“Ghost Train” by Eli Hastings
At the mountain peak where I gave a handful of my father’s ashes to the wind, a healthy Evergreen fell the next day. Beside the river, I squatted on a boulder and tossed most of the remaining ashes, watching them fly with the black water. Forty-eight hours later the river raged to a height I’d never seen in my twenty-four years of life. I carry a pinch of the remains in a tiny glass jar around my throat.
Sometimes I believe that the power Dad’s ashes hold is the injustice of his death. All the bitterness transformed into a wild voltage. Some days I wish I had more ashes, a little bag from which I could pull out handfuls and blow them on annoying people—who now seem increasingly commonplace.
Yes, hello, this is Irene from Citicorp Visa? We have received information indicating that the holder of this card is deceased? He is? With whom did you speak? Well, we have no record of anyone speaking with you. A payment is due on this balance. Well, I can’t give out that information. Are you the executor of the estate? You will have to supply us with a death certificate and documentation verifying that. The payment is actually overdue.
The harassment is endless.
The last time I spoke to my father, I often remember with shame, I felt somewhat harassed.
* * *
It was during the first months of my graduate study in Alabama; I thought I was becoming the next great American novelist but had written less than a hundred pages. The winter day had been filled with lectures and classes and then hours of serving drinks to tipsy, Dixiecrat businessmen. By the time I came home to the arms of my girl friend and the contagious glee of our dogs, all I wanted was a beer and some sleep. But the phone rang and, at the same moment, I remembered Dad’s next-day departure.
Yeah, it’s been a long one, Dad. I’m sorry. Will you be able to get to your email in Venezuela? I’ll do better about email because I’ve got to be at a computer a lot in the next few days.
My father took no offense—he never did at my poor communication—but half a minute later he’d forgotten the comment and was unleashing a diatribe against his sissified friends who’d warned him against the trip to South America.
I mean, I fucking swear, Tony, these people would like me never to leave the house for anything. I’m only fifty years old, for Christ’s sake. And I’m in the best shape I’ve been in since my accident.
Leaning on the counter, smearing cheese on a bread heel, I found myself nodding, something I do when I’m either earnestly involved in a conversation or very much wanting to end it. By the time I finished my meager supper, my wish to keep the talk short boomeranged into Dad’s mind and, somewhat sheepishly, he said goodnight and promised to call from high in the Andes soon.
In the small hours before dawn, the lazy fan stirring the scent of the love we’d made, Liz sighing in her dream, the dogs huffing in the corner, a trio of birds previewing the day, and sleep still out of reach, I regretted my hurry. The dismissal of my loving father reddened my cheeks with shame, even there, in the dark. It was worsened when I realized fear had been behind Dad’s words—he’d been looking for reassurance from me. Five years had rolled past since the last time Dad fled his life for the other Americas. Five years since his last attempt to rid the stalemate that settled over him. The trip had ended with Dad in the bottom of a canyon, shattered by a ninety-foot fall from a cliff. Two days in a Guatemalan ward, a fourteen-hour Medivac flight, eight major surgeries, and six weeks in a hospital followed. Five years of physical agony came after that. And at last Dad had gathered himself and struck off again into an unknown place, trying to re-start a life corrupted by depression and loneliness, blindly searching for salvation with a half-destroyed body and a fragile faith. And the significance didn’t hit me till four a.m.
I sighed intentionally loud, hoping Liz would slide closer, put a hand on me in sleepy care. But she rolled away. A freight train blew a mournful note and pulled out of the world, heading for Virginia. I lit a cigarette and blew it into the ceiling fan.
There is a piece of land out west my parents bought at the height of their love. My sweetest memories are colored and framed by that place; it was where childhood felt like a childhood ought to. There was a train we often heard in those mountains, a horn and engine, far beyond sight. When I was a kid, wrapped in quilts and settling in on the porch of the cabin, under the silent crystal dusting and the winks of the impossibly big sky, Dad would tell me it was a ghost train. A mournful, floating, blue bleat would come through the air, from everywhere and nowhere and Dad would glance at me in pretend fear.
You hear that son?
It’s a train, Dad.
Yeah, but no one’s ever seen it.
Nuh-huh. That’s a lie.
No, it’s true. They say there used to be trains out here, hundreds of years ago, but they disappeared with the gold and iron. Now there’s just a ghost train that haunts the mountains. Full of the ghosts of miners and cowboys and whatnot.
Dad had a poker face like no other. I was an incredulous kid. I scrutinized him for a trace of a smile. But he never betrayed himself. He’d sit and pull on a can of Miller, back-lit by a kerosene glow from the kitchen, nodding.
Yessir, be a mighty brave soul go out there and look for that train.
I always knew what was coming but waited anyway, playing my end of the game.
Think we should?
He’d turn his eyes to me, flashing mischief.
Oh, c’mon, Tony, let’s do it, he’d say, rising, finishing off the can.
No, Dad, no way, stay here!
I climbed up, shedding blankets, catching hold of a limb, trying to wrestle him back down. It would always end with tussling, and finally deep sleep, the notions of ghosts banished by laughter. But I never asked, in seriousness, whether that train was real or not.
I smiled at the memory and took the last drag of my cigarette. The last thin note of the freight train was replaced by the always-rising song of Alabama’s cicadas. A car growled by, the gold of its headlights sliced by the blinds, falling in columns across the cluttered bedroom, sleeping dogs and Liz. The morning felt half real.
In less than twelve hours I’d get the call from the abruptly formal consulate, informing me that my father died of “natural causes,” his body supine and strange in a crowded and unclean morgue.
* * *
Scarcely two months after my last conversation with Dad, I’m sitting at a picnic table in the same Seattle City Park where I boozed away my teenage years. Day and night are battling in the western slate of sky and I’m trying to write a poem about it. The casualties of the clashing colors, the dirty oranges, crimson flashes, and cobalt streaks transfix me and I’m stone still with two unopened bottles side by side in front of me: Mickey’s malt liquor, forty ounces, one dollar and ninety-eight cents, and a fifth of aged Sullivan bourbon, ninety-seven dollars. My reasoning for these purchases is complex. On one hand, I feel compelled to toast my grief properly, with the honor it calls for. On the other hand, I want simply to drown the ugliness within me. Or maybe I want the fire of those two potions to melt the frightening numb that’s taken hold; maybe I’m as scared to continue not feeling as I am to open that box. Also, Mickey’s is a nostalgic beer from the carefree days of high school and Sullivan’s is what I’ll drink when I become the man I hope to be. Finally, I found myself in a market that bordered two distinct neighborhoods and they carried both, so I bought them and drove directly to the park.
I twist the caps off each bottle and take a long swallow of the whisky followed by a short sip of the beer. The burn of the hard flavors in my throat feels just right in its violence. I have another duo, straight away. I’m aware of the danger in it, the illusion that there exists an ease in it; the peace I want so badly is not contained in these bottles—but the trick is good enough. Good enough for now. Guilt and my sense of responsibility tell me that my regimen of vice cannot last beyond… what? Grief, beyond the “grieving period.” What the fuck is that? I throw back more. A breeze gathers in the ravine and blows past me.
Responsibility is now my watchword and it tightens my jaw. Responsible for tracking down elusive strangers who Dad had wanted to leave money—despite the insolvency of his estate, despite the fact that the will and testament is ten years old, from an era of financial success that decidedly ended. Responsible for paying credit card bills though the cocksucking companies won’t speak to me without loads of paperwork assembled and faxed. Responsible for selling the car, packing up the house, sifting through the ruins and treasures of a life half lived. Responsible for making sure the paltry sums and belongings make it into the hands of distant people. Responsible for telling the story of Dad’s elevation-induced embolism to at least one old friend or business partner every day. Responsible for convincing people that they are doing a really bang-up job of being there for me. Responsible for not fleeing the scene and vanishing onto the blue highways of America, which is all I really crave.
I drink more.
“Where’s the party son?”
Startled, I spill some of the Mickey’s. I know it’s a cop before I hear the crackle of the radio. I steady the bottle against the picnic table and take a breath. Turning around, I sit on the tabletop, putting my feet on the bench. I face the officer with what is surely an unsuccessful smile.
“I was just wondering that myself, sir.”
I try humor but my face just can’t hold onto it—it stalls and falters like an old car trying to make it over a steep pass. The cop shifts his weight. He’s middle-aged, with sunglasses despite the hour, fit. I’m unable to muster the deference or the sobriety necessary. And besides, I just don’t give a fuck.
“Live around here?”
The cop takes out a notepad.
“For now, here again. I also live in Alabama.”
He throws an annoyed glance at me and scribbles.
“Back home visiting or what?”
“My dad died.”
When I hear it, I realize I’ve said it with venom, as if the cop is partly responsible. For his part, the cop softens his tone some.
“6709 West Fallsworth.”
“Date of birth?”
“July 28, 1877.”
“Want to try that again?”
His pen is poised and big eyebrows arch over his large lenses.
“I want to try it all again. I really do feel that old. Am I being detained?” I blurt out, slurring. He takes off his shades and rubs the bridge of his nose.
“Well, you’re sitting in a very public part of a public park with two open containers talking to yourself. So, yes, you are being detained for the moment.”
He cocks his pen and pad again and I drop my eyes, realizing I just made things worse. But then he sighs and puts his pad away.
“Listen, kid. If I tell you to put the caps on those bottles and go home, will you do that? Because, frankly, I can’t tell if you’re the kind that I’m going to have to drag to the drunk tank or not, and a real easy way to find out is to let you walk away and see what you do.”
He crosses his arms and stares down at me, something non-cop stirring behind the gray shield of his gaze. I nod at the ground, gather the bottles and start the wobbly trek back to the house, to the desk, to the files, to the computer—to the mess and the pressurized madness.
* * *
The next day, I speed along in Dad’s old Subaru through the mid-afternoon traffic. The whisky rolls around in the trunk with groceries, a sleeping bag, and a photo of my father. I’m bound for my parents’ land. I awoke with a burning need to go. The surreal weekend I spent there last month, immediately after Dad’s death, careened through my head like a nightmare—aside from the ceremonies with his ashes. Taking a trip to their property was settled upon opening the Seattle Times this morning to read about a young girl who’d lost her boyfriend in Iraq. She’d wrapped herself in an American flag and taken a swan dive off a skyscraper downtown. They even published her suicide note—she referenced those monks in Vietnam that lit themselves up to end the war there. For a moment her action felt attractive and noble, a rip-roaring way to scream pain at the world. And I knew I needed to get away.
I left the computer on, emails bubbling up in the inbox, the phone ringing, creditors starting on their trajectories from civil toward hostile. I whip around a Lexus nosing into my lane and fix the startled yuppie driving it with a glare.
When my folks were no longer able to deny the gulf between them and finally divorced, the rights to the land fell to my mother. Dad didn’t fight it at the time—neither of them had fought for anything, too devastated by the failure of their love. But the land is where my flashes of childhood arise from—smiles and laughter and shafts of sunlight, the green river’s dazzle, big yellow wildflowers riding behind Mom’s ear or tangled in Dad’s long, hippie beard.
Despite being the sole owner, I’m not sure Mom ever went back before moving to Mexico with her new husband. Only I made pilgrimages. I went alone and I brought a few trusted friends from time to time. I drank strong liquor on the weak deck and cursed its decline. Or I put my unskilled hands to small tasks: bracing the deck’s supports, re-tacking the insulation, nailing screens shredded by hungry ravens back into place.
The lurch of the city driving is giving way to the even ride of the country now. I put it into fifth and strip off my shirt. The farmland holds that hue of spring green that seems unbearably alive, as if it will soon swallow any inferior colors. Holsteins wander and chew; red, mechanical arms pluck crops. In the opposite lane, city kids flash by in a lowered Honda—it’s Monday and they’re no doubt returning from a beer-soaked camping excursion. Their faces are freeze-frame contentment, blue smoke jarring loose from their mouths. I push the car harder in the opposite direction.
A long curve feeds traffic into the peaceful belly of a defunct logging town. As I brake, I glimpse two boys on the railroad tracks that run parallel to the highway. They’re strolling, leaping the ties, banging sticks on the smooth, mirrored steel of the tracks. I watch them as traffic backs up. One of them drops to his knees and presses his small head to the track. Then he leaps up, excited, and the two of them dig out coins—which, like all kids, they place on the rails before riding their heels down the gravel embankment, turning and crouching with their sticks, peering up as if waiting in ambush. The traffic moves and pulls me away. But the scene has blown a window open in my mind to a visit with Dad in my teenage years.
I was almost eighteen and he had asked me to go camping with him. I was an aloof, angst-ridden, absurd teenager, and I almost refused before I realized it wasn’t a request. Without a word Dad drove us to the property. As a decade of absence rolled through me, I watched Dad drive, his eyes dueling the rutted road, without a pause, directly past the slouching cabin.
What the fuck, Dad?
We’re going camping, Tony.
Why you bring us here if you don’t want to be here?
I don’t want to be in that cabin; I just want to be on this land.
I forced out a staggered sigh and shoved my Doc Martins into the dash.
I don’t get it, Dad. I really don’t.
He sighed, but it wasn’t forced.
I know you don’t, son.
Dad went to the tent early that night, leaving me alone with the moon on the river and the eerie songs of owls. But the next morning he shook me out of a dream and put cowboy coffee in my hands. He said we were going to hike a bit. I groaned and rolled my eyes, took several minutes to get up and splash river water on my face. But this was more nominal resistance than real aversion. The way Dad looked up at the ridges and watched the water, his silence and patience, stirred something in me.
We headed up an old logging road on an early-autumn carpet of blood red leaves. I straggled a little, knocking at branches with a piece of driftwood. After a short while, though, I had to commit all my energy to keeping up with Dad who was striding at a steady pace even as it got steeper. Dad didn’t speak or glance back at me. My Marlboro-scarred lungs protested, but pride lifted my burning thighs on.
I saw him reach level ground, passing through the forest’s mouth into the mid-morning brilliance of a clearing. I came to his side, trying not to gulp air. Train tracks winked in the hard, leftover summer light and ran south hundreds of yards before vanishing into a tunnel bored into the mountainside. Dad took off his hat and sat on a rail. He was bald by then and the wrinkles on his face were multiplying. I wondered how many were laugh lines and how many marked anxiety, regret, and age. Dad pulled a handkerchief across his face.
For a few minutes we fell victim again to that particular brand of awkwardness that sprouts between a father and his son as the boy comes ungracefully out of boyhood. The twilight zone of evolution where a father’s own seed becomes a stranger to him, even when that stranger’s becoming more like him. In truth, we’d been in that place for over a year. I chucked gravel at the tree line. I wasn’t going to show my surprise at coming upon these tracks, the long bones of the ghost story he used to tell. Finally Dad leaned back, closing his eyes as he gave his face to the sun.
Your grandfather was a drunk, a racist, and a hero. He tormented me and your grandmother to no end. During all his years in real estate, he wouldn’t show houses in white neighborhoods to blacks from the city. I hated him for that, you know. I wanted to see Chicago burn, myself.
He cleared his throat.
But he killed a lot of Nazis and he loved me.
The buzzing labor of stinging insects took over. Words whirled in my head. Finally I managed to slop out a response.
I wish I could have known him.
Tears tried to ambush me. I nearly choked concealing them. Dad nodded, his eyes on a black ant tugging a broken pine needle over rocks.
Did I ever tell you what happened to your aunt Helen on that streetcar in San Francisco?
Dad turned to me then, his confidence in my interest growing.
The afternoon unfurled over cheese sandwiches. The conversation spanned oceans and generations. I said very little, interjecting a question now and then, letting Dad empty his memory banks, vowing to remember every name and detail. All these strands of life were knotted somewhere within me, I realized. It made me feel less strange.
We were surprised by the failure of sunlight, so involved in talking. Dusk swung in swiftly and, with it, silence and a touch of that awkwardness again. Dad sighed in a way that seemed not punctuation to all he’d said, but preface to something else.
I wish I had fought harder for your mother, Tony.
I could only nod at the sky. I knew this. A doe leapt in silence from the woods. It crossed the tracks daintily. It did not see us. We watched it slip back into the brush. As we left, it struck me that no train had passed.
The beginning of the gouged dirt road ends my reminiscing. I yank the lever to engage the four-wheel drive. The car leans madly from side to side. As I bounce through the canyon, gaining altitude, I begin to feel the familiar tingle that always marks my arrival here.
I coast into the meadow in the middle of which the cabin squats, looking as if it has dropped from the sky. It’s shedding shingles and the sagging parts outnumber the square angles. I get out, eyeing the place with a mix of nostalgia and suspicion—I’m not at all sure why I’ve come.
When night arrives in force, when I can no longer make out the soft dance of the meadow’s grasses, I light a candle and put it next to the photo of Dad: smiling stoically with his cane, dressed in a Hugo Boss suit, bound for dinner on the town one year to the day after his fall from that cliff. The inky black settles into the land. The candle gutters, erasing and re-creating my father’s face. I drink stabs of bourbon. I try, vaguely, to pray. I try to talk to Dad. But I wind up softly cursing and at last I fall into a doze under the apricot peals of moonlight, in the half-warm and half-cool breeze of the border between seasons.
* * *
I bolt upright, the sleeping bag flying off the deck, extinguishing the glowering candle. I turn wildly about and there is the carbonated metal sensation of terror in my chest. Someone has just spoken in my ear—or sung. The words I didn’t make out. I mash my hands into my eyes, shake dreams from my head. Am I drunk? There’s too much whisky in the bottle. A fucking dream. I sink against the wall, somehow disappointed. And then it rises again. The haunting, heavy, blue whistle. The note hangs and shivers and keeps my breath from me. When it ends I do not stop hearing it. From beyond the skyline of the trees’ black feather tips, I can make out the effort of an engine, a rhythm in the air. I feel small explosions under my skin and all the jailed pain reaches for an exit, swelling in me like a sun. My head roars and my muscles snap taut and I’m off the deck with the cold night in my chest and soft soil beneath my feet and forest in front of me.
Branches snap against my forearms, rake my face, small animals scramble from my path, salt streams from my eyes. I can hear my gasps filtering abjectly up through the trees, rising to meet the growing shudder of the locomotive in the splintered, moon bright sky. Time is only measured by pounding lungs. Shallow cuts on the soles of my feet and across my brow mark my distance. And then I can see a milky valley of light betrayed by thinning trees and I know I’m there.
With two strides I’m up the embankment and between the rails. The air is warm. A tunnel of wind pulls me, stumbling, forward. For the smallest fraction of time that the eye can perceive, I see the red wink of a caboose’s light. For a few more seconds the air is heavy with the charge of power and heat. I stop. There is now only a thin throb of motion, already far away. And then I drop to my knees, press my cheek to the hot tracks, and grip them in my bleeding hands. The woods press in around me and hold me in wild darkness and I weep as I have not yet wept, the rails still quivering beneath my palms.
Eli Hastings lives in Seattle with his wife and son where he works in social services and the arts and is pursuing an MA in psychology/family therapy. He earned his MFA and taught Creative Nonfiction and English courses at the UNC at Wilmington. His memoir/elegy, Clearly Now, the Rain, is forthcoming from ECW Press in the Spring of 2012. He published a book of personal essays, Falling Room, with Bison Books (University of Nebraska Press) in their American Lives Series in 2006. Two of his novels are under consideration. His work has appeared in: Rivendell, Third Coast, Cimarron Review, Pinyon, Whetstone, Alligator Juniper, Pedestal Magazine, the Seattle Review, Wandering Army, The Tulane Review, Blood Lotus, R.kv.r.y, Flashquake, 580 Split, YES! Magazine, and 10 Tons of Black Ink. He has been anthologized in Men Speak Out (Routledge Press, UK, 2007), American Lives: A Reader (University of Nebraska Press, edited by Tobias Wolff, 2010), and Show & Tell: Writers on Writing (University of North Carolina Wilmington in 2009). The essay he placed with Third Coast was nominated for a Pushcart Prize and the essay at Alligator Juniper won their nonfiction contest. Four of his stories are in preproduction as a feature film at Westbound Films (www.westboundfilms.com). He blogs and links to work at www.elihastings.blogspot.com
To read Eli Hasting’s comments on Rachel S. Thomas-Medwid’s “The God of Meat,” click here.
Notes from Chad Peterson, Managing Editor
I found myself reacting very strongly to this piece, with its patient, quiet unspooling of a painful subject. It’s a nice blend of good writing (with clear, concise description and nice detail work, set off by some exciting use of language) and well structured storytelling. The soft introduction of the action at the story’s open is set off against an immediate foreshadow that lets us know exactly where we are and what to expect, establishing the overall tone of the piece, and by the time we reach the end it has turned into both a strikingly complete portrait of a father-son relationship, and a lovely coming-of-age story that stuck with me for some time after reading. To borrow a phrase from the author, “When it ends, I do not stop hearing it.” Really lovely work.
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