Deep in woods near my childhood home in California, iron stallions gallop endless thrums of ferrous track near the Oregon border.
It was here, in the thick scent of cedar and ponderosa pine that we reinvented ourselves into desperado cowboys. We, too, rode the rails, conjured distances into futures. Jeremy and I were the boys of summer. Whatever was up ahead was real, in one form or another.
“Cody, I stole me some pennies from my father’s dresser drawers.” That’s when Jeremy looked down at the dead President Lincoln’s. The dull copper pennies were face up, next to the oversized nickel headed buffalo.
“Jesus, what’s the point, Jeremy? You agreed, going forward we’d use quarters or a fifty-cent piece?” I laid my four quarters on a second rail, and a 50 cent piece––two-bits as grandfather used to say.
In grandfather’s day, colossal diesel’s pulled massive railcars filled to the edge of the sky with stacks of 2×4’s, milled wooden rafters, trusses, and long beams craving the sawmill’s cut. Back then, the powerful engines were honest at keeping time, give or take the weather.
Our special treks home from the eighth grade weren’t about time or money. Our journeys were about excitement, the size of the mash, the unfolding mysteries of life and death, the tracks.
We’d take turns placing our ears on the steel. We learned to peg the train’s arrival by three minutes or less. It’s time of departure wasn’t our problem. Besides we couldn’t tell how many boxcars there were, if it had a cab, or where in the hell it was headed?
After a few weeks of flattening coins we grew bored, so we invented a new game of chicken. How close we could get when as the trains passed? Which cowpoke would blink first? Jeremy was always the closest, quickest to scramble to his feet. He was a damned railway Houdini, the best at dodging and darting.
Looking back, teenage curiosity is an awkward, complex amalgam, a near perfect aphrodisiac for havoc.
It turned dark as the diesel barrelled up and around the long spine of rail, the days ending glint of sunlight a fleeting mirage. Our excitement was a mixture of high octane epinephrine and fear. It felt like the beginning of death or manhood or both. Whatever it was didn’t need to be named.
As the locomotive blew by us, a stampede of wind drove us back into a berm of briars and thistle. As over tea kettle, we flew up against the embankment that paralleled the railroad tracks. We landed some twenty feet apart.
The earthquake wouldn’t stop until the cab shot through. The cyclone of wind from the dragon’s tail was a gritty turbulence, a metallic tasting whiplash.
My face was pocked wet and bloody from shards of gravel. The taste of rusty blood ran from my scalp and nostrils into my mouth, each ear a fire alarm. The ringing has never stopped.
Somehow I gathered my wits and crawled toward Jeremy. I was a lost and sobbing toddler, using spidery brail. As I approached him, he raked his guiro in the tall thistle and witchweed. When I touched him, he morphed into an opening day of fishing season, Brown Trout, complete with slimy dorsal and caudal fins. He was voiceless, viscous, and slippery. When I gripped his left arm, there was a megalodon tooth, a humerus bone axed into kindling. In the knot of unimaginable horror and terror, Jeremy quit his thrashing.
Then there is this lightning bolt.
I’m in the middle of April, 2022. I have a pregnant wife who lets me call her boo and two children who adore me. Before she drifts off to sleep, she allows me to feel the new baby, as it wriggles upstream in her belly. She’s my true bouquet of pheromones. Life is perfect, or so it seems.
We have a Golden Retriever I’ve named Easter. It has nothing to do with any resurrection. The name just fits him. Easter is loyal too. My 401-K has recovered, unlike me.
This time of year, I celebrate an anniversary of sorts. It’s the solstice of dread, love, and cognitive dissonance regarding the past.
Outside my open bedroom window, I hear the insects as they rattle their solstice pots and pans in the dark corridors of silence. They exist in the millions, insist their tic-tic, metallic sounding Mardi Gras, noisy as any dusty, dandelion littered train yard. Each night I keep a bitter-sweet vigil.
It’s the season of twisting and knotting sheets into fists of linen. The time of year I can’t wash my bloody Shakespearean hands enough.
My therapist claims my symptoms are pedestrian, that I’ll eventually sweep them away into some nostalgic, twentieth-century dust bin. He says I have survivor’s guilt.
“Don’t you have to be alive for that I ask him?” He smirks, continues playing electronic solitaire on his iPad. I tell him a good night’s sleep is when 4:00 A.M. drags me away from all the blackness, utterly exhausted. He’s not sure why I experience phantom limb phenomena. He knows nothing about trains or Brown Trout.
His Apple Watch alarm stops me mid-sentence. He always asks if my account is current. He says, “Great,” before I’ve answered yes. I follow his index finger’s direction, out through the expensive doors, into the eavesdropping administrative assistant’s office. She schedules my next appointment.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m grateful for everything, especially the part about waking and living. I should be thankful its only spring that makes my heartache and race.
I’ve been told I’m a natural father and husband. That I’m nurturing, very family-oriented, and compassionate. Still, there’s not one single midnight that’s willing to forgive me, allow me any reprieve.
Maybe my sin is in the reaching, grasping, and holding?
I would give anything to trade places. Lay my ear on the tracks again. Cold iron would be such sweet comfort.
Surviving whole will do that to you.
Dan has an MS Degree in Counselling from CSU, Sacramento. His fiction, non fiction, and poetry have been published internationally. Most recently, or soon to be published in 45th Parallel, BlazeVOX, Bull, Cleaver, Coffin Bell, Deep Overstock, Door=Jar, Dream Noir, Entropy, The Fiction Pool, Gravel, Literary Heist, Mystery Tribune, New Flash Fiction Review, Poetry Northwest and Spelk.