(Woke up the other morning with the intense feeling I had to start working on this again, so here is a long-ish section I've revised. I'm hoping to finish this up this summer, if I can. Aside from the revisions, this will only be new to Talia. Sorry about that.)
Zeke crouched beside the creek and waited for the train. It was braying in the distance, compelling him to pause in the shadows beneath the trestle where the damp vapors of moss and mud saturated the air. He took a deep breath and pulled pieces of the heavy atmosphere into his lungs. Nothing made sense to him, but he knew the essence of Marlaina was here, underneath the trestle, waiting for him to breathe her in. He wanted to pull her right out of the mud. But everything was jumbled together, confusing him. He couldn’t quite tell what was real. He remembered laying here with her, on other dripping summer days, while the trains rumbled overhead, their bodies flowing together, mingling with the mud, but he couldn’t remember what she smelled like anymore.
As the train drew nearer he raised the machete hanging at his side and slowly ran his fingers along the blade, sweeping off the flecks of organic matter and flinging them to the ground. These flecks, he was almost positive, were not Marlaina. They could be cast aside. But a wave of uncertainty passed through him. He lifted the machete to his lips and ran his tongue along it, just to be sure. His tongue did not detect anything familiar, but he didn’t trust it, either. How could he know that it was really his tongue? Maybe if he stopped thinking about it, it would fall out of his mouth, like the machete sometimes fell out of his hand.
Overhead, the trestle shook as it proclaimed in uncertain graffiti letters: THE OC BOYS WHERE HERE. The train rumbled louder as it churned toward him. Suddenly the engine was overhead and the whistle was vibrating its notes into every crevice of his body, permeating his skin. This is what he had been waiting for. Marlaina’s presence engulfed him.
But the engine passed too quickly and pulled Marlaina across the creek and into the woods, away from him. Zeke backed out of the cool shadow of the trestle far enough into the shattered daylight to read the words on the train cars as they clacked by, a long banner of blocky instructions, just for him.
“N-S, C-O-N, Yang Ming, Maersk, Santa Fe, Hyundai, Hanjin, J.B. Hunt, Hub, N-A-C-S, China Shipping, TTX, Burlington Northern Railway, O-O-C-L, Coil Shield.”
The train was picking up speed and Zeke struggled to keep pace with the words. The last car spewed forth fat, unintelligible graffiti and then it was gone, carrying all that remained of Marlaina with it. But Zeke knew what to do. Despite its speed and the last pieces that he didn’t understand, he had captured the rhythm of the train and pulled it, pulsing, inside him. As he stood up the machete started swinging up and down. His lips began to repeat the train’s message in rhythm with the blade.
“N-S, C-O-N, Yang Ming…”
And then his legs started to run. He could feel Marlaina growing closer as he became the train.
Red warning lights were flashing and the black-and-white striped crossing arms were slowly slicing down through the air when Bart reached the railroad crossing. Any other day the 18-year-old would have gunned it and slipped across the tracks, daring the crossing arms to nick him. But today was different. He had to be in control. This was going to be his lucky day. He couldn’t do anything to screw it up. He put the car in park and waited. The train was coming and for once it was clacking along at a decent speed. It was definitely going to be his lucky day.
A screen door banged open and Marlaina emerged, plopping into a green plastic lawn chair that was perched on her sagging front porch. The house was old, formerly white, lately the color of cigarette-stained teeth. The windows were skinny and tall and rounded at the top, as though they were raising their eyebrows at the world. The roof bled a rust-stained tin.
Marlaina spied Bart’s car waiting on the other side of the tracks, next to the aqua mural on the liquor store that said Ice Cold Beer, and thought, “What the hell, why not?” At 32 she wasn’t getting any younger. She wriggled her toes against the cool boards of the porch and dislodged a fleck of paint from the rotting wood. The paint clung to her big toe. Everything about the place seemed to be peeling away. She could feel the rough edges of the paint on her toe as the engine popped through the scraggly bushes along the tracks and came into view.
Across the street, Rusty looked up from his Harley when he heard the screen door bang. He gave Marlaina a wave, but it took him a minute to catch her eye. She was staring at the liquor store across the tracks and didn’t notice him at first. As the train emerged, she turned in his direction and gave him a short, curt nod.
“Damnit, the boys were right,” he thought. “She is mad.” A wave wasn’t going to be enough. He crossed the street as the train whistle blew.
He and the boys at the fire station had been the first responders the day Marlaina woke up and couldn’t feel her legs. He had been afraid that something really serious was wrong, you know, like cancer or something. That would have been bad, somebody his own age, married to one of the boys, living right across the street, with cancer. It turned out to be nothing serious like that. After a few days of checking Marlaina out head to toe, the docs said it was just stress or some head stuff or shit like that. Nothing serious. They all figured she’d go to a shrink and tell all of the town’s secrets and start to feel her legs again. Maybe she’d take up yoga, like his sister Genise. Or get a boob job, that’d benefit the whole community.
But she didn’t go to see a shrink or buy any yoga mats or get her boobs pointing north again. She came home and kicked Zeke out, which wasn’t really fair. Jesus, everybody knew that Zeke’s head was the one that needed a tune up. He hadn’t been hitting on all cylinders for a couple years now. All he did was talk train trash all day long and swing his machete. After that crap started he definitely couldn’t go out on the fire truck anymore. They still let him hang out at the fire station, though. Besides, with that machete he kept the station bushes very neat.
Now it looked like Marlaina’s legs were working just fine. She was up and walking around. Nobody had seen Zeke in a month and a half, but if anybody was likely to see him, it would be Marlaina. He was bound to show up on her front porch sooner or later. Where else was he gonna go? Might as well keep things friendly. The town only had two bars and one liquor store. People had to try and get along.
“So, you’re feeling better, then?” Rusty said over the rumble of the train.
Marlaina flicked the paint off her toe with her finger and gave a thin laugh. “Yeah, I’m thinking about running a marathon.”
“Well, you know, me and the boys just wanted you to know – well, it’s okay about Zeke.”
She didn’t answer him, but just kept staring at her toes, looking for something else to flick. The train engine was rounding the curve past their crossing and the steel wheels were scraping against the rails.
“I mean, we’re glad you’re feeling better and stuff.”
“Yeah, last night I felt so good I hauled my own trash to the curb.”
“That’s good, real good. I saw you had that Bart kid doing it for awhile.”
“Yeah, he’s still helping out here and there. I’m not a hundred percent yet and things still gotta get done.” She glanced at the train and the flickering shots of Bart between the cars. Rusty didn’t notice.
“Well, without Zeke…” he began, before deciding to change course. “You haven’t heard from Zeke, have you?”
She shrugged. Her toes were beginning to feel numb.
“Nah, not since I cut him loose. He’s not my responsibility anymore. Maybe you and the boys oughta look for him.”
“Well, we been kinda busy, you know. But maybe we will. Maybe we will.”
“If you find him, don’t get any ideas about dragging him back here. Keep him up at the station. I’m not dealing with that shit anymore.” The train was disappearing down the tracks, the warning lights had stopped flashing, and the crossing arms were beginning to rise.
Rusty had backed off the porch and was making his way across the street, back to his motorcycle.
“Well, you wanna know if we find him, don’t cha?”
“I told you, Rusty, I can’t deal with his shit anymore. If you and the boys find him, you and the boys can keep him.”
Rusty was going to reply when he noticed that Marlaina’s gaze had wandered away from him, onto the tracks. He recognized Bart’s car bumping over the crossing and he thought to himself, “Yep, things have got to get done.” But he didn’t say anything. He just kept walking across the street and slid under the Harley. He had done all he could do.
Zeke paused at the base of the footbridge, uncertainty hedging him in. The bridge arched up from the tangle of brush hugging the low creek bank and landed high above him on the opposing shore. He knelt on the wooden planks, lowering his eyelids until only a slit of light came through. His senses, he knew, could not be trusted, but sometimes he could trick them into showing him what he wanted to know. He saw a shadow, moving in the distance, but what it was he couldn’t be sure. A deer, a man, clothes flapping on the line, they all cast shadows he didn’t understand. Beneath him, a glint of gold in the water caught his eye. A trio of suckers, each big as his arm, were finning by. They paddled slowly up the creek, against the current. Their progress mesmerized him until the next train whistle began to moan. The whistle called to the train idling inside him and forced him to rise. The shadow above the creek was moving. It might be Marlaina, but he couldn’t be sure. Something about the rhythm of its movement seemed familiar, like the chorus of a song he thought he knew. He thundered across the bridge towards it. The sounds of Marlaina were becoming clear.
Rusty watched the screen door bang closed as Marlaina and Bart disappeared inside. “Charitable son-of-a-bitch,” he thought. “Probably show up at the fire station next. Then the Masons.” He was reaching for a socket wrench when another train whistle began to groan.
Encased in dim of the house, Marlaina marveled that the screen door had any bang left to give. It remembered exactly what it was supposed to do. The noise ricocheted, bouncing from room to room, a hollow echo against naked walls, bare floors. She and Zeke had stripped the house down to its bones before they realized they didn’t know where to go from there. Zeke had been an artist, a painter. On the living room wall he had sketched the outline of a train. Inside the heavy black border a watercolor collage of Marlaina’s features strained against the lines.
Late into the night while Zeke painted, Marlaina bartended at Petey’s, listened to stories, watched the town breathe. No-name semis, like the one that brought Zeke years ago, rolled into the empty lot across from the bar. The drivers sucked down a few beers, and bedded down for awhile. Few saw them lumber in, few saw them leave.
Bart reclined on a second-hand couch beneath the flowing collage of Marlaina, waiting for the flesh and blood Marlaina to tell him what to do. She drank him in as she thought, “You’re the only thing in this place that didn’t come here used.” Everything except Zeke. He had been new when the semi brought him into town, very, very new, a gift from the gods of semi truck drivers, who needed a place to disengage from unexpected kin.
Pieces of Zeke inhabited Bart’s frame. He was wiry and tightly wound Marlaina wondered how long it would take him to make his move. Bart had been helping her out all summer. Next week she would be back at Petey’s, watching, listening, drinking other people in.
She remembered that first summer with Zeke. They were 14, scooping crawdads from beneath the rocks in the creek. The trains thundered overhead. She swung an old tin bucket with a crumpled dent in its side. The creek slipped slowly under the trains, the water flirting on the edge of being warm. Marlaina sank into the concave side of a crescent-shaped sandbank that was breaking the current in two. She let the water swirl around her legs and waited for Zeke to come to her.
Afterwards she leaned against the cool limestone walls beneath the trestle. Zeke climbed above her and crawled inside the iron framework beneath the train. And then his body unfolded, hanging down from the girders. His skin was pulled taut against his ribs. He looked like Jesus, hanging that way, but real. And then he was beside her again and she was soaking him in.
“Penny for your thoughts,” she heard him say.
She was not thinking of Zeke, or the sex. It had been over quickly, before she had time to begin, a weak, meandering current of skin on skin. She was thinking of her grandparents; the changing contents of her dented tin pail, strawberries, pine cones, slushy snow, mail collected from the box at the end of the sparkling black cinder driveway; the cinders embedded in a blue-black tattoo across her father’s knees; the boy who had taught her to glide across the cinders on her bike and forget about her legs; her grandmother’s foot reaching out and stroking her grandfather’s calf beneath the kitchen table, even though they slept in different rooms.Marlaina studied Zeke’s face for a moment before she picked up the tin bucket, waded into the creek, and set the crawdads free. His face reflected nothing deeper than their tame farmland stream. She could drown him in seconds with words, a rash movement of her tongue. “No, I don’t think so,” she said, returning to the stream bank, water running down her legs, burrowing its way deep under the silt, through the dry ground below and into the water table, where it sank to the bottom and stayed. Zeke did not press her. He pulled on his shorts and tucked himself in.