This book is available on Kindle.
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this work by any means except short excerpts for use in reviews. This work or excerpt is made available here solely as a courtesy, and its availability here does not constitute release or surrender of any rights by its author. If you find this work being offered, either as a download or to be read, on any other site but this one, it is there without my permission and in violation of international copyright laws,
© 1996-2011 Jess Mowry
The sound of the train woke him... rhythmic panting puffs like the breath of some huge jungle beast. It was coming slowly, creeping closer, the rumble and squeal of its massive wheels echoing over the clang of its signal bell.
He sat up in bed, feeling the oncoming thunder of iron deep in his bones like the booming beat of a funeral march. Outside it was night, and long past twelve o'clock, yet his room was lit as bright as day by glaring electric rays. He peered through the grimy-glassed window and seemingly into the engine's eye, even from here in his second-floor room.
He pushed off his blankets and crouched naked on the bed, pressing his nose to cold glass. The locomotive neared, gigantic and black. American trains were so big, Remi thought; probably sized in proportion to cross this vast land. And yet he could see that this huge machine was only a switchyard engine. Pale steam puffed from in front of its wheels, swirling in shapes made ghostly by the ice-blue tinge of its headlamp. The blood-red flare from its firebox flickered beneath the cab, reflecting off rails polished bright by its passing. Remi's window
wouldn't open, its frame sealed shut by what could have been a century of paint, yet the scents of coal smoke and hot steel burned strong in his nostrils, while streamers of steam rose up to surround him with shivery fingers of dampness. The ancient house shook as the engine came closer, chuffing and clanging, until he could feel the fierce heat of its headlamp beating his face.
He drew back: the oncoming engine seemed somehow aware of him at the window! And it seemed to be heading straight for the house! He wanted to run but he couldn't move! He crouched there, frozen, braced for the crash, but then came a shrieking of steel upon steel as the locomotive lurched into a curve at the very last second and puffed slowly past below.
Remi looked down, his fear fading now, replaced by an urge to wave to the driver as any boy might. But he only saw a shadow in the locomotive’s cab, backlit by the boiler's red flame-glow. Again he felt fingers of steam clammy and wet on his skin. The engine passed, its pistons hissing and scraping, its bell still clanging a sad-sounding note. A line of flatcars followed, rocking and swaying around the curve, their wheels striking sparks and rumbling over the rails. They were loaded with long sheets of pearl-gray steel, big iron beams, and shapes of massive machinery. One carried a huge ship's propeller, and two men sat on the edge of a blade. It was too dark to see them clearly, but one man seemed to reach into his pocket before facing the other, maybe to offer a cigarette. Then the car passed from Remi's sight.
More flatcars followed and Remi watched, still feeling the old house tremble and shake. The train was entering what looked like a shipyard. A vista of glaring blue-white lamps, great looming shapes, and skeletal crane booms under black-velvet sky. Remi thought he could see a big ship taking form almost before his eyes. There had been similar scenes in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, of fire and smoke and steel and steam. They were familiar even here, in Oakland, California, in the United States of America. Familiar yet strange, like the night train itself. There was a whole new world to learn about here, and one day and part of a night had only given him hints.
Last on the train was a wooden caboose, its windows glowing dimly orange, its tail lamp bloody red. Then Remi’s sight seemed to blur as if rain had suddenly flooded the window. He rubbed his eyes. The shipyard seemed to shimmer and then fade away like a dream. Maybe soot from the engine had covered the glass? The sound of the train was also gone. Remi yawned. He was tired. There was a three-hour time difference between here and Haiti, as his father had explained, and this seemed to further confuse him and add to the strangeness of things in the night. He lay back down on his unfamiliar yet wondrously comfortable bed, drawing the blankets around him once more, and drifted into a sleep that was troubled by the clanging of bells and the clanking of iron.
He woke hours later to find weak gray fog light filtering in through the window. It was early morning on what would be his first day of school in this new land. He didn't know the time, though his mother had said she would buy him a clock for his bedside. His very own clock! That made him feel rich.
He rolled from the bed. The morning air was chill -- another new strangeness -- yet he paused before dressing to look around. His very own room! True, it was small: four bare walls with lath peeking in places where plaster had fallen, and a scarred wooden floor that hadn't been varnished in decades, but all his own with a door he could close to be alone. On the door was a mirror, cloudy and dim, yet also his own.
He saw himself, now an American boy of thirteen. He was black as midnight with a sway-backed build that gave him more tummy than chest. His obsidian eyes were large and long-lashed in a gently-rounded face, and big white teeth shone behind proud lips. His hair was bushy and thick, yet to be cut in a U.S.A. style like those he'd seen in American movies. His clothes would pass for the moment: old blue- jeans, well-worn Nikes, and a cherished white tank top a little too small and baring his middle with a Rastafarian lion on its front. This shirt had drawn some disapproving stares in parts of Port-au-Prince from wealthy people and the police, but there would be no problem here because American people could wear what they wished and not be afraid of offending the government.
Remi dressed, then studied himself in the mirror again. Around his neck on a slim leather strip hung a small cross carved of ironwood. It was smooth and polished from his skin, and hardly a shade lighter. Then he remembered the train and looked out the window, but everything was shrouded by fog.
"Remi!" called his mother.
The door to his room opened into the kitchen, where his mother stood at the stove preparing an American breakfast of sausage, eggs, potatoes and toast. She was a fine-boned woman, velvety black with gold in her eyes, and full lips always ready to smile.
Remi glanced around the kitchen. He had no illusions about this house; it was ancient and clearly showing its age and stood in the poorer part of the city down by the waterfront wharves, yet his mother and father and he had the whole second floor to themselves. True, the stove was very old, but it was a real stove with an oven and not just an iron gas ring that required the renting of fuel tanks. And there was a refrigerator, made by General Electric, so food didn’t have to be bought every day. And the sink had two faucets, one of which supplied hot water. This was also true of the sink in the bathroom -- a real bathroom with a toilet and tub -- and for once in his life Remi didn't need to be told to go wash.
His father was at the table when Remi returned. A tall slender man, he was dressed today in his best suit of clothes, his ebony face a handsome contrast to his spotless white shirt and dark blue necktie. Some dishes and silverware had been left by the former tenants, along with most of the furniture. Everything was old and shabby but still good enough to begin a new life. Remi's father sipped coffee from a chipped mug and smiled. "Did you sleep well, my son?”
Remi sat down at the table, debated his choices a moment -- glasses of milk and orange juice, or another chipped mug of coffee -- and decided to begin with coffee, which had usually been his only choice. "Wi. Except for the train in the night.”
His parents gave him curious looks. "We did not hear a train," said his father. "But we were very tired, and you have younger ears.”
Remi took a sip of orange juice, then a sip of rich creamy milk and started on his sausage and eggs. "That is strange. This train could have woken the dead.”
His mother frowned. "Do not say things, even in jest, about awakening the dead. Perhaps it was only a dream. Hurry with your breakfast so you are not late for school.”
Remi smiled. “I shall have to get up earlier to enjoy these American breakfasts.”
“Which is why you will have a clock,” said his mother. “You have the directions to school?”
Remi patted a pocket, feeling the folded paper inside. "Wi, and maybe I will meet other students on the way.”
“Speak English, not Kreyol or French if you do meet other students. And of course to your teachers.”
“Wi... I mean yes.”
His mother glanced to the fog-clouded window. "It is cold and you are not used to this climate. After school we will shop for a jacket. ...And why are you wearing that ancient shirt? It is tattered and next to nothing.”
"It is my best."
"It is not your best. Your best is white and has buttons.”
Remi made a face. "American boys do not wear white shirts that button. This is most like what they wear. And I will have a cool kind of jacket.”
“A warm jacket,” said his mother.
His father smiled. "I do not think warmth is his first consideration.”
"It will be warm, no matter what his consideration," his mother said firmly.
A few minutes later, after gobbling every bit of his breakfast, Remi stepped into the hall and closed the apartment's door. It had three heavy locks that used separate keys, and the landlady, a large and elderly grim-faced woman, had warned that all should be locked at all times, especially at night.
After locking them carefully, Remi walked down the shadowy hall and descended the creaky staircase. The house’s front door was also fitted with massive locks, and there were bars on its window. The house had probably been grand in its day; a three-story structure in Victorian style. There were signs that it had once been many colors beneath its now grimy and peeling white paint. But the high front porch was rotten and sagging, and weeds filled the little front yard.
The fog was still thick on the street, but Remi could make out the roofs and top floors of other buildings nearby. He passed through a gate in the ramshackle fence and out onto the sidewalk. He paused a moment, then turned right, curious to see how close the railroad tracks ran to the house. The noise from trains may have had something to do with the apartment's rent being so low.
Remi stopped and turned around. A girl of about his own age had just come out of the house. She was a charmingly chubby girl, dressed boyishly in jeans and sneaks, whose black T-shirt clung tight to her body beneath an unzipped purple hoodie. Her skin was a beautiful dark chocolate tone, and her round-cheeked face was framed by braids that were brightened by colored beads. Her nose was wide and small-bridged, and her full lips rested in a pout that seemed both sly and shy. She locked the door behind her, then came down the squeaky old steps. Remi saw that her eyes were a rich tawny-brown.
"You the new B from upstairs?" she asked.
Remi knew what "B" meant from the rap songs blasted by boom boxes on Port-au-Prince streets, though he'd never been called one before. “Wi... yes. My name is Remi DuMont.”
"I'm Niya Bedford. Me an' my mom live on the ground floor."
Remi bowed. "I am happy to meet you, Mademoiselle Bedford."
The girl studied Remi and giggled. "You a French brother?"
"I am from Haiti. We do speak French there... the more upper-class do... but not the same dialect as spoken in France.”
"Sounds more like French-fried Rasta.”
Remi smiled. "Reggae music is popular in Haiti. Also American hip- hop. I am down with it.”
"Are you boat people, like they talk about on TV?”
"No. Though we left Haiti for many of the same reasons. We were not the poorest of poor. At least, not always.”
"You don't look like you starvin'.”
Remi glanced down at his tummy peeking from under the tight tank-top. "I have had an American breakfast. And my father’s income in Haiti income was enough to keep food on our table. But there are many ways to be hungry.”
Niya looked thoughtful. "My mom said somethin' like that once.” She patted her ample middle, which overlapped her jeans. “I have breakfast at ‘Dee’s when I can afford it, but I had to make my own today... I can cook pretty good.”
“Dee’s?” asked Remy.
“Oh, yes, with the clown. I have seen them on TV, though we do not have them in Haiti.”
“Guess Haiti must be really poor. What's your dad gonna do here to make money?”
"He is going to work at the university in Berkeley, as a consultant on Haitian culture. He taught at a school in Port-au-Prince, but there are many... changing winds in Haiti. What is in favor with the government today may put one in prison tomorrow."
Niya laughed. “Here, just bein’ black can do that an’ the wind don’t have nothin’ to do with it. So, what grade you in, Remi?"
“Me too, but you already sound like you graduated from college."
"My father taught English in Haiti.”
“That sure ain't the English you hear in this hood. Maybe we'll have some classes together. You any good at math?”
"It is not one of my favorite subjects.”
"Me neither,” said Niya. “But I'm takin' French. Parley view franchise.”
“...Oh. Well, that is not like the French you hear in Haiti.”
Niya glanced at her watch, a plastic digital in shocking pink. "So, c'mon, Remi, or we gonna be late an’ they’ll lock us out." She pulled a Milky Way bar from a pocket. “Want half?”
“Oh, wi... yes, thank you,” said Remi.
The fog was thinning as Remi walked up the street with Niya. The neighborhood was as shabby as the house. There were many old
buildings of crumbling brick, weathered old wood and rusty sheet
metal. Some were boarded up, others just blackened and burnt-out shells. Those still in use seemed mostly small shops that repaired trucks and machinery. All had bars on their windows and doors, and all were covered in layers of spray-painted symbols and words. The neighborhood was very dirty, which was something else familiar yet strange because a lot of what had been thrown away would have been put to instant use in Haiti. In front of one shop stood a huge ship's
propeller, about eight feet across from blade to blade tip. Remi recalled the one he had seen on the train.
"Niya? Do trains pass the house every night?”
Niya licked chocolate off her fingers. "There's a bunch of tracks
about two blocks away down by the docks. Sometimes you can hear trains pretty loud when the wind blows in off the bay. You get used to it.”
Remi glanced back down the street, which was still mostly
hidden in mist. "It will take me some time to get used to what happened last night! But I suppose that is why the rent is so low.”
Niya grinned, looking boyish. "Nah, the rent's cheap 'cause the house is haunted!"
End of excerpt. This book is available on Kindle.