A friend sent me an old photo taken one summer when my college boyfriend and I traveled from Boston to Seattle using all manner of transport, including hopping a freight train from Denver to Salt Lake City. The photo was taken by my boyfriend and pictured me and his best friend, who drove us to the Denver rail yard. About an hour later the two of us hopped the “jackrabbit,” what the watchman had called the next fast train out. I used this adventure in my second novel, DREAMS OF BREAD AND FIRE. Below is an excerpt from that section of the book.
Ani and Asa crept alongside the train until they located an open boxcar door and clambered in. The yard lights cast a parallelogram of brightness on the grimy wooden floor. They found several large sheets of heavy cardboard and pulled them to one end of the car. As they were settling into their corner two figures climbed in.
Hello, people, said a tall lean man. He was wearing soiled jeans and a denim work shirt rolled to the elbows. Don’t mind if we share the accommodations, do you?
No problem at all, Asa responded. He stood and pulled Ani to her feet.
This here is Ray, the taller one said, pointing to his short sidekick, and I’m Wiley. Ray bobbed his head while Wiley extended his hand.
Asa shook Wiley’s hand. I’m Asa. This is Ani.
Wiley’s face cracked into a smile that cried out for a dentist. I haven’t seen a girl riding the rails in a good long time.
As the train rattled out of the yard, the men set up in the opposite end of the car while Asa and Ani retreated to theirs. The train picked up speed, dashing along the tracks.
Ani whispered, Did you catch the naked woman tattooed on Wiley’s arm? I think there’s something the matter with the short one. He looks like an ax murderer.
Will you please calm down? Asa whispered back.
Great. We’re in a boxcar with a couple of deranged derelicts and he tells me to calm down. What are you some kind of dahngahlakh?
Asa said, I’m not going to let anything happen to you.
Thanks, Superman, Ani said.
Ani drew her knees up and closed her eyes. She pretended to relax, but actually she was envisioning Asa wrestling Wiley to the floor while Ray chased her around with a knife.
After a while, Asa and Ani moved to the boxcar door and saw a tunnel through the mountains looming ahead.
A lineman standing near the track waved frantically and shouted at them, Get inside! Cover your faces.
As they entered the tunnel, Asa and Ani lay on the floor with sweaters over their noses and mouths. Wiley and Ray pulled their shirts over their faces as well. It seemed like a long time that they were hurtling through the dark with thick, acrid air around them.
Asa drew her close with his free arm. Ani lay in his embrace, sure that their dead bodies would be discovered in the car when it arrived in Salt Lake. Her mother had begged Ani to take the bus. She claimed she wouldn’t get a wink of sleep until Ani called from Seattle. Her family would weep over Ani’s open casket. The Kersamians would forever curse the name of Asa Willard for leading Ani to an early demise. That ruled out joint burial in the family plot in the Ridgelawn Cemetery.
Finally, light and clean air flowed into the boxcar.
The four of them moved to the door frame, where the clustered lights of small mountain towns passed by. Soon there were only isolated houses and then they were in the craggy wilds of the Colorado Rockies. The moon cast a creamy carpet of light over the angular peaks.
Wiley said, Me and Ray broke out of a work camp near Lubbock a few days ago.
What were you in for? Asa asked.
Picked up for vagrancy. Sent us out to the farm. Barbed wire all around. The foreman had a whip and kept at us from dawn till dusk.
To Ani it sounded like something out of a fifties chain-gang movie.
I didn’t think that kind of thing was legal anymore, Ani said to Wiley.
Wiley laughed. Honey, you wouldn’t believe the things that are legal in Texas.
NOTES: Dreams of Bread and Fire was published by Grove Press in 2003. Danhgahlakh means blockhead. Photo courtesy of John Ackerly.
May 28, 2013