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There have always been these train tracks right on the edge of Grays Harbor. No trains go through there anymore—no one seems to remember trains ever going through—so weeds have grown up between the wooden slats, between the metal rails. The rails are so rusted they’re cracked in some places. The wooden slats are so rotted that the weeds and grasses have actually eaten into them and taken root. Every year, they grow, and they expand, and they are slowly tearing the wood apart.
I had my first memory at the tracks. I couldn’t have been more than 3 because it is the last time I ever saw my mother, Pauline. It could have been weeks, even months before she left, but I don’t remember her before or after the day she took me to the tracks. I don’t even remember why she took me to the tracks. Actually, there’s a lot about her on that day I don’t remember.
My memory of Pauline is so intertwined with the tracks that I can’t think of one without thinking of the other. The tracks take precedence though. More than I remember Pauline’s face, I remember the gnats weaving in and out of wetted wood and the healthy grasses it supported. When I try to hear her voice (I’m going to follow these train tracks right out of here, Jack), I have to hear past the sound of the wind winding through twisted metal. Even then, her words come through all muddled.
I hold onto my memory of her though because it’s the only memory of her that isn’t fabricated. Sometimes you’ll hear a story so much, or see a picture so often you start to imagine you really remember it. My memory of Pauline is the most honest and true memory I have because it’s a memory no one else knows about. There are no pictures of our day at the tracks. No stories. The only ones who know are Pauline—if she thinks it was an important day to remember—the tracks, and I.
After Pauline, there was only Aldine, Ale, and Grays Harbor. The relationship between Aldine and Ale and I is complicated. It’s one of the many secrets of Gray’s Harbor. They aren’t an Aunt and Uncle. They aren’t cousins. They’re just Aldine and Ale. They own a diner just on the edge of Gray’s Harbor that specializes in truckers. My next earliest memory is either of my room in their house or of the diner.
My room isn’t much. It’s honestly just a bed and a desk and a dresser. I sometimes worry my bed has been in the family longer than I feel comfortable enough to admit. The springs sag, just slightly in the middle, but you wouldn’t know it unless you lay down. I could probably prop one of the desk legs up with a book or something, but I never use it so I don’t care that it wobbles incessantly. My dresser is covered in 13 years of memories with Aldine and Ale. There are school awards and pictures of the three of us and one picture of Pauline that is frequently turned on its frame.
My room, in my opinion, tells less about me than the diner. I couldn’t have grown up with Aldine and Ale without having spent most of my life in the diner. Based off of pictures that line the wall behind the counter, it’s been the exact same way for almost 30 years. The plastic seat and booth coverings are cracking. They’re also uneven from years of Ale stuffing cotton into the bursting holes at random intervals. It’s not odd to see two people sitting on the same bench and one being drastically taller than the other.
There’s always been a slight greasy feel to everything you touch and you leave smelling faintly of the cigarettes Ale chain smokes as he grills and fries and broils and bakes. The windows are cleaned every few days, but they’re never exactly clean. It’s somewhere everyone likes to go though. Aldine and Ale are as ingrained in Grays Harbor as anything else.
The diner doesn’t officially have a name, but it’s the only restaurant really close to Gray’s Harbor so it doesn’t really need one. Unless you aren’t from around town, you don’t need to say anything more than “The Diner.” It’s the first thing that greets you when you drive into Grays Harbor and the last thing you see when you drive out.
Gray’s Harbor itself is stifling. It lies ten miles from anything else. There’s really only one road in, but it gets a regular stream of truckers from the main roads. The diner being is the only place for miles where they can stop and eat or rest. At one end of the town is the road in and at the other end of the road are the train tracks.
No one even knows why they’re there. Numerous attempts to try and find the end to them one way or the other have been met with the onset of night in the desert or the possibility of running out of gas. There’s been a rumor circulating—Ale says since he was in school—that only one person followed the train tracks without stopping. He followed them for three days and ended up back in town without having turned back.
I like to imagine my mother having followed the tracks. It might just be taking her a while, but she’s going to end up right back in Gray’s Harbor. It will be like she never left.