Sean Thomas Dougherty
Forget the luck. Or the Japanese elm burning red like a slap to the face of the autumn air across the street from my friend David's flat. Forgot the tea kettle steaming on the stove, and the magnetted pictures of his children grown and his wife long gone on the fridge. Come and cross the tracks with me to elsewhere, over the 19th street tracks where the Norfolk Southern ran past tenements, right down the middle of the street for decades, spilling shiny orbs of coal for street kids. My friend David, now nearing 80 years old, lived on that block. He grew up with the rumble of the train, and the boot stomp of his father coming home from the steel plant to gather him in his arms, and his mother cooking up pierogi and Kluski for supper, and the lights they'd string across the front porch for Vigilia and the giant green spruce his father hauled from the empty car lot where they sold trees that Christmas, the one he was laid off, when everyone's father was laid off, and they gathered coal for the stove to keep warm, and they'd leap onto the passing train cars, to steal those black diamonds, to heat the house, that winter when they were hungry and his old man was out of work, and the snow fell in feet along the tracks, stopping the train and all the men climbing those cars to shovel out coal, and the sheriff and his men finally arriving. But all of that was decades ago. Most of these days David lives there, lost in the elsewhere that is not now, long after his father died, and David grew to marry the Irish girl down the block, and watch a son go off to war, two more marry and have children and join him at the GE plant, and watch their mother waste away from emphysema, and work his decades building diesel engines—engines bound for China and India, where millions traveled on the trains across vast states, migrating for work past the armies of children who squatted beside the tracks to gather coal
to burn under the black of their mother's kettled brew.
The 19th street line has long been closed, the tracks paved over. David's house is long torn down. I walk past listening to the hijab'd women laughing and speaking Arabic, bending to dig into the black dirt of a community garden The Sisters of Mercy built there, growing corn and tomatoes, cabbage and squash. What they grow they sell at the city's open-air market and share the profits. I watch them work when one of the women suddenly looks up as if she hears a train.
Dear Editor, Today, I walked up the wooden steps and down the dim hallway and knocked, David answered the door, he knew my name. His caretaker had brushed his hair. He was dressed. All his buttons buttoned. He offered me tea. His left eye milky with cataract, he started to tell me something, but I saw already he was traveling elsewhere, staring out his kitchen window, somewhere far beyond the autumn Japanese elm still burning red.