Life Approximately


Image Source: Houston Press

Pete Burdon was in the mood to get extremely fucked up and have a good time. It had been that kind of day/week/month, and sometimes a good drunk cured all. And if it didn’t, he would die trying.

He ordered a Schlitz and turned a five into quarters for the juke. He flipped through the selections until the record he was looking for, without realizing it, presented itself: Highway 61 Revisited. He dropped in his quarters and loaded the entire album.

“Like a Rolling Stone” segued into “Tombstone Blues”, and Pete sat in his booth rocking out to Mike Bloomfield’s guitar leads. He was early into the night and enjoying the feeling of liberation. Life was spiraling out of control: he had left Austin after Lila had left him, he didn’t know anybody in town and he wasn’t having much luck finding a job. Money was getting tight, and he was worried about making rent and eating.

But all those things would eventually work out, and he couldn’t do a damn thing about it right now. Tonight was all about blowing off steam and relaxing. Pete was aware of his habit for hanging on to his worst thoughts and letting them take over. But tonight he was just going to let it all go and have some fun.

After the up-tempo barrelhouse blues of “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” and “From a Buick 6”, the album slowed down and got surreal on “Ballad of a Thin Man”, with Dylan’s tin-pan piano and cryptic lyrics. Pete was working on a new Schlitz, and he felt the shift in mood.

He thought about Lila, wondering where she was and what he did to cause her to leave. He entertained those thoughts for a minute, then pushed them away. “Fuck her,” he thought to himself. “And fuck it all! Let it go and have some fun for a change!”

A fresh round arrived in time for “Queen Jane Approximately.” Pete was still feeling a bit wistful, in spite of his efforts, but he tried pushing it all away. “Pretty remarkable record,” he thought. “Not one, but two ‘I told you so’ fall from grace songs: ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ and ‘Queen Jane Approximately.’” He sang along under his breath:

Now when all of the flower ladies want back what they have lent you
And the smell of their roses does not remain
And all of your children start to resent you
Won’t you come see me, Queen Jane?

“Kind of like Lila after walking out on me!” Pete thought. He pictured himself in the Dylan role, taking Lila back after her fall and reckoning. “Like a repo man!” he sang to the tune of “Like a Rolling Stone,” melding the two songs into his own mission of redemption.

“God DAMN I miss her,” he suddenly said out loud. But the only reply was the clink of a fresh round on the table.

By the time the album closed out with the Spanish-influenced guitars of “Desolation Row”, Pete Burdon had given up all pretense of not giving a shit. Lila was on his mind and he couldn’t get her out. She had just walked out: cleaned out their apartment and left, with no letter and certainly no forwarding address. “Pretty cold way to operate,” he thought, or maybe said softly. “Just like that, she leaves? And I get no say? And no answers…SHIT…”

Pete realized he was pretty wasted, but he wasn’t quite done yet. The record had ended, and the bar was momentarily quiet. He called for his check, paid and walked out as a regular loaded the juke with old cowboy songs from Hank Snow and Buck Owens.

He staggered a bit on the sidewalk, righted himself and stopped at the general store for a quart of Old Milwaukee. Schlitz was bad, and Old Milwaukee was piss in comparison. But this was not a night for high standards.

The train whistle blasted through the late-night small town calm like an explosion and an invitation card. Pete found himself shuffling toward the trestle. “Yeah, GREAT idea!” he thought. “Drink a cold one on the trestle, stare at the river in the moonlight for a bit. It would be beautiful!”

“As beautiful as that BITCH Lila!” Pete yelled at the stars. “Yeah, how does it FEEL?!? TO BE ON YOUR OWN!!!! With no diRECTON HOME TO ME!!!” He downed the quart and threw it against a tree, loving the sound and feel of the smash.

Pete got to the tracks and walked out on to the trestle. The moon was huge and shimmering on the river in oblong orange crescents. He thought he felt the bridge vibrate just a touch, but the thought didn’t register compared to thoughts of THAT BITCH who’s BOUND TO FALL Lila.

He had to piss desperately, so he unzipped, whipped it out and held on to the steel while letting go.

Half-way through he looked right and thought he saw a pair of fuzzy lights side-by-side way down the tracks. The light on the lower left soon enough melded into the light on the upper right, and suddenly it was one headlight, and the bridge was vibrating like crazy.

The other side of the trestle was not at all far off, but Pete couldn’t get himself to start running. The light was so hypnotizing, so calming while it was so terrifying. He kept staring at the light as it got closer and closer and the whistle blew, louder than anything he had ever heard in his life.

The blast of the whistle finally snapped Pete out of his dreamscape, and he started performing mental calculations. He only had another ten feet to run to cross the trestle. On the other hand, the trestle was only ten feet above the river, and it wasn’t very wide. Pete could barely swim, but he could swim just enough.

He thought, amazed at his ability to slow down time and fight off his drunken fog to do so, of that line

When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose

and he clenched the outer edge of the trestle wall and made the decision that would likely mean the rest of his life…

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9 comments
  1. Yikes! Scary as hell.

    I had a friend who was run down by a train outside Back Bay in the 1990s. Mysterious circumstances. Some said it was suicide, and some said it was a mob hit. No one will ever know for sure. No one will ever know if he was conscious, unconscious, or already dead when that train came rolling down the tracks.

    There were train tracks behind my elementary school, too, and every now and then some kid would slip through the fence and go take a walk. Luckily, no one was ever killed there in my day.

    Well done! I leave this one believing/hoping your character survives and gets a GOOD second chance at life.

    I also know, as a writer, that most of the time our people don’t get happy endings. They get real life, which inevitably embraces death and destruction in some form or other.

    • Damn! I’m so sorry for your losses.

      • It’s been a long, long time now. I used to sing with the guy, and the entire group was in shock afterwards. We sang the funeral. One guy had composed a beautiful Pie Jesu, which he requested I sing (solo) for the final committal. One of those occasions when I had to just NOT THINK, or I would have lost it completely. Somehow, I managed not to fall apart until the service had concluded. Through it all, and all these years later, I thought, and still think/hope/pray that he never knew what hit him and didn’t suffer, but…somehow that seems unlikely.

        The first rehearsal together after the man’s death was probably one of the toughest things I’ve ever lived through. It certainly wasn’t a very efficient rehearsal, with someone or other busting out crying every few minutes, but it was good to come together as a group and work through it together.

        Tough as it was to do that solo, I still feel very honored that I got to sing that final lullabye. I just wish it had never been necessary until after the man had lived a long, full life.

  2. A gripping life said:

    Wow. This was a most excellent story, Sir Brian. Poor Pete. I want to believe that he made it. I do like the single, hypnotizing light – hoping it was the train and not something else. Nice symbol.

    • Aww, thanks so much, Grips.

  3. Compelling forward movement.
    Found I was holding my breath.
    Looked at my fists…clenched.

    You took me there….

    • What an amazing thing to read. Thank you so much, Jots.

  4. I love a good piece of flash fiction that manages to evoke emotion and build tension, all while leaving the reader to have a question or two remain unanswered. Great job :)

    • Thank you so much!

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