There was no light at the tracks behind the A&P, and a distant thud compressed and pulsed in predawn air. His glasses were spotted with mist but made the world clearer for cobalt eyes. Strained eyes, bloodshot. A flask hid corn whiskey in his jacket, a container filled from a paint spattered toolshed bucket. He brewed the corn’s offspring himself—just a sharp wince in the glass now, its purpose as clear as the liquid itself.
Some coal train howled in the distance, a discordant burst contorted by the night. The footbridge at the West Branch was oxidized, suspended over a current of burnt-orange sulfur-laden water—dark water, mysterious, like the nameless thud that assaulted his ears. After the bridge, a gravel outlay around the tracks, where he stepped between the rails and turned northward.
The railroad ties were equidistant, and he found a rhythm, an assured cadence. His father’s house was only a hundred yards or so from these tracks, and in younger years he waited to see pennies crushed by the passing heft of steel, oil, coal, and steam, trains from the Peacock & Bellefonte coal yard on the south end of town.
Across the West Branch, the Taylors had a bakery. Four brown and cream-colored trucks were lined up and silent for another hour or so, though the smell of fresh bread beckoned him like the misty streetlights that stood as distant sentries. Even here, beyond the roof of the shirt factory, over blocks and streets that twisted around the building, the atmosphere held the bread’s odor like a vice, so that it might not diffuse. Something resembling warm homes and filled bellies covered that section of town like a comfortable blanket.
Except for a crescent wrench and rag in the back pocket, his jeans were free of any encumbrance that might hold value or buy fresh bread. There were flour and lard at home, but his own bread was not so pungent. The thought poked him, but he breathed and emptied his mind to consider his pace; at some point years ago, he’d determined that tangible things like distance were easy to ponder.
With all the steps he might count in twenty minutes, the town was behind him.
In five minutes more, he saw the Goat Farm in quiet fog. The roadside tavern, which was not a farm at all, had shouted at the mountains a few hours before. The same bodies that hollered and fought and cursed at the bar might have moved on these same tracks, then, in a staggered homeward journey.
Another gravel outlay, this one higher and steeper than what was nearer to the town, bordered the tracks, and his boots crunched on the stone. The tracks climbed and twisted—lost altitude and rose again—to the north of Barnesboro, so that the Goat Farm lay below him, next to the Barnesboro-Emeigh road and on a lower ridge a quarter mile away. Hills rolled to the east so that one might see for fifty miles, but that would require daylight and clear skies. Sunshine was a rare commodity, and he had once tallied two-hundred and forty-seven cloudy days in a notebook, though he couldn’t remember the year in which he had counted those gray domes.
Dead goldenrod rustled and pulsed as a tumultuous sea below the tracks; the field would leave burrs on his jeans, and the dust of rotted milkweed would fall beneath him in this season before the snow starts. Sparrows slept and dreamt of daylight and a writhing breakfast. A startled deer sprinted at his left with the first step off the railroad bed, but he only glimpsed a white tail—he listened to the animal’s hurried, muddy exit. The deer startled him, and yet he had expected it as a matter of memory. The loud flutter of a grouse’s wings would do the same; the grouse were bound to leave hemlock perches, and the speedy hammer of wing against air always rendered a shock, even as he anticipated it.
The field gave way behind the bar, to hardened uneven clay, to frozen tire tracks and the muted glare of the Goat Farm’s rear windows. Long before, he had guessed that the structure was just over fifty-five feet long—he trusted his own power in estimating such things. A window waited on each end of the bar, and glass exploded as he hammered the crescent wrench through the one on the right. An oily rag around the wrench muted the noise, though he didn’t expect that anyone was on the premises.
The same instrument cleared shards from the window frame, so that he might pull himself into a cramped space that held a toilet and rusty sink. He set his hands on the back of the crusty commode and climbed down to the urine-soaked floor. A door that would cover a man’s midsection swung between the toilet and the bar, and a lightbulb, strung lifeless on brown lampcord, would, during business hours, advertise place and purpose to the Goat Farm’s yammering patrons.
Behind the bar he lifted a bottle of beer from a case on a shelf, searched for the shape of the opener with his hand and found it nailed near the money drawer. Its Coca-Cola logo was clear to his fingertips. Foam spilled over the top of the bottle after a short hiss. He wiped his hand on the jeans and perched on the bartender’s stool. The beer pinched and soaked and took his breath away to drowning, but he guzzled it quickly. A loud belch rumbled, and he dropped the empty bottle at his feet to contemplate the black room. He reached for a second bottle.
In another hour, he walked back to the toilet’s window and pulled himself toward hedging daylight. A gray hue glowed and made the fog thicker so that it hovered with odd shadows. His tongue felt heavy and he spat at the ground before reentering the goldenrod. The tracks were above him, but he pushed downward into woods and underbrush that lay beyond the field. The road was close to him, then. If a car passed, he would hear the shimmer of tires, but there was only his breath and the crack of branches beneath ferns in the damp ravine. He would not risk the road, though his own reasons for avoiding it were vague.
The Gamrat house slumped near the road, a mile beyond the Goat Farm. He had walked here before, had lain behind an oak and waited, had slept beside an outcrop of sandstone that stood guard, fifty yards from where Irene Gamrat hung clothes or hoed in a small opening during growing season. The house held her as its only resident. He had determined her status in the way that he might decide the length of a two-by-six or the width of a doorframe, by the design of his own furtive observations, and he had carried this information for many months.
A train approached from the north, a headlight and rectangular coal cars. The hill rumbled, though he couldn’t decide whether it was only sound that vibrated around him now. It would take ten minutes for the train to be gone, and he counted cars with silent numbers.
When the noise subsided, he approached the house and reached for a rattling door handle. The door moved inward, and Irene Gamrat sat at a white metallic table with a plate of eggs in front of her. Her body did not react to the man who stood there, neither in nor out. He was much younger, below her own advancing years.
She swallowed the bit of egg that rested on her tongue and held the fork aloft. “Yinz got business here this mornin’? If so, git on with it.”
“I jes come over here to talk to ya. I seen the light from the road.”
“If ya come down from the road, I din’t see ya.” He carried the smells of sweat and oil and liquor, though she held on to judgement as to which of these was the worst—none of the odors was unfamiliar to her, and she knew men well. Her right hand remained above the plate, but there was no fear in her countenance. “Close the door. It’s chilly.”
He followed her direction and shuffled to the table to grab the back of a chair and pull it toward him, where he finally rested. The floor planks were uneven, and he considered them. When he pushed his hair back, it fell forward again, a greasy brown mess. She placed the fork on the plate and slid the breakfast to him. “Yinz look like ya need to eat. Them eggs is fresh, still warm. I got more, if you o’ mind to havin’ more.”
He lifted the plate to his chin and shoveled eggs into his mouth. There was no hurry in his manner, but in three bites that were too large, the eggs were gone, the smeared plate settled on the table again. She lifted the coffee toward him, held it in the space between them until he took it.
He enjoyed a long enough drink, and the cup was empty when he finally breathed and wiped his mouth on the sleeve of his coat. “My daddy, he’s gone. He died. He died yesterday.” The voice rose to a level unexpected, the tone high and feminine, louder than the words he’d uttered earlier. If there was sadness attached to the loss, it had lodged in his throat and vocal cords.
“My condolences. Do I know your daddy?”
“His belly jes burst. That’s what I’m thinkin’. He spit lots o’ blood. He might o’ had the cancer. Mebbe he drunk too much.”
“Mebbe I din’t know ‘im.”
“They wa’nt much I could do ‘cept watch ‘im go.”
Irene Gamrat would remember her own father if she allowed a moment to close her eyes and imagine the face—the dark, red-rimmed eyes, hair brown and unwashed. And the young man to whom she’d borne a child, in the days when she thought of romance as real—how clear were her recollections? An ugly part of her life, one of the few things she had named and then left behind.
She chose to leave her blue eyes open in the decades that followed, to see the world for what it was. She would not dim the reality, would not be a nostalgist, wouldn’t glorify something that held no glory. What were men, except drunkards and liars, dirty thieves who stole nameless things? Corn whiskey, indeed.
“You smell like whiskey. I would like you to go.”
“They wa’nt much I could do.”
“Ya might o’ kicked him. Yinz look jes like ‘im. I would like ya to go. Don’t come back here, neither.”
He eased himself from the white table. At the door, he pushed the hair back from his face so that he might get a better look at her. In turn, she saw far too many things in his red eyes, destructive things. Weren’t men bent on destruction? Her own meditations had created a fierce devotion to this hard truth.
When he’d gone, Irene Gamrat went to the stove to pour coffee from the aluminum pot. In time immeasurable, something lodged in her own throat, a thing demanding and sticky. She swallowed the bitter liquid and leaned against the stove so that she might not fall. Her heart moved at a hurried pace, far beyond any she could remember, but she knew that it would pass, that she would not faint.
The sun was up now, and she penciled a tally in a datebook that hung from a nail. Blue lines crossed the page, intersected by a dull red one at the right edge. This day, like so many others, would be covered in gray clouds, and so it had to be counted, where untold days like it had already been marked by the dull point of her writing instrument. She let the pencil fall from her hand and it swung on its string. She moved, finally, to fill the basin so she might wash her face before too much daylight had passed.
Gerry Stanek lives in Greensboro, NC and is the author of They Came Here Looking for Light: The Plattsville Stories. A second collection, This Ain’t No Normal Fire, is forthcoming. He grew up in the coal fields of Western Pennsylvania and teaches writing at North Carolina A&T. Gerry is a graduate of the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College..