Ole’ Ironside

My train came by every night at 6:05.

It wasn’t so much the whistle of its bell, or the roaring of the engine that bothered me. It was the waiting. It was that in between time – that time that held me in limbo surely as the good Lord held the unborn babies in his palm. Sometimes it was nice to sit on the porch, lemonade in hand, and lean back against the rocker, eyes closed; but every night, I knew what was comin’ round that bend. I could feel it down in my bones, that waiting. Every night I sat, knuckles white against the seat, teeth grinding into dust. When I heard it, my head ached and my bones creaked.

“Hate that damned thing,” I’d muttered to Ray, nearly every week for forty years.

“Woman,” he finally said, “I don’t want to hear any more talk about you and your train.” And that was that. That very night Ray died at 6:05, and he heard no more talk of trains and whistles. The train was silent that night for the first time in forty years.

The people in town knew about that train, and they’d heard me griping about it for a good number of years. The bank teller used to say she knew I was thinking ‘bout the thing by the set of my jaw, or the look in my eyes. The preacher man used to warn me direly after church on Sundays, his big hands covering mine as he stared into my eyes.

“You just don’t let that hate consume you, now,” he’d say, patting my hand for emphasis. “Hate is a powerful strong thing, and it can destroy ya.” He usually finished his profound statement as another devoted parishioner came to say hello. When his back was turned, Ray an’ I would slip away, gather up in the old Chevy and hightail it down the road ‘fore he ever knew we were gone.

The pharmacy girl thought it was all some big ruckus for nothing as she sat behind the counter with her soft smile and dark hair. She’d sold me the earplugs when I told her about the whistles. She’d slipped them over the counter to me like a secret, and smiled up at me, not knowing that I’d found it about as funny as a slap in the face.

The lady at the phone company knew. She’d call me about the late bill in the evenings sometimes and hear that whistle, just as surely as I did. Our conversations for those few moments were just a long line of bristling static and “What?” or “Hello? Hello?” The man at the mortgage company had to have known better than anyone what sort of dissonant mess he’d sold us. Every month I imagined him looking at the address on my checks, either shaking his head or laughing.

It depended on how much of a mood I was in, Ray’d say. He said my imagination only got worse the more cantankerous I got.

I’d like to think that I was imagining things, that the train wasn’t out to get me, but there were things that told me otherwise.

Ray used to tell me that I was paranoid—that I was “blowin’ steam”. He used to laugh when he said that.

By the summer before Ray died, I’d lost five cats to that train. Three just plain disappeared, until discovered, and one got outdoors when I’d left the door open accidentally. One had been put outside when he’d scratched Ray good and bloody across his arm when he tried to give the thing a bath.

Each and every one of the poor souls ended up on those tracks, drawn there like moths to the fire. Either I had a streak of bad luck as long as my arm or I had some really dumb cats.

“Ray,” I called him over to the tracks one night where Buttons # 5 lay to rest, spread across the greedy ties like an offering to a hungry pagan god. I’d heard the cat scream right before I heard that damn bell. I had run outside, waiting for the train to pass by so I could see the carnage.

Ray stumbled through the overgrowth after me, complaining about the mosquitoes as his hand swatted at his cheek and came away bloody. He came to stand wearily by me, looking down at the dead cat.

“That the cat, Martha?” he’d asked me, lifting his cap and scratching at his head, oblivious.

“Yes Ray.”

Pausing a moment, he contemplated his next words. “Damn shame,” he muttered, spitting a wad of chew down by his boot. “He was a damn good ratter.”

“Damn train got him,” I reminded him balefully.

“Damned train didn’t eat the stupid thing.” He scowled. “This four or five?” he asked after a moment of contemplation.

“Five Ray,” I’d told him, anger leaking into the words.

“You want me to get ya another?” he asked, spewing another mouthful of brown saliva to the dirt.

“No Ray.”

Buttons # 5 had been the last in a line of doomed animals. Ever since that summer, and the following one when Ray had passed, I had lived alone, bitterly reminded every evening by the crowing train. It had managed to take so much from me, and every night I heard it out there, laughing at me in a high-pitched and taunting voice.

On weekday nights, I hated the silence; hated how it was broken at 6:05. Everyday, I had my shows delayed for a full ten minutes. It had been twelve years since I’d ever seen the beginning of one of my faithfully watched soapies, which I followed in the evenings. Since Ray had been about as technologically savvy as a dull knife, we never had anything other than basic cable. Beyond that, I had never learned how to operate anything either, so even when they developed the technology to record live television, I went without.

I checked the clock, and sighed in heavy disgust at the time it announced. 6:03 glared at me in angry red letters from its place above the television. I wanted to turn the TV on but I couldn’t, knowing that the train would be there any minute, knocking out my picture. I waited, grumbling under my breath as I heard the first whistle leering in the distance and steadily growing closer like the burgeoning cry of doomsday. I sat in the recliner that Ray had died in and watched the blank TV screen, scowling at my frustrated reflection staring back. The first familiar rumbling began, and I sat back, bored and irritated. On nights like this, Ray would sometimes tell me that I’d chosen an odd thing to mark the passing of the time with.

“Most people just look at a clock, Martha,” he’d say, shuffling off with laughter in his voice. It had always amazed and irritated me that he had never been bothered by the screaming of the train on a nightly basis. His lack of rifling caused me no end of rage.

Once the last of the evening rumblings had faded, I switched on the set and watched my programs, seething.

The day I went to see the doctor, I wasn’t really surprised when he told me the diagnosis of slow but steady dementia and senility. Of course, a woman my age had to be prepared to hear those words. I sat in the office a little while longer, while he went and got me the names of specialists and therapists that could help me. I didn’t bother to tell him that I didn’t care about the illnesses, or that I wouldn’t be goin’ to his fancy ole’ specialists anytime soon.

This time, instead of just telling me what it was I needed to remember, he wrote the words in big letters on a prescription pad and told me four times the name of each, punctuated by a finger, underscoring and tapping out each name. I thanked the doctor and his blank eyed nurse and reminded him that I only had a little bit of senility, and that I wasn’t deaf.

Ray’s son rarely came to visit me, except when he wanted something. He was Ray’s only child, born out of wedlock when Ray was too young to be a daddy. Ray’s mother had raised the boy, who came visiting frequently when Ray had been alive. After his father’s death, he’d only shown up two times. Once was at the funeral, following which, he had promptly demanded money. The other was a couple months after, demanding the rest. Since we’d had no children together, Ray’s son stood to inherit the only few remaining items of value he hadn’t already carted off to pawn.

We didn’t like each other, and though we were cordial, we rarely spoke to one another. When I pulled in from the grocery store on Tuesday, I was surprised to see him there. I got out of the car and didn’t say anything to him, simply letting him stand, leaning against his old beater car which looked only a little better than my old station wagon. The difference was, I’d kept mine in shape for thirty years, and his car he’d had for five. I gathered my bags and meandered over to the front door, hearing him clear his throat behind me. I ignored him, turning the key in the lock.

“Martha, I need a favor,” he called out to me, moseying over to where I stood, sizing up my mood fitfully. He perched himself at the bottom of the porch steps, thumbs in his jeans pockets, right leg propped on the step. He liked to think himself a real southern gentleman, and I liked to remind him what a little bastard he really was.

“I know you saw me standing there,” he said, irritation evident in his voice. I tilted my head to the side, arms aching with the weight of the bags.

“Really? I didn’t notice you at all. Doctor said I’m going senile, you know,” I told him blandly, pushing past the door and heading to the kitchen. After I was done putting away the groceries, I went back to the porch, where he was sitting in one of the rockers. It had been Ray’s, and I was put off by this ignorant act. The only things in the house that I asked that no one touch were what Ray used and loved, and the urn on the bookshelf in the living room, which contained his ashes.

“Since when you need to get invited in? Come on then, off the porch,” I told him, sweeping him inside with an aging and tired arm. He took off his hat at the door and held it to his chest like a badge, or even a shield. It depended on what he would say to me, I decided.

I sat down in the living room in Ray’s chair, not wanting him to violate that seat as well. He sat next to me on the sofa, staring over at the urn, silent for a moment as he recognized it. We were quiet a hot minute, but as I’ve said, we don’t stay that way for long. He coughed and cleared his throat, but ultimately I was the one to break the silence first.

“What is it that you want exactly? I’ve got no money, so if you’re here for that, I can’t help you.”

He shook his head. I was ready to whip out the bank statements if need be and shove it in his smug little face and tell him that the zero placement was no bank accident. He paused for a moment, looking tired. Puzzled, I kept to my chair, wondering what it was he’d come to say.

“Actually, I need a favor from you. I’ve got this dog, and I have to go out of town for a while. Found some work,” he told me, embarrassed to ask me for a favor. “Anyway, he’s just a puppy really, only two, and I don’t have nowhere to put him. Kennel said the longest they board is a month, and it’s gonna cost me more than I make in three,” he started. “I can wire you some money every month, for food and such. The only other choice is to put him in the pound.”

I stood up and shook my head, bones cringing at the effort. “Oh no, I’m not babysitting any dog. I’ve got plenty else to do around here without a damn dog wandering around underfoot.” I crossed my hands angrily across my chest.

He put his hands out, pleading with me. It was the only time that I could ever recall seeing him genuinely distressed over anything. I felt the first rumble of the train passing by; heard the whistle. He was not accustomed to the timing like I was, and so when the train came by, rumbling the house and growing louder and louder, he merely tried to shout over it, hands still open in entreaty to me.

After the first few moments, he stood up and came closer to me, shouting even louder so that I could hear him over the whistle and the grind. I threw up my hands, finally exasperated.

“Fine! I’ll watch your damn dog!” I screamed over the noise, which abruptly cut short during my shout. We were both left looking startled while he began to thank me profusely.

After he left me with the golden retriever, Hank—by his nametag—sat on the porch next to me, watching me watch the car drive away.

Sit, as it turned out, was not the action I had been describing. The dog was all over the place, running, sniffing, and jumping against the leash, trying to break free to parts unknown. I pulled on his leash, shouting at him and trying to get him into the house—which I found out, happened to be a bad idea.

The next thing that I learned was that Hank was unable to stop barking. Everyday, for nearly a week, he barked his head off and back on again, all hours of the night, all hours of the day. Locking him in the garage was no good either. It just echoed like a hollow tunnel. The intensity of high-pitched barks and train whistles everyday was slowly driving me mad. I decided that if he wanted to get outside so badly, I would take him. I got on a pair of sturdy shoes, and attached a leash to his collar, which drove him into a frenzy. We charged out of the door, down the road and headed into town.

He pulled me along at a frantic quick walk, and I passed by all of the places that I had intended to visit while we were there. Every tree was fair game, every squirrel a new delight. He was panting and shaking by the time that we got to the park, and I never saw the root that tripped me up and sent me sprawling across the damp ground, face first.

When I woke up in the hospital, I was surprised to feel that my face was scratched up, and my right arm was in a cast. The nurse explained kindly to me that I had fallen and broken my nose, and then promptly been dragged half a mile around the town while Hank had decided that a dead weight was no deterrent to getting at a cat. This, she had said, explained why my arm was broken. I was examined by a doctor, who frowned and “hmmed” over my x-rays.

“Ma’am, I’m afraid that your bones are severely weak. You’ve got heavy osteoporosis , and if you have another fall, there’s the chance that you won’t be able to get back up. You may break a hip, or a leg,” he told me. His dark eyes were serious, if a bit tired, but there was honest concern in them. Still, I waved his warnings away with my good hand like clearing smoke out of my face.

“I’m an old woman. Bones get old just like people. I’ll be just fine.”

Ray had never been an advocate of doctors when he’d been alive. He hated nutritionists more than any other “quack”, and refused to see the doctor I still went to semi-regularly. If there was enough of a problem with my bones, he would have told me. It was no wonder that Ray had died because of a massive coronary. His heart had been too fatty and clogged to be started again. We had tried over the years to get him to diet, but that man loved his bacon.

Despite my ease at throwing his concerns away, the doctor insisted that I take calcium supplements. I took the pills just to appease him, and he smiled at me and told me that a neighbor could drop me off at home. Hank, it turned out, would be dropped off later on by the vet’s assistant. I told the doctor how overjoyed I was.

That night I was home in time to hear the train.

For the next few days, Hank barked continually, non-stop, long into the evening, trying to outdo the train. I was taking pain pills more for the headaches than for the broken bones. Hank’s constant barking made me lose track of time, and so most nights I never knew when the train was going to come, though it never changed. My perception of the time was warping—my body twitched when I heard ‘im whine and bark for his master. It felt like I was trapped in a loop. I couldn’t sleep because of the dog, and my messages to Ray’s son went unanswered. My headaches got longer, more painful, and more mind altering. Hank however, got higher pitched the more vocal chords he wore out.

After the fifth straight day of absolute pandemonium, I had decided to get up and tie the dog in the yard for some free time.

“Damned train,” I muttered, looking at the clock which leered 5:58 at me. “Damned dog,” I said, grabbing his leash from the laundry room. When I got the leash, Hank broke into a frantic tail-wagging fury, his whimpers digging tiny furred fingers into my temples. Barking madly, he dove around my feet as I hurried him along. We were almost at the kitchen when Hank ran into the bookshelf in the living room.

I held my breath as the world slowed down a moment, and I watched as the urn shook, wobbled, leaned, and then finally plummeted to the floor and exploded into a fog of ashes, dust and porcelain.

Hank saw what he had done, and for the first time, was absolutely silent. Terror filled his gaze as my eyes widened, filling with tears as a scream ripped through me and Hank darted away to the next room.

“Oh no you don’t!” I screamed, getting up and running after him, his yellow tail tucked between his legs in crippling fear. He ran from room to room, finally ending up in the kitchen, backed against the partially open screen door. “Do you know what you’ve done?” I screamed at him, watching him back up in terror to the screen. When I took a step forward to close the door to the kitchen, he plunged through it into the dusk outside.

“Oh my God,” I called, running out after him. “Hank! Hank, come back here!” I called. My arm was still in its sling, and was aching fitfully as I ran over the grass with it bumping and brushing against my body. I could see Hank, a spot of gold on the stark, rusted tracks. Though I didn’t think it was yet time for the train, I was worried still. I hurried over, trying to talk calmly to the dog, who backed away from me slowly until he was on the other side of the tracks. He stared at me with crushing sadness, and I felt awful for having scared him.

“Come on, Hank. Come back over here,” I whispered, bending and extending my good hand to him. He whimpered, backing up slowly. I wanted to scream in frustration. I took another step towards him. It was too late to have seen the rail tie. Without any warning, I tripped and fell down, hearing a loud crack explode in my hip. I cried out, having fallen onto my bad arm. I reached out to the dog, trying to implore him to help me.

When I felt the familiar rumbling, my chest tightened. This train had taken everything from me! Was it goin’ to get me now too? I cursed the preacher man, telling me not to get consumed by hate. Damned bad timing, was all, really. I tried uselessly to drag myself over the tracks, but one weak arm was not going to save me. My hip screamed in pain when I tried to stand. I collapsed in a pile on the tracks, now sobbing as the dog barked and whined at me. The rumbling grew closer. The rattle sent chills down my spine, and the vibration was growing in frequency in the tracks.

I reached over, found a branch and cried out, trying to get Hank to grab on. Miraculously, he got the idea, and put his teeth around the branch, pulling it and trying to pull me off of the tracks. I cried out praises to him; promises to feed him extra treats everyday if he got me out of there. I heard the whistle and my breath seized in my chest. When I turned my head, the train was so bright—

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