Saturday Morning

Dylan Henderson

The toy locomotive, following the curve of the track, slowed as it passed the depot and rumbled into town. I handed my son the last block, and standing on the tip of his toes, he placed the cupola atop the roof of the old Sequoyah Hotel on Main Street. The cat, its tail twitching, watched from the toddler bed near College Hill.

“It’s finished,” I said, watching the train as it passed through town on its way to the coal mines, “unless we buy more blocks, that is.”

My son straddled the track, turning a stray boxcar over and over in his hands as the train passed between his legs. He smiled but didn’t respond. Though only two years old, his smile had already hardened and become serious, melancholy even.

He turned and, looking at me for the first time, pointed at the locomotive as it disappeared beneath the bed. He spoke his own language just as I had at his age, and I understood him perfectly.

“Where does it go?” I asked, smiling. “If we owned more blocks, I’d show you.” I nodded my head towards the strip mines north of town. “Pretend that the rug marks the city limits. From there, the railroad follows the old highway for a long time. On a clear day, you can see the bluish-green outline of the Ozarks off to the east, but the land on either side of the track is flat. Barns and farmhouses, abandoned ranches mostly, line the highway.”

I took a deep breath and, leaning against the wall, closed my eyes. I spoke softly, afraid to wake his mother in the next room.

“Unless they’ve torn it down, the steeple of the First Baptist Church still pokes through the top of the pecan groves. Past the church, the track begins to curve as it approaches Claremont Mound, cutting right through the field where the Cherokees surprised the Osages at rest. I’ve followed the tracks that far, and just west of that spot, the river has worn a channel through the limestone. The bottom has filled with water, and the sides are honeycombed with caves.”

I paused, remembering. My son sat down beside me, still fingering the toy boxcar in his hands.

“The railroad,” I said slowly, “crosses the canyon about a mile below the dam. You’d have to hike a long way from the main road, but if you leaned over the bridge and peered into the water below, you’d see huge catfish swimming lazily along the bottom, their scales flashing in the sun.”

He leaned his head against my shoulder, and I ran my hand through his wavy hair. I could hear footsteps in the hall.

“I took your mother there once when we were dating,” I said quietly, “but we saw the spot differently. She could only see the broken glass and the gnats and the bones bleaching on the rocks along the shore.”

The footsteps paused outside the open door. Even with my back turned, I could smell the whiskey on her breath.

I stood up, pushing my fists deep into my pockets. “That’s as far as I’ve followed it,” I said, trying to sound lighthearted. “I don’t know where it goes after that."