by Jere Matlock
I’d seen his kind before, shuffling down skid row in Portland. You’ve seen them: uncombed, unshaven and unfocused, reeking both of cheap booze and that terrible rancid smell of dirty clothing worn too long.
At sixteen I was living with my mom and her fifth husband, Buster, the drunk. His dad owned one of the logging concerns in Glendale, a tiny town in southern Oregon, so Buster was, had always been, a logger. He was probably 50, but so dissipated that he looked 70. Mom had rented a big house with him on the outskirts of Glendale, where she was raising my two half-sisters.
I learned plenty from Buster. Did you know that a drunk, with lots of practice, can drive while nine-tenths unconscious? That the appropriate drunk response to anything resembles anger so much it might as well just be called anger? That drunks don’t remember everything that happens to them, but they don’t forget everything either. Through my mom’s sad, drunken attempts to leave him I learned that, crazy as men are concerning women, women are just as crazy toward their men.
I actually talked her into leaving him, once: Halloween night as I walked home late, I heard them screaming at each other in the parking lot of the only tavern in town. Later that night she’d listened to me. We loaded up her red ’65 Plymouth Valiant convertible with blankets tied full of her most precious things–clothes, pictures, her Rainbow vacuum cleaner–and put my sleeping sisters on top of it all, then drove the thirty miles to the TraveLodge in Grants Pass.
My mistake was talking her into it while she was drunk. When she woke the next afternoon she recanted, loaded us all back into the Valiant, and drove us back to Glendale in a hung-over funk. She didn’t remember that she’d been screaming at him, or anything that she’d agreed with me the night before. Nothing.
No. To get her to leave him for good he had to burn her house down in a drunken rage that Christmas, forcing her to flee with my sisters into the dark, snowy forest while he sniped at her with his thirty-aught-six deer-hunting rifle. That finally did it. One doesn’t forget something like that the next morning.
Well before that finale, a few days after the Halloween incident, Buster and I got into a fist fight over some blustering threat he made toward my mom over something–I don’t remember what exactly started the argument. Fed up with him yelling at her and pushing her around the house while I tried to write an English paper, I got between them and yelled back at him. Reeling in drunken surprise, he ordered me out of his house. I decided I was either going to have to leave or kill him… so I’d better pack my stuff.
I was so furious, surging with adrenaline, I just lost it; as I passed the slate-bed pool table on the way to my room I grabbed it with one hand and lifted it so hard it flipped over on its side, banging into the wall and spilling balls everywhere. He rushed over and grabbed me with one paw and slugged at me with great roundhouse blows with the other, but he was so drunk nothing landed. I connected a couple of jabs to his face, but he didn’t seem to feel it. We clenched and fell down, trying to pound each other into the floor. Mom rushed over and fell down on both of us, sobbing, and I think that’s what finally broke it up. He was a sucker for her tears–and so was I.
It was unfair–all I wanted to do was graduate high school so I could move out and go to college. It was only the first semester of my senior year! The thought of living there with the daily upset and confusion created by two stubborn drunks colliding in their unsteady courses, of not being able to read or think or study while they howled at each other like wounded animals, was just too much. She’d been through this before with husband number four, which was why I’d been staying with my older sister until that summer. Then she’d turned on the tears and I’d come back to her to start my senior year. Now this! Were all his threats real and to be taken seriously? or was he really just the imbecile he looked to be, incompetent to remember his name, much less actually kill someone?
Mr. Lee, the English teacher, was observant enough to notice I wasn’t with the program the next day in school. He’d given us a paper to do, tracing the character of Lady Macbeth through Shakespeare’s play. I’d stayed up late and scratched out a thousand words of BS after reading only her dialogue, nothing else. I couldn’t focus! I had no idea what the play was about. He gave me a B and said it was completely wrong-headed, but very lucid.
That night, after a football game, he took me aside and made me talk it out with him. After a lot of his prying, I told him I felt trapped, duty-bound to stay and help my mom, but desperate to break free and somehow stay in school, go on to college. He didn’t say much, only that at my age my job was to stay in school and make something of myself. Whatever that took, fine.
Mid November, to see if she would listen to me if I threatened to leave, I decided to pretend to run away, see what kind of reaction I got. My friend, Tim, thought it was a good idea and joined me–we took off in a storm late one night, walked along the tracks and through the railroad tunnel up to the top of Wolf Creek Pass. Then hitchhiked through torrential rain to my friend Rick’s house in Grants Pass. We arrived soaked and shivering, and he put us up at his house for the day, my seventeenth birthday. When I finally called and told her where I was, the plan didn’t work–she hadn’t noticed I’d been gone.
She sent Buster, dead drunk, to get us. A loaded .38 sat on the seat next to him and an open bottle of gin never left one hand. He passed out twice while driving, weaving wildly on the freeway all the way back to Glendale, his eyes rolling up into his head between bouts of ranting. Tim, wild-eyed with terror, grabbed the wheel to keep us from crashing into the railing at 90 miles an hour, steering until Buster came around again. He stopped only once, up against the right-hand guard-rail–just long enough to throw up out his window, then tear out again before Tim and I could climb out. At last he screeched to a halt in our driveway, then his head slowly tilted back on the seat and he passed out for good. I quietly opened the pickup door. Tim and I slid out. He didn’t need me to kill him–he’d kill himself driving soon enough.
Over the next weeks I saved up some money and tried to jack up my courage. The day before Thanksgiving Tim turned eighteen and joined the Navy, hastening toward his death a few months later aboard a river patrol gunboat in Viet Nam.
But that night I put on my good pair of cowboy boots, my white straw cowboy hat and my big gold coat and threw everything else I owned into a suitcase. Out over my windowsill, over the roof, down onto the hillside and on into town, I walked the silent side streets toward the east side of town.
There it was a choice of either taking the railroad tracks up to Wolf Creek Pass where the truckers stopped off I-5 at the truck stop for food, or taking the county road over to where it joined up with I-5 at the bottom of the hill. No one would brake for a hitchhiker headed north toward Portland at the bottom of that hill– they’d be doing eighty, easy. Besides, the Sheriff patrolled the county road and it was long past curfew.
I took the tracks.
I had walked this route once with Tim, the night that we split for GP. As I remembered, it was about thirteen miles, the tracks switchbacking steadily uphill toward the pass. Then a tunnel about a mile long, pretty close to the middle of the trek, I thought.
The night was cold but beautiful, a quarter-moon above a thin layer of high, fast-moving clouds. I felt light, free, and happy, with a pang of guilt thrown in. I’d tried, but I flat didn’t know how to help her when she didn’t want help and wouldn’t listen to reason. Couldn’t be moved. Wouldn’t save herself.
I got to the tunnel at about three in the morning. The utter blackness beneath the moonlit maw of the tunnel seemed to swallow the tracks. A dank, slightly warmer wind blew softly out into the chill night air.
I lit a Marlboro and smoked it down to the filter while I screwed up my resolve. At last I flicked it away, stepped between the rails, changed the suitcase from one hand to the other and marched into the dark.
As a kid I’d often played along the tracks and I knew you could usually hear a train coming for half a mile. Plenty of time to get clear or hang on for the thrill underneath a railroad trestle while the train pounded its way over you, shaking the whole universe. But not always.
When we were ten, Rick and I had been playing at a big railroad cut outside of Grants Pass, climbing up and then sliding down a long, crumbling granite hillside above the tracks. While we were walking home after, a coasting, silent train appeared suddenly behind us, looming within ten feet of our backs before its shadow covered us. He’d jumped left, I right, and the train missed us both by inches.
In this tunnel I figured I could probably hear a train coming with ample time to dash to one side and find a crack, some hole to stuff my body in while the train hammered by. I lit a match, just to check something I remembered Tim had said, that the walls were smooth concrete. I didn’t believe it. The match went out before I could see anything to one side or the other.
Three times I thought I heard the growing vibration that signaled the coming of a train. I got down, put my ear to the rail, and tried to discern anything over the pounding of the blood in my ears. Nothing.
That night I found out what the words “palpable dark” mean. A dark so black you could feel it looming above you like boulders ready to slide down, like it had the potential to suck up all light and you with it. A black that had shape and texture. Senses play tricks in the dark like that, and whatever you fear, you think you see. The blackness that night took on the shape of huge, snuffling black bears. Was that their rank, musty wildness I smelled ahead?
The clop-clop of my boots against the ties went on and on, echoing now and then against the walls of the tunnel, setting me even further on edge.
Suddenly I pitched forward over something soft lying across the ties. I kicked myself away from it and lay there, shaking, listening, for an eternity. Nothing.
I lit a match. A mangled fawn, its fur still spotted and blood on its face, lay in a hollow between two ties. The match blew out in the steady wind.
I picked myself back up, dusted my jeans off, located my suitcase by feel and got going again, heading into that damp, warm wind.
What seemed like hours later, but couldn’t have been more than ten minutes, I felt the air grow cooler. Another few yards further and there it was–a soft glow from the end of the tunnel. I ran the last length of it, out into the bright, beautiful moonlight. Every needle on every Douglas Fir, each fern stood out in bold bas-relief.
As I broke out into the moonlight I heard a huge racket somewhere behind me –I jumped to the right and looked back for a train, but it was only an elk doe, as startled as I was, bounding up the hillside, gracelessly knocking rocks down onto the tracks in her panic to get away.
I climbed back up to the tracks and looked up the curve toward Wolf Creek Pass, thinking about how good a warm cup of coffee at the truck stop would be. But were those houses off to the right? Was this the start of Wolf Creek? I lit another smoke and tried to make out what was over there. Houses? Trees? Boulders? I thought the tunnel was further from Wolf Creek, that there were still miles to walk. But if those were houses then I was already at Wolf Creek and it was time to get off the tracks, find a street and head over to the truck stop.
Dragging on my smoke, lost in thought, I didn’t hear the beginning of the unmistakable roar of the train doing seventy-five miles an hour downhill, surging around the curve toward me. Reflexes–I jumped without thinking. Down a steep bank, tearing my jeans, ripping a hole in my sleeve and spilling the contents of my suitcase out across the rocks and gravel.
I gathered up my things as the train clanked on and on above, its entire length disappearing into the tunnel at breakneck speed until it was suddenly just gone, totally quiet within seconds. I felt stupid for putting myself at such risk. Wasn’t I smarter than that?
But when I had pulled myself back up onto the tracks, a glorious surge of pride, of freedom, swelled up in me. I danced and whooped my defiance out into the night. This was it. I was on my own, emancipated, never again to be dependent on anyone. It was my Independence Day.
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