When We Get Where We’re Going
The tall man with the beard stood for a moment and stomped the snow off his boots. The boy wore a baggy coat over his pajamas and no shoes, but mimicked the man, stomping his bare feet on the ice. The boy's feet were swollen and blue, yet he lifted his knees high and stomped hard on his heel. He also swung his bowed arms as if marching in a parade, his coat sleeves flopping past his hands. The tall man wiped a dusting of snow from the top of his leather trapper cap, then scooped the boy up in one arm. He turned the brass knob, ducking under the door frame into the train station lobby.
The man and boy looked at the sea of empty chairs. They took the two closest to the ticket window, which was dark and unmanned, and looked out the large front windows toward the abandoned platform, where a lamppost stood alone, spreading dim light across the snow and ice until it dropped away into infinite dense black at the edge.
The man kneeled in front of the boy's feet and began rubbing in his hands. They turned from blue to purple then to red. The boy giggled and squirmed. "That tickles," he said. "Stop it—I can't take it." The man chuckled, then sat next to the boy. The man's smile faded, and he craned his neck, looking over the boy's shoulder at the door. They watched the snow collect outside.
"Where's Mama?" the boy asked.
"At home sleeping," the man said. "She'll meet us there, don't worry. You know how she hates trains. Hasn't she told you that before, that she hates trains?"
"I guess," the boy said.
Snow formed a cone atop the lid of the lamppost as heavy flakes continued to fall. The man's head swiveled from window to window. His truck was caked in snow—the only vehicle in the parking lot.
"You said there would be a train," the boy said, his lower lip sagging. "I don't see a train."
The boy sat in his seat with his feet crossed beneath him, buried in the large leather coat. His complexion was pale, but his cheeks were rosy like a doll's, his ears a deeper, more intense red. A large clock with no numbers or second hand hung on the wall above the ticket counter, and the boy turned to check it every few minutes or so. It was just past midnight. Above, and just right of the clock, a spiderweb hung too high for any custodian to brush down with even his longest broom. An old phone booth with a translucent shutter-style door stood empty in one corner of the room, and beside it, heating vents hummed. The man's boots squeaked as he crossed them, the heels rubbing on the white and brown checkered tiles.
"We have to wait a while," the man said. "The train is sleeping. When it wakes up, it'll crawl along the tracks and stop in front of that lamppost there. Then we'll climb inside and off we'll go. Real soon, I promise."
The boy's stomach growled and the man shivered, hugging himself with his tweed shirt sleeves.
"Where are we going?" the boy asked, his cheeks buried in the collar of the oversized coat.
"Grandma's house in New Haven," the man said. "When we get there, she'll bake cookies for you and let you lick the mixing spoon, and she'll watch you play in the snow. You love Grandma's house, don't you?"
"I don't remember."
"You were a lot smaller last time. But trust me, you loved it. And Grandma is always begging on the phone for me to take you to visit."
"I remember now," the boy said with bright eyes and a smile. "And that time Gramma took me to the park with the statue of the bear and I got sunburned and Mama got real mad and made me rub the green owl lotion all over my arms, but Gramma gave me an orange popsicle and I love popsicles."
"Not that Grandma," the man said. "We're visiting my mother, not Mama's mother."
The boy's smile faded to a frown and the skin between his eyebrows crinkled. "Never mind," the boy said. "I don't remember after all."
The two of them sat still in silence and gazed out the window. The blowing snow began to drift, sticking to the bottom of the windows, and specks of white stuck to glass all around.
"And it's not called 'owl lotion'," the man said. "It's 'aloe'."
"Okay," the boy said.
The door swung open and a strong gust of wind filled the room. A man with long hair stood in the doorway, carrying a large brown duffel in one hand and a beat-up guitar case in the other. The boy and his father stared at the man, who leaned halfway out the door and yelled, "Thanks again, bud," to a pair of headlights, which honked back and drove away.
The man with the duffel took a seat four chairs down from the father and son. He leaned his guitar case across the armrests of the seats next to him. The boy peeked over the collar of the jacket he wore and examined the man. The man had shoulder-length brown hair and a shaggy goatee. The long-haired man rubbed his leather shoulders with his palms, and made a squeaking noise as droplets of water flicked off. The man had long fingernails on his right hand. His wallet chain jingled as he bounced his knee up and down, shivering.
"Much better in here, isn't it, fellas?" the man asked the boy and his father.
"Got that right," the father said. The boy nodded.
"Mind if I play a little somethin'? Pass the time?" the man asked, snapping open the buckles on his guitar case.
"Know any Clapton?" the father asked.
The man smirked and pulled out his guitar. The beat-up acoustic looked older than the three of them combined; its body was chipped and stained beyond repair; the pickguard was scratch-ridden and peeling away from the wood; the untrimmed ends of the strings curled past the tuning keys. He picked the strings with his long nails and filled the space with a rich bluesy sound. His fingers crawled from fret to fret with spiderlike jerkiness, moving not a half-second before or after the precise moment.
"Where are y'all headed?" the man asked, continuing to play without looking, his gaze switching from the father's face to the boy's and back again.
"Nowhere any time soon, by the look of things," the father said, nodding his head toward the snow-caked window.
"You said the train would wake up soon," the boy whined.
"It will, don't worry. You need to be patient," the father said.
"I'm hungry," the boy said, his lower lip sagging again.
The guitar man stopped playing and unzipped his duffel. He dug around for a moment, then pulled out two bags—beef jerky and pork rinds. He held them in front of the boy. "Take your pick, little bud," he said.
The boy took the beef jerky, and his father said, "Thank you very much. That's kind of you." The father licked his lips as the boy opened the bag and began chowing down.
The man resumed his picking and said, "Traveling light, I take it?"
"Pardon?" the father asked.
The man pressed his palm down on the saddle, halting the vibrating strings. "No bags," he said.
The father's face turned pink. He scratched his nose and adjusted his cap, which had begun to dry. "We have things waiting for us when we get where we're going," he said. He looked over the guitar man's shoulder toward the parking lot. The snow had already filled in the marks where the man's ride had driven. The pickup was now an indistinguishable mound of snow. The father sighed.
The man's left hand fingered a few silent chords, but his right hand held still. "I'm sorry, bud. Didn't mean to be nosey."
"It's alright," the father said, leaning back in his seat and placing an arm around the boy.
The guitar man continued to play. They all sat without talking as the music echoed off the linoleum with a long twang. The boy's head began to sway side to side to the slow, steady rhythm. He looked down at the checkered floor and smiled; his father was tapping his foot. The boy's eyelids began to droop as the song drew to a close, and he let out a yawn so big his head tilted back and his chin pointed straight in front of him.
"Are you going to New Haven too, mister?" the boy asked in a sleepy half-whisper.
"Not quite, little bud," the man said. "I'm taking the next train to Bethlehem."
The boy's eyes widened and he sat up in his seat. "Bethlehem? My Mama told me Jesus is from Bethlehem," he said. "Are you Jesus?"
"No, little guy," the man said. "Eric Clapton is Jesus."
"Amen to that," the father said. "And you might as well be the man himself. That was really something."
"Thanks, bud," the man said. "Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. I'm going there to play a little music. And if I'm lucky, stop in to see my little girl."
"Why do you have to take the train to see your little girl?" the boy asked.
The guitar man picked a few random notes, seemingly freestyling as he bit the inside of his cheek. "She lives with her mama," the man said.
"Why?" the boy asked.
"Don't be rude," the father said, jabbing a finger into his son's shoulder.
"It's alright," the man said. "Sometimes grown-ups get these things called 'divorces', which means they don't see each other much anymore. And sometimes the mamas move away and their kids move with them."
"It's some real nasty business," the father chimed in. "I got a buddy I used to work with, he's still in court fighting his ex-wife. Pays both their lawyer fees too. And you know she's milking him for all he's got. And that crook of a lawyer is probably dragging things out for an easy check—you know he is."
"I hear that, bud," the man said. "Real nasty business."
"And poor saps like him—my buddy, you see—they lay down all this cash, and they're so high-strung their hair starts to go gray. Sometimes it even falls out. And that shit can't be good for their blood pressure neither."
"Real nasty," the man said.
"That's right, and at the end of it all what happens?" the father asked. "The cun— woman, gets to keep the kid all to herself, doesn't let the poor bastard see the kid 'cept for a couple days a week. Next thing you know they move to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and leave their has-beens in the dust."
The father's chest puffed out as he inhaled deeply, gearing up for more—but he said nothing, and his face began to blush. The first gasps of a train's far off whistle caught their ears. The boy sat up, unfolding his legs from where they rested beneath him, and ran to the window, planting his palms and one of his cheeks on the glass.
"Come sit down, Jake," the father said. "It'll still be a little while."
The guitar man fingered his frets, switching between E-minor and A-minor. He watched the boy fog up the glass with his breath as he gazed down the tracks, waiting for the train. The boy turned away from the window and heeded his father's words. His bare feet slapped on the floor as he marched back to his seat. The boy's father was staring at the floor, chewing the inside of his lip.
"Little cold outside to go barefoot there, Jake," the guitar man said.
"I didn't get to put on my boots since Dad said we were leaving super-duper fast," the boy said.
The father's face was red now, and his lower lip was curled inside his mouth. "You can raise 'em and feed 'em," the father said, "but one little paper from the county and zip," he made a slashing motion across his throat. "She can just up and leave and take 'em on the account of her being a woman and all."
The guitar man fingered the strings quietly and lowered his brow, staring at the floor. The train whistled a little louder; closer than the last time.
"Let me tell you a story, little buddy," the man said, looking at the boy. "My little girl, her name is Emma, she's a little younger than you. Maybe a couple years."
The boy nodded, sitting with his feet under him again, staring at the guitar man with wide eyes. The boy's father sat with his arms crossed, biting his lip, flaring his nostrils.
"We had two others before little Emma," the man continued, "but they didn't make it. Came home from a gig one night and my wife, Cecilia, was sitting on the floor next to the bed. Just sobbing, sobbing something heavy and fierce. There were no lights on in the room, except the light just down the hall. The one in the bathroom."
The boy's mouth hung open and his brow furrowed. He fiddled with the long sleeves of his jacket. The father looked up from the floor and watched the man tell the story, picking his guitar between thoughts.
"You're just a little buddy, I won't bother you with too much detail. But sometimes babies don't make it the whole way. You might have heard that before. You ever told him that, bud?" The guitar man nodded to the father. The father's eyes had gone moist, and he nodded back, crossing his arms even tighter.
"The point is, Emma was nothing short of a miracle. Cecilia had been through the wringer. Not once, but twice," the man said, picking his guitar. "The day finally came. I drove her to the hospital in my buddy Sean's beat-up Volvo, same one that dropped me off, matter-of-fact. And she was screaming and pounding on the dash. Her belly was so big and round, we thought there had to be two or three babies in there, but the doctors said it was just Emma taking up all the space she damned-well pleased."
The train's whistle grew close, but the guitar man kept telling his story. The guitar man's eyes grew intense and narrow, and he picked a rapid, almost shuffling rhythm.
"We got to the hospital after what felt like forever. Longer for her, sure about that. The nurses and doctors rush her to the delivery room—got her legs up in stirrups. Next thing I know, she's pushing. Her eyes are rushing like a waterfall and she's shrieking like a banshee. But I'll tell you what, it was beautiful. Bet you can remember that part real well, don't you bud?" and the man with the guitar looked at the man with the boy beside him.
The father nodded, tears spilling down his cheeks.
"Next thing I know, little Emma is coming. There's one last big push and scream, and I see her head coming out. Then comes the rest of her. Let me ask you something, Jake, have you ever heard of a nuchal cord birth?"
The boy shook his head. The train whistled from what sounded like right next to them.
"Sometimes the cord that connects the mama to the baby gets tangled around the baby's neck and they can't breathe for a second. Now, the doctors didn't seem too shook about it. After the fact we learned it happens some of the time, but it isn't a huge deal. But Cecilia is a fierce woman and her hormones are all over the place. She sees little Emma with the cord around her neck, and right hand to Jesus from Bethlehem, she yanks one foot out of the stirrup and reaches down and untangles the cord herself, still crying and screaming."
"Whoa," the boy said.
"You're darned right 'whoa'," the man said. "The doctors sit her back in her bed, and their faces are like ghosts. 'That's not supposed to happen,' the doc said to me, 'she's in so much pain,' he says. But Cecilia just wants to hold Emma, prove that she's alive. The second she lifted that cord loose, the baby starts crying louder than her mama."
"That's unbelievable!" the boy said, his mouth agape.
"That's what makes it a miracle," the guitar man said, strumming the guitar. "And when I saw Cecily holding little Emma that way, it really hit me. She was finally a mama. Now, you can say what you will about lawyers and nasty business and all that. But I'll tell you, bud, the last thing a man should ever do, is try to take a baby from their mother. Ever."
The train blew its whistle at full volume and crept up to the platform. The father stood and walked to the payphone in the corner, his face red and wet. The boy sat and listened to the guitar man play, leaning sideways with his elbows on the armrest, nodding his head to the beat. The guitar man said no more, strumming his old guitar with enthusiasm. When the father had finished his call, he walked over to his son and the guitar man. He didn't say anything. He removed his boots, then his socks, kneeling in front of his boy. He pulled the oversized socks over his son's calves, then above his knees. He slid his big snow boots onto his son's little feet and laced them as tight as they would go, then touched the top of his trapper hat with one hand, pressing down on the leather with his open palm. He tapped the top of the cap three times slowly, chewing the inside of his lip as he did so. He took off his leather trapper cap, revealing a patchy nest of graying hair.
"I want you to stay here and listen to the song," the father said, placing the oversized cap on his son's little head.
"But the train is here," the boy said.
"Stay and listen," the father said. "Mama will be here soon."
"But Mama hates trains," the boy said.
"But Mama loves you more," the father said.
The guitar man's fingers danced from fret to fret, and he held the guitar close, as if it were another part of his body. Jake listened to the guitar man play, but watched his father walk onto the platform with bare feet and no jacket or cap. The train cars were mostly empty, and through the snow-speckled window, Jake could see the light inside the cars. His father sat in the second car and slouched in his seat. The train let out another long whistle, then crawled away.
Jake sat and listened to the guitar man play, but tapped his foot with less enthusiasm than before, and his head no longer swayed side to side. Jake looked past the guitar man to the parking lot, where his father's pickup was buried. Sirens filled the air. Two cars with red and blue lights mounted on top pulled into the parking lot. Behind them, a Chrysler mini-van with its high-beams on.