He’d heard it already, the cold and steady promise way off, building and building but still way off, not yet even to the trestle over Rogers Creek. But coming.
He pulled closed the door off the kitchen quiet as he could, his hand on the knob and twisting it so as to ease the latch with no noise at all, and it seemed a kind of good luck sign to him, that no-sound to help him on his way.
He had his good clothes in the pillowcase, the white shirt and stiff denim dungarees and the yellow tie he’d taken from Frank’s things the day after he passed, and though he’d never worn the tie, only kept it like a secret fact out of Frank’s life that no one else would ever know, he was sure he’d look good in it when he went for his first screen test.
That’s what they called them, he’d seen in the magazines he’d read. A screen test, and his blood quickened at the thought of that, a test to see if you could be on the screen. A test he was certain he would pass, knew
he would pass.
He had a few copies of the magazines in the pillowcase, too—two Photoplays
, one Motion Picture
—he’d somehow managed to keep as secret as Frank’s tie, and there were sandwiches in there, wrapped in wax paper and made not but a minute ago. He’d tiptoed his way to the kitchen in the dark, sliced off thick hanks of bread on the butcher block, then found in the icebox a couple leftover slices of ham, slathered the bread with butter from the crock inside the icebox too, then got the wax paper from the drawer beside the stove. And he had two dollars in his pocket, maybe enough for whatever other food he’d need for the three or four days he figured it would take to get to California.
He was ready.
He was going.
He heard the promise out there build, knew the train was just past the creek now, but before he ran he stepped off the porch, looked at the house like it might say good-bye itself, like it might ask for his autograph before anything ever began. But it was only a house, he saw, one he had already left with this closing of a kitchen door.
And then he looked up at the stars out here, and how sharp they were, how eager and close and true they were, and he thought of how many nights he’d sat in his bed and looked out at them all, waiting for this night when they’d accompany him on his way, and he thought too of that word itself, stars
, and about Hollywood, USA, and why it was the perfect word to call those folks out there, because of how they shone against the wall in the dark of the Rose.
But here was the rumble of the train coming and coming, and he turned and ran through the yard, cut across the Robineauxs’ lot behind their house, and behind the Crosslands’, afraid someone might see him on the street though no lights were on in any of the houses, and now he was out past the Crosslands’ and angled to the right and out onto the street, no more houses on Blackbourn until his daddy’s at the dead end, less than a quarter mile away now, and he ran harder, faster, because here was the train coming up from behind him, here was the train, and he could see in his mind’s eye the train running past Pacific Street now, and now about to cross Beaulah, the sound of that train growing closer though it’d slowed down some like every time for rumbling right through the middle of town just that minute.
He could feel cool night air in his hair as he ran, and felt too the sweat coming up on him for this running, and for this charge through him of the steady and hulking and joyful promise the sound of a train passing through town truly is, and now he was almost to his daddy’s shack at the dead end of Blackbourn, the Texas & Pacific line right out his back door.
He cut into the heavy grass near to knee high between Blackbourn and the railbed, the train coming and coming, and now he saw the headlight of the train casting out into the darkness in front of him, the railbed a good thirty yards or so away, his daddy’s white shack off to his right and dark, no one in the world out here save for an engineer and a brakeman and whatever hoboes he knew would help him up and in when they saw him running alongside this train slowed for the nothing town of Hawkins, Texas, a train ready to pick up speed to take him all the way west, all the way to Hollywood, USA, and as he ran he could feel the wet through his dungarees of this grass out here, he could feel it at his shins and at his knees, proof enough he was really here and doing this, and here, here was the train itself passing him now not ten yards to his left, an awesome and huge and black and hurtling thing with its black wheels and piston rods shoving and shoving and he could see the little cab and the engineer sitting inside lit with the smallest light in the world, an old man with his eyes to the rails, looking west and west and west because maybe he knew what Hollywood and California were like and why it was important to get there even on a night like this one with its stars out and shining down hard.
Now he broke out of the grass and onto the gravel and there was the coal car passing him, and the first and second and third boxcar, all of them sealed shut, and he tried to swallow and couldn’t, because it seemed for just this moment, just this moment here, that the promise had been taken away, the door shut, his life over at age fourteen, Earl Holmes returned to a momma wouldn’t trade the crap out of a goose for him, and a daddy she’d kicked out for no good reason he knew.
That was the life he’d be returned to now, right here, and to all those sisters and brothers, and to the black hole of Frank gone these eight years, and here was yet another boxcar shut tight, and another, and still he ran, a burning down deep in his lungs now that gave his legs to know there wasn’t much more of this he could do, and still he ran, and it seemed even that the train and that engineer had maybe already given it the gun, started the speed-up that made the cold and steady promise of the sound of a train change pitch on its way out of town.
It seemed the train was moving faster now, and faster, and that his life was gone.
But then, then, here was another boxcar, and the gaping black promise of a door open wide, and he saw too a hand, and another, saw them right here, right here, and he ran harder now and harder, and the burn in his lungs and legs melted to pure joy and power and meaning, and he reached, reached and reached, and here, here was his hand in someone’s hand, and another hand on his wrist, calloused hands that pulled at him of a sudden, and he slapped the pillowcase up and into that black promise of an open boxcar door and these angels of mercy inside to help him, and his legs left the ground, him heaved up and onto rough planks and into the hard and welcome jostle and boom of this boxcar banging down the track.
“Welcome aboard, sonny,” he heard out of the dark, the angels and their calloused hands already gone, settled back against the walls in this black before him, a black beyond black, the only light here the light in from stars outside, and he nodded, said too loud, “Thank you for the hand up, gentlemen,” because he knew this was just like a flicker show, just like a flicker, and that he’d better get ready now to act in one every chance he got, whether he was standing on a street corner in downtown Hollywood or in a boxcar headed west.
He heard laughter from both his left and right, laughter thick and hollow at once. But it was laughter, and he stood up straight now, did a bow for them, and heard somebody out in the dark say, “Little Lost John, just sit the hell down ’fore you fall out the door,” and he nodded, took a step and another straight ahead of him, a hand out in front of him until he touched a rough wood wall he couldn’t see, and then he turned, eased his back down the wall until he was sitting, before him now the open boxcar door.
He could see the tree line out there, maybe a hundred yards off, and above it those stars.
Here it was: the world out there, waiting for him, this boxcar a theater, the open door a screen, these rough wood planks red velvet chairs, and the bang and scrape of boxcar to boxcar, wheels to rails, an old woman at a piano and making love to the story of stars and forest and night out there. Hurrah
, he whispered and felt the warm wet of tears sudden upon him, and he closed his eyes, blinked at these tears to rid himself of them because he didn’t want to be seen crying in this car full of tramps, but also because crying seemed not the way at all to begin the story, this flicker show of his life.
Then he smiled, because here it came to him, perfect and unbidden and true all at once, the way his story would genuinely begin, the way—of course!—it had
He saw the intertitle that would begin this all, saw the brilliant white letters curlicued and strong up on the silver screen, saw the words that would introduce the audience to this story of a boy with a momma couldn’t give a damn about him, a daddy gone to live in a shack, a dead brother who loved him, and a million brothers and sisters who couldn’t remember his name, and how this boy ran away one night, jumped onboard a train outside his little hometown and rode the rails west to find fortune and fame in the flickers.
He looked at the open boxcar door, this silver screen that revealed the opening shot of the flicker of his life, and saw stars shimmer above the trees.
He closed his eyes, let roll the words:
Our story begins . . .
Six days later he watched one man kill another.
Here had been the tired man huddled across the campfire from him, his eyes to the burning scraps of wood the dozen or so of them were gathered round, all of them waiting for the next freight train to start up out of Albuquerque, and the next ride they could grab to wherever that ride might take them.
And though the man’s eyes weren’t crossed, he wore a donkey-tail mustache just the same, and Earl let himself imagine the man was that slapstick Ben Turpin. Here was Ben Turpin, right out of Hogan’s Alley
or Steel Preferred
, same bushy mustache, same skinny face, sitting at a campfire outside Albuquerque, waiting for a train.
Six days gone, when all he’d planned was three or four for the ride out to Hollywood. But he’d taken off on the wrong line out of Dallas, ended up sleeping two nights in Tulsa before hitching on a line back into Texas. Only now he was headed the right way. The only way mattered: west.
He’d been looking in the fire himself, thinking on food, of course. The sandwiches had only lasted two days, and the two dollars was mostly gone for food in Tulsa and yet again in Dallas. He’d lost the pillowcase with his clothes and Frank’s yellow tie when he’d jumped on the train south out of Tulsa. And of course the magazines and their pictures of the studios were in there, and now he’d have no idea what to look for when he arrived.
But it was losing the tie that was the worst of it—he’d kept the fact he even had it a secret from everybody in the house for the last eight years, had taken it from Frank’s drawer even before they’d laid him out and dressed him for the burial.
He looked from the fire to Ben Turpin huddled across from him. He saw the man’s shoes, the sole pulled away from the toe on one of them, the leather sole itself separated into two flaps all the world like tongues one on top of the other. Almost like Charlie Chaplin’s shoes. The man’s battered hat sat nearly flush on his head, knees drawn up to his chest, his skinny arms held tight around his bony legs, same again as Ben Turpin, and Earl smiled.
Then the flicker show continued on: here came up from the dark just behind Ben Turpin a man who looked all the world like Montagu Love himself, straight out of The Ancient Highway
: the shaggy sideburns and greasy skin of the villainous logger Hurd all sweaty and heavy there in the cabin and eyeing Billie Dove, the dark-eyed Canadian beauty whose land Hurd wants to steal away.
Then here, now, Montagu Love lifted high above Ben Turpin’s head a bottle Earl hadn’t seen him holding, and for a moment it seemed he were watching all this on a screen, himself settled deep into a red velvet chair in a field of red velvet chairs, all of it lived out to the music the old woman played on the piano down beneath the screen, her eyes sometimes to the sheet music before her, but more often looking up to the story above her, to what Earl and everyone else in the house had to know was the pageantry, the mystery, the suspense of a life bigger and better and just beyond their own small lives.
Some nights, after he’d come home from sneaking out to the flickers, he dreamt he was with Little Mary, and he could feel her ringlets brush against his chest; or sometimes it was Vilma Bánky, the silver of her hair, the silk of her nightclothes as he clutched her in his arms same as Ronald Colman in The Night of Love
, her frightened of him but wanting him all the same, and here would be Vilma’s or Mary’s or any of a dozen starlets’ smile in his dreams, her fingertips to his chin, her lips and cheeks too close, too close, the thin tendrils of her hair down her cheeks just touching him, and then he’d wake with a shot to find himself in the dark of the house on Blackbourn. Still in Hawkins, Texas, in a room with four of his six brothers, in the next room four of his five sisters, the all of them littered about their rooms like the Foreign Legion in Beau Geste
, himself Colman again, this time to the desert rabble around him.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Ancient Highway by Bret Lott. Copyright © 2008 by Bret Lott. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.