During the time
of this story

Woodchuck was
in the habit

of hard drinking
in saloons in towns

where they didn’t
even sell beer

only cheap sour mash
bought by the bottle

He couldn’t be responsible
to get himself home

but luckily there
was a train that

ran at night almost
all the way to the open

lot where he had a hole
behind some garbage bins

There he would sleep it off
and swear when he

awoke in the late
afternoon the following day

that he was done with drinking
for good and all

He didn’t even know where
his penis had gone off to

nor did he care
except now when he

remembered how it had
been otherwise when

people put their faith
in him to get them somewhere

He knew or rather
suspected he had been

made by God or so
the people told him

Then it would get to be
night and he could not

stand being alone
with his own thoughts

He got into fights
deliberately insulting thugs

by flirting badly drunkenly
with their women making

sure to grope their thighs
and hips as he had not

enjoyed the touch of another
for weeks or however

long it was as he
had lost track of time

then getting beaten crunched
and thrown to the ground

After such nights
bruised bloody and sick

he’d pour himself
aboard the train

oversleep his stop
at the end of the line

and uniformed officers
would wake him up

in the yards
Get off the train

the large police dogs
would say pawing

him roughly
Whistlepig! Get up!

Get off the train
He would have

to pay a fine
and walk back along

the tracks to his
empty lot home

This had happened
more than once

Woodchuck knew
he would have to mend

his ways or he would
probably one day die

and never ever come back
But time has a way

of repeating itself
and yet again he was

a night a short time later
on the train in a stupor

smelling and filthy
Whistlepig! Wake up!

he heard like before
His eyes stayed closed

until he felt himself
being nudged by a pistol

This made him
jolt upright and look

No one was there
He closed them again

and shivered as if
startled in a dream

The pistol now jabbed
into his ribs

Move or die! commanded
a husky female voice

Woodchuck jumped up
and opened his eyes again

Still there was nobody
in front of him with a pistol

The only other person
in the train car was

a woman bundled in layers
of gown and greatcoat

seated a few rows
away herself sleeping

She looked like someone
he had seen once

or twice underground
The train was still

moving so this
wasn’t about sleeping

to the end of the line
Why had he been awakened?

OK now move
said the voice

Ahead to the next car
Woodchuck realized the voice

was coming from the woman
who was yet asleep

speaking to him
from her sleep

He felt her
physical presence

next to him
and all the more so

when she shoved him
forward by the shoulder

down the aisle
of the train

Her body remained
seated behind immobile

In front of him was a small
pack of daguerrotype

calling cards
Pick them up

commanded her voice
and he obeyed

Do you recognize
any of these folks

said the woman
Woodchuck leafed

through the pack
but they were all strangers

Nah said the woman
and the cards were all

knocked out of his hands
Here she said

How about this
What do you know

when the man comes
and hands you a chicken?

Woodchuck didn’t understand
what she was talking about

It means said the woman
That tomorrow you are

going to be sold
It don’t matter

I don’t care who you are
I need you to help me tonight

Not that you have a choice
Again the phantom gun poked

his rib in the same spot
which was now sore

Now get into the next car!
Woodchuck crossed over

in the open air the couple
between the cars

Swirling snow blew
across his face

He opened the door
to the next car

Inside was full of what
looked like refugees

They wore gray sooty rags
the women’s hair

covered in stained scarves
Children’s faces were all

smeared in dirt
The men were all hairy

and disheveled
They looked like he did

These poor poorly treated people
and the woman’s voice

behind him Are
trying to pass over

into a better life
We’ve got people chasing us

This is what goes on
in the world

The train stopped
The presence went past

him hissing
Look to see

we’re not followed
and roused the people

The train was stopping
The door at the end

of the car opened
and friendly voices outside

helped hustle
the people off

with care but insistence
The spirit went behind them

and out the door
Woodchuck knew that

if he looked into the car
from which he had come

the sitting woman would
no longer be there

He was alone
Three dogs now came

Flying behind him
The refugees were long

gone They had
nothing so there was

nothing left of them
behind to show

Did you see some
runaways in here

barked one of the dogs
Woodchuck turned quickly

and felt a great upheaval
in his stomach

He threw up on all
three of them

This was no ordinary vomit
For after the first enormous

projectile puke came
another that if anything

was twice as large
Buckets of rotten watery

gruel hurtled again
through the air

to douse all three
of the hunting dogs

Another and another
came after that

before Woodchuck
dry-retched and fell

sprawled across the aisle
in front of them

The train began moving again
Aw Jesus motherfucking

goddamned Christ-sucking
motherfuckers howled

the lead dog
Why do I always

end up in shit details
like this one

Pick him up he instructed
the other two

The lead dog tried
to rub the vomit

off his coat but every part
of him and of the train

its walls and seats
were covered with just

as much puke so he
lathered more on himself

as he tried to remove it
In disgust the dog

shook furiously
and the whole car received

thick splatters of putrid
hard-alcohol vomit

that I could but dare not
describe any further

for fear of offending those
of more delicate sensibilities

Slipping and sliding they
picked up Woodchuck bodily

His hide smashed into
one of the seats in

the same sore spot
poked earlier by the pistol

Woodchuck hoped
he had done well

by the woman
They carried him to the exit

and threw Woodchuck
into the snow

and then all the dogs
threw themselves down

next to him
and rolled around

writhing to clean
themselves off

Woodchuck looked at them
on either side

Suddenly it was as if they had
forgotten him and he

was invisible in both
sight and memory

He quietly walked away
without the dogs looking up

or even sniffing the air
Woodchuck knew

at that moment
the woman was Araminta

He whistled a signal
into the sky

 

 


Ted Pelton is the author of several fiction titles, including the novella, Bartleby the Sportscaster. Recent stories have appeared in BOMB and The Brooklyn Rail. He chairs the English Department at Tennessee Tech University.