BY WILLIAM SUBOSKI
Copyright is held by the author.
THE NIGHT of her mother’s funeral we climbed into the car and drove. Skittering the backroads, paths she knew from growing up here, but that were a labyrinth to me. The sun was setting but still she drove, Melissa biting her lip and gripping the steering wheel as if it were a life jacket.
She stops us at a level railroad crossing an old back country road miles from anywhere. The dark autumn wind blows coldly across the browned fields and gusts a keening cry through the stand of trees briefly beside the rusted track. The lonely desolation of this place echoes Melissa’s sadness as she whispers, “This is the last time I saw her.”
I would hold her to warm her but she stands apart. The breeze laments the past summer as leaves fall and rustle in sighs and scratching of cold to come. The sun is an hour down and the October sky is chilling fast. I rub my hands together but she does not mime me. She is lost to time, living in that night 22 years ago.
“Eighteen miles that way is Statesward,” she says, pointing vaguely eastward down the old line. “Chester is back that way. Freight trains used to run these lines, two or three a day. Big, dark and slow-moving, like grazing buffalo,” She smiles slightly, “Moving down the line.” She pauses again. “We would lie in bed and hear the whistle, and wonder where the train would end up…where we would end up.”
The crossing gates are black and white and corrosion red, rusting and wanting paint. One of the red light covers is broken, leaving ragged edges, but the bulb might be intact. The road on either side of the crossing is asphalt, crumbling on the shoulders and fading into dirt. The gates stand straight upright, perfect mirror images of each other, silent sentinels serving a duty that will never come again and frozen in time.
She sees me looking at them and speaks again.
“We were identical. Even Mom couldn’t tell us apart — Melissa and Melinda. We developed early, both getting breasts at 12. That’s when he started coming into our room.”
She looks westward, toward Chester and home, where the last rays of the sun fade into the night sky. She is quiet and I see her shiver a bit. She wraps herself in her arms.
“She put herself forward. She wanted to wear make-up. Mom said no. Bob said yes. And she started wearing makeup. But she refused to teach me, and when I tried some of hers one day she yelled at me.” She takes a deep breath for what comes next. “She never yelled at me, only that time…When he would come into our room at night, she always made sure he picked her. We were identical — on the outside. Inside, night and day. I was a bookworm, and she was an athlete and artist. I was good at writing, she was good at penmanship. She had beautiful cursive and was a talented sketch artist.”
She steps between the rails, onto the ties, and starts walking toward Statesward as a cold gust blows through and we both shiver.
“We would walk down the tracks. We spent days out here, up and down the tracks. She could balance on the rails, turn around on them, jump from one to the other and land like a deer. If I was careful, I could slowly walk a rail…she would flirt with him. Pretend she liked him. He always picked her. He never touched me. She made herself up for him. She worked the farm with him, always smiling, always helping. And she always told me, never tell Mom, it would destroy her.”
“We finished high school at seventeen. I got a scholarship and Melinda didn’t. The farm depended on her and Bob. I was coming home for the first weekend since starting school – end of September. The Thursday before, Bob was found dead at the bottom of the silo. He fell inside it, and the coroner said that it took him several hours to die. A shame nobody found him in time.”
But there is no sympathy in her voice. She is toneless, as if reading a shopping list or recipe. Then she turns on the railroad tie. She had been walking away from me on ties that are dry and grey and cracked with age, set in gravel to keep from rotting. She stands a moment, then steps lightly to the next tie.
“Bob had a generous insurance policy. Very high premiums. He never cared about us. But somehow, six months before, he had taken out a large policy. Signed by him, definitely his signature. We didn’t need the farm anymore. Mom couldn’t figure it out, when and why did he get this policy.” A long pause: “He was a small man, physically big, but small in every other way. But, egotist that he was, he always signed his name with a flourish, large loops and detail, highly stylized, and there it was on the policy.” She sticks her tongue out and tastes the air. “It’s going to be a cold winter.”
She spins about a few times then hops onto a rail. She lands beautifully and gracefully and casually strolls down it. She turns and pirouettes and walks the other way. She lifts her arms up as if hugging the sky, and she smiles.
“For the first time in years Melinda wasn’t wearing makeup. She looked like me again. She looked like us. And she looked tired. I asked her why, but she just shrugged. That weekend, it was the three of us again, me and Mel and Mom, like before Bob. We went to the Dairy Queen in town. Melinda grilled out. You could smell the fall, like now.” She pauses. “We slept in our shared room again. We talked late into the night in the dark. We were kids again. Sometime after midnight we heard a train whistle and we played our old game, who are they, where are they going, when will they come back.”
“Paul,” she said, her voice suddenly small, “I just want to sit on the hood of the car and look at the stars awhile. Can we do that?”
We lay back on the windshield, and away in the distance something howled, probably a dog. There were no other lights, just the stars, and I saw them more clearly than I ever had before. I looked at the dark trees in the night and a line from Frost came to me, “The woods are lovely, dark, and deep . . .”
She starts talking again, more slowly and as if her voice is thickened by molasses.
“That Sunday after Bob died, we drove out here. I wasn’t thinking, wasn’t paying attention. It was like before, but it wasn’t. We had that one last night, and then we had to move on, down the line…We sat here talking and then watched as a freight approached. The gates lowered. The lights started flashing. The chimes sounded. She leaned over and kissed my cheek, and said, ‘I’m leaving, little miss. I’ll be back, but I’m leaving now. Take care of Mom, and yourself —’”
“And she was out of the car. She ran to the crossing and hopped onto the train before I could even react; then she was gone.” She pauses and I fight the urge to speak, to ask questions which will shatter her delicate moment of revelation. If she says it, it will be forever between us. I can live with that, but can she?
“We were young; we weren’t adults; we were still girls. She always protected me, protected Mom, but no one protected her. I think of how alone she must have been, how hard it was for her. But she wouldn’t let me protect her. She got on the train and we never saw her again.”
We lie side by side and she reaches for my hand. She twines her fingers in mine and we lie there not saying anything as the stars turn overhead. I hear the tears in her voice as her tone becomes flat and reportorial:
“A month after she left was the Halloween dance. I was back at school in Columbus. That night, five kids — sons and daughters of the town leaders – came down the road from that way. Maybe as fast as 70 miles an hour. They were drunk. They were young. They hit the side of the freight going by. The two in the front seat were instantly killed in the collision. The three in the backseat were trapped and died in the fire. The freight dragged the car 300 feet down the track. The town was crazy with grief. The tracks were disconnected at both ends and the line was abandoned. The trains were gone.”
Bill is an aspiring fiction writer with a background in computer programming. He is still trying to decide what he wants to be when he grows up. Born in Indiana, Bill is a transplanted Hoosier living as a Buckeye by way of Canada and the Netherlands. Contact Bill at WSuboski—at-yahoo-dot-com.