The Fieldstone Review

Uncle Jack and Sunfall Sam

by Jeffrey Ihlenfeldt

Two hundred and fifty bottles of Granny Dot’s Sunrise Syrup complete with the dreamlike logo—the split-rail fence, the crowing rooster, the cheerful farmer's wife, the sun rising and smiling and spinning like a pinwheel above green mountains—shifted against Cal’s back as the freight train lurched forward. The faint odour of propane and exhaust filtered into the boxcar from the loading dock and his stomach churned.

While Cal imagined people in this world thankful for maple syrup, he wasn’t one of them. He may have been odd in that way, but he imagined that suburban mothers flipping hotcakes on griddles for their children on Sunday mornings and pouring syrup, glossy and thick over links of pan-fried sausage, never thought of their lives and the lives of their families as anything but sweet—a dreamlike sweetness—sugar maples and mountain roads and whispering streams. He doubted they could distinguish their fantasies from the truth. He doubted that they thought about the gears and the belts and the grease-caked cogs necessary to make their family breakfasts possible. He doubted that they imagined the shipping pallets, the steel vats, the drums of corn syrup, the 60-pound sacks of thickeners and gums, or the bins of powders, all maple- or blueberry- or strawberry-smelling. He doubted that they saw the moguls and the belts and the paddles and the blenders, the millers and the mixers, the fillers and the sealers. But he’d seen it all and the aroma of maple distillate was permanently embedded in the membranes of his nostrils until the scent of maple persisted with every breath.

He propped up his bag in the corner of the railcar. Everything he needed, he thought: a couple of changes of clothes, extra socks, three bottles of water. Nothing to remind him of the past. There was the paycheck in the side pouch, the last one from Granny Dot. But he would cash that soon enough in Albany or Burlington. That would be the end of that. Nothing left to remind him of his old life.

The Penguins logo was scuffed clean off at the edges and only “Pitts” was legible, but that had happened long before the railcar, long before he had made plans (such as they were) to head north. Lately, he had been drawn toward snow and sugar maples, despite his aversion to syrup, and away from the factory and the friends who worked the mills and the lines and the fill stations at the opposite end of the plant.

He checked the route that he had pulled up from the shipping office on the notes scrawled across his pad even though he had checked it before boarding. The last thing he wanted was to be riding the rails east, trapped by the sea—the ocean at his back, the bay at his chest—not that he knew much about either. He knew about rivers, though, and he knew about barges and freight cars and loading docks. He’d had his fill of the iron odour of the Monongahela and the housing renewal projects that expanded the boundaries of his neighborhood except that they were all signs of job security—the transplanted families, their pancakes, the mandatory overtime, the graveyard shifts. None of this mattered to him anymore or wouldn’t matter at the end of the line.

“You ought to be thanking your lucky stars,” Pete would say as he loaded the first of the night’s shipment. And he would say it again when Cal complained about the stacking and the palleting and the sickly smell of corn and maple. “Count your blessings,” his mother would say. But Cal didn’t count blessings or thank stars or anyone else for the staging platform and the rows of shipping crates.

“I know guys who’d give their right arm for 60 hours,” Pete would say as he pushed his thinning hair back under his cap and slid his forks under the next pallet.

Cal hadn’t sacrificed his right arm, but there was the half-finger of his left hand, cut clean off at the first joint by the broken coupling of a pump hose. It ended up swirling round and round the stainless-steel hopper like a machine bearing, leaving thin streaks of raspberry coloring in the syrup as it floated before drifting down and finally being sucked inside the quart fill nozzle. There was syrup all over the place that day, a virtual blood bath for the company’s daily production numbers and lost-time accidents.

Cal flexed his fingers. He rubbed the scarred tip of his pinky with his thumb. He drew his cotton jacket around his chest and stared through the open door of the moving railcar. The city lights streaked the blackness as the train picked up speed. The railbed and ties below flickered and blurred. The stars and half-moon remained fixed in the heavens and, for a moment, Cal seemed fixed too, standing still, only him and the stars and the moon.

He pulled his bag up into the corner and rested his back against the cushion of shirts and pants stuffed inside, brushing the dust from the cuffs of his jeans and his grey sneakers. Now that he looked at the canvas sides and the worn rubber around his shoes, it struck him as silly to be wearing sneakers to hop rails. Woody Guthrie wouldn’t have been wearing sneakers, he imagined. He would have had brown leather boots—something he could lace up, something for support, something that would last. He couldn’t imagine the likes of riders he had read about—Slim Bobby and Sunfall Sam—pulling themselves from one car to another wearing Chuck Taylors. His jeans, on the other hand, seemed to work but, from what little he’d read about migratory life, he guessed everybody rode the rails in what they had and what he had was sneakers.

He slept uneasily during the night and into the pre-dawn darkness, but he couldn’t judge the quality of his sleep in any case unless he took the time to count his dreams. He recalled one dream of his mother catching bus 58 to the health centre and then to the Shop & Save for bread and toilet paper. It was his job to drive her to the bus-stop on his way to work. He might have driven her the whole way, but their schedules never seemed to match up with his odd shifts and frequent overtime. She made the trip twice a week though and, in his dream, he could see her climbing the steps and slipping her transit token into the slot. He watched her drop into the hard plastic seat just behind the etched partition separating the driver from the riders. He could have been thinking rather than dreaming since he had memorized the ritual and knew it all by heart. The undercurrent of squealing steel and creaking planks droned on, the pitch and volume changing with the speed of the engine and the curve of the track.

“Think my life is over,” he would tell his mother each time he pulled on his work shoes and vest.

“You’ve been claiming that for years,” his mother would say and laugh with a thin snicker.

“Go ahead and laugh,” he would tell her. “Thirty and my life is nearly over.”

His mother couldn’t seem to grasp his sorrow as earnest as he was. Understandably, she had her own sorrows but, at 72, she was still able to roll out of bed and onto her feet each morning and climb the station stairway and haul groceries from Westerly St. to Haddam. Maybe that was why she had no sympathy reserved for her son— young, able-bodied, employed. Life can seem short for some people and forever for others despite their trials. Cal wasn’t sure which was preferable, but his mother tended to count off the years over cups of decaf and plates of vanilla wafers as though they were the measure of all things.

Cal nudged his back against the pallet and closed his eyes. He never felt that comfortable comparing lives with anyone. Yet, he couldn’t help imagining what was going through her mind at that moment, her surprise when he failed to show up at the station. Or at the apartment the next day or the day after. She was a long way from poverty, but it would be his brother’s job to see that she didn’t end up there now that Cal was gone. He was sure Jim was just as capable as he was in dealing with her needs even though Jim had never had the chance to prove it one way or the other. Still, guilt was tough to shake, and that’s what Cal really felt when he thought about his mother and his brother, when he dreamed about her daily travails and the medical costs and the grocery bills. These images were much too reasoned to be a dream, his guilt much too real. Hell, it wasn’t his fault, though. He had his own life to live and, if he decided to spend it hopping trains, nobody had the right to question it, not Jim and not his mother.

He opened his eyes as the train began to slow and finally stop. Outside, he heard the scuffle of gravel and he wedged himself into the space between the single pallet and the wall of the car. At the door, the sound stopped. Cal peered over the pallet as a man pull himself into the railcar—one hand grasping the frame, one leg pushing against the threshold. There was the slap of flesh on steel. There was the scraping of soles on sheet metal. The thump of footsteps on floorboards. A sharp groan followed by slow breath.

Cal couldn’t feel air in his lungs or in his nostrils—it was as if he’d stopped breathing all together. He had to be miles past the loading dock, but it could have been a rail worker. At the factory, he and Pete would slip into a car now and then when nothing would keep their eyes from closing and their heads from bobbing at three in the morning. But this couldn’t have been Pete. He was back at the dock or smoking and wondering where Cal was, a good ten miles back, which might as well have been 500.

Once inside, the man knelt on the floor and grunted. Cal curled tightly between the floor and the stacked pallet. The man’s breathing slowed to the cadence of the wheels. As the train picked up speed, Cal could no longer hear the breathing and he relaxed into his corner against his bag of clothes.

“I don’t mind sharing the car,” came the voice from the other side of Granny Dot’s Sunrise Syrup and Cal stiffened.

“Nothing wrong with caution,” the voice said. “If it is caution,” he went on. “Long trip to be rolled up in such a small space.”

“Then you understand if I stay here?” Cal finally replied and his dry throat clicked as he spoke.

“If it’s caution, sure,” the voice said. “As long as it ain’t fear. One works for you. The other don’t.”

Cal slowly unwedged himself and his bag from the corner. The man sat at the opposite wall of the car, his arms wrapped around his drawn-up knees. The passing light from the nearby road lit up the man’s stubbled face and his mustache flared out from his lips. His wiry hair settled at the collar of his dark denim jacket, which seemed too large for his lanky form. He stretched his legs forward, scraping the heels of his well-worn boots—the pull-on kind, with no laces for support, as Cal imagined seasoned travelers would wear. Still, they made him suddenly self-conscious about his own shoes.

“Where you headed?” the man asked.

Before Cal could answer, the man pulled his legs in and stood up against the wall of the railcar. He bent at the waist and reached his palms nearly to the floor. Then he stretched upward, and Cal was startled by his height as his fingertips nearly grazed the ceiling.

“Vermont,” Cal said, and the man eased back to the floor and sat with his back straight against the wall.

“What’s in Vermont?” he asked.

Cal couldn’t think of a damn thing that would draw him to Vermont, although he’d seen plenty of photos of winters and autumns in the Green Mountains. Once, he got a postcard from his cousin who had spent a week with his wife in Stowe devouring hot chocolate and maple creams. Cal imagined something less civilized than ski lifts and lodges when he pictured Vermont. Camps and hamlets and mountain roads. He might have been thinking of New Hampshire. He’d never been there either.

The car slowed, and the breeze swirled and blew through the open door. The steel wheels thumped as they approached a grade crossing. They rolled past a pickup at the crossroad behind the gate, and a dog stood in the truck bed barking at the flashing red light and the clanging bell. As the train picked up speed again, the dark returned.

“Maybe not Vermont. New England, for sure,” Cal said.

The man asked Cal what was in New England, but Cal couldn’t answer that either.

“I’ve never been to New England... what’s your name?”

“Cal.”

“Never been to New England, Cal. You can call me Uncle Jack. And use that name if you need to. Everybody knows me,” he said and lifted his chin. The ends of his mustache stood out even further from his narrow nose. He straightened his spine, then he relaxed and smiled.

“Never been to New England,” he went on. “I like the warmer climes myself. Give me a week in sunny Florida any time. Tell you this much, if you’re heading north, Cleveland’s not a half-bad yard to make connections. Not that I’ve ever switched there myself, but I’ve heard. Vermont, though? Not much work up there this time of year. Even fewer trains, but what do I know about Vermont? Never been there. Anyway, if you’re heading north, Cleveland is a good yard for switching over, then you’d be crossing toward Buffalo. Stay away from New York City. You don’t want to end up there.”

“I’ve never been to New York,” Cal said, and he pulled his notepad from his pocket and flipped through his planned route.

“I’d have guessed as much,” Uncle Jack said, and he pulled out a square of colored cloth and wiped out his nostrils. He stuffed it back into his pocket and smoothed his mustache into place.

“Notes are okay for beginners” he said as he watched Cal page through his pad. “But you need to know these things by heart pretty quick. Can I see?” he asked and stretched out his long arm.

Cal placed the pad in his hand, and Uncle Jack studied the pages. His expression changed so frequently that Cal had a difficult time separating the genuine from the pose.

“Take this,” he said as he poked his caked nail at one of the pages.

“Heading north is all well and good. But you can’t end up in New York. Not on your life. You never want to end up there unless you want to spend a week tracing spur lines and dodging yard workers. Too many possibilities in New York. It’ll drive you nuts. Then you’d end up in Nebraska or Iowa or some other God-forsaken place.”

He handed the notepad back. Cal stuffed it into the side pouch of his bag.

“That thing’s gonna weigh you down,” Uncle Jack told him as he pointed to the bag.

Cal draped his arm across the zipper. He closed his eyes for a moment but resisted drifting back into dreams. From the scars on his boots and the scars on Jack’s hands, he was sure he had done his share of labor. And while that didn’t confirm his knowledge of rails, it was certain he had spent more years gripping iron than Cal had. His eyes closed but he forced them open.

“How long you been doing this?” Cal asked.

“Let’s see. I’m 48 even though I don’t look it,” he said, and he groomed his mustache with his cracked fingers before brushing his hair roughly against his scalp. “Five years?” he said, but his voice rose as if it were a question.

“Where are you headed?”

Uncle Jack didn’t answer and, instead, went on to tell Cal about his life in more detail than Cal needed. There was his mother and father who still lived in Clay City, Indiana. There was his wife, Alice, although he referred to her as “little Alice” (namely, he said, because of her height in proportion to his) even though she hated it. He told him about his son, Jack Jr., who ran away from home at the age of 12 and kept right on running away no matter how many times they hauled him back home.

Then, barely taking a breath, he said, “How ‘bout you?”

“No family to speak of,” Cal said but, in the telling, he instantly thought about his mother and his brother who, before long, would pick up their routine right where they left off, driving to the 58 bus-stop, toting bread from the Shop & Save and medication from the health centre. Soon enough, Cal would be an afterthought but the idea comforted him.

Cal leaned back against the wall of the car. The tremor of the tracks rippled up his spine. He tried to imagine what it would feel like once they really got moving, once the clatter of the car through the countryside jolted his back and his neck. He could have asked Uncle Jack, but he didn’t. Why should he have faith in this stranger? He had no reason to believe that his story about his jobs, about the family he left in Indiana, was the whole truth. He just figured there might be more to it, maybe more than even a seasoned traveler like Jack was willing to tell. He didn’t ask him about eventualities, and he didn’t tell him the truth of his own story.

“I’m not sure how good a hobo you’d be,” Uncle Jack said.

“You think I want to be a hobo?” Cal asked, puffing himself up. “I don't remember saying I wanted to be like you. Follow in your footsteps? I don't even know you. And even if I did, you might be surprised how quick I can pick things up,” Cal told him.

Jack squinted and cocked his head.

“Don’t get all riled up. You could be right, but it’s not a question of learning as much as temperament. I can see yours as clear as day. It’s one thing to figure out the grip of a handrail or the stride past a coupling or across an open frame car. Hell, if that was all there was to it, everybody would be hopping trains. But it’s temperament. That, and commitment.”

“I managed to survive this place,” Cal said and rapped his fist on the crate beside him. “That’s got to say something about temperament.”

“Well, I’ll be! So, that’s where you came from,” Jack said and then grinned. He looked at the scaly flesh of his own palm. He flicked his finger over a newly forming callus. “Maybe it does say something about you,” he said. “But who’s loading those boxes now? And what's that tell you about commitment?”

“A man can only take so much before he questions his own sanity, which is as bad as it gets. They’d have had to kill me to make it worse. And even then, I doubt it would be.”

“Maybe,” Jack said. “At the end of the day, it’s all about what got you through that one day and then through the months and years. Nobody can judge that. That’s the truth of it all. And I’m not talking about the paycheck. Anybody can get money. That’s an easy one. I can get money just sitting here. I’m talking about survival. Body and soul. And what helps you to survive. I have a notion you survived by spending most of your time up here,” he said and tapped his finger on his forehead. He brushed back the stands of hair that had drooped over his eyebrows.

“This ain’t a dreamer’s life,” he went on. “You gotta be out there, not in here,” he said and tapped the same spot on his head. “It’s watching, touching, waiting… not dreaming. It’s physical, not metaphysical. That’s the truth of it all.”

“Then what’s the payoff?” Cal asked. “What’s the payoff for you?”

“It’s the rails more than the train,” he said. “My wife told me that I couldn’t commit to anything. But she didn’t know about rails back then. It’s not like sailing the ocean, where an unlucky wind blows you this way or that. Or a plane rerouting to Australia by way of Alaska. It ain’t even like a car at a crossroad with maps and gadgets to let you know which way not to turn. It’s two rails. That's all. Forward or back. Just two rails. Step right up. Make your choice. Then you’re on for the long haul. That’s commitment.” He stared into the darkness. “Unless you jump,” he added and chuckled. “There’s always that.”

Jumping was something Cal hadn’t considered. But wasn’t that what he had done? Jumped? He had stuffed railcars with pancake syrup for longer than Uncle Jack had ridden them. He had pictured himself just where he was: his back pressed against a boxcar wall, his worldly possessions—some clothes, shoes, a notepad, a pen, some water, one last paycheck—whatever valuables he could stuff into the old hockey bag his father had bought him at their last game together. Home opener with Montreal, he remembered. This was a fresh start, he thought. Then he realized that starting something meant there was some destination and, beyond a half-formed rail route scrawled on a pocket notepad, he had no destination to speak of.

“Think Woody Guthrie jumped?” Cal asked.

“Who?” Uncle Jack said, his eyes partly open.

“Woody Guthrie. You know. Riding rails. Writing songs. 'Goin' Down the Road.'” He tapped his Chuck Taylors on the car floor. “Sooo long, it's been good to know ya,” he softly sang.

“Sure thing,” Jack said, then burst out laughing. “Woody Guthrie?” he said, and his eye lids drifted, and his breath slowed. “Never knew him, but I know who you mean. So long, it's good to know ya,” he murmured, his eyes closing as he sang.

“You wouldn't have known him. He was before your time. Anyway, I imagine he jumped once or twice, in between riding and dreaming up songs.”

Before long, Jack’s eyes were closed. So much for vigilance, Cal thought. So much for watching and not dreaming. Jack’s long legs stretched nearly halfway across the floor, and his boot heels vibrated lightly as the train picked up speed. His mustache drooped over the corners of his mouth and fixed his smile into a sad expression that Cal hadn’t noticed before dusk.

Cal’s eyes began to close, too. Through ten years of practice on graveyard shifts in factories and loading docks, he had to fight the need to sleep and the need to dream on the job. Now, free from the pallets and the drums of corn syrup, he saw no reason not to sleep and to dream. His dreams conjured campfires and rail yards. He saw Pete yanking empty pallets and stacking new crates. And then it was his brother loading the shipment, but now they were porcelain vases rolling along conveyors and accumulating on tables. Often, one would chip or crack or shatter, but Jim would pack the chipped vases and the shards. He would seal the cartons and ship them off to some suburban housewife in Greensboro or Dayton.

In his dreams, he saw his mother placing carnations in vases on her kitchen table and water would seep from hairline cracks and pool onto the veneer. And she would bundle the carnations and take them with her as she boarded the 58 bus and dropped her token and took her seat. But there were no seats, only floors, and she would stretch her aching legs across the cold floor and hold her carnations against her chest and the fragrance would mask the propane and exhaust from outside. Cal would try to sit beside her, try to press his leg along hers but, each time he moved, she was in a more distant spot. And when he would shift across the floor toward her, she would be distant again. Then he could not see her at all. Nor could he smell the fragrance of the flowers, though she had left them behind scattered across the floor. There was only the odor of propane and exhaust, and his stomach began to churn.

Daylight flooded the car, and he squeezed his eyelids shut and rubbed his belly. His sneakers shuddered against the floor and his stretched legs gently rocked.

“Time to wake up, Uncle Jack,” he mumbled as he squinted into the sunlight. “Time to be vigilant.”

But Uncle Jack was already awake. Cal could make out his tall form in the doorway surrounded by the splintered rays of sun. He might have been part of Granny Dot’s logo—a farmer smiling at the break of dawn, getting ready to feed the chickens or turn out the cows. But when Cal stood up and shaded his eyes, he saw his bag hanging from Uncle Jack’s shoulder.

“What’s the idea?” Cal called out as he stepped across the trembling boards.

Uncle Jack gripped the door frame.

“I told you. This thing’s gonna weigh you down,” he said.

“That’s everything I own,” Cal shouted. “Give it here.”

Uncle Jack looked toward the opening and stared ahead into the wind to the front of the train. He shrugged Cal’s bag from his shoulder.

“It’ll weigh you down too,” Cal said, hoping that his reasoning would sink in.

“It ain’t my past,” Uncle Jack told him. “It’s yours.”

The train began to slow, but it seemed that Uncle Jack knew about that, like he had been this way before. He wound his arm and tossed Cal’s bag into a swath of weeds beside the rail bed. He leapt off the edge of the car.

Cal sprang to the open door and clung to the frame as he peered down at the passing railbed. Uncle Jack was walking south of the line with Cal’s bag over his shoulder. Cal looked up and squinted into the rising sun, the same thing he had done for ten years when he made early morning runs to the supply yard.

Everything was gone—his clothes, his socks, his notebook, his water, his last paycheck, even his sketches of rail routes. Instinctively, he searched his pockets and frisked his jacket for something familiar, something that belonged to him, something to convince him that this wasn’t a dream. Once more, he stared into the distance, but Uncle Jack was gone.

The train picked up its pace. Cal tried to judge its speed and spot the best place to jump. The train was bound to slow down at some point, he knew, either for a scheduled stop or a grade crossing or a curve or for a drop or a recoupling. Uncle Jack knew that much, and Cal could wait for his chance, too. Once it arrived, he would go back. He would get his bag and his clothes and his money, everything he owned. But the train kept running north to Cleveland, north to Buffalo, straight into Lake Erie for all he knew.

Maybe that was what Uncle Jack was talking about. Maybe he was not a liar. Maybe commitment was no different than being stuck. In the glade of passing trees, he thought of the 58 bus. He tried to envision his mother—her lined face, her driven stare—but he couldn’t see her, couldn’t remember her, as if he had been traveling for years instead of hours, and she seemed a blur behind the bus window. Was it commitment shrouding his memory? Commitment to the next ten miles or twenty miles or fifty miles? Or was it resistance, resistance to turning back, to retracing his steps, to jumping. He thought about Slim Bobby and Sunfall Sam and Woody Guthrie. He remembered them, for sure. He wondered if they had ever jumped. He wondered if they felt the urge to backtrack. He wondered if moving on was always their first choice or their only choice.

The wind rushed into his nostrils and dried his eyes. His jaw tightened and, into the wind, he shouted the name of Uncle Jack, but he could barely hear his voice. He shouted the name again, imagining the sound as more of a curse than a name. The clear plastic wrapped around the single pallet of Granny Dot’s Sunrise Syrup rustled in the car. He kneeled in the doorway and tugged on the laces of his Chuck Taylors. He gripped the door frame with one hand, just as Uncle Jack had done, and rubbed his half-finger as the wind whipped up an aroma of lemongrass and engine oil. He breathed deeply as he looked down to the rail bed—to the streaks of grass and gravel. His Chuck Taylors vibrated as the train sped further from Uncle Jack, from Pennsylvania, and closer to someplace he could not see, someplace he could only imagine.