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Authors: Joe Hill

Wolverton Station

BOOK: Wolverton Station
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Wolverton Station

A Story

J
OE
H
ILL

 

Wolverton Station

S
AUND
ERS SAW THE
first wolf as the train was pulling in to Wolverton Station.

He glanced up from his
Financial Times
and there it was, out on the platform, a wolf six feet tall with a scally cap tucked between his bristly, graying ears. The wolf stood on his hind legs, wore a trench coat, and held a briefcase in one paw. A bushy tail whipped impatiently back and forth, presumably poking out from a hole in the seat of his pants. The train was still moving, and in a moment the wolf blinked out of sight.

Saunders laughed, a short, breathless sound that did not quite convey amusement, and did the reasonable thing: looked back at his paper. It didn’t surprise him, a wolf waiting on the train platform. The devil would probably be at the next stop. Saunders thought there was a good chance the fucking protesters would be parked in every station between London and Liverpool, parading around in costume, hoping someone would point a camera at them and stick them on the telly.

They had staked out his hotel in London, a raggedy-­ass pack of a dozen kids, marching back and forth on the sidewalk directly across the street. The management had offered Saunders a room in the rear, so he wouldn’t have to see them, but he insisted on a suite up front just so he could look down on them. It was a hell of a lot more entertaining than anything on British TV. He hadn’t spotted any wolfmen, but there had been a dude on stilts in an Uncle Sam costume, with a three-­foot rubber dong hanging out of his pants. Uncle Sam’s features were stern and hateful, but the dong was scrubbed and pink and had some cheerful bounce to it. Slammin’ Sammy carried a sign in both hands:

UNCLE SAM
PISSES
IN A CUP

& WE ENGLISH PAY TO
DRINK
IT

NO JIMI COFFEE! NO SLAVE CHILDS!

Saunders had a good laugh at that, had enjoyed how it trod the line between righ­teous anger and mental deficiency. “No slave childs”? What had happened to the legendary British educational system?

The other protesters, a gang of self-­important hipsters, were hauling signs of their own. Theirs were a little less amusing. They showed photos of barefoot, half-­naked black kids, standing by coffee bushes, the children staring bleakly into the camera, eyes dewing over with tears, as if they had just felt the foreman’s lash. Saunders had seen it before, too often to really get angry, to be anything more than irritated, even if those signs perpetuated an outrageous lie. Jimi Coffee didn’t use kids in the field and never had. In the packing plants yes, but not in the fields, and the plants were a hell of a lot more sanitary then the shantytowns those kids went home to.

Anyway, Saunders couldn’t hate the hot little hipster girls, in their stomach-­baring Che Guevara T-­shirts, or their fashionably scrungy, sandal-­wearing boyfriends. They protested today, but in three years the hipster girls would be pushing baby carriages, and the half hour they spent in Jimi Coffee gossiping with their girlfriends would be the best part of their day. The scrungy hipster boys would be shaved and chasing jobs in middle management and would run into Jimi every morning on the way to work for their all-­important double shots of espresso, without which they could not make it through the most boring day of their lives since the day before. By then, if the hipsters allowed themselves to think about the time they had picketed to protest the arrival of Jimi Coffee on British shores, it would be with a bemused flush of embarrassment at their own pointless and misplaced idealism.

There had been a dozen of them in front of the hotel the night before and two dozen in front of the flagship store in Covent Garden in the morning, at the grand opening. Not great numbers. Most passersby never so much as glanced at them. The small few who did take note of them always flinched at the sight of Uncle Sam with his rubber prick hanging out, the thing twitching back and forth like the great fleshy pendulum of some perverse, surreal grandfather clock (grandfather cock?). That was all anyone would remember—­Uncle Sam’s strap-­on—­not what was being protested. Saunders doubted that the marchers would register as anything more than a single sentence at the end of a minor story buried in the business section of the
Times.
Possibly someone would be quoted about Jimi’s business practices, practices Saunders himself had helped to develop.

The way Jimi worked, they found a neighborhood mom-­and-­pop coffeehouse that was doing good business and opened up across the street. A Jimi franchise could operate at a loss for months—­years, if necessary—­however long it took to put the competition out of business and claim its customers. And this was looked upon as an outrage, a borderline criminal act, and never mind that the mom-­and-­pop usually served watery, third-­rate instant in thimble-­size cups and couldn’t be bothered to keep a clean bathroom. As for child labor, the protesters didn’t like it but were apparently at peace with children starving because there was no work at all.

Saunders couldn’t hate them. He understood their mind-­set too well. Once upon a time, he had marched himself . . . marched, smoked weed, danced in his underwear at a Dead concert, and trekked in India. He had gone abroad looking for transcendence, a mantra,
meaning,
and goddamn if he hadn’t found it. He had stayed for three weeks in a monastery in the mountains of Kashmir, where the air was sweet and smelled of bamboo and tart orange blossoms. He had walked barefoot on ancient stone, meditated to the ringing drone of the singing bowl, and chanted with all the other potheads who had wound up there. He had given himself over to it all, trying to feel pure, trying to feel love—­he even gave himself over to the food, daily servings of a mealy rice that tasted like waterlogged chalk and bowls of what appeared to be curried twigs. And there came a day when at last Saunders received the wisdom he had come looking for.

It was a scrawny, raven-­haired kid from Colorado named John Turner who pointed the way toward a higher purpose. No one prayed longer or more intensely than John, who sat through the guided-­meditation sessions, stripped to the waist, his ribs showing in his painfully white sides. They were supposed to focus on something beautiful, something that filled them to the brim with happiness. Saunders had tried picturing lotus petals, waterfalls, the ocean, and his San Diego girlfriend naked, without feeling that any of it was quite right. John seemed to get it, though, right away—­his long, horsey face shone with rapture. Even his sweat smelled clean and happy. Finally, their third week there, Saunders asked him what he was visualizing.

“Well,” Turner said, “he told us to picture somethin’ that filled us with happiness. So I been imaginin’ the fuckin’ Quarter Pounder with Cheese I’m going to sink my teeth into when I get home. A ­couple more days of eating sticks and spiced dirt, I think I might be able to visualize a bag of the flavorful motherfuckers right into existence.”

Saunders had gone to India in love with a blond-­haired girl named Deanie,
The White Album,
and ganja. By the time he got back to San Diego, Deanie was married to a pharmacist, Paul McCartney was touring with Wings, Saunders had smoked his last-­ever joint, and he had a plan. Or not a plan, exactly, but a vision, an
understanding.
Reality had briefly slid aside one of its black, opaque panels, to give him a glimpse of the gears that ticked behind it. Saunders had discovered a universal constant, like gravity or the quantum nature of light. No matter where you went—­no matter how ancient the traditions, no matter how grand the history, no matter how awe-­inspiring the landscape—­there was always a market for a cheap Happy Meal. The Lotus Way might lead to nirvana, but it was a long trip, and when you had a lot of miles to cover, it was just natural to want some drive-­thru along the road.

Three years after he left Kashmir, Saunders owned five Burger Kings, and upper management wanted to know why his restaurants turned a profit 65-­percent higher than the national average (his trick: set up shop across from skate parks, beaches, and arcades and grill with the windows open, so the kids were smelling it all day). Thirteen years later he was in upper management himself, teaching Dunkin’ Donuts how to repel Starbucks (his plan: make ’em look like snobs and outsiders, play up the New England angle, total market saturation).

When Jimi Coffee offered him a seven-­figure salary to help the company restructure and take its franchise international, Saunders agreed after mulling it over for less than twenty-­four hours. He especially liked the idea of helping Jimi to go global, because it would offer him a chance to travel; he had hardly left the States in the years since India. Maybe he could even get them to open a Jimi Coffee in Kashmir, right across the road from his old monastery. The seekers would probably appreciate the many vegetarian offerings on the Jimi menu, and a vanilla cappuccino would make the sunrise chants a whole lot more palatable. When it came to producing a state of focus, quiet contentment, and inner peace, Zen meditation ran a very distant second to caffeine. Your average suburban white-­bread Buddhists could manage without their daily yoga class, but take ’em away from their coffee and they’d be animals in no time, absolute—­

Saunders folded back one corner of the paper and took another look at the platform.

The train was yanking itself to a stop at last, in little hitches and jerks. He couldn’t see the joker in the wolf suit anymore, had left him well behind. Saunders sat in the frontmost car of the train, the first-­class car, and he had a view of one corner of the platform. A metal sign, bolted between two stone pillars, read
WOLVERTON STATION
. It was a good thing most activists barely had the money for the cardboard, Sharpies, and duct tape they needed to make their protest signs; the last thing Saunders wanted to do was share the otherwise empty first-­class car with the crazy son of a bitch dressed like the Big Bad Wolf.

No,
thought Saunders.
Fuck that. I hope he comes right in and sits down next to me. He can sit there in his asshole wolf suit and lecture me about all the little black kids who suffer under the baking sun in East Africa picking our coffee beans. And then I can tell him we don’t let the kids pick and that Jimi Coffee offers full scholarships to
ten
children from the Third World every year. I can ask him how many kids from the Third World his local mom-­and-­pop places put through college last year, when they were getting their coffee from an outfit of Samoan slavers, no questions asked.

In his years in management at Burger King, he had earned the nickname “The Woodcutter,” because when there was a hatchet job that needed doing, Saunders never shied away from wielding the ax. He had not made his sizable personal fortune (his largest assets being a house on twenty acres in New London, Connecticut, another in the Florida Keys, and a forty-­three-­foot Sportfisher that ferried him between the two) by avoiding confrontation. He had once fired an eight-­months’-­pregnant woman, the wife of a close friend, with a two-­word text message:
YOU’RE TOAST
. He had closed packing plants, put hundreds out of work, and had stoically endured being called a soulless cocksucker in Yiddish by a red-­faced and shaking old woman who had seen her little chain of kosher coffee shops systematically targeted and taken out by Jimi. But this was, of course, exactly why Jimi hired him—­they
needed
a woodcutter, and he had the sharpest hatchet in the forest. Saunders had been all for peace and love in his twenties, and he liked to think he still was, but over the years he had also developed a hankering for the rusty-­salt flavor of blood. It was, like coffee itself, an acquired taste.

The train sat for a long time, long enough so that after a while he put down the paper and looked out at the platform again. For the first time since boarding at Euston Station, he was irritated with himself. He should’ve hired a fucking car. The journey by train had been an impulsive, sentimental act. He had not been in England since the years right after college, had spent two weeks in the UK, on the first leg of the world tour that would eventually dump him in a decaying heap of stone in the breezy mountains of Kashmir. He had come because the Beatles were there; if not for the Beatles, he believed he would’ve killed himself in his teens, in the bad days after his father had left his mother. He arrived in London with a craving to
feel
the Beatles in some way, a restless need to put his hand against the bricks of the Cavern Club, as if the music they had played there might still resonate in the warm red clay. He rode the rails north, packed into coach, on his feet for hours in the hot stale air, pressed up against an auburn-­haired Edinburgh girl in blue jeans, who he didn’t know when the trip began, and who he was half mad for by the time they reached Liverpool. It was maybe the happiest memory of his life, all the reason he needed to go by train now.

Saunders tried never to think about what had happened
after
he got off the train. He and the Edinburgh girl had split up, making a loose plan to meet at the Cavern Club that evening; Saunders had stopped at a mom-­and-­pop for some fish and chips, but the fish was greasy and spoiled, and he spent the night in a sweat, shaking in a hostel, unable to stand. In the days that followed, there was a continuous sick fizzle in his stomach, as if he had gulped down a cup of especially bitter coffee, and he couldn’t go more than half an hour without running for the can. He could not shake the grim conviction that something special had gotten away from him. When he finally made it to the Cavern, the night following, the Edinburgh girl wasn’t there—­of course she wasn’t—­and the house band was playing fucking disco. The branch of Jimi Coffee being opened in Liverpool was not actually built on the ruin of the mom-­and-­pop that had served him rancid fish, but Saunders could pretend.

The platform was lit by fluorescents. He could see nothing of the world beyond. It seemed as if they’d been sitting there for a long time. Although the train was not quite standing still. It rocked now and then on its steel wheels, as if someone were loading something heavy into one of the rear cars. In the distance he heard someone braying, a man’s loud, lowing voice, oddly steerlike—­
Stop!
he yelled.
Stop it!
Saunders imagined two movers trying to lug an oversize dresser onto the train and being yelled at by a conductor . . . reasonably enough, this wasn’t a freight car. A woman’s voice rose in a sob of laughter, then faded away. Saunders had half a mind to get up and walk to the back to see what was happening, but then the train jerked forward with a loud bang and began to struggle out of the station.

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