Tracy is walking out the track. It’s a dirt road now, but there used to be a train. The pine trees radiate dryness, you can smell the threat of forest fire. Dust greys the leaves. Her footsteps beat a rhythm, a crunchy tick tock tick tock. Her feet are loud in the open-air silence. There’s fast-food trash. Glossy red cardboard french-fry container and crumpled white bag. Nugget box and little plastic containers with covers peeled back. Sweet and Sour sauce.
She’s wearing the green twill hat, the Ferryland hat, from the summer on the dig. She shared a house with four guys, all musicians, and every night all the crowd, mostly students, gathered in the kitchen. And weekends back in St. John’s, Chris would ask which one she was sleeping with and she’d try to prove that he was the only one for her. There’s the South Africa patch she sewed on the hat after the trip. The flag. The New South Africa, they were calling it. The New Tracy, she was calling herself. She herself was a country in Africa for a little while, all shifting boarders, unruly economics, and malleable ideologies.
She’s wearing the hat today, and sunscreen, after yesterday’s carelessness.
Yesterday morning started with a text conversation with Josh. He’s been showing her how to do it. Josh is native to the era of texting and his messages are swift and clipped. Tracy’s fingers are from a less-evolved time. The time she saves in abbreviations is negated by the time it takes to think up an abbreviation.
-what u at
-not much what r u doing
-brkfst M&D jst lft 4 wrk
-U feel like a swim
-Im coming to town in halfhour 4 coffee I can pick u up
Tracy could anticipate his responses. She started her replies before his beeped in, just to save time.
Josh had never been to the cabin before. He walked around like an explorer.
“Look, it’s the guy from Starsky and Hutch.”
“From the movie remake.”
Josh had found a CD, a movie soundtrack. Stamped on the price sticker, $4.00. And handwritten on the price sticker in tiny letters above the price, “you and me and…” Chris found that CD in the Used section at Fred’s, must have been just before they broke up. The first time Tracy read it, she said, Shouldn’t it be ‘you and me and five bucks’? Well it is second-hand, he’d said. At the time, Chris’s nostalgic tendencies had irritated Tracy. Now the CD was in Josh’s hands.
“Priceless”, he said, looking at the cover. The actress, doe-eyed, who will someday get caught shoplifting. She’s in character, between two young men, one clean-cut with a plan, the other gaunt and listless. And on the wall behind them, a chalkboard with words scrawled here and there. Relationships. Credit Cards. Romance. Decaf. Friends. Jobs. “Safe Sex,” he read, as if reading a Middle-Ages medical journal, then “Channelsurfing, is that like websurfing before there was Internet?” And right above the girl’s head in big letters Love.
Tracy took the disk he handed her and put it in the machine. “That was my favourite movie for a while. We used to watch that over and over.”
“Priceless,” said Josh again, “So ‘Generation X’.”
Josh collapsed on the couch, arms and legs spreading wide. Tracy was surprised by his size. She still has a sense of him as he was in high school, when she was his teacher. Back then he wore a soccer jersey and basketball shorts, even in winter. When she’s not with him, she still thinks of him as thin shiny cloth and skinny limbs and shiny skin. On the couch, he was large and brown and muscular. Cotton twill and suntan. Cargo pockets. Larger than her memory of him.
Tracy sat down beside him, exhaled, spread wide as Josh had. The cotton jersey fabric of her skirt fell into the space between her legs. Her knee grazed his leg hair. She let her neck go, her head swinging carelessly side to side, deliberately stopping to face Josh.
He reached just under her skirt and laid a hand on the skin of her thigh.
“Ah, nice and cool in here,” he said, and his voice was not the voice of Josh Avery from her class four years ago, when she was still Miss Janes. This was someone else’s voice. His thumb slid back and forth. For an instant, she wished she had thought to shave, and then remembered that she didn’t care.
It’s from a train, that swinging door that divides the two rooms of the cabin, the inner bedroom from the outer eating and sitting area. Her grandfather found the door in the bushes by the track. Its construction is sturdy and deliberate. The black leather padding is stitched into diamonds, a mildewed dignity. A spring hinge and no latch. It opens inward with a simple push, so as soon as Josh and Tracy passed through, it slapped shut.
Tracy hooked up with Josh over the winter. Hook up. That’s how he put it in an e-mail, after they accidentally met in the University Centre. Maybe we could hook up sometime. Tracy hadn’t known exactly what that meant, but she wrote back that she’d be happy to have coffee with him again.
The flourish of digital music from Josh’s cell phone startled them both. Tracy jumped from the bed, searching for an errant bird or dragonfly. Josh reached for his shorts and in an instant was on his feet, phone to ear. Shorts in hand, he drifted toward the door.
“Hello….?” As his voice tensed and back straightened, Tracy’s memory flashed to a fierce mother, Josh Avery’s mom, before Josh was Tracy’s student. “I’m out on bike.” A small woman bursting into the teachers’ lounge, her voice high-pitched and brittle. “Probably going swimming.” Mrs. Avery wearing a hooded jacket, salmon pink, drawstring pulled tight at the waist, dripping wet; and that over a straight grey skirt, cut just above the ankles, sensible black shoes squelching water at the creases in the leather. ”No, I forgot. Anyway the grass was wet.” An angry mother threatening something about the law and the NTV news and the school board. ”I’ll do it this evening when it cools down a bit. No, I will!” Tracy, the only other person in the staff room, suggesting she try the principal’s office, next door to the right. “Okay, bye.”
Josh pressed two buttons, one to end the call and one to shut off the phone, then flipped it shut and slid it back into his shorts pocket without undoing the flap.
“That your mom?” Tracy stood in the open doorway, leaning against the hinged resistance, her clammy skin making suction with the quilted leather.
Josh zipped up, facing the window.
“Yup,” He turned, grinned, “We going for a swim?”
“Let me get my suit on.”
Hanging in the corner by the door, two faded lifejackets, not the slippery zippered kind, these are of rough canvas material, with hook closures. Handwritten with heavy marker on the backs, PROPERTY OF TILLY’S LTD. The black ink bleeds into the red cloth, blurring the lines. Her parents used to explain to visitors that these lifejackets hadn’t been stolen but rather had been left behind by Old Man Tilly’s grandson when he came looking for Tracy. She used to blush and roll her eyes.
Chris Nolan was from St. John’s, but on his summer break, he used to work for his grandfather at the lake. Mr. Tilly had a gas bar, convenience store, and canoe rental operation. In the evenings after closing time, Chris would row across the lake in the twilight to see Tracy. Her mother would say, Would you like to stay for the night? There’s lots of room, we can get out the old army cot. Chris would always say No thanks, Pop’s expecting me back. And after he left her mother would comment about the nice young man. Once, while her parents were on vacation out west, Tracy went to the cabin by herself. Chris stayed the night a few times. Tracy and Chris resumed their relationship when she started university in St. John’s. When Mr. Tilly sold his business, nobody came looking for the lifejackets.
Tracy sees black ink on red cloth, but water and sun exposure have faded them to blue on pink. The memory informs the senses like that sometimes, so that what you see is only partially the thing before you.
“So how come you’re not married?” Josh startled her with his question.
She had been dozing, drying off in the sun. After a couple of hours swimming, her body had forgotten about gravity, so that when she came out of the water, she nearly collapsed with her own weight.
“That’s a stupid question.”
“No it isn’t. There’s a reason for everything. Mom thinks you’re a lesbian, because of that other teacher that lived with you that time. I knew the difference of that though.”
“What do you mean?”
“Put it this way, we all knew she liked the boys.” In the sunny vertigo, Tracy saw him smile at some secret past. Josh continued his questioning.
“Come on now, why aren’t you all settled down with a few kids?”
Tracy pulled at a thread on her towel. “There was someone, a long time ago. He wanted to get married.”
“Did I what? Get married? Or want to get married?”
“There was something I wanted to do first.”
“And he couldn’t wait?”
“I didn’t want him to wait.”
“You wanted him to be happy.”
“I didn’t want to have him waiting.”
“There you go. There’s always a reason.”
Two of the older cabins, owned by Tracy’s cousins, are converted passenger cars, one painted white, the other red. By the time Tracy was born, the daily train carried only freight. You had to park down the track a ways and lug everything to the cabins from the place where the cars were left, the red muddy spot you’d never call a parking lot. She remembers her two older cousins, one on each rail, red Coleman cooler hanging between them, their free arms held out for balance. Tracy carried her own little bag of clothes and books, always hurrying, not wanting to be caught on the track in case of a train. She knew that if you get too close when one comes, you’ll get sucked under.
The last time Tracy saw Chris, she was caught by surprise. It was at an antique store on Duckworth Street, the place that used to be a music store. He had spoken to her, and in the first instant, the man in front of her looked more like somebody’s father than like somebody she should know. Then, something about his features made her think of the cabin back home, a young Mr. Tilley. And then she recognized him. He introduced her to his wife, and Tracy looked for the first time at the woman linked to his arm, rubbing her flat belly with her free hand. Chris said I knew Tracy back when I used to work with Pop in the summer. She continued rubbing her belly in a circular motion as she smiled at Tracy.
Tracy doodled while Josh talked about his long-term plans. Convocate next spring. Then maybe South Korea for a year or so. Or maybe law school. Last chance, there’s always Education. Whatever happens, he had to get out of the parents’ house soon. Tracy was familiar with the train of thought. She traced the CN logo. One continuous line, the C with its curves squared off and the N with its corners softened. Stands for Chris Nolan, Chris used to say. It looks digital, like the perpetual 8s in her alarm clock.
“You have old-people hands.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
Josh matched four finger tips to her four knuckles, then drew four invisible ribbons of touch up to her shoulder. She closed her eyes, smiled.
“Shouldn’t you be getting home soon?”
“That’s entirely up to you Miss Janes.”
“Stop that! I’m not your teacher.”
She tried to make her own initials the same way. TJ. She had to double back to get all the lines in. How to soften the corners on intersecting lines?
It’s outrageous that Josh still has a curfew. One hour past Tracy’s bedtime. She drove him home just after midnight. Past the time of night when eyeshadow works. She felt one eyelid drooping and the corners of her mouth sagging into shadow. The hour for witches.
They took the highway back, because it’s fastest, and it was already too late.
He urged her to drive faster.
“Come on, just for fun.”
“I’m not going any faster.”
“You’re no fun.”
“I’m not taking a chance with the moose.”
“You should let me drive. Show you how it’s done.”
“You’re no fun.”
“You’re right.” She felt as if they were in class again, Josh coaxing her to end class early. She wanted to appease him but would not.
She pulled into a parking lot around the corner from his house. Behind a darkened garage. Headlights off, motor off, amid scrap car frames missing fenders and doors, they said furtive goodbyes. She looked sideways left into the darkness, avoiding his gaze. “G’nite ol’ lady,” he said. She bristled, and then remembered how severe that looks. He laughed and reached for the door handle. She squinted in anticipation of the light.
“You look tired.”
“It’s late, and your parents are waiting.”
Tracy turns off the track onto the path to her cabin and takes off her hat. She hadn’t noticed it clouding over until the first raindrops tickled her skin. She loves these first drops before a downpour, when the dust turns into an earthy perfume. She hasn’t turned on her cell phone yet today. Her footsteps are noisy on the gravel. Used to be a gentle tap of foot on tarry railway tie. You had to jump over the rotten ones, they’re bad luck. See how long you can stay on the rail without losing your balance.
You could hear the train coming for ages. What’s that, Mom? Is a train coming? No, it’s a big truck out on the highway. What about that? No, it’s just the wind. And if Tracy kept it up, Dad would say It’s just a bear and Mom would say There’s no bears around here! Tracy stops now, trying to hear what used to sound like a train, the musical rumble, an underground siren, the promise of penetration.
Found Objects was first published in The Antigonish Review in 2009.
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