by Jeff Ewing
George wasn’t friends, exactly, with Dick Fleming. He knew him well enough to nod to in the halls and, later, at the meeting house. He thought Kip might remember him, might even have kept in touch, but all he said was “sort of a washout, wasn’t he?” Which bothered George more than he would have imagined. It wasn’t a fitting way for anyone to be remembered.
He opened the alumni bulletin again, hoping it was more helpful this time—that more detail had been added while he wasn’t looking, as happened from time to time. It was a phenomenon he didn’t understand, or question overmuch. How he could see a thing in one way—the view out a window, an illustration in a book—then later, going back, find that it was different in some small respect. Elizabeth put it down to absent-mindedness, but George had come to believe—though he’d never say it—that things were less fixed than people understood. This time, nothing had changed. Dick Fleming was still lost.
Class of 1926
Dick Fleming is lost. When last heard from he was living at Hotel Olhm,
Martinez, California. Any information about his whereabouts will be appreciated.
Hotel Olhm? What kind of a name was that, Olhm? It seemed a made-up one, something arrived at by shaking letters in a dice cup.
George took an atlas down from the bookshelf, opened it to California. It took up two pages. He had assumed, by the sound of it, that he’d find Martinez far to the south, down in the brown and wrinkled desert section of the map. Somewhere close to Mexico. But it was much farther north, not far from San Francisco. Where, by contrast, fat blue lines abounded, merging into amoebic blue masses spreading like a living thing, parting and joining such that it was hard to tell whether the land enclosed the water or the water was in the process of consuming the land. George would have put his money on the water.
Elizabeth had been enamored of California when they were first married, before the bank runs and soup lines. She’d lobbied him to take her there, describing their imagined journey vividly: The sway of the train like a ship, the land passing in endless variety—prairies and lakes and mountains—while they sat in the dining car and watched. Appreciative and aloof, it had seemed to him, hardly a part of it at all.
“What would we do there?” he’d wanted to know. Which had struck her as an insulting question. Getting there was the point. Having an adventure. “We’d just turn around?”
He didn’t recall her response. A sigh, he imagined, and an angry exit. But now, he understood—or thought he did. When she got home from her bridge group that night, he was waiting up.
“I’m ready now,” he said.
She’d just laughed, as he must have known she would. The idea of California was as much a part of their past as any of the other things they’d discussed and discarded when they were young enough to act and failed to.
The train lurched out of the station, shaking a bag loose from someone’s arms. A small bottle of dark liquor was snatched up quickly, having somehow remained intact in the fall. A miracle, the man who’d dropped it must have thought. Such was the state of miracles at present. George turned back to the window to watch the trees give way to open farmland and, in the distance, a clutch of puffing stacks. The smoke from the stacks hung low over the intervening fields, throwing a wide, ragged shadow across them. The ride in this direction was always the same, light into dark.
How had Dick Fleming made his decision—if it had been a decision, and not just circumstance carrying him along. Perhaps it had been a job that didn’t pan out, a company that had gone under like so many others. A lost opportunity before he’d even stepped off the train. George pictured him knocking on a wide, heavy door, waiting in vain for a man in a suit to answer, a fat man swollen with optimism and rosy forecasts. Then sitting on the curb, thinking: maybe everyone’s gone to lunch. The sun dropping slowly behind him, reflecting off the water until the water turned black and he picked up his suitcase and began looking for somewhere to stay.
Decisions came harder to George. How many days and nights of waffling, back and forth, would he have gone through before boarding that train to Martinez? There was so much uncertainty in any proposition, finding a single right answer was next to impossible. It drove Elizabeth mad, almost to tears at times. But who could say now he’d been wrong to weigh his arguments so carefully, to favor the safer choice, when Dick Fleming—who maybe hadn’t—was lost.
Mr. Pitcall was out, as George had known he would be, when he made his way to the Train Manager’s office. Another emergency meeting. Claire helped him locate the number to the Hotel Olhm, and put in the call.
The connection was poor, with a steady whine like mosquitoes swarming at his ear. The voice on the other end was faint and watery. He saw the atlas again, the pervasive ingress of blue.
“I’d like Dick Fleming’s room, please.”
“Let me check.”
More water and mosquitoes, the far end of the line a swamp lapping around the Hotel Olhm.
“I don’t see him.”
“No, of course. But…sorry, is he registered there?”
“I don’t see him,” the desk clerk repeated.
George raised an eyebrow at Claire, shook his head faintly.
“May I ask if he has been registered,” George said.” Recently.”
“People come and go,” the man said.
“It’s the nature of the business, really. No fixity.”
George weighed his response to that, but before he could formulate one the man was gone. Hung up, or the line failed. The Hotel Olhm, perhaps, finally succumbing to the flood.
“No luck?” Claire asked.
“That’s what he said.”
“Huh. I guess that’s that, then.”
“I guess it is,” George said, knowing full well that was not that. He hadn’t expected to find Dick Fleming so easily. He was lost, after all. It was doubtful the bulletin editor— Chub Neely. Class of 1928—would have said so if he hadn’t expended some minimal effort at locating him. And by the way, why lost? Wasn’t it explorers who were lost, or shipwrecks? Not classmates, even unremarkable ones, just setting out. Amid an established populace.
That afternoon—when he should have been reworking the road maintenance schedule to account for the men let go during the week—he wrote a letter to Chub Neely. Asking, among other things, how he had arrived at the conclusion that Dick Fleming was indeed “lost”. Where did he get the name of the Hotel Olhm? Had someone crossed paths with him in Martinez? Chub would, of course, wonder what his interest was and ask questions in return. Bulletin housekeeping questions, but nonetheless prying: How long had George been married? Did he have any children? Who were his wife’s family? Was it a crushing disappointment to be passed over, to have your father hand his company’s reins to someone else? George crumpled the letter up and threw it away. Then retrieved it, tore it up, and threw it away again.
He worked on the schedule, knowing the job was impossible, that the tide was against them. How could the backlog of repairs and upkeep possibly get done if they continued laying off crews? Eventually there’d be an accident, and someone would take the blame. It wouldn’t be Pitcall.
His mind persisted in wandering through the day, and each time it did there was Dick Fleming. George saw him with a clarity of imagination that was foreign to him. Flights of fancy were not his strength. Never once, that he could remember, had he set himself down in as thoroughly imagined a place as the steep, hide-brown hills Dick Fleming was now ascending in switchbacks. In full summer, evidently, the sun dazzling and merciless directly overhead. The back of Fleming’s shirt was dark with sweat, the suitcase in his hand fraying at its seams, the halves held closed with a cross of twine.
He stopped at a flat spot by a rock outcrop and looked back the way he’d come. Sweat ran into his eyes and he blinked it away. Far below, he could hear a door slamming in the wind off the strait. The door of some vast, empty warehouse, maybe Fuchs & Co. Its mouth gaping as it had when he’d walked around the corner that second morning to find it weeks out of business, rust already working its way across the rows of empty shelves.
When the job had first been broached, he’d moved down to Delaware for a time to be near the water. Twice a day he’d ridden the Cape May ferry over and back to get the feel of a ship under him, so that when he boarded the international freighters coming into port to perform his inspections he wouldn’t be laughed off. He’d have his sea legs under him. He had imagined Martinez, exotic and new, free of all the history that crowded into every corner of the East. Lost battles and won wars cloaked in verdigris, stiff old customs rubbing his will raw.
Something rustled off to his left. He turned to see a coyote coming over the crest of the hill—he presumed it was a coyote, what else could it be? It stopped and sniffed the air. Its belly looked caved-in, its ribs like a corset cinched tight and hurriedly draped in dun hide. When it spotted him, it lurched to one side as if kicked. It backed away over the brow of the hill, never taking its eyes off him. Dark, sunken eyes that anticipated nothing but misfortune. Dick Fleming picked up his bag and started up the hill again.
A whistle sounded in the yard. George looked up at the clock. He’d missed his train.
Elizabeth would expect him, but wouldn’t be worried; he was sure of that. Even when the dinner went cold and she had the girl from next door take it away. Elizabeth had hired her to cook for them, dinners only, without asking him. He’d hoped she would understand, without George having to point it out, that they couldn’t really afford the girl. Maybe she could try her hand at it again, she’d only get better. To which Elizabeth would have replied that she had no
wish to get better, that being good at something like cooking was almost a disgrace.
He slowed as he passed The Cobbles, stole a glance through the window. He was quite hungry, his lunch had been a single spindly leg of overcooked chicken. Looking up from a plate of roast beef and scrod, he found Mr. Pitcall watching him from the bar. Mr. Pitcall! He was three years younger than George. By all rights he should have been Tommy, and George should have been Mr. Evans. George nodded, hoping that would be enough. But Pitcall waved him inside, mouthing “Get in here”.
“You’re a lucky man, George.”
“Very much,” George said.
“You might have had my job. Might have spent your evenings here.” He swept his arm around the room, knocking over the empty glass beside his half-full one.
“I never much cared for it. All this. I like a clear head and a quiet room.”
“I’m not surprised.”
“We each have our preferred ways. That’s all I’m saying.”
“Preferred ways of what?” Pitcall asked. “Kicking time along? Running out the clock?”
It was unseemly, his complaining like this. George’s father would have thought twice if he could see him now.
“Your implication, I take it,” George said, to his own surprise, “is that it’s all been for the best. I should be grateful.”
“Is that what I’m saying?”
“You got the short end, despite appearances.”
Pitcall squinted at him.
“Are you getting a backbone?”
‘It’s distasteful, is all. Sitting here like this, with all this. People are lost, genuinely lost out there.”
“And now you’re a priest to boot.”
George pounded his fist on the bar, sloshing the bourbon from Pitcall’s glass. Pitcall watched the dark spill spread on the wood.
“People count on you,” George said.
Pitcall grabbed his sleeve as he rose to leave. George looked at his hand, the white knuckles and prominent veins. Almost an old man’s hands. Pitcall let go.
“If you see your father’s ghost,” he said. “Tell him thank you from me.”
“He thought you deserved it.”
Pitcall laughed, a harsh laugh that degenerated into a hacking cough.
“Maybe I do,” he said, when the fit had nearly passed.
George tried to judge his location by small signs as the train rattled through the dark—the double thump of a switch being crossed, a glimpse of starlit field. His reflection in the window was a distraction; the eyes, above all, that went where he went. He lowered the window, ignoring the complaints from behind him as wind whistled into the car. Outside, everything was settling into stillness. Only a faint ripple rolled out as they passed, lifting the trackside growth like a sheet of paper being torn off.
During the night, a thunderstorm passed close by. It didn’t wake him or Elizabeth, but it found its way into his sleep. He could feel the shape of it, somehow familiar—a hand, he thought at first, but no; less distinct. It moved across the length of his body, cool and gentle, rustling the leaves outside his window, laying the thinnest veneer of stars across the night sky. The next morning, the smoke had lowered even further, obscuring everything taller than a house. The sun was a dim, amorphous glow behind it, but George felt awash in light. He would act, he’d decided, for once. He would telegraph the police in Martinez and report Dick Fleming missing.
“Did you know him?” Elizabeth asked over breakfast.
“People need help sometimes.”
“Of course. But even so, would he ask you, of all people?”
“What’s wrong with me?”
Elizabeth puffed out an impatient breath.
“You have enough to worry about.”
George would have liked to hear her inventory; he didn’t think their lists would tally.
He’d found a picture of Dick Fleming in the Epitome, their yearbook. Some years would naturally have been added, his hair maybe flecked already with gray. Doubt might have found its way into his grin, but he would still, for police purposes, be the same man. George looked at the picture again—was there something there, in that captured moment, that might have anticipated this present one? The smoke moved past his window like the underside of some foul sea; he could sense him out there, lost and wandering, waiting for someone to call out. Like a boy playing blind man’s bluff after everyone had gone home. All except George. George was still here, and he would call his name and lead him back.
A sudden scream of brakes threw him forward. He braced his arm against the seatback, the train shuddered to a stop. The porter did his best to calm everyone, but had little useful information to impart. Despite the ripple of panic passing through the car, for the first morning in some time George rose with confidence from his seat. The porter nodded to him, touched the brim of his cap. George smiled and nodded back. They were all on the same team, weren’t they? Though it was true that only one of them spent all day on his feet, and at the end of the day they went home to quite different neighborhoods.
They were just shy of Wye Station, Pitcall’s stop. George patted the porter on the shoulder as he passed, and stepped down onto the road bed. He could see the brakeman and engineer beside the engine up ahead. There was a smell of burned metal drifting back, and something else. George felt a current of dread push against him. He knew—he was unaccountably sure of it—that Tommy Pitcall was at the head of the train, dead on the tracks.
The porter was at his side, touching his sleeve.
“You’d better come to the front, Mr. Evans.”
George nodded, but didn’t follow the man stepping carefully along the tie ends toward what was surely a violent and bloody scene. “It’s out of our hands,” he wanted to say, but instead simply turned the other way. It had never been in their hands, was the simple truth. Very little had.
He walked along the tracks a short distance, past the rear of the train, then turned into the woods. He tried to compose a kind of eulogy for Tommy, but could only think how like him it was to make his death a burden to so many. He remembered something about Dick Fleming then—a funeral passing down the street beside the school, the kids all come out to watch. The road was still dirt back then, and the funeral wagon was drawn by two big draft horses. One of the horses spooked at something, pulling the wagon roughly sideways. Dick Fleming brushed past him, shouldering him hard, and took the horse by its bridle. He held its head while it lifted him off the ground and slammed him back down, talking to it, until it settled enough for the driver to regain control. George only heard one thing he said during the ruckus—“calm your heart, calm your heart”—an odd phrase, but nothing more than that.
Afterward, everyone cheered him and slapped him on the back, but he didn’t seem to care. George thought he was crying. He found out later it was Dick’s own mother in the coffin, and was ashamed of the jealousy he felt in the face of Dick Fleming’s heroics.
There was an old trail that followed along the edge of the pond, over Willow Creek, and up through the pines at the bottom of their land. His shoes were soaked through and his jacket flecked with needles and dead leaves when he emerged from the treeline. He stopped at the fringe of their lawn to brush himself off, make himself presentable. Elizabeth would wonder what he was doing home at this hour. He would tell her that life was short, that he wanted to take her somewhere beautiful and foreign. Not forever, but for a while. There was still so much of each other they had to discover.
The drapes were half open, and he could see her moving back and forth beyond the window. She hadn’t seen him yet. Her movements were strange, not quite natural. It took him a moment to realize she was dancing. Her head swayed, her hips moved slowly side to side. Her hair was down, which somehow accentuated her nakedness. He watched her in wonder, enchanted, until Tommy Pitcall entered the frame beside her. He put his hands on her waist. They glided through the room—her breasts lifting and falling, his prick flouncing—as if no one else mattered. Which, he supposed, they didn’t. Off to the east, as he stepped back into the woods, he could hear the train starting up again. He didn’t give much thought now to what had caused it to stop. It hadn’t been Tommy Pitcall.
“Another hobo,” Pitcall would say to Claire the next day.
“You mean a man.”
A cursory investigation would be done, but it would be impossible to determine whether the man had stepped purposefully onto the tracks or had simply not heard the train coming. It happened both ways in those times.
George walked west, away from the rail line. It would be easy enough to avoid the villages and townships, he presumed. They were still small and widely separated in 1936. The camps, the makeshift towns in between, would surely take him in. As his home grew smaller and less plausible behind him, it struck him as unnecessary, almost extravagant, to wander as far as Martinex, California, when there were perfectly serviceable wildernesses much closer to home.
At some point he realized he was still carrying the yearbook. He cleared a hollow beside a dry stream bed and covered the book over. Maybe Dick Fleming would be found, and maybe he wouldn’t. Either way, he was no longer alone.
Jeff Ewing’s debut short story collection, The Middle Ground, will be published by Into the Void Press in February, 2019. His stories, poems, and essays have appeared in ZYZZYVA, Willow Springs, Sugar House Review, Crazyhorse, Saint Ann’s Review, and Lake Effect, among others. He lives in Sacramento, California with his wife and daughter.