A Short Story by Barbara Sparhawk
The Train Tracks
at the Bottom
of Wortendyke Avenue ©
When I was grown up and in my twenties a good friend and I spoke of the dogs we had as children. With my family, we didn’t have a dog til I was almost in my teens. It was a pedigree Boxer, and we lived in Alabama just then, and he was certified and officially named Bama. But my friend burst forth a flood of tears in the telling of her dearest one ever, a golden Lab they called Chester, and cried that when she was a girl of ten years, her dog had committed suicide.
No, I said no, it could not be!
How else, she said, now crying even the more, could I explain that he went and lay down on the railroad tracks in her Tennessee countryside town, and that it ended his life, a fact which more than a full decade later she could neither bear (imagining his unknown despair!) nor comprehend. Why would he have done such a thing, why? How could she have been blind, loving him so much, to his need, his sadness.
Well, it so happened that as shocking and terrible as that was to hear about her beloved pet, I knew why. I really did. Because I knew railroad tracks.
No, I said to her, it was the draw of the tracks. Oh God! Railroad tracks are fantastic, are wonderful. Railroad tracks? I spent no some small part of my childhood exploring railroad tracks. Her dog went there because it was the best place on earth to be and the terrible coming of the train happened unplanned. He hadn’t gone there to die at all. He had gone there for the pleasure, never understanding the danger. She was so relieved at what I told her, so sure I had hit upon the long illusive truth, that she bought me dinner that very night. Finding stuff out probably matters more in a life than any other thing anybody can ever think of doing.
So I told her the facts about the commuter train which had been in my childhood, the one that ran between Emerson, New Jersey and New York City, tracks set perpendicular along the bottom of the steep hill we lived on top of, which was a one lane unlined road called Wortendyke Avenue. And that there was no proper station that I remember but only chunks of coal with broad flat cuts that gleamed blue-black, crushed bright sharp mirror-like noisy cinder underfoot and if you stood there at the whitewashed arm that lowered with a flashing red and yellow lights across the street and if you wore a brown felt hat, broad tie and white shirt and brown suit and carried a leather briefcase and had your shoes shined up, the conductor would see you and brake to stop his train to load the one or two or three daddies in and bring them to their city jobs.
After school, for I was already in grades one then two and walked alone the eight blocks to Emerson Grade School run by Mrs. Gerlach, I would change into play clothes and run back down the hill and spend as many of the next hours I could on the train tracks. Weekends, too. I don’t remember a single time a train actually came by when I was there.
One did come every night long after dark that I could see from my attic bed if I ran when it blew its whistle to my corner window. The massive locomotive had a bright yellow headlamp bugs darted and danced in, you could see the gray black smoke moving above at the whim of speed or wind, its black steel engine, russet-red passengers cars with white squares of windows lined up exact like soldiers, or sealed up silent freight cars so dark, lettered with company names or towns, stop loud and long enough to drop off the business-suited fathers on their return home. I don’t remember any trains during the day. No, not one. Anyway, watching from bed, that was only the tease but on the track itself well that was the real thing.
A railroad track is every bit as diverse and fascinating as a sea shore. There are things to be found fallen into the cinders, things small and large. There are copper pennies to lay out on the rail and collect the next day squished out twice their size with the faces and words all distorted. Things hot enough to burn skin, sharp enough to make a cut go bloody or scrape the flesh off a knee and rip a shirt sleeve. There were colored rocks with magical properties. There were interesting crumpled up bits of paper and adverts, maybe a letter tossed away or an envelope with an interesting stamp, bottles with curious labels, so many things I’d never seen before. Pretty things, desirable things, ready for the private saving in a pocket. If you lay with your ear on the track like the Indians in the movies, you could hear a train coming from very far away, though I never did not once and regretted it to the point of annoyance.
There were tall grasses alongside the track, and no stores or houses very close by and no one ever noticed I was there to chase me off. I think I might have played on that bit of railroad with friends too, pretending we were hobos on our way to treasure, sailing ships, mules to ride across deserts, or just the cartoon festivals and Flash Gordon Saturday Specials in the Hackensack movie house, or on far away to the fabulous city, good enough. But I’m not sure, maybe I’m making that up, I wouldn’t have minded being alone. If I’d been able to escape my dangerous brother I’d have been pleased with myself. I don’t ever remember him playing on the tracks with me ever. He was more likely up at the other end, the hill top, in the woods, climbing rocks and trees.
But the railroad, wow the railroad and all its parts was a sensual thing of shadow and light and highly intoxicating smells of coal and stone and strange grasses right next to your nose. The most incredible smell of all was creosote which permeated the railroad ties and made them glistening and oily. I still love the smell of creosote. If the sun had done a good day’s baking and you lay down there between the rails with your cheek pressed on the ties you’d be out of the wind and cozied just like a lizard on driftwood on the still side of a sand dune, in this silent peculiar ground all surrounded by powerful aromas. Well, to tell the truth the strength of getting close to unfamiliar things, that kind of exotica can just blow you away. Lying flat, the grass would wave and bend a good three feet above and around you, and you could watch the clouds change shapes through slits of openings made by a breeze that went slanting the brilliant green and yellow wands in a mystical benediction, it was a ceremonial kind of thing of ancient meaning as if they were fairy-land barriers between you and grownups. You were in a place to watch the world without the world knowing a thing about it, all warm and quiet, all private, the best secret ever. Butterflies were drawn to it, moths and bees and crickets, caterpillers and centipedes, and they were all exciting to study, and they were all only inches from your face.
Growing alongside the rails were dandelions and clover. I don’t remember eating the yellow flowers, at least not after the first few, but the pink and white clover was a different story, rich in a drink of honeyed sugar. If you plucked out the centers and sucked the juice from the slim reedy blossom stems, well, it was just divine. And if you wanted something to chew, the asphalt at the edge of Wortendyke Avenue on a really hot summer day would bubble up from the tar turned to a little pool of black liquid and then make a real air bubble about the size of marble or so from the heat. And you twisted the end of the bubble at the street level, and plucked it loose, and then you had this tar bubble and you could chew on it, just like it was gum except it wasn’t it was tar, and that had its own interesting texture and taste. I don’t ever remember it getting stuck in my teeth or anything, it was really neat. It was free. It didn’t kill me. Another one of those private things I don’t think I spoke much about to an adult. When you’re a child discovering some really interesting phenomenon and there’s a possibility no one else ever thought of it before you since time began, well then you really are something to brag about in your own head and the next best friend might be shown or have it described, if you liked and trusted them enough.
I don’t remember rules about how far or where to go or not when I was growing up. It was a different world than we’ve got now. It was not so terribly long after the great World War II to end all wars, and such a war has an affect on a population. I wouldn’t have known enough to note it then but I can see now that the death and horror and effort of a war fought for liberation and to stop such certain tyrants makes a country’s people thoughtful about the conduct of a life. People demanded a level of independence, personal responsibility, and decency, even in the very young.
At least that lasted awhile, and was what I pretty much grew up in. When I was a kid you went out to play and came back in time for dinner and whatever you did on your own or with your pals was your business, all aiding in the process of you learning the particulars of finding your way to adulthood, making judgements about safety and distance and heights, the strength of a tree branch and depth of water, what to put in your mouth and what not to, and I guess, railroad tracks.
I understood its draw for me, and I understood it for my friend’s poor Labrador. I never thought about being hit by any train ever. No, I never thought about it. And sometimes you just get lucky and live to do it again another day. I learned that, too.