The Nelsons, a young married couple, never shed their mantle of otherness, due to the fact that few people ever moved to town and because their only child, a troubled boy, was given to fits so severe he would struggle for breath and fairly turn blue.
The boy was called Daniel, never Danny. The man’s name was Claude, a sturdy man with pale skin and dark hair; late in the day, the blackness of his stubble against the whiteness of his skin was hard not to stare at. He was kind to his son, but embarrassed by him, picking up every flicker of pity, every tic of disdain on the part of the hometowners. He was hard on his wife; the more forgiving her response, the more compassion she showed, the angrier he’d become. She put no distance between her son’s plight and her emotions, and there was no room for him. There was nothing left for him. Her name was Marguerite. Henry would later call her Maggie because it was too much trouble to say it full out. Maggie was light on her feet and extremely quick—one minute she was beside you or in the room, the next, she was gone. Except when weighed down by her boy.
My uncle’s barn sat within town limits, set back off a road that curved around sharply then ran downhill. Marguerite would walk this road with Daniel at times, struggling with him in tow, not an easy process, and if you got close enough, you would notice he was strapped into a harness—out of view under his checked shirt—a leather lead line strap attached to the belt of his corduroy pants. The pair drew Uncle Henry out of his shed. He’d work in the front yard hoping to catch her going by. They’d smile at each other and nod at first; eventually Maggie stopped and talked. She had a warm, ready response for everything he said, and the first time she looked at Henry and gave him a sweet, sad smile of apology for her son’s outburst, it was as if someone whacked him across the head with a two by four. He was never the same. Life was never the same.
Henry asked if Daniel would like to see the barn—to distract him from his furies—but the massiveness of Leo and Tod frightened him, and it would have been impossible to maneuver him in and out of the old red and blue ride car. The only thing the boy liked was the train engine. He would grab at it, press his face against its hard surface, hold on and be still. Within this stillness he obtained a dignity, his brown eyes fixed afar and wondering, beautiful like his mother’s. In these quiet moments, it was easier to understand how someone could love him.
And Henry loved Maggie. Loved her in silence, though at times the way she looked at him gave him hope, and he had seen her turn her gaze on her husband, her eyes hard and cold. He hated her husband, with his suits and his youth and his prerogative, hated her thin gold wedding band that, even in that thinness, was able to catch the light and flash its possession like an intruder between the two of them though it was Henry who was the third party.
He’d sit in his shed and question himself; he could drive Leo and Tod with just as much male bravura as the young carnival ride operator whom all the girls fancied. He would weigh and wonder at the evilness of his bitter raging against the bonds of moral values and matrimony. Bonds he’d be willing to break. This was his chance for happiness. His despair at times was so strong it gave him incredible perception, and he could sense the despair of others, like a kindred spirit, almost see it rising up from the ground like steam off wet pavement hit by a sunlight shaft.
Things went on pretty much the same for several months until, one night in late June, too much humidity and too much alcohol sent Henry to the barn. He couldn’t sleep. He took a sledgehammer and shattered the old ride car cab; he took some surplus barn siding and broke that down as well; he hoisted an armful of abandoned train track off its stack by the salt lick blocks and went out to the field. He had an idea to reconstruct—on a more modest scale—the underappreciated carnival train ride for Daniel; between the dry grass, and the alcohol and cigarettes, it was a wonder he didn’t set the place ablaze.
Over the next several weeks he built an open boxcar carriage out of the barn siding and red and blue cab. The train engine was pushed back onto the old door, dragged out to the field, and attached to the carriage. It didn’t run; he would have to work up the diesel engine later. And then he laid the tracks. This was harder, to secure them, than one imagined. And he didn’t have any help. When he couldn’t sleep at night for the longing, he’d go to the field and work on the track, smoking and drinking, laying the rails.
When he was finished, rails secure to the ground, carriage attached to the engine, he brought Daniel over one muggy morning. Maggie and Henry put him in the carriage. It was deep enough that he could safely sit it in it alone without fear of falling out. Soon the train would take him around the field, Henry told him. “Whoo, whoo,” Daniel cried. He was able to sit for long periods of time in that carriage, happy as a clam in its wooden crate-box shell, leaving Henry and Maggie free on the field’s border. When he leaned on the fence rail and talked quietly with Maggie, watching her as she watched her son, it was so big for him—even though it was still far from his dreams, dreams in which he was confident, she was willing, and he held her tight and kissed her hard.