Falling Away

I never would have guessed he was forty-two; maybe fifty-two, or sixty-two, but certainly not any younger than that.

He passed me an old canteen that’d been roughly handled and beaten for what must have been decades, and told me to take a swig. I obliged and took a pull–and immediately regretted it. He smiled wide, a big, mostly toothless grin, and his laugh crawled forward from his lungs, the┬ásound not unlike sandpaper scratching over an old log, along with the sound of his heaving exhalation that was rasp and nearly hoarse from years of cigarettes and weed.

“JESUS CHRIST.” I gasped, still trying to catch my breath from the liquid fire I’d just ingested.

“Moonshine.” He said as he winked and then nudged me with his elbow, looking for me to pass the deviled drink back to him. I did, having no interest in taking another swig. I already felt drunk from the modest amount I’d had.

The scenery flew by at a decent speed, and I surmised that we’d left Cleveland some distance behind us.

If you’ve never ridden on a train in the middle of the night, I wholeheartedly suggest you try it at least once. And I’m not talking about Amtrak or a passenger line–go find yourself an old freight train, rusted to within an inch of its life, one that runs the old rail road lines that have existed since before cars tamed the countryside. At the head of the train, you’ll find an old engine that’ll run on diesel and chug along at a decent speed if given enough open country to do so. Toward the middle of the train–never near the front, nor the back–crawl into a boxcar that has just a single door open wide, similarly rusted and abused, and have yourself a seat against one cold and unforgiving wall.

Once the train starts moving, pull your knees to your chest, and quietly watch as the sky and the stars and the ground and the trees and the grass all become one big stretch of unending silhouetted horizon. If you’re lucky and the moon is shining, you’ll see its light reflect upon the metal roofs of shacks that were built decades before; hidden lakes nobody knew were still there will seem like glassy mirrors pointed back up at the sky, and forgotten roads will be visible, winding aimlessly and carelessly through mountains and backwoods, having been abandoned and lost to time.

We sat in silence a while, as the burning sensation in my throat and stomach slowly subsided and was eventually gone.

“Where are you headed?” He asked.

I shook my head.

“Nowhere in particular, eh?” He smiled.

“Not really.”

He nodded, smiled a sort of sad smile, and took another swig of the engine-cleaning moonshine. He offered another sip.

“… Eh, what the hell.” I said, and took a drink. I coughed and hacked as I tried to keep the alcohol down. Jesus. It must have been 180 proof.

“Don’t worry, it gets better after a while.” He said.

“I should hope so. That stuff couldn’t taste any worse.”

He shook his head, “Life, kid.” And then he took another long drink.

“Where’re you from?” He asked.

“Oregon. You?”

He shrugged and then spread his arms out wide, gesturing toward the landscape passing by in front of us.

“Oh c’mon. You must have come from somewhere.” I said.

“Nah. Ran away from home when I was fourteen. Father used to beat me, and my mom died when I was a baby…”

“Ever see your old man after you ran away?” I asked.

“No.”

“Ever want to go find him?”

“Nope. He’s probably dead. And if I ever found him, I’d make sure he was.” He laughed that same strained laugh, but it seemed like it was mostly there to hide behind.

“So–you’re not just homeless. You’re without a home.” I said.

He spread his arms wide again, as if he was taking in the landscape and the stars and the sky and everything around him.

“I’m pretty blessed.” He finally said.

We felt the train go up over a hill, and watched as an old home–built and abandoned before the start of the century–disappeared into a valley of trees.

“When are you headed back to Oregon?” He finally asked.

“Dunno. When I get bored or homesick, I guess.”

“That’s the nice thing about riding on trains.”

“What is?”

“They’re like old country roads. You never really know where they’ll take you, but they really only go two ways: closer to home…”

“…and farther away.”


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