The turkey vultures glide on updrafts in the lazy blue sky. They circle counter-clockwise, stirring the afternoon. They’re dutifully drawn to decaying flesh. The more putrid the carcass, the more pungent the scent, the more birds in the kettle. When the scavengers decide it’s time, whatever rots below will be devoured.
By the boy’s count, there are eight turkey vultures but he’s really only interested in the one with golden wings. It whirls with the others, loop by loop; easy to spot even at a distance.
Before concluding that the wings were made of gold, Hoyt thought it might be a trick of the light. Sunshine in summertime can be deceptive. He’s seen diamonds of dew on blades of grass evaporate and quarters shimmering at the bottom of the community pool turn into gum wads. From his tree fort, he’s watched sparks of gold rise from the earth and hover in the branches. Before his childhood brain can right itself those fireflies are worth a fortune.
Hoyt has given the vulture ample opportunity to prove it doesn’t exist. The boy recently turned ten, which is an in-between age in terms of make-believe. He hasn’t lost all his baby teeth but he has lost faith in the tooth fairy. When a knocking sound startles him awake in the middle of the night he knows it’s just the wind. His imaginary friends have been replaced by unimaginative flesh-and-blood boys. A teacher once said that when you hear a ringing in your ear it means that someone is thinking about you, and although he wishes this was true and that his mother was thinking of him on the few occasions when he’s heard a high-pitched tingle, he’s not sold on the idea. He doesn’t believe in ghosts but he’s not ready to dismiss God. Satan seems silly but the boy has sensed demons.
Sometimes Hoyt feels an entity beside him. It’s a warm pulse of energy that suddenly descends for no discernable reason. It only appears when the boy blinks, which means that he can never see it. After giving it considerable thought, Hoyt has concluded that the thrumming energy is a version of himself – a shadowself – living a heartbeat in the past or else a heartbeat in the future. Sometimes the shadowself is trying to hold him back. Sometimes it tugs him forward. Either way, he has no idea what it wants. He wonders if he is a shadowself to a different blinking Hoyt living in another dimension. Maybe that other Hoyt wonders what the here-and-now Hoyt wants, too.
Hoyt spotted the bird through binoculars from his tree fort in the woods behind his house shortly after he’d scarfed down a bologna sandwich. It was early June, when the whippoorwills trill and ants stretch the ground into wavering segmented lines. After determining that the wings were real, Hoyt concocted his plan. He fetched his slingshot, a pillowcase and some duct tape. Now all he has to do is track it down, shoot it from the sky, wrap its beak, carry it home and cram it into Grainger’s dog carrier. The dead dog don’t need it no more. After that, he’ll pull out feathers and grow into a rich, rich man.
The boy begins his adventure tired but in high spirits. He moves quickly with his unusual gait. Hoyt lopes. Always has. Instead of swinging arms, pumping legs and holding his head high, the boy keeps his spine straight, shoulders hunched, elbows pinned to his side and head down. He takes two-step strides. He’s learned to walk this way by treading on every other crosstie between the rails.
There is no train anymore. Hasn’t been for as long as the boy remembers. The tracks are a quarter-mile behind his modest house in his quiet neighborhood. ‘Used to not be so quiet,’ says Dad. Dad works the graveyard shift with the road crew on the interstate and sleeps through days. Back then, even without the big racket, there was always the anticipation of sound, his father explained. ‘I still hear it echoing in my skull from time to time. The damned trains woke the dog who woke you and once you started wailing there was no stopping it. The racket drove your mother up a wall. Then out the door.’
Hoyt has no memory of being a screaming baby nor does he recollect when his mother left. The last time he asked his dad why she left he said, ‘We already discussed this.’ The previous time Hoyt had asked why his mother left – as Hoyt recalls – his dad had said the same thing – ‘We already discussed this’ – so now the boy is convinced that they must have discussed why she left even though he has no memory of that discussion and cannot, for the life of him, pinpoint the reason for the leaving. That might have been an instance when he was rapidly blinking and his father confused him for his shadowself. If the shadowself knows the reason Mom disappeared the boy hopes that he’ll figure out a way to share it with him soon.
The only evidence of a train and a mother is a photograph Hoyt keeps in his sock drawer. In the shot, his five-year-old self is hoisting an ice-cream sundae so big it covers the lower half of his face. His mother has a cherry – the one she plucked from his sundae – perched between her lips and she is laughing. Laughing, Hoyt guesses, at something funny Mr Loco just said.
Back when there were trains, there was an ice-cream boxcar called Locomotive’s. The owner referred to himself as Mr Loco. He wore a multicolored conductor’s hat and handed out complimentary plastic toy-whistle cabooses. When the train ground to a halt, he’d throw open a window, crank up his catchy ditty – ‘Go Cra-zy for Ice Cream cuz Ice Cream’s Cra-zy for you!’ – and the wide-eyed kids who lived along the tracks would scuttle out of their ramshackle houses with their sweat-stained clothes and ill-fitting shoes and gobble up those sweet treats. Once the passengers were all aboard Mr Loco was off to the next stop. The sticky-mouthed children slouched back to where they were from.
The few stories Dad has told Hoyt about Mom always feature her as sad. Down, out, fidgety. Couldn’t keep her hands still, he said. In the picture, though, she seems as happy as anyone Hoyt has seen. She’s purposefully crossing her eyes. Clowning around. Her thin wrists are turned upwards, hands bent at odd angles, frozen in some goofy dance. There’s a strand of her hair dipping into Hoyt’s hot fudge.
You can’t see Mr Loco in the photograph but the boy knows he’s there because of one hairy hand hovering near Mom’s neck. Against her alabaster skin his sharp fingernails are dirty and long. In the shot, Mr Loco appears to be reaching for Mom’s throat.
That picture was taken a half-lifetime ago. Shortly after, Mom left and the trains quit.
Railroad weeds slope up the embankment and shoot out of the gravelly soil between the ties. The track resembles the exposed spine of a dormant rust dragon waiting to awaken and rise from the earth. The boy used to hope that he’d be there when the dragon awoke so he could clutch its neck and flap off to some rusty, remote island. He’d have his cool pet smote anyone that got in his way. Then Hoyt felt guilty for imagining a better pet while Grainger, with his hip dysplasia and incontinence, still wagged his patchy tail and cast half-lidded, rheumy, optimistic eyes up at the boy every time Hoyt hurried outside.
So, no dragons. No pets. The golden-winged turkey vulture is a business acquisition. To maintain a sense of distance from it, he’s not even going to give it a name. Leprechauns and genies are never given names, after all. Wishers don’t want to get too emotional with their prize givers or else they’ll start feeling rotten about their wishes.
Just because there aren’t trains doesn’t mean there isn’t danger along the rail. Dad’s given Hoyt exploration boundaries. He’s allowed to traipse as far north as the water tower and south to Miller’s Gorge. Under no circumstance is he allowed onto the railway bridge. Last summer, while father and son were doing dishes in the kitchen and watching the sun set, Dad gave two reasons why Hoyt was forbidden to cross that bridge. Dad, in fact, often gives two reasons. He has offered two reasons why you shouldn’t leave the front door open (you let the air conditioning escape and flies come in). There are two reasons that you make your bed every morning (to keep your room presentable in case of a visitor and because it’s better to fall asleep when the sheets are tight.) If he can’t think of a mate for a single reason he’ll say, ‘And also, because I said so.’
The first reason Dad offered for not crossing the bridge is that Hoyt might slip and fall to his death in the rocky ravine below. A half-dozen times a year folks die this way. (And though Dad didn’t mention it, Hoyt’s heard the rumors – and seen the infamous railroad plank spray-painted a faded red – that some really sad people hang themselves from that hunk of wood.) The second reason Dad gave is that Burch is bad news. Burch used to be a coal-producing company town that had a school, library, bowling alley, shopping mall and a roller-skating rink. Then many of the miners got black lung and sued the company before dying. The lawyers made a killing. The company went belly up. Now Burch is Burch in name only. Those who could afford to scurry away did. Everyone else stayed and waited for a coalman with a conscience to roll into town and make the mines operational and safe. ‘Fat chance of that,’ Dad said, drying a milk glass with a dish towel. ‘Only a fool believes in miracles. What’s worse is when a fool quits believing. Then he becomes desperate. And desperate folks,’ Dad said with a moist hand on his boy’s shoulder, ‘are dangerous. So stay out of Burch.’
Last summer, the boy still believed in miracles. That’s why he disobeyed his father and crossed the bridge. He wondered, back then, if his mother might be over there. (He did not wonder, for long, if his mother noosed her neck and did the flop, twitch and dangle over the ravine hitched to the suicide tie.) For one full week Hoyt loped over to Burch and searched for her. He started out with high hopes. One time Grainger ran away and the boy found him limping along a fence line near Shotts’ farm. The dog had been bitten by some kind of venomous snake – maybe a rattler – and gotten disoriented. The tough mutt survived the ordeal but was never really the same afterwards. Last summer Hoyt hoped he’d find his mother too, with or without a snakebite. If need be, the boy would carry her back in his arms the same way he did with Grainger. In Burch, Hoyt visited the few remaining shops in the ruined mall, he went to the barber shop, he loitered outside three different bars; places where he felt sorrow ooze out every time the front door opened. At the end of that week last summer, Hoyt had learned three things: 1) Neither crossing a railway bridge nor the ruined town of Burch was really dangerous. 2) Mom wasn’t there. 3) Miracles schmiracles.
If he knew, Dad would say that hunting a golden-winged turkey vulture is dumb and dangerous. But Dad doesn’t know. He’s slumbering at home and won’t wake for hours. Ordinarily Hoyt doesn’t hear his dad return around four. This morning, his father slammed the front door and startled the boy awake. He wasn’t able to fall back asleep. Eating breakfast this morning at the kitchen counter, Hoyt decided that he was going to take a nap in the tree house later. That was before he saw the golden-winged bird. There’s no time for napping now. The day is bright. Summer break yawns across the calendar.
The boy carries the pillowcase over his shoulder, Santa Claus style. Inside with the duct tape are a dozen donut-hole-sized rocks he’s gathered from the creek bed. The frame of the slingshot is made of steel with surgical tubing attached to the uprights. The pocket is made of genuine leather. Closing one eye, slowing his breathing and drawing the sling back to the tip of his nose, Hoyt can smash a bottle from twenty yards away, easy. The weapon was a recent birthday gift from his grandfather – his mother’s father – who sent it all the way from Alaska. After the photo of his mom, the slingshot is his prized possession.
As he lopes, the boy alternates from checking the sky to make sure that the vulture is still circling and looking down to keep from tripping. Soon he’s at the bridge, then upon it. The water below is brown. The faded-red tie is about midway and Hoyt steps over it. The clouds are too high and strung out to resemble anything. The warm wind blows through the ravine and it does not cool the boy. Soon, he’s across.
Once Hoyt’s on the other side, in Burch, he approaches the dozen or so company homes built nearly atop the tracks. The houses here are tall and thin and resemble half-gallon cartons of chocolate milk stacked side by side. In the heyday, workers would sit on their tiny back porches eating ice-cream cones as they waited for the coal train. The men who used to live here were not miners. Their job was to haul the trucks from the mines to the tracks and load the coal into the cars. In between they just had to wait. Last summer Hoyt knocked on every door and inquired about his mom to the few suspicious occupants who opened up. Nobody knew anything. Hoyt has learned that nobody ever knows anything, really. Not about his mom, not about where all the trains went, not about coal in lungs and death to dogs. The best part of knowing that nobody knows anything is that you don’t have to feel bad when you don’t know something either. Like why some vultures are made out of gold.
Beyond the dilapidated homes is a three-story apartment building. It’s a place Hoyt never bothered to visit. Each unit has a small balcony enclosed by a metal rail and the facade resembles a set of teeth with braces in bad need of a good brushing. Plastic bags and styrofoam food cartons litter the unkempt, balding hedges a landscaper once planted in a half-hearted effort to provide privacy from the railroad. In the bright sunlight the imperfections are glaring. Hoyt has to squint to see clearly. Overhead, in the tangle of scavengers, the bird with golden wings soars above the rooftop.
Clinging to the side of the building is a fire escape zigzagging to the third floor. Though the boy could easily climb two steps at once, he crouches low and slinks slowly. Just because the birds are attracted to death doesn’t mean they don’t fear it. He may only get one shot at this. If his aim is true, his life will change forever. His father can quit work and they can build a fortress. He’ll teach Dad how to play video games. They’ll horse around in the pool with the waterslide and eat ice cream from bowls made out of cookies. He’ll buy a bright-blue train and hire someone to paint all of the railroad ties a rainbow pattern and he’ll sit in the caboose and throw candy to the awe-stricken children lining the tracks and cotton candy will puff out of the steam pipe and make the air taste super sweet.
When the boy’s halfway up the rickety staircase he catches a thick whiff of rot. With every step, the stench grows and by the time he’s at the top he’s worn out and his unblinking eyes are wide. The neck of the pillowcase is wet with sweat where he clutches it. There, on the stained concrete balcony floor, is a large, oval-shaped platter heaped with a pile of dead rats. Bright white teeth gleam in the sunlight. The long, slender tails drape over the lip of the plate. When the hovering pulse of black flies land upon the mess, wiry whiskers quiver.
A sudden shift in the breeze blows the putrid scent full over the boy and he turns his entire body away to shield himself. He staves off a rising gag and dips his mouth and nose into his shirtfront.
Then Hoyt hears someone say, ‘Hello?’ and he realizes that he’s not alone. There’s a partially open sliding glass door that leads from the balcony into the apartment. Against the glare of the glass it’s impossible for him to see inside. What he can see is his reflection and he’s embarrassed by it. Here is a cowering boy with his face tucked into his sweat-drenched shirt, a heartbeat away from fleeing. That’s not how he imagined he’d look when he started out on this adventure. Before he has time to remake himself, the glass door slides fully open and in its place is a thin woman in a hooded sweatshirt and loose jeans. Her dark hair is shocked in streaks of gray and it shoots out from her head in a wild revolt. The woman’s face is aggravated by red splotches, as if she were mindlessly rubbing fingertips against her forehead, temples and jaw. Her eyes are all pupils; two black holes sucking in cavernous cheekbones. When she opens her mouth to speak her dry lips reluctantly part.
‘I was expecting you around front,’ she says.