August 7, 2012 § 1 Comment
Out beyond my father’s fields, deep in the tangle of overgrown weeds and chipped beer bottles with fading labels, lay an abandoned roller coaster track. Robbie and I used to go there in the afternoons, when school had ended and all we could do was stroll down dusty roads and eat fruit that dripped down our chins. He was a well-built boy, probably around fourteen or fifteen then, and had blonde hair that glowed almost translucent, shining above his head like a halo. I thought his hair was beautiful. The people in town, however, grumbled. They were used to freckles and wrinkled, dark skin, signs of a life lived under a hot, overbearing sun.They were used to evenings that chirped and buzzed, that smelled of whiskey and cigars.
Everyone in town saw Robbie as almost super-human, a jittering, shaking, rattling force that needed to be beaten until it resembled something closer to human submission. If Robbie’s father sent him downtown to buy gum, he came back with map books and a stolen radio. If Robbie was supposed to bring out the bundles of hay to the barn, he’d stack them up instead and jump on top from the roof of the house. Then he’d dig his feet in tight and sway, sway, sway, rocking like a crazed man fixed on reaching some certain unattainable level of feeling, of living. Pieces of straw would rain down on his mutt, Sam, who just slept there lazily in the sun, and Robbie screamed to the hills, to the mountains, to the world.
I had always gotten along with him, ever since grade school. He was nice enough, and I think I might have loved him. We had our little routines. Robbie would nick some fruit from Mr. Jackson’s storefront bins, we’d walk down the dirt road, Robbie would talk about his plans. Robbie always had plans. To build a telescope, to ride a motorcycle, to go on safari in Africa. And I’d listen while he ranted and raved, spit flying from his mouth, fire glowing in his eyes. I ate my fruit and watched flies nestle comfortably on horses too wearisome to fight. I always wiped the sticky dribble from my chin. Robbie just took another bite and let the juices stain his skin.
The railroad track was one of Robbie’s favorite places to go. It was an old metal coaster, rusted and ancient. At least by adolescent standards. It was also probably remarkably dangerous, but this fact never seemed to frighten Robbie. He’d grab on to the rails and race up the big drop, then go running through the twists and turns. Sometimes he dangled off the side. “Can’t you just feel it!” He’d yell down to me below, waiting in the weeds. “I can practically feel the thing whooshing by me! Whoosh, whoosh!” He’d laugh his big, guffawing laugh and try to get me to go up with him, but I always refused. I stood waiting, my hand resting lightly on the metal, feeling it vibrate with Robbie’s life force as he roared across it up above.
Robbie never made it out of that town, though God knows he tried. He was still there when I moved down East to school. His father’s love for cigars had exhausted his lungs and left his body frail and wispy, like a barely-there autumn wind. Robbie, the only son, took over management of the farm while his father laid in the living room to watch bad TV. Somedays I’d see him watching young boys chasing the cattle and leaping from trees. Other days he helped his father hobble around the grounds at a snail’s pace, something that must have practically burned those wild feet of his. Even when he stood perfectly still, all his limbs looked as if they were tingling as he absentmindedly picked at his pockets or overlooked the fields with unseeing eyes. Itching to burst. But now that vibrating energy had changed. It was like the dying motor of a car that never got out of the lot. His father provided some gasping breaths for effect.
In the last few dying days of summer, while I was readying the family truck for my trip down East, I convinced Robbie to walk out to the old roller coaster track. He went wordlessly, his eyes always fixed off to the West, looking at the mountains. His mouth formed words I couldn’t make out in the semi-darkness. When we reached the coaster in all its ruin, Robbie paused next to me in the weeds. I could almost feel the electricity circulating slowly in his veins.
In moments he had scaled to the top, and this time he laid down on the tracks, gripping on tightly to the cold metal. His body was tense, at alert, his breath disturbing that too-still, heavy air. There was the sense of waiting. Waiting for an old run-down carnival gimmick to whisk him away, or crush him to death. Waiting for the rush to creep up and startle him into living.
But there was only the chirping and buzzing of the night and the smell of whiskey and cigars.
Whoosh, whoosh he whispered above me, eyes turned skyward. The metal was cold and the rust stained his hands and the air buzzed with things unseen, unfelt. Whoosh, whoosh.