My Iron Horses

This story originally appeared in Northwest Review, 1999.

Emily grows up in Seattle and goes to college across town, the Catholic school. From her room she can see the Smith Tower and the gray plate of the Sound — nothing new to her, of course, but a pleasant thing to look at while she dresses in the morning. It is a quiet city, even downtown, where she is fascinated by the prostitutes on First Avenue, who walk beneath the brick offices wearing gloves, their hair done in careless permanents. A building that was once a bordello is now a warehouse for the railroad, windowless, with doors all along its length. Every morning at Mass she is asked to pray for grace, for peace, and for Eisenhower, and she does this, feeling, as she always does, that she is throwing stones into a bottomless well. She wears a blue skirt out on the weekends, but really she makes nothing of it; she fastens a white band in her hair. She studies on the concrete rim of the fountain. 

When she’s nineteen, an aunt, a drinker, dies, and Emily goes to the funeral, her first. The casket rests on its cart. Emily’s mother exhales impatiently through the service. Christ almighty, her mother says, and as soon as she can afterward lights a cigarette. At the reception Emily sees a boy, a little older than she, not a relative. Emily asks around: who is he? He’s an old student of her dead aunt’s, or was. He has dark-rimmed glasses and, lurking beneath his smooth skin, a dark beard, which shadows his face. She doesn’t much like it; it seems foreign to her. He stands with a few other students, his narrow shoulders in his black jacket. He rubs his chin, looks steadily into the corners of the room. Then Emily catches his eye, and he looks quickly away. Overnight she changes her mind, and likes the beard. Alan is his name, she finds out.

A year later they get married. He is now almost a doctor, and he decides to move them to the South. Their friends are surprised: everyone they know from the South has left it, a few have been there to register voters, and have come back with terrible stories. Sitting around with a case of beer they talk to Alan and his new wife: broken windows, a cross on the lawn, the buses, the people streaming from the fields. He finishes medical school, and they go to the South anyway. They go to Arkansas.

Arkansas is beautiful, and very quiet. They buy an old white house in the country with acres and acres behind it. From the open bedroom window they can smell the honeysuckle in February, and the world is green beyond belief. Vines climb the telephone poles and drag them down. The roads crack dry in summer, and in spring the thunderstorms are terrifying, lightning slashing the air silver around them: pouring rain one minute, then sun the next. They have a black gardener, Roger, and a black woman, Alberta, comes to clean the house, arriving in her old car with a milk crate of bottles and solvents. Alan’s patients are black, farmers mostly, many of them very old and many of them with terrible wounds from their implements. Alan saves fingers, he sews a thigh back together. Quickly, effortlessly, it seems, Alan is loved, and Emily feels good about this, the two of them doing their small good thing. Emily helps in the office, typing, first an Olivetti and then an electric IBM, which slides away from her across the table: she stands up, drags it back, sits down. The town is small, and she rides to the library on her bicycle. There is, she feels, a certain peace in their lives. She works with Roger in the garden, which has become a little city of flowers, block after block. She walks the gravel paths like a giant. The farmers speak a language she hardly recognizes at first, but soon she becomes fluent, and it pleases her. She is a grown woman, she thinks.

Years pass. Alan grows out his beard. Emily has three children, two girls and a boy, who climb the trees and roll around in the dirt. With such space around the house the children are rarely seen after a certain age, and the girls when they turn nine and seven are full of secrets. The boy, too, though younger, has an air as though he has seen many things. When the children come home in the evening the three of them are quiet and happy. It is a secrecy Emily remembers from her own childhood, when she climbed the ferny hills into what seemed another country, uninhabited. Their empty house is cool all day, the white walls damp to her touch.

Then one day Alberta, the cleaning woman, does not come. She has died in the night, a heart attack. Emily is the only white woman at the grave; Alan is there too. Emily thinks of Alberta’s milk crate and the few things she has come to know of the woman: four children, all grown, a great raised scar on her leg, from childhood, from falling in a hole. The coffin is brown and polished, and disappears quickly beneath the handfuls of earth. Emily hires another woman, Regina, who smokes.

After Alberta dies Emily begins to wake in the middle of the night. She has difficulty sleeping. This does not bother her, particularly, and sometimes she creeps down to the office and works there, filing, until she feels sleep coming on again, or she watches the fog in the yard begin to lift into the brightening treetops. Just across the fields is a catfood factory, whose towers at night are like the lights of a castle, high in the air. Though she knows what the place is, Emily is sometimes surprised to see it there when she wakes unexpectedly. The factory fills the horizon. The smell from it is homey and very much like cereal, and at night, supply trains go in and out of the catfood factory and pick up cars, or drop cars off. At night she hears mysterious clanks and booms, great subterranean growlings, as though big chained dogs are knocking around in the trees. Sometimes she can hear the trains coming from what must be thirty miles away, and they take hours to approach, growing, it seems, to an impossible size, making a sound like something massive underwater. The bedroom itself becomes larger, filled with a capacious air. Soon she is waking regularly, hearing the midnight trains, then falling back to sleep. The trains are soothing, their regular ingress and egress.

She grows older. She begins to wear hats to shield her face from the sun. She has six or seven hats, and she leaves them here and there around the house, so there is always a hat handy. One day, she notices Alan’s beard has turned white.

Much later one of her children, the son, moves back to Seattle. Emily has not been back in years. One fall, she visits. Everything is changed. The green coffee carts everywhere, the traffic, the noise, the people strutting along so briskly in the cool air; she is not from here, not at all. The mountains still ring the city and the lakes are there, everything else she is not sure of.

Don’t be afraid, says her son, driving her home from the airport.

She is ashamed of herself. I’m not afraid, she says.

You grew up here, her son says.

You wouldn’t know it now.

Well, says her son, who still carries with him the air of having seen much. He works with computers now, Emily knows that about him. You did, he says.

She is given a cool, narrow bed in her son’s house. Her son has a child of his own, a baby just a year old. The baby is a tiny thing, blonde like the wife, with pointy edges like the wife, a terrible thing to give birth to, to carry, poking you from the inside. The wife brings Emily tea and cookies, and the cookies are stale. Emily eats them anyway. Later she slips against the bathtub and bruises her knee. Silently, she cries, and limps to the bedroom. No one sleeps that night. Her son is up and down with the baby, the wife is up and down. At some point the television goes on and she can see a blue glow on the lawn outside. The bushes flicker. Airplanes course overhead, making whines and roars in the sky. Oh, she thinks, let me go home. The baby stops wailing, at last.

A week later she goes back to Arkansas. She steps off the airplane in Little Rock and feels the warm air envelop her. Alan takes her suitcase, pats her round behind. At home she undresses langourously. One shoe, then the other. She slides her straps off her shoulders. Her husband sits up in bed, smoking, and taps his ashes into a clamshell on the windowsill. In bed she clutches her pillow. Her knee throbbing. He kisses her behind her ear. Emily, he says, Emily, Emily, Emily. Oh, she thinks, my bed, my bunches of parsley by the back stairs. My trimmed hyacinth and sweet olive, she thinks. And oh! — she thinks — my iron horses!