"A Far, Far Better Thing"
Father and Mother marched them down Cresson to see him off at the station. Their brother’s duty was his to perform, so his three sisters theirs. They all had dressed in their Sunday best. Father and Mother were filled with a pride that hurt their hearts, a pride that labored their breath.
Clara was twenty and a fervent aspirant at St. Josaphat’s. In self-righteous waddle, she led the family procession, her imagination bedecked with streamers. He would be not just a soldier, but an avenging angel upon the Pacific. Vengeance is mine the gunboats proclaim, and woe upon him who attacks a sleeping fleet. The Prince of Peace would approve. Mercy and retribution were not incompatible. This she believed to her dying day in the convent seventy years later.
Cissy was seventeen, her vision different. He was no wreaker of wrath divine but a man to be envied, a witness to the Great Event, greater than Father’s Great War. Oh, how she longed to tag along, pencil and notepad to catch the history, every intricacy in the grand effort of repelling empires. Oh, it could have been a Pulitzer of a story, she lamented, if only she had been allowed to go. This she believed to the day she retired from the Philadelphia Inquirer fifty years later.
But Maggie’s obsession was Jack himself. Little Maggie in her sailor suit, braids thrashing petulantly and her pug nose wrinkled in denial. She had begun the morning in a terrible sulk. Now gray skies had given way to storms. Jack was her world and not to be taken away.
Quite natural for a girl of fourteen to idolize a brother almost twice her age. The gap between ages was easily explained—the consequence of events beyond one’s control. Her father, bold with his truncheon and tolerant of graft but surprisingly diffident among the ladies, had waited to marry zaftig Fiołek Dychovsky until right before the Kaiser broke hell loose overseas. He fathered a son, wanted more, but was called up and forced to delay his brood of boys. When he returned from France, all girls—one, two, three.
Maggie was inconsolable. With heaves of sobs, she flooded Mother’s coat.
“I want no tears when we meet him at the station,” Father said.
“Oh, this will be exciting for him,” Cissy said.
“It will be noble of him,” Clara said.
“He’ll be home soon,” Mother said.
“If he goes, he’s never coming back!” she whined.
Since she was twelve, Maggie had plenty of fuel for nightmares. Hiding under the dining room table, she had heard Father recount the Great War for Uncle Mac, who had not been, the horrors of the trenches, bodies indistinguishable from the mud, lifeless arms snagged and held aloft by barbed wire, the foamy lips of men melting inside, the inhuman specters of gas masks. “Shit, Alf,” Mac muttered, and then they left for beer. Blank, black, unholy eyes of goggled phantoms invaded her dreams and followed her everywhere. It was monstrous to send someone as pure as Jack into Hell.
“Laddie Jack” their father called him. Husky and red-cheeked like their mother. He could pick her up with one arm yet, averse to mindless violence, had refused to tackle quarterbacks for Rocksboro High. The rumble of his laughter made daisies quake. Impatient to express affection, unlike Father, he had married at nineteen, and so Maggie was barely older than uncles and aunts.
“Do you hear me, Maggie? No tears.”
Father pried her from Mother and lifted her into his arms. She peered up through the shadow of the el. Its girders, grimed with exhaust, echoed the tires of Cresson’s passing traffic.
“I want those tracks to go away!” she muttered, jabbing an accusatory finger.
“It has to be. Nothing we can do to change it.”
“Where are they taking him?”
“He has to see someone in Philly, and from there to a place where he’ll, oh, do exercises and learn to take orders and march around. Soldier stuff.”
“Well, lots of stuff….”
“Don’t tell me! I already know! What if they took him someplace else instead? Someplace safe?”
Her little finger swerved from tracking the line back southeast into the city and chose a perpendicular route through Nowak’s barber pole and across the Schuylkill.
“Tracks only go in one direction, sweetheart.”
“No, they don’t! No, they don’t!”
Which brought on more bawling.
Mr. Wiśniewski the watchmaker came to the door of his shop.
“What is wrong with the little one, Mrs. Houghton?”
“Ona jest smutna. Jej brat zmierza do wojny.”
Sad? Sad was breaking a toy! No, devastated, because she felt the coming exile from his house on Dexter, whose front porch roof sported three plaster figurines of mischievous kittens. Magic had a chance to happen there, not Father’s nondescript row house on lower Lyceum. Every inch of Laddie Jack’s backyard held wonders. In late summer, hydrangeas exploded blues and purples along the wall of his neighbor, Misty Mayo, the mysterious widow who smelled of a closet full of potions. Mrs. Mayo would clap her hands as she watched her dance in feathered headdress around Laddie Jack’s totem pole, a denuded bole shorn of branches and dotted with green, red, blue, white paint where they had been lopped. She spent hours looking for cryptic faces in the Johnny-jump-ups or gathering windfall gifts from the Coens’ peach tree. Toward the back, clusters of spirea gave her a fort from which she chased their beagle, Mr. Freddy. Dexter running athwart the steep hill from the Ridge to the river, the yard across the rear retaining wall dropped a good twenty feet and featured a peacock she could tease into screaming. Wheeee!
Laddie Jack had bought his house cheap and renovated much of it himself. He was so handy with his tools! Counting on a large family, he partitioned the upstairs into many separate rooms off the long hallway and wallpapered each with a lively circus motif—prancing horses, clowns in headstands, and ball-balancing seals. But the greatest treasure lay behind the small, white door in the master bedroom. A narrow stairwell, past the steps laden with penny jars and envelopes of canceled two-cent reds, led to the attic, the site of year-round Christmas.
The Houghton family reached the Green Lane intersection. The row of tiny shops dimmed by the el fell away, and she could now see the white bridge with its towering spandrel arches. Father put her down and swept his hand up the first of several flights of bare metal steps.
“Time to climb the Matterhorn all the way to the top!” he joked. He glanced at her sideways to see if that would stop her tears. It didn’t. Every metallic clank left by the pounding of her temperamental steps sounded like a thunderclap of doom. She remembered a movie on the Ridge that concluded with a man mounting a scaffold, pronouncing it was a far, far better thing about something or other. His climb had seemed interminable. So hers.
“We’ve got to stop him!” she howled.
“Uncle Sam says he’s 1-A,” came Father’s response at her back.
“What’s that mean?”
“Sound of wind and limb. No 4-F.”
“And what’s that?”
“Unfit for service. Like the Krams boy two doors up with the bum arm.”
He clawed his fist into a hook and curled it against his chest. She didn’t see, but she knew what he meant.
“Let’s tell ‘em he’s unfit too!”
“Who, Laddie Jack? Nobody’d buy it. He’s a champ. Two more legs and he’d be a racehorse.”
“It’s not fair! It’s not fair!”
She felt his hands take her shoulders, urging her on and making sure she wouldn’t bolt in rebellion.
She wished she could bolt, bolt back up to Dexter, where behind the tiny, white door, up the attic steps, past penny jars, past old envelopes, up and up the narrow stairwell to a special world where she and Laddie Jack’s children became giants in the vast landscape that stretched the length of the attic, mountains and valleys and ponds glazed blue, suspension bridges and trestle bridges, and decorative, sleepy towns through which ran the endless rails for electric locomotives hauling boxcars and tank cars, railcars and flatcars, coal gondolas and covered hoppers and center beams, culminating in a happy caboose, only their cargo was not livestock and lumber but cellophaned butterscotches and sticks of horehound and coiled strands of licorice. Back and forth ran the treats, in and out of the tunnels—Choo choo! Toot Toot! Here it comes!—and she led the charge, beneath the wooden platforms, through the sawhorse legs, followed by Morty and Mikey and Teezie, into the open space in the center, the nucleus of operations, where Laddie Jack in his conductor’s cap and kerchief stood at the controls, the god of his realm, decider of destinies, and warned them to wait till it fully stopped before they snatched their candies, else they with their mighty fingers might derail the cars, and then there’d be an awful accident. Then off went the cars on their delivery of precious freight, down the tracks and disappearing into a magical tunnel, a hole knocked through the wall into the attic’s middle room, from where by its whistle she might glean intimations of its journey as it rounded hills and called upon hamlets miles and miles away.
She pulled back her braids and held them fast as she leaned forward and placed her ear by the little rails. In the whisper of the wheels’ vibration she could actually see it, car for car, not through memory, but as if she had an all-spying eye mounted above the cowcatcher, and knew the territory through which it sped and tales of an adventure yet to come.
“It’s so strange,” she thought, leaving her brother and his children behind and wandering into the middle room to commune with herself. “I don’t think that’s right,” she muttered between sucks of her butterscotch drop. “I shouldn’t be able to see it.”
Yet such things happened. She recalled a recent trip into Philly, where the family had waited in the new station at 30th Street for the train back to Watsanachu. They call it a concourse, Father had said, because—so he guessed—that was where all the courses came together. He wasn’t educated, he confessed, but that’s got to be it if you think about it. Lines not only back home, but out to the seashore, and up to New York, and down into Delaware and beyond, even out to California. You can get to Hollywood from here! Get yourself in the movies! How ‘bout that? Makes you dream!
And she knew Father was somehow right, because back in the Watsanachu station before they had set out, she had strolled to the rails when nobody noticed and, drawn by the shine of the metal worn to a polish by the tonnage of daily travel, she knelt and touched the rail, stroked it, cold and smooth, and knew all the places they were to visit in Philly that day, but places she had never before seen. If it was just her imagination, her anticipation of the trip, why did she discover the details of her visions so dead on when she actually got there? Something wasn’t right.
But what if she touched the rails here at 30th Street? They could take her to so many different places! If she went to the westbound tracks, could she find herself in Hollywood instead of back in Watsanachu? To the eastbound, wiggle her toes in the sand along the Atlantic? A series of arrivals and departures! That was how life was scheduled. It staggered her mind, the choices she had, and all the surety that came with them. She felt something charged within, as if she had gripped electric wires, and by the station’s four stories of darkened Art Deco windows in which the shadows of souls shot back and forth in private destinies, the brown outline of a bronze statue coalesced, nearly thirty feet high, a ministering angel carrying into resurrection the body of a young man slain in a war soon to happen.
“Almost there, sweetheart.”
From the top of the stairs, the neighborhood at the bottom of Green Lane seemed no more than a miniature replica. Sedans chugged inches, and here and there people scurried like animated figurines. She spied oblivious pigeons nesting within the bridge’s arches’ crooks.
“Good girl. Just a few more steps.”
Her little chest began to heave again. A few more steps meant goodbye for good. Emerging onto the platform, she saw her mother and sisters already huddled around Laddie Jack, and his wife and children dutiful sentinels by the benches. Beyond them, five or six people, a few housewives, a businessman with a briefcase, a doctor with his black medical bag. For them just another day.
Father gestured her forward.
“Come and say something, Maggie. Don’t make this harder on yourself.”
But she stood transfixed, acutely conscious of her moans and the burning in her eyes. She could barely breathe, despite the stiff breeze that swept down the platform. The Schuylkill below to the left and right lay flat as glass, lifeless as the stones beneath the ties at her feet. She suddenly realized she had gravitated away from her family to the edge of the platform. The rails glistened mercilessly. If only she were stronger, she could rip the spikes from her nemesis and bend it in another direction, any direction, away from Jack’s destination. She hopped onto the stones and gripped the steel. Futile. Soft flesh was impotent. Then she drew a sharp breath.
She watches her brother’s gunboat consumed by flames, the crew gasping in pools of blood. A squadron of planes with red rising suns breaks from the clouds. Faceless pilots with black-goggled eyes sweep down upon him, the only one left on the deck alive, and the barrage of gunfire cuts him in two.
Her hand flew away from the rail like a bullet. Her palm and fingertips throbbed, she swore, and yet she must try again. It was worth every effort she had to destroy it, and so blinded by tears she attacked the other rail.
She watches her brother sip lemonade at his backyard picnic table. Morty is there, and Mikey and Teezie. She knows by their faces, yet the children are teenagers now, a good ten years older and possibly more. Jack drains his glass and rises to leave. He’s unsteady at first, and then seizes a cane to step around the table. He slaps his prosthetic leg in frustration.
She released the second rail, stood, and wiped her cheeks dry. She was stupefied.
Then everything became clear.
“Get up off those tracks before you get run over!”
It was Laddie Jack, come by himself. Poor Maggie. She loved him so. Poor little girl. His mother had laid her hand gently on his shoulder. Best to go talk to his little sister. She wasn’t handling his going away so well.
He laughed with surprise when his sister jumped back onto the platform and threw her little arms about his waist. They barely reached halfway around. Her tiny fists clenched his shirt. He felt the tails ride up from his belt. He reached down and patted her hair. Best to say nothing yet. Best to let her get it out of her system.
He heard the pounding of the train approach from the west. It was time. How long had they stood there?
He sighed. Chuckling, he twirled her braids.
“Okay, I gotta go. I’ll be all right.”
Strangely silent now, she was. He had heard her tantrum as she came up the stairs, but now she was quiet. Made her peace with it, he guessed. Who knew what was going on in her head?
“It’ll be all right,” he repeated. “Tell me you know that.”
His shirt muffled her voice.
“I know that.”
“Good. Here it is. Stand back.”
He felt her release him to turn to the train pulling in. It was rumbling to a stop not quite a hundred feet away when she launched herself forward. He had just enough time to cry out and reach the first rail.
Chris Cleary is a native of southeastern Pennsylvania, in which many of his stories are set. He is the author of four novels: The Vagaries of Butterflies, The Ring of Middletown, At the Brown Brink Eastward, and The Vitality of Illusion. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Virginia Quarterly Review, Gargoyle Magazine, Oddville Press, Belle Ombre, Easy Street, Ginosko Literary Journal, The Brasilia Review, and other publications. His short fiction has been anthologized in the award-winning Everywhere Stories.