In my hometown there was a sickly oak tree that stood over the freight rail. Climbing the boards nailed to the trunk, past the limbs dismembered to make way for trains, a branch hung over the tracks. Sitting on this branch, directly over the passing trains, is where Ozzy, Lenny and I spent much of our time, our bare feet dangling what seemed like just inches above speeding steel. These were our peaceful times.
Ozzy was the bastard child of an unemployed receptionist and a taxi driver. He was a dangerous sort of kid, the kind who would come up with ideas that put pits in your stomach. The kind of kid you’d get in trouble for spending time with if your parents knew the sort of ideas he had, like torturing animals and playing chicken with trains. He grew up beside the railroad tracks, across the street from me in a house that bordered on uninhabitable, and he lived there as long as I knew him. His life wasn’t great, but he stayed fed and mostly out of trouble.
Ozzy spent about as much time at my house as I did at his. I think he liked the order of it. My mom would stand us shoulder to shoulder and tell us the rules of the house, like a drill sergeant to fresh recruits. No swearing. No fighting. Don’t go on the neighbor’s property.
“If you get hurt I’ll break your legs.”
I think she knew Ozzy didn’t have many friends. I think she wanted to see me help him. She liked it when Ozzy came over, because it meant she could supervise us. It meant I wouldn’t get roped up in one of Ozzy’s bad ideas.
It was the early hours of a damp August morning, the morning he returned from a weekend with his father that he came banging on my window shouting “Miles! Wake up!” Bleary and confused, I cracked the window. He asked me if I’d ever hopped a train before.
“Well, let’s go,” he said.
“Isn’t that dangerous?”
“It’s fine. Don’t be a wimp. Let’s bring Lenny, it’ll be funny.”
Lenny was the only child of a decent family. His mother was a social worker, and his dad an engineer of some sort. He was a lanky kid, taller than me with a disorderly heap of dirty blonde hair which gave the impression that his face had stranger proportions than it really did. He had a learning disability, and a stutter that got him categorized by his peers as a dumb kid. Lenny was the kid on the playground who would get pushed around by big kids. He’d hit his head on something hard and cry about it. He’d make a big scene and get the big kids in trouble, but they thought it was hilarious so they’d just keep doing it.
I was a friend to him because nobody else was. We were eleven and he still wet his bed, but that didn’t bother me. Ozzy tolerated him, but he didn’t know about the bed thing.
Ozzy knocked on Lenny’s front door. His mother opened it.
“You boys are up early,” she said.
“Is Lenny here?” Ozzy asked.
“He is,” she said, and retreated into the house. “Come on in.” We stepped into the living room and she left to fetch her son.
The house smelled like coffee and pancakes and organic maple syrup and some kind of all-natural disinfecting cleaning agent. Ozzy seemed out of place there, standing in his ratty white t-shirt and his ripped and grass-stained jeans. His busted shoes were tracking something onto the recently vacuumed carpet. He was fidgeting. He kept looking and prodding at items around the room – an antique analog clock; a stack of bills and private letters left on the coffee table; a picture on the end table of Lenny at Space Camp with a big toothy grin across his face; a shelf full of self-help books and calculus texts.
“Hi guys,” Lenny said from the doorway.
“Let’s go,” Ozzy said.
“Where are we g-going?”
“Don’t ask so many questions,” Ozzy scolded. “We’re gonna miss the train.”
“The train. We’re hopping it. We’re leaving.”
“I don’t want to h-hop a train,” he said. “That’s d-dangerous.”
“What, am I friends with a bunch of pussies? Hurry up or we’re gonna miss it.”
“I’m not going.”
“Bullshit. You’re going.”
“I’m n-not going.”
Ozzy sneered. He looked to me, and then back to Lenny.
“Fine, whatever.” He knocked the space camp picture onto its face and then stormed out of the house. I said nothing and followed him.
Shortly thereafter we were standing on the gravel embankment watching the morning freight pass, the smell of diesel exhaust hanging in the air.
We ran. The train was too fast to keep up with, but Ozzy said you only needed to run fast enough that the ladder on the boxcar doesn’t get torn from your grip and throw you on your face.
My hand touched iron, but I hesitated and missed. I watched Ozzy try for the same ladder. He caught hold, and it pulled him off his feet. With great effort he hoisted himself onto the train.
“Get the next one!” he shouted. Diesel exhaust was burning in my lungs, but I kept running because if I stopped I didn’t know what Ozzy would do. I grabbed the next ladder and managed to hold on, pulling myself up onto the boxcar as well.
“Where are we going?” I shouted.
“What does it matter to you? We’re running away.”
“Ask me that again and I’ll kill you.”
I clung white-knuckled to the boxcar. Every bump was a shove, every sway an attempt to throw me onto the tracks below.
We rode the train for what felt like ages. We jumped off miles from home by a small pond in the middle of the woods. Diesel and oil and runoff from the white tank cars gave the water a rainbow film, beautiful in a way, but not natural. This was where frogs had five legs and snakes had three. This was where even milfoil couldn’t take over.
Without any warning, just like that, Ozzy jumped in. This kid in his jeans and t-shirt. This kid who, in third grade, ate an apple and left the core in his desk for weeks, until it rotted and stank up the whole room. This kid who, that same year, wasn’t allowed into the classroom because his shirt was too filthy. This kid, up to his neck in water and freight runoff, was saying “Jump in, it’s warm.”
“It looks gross,” I told him.
“It’s just water.”
The last of the train thundered past. Then it was just me, Ozzy and the mutant wildlife.
We spent the day there. We talked about the kids at school who wanted to start a gang. We talked about some movie with vampires. We talked about ketchup and book reports.
We walked the tracks and picked up old iron pieces of trains and rails, things you’d think were important: ties and bolts and clips and spikes and old fishplates, the things that hold two rails together.
We talked about the frogs.
“Freaks,” Ozzy said. He threw a fishplate at one.
We put rocks on the tracks, a surprise for a train some time later that evening. I’d never seen it, but Ozzy said when a train hits a rock on the tracks, the rock explodes into a cloud of flying bits. If you got lucky, he said you could get the rock to shoot out from under the wheel like a bullet. He said you could shoot through a tree doing that. He said you could kill someone.
We talked about his father.
“He spoils me,” Ozzy told me. “When I go visit dad, he gives me anything I ask for. This morning I had ice cream and ketchup for breakfast. He bought me a skateboard and we saw an R-rated movie with Alicia Silverstone in it. I’m going to marry her. Next time, he says he’s gonna buy me an air rifle.”
He hurled a rock at one of the mutant frogs.
“Have you ever shot a woodchuck with an air rifle? The way they toss and squirm around. It’s crazy.”
He got like that when he visited his father – violent and frightening. Vengeful. He showed me a large bruise on his shoulder, and told me he got it falling off a new bike his father bought him. He said he rode it off a jump he built out of an old piece of plywood and a cinder block, and landed on a curb. A curb with five fingers and a drinking problem, I guess.
We started walking back home at lunchtime, when we got hungry and it became clear that we hadn’t really thought through the running away from home thing. We talked about Kristen, the girl from school who we both insisted we didn’t like. Kristen with her curly red hair and the mole on her cheek and her markers of one color and caps of another. Kristen, with.her friends who made fun of us for hanging out with Lenny.
Then we talked about Lenny. We talked about the face he made when he was thinking hard about something, with his tongue stuck out and his brow all crumpled up like a page with a bad idea on it. How when he made his thinking face he looked like he was about to shit his pants. How, when he talked to Kristen he said stupid things like “your hair looks pretty” and “can I borrow your green marker?” And how when she’d hand him green, he’d get confused by the yellow cap.
We talked about that morning.
“I can’t believe he wouldn’t come with us,” Ozzy said. “What a traitor.”
“He was scared, that’s all,” I said.
“It doesn’t matter. He betrayed us. And don’t defend him.”
When we finally arrived back at Ozzy’s house, Ozzy stopped walking. An orange taxi cab was sitting in the driveway behind his mom’s stationwagon.
“I can’t go home yet,” Ozzy said.
“Ask me that again and I’ll kill you.”
We walked to Lenny’s house, because Ozzy decided we would. Both cars were gone, but Ozzy knocked anyway, and Lenny opened the door and mumbled, “H-hi guys.”
“Come outside,” Ozzy ordered.
Lenny stepped outside, and the moment the door closed, Ozzy grabbed him by his collar and pulled him off the steps. Lenny stumbled to the ground and regained his footing. Ozzy shoved him again.
“Ozzy, what are you doing? Stop it,” I said.
“S-stop it,” Lenny echoed.
Ozzy shoved him again. He kicked at Lenny’s knees, and Lenny fell. He kicked dirt into Lenny’s face and spat on him.
“Ozzy! Stop it,” I shouted. “Oz!”
Ozzy stopped, turning his toxic gaze to me. “You’re sticking up for this retard after he bailed on us?” he shouted. His clenched fists trembled at his sides. “After he abandoned us?”
I said nothing.
“Is that the kind of friend you are? You’d betray me for this idiot who wouldn’t run away with us? After all that stuff we talked about today? After I trusted you? You’re gonna betray me too? Pathetic.”
I shut my mouth and just watched Ozzy stare me down. I watched every twitch of his face – the sneer in the corner of his mouth, the squint of his eyes. His fists opened and closed like he was deciding what to do with them, like he was convincing himself not to turn his anger on me as well.
Ozzy is ten thousand tons of diesel-powered inertia. I am his stone bullet.
Ozzy’s attention returned to Lenny, who had stood up again and was now crying. Tears drew lines through the dirt on his face. His chin trembled and his brow furrowed in rage. His lip quivered and his spidery hands clenched into spidery fists.
Something snapped in Lenny. He transformed. He wasn’t a lanky kid with a speech impediment and a learning disability who wet the bed and cried on the playground anymore. Now he was an animal, wounded and prodded one time too many. He charged at Ozzy, fists everywhere, screaming, his words an incomprehensible jumble of stuttered syllables and emotions.
Ozzy faltered, then Lenny was on top of him wailing on his head and shoulders hard enough to be surprising. When he was done, he shouted in Ozzy’s face, “Don’t do that to me!” He shouted, “You can’t b-beat up on me anymore.” He shouted, “Go home.”
When we returned to Ozzy’s house, the taxi cab was gone and his mother was standing outside the front door with a cigarette between her lips.
“Where’ve you been?” she asked him.
“Around,” he said. There were no more questions. We went inside.
The inside of Ozzy’s house was not a clean place. Crumbs of food and short stacks of paper and bills occupied the area around his mother’s chair in the living room. The room was lined with miscellany. An old fan, a coffee maker, a few stuffed animals and clothes, an old broken water pistol, all collected at the edges of the room like they were kicked there years ago and forgotten. The TV cabinet was accessible through a path between a hill of VHS tapes and a mountain of CDs. We ate lunch and watched TV to kill a few hours.
Lenny knocked on the door later that afternoon, and Ozzy opened it.
“Hi Lenny,” he said.
“Is Miles here?”
“Do you guys want to c-come outside?”
Outside we rode old bikes and practiced locking the brakes and sliding through the dirt. We built jumps and approximated our air time. We put rocks on the tracks and looked for old iron train parts to add to the heap we’d been building each summer. We threw things at squirrels and said nothing of the fight that afternoon, a memory of different people from another time.
We climbed the tree and hovered over the tracks, waiting for the evening freight to pass. We sat on the branch of that sickly oak tree, our bare feet dangling over the rails. Together, Ozzy, Lenny and I watched the looming dusk. Together, we saw that moment become the next.