When Ryan got the opportunity to audition for the big metal band out in Los Angeles, we all fantasized about making it. He was our shot, our big red toe in the door. He would live out in California and tour with them up the West Coast, all the way into Canada, and we’d hang our hopes on an invite to open for a short leg with him pulling double duty behind the drum kit. Then who knew what. I mean, they had this festival spot booked in Japan the upcoming spring, and man, we couldn’t fathom something like that, not even as spectators cheering him on.
So there we were, in our broken-walled dive-bar back-room rehearsal space with Ryan sitting on his drum throne dejected, an Australian mammoth slouching in defeat. He’d realized—after greasing the wheels and landing the dream audition, and after the initial rush of adrenaline had subsided—that he couldn’t board a plane. Never lifted his conditions as a resident immigrant and didn’t have the time or the money for a lawyer to sort it all out in time. And now he was wallowing, saying he had let us down and that he was worthless, that he should just do the world a favor and let one slip into his skull. So we had to find some other way, and so we paced and mulled about, picking loose plaster off the walls and scratching our heads. Finally our guitarist, Gypsy, spoke up: “What about a train?” he offered. “Can’t keep immigrants off trains.”
Ryan was a monolith, his Titian hair curtaining all but a sliver of his face. He mumbled something about maybe it could work, but he’d still need some help. So of course we all told him we would do whatever we could to get him there.
Well, most of us. Jay, our singer, asked if the help he was looking for was in the form of ideas or money.
Ryan slouched even further.
“Man, whatever you need,” Jay said, looking at us like what else could he say: Yeah, we support you, but stay the fuck out of our pockets? We nodded along, and Ryan frowned in a strange, approving sort of way.
“You guys,” he said, passing a pointed finger in front of each of us. “You’re my brothers.” Then he stood, became energized, ablaze even. He started pounding his chest and swinging his hair around, promulgating about how it was going to be once he was out there, once we were out there with him. We were going to make it. This was what we wanted and needed and deserved and had been working so hard for. This was ours. This was how it happened.
Then he checked his watch, and with an emphatic oh shit he ran out the door. Had to make his shift at the Ground Round.
Jay turned to Gypsy and me, shaking his head. “Fuckin’ Aussie,” he said. “Can you believe that shit? Listen, I can throw in like forty bucks. Fifty, max—actually, no. Forty. I can do forty. I gotta fuckin’ eat.”
What could we say to that?
When Jay left, it was just me and Gypsy, and I asked him what he thought. He put his hands together and shrugged easily. “It’s in the Man’s hands now.” Then he left for one of his recovery meetings down the block.
We scraped just enough for two round-trip train tickets in coach and a night at the Super 8 near LAX, which we figured was a good, cheap location close to the audition, with about a hundred bucks left over between us to feed ourselves before heading back home. A lot of it came out of my pocket, but I’d get a tax return soon, and to be honest it was about the only thing I had to look forward to aside from dreaming each night. I tried to look at it as an investment. Ryan was too cocksure to fall short. And he really was an exceptional drummer—and I’d never really been anywhere. For the ride, we’d each packed a ridiculously large sandwich, courtesy of my mother, to ration and hold us over.
Ten minutes from Philly we knocked out and didn’t wake up until Illinois.
In Chicago, we killed most of the layover in a shop filled with pendulums of different sizes and materials—fifty-plus bobs swinging and scoring complex geometric shapes in shallow basins of sand. It was vexing. Seeing them all in the same place, synchronized in principle but not in time was strangely mysterious, as though they were writing in code, speaking the same simple truth but perhaps something far more important and sophisticated at the same time, by virtue of the fact they were all saying it together.
We tried the House of Blues but only got as far as the lobby. When Ryan said we’d be back soon, the security guy looked skeptical, like he might have taken it as a threat.
Back at the station, Ryan stood bowlegged with his hands in his back pockets and read a sign about our train and its remarkable route. “It says we’re going to experience the most spectacular scenery in America. Get fucking ready.”
“Will we see the Grand Canyon?”
“It says the most spectacular scenery in America. How do you rank the grand fucking canyon in American scenery? Seriously. I thought you were supposed to be smart.”
“But does it say the Grand Canyon?”
“Dude, I’m not going to say it again.”
On the train you lose your sense of what different times of day feel like. It’s still all right there in front of you, you see the sun moving, but it all feels the same, drifting and blending. We weren’t allowed in the dining car, it was all booked, but we didn’t care because in coach you had to pay, and we couldn’t pay. But there was an observation car—and we went back there, whenever we got sick of sitting, to watch the pronghorn run. They kicked up trails of yellow New Mexican dirt and raced toward a hymnal blue horizon.
We passed the most spectacular scenery of Colorado, Arizona, and California during the night and arrived in Los Angeles an hour after sunrise. By then we were stiff and itchy and hungry and stinking to high heaven.
Union Station had these high, vaulted, southwestern ceilings that felt special somehow. Ryan went on about the place being haunted, something about a room designed for ghosts and a Velvet Tigress, and how over the years several corpses had been found cut and folded into various pieces of luggage by different murderers. He grabbed a Metro brochure and said “This is my Dead Sea Scroll,” and fanned himself under the armpits.
Outside it looked just like Florida. I’d seen Florida twice as a kid. Hot with Palm trees everywhere. Same shit, pretty much. We boarded a nearly empty bus to LAX, and I sat next to an older brown-skinned man in a tidy button-down shirt and fedora. He asked if it was my first time in Los Angeles. I said yes, and a smile spread across his face. He directed my attention out the window. “Do you see those palm trees?” he said.
“Yes,” I said.
“Okay. Now, behind those trees, do you see that yellowish cloud beyond the trees?”
“Yes,” I said again.
“Well that ain’t no cloud, you see.” His smile widened to a bona fide grin. “That there is smog. Welcome to Los Angeles.”
Ryan sat across from us with his head leaning back against the window. He had pulled his bandanna low on his brow and his eyes were heavy. He did this thing with his face that I’d seen him do before. It meant he thought the old man was an idiot.
We haunted LAX until was time to check into our room. Passing the international terminals was like a strange amusement attraction, entire nations encased in living dioramas. People of all creeds and colors ignoring each other in exactly the same ways. “It’s like we’re ghosts,” Ryan said as we walked the curved sidewalk. “Like we’re not even really here.”
“Or not supposed to be here.”
“Like we’re just encroaching upon these assholes’ lives.”
“Maybe,” I said. “But they’re not seeing what we’re seeing. Not the big picture. They’re just focused on themselves, you know, so maybe it’s kind of like we’re the only real ones here.”
Ryan nodded along. “That’s a pretty deep load of shit.”
Our room was better than we’d expected. The motel sported a cool yellow and teal color scheme and it smelled cleaner than home. We stretched out on the beds and let our bones realign. I felt my body sink into the mattress, as though it were preparing to shut down and die, and that would’ve been fine. Ryan studied the bus routes to figure out how he would get to the audition. Then he used the brochure to cut lines on the end table. “Are you serious?” I asked.
“Dude,” he said. “I just spent three days on a train with no food, nowhere to lie down, and surrounded by smelly assholes. I got a little over an hour, and I need to kill this shit.”
He finished and then licked the brochure. “I’m gonna shower,” he said.
“I’d really like a hamburger, but I can’t move.”
“Then I’m gonna hop on this bus, and then—” He made a face so intense and red that his jugular rose. “Death to the drum heads.”
I awoke to Ryan throttling me by the shoulders. Then, once I’d made solid eye contact with him, he slapped me across the face. “Wakey-wakey, midget.”
I told him to go fuck himself, fucking nong.
“I got your nong. Get up. We’re going out.”
“What about the audition?” I propped myself up on my elbows.
“Audition’s done, dude.”
I looked out the window. It was almost dark. “And?”
“And we’ll find out in a few weeks. I’m not supposed to talk about it. But I killed it.”
I grinned and extended my hand for him to pull me up. “Where are we going?”
“You’ll see,” he said. “I called the number on the brochure. The girl said it was a no-brainer.”
“Is there a bus?
“Yup. In nine minutes.”
“I don’t have time to shower.”
“Dude, we’re going to the beach.”
“It’s almost Christmas. And it’s dark out.”
“It’s like eighty degrees, and there’s a boardwalk. Get the fuck up.”
When we got off the bus we couldn’t see the ocean, but we could smell it as well as anything. We walked toward a palm-lined area that looked like a boardwalk. “Alright, dude,” Ryan spread his arms. “Venice Beach.”
“The first pizza place we see,” I said.
“I was thinking the same thing.”
We turned the corner onto Ocean Front Walk. The lane was dark and empty. The shops all looked closed. We kept walking. “It looks like it’s shut down for winter,” I said. “Did your brochure girlfriend say anything about that?”
He called me a dick and kept walking.
We walked for a while, a long while, not knowing or caring where we were going. We passed Muscle Beach and freebasing shadows between darkened buildings, and soon a flickering light burned its way to us from far out on the sand. “Is that what I think it is?”
“You better fucking believe it.”
We pursued like mosquitos, didn’t bother to take off our shoes as we hit the sand and started plodding. Soon we could see people.
The fire was immense and growled as the sea wind raked across it. Three guys sat in the sand, beating on African drums. One older guy with thick, grey dreadlocks sat on a cooler, blowing into a digeridoo. A fifth guy, a boy of maybe eighteen or nineteen, shoved a piece of a long piece of wood into the fire as we approached. It crackled and popped and spit a cloud of embers at him, and he jumped back.
He brushed his arms and then looked up and saw us. “Yo,” he called and then came jogging. He had a triangular face and small, sweet features. “You guys want a beer?”
We spent the next several hours drumming and drinking. When a person wasn’t drumming, he danced around the fire or looked out toward the water. The dread did that a lot. I wasn’t sure exactly what he was looking at or why. The water was so far away. I couldn’t even see it. I wanted to ask why he was looking and if all the beaches in California were wide as deserts, but he hadn’t spoken since we arrived, and I wasn’t sure if he spoke at all, so we just drummed and drank and danced and didn’t ask questions.
The time came that the bottom of the sky lightened, and everybody looked a little different. The fire had died out, the beer was long gone,. The dread rubbed the back of his neck and the boy said it was time to turn in, and so we helped them carry the drums off the beach and back onto the walk. “You guys want to get something to eat,” the boy asked.
We nodded casually, as though it wasn’t all that had been on our minds the past three days.
He smiled, and then he turned and started fishing through a plastic bag attached to the fence. He pulled out an open container of yogurt and moved it back and forth beneath his nose. “I think this is still good,” he said with optimistic eyes, and he extended it toward us.
Neither of us reached for it. I said no thanks, Ryan did nothing, and the boy kept it for himself. He seemed to be okay with it. “Actually, dude,” Ryan said to me. “We need to get back. We gotta move early.” And he gave the boy a so-sorry-to-say-goodbye look. The boy wished us well with an expression as pure as a cherub’s. He thanked us for helping carry the drums and went back to the bag on the fence.
As we walked away, Ryan sighed. “Well, fuck any kind of food after that shit. I could never live like that. Seriously, never in a million fucking years. I’d end it first. I swear, I’d fucking end it.” And then he made a face like he might vomit.
I nodded, but if you’d put a slice in front of me right then, even if you had dropped it first….
On the way back to Chicago, heavy footfalls woke me up from a dream I can’t remember. A pair of conductors I hadn’t seen before strode down the aisle. The train wasn’t moving. Ryan was out cold and open-mouthed beside me, and I got up to use the restroom. Then another new conductor passed. The door at the end of the car was open, and I heard water. I went to the threshold and stuck my head out. One of the conductors, one I had seen, was hosing off the wheels and the side of the car. He was tall and bald with hard edges to his face. He looked awake, really awake at an hour when no one should be. “Don’t come out here,” he said without ever looking in my direction. “You need to go back inside. You don’t want to come out here.”
“I was just on my way to the bathroom.”
“Are a lot of people awake?”
“Don’t think so. Not right here.”
“What happened? Why are we stopped.”
The side of his jaw bulged, like he was grinding his teeth. “We had an accident. We hit someone a few miles back.”
He nodded, his eyes still locked on where he was spraying.
“Are they. . . .”
He stayed silent a moment. “Put it this way,” he said. “There wasn’t much left. Usually isn’t.” I didn’t have anything to say, and then he glanced over at me. “Police were able to identify him, though. Found his wallet in his car. Parked it close by. It helps. Helps them do their job. Easier to notify people.”
I hesitated a couple times and finally I was able to get the question out. “How exactly did it happen?”
The conductor’s expression broke, but only for a moment. “He just sat down.” He stopped spraying and looked over the wheels and the side of the car. “Sat down and it rolled him right up.”
“Uh,” my voice caught in my throat as I tried to summon the appropriate way to respond, I mean a man had just sat down on the tracks. “Well,” I finally blurted. “Is the train okay?” And I immediately felt ashamed for asking what was surely the stupidest question he had ever heard.
“Train’s fine,” he said. No reaction. No judgment. “Didn’t feel a thing. He probably didn’t either. Probably what he wanted.”
I struggled to find something, just something. All I got out was “I guess.”
“Sometimes cows’ll wander onto the track,” he continued. “You feel them. You hit a cow, you know you feel it. But a person? Not even a bump. It’s like they aren’t even there. Like they were never there to begin with.”
“But he was,” I said, finally. And I don’t know why I said it. It wasn’t like some empathic sentiment, some don’t forget him thing. I didn’t know anything about the guy. He could have been a saint or ill, an asshole like Ryan or a complete monster, someone who had poisoned his own mother. But it didn’t matter. I’d said it, and it meant whatever it meant, and so there we were, while the passengers slept with their traps wide open, dreaming their post-California dreams while the conductors paced the aisles. And then he looked up at me. “How bad does it have to be?” he said. “How bad does it have to be to make that call—to say it’s actually not worth it anymore, and then be sure enough to go through with it?”
“Couldn’t tell you,” I said. “Not for sure. Not sure there’s anyone still alive who could.”
Chris Cascio’s writing and visual art has appeared in The Southampton Review, Sand: Berlin’s English Literary Journal, Gulf Stream Literary Magazine, Peregrine Journal, Longridge Review, and elsewhere. He teaches writing at Monroe College and also works as a freelance editor and portrait artist. He currently lives in Larchmont, NY.