Men in Boxcars – Steven Carr
Coal dust rose up from the gravel along the tracks forming a hazy wall several blocks long. Jessie put the handkerchief his grandfather had given him over his mouth and nose and momentarily closed his eyes. Sounds of the clacking metal wheels and rocking wooden boxcars filled his ears. It didn’t take more than a few minutes for the train to pass by. He lowered the handkerchief and wiped dust from his forehead that had mixed with his sweat forming a thin dark paste that clung to his skin. Wadding the handkerchief tightly in the palm of his hand he watched the caboose sway back and forth as the 4:10 left town. He shoved the handkerchief into his front pants pocket.
He picked up the glass of pink lemonade that had been sitting on the stand by the porch swing and grimaced. Particles of dust had turned the liquid brown. He tossed the lemonade over the porch railing and set the glass back down on the stand and licked his parched lips. Acrid, gritty particles of dust had gotten through the handkerchief and was now on his tongue. He attempted to spit several times, barely able to generate even a few drops.
As he got up from the swing he saw his grandfather walking the gravel road on the other side of the tracks. He was hunched over and carrying a burlap sack flung over his shoulder onto his back. Jessie went into the house allowing the ripped screen door to noisily slam behind him. At the kitchen sink he wiped the grime from his face with a dishcloth while staring through the window at the cloud of haze that hung over the tracks.
His grandfather came into the kitchen and put the bag on the table. The thud of it hitting the table resounded. “Got us some potatoes,” he said.
Jessie continued watching out the window. “When’s the last time a coal train came through here Grandad?”
“Not sure exactly. Only every once in a while now. Mostly trains pulling boxcars all’s that use those tracks now,” his grandfather said.
“The coal dust sure did stick around,” Jessie said.
His grandfather opened the bag and pulled out a potato. “You probably don’t remember, but coal the size of these potatoes used to fall onto the tracks. Sometimes we went a whole winter using the fallen coal to heat this house.”
“I remember,” Jessie said. He turned. “I guess I should go see if Noah’s awake.”
His grandfather bit into the potato and holding the piece between his front false teeth and mumbled, “You do that. I’ll fix us some potato soup.”
Noah stared up at the cracked green paint on the ceiling. He wasn’t certain but there seemed to be more lines in the paint extending out from the light in the middle than the day before. The exposed bulb in the broken light fixture had the look of a whitehead on a wrinkled face.
He tried not to think about how much he was sweating. He could feel it sliding down his sides. Shifting his gaze to the fan sitting idle on the top of the dresser he longed for a cool breeze, or any breeze at all. With the window nailed shut to keep out the dirt and dust, the air in the room was stale and stifling. A fly buzzed around his head then lighted on his chest. Halfheartedly he smacked at it with his hand. It flew off and bumped against the window pane, then came to rest on the window sill.
“I thought you were asleep,” Jessie said as he came into the room. He closed the door behind him.
“I can’t sleep. It’s too hot,” Noah said.
“Yeah, it’s a hot one. I was sitting on the back porch and thought I was going to roast,” Jessie said. “The 4:10 went by and stirred up the dust.”
“I heard it,” Noah said. “We need to get that fan fixed one of these days.”
Jessie stuck his fingers through the metal screen covering the blades and flicked at one, sending them whirling for a second before they came to a stop again. “It’s too bad you have to work tonight. It’s always cooler in here after the sun goes down.”
“Flipping those hamburgers all night gives me something to live for.”
Jessie sat on the edge of the bed. “I wish you wouldn’t say things like that.”
Noah turned on his side and watched the fly crawling across the sill. “Where’s Ernie?”
“He got some potatoes from somewhere. He’s making some soup,” Jessie said. He unlaced his boots and kicked them off then stood up and removed his pants and boxers. He took the handkerchief out of the pants pocket and laid it on top of the dresser. Tacked to the wall in front of him were hundreds of Polaroid pictures of trains he had taken from the back porch.
“I should have come back right after college instead of traveling around Europe,” he said.
He removed his shirt and got on the bed and put his arm around Noah.
“We wouldn’t have met in Lisbon,” Noah said, pushing his back against Jessie.
“I hope you’re not sorry,” Jessie said.
Noah said nothing.
Noah rubbed his hands on his apron, staining it with blood from fresh hamburger. He opened the refrigerator and slid in the tray of hamburger patties. A patty sizzled on the grill. He dropped a large handful of thinly sliced potatoes into the wire basket in the fryer and stood back as the oil bubbled and popped. He slid the spatula under the hamburger and lifted it onto a bun with lettuce and a slice of tomato. After emptying the basket of fries onto the plate he rang the bell at the window.
Christine came to the window and looked at the food on the plate. “The guy wanted a cheeseburger,” she said.
“We’re out of cheese,” Noah said. “Matt forgot to order it.”
“There goes my tip,” she said as she lifted the plate and left.
Going to the open back door, Noah lit the last cigarette from a pack and threw the wrapper into the trash. He leaned against the door frame and as he smoked he watched a large rat scavenging for scraps around the dumpster. The alley was lit by a single light on the side of the diner. On the street and at the end of the alley there was no traffic. The red glow of the diner’s neon sign flashed on and off on the sidewalk. A steady hot breeze funneled dust through the narrow alleyway. Done with his cigarette he flicked the butt toward the dumpster.
“I’m going to go crazy,” he said aloud.
The light of dawn passed through the dirty window right into Jessie’s eyes. He awoke with a start. In the moment following waking he had already forgotten the disturbing dream that he had been having. Through squinted eyes he stared at the blue plastic curtains hanging on each side of the window. The same curtains had been there for as long as he could remember. He had never seen them pulled closed. It didn’t matter, the window looked out on a large empty field that stretched from the gravel road in front of the house to the railroad tracks that ran behind it. He rolled over onto his back and stared up at the ceiling. The cracks reminded him of railroad tracks.
He heard his grandfather shuffle by in the hallway outside the door.
“Grandad, you okay?” he called out.
There was no answer.
Jessie got out of bed and put on his boxers and opened the door. His grandfather was standing at the closed basement door.
Jessie stepped into the hallway. “What are you doing Grandad?” he asked.
His grandfather turned around. “I was looking for something.”
“That door goes to the basement, remember? What were you looking for?”
As if suddenly jolted out of his confusion he said, “Whatever it was it’s not this direction, is it?”
“Probably not, Grandad. It’s really early. You should go back to bed,” Jessie said.
“I probably should,” his grandfather said. As he walked past Jessie he said, “You were always such a good boy.”
“Thanks Grandad,” Jessie said.
The whistle from the 5:15 passing through sounded, followed by the reverberations of train wheels on the track.
Ernie sat in the overstuffed chair in the living room with a shoebox in his lap. Batting sticking through a hole in the material pushed into his back. He shifted slightly, but was still uncomfortable. He removed the lid from the box and slid it behind him forming a barrier between his back and the chair. One by one he pulled a photograph from the box and held it up and looked at for a moment and then placed it on the arm of the chair.
“What are you looking at?” Noah asked as he walked in the room carrying a can of Coke.
Without looking up from the photograph he was looking at he said, “Just some old pictures.”
Noah knelt down by the arm of the chair and picked up one of the photographs. It was a black and white photo of a farm house in a barren landscape.
“Where is this?” Noah asked. He took a sip of the Coke.
Ernie glanced at the photograph. “Heaven knows. That’s a photograph my father took. He was a photographer for the Farm Security Administration for a spell. That was during the depression. He traveled all over, mostly taking pictures of rural places. He never became famous like some of the other photographers have though.”
“It’s a bleak picture,” Noah said.
“Look at this one,” Ernie said, handing Noah another photograph.
It was of several men standing in an empty boxcar. By the look of their worn and slightly dirty clothes they were obviously poor.
“Who are the men?” Noah asked.
“Itinerants most likely,” Noah said. “Lots of men traveled this country during the depression in boxcars. I remember my dad telling me all about those times. They had it rough.”
Noah handed the photograph back to him. “My family passes down different memories of men in boxcars in Poland during world war two.” He took a long drink of the soda. “They had rougher times.”
Ernie stared at the photograph for a moment then looked at Noah. “Tell me your name again.”
“It’s Noah,” he said.
“Are you going to stay with us,” Ernie asked.
Jessie stood up and took a drink. “I can’t answer that right now.” He left the room.
Ernie held up a photograph of his wife when she was a young girl and stared at it for several minutes. She was standing at a fence, her long hair was windblown. She was wearing a pleated skirt and saddle shoes. There was a wry smile on her face. He turned the photo over. On the back, Grace, age 16, was written.
He folded the picture and put it in his shirt pocket.
“Where did we get all these potatoes?” Ernie asked poking at the bag with his index finger.
“You got them somewhere Grandad,” Jessie said. “Don’t you remember?”
“I got them?” his grandfather said, a confused expression crossing his face. “I can’t imagine where I would get a bag of potatoes.”
“You made some soup out of some of them Grandad.” Jessie turned and stared out the screen door. An eddy of dirt and coal dust danced across the railroad tracks.
“The bag looks like the bags we used to collect coal from along the tracks. Did you know we did that Jessie?”
“Yes, Grandad, I know,” he said. Jessie turned back. “Do you want to go to the cemetery, Grandad?”
“That would be nice,” his grandfather said.
Noah sat in the back seat behind Jessie. He had the window down and exhaled puffs of smoke in the passing breeze.
Miles of open farmland bordered the road on both sides. Large farmhouses sat far back surrounded by large oak and sycamore trees. As Noah turned onto a gravel road they passed under a row of maple trees before coming upon a small closed iron gate. Noah got out of the car and opened the gate then got back in the car.
“There’s really a cemetery back here?” Noah said.
“Yep. It’s small and very old. I don’t think many people even know it’s back here.”
A half mile further headstones stuck up out of the tall grass. Noah stopped the car. “Looks like we’re here,” he said.
As soon as he got out of the car Ernie went straight to a headstone with a hairline crack down its center. Jessie followed him.
Grace Burnett, 1945- 2005, beloved wife and mother was etched in the stone.
“I’m glad your friend could come with us,” Ernie said.
“His name is Noah, remember Grandad?” Jessie said putting his hand on his grandad’s shoulder.
Ernie pushed aside the grass and knelt down. He took the photo from his pocket and unfolded it and laid it against the base of the headstone.
“This was my wife,” he said. “I remember that.”
Noah walked among the few other graves reading the names and dates etched in the stones. He leaned against a statue of a angel with spread wings on a square block etched with the names of the deceased, a man and a woman, and lit a cigarette. He watched Jessie and Ernie, etching their images into his brain.
On the drive back they had to stop at the railroad tracks as the 4:10 passed by pulling boxcars.
As Jessie slept facing the other side of the bed, Noah climbed out of bed and quietly dressed. He gathered his clothes in his arms and shoved them into a duffel bag and lifted the bag to his shoulder. Going out of the room he grabbed the handkerchief from the dresser and shoved it into his pants pocket. From the back porch he saw through the early morning haze the 5:15 coming down the tracks. He hopped over the porch railing and waited at the tracks until the train engine passed. As the train’s whistle blared, he threw the duffel bag into a boxcar and then leapt in after it.