In the suffocating space she’d slithered into Jacoba Peebles gasped, panted. She would have preferred to sniff the freshness of newtreated wood over the dustiness of all this plasterboard, the stuff she’d helped load into this boxcar of hers, she thought of it as her boxcar anyway, she’d helped fill it and she claimed it, made the decision to occupy it while sitting on its roofedge during a fivethirty break under a full moon while smoking one cigarette after another watching the rabbits playing and leaping on the tracks, leaping to touch the rising sun or the fading moon she thought, and waiting for the return of JC, her loading partner the forklift driver known for his long breaks, who had disappeared a halfhour earlier into the gypsum minehole deep beneath the tracks to commune with his friend Jim Beam and peruse some of the porn he stashed down there. It was during that long break that Jacoba decided to leave with the train, just go, take off, get the fuck away and start over — whatever. And if the load shifted and crushed her in the tiny space she found, or if it didn’t but she loaded her pants with the pizza she’d eaten for dinner before work and the coffee she’d drunk during breaks, so be it. She’d be dead in the one case and soiled and fouled in the other, but at least she’d be away. Long gone by tomorrow.
The car was about twothirds full of palletladen 8′ plasterboard stacked high and tight but Jacoba had found a space just big enough to slide down into after scrambling along the top of the stacks near the ceiling, she didn’t have a plan when she noticed the airspace but she had a sense, one of those infinitessimal flashes of intuition that intimate something dramatic, maybe even drastic, might soon take place. When she finished her last cigarette and the rabbits had retreated to thick brush along the siding she growled now damnit, she jumped up, clambered down the ladder, entered the car from the loadingdock, and wriggled and squeezed her way to the standingroom only space in a corner, substituting plasterdust for cigarette smoke in her nose throat and lungs. She would stand in this black spot until the train stopped and the door slid open and the last of the pallets on this side were raised onto the forklift and she was chased off by the driver or carried off by the local EMTs. The premonition of early death would be, she thought, her faithful companion, her only possession, to hell with ID mirror the few dollars and lightweight change in her shoulderbag stuffed into what no longer would be her personal locker, to hell with it all, she’d start over, get high in some southwestern desert, leave all this shit and misery back here, start new and clean.
She must’ve just taken off and gone home one of the voices had said, it wasn’t JC’s it must have been somebody from the plant they called over to help him, but her car’s still here, that’s the funny thing, the JC’s voice bitch just up and left, not in the canteen, not in the john, not any fuckingplace, a third voice well she won’t be coming back here to work anymore, she’s done here, I don’t think she gives a flying fuck JC said. I sure as hell don’t Jacoba thought, she didn’t give a flying fuck about the job, the car, the great hollow room she rented over a downtown pub, the lonely sleeping days among the tooserious and shallowsmiling quotidian faces, the vapid dreamless eyes all around her but especially the voices, the endless swell of voices, the splashes of hoots and honks whoops and cries roars and screeches among them everywhere in this urban ocean of pity and fear and loss. The only problem was the tightness of this hole she’d planted herself in, she’d thought she’d at least be able to get her arms down to her sides after inserting herself into it but ohoh she’d thought, unable to ease the hard inflexible press of the car’s steel walls and the layered solidity of the stacked boards and pallets, this is really tight. Arms outstretched she’d held onto the the top layer for some minutes after realizing the impossibility of raising herself up, she finally resigned herself and let go and dropped the final 18 inches with her arms firmly upstretched for the duration in an attiotude of surrender, silent for the first hour or so, long after the clacking vibrations beneath her numb legs and feet had faded from her senses, the she finally woke up from her stupor and gave forth a prolonged wail.
It was more than sweat that jerked her from her twitching sleep, she thought she could hardly be more soaked, but the burning flow of the liquid down her legs, enough to add weight to her already clinging jeans, and the speed of it, and the slightly subsiding pain in her lower abdomen, these spoke to her as they hadn’t since her childhood bedwetting days, nights of pain heat and fear, she stanched the flow for a moment and then gave in but not without another outcry.
A moment later, a raspy sound: You here too?
In neardelirium she heard the growl, dim and muffled but louder than a whisper, her eyelids fluttered, opened wide, she heard it again you here too? and her nipples and groin tingled sharply. Arrows of dread shot through her, her body alive with stings and pricks from a hundred invisible wasps, Father? What the fuck she thought, he’s here? She listened hard, heard only wheel on track and moaning steel, then above the clatter a whispered Jacoba.
It can’t be she thought to the panic enveloping her. Oh shit no she heard herself mutter through clenched teeth, oh fuck no, then get away Father, what the fuck? then the voice again, barely audible over the clacks below her feet: You here too? Eyes still wide like those of a corpse and just as unseeing she strained now to hear, keeping silent herself. With just enough space around her for her chest to heave she waited, longing for a cigarette, she heard a muffled croak, Jacoba, Jake you here too? A sound bubbled out of her, oh god oh god
is it you Sammy she whispered then a horrible silence, not even any clacking below, she had to strain to hear the steelonsteel of wheels on track, the slight groans of cargo. The voice was clearer now but breathy, it rose above the trainclatter like a sandspout, she could say only what? what? What are you doing to me Jake the voice said, persisted, she felt her bowels shift, her mouth sprang open, her eyes spouted tears, what do you mean she said, her whole body trembled against its confines, what the fuck’s happening?
You’re keeping me alive Jake the voice was weak but deliberate then silent for a moment, a minute maybe, an hour, she stiff and silent too save for occasional throaty squeaks, mouth wide and unwipeable tears flowing. I’m putrifying Jake and you’re keeping me alive, you’re keeping me alive and I hate it.
She felt engulfed now in panic she felt everything inside her roil, No no no no what are you saying what are you talking about she whispered.
All I’ve got left that’s solid the voice of Sammy said, echoed is the snow in my veins. I’m putrifying Jake. And you’re keeping me alive.
No no no she bellowed, what are you talking about? No no no, I love you Sammy, jesus I still love you
I loved you too. I loved you too . . . a long time ago. I can’t love anymore Jacoba, I’ve got nothing left but the snow, and I’m so cold, so cold. You’ve got to let me go.
Her hands, living separately from her body now high above her head, clasped each other, I love you she whispered.
You’re keeping me alive now Jacoba the voice was soft now, whispery, it was almost like back in the old days the old nights of lovemaking, beds tents hammocks and grasses, your love is keeping me alive you know, your love is more like hate than love. Jacoba wanted to sink at those words, melt to the ground, but she was trapped at stiff attention. The voice went on I’m soiled too, I too am foul, I used to be so goodlooking, I used to have fun, I loved listening to you read to me, I used to run so fast, I had such a great baritone, now I’m putrifying, pieces are sliding off me I’ve got no fingers to pick them up with, I’m rotting away and you’re keeping me alive, all that’s left is the snow now Jake, that’s all, that’ll never go away.
In her small increasingly rarified space she vomited, stomachcontents splashing off the wallboards inches away back onto her face neck and shirtfron, she coughed hard, cried what are you saying why are you saying these things to me and the voice answered you can’t get away from me now we’re together in this rolling grave you’ve got to let me go I can’t she said where do you think you’re going then where are you going I’m going to find you she said and touch you, this train’s taking me where I can find you and touch you and where’s that? where are you going to find me and touch me? Santos she said, Santos New Mexico. What? . . . where? Santos New Mexico, that’s where this train is heading, that’s where I’ll find you that’s where I’ll finally be able to touch you again, that’s where we can touch — the silence was too long, Do you hear me Sammy, do you hear me goddamnit?
But you’ll never be able to touch me again Jacoba the voice seemed exasperated you won’t want to touch me.
You’re wrong she shouted, her head jerked, drubbed against the steel only inches behind it, caromed off it into the equally unyielding stack of vomitcoated boards in front, she gave a weak cry, I will touch you, you’ll see she said, we’ll touch each other on the hard desert ground under clouds of sighs surrounded by saguaros jojobas and quail, her breathing was labored now her voice reedy, there’s gods there she said, there’s saints, there’s armies of lovers and cherubs and heroes and, and there’s a landscape there in Santos New Mexico we’ll skip over, there’s brightyellow flowers we’ll pick, there’s mountains we’ll climb, she stopped, waited, there was no return voice only a long shaky sigh, Sammy she called, Sammy she whispered
the furnacelike temperature in her tiny merciless space seemed to swallow Jacoba Peebles, her legs that used to leap in dance performance and on basketball courts and her frozen extended arms that once gestured on community stages seemed burned away, the air seemed solid with dust, everything became a seeming for her, the stench of vomit piss and axilla, her own reeking breath, the pain of loss grief despair these all seemed to emanate from and surround her. And then trapped forever in this septical moment, this ultimate degradation, for the first time she relaxed, gave in, the seeming dissipated and a gleaming panoply descended, enveloped her senses, leaping rabbits buzzed before her aiming for the sun the fading moon, the good years with Sammy before he sold himself, even after he sold himself but kept loving her, flashes of sweet relief she could taste, the feel of love like fresh grapes, the sound of thrashing leaves, the consolation that she could love no more than sdhe had, she’d given it her all. She’d continue on to Santos New Mexico and they could take her off the train there, out of the stinking boxcar, and she’d start over with or without Sammy. In the sunshine of Santos New Mexico.