issue seventeen

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(4535 words)
Brian Haycock
[Updated monthly on the full moon]
       Late in the evenings I like to sit on the back porch, maybe with a beer, more often now with a glass of iced tea and some lemon on the side. I'll tilt my chair back, put my feet up on the railings and breathe in the soft air. Some nights I swear I can hear the sounds of the trains; the air horns, the roar of the diesels, the clatter of the wheels on rails. It takes me back to those nights watching the trains from the old house on Hamilton Bend Road. It reminds me of Hardge, the way he was when I knew him.

Hamilton Bend Road wasn't much. It was just a one-lane dirt road laid out alongside the tracks on the north end of Stoneman. At one time that land was owned by the railroad and had cabins that housed the crews that worked the tracks all over Greener County. I lived there in a three-room rent house left over from the crews. It had a tin roof and rotting shingles that were falling off a little at a time. At night I would sit on the front porch listening to the sounds of the cicadas and the buzzing flies. When a train came along, I'd watch the boxcars sway on the rails and listen to the rhythm of the clattering wheels. When the train was gone and it was quiet again I would think about how I could catch one of those northbound trains and just ride away into the night any time I wanted. It was just an idle thought. I knew that going north on the back of a boxcar wouldn't change anything for me, but somehow that idle thought helped me through some rough times.

The houses down there were at the far end of a straight stretch of track where the trains slowed down for into the long curve ahead. People out that way called it the launching pad. Migrant workers would come out from the camps along the dry creekbed where it ran under the tracks a half-mile or so to the south. They'd sit on the stacked ties by the tracks, drinking quart bottles of beer, waiting for the slow-moving freights to come along. When one appeared they'd cap the beer bottles, grab their packs and line up along the tracks, looking nervous as squirrels. Once the diesels passed them they'd start running down the gravel, keeping up the best they could, watching for empty boxcars they could vault into. Sometimes they'd give up quickly on a fast train, go back to where they'd been sitting and wait for the next one. Sometimes there wouldn't be any empty cars, no open doors to vault up into, and they'd run with the train until the last car went by, then walk back, dejected and winded, probably wishing they'd brought more beer. They'd keep at it, chasing train after train until they got one they could climb up onto.

Some nights I'd watch whole groups of migrants, twenty or thirty of them, sprinting beside the freights, tossing their packs in and pulling themselves up into the shelter of the boxcars. Some would invariably fail. They'd trip each other up, miss the handholds on the cars, or just fall behind and watch the boxcars pull away without them. The others would toss their packs back out and they'd go up to collect them, then walk back down the tracks to wait for the next train. It was a life-or-death struggle for them, but I thought of it as entertainment, a spectacle put on for my enjoyment, and I would sit in the darkness drinking a long-necked bottle of Corona beer, listening for the next train horn to carry up the tracks from the south.

At the time there was a group of ex-Marines living in a house at the end of the dirt road who liked to call themselves the Bad Dogs. There were six or eight of them, sometimes more, depending on the season, although the house was little more than a shack. They were Vietnam veterans getting older, watching the demons of their youth catching up and taking them down one by one. I don't remember seeing any of them completely sober, even in the mornings. In the evenings they roasted chickens over a scrapwood fire behind the house and drank cans of beer they kept in an ice water barrel. They liked to talk about the times they'd spent in combat, telling the same stories over and over, embellishing them a little more each time. They had an old Econoline pickup with a hand-done camo paint job and rows of bumper stickers and decals, most of them having something to do with the war. Some nights they held mock battles with sheathed bayonets and firecrackers in the bamboo fields that covered the slopes out behind the houses. Some of the Bad Dogs slept in a rusting school bus that was parked in the turnaround where the road ended in a grove of live oaks and tall weeds. They said they were going to fix up the bus and drive it all over the country, but it was clearly beyond repair and I never saw any of them working on it.

For the most part I kept my distance from the Bad Dogs, and after the first few times I passed on their invitations to come over for roasted chicken, they stopped asking. A few of them were violent drunks, and there were always guns lying around, not just handguns, but military-issue rifles and shotguns just sitting out in the yard, some of them stripped down as if someone had been cleaning them and hadn't quite finished. I never heard a gunshot in all the time they were there, but it always seemed like it could happen any time. There were a few incidents with the other neighbors, shouting matches and such, and most of the time there was a feeling of tension hanging over that end of the street, although I never really worried about it that much. For their part, the Bad Dogs didn't seem to worry about anything. As long as there was beer and chicken, they were fine.

One of them was tall, weathered man with neatly trimmed red hair and uneven masses of freckles across his face. His name was Hardge. Even in the summer he wore the jacket he'd worn in Viet Nam, although it was now crudely patched and reseamed, caked with years of dust. His eyes always seemed to be watching the horizon for something no one else could see. He rarely spoke and when he drank he seemed very peaceful, almost serene. One of the other Dogs told me Hardge had been a medic, had been awarded medals for his service, but he just hadn't been the same after he got back. I was told he was haunted by the men he couldn't save, but it was hard to sort the truth from the stories the Bad Dogs told. Some nights he would come over and sit with me on the porch, drinking beer and waiting for the trains. We had a routine: he never came over unless he saw me sitting out there, and he always brought an extra can of beer for me. After we'd had those, I'd supply the beer from my fridge. Although we didn't say much, I was always comfortable sitting on the porch with Hardge. He had a quiet dignity about him. He had no expectations and he made no demands.

The last time Hardge and I watched the trains together was on a hot night toward the end of the summer. There was heat lightning far off in the distance and the air had an oppressive feel that meant a storm was on its way but it would take a while to get there. My mood matched the weather. I'd been working at one of those brake-job shops for about six months, and I hated it. After the first few hundred brake jobs, the novelty really starts to wear off. There were other problems, things that seemed important at the time but probably weren't, and as I sat there I felt the weight of the clouds pressing down on me. I found myself thinking about traveling north, just getting on one of the freights and waiting until it stopped. It was the usual, no more than a fantasy, but I was thinking about it more than I had been when times were better. When Hardge came over that night he handed me a can of beer and sat down without saying a word. When he lit a cigarette I remember watching his face in the glow of the lighter and thinking that he might be moving on before too long.

When the first train came through it was moving fast, a short line of empty boxcars headed for the freight yards up in Maryville, pulled by a single diesel. A group of migrants came out from a camp down the tracks and stood on the gravel, watching it pass. They didn't even try to run. There were about a dozen of them, wearing work clothes and holding shoulder bags. At that time of year they would be headed for the northern harvests in places like Colorado and Montana. When the last car had passed they vanished back into the darkness along the tracks. The southbound Amtrak came through fifteen minutes later, running late as usual, followed closely by a fast-moving southbound freight. I got some cans of Lone Star out from the fridge and Hardge and I opened them, started sipping away. Before long we were on our thirds, and I was feeling a little better about things. A family of raccoons came by and inspected the lock on my storage shed, decided we weren't going to throw them any food, then shuffled away. It was a slow night out along the rails.

Finally an air horn sounded far to the south and the front lights of a train appeared at the end of the long straightaway. This one was long and heavy, pulled by five diesels that strained against the slight grade. There was a long line of hopper cars, filled with potash from the quarries down in the valley. The Mexicans filed back out onto the gravel and stood there waiting, then started jogging along with the train as a line of boxcars came into view behind them. Most of the cars were sealed but finally two open boxcars appeared and the men put their heads down and started to run harder, moving faster and spreading out along the tracks. The first was a yellow Chessie car marked with grafitti, the second dark blue with the letters CSX stenciled in white. One by one the men tossed their packs into the cars, grabbed the door frames and vaulted themselves into the darkness inside. When they missed on the first car they gathered themselves and caught the second.

"Damn," said Hardge with a little chuckle. "It's a jailbreak up there."

"Yeah, look at 'em go."

As the boxcars reached us, there was one man left running along outside the second car, waving frantically at the men inside. He tossed his bag inside and got his hands on the flooring but he was stumbling on the gravel, unable to make the jump. Some of the men inside the car reached out and tried to grab hold of his arm, but they couldn't seem to get a grip on him. By now the train was speeding up, and he grabbed onto the back of the door frame as it came up but still could not pull himself in. He stumbled again and let go, and the opening pulled away.

Hardge and I were already standing, moving toward the tracks as if we knew what would happen next. There was a railing at the back of the boxcar with steps up to a walkway that the railroad men used to climb up on the cars to uncouple them and to cross over the tracks. Maybe it was just a reflex, or fear of being left behind and having to make the long trip north alone that led him to grab at the railing. Already off balance, he was pulled from his feet and into the space between the boxcar and the tank car that followed. He was pulled along and shaken, his feet bouncing on the timber ties. He was hanging onto the iron railing to avoid being crushed beneath the wheels of the next car. As he disappeared in the darkness up the line, we could hear his screams high above the rattle of the wheels.

I went into the house and collected flashlights and we ran across the dirt road and climbed up the short embankment to the roadbed. The flashing red light on the back of the last car was just vanishing around the long curve ahead. We played the lights over the gravel and ties and we set out walking up the tracks. At first we found nothing. I told myself that the man could have pulled himself onto the walkway across the back of the car, that he must now be huddled, frightened but unhurt, against the end of the car. After we'd gone about a hundred yards we found a ripped scrap of dirty blue cloth, maybe from the man's work shirt, maybe not. When Hardge held it up to the flashlight we could see what looked like spots of blood drying on it. A little farther up something glistened in the gravel, something that could have been blood. Hardge crouched on the ties, touched a finger to it, sniffed, shook his head.

"I don't know," he said. "Maybe oil. Hydraulic fluid. I can't tell." He gave a little shiver. He didn't want to taste it, to make sure.

I shivered too, afraid of what we would find next. If the man had fallen into the wheels, we wouldn't be finding a body. We'd be finding parts of one. And there would be plenty of blood, not just a few drops. I wanted to go back, to call the county sheriff or the railroad's emergency line. I didn't want to tell that to Hardge.

We kept on, moving slowly, swinging the flashlights from side to side. We were far past the houses now, and the night seemed to get even quieter. There were more wet spots between the rails. In the glow of the flashlights it could have been fluid. Or blood. I worked the light through the brush along the roadbed, thinking he might have crawled away, but there was nothing alive in there. We found the dried skeleton of an animal, possibly an armadillo, broken beer bottles, the remains of a recent campfire. There were thick logs arranged around the ashes. The trees were hung with trumpeter vines and gray cocoons, everything out there dry as paper from the August heat. I called out into the darkness, calling "amigo" and "compadre" in my limited Spanish, not knowing what to say. There was no answer.

Hardge said, "I think he's dead."

I thought so, too, but I didn't want to say it. "Maybe he made it. We haven't found a body."

"I know. I just have this feeling. It's like someone died. I've had it before."

Now we were well into the long curve, where the tracks passed between drooping pecan groves and crested a slow hill. There had been suicides here, derelicts who had laid down on the tracks in the small hours, fallen asleep with their wine bottles empty beside them and waited for the next train to come along. They were listed as accidental deaths, but everyone knew better. There was a stone marker beside the tracks, put there by the family of a homeless man who'd stepped into the path of a diesel. Farther along there were a couple of crude wooden crosses hammered into the ground with no explanation. It was quiet out there. The night sounds were far away, with only an occasional breeze barely stirring the leaves, crickets hiding down in the brush, keeping quiet despite the heat. I thought about the men who'd died there over the years, imagining their ghosts drinking wine in the darkness, watching the trains go by. Tonight they'd be watching us as we searched the rails for another ghost.

We hadn't seen a pack. I thought that was a good sign. Usually the men on the cars would throw out the packs of the runners who didn't make it. It was like a code. They were far from home and those packs held everything they owned. None of them could afford to lose their packs. The men in the boxcar would have been looking out the doorway, watching for him. Maybe he'd made it up onto the walkway and they'd held onto it for him. Or maybe we'd just missed it. It could have hit the roadbed and bounced far into the underbrush, out of sight.

Or they might have seen him torn to scrap by the wheels. They could be rolling north now, fighting over the contents of the dead man's pack.

He might have gotten free, collected his pack and hiked off into the trees. Maybe he was out there sipping a cold beer, grinning like a madman over his brush with death. It was a nice thought. I didn't believe it.

We kept walking, saying nothing, playing the lights around. Finally we came out of the trees and reached the overpass that carried the tracks out over the four lane highway to the right-of-way that led straight north from there. It was bright out in the clearing. Yellow sodium lights lined the roadway, and we stood in silence at the end of the overpass, staring down along the empty tracks. There wasn't anyone out on the bridge. We wouldn't be going farther.

Hardge turned to me. The look on his face was one I hadn't seen before. His eyes were squeezed together, barely open. He looked older, sadder than I'd seen him. "We should say a prayer," he said solemnly. "It might help him find his way."

"I don't know. He might have made it." I wanted to believe that, wanted Hardge to believe it.

"I don't think so. I think he's busted up, dying somewhere in the brush back there. We won't find him. No one can. He's afraid and he's alone. There's only one thing we can do to help him now."

I nodded, not knowing what was going through Hardge's mind. I hadn't seen him this way before. He had something in mind; something that was important to him. I'd go along with what he wanted to do. We backed away to the edge of the clearing. He kneeled in the sharp gravel beside the tracks and I joined him, steepling my hands together for the first time in years, feeling a sense of peace fall down around me. The stones dug into my knees but I settled in and waited. Hardge started to pray and his voice changed from the usual hoarse rasp to a soft baritone, clear but quiet. "Dear Lord," he started, "We are just poor sinners calling to you again, asking your mercy, your forgiveness. Our brother is coming to you tonight from this foreign land. He is alone, lost and far from home, and he needs your help to find his way." After that, Hardge's voice grew softer, and I had a sense there was a private conversation going on, something I wasn't part of. I caught a few words, but I couldn't be clear about how they fit together. His voice had a rhythm to it, like a monk chanting in candlelight.

I closed my eyes and let the sound of his voice take me. I felt like I was floating in the air, at peace for the first time in what seemed like years. Suddenly the heat lightning I'd seen before seemed to descend on us. I opened my eyes and watched as it flashed again and again, lighting everything in a searing blue light. There was no thunder, only the sizzle of electrons and the rhythm of Hardge's voice. I smelled ozone and smoke. The empty land around us lit up with a ghostly glow. It lasted a short time, then faded away. I closed my eyes again and listened to the sound of Hardge's voice.

When I opened my eyes I found the world unchanged, spread out before me. Hardge's voice grew stronger, and I heard him say, "Soon our time here will be done and then we will join you and we will be with you always, Amen." When he was done we stayed there a little while, just not wanting to break the moment. My knees should have been in pain by then, but I felt nothing at all. I waited for Hardge to finish with his thoughts. Finally he said amen a second time and crossed himself and then we stood and looked out over the empty highways, the long, shining tracks, and the darkness.

As we stood there a breeze came up, a cool rush of air that blew across our faces and cleaned the rest of the sadness from our souls. It only lasted a short time, ten seconds, maybe a little more, then it was gone.

"That was a prayer I learned a long time ago," he told me. "We used to say that together when someone died. I have trouble now, remember the words, but I just do the best I can with it."

He didn't have to tell me where he'd learned it. I knew. I couldn't think of anything to say. I wanted to ask about the prayer, the part I hadn't been able to hear. I wanted to ask about the lightning. Somehow I couldn't. I said, "I think you got it just right," and left it at that.

Hardge nodded. "I think he'll be all right now," he said.

We turned and started walking back, not talking, just feeling the night around us. I kept playing the light around in the bushes. I listened for cries in the darkness, but I knew inside we'd never find the man. He was gone, vanished into the night.

Another train came along as we walked, this one southbound, blaring its horn at us as if we were unable to hear the roar of its engines or see the lights that led it through the trees. As it passed we stood far to the side, just looking down at the gravel, not wanting to watch the boxcars as they rattled by.

As we neared our houses I asked Hardge if he thought we should call someone, let them know what had happened. He didn't answer, and when I looked around, he was gone. A few minutes later I heard the door to the old school bus open, then shut behind him. I didn't call anyone. It wouldn't have changed anything.

The next morning I thought about going back out there in the daylight to see if there was something we might have missed, but I had to get to work, so I told myself I'd go out there in the evening. I stopped off at a bar with some of the guys that night so I got home a little late, and there wasn't enough time to do it before it got too dark to see. I never did walk out that way again.

I only saw Hardge a few times after that night and we never talked about the man we had seen pulled along by the boxcar. We both believed he'd died, but we never found out for sure, and there wasn't much to say about it. If anyone ever found a body out that way, I never heard about it. Hardge stopped coming around after that and I found myself sitting in the back yard at night, away from the tracks. The sight of the migrants chasing after the trains had lost its appeal for me. A few months later, a couple of the Bad Dogs started a fight in a roadhouse out on the Gatesville road, then fled in a stolen pickup. They didn't get far. Right after that they jumped bail and were last seen on a Greyhound bus, heading for New Orleans. I had the feeling the police didn't mind. Another got in a fight with six or seven deputies one night and wound up in the county jail. Hardge and the others moved out of the house right after that. They never said they were leaving, never said good-bye. One day I went out to get the mail and I looked down the street and saw the front door standing open, the house empty. The bus was still parked there. Months later it was towed away to a scrapyard. That was the last sign that the Bad Dogs had ever lived on Hamilton Bend Road.

I saw Hardge a year later in a bar up in Temple. He was drinking Jack Daniels in a dark corner, listening to the clicking of the pool balls and the hum of the neon, the blues on the jukebox. He was staring off into the beer lights like there was something out there coming for him. Something he wouldn't mind all that much. I said hello and sat down, but he didn't seem to recognize me. He looked worn out. I asked him how he was, what he was up to. He just nodded without saying anything, then kept looking off into the distance. After a while I got up and went off to play a game of pool and when I was done I looked around and Hardge was gone. Thinking back on it, I wonder if it was really Hardge in that booth. Maybe I just imagined the whole thing.

I think he's dead now. I just have a feeling. I even said a prayer one night, to help him find his way. I don't have much practice at that, and I mostly used what I remembered Hardge saying that night out on the tracks. It seemed to apply as well to him as to the man we'd lost out there on the tracks. It seemed that wherever he was, Hardge was always far from home. Maybe he's home now.

Not long after that I moved away from the house on Hamilton Bend Road, to a quiet street east of town, far from the tracks. And every move I made after that took me farther away. But the sound of the trains seems to follow me. I'm two towns over now, in Barsman. I've driven all over this town, trying to find the tracks, but I can't seem to find them. On the summer nights when the heat lightning is jumping through the sky I can still hear the diesels working through the grade, through the pecans and vines, moving always northbound.


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This work is copyrighted by the author, Brian Haycock. All rights reserved.