What Once Was Lost
Edgar’s eyes opened as he felt the change of the wheels’ rhythm on the rails. The train was slowing. He stood, stretched, and leaned into the hot breeze, squinting into the glare, hanging onto the handrail beside the wide-open door. The paint on the outside of the boxcar was chipped and thin, exposing the rough wood underneath.
A low cough. “Hey, kid.”
Edgar glanced over his shoulder at the old man on the worn floor, sitting so he could put out his hand-rolleds without catching the straw on fire. The man slipped his latest stub into the pocket of his overalls and tipped his chin toward the front of the train.
“Whaddya see?” he growled.
Edgar scratched the few hairs along his jaw and leaned out the door again. He’d been ill-disposed toward his fellow traveler since midnight, when he had woken to find the old man’s craggy hand feeling his pants pocket in search of the dimes Edgar had wrapped up there. That money was saved over four years of working on other farms after his own work was done. Edgar had threatened him, heart pounding, and had kept his distance and his own counsel since then.
He shaded his eyes against the brightness. The black dot shimmering beside the tracks ahead might be a depot. If they stopped, he’d slide the door closed. He looked toward the back of the train into the summer haze, blurry all the way to the horizon. The horizon, and the home he’d left somewhere beyond—a flash of small lightning in his chest. He pushed the farm from his mind.
“Well, we stopping?” The old man’s voice was rough. Heat and smoke and lack of sleep together, Edgar thought.
“Looks like maybe we will,” he replied. “Depot ahead.” He grabbed the handle with both hands and, leaning into it, slid the door almost shut. The oblong of glinting straw on the floor, looking like some kind of fancy fabric thrown down, narrowed to a ribbon. He left a few inches of the doorway open for air. In the two days since he’d climbed onto this train he’d learned that the car would be stifling in a matter of minutes. He sat down against the door so he could turn his head and look out. If need be, he’d dive behind the straw bales in the corner and hope the old man had the sense and the limbs to do the same.
A moment later the train stopped with a lurch, squeals rising from the joints between the cars and hisses drifting back from the engine. Then silence. The lack of noise made his ears ring. Now he had to pray that no railroad security man would come along inspecting the empty cars. So far, none had, but he didn’t want to be put out before he got to California. In the quiet he could hear the deadly hum of grasshoppers, and the sweetness of the scrub brush in the beating sun floated up from the tracks into the car. Down the embankment sparse purple blossoms attracted a shimmer of bees.
Ma would have known that plant from the others, he thought. He touched the photograph through the denim in the chest pocket of his overalls and felt the stiff paper. He pulled it out and looked at the young mother with the small child posed on her lap. Turning it over, he read her handwriting once more: Christmas 1923, Eager 3 years. Eager, he’d always loved that she called him that—born early, eager to get into the world. He wished it didn’t remind him of the other babies born too early who didn’t survive to get nicknames of their own.
He let himself sink into the photo, onto his mother’s round smooth cheeks and into her light eyes. She hadn’t changed at all over the next twelve years, not until just before she died. But even the pneumonia couldn’t rob her eyes of their bright blue. He pictured the low hill with the wooden cross whose white paint had been sanded off in six months by the dust that never stopped blowing. The dust that killed her, and so much else.
He sat up straight at a crunch of loose gravel outside the door. The old man cursed under his breath. Edgar stared at the narrow opening and wished he had closed it all the way. A hand reached in and rested on the floorboards.
“Is anybody there?” came a sharp whisper. It wasn’t a man’s voice. The hand was rough, with dirty nails, but small. Surely not a guard. He thought he heard a whimper. The hand withdrew.
“Please. Is anyone inside?”
He looked out. A woman stood below, her focus up the tracks toward the depot. She wore a thin cotton dress, socks gray with dust, and boots near the end of anything that could be called useful. A bag sewn out of a flour sack hung over her shoulder and she clutched the hand of a small boy. He held a cigar box tied with string tight against his chest.
A look of relief flicked across her face as her eyes met Edgar’s, then the worry lines returned.
“Please, son, could you help us up? Is there room?”
“Who is it?” hissed the old man.
Edgar pushed the door wider. “They could see you!” he whispered, looking toward the front of the train. Several railway workers stood in a small group a dozen car-lengths ahead.
“I know.” She glanced at the men and drew the boy closer to her. “But it looks like the train’s ready to go.”
“Who’s there?” The old man slapped the floor with both hands. “Get rid of them, they’ll give us away!”
Edgar turned to him. “A woman and a boy. Want to ride.”
“No noisy kids! Tell ‘em no.” He waved his hand and shook his head.
Edgar peered out again through the narrow opening. A shrill whistle blew and shouts came from the head of the train. The car shuddered as the locomotive engaged the rails and started to move.
“Come on.” Edgar pushed the door wider and reached out. The woman struggled to hand up the boy. Edgar grabbed him under the arms, struck by how light he was, and lifted him into the car, the child clinging to the cigar box. The old man spat a string of curses. The train lurched forward as the woman grabbed Edgar’s hand and he lifted her up until she could scramble onto the train. He pulled the door nearly shut.
She collapsed to her knees, dropped the bag from her shoulder and reached for the boy. He leaned into her arms and she sat, easing him down beside her. After Edgar watched the depot building glide by, he slid the door open again. The old man muttered his annoyance, then twisted his ratty blanket into a pillow and lay down with his back to them. The train gained speed until it traveled along the tracks with the rhythm of an anxious heart. A hot breeze flowed around them.
“Much obliged, son.” As she wiped perspiration off her cheeks with a dirty handkerchief Edgar saw how tired her face was. She was thinner than most people he knew, and most people were plenty thin. “We’ve been waiting in the grass since daybreak so no one’d see us.” She turned to the boy and smoothed his sweaty hair off his forehead. “This child has had about enough, but we need to keep moving.”
“Don’t mind,” Edgar said. Everyone he knew had seen hard times, with lost crops, animals, even farms. Or more, he thought—family, and for him, the life he always thought he’d have. He felt the hardness in his chest that always came on when the unfairness bore down.
The boy swayed, woozy. He wore threadbare knickers and a long-sleeved shirt with the sleeves rolled up. He sat with the cigar box clutched in one hand, the other rubbing his eyes. When the mother reached into her bag and offered the boy a drink from a jelly jar full of cloudy water, Edgar told her to wait. He got his tin cup and scooped clean water from a bucket standing in the corner.
“Pumped this myself last night at a depot stop.” He smiled slightly. “Secretly borrowed the bucket, too.”
The boy and his mother drank a full cup each. When Edgar had shaken out the cup and put it back in his rucksack, the woman reached into her bag and pulled out a parcel wrapped in paper. She opened it and offered him a biscuit.
“It’s not much, but it’s all we got.”
“Thank you.” He hadn’t had food yet today, and his stomach had felt hollow for hours. He took a bite. It was dry and hard, but he kept eating.
She turned to the old man. “Mister? Got a biscuit here if you’re hungry.”
He grunted and waved her away without turning around. She handed one to the boy, who took it and began to eat, not even looking at it. They chewed without talking.
Edgar thought about the last real meal he had eaten. He hunched his shoulders forward. He pictured the plates half-full on the table, his napkin flung down. He had stood up opposite his father.
“You want to marry her?”
“She doesn’t belong here, Pa. This is my house. And Ma’s.”
“Son, it’s time. It’s been half a year. I need help with the farm—”
“I help! I can work harder. I don’t want her here.”
“Edgar, think of what Edith needs, her and the little girls. Since Hank died she’s been on her own. It’s a struggle for her.”
“Everyone’s struggling, you always say that. It doesn’t mean you have to marry her. What about Ma?”
The creases on his father’s sunburned face had deepened, and his eyes had seemed weary. “Edgar, they were friends. I still love your Ma, son.” His voice was firm and quiet. “But she’s gone. I need to think about now. The ceremony will be Sunday after church.”
Edgar drew his knees up and wrapped his arms around them as he remembered the things he had shouted then. And how he had packed his rucksack and left without saying goodbye, kicking the dust of the farm road all the way to the depot.
“You headed for California?” the woman asked quietly. He took a deep breath and nodded.
“Us too.” They sat, rocking slightly with the movement of the train. The little boy’s head began to nod. His mother took the cigar box gently out of his hand and helped him lie down in front of the door, where the breeze ruffled his hair. She stroked his cheek as he drifted to sleep.
“Ma’am, I don’t mean to tell you your business,” Edgar said after a moment, lowering his head and speaking softly. “But if you’ve got any money or valuables in that box, just keep it by you and away from—” He jerked his head toward the old man. “Far as I can tell, he rides the rails in these parts to get by, helping himself here and there.”
The woman studied the old man’s back. She sighed. “So many need so much.”
That may be so, Edgar thought with a frown, but it’s not right for someone to just take it. Whether it’s an old man riding the rails wanting dimes or a widow wanting his mother’s place.
The woman set the cigar box on her lap. “All that’s in here only has meaning for us. Family photographs, my Bible.” She nodded at her son. “Some figures his dad whittled him.” Her eyes met Edgar’s. “All the letters from my husband since he left us. He has work now in Salinas.” Her gaze moved to the blur of the scrub brush beyond the door.
To Edgar, she seemed young, but old, too. He tried to picture the woman and the sleeping boy picking vegetables, which is what he knew they’d do, if anyone would hire a man and a woman with one small child, that is. From what he’d heard, growers wanted single men or whole families with a lot of older kids. “I’m sure you’ll be happy once you get there, ma’am, and you’re together again.”
Her smile erased some of the shadows from her face. “I’m sure,” she murmured. He followed her eyes to her son, then back to the landscape flashing by.
A moment later Edgar felt the train slow. He got up and leaned out, but the tracks curved up ahead and all he could see was the side of the train. He turned to the old man.
“Hey, mister,” he said. The man rolled over. “You ride this part of the line before?”
The old man lay still for a moment. “Mebbe,” he said in a gravelly voice.
“What I mean is, we’re slowing. Feels too soon for a depot.”
The man sat up with an effort and cleared his throat. “I reckon it’s soon enough. There’s a part of this territory that’s got a lot of little depots, little towns around. They only check the trains at some of ‘em.” He scratched his beard. “Close the door, we should be O.K.” He pulled a cigarette stub out of his pocket, then put it back.
Edgar leaned out again. The track had straightened and there was a dark point far ahead beside the tracks that shimmered in the heat. He turned to the woman. “Afraid we’re stopping.”
“If you can, don’t wake him,” the woman said. Edgar nodded. He waited a minute as the clacking of the tracks grew slower, and then pushed the door closed. The air felt stifling. The train ground to a halt, squealing and hissing.
They stayed there in the quiet, listening for voices or boots on hard dirt. There was no sound. Sweat ran down Edgar’s back and he wiped his forehead with his shirtsleeve. He touched the stiff paper of the photograph through the denim of his pocket.
The boy stirred and moaned. His mother hunched over him and blew on his face, wiping his wet hair back from his temples.
At last the train started again. Edgar opened the door a crack. As their car reached and passed the depot, he saw a small station with a bench facing the tracks. Behind the depot was a short water tower and some buildings lining a dusty street. He didn’t see anyone. As soon as the town disappeared behind them, he pushed the door wide and hot wind filled the car.
The boy opened his eyes. He sat up, frowning. “Mama?”
“You all right, son?”
“I’m thirsty.” He saw the cigar box on her lap and reached for it, tucking it under his arm.
Edgar bent down and pulled the tin cup out of his rucksack. He stepped toward the bucket of water, but the woman said, “Thank you, but if you wouldn’t mind giving him the cup, he’s learning to do for himself.”
Edgar handed the cup to the boy, who stood up, swaying, getting his footing in the rocking car, holding tight to the box tied with twine. The train had picked up speed and was running at a steady clip. Edgar wondered if he should take the boy’s arm to steady him, and had just reached out when the boxcar lurched hard to the side. The boy’s face looked surprised for a second—then as the cup shot into the air the boy fell sharply sideways in a downward arc and disappeared out the door.
The woman screamed. She leaped to her feet. The old man yelled something Edgar didn’t hear. Edgar gripped the edge of the door and leaned out. He couldn’t see anything in the tall grass flying away from them.
“My boy!” Edgar grabbed the woman by the arm and dragged her back. “Let me go! My boy!” She tried to push him away.
He shoved her roughly to the floor and held her down. “Stop it! Stop!” he yelled. She had turned feral, flushed and wild-eyed. Edgar thrust his face next to hers.
“You’ll be killed if you jump,” he shouted. “Get off at the next stop. I’ll find him!” She looked at him, paralyzed.
“He’s right, you’ll die,” the old man barked. “The kid’s prob’ly dead already.”
Edgar looked at him as he stood up. “Just don’t let her jump.”
The old man raised his voice, saying something Edgar didn’t hear in the wind as he hung out the doorway. It was all bad, he saw in an instant. Packed dirt and gravel by the tracks, grass and wild brush as far as he could see. Anything could be in that grass from rocks to snakes. He stepped back into the car, heard the sound of sobbing, and launched himself out the door.
For a second he was flying, suspended, surrounded by brightness, and then Edgar felt the earth slam into him. He couldn’t breathe. Pain roared up his arm into the hot fire that engulfed his shoulder. He gasped. He opened his eyes to see brown grass all around him and felt the glare and heat above him. He grunted as he sat up. Pain stabbed into his shoulder and hip. Edgar cradled his arm, looking down to see one of his boots lying in the scrub by his feet. His head snapped up as the noise of the train suddenly dampened. A caboose the color of dried blood moved away from him down the track. The two men smoking and talking on the rear platform weren’t looking his way.
Edgar sat, ears humming. A butterfly flitted around his head. He took a deep breath and reached his good arm to recover his boot and put it on. He paused a moment longer, then stood and gently raised his injured arm. Not dislocated or broken.
Edgar climbed up the grade to the tracks and turned away from the receding train. He held his arm and favored his right hip, making his gait awkward. His head ached and he was already thirsty. What had he been thinking? Even if he found the boy, the chance he would be alive and not badly hurt was small. Would he really carry a dead body back up the tracks? He didn’t even know them. He stopped short. His rucksack was gone. The photograph! He checked his pocket. Still there. He squinted down the tracks. They went on, empty, to a curve by some stunted trees near the horizon. How far back could the boy be? How far behind him up the tracks was the next depot?
He would need one single thought in his mind if he were going to do this, he realized. Find the boy. Look in the grass. What had he been wearing? Just look in the grass.
Edgar couldn’t tell how long he had walked when he saw the edge of a shoe sticking out of the brush. He had stopped twice before when something dark had caught his eye; once it had been a discarded railroad tie and the other, a ragged piece of tarpaper. This time his gut told him that he had found what he was looking for.
He stepped off the tracks, dislodging a small rock. At the skittering sound, the boy’s foot moved. When Edgar reached him, he was struggling to sit up. His cheeks had lines from his eyes to his jaw where tears had washed away the dirt.
“Hey, buddy,” Edgar said as he knelt down. “I’ve been looking for you.”
The boy’s face was pale and strained. “You the one from the train?” he whispered.
Edgar nodded. “I told your mama I’d come find you.” At the mention of his mother the boy’s eyes filled with tears. “It’s all right, now,” Edgar reassured him. “She’ll be waiting for us.”
The boy couldn’t move his arm, and the angle of his elbow was strange. The blood from a cut on his head had matted his hair and begun to dry, but it was attracting flies. He was covered with scrapes from the sharp grass. His hip was swollen and tender and one knee had a darkening bruise; there was no chance he could walk. The grass underneath him was crushed and flat, making it clear how hard he had landed. Edgar picked him up as gently as he could, wincing from the pain in his shoulder. The boy began to sob.
It had to be late afternoon, Edgar figured, but the sun was still high and beat on both of them. Though the boy was light, every movement was painful to them both, and every yard covered was a chore. Edgar put one foot before the other, again and again, making himself hum tunes he had heard in church or in the community hall. He concentrated on the boy, on holding him steady, on his tender smell of dust and child’s sweat and the grass that had stained his clothes. After a while, Edgar began to look up now and again in case there was something, anything, in the distance besides endless rails. He tried not to think about shade or water.
He had hummed almost all the songs he knew when he saw a flutter beside the tracks. His eyes ached from the sun; he squinted. He wanted to see a dark spot, the promise of a depot, but this was white. As he stared, it became a person, then a woman, then the boy’s mother.
She was running. When she reached them her mouth was open, tears on her cheeks, eyes lit up bright like an electric light. She cried out, embraced her son in a rush. Both of them were crying. She took her boy into her arms.
Edgar felt light. He turned away. The last time he had seen such tears was when his mother died. But this weeping was different. He reached up to touch the photograph. As he pressed on the cardboard, the image felt far away, frozen in time, part of an earlier life. He thought of his father, who wanted a new wife, new hope, the ring of little girls’ laughter in the house. It wasn’t forgetting what had gone before to want that. It was wanting it again.
“You saved us,” the woman said, choking out a whisper. “Thank you.” He turned to her and nodded.
A few moments later they had agreed the best plan was to return up the tracks to the town where the mother had left the train. With any luck there was a doctor not too far from there who could set the boy’s arm. It was also in the right direction for California. Edgar took the boy again.
They didn’t speak as they walked. Edgar thought about what he would do once they reached the town. Along with his rucksack he had lost his tin cup, a clean shirt, and a bar of soap. The old man was welcome to them all.
Suddenly he stopped. The boy moaned. Edgar turned to the woman. “You lost all your belongings.”
She shook her head. “I have a kerchief with some money here in my pocket. I hope it’s enough to pay, if we can find a doctor.”
He could feel his own handkerchief knotted around the dimes in his pocket, knocking against his thigh as he walked. He thought about what the boy held when he fell.
“But your cigar box is gone. All your letters and photographs.”
The boy squirmed a little in Edgar’s arms. “Sorry, Mama,” he whispered. “I didn’t keep it safe.”
“Never mind,” she said, stroking his hair. “It’s you that’s safe.” She smiled at her son in a way that made Edgar see she was once radiant. “It’s all just paper in that box, honey, and what Daddy can carve for you again.”
It was suppertime when they reached the depot. The station manager told them there was a doctor who lived about a half-mile up the main road, although he didn’t like to be disturbed while having his evening meal. They drank water from the pump, and sat down on a bench to rest.
“You don’t need to stay with us,” the woman said. “We can get to the doctor’s. You’ve done so much, I can’t ever thank you.”
Edgar regarded the boy slumped against his mother’s chest. He reached into his pocket and pulled out his handkerchief. Before the woman could protest he had put half the dimes into her hand. Even if the doctor’s price was fair, they had no food, and there would be more costs later on.
“You need these,” he said. “More than me.” He stood up. “I wish you good luck in California.”
She smiled up at him, her face flushing. “Now I don’t know what to say.” She kissed her son’s forehead. “Maybe we’ll see you on the way, soon as we get fixed up here. Or if you’re aiming for Salinas, you’ve already got friends.”
He shook his head and smiled. “Don’t expect to meet in Salinas.”
“There’s other towns. My husband says there’s work all round there, and east in the Central Valley, too, specially for strong young men.” Her face seemed younger, upturned as she spoke to him. “Some of the growers are fair. You could make a good life.”
“A good life in California would be a fine thing.”
They were quiet for a moment.
“Son,” she said, lowering her voice, “you ought to walk a piece before you pick up a train. They seen you here, no use getting in trouble.”
“Bye, fella,” Edgar said. “Ma’am.” He nodded once and walked away, turning left as he reached the tracks.
“It’s the other way,” she called. He turned and waved.
When he reached the place again, enough evening light was left for him to see the grass where the boy had landed. Carefully circling the flattened scrub, then searching farther and farther from the spot, he found it. The twine on the box hadn’t broken. He tucked it under his arm and continued down the tracks, aiming for the depot where they had stopped briefly that afternoon.
Before he got there, he smelled the smoke of a campfire. Walking a little way from the tracks, he saw a family sitting in the darkness by an open fire, eating. He watched for a moment, then approached. They all turned to look at him.
“Evening,” he said. “I was wondering if I could buy some food. Maybe sleep nearby you.”
The man and woman exchanged a glance. They murmured softly, then the man spoke.
“You’re welcome to eat with us, son. No need to pay. We have enough tonight.” He motioned for the kids to move so that Edgar could sit down. They gave him a cup of stew, and he ate, the kids watching him. A rumble and clatter announced a train going by on its way west.
After dinner, sitting by the fire, Edgar untied the string on the cigar box. He looked through the photographs in the dim light. The woman and her husband, the boy as a baby, and a picture of old people, too. The small Bible she had mentioned was there along with animals whittled from wood, and a stack of letters tied with a frayed ribbon. He slipped the knot and flipped through them, looking at the envelopes for a return address. The most recent ones had the name, in care of General Delivery at the post office in Salinas.
The next morning he was awake with the light. The air was cooler. His body was sore and only the long walk along the tracks helped him move almost normally. A depot building came into view. He stopped at the open office door.
“Excuse me. Is there a post office in this town?”
Jerking his thumb over his shoulder without looking at Edgar, the man at the desk pointed straight down the main street. “General Store.”
Edgar had to wait an hour for the store to open. When he went in, he bought a sheet of paper and an envelope, and asked the owner for a piece of scrap paper and a pencil. On the small square of paper, he wrote in block letters:
Good luck in Salinas. It is good to start a new life. But it is important to remember, too.
He carefully wrote “Yours” and signed his name. He slid the note into the box and re-tied the twine firmly around it.
He took more time with the letter, telling his father he was sorry and that he understood better now. He hoped his father and Edith would be happy. He said he would be in the Central Valley for a while. He told his father he would try to come back someday. He sealed the envelope and carefully lettered the name of his farm and his old town on the front.
The shopkeeper wrote the name Edgar gave him with “General Delivery, Salinas, Calif.” on a label and glued it onto the box. Edgar counted out the coins that made up the postage. When the stamps were applied, he walked out the door. Today or tomorrow, the box and the letter would travel by train to the future and the past.
At the edge of town, Edgar climbed onto the tracks. He looked in one direction, then the other. The morning air felt almost fresh, nothing like it would in a few hours. Edgar inhaled deeply, wincing. He touched the photograph in his pocket. Then he turned, the sun pressing on his back, and headed for California.
Jan Lower has published short fiction in Hunger Mountain, the VCFA Journal of the Arts, an essay in The ALAN Review, and poetry in MothersAlwaysWrite. This story won first prize in its category in the Cape Cod Writers Center 2015 Writing Contest. She is at work on two novels.