Rubber Bands

July 11, 2016
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 In my time, I’ve been on plenty of trains, riding around looking for new opportunities. In all my long, hard years though, one ride in particular, for one reason or another, has stuck with me. It was late summer in the year of our Lord 1929. I was headed up north from Baltimore, hiding in a freight car. I would’ve paid, honest, but I hadn’t any money (a good part of the reason I was there in the first place). I was aiming to go to upstate New York. I hid by myself, with miraculous success, until somewhere around Boston, I reckon. It was around then that I was joined by an unexpected guest.
We slowed down, probably for one of the engineers going by the name of Sal, to hit a switch in the tracks. I sat for a long time staring at the cracked door beside me, when something caught my eye in my peripheral vision. On the side of the musty car littered with crates whose doors had broken off long ago, a tiny coffee-brown head bobbed in and out of view in the lazy moonlight. A pair of pocket-sized hands grabbed the rough edge of the car, and hoisted up a little boy. He swung his short legs over the side of the car and gracefully collapsed into it, breathing hard. He looked to be no more than eight judging by his size and the his plum, childlike face. His eyes, partially shaded by his cap, were an odd gray. Despite their dull color, they held a fiery, passionate determination that threatened to melt away his metal irises until they were white-hot. His cotton shirt and pants were ripped in places: the knees, the cuffs, the elbows. What had he been doing? Why was he here?
He stood, readjusting his feed sack shoulder bag, and looked around curiously, almost like a bird. He didn’t notice me at first- I was hiding behind boxes and all- so I suppose I gave him quite a shock. He backed slowly to the other end of the car, only stopping when his back hit the wall’s splintered surface.
I tried to calm him down. “Now hold on there, son,” I said gently. “I ain’t gonna hurtcha.” I crept out of my hiding place, slowly as molasses. He shrunk backwards at my advancing movement. I held my hands out in a nonthreatening way, standing up. His nerves seemed to ease some, so he took a baby step forward.
“Wh-who’re you?” he demanded. The boy was clearly scared, but he was trying so hard not to show it that it almost worked.
“No need to be afraid boy, not now. The name’s Turner,” I replied in what I tried to make a friendly tone. His shoulders relaxed slightly, but his posture remained guarded and cautious. “What’s your name?” I asked him.
“E-Ed,” the boy stammered.
“That’s a real nice name you got there, Ed,” I told him with a smile. I took a step forward, and he jerked backwards, his breathing rapid.
“Y-You st-stay away from me, y-ya hear?” Ed squeaked out.
“Okay,” I said walking back to my place behind the crates. “Okay. I’ll be over here. Let me know if you need anything.” I sat down in the cramped, moist, fusty smelling nook. I took out my trusty harmonica from my pocket. It was pretty rusty and corroded in spots, but it played beautifully. I began by tooting out a few off-pitch notes to find a tune. Luckily, the noise of the engine drowned out the sound of the instrument for most of the train, so I played an old, sorrowfully sweet song my father had taught me years back. Playing always cleared my mind, like pouring paint remover over a busy canvas until there’s nothing but white left. When I had finished, I found that Ed had come closer to listen as the clatter of the wheels below made it difficult to hear. His dusty face was amusingly awestruck. I fought back a chuckle.
“Wow, Mr. Turner,” he said. “Where’d you learn to do that?”
“My daddy taught me. He gave me my first harmonica when I was a couple years older than you,” I answered. “Would you like to try?”
“Me?” he asked as if there were a hundred other people jammed into the car with us. He started to protest further, but I pressed it with firmly gentle pressure into the palm of his hand. Ed took it obediently and squeaked out some notes that honestly might’ve sounded worse than the scrape of metal on metal as we chugged forward. A little time and a lot of guidance later, he had managed to somewhat replicate a little of what I had played. For a first timer, he wasn’t too bad. Having finished messing around with it, Ed handed the harmonica back to me and nestled himself into the close space with me.
“Say, Ed,” I said, breaking a long silence.
“Yes Mr. Turner?”
“You’re awful young to be travelling like this on your own. Where’re you goin’, if you don’t mind my askin’?”
He took a long, deep breath, like he was expecting the question. “Well, you see Mr. Turner-“
“Enough with the ‘Mr.’ there boy. Just call me Turner. And don’t start sayin’ ‘sir’ neither.” I hate it when people call me sir. It just doesn’t feel right.
“Yes s-... yes Turner.”
“You were saying.”
“Right,” he said, then he plunged into his story.
Just after the market crashed, Ed’s father lost his job as a trucker, and like everyone else, their family hit hard times. Eventually, his father left for New York City to find work and send money back to them while his mother took on odd jobs like patching clothing or hanging laundry. After a while, though, the money had stopped coming. Ed’s mother tried to explain to him how he could be between jobs or have wage cuts, but something about it all just didn’t feel right. One day when he was looking through the window at the corner store at a display rack of baseball cards, he heard some men under the influence talking about his father, something that had happened to him. Ed choked up a little at this part of the story, so I’m not quite sure what he said, but I think I can guess, and most of the time, these sorts of rumors are true.
Ed ran straight home, but he couldn’t tell his mother. He said he thought it would break her heart if she knew, and if it wasn’t true, then he would’ve worried her for nothing. Boy this kid was mature for his age. He waited for her to fall asleep before taking the EI from Watertown close to the railroad tracks as he could. He had to know.
Ed yawned and mumbled the last bit, no doubt about getting on the train. I felt a slight pressure on my shoulder. Ed had fallen asleep. I couldn’t blame him. That would’ve been a heck of a day for a grown-up let alone an eight year-old. I looked down at him, his softly parted mouth, his little nose that twitched every now and again, and his fluttering eyelashes that gently brushed his cheekbones like wispy black butterflies. I couldn’t help but think about my own boy, Mattie.
Mattie was just two years older than Ed, and I missed him dearly. When I lost my job a few months back, my wife took Mattie and went to her parents’ house while I looked for work. I knew it was for the best, but I still missed them both terribly.
I didn’t know I had fallen asleep until I woke abruptly at around four in the morning. The train screeched to a shuddering halt, knocking me and Ed over. I sat up quickly, my eyes flying open at the sudden deceleration. Ed was sprawled beside me on the rough floor of the car, his cap askew. He straightened it and stood up after a shocked hesitation. I stood as well. He seemed okay, aside from the confusion plastered over his previously slack expression. Outside, feet crunching dangerously on gravel could be heard from behind the car’s remaining door.
“Hide!” I whispered sharply at Ed. We crouched behind the crates once more as the car door screeched open.  Dim, early morning light filtered in through dust particles in the air. There was a low grunt as the owner of the pair of feet hauled himself into the car. I peeked over the edge of my crate, and saw a squat little man with beady eyes carrying an unlit lantern. He smelled strongly of chewing tobacco, whiskey, and weeks without bathing. It was Sal.
Sal glanced around like a dog looking for its chew toy. He gave a sniff and went to the opposite side of the car from us, checking every nook and cranny. Ed poked his head over the crates for a better look. Sal whipped his head around, and Ed ducked just in time. However, nothing is ever that easy, for when Ed ducked down, a small bundle tumbled out of his bag. It was as though time’s hands grew tired, slowing down so that when the bundle rolled into the middle of the floor, it may as well have been falling through a pool of honey. Seeing the bundle, Sal chuckled a malicious laugh that could make milk curdle on contact. He walked up to where the bundle lay like a fallen soldier, picking it up. He tucked the lantern into the crook of his elbow and unwrapped it, revealing a hunk of stale bread and a slab of old cheese. Sal ate what little food was there, and beside me Ed tensed with every taunting bite, a spring being coiled tighter and tighter. Finished, Sal tossed aside the kerchief and approached Ed’s crate.
“Well, well, well,” he said in a voice so calm it was dangerous. “What do we have here?” He inched closer, and closer. “Could it be a...” He was right next to the crate. “STOWAWAY!?” He lunged behind Ed’s crate and grabbed him, seizing him by the wrist. Though Ed was a few inches taller, Sal tossed him aside as easily as if he were the kerchief and Ed crashed to the floor. He rolled over and scrambled quickly to his feet. I sat back, watching. I know I shouldn’t have. I should’ve jumped right out there, but this wasn’t my first time being on the rails without paying, and if I moved, it might’ve been my last. Sal advanced on Ed. “You seem like this is your first rodeo, so I’ll let you off easy,” he said, but he raised a hand, pulling it back to strike. Ed readied himself for the blow. I couldn’t watch any longer, no matter what the risk. When I looked at that boy, I saw Mattie, and I would never let anything happen to him.
“Wait!” I said, popping up from my hiding place, hand raised by my head in surrender. Both heads whipped around to my direction, one with a look of relief, the other of pure malice.
“Well if it isn’t Mr. Turner,” Sal said, turning the rest of his body around to match his head, his voice returning to its usual threatening calm. He walked towards me, but I stood my ground. “What brings you here? I thought I told you I never wanted to see your sorry face on my train again,” he asked as though we had run into each other at the coffee shop.
“Leave the boy alone,” I said, ignoring his senseless banter.
“Oh, I wouldn’t worry about him,” he said. He was close enough that my nose found his tobacco breath to be downright offensive. “The one you really need to worry about is yourself!” He lunged at me, and I ducked to the side. He slammed into the wall behind me face first, but it only seemed to rekindle his rage. Man, did he have a thick skull. He came at me again, swinging the lantern at me. It glanced off my temple. I was more in shock than in pain, but Sal seemed pleased by my reaction. He reached to strike again.
From behind, Ed grabbed Sal’s raised arm, holding it in place with difficulty. Sal jerked his arm free, throwing the lantern away in the process. He rounded on Ed who stumbled backwards until he slipped off the edge of the car, his hand catching on the door’s latch. Having taken care of Ed, Sal turned back to me, only to be greeted by a cracked lantern swung at his face. He staggered back, clutching his gushing nose with both hands. He jumped off the other side of the car and ran out of sight, probably to notify the conductor.
I jumped down the car on Ed’s side, praying he was okay. When I reached him, he was sitting on the gravel beside the tracks, looking at his hand. There was a long, scarlet gash on his palm. I knelt down beside him.
“You alright?” I asked him. He nodded mutely in response. “Here. Let me see.” Ed extended his hand towards me. It wasn’t deep, but it was still bleeding quite a bit. “Hold on,” I said, standing up. I retrieved the kerchief from the car and returned. I brushed the bread crumbs off it as best as I could and wrapped it around his hand, tying a taut knot. “We should get going,” I said. “He’ll be back any minute.” We went and hid in the woods by the tracks a little ways and hid in some low shrubbery until the train pulled away, its horn blaring deafeningly. We came out of our hiding spot when we were sure it had gone, and Sal with it.
“New York City shouldn’t be too much further that way, I think,” I said the train left.
“Okay.” Ed’s tone almost sounded defeated-almost, but there was something in it, like the last ember of a campfire that had been carelessly left to burn out, soon to be a raging wildfire. I turned to leave, heading God-knows-where, when Ed called my name.
I turned back around. “Yes Ed?”
“Thank you,” he said, sharp, bitten off.
“You’re welcome.” I watched him walk off, and I turned in the opposite direction, and left too.
I couldn’t tell you how, but one way or another, I found myself in New York City, exactly where Ed was headed, and somehow, I found him through the throngs of people in that overcrowded city. I started to call out to him, but he was talking with someone, so I kept quiet and watched. It was impossible to tell what they were saying, but I didn’t want to pry. The man Ed was talking to handed him an envelope. Ed opened it and dumped out the contents into his hand. It was a few coins, about a week’s pay in those days. Ed stared at it, and began to cry. I knew exactly what was going on, and I didn’t dare go over to him. I lost my father a few years back, so I knew he needed some space. I just watched him walk off, blending into the depressed crowd.
I thought about Ed that night as I waited to board a train that was bound for Indiana. I thought about him on a train all by himself, having only his shadow to offer him consolation. I thought about what would happen when he got home, how he would have to tell his mother what had happened, how he would have to watch her heart shatter. Would he try to be strong for her? Would he have to? Would he even be able to? What was going through his head? Of course he was devastated, but when something like that happened to a kid, he would never be the same.
Ed’s family had been stretched, like a rubber band. He was in Watertown with his mother, and his father was in New York. When a rubber band is stretched like that, it seems like it will hold forever. Then it snaps, no notice, no warning, and all that’s left is that horrible sting as a reminder, that pain of loss.
My thoughts turned to my son. What would happen if the same were to happen with us? What if Mattie tried the same thing- they really were so alike- and found the same result? I pushed those thoughts aside as began to run to catch the train. I hoisted myself up and got in successfully, the musty smell of mildewed wood mixing with coal dust greeting my nose like an old friend. I settled myself in and fell into my thoughts once more. I was pulled out of the tempest in my mind by a single word, spoken by a little boy emerging from the shadows in the car. Behind him, was a woman more beautiful than words could ever describe. The boy had said that magic word in no more than a whisper.

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Beckyboop said...
Jul. 15, 2016 at 6:02 pm
Awesome job!!! Wish there was more!
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