At my age I find that memories die much faster than they were made. Every day that I add to this end of life, I fear that I lose forever many more days of my youth. I miss them, those long forgotten days, but I suppose if I live long enough, I’ll forget that too.
Still, some of those days return like old friends, as regular as August, and as welcome as sleep. These precious few, bidden, or as often not, gladden my heart and are strengthened by the remembrance. They will visit me forever; long after the names of teachers, friends, and lovers have left for lands unknown, never to return.
My mother, gone these 30 years, still visits me. She still wears that white cotton dress with the strawberry print. Or were they roses? Red, anyway, and tied at her slim waist with a bow. And always with a cake or a pie in her hands.
My father, a cigarette hanging from his lips, smoke squeezing into his eyes, laughing and twelve feet tall, comes around now and then. He was dead at forty-four and me ten, but in such a short time he managed to imprint me for life with the image of what it means to be a man.
I can still close my eyes and step off every inch of the old building where I attended middle school and high school — the wooden floors, the impossibly high ceilings, the coat closets and the milk machine. I still see the faces in the class pictures that lined the old auditorium going all the way back to the beginning of time. I see a thousand details and could build it complete from memory, had I such a talent.
It seems odd that I remember a building from so many years ago in such detail, but not a soul that walked its musty halls with me. Surely I had my first kiss there, my first taste of innocence, my first smell of nervous sweat. Surely there I learned to negotiate with my fists and tasted my own blood in my mouth. There have to be dozens of teachers and fellow students, and at least that many events, that I should remember with great fondness, but I don’t. They are lost to me, like pennies fallen between the floor boards. All, that is, except one. There is one memory that I wish had died with the rest. One memory that has haunted me all these long years.
My father was a philosopher and a poet, and a first-rate musician. Mother called him a dreamer, but she always said it with approval in her eyes. He had been born to a settler, a genuine “Sooner,” the year of the Oklahoma land rush, and was raised barefoot and without formal education. In 1907, on his 17th birthday and the year of Oklahoma statehood, Father and his younger brother Jimmy hid in a boxcar full of orange crates and cotton bales and rode three days to California . Though Father never spoke of it, that trip became legend to me and my younger brother Tom and neither one of us ever tasted an orange in our own house while our father was alive.
His many adventures had ultimately led Father back to Oklahoma , to the land his parents had settled, where he intended to spend his days with his sons, raising worms and asparagus, and his nights playing music with his brother in the club they owned in Tulsa .
For my 10th birthday, Father made fishing poles out of bamboo, and he and I and Tom spent the day on the banks of the Kiamichi River which ran through the middle of the family property. He told stories that day and played his violin while my brother and I fished for Perch and threw stones across the river. We ate bologna sandwiches and napped side-by-side in the sun, my brother and I nuzzled beneath Father’s strong arms. When the afternoon heat was more than we could bear, we walked back to our home and told Mother fish stories in the kitchen. That night, when Mother and Father were tucking us into bed, Father asked me if I’d had a good birthday. I told him I had and he told me he was proud of me and that he loved me like worms love the dirt.
The following Saturday, while closing the club for the night, my father and uncle were robbed in the parking lot and then shot to death, their bodies left in the alley behind the building.
Tom’s idea had been to wait two years until his 17th birthday when we would go to California together, but as I had just graduated from high school and was eager to leave my life in Oklahoma behind me, I told him I was going alone on my 17th birthday. It was only after he threatened to tell Mother that we agreed to go together on my birthday. I confess that the importance I placed on the time I took this journey shadowed my judgment concerning my brother’s best interests.
And so, on my 17th birthday, we sat in the alley behind Red Bud Grocery and watched the trains pull slowly through town for over an hour waiting for darkness, smoking cigarettes and silently summoning our courage. When we agreed that we’d hop the next train going west, Tom went in the back door of the grocery and came out carrying a bag of oranges.Tom threw the oranges and his pillowcase of clothes and personal items into the first open boxcar and made the jump easily enough. He was thin and graceful and made everything he did look easy. When I had thrown my things in, I stumbled and had to run a full two blocks before catching up to Tom and the open doorway. He reached down for me and pulled at my collar to help me in the car, and together we rolled to the center of the dirty boxcar and laughed while I caught my breath.
We sat in the open doorway, our legs hanging over the side, and silently watched as everything familiar passed by and disappeared into the night. Soon the familiar landscape of my youth was gone, and as we entered into new territory, I knew in that moment that our lives were forever changed. This was what I had been planning since before Father’s death and I knew I would never see the familiar sights of home again. What I didn’t know at that moment was that believing a thing to be true, however sincerely, did not necessarily make it so.
We couldn’t sleep for most of that first night and so we passed the time talking about the things we’d miss about home and planning what we would do when we reached California . I had heard that a young man could always find work in the strawberry fields or logging camps and since we were not keen on hard labor, picking strawberries seemed our best option. Some time in the early hours before dawn, we ran out of words and slept.
For breakfast, in honor of our father, we ate oranges. They were warm and sweet, and for a while their smell was stronger than the smell of dirt and oil. We ate nearly half of the bag Tom had stolen and made a contest of spitting the seeds across the length of the boxcar. During the night, the train left Oklahoma , passed through the Texas panhandle, and we were well into New Mexico by midday. When we pulled into Albuquerque and the train stopped, we huddled into the corners of the empty boxcar and prayed no one would discover us there. As we began to roll again, we stood in the open door and marveled at how dirty and dry this part of the world seemed to us. In the short time the train had stopped, the boxcar became unbearably hot, so we stayed in the doorway and let the air cool us.
As we neared the edge of town, and the buildings changed from brick to unpainted wood, we could see men running to hop the train. From both sides of the train, maybe a dozen men altogether, in pairs and alone, clamored for the open doors, few with any possessions to burden them. Finally, as the train neared untenable speed, one last man appeared and ran to catch the very boxcar my brother and I occupied. When he was close enough to reach, Tom grabbed his collar, as he had done mine, and pulled the man safely into the car with us.
I had never in my life seen a man as filthy as our new fellow occupant. His clothes were black with soot, as if he’d just come from work in the coal mines, and his face hadn’t been washed in ages, as far as I could tell. When he spoke, he had no teeth and his words were a jumble of curses and unidentifiable sounds more spat than spoke. He was unshaven and his hair unkempt so that he looked as wild as he sounded. Tom and I were speechless, and I know I was more than a little afraid. He mumbled a few more curses, looked around the boxcar, and seeing the bag of remaining oranges, sat down and began eating them.
Tom, clearly not as afraid as I was, made a motion to stop the man from eating our oranges, but I held him back. Looking outside I judged that the train was now moving too fast to safely jump, so I pulled Tom to the other end of the boxcar and suggested that we should just let the man have the oranges and we’d jump out the first time the train slowed enough. Tom’s suggestion was that we put the man off the train instead. Unable to restrain Tom, I watched as he approached the man.
Still sitting, with half an orange in his mouth, our fellow passenger pulled a pistol and pointed it at my brother’s chest. As he pulled the hammer back, he stood, and Tom raised his hands, stumbling backwards, eyes set on the end of the barrel, retreating to stand next to me. Together, we backed to the opposite end of the boxcar and didn’t breathe again until the man sat down and continued eating our oranges.
What happened next haunts me to this day. I know that soon I will go to my rest and need not have ever told the events of that day, beyond what I reported all those years ago. Because I couldn’t bear to tell my mother what really happened in that boxcar, I’ve carried the terrible secret of cowardice all my long days. I tell it now, not in hope of absolution either in this life or the next, but in confession and payment to that beautiful boy I abandoned in my youth.
For some time the train clanked and rocked its way across the desert wilderness of New Mexico , and Tom and I huddled together and watched the man as he ate everything he could find among our things. When he finished eating, he rummaged through our clothes and, apparently finding nothing that suited him, rose and came toward us, pistol drawn. He pointed it at Tom and motioned for him to stand up. Tom stood, and the man, motioning with the pistol, told him to take off his clothes. Tom at first shook his head and refused, but the man cocked the pistol again, and with my urging, Tom undressed and tossed his clothes on the floor of the boxcar at the feet of the man.
As Tom stood there naked and I sat on the floor behind him, the man undressed, never taking the pistol or his eyes off of us. It wasn’t until he suddenly stepped forward and grabbed Tom by the hair, holding the pistol to my brother’s head, that I realized it hadn’t been Tom’s clothes he was after. I stood suddenly, but the man pointed the pistol and fired, the bullet entering the wooden floor of the boxcar only inches in front of my feet. I watched, paralyzed with fear, as the man forced my younger brother face down onto the filthy floor, with the pistol pressed to the back of his head, and raped him.
When he finished, and while he was still lying on top of Tom, he released the hammer of the gun. Then, as he pushed up onto his knees, he struck Tom in the head with the barrel and Tom splayed, unconscious. I sank to my knees and wept as the man sat back and cleaned himself with pieces of our clothes he had scattered before.
I don’t know how long I knelt there crying, or for whom I was crying most; my brother, so young and so defiled, or myself, now face to face with my cowardice. I don’t know how long the man sat and watched me cry, or how much pleasure he took in it, but eventually he rose and came to me. He stood before me, still naked, and with the gun once again in my face, told me to take off my clothes. In that moment, I lost my sense of immortality. Drained of tears and content to know my life was going to be over soon, I began to remove my clothes. I ripped the buttons on my shirt as I pulled it off, angry that he couldn’t just kill me first. I pulled my undershirt over my head and stood to remove my pants. While I fumbled with my belt and avoided looking at the man who would soon violate me as he had my brother, I saw movement behind him. Tom, so fast it was done before I realized what was happening, grabbed the man and spun him backwards, away from me. The gun exploded and I was deafened. My cheek and ear burned, but the bullet missed me and I saw the gun fall to the floor. I had it in my hand and was turning to help Tom when I saw the man standing in the door, arms flailing for balance. Tom took the gun from my hand, walked over to the man who had recovered his balance, and shot him in the face. The man went limp and fell like a tree out of the boxcar, head first into the gravel below. Above the noise of the train and the ringing in my ear, I could have sworn I heard the man’s neck snap. Maybe I just hear it now.
We dressed, but we didn’t speak. We sat and cried, but we didn’t speak. I held Tom as he wailed and together we paced the boxcar and cried. Tom, in a fit of anger, threw all the man’s clothes out the door and kicked the half-eaten oranges, but still we didn’t speak. Finally, as we sat with our legs hanging over the side, I said I was sorry. I said I was sorry, I was so sorry, but Tom only cried and said nothing. He turned and leaned against the side of the door, one leg still over the side, the other he bent and hugged to his chest. I couldn’t see his face for a long time, but when he finally raised it, his mouth was open in a silent scream, his agony undiminished. I said again I was sorry and Tom, still screaming without sound, raised the pistol to his temple and fired. Before I could catch him, he fell out the door. His pant leg caught on some piece of the boxcar and his body fell underneath. There was not enough of him left to bury.
And now, after all these long years, with this my only clear memory of my brother Tom, it’s my turn.