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Let that lonesome whistle blow

 by Richard Stimac

Trigger warning: implied child abuse.

            Jimmy’s family moved up from the Ozarks late one summer. That fall, Jimmy, and his three sisters, appeared at school. We viewed them with fascination and fear.

            Right away, me and Jimmy became friends.

            We lived in the same tract house neighborhood, literally on the other side of seven sets of tracks. We didn’t have much more in common besides the same walk to and from school. But at that age, coincidence is enough for a friendship.

            On our way home, we walked along the cinder access road that ran along the tracks. Even before we could see the engine, we’d hear the rails begin to hum. Then the ground shake. Finally, we could hear the diesel, with its low rumble of a mammoth.

            The engineers would blow the horn and Jimmy and me would wave our arms and hoot and holler as the freight cars drummed their bump-boomboom rhythm. When the train passed, and rails fell silence, the ground returned to calm, a strange quiet overwhelmed us. We’d sit on the rails and let a peace settle over us. Then we’d go, each to our own homes.

            One Monday, Jimmy didn’t come to school. He was out the entire week. At supper, I brought it up. My mom began talking about the cost of food until my dad cut her off and said Jimmy and his family were not our business. I began again and he raised his voice. No. Just, no. That’s all my dad said.

            Jimmy was back in school the next Monday. All the teachers seemed especially nice and patient with him and the principal called him to the office a few times.

            On our way home from school, we turned down the ash path along the tracks. Jimmy seemed lost in thought and I wanted to ask him where he’d been, but an awkwardness pressed down on us.

            The 3:45 freight was on time. The shimmering rails began their Siren song. Then the earth, as if to bear witness, began to tremble. Finally, the low, sad, animal moan of the engine literally shook out bodies.

            When it was a quarter mile away, Jimmy scrambled up the embankment of rock and planted himself on the creosote ties. He crossed his legs, one foot over the other, and held his arms out to the side, palms down, dropped his head, as if exhausted, hung on a cross. The horn sang a blues, as much to warn as to mourn the boy before it. The bulk bore down on Jimmy. Two-hundred yards. One-hundred. Fifty.

            When the train was a dozen yards from him, Jimmy leapt to the other side, down the embankment to the cut between the tracks. It took two, three minutes for the train to pass. When it did, I climbed up to the rails. Jimmy was gone. They found him the next day in Alton. He’d walked twenty miles overnight.

About the Author

Richard Stimac published over thirty poems in Burningword, Clackamas, december, Faultline, Havik (Third Place 2021 Poetry Contest), Michigan Quarterly Review, Mikrokosmos (Second Place 2022 Poetry Contest; A.E. Stallings, judge), NOVUS, Penumbra, Salmon Creek Journal, Wraparound South, and others, flash fiction in New Feathers, Paperbark, Proud to Be (SEMO Press), and Scribble. He has also had an informal read of one act plays by the St. Louis Writers’ Group and Gulf Coast: Playwright’s Circle, and an article on Willa Cather in The Midwest Quarterly.

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