When Frank called me, I didn’t recognize his voice at first. Part of it was the whiskey he had in his hand, but mostly it was because I hadn’t heard him in years. He asked me how I was doing and then told me about a book he was publishing. It was poetry. I congratulated him. Then he asked me where the nearest rail yard was.
“It’s for the picture on the back. You know where they put a photo of the author? I want to be on top of a rail car, or hanging off, something like that.”
I gave him directions. After he said goodbye I hung up the phone. The next day he called me again, telling me that he had been too drunk to remember what I told him. I gave him directions again, basically repeating what I had said to Frank earlier. Unfortunately, once again, he forgot to write them down for later. When the day of his photo-shoot came, he and his photographer got lost wandering around Los Angeles trying to find some sign of a rail yard.
In the afternoon, his dented blue car drove up onto my lawn. Although I didn’t know it was his car, I recognized the parking job immediately. Thankfully he avoided hitting my son, Paul. Instead, his wheels just rolled onto my grass came to a stop. I was annoyed even though the lawn was mostly dead. Frank and his photographer stepped out and came over to the front of the porch. He had a small bottle of half-drunk whiskey in his pocket and offered some to me. I took it from him through the wooden bars, careful not to knock the peeling white paint off the wood. When Paul was distracted and turned around, I took a swig. Then I passed the bottle back.
Frank laughed and introduced his photographer. I could tell he was in the picture business. He had sunglasses, a scarf, and most tellingly, a large camera hung around his neck. He looked thin enough to be passed through the bars like the bottle of whiskey. I came down from my perch and stood on the dead grass with the two of them, asking why they had come to see me. My fence was rusty, but it was no rail yard.
“Well man, we got lost. We need directions.”
“We got confused.”
The photographer spoke. “Yeah, I was surprised too.”
“I thought an old hobo like Frank would never forget his old haunts.”
“Yeah, if you ride the rails as long as he did, I’d think you’d remember everything.”
“You would. If you rode the rails.” I looked at Frank and he laughed, then spat into the grass. This annoyed me too.
“Of course he didn’t ride them like you did. Frank told me all about you.”
“Well,” said Frank, “We should get going, Sam we need you to come along. Yes, we need directions. See, I’m asking you in public, and nicely. Please.”
“My wife’s out of town. Paul…”
“Hell, you can bring the kid along.”
I’m sure Paul heard Frank’s invitation from the other side of the lawn. He came running around the corner of the house and stopped in front of us. I took Frank aside.
“I don’t know what you’re trying to prove-”
“What? I’m proving nothing. Just bring the kid along. Let him see where his old man hung out. You going to keep him trapped inside with that fence? My dad tried that with me, didn’t work did it?”
I saw Paul standing with an eager smile on his face. “Frank, I don’t want to argue. I’ll come. Paul, get in the car with me.” I turned to Frank. “Get rid of the bottle.”
“Fine.” He finished the whiskey in one fell swig and grinned at me like a cat that had just killed a mouse. Frank tossed the bottle into the car’s glove compartment and then got behind the wheel. I motioned to the photographer to take the driver’s seat from Frank.
“I don’t know man, he’s big fellow.”
“You think that’s muscle? He’s harmless. Fat and scar tissue. Move him over.”
After a little whining from Frank, the photographer was able to displace him. I told Paul it was alright and we sat in the back. The seats were hot from the sunlight. I was behind Frank, Paul was behind the Photographer.
Our driver swerved a bit but otherwise he was fine. He followed my directions and we wound down a ravine until the asphalt gave way to gravel. Over the sound of the stones Frank yelled at the photographer, “I told you Tom would find us a great place for the picture.”
“What are you taking pictures for?” Paul asked.
“I’m going to be in a book Paul. You’ve seen books right?” Paul nodded
“I’m a poet. They need a photo of me for the back of the book.”
“Is it about trains?”
“A little bit.”
“All about the Night Train Express.”
“Ha, yeah, good one Tom.”
The photographer leaned back. “You see Paul, Frank and your dad used to ride the rails all over the country. I’m sure one day they will tell you all their stories.”
I looked at Frank. “All our stories?.”
The photographer continued. “So we want to capture that part of Frank’s life. A picture with him by the rails and trains. To let his readers know just a bit of what he’s been through.”
Frank put a foot up on the dashboard. “Only the tip of the iceberg!”
We came to the edge of the yard. There was a gate but it was short. I got over easily with Paul, but the photographer has trouble getting a footing with his thin boots. Frank needed the most help.
When we were all over, Frank asked me if the yard was abandoned. When I told him that for the most part, it was, he smiled to the photographer. “See, Tom knows the best places! He should go work for Hollywood.”
“You’re the one who’s good a telling stories Frank.”
“No, I meant as a scout, for locations, that sort of thing. No need to be sore Tom.”
Paul pointed to a boxcar sitting lonely on its own track. “How about taking a picture with that one?”
Frank patted my son on the back. “Yeah, that one will probably work.”
He walked over to the faded red boxcar and leaned against the side of it. He cocked his hip and stuck his knee out a bit. The photographer put the camera up to his face and soon wore it like a black mask. Flash after flash went off as Paul and I stood on the nearest clump of grass.
“How come this grass is green?” Paul asked me. I admitted I didn’t know.
Frank took a few more poses, some with a cigarette in his mouth. “This place is pretty good Tom.”
“I suppose it’s quieter now.”
Frank looked at me but projected his voice to the photographer. “I can’t believe I forgot about this old rusty gem.”
“Why don’t you hang off of the car? We can get you looking into the sunset while it’s there.”
“Good idea. Get some nice shadows.”
Frank tried to go up the side. There were some ridges to grasp, but no ladder. It was not the side that was meant for climbing. Only the fit could truly brave it. Frank’s shirt became untucked and the flab of his stomach brushed up against the side of the car. He was heaving and having trouble rising up.
“Can you maybe give us a hand?” The photographer asked us.
We walked over and the three of us balanced Frank as best we could. His shoes had trouble staying on any of the grooves, so Paul had to be his crutch. With one hand he gripped the corner of the box car and stuck his head out into the sunset. The other hand rested on Paul, who was hidden from the camera. After a few shots, Frank decided he wanted to get on top of the boxcar.
“For old time’s sake. And if there’s a picture that works, take it.”
Frank let go of Paul after thanking him and tried to slide his way up. His hands reached the ledge and he began to lift his bulk over. But he stalled and his face turned as red as the boxcar he was trying to climb. So we all went up and spotted him as best we could once more. Frank thought the problem was his legs, so he swung one out, hoping that it would catch the top ledge. Then he could use his thighs to snap him right up.
But his trouser leg got caught on an exposed nail. He flapped it like a flag trying to get it loose. Paul and the photographer tried to help him, but I stood by and laughed. Frank cursed and eventually the fabric ripped. He lost his balance and fell down. He managed to keep himself from landing too fast, gripping the sides of the car to break the fall. Paul and the photographer rushed over to him. Frank reached out for them but neither was able to catch him. Finally he landed on the ground, covered in dust.
I went over and helped him up. I saw blood coming from his nose and that it was swollen. I pointed to it. “Looks like you broke it.”
“Oh man. Guess I’m not in the shape I used to be in.” Frank put his hand under his nostrils to stop the blood flowing out. “Need to exercise, huh?”
“After the blood dries, maybe take a picture of me. They’ll think I just came from a fight.”
“Who?” Paul asked.
“The reader. The one I’m doing all these acrobatics for.”
“Should we take you to a doctor?”
“Nah, I’ll be alright.”
“He’s been through worse. Like when that train hit you.” The photographer wiped his camera lens.
“A train hit you?” Paul asked.
“Oh, yeah, I was lucky it wasn’t moving so fast. But man,” he held his oversized gut, “it tenderized me pretty good.”
Frank slapped the side of the boxcar with his blood-stained hand. The faded red of the wood made an interesting backdrop for the handprint. It looked like a cardinal bird perched on an adobe wall. The photographer took some shots of the author with his swollen nose but none of them looked as good as the ones Frank had taken back on the car. Frank was not certain, but the photographer convinced him.
“Come on, you of all people don’t need to overdo it, right? They’ll get the point with you out on a boxcar.”
“True, true.” Frank pulled out a cigarette and began smoking. We walked back to the car, got in, and soon we were backing out of the ravine. It was a difficult drive. We rolled along the gravel until we were back to black roads that were wide enough to swerve on. Paul, the photographer, and I were quiet for most of the drive. When we pulled up on my lawn, I leaned over to Frank.
He shook my hand and thanked me for helping him. I congratulated Frank on the book as best as I could and before Paul left the car, I spoke to the poet.
“You know there was a ladder on the other side.”
“There was a ladder on the other side. You didn’t need to climb up like that. I’m sure you knew that though, after all, you’ve ridden them box cars so many times.”
Frank sat silently. The photographer snapped a picture of Frank as he stared straight ahead. “How could you forget that Frank? Didn’t you use to climb up on those cars and feel the California wind in your hair, the smell of apricots and almonds everywhere, like in that poem you sent me?”
“Ode to Tim?”
He sank a bit in his seat. I think he was caught in between the fading aura of the whiskey and the oncoming pain from his twisted nose that was replacing it. “I’m beginning to forget in my old age.”
I smiled at him and the photographer. “Either that or you’re remembering too much of someone else’s life.” I got out of the car and walked with Paul across the dead lawn. I turned around just as the car was backing up and yelled to him. “I’ll be on the lookout for that book.” Franked cocked his head back in the driver’s seat and grinned.
“Good. Read it to the kid.”
When the car was gone, Paul said he had fun with Frank but was glad to be back home. He felt safer. I patted him on the head. Paul asked me why I helped him.
“Frank wrote a poem about me once. He made me into a legend. I guess it was my turn to help him do the same for him.”
# # #
Ben Nardolilli currently lives in New York City. His work has appeared in Perigee Magazine, Red Fez, Danse Macabre, The 22 Magazine, Quail Bell Magazine, Elimae, fwriction, Inwood Indiana, Pear Noir, The Minetta Review, and Yes Poetry. He blogs at http://mirrorsponge.blogspot.com and is looking to publish a novel.
Photo credit: Tammy McLean