I was on the train to kill a man.
The locomotive sensed my mission, engine chuffing overtime, filthy soot spewing into the white sky outside my window. Under the carriage, railroad tracks rattled and metal squealed, a familiar sound, conjuring memories, the very ones I’d come to avenge.
We traveled through tree-huddled masses, over mountain tops, from desolate stretch to desolate stretch. I invented games. The images blurred into macabre paintings. Then I focused on a single image—an owl on a limb, even though I knew it was bad luck seeing an owl in daylight. The owl stared back at me. I willed it to scream, to shriek, and indeed, the bird opened its mouth and spewed something black into the air.
“Die bird,” I told it. “Choke to death and die.”
We passed through the scarred land that was Wyoming.
The air grew thin in Colorado.
Within hours of Virginia, my heart started rumbling.
I was an inexperienced traveler and had never journeyed this far before. I wouldn’t be coming back anytime soon. Things had changed, and would change once more.
After two days, the train stopped and I got off.
I gave the cab driver an address, and told him I’d pay double if he sped.
Again images blurred outside my window, cherry blossoms a pointillist painting. Again a solitary image, this time a little girl in pastel holding a pink cotton candy afro. She looked something like Natalie, and so I smiled but she would not smile back. Perhaps she saw death in my eyes. Children sensed things the rest of us didn’t. Then, year by year, this ability stripped away, usually during sleep, hijacked by dream thieves playing music.
I paid the driver and walked up to the stoop, wanting my pulse to slow, but it would not.
I knocked. My knees shook.
A woman answered. She was too young to be the man’s wife.
I said I’d been one of his former students. It was a partial lie, of course.
“When was the last time you saw Leon?” she asked. “Because he’s taken a very bad turn. That’s why I’m here.”
She was his care provider. Helen.
Helen led me to a dimly lit room. The shades were drawn. An air vent made the fabric sway like loitering ghosts.
As if he knew, Leon sat at the piano bench, his back to me. I wanted to slash his throat.
When Helen said his name, Leon barked, “I’m telling you, Elizabeth Taylor’s coming to dinner!”
“It’s getting worse,” Helen whispered. “He only remembers fragments.”
She introduced me. The old man’s eyes whirled, the whites milky with yellow streaks.
“Why you’re one of those Kennedy boys, aren’t you? Jack or Bobby?”
Helen shot me a sad smile.
I asked if Leon and I could have a moment alone. I said I’d only be a minute; that’s all the time it would take.
Helen closed the door, and I studied the man’s neck. In between a shirt collar and white hair, his skin was exposed; dry flesh like flecks of baked mud. I pictured slicing through it, blood spurting, lobbing his head off.
“Do you still teach?” I asked.
He patted the bench for me to sit and I did.
“No, no. My fingers hurt.”
“Did you enjoy teaching?”
“Very much! Loved it.”
“And do you remember a girl named Natalie?”
I studied his eyes. He blinked once, searching, searching and coming away with this: “A redhead. Wore her hair in a bowl cut. Loved Mozart.”
“No, Natalie had chestnut hair. My color.”
“You Kennedys all have such thick manes, especially Ethel.”
“You taught Natalie for three years.” The switchblade in my pocket felt like a metal erection scalding my leg through the fabric.
“Three years? Then she must have been talented.”
“Bring her round so we can have a listen.”
“I’d like to.” I gripped the knife inside my pocket.
“Then do it! No time like the present.”
“I can’t.” I freed the knife, clicked the button, and watched the blade spring forth gleaming. “She’s dead.”
There is an endless blanket of cloud beneath us.
When she was younger, Natalie used to find figures in the clouds. She saw things I didn’t. She was bright and sweet and mine.
Around fourteen she began to change. My wife said it was a stage. But Natalie never came out of it. Even after the piano lessons stopped.
She ran away. We didn’t know where she’d gone. For years we worried that she’d been abducted, or worse.
And then a hostel in Spain called with the news. They found her twisting from the ceiling, shower curtain used as a noose. A note said, “I’m sorry” and my home number.
Natalie’s diary provided all the black details of abuse.
A map of Europe—certain towns highlighted— folded in back. All the places Natalie planned to visit, ending in Spain.
My ex-wife says it’s just like me to keep living in the past. She has her new husband as evidence that she’s moved on. I was going to have Leon’s scalp for proof of my own progress.
Instead, the old man gets to wither away. He’s in a kind of hell anyway. Killing him would let him off easy.
So, yes, I’m going to do some traveling. I’m going to trek on foot as Natalie did. I’m going to notice everything. I’m going to see every beautiful place, do it all through Natalie’s eyes.
published 30 August 2011