Train Notes from 1987
by James Benning

About a year ago I took a train from New York to Seattle. I remember it being late October because Dennis was really depressed. Boston had just lost the World Series and in the sixth game they were just one strike away from winning it all. And Clements had such a good year. Dennis is a big Red Sox fan. It should have been their year. And I was depressed too. Not because Boston lost but because the Mets won. Not that I hated the Mets that bad, but because my girlfriend had moved out just before the season ended and moved in with some guy who was a big Mets fan and I couldn't stand the fact that if the Mets won she would be then be living with a fan of the World Champions. Anyway this happened about a year ago.

The train was scheduled to leave New York on a Sunday night at 7:30 and arrive in Seattle on Wednesday morning at 9:15. And it did just that, arrive on time that is. But it didn't, however, leave on time.

I got to Grand Central about an hour early and people had already started to stand in line. The train left about an hour and a half late, which meant standing in line for a good two hours while a number of Grand Central homeless begged for money. The guy behind me thought they should be working, but for Christ's sake, some of them didn't even have shoes. I gave one of them some change just as the line started to move.

I quickly found a seat and waited for the train to get out of the city. Once it did I made my way to the dining car where I was seated across from a twelve year old boy. I asked where he was from, and he said Boston. So I asked if he was disappointed that Boston lost the Series, and he said no that he was a Mets fan. But I said you're from Boston, I hated the fact that anyone could be a Mets fan, and he said yes but I like the Mets. And then he asked where I was from, and I said New York. So he said, you must be happy the Mets won, and I said no, I was a Boston fan, but I didn't tell him why. Instead I asked him who his favorite player was. And he said Boggs. But I said he's on Boston. And he said I know, and then he asked me who I liked best, and I said Dykstra. And he said but he's a Met, and I said yes, and we both laughed. There was a nice symmetry to our conversation. At which time the porter then brought our dinners. We both ordered chicken.

On my way back from the dining car I stopped in the club car. I sat down at a table marked no smoking. I don't smoke, but that's not why I sat there. I sat there because there was an ashtray there with two cigarettes burning and no one around. I thought this looks kind of interesting and waited for someone to return. Finally, a man about forty with two beers sat down. He said he always bought two at a time because it took so long standing in line. I said that makes sense, and he put out the cigarettes in the ashtray, and lit a new one. For some reason I thought he'd light two but he didn't.

I asked him where he was from and he said Rhinelander, Wisconsin. So I said oh, the home of the Hodag. And he was real surprised I had heard of the Hodag. So I told him I had been to Rhinelander many times, but I didn't admit I couldn't remember what exactly a Hodag was. He never asked me why I had been to Rhinelander, or where I was from, or what I thought of the Hodag, or anything like that. Instead he told me a lot about himself. That he now lived in Florida and missed his dog.

He had been living there for the past seven years and was on his way to visit a friend in Erie, Pennsylvania. He moved to Florida from Rhinelander in 1979. Somewhere in southern Florida, one of the Keys, but I can't remember which one. I asked him if he knew anything about drug smuggling, but he said no, but rather told me that he used to own a bar in Rhinelander. In the summertime he had a good tourist trade, but in the winter his only customers where from the local paper mill. Then in the summer of '79 he found out that the paper mill was going to cut back or maybe even close so he sold the bar. He said without the paper mill his business just wouldn't make it. So he sold it before word of the mill closing got out and passed the problem onto someone else. Actually, the someone else turned out to be one of his good friends, but he said they weren't too good of friends anymore, if you know what I mean, and then he laughed kind of crazily.

I asked him if he ever got back to Rhinelander, and he said the last time he was for his mother's funeral. I said I was sorry. And he said don't be, she was very old and quite sick. And then for some reason I asked him how she died. And he said that his mother and dad lived on the Wisconsin River with his dog in the same house he grew up in. His mother liked to sit by the river and watch deer feed on the opposite bank. One day while she was sitting there his dog came from behind and knocked her into the river and she drowned. I said Jesus, while he drank his beer and lit another cigarette.

It was about eleven o'clock now and the club car was getting crowded. I stood in line and bought four beers. Two for me and two for the guy from Rhinelander. Then two more people joined us. A guy from Texas and a woman from the Philippines. The guy from Texas now lived in New York, and the woman from the Philippines was really from Los Angeles. She was born in the Philippines, but only lived ther for a few months. The guy from Texas said that he knew me. I said I didn't think so. But he said he did. I said I didn't think so. And he said he did.

Then he asked me if I ever listen to any music in New York. And I said I did. Then he asked where, and I said I used to go to CBGB's, TR 3's the Mundi Club, and a number of other places that were no longer in business. Then he asked if I ever go to the Lone Star. And I said yes. I saw Jerry Lee Lewis and Jerry Jeff Walker there sometime earlier that year. And he said that's where I met you. You came back with Clovis Robelain. And I said yes I did, because I did go backstage with Clovis to meet Jerry Jeff Walker. Clovis is really my friend Dennis, the Boston Red Sox fan. Dennis used to play bass for Ray Wiley Hubbart and the Cowboy Twinkies back in the mid seventies. Dennis was one of the infamous Twinkies and his stage name was Clovis, as in Clovis, New Mexico where Buddy Holly hung out and recorded.

The first time I met Dennis was in Oklahoma in 1977, but I never really knew him until he moved to New York in 1981. The time I met him in Oklahoma was at a Halloween party so I never knew what he looked like until four years later. Anyway, Dennis is a real close friend now. For a moment I thought about the Mets, and indeed I had met the guy from Texas with Dennis or Clovis at the Lone Star.

As it turned out he was quite interesting. He played any kind of guitar you wanted for the Lone Star house band. On that very day he found out he had been nominated for a Grammy award for doing the music for a Sam Shepard off Broadway play.

The woman from the Philippines who lived in Los Angeles was quiet and mostly listened. The guy from Rhinelander went for more beer. He brought back eight. Two for each. But he drank three of them himself.

I told them all about Laurie, a woman in prison convicted of murder. I had been visiting with her for about six months at the time. She had been in prison for four and a half years and still claimed to be innocent. The guy from Rhinelander listened. The Texan asked a lot of questions. The woman from the Philippines who lived in Los Angeles was quiet.

Laurie either did it or she was framed. I told them I couldn't tell. I told them about the gun. About the hairs and the wig. About how the police mishandled the investigation. About how they disturbed evidence at the scene of the crime before the coroner could investigate. About how the victim was bound and gagged and shot in the back at point blank range. And how the bullet passed through her heart and lodged in her left breast.

I told them how Laurie had been a cop, but she had been kicked off the force for no real reason. How she had filed a sexual discrimination suit against the department. How she then met Fred, a Milwaukee detective, and married him within two months. How Fred's ex-wife, Christine, was killed five months later, and how all the evidence pointed to Laurie.

And I told them more about the gun. I said it was Fred's off duty gun. And told them how it was checked the morning of the murder, and how it hadn't appeared to have been recently cleaned or fired, and how the policemen checking the gun neglected to record it's serial number. And how it then took the police three weeks to confiscate it and test it, and how it was then found to be the murder weapon.

And I told them about the two boys, and how they had been attacked in the middle of the night, and how they fought off the attacker, and how the attacker ran out of their room, and how the attacker ran into their mother's room and fired a shot, and how they called for help and tore open their mother's shirt and tried to stop the bleeding, and how she died as they tried, and how they thought the attacker was a man.

And I told them how the D.A. said Laurie did it. That Laurie went over to their house in the middle of the night to scare them. To scare them so they'd move out of the house, so they'd move in with Christine's mother, so the mortgage payments would disappear, so Laurie and Fred wouldn't be burdened with Christine's expenses. And I told them how the D.A. said the plan went bad and how he said Laurie was probably recognized and how Laurie probably panicked and shot Christine.

And I told them Laurie may have done it. I told them I couldn't tell. I told them it might have been simply a domestic murder, and I told them maybe not. I told them about drug dealing within the Milwaukee Police Department. I told them how Fred had once accidentally killed another cop. I told them about a hitman who confessed to killing Christine. And I told them about a con man who may have paid the hitman to lie. And I told them about a convicted drug dealer who had threatened Fred, and how the cop Fred killed was the drug dealer's best friend. And I told them about Stu, how he was dating Christine at the time of the murder, and how Stu and Fred had been fighting. And I told them I thought there just wasn't enough evidence to convict Laurie, and that I had no idea if she was innocent or guilty.

And the guy from Rhinelander jumped up and said but you must find out. You need to know. He was getting red and he was very excited, and he said he could find out. That he knew how to make people talk, and that I should hire him. And I said I wasn't sure I was interested in that anymore, that I was more interested in Laurie, in how she perceived justice, her thoughts on prison life, the media, the lawyers. Her as a person. But he said no, you have to know the truth. You have to hire me to find out. And then the woman from the Philippines who lived in Los Angeles who had been very quiet all night said no. He does not need your help. She jumped up and yelled, why doesn't he just sit down, just shut up, he does not have to know the truth. And the guy from Rhinelander stopped talking and sat down. And I looked at the Texan and he looked at the woman from Los Angeles and then she sat down and was quiet again. Everybody was.

A few minutes later the Texan and I began to talk about music again. I told him a story Dennis told me about travelling in the southwest with Ray Wiley Hubbart. How one night high on speed, Dennis had driven the band over a thousand miles, and while driving he had written a rock opera in his head. A rock opera, he thought to be a masterpiece. And after driving the thousand miles, they all checked into a motel. Dennis was so tired he fell asleep in the car. And after sleeping for ten hours he couldn't remember crawling from the car to the motel room. And when he woke up he couldn't remember the rock opera. All he could remember was that it was a masterpiece. And to this day he still believes its the best thing he's ever written.

And then the guy from Rhinelander returned with lots of beer. Which was very surprising because I hadn't noticed he had left. Evidently, while the Texan and I were talking, a last call was announced and he was the only one who noticed. So he quietly went up to the and bought all the remaining beer. About twenty cans. When he returned he put the cans down on the table with a big smile. Then he sat down and said, that's all they had left and yes I do know about drug running. Both the Texan and the woman from the Philippines looked puzzled. I didn't because I had asked him that question four hours earlier before they had joined us.

For the next hour he told us how he hasn't worked a real job since he moved to Florida. How he has for the past seven years set up landing fields in the dead of night for planes arriving from Central and South America. Planes full of drugs. And in minute detail he described how the fields were measured out, always in a different place, how the red flares were placed, and how they were lit at the last minute. And how the drugs and money were exchanged. How each was packaged. How each was weighed. And how fast it all happened. And the Texan and the woman from the Philippines who lived in Los Angeles and I listened and drank some of the twenty remaining cans of beer.

For the next hour I can't remember what we talked about. But I remember the guy from Rhinelander didn't say much. He mostly drank. We were all getting quite drunk, but he was by far the drunkest. Then in the middle of someone's conversation he interrupted and said that he wasn't going to Erie to visit friends. He was going to Erie to kill someone. He said he had flown to New York from Florida, and was taking the train to Erie to kill a drug dealer. He said there was close to two million dollars worth of drugs and money in the dealers house. He said he didn't know the dealer, but was being paid to kill him. And then it was very quiet. So I asked why are you telling us this? And he said because he'd never see us assholes again. At which point the woman from the Philippines got up and left and the guy from Rhinelander laughed crazily and the Texan and I laughed along, but I'm not sure why.

I thought the woman from the Philippines had finally had enough of the guy from Rhinelander. I thought she left for good. But about five minutes later she returned with a video camera. The Texan immediately took the camera and started to ask questions, but the guy from Rhinelander said he wouldn't say nothing. He said I'm not talking if that thing's on. So the Texan asked me why I was on the train.

I looked into the camera and said because my girlfriend and I had split up about a month ago and I couldn't stand being at home. Everything reminded me of her. I said I decided to go on a train ride and try to forget her. I said I thought I'd drink beer and look out the window at the passing landscapes. And I did do that all the way to Seattle.

Two days later in Montana, I was looking out the window for cattle. It looked like cattle country, but I hadn't seen any. Then the train passed three cattle pens. Each pen had about 500 cows. The train was traveling at a fast rate of speed. Maybe eighty miles per hour. Maybe more. As the train passed the first two pens nothing happened, but as we passed the third, all the cows ran away from the train toward the rear of the pen. The front of the pen was left empty except for one dead cow laying on it's back with it's legs stiff, pointing straight up.

And then the Texan asked the woman from the Philippines who lived in Los Angeles what she was doing on the train. And she said she was visiting New York with her boyfriend and their car broke down in Times Square and she wanted to visit her parents in Ann Arbor. And as she told the story it sounded like they had as accident in Times Square and she just got out and left and walked over to Grand Central and caught the first train going west. But I don't remember the story real well because I was watching the guy from Rhinelander. He was now drinking two beers at once.

And then the Texan got up and walked back to the only two other people left in the club car. It was about four in the morning now. The car was deserted except for two women in their sixties. They were sitting about three tables away, but I'm sure they could hear everything that we had been saying, and I'm sure that's why they were still there. So the Texan pointed the camera at them and asked what they had overheard. But before they could answer, the guy from Rhinelander pulled out his penis and yelled let's make porno movies. And the two women in their sixties got up and left. The woman from the Philippines said put that thing back in your pants. And as he did, the Texan returned to our table and taped the guy from Rhinelander as he zipped up his pants.

The Texan then asked him what he was doing on the train. For the next forty five minutes he talked of his plan to kill the drug dealer. How he would buy a car in the morning and drive to the drug dealer's house in the afternoon. How he would break in. How he knew exactly where the money and drugs were hid. How he would kill the guy. And how he would escape. How no one would know it was him because he was from out of town. And how he didn't know the guy. He had never met him. How the guy had screwed some of his friends. Fucked them over. And he said he was getting well paid to do it. And he liked the excitement. And he wanted us to know.

And then it was five thirty. And the train arrived at Erie and the guy from Rhinelander got off. The three of us finished the last few cans of beer and looked at the video tape. We wondered if the guy from Rhinelander was telling the truth. Or was he still just a bartender. A bartender somewhere in South Florida who had heard a lot of stories and liked repeating them. We tried to figure it out but we were too drunk to know.