By Matthew Wallenstein
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
Today in the mail I received my copy of an anthology edited by Ben Gwin. It is made up of short stories and poems about Pittsburgh. Along with others, it has a story by C, and a story I wrote. Her story is about when she was squatting in a house, living with a guy she had a messy relationship with. She used the same pseudonym she had used for years in her letters to prisoners.
I started thinking about the last trip we took together. It was this past summer. I was always giving her a hard time about her years of hopping trains. But I finally came around and admitted that I thought it would be fun. We drove her truck up to a town in Maine. There was a small trainyard there. The plan was to ride up north for a short trip and go to Stephen King’s house. We planned to walk around town and see all the places from his books. She had planned it all very well: where to leave the truck, where to sneak into the yard, where to sit while we waited for the train without the Bull seeing us.
The sun was setting as we made our way over toward the tracks. We walked a residential street, cut through some trees, snuck to a clearing, and found the spot. She said it had to be where the hobos waited for trains, because of the empty beer boxes and remnants of a fire. I sat on a concrete tube. She sat on an overturned pickle bucket. There were trees between us and the tracks. It was summer and it was humid but it was beginning to cool off.
We waited. Much of riding trains was waiting, she explained to me. I put on a long sleeve shirt to keep the mosquitos off my arms. They started eating my ankles instead. We made fun of each other for a while, talked, took turns peeking out at the tracks, explored the woods. Night had spread like blue ink.
Eventually a train came down the tracks. It stopped. We heard workers talking in the distance. Their voices got louder. They were getting close to us. Then they stopped talking. We ducked, crawled into the brush. They shined flashlights over the area where we were hiding. After a few minutes, they kept walking.
She motioned for me to follow her. She went over a few sets of tracks. I was trying very hard to not make a lot of noise while running over the crushed rock. We made it past the watchtower and walked alongside the train. A little while passed and she told me it wasn’t the right one and we would have to go back and wait some more. So we did.
It was getting late. She unpacked her tarp and we spread it over a flat spot on the ground. We unrolled our sleeping bags. She got in hers and I got in mine. She started talking about her ex, the one she wrote the story about. He lived up that way now. She didn’t want to run into him. I did what I always did when she brought it up, I told her it would be fine, we wouldn’t run into anyone, and that I was with her if we did. I pulled the sleeping bag over my face to keep the mosquitos out but they were buzzing and biting and unrelenting.
A train rumbled down the tracks. We both hopped up, pulled ourselves from our bags. After rushing to where we could see it, it turned out to be an Amtrak.
We started to talk about the past, about our childhoods. It was a subject neither of us went too far into with most people. We lay there trading war stories, some we had both told the other before. We got into all the hell and endurance and apparitions. But after a while, as always, it came back around to us laughing and joking and planning adventures.
I woke up at dawn to the ground shaking and the squeal of a train. I got out of the sleeping bag and watched as what was probably our train moved down the tracks away from us. We’d missed it. I looked over at her sleeping bag. She was still out. I didn’t want to wake her up and tell her about the train. I crawled back into my bag. Everything was soaked from dew; my sleeping bag, the tarp, my backpack.
The sky was blue. The sky was purple. The sky was yellow. She woke up.
We sat there some more, waiting for another train. As the day went on it got hotter and hotter. Out of boredom we picked wildflowers and put them in a barrel. Rusted beer cans and candy bar wrappers sat at the bottom under stagnant water. The flowers floated on the water. Our game was to cover the whole surface with them. By midday we decided to abandon the train plan, cut our losses and go swimming in the ocean.
We drove down to the cliffs where my favorite lighthouse was. There were piled rocks in front of the beach. The sun had made them very hot. The sand was covered with broken shells and dried seaweed. Everything hurt to step on, made reaching the ocean seem better and better. We got to the water and it was so damn cold. I pushed her into the waves. We swam out a little ways. I started picking up clumps of seaweed and throwing them at her. She tried to retaliate but when she threw it the wind blew it back into her face. She had all these wet chunks on her. I said she was doing my job for me. She told me I was the fakest hobo in the history of trains.
After swimming we climbed a chain-link fence and got into an abandoned army fort. Plantlife climbed out of every crack, grew thick and tall.
We walked the cliffs to the lighthouse. Then, went back to her truck. She drove us up to Bangor and we saw all the Stephen King sites. I made her put her arm in the sewer that inspired IT.
On the drive back we told each other stories. She was a skilled raconteur. I really liked the story of how her parents met. I had her tell it to me again. She rolled her eyes and went into it. I would always forget the details until she started retelling it, then it’d all come back to me.
I am having trouble thinking of all those details now and wish I could ask her, but 7 days ago I received a telephone call telling me she had taken her own life.
A couple weeks ago I talked to her on the phone. She said she wasn’t doing well. A few hours later she sent me a text telling me she was checking herself into the hospital, she was a mess, she wanted help. She called me every day while she was in there. We had long conversations. By the end of her stay she seemed to be doing better. She was eager to check out.
When we were sitting in that train yard—breaking sticks into smaller sticks, writing our names on things, sitting, talking—I told her that there were people who come into your life and leave and that she wasn’t one of those for me. I told her earnestly that I knew we would know each other for the rest of our lives, I would still be annoying her at 90, that for all my nonsense and teasing that I really thought she was amazing. She said she was glad we were friends, said she wasn’t going anywhere.
Last night in my car I was trying to think of someone I could talk to about her death. That is, someone I would want to talk to. The only person I could come up with who I could trust with it was her. I could call C, I thought. Then I remembered all over again.