Well, I'm at 3,994 words--made it!
I changed Jamie's voice; made it consistent to her age and background (I hope). Actually, I find her charming now.
I do wish I could make the ending a bit more...what? Satisfying? Maybe it's okay.
Anyway, here it is. 1939, somewhere in Wyoming.
Patrick Sean Lee
Mainstream/Literary Short Story
Patrick Sean Lee
I’m curled up as close to Ira as I can get, unless I crawl under him or pull his body over me, which I don’t think I oughta' do. If I could just go to sleep it might help. Maybe the hours'd fly by like the telegraph poles outside, and then the sun'd rise, or we’d stop somewheres and I could find a blanket.
He told me a couple of hours back to wake him if the train started to slow down; that we’d have to jump off ‘fore it stopped ‘cause of the bulls. I thought he meant cows. When he explained who they was, not what, I laughed and said they couldn’t be no worse than the bull I’d just 'scaped from back in Globeville. My papa didn’t have a billy club but he was good at beatin’ me in other ways. Ira didn’t laugh. He knew what I was talkin’ about by then.
It ain’t snowin’ out there, in fact I can see the sky through the broken boards of the boxcar. There must be a million stars, all cloudy and thick, like white jam with bright speckles on a piece of dark bread. That jammy-lookin’ sky makes my stomach turn over and over. I’m used to that feelin’, though. I was most always hungry back in Globeville after Mama died. Papa didn’t eat much, or if he did he sure didn’t do it at home, unless whiskey can be called food.
It’s so cold. My toes are gettin’ numb, and my legs feel like I don’t have no pants on. Ira said he wears long unders, and even offered to give ‘em to me back in the ditch, ‘fore we hopped this train. He said he’d turn his back and take ‘em off if I was embarrassed.
“It gets awfully cold out here, kid,” he said.
Like I didn’t know that already. Who knows how long he’s been wearin’ them things. I’ll bet forever. It don’t look like he’s ever washed his trousers. Why would he wash his long johns? Anyways, they woulda’ been ten sizes too big for me. Ira must be six feet-two at least. ‘Sides, I’ve never worn anybody else’s underwear, and I weren’t about to start with his. I’m a girl for gosh sakes.
That constant clackin’. It’s the wheels on the tracks, and it’d be soothin’ if this was summer and we was headin’ down to Denver. It would put me to sleep. ‘Course I’d still probly have to be curled up beside my friend ‘cause even in summer I’ll bet the wind would whistle through this boxcar and make me shiver.
Clack-clack. Clack-clack. The sound of them wheels on the tracks reminds me of mama mixin’ batter in a bowl.
Mama died last summer. She was real sick there at the end, coughin’ all the time, spittin’ up blood, too. Papa didn’t work—he was hardly ever home, so he didn’t see what I saw. I don’t think he woulda’ cared even if he had seen her like that. I begged him to take her on down to the hospital in Jackson, that somethin’ was really wrong, but he was drunk and staggerin’ that day, and he laughed at me.
“She don’t need no hospital ya’ stupid little bitch. She needs to get her ass outa’ that goddam’ bed and clean this stink hole up…”
That’s how he always talked to me, like I was some little she-dog yappin’ at him. He went on about how beatin’ a cold was all about workin’ instead of “layin’ on yer’ fat ass an’ feelin’ sorry ‘bout yerself.”
But Mama didn’t have just a cold, and I think part of the reason she was spittin’ up blood was 'cause of the whuppins he gave her nearly every night when he come stumblin’ home all in a rage from wherever he’d been all day. I know that musta’ had somethin’ to do with it.
When she finally died he weren’t even 'round. I was right there, though. I sat 'side her bed most all of the days and nights till he come home. She weren’t moanin’ no more that afternoon. Just laid there like an old wash rag I’d pulled outta' water in the sink. Her lips'd turned blue, and the bed was soaked ‘cause she’d peed it and I couldn’t help her get up to change the sheet. I was cryin’ ‘cause she wouldn’t answer me when I tried talkin’ to her. She was so wet.
I was scared somethin’ terrible, and I ran next door to the McGillicutty’s to ask ‘em for help, but they was nowhere around. The filthy place was a madhouse. The youngest kids was busy beatin’ on one another, and screamin’ bloody murder. It was like turnin’ a corner and findin’ yourself inside a hornets’ nest. John-John, who’s nine, had a board with rusty old nails in it chasin’ Dermot everywhere, yellin’ at the top of his lungs.
“Where’s Mrs. McGillicutty!” I yelled when I jumped through the doorway over an old busted up crate.
John-John stopped for a second and let the end of the board fall to the floor. He looked over at me and said.
“She ain’t here.”
“Is your papa?” I followed up, but he was already off again with his board cocked and ready to kill Dermot.
“He ain’t neither,” I heard him shout back at me before he disappeared into another room. That figured. I ran back out and headed for town, a mile and a half away, hopin’ I could find someone who wasn’t crazy to help Mama.
Mr. McGillicutty is worse than my dad, and so is Mrs. McGillicutty. I know they wasn’t at work ‘cause neither of ‘em could be bothered holdin’ a job, which are hard to find these days anyways. They was at the saloon, most likely, though I don’t know where they got the money to buy even a beer. They sure didn’t get it from Papa. Michael Steven, the oldest of their ten kids, who I used to like a little, told me one time his ma 'did' guys for a dollar a head at night. That’s where they got money to buy their whiskey and a little food. I didn’t know what he meant by 'did' back then, and I asked him what he was talkin’ about. He got this funny look in his eyes and he started grinnin’ at me. That was last year when I was eleven, before Mama got sick.
“Lemme’ show ya’,” he answered. “You’ll like it. Patsie does. We gots to go out to the chicken coup, though. There ain’t nobody there. I can’t show ya’ here, it’s too secret.”
Patricia Catherine is his sister, two years younger than him. My age. She hates me, though I don’t know for sure why, and I never seen her laugh or smile, even at school. If whatever he did out there made her smile, I figured it must be real good. I wondered what makin’ her happy had to do with 'did?'
And so I followed him out along the path through the weeds to the ratty old coup to find out. We went inside, and he told me to go on down to the end of it, which I did. The couple of hens they hadn’t eaten yet was sittin’ in their nests and clucked a little as I walked by. Maybe whatever Patsie liked had somethin’ to do with chickens, I thought. But that weren’t it at all.
Michael waited at the door for a second, lookin’ back across the yard. Then he fin'ly shut it and come on down to where I stood.
“Why’d you shut the door?” I asked him.
“’Cuz it’s real special, an’ we can’t tell nobody. Otherwise it won’t be a secret no more. Just close yer eyes till I tell ya’ to open ‘em.”
I don’t know what I was spectin’, standin’ there with my eyes shut tight, but I imagined he had somethin’ stuffed beneath one of them hens. I didn’t know, so I waited. It didn’t take him long to bring out the surprise.
“Now, keep yer eyes shut tight.” He took hold of my right hand at the wrist and pulled it forward and down.
“Okay, close yer’ hand.”
I closed it, and knew right off what it was I’d grabbed hold of. It was a real surprise, that’s for sure. I jerked my hand away and shot my eyes open. There it was. I’d never seen one 'fore, for sure not in books at school or at the library, let alone have one in my hand. So, I kicked him in the shins and took off runnin’. Michael’s pants was down to his ankles, thank goodness, so he couldn’t chase after me.
I didn’t speak to him again after that, and didn’t go near his house again until the day Mama was dyin’.
Ira is breathin’ steady, and deep. The cold must not bother him at all. My head and right shoulder are tucked into his chest, but I can still feel the whiskers on his chin, even through my thick brown hair. At least the top of me is warm. I wish I had them unders he’s wearin’ right now. I shoulda’ taken ‘em when he offered ‘em to me back there.
When he first poked his head over the edge of the ditch and I seen him, I lit out, just knowin’ he was gonna’ jump me and attack me in a way I didn’t ever want to think about. I was scared stiff. I wasn’t ready for the 'did' again. And God knows, after he caught me he’d probly have beat me worse than Papa ever thought of doin’—and do worse things than he did, too.
I couldn’t claw my way up the steep bank; kept slidin’ backwards every time I tried. Seein’ that scrapin’ my fingernails off was doin’ me no good at all, I turned and headed up the ditch in the general direction of the Ferguson’s farmhouse. I didn’t know how fast the guy up there on the bank was, or exactly how far the Ferguson’s was, but it didn’t make a lick of difference anyways. I stumbled over a rock after I’d gone 'bout four or five feet in the dark. It knocked me silly for a minute when I hit the hard, frozen dirt, and when I woke up and tried to get to my feet, there he was. Ira was kneelin’ close to me, his great big hand on the side of my head. I lurched backward. He yanked his hand away like he’d just been bit by a rattlesnake. I don’t know who was more spooked, him or me. I mean, he looked scared, but I guess it musta’ been just shock.
“It’s okay, girl. I’m not going to hurt you. Try to relax, okay? You took a pretty nasty tumble.” He moved his hand this way and that, like I was a scared dog he was tryin' to calm down. Well, I was, sort of.
I kept backin’ up tighter to the wall of the ditch and didn’t say a thing, pushin’ my hands along the edge of it, feelin’ for a loose rock, or a stick. His voice was nothin’ like that of my papa or Mr. McGillicutty. It was clear and precise when he talked, and there was no slurrin’ of the words. I figured he weren’t three sheets to the wind at least, and all that made me relax some and pray he didn’t jump me.
He finally stepped forward and offered me his hand. I was shiverin’, though not so much from the cold.
“What are you doing out here all by yourself on a night like this?” he asked.
“What’s it to ya’?”
He laughed, friendly like. His face lifted when he did, and even though he had a couple days growth of whiskers and his hair was all a mess, I felt a little more comforted. He didn’t look crazy or menacin’. I took his hand and he eased me to my feet.
“You’re running away, I’ll bet. That or you’re just plain loco. Somehow I don’t think you’re loco, so you must be in a bit of trouble, on the lam.”
I liked his soft voice, but I didn’t trust him at all. Not yet. I half 'spected he’d turn nuts all the sudden and that would be the end of me. I couldn’t see the possibility of gettin’ away from him.
“What’s on the lam?” I asked.
That was a bad question, like “what does ‘did’ mean?” I bit my lip and said a lil' prayer. He looked me over good for a second or two 'fore he spoke.
“C’mon, girl. Let’s get us a fire started. You’re trembling. I hope it’s the cold, not fear of old Ira Gershon.”
It was Ira, no doubt 'bout that.
He led me back up the ditch a ways and then he hopped up the edge like it weren’t even there. He was gone a few minutes, then returned with an armload of kindlin’ and small branches. Back down he come, and five minutes later we was sittin’ on opposite sides of a toasty fire, rubbin’ our hands over it like two old hobos who’d knowed each other for years and years. He explained what bein’ on the lam meant.
“But I didn’t do nothin’ wrong, Mr. Gershon…”
“It’s Ira. Nothing formal out here, Jamie. And it’s anything.”
“Anything. ‘Didn’t do nothing’ is a double negative, and besides, it’s impossible for a person to do nothing. Think about it.”
I did that, and it didn’t make no sense.
I gazed across the fire at him quizzical. He was grinnin’, the play of light from the dancin’ flames makin’ deep shadows in the furrows of his face. It made me think of a jack-o-lantern, how his eyes sparkled, and his upturned mouth seemed to move with every flicker. He crossed his arms 'round his knees and leaned forward, waitin’ for me to say somethin’ dumb, I just knew. I held my tongue.
“So, why are you out here like this? All by yourself in the middle of November?” he asked again.
Nope. It weren’t me that had come jumpin’ outa’ nowhere into someone else’s camp. It was him that needed to do the tellin’. Maybe he was the one on the lam. Maybe he’d murdered someone, or botched a bank robbery. But I gave him the short version outta’ politeness—leaving out the uglier details of what Papa done.
“…I had to get away, and so I took off this mornin’. The sun was shinin’, and it was warm. I didn’t even think 'bout how cold it’d get tonight. I didn’t leave a note or say a word to anyone. Just lit out.
“What about you, Ira Gershon? Why you here?”
Ira’s smile faded and fell away, like it was ice hangin’ from a ledge under a fierce sun. He closed his eyes, and I coulda' swore he was prayin’. I’d seen that look on people’s faces in church. For a minute he didn’t say a thing. He opened his eyes, fin'ly, but he didn’t look at me. He stared into the fire, fetched a stick layin’ 'side him, and poked at the embers. Then he began.
“I’m a teacher…or, I was anyway. Back in Chicago. I taught English at a high school there, and I loved my kids…”
Ira told me he was a writer as well as a teacher. He’d wrote a book, but didn’t say what it was about. I asked him if it was in the little library back in Globeville, maybe, but he said no. It hadn’t never been published. I guessed that writin’ a book and havin’ it in the library, or published, are two different things. He explained it to me, but it was still confusin’.
He loved to write stories—long ones, like Huckleberry Finn—and he taught his students to write stories, too. Most of ‘em did well enough, but he looked for the one or two among 'em who might have real promise. Them he worked with after school in the classroom, or sometimes at his room downtown.
“Never by themselves,” he said. “Always by twos,” he said. "Except..."
There was a student, he told me—a girl. She was sixteen, and real smart. She wrote a lot and was real good, and sometimes she came to his room alone with things she’d wrote, which, he told her, was not a good idea. He told her to show ‘em to him the next day after school in the classroom. His curiosity, though, usually got the better of him, and he sometimes let her come in. He was very proper, he assured me; read the story, and then told her how proud he was of her, and that she was destined to be the next Louisa May Alcott—whoever that is.
“I should never have let her in,” he said, lookin’ down at his fingers and shakin’ his head real slow. “Never should have let her in.”
He looked up sudden, like he was listenin’ for somethin’. Stood and cocked an ear toward town.
“I’d better be going. The train out of Globeville will be coming pretty soon. Gotta’ catch it and hope a boxcar is open.”
He took a step or two, then stopped.
“It’s going to get colder. If you’re set on staying here I’ll give you my long johns. I think you ought to go back, though. Go tell the sheriff what’s been going on at your place. They’ll take care of you and see to your needs. You can’t stay here.”
“I’m goin’ with you, wherever you’re headed. I ain't goin’ back. They’d stick me in an orphanage if they didn’t put me in jail for runnin’ away.”
He looked at me real close and scrunched his lips. I knew he saw I was right.
“Better an orphanage than out here. Some good family would adopt you, and you could finish your education. You wouldn’t be hungry or cold…or taken advantage of anymore. Come on, I’ll walk you back.”
I played my best card. “I ain’t goin’ back. That’s final. I’m goin’ with you. If you won’t take me, then I’ll go right to the sheriff and tell him Ira Gershon is on the southbound train. See them telegraph lines? They’d pluck you off at the next town.
“What happened to that girl that made you go runnin’?” I was kind of 'fraid he’d tell me he 'did' her, but somethin’ told me he weren’t like my papa or any of them others I’d been stuck with. I didn’t have a bag or anythin’ ‘sides what I was wearin’, so I got up and walked over to him. We turned and climbed outta' the ditch, headin’ for the edge of town. A wind'd come up straight outta' the northwest, and I chanced everthin’ by snugglin’ up close to him for protection from it. He put his arm ‘round my shoulder. We walked 'long ‘side the ties of the tracks in the gravel, and pretty soon he told me the last part of the story, and why I couldn’t think of goin’ with him on the train.
“Her name was…well, that isn’t important. Like I said, she was very pretty, and she could write like an angel. I didn’t always look like I do now—that was two years ago. I was even what some considered a handsome man. I was a bachelor. By choice.
“One night she disappeared, though she hadn’t been to see me with her writing for close to a week. When she didn’t show up at school for the first couple of days I didn’t think much of it, figuring she was sick. Pretty soon, though, the detectives came around. They’d found her in the woods east of the city. Dead, and…and…but it wasn’t me, I swear by God. I should never have allowed her or anyone else ever come to my room in the boarding house, for any reason. I knew better.
“They didn’t arrest me right then, though I knew if they didn’t find the monster who did that to her very soon, I’d find myself on the gallows.
“Mrs. Cowden, the woman who owns the house, was more than glad to tell the two detectives how she’d seen ‘a whole raft o’ children’ coming and going, and that she had warned me time and again that if it happened again, and she saw it, I’d be put out onto the street. I overheard the discussion through the door ajar in my room. I knew it was only a matter of time. Minutes, not hours or days. I threw a few things into a pillowcase and slipped out the window at the rear of the house. I’m a coward, I didn’t have anything to do with it—my heart hurt for her, but I didn’t want a noose around my neck. I ran, and that made me guilty.
“So, here I am. Do you want to run from me, Jamie?”
Ira said this almost apologetical, though it seemed to me he tightened his arm ‘round my body a little. But I believed every word he said, and I weren’t scared. In a way we was two peas in a pod—on the receivin’ end of somethin’ neither of us deserved.
He squeezed my shoulder and I felt wonderful. Happy to be freezin’, 'side him.
“Do you want my long underwear?” He laughed.
We continued on toward the edge of town and talked 'bout lots of things. How many stars there was above us. How clouds can look like cats, or birds, or even people. He promised me I was goin’ to grow up and be happy, but that he probly wouldn’t live to see it. I told him he was wrong. He would. He had to. I’d make sure of it.
The train come not long after we’d crouched down 'hind some bushes. It pulled outta' Globeville real slow, and when it got to us he showed me how to run longside a car with an open door, and he helped me tumble in when I didn’t think I could run another step. His hands was very strong, and kind. I thought I loved him.
He’s snorin’. Right into my hair. The clackin’ of the wheels is keepin’ me awake. Or maybe I’m just dreamin’ I’m awake, hearin’ that sound over and over and over. I’m not cold, now. I have to be asleep, like him, ‘cause with each exhale of his breath, beautiful, long words come drippin’ over my bangs onto my forehead. Words I never seen before. Words that he wrote and left back in Chicago in a book that never ever will be published and put in a library. They flow down my chest and go right through my skin into my heart. I’m warm.
“Wake up! Hurry, Jamie. Get up!”
Ira is shakin’ me, scufflin’ around like a cat with a firecracker tied to its tail. The clackin’ noise comes and goes at long intervals.
The train is stoppin’. I’m drowsy. Ira looks real worried. He pulls me real rough to my feet, drags me to the open door, and peeks out. I see lantern lights bouncin’, and can hear the voices of two men approachin’.
Ira pushes me away, toward the front of the car. “Stay here. You’ll be safe. I’ll be back, I promise. Don’t make a peep,” he whispers.
And then he’s gone.
I hear shoutin’, and then the sound of clubs beatin’ on him.
I’m so scared I can’t move. He ain’t comin’ back, I just know it. They’re gonna’ kill him with them clubs.
Oh God, he don't deserve this.
(c) Patrick Lee 2010