Murder on El Camino

We'd been pals when we both worked at Macy's, but after I quit we lost that connection, and Stanley and I only hung out once or twice more. The last time I saw him was the murder on El Camino, a story I never wrote in Pathetic Life. I remembered it this morning, though, and the statute of limitations has passed, so now it can be told. 

It was San Francisco, 1995 — sunshine but not too much, and "anything legal." Stanley and I both had the day off, so it was probably a weekend. We wanted to see a movie at the Guild Theater in Menlo Park, a suburb thirty miles south of San Francisco, and the quickest way to get there was on CalTrain, the local locomotive that's been running north and south on the Peninsula since the Civil War.

We met downtown, and we were walking toward the train station when something caught a glint of sunshine and sparkled at me from the dirt under some short bushes. I stopped and pulled the shrubbery apart, and saw the gun. It looked real to me, but what do I know about real guns? I've handled a real gun just once in my life.

I picked it up, of course. When you find a gun, you don't not pick it up, do you? 

It was metal, with a wooden butt and a pull-back cock — a pistol like in a western movie — old, slightly rusted, and it had some weight to it. I wasn't sure whether it was real or a toy, but the word 'Cowboy' was molded into the metal. Real gunmen probably don't carry Cowboy™ brand guns, right? 

Stanley showed me how to crack it in half to open it, and showed me that it was a cap gun. When I was a kid, cap guns were against family rules, so I stashed it in my backpack, of course. You never know when you might need a toy gun.

Then we rode the southbound train, which is still a wistful memory for me — giant diesel engines that roared like thunder, with loud, rhythmic clanging at intersections, and conductors who punched your ticket. You could sit upstairs or downstairs, looking out the window all the way to San Jose, but we got off at Menlo Park.

I couldn't tell you what movie we saw, but when it was over, I checked my copy of the schedule to see if we had time for lunch, or whether we should catch the next train back, and have lunch in Frisco instead. A northbound train was coming in about ten minutes, but we decided we weren't in a hurry. We'd heard rumors of a good hamburger at a café a few blocks up El Camino Real, the Peninsula's main avenue.

That's when my best idea of the day smacked me. I explained it to Stanley and he was game, so we crossed El Camino, and walked to the other side of the railroad tracks. There was a short swath of wasteland — hardscrabble dirt — stretching to the rickety fences that separated the railroad's clearance from people's yards. Poor people's yards, presumably, because nobody wants to live an easy stone's throw from trains rumbling past day and night.

Of course this was childish, juvenile, something you'd expect from junior high school boys, and that's why it appealed to us. From the train, we'd obviously be adults, not little kids, so it would look more convincing.

Stanley stood a few footsteps from me, ready to drop. The train approached from the south, roaring and clanging, as I pulled the gun from my backpack and pointed it at him. We waited till the passenger cars were right beside us, and I shot him three times. The unreal recoil shook my arm, and he went down in a pool of imaginary blood. Then I channeled Tarantino, walked to Stanley's crumpled body, and shot him again to be sure he was dead.

The train was already slowing, approaching the station, so anyone aboard and looking out the right-side window would've had a clear view of the killing. Takes a while for a train to stop, though, and by then Stanley and I were across the street, walking to lunch.

Soon there were sirens, and we saw two cop cars, but by then our burgers were sizzling on the grill, and we were sipping sodas and watching through the café window.

A man had been shot dead, someone called 9-1-1, me and the dead guy giggled about it while eating our lunch, and that's the end of that story.

It was also the end of Stanley and me, though. The sirens got us talking about police, and respect for the law, good citizenship, and all that, and as he talked it became clear that Stanley was a believer in such concepts, much more than me. He went on for too long, explaining why he'd voted for the recent Republican candidate for Governor — some dolt who'd campaigned as "tough on crime," and opposed affirmative action, and scary immigrants, and gay people, and everything else about the late 20th century.

It kinda broke my heart. I argued back but not for long, because it was too much. I'll discuss politics with anyone who seems sane, but Stanley was wrong about five different issues, and I didn't want to have five arguments.

Anyway, if I have to argue for compassion, against someone who passionately has none, why bother? You can't convince someone to give a damn if they don't, so after a few sentences I said something like, "Couldn't disagree more," and we changed the subject.

Then it was mostly a wordless ride back to the city. Maybe we talked on the train, but I was thinking Jeez, how could I have known this guy for months and never known him at all?

I'm not sure, but I think Stanley called a few weeks after that afternoon, and left a message on my machine. "Let's get together for coffee," or what what... If he called, I'm also not sure whether I called him back, but I never saw him again.



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