This is an excerpt from Robert Martin’s novel, Boxcar.
The blue of the sky was so pure it seemed fake. Painted on, projected. Not a cloud anywhere, but it was chilly and all Jenk could do was pull his arms inside the orange reflector vest they’d made him wear. As if visibility would save his life should an 80-mile-per-hour SUV clip him while he was bent over for a Twix wrapper.
Though it helped with the chill, tucking his arms inside the vest didn’t lend itself well to picking up trash. The officer on duty was a hundred yards away, leaning against the hood of the van and clearly despising this assignment as much as the community servants. He looked almost happy to see Jenk’s arms tucked inside his vest, like this gave him something to do. A triple-trill from his little silver whistle carried down the freeway, rattling over the tops of the speeding cars. Jenk had watched him place the whistle in his mouth, seen his cheeks distend, but when the sound arrived the whistle was already back at the cop’s chest, hanging like a pendant. Jenk was so fascinated by the lag that he kept his arms inside the vest, hoping to see it again.
“You’re already on trash duty,” muttered a fellow prisoner of the road crew. “Don’t push your luck.” The closest in proximity to Jenk, this old man was clearly the furthest in age. Jenk was surprised they’d sentence a guy that old to manual labor. He had a beard, which was what made him look old, and eyes that creased hard when he squinted against the brightness. Otherwise maybe he wasn’t much older than Jenk’s dad. Maybe not even that old.
“It’s freaking cold,” Jenk said. “If I catch pneumonia I’ll sue the state.”
“They instruct you to wear a shirt with sleeves,” the old man said, rising to his knees and showing off the powder blue fabric of his own shirt. Frayed at the cuffs, thin at the elbows. A blue almost as pure as the sky. “Or,” the man said, returning to his littered patch of shoulder, “you’d probably warm right up if you actually started working.”
The two of them had been working parallel to each other for a while, maintaining enough distance that they weren’t competing for trash. It had already occurred to Jenk that wherever he went, this old dude happened to be nearby. Jenk plucked at the tattered remnants of a Ziploc, lifting the plastic briefly to his nose. Expecting something potent, something illicit; there was a faint odor of Cheese-Its.
They’d caught up to another worker, a small man who also had a beard, though his was still dark and thick. He’d paused in his work to tie his shoes or examine some particularly fascinating trash: whatever his reason, he wasn’t moving forward like the rest of them. He was also wearing short sleeves. “How come he isn’t cold?” Jenk asked. He looked more closely at the squatting man, who not only wasn’t picking up trash, he wasn’t moving at all. The dude’s beard was crazy, a wolfman beard that covered his neck and cheeks and almost grew to his eyes. Maybe that’s what was keeping him warm. From twenty feet away, Jenk could see three soda fountain lids within arm’s reach of the guy. “How come the cop doesn’t blow his whistle for this guy? He’s not working, either.”
“They know each other,” said the old man. “Officer Hendrickson and the mute. They know each other from before.” Even over the hush of the wind, over the hiss and churn of the traffic, even with how loud the man had to shout to make his voice heard over the distance between them, the old man’s voice had a soft quality, like he took each word seriously.
Jenk looked again at the wolfman. “He’s mute?”
The old guy nodded.
“How do you know he’s not faking it?”
“Why would he fake it?”
Jenk could think of a thousand reasons.
The old guy said, “He hasn’t said a word as long as I’ve known him.”
“How long is that?” Jenk asked.
Up the road, Officer Hendrickson had had enough. He pushed off the hood of the van and began walking in their direction.
The old guy and Jenk fell to picking up litter, imposing on the wolfman’s neglected area. Jenk felt he should ask the old dude something fraternal. Something like, “What are you in for?” but stopped short, wary of the cliché. Then again, he’d been cliché all his life.
“What are you in for?” he asked.
The old dude jutted his chin toward the wolfman and said, “Trespassing.”
“Nice,” Jenk said. “Is that how you know this guy?”
Apparently the old dude had to give this some thought, because he didn’t answer. When he spoke a few seconds later, he returned the cliché to Jenk.
“Technically I’m here on destruction of private property. But basically trespassing for me too.”
The cop made steady progress down the shoulder, glancing occasionally into the drainage ditch beside them. There was plenty of trash down there, too—the assignment for later in the afternoon, Jenk guessed. On the other side of the ditch, a seldom-used frontage road led to some decrepit structure, wooden and bowed, sagging in its foundation. A holdover from a time before the freeway. It probably died because of the freeway.
The cop was close, maybe within earshot, but Jenk felt emboldened. “What do you think that old building was?” he asked the old dude.
He’d apparently already been giving this thought. “Maybe for feed or grain. For loading trucks. Oh,” the old dude said, doing a double take at the ground beneath the mute’s feet. He knelt near a fountain lid. “Wow.”
Jenk stepped closer to the pair of them and looked. At first he didn’t see anything but grass and dirt. Then he noticed that the dirt was moving: a wrath of ants, tiny ants, millions of them. They seemed to be up in arms over an earthworm, which writhed in the center of the fracas. “They’re like Voltron,” Jenk said.
The cop arrived beside them and said, “Everything okay here, Harlan?”
The old guy took one of his hands from his knee and rested it on the mute’s shoulder. The mute didn’t react. “Yeah, we’re okay.” He pointed at the scene in the dirt. “Look what Cal found,” he said.
The worm leaked an orange, translucent goop, and the trail it left traced the recent history of the battle. Several feet away, armies of ants were congealed in the worm’s ooze, their legs curled, their antennae flickering.
Jenk said, “It must have dug into one of their tunnels. They’re defending their home. Ants don’t eat worms, do they? Are ants carnivorous?”
The cop glanced down and summarized the situation: “That worm’s gonna die.”
The mute twisted his thin body to the frontage road behind them. A couple seconds later, they all heard it: an engine revved to an unnatural whine, tires squealing as a petite red sports coupe swerved and skidded up the narrow swath of road, out of control. It remained on its side of the ditch, screaming past the workers. As though chasing a moving target, it swerved and cut along the pavement until it slammed into the feeble side of the decrepit building. A sparkling plume of dust and splinters rose into the air. A full beat passed, enough time that Jenk could catalog the image, register the phenomenon, and have his grin ready before the sound reached them.
Cover was sparse along the side of the freeway, but Jenk found a shrub with enough leaves to block him from view and enough space between its branches that he could nestle inside. He shed his reflective vest like sloughing his sentence, folded it into quarters and buried it in the dirt. If he didn’t move, he might as well have been invisible: black t-shirt, black jeans. He set about doing what he assumed all invisible things did: he observed. Across the ditch, Officer Hendrickson and the rest of the road crew watched smoke and steam climb from the car’s hood, which was buckled and had risen like a blister. The building seemed in danger of collapsing at any second.
The driver’s door opened and a kid stumbled out, hardly tall enough to see over the steering wheel. He took a few wobbly steps and assessed the damage, first to the car, then to the building. Then he noticed the police officer standing across the drainage ditch.
The kid had a face full of shock. Officer Hendrickson waved his arms, said something Jenk couldn’t decipher, inviting the kid closer. He pointed at the structure, which was giving off irregular clicks and releasing mini-puffs of dust from random points at its façade. The kid ran back to the car and pulled a girl not much taller than him out of the passenger seat. She held her head with one palm but stood on her own. When the girl looked across the ditch and saw Hendrickson, backed by a crew of orange-vested onlookers, she turned and ran into the woods behind the structure. For a second the boy stood by himself, then he took off after her.
Traffic on the freeway was at a standstill. Every pair of eyes was trained on the building, on the car wedged in the wall like an axe blade. Everyone except for Harlan and the mute, twenty feet from Jenk’s bush, who were still crouched in the same spot, still, amazingly, confoundingly, focused on the ants and the worm.
On its own, the car somehow popped out of the hole it had made in the building and backed away in a slow arc. The driver must have left it in reverse. No acceleration, no question of where it was headed, the car slid, uneventfully, trunk-first into the ditch. Its crumpled hood now pointed at the fake blue sky.
The building gave off a few more puffs but seemed to settle in its new balance. Jenk’s heart sank: those kids had run off into the woods. The woods had been his only realistic option. In any other direction, he’d be visible for miles.
Harlan said to the mute, “I saw a buffalo die once,” as though commiserating, as though reassuring the mute that things die all the time. “Not a buffalo. A bison,” and he transitioned from a squat to a cross-legged position on the ground, in it for the duration.
The tow truck driver, a rotund and greasy man, was on his hands and knees fixing a winch to the crumpled front bumper. Two patrol cars had joined the scene. The cops huddled and spoke and radioed and did cop-things, decided on a plan of action, which involved splitting up: one car to search the copse for the kids who ran off, one to cordon off the soon-to-collapse building, and Hendrickson to return to disciplining his ragtag crew, who were by this point relaxing on the grassy slope, enjoying the warming sun, and observing as the winch tugged the car up and out of the ditch.
Harlan looked up from the ants and squinted at the sun. “How long you gonna sit in that bush?” he said.
Jenk didn’t answer.
“I can see you. You got a constellation on your face.”
Jenk covered his face with his hands. “Shit,” he said. “Don’t look at me. Don’t attract attention. I’m gonna make a break for it.”
Harlan laughed and spun on his butt, faced him directly. “Make a break for what? We’re thirty miles from Madison.”
“I’ll do what I want. You don’t know me.”
Harlan laughed. “I know you a little.” He stood up, a struggle, like he’d been sitting in one place too long and all his joints had stiffened. The mute stood up, too. He’d looked small crouched over, but he was downright miniature upright. Nearly a foot shorter than Harlan, narrow shouldered and slope-necked. He looked like a child or a pet, some cross between the two.
Jenk said, “They’ll never catch me.”
“They won’t even chase you. What they will do is make a note that you haven’t completed your community service, and the next time a cop has any reason to harass you, which I don’t suspect will be too long, he’ll be justified in making your day unpleasant in a hundred different ways.” Harlan bent down and picked up the cellophane sleeve from a pack of cigarettes and dropped it inside his trash bag. “On top of which, if you run off now, you’ll still be stranded thirty miles outside of town. Come out of the bush.”
Beside him, the mute slapped at dry grass clinging to his sweatpants. He opened and closed his hands, tested his fingers. He lifted one foot at a time.
“I’ll fight the case,” Jenk said, not moving. “I shouldn’t even be here.”
“Come out of the bush. Why shouldn’t you be here?”
“I’m a minor.”
“You’re not eighteen?” Harlan asked. He paused in his unearthing of a foil bag, the brand of chips weathered off the label. “Get out of the bush and talk to me. They arraigned you and sentenced you and you’re not eighteen?”
“No,” Jenk admitted. “I’m eighteen now. But I wasn’t when they arrested me.” He dug out his vest and brushed the dirt off. But he didn’t put it on, and he didn’t climb out of the bush. Not until Cal started walking away, back toward the rest of the road crew and Officer Hendrickson. Harlan looked torn for a second, but decided to follow the little silent man. Jenk realized that he was simply alone in a bush, which was no place to be.
When they arrived by the side of the van, Officer Hendrickson clapped his hands and said, “Okay. Let’s get to work. Lot of road to clean up,” and he was so un-authoritative that nobody responded at all.
“Man,” one of the workers observed. “That girl was jailbait,” which Jenk found hilarious, seeing as how they were all prisoners of a sort already. Nobody else laughed, even when Jenk tried to explain it.
Annoyed, exhausted, defeated, Officer Hendrickson lifted his whistle and trilled a long, aggressive blast, aiming for the eardrums of everyone within range. The nearest vests flinched and covered their ears, moaned their disapproval. Cal took it particularly hard. His eyes rolled back in his head for a second and his body seemed to seize, his neck and arms going tense. For a second Jenk thought the guy was choking, like the sound had surprised him into swallowing his tongue. Rather than clutching at his throat, though, or falling to the ground, he went from a standstill to a sprint, tearing right past the van and down the ditch, up the other side, past the building, into the woods and gone.
Jenk heard his own voice among the chorus shouting, “Go! Go! Go!” his fist pumping the air, like all of their dreams of escape and resistance rode the wind on Cal’s shoulders. He looked happily to Harlan, cheering their friend on, but Harlan looked on with some kind of sad terror on his face. He’d dropped his bag, and all the wrappers and plastic he’d collected tumbled back onto the ground. Jenk realized that this was not Cal making a break for anything, this was nobody’s freedom or defiance.
To his credit, Officer Hendrickson was already at a full sprint after Cal, catching up to him about the time Cal hit the trees behind the damaged building.
Jenk said, “I thought you said they wouldn’t chase us if we ran.”
Harlan placed his hands on the top of his head, the posture of a worried parent. “I said they wouldn’t chase you.”
This is an excerpt from Boxcar, a novel in four parts by Robert Martin. Read the other excerpts here.
Front page image by Bill Dickinson.