I am following behind the spiker on foot, a maul slung over my shoulder. I pulled quality control duty this morning. It is my job to use the claw-bar to pull any spikes the two operators in the machine fuck up and leave bent or twisted to one side, or miss completely, and replace with a good spike by hand. Meaning I wail the new spike into the drilled hole with the maul. It is an easy job, and as head trackman for the day, within my rights to take. The kids running the spiker don’t fuck up all that much, and after a long winter of freezing nights in barren train stations pushing shovels and blowers over platforms buried beneath white mountains and cold days of spreading salt to ensure passengers don’t slip and fall and become plaintiffs, it feels good to flex my muscles under the spring sun and really hit something, drive it deep into wood with strong, practiced swings.
The spiker starts producing some weird sounds, then the brake lights flare and it comes to a stop. I perch on the trailer hauled behind the spiker with the kegs of spikes, good and bad, the orange cooler of water and all the tools I might need and never use. The pause lasts longer than usual. I walk around to the “A” side of the machine, where the kid with most seniority runs the thing. The door is open. He is smoking a cigarette. The word “kid” is not one I am using ironically. This boy is barely old enough shoulder up to a bar and order a drink legally. He wears a hat with a straight brim, baggy jeans and a camo hoodie. I’m wearing work-pants that don’t bunch up around my ankles and a hat with a curved brim. A mark of my age, besides being married with kids, the bald spot on the top of my head, the gray at my temples, the swelling gut. At the beginning of the job my cousin and I had to yell at him; he was calling our mistakes over the radio instead of telling us in person. The assistant foreman told us we can’t hit him, he's the type of kid who will run to the super instead of taking his beating like a man and learning his lesson. So we just ripped the door of his machine open, called him a punk, called him a fucking rat, told him if he had a problem to come tell us face to face, no more bullshit over the radio, be a fucking man. I was told he got out of the machine and laughed when as we walked away, but he never turned rat again, as far as I know.
But that was weeks ago. Another mark of age: I can’t carry a grudge for very long. I don’t have the necessary energy. On that day I wanted to wrap my hands around his throat. Today, I just want to know what’s wrong with the spiker.
“The hydraulic is fucked up, again,” he says when he sees me. “Same shit as yesterday.”
“The mechanic coming out?” I say.
“I’m bringing this back to the last crossing, meet him there. You want to come? Or you want to chill here?”
I throw the maul on my shoulder to the ground and sit on a pile of pulled ties behind me. I put my hands behind my head and pretend to lean back like I’m on a chair at Nantasket beach. “This is good for now.”
The kid laughs. The nervous laugh of someone not quite sure of who he is yet. Now I feel bad about yelling at him the way we did. I should have calmed down, waited, took him aside and explained to him why what he did was wrong.
“We’ll be back,” he says.
The kid closes the door and the spiker begins the roll in reverse. It travels underneath an overpass and disappears around a curve.
I sit. From my phone I text my wife about dinner that night, I check Twitter and Facebook, a couple news sites. Nothing catches my attention. The houses on the small hill across the tracks are dark and quiet. One is abandoned, the windows broken or shuttered. From far away comes the drone of a lawn mower. I lift my face to the sun to absorb some of warmth into my pores. The mornings are chilly, I am still wearing long sleeves, but the sun is gaining power. The light, as it breaks over my brow, my cheeks and chin, it is substantial. Summer is close.
I realize I left my water on the trailer behind the spiker. The crossing where they are to meet the mechanic is just around the curve. I consider waiting for a second, but the boredom is enough to get my off my ass and walking. Birds are chirping. Traffic whooshes by on the road to my right, mostly obscured by some trees.
After a few steps, I stumble. The stone is always moving beneath our feet, but sometimes it is the only place to walk. I don’t get frustrated by it the way I did when I started. I have learned how to manage the terrain.
In the gauge, between the tracks, is no good. The surface is pitted and piled on where the old ties being pulled and the new ties shoved into place. Even if we wanted to go that way, the machines are usually occupying the space. It’s a pain in the ass to constantly steer around them. Loose as the stone may be, littered with faded beer cans and crumpled packs of cigarettes and chewed-up remnants of decomposing ties as it is, the ballast on either side of the track is the best bet, the shortest distance between two points.
Walking is hard at first, hell on the ankles no matter how tightly we knot the laces of our boots. Some guys fall a lot, but everyone learns the how in the end. We all reach the same conclusions, and it comes by admitting an identical defeat: we will never find a way to make the stone act as though it is packed firm enough. We will all find the soles of our boots worn on one side after a while, and we’ll only notice when strolling across solid ground and someone asks us about the limp. It is what it is.
The trick is to accept the imbalance. We learn to let go of our center of gravity and leave our arms loose and keep our heads bobbing up and down, from ballast to tracks and back, and back. The trick is to wait until each slide comes to an end before lifting the other foot.
In order to move on from one point to the next, I become accustomed to a state of constant falling.