The train horn rises through my window. It starts as a hum, but rises to a wail, insistent and bursting, fragments of noise burying themselves in my ears, in my body.
I cover my ears again, sitting on my bed. Mother tells me to think of anything else, moving closer and closer. She plops beside me, a defeated little plop.
“Close your eyes, Nicky,” she says, her lips quivering. “Take your mind elsewhere.”
I try to play some of Mother’s rare but delightfully dirty jokes, her pretty cigarette-tinged voice, try to think of a sunset, the moon, high school, focus on the lavender walls. But my older sister Nan painted those walls, less than a month ago. White was too unexpressive, she told Mother. I look away. Close my eyes again, just as the train wails again, something even longer and drawn out.
All I see is the force of trains, goodbyes never spoken, stalled cars, tons and tons of metal. Yellow and blue engines lying like fallen animals. A crumpled Chevy Bel-Air, contents strewn. I imagine the radio blasting something. I hope it was something she loved. Elvis. I Want You, I Need You, I Love You, maybe. Or Yakety-Yak, by the Coasters.
The train whistles again outside, a short burst thankfully. But now its rumbling rises, even though the tracks are a full six blocks away. I try not to think of the wheels, clickety-clacking, a sound of grace, movement. Like Nan’s footsteps. Try not to think of it bearing down, momentum unstoppable, try not to think of last thoughts and screams, screams that once were lilting laughs, laughs that leaped from wall to wall. Gooselike laughs that once were goals, rising from smiling mouths. Actress, writer, concert pianist. Encouragement that wrapped around me like blankets. You’re not just a kid, Nick. Find something you really, really like. You’re so smart, Nicky. Don’t take any crap.
A twisted body rises to my mind, a body beneath a car, beneath crumpled metal and trails of glass. Arms splayed, as if in surrender, surrender, an unthinkable notion for Nan. A mouth agape, pathetic, sorrowful.
“Is it any better?” Mother asks, her eyes flickering with weariness. She smells like cigarette smoke and soap and I want to hug her, so very long and hard. But I’m fourteen.
I just let out a choked noise.
“Be honest with me, Nick,” Mother says. She leans in, assesses me, my tired brown eyes, the look I’m sure I’m wearing. “Please. We all need to be honest, to be together.”
She can’t know. She cries late at night, hoarding tears like candy, rocking back and forth on the living room couch, the hideous lime green one.
“Yes, Mother. I’m being honest.” My words are drawn, slow, twisted. The Baby Ben clock on my bedside ticks away, tick, tick, tick, luminous hands arresting, moving as if it knows the truth, an observer to all this.
“Keep thinking, Nick,” she says. “Come now. We’ll get through this. Think of something pleasant, sweetheart, the most pleasant thing you can.”
But I could scream now. The body dissolves in my mind. Arms, legs, eyebrows, hugs, smiles swirl like a sickening alphabet soup. But I look into Mother’s eyes, eyes that once fluttered with energy, like the best kind of storm. I miss the old smile, crooked and knowing, Mother singing Cole Porter tunes in the kitchen and driving me to school, the same school where she also taught. I push the scream down, push, push, push, even as the parts form a new combination. A head hovers, disconnected from everything else.
Another voice rises, cheerful and firm: Crying’s for stupid movies, Nicky. An image: A chestnut-haired head tossed back, laughing at some movie with a juvenile delinquent and an over-the-top piano score. A head in place, a long, hawkish, beautiful nose, owl-like eyes. A figure in lavender, a string of commentary so fresh, as if the world still had so much to offer, as if she could comment on it all.
I can’t help but imagine her commenting, looking down on all this, a spirit detached. She’d compare the scene to a jigsaw puzzle. Something needing to be put together better.
“Some chucklehead lost a few pieces,” she’d say. Mother would laugh and chide her, of course.
She was great with metaphors.
Now I inhale, smile, tell Mother it’s getting better. I try not to let loose a cracked laugh.
Mother takes my hand, squeezes it. I say it again and again, while the train rumbles louder and louder, wheels cracking my mind one by one. It’s getting better, I say again. Mother takes my hand, I close my eyes, wait for it all to numb, no tears, no tears, each clickety-clack cracking, cracking, as if it could crack forever.