Underneath the overpass at the intersection of MOPAC and 2222 was a plot of fertile dust. The corner we’d panhandle was adjacent to the camp spot and uncompetitive—only a few regulars who mostly took the early morning shifts. We slept next to the tracks. The trains slid like slugs here and the brakeman would toss us sandwiches encased in plastic triangles and 24 packs of bottled water. A group of minor offenders working community service served as our cleaning crew, coming by once a week to pick up our trash bags filled with empty 211 cans. Our sign said “On the Road Out of Food,” and it brought in about fifty an hour. The liquor store was maybe a hundred yards east, two convenience stores—a Shell and a 7-11—were one crosswalk away from Twin Liquors, and even closer to the campsite. The overpass was wide enough to afford us amnesty from the rain. We never had to pitch a tent, there was no point. Austin in the fall had been like a gold rush.
I awoke to the sound of Aidan retching as the sun brought the stink with the dawn. It was spring now and even without the intervention of the police, we began to feel we’d overstayed our welcome. We weren’t traveling anymore and I started feeling ill, all the time.
“What time is it?” I asked.
“Fifteen more minutes.”
We sat on our sleeping bags and watched the pigeons trot and bounce on and off the tracks and peck at the dust, the little dirt clouds misting their vacant faces with what looked like cigarette ash. One of them had been through the wringer. His eyes bulged, the feathers on his neck were sparse and precarious. He was thinner than the other birds, likely due to his constant twitching and overeager searching for something that wasn’t there.
I felt a vague relief, stood, stretched, reached for my boots, sat down on a milk crate, slid my feet into a pair of Caterpillars I had found in El Paso the previous summer—the soles nearly melted into the pavement on the side of the I-10 service road— pulled them up, tied them, stood up once more, reached down, grimaced, grabbed the foot of my sleeping bag, rolled it tightly, ignored the aching, struggled to stuff it into its own compression bag, put that bag into my pack, lifted my pack by its aluminum skeleton, groaned and slid my arms through each strap. Next to me, Aidan was performing a similar routine. It was 7 a.m.
Aidan, a few months younger but the more experienced traveler, went to the 7-11 while I preferred the Shell. I entered and headed for the bathroom— as I had every morning for months now—cleaned myself up and defecated. I looked in the mirror for a few minutes without a thought in my head. Then, I noticed the redness in my face, the beard that needed more than a trim, the broken blood vessels where the whites of my eyes were supposed to be, and the general jitteriness that had taken over every muscle in my face. I tried to disregard all of it. Under the fluorescent lights, I grabbed three 24 oz. 211s and approached the counter. My nerves had become increasingly shot in the mornings. I had trouble steadying my hands or speaking without my voice shaking which was fine because the morning clerk didn’t want to speak to me either. I paid and left. I was glad to be back outside, which at this point had become as familiar to me as the indoors once were.
I met Aidan back at the campsite and we opened our beers, struggling to keep down the first few pulls. A train crawled by and we passively admired the boxcar graffiti. The final car approached then passed. The bug-eyed bird with the loose feathers was on the other side of the tracks. I wondered if he was born like this or if something had happened to him. In my clearer moments, I wondered the same about myself. He hopped up onto the rail, fidgeted, cooed, and flew away.