table in a corner.

“It’s this chicory thing,” the cane lady says. “It’s a New Orleans thing, from the Civil War, there was a shortage of coffee beans.” They decide to accept what can’t be changed, and sit and watch workers come in the building and take the elevators. The office workers inside and on the street are dressed casually, sandals, Capri’s, jeans, tees, it reminds the companion of San Francisco before it became a city for only the rich.

They start back to the Amtrak station and stop after a few blocks. The cane lady, who’s wearing a dark brown coat with a fake fur lining now has her poncho out. She tugs at her backpack trailing from the bottom of which is her bus pillow, with a paperback book roped to it — opens her poncho and raises it and draws it on over her other clothes. The other woman wears an over-size rose-colored coat made from hemp, its long sleeves tucked up at the wrists, carries a seriously faded backpack, and a two-handled tote with plastic bags in it separating her snacks from clothes and reading material, along with a neck scarf and water bottle. It dawns on her that altogether the two of them walking along railroad tracks as they are, might be mistaken for homeless transients by onlookers who aren’t aware of the train terminal nearby. They both wear rundown jogging shoes, sport unruly hair areas and borderline manners, and walk the abandoned tracks with nonchalance. No one would guess one of them was ex-military with a dazzling pension, and the other a well-paid public relations worker in the convention trades, whose shaved head under her navy blue headscarf makes her stand out. They walk slowly, hoping for diversion to pop out and save them from spending the next three hours in plastic chairs in the station. They converse lethargically.

There’s nothing to see within walking distance of the terminal, but off to the left of the railroad tracks are low funky-looking buildings in between newly built high rises. This mongrel mix of architecture is somehow pleasing in its unself-consciousness, the one woman thinks. Like the population of New Orleans itself.

Back in the terminal the women finally do end up sitting in the cold chairs, waiting. Then in her restlessness the cane lady gets up and goes to the gift shop to get another gift for her sweetheart, this time a beer bottle opener that says “New Orleans” on it, and a soda and a small bottle of water. Back in Florida she’d been advised by her other ex-sis-in-law, a nurse, to drink 64 ounces of water daily. Severe diabetes. Damaged kidneys, forty-eight percent functional her doctor told her. Can’t break her soda pop habit. The caretaker understands, she’s got to have her morning java — even if it’s like the one she’s finishing now, mostly imaginary. We have to have some small pleasures to keep us going day-to-day, no matter what.

Every so often the cane lady says she’s going outside, only to sit back down and read her book.

The companion walks back over, and through the Sub sandwich shop, threading her way back to its spine, where a jukebox offers three-for-a-dollar. After sifting through the vast selection of song titles listed she selects Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.” “ I was born in a shack by the river … ,” savoring those opening lines so graceful and emotionally grounded, that beginning reminiscent of a French horn solo. She plays all three versions she finds of “You Send Me.” Sam Cooke, Aretha, Ella. Then indulges her infatuation with the simpler songs like “It’s Just My Imagination Running Away With Me,” and Aretha’s “Gotta be a Do-Right Man,” and the Neville Brothers doing “Tell It Like It Is.” And Louis Armstrong tunes done by a Nawlins brass band. Pete Fountain, Al Green, Smokey, Mary Blige. The cane lady at last locates the other woman there, hanging on to the jukebox, flipping the white plastic rectangles that list the many songs she still hasn’t played yet. Mesmerized, she’s stuck like a cupped rubber arrow to the glass hump of the machine. She jumps when the cane lady taps her shoulder.

“We can get seated on the train if we go get in line right now.”

Dutifully, the companion follows out and over to the train boarding area.

As they wait there, the cane lady now has something else to say about her dead ex-husband. They’d found themselves once again drawn into the discussion of the companion’s brother Gary. He’d had epilepsy.

“Gary wouldn’t take his medicine when I told him to.”

“Maybe he wouldn’t have had the fit if he hadn’t been drunk.” The companion floats it in a neutral tone that she hopes is taken as objective observation.

The other woman bristles.

“He had epilepsy, that’s why he had a fit. He didn’t have a fit because he drank!

“That’s like people who insist ‘People kill people, guns don’t kill them.’ Alcohol didn’t kill him.” The woman’s irritation cleared her mind, she enunciated perfectly now.

“And he owed a lot of money too, it wasn’t just me by myself,” she added. The caretaker did not believe that part of it at all. Her brother had always been quite careful with his money, he’d never even owned a credit card.

We really have no basis for a relationship, the caretaker thought, except loving and blaming her brother. How much of their own interpersonal baggage could poor dead Gary support?

“Let’s just drop it,” the caretaker said. Gary had been such a fool in almost all ways. But he could play his guitar, he and this woman had both been talented musicians. They’d had club gigs, alone and as a duo. That’s how he’d met this woman who had survived, she thought, by a kind of flexibility she would never have— an ability to bend with every wind. She and Gary had met at open mike night at the Conestoga Wagon in San Antonio, when he’d taken a vacation from his job in order to test the waters in the music business. He’d been at the club to keep his chops up, and maybe even to drink as well. On that score he’d fooled himself for a long time, she felt.

The atmosphere between the two women soured. The caretaker took up her Martha Grimes mystery. She’d always appreciated the English point of view, and the Grimes mysteries were light and non-demanding.

The cane lady busies herself on her cell phone, talking to Texas, with the friends who are to pick her up in the middle of the night. After a good while, the companion begins to tell her ex-sister-in-law about the music on the Sub shop juke.

“Unbelievable. Sam Cooke, Aretha, Irma Thomas, Professor Longhair …” She listed them . The cane lady has something to say about almost every one of them. After all she is a musician, and for a while the two women forget themselves in conversation. Then there’s silence again as the one returns to phoning, the other to reading.

The caretaker glances over at the book the other has had sitting on her lap. The front cover of the pale-bodiced 1800’s style woman, and the brawny western-outfitted man embracing her. The companion thinks about the smart kid Sean who runs the Amtrak desk in San Francisco, to whom she’s indebted because when she was leaving on the Amtrak bus taking passengers to the Emeryville train, she’d been anxious to figure out a way to sit up in front. “Play your senior card,” he’d advised her. It had worked better than she’d have ever guessed it might. Maybe because of her shaved skull.

The rest of the day passes mostly in silence, with one woman reading her Martha Grimes, the other working her Texas romance alternately with her cell phone. The Grimes reader takes another quick look at the cover of the western romance novel. Suddenly she’s irritated. “Romance, every goddamn thing is romance,” she thinks. Out loud she says, “ The Amtrak bleaches all of us.”

The cane lady is surprised, but remains silent at this seemingly off-the-wall talk. That’s the phrase she herself introduced once when she and her then sister-in-law had had occasion to take a train together to a city in which the cane lady had a music gig and the companion had a convention to attend. On the train back a black man had wanted a young black woman to vacate her seat for him, insisting it was his despite the fact that the woman had her ticket to show him. The two women had been sitting nearby, the cane lady in her military uniform. She was now surprised that Margaret remembered it, since she herself wasn’t sure now why she’d even said it back then — what was the sardonic thought she’d had that it had conveyed? The man’s arrogant sense of privilege? Not that she could see now what it was Margaret meant by dredging that time up. She picked up her novel and began to read in it, then put her head back, and closed her eyes, resting.

Out the window of the train Texas unfurled in endless small plateaus, in all directions low to the ground shrubbery showing, with patches of sand in between the clumps showing up as bald patches. Light green shrubs fill up the view out to the horizon. Serpentine tracks covered with light or dark gravel behind fences move at intervals off from the train tracks in front of her window. They appear to Margaret to be roads allowing ranchers to drive around checking on their immense acreages full of desert secrets. Are these the miles-long driveways leading up to a huge Casa Tejana that we’ve all heard about? Maybe with tall Spanish-style gates sporting a double B-bar brand buried in the wood with a red hot iron? It’s hard for her to believe that once way in the past France owned Texas for seventy-eight years — she couldn’t call to mind a single Texas town with a French name. No Lafayettes, Marseilles, or Baton Rouges? The French she guesses weren’t a cattle and horse people, not enough to make the endless spaces of Texas worth inhabiting, at least not in the 1700’s. By then of course the Spanish already owned Mexico, and they were a horse and cattle people.

As twilight sneaks up on the Texas plains, it brings the starry sky down on the train worming its way west with that peculiar determination of powerful machinery. The caretaker feels awe. It’s the first time she’s crossed this chili crazed state on the ground, and she’s amazed at the space moving off in each direction. She thinks about those Texas ranch hands, the cowboys who worked this vastness driving thousands of Longhorn doggies hundreds of miles up north to Kansas railheads. And what of the natives who roamed this dry land ill-clad for the cold winters, continually challenging their survival skills chasing rabbits, deer, lizards, drinking cactus milk, eating snakes and burying their dead in shallow graves under some rocks? She thinks she and all her modern speed-worshipping ilk are soft, from a new kind of American generation, broken by affluence, and that she herself is a strictly small tack cowgirl in the bunkhouse, full of a vast ignorance about what matters. Here on this train she’s been humbled by beef ghosts, rattlesnakes and runaway tumbleweeds numerous as these stagey stars blinking above. By space, sage, and past tears.

Mumbling about having one last Pepsi before San Antonio, the cane lady reaches in the semi-darkness into her backpack for a can of soda, checking the AA bottle to see if there’s ice still in it.

Turning critical, the caretaker thinks, “Here’s what really killed Gary.” This fair contrasts in brown woman sitting next to her with her deep fat-fried foods, her coined and actually fried honest-to-god veggies, like squash and zucchini, and canned yams with the Bisphenol A, had pulled him around. Gary had his accident in the pickup on his way to a club job where he was going to perform two new songs. He’d gotten a small foothold in the music scene, even had a following — she hated that when people die their special skills go with them, and so much joy, and then there’s simply wasted space. But that was years ago, and this woman had made Gary happy, she couldn’t deny that. Isn’t that the criterion she ought to go by? Gary died happy in that intensive care ward, and anyway, he was gone.

In San Antonio at 3:00 AM, the goodbyes are short, but not without amity, and a future trip is put on a side burner to consider, a trip to the bluegrass festival in Kentucky the coming year. The companion, hands rearranging her scarf, watches from her seat as the woman with the cane projects her body out of the train, and, mid-night rhinoceros-like she moves along the ill-lit platform heading for the small station, her paperback book dangling from its rope, the black and white pillow dancing in back like a tortured penguin. An entourage that it seems begs only for a guitar to thoroughly flesh it out.

(Copyright©2016 Penny Skillman)

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