The man was old and tired. Very old. Too tired. Though there wasn’t a living soul other than he who knew it, today was his ninety second birthday, and he thought about that at six a.m., while he moved barefoot and shirtless across his kitchen, wearing only a faded pair of twenty eight waist blue jeans on his way to the coffee pot. Belying his age and weariness was his step, quick and sure; he looked tough, capable. He was. Beneath his sagging skin, hard muscle shone through to the world in absolute defiance of his years. But he was still old. He was still tired.
It was his birthday. “So what?” he thought absently. The day wouldn’t be a bit different because of that. His coffee would taste the same. No one would offer cake or sing or shake his hand. And he would not become any less tired.
What a contrast, he mused, between what you feel on your birthday when you are a boy and what you feel when you are old. You are the same person, the same spirit and soul, but it is not the same.
He separated a coffee filter from a box of them and placed it in the basket.
When he was eight, he looked forward to his birthday. He saw it as a magical day, a harbinger of good times. This day, eighty-four years later, he felt a decade past the day he should have died; a decade past the day he’d known he was done; a decade past his scheduled rendezvous with his wife, whose own trek into the grave had preceded even that day by thirty years.
He scooped huge spoonfuls of coffee into the basket. He liked it strong.
His mind was alert and relentlessly active, spending much of its time reviewing the past, a past that was clearer to him now than it had been even during the moments he’d lived it. Retrieved from the depths of his memory were sights, sounds, smells, and feelings that had occurred decades before, resurfacing with the benefit of subsequent knowledge. The thin barrier of time seemed almost penetrable to him, a minor obstacle to taking his knowledge into the past and making it different.
He filled the carafe with water and poured it into the coffee maker.
What, he wondered, would he do differently? If this birthday offered him a wish to change a thing, what would that thing be?
He flipped the switch. Water was heated and pumped, and the man started breakfast. Bacon sizzled in the pan, and grease splattered and burned his bare chest and stomach. He seemed oblivious to it.
The smell of coffee mixed with the smell of bacon, and in passing thought the man marveled at the combined odors, which put the kitchen in kinship with millions of kitchens across the nation, past, present, and future. To generations unborn, he thought, these same smells would mingle and herald a new day. For generations past and buried, the simple combination of bacon and coffee had been an integral part of life, a bedrock of existence, as necessary and expected as the rising of the sun.
This musing settled and sank, forgotten.
The coffee was done, and he fished the bacon out of the pan, replacing it with a scrambling mixture of eggs. He poured the coffee and savored a sip.
He looked at his watch. Six fourteen and thirty-five seconds. Twenty-five seconds later he heard, as he expected, Jake calling from his bedroom.
“I like trains,” the voice came muffled through the door.
The man got the eggs out of the pan with a spatula and put them on a plate.
“Coming, Jake,” he called. “I’m coming.”
He walked to Jake’s door and opened it. In the bed lay a man whose body was unlike the old man’s in both form and focus. He was fleshy and soft in a way that said he had always been so.
“I like trains,” the man repeated, his voice now sounding just as muffled, just as void of inflection as it had through the barrier of the door.
His eyes were open but opaque. He looked sideways into nothingness. He was seventy years old.
“Good morning, Jake,” the old man said. “How’s my boy?”
“I like trains,” Jake said.
The old man walked to the bed and gently put his hand on Jake’s elbow, applying a slight upward pressure to it. Jake responded by sitting up. There were no covers on him, and he sat in a stained pair of briefs with a very large waist.
The old man placed one hand on Jake’s shoulder and the other at his knee, turning him so his feet dropped over the edge of the bed to the floor. Then the old man leaned forward and hugged Jake under the armpits, lifting him to a standing position.
“I like trains,” Jake repeated.
“We’ll see trains, Jake,” the old man spoke as if validating some wondrous event. “We’ll see lots of trains.”
The old man tried, as he had most days of Jake’s life, to look straight into Jake’s eyes, to see if there would be any recognition in Jake. He doubted if he had ever seen Jake see him. He didn’t know if Jake was blind or not, and he never had known. But whether Jake’s eyes could see or couldn’t, the old man doubted seeing would have made any difference. Jake was all Jake could be, no matter what he did or did not see. But that had never deterred the old man from looking.
He took Jake’s elbow again and pushed it forward. Jake walked a lopsided walk, with short, staggering steps, following the direction of the pressure applied by the old man. At the bedroom door, the old man went in front and pulled on Jake’s elbow. Jake staggered through.
In the bathroom, the old man pulled Jake’s underwear down to his ankles then hugged him around the armpits again, lowering him onto the toilet seat. There Jake sat, and the old man put a guiding finger on his penis, so it pointed down into the toilet. After a minute, Jake peed, and the old man lifted him and pulled the underwear back up around his waist.
He took Jake into the kitchen and sat him down in a chair. There he began feeding the younger man bacon and eggs. Pieces of food fell from the man’s mouth and rolled down his chest, but over time he managed to chew and swallow enough food to satisfy the old man, who then offered Jake a straw dipped into orange juice.
In the bathroom again, the old man lowered and removed Jake’s underwear and hugged him back down to the toilet. Jake sat, and the old man took a washcloth to the sink and, making sure the temperature of the water was just right, soaked it. Then he washed Jake’s face and chest.
Finally, Jake began to grunt, and the old man pushed his penis down, anticipating the urine that would follow.
If he could change a moment in his life, the old man wondered again, as a birthday wish, what would he change?
When Jake was through, the old man lifted him again. Then, as Jake stood naked, the old man used diaper wipes to clean him, working hard to remove all that had stuck to Jake. It was intolerable to the old man that Jake should not be as clean as any other person, and so he worked until several wipes came away completely clean. Then he pulled clean underwear from the cabinet beneath the sink and put them on Jake. Next the old man retrieved a pair of pants from the same cabinet. For these, he sat Jake down again and worked the pants on over Jake’s extended legs. Then he lifted Jake and pulled the pants up around his waist and fastened them. A little digging through the cabinet again, and the old man found a belt. He ran it though the loops of Jake’s jeans and buckled it tight enough to keep the pants from falling.
From outside, they heard the horn of an approaching train.
“I like trains,” Jake said.
“We’ll see trains.”
The old man put a t-shirt on Jake, and then he buttoned a short-sleeved, blue shirt over that. He sat Jake down again and put socks and running shoes on him. Jake would never run, and the shoes were expensive, but the old man wanted to spoil Jake, at times, with some luxury.
Suddenly the old man cursed. He’d forgotten to brush Jake’s teeth.
He took Jake’s shirt off, and the t-shirt, too. Then he guided Jake to the sink and began brushing his teeth. Jake drooled, and paste and water ran in rivulets down his chest and belly. The old man managed to stop them before they reached Jake’s pants, wiping them away with a towel. Then he put Jake’s shirts back on and led him to the couch, hugging him and sitting him down.
“Just a minute, Jake,” he said. “I’ll get dressed, and we’ll see trains.”
Jake made no response.
The old man went to his bedroom and donned his own shirt. Socks and boots followed, and then he went to Jake and began combing the younger man’s hair.
“I’ll comb your hair, Jake,” the old man said. “Then we’ll go see trains.”
Once he deemed Jake presentable, the old man lifted Jake and then guided his elbow to the front door, outside, and down the street.
The old man didn’t have to look at Jake to see him. With his hand on the younger man’s elbow, every movement Jake made reported itself to the old man’s touch. He scanned ahead for any rocks or debris that could trip Jake, and he let his mind wonder again. What would he change? What would he do different?
Sixty some odd years ago, he’d beaten his father bloody and disfigured, leaving his face an oozing pulp. He did it again, too, a few years later, and he’d threatened to kill his mother that time as well. Would he change that if he could, as a birthday wish?
No. He’d do that again.
He and Jake moved around the corner and began the mile-long trek to the tracks. It was an already hot July morning, broiling up in the humid Illinois air. So goddamned hot the old man wanted to crawl into an air-conditioned hollow somewhere and rest. But he kept walking, enduring the heat outwardly as if it were a trivial thing, and his step betrayed no weariness. Yet his tired self missed the chill winter brought to his bones, though when the chill was on him he missed the heat. No winning. No succor. Just an unflagging need to keep going.
“I like trains,” Jake said.
“We’ll see trains, Jake.”
Eleanor died of a cancer some forty years ago, but he could still smell her perfume when he thought of her, even in this humid air. Nothing could stifle his remembrance of her. But it wasn’t the mother of Jake he remembered because he was not always sure he had loved her once she became that. No, he remembered Eleanor at twenty, the woman he’d fallen in love with. His friends chided him, called him nuts. Girls like her, they said, were okay for a Saturday night, but you didn’t agree to spend your life with them. Too independent minded. Too proud. A man couldn’t be a man with a woman like that, one that wouldn’t hearken to the kitchen’s call.
The old man countered that he didn’t need an angel floating through his house or a slave drudging through his kitchen.
She’d never make a good mother, they’d insisted. He countered silence, but knew otherwise. The sons he would have someday would be all the more because of her.
She dazzled him, and he wanted to drink her in, to breathe her every moment, even as he was breathing her now, more than sixty years later, as though she were as real beside him as Jake.
Would he make his birthday wish one of listening to his friends? Would he decide not to marry the woman who would abandon him even though she never left? Would it have been a better life?
“I like trains,” Jake pushed the words out, like he did every time, shoving them through a body that did not want to speak.
“We’ll see trains, Jake.”
No. He still loved Eleanor, but was angry with her, too. She should have been more; she should have been better. She had it in her to be. But perhaps the world was as unready to see her attached to Jake as it had been to see her out of the kitchen. Either way, he wouldn’t spare her those things Jake brought to her. And he wouldn’t have missed loving her either.
Jake was not strong. He began to stumble more as they walked, and he was ready to rest when they got to the gas station beside the tracks.
“Wait here, Jake,” the old man told him, and Jake waited near the door in the air-conditioned gas station. The old man bought water and straws. Then he took Jake a few more steps, to the tracks.
They crossed the old ones first, unused for so long the old man couldn’t quite remember when they’d watched for trains on those tracks instead of the newer ones. It didn’t matter. He didn’t care for trains and never paid much attention to them beyond their effect on Jake.
Next to a small silver shed that stood beside the tracks, the old man had, nearly two years ago, dragged two tree stumps and a board, which he used to fashion a bench. It was still there, and it surprised the old man every time he saw it; people, he felt, mostly tore things apart, yet his makeshift bench had endured blizzard and storm, wind and rain, and the hundreds of people, drunk and sober, young and old, mischievous and staid, who had walked past it or used it for their own respites.
He hugged Jake and set him down on the bench, and then he sat beside his only son. He opened the cold bottled water and inserted a straw, bringing it to Jake’s lips. Jake drank. The old man drank, too. Too goddamned hot, he thought, even for his leathery ass.
Far off, a horn blew.
“I like trains.”
“Train’s coming, Jake.”
Compressing sound waves produced a high frequency shout of the horn, and though Jake new nothing of sound or its method of travel, the sound thrilled him. His change would have been imperceptible to anyone but his father, but to the old man, Jake’s face lit up like his own had the day Eleanor agreed to marry him and declared her undying love. In Jake’s expression, the old man saw his own as it must have looked the day he’d learned he was going to be a father, and he saw the one he’d worn the day he knew he had a son.
The train raced toward them, and a wave of air washed out in front of it, embracing them in a swirl of currents. The noise was deafening, and then the click, click, click, click of the cars passing replaced the awful noise of the engines. For a couple of minutes the train raged by, and Jake thrived in imperceptible ecstasy. Then the train’s noise changed subtly and told them the last car was near, and seconds later it passed, leaving them in the dying vortex it left in its wake.
“I like trains,” Jake said.
“I know you do, Jake.”
The old man looked to the remnants of the old tracks and relived the moment he’d first heard his son utter those words: the first words and only sentence he ever spoke.
It had been the old man’s father who’d brought Jake to the tracks, with a younger version of the old man running frantically to catch them. Not long before, the old man’s father had spoken to him, man to man, and that, too, had been a first.
“Son,” his father had told him, “you have a responsibility here, and you ain’t lookin’ to it.”
“To your wife. To yourself. To your whole family. And to that boy.”
The old man had looked at his father, unable to comprehend the message.
“Oh, Christ, Tom! Look at ’em! He’s eight and he’s wearin’ diapers. He cain’t talk, and he cain’t see. And he sure’s hell ain’t gettin’ no smarter.”
“Son, I know this is hard, but you got to take care of that boy. You gotta put him outta his misery.”
“Put him out of his misery,” the old man had repeated.
“Son, they’s a whole bunch of railroad tracks round here. It can look like a accident, and it’ll be so fast, the boy won’t never know nothin’. ‘Sides, the law ain’t gonna look too hard into it anyways. They understand, Tom.”
The old man, young then, took his father by the shirt and lifted him off the ground. He spoke in a quiet voice.
“We aren’t going to hear anymore about this. Not now and not ever, Father. Understand that.”
“Things go wrong, Tom,” his father had insisted, though he looked down into his son’s eyes with fear, “You cain’t pity it. Shoulda died before it was born. You gotta do what shoulda been done by nature.”
“Not now and not ever,” the old man repeated, jerking his father’s body for emphasis. “Mark my words, old man, I’d kill even you if you laid a hand on my boy.”
He’d thought that was the end of it. Two weeks later, Jake disappeared.
“Where is he, Eleanor!?!”
“I don’t know, Tom. Your father was here. Maybe he took him.”
The old man knew then that his father had decided he was too weak to do what needed doing. Even as the old man ran, he knew his father thought he was doing him an unpleasant favor, standing in for him in his failing.
Tears streamed from the old man’s eyes as panic gripped him. Adrenaline flushed through his body, leaving him shaking and feeling weak. Every step he ran seemed impossibly slow, and he wasn’t even sure where they’d be. But once on the tracks, he’d run down them until he found them.
He got lucky; they were at the crossing. The old man’s father held a squirming Jake in his arms. His father never understood you couldn’t manhandle Jake, that Jake hated to be held, but then the old man’s father didn’t understand anything about Jake.
“No!” the old man yelled, and he tackled his father, bringing him and Jake both to the ground. Jake squirmed away, a small boy of eight, knowing nothing of fright or happiness, but knowing, his father alone knew, pain.
“Goddammit, Tom,” his father cried out. “It’s got to be done!”
The old man’s fist slammed into his father’s face, breaking the jaw and knocking teeth out of the gums in a bloody eruption.
The father screamed. Jake stood mute. And the old man only breathed hard as he drove fist after fist into his father’s face. The old man’s own hands broke, and still he rained savagely down on the face that had looked upon him proudly on so many birthdays.
In the distance, a steam whistle cried out; a train was coming, and the old man stopped beating his father, picking him up and dropping him on the tracks.
“It’s going to be fast, right, Father?” the old man hollered. “Fast, so it doesn’t matter, right? You won’t really be dead if it happens fast, now, will you?”
His father struggled to get off the tracks, but he was too beaten to move far. He began to whimper.
The train drew closer.
“Fast. Don’t worry, it’ll be fast.”
His father cried. The train kept coming, and the old man heard his father praying as much as he could through his shattered face.
The old man waited until it seemed he would let his father be crushed. He wanted his father to see death, to see it at the hands of his own flesh and blood. When he was sure that had happened, he dragged his father from the tracks.
The whistle grew louder as the engine closed, and the old man dropped his father away from the tracks and took Jake by the elbow, guiding him to a safe distance. And in that instant the train pushed its wave of air over them, Jake raised his hand, the first voluntary act the old man had ever seen him perform. The arm stayed high, religious-like, an antenna reaching up to receive the word of God. The little boy’s hair blew wildly and he leaned into the surrounding energy of the train, and the old man saw the first hint of life in his son.
In a few startling moments that first train was past, and Jake slowly lowered his arm. Then his voice pushed through his eight-year old voice box: “I like trains.” It sounded as if it were pushing through a thick veil, but it was still, unmistakably, a little boy’s voice. The old man had looked upon his son with wonder then.
“He likes trains,” he shouted at his father. “You hear that, you son-of-a-bitch!?! My son likes trains!”
The old man’s father had been scarce after that, but around. They never spoke about what happened, and the old man knew it was nothing more than fear that kept his father from performing what he thought a duty. Fear kept Jake alive, and trains made him live.
Here, today, the old man remembered intricately the sounds of that first train, and he could feel his hands breaking against his father’s face. And he could hear fresh the beautiful sound of Jake’s first utterance: “I like trains.”
Goddamn it’s hot, the old man thought, drinking from the bottle he’d gotten at the gas station. The condensation on the plastic container was the last gasp of the liquid trying to be cool, but it wasn’t anymore. He inserted the straw and put it to Jake’s mouth again. Jake drank the rest of the bottle.
Another train was coming, and the old man lifted Jake to his feet and guided him into the street. They stood there as the barrier dropped amidst the clanging warnings and flashing lights, and the old man rested his hand on the red and white striped gate. The train came fast, blasting them with air, and Jake raised his arm to feel it all.
The train passed, and they went back to the gas station to buy more water. On the way back to their bench, the old man relived the second beating he’d given his father. He was going off to war, and before he went he had to make sure his father wouldn’t get the courage to do his duty in the old man’s absence. So the old man dragged him out to the tracks and beat him again, though less viciously than before. Still, his father had lain broken in the dirt.
“I didn’t want to do that, Father,” the old man said, “but you gotta know I’ll do anything to protect Jake. So you have to know I’ll beat you to death if you do a thing to harm him. But I swear this: I’ll murder my own mother before your eyes first.”
The old man leaned into his father’s bloody face, “You believe me, right?”
Terror shone in the older man’s eyes, signaling his belief. The old man was comforted, and he carried his father home, but he never saw him again, or his mother. They had fled from their son and regretted that he had ever been born.
The war was harder on Eleanor. She didn’t want to be around Jake, but during the war she had to take care of him. She’d never understood she could love Jake. The world told her it pitied her his existence, and she believed that the world was right. Still, she had stayed. She ran the business through the war, taking Jake with her to work. It was unbearable, she had told the old man later. Jake was stone reminder to her of what should have been but wasn’t. She told him she had heard enough of her customers’ talk to know much of her business came from pity: “That poor woman, having to look after that awful child.”
After the war, she kept the business running, so the old man could see to Jake, and she could see as little of him as possible. It was a fair deal, the best either of them could get from the other, and so it worked. Eleanor had made the business thrive, and money was never a problem. So each could deal with Jake as each found fit. And the old man had been with her through her cancer and had held her when she died. There, in the end, she was the young lover she had been in the beginning, like death had freed her of the years and of Jake, so she could look to her husband again with the love she’d had so long ago. And though he’d never truly stopped loving her, he tried to forgive her there at the end, but the best he could do was pretend and be anxious for her to go, so he could be with Jake.
His birthday wish? What would it be? What would he change? The years had dragged on, and he was weary. Jake never let go, and so the old man couldn’t let go. He couldn’t even be weak.
What would he change?
He would go back through that thin curtain of time and convince Eleanor she could love Jake. He would bring her with them to the tracks and show her how Jake lived. And, if that didn’t work, he would forgive her when she could see it in his eyes, when she could see he meant it. If he could do that, maybe he wouldn’t be so tired, so alone.
“I like trains,” Jake said.
“I know, Jake.”
What if he could change something beyond his mortal powers? What if he could make Jake a whole man, turn him into a towheaded boy, running free and happy through the grass. What if he could make it so that when he had heard Jake’s voice change at puberty the change had been accompanied by a growing interest in girls?
No. Then Jake would be someone else. He loved Jake for Jake. But if he could wish it and make it so, he would wish for one moment, one second wherein he could look into Jake’s eyes and see Jake seeing him. For that, he would thank the god he’d long ago lost belief in.
They drank their water, Jake and the old man, and saw more trains. At noon, they went home for lunch, but Jake wouldn’t eat.
Too goddamn hot, the old man thought. He doesn’t feel well.
The old man stripped Jake down to his underwear and put him on the toilet. Then he laid him down in his bed for a nap. He’d feel better, the old man hoped, after a nap, and they could go see another train or two before dinner.
The old man himself didn’t feel well, and he ate a light lunch. Then he stripped down to his underwear to escape the heat; he’d never been able to convince himself to lower the thermostat below eighty-five degrees, so it still felt hot in the house. He turned on fans in Jake’s room and in the living room, where he sat on the couch and saw the news.
Two hours later, Jake still hadn’t made a sound. The old man worried and checked on him. In the shadowy bedroom, Jake lay atop his blankets, staring out at nothing. But the old man could see the eyes were dead. Jake was dead.
“Oh, my boy!” the old man cried. “Oh, my sweet boy!”
The old man kissed Jake’s forehead and quietly left the room. In the kitchen, he made coffee and mourned Jake’s passing. Time’s curtain lifted, and he saw Jake as a baby, as a boy, as a teenager, as a man, and as an old man, raising his hand to feel the life of a train. He heard Jake’s many voices, from the first one that spoke the day his father had meant to kill him through to its squeaking transition into puberty; he heard it deepen into manhood and grow raspy with age.
Then the old man felt a sudden rush of air, the spirit of a train thundering through the kitchen. Vortices engulfed him, and the voices of Jake resonated in his brain, simultaneously speaking to him: “I love you,” they said.
The old man reeled and grabbed his head. His brain felt like a tuning fork vibrated within his skull, and the voices echoed through it, alive and animate; they all sounded like Jake, but they were intelligent and emotional. And no veil occluded them; they spoke effortlessly.
“Jake?” the old man whispered, looking all around him. His brain now barely hummed, and he began to cry as the wild currents became nothing more than turgid air pushed by fans.
Was it Jake? No. His imagination. Jake was gone.
Not far away, a horn announced another train.
“I love you, too, Jake,” the old man said. He wiped his eyes and drank his coffee.