Oh . . . it takes my breath away. Though, I guess it was expected. Let me have a minute . . .
Bein’ what news you have, let me tell you something, dear. You don’t know how we all got out here, do you? No, I didn’t think so. You’ve always lived out west. For us, growing up, California was . . . well, it was kind of a dream. And I cain’t say why it’s so important for me to tell you about it––it just is, OK?”
Our trip out here was the most difficult thing I’d ever do. Not just leaving your grandpa for California, but what happened on the way. We were pocketbook poor, you know, and I’d never traveled alone. Two months after Timmy was born in Waycross, I packed my cardboard suitcase and left. Just left, all on my own. Left that damned tar paper shack. It was December and raining hard, I remember that. I made a snug little bed for Timmy in the front seat beside me, where I could reach him, and Mike, who was just a toddler then, slept in the back. The steerin’ wheel had this give in it, like it weren’t gonna work, but that ol’ Chrysler limped all the way from Waycross Georgia to Camden. It was a dark day. Thickets of pine on both sides of the road kept out the light, plus the rain pounding on the windshield, wiper blades tryin’ to keep up, smearin’ the window with road dirt from the trucks. There were a few open areas and farms in Alabama, and enough light through the overcast to see the road better and raise my mood. And then I’d come up to one of those brown rivers—you know how it is in the South—green hills, pine forests that never stop, then a broad muddy river. I felt like a pioneer, an adventurer, ya know. The plan was to meet up with June in Arkansas, then travel west. I was young an’ headin’ home to Camden to pick up my sister, so my spirits were pretty good.
Camden? Oh, it’s an old mill and a railroad town . . . it’s where we spent our teenage years, not far from home in Locust Bayou.
It’s in the south of the state, not far from Louisiana. Anyway, June didn’t hesitate when I called her. Not for a second. Hell, we’d dreamed about it for years. She was as primed as a snake in a gopher hole. And so pretty she was, standin’ there when I drove up, tall, dressed like Lauren Bacall in that wool suit, waitin’ on the porch with her suitcases. Sherry was in her belly, but you could hardly tell. She made this pot of tea an’ biscuits. There were wilted chrysanthemums in a mason jar on the table, an’ I was thinking how sad things were there in Camden; June couldn’t even afford a proper vase. But we made a pact, to make a new life, not wait for the men to do it for us. You understand? We just had ta get out of the South. So, we gathered the kids and headed to Texarkana. Now remember, we were in our early twenties. And Gad, did we have a time on that trip! Stoppin’ at little gas stations and drinkin’ Coke, buying black liquorish to chew in the car, and reminiscing about the Bayou. But mostly jus’ being excited about where we was going.
You take all this for granted. But for us, we couldn’ pass up the prospect of venturin’ west to see that Golden Gate. In those days, California was this grand idea, a new Atlantis. Know that story? Well, for Okies and Arkies like us, it was our Atlantis, resting like it does against the blue, rough Pacific. The Japs were on the other side, and the Chinese too, and that made folks nervous. But the Bay Area was throbbin’ with activity. People were lively. Modern, you know. Anyways, when we got to Texarkana, I sold the car for cash and we all boarded the train to San Francisco. It was right after the war and your uncle Collie was posted at the Oakland Naval Yard . . . now, keep this to yourself, but if truth be told, June cared more about leavin’ Camden than joinin’ Collie out west. After all, we’d been thinking about this since we were teenagers and June and I spent our Saturdays at the Star Theater in El Dorado.
Those were good times. At least when we could catch a ride in Camden with one of the high school boys. We’d sit together in that dark theater as quiet as spellbound church mice, right in the middle if we could get the seats. Sometimes we’d have to push the boys away; don’t know what they ‘spected for jus’ given us a ride. The shows in those days were all about the opulence of city life, you know, mostly romances and mysteries and such. Oh my, those worldly shows of the ‘30s and 40’s! We’d never seen the likes of those. Sex wasn’t talked about in those days, but they hinted enough about it. We were so ignorant. So naive. I think we truly believed that someday we’d walk down a red-carpeted stairway as long as a train, and into the arms of some handsome millionaire whose only purpose in life was to worship us. Huh! What a life thata been! After the movies, we’d be dropped off in Camden by the boys, and we’d make our way down Jefferson Street and across the Ouachita River, all the time chattering about what city life must be like in New York and California. Mostly, that was what we talked about, those pictures at the movies. And we’d imagine being one of those witty, sophisticated gals in the city. All that leisure. Sittin’ around on velvet couches an’ smokin’ with their dainty fingers. No dirt under those gals nails, no sir. We even practiced holding cigarettes between our thumbs and forefingers–you’ve seen those old movies, haven’t you?––ya hold your palm up like this , and tilt your head back and look away, off camera, and exhale real slow like. Ha! An’ we’d talk like the stars in these throaty voices, like Betty Davis. Such childish dreams. You gotta grow up someday, and I think that train ride did it for me.
Try to imagine what it was like when June and I hopped on that train. The excitement. The country was growing again; the war had ended the year before. We was poor, but there was no more rationing. No more fear. The guys returning from overseas gave a kick start to the economy, that’s what they said, an’ California was booming, welcoming newcomers like us. But we didn’t have the money to last a month. No skills. The war factories were closin’. We were doomed from the beginning, but we had our dreams, and it turned out alright. June ended up moving back in with Collie. Then Curley followed me to Oakland; he was done with Georgia, anyways. Of course you know all that. The surprise, what scared me half to death, was I didn’t know how sick Timmy was that trip. Even today . . . breaks me up, it does.
I knew he was ill, no question about it, even before I left Georgia; still so tiny, less than two months old, his paper-thin chest heaved up and down just tryin’ to breathe. I felt so sorry for him. And now and then he’d cough, make this popping, rattling sound. It was kinda like you hear from sick people in an old folk’s homes. His breath smelled metallic, like filings around my daddy’s anvil. An’ you know how babies have this rabbit pink skin? His was the color of clouds, near colorless, kinda gray. Even so, I was so young—such a damned idiot—I thought he’d be fine once we got out of Georgia’s December dampness.
It’s just . . . well . . . I jus’ couldn’t stand one more day in that miserable shanty. Curly had promised me a house in Georgia. Instead, he provided this shack, nothing more. It sat under a big yellow pine on a tree-filled country lot. He cobbled it together with board and bat and tarpaper. The wind––gales they call ‘em––penetrated at the seams of that damned shack, rattlin’ the window and door like the dickens. And we were cold. Always cold. Whenever I opened the door to fetch water or go to the outhouse, I thought I’d be blown into the next county. The trees back there are like waves in the ocean, yeller pine risin’ and fallin’ with the hills, and it felt so claustrophobic. But the trees didn’t stop the wind. Oh, how that shanty bent with the wind; rocked and groaned like an unmoored boat; you’d think you were in the middle of a hurricane. I shouldn’t blame Curley so much; he worked hard jus’ tryin’ to get a start, like everone else. But you understand why I thought the warmer weather should help the baby with his flu, don’t you?
Would you like something to drink, dear? I see. I’ll make some tea in a minute, maybe you can stay for that.
Where was I? Oh, the Georgia shanty. Never seen such rats. Big Norway rats, the kind you imagine in your nightmares. Wiry, silvery and black creatures with sharp toothy mouths and beady black eyes. I tell you, they’d come out in daylight and brush by my ankles. I’d jump on the cane chair in the corner, cowering with my two babies in my arms, while those devils went for droppings in the pail over by the stove. Then I’d throw somethin’ at ‘em and they’d scatter.
It was the sound of them that gave me the willies, the sound of their nighttime clawing and scratching, their scampering across the bare pine floor. Late one night, a few days after I brought Timmy home from the hospital, I heard them rats moving around. I took up my baby where we was sleepin’ on that mattress on the floor, and I held him, rocked him in my arms, jus’ lookin’ at his little face in the moonlight from the window. Then I swaddled him snuggly in his blanket and laid him gently in the top drawer of our dilapidated dresser. Then I closed it to keep him safe before I doused out the kerosene lamp. Yes, that Timmy’s bassinette—a dresser drawer; shut tight each night like a little coffin.
That’s why I left Curly that first time, not that you care about that. It was sheer misery; those damned Georgia winters . . . being so poor . . . and the liquor on Curley’s breath each time he reached for me at night. I had to do something. Rat fleas in the bed! God knows it was the right thing to do.
I’m sorry, dear, going off on a tangent, but it was about the reasons why I left. Let’s see, Oh, the train. When you take a long ride like that, you can’t help but recall the noise, rattlin’ like gravel in tin cup, and the thing pitchin’ side to side. The kinda noise you might hear on a factory floor. We left Oklahoma City on the second day an’ our next stop was Albuquerque. June and I tried to sleep in shifts on those wooden bench seats, but the clappin’ of the train and shrill shouts of those damned couplings constantly jerking kept waking us. It’s a terrible sound, the screaming of steel on steel. And you can get thrown off your feet if you’re standin’. Then there’s the lean of the coach on long sloping curves. Funny, I don’t recall the bathrooms; you’d think I’d remember that. I do remember that Mike and Linda were pretty good. They played together and slept a lot. Ever now and again, June or I cupped a palm over Timmy’s forehead, and poke two fingers under his teeny armpits to check his temperature. He’d run a fever for days. That hadn’t changed, but his phlegm seemed denser on the trip. You know how it can get. He began to spit these ugly green chunks with each coughin’ fit. I’d rub his fat little belly, an’ his baby blue eyes would open, an’sometimes he’d smile, an’ then, in no more than a minute or two, his thin infant eyelids would shut like trap doors in a storm. It worried me. When he was awake he breathed in gasps, followed by little hollow pops, like summer raindrops in a barrel. He was awful tired, wakened by that cough.
The way the people in the cabin looked at me! How was I to know? June’s smarter, at least that’s what everyone thinks, but she wasn’t any more aware. It was about three hours out of Oklahoma City when June decided to change Timmy’s diaper. I was napping on my side with him tucked behind my legs. June said she picked him up an’ unfolded the blanket, and that’s when she called out.
“Oh, my God,” June said. “Naomi, honey, you wake up, hear!”
I was half awake, havin’ felt her lift him up. I sat up, and there he was. Timmy was blue, so dead blue on the train that night. His silky skin had turned to the color of newly forged steel, bruised blue and kinda opaque at his extremities. My heart started beating like a damned drum. I felt a cold sweat comin’. The cool cabin suddenly seemed overheated to me. I looked over and the stove at the end of the car barely gave off a glow. It took a minute, but I calmed myself, wiped the moisture off my forehead, an’ bundled my baby back up and handed him to June. I ran to the next car and called for the steward. He searched and brought a doctor. It seemed like forever, but it were probably just minutes, when this fumbling older man in a rumpled suit bent down and spread open Timmy’s blanket. He placed his ear to Timmy’s chest.
“Ah-hum,” he said.
I remember his medicine breath in the stale confines of that cabin. The car was rocking badly an’ it looked like he was gonna lose his footing, so he braced himself, half bent over with a hand on the back of my seat. That’s when I saw his bottle, in the inner pocket of his coat. But he was all I had. And then he took a stethoscope from his bag and placed it over my baby’s heart. The chrome disk was huge against Timmy’s little chest.
“Ah-huh,” the old doc said, and I’m wonderin’ when he’s gonna say something.
He rewrapped the blanket around Timmy, gently like, with these ol’ sad eyes. Timmy was takin’ in short, shallow gulps of rattling air, and my heart was thumping like a rabbit’s. The train was gatherin’ speed and rocked hard again, so the doc grabbed the overhead bar to steady himself. He smiled down at us like we’re some sort of dotes, apparently not knowing which of us was the mother. Then he finally said somethin’, his voice barely audible over all the creakin’ and clankin’.
“How long has this child had pneumonia?” he said.
June gasped. I was unable to say a word. I just looked down at my baby . . . and for the first time, I saw his pallor for what it was, like the cool gray surface of the midnight moon. As bloodless as a drowned child. June and I knew what pneumonia meant in ‘46, before antibiotics were dispensed around the country, or country girls like us even heard the word. Arkansas mortuaries profited from pneumonia victims during that time, mostly children and the aged, people whose faces we remembered. I ‘spected the doctor to do somethin’, but there was nothing he could do. He tried on this weak reassuring smile.
“I suppose you’ve given him the syrup?” he asked.
We both nodded.
“Now only time will tell,” he said. He smiled kindly, and then bent closer to whisper his prognosis: “You should be prepared.”
‘Prepared,’ he said. What was one to think?
So blue. Timmy was so blue on the train that night. It was so hard for him to breathe. I thought I lost him twice, I did. A parent should never, never, even at my age, outlive their child. Anyway, we settled back for the night, an’ Timmy labored to suck in mere spoonfuls of air, quickenin’ the pace of shallow breaths over the hours, becoming more languid and ever bluer, gaspin’ for oxygen in his sleep. Ohh . . .
“Sorry, dear, but it’s painful. Can you hand me that napkin? Thank you, sweetie.”
“No . . . I’ve never been able to forget it. I was panickin’, of course. But paralyzed the whole damned time–– you do both at the same time. Makes you see how vulnerable you are. The waitin’. Holdin’ my breath. An’ that monotonous, continuous clap of the train’s wheels made the night seemed interminable. It was like watchin’ a clock’s second-hand tick on and on around its face, never ending; rarely takin’ my eyes off my baby, lookin’ for a sign. The night slowly turned into a steamy dawn outside, snow and ice on the sage and sand, me tense an’ exhausted. With the rhythm of wheels and rock of the carriage, I fell into a kind of stupor an’ gazed for hours out the window, tryin’ not to glance over at him, watchin’ the pale plains give way to desert mountains, refusin’ to think, refusin’ to accept the thumping in my chest meant anything at all. Then I heard him.
Timmy whimpered, then took in three deep, long, audible breaths, as if a miracle. My heart beat faster an’ I turned to him an’ kissed him and uncovered him. His color was pinker an’ his little diaphragm was rising and falling near naturally. Oh, his eyes . . . his eyes as wide and blue as the sky. So I placed my palm on his forehead, feelin’ no warmth to my hand, an’ moved my fingers over his face an’ down to his chest, his baby skin as cool as my own, an’ I exhaled this cry, let it out, couldn’t hold it any longer. Been holdin’ it for eternity. About then the cabin suddenly jerked back hard an’ we started up another mountain, sobering me for a moment. It startled me, this steep incline an’ loud crack of the couplin’s. Timmy’s little eyes looked frightened an’ he was gulpin’ in air an’ about to cry, so I picked him up an’held him as close as I could hold him, his tiny mouth next to my ear, hearing those wonderful purring sounds and feelin’ puffs of air.
Oh, what a relief I felt. And then I slept. So that’s how we got out here. All of us. All in one piece.
This Thursday would’a been Timmy’s fifty-fourth birthday, is that right? I guess I shouldn’t call your daddy Timmy anymore. I promised that to him when he was eight but never broke the habit. We Southern girls hold on to our endearments. He’ll forgive me that. Yes, Tim would have been fifty-four. Hold my hand, will you, dear?
*** Published in Beckoned, the anthology, (Winter 2018).