A dream I had once, that all came true.
I got out of the ancient Chevy and the wind instantly cut into me with grains of sand. It reminded me of shards of glass from a car accident I was once in. Then it reminded me of here. My childhood. The wind and the sand always blowing, in everything. Your eyes squinted shut against them. Sand driven deep into your ears, your nose. The grit in your food.
I turned to thank the driver but he floored it, shutting the door, what was left of it, under it’s own inertia and covering me with more sand, more dust.
I turned away and started over the dunes spiked with razor sharp-salt grass. I cut across the dunes, the sand giving with every step so that my legs took on a fatigue from memory. They remembered the tedium, the exhaustion I’d managed to forget, its weight keeping my head down so I didn’t bother looking up until I crested the low rise. In the sun, the sea it also glinted like a low band of broken glass, too bright to look at. Somewhere between here and the sea was home.
Salt Town, one of those unoriginal names that acquires poetry all of its own over the years. I plodded down the sand to the road. It was still dirt, hard and rutted now, a quagmire in the rain. I passed a few broken-down shacks on my way in like great beached skeletons not yet quite rotted to the bone. I stopped, watching one door still banging erratic cadences in the wind. All these years, why didn’t somebody latch that damn door? Bang. Bang. Bang-bang.
Just over the last rise I came upon it. Two rows of shotgun shacks parallel to the beach with railroad tracks running between. I really was from the wrong side of the tracks. Even in a town this poor somebody still has to be on the bottom. Those to seaward regularly got destroyed in storms, those on the landward side were more permanent, the railbed offering somewhat of a seawall. Often parts washed from one side became additions on the other, while we would wait and replace them from what we could harvest from the sea.
Once, we had a bay window, the stern of an old smashed trawler my dad found. Still had the name painted on it “Sea Ghost.” One February, a wave washed it clean through the house and when the storm was over Billy White’s dad proudly claimed it for his house. My dad was mighty proud of that particular piece of sea trace. One night there was liquor, words, and a brawl. The sea had already broken my dad, but Billy’s dad and his brother beat my father bad with boat oars.
It took two years, but one night my dad got drunk and shot Billy’s dad with a rusty .38 he kept in the boat. They put him away for fifteen years for that, I hadn’t seen him since.
There were rusted cars and broken boats lying around. Pieces of net out to dry years ago and forgotten. Or maybe they were more substantial cloth once.
Even when I was boy, Salt Town was dying. Never really important enough to get a jetty, it was more a cove than a harbor. I stopped on the low bridge and looked at the river. I remembered it bigger. That’s the problem with memories, you never know what’s changed: the thing you remember, or you.
This river killed the town. Once it was a thriving fishery and people came up the coast to vacation. Then they stripped the hills, first for the timber, then for the coal, the land died, and brought it’s cancer to the ocean in the wind and the water, filling the harbor. Now, the only industry was harvesting salt from trays in the shallow harbor.
I was almost surprised the town was still there. It’s not on any maps and the trains don’t run anymore. I spat into the brown ooze. Damn sand was already grinding in my teeth. I wondered again why I was here. I had lots of reasons to go back. Not to take not to take back the things I’ve done, but to do the things I hadn’t done when I had the chance. Those were the things that haunted me: the small moments of cowardice that add up to a life better off not lived. Like the negative numbers they told us about in school that could add and add and get less and less.
The night my dad shot Billy’s dad was like that. It felt just like before a storm in our shack. Too quiet; too still. I almost wished he’d been beating me like he did more and more when he drank. At least then he didn’t beat my mom. We both sat and watched him. Nobody talked. But he rubbed his old scars, where they broke his arms, and touched his face, dead on the left below the eye.
When he said he was going down to the boat, I almost screamed “No dad, not tonight, there’s a storm coming!” But I didn’t.
That may have been the first act of cowardice, but I’d gotten to repeat versions of it over the years. How many times as I sat in the dark the dark with my whiskey I thought about that, about how many times I’d blown the same opportunity, never recognizing it and I wondered, do we have to wait? Is there any chance to do it over, do it right? Or once on course, had our race been run?
So here I was, taking a ride in a time machine. Twenty-five years ago, I crossed this bridge, going the other way. Now it was my time machine and it was taking me back.
A thousand storms could not confound me. As I walked through the village not a soul was in sight, but like you know a house is occupied before you knock, I knew people still lived here. As it lived in me, I lived in it. I still lived here. I crossed the sand-swept tracks and walked up the dusty lane on the seaward side. The old cannery sat liked a hulked ship. Mastless, its journeys run. The houses proper started after all of the abandoned storage shacks and offices laying around the factory like pigs on a sow. Twisted planks showing remnants of whatever paint they came with. Despite all of the room on the spit, poverty crowded them together, as if huddled against time.
Seventh on the left. It had never brought nobody no luck. I didn’t’ even know where momma was, if she lived here. But if you are checking a time machine, you might as well go back to the beginning.
I left right after they took dad away, but I couldn’t shake the sea. Merchant Marines. I wrote my mom every week, but I never heard back. I kept telling myself I’d send for her, but I never did. Things were never good enough. I failed everyone who ever loved me. I stopped when I saw the straggling purple pansies in the warped window box. I knew momma was home.
The wind was coming on, shifting from the sea to the land. A seaman feels the barometer in his blood. I could feel a storm coming on, building in the hills behind me. I stopped at the door, hearing quiet clattering as the lights came on in cottages around me.
Finally, I took a deep breath, reached out and knocked. All noise inside stopped. I waited long enough that I swear I felt the barometer drop, then suddenly the door opened.
“Jacob, that you?”
“All these years I seen you there and talked to you. First time you ever answered.” The light shown around her like a saint. All women are saints, it’s too bad we take them to Hell before they can save us.
“Can I touch you?”
I picked her up in my arms. “Momma.” She giggled, and I put her down. She had a handful of beach peas and I smelled cabbage and onions.
“Mussel soup?” I smiled.
“Ain’t no mussels left.” Somehow she smiled. She was as frail and delicate as the Chinese lanterns she used to plant.
“Who the hell is that?” With my right arm still around her, I used my left to push open the door. I couldn’t believe it, once he was gone, I guess I just thought he would never come back.
“What do you want, boy?” He had a jam jar in front of him and I could see his eyes were glazed. “Ain’t got enough for dinner.”
“I’m not hungry, Pa. You look good.” I lied. I still had my arm around Ma. Not all trips in the time machine were going to be good.
“Nonsense, Pa, you know we got plenty.” Now my mom was lying.
Pa and I stared at each other for a long time. Time had not been good to him. The lines in his face were deep and etched with grime. He’d never wash the beach out of him.
I never thought about him all these years because I was afraid of him. But I wasn’t afraid of him now. We stared like two starved curs over a bone.
“Ha! Damned boy grew some man-hair, let him in.” He slapped the table with one hand and took a gulp with the other.
I looked at her, “Ma…”
“Oh, shush, you sit down while I finish up.”
“Ma, all these years, you never wrote.” I followed her into the kitchen, there were my postcards, on the refrigerator, the walls.
“Ha! You so damned dumb boy, your momma can’t read.” I looked at Momma. She looked away, a small smile on her face. “Don’t make no matter now, you’re home, you can read them to me.”
“I came to get you Momma. We’re going away.”
“Merde. We don’t need your charity. Done fine without you.” I let Momma go and closed on him, putting my hands flat on the table in front of him.
“Why did you come back old man?”
“Somebody gotta read your letters,” he laughed again. “Get me a drink, woman.”
Faster than I thought possible, I slapped the glass from his hand, had him by his sinewy neck and lifted him from his chair.
“We’re leaving, you’re not.” He struggled and we spilled out of the kitchen, crashing into a small shelf in the hall. I’d been in a few fights, either with him, or in some way because of him. “Too late you bastard.”
Most men in a hopeless fight will start to show their fear. Not Pa. I looked in his eyes and all I saw was hate. He’d been in a lot of hopeless fights.
“You two just stop!” I pushed myself away warily before I let go. Then I stood up.
Momma rushed over and helped dad back into his chair. He looked so small and frail. Not like I remembered him. I didn’t know what to do with my hands. She finished with him and turned to me. “You best go, Jacob.” I was numb. I was still staring at papa as she pushed me toward the door on the way she picked something up off the wreckage on the floor and pushed it into my hands. “Someday, I was hoping you could read this to me.”
When I was outside I looked down at the slim folio in my hands, my first book, Earth of Salt, momma had just given me another ticket on the time machine.
I walked to the beach. The waves rolled in like a giant water clock. How many waves since I’d been gone? How many since I’d been back? How many of those waves had I crossed in the ocean? How many bottles could I have dropped overboard my mom could never read?
Light was fading quickly and rain started. I picked up my bag and headed back to town.
No town is too small, too mean, not to have a bar. I came up between two stacks and looked at the neon glow not quite crossing the tracks. The Seagrass, still open after all this time. The rain began pelting me now, sticking my shirt to my back. Of all the thousands of drinks I’ve needed, I need this one most.
The Seagrass was in base of old hotel. Once the train ran, and people came up from the City to come to the sea for the weekend. People stopped staying over, but still came up, dining, dancing, with cards, dice and other vices upstairs. Everybody took the Night Train home though. Got to be that it became an expression: “Get on the Night Train” meant leaving town and everything behind. The train was long gone by my time, but they said you could still hear it on certain nights. They said I took the Night Train.
I walked in and set my bag down. I think before I knew I was looking for a time machine, I sensed it was there, in bars. Behind the solace of whiskey, aren’t we all who we are, the good and the bad, the truly wounded and terrible, trying to sort it all out? I toasted this thought silently and killed my first shot.
“Jacob!” The greeting was simultaneous with a punch in the arm that would’ve knocked me into the patron to my right, had there been one.
“Jesus, Jimmy, what are you still doing here?” Jimmy and I went to school together. He was a brilliant polymath who could’ve done anything with his life. He wasn’t strong enough for the sea, and the only one of us who really had a chance. I don’t know whom I expected here, perhaps only ghosts, but somehow I guess I assumed my generation had all left, dried up and blown inshore by the wind. I never even noticed when he got broken. What was he still doing here?
“Ah, used to drive trucks for the loggers,” he looked down, then up quickly. “Heard you was some fancy writer. Your mom was telling about it.”
No critic had ever touched me so deep. My mom couldn’t even read, and she was bragging about me.
Jim hooked his thumb over his shoulder. “Molly’s here.”
Molly. They don’t use that name any more. Maybe in the Aran Isles, but not here on the coast. To name a baby Molly is to give her curly black hair, a laugh like the sea would laugh, and big grey eyes that can consume a man. Or even a boy.
You can plan something, you can travel one thousand miles to do it, and when it comes time to do it, somehow not have the resolve. Molly was my first grand mistake. She was why I was here. After my dad shot her dad, I couldn’t face her. I ran away, thinking it was better for everybody, but really it was only better for my cowardice, and now the man who returned was no braver than the one who left.
I tried to look casually across the bar. There she stood with Tim. Its funny, you look at somebody, and the years wash away. If I’d seen her in Rome, or Bangkok, or Dublin, I would’ve known her as the same girl I left all those years ago. Tim too, although he his athletic rangy body had gone to fat and his features were coarse and red from drinking. He was throwing darts.
I wish I could say that I triumphed over my past, that I found my resolve; that I grabbed the moment. But it was Molly who saw me. She smiled and waved, like nothing had ever happened. Then she came over.
“Were you ever going to say ‘hi’?”
“Molly,” words came in a flood, not the elegant poet’s words I’d planned, but the word I needed to say, “I’m so sorry. If I’d known what he was planning, I swear, I would’ve done something, anything.”
She looked at me, her dark eyes refusing to let me break her gaze. I couldn’t believe it, she laughed, then turned to the bar and held up a finger for a refill. “You are such a dufus. Everything was always about you.”
My mouth was open, the wheels on my time machine spinning out of control, past times I knew and onto unimagined tangents.
“Jacob, I know you’re dad is a bastard, a first class loser, but he’s a hero to me.” She looked over to me. “You really don’t know what happened that night, do you?”
“Of course,” I stumbled, “well, I mean…”
Molly, held up her hand, “I don’t know if it was the window or what he saw through it. I guess why you do something isn’t important: it’s just what you do. But when your dad killed my dad, it was the best thing that ever happened to me. I just thought you should hear that before it was too late. That beating might’ve been for the window, but I always thought the shooting was for me. I always thought the scars your dad has and the scars I have came from the same place.” I was shocked. I stumbled against the bar. Of course, of course. My dad, the hero. My mom, standing by him. My head was hanging. I looked over at her.
“Molly, I know we were just kids, but I’ve never forgotten you, always loved you.” Her husband was on the otherside of the the room, but it was out of my mouth before I could stop it. I loved her more now, was more entangled.
She reached over, and squeezed my hand. “Some things, like the way we felt, they were real, age doesn’t matter.”
I raised my head up. “Then it doesn’t matter now. Come with me; let’s have the life we should’ve always had.” I was mad with it now. I could see in her eyes, she was laughing, I wasn’t getting to her. “What’s here for you? Leave with me, please.”
“Where would we go? What would we do? Jacob, it’s too late. There’s no going back.”
“But there is.”
“You just got here, Jacob, you already drunk?’
“No, I’m not,” I grabbed her hand. “We can take the Night Train, you and me; go back, live life over again.” She laughed again. “Like a time machine,” I blurted. “Don’t you believe in that?”
“Yeah, I do. That’s the point. People start over all the time. And then, they do the same things all over again Life is not a movie. You don’t get to rewrite the ending.”
“Molly, we could do this, we can escape. It took me my whole life to stand here, and I don’t want to leave without you.”
She reached up and touched my face. I looked into those grey eyes, almost purple. She wasn’t laughing now. “The Night Train,” she whispered so quietly I may have imagined it. “I do believe.” She said it like it was the saddest thing she would ever say.
Then, she turned and walked away, back to Tim. Touching him in a practiced way that I could tell symbolized love without conveying it.
Jimmy and I killed the better part of a bottle, but I was spinning away from him. It was like this gauzy layer built between us. He got more muffled and farther away. Jimmy, my mom, Molly. Spinning. It was all spinning. And there was this humming in the background like when we were kids and would lay our heads on the track to listen to the distant trains bypassing our town.
At one point I looked at Jimmy. He looked at me. We nodded, toasted, and did one last shot. Then, without a word, I picked up my bag, and walked out the door. I didn’t have a plan. I didn’t have a place to stay. The wind was howling, brining waves as tall as me and fat drops of rain that presaged a torrential storm. Any thoughts of sleeping on the beach were out. I started walking down the sand-blown tracks towards the City, trying to work out what had just happened. At one point, I know, I had true vision, and then I lost my faith. I’d gone back in the time machine and somehow had blown it all over again. I couldn’t make sense of any of it. The night played through my head over and over again but never made sense.
Life is a house of cards. You get halfway through the deck, balancing one rickety layer on the last, each with greater concentration, and suddenly the whole thing collapses from the bottom. Then nothing is saved. Nothing you did matters. You’ve got to go back and re-lay your foundation. My layers collapsed and blew away in the wind. Seemed moments ago I could forsee the perfect life. Now I couldn’t even remember it. All I could remember was the things I once tried so hard to forget. The dust.
The humming kept building. I looked over my shoulder, and there it was. A steam-powered behemoth bearing down on me, carrying all of my future and my past, about to run me over or take me back, all unfeeling. When it passed me, I grabbed the hand rail on the caboose almost without thinking. It jerked me off my feet and it felt like my arm was ripping off. Then I seemed to pass through a gossamer veil of color and no-color, time and no time, where everything made sense, and I couldn’t understand a thing. Finally I scrambled up to the platform on the back of the train I looked back at the town in the rain and wind and swear I saw Molly running down the track yelling, “I believe! Wait for me!”
I do too, and I’m waiting for her on the Night Train.