By dusk, he could feel the coming of another sleepless night, so after Helen left for her book club meeting—stooping from the weight of the pregnancy—he left a note on the kitchen counter and walked out the front door. It was a beautiful evening, and maybe that was why he didn’t feel like sleeping. The dying light in the west cast a rusted glow from the horizon, and the air was warm and slow. The only traffic on the road in front of his house was a beat-up brown station wagon gliding past. He watched it disappear up the road, no trees to block his view.
The sidewalk was worn and cracked a bit, and the road might have used a repaving, but people were generally content as longs as the potholes were filled. Many years ago, it was a farming community, then a mining and mill town, and now it was supported mostly by the two packing plants, positioned on opposite outskirts. He had started out on the line and worked his way to clerk, which he hoped meant fewer backaches when he was older. He scuffed along the sidewalk towards the other plant, away from his.
He wondered if he should have brought the book Helen had lent him. It was poetry. After he’d complained for about the hundredth time that he was sick of the crap on TV, she shoved it towards him and said “Here, try this if you’re so bored.” So he tried it, but it was difficult to follow. Still, trying to decipher the verses seemed like a better project than watching Bob Barker give away money for even another goddamn minute. But poetry wasn’t a walking activity, he finally decided. He knew he would just end up carrying it in his armpit the whole time.
The rattle of a train reached him from a distance, a couple miles northeast, and he turned in the direction of the sound. The old train yard was still active, but barely. His father had told him that back in the mining days, freight cars would carry material in and out all day. Now it was a marginal shipping waypoint. One of his favorite memories was when he and his sister hopped a train heading out of the yard and road it out of town. She had been ten, and he only seven. They’d gotten such a spanking when they finally arrived home, dirty and smiling, but it had been worth it. His sister had died eight years ago. She’d been drunk at the construction site one day after drinking whiskey from her flask during lunch, and she fell off the structure. Hard hats don’t protect so well against broken necks. She’d been hard to be around those last years, but he always treasured the memory of them as boxcar babies. He held the memory gently like it was a fragile, glowing ember.
Dusk was nearly all gone by the time he reached the train yard. It was as silent and still as an elephant graveyard, the big metal engines lying shoulder to shoulder, some in death, some just in sleep. He slipped past rusted hulls and headed towards the boxcars. One was open. He got in and imagined the landscape moving past that day, like he and his sister were on a sailboat moving over land. He closed his eyes and listened to the gentle sough of wind. He imagined the hard rush of air against his face as he poked his head out of the boxcar, his sister telling him to be careful or he would fall. After a minute or two of the fantasy, the pleasure of the memory faded slightly, and he gave it a rest. After stepping down from the car, he continued on his way.
The commercial area was nice enough. A handful of shops, restaurants, offices, and even a small, one-screen movie theater. They played whatever prints they could get their hands on. Occasionally, the projector would break down halfway through the film and you’d get a refund. That’s what had happened back when his father took him to see 2001: A Space Odyssey. His father couldn’t take him back to see it for a whole week afterward, and the suspense was brutal.
He stopped to look at his favorite restaurant, lights kept on through the night for whatever reason. It reminded him of that painting with the people in the café at night. He liked that painting, his only complaint being that the other stores didn’t look like real stores for some reason. They looked like sets. But what he mostly liked about the painting was the quiet. An odd sense of peace came off of it in waves. It was the same type of quiet that drew him out of his house on sleepless nights like these. He also liked that the people in the painting looked like characters from old mystery movies he’d watched with his dad.
His father had been too old when he died for anyone to say he’d died young—His father had declared himself “old enough to go.”—but he was still too young for anyone to say he’d lived a long life. The Twilight Zone, football, cheap comic books, home construction, the family clunker. These were what they’d shared. That car was living on borrowed time even before he was born—His dad had bought it used.—but they somehow managed to keep it running for decades. Although they’d had to replace the engine and some other crucial parts, which left him wondering if you could really call it the same car.
He now arrived at the field on the west edge of town, where he and friends would camp sometimes, pretending that flying saucers would land there just like in the movies and suck them up into a beam of light. But none ever did. The only thing that ever happened on those camping trips was the time they heard something in the night and peeked out to see a person’s silhouette. The man passed close to the tent but didn’t seem to notice it. He was rumpled and shaggy, and he murmured to himself. He walked towards the tree line further west and disappeared into the large copse there. They couldn’t recognize him in the dark, and they never heard any talk after that about anyone leaving town.
And of course there was a monster in the lake. His father had come up with this one after they watched Creature from the Black Lagoon together. He and his dad liked to fish in that lake. Some weekends, they tumbled into an old rowboat and went out to the center. He liked to picture the little fishing lines extending down from the small boat, while the monster slowly circled around the little lures. It changed form a little each time. Sometimes it was like a giant angler fish, other times it had tentacles. Other days, with friends, he would wander around the lake and hunt for the monster, each of them throwing imaginary spears into the water like Captain Ahab.
Just before dawn, he found himself at the base of the hill. Atop it stood the radio tower, which reminded him of the RKO logo at the beginning of the old movies he watched with his dad. Only this one didn’t beep like a telegraph or give off visible waves. His father had had a heart attack walking up this hill with him and died ten days later. That just left him and Helen. The pregnancy news three months after that was the first time he remembered feeling good since his father died. He had spent those three months trying not to look at the radio tower, but as Helen’s belly swelled, it slowly regained its old place in his memory. And now, in first light of dawn, he leaned against the tower and looked out over town, trying to imagine what it would be like to bring his kids up that hill.
Banner Image: By Tobin from Rochester, NY, USA (rail yard) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons