Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/kathy4/ (by permission)
Susie and I walked the tracks. A lot. Usually without an end in mind.
In the summer, we breathed piney pitch fumes rising from the railroad ties and struggled not to gag from the smell. In cooler weather, we filled endless paper shopping bags with broken pieces of glass--violet, cobalt, ruby, amber, turquoise--fragments spilled from open-top shipping cars over the decades.
Dying it may have been, but during those summers, the town still had a few jewels left over for us to find from its heyday as a coal town, a clay pipe town, a brick town, a glass town. It even had giant, inexplicable mountain of broken glass, which was beautiful in a strange and puzzling way.
I wish the photo weren't so blurry. Those pieces of broken glass sparkled.
Most of those industries folded up and died during the years Susie and I grew up. What we were left with was a railroad town--and a pass-through at that. A train town that even Amtrak circumvented.
Susie moved a lot, from one rental house to another. When we met in first grade, she was growing up with a long-divorced mom who didn't work, a brother and two sisters (at least for a while), government cheese, food stamps, 7 dogs, 12 cats, and a rat named Rat.
Susie was everything I wanted to be, and wasn't. Small, thin, strong. A muscular little powerhouse with long, thick, wavy chestnut hair so healthy you could've braided it into a rope and used it to tow a wagon behind your bicycle. (I was taller and ganglier, and terminally uncoordinated. My tragic Cousin Oliver haircut combined the color of a mudpuddle with the texture and sheen of overcooked spaghetti. I was, in short, a mess.)
But Susie was also many of the things I was. We both loved to draw and write and paint and read. We traded books constantly. We were both smart, critical thinkers, even as youngsters. Both a little too sassy for our own good ("sassy" defined as "a minor questioning something said by an adult which made no sense whatsoever.").
Mostly, though, it was Susie's physicality I envied. Even in third grade, she could (and did) bruise me with unexpected punches, or wrestle me to the floor, forcing me to scream, "Stop! Stop! I give, I give." (Truth be told, after the first smackdown--having already been trained by a younger brother who was also stronger than me--I didn't try to fight back. It was easier just to take the hit, to lie down and surrender. This early life lesson and reflexive passivity doubtless did me harm later in life, but at the time, it made perfect sense.)
In short, I wanted to be Susie.
Suzie's first house's back yard abutted one of the town's many sets of train tracks.
Those tracks, heading southeast, were a shortcut to the city girls' softball field (5 minutes), which had a relatively nice set of swings, and then my neighborhood (10 minutes) next to the boys' baseball field (swings, a merry-go-round, a slide), then the slag hills (15 minutes).
Image source: http://travel.webshots.com/photo/1061461489042281173BegztR
(Not My Slag Hill...Just An Example)
Slag hills were always a good destination, whether on foot or on bicycles. The big one was a good climb. The little ones all around it made for great bike jumping, foot chases, and hide-and-seeking.
In seventh grade, our Social Studies teacher (borrowed from the sixth-grade classroom next door) assigned us a craft project to illustrate a period in world history.
Susie and I had at least three grocery bags filled with broken glass by this point. So we decided to use the glass to create a mosaic of sorts. I don't remember what the mosaic was supposed to be--something Byzantine?--but I seem to remember we got an "A." All those hours, all those years, all those weeks of walking the tracks and picking up worthless broken glass had added up to something.
Susie's second house was a half-block away from two other sets of tracks. One freight track ran beside the school where I'd gone to Kindergarten, and the backed up against the gas station her Uncle Walter owned. Between the two were a few acres of woods, a creek, some improvised bike trails, and open fields full of birds and mice and the occasional stray dog.
I have only cloudy memories of Uncle Walter. He'd give us each a bottle of RC when we stopped in to say "hi" on our walk home from school. Sometimes he'd also flip us a quarter for the pinball machine. His gas station was where we parted ways on that walk--me heading East to my house, she heading West to hers.
One early morning when we were in 4th (5th? 6th? 7th?) grade, somebody gunned Uncle Walter down outside the station. The local authorities never arrested anybody for his murder, as far as I know; my Dad hinted when I was a bit older that organized crime wasn't just way up there in Chicago, and that just maybe, Uncle Walter had owed somebody money or something.
Dad used to take me out for rides on country roads on his red Honda 350 when I was small; 5, 6, 7 years old, just a girl and her dad, my long blonde child-hair flying in the wind. In the beginning I rode in front of him, sitting on the gas tank, holding the handle bars just inside of his hands. When I got too big to do that, I graduated to the back of the motorcycle. Then dad got too big to ride the motorcycle.
One evening during this timeframe, we were in the car, stopped at a gas station near the High School when a thin guy with black hair rode up on the exact same motorcycle. Dad and I were excited to see it. How cool! A cycle twin! The guy rode off a few minutes before we did.
Dad topped off the tank of the Pontiac and we headed south to Grandma's house, three miles away. On the way, we were shocked to see the red cycle twin mangled on the same road. Dad dropped me off at Grandma's, went back to the site of the wreck to find out what had happened. (He was like that, my Dad. He knew everybody. One of the local cops--a friend of his--was on the scene and shocked to see Dad alive. He'd figured the dead body that had just been transported from the scene had to be Dad's, since nobody else in town rode that bike.)
The summer between 6th and 7th grade, Susie's older sister was thrown from the back of her boyfriend's motorcycle and killed.
Susie took it as well as any kid might.
And she got even tougher.
Me and Susie, probably in 8th grade
The creek and woods between Uncle Walter's gas station tracks and the Kindergarten tracks were one of our favorite places to waste a summer day. Susie and I loved those woods. We planned our lives--or at least what we could conceive of as "our lives"--in those woods.
We'd developed crushes on the Bad Cousins in our class and fought constantly over which Bad Cousin we'd date (never mind the fact that the objects of our budding affection hadn't quite gotten to the "Maybe Girls Aren't Entirely Yucky" stage yet.)
An old abandoned well sat beside the creek, long since covered up with a heavy iron lid. During long, humid days, we'd settle down on that well in the shade of the woods, lulled by the babbling creek, and talk. How much we loved the Bad Cousins. How much we hated the sadistic nuns and teachers. How much we hated our parents. How much we hated the town.
How we were going to get out.
We started a giant looseleaf binder one year, planning a horse farm we'd buy and run together. She would of course be our jockey--she was built for it. Tiny and strong. I'd be the general manager, or a trainer, or something. It didn't matter. Anyway, we filled up pages and pages with names of and drawings of our Someday Horses and our Eventual Silks. We drew up a map of the farm--the barns, the pastures, the training track.
The summer between 7th and 8th grade, local authorities found a body decomposing under the well's heavy iron lid, where Susie and I had spent so many hours planning our lives.
I don't think it was ever identified.
The transition from Catholic elementary school to public High School was a welcome one, but awkward. For eight years, 36 of us had lost teeth together, fought on the playground together, gotten chicken pox together, experienced emotional and physical abuse together, spent the day in the same classroom together. Of those 36, I was "friends" with only three or four. Now there were 820 other students to meet, to find a place among, to emulate, to avoid, to fear, to admire.
Even in a town of 15,000 people, that's a lot of strangers.
On the last day of 8th grade, Susie and I had signed up for the same High School foreign language. And so we saw each other every day for German class.
Had it not been for that, I'm sure I'd have lost her sooner.
In High School, Susie continued to harden. She was still a beauty-- a rough, savage one. She held her own more or less effortlessly against the loosely formed gang of smokers and pot-heads who lined the school's narrowest hallway, vaguely threatening the rest of us.
She took shit from nobody.
Meanwhile, I was trying to be girly, pretty much for the first time, without much in the way of guidance. I read Teen magazine and taught myself to put on makeup (Mom wasn't much into that kind of thing, and besides, I'd chosen to live with Dad.) I tried to grow out and glamorize my recalcitrant hair, first with permanents and then with bleach. I started wearing a lot of pink.
I signed up again for classes in the College Prep Track.
The first time Susie told me she'd signed up for Study Hall (read: naptime) I was dumbstruck.
I don't wanna.
Waste of time.
But you need other classes for college.
I'm not going to go to college.
Much as I'd have liked to argue with her longer, the lunch bell was ringing and another grade school friend was there to whisk her away with a crowd I didn't like much.
Susie and The Other Friend and I had a sleepover at her third house, late in our Sophomore year. This house was farther off the tracks than any of them.
That evening, around 9:00 pm, her oldest sister (it was the middle sister who'd died) came home from one of the dozens of bars in town, bringing along a couple of guys. I seem to remember one of them kept emphasizing, drunkenly, that he was 27 years old.
The long and the short of it is, The Other Friend and Susie wanted to go out riding with the guys in their Pontiac, and I couldn't think of a good enough reason not to ride along. So we all bundled in--two men, three fifteen-year-olds, a couple of twelve packs, and endless stretches of dark, flat, mostly straight country road.
I didn't say much for the next few hours (after my first and second "Can we go back now?" were ignored, I stopped trying). I didn't drink. I didn't make out with the guys. I didn't do anything. I sat in the back seat on the passenger's side, watching, horrified and fascinated, wanting to disappear.
When the car got back to Susie's house just at dawn, and I saw my father's car there, I knew I was in deep trouble. I hadn't chosen any of the evening's many idiocies, but I'd gone along for the ride. When Dad yanked me by the arm out of the guys' car and threw me into his, I was surprised to realize that while I was afraid of his rage, mostly I was just relieved to have made it back alive and unviolated.
Dad, just before his death in 1985. You'd have been afraid, too.
Susie and I were clearly now on two very different tracks.
The Other Friend had and kept a baby at 17 and dropped out of school.
Susie had her baby at 17. She did come back half-days to finish High School--an act which made me very, very proud of her.
I walked the tracks to visit her in the hospital right after the delivery.
I think I recall hearing that the baby's father died a few years later. I don't even remember what had supposedly happened to him. Was gunfire involved? It's hazy.
That baby, assuming that things worked out for the best, is now 27 years old himself.
Me...I got out of town.
I took the binder full of names for our Someday Horses with me.
I visited Susie (and her mother, and the baby) just once, on a visit brief trip back to my hometown during the first year of college. By that time, almost everybody else I'd known back there had cleared out.
Susie and her family were living as they always had, with a menagerie of pets, in yet another house. A fourth house. Just a few steps away from the Kindergarten tracks.