The Rogue Voice

A LITERARY JOURNAL WITH AN EDGE

May 01, 2008

A memory of trains

















Photo illustration by Stacey Warde

Now clouded by the ever-present threat of whisky and red fists, the memory gleamed through abruptly with the sound of the trains.

The bottle almost seemed to grin horribly at her with animal’s teeth covered in a fresh film of blood bubbling up from pulsating, infected gums, cat-whiskers gleaming with drops of molten fire, wet with the stench of terrible magic.


by Larry Narron

Maggie was sitting on the couch curled up next to her father, watching the baseball game. By the fourth inning he was already very drunk, and she, saying she had calculus homework to finish, slipped away quietly upstairs to her bedroom. It was only eight o’clock by the time she turned off the light and slipped under the covers. Minutes later she began to hear the sound of her mother and father screaming at each other in the living room downstairs. Maggie hoped that that was all they were going to do, but she knew that it would get much worse very soon, probably even before she had a chance to fall asleep. In the morning her mother would drive her to school again, and Maggie would look over at her in the driver’s seat and see her wearing the scarf again. Her mother didn’t wear scarves when there were no bruises to hide.
She pulled the comforter up over her head. She tried to ignore the muffled sound of her father’s sporadic, drunken mumbling, his violent screaming at her mother. She shut her eyes and focused instead on the sound of the trains outside her open window. She lay alone in the dark and listened to the train whistles screaming softly in the cored -out night, hearing the whispering kisses of old metal and new steam, the singing of heat being pumped up into the aching December sky. In the darkness she tried to imagine what the trains might look like winding up over the hills, out of the city, into the north, up along the dim-mythed shores of the southern California coast, north to some magic place where nothing existed but darkness — darkness, the sound of train whistles in the elastic distance, and antique, grandfather clocks striking four in the morning.
She remembered:
She was four years old and she was surrounded by white mountains that towered over her. It was winter and the world was pregnant with an undiscovered wonder, bloated with a sense of mystery that would never be again. Maggie and her parents had not yet moved away forever from those white fields that stretched between the mountains of the country world just outside Salt Lake City. Now clouded by the ever-present threat of whisky and red fists, the memory gleamed through abruptly with the sound of the trains. She had been four, and her father had taken her to Salt Lake to see the trains pull out of the station, to watch them chug away to some other ancient place, away into the immortal mountains. Her father hoisted her up onto his bulk shoulders. Maggie clung affectionately to his dirty, smoke-stained hunting jacket and watched with untainted joy as all the trains roared away into fields of snow. She watched from high atop his shoulders as all the unnamable people came and went from nowhere to nowhere.
It wasn’t the trains alone that enchanted her, but her father’s own deathbed clarity devoid of drunkenness, full of affection and love. Being there, near the trains, there had been no guilt, no shame, no fear of what bad things might happen any moment.
It was a dream from which Maggie wished she never had to awaken. But now she was awake — in a dark room where the trains abandoned her, winding away into the darkness and the distance outside. And if her father came upstairs right now and opened the door and poked his head inside, it wouldn’t be her father in the doorway anymore but someone else, his breath reeking with the sour stench of bad dreams, his face possessed by a groggy leer of anger, sadness, and something else she could not name.
“Maggie.”
Her father.
Downstairs.
In the living room.
“Come down here a minute, Maggie”
She pulled the comforter from her eyes and just lay there on the bed, frozen. She squeezed her eyes shut and clamped her teeth hard together in her mouth.
“Come here, honey!”
Finally, Maggie stood. Without turning on the light, she headed for the door, went out and descended the stairs.
Her father was slumped down on the couch in the living room, a glass of whisky nearly filled to the rim clutched in his red and swollen fingers. He dipped a finger into the glass and swirled it around. He grinned at her, his face a puffed up fire of reddened flesh, eyes glinting dully in the dim light coming from the kitchen. The bottle was at his feet, the familiar black and white label that wrapped around the glass almost seeming to look at her and say, Hi, Maggie! Remember the trains? Well, guess what? You’re daddy doesn’t remember them anymore, and even if you told him he wouldn’t care! I’m gonna make him hurt you so much! You know you really shouldn’t go out in the wintertime without putting on a nice big scarf to wrap around your neck. I’ll wrap around your neck, you bitch. The bottle almost seemed to grin horribly at her with animal’s teeth covered in a fresh film of blood bubbling up from pulsating, infected gums, cat-whiskers gleaming with drops of molten fire, wet with the stench of terrible magic.
Trembling, Maggie sat down on the couch next to her father. He moved closer to her, his breath burning in her face. She put her hands behind her back, making fists and finding pools of sweat in her palms. Her father slipped one huge hand behind her and gently undid each one of her trembling fists, uncurling her fingers one by one. She let her fingers go limp in his grip, surrendering completely. Her father rubbed her fingers together in his bulging red hands.
She closed her eyes and just lay there against her father, resting her head on his chest. She waited for him to speak, but he said nothing. She felt her heart beating furiously in her chest. She could not slow it down.
Where’s Mama where’s Mama they were just yelling why can’t she come back in here and make him go to bed…
But he was snoring. Maggie opened her eyes and looked at him. She saw him now passed out, his head slumped against his shoulder. He breathed slowly and heavily through his thick, wet lips.
Maggie undid his grip from her fingers — slowly, one by one so she wouldn’t wake him — and stood. She backed away from the couch, turned and headed for the stairs. As she reached the wooden railing of the staircase and took hold of it, she braced for what she was so certain was about to come: The hard, hard, heavy smack of her father’s thick belt against the back of her head, and the sharp, numbing sting that was sure to follow; the swelling growing beneath her torn hair even before she could cry out and crash, stunned, to the hardwood floor; her head hurting not just because of the cuts and the blood but because of the strands of her hair that would be ripped out of her head, caught in the big copper buckle with the blood; and, finally, the screams and the taunts and the accusations and then the sudden rush of big cowboy-booted feet behind her before she finally rolled over and looked up into the eyes that no longer belonged to her father but to someone else grinning down at her and laughing as he took the belt and made the loop for her neck — it gets cold in December, baby, you can’t go out without a scarf to wear — and began tightening it slowly, slowly, letting her feel the sharp points of the big metal buckle digging into the skin of her neck.
Maggie froze on the stairs, waiting, certain. She risked a glance over her shoulder and saw her father still there on the couch snoring, out cold.
She turned and hurried up the stairs. She went into her room and closed the door softly behind her. She left the light off and crawled back into bed.
The last of the trains had left through the hills, had wound up toward Oceanside and whatever lay beyond. Outside there was nothing but the distance, an oppressive darkness and the open wound of the silence. §

Larry Narron is a freelance writer who lives in San Luis Obispo. This story is from a work-in-progress.

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