I don’t know what will happen with this. I had been working on an idea for a novel set at the Moundsville prison, but this opening scene for a totally different story came to me the other day. I’m still keeping the prison novel in mind, but I think while this other idea has captured me I might follow it through and see where it leads. This is not part of my upcoming book, Little One, which I am currently finishing up and plan to publish in the summer. Soon I will share more of that. Until then, here’s the opening of—of what? A novella? Novel? I’m sure it will be longer than a short story. I don’t know where it will go and when it will end. Time will tell—or will it, if the watch is broken?
Somewhere in southern West Virginia, a train snakes between misty green hills. I can write that and you can read it at any time, and it’ll always be true, except in the fall, when the hills are red, or in the winter, when the hills are white. When I think of the man that came—never want to, see, but some things you can’t rid yourself of so easy—I see him coming on one of them trains.
In my mind, this is how I imagine he came: sitting on a load of coal, his pointed elbow resting on the train car’s rusty lip, wrinkled blazer showing no dust, for it is as black as the coal and his soul both and so it hides what soils them. His velvet top hat, also black as sin, stays put even when the train whips its tail, because that is how my mind’s eye wants to see it, so why should the hat care? Next to his knees is a gaudy carpet bag. Every so often, when the train jostles, he grabs its handle, makes sure it stays safe. The sun rising behind him, he watches the long-shadowed hollers pass with his hungry, squinted gray eyes. His tie comes loose and flaps across his chest; the tie looks black too, but look closer with me and you’ll see that it’s dark red, and as it squirms about his collar it looks like a wriggling serpent fastened to his neck, or blood escaping an artery as if he had a heart to pump it. He tucks it back into his blazer. He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a gold watch on a long chain. He inspects the position of its hands. Don’t pay attention to what it tells him; like everything about this man, the watch is just for show. It neither tells time nor is it real gold. Still he studies its lying face as if he is checking his own in a mirror.
I see the train approach a sad old town, forgotten by all but those who couldn’t leave it behind, once full of miners trying to make do to feed their wives and younguns, now a blip on a long detour you’ll never take, the coal having run out there, as is its way. The tracks cut that town in half, and as the train crosses the trestles over the river, the man climbs down the ladder, carpet bag in one hand, and hangs on until the train car is crossing the road on the other side, and he hops off to land the soles of his fake leather shoes for the first time on Main Street of Augustus Valley, West Virginia. He stretches his sleeves, brushes his black slacks, adjusts his hat, and straightens his tie. He gives his bag a good snap with his wrist, and just like that the dust shakes off in a cloud like a puff of magician’s smoke.
I reckon it ain’t likely he came in on a train. More likely he hitched his way, hopping truck beds and backseats like rocks across a stream. Or maybe he had an old car, and with the kind of miserable luck I know that town to have, his jalopy broke down close enough for him to walk there and then stay a while. Or maybe he did come in on the train, after all. How he got to Augustus Valley ain’t as important as the rest, and I can think of it how I like.
But I will tell you what he did once he got to Augustus Valley, and I beg you not to dismiss that part as my imagination run off, or some such tall tale. It’s the God’s-honest truth. I tell it to you so that if you ever see him or another like him (for I’m afraid he ain’t the only of his kind), you will scorn his ragged suit and ridiculous top hat and fool’s gold watch and tell him to be on his way. And don’t you dare let him speak to you further, for if you let him drop that watch before your eyes and let his sweet honey voice slip inside your ears, and if he lights a candle and asks you to gaze into its flicker… Then God help you. God help us, all.