It would be ten hours and six minutes before I could be back to my desk. That was twenty steps from my car to the house. Ten steps to the fridge where I could retrieve the case of pimento spread that I made the night before. Slathering it on bread only ate up ten seconds of ten grueling hours. Fixing a new batch for the next night would take up 16 minutes. It shouldn’t take that long, but I made a great effort to hide the can of red peppers in the very back of my cabinet at the top. That way I would be forced to get the step ladder to dig it out. I always bought the kind that took a can opener, and mine skipped and cut unevenly, eating up an extra five minutes to get into the can.
Once it was made, it was exactly ten after seven. I turned on the nightly news, that way I skipped the headlines and first commercial break. Otherwise, it felt as if I’d already seen the whole thing.
I frowned to find the man across my screen and not Sandra, the usual newscaster. I flicked off the television and ate in silence at first, but the void of the dimly lit room and the noise of my own chewing frustrated me. I flicked it back on, only to find myself in the middle of a car commercial. The air in the room stifled any desire to rise from my chair and test the radio. Going for a drive would eat up the money I was saving for soda pop. I had decided a week ago to replace my drinking habit with a new drinking habit. The shot of caffeine, I figured, might at least negate the need to pour coffee each afternoon. That was before I found out how much a coke cost now. Nothing at all like my boyhood days, when I could pick up a pop for a quarter, and if I was in a mood I would walk down to the Pioneer Village, where the machine was broken. It would drop out a couple every other time. I got lucky that way more than once, I could drink one than and save the other to pay off my sister for hiding a bottle of booze in her dresser drawer.
The clock only ticked slower. If I could just fall into bed when I reached home, and sleep twelve hours instead of eight, but my internal clock was programmed. It was beyond my control. Since I stopped paying it in shots, it stopped doing as I commanded. Now I was lucky to get eight hours of sleep.
More than likely I would end up jumping awake, in a cold sweat from some dream, I couldn’t even recall. It was times like that I wanted to go and sit on the tracks. For a week now, though, I knew it would do me no good. The train was out of commission, and if I sat on them now I would have to walk an extra three miles. That time always lessened my resolve, that and not knowing the train schedules in the next town over. Before, when I went down to the tracks, I knew in the back of my mind that the train would never round the bend until a half past three. Or if old Lanky Johnson was having a bout of the crud it would come at 3:45. So, I would sit on the track at four o’clock pretending to want suicide and wondering if some passerby would even notice. The lack of drink was starting to make me face reality. Thinking I had sat on the tracks wanting suicide was one of those rose-colored realities that whiskey kept me believing.
The clock struck ten. I hadn’t watched the news, but had lost myself in thought. It was Sandra’s fault I gave it up. One night after drinking through my lunch break, I hit the signpost with the cruiser and she came on television showing the wreckage, and the words that came from her mouth were scathing.
“No witnesses, were on the scene, but it was believed to have been done by a drunk driver. Local law enforcement, asks for anyone with details to come forward.”
This was followed by a piece on the horror of drinking, and what it does to the liver. Complete with a doctor, who had pictures of drunk driving deaths, and liver disease victims. Sickened, I tossed the bottle out the window where it shattered, and liquid gold spilled into the storm drain. To this day, I wished I had worse aim and had tossed it in the grass, where I could safely retrieve it once the wave of fear had passed. Instead, it was gone and with it my excess earnings. Between rent and car not to mention all the other bills it was a week before I could again afford to replace it. By then I’d been through the worst of it, and images of blackened livers were burned into my eyes.
I fell asleep at half past two. That was six hours of sleep, “not enough,” I grumbled chastising myself for allowing excess hours to pass without productive activity. I was half way waiting for Sandra to come on the screen. It wasn’t until the comedy show was on, and a commercial for the next night’s newscast played, that I was at ease enough to rest.
I rose at two to four. Unable to sleep more I paced. I could go to work, but then breakfast would be completely thrown off. The deli didn’t make up egg sandwiches until five. “The diner.” I spoke half to myself and half to the clock that ticked uncaring about what torment it gave me.
I showered and dressed. Tonight, was laundry and tomorrow I would shop. I looked forward to grocery day. It ate out three hours of my ten at home. I could catch the end of the news and fall into bed.
I started the car in the cool summer morning. Its headlights were like eyes peering out below a thick fog. I hesitated, driving in this kind of murky black reminded me too much of the nightmares that haunted my dusks. I was back momentarily to being that boy in a red coat, wandering through the haze of a foggy autumn dawn, working my way ever closer to the train tracks. I could hear the whistle blow deep in the still frost, smell the oil and the rush of warm wind as the train blew passed, then I would jump awake. I shook the thoughts away. Turned up the radio. Some Latin tune was playing a sultry sound I didn’t want to hear. I flicked the station to some witless pop star singing of fun times and dancing. I pulled out of the driveway without another thought, but the diner.
I would skip passing the railway, and go straight to the main road. Reliving nightmares didn’t seem desirable and I was already hungry.
“Nellies” Flashed in red letters on the top of the building. I dodged the semi parking lot, nodding to Mr. Andrews. He always started his morning there. Before his daily delivery to Nortown. He could be seen there again every night with his wife having dinner.
I took a seat at a booth somewhat awkwardly. A waitress came my way. “Egg sandwich,” I stated before she had time to introduce herself.
“I’ll be with you in a moment,” she said, passing my table and taking the order of the couple just beyond me. I was crimson, I was sure, and slightly breathless. The room was stuffy, and music blared from the nearest speaker.
Andrews sat down across from me with a couple of other fellows. “Yeah, you should have seen her. She come in at dinner time, right in the middle of my show, pounding on the door and asking questions.”
“Two accidents, years apart. That’s just a waste of time,” one of the others spoke between swigs of coffee.
“I guess now-a-days, they have to call in the big wigs for stuff like that. Can’t have the locals handle anything anymore.”
“Feds from Washington think they know it all. Coming down to little towns for a train accident.” I squinted toward the twig of a man speaking, hunched over a menu, his voice was so brittle it could break should he need to raise it. “Why, when I was a boy a train would go off those rails once a year. Of course, there were a lot more trains back then.” He looked as old as that. He looked so much like my mother had the year before she died. She was so frail I would have feared a hard wind would blow her away. But, as scrappy as ever, the man talked on of horrid Washington types and city folks infiltrating small towns. He wore his gray uniform with the factory logo in bold red. Most had lost their jobs, save those with the most seniority. They could stay on until retirement at the end of the year.
“Hello there,” a chipper voice spoke.
I looked about, expecting to find the waitress, with a clipboard in hand, for an order she hardly needed to write down. Instead, I was met nose to nose with a small framed, black eyed toddler, appearing as unhappy to see me as I was her. I looked up to the woman at her side, clutching her hand.
“Hello there.” I nodded. “Is there problem ma’am?”
“Oh, no I’m Amy Clay, Matt’s mother. I just saw your car out front and wanted to say thank you. My son… Well, she lowered her voice to a whisper certain people can’t keep their mouths shut.”
I shrugged, “It’s a first-time offense, and just a warning. I don’t think you need to worry. Want to join me?” I waved her to the opposite bench and sending the girl ahead she slid in.
As soon as she was seated, we were joined by the waitress. I blurted my order over a chorus of ‘cake, cakes’, from the girl across from me.
The woman laughed. “My daughter will have the pancakes and I’ll have the eggs as well.”
The waitress smiled and left. I shifted in my seat somewhat regretting my own manners. I looked at the clock. If I was late for work my day would be thrown off. It was twenty steps from the table back to the kitchen and ten minutes to cook the eggs and pancakes. I mentally counted, but not knowing what went on behind the closed kitchen door, and unable to view the entire restaurant, and how many were awaiting orders I knew it was just a guess.
“Well, I did want to thank you. My son has not been the same since his father died. I didn’t know he’d taken up smoking and certainly stealing never occurred to me. He gets an allowance. And why is he stealing candy of all things?” She shook her head.
I stared back somewhat curious as well. The cigarettes I understood, but I’d forgotten the candy. Maybe I’d let him off too easy. “Well, don’t make excuses for him.” I stated before I thought it through. She stared back with a mix between fury and puzzlement.
“Not that you would. I just mean that’s what happens to parents of kids who go bad. Most times their parents make up reasons rather than punishments. Not that you would, I was just saying.”
“Matty was a bad boy,” The small girl said, with a singsong tone, that was bound to be making her brother cringe, assuming she did it at home as well.
“Catherine stop that,” her mother’s voice was firm.
“Well, I’m sure it won’t happen again, not if you use that voice.” I stated as the waitress approached laying plates of steaming dishes in front of us.
Amy laughed, “yes with the three I’ve had to perfect my ‘mother voice’. I guess you never would have thought it back in school. That I would end up a mom.”
“No,” I agreed. The smell of the pancakes filled my nose. Chills ran down my arms. “I want ten.” My childish voice echoed in my head. “Ten cakes. I bet I could eat ten.”
“You could not,” Margret huffed. My sister didn’t understand my appetite. Every Sunday mom laid out pancakes in front of us. Three apiece, butter on top, and syrup dripping down. Every Sunday until dad died. After that, it was eggs. I would gather them up cook them and serve them. Most went uneaten and unacknowledged for weeks, but I followed the routine, until finally, slowly mom joined me for breakfast, then after a while, my sister came around.
I shook the memory away, focusing full attention on the woman in front of me. “No, you didn’t seem the mother type in school, but then who did.” I shrugged.
She looked up with a wide smile. I blinked. She was nothing like the girl I knew. Now her face was slightly plump, with a light blue glint in her gray eyes. Her skin glowed with the heat of the day. Her hair was whisked up to the top of her head, in a tight comb, looking like an amber waterfall. As stray curls worked their way lose she brushed them from her eyes, with a gentle hand. Her thick glasses and flowered braids were gone now. No longer the flower child, sprung up in inclement soil, she was every bit the small-town farm girl, with sun tanned rough arms, and a face to match. I looked back somewhat impressed with what time could do.
“Well, I best be off, I stated, as the clock crept nearer to six. I wrapped my sandwich in a napkin, then dropped money and a tip for three.
Twenty steps back. Or was it ten? I started to count walking to the car, but noticed I didn’t care. My mind was still on the pair in the diner, and the smell of hot cakes lingered. I had to be rid of it. I walked, letting the smell of diesel fuel and fresh cut grass fill my nose and clothes.
“Railway train 10 07…” That was a father’s number, I muttered, getting into my car. I drove to work listening to the same pop music, or it all just seemed the same. I arrived early, meeting Mini at the door. She nodded. “I guess I can take off, if you’re early?”
“That sounds like a plan.”
“I made coffee.” I don’t know how fresh it will be by this time.
I frowned, looking at the half pot. “I should have stopped at the station for a sweet one.”
“Oh, if you prefer sugar and cream we could always…” Her words trailed off. I guess she knew by now I didn’t care about the coffee, or the room in general.
“No, but after you left yesterday an agent came in. She wanted to talk to you. She said, it was about the train wreck we had a few weeks ago.”
“Train 10 07 crashed yes, I know.”
“Yes, it was strange because she said that that was the same rail number that crashed…”
“I know. My father died in that crash, the first one.”
“Oh, my gosh, I’m so sorry!” her voice raised slightly and I met her eyes. The soft browns were a mix of youthful girlhood and hardened criminal defense lawyer. She had worked for years in the city, before retiring to this town, devoid of anything but petty thieves and the occasional drunk.
“Well, anyway, she said she would come in later, and she hoped to talk to you.” Mini pulled off her work shoes and slipped on a pair of sneakers, then made her way to the door, handing me the keys to the cruiser in passing. “Oh, and I got a call from Sargent Boyar. He says they might be able to fix the AC on the cruiser next week. But you best roll the windows down, it’s going to be a scorcher today.”
I sighed. The heat in the car was a good reminder to keep away from the whiskey.
She went out the door and I pulled out the photo of my former self holding my red cup with its railway marks on the bottom. I hadn’t meant to cause that much harm. I only wanted everything to stop. I shook the thought away.
Tacked the picture up to the board, and settled at my desk. I tried to picture myself before that day. Nothing would come, but the smell of pancakes. At ten that’s all I really cared much for. The rest, the big stuff was routine. It was unchangeable in my mind. I didn’t know the big stuff like dad coming home could change. But with one slip it did, and I was eternally that boy in a red coat, with my father’s cup full of his brew, that no one ever talked about. Going out to gather eggs, to establish a new routine, to replace the old one. But nothing ever set back right. I broke something when dad died and nothing was the same afterwards.
The phone rang, and I jumped. It was 2 already. What had I done with the hours? I looked about, locating my phone ringing and shaking. “Three missed calls?” I shook my head. “This is what I get for not drinking,” I grumbled. “Hello?”
“Milton? Is that you?” Margret’s voice had a sound of desperation in it.
“It’s me, yeah. What’s the matter, sis?”
“You didn’t answer. I thought… Did you hear about the train wreck?”
“Yeah, it’s all over town. I—”
“Milton, you didn’t…”
“Have you had dreams again, Milton? Remember when you were— “
I hung up the phone and launched it against the wall. It cracked and fell with a soft thump onto the ratty beige carpet.
Outside I could hear the hum of an engine and rake of tires over the gravel lot. Soon, footsteps neared. I looked toward the cells to one side of the room. Leaving the keys to the cruiser on the desk, I walked to the door where the emergency exit above it flashed neon red.
At 3:45 the train was due to come down the track, back home at least. Here I didn’t know. It could be 4:00 or 5:00.
I sat down with my red cup clutched in my fists. The smell of hot whiskey, wafting up from within, almost buried the warm smell of hot cakes, from the restaurant.
I couldn’t help thinking back to Amy. In a different reality, maybe she would have been nice to get to know. But I had wrecked her routine as well. Her husband would not be back home at 6 pm each night to spend time with her and her three children. It was all the better anyway. The practical stranger I had met in the restaurant was nothing like Amy Clay the flower child. She could have been a whole different person.
It was on the morning of a cold autumn day. I half sleeping pulled on my coat. Dad would have to work. Sunday just wouldn’t be the same if dad had to work. Mom might not make hot cakes and my sister said she was spending the weekend with friends, so there was little reason to do a family thing. That’s what mom said.
That night I dreamed I went out to the railway. I only pulled the switch. The train conductors would get all mixed up. They would have to change the schedule if someone messed up the tracks. I was sure I dreamed it all. I got up the next day and dad went to work, but he didn’t come back.
I recently had the same dream again, went to the tracks and pulled the lever, but this time my routine stayed the same. Despite my dreaming, I couldn’t go back. I drank the contents of the cup. Sirens blaring in the distance drew me to my senses, but my drink warmed away the worries as the ground shook and the sharp sound of train whistles blew.
M.G.D the author of Recipe For A Ghost, Hallowed Springs, and others, now brings readers to the world of Marcus. Born in Southern Indiana. A coffee drinker by day and an author by night. M.G.D lives for family, little pug dogs, and a desire to enwrap the reader in worlds of epic wonder. Launching a career in writing in 2014, M.G.D strives for literary excellence in the school of outstanding authors, such as C. S. Lewis and J.R.R Tolkien.
|Review: “With a sound writing voice the journey of a young man begins. By following the words, we are lead through intrigues and plots. Good read.”||A Collection of Short Stories and Flash Fiction: By MGD|
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