Night Train

I drink a cup of coffee at 8pm so I can stay awake through the 45 minute drive to the middle school dance. Jeb’s school event is tonight, and I’m on carpool duty.

I dig out my glasses for night driving. They’re rarely used, as it seems I’m usually in bed by nine and have no need for them. They help as I make my way along the highway, tuning in to the local radio station. DJ Slim is toying with the “Night Train” theme, spending the hour playing any song that references it.

Just past the halfway point to the dance, Tab Benoit, Tommy Castro and Samantha Fish are ripping through a live version of “Night Train.” Guitar solos crescendo, while drums and bass rock steady beneath their improv.

Tonight, I’m forty-two in eyeglasses, driving a station wagon to a middle school dance. But the bluesy rock on the radio pulls me back to the last week of 1999, when I was in my mid-twenties, with a week in Colorado. There was live music every night at the Howling Wolf, and my best friend was in love with the bartender. I was in love with sound.

In my present station wagon, guitar riffs are canned, inspired but distant, barely warbling their way to me through the speakers in my car door. The most I can do at the red traffic light is tap my fingertips on the steering wheel, but I’m not even feeling the music. It’s too far away.

At the Howling Wolf, seventeen years ago, I could stand in front of a small stage and watch Big Head Todd and the Monsters sweat under the house lights. I could sway in my boots. Grin and nod my head beneath a borrowed black beret. The bass line bellowing through the amps, reverberated through the cells of my celebrating body. Everything was a joyful yes. All was good when the music played.

On my car radio, the crowd hoots wildly, as the band ends on a definitive note. DJ Slim moves on to Lucinda Williams. I turn into the school parking lot, yawning.

The school’s gym doors are open, leaking light and festivities out on to the front lawn. Sixth, seventh, and eighth graders dart about, while teachers smile and circle through the pre-teen clusters. I find Jeb and he greets me. His eyes pause at my face, and he quietly asks, “What’s with the glasses?”

“They’re for night driving.”

He hesitates, pausing on the request he wants to make, though he knows he really shouldn’t. But his mouth can’t help but ask, “Can you take them off?” his eyes imploring into mine, then looking around the scene at all his friends.

I have empathy for Jeb’s new tweenish propensity towards embarrassment of random persons/places/things (particularly parent-related). But tonight I will not be steered by his discomfort. I’ve just driven 45 minutes to pick up four, damp, twelve-year old boys, and will cram them into my car, for another 45 minute drive home. It will be well after my bedtime, before I’m done dropping each one off at their respective homes.

I smile. “No, I need to leave them on.”

I usher the boys into the car, knowing their tennis shoes are covered in dewy grass, smearing mud and goo all around the back seat floorboards. Three bodies work to find comfortable places in the back seat. There is discussion on who’s stuck with the middle position. Typically, it’s the smallest of the group, though precisely who that is, sparks short debate.

Once all are settled and buckled, I navigate away from the middle school parking lot, turning on the air conditioning, even though it’s night. This does not eliminate, only softens, the muggy scent of post-dance t-shirts, and faded Old Spice deodorant.

The boys are tuckered, and don’t make radio station requests. Though when DJ Slim plays some experimental, electronic band from the Eighties, Jeb comments on how bad the music is. I have to agree, and we turn it to the mainstream station, then spend ten minutes with the volume down, so we don’t have to listen to commercials.

My little night train is transporting sweet boys. Each one courteous and thanking me when I drop them home. I’ve known Jeb’s friends since they were in preschool, but they’re twelve now. Even though it’s 10 at night, their parents aren’t waiting on the stoop. These boys can let themselves inside the door now. Still, I linger in the car long enough to see them enter, even though they say that I don’t have to.

When Jeb and I finally arrive home, I park the station wagon in the garage and stow my eyeglasses in the glove box. Jeb heads for the shower. I linger in the driver’s seat for just a moment. Even if I were still listening to the radio, I know DJ Slim’s music program is now over.

Trains. They travel on rails of time and space. Arrivals and departures, stops and destinations. Passing quickly through all the places in between.

The twentieth century has passed, along with my twenties. And I know the Howling Wolf has long-since closed. I’m just so glad I soaked up those sweat-rich guitar jams, and danced like it was the only thing that mattered. Those moments, ever-fleeting blurs on life’s timeline, are always bound to change.

I hope to live long into my sixties, and beyond. Maybe then, my glasses will be hanging around my neck, as I look back to the moment in a parked station wagon in the garage. I may remember a forty-something me, unawares of any awaiting future. Just Jeb and I, both, teetering in the innocence of middle school.

Perhaps when I am older, Jeb will still take a night drive with his mom, maybe even pilot. We could settle on a station, turn up the volume on a good song, let it warble through the speakers.

courtesy of Don O'Brien
courtesy of Don O’Brien

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