Lowside of the Road

I left my truck in a shady corner of a park ‘n ride just outside Seattle. I climbed aboard the bus and headed into the city.

I took a lap through downtown and realized I was living better than most. There were small encampments by the highway. Another man slept in the doorway of a vacant building. Just rolled out his sleeping bag and posted up. If Seattle has Vagrancy Laws, no one enforces them.

I stopped at a theatre downtown and bought a matinee ticket. I don’t remember what movie. The place was almost empty. As soon as the lights went down I loosened my boots and pulled my hat down over my eyes. The noise didn’t bother me, and I needed the rest. I woke to the sound of an usher’s plastic sweep can clattering on the floor. He didn’t even notice I was there, and I slipped out the back. I washed up in the bathroom and headed out in to the humid August air.

I wasn’t hurting for cash. I simply couldn’t bring myself to fork over a hundred and fifty bucks for a room just to piss and shower and sleep for two hours. Between last-call and checkout, I wasn’t going to get my money’s worth.

I bought Bronkaid at a Walgreens and washed it down with coffee.

Haggard is a good look for me. Sleep-deprived and held up by pills. Less devilishly handsome than Devil-May Care. Nothing says ‘confident’ quite like wearing yesterday’s shirt.

The Comet Tavern is a text-book dive. Cheap and dirty. With its shitty little stage and dusty brick walls, it looks like the kind of place where guys like me spontaneously generate out of the bar stools.

I slumped down on a seat at the near empty counter and leaned on my elbows.

A couple dudes sidled into the bar and dropped down on the two stools at the end, with their backs to the door. One had a sort of middle-class whatever-man look. The other stuffed a frameless ALICE pack on the floor by his stool. He looked reasonably clean, minus a gnarly growth of beard, but something wasn’t clicking.

I noticed that his pants had been hand-stitched in numerous places. His shoes were beat to Hell. He mentioned something about being a student, but I couldn’t get my head around it.

“Nice bag,” I said.

I pinched my beer to dimple the can and set it on the service edge of the bar. I stacked a few singles behind it. The bartender noticed and came down to replace it.

I found out that the bearded man was a train tramp.

“No shit . . . ” I said.

I half turned in my seat, fascinated. I’d never met an actual tramp before. He told me all sorts of interesting details. Tramps have their own lingo. Specifically, they give names to the different types of cars on the lines. Pigs. Rocking Chairs. The list went on.

Contrary to legend, boxcars are not the preferred method of riding the rails. They don’t afford the rider much of a view. Through open stretches of rail, flatcars are the way to go. A rider can post up under a forty eight foot highway trailer and watch the country go by. When rolling slow through yards, where rail cops are prone to checking the cars, a crafty tramp can pull himself up on the axles of the trailer.

Better still are the cars with steel lockboxes on the front. Tramps must be careful to examine them – many have the bottoms cut out – but an intact box is a free cabin-car ride across the country.

Last but not least are the engines themselves. Trains will often tow extras. Getting inside is as simple as cutting a lock, and riders can curl up on the floor and sleep away their hours in comfort.

“Tom Waits,” he told me, “is like a patron saint to rail people. We love his music . . . “

I ordered a shot and a beer, plus a round for my new friend. In return he offered me a ticket to the band playing next door. After some hesitation I accepted. He insisted that the main act was great, and urged me to come check them out.

I took the ticket and promised to meet him there.

I nursed my beer like a dying man at his last meal. I did not want to go back to that bar. The more I stewed on it, the more the thought of sitting in a crowded concert hall by myself made my skin crawl.

It might have been the ephedrine.

I heard music pouring out of the venue. I rubbed my jaw in deliberation before breaking down. I walked back across the street. I took a lap through the joint before getting a drink. I didn’t see the Beard. I lingered up on the balcony, watching people filter in. Alt-rocker freak chicks and skinny-jean hipster boys. It looked like a never-ending tide of pale, genderless tattoo flash-art dolls.

I took a piss. Satisfied that I’d done my due-dilligence, I left my beer sitting on a table and left.

The sun went down long before, and the city was cooling off. I wandered the neighborhood a while, peering through the windows of various establishments before a side conversation with a bouncer pointed me in the right direction.

“Belltown, man . . . “

“Belltown?” I repeated.

“That’s where all the pussy is . . . “

He pointed on an azimuth. I flashed him a thumbs up.

“You probably wanna take a cab . . . “

“Nah . . . “

I shoved my hands in my pockets and stepped off. It was a decent stroll. I wandered left and right for a while, winding through town the long way. I got turned around at one point when an alley turned out not to be the shortcut I was expecting.

I pulled a booster pill out of my pocket and swallowed it without breaking it in half. Time release coating, indeed.

I circled a few blocks until I spotted people moving about in twos and threes, all converging on one street. I decided to follow.

Shorty’s was the first bar I spotted. Driven more by thirst than anything, I headed inside. I ordered a double, neat, and eyeballed the layout. I was looking for a bathroom and stumbled into a mini-arcade full of pinball machines.

“Holy Fuck!” I exclaimed.

I hadn’t seen most of those machines since childhood. Suddenly I was ten years old, standing in the back of the roller rink. While all the other boys were chasing pre-pubescent girls around I thumbed quarters into the glowing orange coin slot.

The years had done me no favors. I’d lost the “touch”. I resorted to frantically smacking the buttons, sending the ball every which way. It lodged itself into this or that corner before being spat back at me at a thousand miles an hour.

I quickly ran out of change.

Disappointed, I resumed my search for the bathroom. The place was larger than I thought. Hiding around a corner, in the back, I discovered a second bar. It was dark, but I could see booths lining the walls. Around the bar were large, straight-backed chairs covered in blue pleather.

The seats were bolted into the floor, and wrapped around their occupants. They made it next to impossible to slide up to the bar.

I eyed the backbar for the bourbon selection. I leaned between two girls seated at the bar, somewhat rudely and half on purpose, to get a better look at the bottles.

“‘Scuse me,” I muttered. “Yup, sorry. Got a beverage here . . . “

They looked up at me, confused and a bit insulted. I saw them looking back and forth at one another, then at me.

“Yeah, yeah . . . “

The bartender spotted me. I set my empty glass down. He wore a white button up, with the sleeves rolled and secured by garters.

“What can I get you?” he asked.

“Old Fashioned? Knob Creek, dash of bitters?”

“What kind of bitters?” he replied.

What kind of bitters? I thought.

Half of the time bars don’t even carry Angostura. He pointed my attention to a row of small tincture bottles without labels.

“Ooh . . . what the fuck are those?

“I make my own.”

” . . . That’s the most awesome thing I’ve ever heard,” I replied, in a low monotone.

“You know how I know you’re gay?” asked the girl sitting to my left. I looked down at her and sneered.

I looked back to the bartender.

“I like citrus . . . “

“I have a little blend I like,” he told me.

“Sold.”

He went to work. He muddled the fruit first, before blending in bitters and liquor. He shook the whole works in a Boston shaker, a step I never bothered with, before transferring it into a separate tumbler.

The two girls had stopped talking and were watching the bartender work. He finished the garnish with a cherry and another orange slice and set my drink in front of me. I tossed a twenty on the bar.

“What is that?” asked the girl on the right.

“Liquor,” I muttered.

“That looks like a girl’s drink. It has fruit in it.”

“Whatever,” I muttered. I held the drink down in front of her and she leaned in to smell it. She recoiled.

“Oh my God . . .

I raised the glass to my lips. It was perfect.

The bartender came back with my change and I just waved him away. He looked at me, confused.

“Consider it collateral on another one of these . . . “

He smiled and chucked it in his tip jar. I eyeballed the bar the whole while. A crowd was forming to my right. I saw them eyeing the booths in the back, and before long several girls got up. This was my chance.

“Shove over,” I told the girl on the left.

“Ex-cuse me?”

“You’re sitting at the service end of the bar. Just shove down one, so you and your date can talk . . . “

The girl on the right laughed. She got up and moved down one seat.

“You can have my seat.”

“You sure about that?” I asked.

“Yeah . . . we’re leaving soon anyway.”

“My luck keeps changing for the better,” I said, as smug as I could manage.

I slid into the middle seat between them, feeling a bit like a small child at the grown-up table. The seats were less comfortable than I had imagined, and the way they wrapped around made conversation awkward. The girls leaned forward to talk back and forth. The girl on the left made it a point to give me a hard time.

“So, where are you two leaving for?”

“What business is it of yours?” Girl-on-the-Left fired back.

“I was looking for a Planned Parenthood . . . thought maybe you could give me directions.”

“Oh my God!” she gasped. “You’re an asshole!”

Girl-to-the-Right laughed.

The conversation went on like that for a while. Eventually the two left. Two more girls hovered over my shoulder.

“Excuse me,” came a voice. “Would you mind moving over one seat?”

I turned to look. Her pale doll-face was framed in long red hair, dyed brighter for effect. She was overdressed for the bar. Sexy but modest. Her friend stood next to her. Default blonde.

“Yes,” I deadpanned.

I stared at them, insolent. I savored the moment before relenting and sliding to the seat I had originally wanted. They commenced to chattering amongst themselves and I went back to my drink.

The bartender saw me set my empty glass on the bar and pointed at me from the other end. I whirled my finger in the air to signal Keep ’em coming. He finished with another customer and commenced with the elaborate build of my Old Fashioned.

The girls sitting next to me turned to watch. I looked straight forward, my face plastered with the pleased expression of a spoiled child. They turned to look at me.

“Hey, what are you drinking?” asked the redhead.

I leaned forward in my seat to look at her, swirling the contents of the tumbler. I’d heard her perfectly, but I pointed to the wrap-around seat and shook my head.

“Huh?” I wrinkled my brow.

“Your drink . . . what is that? Does that have whiskey in it?”

“Yeah,” I replied, “But only a little . . . “

I took a sip.

“Oh . . . ” she frowned, looked a bit disgusted.

I was overcome by a sudden impulse to ignore her. Not because of her taste in liquor, specifically, but because of her hair color. She was pretty, with delicate features, but looking at her face reminded me of someone. I noticed my vision beginning to distort.

I looked down at my drink.

Jesus, I thought. I took another sip. My tongue was beginning to feel dry. Numb. I checked the back of my hand and realized I was a few tick-marks behind on the count. I asked the bartender for a pen and a glass of water.

I reached into my pocket for another rocket-cocktail of anhydrous caffeine and ephedrine. I took two of the latter, broke them in half, and ground them under my teeth. I washed it down with whiskey to rid my mouth of the awful, bitter taste.

Do you often chase pills with whiskey?

The question stuck in my head. Something another girl had asked me once, in a bar far away.

I left my mouth on auto-pilot while the girls asked pointless questions. I fielded them with nonsense answers, and less of my usual snarl. I forgot the conversation as it was happening, increasingly preoccupied with the practical realities lying in front of me.

How far could I walk right now, if I had to?

Do I have enough cash for a cab?

How much more of this is still soaking into me?

. . . Plus this drink?

The noise level around me increased. I looked up to see a group of friends. The blonde and the redhead seemed to have been expecting them. I slouched down in my seat with the pint of water.

I should have eaten something, I realized. I should have slept.

Someone tapped me on the shoulder. I looked up to see a young black woman. Redhead’s friend. I stood up, turning to face the group. The black girl introduced herself. Her name rattled around in my head briefly before exiting. She took a step back and wrapped her arm around the arm of a tall, lanky looking black dude. He nodded at me.

“Wa-ssup, man?”

“Fuckin’ chillin’.” I replied.

I could feel how sunken my eyes were. I had to stifle a yawn.

The Blonde finished her drink – and the Redhead’s – and the two gathered their phones and purses. The Blonde stared down at her phone, both thumbs committed.

“You smoke?” asked the black dude.

He pinched his thumb and index finger together. It took a minute for his meaning to register.

“Huh? Ohh . . . fuck. Nah. Not in a long time.”

“It’s all good . . . “

His girlfriend grabbed me by the wrist. She invited me to come with them. They were having a house party. A bit of pleading was involved, which I didn’t understand. I saw the Blonde weaving slightly in my peripheral.

“I uh . . . nah. I can’t.”

For a million reasons, I couldn’t.

I closed out with the bartender and headed outside. I checked the time. There were no cabs around the bar, so I decided to start hoofing it on a back-azimuth. I promptly took a wrong turn. I wandered for over an hour, consciously keeping my hands out of my pockets to avoid looking any more drunk or inviting a target than I knew I must have been.

I eventually found my way to a gas station. I needed a landmark and it seemed as good a place as any. I called a cab. There was a hotel near the car park. I gave the driver directions. The overhead light woke me. I left him a generous tip.

After he pulled away I shoved my hands in my pockets and shuffled down the sidewalk to the car park. I unlocked my truck and pulled the key to the tonneau cover off the ring. I locked my truck keys in the back with the rest of my things.

The sky was turning gray. Dawn was coming. I curled up on my front bench seat and pulled a flannel shirt over my head to shield me from reality.