A spur line ran near our town, though not through it. When the tracks were clear as far as we could see, we’d lay our heads on the rails, hear the hum and the vibration of the steel against the iron pins a gang of navvies had driven through the forests a century earlier, and guess how far the next freight might be. Sometimes, when there were no trains to be seen for miles in either direction, we could still tell that one was coming by feeling a distant vibration against our cheeks.
At night we heard the sound of the steel wheels on the tracks, the clack and shuttle of the boxcars, and the wail of the horn at the level crossing. The line ran straight and even where it crossed the river on a low trestle bridge, the line disappeared into the overgrowth of trees beyond where the eye could see.
My grandparents and parents had made promise pennies, laying them on the rails so that the wheels would roll over them and press them flat, the head of the king elongated and barely visible and the maple leaves on the back of the coin pulled sideways into dateless spans as if they spread in the full summer sun and made a cool shady place beneath their boughs.
Our parents could always tell when we’d been fooling around near the tracks. If we lay down, we picked up stains. Maybe it was the tell-tale creosote on our ear lobes, or just being out of ear shot when the late afternoon freight came through and we did hear our mothers calling us to supper. We were scolded about going near the tracks. We were threatened that we would be hit by a locomotive or crushed under the weight of the surging boxcar. If the engineer saw us from a distance, he would give us away by sounding his horn so that our parents knew from the repeated wails that we had strayed from the woods, that we were playing with danger.
But if we timed it right, we could dash out of the trees without being seen and watch the boxcars roll by and feel the earth shaking beneath our feet. My grandfather had told me that, in the old days, the boys from the town would walk the tracks and pick up lumps of coal that had fallen from the scuttle car. The mill had closed and his father was running out of money. Just by walking the line from the town limits to the other side of the crossing, my grandfather collected enough coal to keep the stove in the kitchen fired until late November.
Crossing the tracks was against all the rules. The world that lay on the other side, the large, broad, undiscovered mystery we all wanted to possess someday, was a realm we could not enter, a promised land we could only see from a distance. It dawned on us that what lay beyond the tracks was the right side of life and we were all somehow on the wrong side. That made us wonder what our parents were keeping from us.
People left and never returned. The town was dying. So were many of the people in the town.
I sat with my grandfather in his room during the final, long, hot summer of his life. He wouldn’t say much, even when I asked him. He would stare out the window at the trees.
One day I asked him what the world was like. He’d left the town and come back. He’d seen the world, part of the time in khaki with a rucksack and rifle over his shoulder, and the other times with a briefcase of wares someone wanted him to sell.
He said there was a lot out there, more out there than I could imagine. It was not just geography or places on maps, he said, but the people, the ways they lived and spoke, the things they did that meant being on our side of the tracks contained an element of familiarity, a safety, a distance from the bad things that living on our side helped to keep in perspective.
By late August, his condition worsened. My grandmother said she couldn’t look after him anymore. He was too demanding. My parents said it would break their hearts to tell him he would have to leave his house, his view from that upstairs window, and his town – the only things he could still call his own.
They came to me, the three of them – father, mother, grandmother. They told me it would be my duty to go with him by ambulance to the hospital in the city. They could make him comfortable there.
I shook my head. I could not betray him. It would tear his heart out to leave. He deserved to die in his town. He’d been faithful to the place when he could have gone anywhere in the world. He was the prodigal.
Couldn’t they make him comfortable where he was?
No, they said. He would suffer more than he already had.
When the ambulance arrived, they loaded him in, and he asked the orderlies when he’d be back home. He thought he was going away for a short stay. I got into the white Cadillac and sat squeezed up against the window.
I held his hand. I hadn’t held it since I was a child, even though I was little more than a child the day they took him away. He must have known there was a point of no return, and he was headed toward it.
At the level crossing, the gate was up, and when we bumped over the rails, riding across the wooden floor of the road bed, I heard the wheels of the vehicle landing on the pavement where asphalt resumed. The old man snapped his hand away from mine.
I wanted to say something, but he turned his face and looked the other way. He could have looked back as the crossing disappeared and the road bent toward the city, but he did not; and he did not see me fighting to hold back the tears as I clutched a promise penny he’d given me in my left palm, the elongated sharp edge eating into my grasp.