Edited by Barry Kitterman | Andrea Spofford | Amy Wright
James M. Chesbro
Our trips to the city were powered by a current of danger, of our vulnerability to the electricity that throbbed invisibly in the tracks, of the need to walk in haste to avoid strange men yelling at you. Walking behind my father in Philadelphia was like sitting in the train car during those moments when you go underground before the lights come on. He carried me on his heels for a ride through streets I didn’t know. I watched his torso shift and his arms swing in front of me. He was my father, and I followed him.
Wherever my father brought me in the city was a secondary excitement compared to the journey there. While we waited on the platform, Dad checked his watch and talked about the voltage on the tracks below. He intended to frighten me away from the painted yellow edge and it worked. I grew up in my mother’s hometown, five miles from Camden, my father’s home city. While riding on the Speedline, we watched Camden County whiz by in square backyards. Victorian homes and well-kept properties gave way to faded black tar rooftops of row homes, abandoned buildings, sidewalks, and parked car after parked car. Our shoulders bumped and our spines adjusted to the jostling passenger car. When we went underground in Camden, the inside lights came on. The Delaware River moved in a swift current below us as we outpaced cars on the Benjamin Franklin Bridge. We went underground again. “Eighth and Walnut next stop. Next stop Eighth and Walnut,” said the conductor.
The urgency with which my father walked to nowhere in particular only added to the drama of leaving my safe little town. When I say that he walked fast, I mean that in order for me to keep up every ten feet or so I’d break into a trot for a few strides. We went to Reading Terminal to eat. We went to the Expo Center for the boat and car shows. We walked around the Gallery. Each time we passed Florsheim’s, he reminded me that he worked there. Perhaps he was proud to be a working member of the city he loved. What did he want me to think about when he pointed out the store?
I think my father viewed each trip as an adventure in teaching me how to conduct myself outside the borders of my sheltered life. Walking fast was one of his ways of overdramatizing potential danger. One bright day in Center City stands out. I was looking at the back of my father’s khaki pant legs when a man started yelling at him.
“Hey, you know wha time it is?” I looked over my shoulder to identify the person whose voice bellowed at us.
“C’mon,” my father said. “Keep walking.”
The man’s voice was deep and desperate. The words overlapped in a gargled slur. The man shouted again, his voice rising over afternoon traffic braking and honking at the intersection.
“Hey! The time. What time’s it?”
We walked toward a group of people waiting to cross the street. A red light flashed Don’t Walk. The man asked again. My father yelled “four-thirty” over his shoulder and turned the corner.
“That’s their trick,” my father said. “They get you to stop. Look at your watch. And that’s when they do what they want to you.”
After my father died, I hated Christmas. When I married, five years later, I told myself to buck up and find some joy in going to a tree farm and standing the evergreen in a corner of the living room of the home I shared with Lynne. But I couldn’t bring myself to celebrate. Bing Crosby’s voice filled in our silence, “offering a simple prayer for kids one to ninety-two.” Lynne hooked ornaments on the branches. She adjusted the golden ribbon on the tree, stepped back, and returned to the ladder.
“How does it look? she asked. Her delight was audible. Each letter of the word look rose in pitch.
“Looks good,” I said, in a flat tone. Looks good contained one more syllable than the apathetic fine, or the sure I’ve learned to avoid. In the short time we’ve been married, Lynne has correctly decoded fine and sure as pleasantries that mean one of two things: a) I’m indifferent to a matter she cares about, or b) I don’t like something but would rather not admit it. The problem with these responses, which may be why they continue to slip out, is that I think I’m being amicable by using them but they jar, Lynne. It might feel like I’m dismissing her attempt to hear my opinion, or involve me in making a decision. “Looks good” actually worked when we were newlyweds. She decorated, and left me out of it. My project? Building a monument to my deceased father with his half-century old trains on the mantel. Merry Christmas.
I placed the old black engine, four cars, and a caboose on the white wood. They were stationed on two sections of metal tracks. A railroad-crossing sign, red metal bench, two white signs, and a hand truck filled in the gaps around the garland and pine cones above the empty fireplace. The white lights highlighted the dull, nicked metal of the train. Prongs of tarnished steel pointed through green pine on either end of the mantel.
The last time I talked about trains with my father was our last Christmas together. Our plates, stained by blueberry pancakes and egg yolk, lay forgotten in the kitchen sink that morning. We stood in the living room, and I heard the slow drip of the faucet. My sister sat on a red plaid couch, reading a glossy paperback book about photography. Over her shoulder, a stuffed Philadelphia Eagles pennant rested against the beige wall. An astute fan might have traced the Kelly green helmet and gray two-bar facemask to the early eighties. I had given it to him in 1984. I was in first grade.
My father stirred his black coffee counterclockwise. The teaspoon clinked around the sides of his cup at a faster pace than the trains. He freed the spoon and drummed the rim three times, resting it on my grandfather’s smoking stand. I don’t understand why he kept that wooden legged tower, since emphysema had killed my grandfather, six weeks before I was born. It would make sense only if he associated the smoking stand with his father and not the habit that led to his death. Anytime my father caught a whiff of secondhand pipe smoke, he inhaled deeply and said, “God, that makes me think of my father.” Even as a boy, I sensed he was under the influence of something powerful. As he exhaled, he looked away. He was somewhere else, distant and removed.
We both stared at the turning wheels and the oscillating axels. We didn’t say much. Glasses framed his vision. He narrowed his eyes. Steam from his coffee rose around his cheeks. I didn’t want to disengage the gears of his imagination. He placed his cup on the smoking stand and gave the tired engine a gentle push with his fingertips. He tilted his head so that it was more in line with the wheels and the tracks. We spoke as if we were in church.
“Sometimes you just have to give it a push,” he said.
“They still go, don’t they?”
“How old are they, Dad?”
“About fifty years old. Engine’s just a little tired.”
What visions appeared for him on the window seat where his Marx electric steam engine circled the small artificial tree? He had woken up alone on Christmas morning. My sister and I came over a few hours later. He tilted his head to his right shoulder like a boy, like the son he remained, even at sixty years old, standing over a cotton-balled landscape. Maybe the black metal coal cars with New York Central written on the side had a delivery for him. Maybe he smelled a pipe.
I fed James his bottle, and burped him in the glider. I bounced him to sleep with his head cradled in my palm, his sleeping face slack and expressionless, as I paced in front of his crib. During those newborn months, I noticed the red train resting on the white shelf as if it were in a station. I came to think of the toy as a promise, an object of hope for the days when James might sleep through the night. I thought of the toy as a promise of interaction with a newborn who did little more than nurse, soil his diaper, and sleep. The train belongs to a wooden railway collection Thomas and Friends. Like the others, this train has a name. This train has the same name as my son, my father, and me. I didn’t know that the red steam train magnetically coupled to a coal car would pull me back in time. I didn’t know that when James held that train in his hand and watched the wheels turn that we were departing together, on a journey back to my father.
Thomas and his wild-eyed friends came to life when we watched the eight-to-ten minute shows on TV. Before bed, James sat on my lap in the La-Z-Boy. He hummed engine sounds. He clapped to the theme song “Hop on Board.” He squatted and jumped and jumped and forced me to cover my own tender engine. George Carlin narrates these stories, whose conflict usually derives from a misunderstanding between the train characters. Carlin alters his voice for the dialogue of each train, but a similar crotchety kind of tone you might expect from Carlin puffs from the funnel of each engine. Their eyes move in zany circles to show disbelief or shift to one side to direct the dialogue to a particular train. The trains release steam. They shunt the disobedient Troublesome Trucks. They crash into powdered sugar in winter scenes. The shows we watch now are animated and are narrated by a new voice.
At around the time I gave James the red train to hold in his hand, whenever we stood outside and waved good-bye to Nimi, James yelled, “Bye, Nimi!” But he never watched her, staring instead at the rims of her tires. He stared and waved and yelled. And as the rims began to rotate, he increased the pace at which he waved, until he saw Nimi’s bumper. James’s obsession with the red train brought him to a fascination with the movement of turning wheels. When I gave James his red train, he flicked the black wheels with his finger and watched them spin. Then he placed the train on the hardwood floor, rested his head on his arm as he lay down, and moved the train back and forth.
I stood before a wall of Thomas and Friends merchandise at the toy store. I gazed at individual trains, packages of tracks, bridges, windmills, tunnels, and numerous sets. I found a starter set and ignored the advice—Ages Three and Up—stamped on the blue box. The cash register rang up the purchase, which included the grass paper and glue I needed to make him a train table. The cash drawer of the register sprang open, clinking like bells of arrival.
At home Lynne and I made a figure eight with the tracks. We placed them on the train table I had made which was fashioned from a coffee table and a thick board of plywood. I glued grass paper to the plywood and gray pipe insulation to the edges (I saw later on that though these were aesthetically pleasing ideas, but ultimately, impractical. Green flecks rubbed off onto James’s two-year old hands and sleeves, and one day he ripped the gray foam border off the table). One blue battery-powered Thomas train traveled up and over the plastic gray brick and along the tracks. The wheels grinded on the intricate railroad ties and intersecting grooves of the wooden railway. How old was I when my dad gave me a set of Lionel trains for Christmas? I had seen the big box containing them in the attic, but had not yet found the courage to reopen the lid I imagined could only connect me to grief.
James didn’t do much the first night I showed him his new train table and wooden railway set. He pushed the red train back and forth with his meaty little hand, lifting it to see the wheels spin and then returned it to the grooves on the wooden tracks. As he spat out engine sounds through clenched teeth, he ignited in me a latent longing for my own father. James struck the train against the track like a match to a matchbook. Drops of his saliva landed on the train table and darkened the green grass paper. By the time my son went to bed, my mind was aflame with father.
As I walked up the attic stairs, I wondered how old my father was when he first opened his train set. I tried to picture him near his father’s armchair while he read the newspaper, his pipe smoke drifting over them both.
I was looking for a date, but even as I lifted the wax paper and scanned the instructions, manuals, and tracks plans, I knew it didn’t really matter when he played with these trains. I just wanted these trains to tell me something about my dead father. Instead I found the paper used as packing material: a bank envelope, an auto insurance business reply card that said I saved $12.30 on my auto insurance with ALLSTATE, and a Sears Roebuck and Co. Catalog Bargain Flash. Any time I turned one of the catalog pages, fingertip-sized pieces fell to the dusty attic floorboards.
Dad loved riding trains on the twenty-minute trip into Philadelphia. When I was a boy, one Sunday when Brent Musberger had just finished taking the CBS audience for a live look around the country’s one o’clock National Football Conference games, I asked my father where he was going. He stood on the threshold, his hand on the doorknob. I asked him if we were going to watch the Eagles game together. He smiled and said he had to go to work, closing the door behind him. The glee in his face surely came from the freedom he felt in the city. He worked at Florsheim’s, a men’s shoe store in the Gallery, a shopping mall in Center City. He didn’t work at one of the shoe stores at the Cherry Hill Mall, a fifteen-minute drive down the road. Instead, he rode the train and commuted into Philly two nights a week and Saturday morning. During the holiday season, he worked Sundays too.
My father never yucked it up at the country club in town. He didn’t play poker, or go to bars. For guy time, my father worked at a shoe store. Once, when I was in college, he told me that during the holidays the manager used to leave sandwiches and beer in the back where they read Playboy on their breaks. It was so out of his stern character to divulge such an innocuous secret to me. He was the disciplinarian in our house, the genuflecting Catholic patriarch in the aisle-side of our family’s pew. He shaved every day and tucked in his shirts. I think it was his way of saying, “Hey son, I’m a guy too.”
Going to Philadelphia seemed to make him happier. He boarded trains under the guise of earning a few more bucks for his family, but it’s also likely that he wanted to escape. Compared to life at home, cracking jokes with the guys at work, measuring feet and tying shoes for customers must have been easy.
After returning home from one of his shifts, he held out a pen. It was Kelly green with Eagles written on the side in gray. “Do you know who gave me this?” he asked. “Ray Ellis. He’s the safety. Walked in the store today and bought shoes from me. Big feet,” he said. I wonder if it was 1984, the same year I gave him the stuffed pennant. Ellis led the team that season with seven interceptions.
Next to the boxes of my father’s trains in the attic were the set of Lionel trains he had given me. I’d moved them from my mother’s house in New Jersey to mine in Connecticut, but I couldn’t remember the last time I’d actually held them. At the top of the box, next to the red capital letters spelling out Lionel, was the slogan More than a toy-a tradition, since 1900. The black font was easy to read over the picture of faint white mountains. An engine lit the track at the base of a lake, pulling three cars and a green caboose. I lifted up the box to read the small black print on the side: 1983, it read. I was seven.
I went back downstairs with my trains and placed them on the hardwood floor in the living room, in front of the flameless fireplace and below the white mantel. I freed the green Burlington Northern engine from its Styrofoam chamber. I pushed the steel prongs into the holes of the tracks and made a circle under the tree branches. I plugged the transformer into the outlet and clipped the small metal piece to the bottom of a track, wondering if the old thing would work. I held the transformer in the palm of one hand and turned the steel lever with the other. The black box hummed then whined as a current surged through the tracks, to the engine wheels, which started to turn. The clickety-clack, clickety-clack rose and fell as the big Burlington bustled around the worn steel tracks. The red lights on the front of the engine illuminated the wood floor and the white molding. I imagined them racing through the shadows of low-hanging branches on the Christmas morning my father had given them to me, glowing under tree lights. I placed two plastic people on the platform, and waited for a ride.
James Chesbro’s essays have been listed as notable selections in The Best American Sports Writing 2014 and The Best American Essays 2012, 2014, 2015. He is the co-editor of You: An Anthology of Essays Devoted to the Second Person (Welcome Table Press). He holds an MFA from Fairfield University, where he is an adjunct professor of English. He lives in Connecticut with his wife and children.