Sean Devlin is a Milwaukee based writer. His work has appeared in The Cardiff Review, Knight's Library Magazine and more. He earned a MA in Creative Writing from the University of Limerick, Ireland. He teaches high school composition.
The Weight of a Train
He makes fun of my stories a lot, Sam does. To start, he mocks annoyance by rolling his eyes, mouth open a bit but then smiles and settles on an elbow to listen. A nervousness shivers up my spine before telling him what I’m thinking. At the end, he smirks and lists off questions, forgetting he puts up his front.
I told him once about Dickey Chappelle and how she used to jump out of planes with the military in places like Vietnam and Korea without a gun but a camera and hid in the brush snapping shots of action. Sam said, ‘Fuck’s sake,’ his eyes wide. Dickey made bets with other photographers whose troop would be shot at next.
‘Hell of a gut she had,’ Sam said to that one.
Dickey’s troop walked into a trap in Chu Lai, triggering a grenade attached to a mortar and she died after shrapnel caught her neck. Nothing he could poke fun at there. Instead he jumped off the side of my truck in the driveway and tucked and rolled into the grass with his phone out and tried taking a picture once settled on his knees beside the lilac bush.
‘Imagine,’ he said.
I’m the reader in the group, between me, Sam, and my younger brother Ryan. Always keeping a few copies of National Geographic or a .75 cent novel from Amstel Anne’s Books in the console of my truck. During summer, when the food co-op, diners, and coffee shops expect weekly deliveries of radishes, green beans and whatnot, I leave the farm around 5:30 a.m. arriving to my first drop-off forty-five minutes early with a thermos of coffee and a blueberry muffin and sit in my truck and read. I know it would sound silly to anyone, but I see it like I’m embezzling time from the morning, keeping it to myself and plunging into a different universe before mine opens its eyes.
Something about reading stories of people from long ago and all their secrets gives me energy. I read this one book where a woman in the 1860s pushed her husband down a well because he was a prick and beat her, and she poisoned the second, because she saw some of the first one in him and figured he was already poisoned and what’s a bit more. I walk around Amstel as if my characters are up hiding in a loft somewhere only trusting me with their darknesses. Sometimes I give them my mistakes. Acting like my foolishness is theirs’ instead. They are easier to forgive.
Sam tries to read. When we used to hook Uncle Paul’s boat to the truck and head for northern Minnesota, fishing gear in tow, he’d get a couple pages in while I drove but then start his own plot. He’s always wanting to make his own stories, coming up with wild plans for us.
‘Let’s start hustling the towns south of here, Eh Timmy?’ he said one night we were playing pool at Boar’s Head. He had just jumped his stripe to hit my solid into the side pocket getting himself one closer to the eight.
‘I was reading that article about that pool player Minnesota Fats and how bets don’t shake him. His game didn’t change whether it was worth a buck or a thousand, or something like that,’ he said.
We don’t really have game though. I have a pretty sophisticated backspin, and Sam can jump two balls at a time and sink something close to the hole, but other than that, its wonky long shots and over-cutting the odd angles.
‘We can’t do it around here cause everyone knows us. Let’s hit Merrimoc, Pullstown, and on down. There’s loads of tables. Imagine the cash!’ he said. He had a way of pulling me into his head after he was halfway through a plan; he needed my head nods to build his confidence.
Before I could say anything, he shouted, ‘The inland sharks!’ as he looked at me and pointed his cue in the direction of Lake Superior.
A few nights later we went up three-hundred bucks down at a county road bar 30 miles south before two cooks on their break cleared the table in two turns leaving five of our balls untouched and our pockets empty. The one who sunk the eight, Rodney, a meager middle-aged guy with cruddy long, black hair and a patchy mustache smirked at us and bought us a round of Buds before heading back into the kitchen. We got shitfaced back at the farm with Ryan and Sam set up the tent he packed in my truck earlier in the day when he was imagining us hustling our way down Highway 13 into central Wisconsin.
There’s a shyness to Sam. It makes him seem polite to others - which he is - though I know it’s because he’s always second-guessing himself. But his imagination is untamed; he’s got this hope about him, like it’s something he can carry in his pocket and rub as he starts talking. His sentences are always questions to me, building at the same point and asking, You think that’s a good idea?
Ryan is close with him, but Sam is my best friend. After my brother went for a piss in the woods the night we camped on the farm, Sam got quiet and looked at me, one side of his lip upturned and his eyes a bit wet.
‘Ever wonder if farming is it?’
Drunkenly he reached for his beer, knocked it over, picked it up, took a swig and grabbed the nearest cloth-like thing and mopped up the spill. Twenty minutes later we found out it was Ryan’s sweatshirt.
Sam almost drowned in Lake Superior when we were eight, and our bond was proven. We were making an evening of jumping off the dock besting each other’s cannonballs and can openers when the sky darkened and thunder stomped and the water followed suit. Sam had tried to swim out as far as he could, cause Uncle Paul was talking to a friend at the front of the dock who was asking about corn prices and wasn’t paying much attention. The sky’s face changed like crossing mom in the morning. Sam went under and I clung to the ladder crying. I looked up after I heard boots pounding the wood planks and saw Uncle Paul dive in and snatch a slippery arm before it sunk. He nearly buckled to Superior’s will himself. After Uncle Paul pumped all the water out of Sam’s lungs I wrapped my skinny arms around his shaking head and stayed there until he settled. Friendship proved raw at that age lasts a lifetime.
It had been us since that day and we had plans of marrying sisters and probably growing into the dirt on the farm. Ryan would be there, too.
It was only a few months ago, the three of us sat on Raspberry Hill watching the trains on the way to Duluth. It was just about two in the morning, the sky was clear and fall hadn’t given way to winter yet. The rumble of the trains was low like a song fading but never out.
‘I wonder how many people have actually said fuck it, packed a sack and hopped on the back of a train in the middle of the night to somewhere else,’ Sam said.
‘That’d be something, eh?’ Ryan said tipping a bottle back. ‘It’s great here and all. Like, quiet and I’d never wanna fully leave. But, like, imagine fucking off for a bit? See what all the fuss about California is.’
I stayed quiet and imagined how many people missed on their first jump, splayed out in the stones next to a rushing train. They were imagining it without flaw, most likely with an old Army burlap hanging over one shoulder. With one foot on a step and a hand clutching a handle, they look out at Amstel in the night: purple gauze stretched in black sky and stars shimmering above the churches and lake.
‘Imagine being run over by a train,’ Sam said, grounding me. Remember all those cartoons with people tied to the tracks and sweating rivers as the horn blasts? What if no one came to save you? Like, it just fucking happened?’
Ryan laughed, stood up.
‘Always gotta turn it depressing, don’t ya, Sammy?’
They both chuckled and Ryan walked down to the truck to get a few more beers out of the cooler. But I heard it in Sam, that lowness that he can’t help sink into when he feels something bright on a deep level. Almost like his soul is telling him, Nah, bud. You’re just as well here. Stay with what you are half decent at. Potential is just a combination of letters.
A few years back, we were on that same hill, and he was on about his dad. Meth sent him into a spiral of crimes until he landed in a penitentiary in Illinois for nearly clawing his own mother’s face off for a twenty dollar bill to restore the high. Sam and his mom spent the next ten years living in a trailer past Amstel and only had clean water if it came from a well.
Sam’s voice would fall an octave and his eyes would widen but look at the grass. He would tell the same story about how his mother burnt the minute rice when she was trying to make him a burrito on his sixth birthday and she threw the pan in the sink cracking the plastic and she fell to her knees bawling and he sat there with a hand on her back until she stopped. ‘I don’t know how long it took. We ate Doritos for dinner,’ he’d say with a brief, watery laugh.
That same night, when he was done, I shot gunned a beer and somersaulted down the hill. When I stood up and shot my arms in the air to get a reaction, I puked. Sam nearly rolled down the hill from laughing.
‘What happens after it hits the poor fuck?’ he said. I stayed quiet.
‘I imagine it just keeps rolling. Probably a bit off kilter for a few seconds, all the bone and flesh grinding to nothing, then it just goes on,’ he said pulling a few blades of grass out of the earth.
Ryan walked back up the hill and we sat in silence a bit longer watching as the trains pulled into the pines and out of sight. I imagined them both running alongside one in the middle of the night. Sam a bit slower but eventually tearing past Ryan who would stop and start rubbing his forehead. Sam would jump, hopefully catch hold, and look back with a frown but stay on and with a wave, head on out of Amstel.
Ryan is fixed here. I don’t mean it in a bad way. The way people talk about those that never leave their hometown are pricks. You never hear, Oh, he never left Chicago. Stayed in the damned place his whole life. It’s always about the small-towners. As if Amstel is the first stone in a meandering pattern across a shallow river. It suits him. He’s forever walking into Hank’s Hardware and getting a wave from everyone or a free beer to start his night at any bar. He’s like grease in the town’s hinge. If he weren’t here, it would still open and close, but with him, it’s a bit smoother.
Sam will leave eventually. I think I knew that even before one of them accidently shot Uncle Paul a few months back. That day sunk Ryan’s boots further into the farm’s mud. Sam up and left the night of the funeral without a fucking word.
Didn’t matter what anyone in town said, even Sheriff Jolma ruled it an accident, a hunting disaster described by fate. But no one knew what to say so they always said the wrong thing.
Eh, Sammy. Tough luck, man. It sure is a pity, but we know you and Ryan didn’t do nothing on purpose.
His mind was wandering on him, boys. Can’t tame dementia. Poor old bastard.
Uncle Paul was walking in the woods when he was supposed to be sitting in a rocking chair on the porch with a mug of coffee and his Sudoku. Mom blames herself for not watching. Then people say to her, Ah, Molly. You couldn't have your eyes on him all day. Sure you have enough to worry about.
And now here I am driving down Highway 13 at one a.m. looking into every bar like some jackass with a picture on my phone of a smiling Sam, the dim light of a High Life sign behind him in Boar’s Head.
The drive is kind of consoling. It’s the trees. My headlights are spilling over the trunks of pines and illuminating natural paths into blackness. Maybe he is in there somewhere, saying the hell with people and going at it by himself, becoming a hermit like the guy in Maine I told him about who got caught after twenty-six years, because the camp he was stealing food from hired a security guard.
Maybe it’s not childish to think about other worlds, dimensions or whatever. I bet I’m not the first to imagine pulling over, setting the keys on the hood and heading into the forest until I find my way into a new life where none of this exists. Maybe Sam is already in his new world, now it’s my turn and Ryan and Mom will eventually find theirs. The farmhouse will sit empty and fall apart with age and disappear into the dirt.
Leaving in the first place is the surest decision Sam’s made in his life, and he did it without me. Was it a confidence he found in his leaving or had he lost it and now he’s a spiraling drunk shuffling in and out of every bar down 13? Maybe he’s not even in the state anymore. Fucked off west or something.
Or maybe he’s fine and found himself solace in a new life and I’m the nut careening down the highway in the middle of the night in search of a single person who doesn't want anything to do with me cause the sight of me only punctures his soul; small enough where he can’t find the hole and stop the spill of everything good.
That’s probably more the case than anything. Now I’m just thinking this is my way of shedding my mind of the sight of Uncle Paul’s casket, shroud in roses under a cross in the church I am not sure he ever gave a second thought to.
We all know what hurts others and what doesn’t, Timmy. Go by that feeling and you’ll never be called a prick, he said to me so many times. But not anymore because he’s dead. I’m not sure what the hell I’m doing anymore.
FIRST PUBLISHED IN The Knight's Library Magazine