It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry

It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry

She doesn’t know what it’s like when those trains go by at night. The railroad tracks behind my trailer, carrying freight eastbound to St. Louis, or west to Los Angeles. Better places far away from here. She doesn’t understand how loud it gets when that train passes and that whistle blows and I can’t hardly sleep. She lives in a nice apartment on the other side of town where the tracks don’t lay. Where she can sleep. Where she doesn’t have to worry about money or stray mutts or broken glass in the driveway. She doesn’t understand what it’s like to be alone up here all the time, with nothing but that damn train. My old man told me a friend of his must have gotten the blues something awful and laid on the tracks and waited for that train. When that train blows past and I’m drunk, I think of him.

Sarah brings Quentin on Friday night. It’s my weekend with him and I got to hide all my empties in the bottom of the trash because I know damn well she’s going to take a peek. No telling what she’ll do if she finds out. I clean up whenever she comes by, put on a nice shirt and a fresh shave and act like I’m nothing but the happiest son-of-a-bitch. She told me a while ago that this was no place for Quentin, with all the drunkards and strays. I told her this was all I could afford. I asked her why didn’t she just take me back if that was how she felt. She let that hang in the air. Late nights when Quentin’s not here I look at old pictures, me and Sarah smiling. It’s been two years and four months and I’m still holding out for her to change her mind, take me back in her arms and get me away from the trains. Back to where everything is peachy-keen and I don’t have other worries.

When she gets out of the car she looks good. She’s changed her hair. She looks happy, something that doesn’t belong here. Quentin hops out of the backseat carrying his bag with his video games and his music.

“I gotta run,” she says. “Late shift.”

I spit and nod my head. “I figured.”

She gives Quentin a big hug and kisses his cheek. “You be good for dad,” she says.

Quentin heads right on in the trailer. The rest of the trailers have their lights on and everyone must be up and I wonder how many are watching us. There’s nothing much else to do but watch. I walk up to her as she gets back in the car and I can smell she’s got some nice perfume on.

“How are you?”

She nods and says she’s doing fine, that our son has been doing nothing but great things at his school, that we should be proud he’s turned out the way he has. All I wanna do is tell her how I much I still love her and that I’ve been clean for months now and my job working the door at the local door pays well enough and that we still love each other and can make it work. But I can’t bring myself to say anything. I figure we’re at the point where this is it. Nothing I can say is going to change her mind. I think back to how it was before, with me coming in past midnight drunk after getting laid off from the cable company, her taking care of Quentin all alone. It’s a wonder she stayed as long as she did.

“Jesse,” she says. She says it in that voice that I know too damn well. That voice that brings bad news just by the tone, not a mad tone, but I know her and I know how she gets when she’s fixing to tell me something I don’t wanna hear.

“Jesse, I’ve been seeing someone.”

I look down at the ground. Cigarette butts and bits of glass and crushed cans. I nod my head and tell her I’m happy for her, that this is for the best. It’s time to move on. I need a drink, something rough that will knock me on my ass.

“He’s a doctor at the Kansas City Memorial Hospital,” she says like I give a shit. “Quentin really likes him.”

“That’s good,” I say. I try to sound like I mean it, but I’m not good at faking anymore. I look into her soft eyes and try to smile. She knows I’m only being kind. “Well, you best be heading out. Don’t let the hospital go without their best burn nurse. I’ll see you Sunday.”

She drives off and I watch as she hits the edge of the road that leads out of the trailer park and onto the highway. Dust from the road flies up and clouds behind her car like smoke. I stand in the driveway and watch that evening sun go down. It always makes me a little sad when I watch that sun set. Like there isn’t much use in living when the light’s gone. Far off down the tracks that night train is blowing its horn.

Quentin is already playing his video games when I come inside. This is what he does when he stays for the weekend. I’ll sit and watch him play until he says he’s hungry and order a pizza and watch him eat and play more. In between he’ll tell me about school and his mom and it’s only a matter of time before I lose him forever. A distance is growing between us.

It’s amazing how much he looks like her. He’s got those dark brown eyes that sometimes feel like they look right through you.  I look at him and only think about Sarah. Maybe it means something that he doesn’t look much like me. Like he’s not going to be like me and he ought to be thankful for that.

Tonight I don’t care what Sarah thinks or anybody else. I grab a beer from the back of the fridge and sit down next to Quentin and watch him shoot zombies or something like that. He gives me a sideways glance and he knows a lot for being eleven. I take a drink and it goes down smooth.

“Thought you quit,” he says.

“I won’t tell if you won’t,” I say with a wink. I slam down the rest and drop it on the floor and get another one.

He shakes his head and keeps playing. He’s on a rampage, mowing down tons of these fuckers. All this blood and limbs flying all over the screen, people screaming and running. His eyes are glued to it. I don’t know why his mom lets him play it.

“That’s why she kicked you out, you know.”

“I didn’t know you were a therapist,” I say and laugh. I tousle his hair and he shakes me off like my hand hurts him. I get up for another beer.

He’s seen me drunk too many times for a boy his age. I’d come busting in the house rowdy and smelling like beer. I know we’d wake him up with our fights, shouts and things thrown. All those words being hollered around the house at all hours of the night. Had to hear me call his mom all sorts of awful things. I heard him crying himself to sleep one night and it made me feel like a lousy bastard. I wanted to drive off the highway after doing that to him.

“Your mom said she’s been seeing someone,” I say.

He doesn’t turn away from his game. I know I’m entering dangerous territory here but I can’t help myself.


I take a big drink and smile. “What’s his name?”

“Richard,” he says.

“Your mom says he’s a doctor,” I say. “I bet she likes that.”

He turns to me and his face is redder than a ripe apple. His eyes are narrow.

“Can we just forget about it?”

When he’s in bed I drive to the gas station right outside of the park. I pick up a cheap pack of beer and drive around the park, sipping them. Back home I sit on the porch and look up at the moon and think about what kind of dreams Quentin is having. If they’re full of nothing but zombies and blood and shouting and his mom crying. I wonder how much he still loves me, if coming here is just an obligation he has to make me feel like he still gives a shit. Sometimes I get the feeling that he doesn’t want to come here, that that train keeps him up at night like it does to me. This place isn’t his home.

Knocking back the last of the beer makes me dizzy, and I know when I wake up I’ll be hungover. Quentin will know and he’ll just be madder at me. I think back to when he was younger, before I started drinking like I did. He was happier and I know that it’s on me why he isn’t anymore. No one will tell me this, but it doesn’t take a genius to figure that one out. All I got to do is think back on all those times he cried himself to sleep because of me. All those times he heard me slam the door and my truck start up and knowing that I was just going to the bar to get shitfaced instead of being next to him.


Sunday comes and instead of Sarah pulling up the drive it’s some nice Cadillac. Looks brand new, black paint and shiny in the sun. Parked next to my rotting old truck, I look at both cars and pity myself. He gets out of his car and comes up to the porch and he’s nothing but smiles. Like some salesman. His teeth are bright pearls. He’s wearing a nice blue suit with polished brown shoes and damn if he doesn’t look like some doctor on the TV. I look down at myself and my jeans are caked in dirt and my shirt is wrinkled. He’s clean-cut and belongs in an ad.

“You must be Jesse,” he says. Hand out for me to shake. I give him a strong grip and he returns it. “I’m Richard.”

“Yeah,” I say. “Sarah didn’t tell me you’d be picking him up.”

“She didn’t know until early this morning,” he says.

We stand there on the porch in the early morning light and can’t find any words to say. I wonder what she sees in him, if it’s just the money or if he is some teetotaler doctor who doesn’t even drink red wine when they go out. If he’s a nice man who doesn’t get in fights at the bar, who wouldn’t drown if he gets laid off. I wanna know how close he is to my own son, if they work on homework and kill zombies on the weekends. If he tousles his hair. I’ve never wanted a drink so bad in my goddamned life. I think about what it would feel like to punch him in his perfect teeth, to have Quentin walk out and see me and him on the ground with his blood on my hands.

Quentin comes out and says bye as he skids past me and they get settled in this nice Cadillac. I walk towards him and open the door. I wrap my arms around my son and squeeze hard. I hear him say I’m hurting him, but I don’t let go. Richard yells my name. I put my head on Quentin’s shoulder and keep squeezing him. Richard comes around and pulls me off. Quentin has tears in his eyes and I watch him as they pull away and until I can’t see them anymore.

I’m all alone again and I head out back and look at the railroad. Back yonder the fence are some woods, and the tracks cut through them. Trees dangle over the tracks. I can hear the train in the distance coming this way. I walk down to the fence and lean on it and look down to see the train bullet through the world. When it rips through I think how easy it would be to jump in front of it and be done with everything.


I’m on a stupor and it’s Tuesday night and I’ve skipped work. I can’t sleep with that train going and the only thing I can think of is Sarah and Quentin and Richard and that Cadillac. I imagine them happy, playing board games on a Saturday night when Sarah doesn’t work. I wonder if they get married and he takes a job somewhere else and I’ll never see my son again. Maybe that would be for the best. I can’t help feeling all sentimental and wishing it was five years ago and I could have done things different. She told me I was charismatic back then. I’d put some Otis Redding on the jukebox at Murphy’s and dance with her in the empty bar. Should have seen the signs of her leaving, like when she stopped wearing her ring. When she wouldn’t even leave a plate warm because I’d never be home in time to eat it. I could have stopped drinking the way I did. Sometimes I think that drunks are the only ones with feelings, and bars are nothing but a gathering of sad assholes who feel sorry for themselves.

I’m sitting at the end of the bar at Murphy’s. Hardly anyone here. Someone played something on the juke and everything feels lonely. I’m on the hard stuff for the night. I read once that your mood only gets worse when you drink, and after a while I feel sadder, then meaner. I look around to see if any women come in. But it’s as dry as a cottonmouth and me and this other sad sack in the booth are the only living things in this place. So I think, maybe I can start some shit, get in a fight, get fucked up and feel something.

Nothing comes of that. I keep with my whiskey and try to forget about every bad thing I’ve done in my life. I remember one night right I came home after a bender. I barged right in and she yelled at me to quiet down. When I went to the fridge I noticed she threw out all my beer and I started throwing everything else out, hitting the walls and floor. Lasagna leftovers splattered over the window, milk soaking the rugs. Sarah begged me to stop, drink some water. I told her to get the hell out of my face. I didn’t see Quentin standing in his door. I stormed out. He saw all that. How do you talk to your kid after that? I got in my car and stayed at a buddy’s for three days before I went back home to a suitcase packed for me and some legal documents to look over.

When I was a kid, pop would take us all to Sunday church and I’d listen to the preacher talk about repentance. How all your evil deeds could be washed away by prayer. Even the worst souls on Earth could find a place next to Jesus if they just opened themselves.

So I sit there at the bar and pray, only I don’t know how to think of the right words. It don’t sound quite right and feels like lies. Like these words are just goin into a deep void that no one can hear. That isn’t the way to get to heaven. I figure I’m long past any repentance. God doesn’t have the time for the likes of me.

When I finally leave the night is quiet. The air is humid and sticky even with the sun gone. There’s no one around at this time of night. I suppose people are at their homes with their families, laughing and loving. There are probably others like me, out in the night riding around the backroads. Don’t wanna hear the trains. There might be too many people like me in the world. Someone ought to go around and have us all shot. Or we ought to lay down on the tracks ourselves.

I pull into the park around the time the sun rises. My head feels like a semi-truck crashing into the back of my skull and catching fire. There’s something nice about the early morning. Everything seems so peaceful.

Inside I check the messages and my boss from has been calling me and now I’m fired. I grab a beer and sit on the porch and think about what to do. How to get enough money for the next alimony payment. Then I think, Richard is a doctor. Doesn’t he got enough to support the two of them? Big fancy man who probably lives in a nice big home in a gated community, where people like me can’t get in. People like him are always building walls to keep us out.


On Friday night I’m drunk again. I’m drinking straight out of the bottle. I sit and watch something on the TV, like what Quentin was playin. Screams and blood and violence and I’m thinking maybe this is all there is to life. There’s only the bad and the good is always there for a quick little moment. Everything gets too damn depressing when you’re drunk. So I turn it off and look for the phone and fumble the buttons.

When she answers she sounds tired and I got no idea what time it is. On a binge, time moves so slow you can’t even keep track.

“Hello? What is it?”

“Sarah,” I say. “I wanna talk to Quentin.”

“What for?”

“I wanna tell him I love him,” I say. “I wanna talk to him.”

She sighs into the phone.

“He isn’t here, Jesse.”

I cough and spit on the floor. “Where is he? Richard’s?”

“Richard’s working. Quentin is at a friend’s. You drunk?”

“That doesn’t matter,” I say. “I wanna talk to my son. Please.”

She hangs up without goodbye. That’s what it all comes down to. You fall in love and have a few good years and at the end of the road you get to the point where you don’t even say goodbye. I was there for her when her mother passed before we got married. I was careful with her flowers whenever I mowed the lawn. I wish I paid more attention to my old man when he talked to me about life. Maybe then I would have known everything earlier instead of putting up with it all my life.

That train blows loud behind my home. Right then I realize how much I’m losing my grip on everything. It’s all slipping away from me. I slam down what’s left of my whiskey and before I even know what I’m doing I’m in my car gunning down the highway. The music is loud and Townes Van Zandt whines with his guitar and I see the highway marker for Kansas City. In the city the lights are blinding. I drive carefully so no cops will pull me over. I pass the neon bright signs of fast food joints and bars.

When I pull up to the hospital I drive around real slow looking for that nice Cadillac. There are lots of other high-class cars parked all over the place. Doctors with all their money. I finally find Richard’s and stop in the middle of the lot and find my bat I keep in the bed of the truck.

I peek around to see that no one else is here. It’s an empty place.

I hit the windshield and hear it crack. The alarm goes off, stings my ears. It echoes into the night. After a few hits glass shatters all over the dashboard. Next the passenger windows. Glass collects on the ground and on the nice leather seats that I imagine he and Sarah have fucked on at some point. I hit everything on this car. Bust the headlights and the taillights. Dent the doors and the hood.

I look around the parking lot, my ears ringing from the alarm. It’s so late nobody’s coming to check. I reach into my back pocket and pull out my knife. It’s about three inches long and can do the job right. I slash every tire with a deep gash and that farting sound of air comes out. Glass crunches under my feet like snow and I take a look at what I’ve done. He’s not going anywhere now. I piss through the busted driver’s seat window and watch it pool on the leather. This car must have cost him eighty-thousand bucks and after a few minutes it looks like shit.

Before I get a chance to hightail it out of here someone calls behind me. I swing around and give them a good punch in the mouth. I hit so hard I feel a tooth cut my knuckles but I’m so drunk it don’t bother me. Before I know it I’m on top of him thrashing his face. I see Richard’s face and feel satisfied. His body goes limp and I wipe my hands on him and spit. I’m long gone before anyone finds him.


By the time I’m back home it’s almost and I know the next train is scheduled to come any minute. I grab a beer and sit on the couch and flip through the channels.

On the five o’clock news there’s a little piece about a car vandal in Kansas City. I turn the volume up when they show that fucked up car. The reporter is talking to some police officer who looks like he’s got a chip on his shoulder the size of Wisconsin. He curses the state of the world in which people do things like this. Then the reporter asks if they will be able to find out who did this and he says thank God there are cameras all over the lot and that they’ve got the footage they need to catch this son-of-a-bitch. He says that this poor security officer is in the hospital beaten so bad he’s in a coma. No one knows if he’s going to wake up. Cops treating it like homicide because he may not live by the end of the week.

I drop my beer. A pit opens in my stomach that makes me sick. Like I could vomit all over the floor. I hear the phone ring and ring and ring and know that it’s Sarah or Richard or the police. I don’t even think about answering. At this point I don’t know just what I’d say. Listen man, I think, I just wanted to have some fun and mess around on a Friday night.

But I know all my excuses are over. My number is up. I hear that phone ring on and on and on and I wonder if it’ll ever stop until I pick it up or until I see lights flashing in my driveway. Maybe some jury will find me sad enough to let me live or walk free. But I figured they don’t take too kindly to the kinds of things I’ve done. They’ll throw me somewhere and leave me there to rot forever.

I’m sitting on the porch. Birds start singing all around me and the sun is making its way across the sky. I try one more time to pray. Only this time I know no one’s listening to me. I’m praying to a wall and no one is coming to help. I think about what Quentin will think when he hears about this. The things that Sarah will tell him. After a couple of years he’ll probably forget about me. He’ll disown me and only send me a birthday card every year with a lazy signature. That’s the way it’s going to be. I can’t help but laugh.



About the Author

Colin Brightwell is a Missouri native, from the greater Kansas City area and Jesse James country. He has fiction in Reckon Review and Bull Magazine. He is currently in the MFA program for fiction at the University of Mississippi.


Photo by Tom Grünbauer on Unsplash