SHORT SCENES FROM OTHER LONGINGS by William Weitzel
“REALLY, SAM, YOU MUST be crazy,” said one boy to the other. This other, Sam, appeared tall and confident, swinging long arms from his lanky frame.
“Not a crazy bone,” Sam replied, now poised at the top of a barn roof. He was evidently preparing to throw himself into hay. “I’m the sane one.”
Years later, when they were both graduates of college and talking as though they admired themselves, the cat’s scratch they’d made across time, Sam said again he was amazed by his ordinary reason. “I’ve never thought of anything crazy,” he told Land.
And Land, thinking this itself was deranged, said nothing, keeping his own opinions quiet.
Years after that, when they still knew each other and had been, the both of them, married for some time, and when Sam had two young ones to look after, along with a wife, Land heard his friend say he was still waiting to see what the fuss was about. Since it all seemed so perfectly clear.
The fact was, as far as Land was aware, Sam never did think himself crazy, not a bit, not even in the months just before when that same Sam left his own family without a word to anyone and took off riding trains.
Land took the train north to New York City, with as many newspapers as he could find to read, and from there to the north country, all the way up to a place a lone hour short of the Canadian border.
After he disembarked, Land swung around to face the town, what you could see from the rail landing, and it was near deserted. Hard to say, in winter, that anyone came this far. In June and July, throughout his youth, the town had bustled with summer folks, coming to their big houses fronting Lake Champlain. There were fairs in August and bars open until 1am and even a seasonal pizza joint.
But now, in winter, it was dead. He was the salesman with his scythe trudging door to door. No live soul looked to be at home. Those farms spread out along the lake’s New York side, he could see from the station, were painted white with snow. The long hay-grass was cut out to the east, and the shorn fields lay like shag rugs as far as the lake shore.
Sam’s farm, like Land’s, had been sold by his family over a decade before. Once they’d grown older, since the two boys had moved south to cities, the parents had sold. Sam had a sister, but she’d died in the lake when she was only fifteen. She’d gone in to save a drowning man, a neighbor, and he’d killed her. In his struggles, he’d taken her beneath him like a weighted buoy and then kept on thrashing above. The golden retriever, that was old and white and Sam’s favorite, had gone in too, to save the girl. But she’d veered off, the dog had, before she’d gotten to them. The way Sam told it, she must have seen the girl, Janice, wasn’t coming up. And that man thrashing must surely have looked to the dog like a full-on hate machine. Because slowly, like an old boat, she’d veered off mid-course and come about, paddling back soaked to the jetty.
It was an old story but Land had kept it with him.
He walked to the deli and bought a sandwich and a soda. It was still open, this deli, in the dead of winter. The woman was the same woman who’d served him as a kid. She was nearly dead. Her back was bent like a long rake. You could plough with her. But despite all of it, he thought, she was still taking money for cream sodas.
“Seen Sam, Misses Kaul?”
“Which Sam would that be now?”
“Sam, old Sam, the one who used to steal your eggs.”
And, to Land’s eyes, she seemed to remember instantly. Her own eyes turned over on themselves. They got bright like animals.
“Nothing of him in years. He hasn’t been here in many, many.”
“Years,” finished Land.
Land himself had stolen the eggs, in truth, after the first couple of times. It was he, Land, who would leave the cartons empty but for one egg, out of some kind of malice, to show he’d taken the rest.
Sam did it first, it must be said. Sam had shown the way. When the deliveries came, they’d be piled in the back and Misses Kaul would have her boy gather up the cans and produce and bring them in for stacking. Sometimes, there were fresh brown eggs the farmers would deliver in large square cartons. Sam would time the boy’s movements, in and out of the back of the deli. In the gaps when the boy disappeared, he’d take a shirt-full and dash off around the wall and pour them over into Land’s lap. But Sam would never leave an egg behind. He’d just take them all.
Land, coming every few months after that, when the deli boy thought he was safe, would carry a bag. He’d make it canvas for less noise. And in two, maybe three trips, he’d load in a whole square of brown eggs. He would always leave just one though, along with the square crate, not for any mercy but to show he’d been there.
In winter like this, when there was snow, they had caught Sam with two big bottles of purple soda. They’d caught him from his boot prints and questioned him about the eggs and a lot more. Though Land had never told Sam about his own thefts, and although Land had brought those thefts off alone, as though they were private, Sam must have guessed them. And he must have said yes to everything they asked. Land was convinced that Sam had owned for it all because Misses Kaul, ever after, told the world. She said Sam was an egg thief, first and foremost, and “bad all around” after that.
He spent a night in town, admiring the lake in the evening. It was a black loon of a lake in autumn, he remembered. But in winter there were big tracts of ice, stiff and white and stuck under the sky, making a bright board.
On the second morning, for no purpose he could divine, Land went out to the farm. Somebody else owned it. It was sitting quite new. There was paint on a lot of things, and the mailbox was whitewashed at the end of the long lane. He saw large machinery, tractors, a big hangar of a building for the barn. Everything was changed except the old house. And that was there like a felt cat. He could see it, touch it even, but that was all. It very surely wasn’t alive.
He walked the several miles back to town and checked out of the hotel. Then, after he’d bought sandwiches for two days from that old bone, Misses Kaul, and added some cream sodas to his bill, Land made off in the other direction, away from the lake, toward the rail tracks and the woods and the mountain.
He’d brought a penny. It was surprisingly clean and polished.
Now the day was drawing on toward late afternoon. Perhaps old Sam would be hiding with a sack under his arm. Wouldn’t that be a kick. To find him out here, hunched over, setting his own penny on the tracks. Who knew but that crazy could wait a year to pick his train?
Out this far, the road wasn’t metalled or sealed. The folks whose homes lined the road weren’t like the summer folks with their blazers. Here, they had hens. They had their own eggs, some of which they sold. Lots of them had small farm plots behind the drives. Not much land. But better than the old fellow who’d razed his home to start an RV park. That old man had been one of the last ones from town, one of the last locals, along with Sam’s family, to have a farm on the lake.
Right around that time, as Sam told it, his father was still informing all comers he was hale enough to ice fish in January and February. He’d tried to drag his shed out to the center of the lake one year when Sam was long gone. He’d used two paint horses, borrowed from a neighbor’s team, and one had punctured the ice and broken a leg. It was well after the skin on the lake had hardened then gotten thick enough for transport weight, and people were driving cars out there. But his father, who’d always used horses to haul his shed, put in near a shoal.
So they owed for the horse on top of everything else. Sam’s father and mother were still making harvests, but they were small. Plus, after that horse was put down, Sam’s father got himself a little uncertain of things. Coming back late at night from watching the lake. Staring down milk cows that meant nothing by their long gazes. It got so, Sam explained, that after dusk, his mother would follow his father out down the lane toward the corn fields and see him go in. She’d stake out the entrance and huddle under sheep blankets. It must have been cold those nights but not yet winter, Land thought. Not like it is now. After hours, the old man would come stumbling out of the corn. God knows what he did in there. He was covered with corn hair and salt bristles and first snow. He’d come right for his wife who’d be asleep in a deep pile of blankets, chilled and dreaming at the entrance to the field. He’d stoop down to lift her. He’d carry her back to the house in his arms. And bring her in from the moon. Once inside, they’d lay down together to get warm.
“It took a toll on her.” So Sam had said. “She got as bad as he was.” And then the part that Land had choked on. “She came to love all that straying out of doors.”
That was a long time ago.
Now Land could see in the old light that the rail tracks should be up there on the right. Up beyond the pulled corn and winter-sown buckwheat. In between the deep fields that hadn’t been cut, running at this hour on either side of those tracks like dark long seas.
Cold out here, thought Land. Colder than any city you can know.
He pressed onward to the tracks, breaking through the catgrass and coming into the broad swath in the center you could see from nowhere but here or the sky.
For no reason, certainly not from believing he’d be there, maybe from stubbornness or memory, Land looked around for Sam. He turned his head and looked north then south along the expanse of tracks. Sam wasn’t here just yet. Holed up, perhaps, in those sugar shacks on the slopes of the mountain. Getting out from the wind in the pine or the maple woods. Or high up in those firs. Like anyone would do.
Fools alone were out here mooning in the last light.
Land trucked along even so. He moved now in deepening shade, down the tracks to the south, away from town, fingering the dark penny pent inside his pocket.
The truth was, looking back, it was he, Land, who’d been married to the game of pennies. He was the one who’d pulled Sam back to the tracks at night when the big chargers came roaming, their lights two strafe lines that stuck out. Then they’d merge, those lights, when they were right over top, and you’d crouch and place your penny. You had to do it speedily or your life would get smothered by that thundering train. Even if you got it down on the rail and leapt out of the way, having waited beyond what you should have, the train would still hover above you. Then it came pouring past, over and again, throughout the night, when you went home to your bed for thinking.
“Don’t get so close, Land,” the crazy one had said. “It’ll kill you when you slip.”
Land had nodded at that, he remembered. “Hell, they’ll kill anybody,” Sam had said when they were sitting in the hot daylight out on his jetty. “Even you.”
One night, it was true, the train came so close it whiffed him. Land had dropped the penny off the shining metal of the rail onto the gravel between the piles. He’d fished for it for a second, with those white lights echoing in his head. Then he’d reached and scrabbled and found it. The smooth difference of the penny in the gravel. Its flat warm disk. In another instant, the ridges at its rim. He’d restored it to the rail and came rolling. As though a thin channel, his last, had spat him out to Sam.
Sam, after that, was still as a mouse until they were back on the road walking home.
“Sure are lots of pennies,” he told Land. “You could sure have left that one alone.”
Sam began to weep then. He walked beside Land, snuffling and wiping his face. That crazy said nothing after that. He wept for a long time as they were walking, kicking the gravel, and kept mum. Sniffling and coughing now and again.
This time of year snow was on the tracks, not heavy, but a crunch layer. The sun, after 3pm, couldn’t get in past the catgrass. From that point on, in here by the rails, it became a zone. There were dark stripes on the Adirondacks in the west. The ridge line was fired. Land turned from the rail tracks and moved back into the whiskers of the grass, into their brushing on his eyes, making him shut himself and walk. Then, the catgrass seemed to be sweeping only his face, leaving the rest.
Sam had saved him out here once. That was truth. Land hadn’t told a soul. But they were drunk on wine. Land, anyway, was a far goner that night. He’d taken the jug and emptied it down his throat right here in front of that crazy. The crazy, in turn, had swung his long blonde hair and tightened his lips as though he’d gone angry. But after a moment he’d passed his broad smile over onto Land. “Careful there, partner, or I’ll be your own freight train,” Sam had said.
“Meaning I’ll be the one needing to carry you home.”
They’d laughed at this. How many times had they wrestled here and drunk wine and come back to the farms full of night.
On that night, he could still remember, he’d dared a round engine, bulling its way, to take him with it. He’d stumbled out onto the piles and shaken his fist and Sam had come through in the last instant, diving into the air. That crazy had come through low and sent him spilling from the waist down the berm on the far side. Land felt just the force of him hitting high on his hip. Then the falling and tumbling down the berm.
The thing was that Sam nearly lost his own legs coming through. Land guessed he’d seen just inches. It had been Sam laid out on the sharp gravel by the tracks in the end. He must have scuttled inside that moment like a land crab. Pinching in his knees and swinging his feet out just in time. Then feeling the hot breath of the train.
Afterward, Land crawled to the top of the berm, once the train had passed, and saw Sam lying stiff and straight. His body parallel to the tracks. The crazy’s eyes dead or closed.
“Goddamn, Land,” Sam said.
Land, having crossed the road, now climbed into the pine woods.
Once, Sam had taken a girl onto this mountain. The girl must have loved the hell out of him in this wilderness. Sam was naked when Land saw them together. He could remember that even now, on this day, as he began working the slope and huffing. At this point, here in the foothills where tall aspen and maple rose, it had grown nearly dark. The big-leaf oaks were already far behind him in the ravine and down along the road.
But back then, Land had come up on those two lovers in the flush of morning. He’d known for a considerable time she was gone on crazy Sam. The things such people do, unawares. Falling for someone like Sam when it was he, Land, who’d slept out nights alone under the sky with a gas lantern. He’d dimmed it for sure, for stars, but then raised the light for lightning bugs. The light from a lightning bug seen in the glow of a gas lantern is like a blue oil fire.
The dawn on that morning, far back, was crisp the color of a deer’s belly. He’d remembered it these years. They, the two lovebirds, had marked the lines on his picture until they were stark. The crazy had been naked in the falls, climbing the rock face. The water came over his head like a long train of pales. The falls were cascading onto his skin. He was in their center, gold and white. The girl, bless her, was staring from the lean-to that commanded a view of all of it. She was dressed. Her heart must have been very pretty. The two of them crumpled in delight. Mashed up on one of those thin pallets all night under great thick blankets they’d trundled into the woods.
Sam had hit a problem on the way up the granite, keeping his hips in tight to the rock then throwing his long blonde hair back into the madness of flowing water. Land, seeing him begin to fall, had started out yelling, disturbing everyone. He’d come hauling through the trees toward the stream, forcing rapid steps on the sharp descent. He, Land, whooping and hollering the whole way down. But Sam had already caught himself with a strong hand and righted. He’d turned where he’d snagged in the center of the face and leaned out with curving arms, straining while the water poured sheets over his head. That fool had just grinned then and hollered back. “Don’t you get yourself wet—I’ll be fine,” he was yelling out over the roar of the falls. “Stay high and dry, Land, and save your clothes.”
Sam completed the climb and the girl applauded, smiling, beautiful. Land had known well already, before he’d stormed in, that she was a beauty. In any case, Sam came walking calmly down the bank from the top of the falls and stood there naked, dripping cold and wet on them both.
“Welcome, Land!” he’d yelled, never asking a word about what’d brought him. And right in front of that girl, Sam had dried off and, once he’d closed himself into a blanket, gone on to give Land a big hug and made them all a camp breakfast. Busying himself, shining, with milk and water and a bag of cornmeal and a fire.
Now Land was tired. There was no sense out here to link to something else. No Sam had gone out sleeping in a sugar shack. Or lying in a lean-to facing east to escape long winds stretching their tails across the distant prairies. Only squalls off the lake, and nor’easters in the Fall, could come for you through the open side of those structures while you slept. Goddamn, it was strange how it all turned.
Now he was aching in his belly something fierce. As it grew dark, he was shaking his head, full of all of it. Funny enough, there was the train, coming at nightfall as things would have it. The dark patches in the woods stretched already between the trees across the snow like long full hammocks, sunk with heavy sleepers.
There were other lean-tos, and sugar shacks, further up the mountain. Sam, if he were anywhere, could always be in one of those. Who knows why he’d run off. If that’s what he’d done. Poor Hallie with those kids though. With her love, you could only suppose. Judging by what you could tell, she loved him as sorely as all the others, straight up and down the line.
The next morning Land awoke to the sun brightening the slopes of the mountain above. He sat up on the lower pallet of a lean-to that served as a bunk house, open to the air. This was surely the day to go back. He ate an extra sandwich from Misses Kaul. He’d meant to save it for later in the day, but there was no point now. He might have time to smell the lake even, though it was the wrong season for that. Hard to come this far and not dive in, after so many years. Feel the glacial pull of it eight feet down. Of course now there was the ice and the snow pack. The southbound train should be around 1:30 coming down from Montreal.
Land started walking out yet he wasn’t right. He’d shouldered his pack and set out down the scarp and his legs seemed fine. A part of him even thought to turn around and head up higher onto the mountain to check the rest of the lean-to’s. To poke into that last line of sugar shacks above. Maybe even check the deer blinds to quiet his mind.
“Goddamn it,” Land said aloud. “No one comes back up here anymore. Not to these woods.”
He sagged through the sloping terrain and now that he’d hit the path, slumped himself down toward the road and thought, since the lake was sheeted over, he guessed he’d ply through the catgrass to the tracks once more. Pay his respects and satisfy any fool in him that believed old Sam would be standing there palming a cream soda. With a branch of maple sticking in his mouth.
The sky in the east was full on bright and blinding. He’d have a day to himself out here. No need to cut back across the farms and the old polo fields of the summer folks just yet. Not until mid-day. There were no more sandwiches, that was true.
Did Hallie, he would ask his wife, happen to reach you? Any sign of Sam down there?
But there’d be no sign. He was near sure of that if he was sure of anything. And that sister of his wouldn’t come walking out of the lake either. After all these years. Nor did his father keep stumbling back from corn fields every night without end. One night, as it turned out, he’d just stayed in there. Who can tell you why? His wife, Sam’s mom, had kept sleeping in her blankets. Getting colder. Though Sam, wherever he’d gone, could no doubt bear it all.
Now Land was full of bushes and trees. He was made of catgrass. Sure enough, you could look around here without stopping. You could lay back. Even if there was snow on the tracks just now. Here in this place, most of anywhere, you could rest your back for a while.
Sam, on the other hand, must have plans. Finally saving someone else. There’s no soul on earth you can lean on forever.
Though there was someone just now out walking on the tracks. Tall, still thin. That same drawling gait. A real gazer.
Staring down the rails as though you, Land, were the last one on earth who was different from the rest. Who was crazy yourself.
“I’ll just wait for him here,” said Land aloud. “He may well come.”
I’ll just give him time, he thought.
And Land turned over on his belly and straightened out. He burrowed into the snow among the piles between the rails. Made a cave for himself.
When Sam finally did come up, all crazy, he whispered, “Goddamn, Land, these tracks aren’t a tomb. You’ve got to get on the train.”
But by now those wrists were feather-thin and light. And if anyone was pulling on his collar, or if one or another was hauling him out of the snow, Land couldn’t feel it. Nor the wind.
He did hear much later the blare of the train that was only a country sound.
And the last thing he was thinking was I wonder if this weren’t the very one Sam had chosen. If this train weren’t heading north into star areas.
Then, as he’d been meaning to do for years, he lay still and waited.
WIL WEITZEL teaches creative and analytical writing at Harvard University and has just completed his first novel—-a coming-of-age narrative about risk and loss materializing out of the intertwined memories of four friends in the woods. Most recently, he was a finalist for the A.E. Coppard Prize for Fiction, and his poetry has been published in the White Whale Review. He is currently at work on a novel about Boston and northern Pakistan along with a series of short stories that showcase mountain ecologies and contemporary human relations to wilderness. Prior to moving to Boston, Wil lived and worked in Portugal.