Leather-lip Lightman and the Ice Train
He was waiting for the train long before I walked up. The bill of his ball cap reached down across his dark face and he sat slumped for heat on the bench, puffing his breath out in icy little balls.
“Cold one tonight, my brother?”
He nodded without looking at me, and folded his wrinkled brown hands across his lap. He squinted down the track.
The train station was empty but for us, the only light shining down in a column from a single covered bulb poking into the darkness.
I nodded, and looked where he’d looked. A single light flashed on and off in the distance. “It may well be, brother. There’s an ice storm coming as well. Where are you headed?”
He lifted his capped face to me then, and seemed to grin. “I’m goin’ home, mister. Back to New Orleans. My life here is over.”
“Chicago’s a Hell of a town,” I said, tipping a hand back toward the great mountain range of lights that sat behind us. The man chuckled and shook his head.
“Chicago’s no town, sir. No, no sir. It’s a cold dead hand, a rake. It’s a smilin’ man at a roulette wheel. It’s a promise that leaves your hat and your pockets empty. It’s an alley full o’ dashed hopes. But now it’s a past—my past. Cause the train’s comin.’”
I nodded. “It may well be, brother. It may well be.”
He slid his slumped figure to the left and patted the seat beside him. “Here, mister. Got it all warm for ya.’”
A cold wind howled down the track, and the lights of the oncoming train continued to blink in the distance. I sat down. The man turned his body toward me.
“You leavin’ too?”
I nodded. He nodded in return, then turned his attention back down the track. “It’s been down there like that for a long time. Must be another stop. Must be. But it’ll be here soon.”
We sat there like that, watching the lights, for several minutes. Me and a man whose heat was slowly leaching from his pores.
“While we wait,” I said, breaking the silence, “I have a story. If you’d like to hear it.”
The other man nodded and the white of his teeth lit up the space between his dark lips as he opened them. He spoke, jaws clenched, each word hissing into the night with a steamy visual counterpart. “If it’ll make the train come faster, please. Tell.”
I cleared my throat and began, wasting no time.
“Seven years ago, I came to this train station. I met a man here, on this bench. He called himself the Lip. Leather-Lip Lightman. He was waiting for the train, said he was leaving Chicago. I told him the train had shut down the day before, and that it wouldn’t be coming. Not that night, at least. It was a cold night, and the Lip wasn’t well-dressed.
I asked him if he had a place to go. He told me he wasn’t going anywhere.
‘The train’ll come,’ he said. ‘The train’ll come.’
He said he could see its lights. An hour or so passed, and I asked him to come with me.
‘There’s an ice storm coming,’ I said. ‘I can keep you for the night, and tomorrow you can come back if you still want. The train isn’t coming.’
But the Lip shook his head. ‘It’ll be here. And when it comes, I’ll be on it. And Chicago will be behind me. Chicago,’ he said, was ‘a cold dead hand. A rake.’”
The man next to me nodded in agreement, as if he himself hadn’t said the same thing just minutes before.
“A rake, it sure is.”
“And so, with parting words to the man, I left, hoping he’d come to some kind of sense and find somewhere warm to spend the night.”
I paused here, and stared down the tracks. The blinking lights seemed to have come closer. Faintly, on the wind, I could hear the muted sound of a train’s whistle. The dark man with the ball cap had his full attention on me, however. His eyes were wide, the brilliant whites of them watering against the dead cold.
“You came back, didn’t you? You came back an’ he was gone, wasn’t he?”
“I came back. In the morning, after a thin layer of ice had coated everything slick, like glaze on a doughnut. The man who’d called himself the Lip was not on the bench.”
“See, I knew it.”
“He wasn’t there, and he wasn’t at any of the other benches. I figured he’d gone. At that point I’d turned, turned to walk back out to my car, and I saw something out of the corner of my eye. A man-sized totem, that’s what I remembered thinking. I looked back and there he was. A tall figure, the Lip, standing alone way down the line. Standing along the tracks. So I walked to him. I walked to him and said, ‘Cold one this morning, my brother?’ And I touched him, on his shoulder.
“Only it wasn’t like touching a man.
“He was hard, slick. My hand slid off. I came to realize he was frozen there, frozen to the ground. Icicles grew from the corners of his dead eyes, and his smile was painted on with frost.”
I ended my story there. The dark man with the ball cap squinted at me, raising first one eyebrow then the other. When he decided he believed me he cleared his throat and looked toward the ground.
“Hell of a story, mister. Whale of a tale. Jesus.” He looked back up at me. “Poor bastard didn’t even get to ride the train.”
I shook my head. “That’s not it. That’s not it at all. You see, brother, I’m quite sure the Lip’s train came that night. Came in the middle of the ice storm. The story isn’t that he didn’t get to ride the train. The story is that when he got on, he left his body standing right over there.” I pointed. The dark man in the ball cap followed my gaze, shivering.
“You see brother, that train? Those lights, and their whistle on the wind?”
“I see it, mister.”
“That’s not your train. That’s the Lip’s train. That’s my train.”
“What are you—”
“You’re leaving Chicago for New Orleans. I’m leaving Chicago for nowhere. That’s the difference. Be wise, brother. Leave now. Anyone with a life still to live should be elsewhere. The tracks are closed for you tonight.” The train’s whistle sounded, and the other man jumped.
“Jesus Christ, mister. You’re scaring me.” He searched my face for some kind hint of jocularity, for some sign I was pulling his leg. He found none. He took a last look down the tracks toward the approaching lights and rose to his feet.
“I think...I think I’m in the wrong place. It was...nice to meet you.”
“Have a good night, brother,” I said after him as he fled into the darkness.
The wind howled down the tracks, licking over the cool steel ties and sucking the moisture from my eyes. My mouth pulled back into a cool smile. It was time. I stood up and walked to the platform, and as the train pulled up to greet me
The ice storm began.