THE RAILS

The old names don’t fit anymore. Hobo, tramp, vagabond, drifter. Simon comes to the yard to sit among the beached railcars, rusting and grown over, and he listens as Walter goes on about the days when those old names still had some kind of meaning beyond flavor.  

Employees tolerate Walter. Security armed with flashlights and looking for vandals, clerks come over from the depot or the exchange to smoke or to nap or to have a private moment alone or together. They know Walter is in here somewhere among the maze of hulks, an old man smiling over some memory pleasant and free.

The yard is surrounded by miles of fencing but holes show in places, in places lengths have fallen away to lay flat in dust or in gravel or among wild grasses. Simon enters through any of these and each day he finds Walter sitting in the open door of a rotted railcar or on the stump of some tree or other cutaway decades gone by to make way for this graveyard of steel and years.  

Simon eats his lunch and he shares it with Walter, half a sandwich or a sliver of melon, an egg boiled hard. The old man eats and he talks with no rush in unfocused bouts, wandering through aisles of memory and pulling down finds along the way. He talks of men dead ten years, twenty years, longer, their stories all that’s left, a vague immortality, some growing still, the story taking on an air of legend as its facts are stretched a little with each telling. Their stories are his now, the last man, the wandering figure left to carry these tellings to those that would hear.  

And stories they did have. Of their travels, of the things they did, their many lives lived hard and lived fast. And other things. Other stories.  

They each on their own made the claim, to have seen the thing on some night in some city, Tucson, Chicago, Atlanta. They describe it as an it or as a he but it is the same in every telling. The suit a deep blue and filthy, the thing’s flesh the pale blue of fish belly or corpse. It hums a little tune in the dark and it takes its pick of the riders arranged about in the car and it does devour the flesh and meat of man, the organs, the life. It dances with its pleasure and its bare feet blacked by filth or by tar or the coals of some true hell do move with a rhythm at ease and joyous.  

Walter offers up these absurd fables of the rails with a smile. He’ll tell the same version of some man’s encounter twice, three times, savoring the details as if it is some delicacy he has only now come upon. When Simon asks if he’s ever seen the thing Walter demurs.  

“Oh now, that was all so long ago.”

He drinks some but he is not a drunkard. He goes up into the woods most nights to sleep. He laughs when Simon asks if it is because the thing might come around when the sun goes down but he does not say no.

They say the thing whispers to himself in a tongue foreign to any land of this world. They say when he speaks to the men who shrink and cower in steel coffins streaking down endless miles that it is not with that heathen tongue alien to all sanity but with a voice subdued and polite, the voice of someone known since forever, an old friend, a voice heard in childhood dreams or remembered from the impossible past, dating to the womb, dating to before. They’ve seen him, every man, when a train car passes with one door pulled wide and his form framed in a moon silver above, that hole in the night sky. They say he’s a childhood nightmare come back to haunt these men lost and running, souls come untethered and left to drift to the ends of the Earth, men whom no static point can any longer hold.  

When Simon asks why those old days are gone and the men who lived them gone and the names and the stories they together make all gone too the old man looks away and he sits still and so quiet for some time and he is thinking or he is trying not to think when Simon speaks up again, now asking if the men were afraid of that creature, a joke maybe, his smile almost eager, but Walter returns to the moment meeting Simon’s gaze and now in the old man there is visible a deep sadness that though there before had until this moment remained well masked.  

“I don’t know,” says the old man.

The moon has rejoined the sky when Simon walks the quarter mile through fence and ground stone and track after track to the active line where shipments of all manner of things pass daily or they stop for a time between where they began and where they will meet their eventual fate. He looks into an open container and then into another. Voices collude somewhere nearby but they are muted and without consequence. He is here now, in a story of his own making. He is a legend come to life, those long dead men renewed in just his walking this place, their world returned. He smiles up at the silver moon. When he hears the clank of metal as a line of cars begins to pull away from this world and race into another world impossible to know unless it is lived he does not stop to think or consider but only slaps his palms on the floor of the open car and boosts and leaps and then rolls across floor and lays prone and elated for a full minute, overcome, still grinning the simple grin of a child as he rises and stands and wiping hands on pants begins to contemplate the future. 

Craig Rodgers has published a few books and intends to publish a few more before faking his own death.