1222 to chicago, p.1
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12:22 to Chicago
12:22 to Chicago

  By Craig Davis

  23 Castlerock Cv. Jackson TN 38305

  Copyright © 2012 Harry Craig Davis

  All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher

  Davis, Craig, 12:22 to Chicago

  StCelibartPress@yahoo.com

  www.StCelibart.com

  12:22 to Chicago

  By Craig Davis

  The bench Dan Robeson chose was cold and hard, but offered ample room for his suitcase underneath. The sun headed toward setting, and he hadn’t yet decided what he should do. The chill air in Newbern sunk into his bones, even before dusk, and he was still shaking anyway.

  Dan hadn’t eaten all day as he scrapped his way up from Finger, but he didn’t really feel his hunger. He had the money, but supper could wait – first he had to settle on his best plan. One thing was sure, he had to get out of there. He removed each shoe to massage his swollen feet for as long as they could stand the cold; then restored the shoes for as long as he could stand their pinching. Only half hitch-hiking, he’d turned down a number of rides along the way, and walked the rest.

  “Where ya goin’, kid?” the driver asked. He peeked out from the passenger window, out from under skeptical eyebrows.

  “Just north. Any room for my grip?”

  “Not much. You can stow it in the trunk.”

  “Naw,” Dan said, dodging his eyes. “No thanks. I’ll just walk.”

  He knew he could have caught the bus in Milan, but he feared being stopped in a town as large as that. Just the place they’d expect him to go. Newbern, small and destitute, was much safer, he thought, but it had no bus depot. Traipsing up Highway 77 with his burden, he’d passed through the town’s odd collection of traditional houses, its mom and pop businesses that appeared about to crumble to dust, and all sorts of Churches of Christ, and churches of Baptists and of Methodists. Dan’s choices now, as he shifted on his bench, were to continue walking or take the train. He contemplated the large concrete fountain blurbling insipidly before him.

  Sitting within the somewhat triangular island in the town’s center, he eyed the depot, directly to his right. He wasn’t sure if he trusted it. A blend of solid brick structure and dilapidated wooden ramps, the building straddled time what with its sterile metal Amtrak sign that appeared to have been put there sometime in the future. Ever since Dan had arrived, not a single soul had entered the building – a good portent, he thought. To his left, City Hall loomed like a vulture, and he guarded against looking in its direction. He could afford no false moves before city authorities had left for the day. He imagined eyes upon him, and nervously sought a sanctuary.

  With one exception, the businesses around him were all a forlorn gray or brown. On the street directly in front of Dan, what looked like an empty mattress warehouse featured a couple of stained-glass windows, like earrings on a pig. The effect had not helped it prosper. Also suffering the rigors of capitalism was Mom’s Buffet, just a few doors down, the window bearing a “closed” sign that had faded from long days in the sun. But nearby stood the City Café and Pool Room, the lone bright building on the square, a sickly orange color painted upon a pressed-metal façade. Garish beer signs proclaimed it open, and told Dan it would likely remain so for hours to come.

  This one time won’t hurt, he thought, I’ve got to eat something. It’s not like I’m throwing my life away in there, like those drunks do. All those down-and-outers, in there all day already, probably, they’ll get so wasted they couldn’t leave town if they wanted to. He couldn’t afford that, especially not today. Thanks be to Jesus he wasn’t tempted that way – at least he wasn’t tempted that way. He could go in there and not have anything to drink. It couldn’t touch him. He knew that soon, though he’d have to step inside the City Café, he would triumph over it. At least there was that.

  For now his gaze returned to the train station. He carefully fished the suitcase from under his bench and stood. His mind was mostly made up, but first he would check out the depot from the inside.

  The flimsy door had no latch to speak of, and swung open a little too willingly. Dan walked into a single long room, two wooden benches like pews, back-to-back running down the middle, and another along one side. On both walls hung bulletin boards, encased in glass, and Dan grimly studied the curling notices within. The train would come in northbound, eventually leading to Chicago. He could get his ticket from the conductor. Newbern stop, 12:22 a.m. The cover of darkness drew quickly closer, and Dan liked the idea of traveling by night. No one could see him vanish into the dark.

  Chicago would be perfect, Dan thought – in such a massive city, he would disappear into the teeming population. By ceasing to be seen, being absorbed into a vast body, he would no longer be exposed and afraid. He would find a place to fit in, to escape scrutiny. He didn’t belong here anymore, that was for sure.

  Dan suddenly felt the weight of the suitcase, still dangling from his arm. An old leather job, his parents had received it as a wedding present, and the years very nearly used it up. The leather straps that had once bound it together had been replaced by a collection of men’s belts, and they now in turn were cracked and frayed with wear. All his life it had periodically disappeared from its place under a bed, sometimes with his father, sometimes his mother, only to return eventually with the wayward parent. The deep mystique of its history fascinated Dan, along with the chafing miasma of rotten leather, and the lining turned to dust. Now it was joined to him. He checked the empty benches behind him and set the case down for a moment, shaking the circulation back into his hand – but only for a moment. His parents’ suitcase seemed foreign to him, and yet felt like home, and now he could not let it go.

  Dan’s feet ached again. His arrival in Newbern and the train’s schedule clearly merged into one, a confluence of events that God had prepared beforehand. That settled it – he would continue his journey by rail.

  He rather limped toward the City Café, the suitcase swinging from his other arm. Dan worried about his timing – the café would hide him from public view as long as it took for City Hall to empty out, but he also didn’t care for a company of rowdies to see him. Suspicious types are always suspicious. Perhaps that crowd came in later. He walked past the windows a couple times and tried to casually peer in to see what was going on, but the darkness was too much. Hanging out on the sidewalk is just the kind of thing that will draw attention to me, he thought. He’d just have to go inside and trust that nothing would happen, trust the shadows within.

  A bell rang cheerily, but the dim light still prevented him from seeing. The smell of cigarette smoke hit him like a wall. He could barely make out a figure at the bar turn to look at him, then away again. A wash of voices, clacking sounds and bad music came from somewhere inside the bowels of the building. Small booths lined the front window, and Dan chose the one in the corner. He clumsily kicked his suitcase as he tried to squeeze it and his feet into the confined space under the table.

  “Hey, bub,” a grizzled man said as he set down a single piece of greasy paper. It was a menu. “Want a beer?”

  “No,” Dan croaked. “Just water.”

  “Sure.”

  Dan’s eyes slowly adjusted, and he held the menu up to the window’s light. He found nothing on it he particularly trusted.

  “Here.” The water came in a plastic cup that was either once colored and now badly faded, or once clear and now yellowed. “What’ll ya have?”

  Dan imagined worms crawling out of the hamburger, and fries swimming in 20-year-old grease. “Does your bologna come from th
e store?”

  “Do I look like I make it here?”

  “I’ll have fried bologna. And chips, in the bag.”

  “Sure.”

  Dan peeked through the window, and now the outer light burned his eyes. By this time he could see the billiards area in the café’s shadows, the players walking slowly around the table, like elders with mighty staffs. A couple of old black men, in stained clothes that once had been in style, joshed with each other in unknown tongues as they took their turns and threw back beers. Dan scoffed under his breath. No telling how long those sots had been here, drinking their day away. Probably got up early to cash their Welfare checks, he thought, then headed straight here. At least he wasn’t going to waste his whole life. At least he was white, he thought, if he had anything to be grateful for, at least there was that. There were black Robesons back in Finger, but at least he was from the white Robesons.

  He chastened himself, I shouldn’t think things like that. God will certainly punish me for such thoughts – such thoughts lead to worse. Jesus put me here to give me a train, He blessed me with a train, and here I go provoking Him. Why do I think those things, he wondered.

  A heavy stoneware plate, cracked and chipped, clunked in front of him. Dan gazed upon the spare
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