Circa 1939

Coal cars in EverettGrandpa Ellis didn’t talk about the time he spent riding the rails.

He didn’t talk much at all. He’d come of age in the company of hungry, hollow-eyed men, and he’d learned their silence well. Latched on like barnacles to the roofs of freight cars, they clicked off the miles of open country.

He died the year I was born. So I only know what others told me.

The story goes that Ellis’s father should never have had children: he took them into the cellar and belted them until the welts rose, until the skin blistered and broke and gave blood. I picture a man in suspenders, his undershirt yellowed with old sweat that perhaps the children confused with the odor of mildew seeping into their nostrils. The sockets of his eyes charcoal smudges under the glare of a light bulb, a pendant of heat swung from the ceiling.

His eldest son was the first to leave. My mother said Ellis never got over leaving his siblings back there. Abandoning them.

But he left to save himself.

A teenager orphaned by choice.

Imagine a kid on the roof of a boxcar, steel bristled with frost so thick it glitters blue in the moonlight. Imagine overalls. A too-big newsboy cap with the brim cracked. And his shoes would break a mother’s heart—the toe of one sole bunched open, his big toe sticking out like a tongue.

Wheels click over rails. Bare winter fields black and the musk of soil thick in the air when the freight pulls slow through towns. And when the fog of his breath clears, he looks up and sees the milky specks of starlight in black sky.

#

Many people who rode the rails later talked of a loneliness out there that broke their hearts.

But company wasn’t always much better.

A jungle fire flickers on the horizon. And the kid has to calculate.

He weighs the possibility of canned beans against the risk of the men he may not be able to scare off. It’s hard to know how to walk into a jungle. Too much swagger, and you risk anger. Not enough, and they’ll take what they want from you. More than once, he’d been turned out of a jungle still hungry and without shoes.

In later photographs, a grown man, Ellis stands with weight shifted uneasy to one side. He leans away from other people, a gaunt man, his face inscrutable from long practice. He has the look of a survivor. Someone who has learned what other human beings are capable of and knows to keep his cards close to his vest.

Looking at his old photographs, I see my father, my grandfather, myself. Kin down to our marrow, my grandfather a man bony-kneed and lank-wristed and freckled as his son would one day be.

#

There is only one photo of Grandpa Ellis and me together. It was taken a few months after I was born, and in it, the story seems to begin again. Another chapter for the next generation opens with the same first act—a child taking a young couple by surprise.

But even Grandpa looks astonished. As if he never got used to infants, the ten-pound heft of baby fat in his lap and gazing up at him, doe-eyed. His own stare avoids my gaze, frozen onto the camera lens from the davenport of a Kennewick ranch house, his blue eyes round behind thick lenses. The gray comb-over, ridges where the hair dried under comb teeth. I can almost smell the old-man smell of him—mint mouthwash and talc and a vague note of urine. His forearms stretch stiff as a forklift, supporting the swaddled granddaughter. When I was small, I looked into the photograph and worried that the next thing that happened was that I rolled off his flat arms and onto the floor. “No,” my mother said. “He wouldn’t let that happen.” But still, the blank astonishment on his face.

He died shortly after the photograph was taken.

All I really know about him is this: he ran away from home before he graduated high school, he rode the rails during the Depression, he ended up out in northern California where he met Thelma at a dance hall, and six months before my father was born, he married her. Then, during my father’s childhood, he went missing a lot. “Just not around,” was the way my mother always put it.

I also know that my father loved him. Desperately. Abundantly.

Hopelessly.

The kind of love I understand. The kind of love the runaway is looking for.

But hopes to never find.

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