The Whisky Blot
It was a cold night in late March and the moon rose somewhere over Kansas. The wind screamed, the way it does over metal, sharp and unrelenting, forcing me to shelter behind my pack. I stuffed a t-shirt into my wool hat to cover my face and peered though it like a mask. I was bound for home and classes on a freight train out of Amarillo—almost broke, exhausted, happy.
The train stopped. I moved to the front of the car—an empty automobile carrier with sides like a guard rail rising three levels—and stepped down into the night. Fields still slumbered in dark winter, flat to the horizon where low stars and distant farm lights mixed. With luck, I’d ride as far as Chicago.
After a two-year absence, I was eager to return to the university and finish my degree. But this night, in this cold place, I was having second thoughts. What did sitting behind a desk have to offer? I had floundered in one program or another, searching for answers, yet hardly knowing the questions to ask. School, I was convinced, was not going to bring out my best self, so I left to pursue what I thought a more worthy life. What’s the use of all that noise and money? asked the Tang Dynasty poet Han-shan, named for the place he lived, Cold Mountain. His words became my calling. Freed from the weight of expectations and a career track, I wandered, trespassed, dared—and moved in awe of a new world.
On the road I felt at once both centered, and unhinged; there were no wrong turns. Not knowing in what railyard (or backyard), or under what tree or star I’d spend the night, I lived in the moment— a delightful anxiety—out of fear from looking past it. Happy, yet scared, seemed to be my lot in life.
Of course, dropping out and leaving were easy; coming back whole, and having something to say, less so.
Now the train’s brakes hissed, it shook and lurched, and I scampered back on. The swaying, windswept car made more conventional rides— bounding along in the cab of an 18-wheeler, for example, or sharing the bed of a flatbed truck in Mexico with a drove of pigs—appear first class. Wherever I kneeled—even lying down—the wind penetrated to my bones.
The train moved with all the speed of a weather front. Until it didn’t. At a long and captive layover outside a small town south of Wichita—I followed the tracks on a road map—I slept much of the following day. Woke up, plucked a freeze-dried beef with potatoes from my pack, and boiled water on my small gas stove. This train apparently was going nowhere.
Dozing, I missed the first eastbound that rolled into the deserted yard and waited until dark for the next.
I was not alone on this one. Two Mexican teenagers, laughing and coatless, dashing and daring, jumped from a boxcar as the train slowed, beckoning me to follow them. I didn’t comprehend. “How is this?” I yelled. “Where to? Adónde?”
“La máquina! La máquina!” The younger one shouted, pointing to a second locomotive at the front of the train, coupled back-to-back to the main engine. I followed their lead. We climbed the steps and made ourselves at home on the narrow floor.
“Yo soy Marcos,” I told them.
“Arnulfo,” said the younger boy. The older one seemed distant, yet at the same time watched me with a closeness that was unnerving. He wouldn’t tell me his name. Perhaps if I had had a mirror, I wouldn’t have trusted the person in it either. The two were cleaner-looking than me. Their hair was cut, their faces smooth—if indeed they were old enough to use a razor. I had a good beard going, and shoulder length hair. They were better dressed as well, however insufficiently, in shirts and trousers. I had on five layers, flannel and wool, a down jacket and rainsuit. The Michelin Man from hell.
“Hermanos?” I asked.
“Primos,” Arnulfo said. Cousins.
Spanish was at least one course I had finished at school. Arnulfo said they hoped to find work and send money home. They had nothing to eat. I gave them a freeze-dried meal of something or other (they all taste the same after a while) which they tore into and devoured dry, like cereal. He said they’d hopped a train some days ago in El Paso and survived the frigid nights hunkering down in deserted engine rooms, drinking the potable water there. In the warmth of this new shelter, my sleeping bag now draped over the three of us, I would survive too.
The train’s rhythms were riveting, even hypnotic from our uneasy berth, which at best was not unlike the rocking of a cradle. Or, at worst, the steady back-and-forth churning of a washing machine. And we were the oversized, unbalanced load that hadn’t set off any alarms. Yet. The train whistle (or horn) was loud, too, its frequency indicating the size of the town we rumbled through, and my heart skipped a beat—as it still does, to this day—listening to the unquiet wonder of it piercing the darkness.
As we crossed the heartland, I thought of perhaps the first whistle I’d ever heard, alongside my brother a lifetime ago in an Iowa motel room near tracks, and of a train I’d been on too, a dateless journey into the night with my father somewhere near Niagara Falls. Trips I cannot put into context other than to say there was a train, night, a whistle, family. Plaintive sound—or bold warning—the sound of a train is more or less a wrinkle in time that announces the past is ever present, and the present—in the blink of an eye—is already past.
In the middle of the night, as the train eased into a small yard in central Kansas, a man entered our locomotive, stumbled upon us and abruptly left. Spooked, the boys and I fled that engine at the next stop, literally hit the ground running, found an open door down the line and thrust ourselves into a dank and empty boxcar. At once, and in silence, we worked the heavy ironlike doors almost closed, leaving them open just enough to breathe in the bitter fresh air. The collective fear of being locked in and entombed in this bleak car needed no translation.
Moving through the din and darkness of morning, staring through the gap in the doors at the tree line across the tracks, I had the improbable and magical feeling that wherever we were going, wherever we ended up, I’d been to. Trains can turn your world upside down like that.
For much of my life I’d gazed longingly at tracks, steel rails that seemed to beckon and bend and dissolve in the heat, disappearing in a destiny of their own beyond anything I could imagine, and the sound of a coming train—the whistle in the air, the humming of the ground—was an invitation to jump aboard; a song I had to know. Looking back at that time and the wisdom of taking such risks, today I wonder if I had lost my mind—or was simply more willing to find it.
Toward dawn we approached Kansas City, its bright lights spilling through the peephole of our boxcar doors, reminding me that I was one step—or yard—closer to home. The old desire to fit in, to be stamped and graded pulled at me as relentlessly as the wind had pushed. I wanted to be, well, wanted. Accepted. Loved. I was torn between Cold Mountain, Han-shan’s world, and the one chasing approval. I came to the understanding that the road away—painfully, joyfully—frames what home is and is not, as well as the people you run from, or to. The road back is merely one seeking acceptance, and I wanted to come in from the cold.
As I would. Wearing every last shred of clothing I had, the sleeping bag again draped over our bodies, I thought of grabbing it and my pack and jumping from the train.
Railroad security, however, would spare me that. Drifting in and out of sleep, I hadn’t realized that we had reached the yard. Suddenly a flashlight was in our faces. A second man barked his what-the-fuck at us. Forced off the train, they frisked, handcuffed and sat us down, like stones on a stone wall, guarded by one agent as two others searched one-by-one the remaining cars with their imposing Maglites.
The great yard shook with life in the early morning. Tens and tens of tracks merged and straightened and curled like a sea of black snakes as cars of all shapes, tall as bulldozers and flat as dominos, were joined or uncoupled amidst the clamor of bells. The smell of diesel was thick like mud. Switchmen sprung up like jacks-in-the-box, jumping and hollering to rearrange whole trains with a whisk of their wrists and lanterns, their sharp cries splitting the frosted blue-gray air. I thought of Studs Terkel. Sinclair Lewis. Gary Snyder. Marty Robbins.
In their tight blazers and pencil thin neckties, the two agents who busted us seemed out of place in this expansive yard teeming with workmen in coveralls. But they too had roles, and drove us to a still dark, modern brick building less than a mile away. One agent led the Mexican teens to another room and then went to search for the janitor who spoke Spanish, while the other interrogated me at his desk. He asked if I was carrying any drugs, and whether I had a Buck knife, which he clearly coveted. I had neither, and little else other than a few granola bars in my pack and some change in my pockets. He returned to his paperwork as I again thought of home—Michigan was another 600 miles east—and my time away from it.
Whatever it is that young men search for, I was in the hunt, trying to find a life without adornment, blather and harm—and I was inexplicably drawn to trains. Perhaps the attraction was simple; the tracks led away from home, school and a predicable life. But tracks, of course, run in both directions; and home, as they say, is where your story begins. At times, telling mine seems within reach.
The agent, finished with his report, took a phone call, then put the receiver down. “The highway is a few miles from here,” he said, nodding toward my pack. “You can likely find a ride there.” And I thought, it’s a weary thing, the simple act of holding your thumb out and relying on the charity of others. I wasn’t looking forward to it. I thought too of the teens, soon to be homeward bound themselves with the clothes on their backs and probably not much more. Just then I turned to the waiting room to see them enter and sit. The older, quiet one raised his cuffed hands and smiled at me through the glass.
“Pablo,” he said, loud enough for me to hear. “Pablo from Magdalena de Kino. Vaya con dios, Marcos.”
“They’ll be detained for Immigration,” the agent said, following my gaze. “You’re free to go. But I’m warning you: We have what we need to know about you. Do not ride the Santa Fe through Kansas again.”
And I wouldn’t. Not in Kansas.
B.L. Makiefsky was the winner of the 2012 Michigan Writers Cooperative Press chapbook contest, for the short story collection Fathers and Sons. Among publications his work has been featured in (or is forthcoming) are the Detroit Free Press, Dunes Review, Thoughtful Dog, Pithead Chapel, Brilliant Flash Fiction, Fiction Southeast, Flash Fiction Magazine, Hypertext Magazine, Jewish Literary Journal, the Great Lakes Review, On The Run and jewishfiction.net. In addition, Makiefsky has written three stage plays, one of which (a one-act) was produced.
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