The crosses that marked the train crossing at the top of my street might have been white at one time. They might have been straight, too, and unscarred, but years of assault from the sun and bad air and weedeaters had turned them as tan and pitted as old teeth. Those crosses are tired, I said, mimicking the language I heard from adults dragging themselves home from work. Use a sick day, cross, you look like you’ve had it. For a long time, there were no bars or flashing lights up there; the crosses were the only warning signal.
I was up at the tracks a lot as a boy, sometimes with friends, sometimes alone, putting down pennies or light bulbs or some other boyish sacrifice on the rail. Some older teenagers like to fling a scarecrow on the tracks to hear the scream of brakes, the train squealing for a solid quarter mile before the conductor would come running back in a dead panic with a flashlight to look for a body—but, at thirteen years old, my stunts were more tame. I was more likely to wave to the conductor until he waved back, then flip him off and run. Or walk up to a passing train as close as I dared, then a half-step closer to the rattling cars to feel myself inside the whirlwind.
Despite the crosses, it did not occur to me to think of the tracks as dangerous. At least, not until I saw Ramon Gonzales.
It happened in April, the year after my mother left us. April is a hard month in Chicagoland, raw and blustery, but generally everyone’s happy that it’s not March anymore. That particular morning was fifty degrees with a hard wind off the lake. Along the curb ran a stream of black water from the last dying humps of snow. Down the hill from my house, someone was washing a car and playing More Than a Feeling over and over. It was the first nice day of the year.
My father and I were in the garage with the door open. I sat on a bucket with a can of WD-40 in my hand, laying down line after line of sweet lubricant on my bike’s chain, the gears, the brake pads, the spokes, what the hell, it don’t hurt to oversquirt, that was my motto. Actually, I wasn’t paying much attention to what I was doing, because our neighbor across the street, Mr. Ray, was walking around his lawn in giant bowlegged steps, like he was Godzilla wading through Tokyo.
In those days I was afflicted with a raging imagination and rabid curiosity. I could barely function in the world under normal circumstances, but a sight like this was enough to make me go nearly catatonic with speculation. Why was Mr. Ray walking around like that? Maybe, I thought, he’d just had surgery on his balls. Maybe they were terrifically swollen, and walking around was part of his rehab. Get the blood moving around, I imagined his doctor telling him, sternly. Otherwise, your balls will fall off.
I was so engrossed that I missed my bike entirely and squirted WD-40 onto my father’s shoulder. “Hey,” he said. “I ain’t the tin man.”
“Sorry.” Mr. Ray lifted his leg high and I saw, strapped to his feet, long needle spikes. For a second I was thrilled by this development, but then the disappointing truth hit me: Mr. Ray was just aerating his lawn.
My disappointment didn’t last long. My father looked up from his steaming bucket of water, where he was scrubbing his golf clubs with a toothbrush, and nudged me with his elbow before calling out to Mr. Ray. “Hey,” he said. “Missed a spot.”
Mr. Ray squinted at our garage. He said, “Really?”
My father nodded. He was a quiet man with soft, serious eyes. Normally, he was the kind of guy who enjoyed long, neighborly discussions about rakes, fertilizer ratios, posthole digging techniques, and innovations in snowblowing. If you were gone for a week, he’d mow your lawn without being asked. If a utility van pulled up to your house when you weren’t home, he’d come over and strike up a conversation with the workers to make sure they weren’t actually burglars. In short, he took neighborliness seriously. Or, to put it another way, he seemed like the last guy on earth who would screw with you while you were trying to aerate your lawn. Which probably explains why Mr. Ray looked over his lawn covered with thousands of invisible pinpricks, then turned back to us and said, “Where?”
I bent over to disguise my laugh as a cough.
My father waved his hand vaguely. “Over. Yeah. More. More.”
Maybe he felt like showing off. Maybe he was bored. Though neither of us would have admitted it, we were hanging around the garage to kill time, just in case my mother resumed her habit of calling on Saturday mornings. It had been a few months since the last call, but you never knew. Maybe she’d want to talk to my father this time. Maybe I’d say just the right thing, you never knew.
“Okay!” Mr. Ray called out with forced cheerfulness after a lot of tramping around. “I think I got it now!”
My father craned his neck. Mr. Ray’s wet yard was starting to look like hamburger. “Almost,” he shouted back. “To the right a little, there you go, over a little—oh, wait.” Mr. Ray raised his hands, like What?. My father said, “Now you’re getting colder.”
Somehow I managed to keep my laughter silent, but I had to drop my head and clutch my stomach. “Stop,” I whispered. “I can’t—oh, geez—I can’t—” I didn’t finish my sentence. I had to close my mouth so I wouldn’t drool.
In my convulsions, I almost missed seeing a green Cadillac park across the street. My laughter died out as a woman in a skirt stepped out of the car with a covered dish in her hands. The wind blew the wide, green ruffles on her blouse every which way; it looked like a bunch of finches thrashing her breasts to death. Was it Miss Kopetsky, one of the church ladies who regularly brought us pity casseroles? From this distance, I couldn’t be sure. There were a lot of those ladies, and they mostly looked alike.
“I’m outta here,” I announced, then hopped on my bike, greasing my pant leg in the process. I’m not sure my father heard me. He was too busy telling Mr. Ray that he had gotten pretty close, but still hadn’t hit the spot, and maybe it was time for a new approach, a whole new outlook, how about putting those spikes on your hands?
I was about a mile down the road when I started thinking that maybe it wasn’t such a nice day after all. The guy washing his car probably had a similar revelation the first time the wind blew spray back in his face, and Mr. Ray, at some point, had to have wondered about pneumonia. But is it any wonder that we’d all jumped the gun a bit? That’s what happens after being cooped up all winter.
By the time I reached downtown, I was half-frozen. I propped my bike against the outside wall of Al’s Tap and ducked inside. My hands were stiff as crowbars, my lips numb as I asked Haris the bartender for something hot, subbing hagh, man, it was colder than I’d thought.
The only light in the place came from a Stroh’s sign that gave off an amber glow suggestive of a firefly in the end stages of ass disease. After my eyes adjusted to the dimness, I noticed a man at the end of the bar. His dark brown sweater was nearly the same shade as the wooden paneling, and I might not have noticed him at all if he hadn’t been holding up a white slip of paper.
When he saw me staring, he put down the paper. That’s when I recognized him. “Oh, Mish. Hey.”
“Hey, Tim’s kid.”
Nearly every night since we’d been on our own, my father and I had taken our dinner at Al’s Tap, which was technically a bar and grill, though the entire menu consisted of four items: perch, frog legs, smelt, and stoshburgers, all served with soggy fries. After dinner, I would pretend to do my homework while my father and other men argued about the Bears and called each other dirty Pollacks and onion-eaters, whatever that meant. Mish was one of the regulars. He wore dark glasses all the time, even in the picture above his column in the Post-Tribune.
I jutted my chin toward the slip of paper. “What you got there?”
Haris the bartender glanced at Mish, then walked down the bar toward me. “It’s nothing. Just a picture. How about a virgin toddy, little man? That sound good?”
I leaned back to look at Mish. “What’s in the picture?”
“Don’t worry about it,” Haris said, forcing a smile. But Mish turned the picture over and rubbed his face.
Of all the regulars, Mish was the loudest. He was always telling stories he said they wouldn’t let him print at the Post. All the time he was saying if you guys knew what I knew, if you saw the things I saw, well . . . .
And now he had a picture of something that was making him rub his face.
I didn’t exactly decide to get down off the stool and walk across the bar, but that’s what I found myself doing.
Haris said, “Revie—”
Mish put a hand over the picture and took a long drink of his beer. He kept drinking as I came up beside him, and took his time letting the suds drain down into his mouth.
I said, “I know what’s in that picture.”
Mish put down his mug and looked at me over his glasses. It was the first time I had ever seen his eyes. They were small and light and gray. From behind the bar, Haris said, “Then you shouldn’t want to see it.”
I shrugged, trying to look casual. I said, “Come on, Mish, I won’t tell my dad you showed me.”
Mish laughed through his nose, sounding tired, but amused. Haris barked something in a foreign language, but Mish waved him off. Then he pushed the photo toward me, saying, “Okay, big shot. You want to see so bad, you got it.”
The wind scraped me raw on the ride home from Al’s Tap. My face felt like a soup bone. I rode up the big hill to my house in the granny gear but could hardly turn the pedals over and nearly fell over every time I tried to paw the snot from my face.
When I had flipped over the picture, the shock must have been plain on my face. Mish said, “What did you think you were going to see, Mr. Big Shot?”
I stared at the picture. I said, “Naked lady.”
“That’s enough,” said Haris, and Mish took the picture out of my hand. My head felt like it was floating a few inches above my shoulders. “Who is it?” I said.
Haris said, “Try to forget it, huh? Try to stick to your plan of not telling your father, that would be my recommendation.”
I said, “But who is it?”
Haris said, “Goddammit, Mish, see what you started?”
The picture showed a body, the body of a boy, face-up in a field of corn stubble. He was sprawled out like one of those chalk outlines you see on police shows. But the most alarming thing was that he was naked. Mish said that his clothes were blown apart by the impact. There was no ID; nobody had reported him missing. Police were guessing he was the son of a migrant worker.
Thank you, I said out of habit, and started to walk out on legs as stiff as stilts. Behind me, Haris and Mish were arguing. Mish was saying, “I don’t give a shit how short-handed they are, I don’t care who’s out on maternity, you don’t send a frigging columnist to a scene like that.” Haris said, “Not one more boast out of you, tough guy. Not in here. Not one. Ever.”
Halfway up the hill to my house, my pant leg got caught in the gears and I fell over. I wasn’t hurt, but I was wet all the way up my side and suddenly furious. I grabbed the handlebars and smashed them into the sidewalk again and again, screaming STUPID STUPID STUPID until I was almost crying.
Then I stood with my hands on my hips, moaning and trying to catch my breath. I looked around sheepishly to see if any neighbors had seen my little display, then started walking the bike home.
Coming over the hill, I saw our garage was still open. And across the street was the green Cadillac.
Stupid casserole lady, I thought, hanging up my bike in the garage. They all thought they were doing us these big favors, when really they were just looking for someone to victimize with their own sad, boring stories. When I opened the door, I smelled coffee and heard quiet talking. For some reason I didn’t call out. I just closed the door quietly behind me, took off my shoes and wet socks, rolled up my wet pant legs and came around the corner to find my father kissing Miss Kopetsky by the sink.
I shrank back before they saw me. My heart was beating like mad. For reasons I still can’t explain, I felt like I would be in huge trouble if they saw me, so I kept myself hidden, poking only my head back around the doorframe.
She murmured something and he chuckled. Mr. Ray’s imaginary doctor popped back into my head. Get the blood moving, he said again. I shuddered, and went to crawl backwards before the doctor could finish his statement, but I didn’t quite make it around the corner before seeing my father reach for Miss Kopetsky just as she took an awkward step toward him and his lips landed on her hair.
“Oops,” she said, and both of them laughed quietly as he pulled strands of the casserole lady’s hair from his mouth.
I went to the tracks and started walking, I don’t know why. The sky was the bad white of concrete. It was drizzling, on and off, and the air was ripe with mill smoke, the smell of oil and exhaust that put the taste of pennies in my mouth. I stopped to rest at Bingo Lake, on a concrete pad that jutted out over the dirty water. The pad used to be a make-out spot, but so many girls had gotten pregnant on this pad, the rumors went, that boys refused to bring their dates here anymore.
My heart had slowed down, finally, and I felt tired, tired. But my side was still wet, and sitting here was only making me colder, and I knew that I had to get moving again.
I looked toward home. Then I looked the other way, and something caught my attention. Something—a green piece of fabric, maybe—fluttered from a tree. A deflated weather balloon? A hanglider? It looked big enough. My God, it’s Lord of the Flies, a pilot might be hanging up in that tree.
I looked back toward home again. Then I stood, brushed the rubble off my pants, and headed toward the tree.
It was farther away than I’d thought. I must have walked at least another mile before a platform took shape, high up in the tree, both weathered to the same tired gray. The green fabric now looked like a tattered tarp. When I got closer, I spied a pellet gun leaning against the rail of the platform. The barrel was looped around with brown vines, but there was no mistaking what I was looking at, which was definitely a gun, and probably the scene of a crime. But what? A terrible accident, a kidnapping, a murder? Something had happened here. People don’t leave pellet guns behind.
Just then, as my imagination roared like a furnace, another thought came into my mind, so foreign to my usual way of thinking that it sounded like someone else’s voice: Or maybe, it said, the boy climbed down one day, a day like any other day, and didn’t think about the gun or the tree house again for years.
Just like that, the scene no longer seemed mysterious or sinister. All at once, I understood that Bingo Lake was not special or unique or endowed with powers of fertility, but was only slightly dirtier than other ponds, and that these were only some of the stories that I’d been telling myself.
I stood on the tracks, jarred and embarrassed, though no one else was around. Eventually, I said, “Well, I guess you’re probably right,” to break the silence, to get myself moving again.
The muddy spot in the cornfield was bigger than it had looked in the picture.
I decided it was probably TV people who’d made the big, muddy spot, dragging their equipment into the field so they could say This is So-and-So, reporting live from The Scene of the Accident. Not that you could call it an accident, really. It’s not like a train comes out of nowhere. It’s not like it can make a sudden, unexpected turn. What do you call something like that? Something you can see coming from a long way off, but still you’re surprised when it hits you?
As I stepped down from the tracks, sparrows shot out from the scrub, startling me. I held my hand over my heart for a moment, feeling it race, before walking out into the field. Since there were no signs where the boy had come to rest, I picked a spot about thirty feet from the tracks and squatted down, blisters glowing inside my wet socks.
There was no sound of traffic out here. The breeze smelled like nothing. I felt further than a few miles from where I’d started.
“Here lies Ramon Gonzales,” I said. He needed a name, so I’d given him one. Then I lay down on my back, assuming the pose I’d seen in the picture. I hesitated only a moment before laying my head down into the mud.
Ramon Gonzales must have been as surprised as I was at the warmth of the field, the hollow sound of the wind blowing across the broken corn plants. The field sounded like an orchestra of jug-blowers warming up softly.
I decided he’d lived for a half-hour, the length of a sit-com, after getting struck by the train. On an impulse of mercy, I decided the train had severed some crucial nerve so he didn’t feel any pain as he lay dying in this field.
“So this is it,” I said to the sky, pretending I was Ramon. “I never thought this would happen to me.”
That sounded flat. I cleared my throat, thought about attempting a Mexican accent. I didn’t mean to think about my father kissing that woman; it just came into my head.
Oops, she said.
I’d say, I thought fiercely. I’d say that’s a freaking oops. That’s a married man you’re necking with there.
All of a sudden—I don’t know how I didn’t hear it coming—a train whistle sounded, practically on top of me and loud as God on a harmonica. The sound of the train came right after, a nightmare of dust and hooves and flint. My whole body lifted out of the mud, I swear.
I looked up in time to see the engineer poking his head out of the black engine, looking puzzled. He pulled the whistle again, who knows why, and it had never sounded so fierce and hurt.
Just like that, I was Ramon Gonzales.
I was frail and naked. My bones were powder. I had a memory of flying through the air, then bouncing over choppy ground, and now I felt bewildered and insulted by fate.
I prayed as train cars rattled past. I wept over what I’d done with my life, what I’d wished to do. My father and his brother Pedro who lived with us appeared as ghostly images above my face and I tried to comfort them. I wished I had better clothes; I wished I had some clothes on, period, it would be a terrible embarrassment to be found like this.
Still the train was coming, it was endless with cars.
I cried out in words that sounded like Spanish; I don’t know where they came from. I felt the hunger of the worms underneath me. Overhead, troubled sparrows twittered in the air and I soothed them as if they were impatient angels.
Finally the train was done. The clacks turned into clicks and then ticks.
I took a last breath and cried out Adios, Adios!
As I came back into myself, it became clear as a bell what that kiss had meant. It had nothing to do with Miss Kopetsky, I don’t know how I missed that, anyone else would have seen it right away. It had nothing to do with the beginnings of love. My father was through waiting for my mother to come back. Simple as that. That chapter was done. What was broken would remain broken.
I took a breath, but I didn’t get up. Soon enough, I knew, I would have to rise with clay clinging to my hair, mud like a blanket on my back, and leave Ramon Gonzales behind. I would climb onto the tracks and start toward home, freed of hope. I was only waiting for the next whistle, the full-throated wail softened by distance, the hoarse voices of a thousand ghosts rising, in a body of steam, to sound the perfect sound of grief.
Read more about Bryan here.
Read more about Kyle here.