Alison Syring

Rail Jumping & Other Crimes

  As Danny drove up to Evanston to return Jess home for winter break, her left-field college decision still rattled in his gut, undigested. There were two groups at Summit High: those who went to college and those who didn�t. Everyone Danny knew well fell into the second category, and not because they were stupid. A college degree didn�t carry the weight that it used to, and skilled labor positions were in demand. Jobless college grads filled the suburbs to bursting, while Danny and his friends found better paths at Summit Vocational and jobs right out of high school.
  And Danny had been so comfortable in this path, in the absence of the choices it left him, that he had not considered that others might have different paths, might relish choices. Jess, a year younger, a high school senior, earned competitive grades, but she did so quietly. She saved her homework for study hall, and weekend nights�then all weekend, then weeknights too�for Danny. Their relationship had been an easy roll downhill, in the best possible way, and he didn�t think to stop and look around much.
  But more and more in the fall of her senior year, Jess spent afternoons with her laptop at The Beanery rather than hanging at Danny�s house. He didn�t connect her behavior with that slide from high school into college, but there it was one day. He surprised her and, as she made space at her cluttered table, he caught sight of her transcript.
  �Wow,� he said. It wasn�t like he�d failed anything, but he�d only been an average student. His future didn�t depend on calculus or American literature.
  She shrugged. �I don�t know if it�ll be good enough.� She wore worry lines on her forehead and behind her glasses the whites of her eyes shone red from computer glare.
  �Good enough for what? Jesus. You must be first in your class.�
  �For Northwestern. I�m only sixth.� She twirled a piece of hair in her hand, yanking it so tight that all the curl went out.

He pulled up in front of her dorm in his white Spirit. She was already standing outside with her two giant stuffed rollerbags and a duffel. She�d let her dark hair grow out and a one-inch stripe of wheat-blonde roots divided her part. He almost introduced himself. There was a soft confidence coming off her, like a scent still solidifying, and, though she was happy to see him, laughing and jumping into his arms, her body felt different under his hands.
  He�d seen her since she left for school but only for scattered hours, an afternoon here between study groups, a night there after work. Now that he had her back, he wanted to show her the work he�d done on his car. He wanted back those Friday date nights, pizza and a movie. If there was enough snow, he wanted to spin donuts in the high school parking lot or sled at Lions Park. And he wanted to wake up next to her, naked, empty hours stretching before them. The possibilities seemed endless and familiar all at once, and he looked at her face, reflected, smiling back at him in her window.
  �What do you want to do tonight?�
  She smiled wider.
  �Well, there�s a party in Summit��
  He shifted in his seat, sitting up a little taller. Party. She hadn�t been the party type in high school, and since going off to college she�d only talked about studying. And Summit, he didn�t realize she knew anyone in Summit who she would need to see the night she got home for her first winter break.
  �At Marissa Kempner�s house.�
  Marissa was the salutatorian from Jess�s grade. She�d gone to Northwestern, too, where she roomed next door to Jess. She had traveled in another sphere in high school, the group of smart-populars with money. She had a stylish expensive haircut and jeans from some boutique on the Magnificent Mile, and Danny would bet she hadn�t batted one eye at Jess in the previous four years. But she had now, apparently.
  Danny put on hold the plans he�d made in his head. They could wait. He had a month. He drove her back to her house in the fields outside of Paradise. It was only the second time he had ever been there. It had shocked Danny the first time, and it shocked him now again. He turned down her asphalt road, only wide enough for one car at a time, and across the fields the house rose in front of a stand of trees, tall and broad like it owned the fields�and in a way it did. In the middle of its wood-shingled roof a spire rose as if it sat atop a castle. Back nearer to the woods stood a detached four-car garage. He didn�t see her father�s car and assumed he wasn�t home, as usual. They�d moved out to Paradise when Jess was ten, but Russell had kept his job in the city. He was an attorney who worked long hours by demand and longer hours by choice. Until she could drive, Jess had spent most of her time alone in the house with Ella, the all-in-one nanny, housekeeper, cook, and chauffeur.
  Danny followed Jess to the door, dragging her bags behind. She slipped her key in the door but before she could turn it, the door opened. Warm surprise rose easy on Jess�s face. Russell stood aside and let Jess and then Danny pass.
  �Where�s Ella?� she said. �I thought you�d be at work.�
  �Oh, you know�� he said. It was like he needed an excuse to be at his own home.
  �Is Mimi upstairs?� Jess�s voice was small as she looked cautiously around the foyer for Russell�s girlfriend.
  �She�s in the city tonight,� Russell said. �I�ve got a pizza in the kitchen. Why don�t you come on in?�
  Danny continued upstairs to Jess�s bedroom while Jess went with her father to the kitchen. He parked her suitcases in the middle of the room and examined her walls. Her life had been his life: going to shows, the Metro one night and the Aragon another; staying up late nights cruising open country roads; working on his car in the wet heat of summer. He examined the posters that still hung on her walls, the tape yellow and brittle with age. She still had the crude black-and-white flyer from the first local show they had gone to together. He looked back at her bags. They crowded the room, grown-up accessories interrupting a young life. He realized he didn�t have any bags like these, no oversized duffels or rolling suitcases for him. Quickly it dawned on him that he didn�t need them, and one thought tumbled into another: would Jess prefer a guy who did need bags? He shook his head, as if to shake out the thought, and turned from the room.
  He made his way back downstairs and as he approached the kitchen he could hear the low comfortable murmur of two related voices. They stood at the island in the center of the kitchen eating slices of pizza right from the box. Russell had a letter in front of him and Danny could make out enough to see the purple and guess it was Jess�s first-semester grades. Northwestern and Jess�s going there was the first thing Russell had been excited about in years, at least in relation to Jess, at least as far as Danny could tell. Danny still remembered her graduation party: purple balloons with black wildcats on them floating from room to room, a tiered white cake looking alarmingly like the wedding cake of two Northwestern alums, and Jess smiling in the corner, unexpectedly pleased.
  Danny came within range of the conversation, as Russell talked in earnest. ��great you�re thinking ahead but you need to be careful about internships. They can be more exploitative than instructive�� He trailed off as Jess�s eyes strayed from him to Danny.
  �Have some pizza?� she said.
  He took a slice and sat down on a stool opposite them. He ate quietly and tried not to pay too close attention so that they could feel they could talk, but Russell didn�t speak again, just listened, as Danny did, to Jess�s chatter about campus and classes and dining halls and roommates. After they finished eating, Jess ran upstairs to change and Danny went to warm up the car. On the way out, as he made to shake Russell�s hand, Russell turned to busy himself with cleaning.

They arrived at Marissa�s in his Spirit and parked next to several parents� hand-me-down BMWs. The house sat on twenty acres off Summit Road, west of town. You could barely see the house from the road, and you couldn�t see anything else from the house except for the horse barn at the back and a stand of trees to the east.
  Marissa, greeting them at the door, was nice, nicer than he would have expected, and somehow he hated her more for it. As she walked them to the bar, a sideboard in the formal dining room stacked with everything Danny didn�t know what to do with, she mooned over Jess�s outfit, a prim flowy dress Jess never would have worn a year ago, a dress that was saved, in Danny�s opinion, only by its being black. A guy in a tuxedo shirt wielding a drink book and posing like he owned the place greeted them with a strained smile and made Jess something fluorescent in a martini glass. Danny watched her wince down the first sip, and then Danny poured himself a whiskey he only recognized as not-Jack Daniels.
  Jess moved on, drink perched in one hand, Danny�s belt-loop hooked around the finger of the other. The party was a mix of people who�d gone to Summit High�the small but dedicated group who�d feigned importance on what passed for the school paper and literary journal, the math club and scholastic bowl, people Danny had only ever encountered in the yearbook�and new Northwestern friends. Some had driven two hours from the northern suburbs just to attend. He felt like he was in a foreign country where he didn�t know the language, but everyone was nice and polite and nodded to him everywhere he went.
  They parked on a stiff couch in the living room next to a couple of girls who had been in Jess�s English class first semester. They exchanged opinions on the final exam and their grade point averages so far. Danny watched Jess and soon he noticed that other people watched her too, paid attention, hung on her words. They laughed when she joked and commiserated when she complained.
  When there was a lull in conversation one of Jess�s new friends turned to him. �Where do you go?� she asked.
  �Go?� He looked at Jess.
  �Oh,� Jess said. She blushed. �He doesn�t go to college.�
  Jess stroked his arm, as if comforting a wounded animal. �He�s a really good mechanic. He�s going to open his own custom shop.�
  He excused himself and poured another�this time double�whiskey. He meant to go back to Jess but, instead, walked by the living room and kept going. It seemed to him that he and Jess had become one unit in the last year and there was a wall between them and the rest of the world, not keeping anything out, really, but insulating them. Now he saw the wall wasn�t indestructible, and it wasn�t made of brick or concrete; it was breaking down in wrecks of plaster and wood and sharp, sharp nails.

He found a leather chair in the den, soft with age. It was one of those chairs men want to keep and women try to throw away, and Danny suddenly felt a familiarity. He wondered about Marissa�s dad, almost wished he was here.
  Instead, Danny sat alone. He thought about what Jess had said about the shop. It was something he thought about off and on, but he hadn�t returned to in almost a year.
  He�d tried one semester at the local community college, this past one, while Jess started at Northwestern. He thought he might get a business degree, for later on, for that hypothetical custom shop. Classes were cheap and met in the evenings after he got off work, and he thought, why not? But it turned out not to be for him, emphatically not for him. All the classes were pre-reqs: freshman composition, statistics, geology. What would geology matter in business? he thought, after slogging through a ten-hour workday, sitting glassy-eyed in the back row during lecture. It was more of high school, more of all he didn�t need, and he left during break and never went back.
  Danny looked up and saw Matt Stewart standing in the den�s double doors. �Matt? What�re you doing here?� Matt had never been one of Danny�s closest friends, but he was a familiar face in the crowd. He�d been in Mike�s roofing classes, now worked for the same construction company as Mike, and occasionally hung out with them when they worked on cars or raced.
  �I live here. Marissa�s my step-sister.�
  �I had no idea.� Danny looked around and tried to picture Matt living in this house, its high ceilings, custom woodwork, expensive carpets. Matt walking around in cargo khakis with a hammer hanging from his belt loop. It was like imagining himself living in Jess�s house, or her living in the �historical� farmhouse he shared with his mother. �Wait, your dad owns that construction company you and Mike work for, right?�
  Matt nodded.
  �This house�� Danny started.
  �I know, right?� Matt laughed. �Dad likes to advertise what we can do. What can I say? Hey, you want something else?� Matt asked, nodding at Danny�s highball.
  Danny thought of all the whiskey he�d drunk that night, how it probably added up to more than he�d spent on alcohol in his entire life. He needed something familiar. �Hell yeah.� He followed Matt out to the back porch, where Matt had stashed a cooler of Mickey�s bullets.
  �Just in case anyone like me showed up,� Matt said, and smiled.
  They cracked open a couple and stood in the clear December air. It was so dark that every sound felt like it came from right next to you. Two hundred yards away, the horses stomped and huffed in their stalls. Beyond, owls beat their wings and tree branches whined under the weight of their bodies.
  �So I saw the Spirit out there, man,� Matt said. �She�s looking pretty good. Those are, what, Speedy eighteens?�
  Danny nodded, proud, and took a deep pull from his Mickey�s.
  �And you must�ve repainted, am I right?�
  �Yeah, I did it at the shop during some down time, after I rebuilt the engine. Took fucking forever. I had to drive Tammy�s old Taurus for awhile.�
  �How�s your ma doing?�
  Danny shrugged. �Same old.�
  �I hear ya.� He paused for a long moment. �So you�re still with Jess?�
  Danny nodded.
  �I have to say, I�m kinda surprised. I mean� nothing against you, but I don�t know anyone still together after one of �em went off. There�s no lack of girls around, dude, I�m sure I don�t have to tell you, and what about those college guys?�
  What about them? Danny thought. Before he could toss something smart back, Matt�s words sunk in a little deeper than Danny wanted them to. Danny sat down on the stairs leading from the porch down to the yard, leaned back, and lay on the deck floor�s cold wood. He didn�t know or remember at what point it became important to stay together. It was just right, congruent. But now everything felt out of alignment, and Danny didn�t know when that shift had taken place, or how to fix it. He only knew, absolutely, that it needed fixing.
  �Hey, you want another?� Matt asked. Danny nodded and they settled into more casual conversation: mutual friends, work, the awful Bears season that was already over.
  �Hey, Danny?� It was Jess.
  �I have to be home by one, Dad said. So can we leave soon?�
  �Since when do you listen to �Dad�?� he said, and laughed.
  She frowned. �Are you okay?�
  �Never better.�

Jess was quiet, distant, as Danny set out on Summit Road east toward Farmington Road. Summit Road was an east-west track that ran from Marissa�s house to Frontage Road out by I-55. It tumbled first through fields owned by the wealthy and sharecropped by the average, then through the town of Summit itself, and on into fields still owned and worked by families.
  Farmington was a short switch, maybe half a mile long, more a trail than a road. It cut across a field to connect Summit Road to Mound, providing a quicker route to Paradise. There were only two houses on Farmington, both on the west side. Between the two houses, parallel to Summit and Mound, lay the tracks. A steep grade drew up to them on either side, so that they sat about half as high as the houses. There were no warning lights or dropping gates on either side, just big yellow reflecting signs that high school kids sometimes stole for fun.
  Danny didn�t have to take Farmington Road. There were at least three different routes from Summit to Paradise, but Farmington Road was Old Summit. You couldn�t see the power plant from Farmington, and you didn�t drive by any housing developments. Everything was as it should be, not made up better or prettier or friendlier. Just plain, and expected, and natural.
  Even out on these flat country roads, where there were no streetlights, the stars didn�t shine. When Danny lit a cigarette, the glow of the butt was the only light around. Through the cracked window, wind whomped like a chorus of helicopters. Danny sunk low and easy in his driver�s seat, watching everything familiar slip away, everything safe become vague.
  Sleet fell in heavy bursts, covering whatever it touched. On the roads in Summit it had run off already, the road was too warm, but east of Summit it stuck. Not enough traffic to fend it off. It glassed over the asphalt road, and bound bits of gravel in chunks; it hung in the tree branches and clung to the eaves and gutters of the houses. Danny turned from Summit Road onto Farmington, a hard left, and the back of his car fishtailed in the intersection. He felt Jess next to him grab the center console and the door handle. He recovered the car�s grip and paused.
  �Are you drunk?� she said.
  �It�s fucking raining out here, Jess, and it�s twenty fucking degrees.� Danny lit another cigarette. It hung on his lip like a hook.
  �I thought you quit.� She bit with her eyes. �You didn�t have to take this way. Ridge would have been clear.�
  �It�s midnight. Nothing is clear.� The easy slide of alcohol still warmed him from the inside out. He�d felt it slosh in his gut when the car slipped. He blinked three times in rapid succession, clearing the gloss from his eyes, though sleet still glossed the windshield.
  �I�d like to get back to Evanston�alive�for my second semester,� she said to her passenger window.
  �I�m sure you would.� He flicked through the night�s events like a View-Master reel. Everything a shadow on a new image he didn�t want to see.

He proceeded north on Farmington, the tracks in front of him glinting with a coat of ice. It had been eighteen hours since anything passed on them, and probably as long since anything passed across. He remembered summers when they would be out late nights, jumping tracks to see who could get the most air. He saw Jess�s smiling happy nervous face illuminated in a summer moon. He couldn�t help but remember that smile as easy and natural, and he preferred it to the smile she�d worn tonight, a smile that seemed more skeptical than it had a year ago. He pushed the pedal down more than he planned but he did not ease up. He aimed for an empty Natty Light box that sat in the middle of the road in front of the tracks.   �Danny��
  The tires spun a little, and then bit the gravely asphalt. He pressed deeper on the gas and kept his sights on that box.
  �Danny, what are you doing��
  He saw the yellow sign and his headlights reflected off it but he didn�t take it in. It was only peripheral. Everything was peripheral to that box and his only mission: smashing it to smithereens. The Spirit�s turbo whined as it spooled up and the iced rain clicked like fingernails on the windshield. The wind broke through the cracks between the rubber seals and the windows.
  He didn�t know if it was before or after he smashed the box, maybe it was simultaneous, but a massive horn, like the blast of a semi-truck, bloomed in his left ear, and the shine of a spotlight glanced off the uneven, ice-coated windows. Everything broke then, everything broke away from him and there was no sound and nothing visible but the deep black hole of night. He�d never felt such peace, such excess, and for a second he closed his eyes and floated in it.
  But then Jess screamed. Jess screamed like he remembered a rabbit screaming when his mother ran over it in front of the house. Her scream jarred him back down to reality, where he did not expect to be, as the car was coming back down to earth. The horn still blared, but the light had passed�or he�d passed the light�and the car was coming down in the wrong lane. There was no one there, but still he didn�t know if he could save it from the ditch, and neither the gravel shoulder nor the icy road seemed a good alternative. His wheels touched gravel and he guided the car away and the tires shrieked, but he saved it and it came to rest in the right lane and died.
  The train did not slow down, and soon it passed and the night was silent except for Jess. She breathed like she was inhaling water, thick and hard. She got out of the car and paced, paced, back and forth. Danny didn�t register her absence until the cold air from her open door slapped him in the face.
  �What are you doing?� he said.
  �What am I doing? What am I doing? What the fuck are you doing, Danny? What the fuck!� Her voice wobbled and quaked like a fourteen-year-old boy�s.
  He went out to her but she wouldn�t let him touch her. She walked down to the end of the road and stood at the intersection of Farmington and Mound. He registered again the lack of any light: no stars, no streetlamps, no headlights. She waited for a car, but she wasn�t dressed for a long wait, and no one came. The Spirit whined in his attempt to turn it over, but he massaged it until she ground to a steady rhythm. He started out slow, rolling to the end of Farmington, and paused when he got to Jess.
  �Get in,� he said through the open passenger window.
  She didn�t answer. She didn�t even look at him.
  �Get in,� he repeated.
  She looked west and then east and walked around to the driver�s side and stood there until he moved over to the passenger side, almost still warm from her presence. She opened the door and dropped into his seat, and he looked at her in the dark and realized it was the first time she had ever driven his car.
  �I�m going home,� she said. �You�ll sleep on the couch.�

ALISON SYRING received her MA in writing from Johns Hopkins University. Her work has been published in Outside in Literary and Travel Magazine and The Exhibitionist, and on The Open Bar, the Tin House blog.

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