“Catching Out”: 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize-winning story

At long last my short story, Catching Out, which won the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize, has been published. You can read it in the 2018 edition of the The Thomas Wolfe Review or, more immediately, you can read it in full here:

CATCHING OUT

Screen Shot 2018-01-19 at 3.50.15 PMGranted, it wasn’t everyone who showed up to the gym in flannel and work boots, but Nevada Bloom could just as well have been carrying a sign to say she didn’t belong. Not there, and not anywhere, really. The night before she’d shaved the hair on the left side of her head clear down to the scalp. The prickle of stubble that snagged the threads of her stocking cap would grow back blond, a poor match for the feathery black strands still covering the right side of her head. But she was okay with the dichotomy.

Nevada shoved her hooded sweatshirt into a locker and quick-changed into ratty track shoes, mainly because work boots made too much noise on the treadmill. The soccer moms in their pink tops and grey knee pants stared at her as it was. She also kicked off her black jeans so she was just skinny, hairy legs in green running shorts. Denim chafed after a few minutes of jogging. It was a problem she’d have to address another day, though the point was not to have to jog for very long. Not if she did it right the first time.

Nevada’s routine was to work up to a five-minute flat-out sprint on the treadmill before moving on to sit-ups and pull-ups. The sit-ups she did on the floor, toes braced under the back-extension bench, while hugging a twenty-pound weight disk to her chest. In her peripheral vision the weight lifters hovered and paced, waiting for her to get out of the way, but she didn’t care. Nevada had learned, as soon as she died her hair black and traded her pastel angora sweaters for drab zip-up hoodies, that men were actually afraid of her.

Just to test the theory, because she liked to keep it fresh in her mind, Nevada bugged her eyes at one of the weight lifters as she walked back past him. He staggered back two steps and muttered, “What’s her problem?”

Nevada didn’t have a problem. She woke up one day and her world was different, that’s all. The trains that rolled along the track just behind her house — the trains that had not been there when she signed the contract on what was advertised as a quiet house with plenty of privacy — suddenly shifted from adversaries to friends. Instead of rattling her from her sleep, they began to lull her into her dreams each night, and those dreams took on strange proportions. Images of far-off places played against the screen of her subconsciousness. The wheat fields of Kansas, the muddy Mississippi River, the Rockies rising vertically, and the horizon west of California extending almost forever, until the Pacific met the sky.

Nevada had never seen the Pacific Ocean, but she began to think she might like to.

Then one morning, as she ate her cereal over the sink, looking toward the break in the trees where the trains clattered past, she saw a man jog alongside a slow-moving boxcar. He reached out for the ladder, swung himself up, and disappeared into an opening. It happened so smoothly and quickly that, had Nevada blinked, she would have missed it.

. . .

But she didn’t blink. As a child Nevada had mistaken a comment — one about the neighbor boy at bat at Little League practice — as unblinking. “No, Nicole,” her mother said. “Unflinching. It means he got the hit because when the ball came toward his face he didn’t wince. He swung.”

But still Nevada — when she was called Nicole and later, when she’d become someone else — saw unflinching, in her mind’s eye, as unblinking. To be one was to be the other. Blinking was as good as flinching. It still meant you jumped at the critical moment. So she dedicated herself to controlling her blinks. She could do it if she slowed her breathing and focused her gaze. Mind over matter.

Some people said it was a waste of time. Why practice not blinking when you could practice card tricks or foreign languages or cello? For god’s sake, the periodic table would come in handy. At the very least that time would be better spent watching TV, which might pay off in a trivia match, or watercooler small talk.

“I can practice not blinking while I watch TV,” Nevada said, though she didn’t have a TV. Not anymore. She’d sold it on Craigslist and put the money toward a backpack. She could have just bought a pack — her job in the university registrar’s office paid well enough. But once you were on a train, there was no telling how long you’d be on. It could go to the next town or to the next state. You might get stuck in a boxcar, even once the train stopped, if the railway yard security was tight. Not worth risking a fine or a night in jail, better to keep riding. And if you were riding for days, you didn’t need to be thinking about all the TV shows you were missing. All the sitcom jokes you weren’t laughing at, all the quiz show questions you weren’t shouting out the answers to. There was so much hypothetical money you wouldn’t be amassing — and risking losing with one wrong answer — once you were riding the rails and beyond reach of the things money could buy.

By practicing not blinking, Nevada figured she’d already seen at least a third more of the world that the average person. Fleeting things — a humming bird, a shooting star, a dolphin leaping beside a ferry. If her world was filled with minutiae, it was richer for those glimpses and flashes. And, by not blinking, she’d seen the man board the train. Nevada knew in an instant what she’d witnessed. A hobo. As a noun it sounded lumpy. Roly-poly. A joke. But as a verb it was quicksilver and flawless. A flight, an updraft, a vanishing act.

She knew that’s what she wanted. The train ride, probably. The placelessness, the wanderlust. But mostly the suspended moment of reaching and catching, of swinging into the dark car. Leaping from one world into another.

. . .

It was strange to become someone else while working in a registrar’s office, a place that was all about middle initials, birthdates and social security numbers. But Nicole Bloom’s name didn’t matter. She was a decade past college. She hadn’t even updated her resume in three years. She thought the name change would be harder, but the university was a place where young people were forever trying on new personalities. One day her boss said, “Nicole, can you update the work-study files?”

And Nicole said, “It’s Nevada.”

“What’s Nevada?”

“My name.”

“What? I thought it was Nicole.”

“It was. I changed it.”

“Oh,” said Nevada’s boss. “Well, you might have to remind me.”

On her lunch break, Nevada scrolled photography blogs of freight hoppers. The pictures from the Depression era — men in button-down shirts and caps with hobo bundles slung over their shoulders — were comfortably sepia-tinged and softened by distance. The colored photos of contemporary freight hoppers were different. Kids with tattoos and grease-smudged clothes played banjos, ate from cans, and sneered menacingly into the lens. They looked battle-scarred and hard around the eyes, but they had each other and the muscular propulsion of the trains.

The first time Nevada went to the rail yard, she saw a group of them. They were sprawled on a bank below the tracks, out of sight of the railway workers. They were a tribe in their patched canvas pants and facial piercings.

Nevada was conspicuous in her office apparel — khakis and a soft blue sweater. She felt herself flush, though the freight hoppers didn’t even glance her way. How had she ever thought she might be one of them? Nevada wondered. And then, how had she ever thought she was someone who wore khaki and a blue sweater, and entered data into a computer at an Ikea desk?

She drove to the mall, bought black jeans, and wore them out of the store.

. . .

The gym membership came later. Nevada had walked to the end of her lawn, to the break in the trees where she’d seen the man board the train. There was a chain link fence, six feet tall. Nevada stuck a sneakered foot into one of the diamond shaped holes and lifted herself up. Her arms felt weak, her abs quaked with the effort and, at the top, she was pretty certain that, even if she was being pursued by rabid hounds, she wouldn’t have the strength or daring to heft herself over the sharp wire points.

If she was ever going to be able to jump onto a boxcar, even a slow-moving one, she needed to build some muscle and some nerve.

Working out at the university gym was a possibility, but the students were all so bright-eyed and healthy. Volleyball players, cross country runners, and the thick-thighed soccer stars with their all-season tans and shiny ponytails — they made everyone except for their barrel-chested coaches feel guilty for having aged past twenty-two.

Nevada already felt guilty for enough, though it was hard to pinpoint exactly what, and more difficult to explain why. Hers was a free-floating anxiety, an existential dread that couldn’t be shaken. It lived in the hollows of her days, in the directionlessness that underscored adulthood. If the answers were supposed to come with time and experience, Nevada found only routine and an uneasy suspicion that whatever she was meant to grasp and ride had already passed her by.

But now the sign had presented itself, clear as an X on a yellow background, clear as a set of flashing lights, and a long, low horn.

Life had not waited for Nevada Bloom, and trains didn’t pause long, either. But a train could, once in a while, be chased down and caught. Nevada had seen it done; she knew what was expected of her.

. . .

Sneakers wouldn’t do in the rail yards or on the miles of highway or backroads that might have to be walked. Nevada cleared out her closet, delivered a trunk-load of ballet flats, pumps, and stylish ankle boots to the Salvation Army. She swapped pasted sweaters for plaid button-downs and traded stockings for waffled long underwear. She bought a pair of lug-sole work boots and wore them every day, despite the blisters that rose and wept and finally gave way to tougher tissue.

At night she organized her backpack, fitting in extra socks, a clean bandana, a paperback book and a bottle of Vitamin C. It was hard to know what she’d need. The kids in the rail yard looked like they had some combination of the essentials — sleeping bags, battered hats, tin pans for cooking — and the things that reminded them of either who they’d once been or who they were becoming.

When Nevada thought about who she’d once been and who she was becoming, there was the gasping vertigo of gazing into a bottomless chasm. Nevada threw open the windows of her house and listened to the insects and, finally, the swelling wail of the locomotive.
It was a song of mourning, but a sound that blotted out all other sounds, including the internal broadcast of everything that can’t be and everything that never was.

. . .

There was something about the freight-hoppers that disturbed Nevada. The grime that clung to their skin and clothes was a pervasive dirtiness resistant to soap and water. But the kids in their patched jeans and self-cut (or uncut) hair showed no concern for the filth. They lived in it, let it define them among their tribe and separate them from everyone else.

The train was the momentum of that unorthodox life. It was the vehicle to the world between worlds. But the grime — the tattered clothes and unwashed hands — was the badge. It was the uniform. Nevada wondered if she could assume that mantle.

In the railway yard, in her black jeans and heavy boots, Nevada dared herself toward a group of kids. Some were older, she realized. The roundness of their faces was carved away by time and elements and maybe hunger. One boy held up a hand in dingy bandages, two fingers missing. A girl in a grayed t-shirt pressed a cell-phone to her ear, her fingernails five black half-moons.

Nevada was about to walk away when a boy caught her eye. He half-smiled. Nevada smiled back, self conscious. He wore dark blue jeans, stiff with newness, and a white t-shirt with the sleeves cut out. Nevada wondered if she’d seen him before — if he was the one who’d jumped on the train behind her house..

“Catching out?” he asked.

Nevada shook her head at the phrase she’d only recently learned. The words for hopping a train. “Not today.”

“Me either.” He crossed his arms over his chest and gazed toward the stopped locomotives. “I used to hobo all the time, but I’ve been off the rails for a couple of years.”

Nevada pretended she understood. “So why are you here?”

He shrugged. “Old habits. I feel at home in the rail yard, visiting friends.”

Nevada wasn’t sure if he meant the scrappy group huddled in the grass, or the boxcars stretched out along the tracks.

“Eamon,” said the boy, and held out his hand.

Nevada shook it and said, “Nevada,” which felt overly formal. But she was glad she didn’t have to say “Nicole.” And gladder still when Eamon just nodded, like of course her name was Nevada. And of course she was there, watching the trains, able to board one at any moment.

. . .

That night, Nevada dreamed of trains. She felt their rhythm run through her, the clatter and shudder. But even as she tossed on her mattress, she knew that her dream knowledge was a particular kind of fiction. It could only shunt her from one shore of sleep to the other. The next day, as she ate her lunch, she thought of Eamon. Thought of looking for him, asking him to tell her what it was like and how to do it.

She could just as easily Google that on her phone, though. “How do you jump on a train?”

“How do you do the thing you fear?”

And, “Can pretending to be someone you’re not eventually lead you to a more authentic version of who you actually are?”

That last question, though the most pressing, was the hardest to enter into a search engine. What groups of words should you put the quotes around?

In the end, Nevada walked across town to the rail yard. She took the battery from her cellphone and laid the silenced device on the tracks. When she stood back, she saw Eamon watching her.

“Are you running away from something or toward something?” he asked.

Nevada shrugged.

“You’ve got to know,” he insisted.

Nevada’s biceps ached from the extra set of pull-ups she’d done. Her form was good, though. She’d been keeping her pack in her car trunk, practicing jogging it with in the university parking lot. She’d already mailed her next rent check and put a hold on her mail. Nearly everything was in order.

“I’m going just to go,” she said, squinting into the late afternoon sun. “Just to know I can.”

He kicked the tracks. “I still catch out now and then, just to keep the muscle memory,” he said. “But after awhile, home or away, it doesn’t matter. Wherever you go, you’re stuck with yourself.”

Nevada had cut her nails short and bought a tin coffee percolator that hung from her backpack by a carabiner. She had matches in a ziplock bag and a small first aid kit with extra antiseptic wipes. She was ready to ship out to war or disappear deep into the forest. She was ready to face her fears. She was ready to face herself.

She hoped that self like coffee.

“Maybe I’ll see you if I make it back this way,” she said to Eamon.

He took the red bandana from his back pocket and tied it around her neck. “For luck,” he said. “Happy trails.”

. . .

The first part of the morning, before the sun rose over the trees, was still cool and dappled in pale light. Nevada shouldered her pack, climbed the chainlink fence, and dropped down into the tall grass. It wasn’t long before she heard the rumble and screech of metal on metal. Then the train was approaching. It charged and snaked, not yet up to speed, but breathing smoke nonetheless.

Nevada rose and began a slow run. She spotted the boxcar and the ladder. She moved toward the track, uphill, her shoulder at an angle with the side of the train.

The backpack chafed a little, but it was mind over matter. Arms reaching, body swiveling, hands extending. Unblinking, unflinching. At the moment of contact, there was no time to second guess. It was a tight clasp, a single pull-up, then swinging one booted foot after the other onto the rungs.

The world along the track blurred and fanned out as if it was moving and Nevada, clinging to the side of the boxcar, remained still. She closed her eyes and felt the wind on her face.

And then she pushed away from the car, stumbling slightly but managing to keep upright when her feet hit the ground.

It was enough for one day. The catching, the leaping from one world to the next.

There was nowhere to go and forever to get there.

Nevada adjusted her pack and started back toward the fence. She didn’t even bother to watch as the caboose neared and passed and vanished around the bend.

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s