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You hardly see your own kid. A stranger takes care of him. After awhile, the stranger gets tired of being a stand-in parent, grows resentful, then moves along to the next woman with a kid. That’s how it works. And right now your kid’s a part of the same damn thing. There’s somebody living with your ex and wishing your kid was out of the picture.
This is what Leo Graham was thinking as he started to unbutton his shirt by the tracks.
He was forty years old, out of work, a thousand miles from his teenage son who lived in upstate New York. He had been divorced for twelve years and had lived the life of a distant dad as best he could, making regular phone calls, sending cards and packages, driving all day to see his son whenever possible, then driving back to southern Ohio. He had drifted in and out of various women’s lives, some with kids of their own. He had shown tenderness toward these children, for awhile, but could never really admit that he loved them—not with bone-deep passion, the way he did his own, Blake. He had lived in apartments and houses, despised by somebody’s son or daughter who saw him as just another stranger who slept with their mom. He was the enemy, he knew, and he understood and did not blame those children.
He took off his shirt and tossed it on the gravel. He wanted to feel the chill of the night air on his skin and cold shock of metal under his back. It was 2:00 a.m. and he knew the Southern Ohio Transit would be barreling through lugging coal from West Virginia and northern Kentucky on its way north toward Columbus. He would lie in bed at night in his dingy efficiency a couple of miles from the tracks and listen to the train’s roar. He would hear the explosive tonnage getting closer and then detonating in his ears. How many nights had he looked over just then at the digital clock and noticed it was always 2:15 in red glowing numbers? He would close his eyes and imagine what such weight would feel like on top of him. He imagined the pain would last a second or two, and then nothing. He would keep his eyes closed and when the train had passed and night was quiet again, he pictured himself in utter blackness, numb, his brain finally unplugged.
Leo lay back, face-up, on the tracks. The metal’s cold made him gulp. It was a clear September night and he stared up at the stars. He thought of Blake and wondered, the way he did every day, how the divorce and the last twelve years had affected him. Blake had been getting more and more distant, had stopped returning Leo’s calls altogether for a month now, and it was obvious that Blake had turned a corner, forever away from his dad. Part of it, Leo had thought at first, must be normal teenage independence from parents. But part of it was more, Leo knew. He supposed that Blake was ashamed to know his father had been fired for stealing steaks from the grocery where he worked unloading trucks and stocking. He knew that Blake’s mother was using this newest development to solidify her ongoing case against Leo. She had elevated father-bashing to a high art. Leo could hear her: “You see, you see, Blake. It’s what I’ve always told you. Your father is a bum. You are so much better off without him—I can’t even tell you.”
Leo wasn’t sure why he had tried to steal the steaks. It was near quitting time, and he had found himself next to the meats. He looked at them behind the glass case. He hadn’t had a steak of any kind for as long as he could remember. He lived mostly on hot dogs and cold cut sandwiches. It had been a rough day. He was hungry, and their bloody goodness suddenly symbolized all the things he had been kept from for so long. He thought, I am forty and not getting any younger. I got no damn thing going. Why not use this sorry-ass job in some small way to get a little pleasure. I ain’t got no woman waiting at home but at least I’ll have a good piece of meat. He had seen other workers at the grocery take things without a hitch. He looked around and pretended to arrange a couple of sirloins that customers had put back awkwardly on the meat counter. He purposely knocked over several in their cellophane and Styrofoam packages to the floor. He crouched to pick them up and slid one into each of his big work-smock pockets. He stood and put the rest back onto the counter in one smooth motion.
Leo punched-out and was nearly to his car when they stopped him. A police officer arrived in five minutes. He was cuffed and taken and had to spend a night in the local jail. He was fined and released with a court date set for a month from that day. Of course it was in the papers, and someone his wife knew in town sent her the clipping.
Leo listened to the quiet. The tracks were a mile from the highway in a field. Crickets chirped. Now and then he could hear a car or semi in the distance rush past. He was tired—tired of trying so hard to stay in touch, to be a good dad, tired of wrestling the guilt of what he had imposed on his son. And he was tired of himself, of the stupid choices he had made, right up to that afternoon at the grocery.
He looked at his glow-in-the-dark watch: 2:10. He ran his rough palm over his hairy chest and remembered when Blake was three in his arms, how he giggled when his nose tickled from Leo’s wiry black fur. He wondered what it would be like—if the very second after it happens, you wish you could do it over, get it back. Was it like when you write a private email and press send at the instant you realize you sent it to the wrong person? Was it like the very second when you slam shut the locked car door and remember your keys are on the car seat? Is it like the saying he had heard hundreds of times about suicide being a permanent solution to a temporary problem?
Leo slipped a small traveler’s size bottle of Jack Daniels from his jean pocket. He unscrewed it, sat up on his elbows, and downed half the bottle. He choked briefly from the sweet burn in his throat. He noticed a firefly to his left blinking on and off. Then another and another. Soon they wouldn’t be out anymore, he thought. Summer was over.
He drank down the rest of the whiskey, tossed the bottle and lay back, his head on the metal track. He didn’t care what it would be like, really. He didn’t believe in God or heaven or hell. He had long ago rejected those Hollywood versions of the afterlife, where you drift through a long tunnel toward an angel of light. It probably is nothing but a big black nothing, he thought. Regardless, he didn’t care.
He could hear the familiar roaring in the distance getting closer. He started to feel vibrations in the metal under him, almost like fingertips starting to massage. The whiskey had started to make his head swim a bit, and the fireflies looked like a connect-the-dots picture, all their glowing asses blurring into something bigger. He squinted to make out the shape and identity.
He thought for a second that it was Blake’s face with its first stubble on his chin that he had never noticed until now. But then he caught himself getting sentimental, shut his eyes, opened them again and, yes, the firefly portrait was gone. He pictured all of his ex-wife’s friends talking about him at the water cooler in their office, shaking their heads and laughing at what a moron he was to end it over a couple of stolen sirloins. He pictured Blake cussing with his buddies, smoking behind the high school, acting tough, bragging that he was glad the old man loser was finally out of his hair. Leo told himself it was all for the best, that his son needed to hate him to survive.
Now the train’s bulk was seconds away. Leo’s bones shook. The metal started to feel warm on his skin. His hairs all over stood up, prickled. Leo glanced at his watch: 2:14. He felt proud that he had timed things so perfectly. It was a sign, maybe, that this was the right thing to do, that it was meant. He felt ready for whatever was to come, yes, he did. He squeezed fistfuls of gravel trying to keep his body in place on the tracks. He grabbed wood planks on each side of him. He looked up at the stars, jumping and dancing. Leo wished he could tell his son how sometimes a thing like love can hurt too much, how it is like a string that vibrates, creating sound. You spend a life wanting to keep it vibrating but you also want it to stop because it is more than a body can stand.
Leo was no poet but he had thought over the years of these things. He had started to think more and more in metaphors. He closed his eyes tight and thought how a plucked string must quiver at its most violent before stilling to a stop. The machinery now was deafening. Everything quaked. Smells of oil and rust. He let go of the wood planks, and for a second, felt himself floating above the tracks.
Neil Carpathios is the author of three full-length poetry collections: Playground of Flesh (Main Street Rag Publishing Company), At the Axis of Imponderables (winner of the Quercus Review Press Book Award), and Beyond the Bones (FutureCycle Press). He also is editor of Every River on Earth: Writing from Appalachian Ohio (Ohio University Press, 2015). He is an associate professor of English and Coordinator of Creative Writing at Shawnee State University in Portsmouth, Ohio.