Most of life I learned by walking from this side of the tracks to that side.
I walked home from middle school. Every day. Three miles or so. With my saxophone always and another kid named Clay sometimes.
I’d learned about entropy by walking along the train tracks. Because tracks, you see, have already chosen the easiest path. I didn’t have to make any decisions. Just walk in the center. Move if the train comes’a'runnin. Avoid eye contact with the bum who might be out in the ally near the Square.
Once a girl from school was taken advantage of by the tracks. Behind the Kroger. Her story was on the evening news and I have no idea what happened to her after that. I didn’t know what rape was until the announcer uttered that dreaded word. I learned that from the tracks. That there can dark behind buildings. That learning isn’t always bright.
Also, from high up near Beatty Street, I learned that dads can care about their boys. I could see them through the poison ivy, tossing balls back and forth. Talking about so-and-so and the Crimson Tide. Laughing and wrestling until momma shouted out through the screen door to quit. They never would.
I learned that I could disappear on the tracks. Trees would grow and bloom and hide me. I could smoke there. I’d get into coughing fits when that other tar would enter my lungs. I learned what poisoning myself tasted like.
Patience I learned. Each step took just as long as the last. Whether it was today or tomorrow or yesterday. Learned to whistle with my fingers. Learned that graffiti could travel from the Boston & Maine Line all the way to the heart of Dixie. That you might be away from home, but that don’t mean you can’t get there again.
I was taught the smell of sprinkler water on fresh grass. The bugs singing in the heat. The hotter it got the louder they’d scream. It was a lesson in sweat. Maybe a lesson in carrying a handkerchief.
I learned that tar melts in the Alabama sun and it sticks to your shoes. Then, to your carpet. Then momma isn’t real happy. Never learned how to get it out.
I remember that smell of the wood. Tie after tie of hash marks. The days getting shorter and the tar sticking less.
When winter came, the world was no longer hidden past the trees – I was no longer protected from heckling teenagers who drove TransAms and wore sunglasses.
I learned from the tracks (then later in the Good Book) that no deeds are hidden. Everything will come out eventually, whether it’s the darkness behind the grocery store or the goodness of a boy’s heart. The leaves would snap and the sleet would fall, and I wasn’t hiding from anyone then.
Until I stepped onto the other side of the tracks. When the train came’a'runnin’.
Photo via Charlotte Strode