James Babbs

I Hear the Train A-comin’

I’m getting drunk again
Johnny Cash filling the room
and I think
I need some more whiskey
I haven’t drowned myself yet
and I’m floating
I’m floating around the room
it’s after midnight
and I don’t care
sleep doesn’t come so easy
most of the time
I just end up drinking
until I pass out
sleeping wherever I fall down
and dreaming that same dream
where I’m tied to the tracks
and I can see the light
bearing down on me
and the whistle blowing
while I’m struggling with the ropes
trying to get myself free
and when the train’s
almost on top of me
the whistle sounds like a scream
the light blinds me
and that’s when I always shut my eyes
and I keep them closed
for a really long time
and I try not to breathe
when I open my eyes again
I watch the train
into a thousand white horses
and all of them turning
at the exact same moment
in the same instant they all turn
and run away
in the opposite direction
but I’m still sitting there
tangled among the ropes
my face wet with tears
and the wind turning cold

between the two of us
Thomas was the real writer
words always came so
easy to him
for me
it was a constant struggle
there was so much I wanted to say
but I was always afraid
of not being able to say it
in the right way
the way it sounded in my head
and my terrible fear of failure
kept hanging me up
but Thomas always gave me encouragement
he said
I just needed more confidence
he said
I needed to stop
thinking about it so much
and just write
whenever I let him read
something I had written
I would tell him
it’s not very good
but when he was finished
he would always tell me
it was better than I thought
Thomas wrote a weekly column
for the college newspaper
whatever was on his mind
he always impressed me
with his ability to take
the most mundane things
and turn them into something meaningful
I don’t know
how many times I told him
he was going to be
a famous writer someday
and I would get to tell people
I knew him when
it was after I was drunk
and I felt the urge to talk
and talk
until Thomas finally stood up
when he told me
to shut the fuck up

I’m alone on the train
and outside
the lights keep flashing
past all the windows
and I can hear the wheels
clanging against the rails
I don’t where I’m going
I feel like there’s something wrong
but I don’t know how or why
I get up
and walk to the front of the car
letting my hands touch
the back of each seat
as I move down the aisle
I hear someone
whispering my name
but when I turn around
nobody’s there
I see the door closing
leading into the next car
and I hurry in there
only to find it empty
I hear someone laughing
and it reminds me of
some drunken laughter
from a long time ago
and I walk all the way
down the aisle
until I reach the end of the car
I think I see movement
among the shadows or
it’s just the coming
and the going of the lights
I walk into the next car
and it’s empty
just like the other two
but there’s a noise
coming from the far end
and I run down there
but don’t find anything
and the next car
and the next one
and always the emptiness
always something
pulling me forward
and the lights keep flashing
in the windows
and I hear the sound of the wheels
when I reach the last car
I walk to the end of it
and stand there
looking through the glass
seeing nothing but the darkness
when I turn from the window
and start moving up the aisle
I find an old man
dressed in rags
asleep in one of the seats
he looks familiar to me
but I don’t know his name
for all I know
he could be dead
no matter how much
I shake him
he doesn’t open his eyes

I remember some of the parties
Thomas and I went to
getting so drunk
and laughing
just having a good time
Thomas made things up
about the two of us
like telling girls
we were both reporters
doing an investigation
on underage drinking
and we needed to check their IDs
or he would pretend to be
a concerned big brother
looking for his little sister
he would make up a name for her
and ask the girls if they knew her
then he’d ask for their names
and where they lived
and he’d write all of it down
in the little notebook
he carried around with him
he even got their phone numbers
one time
this really drunk guy
bumped into me
and started picking a fight
for no good reason
and Thomas came over
asking him
how he was doing
Thomas told the guy
he looked familiar
Thomas asked him
if they went to school together
the guy just gave Thomas
a funny look
then the guy said
said Thomas
it must’ve been your mother
and we both walked away
leaving the guy
standing there
just looking confused
when we were far enough away
I couldn’t hold it anymore
and I just burst out laughing
Thomas and I met Vicki
at one of the parties
I saw her first
and stumbling out of the bathroom
she lost her balance
and fell into me
when I caught her
she pushed against my body
and gave me a kiss
but later that night
she went home with Thomas
and they started seeing each other
for awhile after that
kind of on-again
and whenever I saw her
we talked about a lot of things
but we never talked about that kiss
at the end of those nights
Thomas and I
would go back to our apartment
and continue our drinking
carrying on
long discussions about writing
and music
and women
and life
all of those memories
flooding my brain
until it’s difficult
for me to breathe
and I reach for the bottle
leaning back from the table
and pour myself another drink

sunday morning
and the phone’s ringing
sunday morning
and who the fuck’s calling me
at this hour of the day
I pick it up
and mumble hello
I’m sorry
did I wake you up
Vicki’s voice
I say
she says
do you want me
to call back later
I tell her
it’s okay
how are you doing
she tells me
she can’t sleep
she’s always thinking about
too many things
and I say
I know what you mean
she laughs
but it sounds sad
Vicki says
remember the Halloween party
I say
I remember
Thomas came dressed
in just a diaper
carrying a baby bottle
filled with beer
Vicki says
he looked so funny
I say
he asked some girl
if she’d breast feed him
and the girl slapped him
and without
missing a beat
Thomas started wailing
just like a baby
it was so funny
Vicki says
later on
I remember him
out in the middle of the room
acting like a baby
stumbling around
trying to walk
of course
he was pretty drunk
by then
I say
I forgot about that
and I laugh
Vicki says
he gave me a story
I say
she says
it was about a dog
with super powers
but he kept them
hidden from people
he only used them
around other animals
I say
oh yeah
Vicki says
I know
it wasn’t like
any other story
Thomas ever wrote
I don’t know
maybe that’s why
he gave it to me
I say
then neither one of us
says anything for awhile
finally I say
I’m going back to sleep
Vicki says
I ask her
if she wants to meet me later
somewhere for dinner
I tell her
I want to hear
more about that story
she doesn’t answer me
right away
then she says
that sounds good
I say
I’ll call you later
she says
I say
she says
and hangs up the phone
I’m thinking
about the funeral
how Vicki stayed
so close to me
the whole time
how she didn’t know
what else to do
and I was glad
she was there with me
but I never said anything
after the funeral
we rode home together
Vickie said
I don’t want to
be alone tonight
on our way back
we got stuck at
a railroad crossing
a long
slow moving train
and some of the cars
waiting behind us
got out of the line
and drove back
the way they had come
but Vicki and I
stayed there
we didn’t say anything
we just sat there
watching the train move past
we didn’t have
any place to go

I remember that morning
I wanted to sleep
but Thomas came in my room
and told me to get up
he kept pulling the blankets
off of my bed
and turning all the lights on
I said
what the hell
come on
Thomas said
I want to take my column
over to the paper
I said
what’s that got to do with me
he said
I want you to come with me
hit the bars this afternoon
I said
what time is it
Thomas said
so get the fuck up
I think we made it
over to the paper
around eleven-thirty
and then we had lunch
at one of our usual haunts
Thomas told me
some girl
wanted to meet him
at one of the bars
so we went over there
and we started drinking
the day slipped past us
it seemed like
so many other days
and later on
nine or ten o’clock
maybe earlier
maybe later
I’m not sure
and I’d already
crossed over the tracks
started up the embankment
on the other side
I thought
Thomas was right behind me
so I turned to look back
wanting to see
exactly where he was
I saw him laughing
stumbling across the rails
but there was the train
and Thomas should’ve waited
why didn’t he wait
the train was too close
the whistle was blowing
and I saw the light
like a big bright eye
looking through the darkness
I started to call his name
I opened my mouth
and nothing came out
I heard the train
screaming to a halt
I closed my eyes
I knew
I knew it was too late

it’s a school night
and I’m suppose to be asleep
but I can see the light
from the street
coming through the window
the shadows of trees
fluttering on the wall
it’s almost ten o’clock
and I hear the whistle blowing
in the distance
the train approaching from the west
it’s a freight train
it doesn’t have any passengers
passing through the middle of town
the way it always does
every night
around ten o’clock
I hear the sound
the wheels make
clanging against the rails
before it all fades out
and the train moves on
heading to the next town
when I shudder awake
I’m uncertain
whether or not the train was real
or something I just dreamed about
and I stumble over
the electric train set
when I get out of my bed
I see the black steam engine
turned over on its side
the coal car lying upside down
and the little plastic people
standing around
with blank looks
on their plastic faces
and I always wanted to put
the track on a piece of plywood
I wanted to have all kinds of buildings
and trees and houses and cars
and all kinds of people
I wanted to set up a whole town
a place where the train
would come and go
and the children would wave
as it passed by
and there would be laughter in the air
and everyone would always be happy
I wanted my own town
where nothing would ever change
some place I could always return to
whenever I felt like it

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