The picture was everywhere. Seemed like every time I turned my phone on it’d beep and vibrate and ring until I turned it back off.
Yo did u see?
Hey are you ok?
Was that ur friend?
To all three, yes. The cop that shared the photo was suspended with pay. He takes a photo of my road dog’s corpse and gets a free vacation. I get to see the picture fifty times a day because well meaning dirty kids want to make sure I’m aware that my best friend is dead.
* * *
Vano was as close to a real American gypsy as you could get. He started using the name, traditional with actual Roma gypsies, after a bad train ride where he got sucked under the wheels and—somehow, who the fuck knows—only lost his left pinky. He said he was on his back, watching the train pass over, unable to figure out how he wasn’t dead, or maybe he was just a ghost waiting for the train to leave so he could float away. When the train finally did pass and he could stand, he found that the two ties he was laying on were much lower than the rest of the track.
That was when he decided that Vano would be his new name on the road because he felt like he was a new person now. A reborn person.
He never did find that pinky.
* * *
I’d just gotten out of jail when I met Vano at a mission on Turk Street. We hit it off. He told me he was tired of San Francisco and wanted to ride trains heading east, pointing to East on the small compass tattooed on his cheek, below his left eye. He was going to Pittsburgh to see friends, then maybe up to New York.
“Ever hop a train before?” He asked me. “You should come.”
“No, I never did; I didn’t think people still did that.”
“Sure they do. They never stopped.”
“Yeah but it’s not, like, the Depression anymore.”
“It’s always the Depression,” Vano said.
That was good enough for me.
* * *
You think the scariest part of riding trains across the country is the train riding, but it’s not. It’s the Easy Rider townies and Deliverance hicks that hassle you at every fucking turn. You try to take a bag of stale doughnuts out of a dumpster in Wyoming and find them covered in bleach. Try spanging on the corner with a guitar in Utah and watch someone kick your case over, change rolling onto the street and into the gutter. It never ends.
But then you meet some amazing folks, so kind that you totally forget the shitty ones. In Colorado they were pretty cool, especially up near the Naropa school; me and Vano met some dudes there and got high on edibles as they read Ginsberg all night. I remember listening to someone recite a poem about Wichita while the stars above us swirled in majestic agony. You’d have a night like that and forget the ten bad ones that came before.
The night Vano died, though; I don’t think I can forget that one.
* * *
“Couple’a queers, HAH!”
We were in Michigan, near Port Huron, by the water. It was cold as fuck that night so Vano and I zipped our two sleeping bags together into a single large one to stay warm. We were drinking, and I think the last time I checked my phone before turning it off for the night it was around 1 a.m. so we were probably woken up around 3? Our tent was open. A blinding white light pierced my eyes like a scalpel, over and over. It was one of those tactical flashlights that could go into strobe mode, completely disorienting. “Looks like some Brokeback Mountain shit,” one of them said. It sounded like two, maybe three people?
I shoved Vano. “Get up,” I said. “Get up.”
He’d let the Mad Dog get the best of him on a normal night, but tonight he had that and some homemade shit we bought off a guy at a bait shop. He was snoring. “Get the hell up.”
“Wha? What the fuc—”
Something came down and landed on Vano’s head. The way he looked at me as it happened. The look in his eyes. I actually don’t want to describe it. The tent collapsed around us and the men’s flashlight, now strobing through the fabric, illuminated us in a sickly green. Vano’s face was streaked in wet dark and it didn’t look like him anymore.
I’d like to say I shot up from the tent and took my knife out. I’d like to say I launched myself into the guy that hit Vano and buried my blade so deep in his gut that the other two townies were a quarter mile away before I pulled it out. Would like to say he begged for his life and I let him have it because I knew he’d never go to the law and I wouldn’t have a murder charge hanging over my head the rest of my life.
I’d like to say all of those things but I can’t. Because I scurried out of the tent, crawled my way through the legs of the men raining hell down on us, and ran.
I don’t know exactly how Vano died. Looking up in the melee before I ran away I could see baseball bats or clubs, I’m not sure. I don’t know if I didn’t hear any screams because Vano was out cold after they struck him or because my heart was pounding so loudly in my ears that nothing else registered. As far as those details went, I knew about as much as anyone else when the picture started getting sent to me.
Vano’s body was found on the same train tracks we’d hopped off of before camping that night. They’d dumped him on the tracks and the train either didn’t have time to stop or didn’t care to. The cop who found his body took a photo and posted it to his personal Facebook with the caption: Trespassing on train tracks is a federal crime, kids. Don’t end up like Smashed Stanley here LOL!!!
People commented things like, “Make this BUM go viral so people learn not to do DUMB CRAP like this!” Another person called Vano a “menace” and that it was good he was dead.
Someone screengrabbed the post and it started getting shared until it made it to some of the train rider forums on Reddit and Squat the Earth. That’s when it started coming to me. Everyone knew it was Vano because, even with half a crushed face, the compass tattoo on his cheek was still visible.
People asked me what happened. I told them it was no accident, that Vano wouldn’t fall asleep on tracks or whatever stupid thing the official statements said. But that was as far the truth went. Mostly I lied. A lot. I said I tried fighting the townies off and nearly won. I said I holed up at a hospital in Iowa recuperating from my own wounds. I said a lot of shit. If anyone knew what I really did, what really happened, I’d deserve worse than what happened to my friend.
* * *
In Colorado, looking up at the stars, I asked Vano what his name meant.
“It’s Romany, it means ‘God is gracious’”.
Without thinking, I said, “That’s kind of stupid.”
“Heh,” Vano closed his eyes. “Yeah, it is.”
ERIC BOYD is a winner of a PEN Prison Writing Award and Slice Magazine’s Bridging the Gap Award. His writing has appeared in several literary magazines, as well as the anthologies Prison Noir (Akashic Books) and Words Without Walls (Trinity University Press). He is the editor of The Pittsburgh Anthology (Belt Publishing). Boyd studied at Maharishi International University before receiving an MFA from The Writer’s Foundry.