Freight

Just about the time that you really want to talk, you can’t say a word. The train talks for you; machinery rumbling beneath you, wheels turning faster than sound, faster than vision. You look down and it’s a blur: green, brown, green.

That night we curled up in the grain car, trying to compact our body heat, trying to bring it in closer. Lee and Christy crawled inside their sleeping bags. I don’t know how they did it, there was hardly any room to move. You could barely take two steps. I didn’t want to untie my bag, I’d barely gotten it to fasten just right to the backpack, and I didn’t want to do it all over again. So I shivered and pulled my coat tighter, pulled my hat over my ears tighter, shrank into a little ball, smaller. Time went by, marked only by the noise, the dark, the clunk, the clang, the sweeping sound of the wheels on the track.

I watched Lee rub sticks and rocks together.

“This is the only thing I learned in Boy Scouts,” he said, winking.

We spent the previous night in the field by the tracks. Dylan and Christy exchanged stories about people they used to know in high school. I watched Lee rub sticks and rocks together.

“This is the only thing I learned in Boy Scouts,” he said, winking. I watched him, crouching, rubbing, his fingernails caked with dirt. Dylan tossed Lee a lighter.

“Just use this.”

Lee sighed, then laughed. He built a fire. He rolled a cigarette. We looked up, and it was dark. Sudden, like a light switch. Fall had arrived. There was no denying the shortage of light, the chill.

I curled up close to Lee that night. We spread one sleeping bag on the dirt ground, and the other on top of us as a blanket. We slept in our clothes, with our coats on. Lee left the tiny fire burning in the middle of the four of us, one little flame. I worried we should put it out. He said it would be fine. He’d done this whole thing before. I aligned my body with his and tried to shelter the little heat between us. He breathed in deeply, slowly as I inched closer. I breathed out as he turned over, his face close to mine in the dark. The white air curled up between our noses.

“Are you still cold?” he asked.

“No,” I lied. He had arranged and rearranged the sleeping bag, trying to find the warmest, least lumpy configuration. He had offered his jacket to me. I had refused it.

“I can give you my jacket,” he offered again.

“No,” I said. “Really. I’m okay.”

When morning came, Lee explained the way things would work.

“You have to be ready to go,” he told us, “when it comes. You have to be ready to just run like hell or we’ll miss it.”

We sat on the dying wild grass, our backpacks and sleeping bags strapped tight to our frames. Lee ran ahead in the field, looking far into the distance. He perched up on his tiptoes, as if that would help him spot the train sooner.

Christy turned her head toward me, smiling, looking sleepy. Her dark brown hair had recently been bleached blonde. It was frizzy in the back, and bits of grass and dirt clung to the short waves. She scratched her brown roots, plucking out the plants and making the frizz worse. We watched Lee. He turned to us and shrugged, put one hand on his hip and leaned his weight onto his right leg. Dylan took off his black square frames and rubbed the lenses on his flannel shirt. He squinted in the light.

Lee walked back.

“I guess we should just hang out for a while,” he said. Lee, Dylan and Christy rolled cigarette after cigarette, and lit them, the tobacco sizzling and disappearing steadily in the sun.

Restlessly, I rose, and dropped my bag on the ground. Dust and grass flew up, cloudy. I noticed a cornfield to the left and walked toward it. I looked back at my companions, and there was Lee, a few steps behind me.

“Mind if I walk with you?” I didn’t mind. I had expected him to follow. We arrived in the field. The corn was overripe, the stalks turning brown in the post-harvest sun. The ears were hard, the yellow was deepening. I plucked one off a six-foot stalk and held it in my hand, like a sword.

“En guard!”  I growled, playfully, pointing the ear toward him.

“Ah-ha!” He grabbed another ear from a stalk nearby, challenging mine. I chased him with the corn, our ears hit each other, thwack, thwack, a smell of dirt and fertilizer and sun and insects rose up in the field around us. Thwack. My ear broke in half. Then his did. We laughed, nervously, and I pulled another ear off a stalk. We walked back to Dylan and Christy.

“Someone forgot about their corn, I guess,” I said, softly.

His beard was like a continent with several small islands trailing to his ears. The left ear was smaller than the right. Because of being born premature, he told me.

“Yeah,” Lee muttered, as he picked a long piece of stalk from his patchy beard. His beard was like a continent with several small islands trailing to his ears. The left ear was smaller than the right. Because of being born premature, he told me. The left looked as if the top and the lobe had been squeezed together, and had somehow stuck.

Lee’s smile was uneven, a kind of half-smile. One side of his face was immobile. The lip didn’t curl up at all. I never asked him why. He smiled up at me with his divided face, one half grinning and lively, the other half with folded ear and stopped-short smile.

Christy looked up from her cigarette. “Where’d you guys go?”

“Over there,” I said, vaguely.  I unzipped my pack and placed the dried ear of corn inside. Christy watched, and asked, “Are we sure a train will even stop here?”

“I’m sure it will stop,” Lee said, looking off again. “I just don’t know when.”

Dylan turned to Lee and said something under his breath. They talked and I rolled my black pants up over my sweating ankles. I looked up, and Dylan was leaving.

“Hey, where’s he goin’?” Christy asked.

“He said he just realized he had a lot of work to do at home,” Lee said. “Rent is due on Monday.”

“Maybe he didn’t want to wait anymore,” Christy said. “Bye, Dylan!” She shrieked into the blue sky, and Dylan turned and waved.

“So Dylan just decided he couldn’t come on the trip with us? After all that?” I asked. It seemed like a waste, after sleeping through the freezing night by the tiny fire, after waiting in the sun.

“He’s never done it before.” Lee raised his eyebrows, sighed. “I don’t know, maybe he’s freaked out.”

We’ve never done it before,” Christy reminded him.

Soon after Dylan left, there was a distant whistle and Lee took off running. Christy and I rose to our feet, flustered, not sure at first what was happening. And then we saw it, the great clunking beast approaching. We ran alongside the train, trying to grasp hold of anything to boost ourselves up. Lee was first. He hoisted his five-foot-three-inch body up and swung his legs behind the railing. Christy and I reached, running, grabbing, and then we were standing, watching the landscape swooshing by in green and brown and blue.

Later I learned we were on a grain car, and we happened to have found one that was especially “roomy.” It was about six feet long and four feet wide. If this was roomy, I couldn’t help but wonder what that non-roomy variety was like.

“A Cadillac! We got ourselves a goddamn Cadillac! Woo-hoo!” Lee shrieked and grabbed the railing, shaking it with joy. Later I learned we were on a grain car, and we happened to have found one that was especially “roomy.” It was about six feet long and four feet wide. If this was roomy, I couldn’t help but wonder what that non-roomy variety was like.

For a while, it seemed to me like flying. Water towers proclaiming the names of tiny Iowa towns spun by in the fields, fences chopped the land up into squares, cows grazed and looked vacantly at the train as we flew by. In the daylight, the sky was big and blue and like a giant dome sheltering us and making us feel invincible, super human. The sound was so loud it became a kind of silence.

Then as the sun started to sink, our Cadillac grain car slowed down. When it stopped, the actual silence felt strange and large and my ears buzzed. Lee whispered frankly that we should lie flat, in case the yard police were around. I realized, crouching there in the grain car, that I had to pee. I told Lee and he just said, “Hurry.”

I crawled down the side of the car with the help of Christy’s and Lee’s small hands. I peed under the car, nervous and wide-eyed, then scrambled back up inside, finally letting the breath out again when I thought I couldn’t be seen anymore.

The sky darkened, and the car stopped again and again, and every time it did, I felt fear creeping up on me. I imagined being caught on this train, somewhere between Iowa and Illinois. I imagined the rail police informing my parents, our college, that we had illegally hopped a freight train. There was a gradual slowing and then a sudden sensation of metal breaking on metal, a grinding halt.

The hours passed, but no one knew what time it was. And then it got cold, very, very cold. As I curled into my tiny fetal ball, I thought about how crazy this whole thing was. How a year or two ago, I would have thought this was completely insane. And really, it was.

Earlier, Lee had shown us the official hobo card that stated he’d attended the hobo king crowning over the summer. He also carried a secret manual that was circulated among all the kids who like to travel for free – a manual that said which trains stopped where and when. Rumor had it a manual like that had been around since the Depression. Lee was always writing poems about riding freights. He talked about waking up with the sunrise on his twenty-first birthday in a boxcar. His poems always used the word “barreling.” Barreling down the tracks at 2 am, flask of whiskey in my hand…

Lee had shown us the official hobo card that stated he’d attended the hobo king crowning over the summer.

He was smart and a little sad, with a collection of books in his dorm room that included The Outlaw Book of American Poetry. He liked Utah Phillips and Woody Guthrie. He could cook one thing: salty hash browns made from potatoes that had been diced into tiny cubes. He sometimes liked to wear a skirt on hot, humid Iowa days. He climbed trees. He developed a reputation for this on campus. I caught him looking at me while I worked on homework, and he caught me looking at him when he was reading. He had a smell that reminded me of my friends back home – the musk of unwashed clothes, the lingering staleness of cigarette smoke. Coffee or whiskey or both were always on his breath. He spoke of loneliness. His body language said he never expected to find anyone to love him. I wanted to prove him wrong, wanted to be the heroine in the story that saves the lonely boy and makes him her own, loyal, forever.

I didn’t know that Christy had begged Lee to take us on one of his train trips until she came by my room and announced the plan for fall break: we were hopping a freight train to Chicago. I probably never would have suggested the trip myself, although I was as curious as she was. Christy was more free-spirited than me, less worried about offending people. She played sad songs on her guitar and wore polyester thrift store pants. She illustrated her journal all through the daily assemblies required by the music department and made raunchy jokes about the boys in the music fraternity.

Four nights earlier, Lee and I had sat on the beaten-up couch in the house we shared with twenty other students. His head was in my lap, the TV was on, the movie was over and the screen had gone blue. The early morning light in the house was blue-ish and dark, and it made everything seem isolated and loud. Every breath, every word seemed magnified in that eerie blue spotlight.

He had closed his eyes, shifted his small body on the couch. I had my hand in his thinning, curling hair. His mouth was tiny, two fish lips. My mouth met his mouth, fumbling and graceless, with the downward motion of my head to his head. My spine curled to meet him on my lap. His shocked mouth woke up his eyes. He sat up to meet my face.

On the train, I fell asleep and dreamed that it was just Lee and me there. But in my dream, the train was small, like a toy, and we rode on top of the car, completely exposed. There was nothing covering us, nothing protecting us from anyone who happened to look up.

When we all woke up from our frigid nap on the cold, steel floor of the grain car, there were no more fields, no more open spaces. Instead there was steel and gravel and light all around us. We pried ourselves from the floor and hopped out the side of the car. We yielded to Lee’s hushing. We heard the gravel crumble beneath our boots and stick in the crevices of the treads. We walked towards the brightest lights we could find, asking each other where we were, how far we were from the center of the city.

“I’m tired,” Christy sighed.

“Yeah,” I agreed.

“We could just sleep in a bush,” Lee added. But none of us wanted to sleep in a bush. We saw the bright heavenly glow of a Days Inn, and sauntered into the lobby at 1:25 am.

The next morning we ate at a diner and walked by a man holding a sign on the street corner that said, “Nuke them and there will be no war!” It was the first of October, 2001, and in every gas station, restaurant and gift shop there were bumper stickers featuring angry looking eagles and American flags.

We rode an El train to the loop. I looked down to the ground, felt tiny in this strange multi-layered metropolis: levels of trains, buildings with windows, pigeons and the ground below, the homeless men with yellow teeth, the heels of the women clicking, the rattling of change, the rattling of words, gum-splattered pavement. It seemed the city just went up and up and up. It was a jungle, and the El stations made strange canopies.

We passed doughnut shop after doughnut shop until it became a strange visual litany. Dunkin Donuts everywhere. The insane repetition. The rumble of the El overhead. My own smallness kept coming back to me.

Four days later we were on our way back to Iowa, first by Metra train, then in the car of Christy’s friend. He’d come to Chicago for fall break, too, but his method of getting there hadn’t been quite as adventurous as ours. I looked over my reading assignment for the next day’s class. It seemed so silly, so out of place. On the Metra, Christy leaned over and wrote in my notebook, Are you guys together now? And I wrote, I don’t know. But I did know. I had made him mine. The morning after the kiss in the blue TV light, Lee had said he woke up crying because he was so happy. Now he looked at me with devotion and moony-eyed disbelief.

Two months later, Lee and I went to a party. Dylan was there. He was laughing, drinking, rolling cigarettes, saying that Beck’s Midnight Vultures was the party album of the year. Six months after that, I was asleep on the top bunk in my dorm room, and Lee slipped in, letting the hallway light stream onto my face. He was crying, drunk, and when he breathed on me, I cringed at the mingle of tobacco, armpit sweat and cheap college beer.

“What? What is it?” I mumbled, half asleep.

“Dylan’s dead.”

I jolted awake. “What happened?”

“He told me he was just going to do it one more time.”

Lee leaned his head against the frame of the bunk and I touched the tiny curls that grew around his ears. He was so small and vulnerable, unraveling before me in a puddle of tears and alcohol. I ached to comfort him, and ached to send him away.

Lee and I went to Dylan’s funeral together. The chapel in the cemetery was filled with kids our age, none of whom I recognized. Christy wasn’t there.

She’d dropped out of school in March and we didn’t really know where she had been. Throughout the winter she had written songs on her guitar and sobbed in her room by herself. She had dyed her hair multiple colors in the same week. She found boyfriends and then lost them and then found them again. She decided she needed to get out more and then a few days later decided she needed to stay in. She decided what she really needed was to smoke more pot, and I wouldn’t see her for a week. She’d suddenly resurface, saying she needed to stop smoking pot forever. She’d show up drunk to class after giving some artist guy a hand job, then swear off drinking altogether.

Lee and I walked to the front of the chapel and peered into the casket. I’d never been to an open casket funeral before. Dylan wore the same black, square glasses, but his face was Ken-doll orange, his cheeks and lips a cloying pink. I thought back to Christy and Dylan smoking their cigarettes, laughing quietly to themselves. I wondered if she knew he was gone.

The morning was quiet and blue, with swans on the chapel pond. Dylan’s girlfriend kissed the casket before it was lowered into the still-thawing April ground.

“Fucking heroin,” Lee said, under his breath, as we walked back to my car.

Lee graduated from college and went back to his trains for the summer. He sent me postcards and letters with xoxoxo all over them. He called me and left half-drunk messages on the machine. I saw him once over the summer. He had gone home to New Mexico to borrow his parents’ car. Then he drove up to Denver to see me. I baked him a pie for his birthday, and he hugged me with his small arms, wearing a cowboy shirt with pearlescent snaps. We sat on the couch one afternoon, absently watching TV. I felt something curdling inside me as he told stories about the hobos he was meeting that summer. He used words like folks, Howdy, good ‘ol boy.”

Two days later he said goodbye. As I watched him drive away, I wanted to release everything he represented in my life: loneliness, uncertainty, insecurity and clinging to the past. I thought of the dying cornfield we’d found nearly a year before and how pieces of stalk had clung to his beard. I thought of the poetry he wrote about front porches and freight trains and lost love. I remembered camping overnight and running like hell. I remembered tracks thundering beneath a gray grain car, with three sleeping kids inside, and the fourth, wandering somewhere towards a blue morning and an open casket.

Tara Walker received her BA in English from Coe College, and her MFA in writing from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She currently teaches writing for both CU Denver and the Community College of Aurora. Her work has most recently appeared in The Columbia Poetry Review, After Hours, Requited, and elimae.