Train Out Of Taft

Train Out Of Taft

A Story by Lina Rivera

People aren�t running away to join the circus anymore, now they run away to go to big cities.



Jacob had always said that three was a magical number. At the age of three his father had passed away and he and his mother along with his two younger brothers had to leave their home and move into a small trailer near the train tracks on the side of town that no decent person ventured into. Exactly three days after that he made his first friend in the shape of a young, black boy with curious coal eyes who never feared crossing the tracks into the part of town that frowned at him and called him names. Three years later in primary school, Jacob met another friend with the same brunette waves as him, only much more broody and much more mysterious than Jacob could ever pretend to be. And the three of them, Jacob would declare much later, were always meant for a grand adventure that could never be fulfilled within the limits of Taft City.
            If there was one thing Taft City was known for, it wasn’t its population of only about 1,500 or its run down porches around antiquated homes that once held charm. It wasn’t its small town meetings or the teenagers in their pick-ups cruising up and down Main Street on Friday night. The only thing Taft City was known for was the trains that would pull into the warehouses and block First Street for hours on end with no relief in sight. So many trains pulled in and out of the city that Taft quickly became an acronym for Train After Freakin’ Train, an inside joke shared by all the townspeople. And yet it was those very trains that always gave Jacob the craziest ideas.
            “We should just hop on one day and see where it takes us,” Jacob said one day as the three boys shared cigarettes out in the school parking lot. “Maybe we’ll even end up in a big city, with taxi cabs and movie stars.”
            “You’re crazy,” Travis, the first friend, said as he shook his head and took another drag, but even in his head he was thinking that jumping on a train sounded better than their day to day existence.
            A young boy came running in the distance and Adam rolled his eyes before quickly finishing his cigarette and stubbing what was barely left with his worn sneaker. “You have to come home!” the boy said out of breath as he reached his older brother and Adam looked at him a moment and shrugged.
            “He at it again?” was all Adam asked and the boy just nodded looking somewhat frightened and annoyed.
            “You can stay at my place,” Jacob offered, but even he knew that Adam would head home. Adam had this crazy idea in his head that one day he’d be able to talk his dad out of drinking so much, or even just talking enough sense into him so that he’d stop drinking at all. Jacob would always allow Adam to hold onto that dream, because in reality, there wasn’t much else to hold onto.
            “Wanna meet tonight behind 22?” Adam asked as he started walking away with his little brother and both Jacob and Travis nodded and turned their attentions back to their cigarettes.
= = =
            Warehouse 22 had been abandoned for years after a fire broke out and destroyed all of the goods that had been stored inside. The townspeople had decided that it was cursed and that the building shouldn’t be used for anything if it could be helped, so instead, the teenagers went there at night and hung out doing things that their parents would probably think was part of the curse to begin with. A lot of cigarettes and booze exchanged hands behind 22 and often a fight or two would break out. Battle lines were often drawn, girlfriends were often picked, and cops would often come to break up the gathering, and all of this would happen every night without interruption.
Usually behind 22, Jacob, Adam and Travis would sit on an abandoned car and watch what the other kids did. They had always been the outcasts and had convinced themselves that they never wanted to be part of that town ritual to begin with. Still, they observed as they drank their beer and wondered quietly to themselves why fate had decided that they should be separated from the rest of the town in this way.
            “We’re better than them, that’s all it comes down to,” Jacob said as he adjusted his worn out baseball cap on his head and nodded at them with a smile. “We’re meant for way more than they’ll ever be.”
            “I love how you’re so sure of this,” Travis said before shaking his head and taking another drink of beer.
            “So what are we waiting for?” Adam suddenly asked and Jacob’s eyes flickered in the fire that one of the football jocks had started in an empty barrel.
            “What are we waiting for? For the time to be right I suppose. Why?” Jacob asked and looked directly at Adam’s dark eyes, “Are you ready?”
            “Maybe,” Adam said, but his eyes said that he was more than ready and Jacob turned his attention to Travis instead.
            “What about you?”
            “Ready for what? To get out of here?” Travis asked. “And go where? What’s out there that’s so different than here? You still have a******s, you still have jerks, you still have train tracks and divided neighborhoods. Why leave here to go to another place just like Taft City?”
            Adam brought his knees up and lay his head on them, staring out as the fire grew more orange. “Don’t worry, Travis. We’re not going anywhere. We’re stuck.”
            “We’re not stuck,” Jacob said as he pulled out a cigarette. “We’re just on hold until we’re all ready.”
            Adam realized he didn’t like the feeling of being on hold.
= = =
            “My dad said they’re finally hiring at the factory again. Says he’s gonna get me in,” Travis said as he closed his school locker.
            Jacob just shrugged and walked beside him as he held his books loosely to the side of his lithe body. “You won’t need it.”
            “Some of us don’t plan on living off welfare.”
            Jacob raised his eyebrow at his friend and said nothing as he held open the portable door for their English class.
            “I didn’t mean it like that, Jake.”
            “I know,” Jacob said with a smile and sat at his seat before glancing to the left where Adam would usually already be waiting for them. “Adam absent again today?”
            Travis looked over at the empty seat as if needing the visual confirmation and then shrugged, “He’s up to three times a week I think. They’re gonna hold him back if he keeps it up.”
            “He doesn’t want to be here.”
            “That much is obvious.”
            Jacob looked at Travis with a small smile. “I meant Taft City.”
            “You’re still on about that?”
            Jacob was prepared to respond when a couple of the jocks walked in snickering and talking loudly in Jacob’s direction. One of the linebackers stood before him with a smirk as the others crowded around. “Dude, your mom is the best f**k in town.”
            It was Travis who stood up and confronted the classmate and Jacob grabbed Travis’s hand and attempted to pull him down. “It’s not worth it.”
            “Don’t mess with us,” Travis threatened but his glare was no match for the cocky boy before them.
            “Or what? You don’t want to be messin’ with me. My dad’s in the Klan, boy.”
            “Yeah, and we know where you live,” another football player said with a snicker.
            “With that being said,” Jacob said before Travis could respond, “I suppose you must be just as proud of your father as I am of my mother.”
            “Is that supposed to be some kind of insult, queer boy?” the linebacker asked getting in his face. “My daddy ain’t the town w***e, and if my daddy had his way, trash like you would be killed with the negroes.”
            It was then that the teacher walked into class and some sort of order was restored but Travis had a hard time focusing on the lesson of the day.
= = =
            It only took a couple of knocks on the trailer door for Adam to open it, a black eye firmly in place, and the exposed parts of his arms cut and bruised.
            “Jesus,” Travis said shaking his head. “He got you good.”
            Adam shrugged calmly as he closed the door behind him. “Wanna go sit by the ditch?”
            “Sure,” Jacob said and he led the way through the other trailers over to the ditch that separated the trailer park Adam lived in from the warehouses on the other side.
            “Here, I got you a pack. Had a feeling you’d need it,” Travis said tossing Adam a pack of cigarettes and Adam nodded appreciatively as he opened it.
            Jacob stood at the edge of the ditch as he watched the shallow, murky, black water in it move slowly through. It wasn’t always easy to know what was going through his mind, even when he was smiling and seemingly at peace with the town around him. Adam had once mentioned to Travis that there was no way that Jacob could be that happy unless he was hiding something from them, but when they tried to confront him about it Jacob denied that he was hiding anything at all.
            “I want to do something different tonight,” Adam said a little absently and Jacob just nodded before kicking a small rock into the water.
            “Different like what?” Travis asked, but he knew what Adam wanted to do and he suddenly felt nervousness run through his veins.
            Jacob took one final glance at the water before turning around and crouching in front of them. “I have the train schedule memorized.”
            “You can’t be serious,” Travis said looking between them.
            “I can’t do this anymore, Trav,” Adam said.
            “What about your brother and sister? You’re going to leave them alone with your dad? Defenseless?”
            “They won’t bother him and he won’t bother them.”
            “You hope.”
            Adam just shrugged and looked at Jacob. “Why do you want to leave so bad, Jake?”
            Jacob just shrugged and shifted his eyes to the mud beneath his feet. “One less mouth to feed means one less a*****e my mom has to screw.”
            “So why don’t you just get a job and help her out?” Travis asked, because in his mind there had to be something logical that would stop them all from doing something stupid.
            “Where at? The factory? The warehouses?”
            “They’re hiring.”
            Jacob shook his head, “I can do that in other towns where they don’t know me, or my mom, or what she does. You think I like having them come up to me in school and say s**t? You think I want to stick around and let them keep doing that while I work too? I’m out of here, Travis. No one’s forcing you to come along, but you know as well as Adam and I do that there’s nothing for you here either. Your parents work more than humanly possible and can barely pay rent. Why are you planning on doing the same thing?”
            “I’m not planning on doing the same thing. I’m planning on taking care of me. I don’t have no other mouths to feed. With the money I make I’ll get by.”
            “Yeah well I don’t want to get by,” Jacob said with hardened eyes and for a moment the two boys just stared at each other as strong wills battled silently.
            “I’m with you, Jake,” Adam then said standing beside Jacob in solidarity. “I have a bag packed and everything.”
            Jacob just continued to look at Travis and Travis just shook his head, stood up, and walked away.
            The night was muggy and humid and the cloud cover kept the moonlight at bay. The mosquitoes hunted and one landed right on Adam’s neck causing him to slap it once he felt the familiar sting.
            “Shhh,” Jacob warned him as he peeked out from behind the bush they were stationed at. He watched the graveyard shift of the warehouse open the train cars before returning into the warehouse to begin the loading. “Let’s go,” he said and just as they were about to rush over they were intercepted.
            Adam fell back in fright before looking at the person before him, then he accepted the hand being offered to help him up. “You almost scared the crap out of me,” Adam said as he recognized Travis.
            “Almost?” Travis asked with a small smirk.
            “What are you doing here?” Jacob asked as he readjusted the backpack on his shoulder.
            “Changed my mind. Got my reasons.”
            Jacob just nodded and put his finger up to his lips to indicate that they should be quiet again. They ducked down by the bushes again as the first crates were loaded onto the train. As the men went inside again Jacob gave one short nod and ran towards the nearest train car. He threw his backpack in and used his arm strength to pull himself on before helping the other two in. Once Travis had been lifted in, Jacob spotted the men returning and quickly grabbed his backpack and hid behind a crate. Adam and Travis followed suit and they waited with bated breath for the men to finish.
            It wasn’t until the doors had been closed, the wheels had been set in motion and the train was well on its way that Jacob let out a sigh of relief.
            The sun was harsh as Adam looked up and he squinted but continued to keep his gaze upward. Travis just looked around with his hands on his hips and a perplexed look on his face.
            “This doesn’t look like a big city, Jake,” he said and Jacob crouched down beside his backpack and took out a small, worn out notepad.
            “It’s just a stop along the way,” he said as he looked at the surroundings. It almost looked as if they hadn’t left Taft City. Almost.
            “We should find something to eat,” Travis said rubbing his stomach and looking around. “But we can’t stray or else we’ll miss the train.”
            “We can always stray,” Jacob said and he threw his backpack over his shoulder and lead the way. As they walked, Adam absently grabbed the leaves of the trees that they passed making it evident that his mind was in another world. Travis wondered for a moment if he was alright, but he decided that it wasn’t important to bother his thoughts right then, so on they walked until Travis spotted a strange thing out of the corner of his eye.
            “Jake, hold up,” Travis said stretching his arm out to stop Adam from walking in to him.
            “What’s wrong?” Jacob asked turning around to give his attention to his friend.
            “I just saw something behind that tree.” As Travis pointed, both Jacob and Adam tried to look into the patch of trees that lined the tracks but failed to see anything out of the ordinary.
            “We need to get you some food,” Jacob said looking at his friend a little worried.
            “No, I’m telling you, I saw something…there! Did you see that?”
            They both looked again and still saw nothing between the trees. Now Jacob was more worried and began walking again. “There has to be a gas station or something around here. We can get a snack.” Adam followed Jacob but Travis took off towards the tree instead, curious as to what it was his eyes were seeing. If nothing else, he wanted to make sure that his mind wasn’t playing tricks on him. Jacob stopped and watched Travis for a moment before turning to follow him, Adam right behind him.
            “Trav, come on. Snacks are waiting.”
            “Just a minute,” Travis said, and as he approached the tree, a large bush appeared to peek out of it and back. “There! Did you see that?”
            “Okay, that I saw,” Jacob said picking up his pace.
            “What was that?” Adam asked not sure if they should be moving toward the object.
            “I’m gonna find out,” Travis said but before he could he was stopped dead in his tracks by something so out of the ordinary he couldn’t even decide if it was real or not.
            “Holy…hell,” Adam said practically breathing on Travis with his proximity. Jacob’s eyes were widened as he took in the sight before him.
            Whatever it was, it was tall, very tall, like a South American ancient god with a large head and sticks for arms and bones. It towered over them and walked towards them like a large insect looking for its prey. Travis and Adam backed up slowly but Jacob stood in his spot, mystified and awed by the marvel before him.
            “Jake, we should go,” Travis said a little timidly, not wanting to provoke the thing before them, but Jacob began walking toward it and soon was stood right before it, staring up at it in wonder.
            “Is it human?” Adam asked and Jacob just smiled as he reached out to touch the long sticks that were the legs. It was then that the bush moved behind the tree again, and Travis and Adam jumped slightly as the entire form made itself known. There beside Jacob and in front of the tall being was a clown, bushy hair and all.
            “What the…?” Adam asked and the clown danced around Jacob and the man of sticks, making large movements with his arms as if playing along to the imaginary song that only he heard. Jacob just laughed more and more and soon Travis and Adam had no choice but to join them.
            “We’re a dying breed,” the clown said as he gave the boys more pancakes. He had invited them into his trailer saying that they looked like they could use some nourishment. “People aren’t running away to join the circus anymore, now they run away to go to big cities.”
            “That’s what we’re doing,” Jacob said with his mouth full as he quickly stuffed more pancake in. It felt as if he hadn’t eaten in forever.
            “I never understood the draw of the big city. I’ve been there many times with the circus and it’s the same as a small city, only more crowded and more smelly.”
            “Where are the rest of the circus people?” Adam asked.
            “Out on the road, of course. We take shifts to watch the property while the show goes on the road. Me and Penny got to stay behind this time. I haven’t been feeling too well over the years and Penny’s still in training. What do you think? Did she do good?”
            “She scared the crap out of me,” Travis admitted, and the clown, who was no longer looking like a clown, but was now in regular clothing and who had introduced himself as Jam, just laughed.
            “It’s because you weren’t expecting to see her, I reckon. So where you boys running away from?”
            “Taft City,” Adam said and Jacob gave him a stern look that Jam recognized and smiled at.
            “It’s alright, I’m not about turning anyone in. I was a runaway myself back in the day. Taft City, eh? Small place with all the warehouses?”
            Adam nodded. “You’ve been there?”
            “Passed through once or twice, never saw it as much of a place to stop and explore.”
            “That’s because there’s nothing there,” Travis said and Jam raised his eyebrow.
            “Oh I’m not so sure about that. The three of you were there, and that was something for sure. There might be other things that you just don’t see.”
            “Things we don’t care to see,” Jacob said and Jam nodded in understanding.
            “Well, I’ve only got the one room, but the three of you can take the living area for the night. Ain’t no point in hopping a train tonight, they only stop in town once a day so you’d just be sleeping in the bushes.” As Jam got up, the three boys looked at each other with amusement and resignation. Tonight they would simply rest.
            “How long did it take you to learn to walk on those?” Adam asked as Penny walked around the circus camp.
            “A few weeks. I’m almost good enough for show. Or at least that’s what Jam says.” She beamed proudly and Adam smiled at her, noticing that she wasn’t much older than he and his friends. He took in her soft blonde hair, and her crooked smile and the light freckles that seemed to cover her nose and cheeks.
            “You a runaway too?”
            “Yep. I did some shelters and lived on the streets before coming here. I found it by accident actually. But everyone was so nice. We’re a real community. Like the big family I never had, you know?”
            “Yeah…that must be nice.” He watched her walk some more and practice a few of her choreographed routines while he stood under the shade of the trees that provided relief from the brutal sun. “So why’d you run away?”
            “I was always fighting with my mom. We just never really got along. My parents were divorced when I was younger and I guess I kinda wanted attention. I regret doing it now, but…you know.” She shrugged and moved the long stick arms to a rhythm that seemed to come from the wind moving through the trees. “How about you?”
            It was Adam’s turn to shrug before he looked up at her. “Dad’s an alcoholic. Got tired of being his punching bag.”
            “I don’t blame you,” she said looking at him compassionately. “Your mom?”
            “She took off when we were young. Said she couldn’t deal and just…left. I guess it runs in the family.”
            Penny laughed at that and unhooked one of the arms. “I don’t know about you, but I think it’s time for some iced tea. I make it real sweet.”
            Adam smiled and nodded, suddenly thinking that nothing sounded better at that moment than sweet tea.
            “You really should just stay,” Jam said as they all drank their iced tea in Penny’s trailer. “That way you don’t have to worry about hopping the trains. Plus you’d see a big city and get to decide if that’s what you really want.”
            “That’s why they leave you behind isn’t it?” Jacob said with a smile. “To get more people to join.”
            “He’s a good recruiter,” Penny agreed with a laugh.
            “I’m just giving you an option. You don’t have to take it of course. Life is full of nothing but options that you can take or turn away.”
            Jacob looked over at Travis and Adam who didn’t seem to actually hate the idea. In fact, they all seemed somewhat intrigued.
            “What would we do?” Travis asked. “And how much would it pay?”
            Jam pointed at Travis with a smile, “This one here. This one’s the smart one.” Penny agreed with a small chuckle and Jam drank more tea before answering him. “There’s lots to do. You can operate one of the carnival rides or the carnival arcade. Unless you want to perform of course.”
            “Like with elephants and stuff?” Adam asked.
            “We don’t do so much of that stuff anymore,” Jam explained. “We’ve got great trainers that have that covered though. If you wanted they could probably teach you, but you’d start off on rides or arcade, especially with you all being underage.”
            “Except for that one,” Penny said pointing to Jacob with a knowing smirk. “That one’s trouble, Jam.”
            “Oh I know it,” Jam said and Jacob looked slightly confused by their insinuation.
            “I’m not trouble.”
            “You have a big imagination. I can see it in your eyes,” Jam said directly to him. “That kind of talent would be wasted on the rides. You need to train for master of ceremonies.”
            Travis whistled and Adam laughed and nodded, “That would be Jacob. Living in a world that no one else can see.”
            “Hey!” Jacob said with a good-natured grin and he looked at Jam intrigued by the proposal. “You think I’d be good at that?”
            “I think you were made for that.”
            “You gotta do the test,” Penny said and Jam agreed and quickly stood up, going over to the small couch that had a box beside it. He opened the box and took out a black top hat that looked like something a magician would use to make a rabbit disappear.
            “Here you go, try this on,” Jam said handing it to him and sitting back down to face him directly. Jacob looked at the hat and then to his friends before putting it on and Jam clapped his hands together once before bringing them up to his mouth. “Yes. You would be a perfect ring master.”
            “Then it’s settled,” Penny said with a large smile. “You boys will stay and become part of our family.”
            Travis only agreed after Jam gave them their first bit of money.
            “The trick to being a great ring master is making the audience believe that they’re in the same world that you’re in. Your world is a world of wonder, a world of fun and good times, a world where men can defy the very laws of physics and nature – from our acrobats to our trainers and all the performers in between. Our world is real to us, you have to make it real to them as well.”
            Jacob listened intently and mentally noted what Jam said, but deep down inside, it was all second nature to him. As the sun began to set behind them, Jam turned his lawn chair towards the sun and smiled. “Ever appreciate a good sunset, Jacob?”
            “I don’t think so,” Jacob said as he turned his lawn chair as well. “I usually hate the sun.”
            “Why’s that?”
            “I have problems sleeping at night. The first real good sleep I’d had in awhile was on that train.”
            “Makes sense,” Jam said nodding. “It’s hard to sleep when one is stressed. Getting away was probably a really big relief for you.”
            Jacob said nothing and chewed on his bottom lip as he stared out at the sunset. He suddenly found himself grasping onto the beauty of the deep orange, red, and pink hues before him. “My…my mother’s a prostitute.” Jacob finally said, not taking his eyes off the sky.
            “The world’s oldest profession they call that,” Jam said. “You’re not ashamed of her are you?”
            “No,” Jacob said shaking his head. “It’s just that…late at night she’d have customers, and while we slept, my brothers and I, we used to turn the radio on so we didn’t hear anything. But one night, she got a customer that was really rough with her. I heard her screaming and crying and…I didn’t do anything. I didn’t go in there to stop it. I should’ve, I just thought…I thought it was part of her job. I just didn’t know.” Jacob forced his eyes shut so the tears he had held back for years didn’t fall.
            “It’s not your fault,” Jam said putting his hand on Jacob’s back and rubbing comforting circles. “It’s not your fault.”
            “The next morning she was so bruised. She looked so bad, but she still made us breakfast and sent us off to school. She didn’t say anything about it, and when I tried to bring it up she wouldn’t let me and told me to hurry up because I’d be late. I just…I hate him. I hate him for doing that to my mom, for thinking that…that she’s just someone that can be treated like that.” Jacob sniffled and tried to wipe his nose and eyes at the same time. “My mom is so much more than that. She used to work at the factory before my dad died, and when he died we had nothing, and the factory wasn’t enough to feed us all, so she turned to that instead. She did what she had to.”
            “She’s an honorable woman, your mother. And she’s probably very worried about you. You should call her and let her know that you’re alright. She deserves that much.”
            Jacob nodded, but before he could do that much, he had to let all his pent up tears fall first.
            “I’m liking this idea of building these rides,” Travis said to Adam after Jam showed him the basics of setting up and tearing down the amusement rides. The boys were sitting under a tree, as they drank their sodas and watched the squirrels run up and down the barks and branches. “It’s all technical and stuff. It’s cool.”
            “You always were good at Math. Maybe it’s your thing. Maybe one day you could be like an engineer or something.”
            Travis smiled at that thought then shook his head, “Boys like us don’t become engineers, Adam. Stop getting my hopes up.”
            “I don’t know, Trav. If there’s one thing I’ve found here, it’s been hope. Don’t you just feel like things can be okay now? I think we’re free. You on the rides, Jake in the ring, me with the games. We’re gonna be alright.”
            The squirrel ate his acorn in peace and Travis and Adam watched with smiles on their faces.

© 2008 Lina Rivera

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Added on May 20, 2008