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A Novelette by Michael J. O'Connor


Chapter One

     I hadn’t left the house in so long, my shoes were dusty. I had been vigilant to the point of mania and had grown pale and bloated like dough left to rise. Although I have always been a homebody, my body was starting to fuse with my home and I wandered the two-bedroom condo I shared with my wife, haunting it, staring into space for several minutes like I was trying to recall some long-forgotten memory like who I was or what I was doing. I had received the vaccine eight months prior, but new models of the virus were popping up all the time and I had resigned myself to the routine. The endless loop. It was peaceful. Like drowning or freezing to death.


     I got a call from my friend Teddy. We have known each other for over 20 years and have toured the country in vans of varying quality, playing in bands of varying quality. He moved to Eugene, Oregon but regularly visited his hometown in the Bay Area where I lived, so we stayed in touch.


     “Hey buddy,” he said, “I’m turning 40 in a couple of weeks. Do you want to come play some music at the party?”

     My mind started turning and sparking. Rusty gears broke loose and strange new thoughts started forming. I interrupted him.


     “Yes. I will be there.”


     I lived in Portland for a few years and still knew some people there. It didn’t take long to set up another show, and in a matter of hours, I had a mini solo acoustic tour booked and a grand, dumb idea: I was going to do it all on public transit.


     I used to tour on Greyhound and Amtrak all the time, but as I got older, I grew tired of sleeping while sitting up and waiting for hours in the worst parts of town, which is always where bus stops and train stations are. Now, though, it was exactly what I needed. The Bay Area to Eugene to Portland and back. Somewhere along the way, I would find the pieces of myself that had been left out there when we were moved inside and forced to stay there, and if they were still working, I would put them back in place.


     The afternoon I left was sunny and warm. The last breath of summer blowing through early October. I had packed my black duffle bag too heavily and brought along my 3/4-size travel acoustic guitar and a plastic case full of harmonicas, which were all strapped to my back and shoulders, digging into my skin. I got an Uber to the station a few miles from my house to wait for the train that would take me to Larkspur, right across the bay from San Francisco, where I was going to catch a ferry to The City. As soon as the Uber dropped me off, black clouds crept in from the horizon, covering the beautiful, blue, dry sky, and I felt the sting of cold rain on my neck.


     There were others waiting at the stop, dressed from top to bottom in San Francisco Giants gear, drinking tall cans of thick IPA. They crowded under the glass shelters of the open-air station and threw their empties on the tracks. With no room to take cover, I set my duffle bag down on the platform and let the icy drops fall wherever they liked. More baseball fans showed up, each one drunker and louder than the last. The later they were, the longer they had been pregaming at home and they stumbled into one another, slurring and shouting up at the drizzling sky, cursing it and performing rituals to stop the rain. When the train finally arrived, the platform was packed with black and orange with glints of multicolored aluminum cans and sparkling glass bottles floating on the surface. The train doors opened and I followed the current, finding a small patch of real estate on the car to stand and watch the tide roll.


     Being in a packed transit car with a rowdy crowd was nothing new. I had once been on a Greyhound bus that stopped in front of a jail somewhere in Arizona to pick up all the newly-released inmates. A tall guy in his 20s with spiderweb tattoos and two gold canine teeth sat next to me and told me that the jail gave $50 and a Greyhound ticket out of town to everyone who was released. The inmates were much more well-behaved than the Giants fans, who were spilling beers and smashing bottles on the train floor. One man berated the gray sky through the window, groaning and pounding on the glass, which would have been irritating if it hadn’t worked. When the train pulled into the Larkspur station, the inside of the car was soaked with beer, vodka, and spit but the ground outside was dry and the sky was clear.


     I rode the wave down a hill from the train stop to the ferry, barely having to touch the ground as I was pushed along by the chanting, singing choir of wasted fans. We all piled onto the boat; a massive blue and white vessel with an observation deck and bus seats, and as it pulled into the bay and the shimmering, smiling face of San Francisco came into view, everyone cheered, including me, the only passenger not going to the ballpark and the only sober soul onboard. The cheer intoxicated me anyway, and I swayed with the motion of the sea, feeling the spray and sun and the burning of my luggage straps on my back, my only anchors to what felt like another life back on land.


     Once the boat docked at the San Francisco ferry building, the sea of Giants fans went one way and I went another. I silently wished them good luck. In everything. On the walk from the Ferry Building to the Embarcadero BART station, where I had to catch another train across the bay to Oakland, the sun started going down. The shadows, long and sad, stretched over the street vendors in the plaza as they packed up their t-shirts and crafts for the day. I have always hated sunsets and riding BART under the bay. Both feel like drowning. I gripped the straps on my shoulders and hardened my heart for the short journey to nighttime in the East Bay.


     When I popped my head up at the 12th Street BART station in downtown Oakland, it was under a full blanket of darkness. Cars ran red lights, people screamed at each other from across the street. Neon. Headlights. Steam from the grates. I got an Uber and when the driver came, I tossed in my bag and guitar and focused on my next stop.


     The Jack London Square Amtrak station is a glass and steel polygon set below massive concrete apartment buildings like a diamond. I got my paper ticket at the counter and collapsed into one of the ripped vinyl chairs lined up in the center of the lobby. People stood around in pajamas with their luggage and an automated voice announced arrival times with a sad, dead echo that is only found in train stations at night. A youngish woman walked in, bringing the last puff of smoke from her cigarette with her, and headed straight to an elderly woman bundled up in what looked like three or four winter coats who had been sitting by herself a few rows ahead of me. The younger woman’s eyes were rimmed red with tears.


     “Why do I have to push everyone away?” she said, grabbing the older woman’s hand. “I have to remember that when I yell, it scares people.”


     The older woman nodded, not necessarily in agreement, but in resignation. The station was filled with a brand of loneliness that can crush you quickly. It pushed me down in my chair and made me question everything I was doing. I spent some time debating whether or not to just hop back in an Uber and go to the airport instead, where the sinking, sucking alone feeling was masked by the chaos of the rush, or just go home. Before I could make a decision, though, an electronic bong flooded the station and the computerized voice explained to us that the train was arriving in ten minutes. Everyone gathered their bags and headed toward the platform and I did what I had been doing all day: I let myself float along with them.


     The air outside was wet and heavy like a terrible blanket. The lights above the tracks glowed as big as beach balls and lit the faces of the passengers, showing everything. Darkness, drunkenness, drugs. The gang was all there. We strained our eyes and necks looking down the length of track, trying to find the light that meant we were going somewhere soon. When it finally cut through the blackness ahead, I felt a silent cheer rise up from the platform. We were going home. Or leaving home. Or finding home. My duffle bag and guitar sat at my feet, dense with the steamy night. I turned to look at the women from inside the station. The younger one was crying quietly, holding onto a lit cigarette like a teddy bear. The older one was staring straight ahead with nothing to cling to. The train squealed to a stop in front of us and they walked in opposite directions, with no words spoken.


     I found my seat in the business class section of the train, which seemed to have been $20 well spent. The cabin was plush in a way that looked easy to clean and the lights were dimmed to a pleasant darkness. As I got settled, I could see the entire Oakland train yard through the window, dead and empty. The expanse of it made me think of all the other train yards in all the other towns and all the other cities and all the other crying daughters with nicotine stains on their fingers. The enormity swallowed me so quickly that I couldn’t brace for it. I missed my wife. I missed my dogs. I would have given anything to blink my eyes and be in bed instead of sitting in a chair fifteen feet off the ground, gazing at the empty horizon, but it was too late. I felt a jolt and the train yard started to shift. I was going. I was moving. We were all heading somewhere. Always gliding along, alone. Nothing more beautiful. Nothing more true.

Chapter Two

     The train rolled through parts of California I had never even seen in dreams. Massive factories and refineries, lit up like fairground attractions, flew past in the night. Towns dotted the open void. There were people there, living and breathing, driving down the highway in their tiny specks of light. We made stops in Sacramento and Davis and other, smaller towns with single adobe-style stations and a few people milling around under a piss-yellow lamp on the platform.


     These breaks in the fearsome emptiness through the window brought me great comfort. They were signs of life. I wasn’t just hurtling through some dark nightmare with no end. If these people in their oases of light had crawled their way out of the nothingness to catch the train, they must have come from somewhere and they must be going somewhere, so I, too, must have a beginning and end in this journey. The rainy platform with the Giants fans that morning back home was just an image in my mind, not something that happened, like a childhood birthday party or a fourth-grade teacher. So long ago, all the faces were obscured and the specifics erased.


     After several hours, it seemed like the train wasn’t making any more stops for a while and was now barreling through northernmost California and into Oregon. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to sleep, so I wandered down to the observation car. It was a large space with windows on the sides and booths lining the perimeter. Aside from me, there was only a man and a woman in their early 20s in the car and they were in the middle of an excited, babbling conversation with the spitfire rhythm of two people who had just met and were hitting it off.


     “I told myself I should just go,” the woman said. “No one will go with me, fuck ’em, I’m not scared.”


     “Totally,” said the man. “That’s so great, that’s really, really brave of you.”


     They continued chattering, complementing and fawning over one another as I watched black skies flutter overhead and melt down below out the windows. Their conversation made me lonelier than I had been all night as I eavesdropped and siphoned off some of their glorious connection. A stranger, invisible and on the verge of large, ugly tears. This kind of human bond was what I was searching for when I hopped on the train instead of a plane, but so far I had only been an observer, too isolated and out of practice with other people.


     Just as my first tear was about to fall, the woman stood up.


     “I’m going to go back to my sleeping car,” she said. The man stood up, too.


     “Great,” he said, his voice quaking in the car’s stale air.


     She looked at him for a moment, then extended her arm and pointer finger, poking him in the chest and gently pushing him back down in his seat.


     “Stay,” she said, well-practiced in these situations with over-eager, boundary-crossing men.


     He put his hands in his lap, shocked and embarrassed that he had let his imagination run so wild, and she turned around and left the car, which was now silent with sadness, occupied only by the two most pathetic men in our small, dark world.


     As the sun rose in the morning, my eyes adjusted and puffed out with the lack of sleep. The train twisted through the mountains, far from any highway or home, back where no one looks and no one can get. There were leaves brushing the windows in colors I had never imagined and they popped against the gray sky. It had been 13 hours since leaving Oakland when we scraped to a stop at the Eugene, Oregon station. All I had in my stomach was nicotine lozenges and gritty, gray coffee from the snack car down in the belly of the train, and as I waited in the parking lot for Teddy to pick me up, I trembled with nervous hunger, completely fried.


     Teddy and his wife Sharon pulled up in their minivan with one of the biggest dogs I have ever seen in the back. His name was Uli and as Teddy took him to pee behind the train station, Sharon turned to me.


     “The party tonight is going to be a lot bigger than Teddy knows. It’s a surprise and they have to get the house ready. Help me stall him this afternoon,” she said.


     The surprise element was a surprise to me, too, as was the idea that I would be playing music for a larger crowd, and my empty, anxious stomach growled in the back seat.


Fortunately, it took all afternoon to find a restaurant that would let Uli sit on the porch. We ate burritos while the dog yawned and drooled, staring at us longingly.


     “After this,” Teddy said, “let’s go back to the house so you can change and stuff.”


     Sharon widened her eyes.


     “How about we take the dog to the park,” I said. “I’ve been sitting all night.”


     We drove to a large nature preserve and as we got out and Teddy grabbed Uli from the van, it started to rain.


     “Come on,” he said, “let’s just go home.”


     “What’s a little rain,” I said, a night’s worth of dirt and grease running out of my hair and into my eyes.


     We picked our way through the muddy trail and the mood soured. Teddy, clearly annoyed by my insistence on walking in the rain like turkeys, too dumb to come inside, walked ahead with Uli. As we turned a corner, a woman who couldn’t have weighed more than 100 pounds almost ran into us, along with her two pit bulls, which were battle-scarred and wrapped in chains. They took Uli’s size as an insult and lunged at him, restrained only by their owner’s weak grip. My feet wanted to run, but I stayed put and helped Teddy pull Uli further down the trail, away from the hell beasts snapping at him. I faked a smile, my heart racing and my broken nerves crackling in my hands and arms as panic rushed out.


     “We should go home,” he said.


     “No, this is great.”


     The lie hung in the wet air as we continued deeper into the woods.


     By the time we pulled up to Teddy’s house in the minivan, it was dark and my skin was raw and electrified. I’d like to say that seeing the surprise on his face made all the stress melt away, but when Teddy opened the door, a fresh wave of anxiety hit me. The small house was packed with people, both adults and children, who were all in costumes for the upcoming Halloween weekend, and adding Uli to the mix only created a fresh layer of chaos. His wagging tail, as big as a hockey stick, annihilated drinks and kids as he, Teddy, and Sharon disappeared into the crowd, my only anchors slipping away.


     I backed myself into a corner, trying to find something to do with my hands. Going from my empty condo back home in the isolation of a pandemic to this was like falling asleep floating down a lazy river and waking up in the middle of the Atlantic. Danger all around. It seemed that I had made a terrible mistake and I pined for my seat on the train with its quiet darkness. Alone and watching the world pass by, all from a safe distance.


     Just as I was about to sneak outside, Teddy found me.


     “You ready to play, buddy?”


     I had forgotten the whole reason I was there in the first place. It suddenly seemed wrong and stupid.


     “Maybe just a few songs,” I said. “Keep it short, you know?”


     Everyone seemed to be having such a good time and I was mortified at the idea of interrupting them and demanding their attention just so I could sing my sad, silly songs. It was going to bum everyone out.


     “Hey, everyone,” Teddy screamed. “There’s gonna be some music in the living room in a minute.”


     He slapped me on the shoulder and the whole party turned to look at me, polite but confused. I got set up in a corner by the TV while they all looked on, wondering why they had to stop enjoying themselves. I began playing and singing my songs about drug addiction, heartbreak, and dark, endless loneliness. Everyone was very nice, but after two songs, it was clear that they were no longer on my side.


     Mercifully, for me, halfway through the third song, pandemonium broke out. People screamed and plates of snacks flew to the floor. I stopped playing and absorbed what was happening. One of the children had been wearing a Chewbacca costume, which Uli had mistaken for a potential girlfriend. When the giant dog jumped on the poor kid, all attention was directed there. No matter what else is happening in a room, a massive dog mounting a child will always steal the focus. I took the opportunity to put my guitar back in its case and melt back into the corner. The show was definitely over.


     That night, I slept hard enough to make up for the empty hours on the train and shot up with my alarm at six AM. I was catching a bus to Portland to play that night and wanted to have enough time to take in the haunting weirdness of that city. To my surprise, Teddy was already in the kitchen when I sat up, confused from a deep, dreamless sleep in an unfamiliar place. I told him I was going to catch an Uber to the bus stop.


     “Man, fuck that,” he said. “I’ll drive you.”


     He stopped in front of the bus depot just as the morning light was starting to show the misty rain. Before I could thank him, he put his hand on my arm.


     “This meant a lot,” he said. “Seeing you, I mean. We’re still here.”


     He didn’t have to explain. When you spend most of your life playing in bands and taking whatever pills are handed to you by people taking those same pills, you’re bound to collect some dead friends. Or become one. Teddy and I hadn’t. We had dodged it long enough to become two middle-aged men sitting in a minivan in the rain, staring into a deep pool of memories, some more pleasant than others.


     We hugged in the parking lot before I went inside with my duffle bag and guitar, and then I watched him pull away, back to his home where he was living his precious life, because that is what it is, even when it’s a nightmare and even when it’s cold and wet, and even when it’s lonely or scary. The heat was on full blast in the bus depot and I was the only one there. I plopped down on a wooden bench, polished by the years.


     I didn’t have to wait long before the bus got there. My ticket had only been $8 and I was curious what kind of monstrosity was going to pull up in front of the window. In fact, it was a brightly-colored electric coach and as I boarded, I could smell the chemical clean of new upholstery. I settled into a seat in the back and watched Eugene’s stubby brick buildings and punk kids with backpacks pass by as we headed toward the highway. Sitting on the bus, just me and the driver, I felt more welcome in my world than ever. It was there. It was for me. And I would never really be alone as long as I was still in it.

Chapter Three

     Portland has always looked like pure annihilation to me. No matter where you turn, there is something crumbling. Something falling apart. The bridges that link the town across the Willamette River are dripping with rust and shake as cars speed across them. The train station, where the bus dropped me off, is a large brick building held together by dust and years of green moss that sticks between the bricks like glue. I stood out in front of the glass front doors, unsure of how to proceed, my duffle bag and guitar at my feet. Though I had lived in the town for a few years, it felt new and strange. It felt like a dream. A nightmare. The sun dipped behind some clouds that dumped rain into the gutter, then peeked out again, making steam that floated up from the pavement. With no better ideas on what to do next, I started walking.

     It had been five years since I left Portland. In that time, I had quit smoking, gotten sober, and tried to forget everything that had happened there. Its streets left a mark on me that I could never quite wash away and being back on them was making that mark grow. All my drunk nights spent weaving through the alleyways, crying and angry, trying to find something that was never going to be out there. My wife’s tears on the carpet of our one-bedroom apartment. My vomit on the sidewalk. It all still seemed to be there, even if I couldn’t see it. Monsters were living in every crack and crevice of the buildings and I recognized their eyes and knew their names. Walking made me too open to their attacks, so I got an Uber to my hotel to try and get an early check-in, no matter the cost, and get off these horrible streets. I had come back to Portland so I could try to see it with fresh eyes, but after only five minutes, my vision was already clouded with sadness and fear.

     The hotel I had gotten for the night was the one luxury I had allowed myself on the trip. The one acknowledgment that I was older and less adaptable and less able to lay my head on any old trash can that looked promising enough. It towered above the Lloyd Center, a large mall with an ice rink in the middle of it where Tonya Harding learned to skate and practiced for the Olympics. People would gather along the edges of the top floor in front of Macy’s and Esprit to watch. The pride of Portland. More darkness. Shattered dreams and shattered knees in The City of Roses.

     It was only 10 AM but I offered to pay extra for an early check-in at the hotel. The man at the counter sighed and raised his eyebrows as he hammered away at the keyboard.

     “I can do it but it’s going to cost you an extra $20.”

     I happily forked it over. A small price to pay to get high above the sloshy, greasy streets. Even from the hotel lobby, I could feel the concrete lapping at the glass doors, trying to grab me. The man handed me a key card and I snatched it from him, rushing toward the elevator, away from the faint call of the asphalt outside, begging me to come out and play.

     My room overlooked all of North East Portland; the neighborhood I lived in for three years. Scanning out the window, I could pinpoint where our old apartment was. It almost glowed. I could hear a whisper through the glass telling me to “remember, remember, remember.” All the times I stumbled home, tripping and falling into bushes, crying out, throwing up tequila, and screaming into the dark, empty skies that Portland is famous for. There is a bar on every corner and I curled up in as many of them as I could. Cut my teeth in the major leagues of problematic drinking. I wandered the same streets I was now looking down on with a can or bottle in a brown bag, weeping for what I was throwing away. I had made sure to get to town early in the morning so I could see what I had missed all that time and instead I had locked myself up in a hotel room, too terrified of what I might find down there. Scared that I would run into a familiar face, still careening down the sidewalk, searching for me to take me back home.


     The Starlight Tavern was packed by the time I hit the stage for the show later that night. With my little 3/4-size guitar and box of harmonicas, I felt a bit ridiculous but not ashamed and awkward like I had at the show the night before. Plugged into the bar’s P.A. system, the little acoustic actually sounded huge. I watched heads tilt when I hit an E chord. I had their attention. I had to keep it. I ripped through 12 songs about broken dreams, failure, and hearts soaked in booze. Things I wrote in that town. Things I had pulled from its streets. Things I had made mine. I managed to hold the wasted crowd’s gaze the entire time. They recognized all of it. Not the songs specifically, but their own tearful walks across Portland’s dying bridges and the ache in their feet as they tried to remember the way home.


     When I jumped down from the stage, all the songs and the awful nights they held between their notes stayed up there, trapped in a cage I had built of music. I looked around at all the people spilling drinks and yelling in each other’s faces. They were still writing their songs but mine were done. Played out. I was a visitor in this town now, not a resident, and I wasn’t coming back. I was sober in a bar. Something I had never been when I was living here. That had to mean that I was brand new. That I would change and change again and again.

     I walked back to my hotel instead of taking a car, but not without making one important stop. Everything in our old neighborhood looked the same, and when I crossed into it, it was like passing through the veil of time. The liquor store was still there, where I had once been accused of trying to pass a counterfeit $10 bill and made a big, drunken scene until the police showed up. It turned out the bar I had gotten it from as change had indeed gotten a string of fake tens, but that didn’t stop me from crying in the store in alcoholic persecution. The church I had puked on on purpose one St. Patrick’s Day still stood, looming in the cold air. The trees I had leaned against while having withdrawal-induced panic attacks while on my way to work were just beginning to shed their leaves so they could grow new ones and become whole again once some time had passed. They had absorbed and expelled my toxic, heavy breathing long ago. I turned a corner and felt the wind and heat leave my body. Our old apartment building was just sitting there, sleeping quietly in the night.

     It looked exactly the same. A row of doors on top of another row of doors. About 15 units in an L shape. Since getting sober, I had thought of it many times and seen it in my sweating, detoxing sleep. My rock bottom was in there somewhere. Not one moment, but a fast decline in a one-bedroom that someone else was sleeping in now. I could see our window from the street, dark and closed up for the evening. But I knew. I knew what the walls had seen. I remembered everything. That night after the show at the Starlight Tavern, though, it didn’t seem to remember me anymore. The building didn’t reach out to me or try to pull me back in through the front door or envelop me completely. Just as I noticed the indifference of the place, the window lit up. There was someone else living there. Someone with their own fears and regrets, or maybe, I thought, their own joys and dreams. Someone like me now. Someone I had become in the five years since I left. Someone who would be leaving the next morning. Someone I liked.

Chapter Four

     My hotel was white and clean in the morning and I showered off the days of train filth and bar sweat for what felt like several hours. If it hadn’t meant staying in Portland and never going home, I might have hid under the bed and tried to live there for the rest of my life. I dreaded another 14 hours on the swaying, steaming train but it was my only way out. I had backed myself into this corner. I checked out of the room with a sadness usually reserved for a high school sweetheart shipping off to Vietnam. I almost promised the woman at the front desk that I would write every day until I could return. 

     In the Uber on the way to the station, the driver was listening to an audiobook version of Moby Dick and I swayed with Melville’s rhythm, ready to be out on the open sea of the Oregon wilderness and the California hills, wringing my hands at the thought of the white whale of home. Since I had spent the extra $20 on a business class ticket, I was shown to the Executive Lounge in the train station. Compared to the worn old wood and brass of the regular station lobby, it was sterile and chemical like an operating room with blaring gray lights. Its whole purpose was to separate the upper-class of the train from the common scum out in the lobby. I laughed to myself, having fooled them into thinking I wasn’t scum just because I had twenty bucks to throw around. Sitting there, time deteriorated like a cliff face in the ocean spray, slow and impossible. I couldn’t survive in the Executive Lounge. I had been ripped from my natural habitat and was breathing heavily and moving like I was trapped under wet, fragrant sand. The adventure was over. I had left it all out on the road and was now an empty husk, spent and in desperate need of the nourishment I suckled from familiar surroundings. 

     The train pulled up in front of the picture windows of the lounge like a movie reel, stretching and whirring in front of my eyes. It meant I was on my way. It meant everything. We were allowed to board first, and even though we weren’t leaving any sooner, I did get to rush to the tiny bathroom before anyone else and change into some comfortable pants, something I had failed to do on the way up and was now doing penance for with chafed, flaming flesh on my legs and crotch. The bathroom was practically virginal. I almost felt bad for it. It had no idea what horrors would be visited upon it throughout this trip. Meth smoke, the excretions of ten-foot-high club initiates, hundreds of hot dogs microwaved in the belly of the train. It all had to go somewhere and it was all going to go here. I took one last look at it before it was sullied beyond recognition and waddled back to my seat, trying to keep my thighs from rubbing together. 

     As soon as the train inched forward, rain began to fall strangely out of the blue sky. From my seat, there didn’t seem to be anywhere for it to be coming from but it shattered on the ground and rooftops like glass bottles, glinting in the golden sunlight. It only took a few minutes for us to wind out of the steely, rusting city and into the true fire of autumn. The colors of northern Oregon encased my eyeballs in a glorious film. Orange, red, and green. The rain continued to fall from the clear sky and gave everything a slippery, Vaseline shine. I wanted to jump through the window and roll around in the treetops, nestled and safe. As we pounded down the tracks, we came upon a large gorge that cupped thousands of trees and millions of tiny lives in its massive arms and a rainbow fell from the sky, thicker and bolder than I have ever seen before. I could have ridden down it like a slide into the soft patches of leaves below. The sight of it held me close and gently rocked me into a deep, contended sleep. 


     I woke up in the middle of the night, shocked at how smooth the train felt. It seemed like it wasn’t moving at all and it only took me a moment to realize that was because it wasn’t. We were sitting in the middle of an open field next to a single house by the tracks. One light glowed from the front porch. An announcement from the conductor confirmed my fear that we wouldn’t be moving any time soon. The rails were flooded up ahead and we would have to be towed along an alternate route to get around the water. As the sun started coming up a few hours later, I understood the full picture. We were surrounded by a massive ocean of mud. Other little houses emerged in the dawn light. There were people out there. People stuck in the mud, like us, but stuck there forever. This was where they lived. Somewhere on the tip of Northern California where no one thought about them unless they were stranded there and needed help. When the tow train finally came to take us away later that morning, I wanted to blow a whistle. Let them all know they could come too. We could all get out of the mud. We could all get home. 

     After the hours of sitting and waiting and getting towed and getting connected back on the right tracks, it seemed like it only took a few minutes to reach the Bay Area. Right before we got to the Emeryville station, the train ripped through another strange world beneath a series of overpasses crisscrossing the sky. A massive tent city curved with the Earth’s horizon. Clumps of blue, red, orange, and green mashed together with discarded trucks and cars with their innards spilling out. A city within a city, flapping in the wind. I saw movement within the grid. More people living invisible lives, camouflaged in rain gear the same color and materials as their homes. People I could have been. People I may yet be. There is no such thing as a safe moment in America and no one knew it better than the residents of this place that I watched as we tore by, onto our next stop. 

     Approaching our stop at Jack London Square in Oakland, I had 45 minutes to get an Uber to the BART station, get across The Bay, and get to the Ferry Building to catch the last boat to Larkspur, where I could get on a train that would take me all the way home. Everything was lined up like a complicated mousetrap, well-oiled and engineered down to the very last detail. I had just begun to gather my things when the train screeched and sparked to a stop about 30 yards from the station. I could see it from my window. A vision. A mirage. We sat there with the doors sealed for another 20 minutes. I paced up and down the aisle as my Rube Goldberg machine of a schedule crumbled in front of me. If everything didn’t fall into place, I wouldn’t be able to catch a ferry for another six hours. My skeleton tried to crawl out of my skin and jangle its way out of a vented window. I held it in with every bit of strength I had left. When we finally pulled up to the station, I wrestled my way out the door, throwing elbows at children and stomping on old ladies’ feet. I pulled out my phone to get an Uber, but right there in front of the station was a golden light. A dream. A yellow taxi, idling at the ready. I ran to it, threw the door open, hurled my duffel bag and guitar in first, then dove into the backseat. 

     “I have to make it to The City in fifteen minutes,” I said. “West Oakland BART station. Step on it.” 


     I had always wanted to say step on it in a taxi and this seemed like a perfectly reasonable time to do it. The face that looked back at me in the rear view mirror, though, made my heart seize up, wither, and die. It was the face of a kindly grandmother. Easily in her 80s. I was going to be stuck for six more hours. 

     “Fifteen minutes,” she said. “You must be a betting man.”

     She reached down to the radio and with a flick of her wrist, cranked it up. Wilson Phillips blasted. She gripped the wheel and the cab shot down the street like it was being fired out of a giant rubber band. My head slammed against the back seat and we left the Amtrak station in a cloud of tire smoke as the speakers begged me to hold on in three-part harmony. 

     After throwing all the cash I had into the front seat and thanking Grandma Speedway, I found the transit card I had bought at the beginning of the trip and ran up the BART station steps to try and get across The Bay. A three-car train was sitting at the ready, the doors about to close as I scanned the card and jammed my arm between the two glass and plastic panels, causing a screeching alarm and dirty looks from the commuters. The seven minute trip under the water was cold agony. Checking the time. Checking my pulse. Trying to stay calm in the claustrophobic, carpeted prison of the train. We got across and pulled into the Embarcadero station. Three minutes before the ferry would be gone. One more staircase. One more crosswalk. I ran and shoved and spewed sweat onto the pavement. As I turned a corner, I saw the ferry gate and a man in a life vest closing it from behind. 

     “Wait,” I screamed. “Please wait.” 

     Tourists turned to watch. I was a sporting event now. A photo finish. The man at the gate saw me and stopped closing the doorway to the other side. He was going to let me on. I was going to make it. Then, a horrible, sick thought clamped over me. I had no idea how much money was left on the transit card. I hadn’t checked it at the BART station. That last trip could have used it up. The captain wasn’t going to wait for me to go buy a ticket. I clutched the card, trying to warm it up as I ran. Trying to transfer some energy. Some goodwill from the sea gods. I pressed it against the scanner at the gate, my arms shaking with fatigue and fear. A loud beep sounded. A green light flashed. A beacon lighting up the sky over The Bay. The final guiding flame. All my other senses were overwhelmed. My hearing faded and I could no longer feel the burning in my legs. All that remained was the light that flashed and pushed me forward, telling me my time had come. 

Michael J. O'Connor is a writer from the San Francisco Bay Area who graduated from Sonoma State University’s Creative Writing program and a former prose editor for the Zaum literary magazine as well as a recipient of the Moon Valley Writing Award. He has had short stories published in journals like River River, Flying South, and Hive Avenue.

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