When I was nineteen-years-old I was still living in St. Paul, Minnesota. Most nights consisted of me huffing paint and drinking a quart of Jameson’s as I wandered the streets looking for something greater than me.
I’ll never forget the first time I met Boxcar Charlie. I had stumbled and mumbled my way to Minneapolis, specifically to an abandoned railroad, where I saw a group of haggard men warming themselves by a fire that was burning in an oil drum next to a raging camp fire. They were a lively bunch: grifters, train-jumpers, hobos, former debutantes, and one woman, Joanna Joanna, who insisted that she invented laser tag. Since I was already liquored up, I wasn’t nervous to talk to these strangers, and they lived to talk. Most of the stories were about knife fights at the local planetarium and boasts about the fanciest place they’d made bowel movements at. But there was one man, wearing overalls over a NO FEAR t-shirt that was covered in maple syrup and mustard stains, who caught my eye. I wasn’t physically attracted to him but I was compelled to talk to him. He had braces that shimmered in the moonlit sky, and a top hat that he told me he’d gotten from a, “milkman that had it coming.”
I still had braces, so I went over to the man and introduced myself by asking him what color rubber bands he wore. He scoffed at me and told me to, “keep it moving. Boxcar Charlie doesn’t have time to waste with fancypants like you.” I started to shuffle away when I heard a laugh that didn’t escape his throat; it erupted like a bowel movement inside a chandelier. The whole yard went silent. He asked me what my name was. “I’m Sam,” I replied and stuck out my hand to shake his. Instead of a handshake he whispered, “Fill this bad boy up and we’ll talk.” He handed me an empty box of Junior Mints and I nodded my head: if this was how I earned his trust I was up to the task. I had access to Junior Mints. As I walked away he said one more thing, “I’ve killed the moon twice but that sonofabitch is relentless.” I laughed. His face quickly scrunched up like a pile of dirty laundry mixed with teeth and eyeballs. “You know what a Tesseract is?” he murmured. Before I could respond he walked away and went to sleep in the grave he had dug a few hours earlier. I made my way home, determined to win him over.
The next week, I showed up at the railroad tracks, with two boxes of Junior Mints. It was the middle of winter, so I was wearing snow pants and my lucky bandana. The snow barely covered the tracks, like God had scratched just a little bit of his dandruff off, to dust the landscape. Joanna Joanna came up to me and informed me that she had, still, invented laser tag and offered me a fig newton. I was new to the tracks but I was learning quick: never give something unless you’re ready to give something up of your own. I declined and kept moving at a brisk pace. The smell of broken promises, soiled mattresses, and overcooked baked beans permeated the place for miles. Almost no one was there. I was informed by a man eating a beard that most of “the crew” had moved on, these people, didn’t stay in the same place for long. I saw someone burning a saxophone and headed in the direction of the blazing brass. As I walked, it was so quiet you could hear the Junior Mints moving back and forth, like little candy-sized ships caught in a storm. “Over here!” a familiar voice shouted. Boxcar Charlie.
When I reached him I silently handed over the boxes of Junior Mints. He smiled and poured maple syrup on his shirt in delight. “You’re all right, kid. Even if you do smell like not baked beans.”
B.C. opened up to me that night in a way that no one else ever has. He told me his real name wasn’t Boxcar Charlie, it was Tobb Dindle. He was originally from Sarasota, Florida and spent his youth starting forest fires and then fighting them in a volunteer brigade. He handed me notecards with recipes he’d “earned” from his fellow miscreants. Most of them just said, “Fuck the moon. Add two cups of molasses.” I never felt so lucky. He claimed that when he was forty he was the best ultimate frisbee player the world had ever seen, but he gave it all up to pursue his real passion: building bridges. He had been a city planner and engineer on Sanibel Island for three decades. He loved to talked about bridges. I didn’t care much about infrastructure at the time but I did my best to respectfully listen. He finally asked me what I was doing in such a bad place. I said I thought the tracks were neat. He frowned and pointed to his head, “I mean here.”
I didn’t want to talk about me. Even at the age of nineteen, I had already burned a fair number of bridges and I didn’t think he’d want to hear that. I tried to change the subject but he was already ahead of me. He handed me a shovel and for the first time, but far from my last, I dug my own grave. As the night started its transformation into day, Boxcar Charlie proceeded to eat all of the Junior Mints. As daylight broke, we settled into our graves for a good day’s night sleep. When I woke up a few hours later, all that was left of Charlie was a note he left me. It read: “You’re going to do good things in life. You can’t waste any more time here. By the time you read this, I’ll be gone. I’ve got to take a shit and the Natural History Museum is calling my name.” Next to the note were the empty boxes of J. Mints and two small plastic bags. They were filled with orange and black rubber bands for braces. I still have them, tucked away in my attic, at the ready for Halloween or just the month of October in general.
We only exchanged pleasantries twice but Boxcar Charlie set me on the right path in life. As I left, I felt at peace with myself. As I walked back home I heard Joanna Joanna going, “Pew pew pew!” to God only knows. To this day I’ve never googled who invented laser tag. Some things are better left unknown.