Short Story: The Bag
The train got in sometime after midnight. It was cold; the rain cut icy needles into my exposed cheeks, red with excitement or the frigid temperature, I couldn't really say which. The wind was blowing east to west, which seemed strange. I thought the jet stream followed what should be a nice logical progression across the country from Washington State over to Washington the City.
I suppose I felt a bit off-kilter that night. I had to have been out of it from spending the entire day cramped in a midget-sized seat on the train. It all felt almost unreal, kind of like a dream. I’m usually more down to earth, not running off on tangents about jet streams and stuff like that, but out here in the chill Oregon air something felt different, freer. I pictured the scent of logging, tree sap and sweat carried all the way down that jet stream to D.C. beaurocrats in their starched shirts and power ties if the wind was right. I imagined their noses prickling with that faint scent of the wild, the sheer force of muscle conquering those mighty trees. That's what it did to me, pulled me right out of my ordinary life, my ordinary job on the assembly line that had just about had me, though I hadn't even realized it until I caught that little whiff of pine on the wind that day.
"That line won't move itself," by supervisor used to shout, never mind the fact that it in fact did, and would continue to do so whether or not I finished putting the square piece of wood into the hole with a jet of hot glue, and made sure it was securely fastened before going on the next one. And the next one, and the next, endless mountains of small wooden parts.
"I'm so glad kindergarten prepared me for this," I used to think, once in a while regretting having dropped out of college after just a few semesters. But I just couldn't wait for money in my wallet instead of a kids backpack over my shoulder.
But all that was before that evergreen wind got to me, and I remembered how I once digested Whitman and Thoreau with as much gusto as mom's pot-roast. Well, that and my buddy Dave calling unexpectedly one Friday night after I got in from a few beers.
"Get your ass down here, man," he yelled. " It's unbelievable. Frickin' unbelievable. You can get millwork, no problem. Stay with me for a bit, there's room. C'mon man, you can haul timber like Paul Bunyan or something, good money, benefits, ya know? Plus you work your ass to the ground, no fun, and you live with your mom."
"But I don't live with my mom," I protested through a tongue thick with barley.
"Might as well," he said. "When's the last time you went out anywhere besides that craphole you call a bar? When's the last time you had a date? Get down here, man. I'm tellin' you."
I hung up the phone, my protest that I'd been out with Daisy last week caught somewhere in the fuzz between my brain and tongue. Daisy, all tangerine lip-gloss and hair that looked like it had sat in a vat of bleach a week too long didn't count, and I knew it. Off and on again so many times over the past two years, our "dates" now consisted of glaring icily at one another during slow spots in the movie and then back to my apartment, even a little dingy in my eyes, for mechanically bored sex.
I was seriously contemplating it. Dave was right, I didn’t have much to lose, really. I’d never even been away from home, except some camping trips and the class trip to Chicago in eighth grade. Daisy be damned. She won’t even miss me, I thought, just find some new guy to trash-talk to her girlfriends while he chauffeurs her around town. When you grow up in the same dilapidated neighborhood you were born in, hanging out with high-school buddies even though you’re turning thirty in a few years, you don’t get a lot of chances. I’ve never really had what you could call a lucky break, but I think maybe this could be it. Something told me I should move on it, even though I knew Daisy would be pissed ‘cause I’d be doing something exciting without her.
Thinking about Daisy, though, I felt a little pang of something resembling guilt, or regret. Daisy wasn’t that bad. She had nice legs, I thought. From the waist down she sometimes looked like she could have been on a stage in New York City, or Boston, wherever they have ballet. But I had to make a clean break, start a new life without any of my old baggage. There really wasn’t anything else here worth staying for.
Without much to leave behind, I decided I didn't need to pack much to take with me. I brought a few changes of clothes, the slip of paper with directions to his place, " a few blocks from the train," and the silver key Dave had mailed me, express, so I could let myself in "anytime. Day or night."
"Whenever the wind blows me in," I thought, reminded of those old adventure stories about the Wild West. And it had, straight with the train into Eugene with me just along for the ride. "Daisy's revenge," I thought to myself, as a gust tugged at my twice-mended, but otherwise intact overcoat, while I struggled to get it on outside the depot. I don’t really know how it happened, but that damn coat flew right out of my hands like some kind of possessed kite, catching in one of the bare scraggly bushes that lined the sidewalk. I ripped off some of the buttons trying to wrestle it back, and tore the sleeve again right where my mom had sewn it up before I left.
"Son of a bitch!" I blurted, trying to find the buttons in the brush covering the frozen dirt. I found three, and stuck them in my bag before starting off, holding the coat closed with my freezing hands like some kind of raggedy scarecrow. I hadn’t even brought gloves. I thought it would be warmer out here for some dumb reason. But like I said, in spite of the weather, the late hour, the seemingly deserted streets and now my useless coat, I was pumped, ready for the first adventure or some kind of excitement. I really wasn’t looking forward to heading straight to Dave’s place and going to sleep. I had that rush I imagined the first pioneers on the Oregon Trail would have felt, and I wanted to do something, even though I had no clue what, or even where I was. The street was boring, just houses sitting there all shuttered down, a few closed shops. I should have grabbed a cab and asked to go downtown, but then again I had my bag with me. Not much in it, but it was still getting kind of cumbersome.
So there I was, walking along to Dave's place, kind of high on life, when all of a sudden that damn wind blew my scribbled directions right out of my hand. "No use chasing after that," I thought, but lucky me, I saw the neon lights of a beer sign winking at me down street like some kind of beacon to lost ships. “I can just find him in the phone book and get directions from there," I decided. "No big deal." Plus this would give me something to do while I calmed down from the excitement of just getting here, I really didn’t want to wake Dave up, and sitting in his living room watching Saturday Night Live reruns while trying to pass out on the couch didn’t seem very appealing either.
Once inside the bar, I realized how cold I was, numb, not just in my fingers, but up my whole arms. I slapped some money on the counter, thinking a beer would be just the thing to warm me up. The bartender came over, and he wasn’t like I pictured, bulging muscles and a flannel shirt or something. This guy was kind of scrawny, with that washed-out look of someone who sleeps all day and inhales second-hand smoke all night. I ordered a good thick lager that seemed warm and hearty. A man's drink, I thought, and asked for a whiskey to go with my beer. I usually don't drink hard liquor, but it seemed like the thing to do right then.
"You just get in?" the bartender asked, nodding down to my small duffel.
"What's that?" I sputtered, choking on the fire that was burning a hole down my throat.
"Just got in?"
I'm reminded of Elmer's glue, the way you spread it on your fingers making glue-hand in first-grade, then peel it off bit by bit in little shreds. This guy looked like he'd rolled in the stuff, all gray and pasty.
"Yeah, em, no." I had my voice back. "I live here. On that street with all the trees a few blocks up. With Dave. My friend. But we have a company. Just getting off the ground right now. Wood stuff."
"Mmm." The bartender grunted, real non-committal-like. "You want another one?"
The whiskey had now burned it's way down to my stomach, turning into a nice warmth that tingled it's way through my middle to my frozen arms and legs.
"Yeah," I replied. "Double." I turned to the other end of the room, and surveyed the patrons. They were all kind of lame, actually. I watched the fat middle aged man putting shiny quarters in a dented metal jukebox, arm around his equally fat wife. She was sort of frumpy but whispered in his ear and then giggled like a teenager. Not much different from the Lion's Den back home, I decided, and my gaze shifted to the far end of the room.
That's when I saw her, standing just to the right of a table near door, even though there's still a few empty seats. She was near the door, but I didn't notice her on the way in. She tapped her foot and smiled at a joke someone made. She didn't laugh, even though I could hear her friends guffaws swelling over the jukebox towards where I sat. She seemed poised there, like some kind of tropical bird that got blown off course and plopped down far from her tropical paradise home, not sure whether to roost where she was or take off again. She was pretty but not beautiful, I could see that even from the other side of the bar. Her hair was blonde and shiny, dancing with highlights from the neon green and blue beer signs blinking behind her. In one of her hands was a small glass, peachy-pink with a little straw sticking out, quite unlike my own clumsy pint glass that suddenly seemed heavy in my hand.
I watched the girl. She sipped delicately from the straw, her other hand on her hip. It seemed perched there, like the rest of her, not quite knowing what to do with itself in this crappy place. I wanted to take that hand and lead it out of this stupid bar that wasn’t good enough for her, with it's stale smell and battered tables scratched with the forgotten memories of college sweethearts who've long since moved on to muttered profanities and thrown bottles of ketchup. I wanted to take her to Greece, hold that hand while we "Ooh" and "Aah" over the Acropolis and statues that don't have heads for some reason. I watched her twist the hem of her shirt with gracefully painted fingernails, the same peachy color as her drink. She fiddled for a second with her gold earring, then returned the hand to her jutted hip. I’d have gone anywhere with her, as long as its away from these garish lights and half-eaten bowls of popcorn that dejectedly from the counter-top. I wanted to get a laugh out of her, not just that weird half smile.
She was fiddling with the earring again as I dug into my bag and pull out the brand-new address book I bought at the train station. "She will be the first, and the most important," I thought, belatedly realizing I should have bought a pen too. I flagged the bartender again.
"You got a pen I can use?" I asked, fiddling with a cigarette I'd had behind my ear for a while and forgotten about, a bit nervous.
"You can keep the matches." The bartender flipped a flimsy book of them at me; they landed alongside the tooth-marked Bic he had set down.
"Thanks," I mumbled, almost overturning my stool trying to get up. I took my busted coat and bag, and headed off to the men's room, feeling a bit nauseous. All I really ate on the train was a bag of stale peanuts, and they were starting to come back up on me. Once I'm in there the room tilted in on me, and my feet felt stuck together as I tripped towards a stall. I didn’t make it, of course, and managed to get puke on both me and my useless coat.
I actually felt better after this, so I washed my face and mouth, and stripped out of my smelly clothes, quickly, in case anyone came in. Everything I brought suddenly seemed all wrong, but I put on the least wrinkled ones I could find, and threw the ruined ones in the trash along with the coat, since I couldn’t very well go talk to the girl with them stinking up my bag. As an afterthought, I tossed the rest of my clothes in after them. I could buy new stuff later, I thought, better stuff, plus the bag was feeling really heavy in my pickled state.
Refreshed, and kind of unburdened after getting rid of all that junk, I headed out for my waiting princess. She wasn’t where she was standing before. I scanned the bar quickly, no luck there. I caught a glimpse of her shiny head just outside the door, and headed that way. I tried to run, but the whiskey seemed to be affecting my legs more than anything else right then, and I lurched against a table before making an unsteady zigzag after her. She’s just out for a bit of air, I thought, hoped, but no. When I finally made it outside, a cab was silently pulling away from the curb, and the freezing drizzle pelted my fresh-smelling but thin cotton shirt.
Eugene seemed kind of dull suddenly. The buildings and sidewalks stretched away from me, gray and freezing. They looked kind of elongated and flat, like the ones I left behind. I looked down, and noticed a glitter on the gray pavement. I bent down to pick up the small gold earring and drop it in my bag. There it sat -- with the three black buttons, matchbook bearing the name of a place I don't remember but probably won't forget, still-empty address book, stolen pen, and silver key to my new home. One solitary gold earring. This is my life, I thought, right here in this bag.