“When I was a kid the Santa Fe freights used to wake me up,” the kid said. He seemed lost and kind of lowdown when he said it.
We were strangers, standing at the rail of an uptown joint in the snow bound northern city where I grew up. I had come home to visit my father. He was in the stroke ward at the nearby hospital. It wasn’t going well between us, Dad and me. It never did.
“I can still hear them ol’ freights, like rolling thunder,” he said.
After awhile he said he used to wait for the circus to come to town. “Yeah I get that.” I said. “We would go to the Garden, just down the street, and watch the clowns”. I told him how the clowns scared the hell out me, how I thought that my dad thought it was funny that clowns scared me. Later, much later, it turned out it wasn’t true he thought that.
The kid looked at me like I was a crazy old man or maybe just drunk. “I used to hear the circus coming from miles away” he said, “I could hear the calliope from way far off. Folks in town would stop what they were doing and listen. Get ready to party.” Then he stopped, as if caught up in a dust devil memory he shook his head and said very quietly, “they would get a funny look in their eyes, maybe thinkin’ it was something more than the end of summer, more than another year gone to harvest.” He was quiet after that.
Before I left I asked him where he was from. He told me he was from a little town just outside of Denton, Texas. I told him I knew where it was, that I had heard the Santa Fe freights rolling by, that I had stayed awhile and moved on. I wished him well and went out the door. I walked down the once familiar streets to the uncertainty that was waiting at the hospital.
I didn’t tell him that I had been in Denton because I was running for cover, drying out, getting clean. That the trains in the night sounded like all things lost, that lonesome was a way station on the road back from where I had been.
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