Emily Varnell, University of Texas, Austin
Ten houses lined the sidewalks at the end of Bennett Street, and the girl counted them from behind the screen door. She liked counting them. Five on the left side and five on the right. She liked the house on the lot across from hers. It had a red door. The red was peeling in chunks, revealing the wood underneath. Sometimes the girl found a chip of paint on the road or the sidewalk when she walked her block. She wished she could sit on the concrete steps of that house and peel off the rest of the paint. Her door was white and plain. But her house was on the side of the road next to the train tracks, and she liked that more.
The girl lifted her face from the screen and ran to the back door.
“Train’s here! Train!” she said. She never tired of saying it. She liked how powerful the “t” felt on the edges of her teeth.
The train came and the house shook and the girl pretended there was an earthquake.
The train passed Bennett Street three times a day and three times a night. It was a small train with only two passenger cars, as there was no more demand for coal or lumber or steel. The city had been made, and the people had made themselves around the tracks for many years. The windows of the train were darkened now. The white rocks that supported the iron tracks had turned grey, then black. It carried smells from the city as it traveled back and forth from the suburbs. In the summer, the train tore up the dried grass and the wind it brought was hot.
The girl opened the back door as the train sped on. A chain-link fence separated the girl’s house from the tracks, stretching on past Bennett Street and the other streets. She went and searched for morning treasure up and down her backyard. When the train went by, trash and leaves got stuck in the fence and in the dead vines curled around the chain-link. The girl cleaned her portion of the fence. She cleaned it of bottle wrappers and plastic bags. She picked up a page of newspaper coupons and tried to read it. Once, a tennis ball, no longer fuzzy, was on the other side of the fence, and she dug under the fence through the dirt to grab it. It was her best find. She played with it until it broke her mother’s vase on the dining room table.
She stayed outside until her skin felt too hot and dirt caked her legs. She spent her whole morning looking for treasures and found none. She was hungry. She walked around the side of the house to the front yard. Her father sat on the concrete walkway with his legs crossed. A book lay in the space between his thighs. The shade from the oak tree in the yard crept up his back.
The girl looked at her father’s hair in the sunlight. It was very brown. She liked how similar her father’s hair was to hers. She liked how dark it was. She liked braiding her hair when the sky was so dark she could not see it. She liked twirling the strands of it and wrapping them around her forehead. Her mother washed it every third day. Then her mother would dry it with the hairdryer; the heat felt good on the girl’s ears.
“Can we swing today?” the girl asked.
“Not today,” her father said.
“Can we do the swings tomorrow?”
The girl stood behind her father and watched his back. He breathed in, and she watched the curve of his spine. The wind flipped the pages of his book.
“Daddy, the train’s coming, right?”
“When is it coming?”
“At 12, in five minutes.”
The girl’s father flipped a page in his book. It was very thick.
“Daddy, where’s Mommy?” the girl asked.
“In the car,” he said.
“Up the street.”
“Why is she in the car?”
“She wants to be in the car right now.”
“I want to go,” the girl said.
“Oh, well she’s going somewhere boring,” her father said.
“Like the supermarket?”
“Yes, much like the supermarket.”
“But she always takes me. She takes me and we get oranges and chips,” the girl said.
The girl’s father moved the book from his lap. The girl knelt down next to him and touched the concrete with her knees. It was hot, but she pressed down harder. She wanted to know why her mother had left without her. It was Saturday. Her father stood and placed his right hand on her shoulder, pulling her up. His palm enveloped her shoulder bones.
“Come on,” he said.
“Are we having lunch?” the girl asked as they walked through the screen door.
“Yes. What do you want?”
“Oranges,” the girl said.
“There aren’t any left,” her father said. He stood in the kitchen and opened the knife drawer. He placed white bread on the counter.
“Mommy will bring some back,” the girl said.
The girl’s father opened the bread and took out peanut butter. His hair was black now without the sunlight.
“No, I don’t think they sell oranges at the store anymore.”
The ding-ding-ding-ding of the cross-block rang faint through the walls of the house. The crossing was only a quarter mile from them. The girl could never see it though, as the other brown houses blocked her view of it. She could imagine the blinking lights and the arms folding down. She had seen it many times when her mother drove past it.
“Here you go,” the girl’s father said.
The girl held the sandwich and began walking to the back door.
“No,” he said. “Sit at the table, please. You don’t need to watch the train every time.”
The girl sat and ate the sandwich and stayed still when the train passed. The peanut butter was chalky in her mouth. She felt a hair stuck between her teeth, and she pulled it. She ran her tongue over her teeth and tasted the dirt left from her fingertips.
Emily Varnell is enrolled at the University of Texas at Austin, studying English and Creative Writing. She is in honors programs for both fields; she is currently working on a creative honors thesis. She has also served as a reader and/or editor on several literary journals – she is the managing editor for Analecta Literary and Arts Journal, as well as the production editor for Echo Literary and Arts Journal.