Crossing the trestle is trespassing. A black and white sign: DANGER KEEP OFF. We don’t. We run the tracks, two Mikes, Debbie Martelli, and me, high-stepping every other tie, avoiding the gaps, trying not to trip and tumble. A misplaced foot, a train coming on—we’ve seen the cartoons, the wedged foot, the wailed appeals. But we’re kids, luck carries us.
The river is wide and the way around long—from the junior high school, through Barnsdale center, uphill past the cemetery, and down County Road to the concrete bridge near the police station—and we’re late. Out of detention at 3:30 with no ride, part of the punishment it seems, school and parents creating an insurmountable obstacle: You will stay after school one hour. You will not be home late. How is that supposed to work, exactly? On foot it takes an hour to cover the 2.8 miles to our homes in Barnsdale Heights, and that’s only if we use the trestle and don’t stop at the drugstore. We always stop at the drugstore. “I need cigarettes,” Debbie says. She buys us coffee with her tip money—she works at her family’s restaurant. Me and the two Mikes are always broke. Gossipy girls with blue eye makeup sit in booths sucking on straws. Seventh-grade punks at the magazine rack shove Playboy down their pants.
Big Mike looks twenty years old in the ninth grade. He’s got bruises and scars. “My old man,” Mike says. “He’s a bastard.”
I’m closer to Crazy Mike, been to his house, met his smiley mother. She gives us snickerdoodles and Kool-Aid. She lets him drive her car because he has a learner’s permit. He’s in love with Debbie Martelli. Girls in our school are sticks. Short skirts and stuffed bras. Except Debbie. She’s advanced—big tits. She’s famous for what she supposedly does under the trestle bridge.
The two Mikes live on Ribbon Street and have been friends since kindergarten. Big Mike is a Neanderthal, receding forehead, prominent brow ridge, receding in general. He’s stoic, says our English teacher, Mrs. Macintyre, which we take to mean doesn’t talk much. Macintyre says we’re rude, crude, and socially unattractive. She also says she loves us. Especially Crazy Mike. He’s Macintyre’s pet. She worries over him, pushes his black hair off his forehead where the skin is stretched thin and a wishbone vein pulses. She calls him handsome, but the blue-eye-makeup girls scoff and move away. Crazy Mike talks all the time. Verbose, Macintyre says.
One day, Crazy Mike and I are out in the middle of the trestle, walking home from detention. Debbie is at work. Big Mike is beat up somewhere. The river is black, and the wind cuts in from the ocean, seagulls fly and cry, and crows walk and squawk, and Crazy Mike says, “Watch this” and drops to his stomach on the end of a crosstie and goes feet first over the edge. We’re forty feet off the water whirlpooling around vertical timbers supporting the tracks. I’m thinking suicide—goodbye, Crazy Mike.
Crazy Mike isn’t called crazy based on wacky behavior. We’re fifteen, half the school is crazy in that way, but something is genuinely wrong with him. His grin is a grimace, upper and lower teeth ground to stubs, black glossy pupils zone out his entire eyeballs. Fearful? Fearsome? No, fervor, that’s the word Macintyre uses, that’s Crazy Mike.
I lean over the edge and see the top of his head. The wind parts his hair, showing his skull snow-white as he shimmies down, using fist-size nuts and bolts for handholds, then crabs around to the back side of the timber and drops out of sight. “Chicken,” he says, a voice from below. I have to do it because he did. Feet first over the edge, bear-hugging the timber. I slide down and come to the narrow space. Crossbeams abut to form a hidden spot beneath the tracks, an ancillary of construction maybe, a place to store rail spikes and baseplates. “A hidey hole,” Mike says. Tight cozy quarters out of the wind, a crushed cardboard box to sit on.
This is the spot, says Crazy Mike, where they take Debbie to do whatever it is she does. But there is no “they.” Crazy Mike is a notorious liar, he claims his father is famous in California. And it’s well rumored at school that whatever Debbie does concealed within the trestle, she does only with Big Mike.
When the four of us are together, Crazy Mike isn’t so talkative, he keeps an eye on Big Mike. Crazy Mike looks up to Big Mike because of what he gets to do with Debbie Martelli. Envy and longing are our primary states. I’ve never been with a girl that way, and I know Crazy Mike hasn’t either, and Big Mike isn’t saying much, him being stoic and all, and his reticence makes Crazy Mike more paranoid and jumpy than he normally is. Big Mike’s response to most things is curt and profane. “Motherfucker,” he mumbles, “cocksucker.” Profanity is uncouth, loutish, and socially unattractive, Mrs. Macintyre says.
Debbie, too, keeps an eye on Big Mike, because she likes him, better than she likes us, I guess, or in a different way. She walks close to him down the tracks through the woods to the trestle, a long straightaway from the center to the river. If a train is in sight, we wait or run. Rattletrap trains moving slowly—freight, scrap metal, graffiti, no sleek people movers. We look forward and back, mark the train, Debbie says wait or go. We’re all in love with her.
If we go with a train in sight, the decision has to be spot-on because once out on the trestle there’s no turning back. It’s eyes down and hopping ties double-time, stutter-stepping rapid-fire, no time to look around. We get over the river and stand beside the tracks on the gravel. The train lumbers by, engineer points at us and shouts. We give him the finger. We throw rocks. Crazy Mike gets frantic with rocks, firing them down on fishermen passing under the trestle.
The police station is right there by the County Road Bridge, not a hundred yards from the trestle, a white stucco building with big unshaded windows overlooking the river. Do those cops never look? Are they too lazy to get out of their donut chairs? The trestle is a quarter-mile long, the rail ties a foot apart. The span isn’t sprintable—it takes time to hopscotch across. Are we invisible? A half-dozen officers, two or three detectives, all they have to do is look out the window, grab their suitcoats and keys, zip across the bridge to Barnsdale Heights Road to nab us coming off the tracks. Hey, you kids! A little fear of God, a trespassing citation, a phone call to our parents, might have saved pain and heartache later. But no.
We’re left alone. No one sees us, apparently. Every day we walk into the drugstore and steal stuff. We envy kids who live near the center of town. They call us the Barnsdale Heights gang. Big Mike counts for two or three people, Debbie is infamous and sought after, Crazy Mike is crazy. I’m the new guy, living until seventh grade in West Barnsdale where I went to St. Joe’s and got walloped by nuns. In junior high, we get detention: three nights, five nights, we skip out and get more nights. It adds up, we lose track, we’re always in detention. Big Mike is absent a lot. Cuts and bruises. No one cares. At my house, coming home late draws parental ire. There are chores, reprimands, assignments. Sweeping the garage, weeding the garden, pushing a lawn mower. Things I’m not good at.
I’m good at shoplifting paperbacks: The Confessions of Nat Turner, The Eighth Day, The Bridge over the River Kwai. “Try the library,” Macintyre says. “You won’t end up in jail.” I steal Harold Robbins novels for the sex. Macintyre is amused. “At least you’re reading.”
Big Mike steals Zippo lighters and pipe tobacco. Tries to appease his old man with these. Crazy Mike steals rubbers, shows them off as if he has a use for them. Debbie steals Slim Jims and O’Henry bars. “Bad for my skin,” she says.
We’re slick, unsightly, socially unattractive. We come and go, we’re together, we’re apart, we never know from day to day if we will ever see each other again. We assume we will, but that’s because we’re teenagers steeped in self-importance and confusion. We expect things to go on as they always have, which makes no sense because it is 1970 and nothing has been going on in any way consistent, past or present. Our days are mazy, tortuous paths. We look for ways through. We hide in the spot within the trestle under the tracks. We cling to each other, smoke cigarettes, and wait. Something will come, we know that much.
Trains are felt before heard. Mere sensation first, too slight to be called feeling, whatever comes before vibration. It starts with steel. An announcement from the rails above, then nuts and bolts galvanize, and washers the size of dinner plates start humming. Timbers cut from whole trees angle up from the water and crossties black with creosote come to life, groan in resignation, shoulder the burden, and sound off in a mounting uproar that grows until the daylight dims, the sky disappears. The train is above us, and we’re all screaming and deafened in the dark with the trestle creaking and shaking, and the jangling nuts and bolts offering no assurance that trembling struts won’t fall loose and the ties above crack and the rails twist and collapse and the train come down upon us. We roar because everything else does. Our eyes blur. Debbie grabs Big Mike’s arm. Crazy Mike’s teeth clench. This is as free as we ever get, trapped beneath the train, locked into a place from which we cannot move. There are no choices here. The engines alone weigh twenty tons. We can’t look up. Dust and grit and slivers of something mist down upon our heads, a veneer, fallout. Everything merges. We’re part of something—we have no idea what. There is no school, we have no parents, we are not late. We’re primal—chaos our only comfort. If we disappear at this moment, we imagine no one will notice.
When the train is gone, we’re buzzed and depleted, worked over, rushed out, down from a high. The trestle slows its breathing. We climb out, safe in silence. The world could be ended but for the wind. It’s always windy on the trestle, and it rains constantly. And now we’re late.
Crazy Mike wears a wristwatch with a wide leather band. “Four-thirty,” he says, when we hit Barnsdale Heights Road.
“My old man’s going to beat my ass,” Big Mike says.
“You want me to go in with you?” Debbie says.
“Tell him you were with me.”
Big Mike’s dad is Big Mike quadrupled. Whatever came before Neanderthals. Outboard motors hang from trees in his front yard. Ribbon Street dead-ends at the salt marsh where Crazy Mike has a Boston Whaler. We take it out, fish the cove, rake black mud for quahogs.
When the two Mikes head down Ribbon, I walk on with Debbie. She lives in a new house overlooking the river. “Let’s run,” she says, for which I’m grateful. Walking alone with Debbie makes my bowels churn. “Race to the next telephone pole,” she says.
It’s uphill all the way. We run a pole, then walk a pole, winded. Run one, walk one, making our way along in phone-pole segments. I say stupid things. “Do you like field hockey?” She knows I’m a dork, but it’s okay. “How many nights you got?”
“No idea,” she says. Detention is a self-perpetuating mystery. It’s hard to recall the original infractions, how one thing leads to another. “I got five nights for skipping science,” she says, “three more for skipping detention, then got caught smoking so . . . How many is that?”
Being the sole companion of a girl shuts down my brain, and Debbie isn’t even a girl, she’s a fully formed woman. Most alluring in her waitress uniform. Checkered green and white with snaps gaping up the front. Everything Debbie wears is tight, not tight by design like the stuffed-bra girls in blue eye makeup, but tight like whale skin, her body pushes out. When she’s not at the restaurant, she wears blue jeans and thick sweaters. Mohair or something, puffy. “Run,” she says at a pole, “now walk.” I wait for clues, for words that don’t sound as if they come from a lobotomized aardvark. If I pass math and science, I’m headed for the high school—I should know how to talk to girls. Mrs. Macintyre says I’m either going to college or jail. After we’ve run/walked about a hundred telephone poles, there is a bond between Debbie and me. We’re connected by phone poles, sweat, laugher, heavy breathing, and once in a while we bump shoulders. We’re close in a way, not the way I’d like to be close to someone like Debbie, but something I don’t have with anyone else. At the end of her driveway she says, “So long, see you tomorrow.”
I love you, meet me under the trestle. “Bye,” I say.
By Thanksgiving, rain is mostly sleet, which means ice on the trestle. White ice crunches underfoot and crumbles, black ice is hard and slippery. Last winter Debbie fell and broke her wrist. Snow doesn’t collect, too windy. There is frozen bird shit. Gulls cry overhead, and crows squawk on the trestle ahead of us. “Sounds like they’re quacking,” Crazy Mike says. Nobody says anything. “I mean the sound they make. Doesn’t it sound like quack-quack-quack . . . ?”
Big Mike says, “Shut up.”
December, January, we freeze. Detention is the same. We get out late, walk, footwear inadequate, it’s dark by 4:30. In class Macintyre wears heavy plaid, like sofa material. She’s huge and paces between our desks, a woman who loves us. “What would I do without you?”
She calls Crazy Mike “Michael J.” since his middle name is James. She protects him on reading days. Up and down the rows, kid after kid, paragraph after paragraph, Macintyre calling out: “next”—“next”—“next” . . . All the books are the same. Heathcliff wants to fuck Cathy, Gatsby wants to fuck Daisy, Holden wants to fuck anyone. Crazy Mike always gets an easy paragraph. Macintyre keeps him off the hot seat, out of the griddle of snickers and smirks, blue-eye-makeup eyes rolling because he can’t read worth shit and if he gets frustrated, he stutters, the wishbone vein pumps, his face goes beet, he flies into a rage, and look out the book sails across the room. We keep watch, ready to duck and dodge. Macintyre reads fast ahead, spotting hard words coming up: rural, crocodile, imbecile. When he’s sweating and stuttering, Macintyre pushes hair from his eyes, forehead vein pulsing, about to p-p-p-pop. “Next,” she says.
Crazy Mike is no good in phys ed either. He’s got skinny legs and is ridiculed by Coach Larry Duchene, an asshole with a cleft palate who loves Big Mike. All the coaches love Big Mike, but—we’re so grateful for this—Big Mike hates sports. He especially hates football. All his life fat men like his father have been coming up to him and saying, “I’ll bet you play football!”
Big Mike hates jocks, and if he catches one alone, which is hard because they’re herd animals, he flattens him on general principles, no question, cause, or reason. A jock walks out of the drugstore, Mike bumps him up and says, “I don’t like the way you look,” then mashes his fist into the guy’s face so hard he’s out cold before his head hits the sidewalk. That’s what Big Mike would like to do to Coach Duchene. He hates him because of what Duchene does to kids like Crazy Mike, the nerds, the ungainly, the inept at punt, pass, and kick.
We never want to go to phys ed, and one day Crazy Mike has his mother’s car. “Let’s skip,” he says. “Drive to Seekonk Speedway.” It’s getting close to the end now, high school across town in the fall if we pass, if we live that long. The car is a big Buick Riviera, 1967, sky blue. Debbie and Big Mike wed together in the backseat, mash down, make out. Filthy snow is sheared hard alongside the two-lane road heading inland away from the water, big black oaks and elms stand frozen, seatbelts are shoved beneath white leather bucket seats, slippery, vast carpeted floor, leg room from here to hell, and not a damn thing to hang onto, to brace against. Crazy Mike drives like Crazy Mike. I hang onto the door, the car fishtails through the curves, Mike laughs like a devil. I try to act cool, but he knows.
Welcome to Seekonk Speedway. We’re welcomed with padlocked gates. Mike’s dark eyes glaze over. Teeth grind. Forehead vein pulses. Debbie and Big Mike raise their heads, mash back down, the car heats up. Crazy Mike is unprepared for this disappointment. I wait for the explosion, the frenzied rage, the head pulsing to pop. He appears to be in a trance. His face is a mask. He moves the chrome shifter to reverse, backs away from the gate. Seekonk Speedway is closed. The day spreads out before us. Debbie is making mewing sounds from the backseat. The Riviera is 4,500 pounds of steel powered by a 425-cubic-inch engine. “Now, Mike,” I say, “we can go to the beach.” He’s stone, staring, the jaw grinding. “How about Newport Creamery? You like the creamery.” He’s not hearing me. He pushes the pedal into the carpeting. The car surges forward, and he snaps abruptly into crazed laughter. We’re all dead. He’s in control now, for once in his life he gets to say what will happen, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. Crazy Mike senses fear emanating from my side, and like a shark in a feeding frenzy, it spurs him on. He hangs the car way out on the curves, tires screech, a hubcap flies into the trees. I smile, ha ha, wow, that was a close one. He knows I’m terrified and goes hard on the gas, roaring into the turns, increasing the margin for error. After a particularly close call, he turns his head from the road—we’re going 90 mph—he looks closely at my face, makes sure I’m petrified. He twists his head to the backseat and jerks the wheel hard, as if to knock Debbie and Mike out of the car. His crazed, crooked grin is pure ecstasy. It’s the happiest I’ve ever seen him. The day of our death.
But no. We don’t die, not yet anyway. We get detention for skipping. Mike’s mom takes the car away. We huff and puff in the despairing days of February. We hit the drugstore, sip coffee, and steal shit. We trudge the tracks to the trestle. There are ice floes in the river. The police station windows are fogged with cop breath. We’re frozen and want to zip across, but a train appears. It’s Valentine’s Day, by chance, and we’ve stolen red heart boxes of chocolates from the drugstore. “Wait,” Debbie says, hugging her hearts.
“We can make it,” Crazy Mike says.
“No way,” she says, “too close.”
Crazy Mike quakes head to toe, shivers from impatience, from the cold, from the ache of desire. Debbie rubs cherry lip balm on her mouth, wipes her nose, puffy breath. We’re ankle-deep in snow. Big Mike takes off a glove, snaps open his Zippo, lights a cigarette in the wind. “Debbie’s right,” he says. “We should wait.”
Crazy Mike says, “No, no, come on, I’m freezing.” He wants us to listen to him.
“Forget it, Mike,” Debbie says. “It’s coming too fast.”
“We can make it!”
Big Mike sucks hard on the butt, looks back at the train, looks at me. “Chuck, what do you think?”
“I don’t know,” I say.
We know stalling isn’t good, if we’re going to go, we need to go. But Debbie’s firm. “No, Mike. Don’t do it.”
He does it. Takes off, hitting every third tie, slipping on black ice, crunching on white. “He’s gonna bust his ass,” Big Mike says.
We look at the train, look to Crazy Mike. “Idiot,” Debbie says. “Why does he have to do things like this?”
For you, he does them for you. “He’ll make it,” I say. I’m pretty sure he will, the trains move slow across the trestle, predictable, nothing new ever happens, except when it does. Come what may, Macintyre always says, May will come.
The train comes at us, a black speck growing larger, gradually filling the white sky. Up ahead on the trestle, Crazy Mike scrambles. There is no room to stand aside and let it pass. “He won’t make it,” Debbie says.
“He has to make it,” I say.
Big Mike spits, tosses his cigarette butt. “He’s gonna be a grease stain.”
Debbie jumps onto the tracks, waving her arms at the train. I follow her lead, we holler and shout, but the engineer has his window shut tight, glazed over with ice. The last we see of Crazy Mike, he’s paused in the middle of the trestle. Debbie screams, “Don’t stop!” He’s looking back at us and grinning his crazy grin. He wants to be sure we see him out there, balls to the wall, pedal to the metal, bolder than brass. He raises his arm to wave, then the train rumbles by blocking him out.
“He’s a goner,” Big Mike says.
But there is the spot, the hidey-hole, and Crazy Mike knows exactly where it is. We run toward the trestle and see him at the last moment slide over the edge, shimmy down the timber.
“He’s got it,” Debbie says.
But it’s so rock-hard cold, all the days of snow and sleet, maybe the timbers are slick, handholds iced over, or so raw to the touch that Mike’s fingertips can’t hang on. He’s clinging, we see that clearly, about to crab around to our hidden spot of safety under the tracks, then just as clearly and seemingly with no time passing, he’s off the beam in midair forty feet over the water.
“Holy shit,” Big Mike says.
The train rolls. We don’t hear his body hit the water. It’s instant fast, and Debbie is screaming and hauling ass, hearts in hands, for the police station, while me and Big Mike clamber down the frozen weeds and black rocks to the water’s edge. Crunchy white ice skirts the shore, and under the trestle where the water pools up around the timbers there are floes of clear black ice the size of car hoods. Through one of these we see Mike’s white face pressed up from the dark below with his mouth wide open as if to fog a window.
“He’s dead,” Big Mike says. He looks at me, looks at the police station. “We’re gonna be fucked.”
I look to Big Mike. I’m the new guy here, the two Mikes have always been together. That’s his best friend under the ice. We run back up the rise, across the tracks, hide in the trees and watch the cops come from the station in flapping suitcoats, led by Debbie. They’re on their radios, Debbie is pointing to where Mike went in. She’s screaming stuff we can’t hear. No one wants to go into the water. She slides to the end of the shore ice and breaks through into the river. One of the detectives—we see him shaking his head—goes in after her. Another cop takes off his coat and shoes, and dives in, swims for the trestle. “He’s dead,” Mike says. “Let’s get out of here.”
Next day at school we hear the story as if it’s news. We’re captured by the assistant principal, pressured with questions, threatened with consequences. We say nothing. Macintyre knows we know, she also knows better than to ask. Debbie is furious with me and Big Mike for vanishing. We fawn and beg. “What were we supposed to do?”
We hear it took a long time to get him out of the water. A cop boat, a diver, an ambulance. The paramedics shook their heads sadly. But at the hospital a miracle—he’s alive. We hear head injury and brain damage. “No harm done, then,” Big Mike says. We all laugh.
Mrs. Macintyre does not think it’s funny. She’s upset that we don’t care. We do care. But we don’t know what to do about caring. We only know how to act like each other, stumped and affected; one person sneezes, we’re all sick; someone guffaws, we fall to our knees; we only cry alone. Macintyre says callous, and we feel bad. When she scolds us, it hurts, we’re embarrassed for being baffled. She’s the only teacher who isn’t afraid of us, which is why we love her. But still, what are we supposed to say? Crazy Mike was crazy. He ran the trestle and fell in the water. We told him not to. The only thing we know that no one else knows is that he did it to one-up Big Mike and impress Debbie. Macintyre may know that. Debbie cries and runs from the room. Mrs. Mac lets her go.
Debbie won’t talk to me and Big Mike for a few days. There are questions about detention, parents call the school: How are these kids supposed to get home? Who is responsible for them? Why is there no late bus? There is talk, rumors, possible Saturday school, and something’s got to be done about that damn trestle. But soon it fades. Like all else. Teenagers, people say, trespassing, doing stupid things, no lawsuit there. We’re still in detention. We’re warned not to cross the trestle.
Crazy Mike never comes back to school. He becomes a legend, a miracle child, the kid who died and came back. Twenty minutes in ice-water. We hear they revived him after no pulse, a doctor said heartbeat undetectable. One of those rare cases where the cold shocked his body into suspended animation, hibernation, whatever. We hear oxygen deprivation, definite brain damage. We’re too old for crayons and clarity, card-making with construction paper and blunt nose scissors. Edible glue will not nurture us now. That’s all done. We live with kids crippled in car crashes, kids abducted, kids dying of cancer. The nuns at St. Joe’s would have us pray, but at public school we don’t bow our heads. There is no moment of silence for Crazy Mike.
One Saturday morning, Big Mike is on his porch smoking a cigarette when a special van drives by his house and backs up to Crazy Mike’s house. Big Mike gets in to see him a few days later. “He’s a vegetable,” Big Mike tells us. “Wears diapers and drools.” Crazy Mike’s mother asks him to take the whaler. She doesn’t want to look at it. Her son, Michael James DiOreo, our friend Crazy Mike, will never drive anything again.
It’s not the same running the trestle without him. We’re not a gang anymore. I’m a third wheel now. Debbie and Mike go down under the rails to the spot. I go on alone, run a pole, walk a pole, and always looking down Ribbon Street to his house when I pass. Afraid to see him, but wanting to. The weather gets better, the days longer. It becomes clear I will, with a bit of luck and help from Mrs. Macintyre, pass on to the high school across town. I want to see him before the end of the year. His mother meets me on the porch after I knock. “I’m just passing by,” I say, “last week of school now.”
She nods, smiles the way she used to. “He won’t know you,” she says. “You may tell him who you are, but you mustn’t push him to remember. Okay?”
Infinitely fascinated by an Etch-A-Sketch, he doesn’t look up when I walk in. “Hi Mike,” I say. He’s in a big high chair with an attached table like you see at a hospital. He’s twisting both white knobs at once, not conceiving vertical, not comprehending horizontal. He’s happily making a scribbly mess. Happy, I think, yes, that’s what strikes me. The old Mike wouldn’t have been amused by such a device. He wouldn’t have had the patience for small knobs, such firm lineation, side to side, up and down, nothing had ever been so simple. He’d have stuttered and pulsed and sent that thing aloft. This Mike’s face is pasty and unfurrowed, and he’s happy with the chaotic mess he’s making, has made. “It’s Chuck from school,” I say. He looks up, smiles, goes after the Etch-A-Sketch with glee. There will be no teeth grinding here, no maniac laughter, insane grin, jittery terror. Crazy Mike is gone now. There is left this happy high-chair kid. I see he’s strapped in. His mom brings snickerdoodles that sit on a plate. He doesn’t look at them, and the one bite I take hangs dry in my throat.
When school gets out, what detention we have left is written off, forgiven, forgotten, null and void, moot, whatever. Who cares? Detaining is done. We’re gone from this place. We say goodbye to Mrs. Macintyre. She always liked us. “Take care,” she says. “Be careful.” Mrs. Macintyre sees the future. I’m headed for college or jail. Big Mike will drop out and be drafted. Debbie will get pregnant and marry.
Then the three of us go to summer school to make up work we didn’t do while in detention. Each morning we meet at Debbie’s house on the river and take Crazy Mike’s whaler up to the boat launch at the County Road Bridge near the police station. We tie off and hitchhike to the high school by nine. At noon we get out and take the boat to one of the islands. Big Mike steals beer from his old man, and we spend the afternoons drinking and fishing and idling around the coast. Debbie strains her bikini straps, sunning away the summer. We don’t forget about Crazy Mike, he’s always with us, but walking the trestle is a thing of the past. We’ll never go that way again.
Then one day, coming back from doing nothing, late afternoon, as we idle the boat under County Road and come face to face for the thousandth time with the trestle, Debbie says, “Let’s stop at the spot.”
Mike looks at me. “Why not,” I say.
“Fuck it,” he says and cuts the motor, and we drift under, tie off, and climb up. The raggedy piece of cardboard, a flattened corrugated box from a moving company, is still there, smoothed and stained, the edges soft and worn. Who else knows about this place? No way to tell. Cigarette butts, beer cans, used rubbers, detritus of kids with no place to go—the river sweeps it all away.
We light up and smoke, and everything is quiet but for the water whirling and pooling around the timbers. Out of sheer disinterest, Big Mike, sitting cross-legged, idly flicks his Zippo on and off to a corner of the cardboard. It’s been a dry summer. It’s dusk now, and the dampness comes on, and we’re wet from splashing in and out of the boat. The cardboard corner lazily burns a fuzzy blue flame. I add a sliver of dried creosote no bigger than a toothpick, then another, Debbie adds torn bits of a Marlboro box, and we have a tiny, cereal-bowl-size blaze going on one corner of the cardboard. It’s cozy and calming, at first. The creosote slivers burn with a delayed but urgent intensity. Once heated up, they ignite hot surges of little blowtorch flames. We don’t even know what creosote is. Black oily smoke gets into our lungs and burns our eyes. In the tight quarters there isn’t room to maneuver, and we are soon captives to the blaze, choking on fumes.
“Christ,” Mike says, coughing and rearing back, trying to shove the burning cardboard away from him with his foot.
“Don’t feed it!” Debbie says, waving a hand in front of her face. “It’s big enough.”
“I’m trying to get it away from me.”
“Let it burn down,” I say.
But it isn’t going to burn down. Quite the opposite. The cardboard burns quickly away, and the fire sits atop a creosote-soaked crosstie that runs the width of the trestle.
“Son of a bitch,” Mike says, trying to rise.
The spot is tight. There isn’t room for three people to stand and stamp out a fire that is doubling in size by the second. Debbie is gasping and turning away. We’re fucked. No one has to say it. We aren’t going to be able to put out the fire. We scramble. Debbie goes first down the timber, then Mike. I have the sudden fear that Mike will start the boat and leave me, but no, I hit the boat hard, rocking it side to side. The outboard is burping, and we’re moving under the trestle.
We hear the blaze overhead as we pass beneath, the popping and cracking of the creosote-treated timbers as cold air, sucked from the dark water, feeds the fire. It roars like air forced through bellows. Heads bowed, we clear the trestle and don’t look back. We head upriver as fast as the whaler will go and are soon out of earshot, and Mike turns the boat in the dark and we watch transfixed as blast furnace flames engulf the crossties at the spot in the heart of the trestle and shoot up above the steel rails already starting to glow red in the night. Heat waves and flames ripple higher than we are tall through the gaps we’ve spent three years skipping over. Nothing else happens. Cars don’t stop on County Road, cops don’t run from the station, it seems we are part of something that doesn’t matter. The trestle simply burns higher, out of control, and we follow the sparks racing wildly away, brilliant now against the black sky on their way to dying out.