bound more to my sentences
the more you batter at me
to follow you.
– William Carlos Williams, ‘January’
A new train set changed the living room into her playground. Just a little engine and two cars, red and green, going around the metal track, but the little girl imagined more, because the trains followed the curves, stayed on the track, and kept circling and going, going. Her father sat beside her on the floor, like her, beaming.
A very long line of freight trains took a long time to pass. She knew it would come to an end, and was patient at the railroad crossing. The cars of many colours – yellow, red, green – lumbered by, boxes on wheels, while the train’s lonesome whistle kept calling, Here I come, here I am, here I go.
Freight trains, at all times of day and night, wailed through hundreds of small towns, just a gas station, a luncheonette, maybe a beauty parlour, towns undone by human failure and natural disaster, flood, drought, towns with no product but the wind blowing.
Her toy train rounded an old track.
Estranged mountains bulged under the sky, the big sky, the endless sky. Anyway, no one could see an end to it, which reassured her, since so much seemed to be coming to an end. It felt that way.
But it seemed impossible – the universe dropping off, ending, there would be an end, and then there would be nothing, a no more, a vacuum of no more. Her imagination couldn’t let her go there.
A jumble of metal and tires, grease stains, goop, the shop looked a big mess. The guts of cars, tools, scattered all over the floor, but he knew where everything was. He’d say to his wife, ‘I know where it all is, just don’t touch anything.’ His place was like the back of his hand, and he was just as attached to it.
Folks brought in their cars and trucks for fixing. Dented, broken down, crashed. The fixer-uppers. The ‘keep ‘em going until I get some money’ cars. Junkers. The shit that happened to their rides, to them, these people, their cars, some he knew all his life, accidents waiting to happen.
Some guys were satisfied, he saw them in cities, at peace with themselves. Businessmen and their pricey briefcases, proud papas, with IRAs, their babies pressed to their narrow chests. Cocks of the park. Their young women expected everything. His friend told him, years ago, ‘Oh, she’s not for you, buddy. She’s too good for you.’ He didn’t believe it, then.
Big Joe gave her a ride when she found herself stranded in town. He just appeared, and she figured he had time on his hands. His hands, arms, were covered in tats that disappeared into his skin, darker than hers. She’d arrived from the city, and, after a time, not surprisingly, discovered they were the only black people around. It happened often enough that the anomaly was really normal.
He’d lived around here all his life, Big Joe told her, except for the time he went to ‘Nam. He lived near town, not in it, camping out. ‘I like it. I don’t pay rent. I don’t have responsibilities. Except to people I like.’ Big Joe smiled at her. She said she was glad.
He’d been around, and played pretty good guitar, good enough to work the bar circuit. Maybe he was really lonely, but wouldn’t admit it. She was, and she wasn’t. She was used to being alone. She couldn’t do her work any other way.
He was way too old for her, and they had hardly anything in common. But what’s common, she thought. He isn’t. She had never met anyone like him. Still, after a while, she knew they’d run out of talk.
Big Joe took her for long drives in landscapes completely new to her, and their growing silences worried her.
‘No, she’s a girl,’ her mother would say. Or, ‘I’m a girl,’ she’d say. Her straggly hair, or that she was lean and tall for her age – just turned eight. ‘She looks like a boy,’ they’d say. Well, she wasn’t. They seemed disappointed, some of them. She’d be a pretty boy, or maybe she was less pretty for a girl. For a girl. It didn’t make any difference to her.
She and her mother camped in fields where trees without names sheltered them from the sun, and a sky of dazzling stars lit up their nights. She did her homework, and then ran around until she fell down, breathing like a racehorse.
They met strangers everywhere, some on their own, or they got to know other families. Some people were friendly, but most kept to themselves.
‘A boy or a girl,’ they’d ask.
In the distance, a freight train roared at the foot of white mountains. A young boy, no more than ten, turned to watch it. Where was this one headed, what was it carrying. One time a train had stopped, and he’d run closer to it. He waved at the conductor, who wore a stiff grey hat, and had a scarf around his neck. The boy wondered what that job would be like, riding all across the country, he knew one day he’d need a job. The conductor waved back, so that was nice. The boy watched the train until he couldn’t see it anymore.
His mother would call his name soon, for lunch, or maybe she’d want him to go into town with her, or maybe they’d decide to pull up stakes, which is how one man in the camp put it. Pulling up stakes. Which people actually did.
His friends at home were jealous, because he did exciting things. He met people who had horses, two or three of them, and they let him ride them. That was a big deal.
He watched his mother write in a book. She kept notes about everything. He knew she had thoughts she didn’t tell him. Troubles, too. She explained that she tried to observe what was around her. She told him it was important to remember, and he said he’d remember everything.
But he might forget that woman and her dog, Blackie, in the last place they stayed. Or, the train today in the distance, the shape of the white mountains, how the sun hit them, or that conductor, and how he waved at him.
His mother called his name, and he ran to her.
Bobby’s nails and hands were covered in grease, gas and oil embedded in the lines of his palms. He was easy reading for a palmist, his future simple: just a lot more dirt.
Bobby hurled a knife at his kitchen wall, and the pink ceramic vase his mother loved, with tiny yellow flowers, crashed onto the floor, smashed into smithereens.
When she was alive, his mother went for manicures every week, had her hair curled in a place not far from town, and, when he was little, she took him with her. Bobby liked watching his mother get her nails filed, cleaned, fingers dipped into little bowls of warm water, and then painted a colour. Red, sometimes pink, one time orange.
She sat under a bonnet to dry her hair, which was wound around little rollers, while Bobby coloured animals in his book— red and pink. Sometimes his mother worried that her hair came out too yellow or orange, brassy. The women told her no, they all liked it, and told stories about their lives, and one of them always knew something that the others didn’t. He couldn’t remember her name, but his mother told him she had a beehive on her head. He didn’t understand that.
The beauty parlour was warm in winter, hot in summer, a whirr in the air, the space bonnets blowing heat, and the women’s voices rose high, unless they were whispering. Sometimes they’d laugh and scream. His mother laughed, too, and he’d laugh along, but he didn’t know what was funny.
When his mother was ready to leave, all of the women would give him a kiss goodbye. He’d protest a little. In the car, he’d tell his mother her hair looked beautiful. ‘Do you really like it?’ she’d ask Bobby. ‘Oh yes, Mama, I do.’
‘Any of that shit,’ his father yelled at his mother, ‘any of that shit comes off on him, it’s on you.’
Lynne Tillman’s The Complete Madame Realism and Other Stories will be published by Semiotext(e) in October 2016. ‘Still Moving’ will also appear in Highway Kind by Justine Kurland, published by Aperture in November 2016.