Steven Faulkner has published essays in North American Review, Fourth Genre, Southern Humanities Review, DoubleTake, Texas Review, Big Muddy,Wisconsin Trails Magazine, Beacon’s Best, and has been noted in Best American Essays. A movie, Waterwalk, based on his book Waterwalk: A Passage of Ghosts, has been released across the United States and Canada. A version of “Photo Album” appears in his work-in-progress: Bitterroot: Traveling with Lewis and Clark, Pierre Jean De Smet, and the Nez Perce.
Photo Album on a Westbound Train
The sun declines toward distant cobalt mountains. It has rained and sagebrush stands in bright pools of water. A wild horse gallops away, the sun behind him catching the crystal spray kicked up by his hooves. Alex points out little families of antelope beyond the fences, and sometimes we see oilwell pumpjacks standing among the rocks like chained prehistoric birds, wasted to bone, pecking mechanically at the shadowed sands. We’re riding through Wyoming’s Red Desert, 9000 square miles of baked alkali and laterite crust with an occasional mesa or butte of red sandstone layered over chalky limestone. An arid landscape of sagebrush, saltbush, clump grass, and yellowing cheatgrass ravaged by strong winds that grind down stone and smooth the grey limbs of drought-killed cottonwoods. We’re following the transcontinental railway. Long, long coal trains rumble by us from the Wyoming coal fields, graffiti slashing color and unreadable messages onto silver coal cars.
After a long day of watching desert, Alex settles back to sleep. He is the last of our children. Thin and tall, a face growing leaner as he enters manhood, thick brown hair, pebble-grey eyes, the first traces of a beard. He is a lover of pickup basketball games and beat-box rhythms self-created, of free-styling hip-hop songs, and jokes.
* * *
He was born in a hundred-year-old, three-story farmhouse now within the city limits of Topeka, Kansas. I remember walking to an upstairs window and watching his doctor, her long red hair tied back, pulling a wheeled oxygen tank up our sidewalk to come deliver our new baby.
A difficult birth, my wife, Joy, refusing all medications. She had been busy all day, enduring the contractions, laundering sheets, making beds, boiling corn on the cob for the other children. After her doctor arrived, she agreed at last to lie down in the upstairs bedroom and take on the labor pains. The doctor had told her that the child would be very small because Joy had been unable to eat much in the past months, piecing on salads, picking at food the rest of us devoured. However, the new baby turned out to be larger than expected and resisted coming into this world. She endured the hard contractions one after another and the boy finally made his wet, squalling entrance—ten pounds, nine ounces, a little big boy.
I looked at his scrunched up red face, his squashed and pointed head, his matted hair, and remarked that he was in fact a very ugly child. Our red-headed doctor who had constructed her life out of loving babies was highly offended that the boy’s father would say such a horrible thing. So I shut my mouth. Joy knows me and my quirks; she wasn’t offended.
And so, the train pulls out: Good Morning, America, how are you? Say, don’t you know me, I’m your native son . . .
* * *
It’s four or five years later, late in the evening. Winter in Kansas. Alex climbs up the cold, creaky stairs of the old farm house in bare feet and finds me in my office typing a college paper or paying the bills. He grabs my hand and says, “Bedtime, Daddy. Es go to bed.” I lay aside my work and follow his brown thatch of hair into the bathroom to brush our teeth, then we walk down the hall and into the bedroom to that same bed on which he was born so I can read him poetry or a bedtime story. He is by this time a beautiful child and he loves the evening routine. On winter nights he giggles when he pokes his icy little feet between my warm thighs, making me jump half out of the bed.
Then I read him a familiar Mother Goose rhyme: “Goosey goosey gander,/ Where shall I wander,/ Upstairs and downstairs,/ And in my lady’s chamber./ There I met an old man./ Would not say his prayers;/ Take him by the left leg and throw him down the stairs!” He has no idea what it means (nor do I), but he soon falls into the rhythms of the words, reciting: “Where thall I wander, Uptares and downtares,/ And in my wady’s kameber.” He loves the sound of the words, and I love the sound of his voice.
* * *
He’s already six.He lies beside me asleep. Summer has come again. Through the open window of the old farmhouse, I hear the Russian olive tree receiving and translating a night wind for my listening while across the city comes the steady rumble of a westbound train, its triple horn calling out the crossings.
We’ve been reading a story about a boy of the Teton Sioux who is guided and mentored by an older boy named Hump. They ride the Dakota prairies hunting birds and prairie dogs. The younger boy, Curly, will one day become the Sioux war chief Crazy Horse. A few minutes before, Alex lay staring at the ceiling as his imagination picked up the tales of those wild riders of the western plains, but now he’s chasing them into his dreams where I cannot follow. His mom has cut his dark brown hair into a strange bowl cut that lies scattered across the faded green pillowcase. In the warm night he lies shirtless and I see a small cut on his neck, another small scab on his backbone, and an inch-long white welt on one foot where he once kicked a piece of glass. None of these marks of misadventure minded long—all resulting from and overcome by the joys of play.
Joy comes up the stairs. Rather than carry him to his own bed and wake him, she slips in beside me. I scoot him over and we three sleep. A mother with her babe asleep/ Is rockin’ to the gentle beat/ And the rhythm of the rails is all they dream.
* * *
He is eight or nine and the train is picking up speed, clicking along the rails. To slow it down, he and I have camped with our friend Frank and his boys near the shore of a Kansas reservoir. At dawn Alex and I are walking across a meadow through prairie grasses weighted with a heavy dew. Dew-whitened webs of the wolf spider lie here and there across the meadow, stitched like random patches to the thick fabric of knee-high bluestem and grama grasses. I lead the way, weaving between the white spider patches, my jeans wet to my knees, my shoes soaked, our trail leaving a winding seam of darker grasses where we’ve brushed off the dew. We come down through dark junipers and lighter hackberries to the lake where we’ve hidden our canoe. Across the grey water, the growing light whitens the fog that lies quiet and cool, rising faintly blue-green where it dims a forested hill beyond. Dead trees stand in the water, gesturing stiffly, misshapen victims of another project of the Army Corps of Engineers.
I tell him to step through the middle of the canoe, and hand him a paddle. He settles on the webbed seat in the prow. I step in and shove off into the pale fog. A wet spring morning. Our paddles dip the water and pull, sliding us out into grey water. The wings of unseen ducks in the fog are suddenly drumming the air, then we see two dark forms hurtling away into milky daylight. We move slowly among the dead trees, dipping our paddles quietly, winding through the old, lost forest. There are spider webs here, too, long, glinting strands of drawn glass and beaded silk. The day coming, the mist thinning, we see five or six white pelicans floating out of the naked grey trunks of old elms and oaks. Turning toward them, we see the nervous flicker of their white tail feathers as they turn away, swimming steadily, each one moving its sagging-beaked head to keep an alien eye upon us. As we approach, they arch their enormous white-and-black wings. At once they are all moving quickly forward, hammering the fog with their wings, their running feet slapping the water . . . soon gone.
Alex looks back at me and smiles. “That was cool!”
“Yes it was.”
An hour later we beach the canoe and walk up to the campfire where Frank is boiling coffee and frying up a big batch of scrambled eggs and sharp, summer sausage. For a single morning, the train has slowed.
* * *
Winter again. A snowpack on the streets. Alex is twelve, and time is rolling by. He sits with four other boys his age in a snowy yard a few doors down from our house. They’ve had their snowball fight and are now waiting out the evening, talking, telling stories, laughing, enjoying each other’s company. To his left is Daniel, Alex’s lifelong friend, whose house lies just behind the seated boys. Chinese Alex lives next door; he’s a heavy boy in an orange-and-blue winter coat. He scrunches together another snowball. Jake from down the block is there, and Malcolm, a black friend from a few streets away.
Two blocks to their left a big SUV pulls onto the snowy street. Alex notices that its windows are tinted stone black, a heavy bass beat pounds from the approaching car. It looks dangerous. Topeka is a city of many street gangs: Bloods and Crips moved in years ago to sell their California drugs. Hispanic gangs and Kansas meth dealers have now added their crimes. Our next door neighbor’s oldest boy is in prison for murder one. A boy across the street loved to be called a “gangsta” and took the title to jail with him. A few years ago Topeka had the highest per capita murder rate in the nation for a city of its size. The boys know about gang violence.
Chinese Alex stands up with the big snowball in his hand. He has never taken part in snowball attacks before, never been part of the spoken plans that precede the ambush; his mother, or perhaps his preference for video games, keeps him inside most of the time. But here he is standing up for the first time in his bulky winter coat, warning no one of his intentions, clutching a huge snowball.
Daniel looks up. “Alex,” he says.
The boy steps forward, his arm moving back.
Then my Alex notices: “Alex! What are you doing?”
The car moves slowly by over the icy street. Chinese Alex lets fly.
The snowball smashes into the passenger window. The boys are suddenly all on their feet. The SUV slides to a stop and the driver’s door opens. They see a big black man come sliding around the corner of the car. The four boys turn and sprint toward the alley, in a mad scramble into Daniel’s backyard, ducking into the shadows behind Daniel’s house, listening closely over their pounding hearts for pursuit.
They hear nothing. Chinese Alex, in his big orange-and-blue winter coat is, for some reason, whirling around, dodging back and forth between the boys, jumping up and down.
My Alex whispers, “Alex, what are you doing? Chill out.”
Chinese Alex’s winter coat whirls toward my Alex and seems suddenly to grow larger; the face is not Chinese Alex’s; it’s the face of a very large and very angry black man who happens to be wearing the same kind of coat as Chinese Alex.
“What the fuck was you trying to do!” the man yells.
“Who done it?” The man jumps from Alex to Daniel. “Who done it?” He stares into Malcolm’s face.
One of the boys manages to mutter, “He’s not here. He got away.”
“Got away! I should kill all you sons of bitches! I got my wife and kids in that car! You scared the hell out of her! I should beat the shit out of you!”
None of them move.
“What the hell was you doin’!”
He’s in a fuming rage—as well he should be. He is stomping back and forth, his hands in hard fists. “Don’t you ever let me catch you again. You hear?”
The boys stand there wide eyed, mute, but manage to nod.
The man turns on his heel and stomps away through the snow.
Daniel, feeling terrifically relieved, suddenly thinks to offer thanks. He calls after the man: “Thanks for teaching us a lesson.”
The man whirls about and charges in a spray of snow. “If I wanted to teach you a god-damned lesson, I’d pound your sorry ass into the snow!”
Daniel holds his breath.
The man turns and stalks away.
Another night passes and the miles are clicking by. He’ll be gone 500 miles when the day is done.
* * *
He and his friend Connor are given the job of making the end-of-day announcements to their high school. The students, imprisoned in their classrooms, watch the slow-ticking clocks of late afternoon, waiting for the bell to ring their release. But first they must suffer through the end-of-days announcements: “Junior varsity volleyball practice has been switched to the old gym at 3:30, varsity girls will practice at . . . “ In the past, the student who had been appointed the task of reading the list would do so. But Alex and Connor can’t resist a change. Across the intercom one day comes a new voice: “Hello, Randolph-Henry High School, it’s your captain speaking. This is Alexander Faulkner introducing you to the new voice of Randolph Henry High School, Connor Freeland.”
At first that’s all; Connor then reads the list. But innovations follow. Once they break into the verbal clicks, spits, and buzzing beats of a beat-box performance: while Alex sings lyrics, Connor beeps and spits the rhythms. Sleepy students and tired teachers in many classrooms sit up. Faces turn toward the speaker on the wall. Of course the boring announcements always follow, but often there is a new twist: a song, a joke, a ridiculous announcement. Students laugh, teachers roll their eyes. One stuck-in-concrete teacher begins protesting and they lose their job.
The conductor sings his song again,
The passengers will please refrain . . .
* * *
His junior year he attends a party at a friend’s house. The parents are absent. A crowd of high schoolers are drinking and smoking throughout the home. Suddenly police cars drive up to the porch. Kids begin scrambling for hiding places. Alex and several boys run up the stairs into the attic where two hide behind the door while Alex slips under dusty fiberglass insulation stuffed between ceiling joists.
It’s winter, the attic is cold. A policeman walks up the stairs, opens the attic door, and shines a flashlight around the attic, grabs the boys hiding behind the open door, and takes them back downstairs where the officers are checking drivers’ licenses, calling parents, and writing the tickets for underage drinking. A girl is crying, “I won’t go to college now! I’ll lose my scholarship!”
In the dark attic, Alex is freezing beneath a pad of itchy, dusty insulation. He finally crawls out, brushes the dust and fiberglass off his shirt and jeans, and makes his way downstairs. He moves through the crowd, then down the hall, and into a back bedroom where he opens a window. He can’t get the screen out. He needs to pee in the worst way, so he walks back up the hall and opens the bathroom door. A girl with black hair draped over the toilet is throwing up. He closes the door and moves back into the crowd, searching for an escape.
Just as he returns to the living room, he sees a boy slip out the front door. Alex edges through the crowd to follow him. A policeman is standing on the porch to prevent escapes. The boy walks to the opposite side of the porch, unzips his jeans and takes a piss, then returns to the crowd inside. Alex waits for the boy to step by him, then walks to the far edge of the porch, but he keeps an eye on the policeman. When Alex unzips, the policeman glances away and Alex vaults over the railing and sprints to the back yard and on into a pasture, then dodges into the winter woods. He is miles from home and it is a cold, cold night. After disappearing into the woods, he pulls out his cell phone and arranges a ride with a friend who meets him on a road next to the woods.
Dealin’ cards with the young men in the club car,
Penny a point, ain’t no one keepin’ score.
Won’t you pass the bag that holds the bottle,
Feel the wheels rumblin’ ‘neath the floor.
* * *
On a cold, overcast day in March of his senior year, he is playing third base. Behind the backstop and beneath the announcer’s booth is a concession stand. I’ve taken up my usual post next to this concession stand so I can watch balls and strikes and join in the moans and complaints at the umpire’s calls. Heavy clouds are blowing over the forested hills. It’s cold—a wind coming down from the north, twirling maple seeds through the late afternoon sun. Beside me stands the shortstop’s father. I’m listening to him talk about bloodhounds and beagles while keeping an eye on the game when an older man walks up to the concession stand, zipping up his black jacket.
“How you doin’?” he says to the woman behind the plywood counter.
“How are you?”
“Life is good,” he says. “It’s not always fair, but it’s good.” He pauses. . . . “Better than the alternative.”
Our team is doing badly. Already eight to zip against us.
The man puts his hands in his pockets and asks for coffee. The woman behind the counter says they haven’t made coffee.
“No? You guys are missing the boat. You could sell that for five dollars a cup this afternoon. I’d take it over to my wife and she’d give me a hug.” He pauses. . . . “She might even give you a hug.”
The bases are loaded. The batter bounces a slow dribbler toward third base; Alex, playing third, charges, scoops it up, and flicks the ball to the catcher. The ball bounces out of the catcher’s mitt and rolls to the backstop. The catcher, a tall, gangly boy, scrambles back, grabs the ball and throws it to the pitcher, Michael Tatum, who is covering home. One run has already scored with the dropped ball. Tatum gloves the ball and slaps the glove down in the dirt as the second runner slides home. The boy’s shoe slams into the thumb on Tatum’s pitching hand. Somehow, Tatum hangs onto the ball, and the base runner is called out at the plate. The pitcher stands up, tightly holding his wrist. There’s a big bulge at the base of his thumb. Coach Abell walks over and calls in a second pitcher.
After the roar of the crowd dies down, the man in the black jacket turns back to the plywood counter and puts down the dollars for two hot dogs with chili. He says, “My nephew. He got a part in his school play. So I ask him, ‘What part you playin’, Mike?’ Well, he says he’s playin’ the husband in the family.” The man pauses. . . . “So I say, ‘Well, that’s real good, Mikey. You keep workin’ hard and some day they’ll give you a speakin’ part.’” He grins, takes a bite out of a hot chili dog and walks off to the bleachers.
The score climbs to 11 to 3. The bases are reloaded.
Coach Abell calls for a timeout, walks onto the field, and tells Alex he is pitching.
After throwing a few warm-up pitches, Alex looks for the catcher’s sign, goes into his stretch, and lets go a fast ball: a strike on the outside corner. The next pitch, a strike at the waist. Then a changeup bounces in the dirt in front of the plate and the catcher blocks it. The count is 1-2. Alex leans forward for the sign, shakes it off, nods, then goes into his stretch and throws a 12-6 curve ball that loops in for a called strike three.
He then strikes out the next batter to end the inning.
Over the next two innings, he strikes out four more, allows one hit, and gets two ground ball outs to end the game.
Alex is suddenly the starting pitcher for his team. He helps win the next three games he pitches. Then comes the mistake. One afternoon after practice he leaves his billfold on the dugout bench. The assistant coach, a young man with an earnest face, picks it up and shuffles through it to find out whose billfold it is. Inside he extracts a package of cigarette papers. These he gives to the school principal.
Alex is called to the principal’s office where he explains to her that he used them for starting campfires, which, technically, is true—he had used them to start a campfire just weeks before.
The principal looks at him and says, “Alex, do you think I’m stupid?”
She then benches him for three games for carrying drug paraphernalia. He doesn’t pitch for the next three weeks of his senior year, and the coach, for some reason, doesn’t have him practice pitching all that time. When he returns to pitching after the suspension, he has lost the touch on his curve ball and his fastball has lost its punch. The team loses the game—and the season, and high school, are over.
This train’s got the disappearing railroad blues . . .
* * *
A summer evening on a bridge over Soldier Creek, ten miles north of Topeka, Kansas. The concrete bridge spans two wooded banks that drop steeply into a stream 40 feet below. The water eases around a bend from the west and washes over a sloping layer of limestone, then slips more quickly over a second layer of stone and passes under the bridge into a deep pool of flat, brown water. Boys from Silver Creek and Topeka have checked its depth and decided it’s deep enough to break the fall of a boy leaping off the four-story-high bridge.
Alex and his friends have jumped from the Huxman Bridge several times. It’s an adrenalin rush. But rushes diminish with use—it’s called the law of diminishing returns.
Alex and his friend Cory have returned to the bridge. A black fisherman on the far bank watches as they climb the footpath through weeds and shrubs up to the high deck. The two boys walk the roadway to the center of the bridge and Cory volunteers to jump first.
He sits down on the knee-high concrete guardrail and swings his legs over to face the shadowed current so far below. The sun is down and the western sky is fading from orange to mauve; twilight is near. Swallows still skim the surface below and a silver quarter moon stands high above the bankside cottonwoods, maples, and walnut trees. The two boys talk for a few minutes.
“Ready?” Alex asks.
Cory nods and Alex counts him down: “Three, two, one . . .”
Cory jumps, dropping feet first, dropping free, arms flailing the air to keep his balance, hitting the water hard with a sudden clap and disappearing.
Alex leans over the rail and waits. Circles of waves rush the shore. Then Cory’s head and shoulders burst from the surface. He gasps, dogpaddles for a few seconds, then swims for shore.
“You all right?” Alex yells.
“I’m okay, you ready?”
Down the stream, the fisherman has turned his attention from his red-and-white bobbers to the remaining boy on the high bridge.
“You ready?” Cory shouts up again as he finds his footing and stands up in shallow water.
Twilight is deepening, and they can hear a train approaching on the tracks that parallel the stream. Above the dark trees, the moon is undergoing the alchemy of evening, exchanging silver for gold. The air is warm. The swallows are gone to their clay huts under the bridge and a bat is dodging and flicking along the stream. Alex sits down on the concrete guardrail and swings his legs over. The evening shadows have dyed the water black. He turns about and faces the roadway, his hands holding the knee-high guardrail, his toes on the deck.
A car approaches from his right, its headlights picking up the shirtless boy at the edge of the bridge. The driver slows down. Alex grins fiercely and gives the man the thumbs up. The train is coming, a heavy rumble shaking the air. The car pulls away and rolls over the tracks just before the red lights begin flashing and the striped crossbar swings down to the metallic ding, ding, ding of the warning bell. Alex hears the coming diesel horn call out its warning.
A phrase from a song is running through his head: Do something every day that scares you. Do something every day that scares you. Awful advice for teenage boys.
“You ready, Alex?” comes another shout from below.
He nods and takes a breath.
“Three . . . two . . . one . . !”
Alex stands fixed to the concrete guardrail, his heart pounding.
“Come on, Dude!” Cory calls. They have done this many times before. Why is Alex holding up? He’s a black silhouette forty feet up against the western sky. The diesel horn sounds nearer, shouting three times across the corn fields and forest groves. There is the sharp, persistent ding, ding, ding, of the crossing bell, the red lights flashing.
Cory calls out, “Three . . . two . . one . . !”
Alex pushes off from the guardrail, leaning back into empty air. He pushes hard off the concrete deck. His stiff body begins pivoting backwards down the night, head under heels: one turn, a second turn, trying for a double back flip, but he already knows he won’t complete the second flip; he closes his eyes tight and stiffens as his horizontal body slams hard onto black water. Water surges around him, pain rushes up from the muddy depths and floods him. He is kicking for the faintest light when his face surfaces. He gasps for air and finds himself already stroking for shore. First his hands, then his feet touch mud and gravel and he tries to stand. Bent double, he wades a few steps and pulls himself onto a limestone slab and collapses.
Cory sloshes over and climbs the rock beside him. “You all right?” He leans over Alex. “You all right? Geez! I didn’t know you were going to do that!”
Alex pushes himself to his hands and knees and coughs. Blood sprays his forearm.
“Dude, you all right?”
Alex hangs his head and coughs again, spitting up a glob of blood. There’s a sharp pain in his chest. His bones ache. The skin on his back burns like a prairie fire.
The train is rumbling by, shaking the night. Alex tries to breathe through his pain.
Cory leans over him and says, “You’re the craziest sonofabitch I’ve ever seen! I don’t know anybody that would do that.”
Alex stares at the bloodied rock and smiles.
From the gathering darkness downstream, they hear the fisherman call out, “You guys crazy!”
* * *
The train rumbles away. He enters college. Finds a girlfriend. Drops out of college. Leaves the girlfriend. Enters a different college. Gets a DUI. Drops out of college to pay off the lawyer and the ticket. Enters college again.
Where is he going? He is 22 years old. His father and mother have little influence. And the sound of the train shakes the coming night.
He once told me he wants to be wise, but he doesn’t seem to be searching for wisdom in the obvious places. He’s an American son. He plays video games, watches sports, plays pickup basketball games. He doesn’t read the old books that connect us to our past, what British philosopher Edmund Burke called “the collected reason of ages.” He watches movies, some of which aren’t bad, but they are usually a momentary entertainment, not an exploration of ideas, values, and self. “The only palliative [for the prejudices of our own age],” wrote C. S. Lewis, “is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books.”
We’re heading west to hike an ancient trail together, the high Lolo Trail Lewis and Clark rode one snowy September. That trip through the Rockies almost killed them, but they learned a lot about their country, about the good hearts of the Nez Perce tribe who saved them, about the loyalty and courage of their men and of their Indian guides including Sacagawea. Clark became a hero, a governor of western territories, and raised a family.
Lewis became a hero, an alcoholic, and a suicide.
Good night, America, how are you? Say, don’t you know me, I’m your native son.
. . .
--with apologies to Arlo Guthrie and Steve Goodman and their train song,
“The City of New Orleans.”