29 September, 2016 – north of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania
Long ago, or so Jack Coulter has heard, there was a world in which people generally liked their memories. That was because their memories were mostly of the happy sort: weddings and graduations, birthday cakes and playgrounds, summer afternoons on lawns and unicorns frolicking and so on. It has always sounded nice, but not very realistic. It’s nothing at all like the world that Jack inhabits.
In Jack’s world, memories are not welcome guests of the mind. They are locked outside during the daytime, left to linger in the alleyways and shantytowns of cognition, where they congregate, smoking cadged cigarettes and looking with hooded expressions at the crowds of serious daytime thoughts or brightly-dressed notions as they pass by, going about their honest daytime business. Soon the exiled memories become sullen. They talk to each other in low tones. They plot their revenge.
If the unwanted memories are to be denied entry to the daylight world, fine! They know that the nighttime windows and doors of thought are far less guarded. And of course, they know quite well where all the spare keys are hidden under the front doormats of the mind. These guys are, after all, memories.
In Jack’s world the ruffian memories mostly do their breaking and entering into the houses of his dreams.
It’s like that movie where people gradually get replaced by strangers who look more or less right and fill the right roles, but are actually aliens under the skin.
First his father died in the Middle East, in one of the interminable little conflicts that were always going on before the War finally came and changed everything. The guy wasn’t so much as shipped home yet when his mother remarried, to an older man, also ex-Army, who had lost his arm in a yet earlier foreign occupation or policing action or whatever and who had a federal pension that still meant something back then. At least it must have meant quite a bit to his mother because, in every other way, the guy was definitely no prize.
But not long after her remarriage his mother fell ill herself, consumed by cancer, and died only a few months later. The old man promptly found himself a new wife. So, by the time Jack was fifteen years old he found himself still living in the home of his childhood, but with two stepparents.
The old man used to get liquored up most nights, and was not of an especially pleasant temperament even while sober. There was finally a confrontation one night in which the old man was so far around the bend that he forgot he was missing most of his right arm. He took a swing at Jack with that stump of his, and Jack took off out the window and ran into the dark streets of the subdivision. He had no idea of where to go from there until he heard, in the distance, a train whistle blow.
He never went back.
An hour after sunrise on a morning that’s hotter than a day in late September has any right to be, riding the top of a boxcar through the wild places of western Pennsylvania is as close to heaven as Jack Coulter supposes he will ever get. Sailing fifteen feet above the blurring gray stones of the roadbed, you get a good stiff cool breeze along with the best possible view of the rolling green countryside. There is way more to see up here than the bugs-eye-view of a car on a cracked up little highway. Yet it’s infinitely more exciting and intimate than the cold and remote google-eye-view from an airplane. Of course, Jack has never actually been on an airplane but he has an excellent imagination.
The badly overloaded old Buffalo and Pittsburgh freight that Jack hopped before dawn in a tiny town called Driftwood has barely been making twenty miles an hour through these hills, and then only because it gets a downgrade half the time. The way the lone engine is occasionally putting out blue smoke, they’re probably lucky it’s running at all. The big puffs of blue haze emerge every couple of minutes from the long exhaust ports on either side of the sixty foot locomotive, then wrap and curl over the top of the four thousand horsepower monster and drift off to the north in fading wisps and whorls. Maybe it’s a good thing after all that there’s a fairly stiff breeze from the south or everybody on top of the cars would probably be asphyxiated by now. Jack has heard stories of disasters like that, told by grizzled men sitting around cook fires in hobotowns to the east. It’s an article of faith among the wanderers of the rails that, even if the bulls aren’t out to kick you off or shake you down, they sure as hell won’t go one step out of their way to watch your ass for you either. Which—Jack grins at the many-colored train curving away in front of him—is just fine with him. One thing he has learned in his twenty-three years of life is that you can have somebody keep you safe and snug, or you can be free. You can’t have both.
Forty cars ahead, the train blows its whistle and Jack laughs to hear the sound. To him, that whistle is the best one-chord symphony in the world. On this unseasonably warm late September morning, seeing the forested Pennsylvanian hills scroll past his elegant box seat, Jack Coulter is perfectly certain that the impromptu decision he made on that night long ago when he jumped out his bedroom window was the best and luckiest choice of his life.
Smiling, he turns himself around on the rusted boxcar roof so he can light a cigarette with his back to the wind. After he manages to make his own little puff of blue smoke, Jack sits looking backward along his route—there must be another fifty cars behind him at least, which is why this one lone engine is working so hard—and thinks about the places he has been.
Before changing trains at Driftwood, he spent a brief time riding a grainer on the LeHigh Valley railroad through tiny burgs with names like Newberry Junction, Danville, and West Milton. Before that, three slow days getting down from Rochester on a series of Canadian Pacific freights that seemed like they were breaking down all the time. Ever since the Foreign Command goons moved in up there in Canada, it seems like those Canucks can’t keep a train running to save their lives. Hardly worth the price of a ticket! Jack grins.
He really liked Rochester, though. The hobotown there was actually a few miles north, in a town called Irondequoit, although there was no detectable boundary. It was a place that, before the War, used to be an amusement park right on Lake Ontario. He liked the ruins of old roller coasters and water slides, and he liked watching that big lake, feeling the cool breezes come off it in the evenings. Jack stayed there for two entire weeks before moving on.
Now he’s thinking seriously about looking around to see whether there are any other spots around the Great Lakes that are just as interesting, at least until this warm weather breaks. Maybe after Pittsburgh, head back up to Cleveland then go along the bottom of Lake Erie to Toledo. He’d have to go up to Detroit from there.
Jack frowns, thinking that one over, and hits his smoke again.
Up in Detroit, since the War, they’ve been resuscitating the old factories and Jack has heard that there are jobs to be had, maybe even for rail riders like him. That would be something, wouldn’t it? To have a job, be a taxpayer. Have money in your pocket, have a fine suit, walk down the street and have a cop tip his hat and say ‘Evening, Mister Coulter’. Jack smiles at the thought and blows blue smoke into the slipstream.
Behind him, faint on the wind, Jack hears something out of place; a sound barely perceivable above the noise of train and tracks. Spinning around on his ass, he sees it instantly: a yard-arm! Formally known as a signal bridge, but hobos all call them yard-arms, and what the hell is this one doing out in the middle of frikking nowhere? Better yet, the damn thing has rusted and leaned so that it’s barely three feet above the damn car tops! People are shouting—that’s what he heard—and throwing themselves flat all down the length of the train, but just as Jack is about to do likewise he sees one guy, a few cars forward, sit up. The man has been alerted by the shouting, but he’s facing the wrong way to see what’s going on. Probably just waking up. A half second later, before he’s had time to realize his peril, the steel edge of the yard-arm intersects the man right at the shoulders. His body is slammed down sprawling onto the top of the car, but a round object goes flying straight up, spinning.
It’s the guy’s head.
Jack stares wide-eyed for another instant, then throws himself back so that he’s facing the sky. The yard-arm flashes over him, and he hears the head go thumping past, bouncing backward over the metal car tops to the sound of more horrified shouts, until it finally goes over the side of the car behind him.
Jack stays that way, looking up at clouds in the sky for a while, then raises his head just enough to look forward and confirm that there’s nothing else interesting on its way. People on the car tops up ahead are yelling to each other and gesturing. Some of them look like they’re trying to clean themselves off.
Jack looks down at the back of his hand braced on the metal roof of the train car and sees little spots of blood all over it. Terrific. Grimacing, he goes to wipe it off—and, of course, his other hand is the same way. “God damn it!” He scrubs the back of one hand, then the other, then, frowning, touches one hand to his face. It comes away with a smear of already-drying blood on his fingers. The color shows up quite nicely in the morning sunlight. He can just imagine what his face must look like.
Jack looks up ahead again, scowling into the wind of the train’s passage, looking at the curving line of car-tops covered with vagabonds in tattered clothes, flapping in the wind. It looks like the train has been invaded by a bunch of runaway scarecrows. Just like him.
Why doesn’t a big fucking metal beam come along and just take all their heads off at once, and get it over with? What is the point of life, if it has to be lived like this? It’s all well and good to do the happy-wanderer act, but underneath Jack knows perfectly well that it’s all just bullshit. Worse, it’s bullshit that he tells himself, just to keep going. But what’s the point of keeping going? To see how much shit you can eat of the infinite quantity that life has available to dish out? Why?
Jack takes a long slow breath, then another. This is a familiar feeling, and he knows it will pass soon enough, like a wound healing. Like blood drying.
The train keeps laboring up the next western Pennsylvania incline, the sun is still bright and the wind is still warm.
Finally, Jack thinks, the reason to keep going, the reason to keep riding these rails, is that there still just might be something worth a damn up ahead. You still might be able to make a buck, have a laugh, get laid. Even after the years he’s been on the road, Jack is still interested enough to find out. Most days, anyway.
And if you ever do get far enough down the line someday that you decide there really isn’t anything except more of the same—well, then, you can always stop it all right then, can’t you?
Realizing that in all the excitement he lost his smoke, Jack carefully turns around again, against the wind, to light another.
Next time they come into a town, he thinks, it might be a good time to get down on the ground for a while.