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Harold pressed wrinkled soles against cool concrete and rocked in rhythm with the monster’s growls, glimpsing unnatural colours between dark trunks. Flashes of vibrant letters spray-painted on stacked carts. Insistent wheels turning.
It was easy to get caught up in the wheels, the way they spun. Hypnotizing. Like the machines Harold had helped run at Thomas & Reuter Manufacturing. More than one man had been crushed by those machines on his watch, drawn into the constant rotation and the steady, droning roar, and it had been his job to pick rended bones and torn flesh from expensive mechanisms and afterward to use strong-smelling cleaner – so strong it left red dots on his skin upon contact – to vanquish the stains on the floor.
People stink when they die, that’s what Harold learned in his years at the factory. And a few other things too, like how to stay away from the wheels and the levers and the tight spaces that wanted nothing more than to chomp down, or slam shut, or grind up, and how to wrap himself in the overwhelming noise of the factory floor, how to shrug on the drone of the machines like a wool coat. The din protected him, insulating him from his co-workers, his boss, and his life outside Thomas & Reuter.
Retirement wasn’t like that. Retirement (forced due to deteriorating eyesight) was quiet, and it allowed plenty of time for thought.
Harold had never been a train man, but people change, even gray-haired men with rheumy eyes, and after he left the factory, he watched it from his porch nightly, and he watched it from the bridge over the train tracks every morning, even though it took him half an hour to walk to the faded neighborhood with the view of the train sliding down from the hills, curving gracefully through the turns, carrying the hearts of mountains in rusted, rattling metal boxes. When the length of it thundered under him, sending showers of rust onto the tracks below, his knees trembled.
He found meaning in machinery. There was life in the busy sound it made. More life than he had ever felt in the cattle birthing in his father’s pasture, or in the seeds of wheat he had helped to sow in the bright red dirt as a child. The days he had skipped school to plant in the chill spring wind, a wind that carried death on its back like pollen, had galled him. In the vastness of tilled land where you could hear and see everything, there was no hiding, and on planting days he felt like a rabbit cornered in soft soil, waiting to die. In actuality, he was waiting for his father’s next command, the next shouted order. Later, as a factory man, he would look back on those days with terror. The factory had been a good place to hide. A good place to hibernate.
Harold’s daily jaunt for his unusual dose of peace took him past a dirty junkyard where mangy cats played in cars with broken windows and howled in violent scraps over territory (he waved at the man with no teeth who sat at the gate), through the parking lot of an abandoned convenience store, and down a rough sidewalk onto the small bridge, the one with that view. No one bothered him. No one spoke to him. No one asked why he stood with his hands on his hips, breathing hard. Waiting.
The only significant barrier between him and his pilgrimage had been constructed by his daughter, Sharla. It consisted of hateful words supported on a strong base of fears and was firmly bolstered up with guilt. She called once a month from Maryland to reassure herself of its soundness.
What if you fall? What if you break a hip or get hit by a car? Her voice crackled through, louder than necessary. Harold told her to calm down (lower your voice, he said). You’ve taken my car. Now you want to take my legs?
Single, middle-aged mothers, she told him, have to speak louder to get any attention. Get over it. What if you forget who you are and wander off?
(I’m not one of those cases on the news).
Your legs will give way. You’ll fall into a ditch. You’ll expire, cold and lonely. That’s the word she used: expire. Like there was a date stamped between his shoulder blades, or on top of his head, that he couldn’t see.
(I’m a grown man. I’m not that fragile. Not yet. I’m not ready to come off the shelf.)
What will John do without a grandfather?
She thought it was her ace in the hole. But it didn’t work against Harold because the thought of John – young, athletic John – pushed him closer to the tracks, made his sojourn longer. The morning after that conversation, he didn’t stand, waiting, looking over the railing. Instead, he went down the steep, overgrown embankment beside the bridge. Down the trail, littered with cigarette butts and fast-food bags, to the gravel bottom where teenagers left needles and beer bottles and scrawled words, and a man with holes in his pants slept in a huddled mass amid a pile of blankets, his presence so ingrained in the seedy environment he blended in with the architecture.
There, Harold fished a penny from his pocket and bent, his back popping, to place it on the rails. It shone clean and new against the aged metal and after a minute’s consideration, he added a second penny. And he waited, reading the rude words written in the shadows, listening to cars rumbling past overhead.
Sweat ran down his cheeks and dropped off his chin, staining his plaid, button-up shirt. He crouched with his back to a tree. Its trunk, born of rock and hard soil, was too thin to allow leaning, but its sparse branches offered a bit of shade.
Harold reached up and cracked off a limb, using the insect-eaten leaves to fan his face. The man huddled under the bridge didn’t stir. As he fanned, Harold wondered if the man was dead, and what it would be like to die down here, without even Sharla to harass him. While he stared, waiting for a twitch or a snore from the blankets, his chin fell toward his chest and his eyes closed.
When he woke it was to a fading noise, a dragon’s roar, and he started up on spindly limbs, thinking he had missed it. The lump of man had moved off (not dead, then), but his pennies, round and bright, still waited, and before long, he heard the chugging.
It came slowly at first, proceeding from the horizon line, and seemed to increase in speed as it approached. The engineer blasted a warning and Harold whooped in response. The glowing metal zipped by at an arms-length, and wallowing in the all-encompassing sound of its movement, he moved a step forward. The smell; the intoxicating, time-bending smell, caught him right around the middle, tugging at him. Car after car soared by, blurred and screaming, and the air followed, shaking his bones, taking his breath on to the next town.
When the tail end grew small and the spell broke, he picked his way between the wooden ties, gathering his pennies, and went home on unsteady legs. John’s birthday was a month away. He would be eight years old. Harold was eighty. He ran pruned fingers over one of the flattened pennies and dropped into an envelope. No boy could resist trains.
The last time he had flattened pennies, he had been about John’s age and another boy – Mark was his name – had been with him. Young and mad with delight, they had sneaked out and stumbled through the cow field to the railroad crossing, an illicit substance in a glass jar passing between them. Sipping, coughing, their path lit by the flashes of lightning bugs, they had placed two pennies on the tracks and fallen asleep in the grass, waiting, the empty jar nestled between them. They had sold the pennies at school for a dollar a piece the next day and their parents had been none the wiser, oblivious to their small business and their nocturnal adventures.
How little his parents had known, he thought, curious as to what he didn’t know about his own daughter.
Playing her childhood back to himself scene-by-scene, finding cracks in her stories, he slipped into slumber, this time on his back porch, nodding to the creak of his chair. And with the second penny, the afterthought, clutched in his palm, he dreamed a strange dream full of whistles and shouts and excitement and the train’s rhythmic passing, and of the twisting journey of a serpent on a hot day, slithering down a path with no horizon. A boy wearing work-roughened overalls walked the path on calloused feet, trailing in the serpent’s wake, not realizing another serpent was coming up quickly behind him.
The boy used a chewed-down fingernail to pick a bone from between his teeth and brushed red streaks onto blue denim, grinning. Then he disappeared and the trailing serpent disappeared and another appeared to replace it. Then another boy. And another serpent. And another boy. Slapping fleshy feet and scraping scales.
I wonder when they’ll stop, Harold thought, but they didn’t, and he woke some time later to a pink and purple twilight and the sound of crickets in the grass. A beetle buzzed against his automatic porch light, knocking against the glass.
An obese mutt, fed by the neighbors, growled in the bushes.
And Harold rocked, waiting on the next train.