I will tell you at the outset that I have seen some puzzling and imponderable events or situations in my life. That life is now well into its ninth decade. Some of the circumstances were believable, some not; some I wanted to believe, some I didn’t. All of them, each instance, whether believable or not, had been caused or created or somehow set into motion by the attitude or action of generally distinctive and memorable men and women, whether for what they were or what they did, or, in some circumstances, what they did not do. Believe me, the chance of something not happening is oftentimes as much a story as that which happens. My wife Agnes was a woman such as I have spoken, and old acquaintance Tylen Brackus was such a man. As Agnes did things at her own swift command, Tylen also did things; he moved things at appropriate rate, though he was born into this life with but one fully useful arm, the other a mere shaft with a mere hand. His deformity was, as one might say of him, in miniature.
No god was he, nor was he supernatural in talent. Tylen, to say the least, as can be said of most of us even on our best days, was vulnerable or suspect of vulnerability. Yet the man was equipped with an inordinate amount of energy, an energy that he simply had to call on. All he had to say was Giddy-up and it was there. And he was a loner by most standards.
Tylen, I was quite sure at this time, was in the morning’s mix. It was that kind of a day, and the October clouds were raggy and less than unique, filled with promise of the ominous sort, darker than usual, inertia buried in them, as if they were hanging there for a definite purpose. Out over Pressburn Hill the hidden sun presented a slightly silver edge on one long cloud that seemed to hover with a timid grace.
This is how it all happened: for the third day in a row, from my own little house out beyond the old woodworking plant, long closed and boarded up, I noted a plume of smoke, a feathery wisp of it tall and slender, rising flue-like above the trees. I was as far out of town as you can go before you are someplace else. I knew that there was nothing either civic or habitable over that way to demand what could be considered a hearth flue, but nevertheless I ran my mind about the ground that crawled off slowly through trees to the top of Pressburn Hill, plotting the ascendant geography of the area. The small stream in there was very quiet, the near-silent way it lurked at tree roots, ambling along until deep winter took hold of it, which it usually did. The old abandoned rail line that once had brought material to the plant by the carload or took away products, now had sparsely visible portions turning to rust. And again, I reminded myself: Nothing much out that way. There was only, suddenly coming to mind, that small cave in the hillside ledge, like a hole in the wall for a minor abode. Perhaps a fire might be there. It was not a known hangout area for a night really, not any place in there for displaced persons. Yet perhaps the smoke signaled a morning breakfast fire for a hungry itinerant, his throat dry and drawn in by the need for food. Or a hunter lost of a night. I thought the nights had become quite chill of late for any extended stay. I promised myself I’d check next time I went out there for mushrooms or on my constitutional.
I put the consideration to my Agnes, for fifty years a sounding board, a definitive conscience, and the tremble of a daily tuning fork of all things noisy or noticeable about us. “What do you make of that, Agnes?” I said, pointing from the porch out over the bank of trees to the narrow lift of smoke, now as thin as cigarette smoke above the thickness of trees. Its blue tint, as well, was fading against the backdrop of Pressburn Hill.
Round and pleasant Agnes, whom on one occasion, and one only, I had called Aggie, and that occasion a full fifty years earlier, turned to me and said, with her soft mouth pursed in certainty, “That’s breakfast, Dewey. I can smell it.” Her smile was the morning edition and her yellow apron was still tied at her ample waist, herself but the matter of half an hour from our own breakfast. It went with her blue eyes, the yellow apron, for somewhere between the two they melded in a pleasantness that had wholly shaped my life. Colors became her, my Agnes, as well as did being ample and being direct. Warmth, the length of her body, as if bundled, had long been my night’s certainty.
On this late October morning Lyle Agersea had come up on my porch roughly at that moment, bringing his last vegetable gift of the year, a small squash out of his garden. And we talked about it, that thin thread of smoke, though we both knew he had come to see Agnes first hand for the day. In his own way he highly favored Agnes, once having taken her to a picture show a half-century earlier. You’d have to say there was no quit in Lyle Agersea. He was as sturdy and as straight and as durable as his denim trousers, the both of them with patches, with worn spots, proud of their long and sure delivery, and time left in each. His smile was direct as he said, “I swear, Agnes, your coffee travels two acres of crusty ground quick as a bore down a rifle bead. It is memorable.”
Smooth and friendly Lyle could also have been the history teacher at the school, knowing a story or two about our neighbors. He could knock off a story the way some men could knock off shots of rye or bourbon, the bottle as handy as the grip of it, as well as the weekend. “Only thing out in that direction’d be the old freight car they left behind,” he said, pointing with his full arm and the cup of coffee at the end of it, and not a tinkle of sound from his steady hand in illustration of his good health. He thought about his words for a moment and then added, “When the mill closed, the tracks, at least most of them, were torn up for scrap metal. For the war, you know. Trees growed all around it now, like as can’t see it unless right up close. Them doors was welded shut. Some of the boys a few times tried to burn it down, that old boxcar, but never got it full caught. How long since you been out there, Dewey?” Lyle had a way with questions, as well as storytelling.
I know objects, large or small, at times even huge ones, which are inactive for long periods of time, seem to sift or disappear into background. Inertia itself might take them out of a visible realm. They fade, lose their contours and identities, become patchwork on the near horizon. Deserted, forgotten, out of touch, they become like old grave sites where family lines at last falter and die out. For me, the abandoned freight car was such a thing.
Lyle didn’t wait my answer. His face was lively as ever; clean-shaved, a pinkness on the high cheekbones and wide brow, his eyes bouncing like aggies in a game, popping here and there. “What I’m thinking about this morning, Dewey,” he said, putting that old smile up for Agnes’s second cup of coffee, “is that Tylen’s due in town pretty damn soon. First good snow does it. Don’t nobody know where he hurries off to in the spring, ever since Comerford Mabel up and died on him. What, been ten years now? Lonely is what gets you lonely. Sure can say that about Tylen. And clockwork too. First good snow brings him in. It might be a month of cold running up before it, but it’s the first snow does it.”
“Ever think about that?” My curiosity had spoken.
“Hell, it’s like he’s leaving no footprints behind him. Always comes in during the storm, takes up a place with old Betty Marlin or Elder John, whomsoever’s got a spare room. And no trail back into wherever he come from.”
“He never looks none the worse for wear,” I said, remembering how Tylen climbed up out of the grade one or two years earlier, waved as he walked past the house and into town, the little bundle of his Matilda wagging off his shoulder like some Aussie going down the road, casual is as casual does.
“What’s that man do of a summer, you think, the way he finally comes into town, gets his room, showers, changes clothes like he don’t want any trail dust falling from him, giving away his long-hidden abode? He don’t waste any time finding a woman spend time with, go to a picture show, have a meal. Saw him get drunk only once and was the first night he was without Comerford Mabel. Man has a different clock and a different paddle, far as I can see. Bill Barley at the gas station said he once stayed inside Elder John’s house without coming outside the whole month of December. That’s as near hibernating as any of us can get.”
Lyle kept lighting up when Agnes poured, and kept talking. “He gets his grub every week or so at Molly’s store, when he comes to town, looking none the worse for wear. He don’t look much beat up or worn down for being out there in the woods. Would think he’d show some of that. But just slips away at night like he wasn’t here in the first place, that neat pack on his back, the good hand holding his cudgel, the other tucked in his armpit like always. None of the youngsters ever come across him while hunting or fishing. Never see an old fire or any kind of sign. Like he might just keep going off into the next county, halfway out being halfway in someplace else. I’d almost pay to know.” He stared hard into the cup like he was reading the remnants of coffee grounds.
When the pot was empty and the squash set on the kitchen counter, as though a promise had been made it would sure to be used before the day was over, Lyle cut off his visit. In his mottled dungarees and heavy denim patchwork jacket he crossed the field the way he had come, the same way to and fro as every one of his frequent visits, turning once at the big tree to wave back at Agnes, who would always wait to wave back. Now that’s what I call a fifty-year romance, Lyle having no quit in him.
So later that morning, menial chores done, I told Agnes I’d be taking a spin off through the trees and would be home by lunchtime. My own good old denim jacket was snug and stood well against the small breeze coming down the way from Pressburn Hill, and I carried a good stick for balance and for knocking at things.
Fifteen minutes later I came across the old freight car nearly buried under the overhang of leaves and limbs from a cluster of willows and an occasional pine tree. Long ago, after the car was abandoned, the locks on the doors were welded shut and up one side I could see where the young arsonists had tried to torch it; the black scars of that fated attempt lay a dull patina on the surface of the wooden car, which, in its younger days, must have been a sour-looking maroon; the drab remnants of that color showed in corners less touched by the weather, dabs of maroon an artist had left.
The name of the rail line the car was originally birthed to, no longer visible, came out of my memory; I could hear the steam whistle, feel the ground chug and tremble, see the old legend saunter past the crossing in its spastic fashion near my youthful home, humping, banging, out on the road, out on the free road: The Nickel Plate Road. It sang out that name, that tune; The Nickel Plate Road! The Nickel Plate Road! Long ago I had savored its adventurous title, tossed it through my teeth again and again, day after day, night after dreams, and heard it in the back of my mind, along with the quickened menu of The Route of the Phoebe Snow, The Old Lackawanna, The Mississippi and the Yazoo Valley, The Boston & Maine, Grand Trunk Western, Delaware Lackawanna and Western, New York, New Haven and Hartford, Rock Island (oh, good old Rock Island), Bangor and Aroostook (potato cars for a mile, it seemed), and the singing again, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe.
As a youngster I had been mesmerized, hypnotized, sent off on dreamy adventures by the names posted in great letters on the sides of freight cars and coal cars, and those little houses like shanties on wheels riding the end of trains sometimes 200 cars long, where railroad men ate and slept and spent much of their lives crisscrossing America, watching America grow. Freight cars on the move. Tankers and coal gondolas on the move. Great steam engines, puffing, shaking, and beating it down the rails. The joy of seeing other places used to fluster me with its richness, the sudden flare of its warmth totally numbing me to the bones. Not yet subsided, the call of the open road, I swear still making its call on me with the fact of this abandoned boxcar.
Now, before me, dreams gone down the road, the old boxcar seemed to sag; rust had touched its great wheels and mild but honest decay crawled about its face, inertia having painted it anew. About it too, as much a part of its identity as the old legend, a slight acidic smell, that of ash or old fire, as if the light flames the boys had introduced to its sides had permanently touched the air. The thin memories of smoke I smelled– my grandfather’s pipe filled with cut Edgeworth tobacco, an orange campfire into which my friends and I had tossed potatoes waiting the delicious blackness, the iron monger’s stove at the dump where my grandfather worked — even as the wind began to blow, leaves at temperament beginning their endless and haphazard flights into the wind and with the wind, and then a very fine snow started to fall. The ground, quickly, with sudden charm and celerity, accepted whiteness and wind and my homeward path.
For three long and interminable days, clouds permanently in place above us, it snowed. It snowed that finely-particled snow so easy in its promise, so dreadful in its fate, that had driven me home from the side of the old Nickel Plate Road freight car. And we did not see Lyle for a week, until he and the sun showed up one morning, both frisky, bright, boding chatter as he walked up the road.
“Agnes,” he said, the lightness on his face and in his eyes, him brimming with a week’s worth of news and no-news, “I swear I could smell your coffee clean acrost the field, clean as gunshot on opening day. I swear, Agnes, it was that clean.”
The bowl of his hand accepted her cup as he added his choice bit of news, him practically jumpy all the time with wanting to tell it: “and Tylen not yet showed his face. Not showed a minute’s worth! Down to Molly’s they been talking ‘bout a search party going out there, wherever the hell he be, and hauling his bottom back in here before he freezes himself altogether.”
A week later Tylen Brackus still had not showed up at Molly’s store or at Elder’s place.
You have to hand it to Lyle. He got the energy going in them, pulled the crowd of men together, the sheriff but a paid hand at that and a little put back in his place by Lyle’s energy, got them pushing at themselves. “Think of being out there, the snow putting you in your place, freezing your little ass off, and only one hand to help yourself. If he needs us, old Tylen must be sitting beside himself with worry and we have to get out there.”
So, we went, some only as far as they dared to go. Some only as far as the tree line on Pressburn Hill, the snow too much to contend with. Some not being such good friends to the one-armed man. The younger guys cutting away on skis, snowmobiles, one or two on horseback. Rag tag as you can imagine a small-town muster.
And there, under the willows, under the remnant pines, out along the backside of the closed woodworking plant, the slight and slender file of smoke issued from one corner of the Nickel Plate Road boxcar. The small army halted as they eyed the smoky residue patina left over from the young arsonists. The welded joints still secured the doors, each great span easily seen as not having been moved in this recent lifetime.
Molly’s husband Clocker said it must be on fire and none too soon as far as he was concerned, everybody knowing his boy Charlie was one of the group which had set that last match. “No way in or out of that car, boys,” he said. “It’ll burn for sure this time.”
The snow was drifted high against one side of the freight car, and we were about to pass by, leaving it to smolder or whatever it was at, when I knocked at the side of the car with my cudgel.
A weak knock came back.
“What the hell!” Lyle said, as I knocked again. The weak knock came back.
“Someone’s in there, boys. Must be old Tylen.”
“How in hell could he get in?” said Clocker, trying to push against the huge door. “Didn’t go this way. Try the other side.” A few of the boys trudged to the other side and came back. “Didn’t get in that way either.”
They buzzed a spell, the lot of them, snowmobile engines shut down, two horses’ mouths clasped, and in a moment, when wonder and concern was hitting at them, the weak knock came again.
“Jeezus, God!” Albert Binworthy, the old submarine sailor let out. “Sounds like the Squalus out there off Portsmouth, down a couple a hundred feet and the boys banging out the last message. Jeezus, God!” A chill hit the back of my neck like the edge of a blade.
The weak tapping came again. It hit me suddenly that if it was Tylen, there was a way in. I slipped under the end of the car, snow going up my sleeves, down my neck, my eyes searching for an opening, a way in.
I saw a twist of black conductor wire tight up against one of the great axles, and saw where it went through a hole drilled in the bottom of the car. It was electrified I knew. It looked like Tylen’s work more and more. I crawled a bit further. I heard Lyle yell out, “You all right down under there, Dewey? You all right?”
The weak tapping came again for a moment. Then all I could hear was the whisper of wind as it tried my neck for openers, as it came the length of the freight car and brought the total chill with it. “Dewey,” Lyle yelled again, “Agnes be well pissed off at you if you mess up down there.” The silence came then as all paid attention again to what Lyle was saying.
It was the shape of it that caught my eye. The squareness of it. The right angles of it. The lines of it. A trap door of sorts cut up into the floor of the car. I pushed at it. At first there was minimal resistance, then a wisp of air hit at my face, and the whole section slowly lifted away heavy as a slab of granite. I stood up, my head and shoulders passing up into the body of the abandoned freight car. Light hit me. A bulb glowed. The tapping came again. I saw the small rosy redness of an iron stove. I saw two chairs. I saw a radio dial. I saw a cord of wood piled against one end of the boxcar. I saw a full-size bed in the other end of the freight car, and the crude and deformed hand of Tylen Brackus pointing his stick at me, and him saying, “Is that you, Dewey? Damn it, boy, I knew you’d get here. Got myself in a poke of trouble. Broke my arm week or more ago, I guess. Couldn’t lift the trap door to get out of here once I got in here, seems like it’s been a long haul for me now.” He fell back on the bed, finally letting himself go, knowing that help was now at hand. I think he fell asleep.
With some difficulty we got him out of the car and onto Nate Murphy’s snowmobile for a quick ride to Doc Fenton’s office beside Molly’s store.
It was all reconstruction after that. How he dismantled each unit that would not pass through the trap door, all of it done under the car itself. The bed. The stove. The crates he used for books and storing stuff. We’d found a radio. A fan. Knew how he tapped into the old electric wire circuit by the mill and laid a line all down the old track bed. Wonder hit us at how we had not seen anything amiss, had not a clue, and piece by piece little insights, forgotten little twists, began to come to light as the whole episode brought itself together. Misplaced or lost or junked articles came back into memory. The radio was Bit Murray’s, thrown out at the landfill, as well as Fred Lewis’s old Franklin stove. Paul Lavelle swore the bed was his honeymoon bed last seen at the backside of his barn. He’d completely forgotten it under weed and brush. Everybody had a take about one or more of the furnishings.
To this day, long after Tylen, one snowy night at Elder John’s, chased Comerford Mabel all the way home, it’s always been the picture of him with the one good arm and that one twisted little arm and the twisted little hand, perhaps in darkness under the freight car but hardly in distress, taking things apart for their last transport, for there was the night, later on, that the car went up in flames, the fire fully caught and naught but the wheels and axles and steel framework left.
And I was seeing it all, all the marvelously imponderable things of life in all its makeup: Lyle hit by lightning one day crossing the field, just after his old girlfriend set the last cup of coffee in the cup of his hands; and Molly’s husband Clocker breaking his neck after falling down the stairs with his arms loaded with dishes, and Doc Fenton lost in a snowstorm and found frozen after a tough delivery of a newborn, and that utterly silent morning when my ample and round and direct Agnes was not warm against me for the first time in our lives together. Just like I had seen Tylen Brackus, at night, under the freight car, working at those terrible odds he always faced up to.