In The Dead Air Of August
Chris and I ambled along the railroad tracks outside Little Rock looking for clues. Two nights prior an 18-year-old woman severed both legs while attempting to hop a freight car that was headed toward St. Louis.
“What we looking for anyhow?”
“Blood,” Chris said, “shards of bone or clothing, anything really. Once we find that who knows what we’ll discover.”
Shirley Dicks, the local news anchor, claimed the injured woman climbed aboard the moving freight to elude police just after dusk, but then slipped and got sucked underneath its steel wheels. The train pulled 123 cars full of scrap iron and grain and rolled at approximately 18 mph. If the railyard attendant hadn’t stumbled upon her amputated limbs while doing his evening rounds, she’d likely be dead.
“I heard the woman robbed Ed’s Pizzeria,” I said. “Held the place up with a knife, then fled for the tracks with a sack full of money. That’s why the police were after her.”
Chris nodded and kept his head down; he kicked at pieces of slag along the tracks.
“I wonder what it would feel like?” Chris asked.
“How what would?”
“Losing everything. Imagine it was you pinching the stubs in the dark and looking at the veins hanging out your legs like earthworms. What would you do, who would you call?”
“And I bet there was lots of blood, too. It’s probably everywhere still, a ground stain.”
“Hey,” I said, and pointed.
Thirty yards down a group of men and women in perspired shirts searched the bushes along the tracks. The closest man wore stained blue chinos and held a pint, and he yelled at a woman with a sunken head to get to work.
“What you think them folks are up to?” I asked.
“I bet the police still ain’t found the money. So there’s a reward.”
“Yeah, Delbert. The law won’t let some fool find the money and keep it.”
When we got close to the man with the pint, he eyed us and spat. “You little shits best take your puny asses on home. Everything here’s ours.”
“What?” I asked, and stepped closer.
“Ain’t all bright are you, boy? None of us going to let you keep nothing so get.”
Me and Chris kept our distance, and the man sipped his bottle and wiped at the sweat that glistened on his forehead. When the woman with the dented skull found a white and yellow fast-food sack near a rusty blackhaw bush, the man hustled over.
“Get, it’s mine,” the woman hissed, “I’ll bite,” and she flashed blackened teeth, tried clutching the bag against her belly.
“Bite then,” the man said. He yanked the sack away and knocked her down with a free hand, and she skidded on her back in the slag.
“Piece of shit,” she said, and kicked at him.
The man delved into the bag and pulled out several hamburger wrappers. Then he stuck his head inside. “Shit,” he said, and tossed the sack at the woman. “Get your ass back to work. We ain’t found nothing.”
We stood back while the group hunted through the high grasses and shrubs. Every so often a shrill cry carried through the shimmering heat whenever someone thought they found something.
“Go on now,” the man said. “Take your asses out, be gone.”
So Chris and I gave the man the finger and made our back down the tracks.
“It’s probably better that we didn’t find it,” Chris said.
“I wish someone would knock that guy down,” I said.
We relaxed in the shade of an abandoned boxcar; and down from us the group still worked along the rails in the afternoon sun. Twice a melee broke out — and twice the woman with the dented skull was knocked onto the gravel — before the group quieted and resumed searching.
“I heard that woman last night kept asking if she was going to die. And the railyard attendant said no, but the woman kept asking anyway once she noticed her legs were gone.”
“What color do you think it was?” I asked.
“ White, why?”
“Just curious,” I said. “You think those people down there would care about that after freight cars took their legs and they began to bleed all over?”
Chris shrugged and worked the jagged end of a busted twig into an ant hole. The afternoon sun glowed red now like a bead of molten steel.
“What would you’ve done if you found the money?” I asked.
Chris pulled the twig from the mouth of the hole and suspended a loogie which fell dead into it. The thick saliva clogged the orifice, then vanished in the oily dirt.
“I don’t right know,” he said. “I’d like to have a Mongoose bike. And you?”
I looked at the clan of degenerates. They were sitting in the shade, passing around a large bottle wrapped in a paper sack. “I’d probably give it back to Ed.”
“Give it back? That’d be stupid.” Chris stood and chucked a rock against the side of the boxcar and a loud bang rang out amongst the yard.
The man in the stained chinos started cussing. He was perched on a cinderblock and turned the bottle up, draining it. Then he rose and flung it. The bottle fell short and shattered on the tracks. “You little shits,” he yelled and lifted his arms.
Chris picked up another rock — a rigid chunk of slag the size of a golf ball; he turned and smiled. “Why not,” and he hurled the rock. It almost knocked the man’s head off and when the man lifted himself off the ground he began running toward us.
“Oh shit,” I said.
“We got this,” Chris said and reached for another.
So I picked up my own and we stood our ground; we and fired and fired until it was more than any one man could take.