September 2011

The Tracks

After dinner the boy slipped out the back door with his tightly packed gym bag.  As he walked away from the house, he turned his smooth face upward.  The evening light pouring down seemed tinny and false, too bright somehow; like it was coming from some big machine in heaven that had fallen out of adjustment and was running unsupervised casting down this unhealthy looking light.    The tracks were a quarter mile off across the fields.   Reaching the tracks, he walked faster, the rubble of the roadbed crunching under his boots.  As he moved forward, great chunks of twilight fell down all around, making him walk faster.  One mile further up, he cut off the tracks onto the road to the church in Vestal.  The churches up here were not locked after dark like the big churches in the cities downstate, so he could spend the night there.  The church loomed up in the solidifying darkness.  He sat in a back pew.  He sat clutching the bag beside him, and the smell of old wood and candle wax in the dark church sent him to sleep.

She sat on the edge of her bed, pointing into her brother’s chest.

What’s the matter with you, she said—why are you going to leave?  We all love you—

They don’t, he answered.

He sat in the baby seat in a corner of the kitchen.  Across the room, they worked drying the dishes.  They were talking fast.   He talked too—and they smiled and nodded to him, as though they loved him.  So maybe once they’d loved him, but not any more.

I’ve just got to get away, he told his sister.   He ran a hand back through his tousled hair.

I love you, she said—and I love them.  I should tell them—

No, he said.  Don’t you dare tell them.  I’ve got to do this.  If you really love me, he said sharply, pointing back—if you really love me, you’ll say nothing.

She nodded.  She opened her mouth as if to speak again but she faded back away into the shafts of morning light pouring in the stained glass windows.  Gripping up his bag,  he left the church.   The shadows of the trees lining the edge of the churchyard passed over him and led him to the road back to the tracks.   They would be looking for him now.   Walking on the roads was too dangerous—they’d come upon him—or the police would, if they called the police.   So he stayed on the tracks.   Refreshed by the night’s sleep he had just gotten, he walked briskly with the embankment sliding by on one side and the trees and brush on the other.   As the rising sun peeked over  the tops of the trees,  he sat on the embankment by the roadbed and he ate one of the six ham sandwiches he had packed.   As he chewed, he peered up the tracks.  Something white stretched across the ties about a hundred feet up.   As he finished his sandwich, he eyed  the white object.  Zipping shut his bag, he started up the tracks.   The white object came up and brought him to a halt.  Stooping, he eyed it more closely; the sun-bleached skeleton of a small animal lay stretched across, fully intact from head to tail.   He pushed the skull with his finger, and it rolled away from the neckbones.   It stopped at an angle that told him it was a cat.  Feeling suddenly guilty at having disturbed the perfection of the skeleton, feeling guilty about now leaving the cat headless, he replaced the skull where it had been and he rose and walked quickly away from it.  It seemed important to get away from the cat skeleton as quickly as possible.  The probable violence of its death disturbed him.   Probably hit by a train, he thought.   The cat nosed along the tracks beside him as he walked.  He would not look at it.  As he walked along alone, it continued nosing its way forward until at last it faded away into the embankment passing by on the right.   After walking on for a long time between the tall stands of trees on either side, comforted by the shade the tracks were enveloped in, and the knowledge that he would not see the cat hit by a train, at last he moved toward something coming toward him up the tracks, off to the side, black and leaning; coming closer, he saw it was a tarpapered shack with an open padlock hung from the door hasp.  The lock was rusted and ancient.  The tarpaper hung in tatters and the nail heads were all rusted.  The door swung back lightly creaking.   A cot set in the shack, with grey-black sheets over it, and a grey striped pillow.   A cloud of dust came up from the cot when he lay his bag atop it.  The cot had not been disturbed for years;  the rotted sheet gave way tearing under the weight of the heavy gym bag.    On the other side of the shack’s interior hung a calendar.   DECEMBER 1914  shouted out above a faded waterstained picture of a jolly red suited Santa.   Scratching his head, he beheld the scene.   Whose shack was this—and so long ago—suddenly dog-tired from having walked for hours, he sat on the cot.  Then, oblivious to its filth, he lay full length out on the cot.  Who had lain here?   He lay there with his eyes set up against the slanted roof whose slender rafters stretched across and told him stay.

His eyes became the eyes of those who had lain here before.

You are tired, said the slant of the rafters.  As I was tired.

DECEMBER 1914—

1914—

As his eyes closed, his brother came down out of the  rafters and the shed tilted and he and his brother stood out behind the house yesterday, secretly smoking one of their father’s cigarettes.

Do you really have the guts to do it? asked the brother.

Yes I think so—you won’t tell them will you—

No, said the brother.   I hate them too.  Why would I tell them?  But where will you go?

Far away.   Anywhere.   Anywhere but here.

The rafters pinned him there asleep.  He had had enough.  They both had, but he was the innocent one who would not forsee all the problems running away would bring—where to live, to sleep, what to eat—he was too innocent to live too far ahead of the here and now.  He would do it.  He would pack up his gym bag, and he would go.

I wish I could go with you, said the brother.  But deep down he was not as innocent and he saw all the problems running away would bring, and they held him back.  The brother would stay.   The brother stayed there up above the rafters of the old shack, and when he crushed out the cigarette to go in for dinner his brother in the shack woke up and sat erect, remembering nothing, and wondering suddenly what time it was.  He wished he had stolen his father’s watch.  It was the only thing he had forgotten when he had packed.   He rose and got his bag and stumbled out the door.   What day was this?   Was today still today?   He dropped his bag and stepped away and urinated against the packed dirt embankment.   He got a bottled water from the bag and began walking up the tracks once more with his bag hung from his shoulder and the water in his hand.  He worried about the time until it suddenly hit him that it really didn’t matter what time it was, or what day it was, because he was free.  All the rest of time stretched in front of him.  The railroad ties rolled up to him and disappeared under him and passed away behind.  Walking without a thought in his head, refreshed by the mild breeze gently flowing over him, he went on free until something again appeared in the distance.   Walking faster, he came to a grade crossing;  a dirt road crossed the tracks here.  After crossing the road, he looked down at the thing he had seen from afar.  A shrine set by the side of the tracks with a tall white cross and a sign that said REST IN PEACE,  and two teddy bears sat against the base of the cross,  their fake fur matted and faded.   The fur told him this shrine had been here a long time.   He knew what such makeshift shrines meant;   someone had died here—at this insersection—and he wondered if it had been someone on foot hit by a train, or someone on foot hit by a car, or someone in a car hit by a train, or someone in a car hit by another car—he stood before the shrine a while and wondered all these things, and then he thought the worst thing of all was that he could not know the name of the person who died here.   Did the teddy bear mean it was a child?   Did—

Suddenly a car approached, and he darted down the tracks to avoid being seen—he knew they were looking for him.  Home was not yet far enough behind him for him to be totally safe.  As he walked the tracks, he felt the presence of the dead person walking beside him—and this went on as it had with the cat until the presence faded into the embankment, and he was again alone.  But the air lay about him tainted by the feelings of the person who had knelt by the side of the road putting up the shrine—they must have been in mourning at having lost someone close to them—tears must have fallen—real tears—and all of a sudden he felt as though he were in mourning at having lost people close to him—ones that now he had deliberately lost, left behind, run away from, but that something in him would miss nonetheless.  Tears flowed a moment, but he wiped them away with his sleeve.  The thoughts emptied from him with the flow of the ties rolling by below and the rails running by on either side, and how much time was passing—how many minutes, how many hours—until far ahead he saw another building of some kind to the left of the tracks, and he picked up the pace to see what it was.   It came up.   Faded black lettering spread across the peeling grey side of the building.

BLOCK AND WESTERN RAILROAD

FREIGHT STATION

The building’s door was wide open and he went up three creaking wooden steps and went inside.   File cabinets set in disarray in the shadows, and papers lay strewn across the floor, and a swivel chair stood by a desk with a broad window before it,  and he went and put down his bag and sat in the chair to rest.   He put his feet up on the desk and leaned back and looked out the window at the leaves of the trees across the tracks.   The window expanded and came around him and over him and brought him to the kitchen table gripping a half full glass of soda as his mother quickly dried dishes from the yellow wire drainboard and bustled about putting them away in various cabinets and on various shelves and all the while she was talking.

I’m sorry for how it’s been for you—I admit, I looked the other way—

He nodded.

I knew what was going on all these years with him and you but I just couldn’t face it, I blocked it out somehow, I’m sorry son I did my best but I have failed you—so I don’t blame you if you want to leave—

In the yard of a friend down the street, they played a game of baseball in the fading light as from the open screened in windows of his house up the street there came screaming, and shouting—a man and a woman alternating yelling, he could not make out the words from this far away but each volley of words cut him like a knife, and this went  on for a long long time, and he grew tough, and at last he no longer heard it—he no longer knew what was happening—

Someday I will leave, he told mother.

I know you will son.

I know you will.

The window shrank once more into its space before the desk and the leaves in the trees beyond moved in the mild spring breeze and he reached down to his gym bag and got out a sandwich.  He ate the sandwich and threw the wrapper on the floor with all the other paper scattered there—and he felt in the bag the envelope of money he had saved up from mowing lawns last summer and shoveling snow all winter, and from taking money from his father’s dresser that his father had left lying there, and that he never seemed to miss—one hundred and fifty dollars he had in the envelope, and he wanted to know this again so he pulled out the envelope and counted the money and sure, there was one hundred and fifty three dollars in there.  Holding the money in his hand, he grew curious as to where the money would be spent, where would he end up finally, when would he see another person again, when would it be safe to speak to someone again.   How far would the tracks lead him?  And the darkness of the inside of the freight station wrapped around him and lifted him from the chair and he put the money away and got the bag and went out through the door and down the steps and he started walking up the tracks again.   Off in the distance the rails stretched ruler-straight, and he was curious.  Where did they go?  Where did they end?  What would become of him?   At last a siding came up on the right, and an ancient boxcar stood rotting there, and he jumped in the open door and lay on the wooden floor and fell into a dreamless sleep, being more tired than he had realized from the constant relentless walking.  When he woke hours later he saw a black sky and stars through a hole in the boxcar roof and he sat up and again, he wondered what time it was, and he jumped down off the boxcar and started up the tracks again in the darkness.   The tracks led to a far away wall of darkness and stars and the starry sky above him led to the wall and from that wall there came a voice.

I only did it to you son, because—

The words fell to a mumble and then to silence.  Then the voice tried again.

I only did it to you son, because I—

He walked faster.  It was his father’s voice.  He remembered his father’s voice telling him a story a long long time ago and as he walked this played in his head.

—I was down by Kuhlthau’s coalyard and a box car had rolled down the hump and the brakes failed, and the brakeman jumped clear as the car rounded the bend too fast and it went over, and it caught the brakeman—that was what the policeman told me happened as I stood there  by the toppled boxcar that lay atop the man whose face stuck out from under the car and whose face had turned all black, his tongue thrust out and his eyes bulging, and son, when I look at you I remember that man’s face and it makes me think I hate you I hate you I hate—

The words cut off as he bit his lip bloody to stop the voice and at last he saw the outline of a church up against the starry sky, not too far off from where he stood on the tracks.   Leaving the tracks, he went toward the church and entered and he went into the confessional box and changed into fresh clothes from his bag, as he felt dirty and sweaty and greasy from the endless walk, and he came out of the confessional box and sat in the back pew and clutched his bag beside him and sat thinking  Everything’s in front of me, everything behind is forgotten, everything behind has never happened—everything worth living for is ahead of me.  Wide awake since he had slept in the boxcar before, he fixed his eye on the red candle at the front of the church that said God is here, this is God’s house, you are safe here, you can stay here, as the lifeless tracks waited not too far away silently in the dark to take him away again.