This is an excerpt from Robert Martin’s novel, Boxcar.
When they couldn’t make out the trails more than a hundred feet in front of them, they swung wide off the tracks, following Bennet’s indecisive lead. The smell of iron and rust gave way to soil and fungus, the wet rot of leaves. They followed the trough of an old stream, damp underfoot but with no moving water. Cal’s legs were exhausted, a warm dullness that made him feel at peace in the near darkness. In books he’d read about autistic people that were written by non-autistic people, sensory perception was always a particular fascination of the authors. It must be so frustrating to always be aware of where your body ends, to always feel separate. To walk around with that blatantly incorrect notion in your mind.
The old streambed flattened out and their trail diffused. Bennet snapped sticks underfoot, clumsily leading them in twenty-foot spurts before changing direction, as if he was divining the location where he’d been supposedly leading them for the last several days. Cal wondered if this would be the moment it fell apart.
“This is pointless,” Harlan said. “Let’s find a place to camp. Let’s camp right here.”
“We’re close,” said Bennet.
“Close to lost,” said Jenk. “Where are you taking us again?”
“The factory where I used to work,” Bennet said, convincing no one. He didn’t move. He said, “Okay. Let’s wait until morning. I can’t see.”
They set up their makeshift camp: dropping their duffels and bending close to the ground, collecting dead twigs by the light of the night sky. Breath tumbled from Cal’s chest in visible huffs. Above them, through the skeletal branches, even the spaces between the stars had stars in them.
Harlan got a small fire going on the first match, which was lucky because Cal’s book was running low. Their hands rushed toward the infant flame. Everyone looked around and pulled anything flammable to the fire: sticks, leaves, moss. Bennet tugged on the spindly branch of a bush still connected to the ground. “Dead and down,” Harlan warned.
“Dead and down,” he repeated. “Only pick up sticks that are dead and on the ground.”
Jenk said, “This message has been approved by the ambassador of nature.”
Harlan said, “It burns better. Trust me.”
“I do trust you. I just find you hilarious.”
“Glad I entertain you.”
The four of them fell into a trance watching the flame, watching the slow orange curl of the smaller sticks. “I have a theory about cities and fire,” Jenk said, but nobody encouraged him to continue.
Bennet coughed and loosed a stream of his fluid into the dirt.
Harlan said, “Try this,” and dug through his duffel. He didn’t find what he was looking for. “Check your bag for the Pepto Bismol,” he told Jenk.
Jenk said, “Good call. Bennet, man, you got ulcers or something. The way you’re grabbing at your gut all day. You grimace every time you swallow.” Jenk tossed the medicine into Bennet’s lap. Bennet tossed it right back. “I hate doctors.”
“You know what’s worse than doctors?” Jenk threw the bottle back to Bennet like a hot potato. “A doctor’s son.”
“You’re a doctor’s son?” Harlan said. “I find that surprising. I didn’t get that idea from talking to your father.”
“Ohhh!” Jenk pointed at Harlan, his finger lit from beneath by the fire. “What’s up, gender stereotypes? My dad’s a bureaucrat. Dude manages managers. My mom’s the physician.”
Bennet let a bit of the pink fluid drip back from his mouth into the bottle. “That’s gross. Really bad.” He took another swig. Cal nodded at him proudly—he’d noticed Bennet reaching for his stomach several times as well. Bennet took the entire bottle down, then reclined against an uncomfortable log. Cal scooted closer to the large man, glad that if he was uncomfortable he was uncomfortable here with them, at ease, at rest. This would be the key, Cal thought: to keep him at ease, at rest.
By the light of the fire, they could see the outlines of every other nearby dead-and-down stick and branch. They broke them apart like little individual puzzles they were solving, added them to the fire at will. The moon crested the horizon and rose swiftly, an orange spotlight that cooled in increments as it climbed.
“I know why that happens,” Harlan said. “The moon changing color like that,” but no one encouraged him to continue, either. He jammed his branch into the fire so that the cool end wobbled in the air. Somewhere in the distance dogs yipped. Cal hoped they were wild—coyotes, or wolves, or foxes. But as they continued barking, it was clear that these were housedogs. Trained, groomed, beagles and labs and retrievers, animals of an entirely different nature, just wanting to be let in for the night.
The next day two things happened. The first was that they found Bennet’s factory. The sky had begun dropping sleet like tiny daggers made of ice, and so as Bennet tried to find a way inside, Cal and Harlan and Jenk found shelter beneath an overhanging span.
“We should get a fire going now,” Harlan said. “In case he can’t get in.”
“Ye of little faith,” said Jenk, but he took Cal to the edge of the woods and they gathered all the dead-and-down fuel they could find. Harlan had cleared a manhole-sized area of gravel and set up a low windscreen of rocks around the perimeter. His knees popped as he stood. Jenk’s teeth chattered, but he zipped back to the tree line for more sticks. Cal spun his Jansport and pulled out pamphlets, brochures, weekly newspapers.
Harlan patted him on the back and got to work arranging a lean-to inside the fire ring, using a roofing shingle as the main support. Cal couldn’t see any structures with wooden shingles. This was a complex built entirely of metal.
They had three matches left. Harlan lit the first low to the ground, shielding it from the wind. The pamphlets flared and flamed but didn’t catch any of the kindling. He tried again, got the paper to burn but nothing else. Harlan bent low, lit the final match and held it to the husk of a brochure. “We need more matches,” Harlan said, a jinx: the match sputtered to a feather of smoke.
“I have,” Jenk said, “like, five lighters.”
Bennet was gone a half hour, forty minutes. An hour. They’d switched to Jenk’s lighters, tried burning labels they peeled off of cans. Even holding them in direct flame, they wouldn’t burn. “Must be treated or something,” Jenk said. “That ink. It’s retardant.” The cedar shingle collapsed and sent what ash they’d produced into a plume at their knees.
“Do we have any other paper?” Jenk asked.
Cal shook his head: the only other papers he had were the notebooks. Nothing he was willing to burn. The air sparkled around them, tight swirls of precipitation.
Harlan said, “Cal, you’re sure you’re all out of paper?”
He squeezed the deflated Jansport to his chest. Nobody would take his notebooks from him.
This was when the second thing happened. Harlan reached into his chest pocket and pulled out the letter, twisted it into a fuse. He lit one end and stabbed it beneath the lean-to. The paper ignited and the flame traveled down the length of the letter, unfurling and reshaping the page. The sticks above it caught, burning bright and hot and spreading their heat and light to the other sticks, and they had a fire.
For several seconds afterward, Harlan and Jenk stared at Cal. A peculiar hum throbbed in his throat. He rubbed his neck, trying to locate the sensation. He glanced at the glittering sky; he listened to the pinging of sleet against the steel walls surrounding him. The fire danced at his feet, Harlan’s letter already a black husk in its center, and Cal knew it had actually happened.
“You just talked,” Jenk said. “Holy shit. You just made actual sounds with your mouth.” Jenk looked to Harlan. “Did you hear that?”
Harlan kept his unblinking eyes trained on Cal, nodding long and slow. “I did. I heard you,” he said. “I heard what you said, Cal.”
“This is huge.” Jenk jumped into the air, swinging his fist in celebration. “Cal, holy shit! This is huge!” He grinned wide, but Cal didn’t smile with him. He couldn’t feel his feet. His legs twitched. The echoing ping of the sleet on the walls swirled around his head. His vision narrowed, went dark, and he was gone, gravel spitting from beneath his sneakers out of the corridor and toward the icy woods.
He only barely made out Jenk’s voice—“Grab him!”—or maybe it was Harlan. Regardless, Cal didn’t notice Bennet turning the corner, arms spread as though waiting for him. He collided into Bennet’s torso, and Bennet wrapped his bear arms around him, held him so tight that Cal knew he wouldn’t ever let go.
“I found a way inside,” Bennet said. Cal was jouncing atop Bennet’s shoulder on their way back toward the fire. Bennet sniffed. He said, “Something’s different.”
For the next two weeks Cal found ways to be alone. On the crisp days, even if snow covered the ground, he wandered through the woods trying to locate that magical hum in his throat. He tried to surprise himself. He tried to pant, to moan, to force sound from his mouth. Mostly this was a frustrating process. Mostly he kicked at the ferns, slapped at tree trunks with sticks he pretended to be picking up for firewood.
Occasionally, though, something amazing happened.
He had been walking around the perimeter of the factory—the whole factory, a massive complex the size of a small town—admiring the calls of the birds still flying between branches. Winter had arrived in the form of low temperatures and brief, shallow snow, but the angle of the sun was such that the animals had yet to migrate or hibernate or begin their cold-season routines. The birdcalls hung in the air and Cal imagined the notes, let them swell sweetly inside his chest. When he opened his mouth to let the sound out, though: nothing. He could imagine the sensation, but when he tried to make it happen his throat didn’t cooperate. If Harlan and Jenk hadn’t been there to witness his single success, he’d doubt that it ever happened at all.
Somewhere along the far side of the complex, Cal crossed a small service road. The snow stretched in both directions like a white carpet. The only disruption was a small animal’s footprints. They crossed the path at an angle. Cal followed them to the end and saw the creature that had put them there: a blaze-red fox that stood staring at him, one front paw lifted in the air. It pointed with its nose toward a small structure at the end of the path, then bolted into the underbrush.
Cedar-shingles lined the structure’s roof. It seemed out of place among all the steel walls, all the pipes and tubes and vents of the factory. This one rustic little box down a narrow road, set away into the woods like a groundskeeper’s private retreat. The door was unlocked, so Cal went in. Save for a few empty gas cans, a rake missing several of its spines, and, hanging from the wall, what appeared to be a perfectly good aluminum ladder, the room was completely empty. Hadn’t been used, it looked like, in years.
The ladder was too cumbersome to drag back on his own. He found Jenk and Harlan by following their voices. They were deep in some conversation and didn’t acknowledge Cal right away. He waited. Jenk, for some reason, had ferns sprouting from his underarms like a fairy tale deity. Harlan stood scratching his head and looking up toward the roof. An access ladder extended downward from the cornice but stopped halfway to the ground.
Jenk let the ferns fall from under his arms and stepped beside Harlan. He webbed his fingers together and bent his knees. Harlan knew what to do.
Jenk said, “You shouldn’t take Bennet personal. He’s just ornery.”
“I don’t take him personally,” Harlan said.
“Clearly. You were totally pissed this morning. With the charcoal?”
Harlan shook his head. “You were pissed this morning that he’d messed up your can-pyramid.” Harlan dropped a snowy boot into the nest of Jenk’s hands and stood. His crotch hovered in Jenk’s face.
“What’s up there again? Why do we want to get on this roof?”
“Maybe,” Harlan strained to reach the lowest rung, still a couple inches out of reach, “there’s a way into the loft.”
“Right. And remind me why we’re so interested in the loft?”
Harlan said, “Almost got it. Little higher.” His fingers teased at the lowest rung, then walked themselves into a grip around the metal bar. He brought his other hand up and Jenk stepped out from underneath him. Harlan hung there, his snowy boots swaying.
“But that was pretty messed up about the fire.” Jenk hugged Harlan’s knees and lifted. “Who paints themselves with coals?”
Harlan used his upper body strength to advance to the next rung, an impressive feat that clearly wore him out. Huffing, he said, “It kind of makes sense. It probably was warm.”
“You ever wonder if we’re just hanging out with crazy people?” Jenk said. He brushed the snow from his hands, stepped back to watch the old man dangle.
“What’d you think you were getting yourself into? Coming down,” Harlan said and suddenly dropped the five feet into the snow. He crouched, fell directly onto Jenk’s ferns. On his back, he clutched his knees but almost instantly straightened himself upright. Brushing the snow off his backside, he turned and looked at where he’d fallen. “Sorry about your ferns,” he said. “What’s with the ferns?”
Jenk grinned. “Nice and soft, yeah? For bedding, I was thinking.”
“Good thing they were there. Broke my fall.” He smiled, creases leaping to his face.
In the lull that followed, Cal waved his arms and dragged his feet in the snow, making as much noise as he could.
“Hey there, Cal! Didn’t see you there,” Jenk said. “You been there a while?”
Cal gestured for them to follow him.
“We’re kind of in the middle of something,” Harlan said. “Is it important? Can it wait just a minute?”
Cal paused, turned just in time to see Jenk take a two-step running start. He planted his foot against the slick metal wall and leapt upward, catching the bottom rung. With one hand on the ladder, his body contorted, his legs suddenly up over his head and his foot wedged in the upper rungs. When he got high enough, he corrected himself, then arrowed up and over onto the rooftop.
“Showoff,” Harlan called from the ground.
“No doors up here,” came the report.
“How far can you see?” Harlan said.
“How the hell should I know how far I can see? Eight leagues.”
“You know what I mean.”
“We’re closer than I thought. I can see buildings. Pretty far. Not too far. Some bigger buildings. Not too big.” He spun over the ledge and started back down the ladder. At the bottom he hesitated.
Cal’s mouth twitched and his throat worked up and down like he’d swallowed a bug, something he wanted to spit out. It erupted like a burp, like a hiccup, and the sensation sent chills down his spine.
“Cal!” Jenk shouted, dropping to the ground. “You’re freaking Pavarotti these days.”
Harlan patted Cal’s shoulder. “Good work, Cal! That’s good, keep trying.”
Cal hung his head, shrugged off the attention. His legs wobbled at the possibility that he might be getting closer, that he might have the potential to one day make true and honest words with his mouth.
“Breathe, buddy,” Harlan said, arms poised to hold him if Cal needed him to, and this was enough. Harlan dropped his hands and said, “So what’d you want to show us?”
This is an excerpt from Boxcar, a novel in four parts by Robert Martin. Read the other excerpts here.
Front page image by Rob Swatski.