Life Is Short
This story takes place from November of 2010 to March of 2011
It had been a long time since either of us had been to Santa Fe for fun, and we'd never gone together just for enjoyment, so we took the Railrunner north. The last time I'd gone up just to look at Santa Fe the Railrunner hadn't existed yet, and so I'd driven. And when I've gone up on business – I'm a private detective in Albuquerque, but sometimes following a trail leads me out of town – I've driven because it's a lot more convenient to drive around than walk around, especially in high summer. Cecelia's done the same thing, though she hasn't been in business for years now – she gave up her own financial consulting outfit, or whatever it was – in order to spend more time with Darlia, who was still young at the time. I've given up asking her to explain what she did for a living when we met, and did for some extra income for a while after we got married – she swears her explanations are crystal clear, but I can barely balance a checkbook and they just confuse me.
Anyway, we'd paid for parking downtown, there being no convenient buses in Albuquerque unless you live real close to Central Avenue, and got on the train. I'd never been on a train before, and mentioned it to Cecelia as we climbed to the top level.
"I have not traveled by rail either," she said, from her position in front of me, the stairs being too narrow for us to go side-by-side. "One of my cousins whom you've not met – Edward, Great-aunt Lucresha's son from Dothan – 'rode the rods' as he called it, in his youth, but until I went to college, on the Greyhound bus, I never traveled at all. And by the time I had my degree, I had obtained my driver's license and bought a car."
We came out onto the floor – deck? – of the top level of the car, and Cecelia led us to seats about halfway down. As we sat across from each other, so we'd each have a good view, I said, "You mean you didn't learn to drive until you were out of high school?"
"Oh, I knew how to drive," she said with a smile that lit up her narrow face. "I drove Daddy's truck in the fields, and even into town – you'll remember that one of the things you didn't have to teach me was how to use a stick shift – but I never bothered to obtain a license. It is not contrary to law to drive without a license on private property, and the sheriff's deputies were not likely to cite a child doing an errand for her father ... though I did know of instances of DWB." She meant driving while black, something that's never been in the legal code but has, in various places, constituted unofficial probable cause for stopping someone.
"Sometimes I forget just how country you was when you was little," I said.
"But I can never forget that your use of English is approximately on a par with your knowledge of Martian."
"You don't use words accidentally," I said with a grin. "You knew exactly what you was doin' when you spoke of 'use' an' 'knowledge'."
"You are no fool, though you sound much like one." She reached across and put her hand on my knee, her dark skin and thin fingers resting briefly on the denim of my jeans. "And I shall never cease from my attempts to teach you to speak in a fashion that matches your intellect and knowledge."
I reached over and caught her hand. There are calluses on it from hard work and years of lifting weights, and the veins and tendons stand out. But it was warm, and the skin on the back of her hand was soft, and I thought briefly of leaning over and kissing it. But the position was just awkward enough that I decided not to, and besides I knew it would embarrass her in public. So I just said, "You can keep tryin' all you like, C – I ain't a-gonna be no different than what I always been."
She withdrew her hand, and held it up. "If I were wise, I would employ this extremity as a weapon to beat sense into your head ... or perhaps not. It would require something rather more substantial to penetrate your skull – a jackhammer, perhaps."
"I know that's right."
"Yes, you do know dat's right. Sometimes, Darvin, you sound exactly like a black preacher, down to the accent and intonation. And yet you certainly don't look black."
Nor do I – I'm half white and half Indian, though the white genes are the only ones that show. I'm naturally pale, but where the sun gets to my skin – my hands and forearms, and from my shirt collar up to my eyebrows – I've got a dark permanent tan. My tendency to tan at the slightest touch of the sun, and to retain the tan even in winter, is the only visible reminder that my dad was a full-blooded Lahtkwa Indian.
Cecelia, on the other hand, looks pretty black. Her face, it's true, is all edge – even her lips are thin, the heritage of some white or Indian ancestry, "a honky in the woodpile" as she sometimes jokingly puts it. But she's got the skin, and the kinky hair, and the broad flat nose that came all the way from Africa. And when she wants to, she can bring back the rural Alabama accent that she worked hard in college to get rid of, just as she'd worked in junior high and high school to enlarge her vocabulary.
I might have said something – I've got a smart mouth even if my brain is only middling good – but the conductor or whoever did such things made an announcement just then that the doors were closing. I kept my mouth shut, therefore, and looked out the window. But out of the corner of my eye I saw Cecelia grinning. She knew that, for whatever reason, I'd given up our battle of wits, and she was enjoying the victory.
She might as well – it's a common occurrence.
I don't know what trains used to be like, except the freight trains that I used to watch when we were getting water at Goffs when I was growing up. Those were Santa Fe freights – back when it was still the Atchison, Topeka, & Santa Fe Railroad, before the merger with the Burlington Northern – and if they were going west, up the hill, they'd frequently have half a dozen engines, for it's a major grade out of the Colorado River valley. They were grimy, beat up workhorses, and the locomotives rumbled and groaned and roared. There is nothing like the all-consuming power of several train locomotives suddenly going from idle to full power, to get a train that's a mile long started.
The Railrunner is much shorter – the one we were on was perhaps four passenger cars and an engine – and much prettier. There's a roadrunner's head on the locomotive, with a stylized tail in red and yellow streaming back along the cars. The roadrunner is New Mexico's state bird, though I hardly ever see one in Albuquerque. I saw them all over when I was a kid, pacing cars on the dirt roads and tracks of Lanfair Valley, demonstrating how they got their name. The one on the Railrunner isn't the same at all – real road runners are just a bit scruffy. They're dusty birds, which work for a living catching lizards and bugs and the occasional snake. They can fly, but seldom do; about the only time is when they're getting to the nest, which is often in the impenetrable branches of a cholla cactus.
The stylized roadrunner was on the upholstery of the seats inside. The floor was linoleum, or some such thing, but clean and neat, the walls of the car were white above and some sort of fake paneling below, and the windows were as clean as windows in public transportation can be. The only drawback was the air conditioning. In public places it's always either too high or not quite high enough, so that you're either freezing or just a bit too warm. In this car, today, it was just a bit too warm.
We must have been 30 feet up – or perhaps 25, since upon reflection we weren't actually as high as a three story building. But we were plenty high enough, higher than a bus gets you, and the view from where we were was one I'd never seen before. I've seen a lot of Albuquerque, and seen the place from a lot of vantage points, but since I'd never been on a train before I'd never seen it from inside a train, nor from this point of geography.
When the train started, there was no jerk. That surprised me. I was used to the rippling, emphatic bang of freight cars starting in sequence, the couplings taking up the slack and a lot of weight – at least, that's what I remembered, though it had been a long while since I'd heard it. Either they had smoother couplings on the Railrunner, or the engineer knew something about smooth takeoffs, for the only indication I had that we'd started moving was the sight of the scenery beginning to slide by. I looked at Cecelia, and if I was grinning as broadly as she was, I looked like an absolute fool.
"This is not what I expected," she told me.
"Not me neither," I said. "This is almost as smooth as flying, without the noise and the acceleration."
"If you would cease to insist on sitting where you can see the wing, you might avoid the sound of the engines."
"I've set elsewhere, an' you can still hear 'em – the noise comes right through the airframe," I said. "An' besides, some o' them planes got the engines in the back end."
"Darvin," she said severely, "when I desire the truth, I shall request it. And when I want your opinion, I shall give it to you."
I stifled a laugh. "You been listening all these years – them's my lines you done stole."
"I did not, however, purloin either your grammar or your diction; I have sufficient taste to resist that mild temptation."
"Just a mild temptation?"
"The day I wish to sound like you, I shall voluntarily commit myself to an asylum." And she faked a huge shudder.
I watched the buildings going by outside the window – the back of the house, I'd learned to call it while working on a case for a hotel in Dallas years ago. The back of the house is always more interesting. Out front you see what they want you to see – a pretty lobby, a silicone receptionist, plastic plants and plastic smiles. But in the back of the house you see the real stuff – broken pallets, discarded equipment, parts that have been obsolete for 20 years, someone's junked station wagon, loading docks that used to receive freight from box cars, disused tracks and gates. If you want the real world you've got to get away from what the PR people build, get off the interstate and off the front lawn, and look at things from a different perspective. That's why when we travel we like to go by state highways and county roads.
I looked back at Cecelia. "Kindly stifle yourself," I said.
The shock when she did stifle herself nearly gave me a heart attack.