After leaving The Iron Horse, Jonathan jogged along the railroad tracks, trying to get home before dark and to reach the crossing before the approaching freight did. A quick glance over his shoulder confirmed he wasn’t going to make it. A break in the fence loomed to his right, and he darted through, kicking up gravel behind him until reaching a narrow-paved side street. The long train rumble past, now blocking the most direct path home. Still, the freight should have cleared the tracks by the time he could detour to another crossing. But first, he had to navigate wherever he was. He slowed to a walk. Surrounded by ramshackle homes, many squatting mournfully behind overgrown lawns, he tried to orient himself. In the past two months he’d lived in Jamesville, he hadn’t seen this part of town. But somewhere ahead was Academy Street, which would carry him back toward the North Street crossing and past the backside of the trailer park.
Off on the left, near the junction with Academy, was a parking lot, behind which was a three-story brick building that looked like a former church. Quite old but still functional. People walked in and out of it, carrying books. He stopped and read the sign, “Jamesville Public Library, St. Anthony Branch.”
He stepped through the entrance and walked past the checkout desk to peruse the shelves. It reminded him of the public libraries in Chicago, though on a much smaller scale. There he’d spent many an hour lost in the reading cubicles.
Families swirled by, drifting into the Children’s area; beyond that was a wide-open area filled with tables and chairs, surrounded by more bookshelves with the sign “Adult Section.” People filled the seats, reading and writing. A dull buzz of muted conversations, sniffles, coughs, and shifting bodies carried in the air, defying the assumed silence of the setting.
“Would you like to volunteer in the children’s section?” someone said as he stood looking at the section for YA books.
He turned to look. An older woman with blond hair and glasses smiled at him. The name badge around her neck said Madalin. She carried a clipboard.
“To do what?”
“We are looking for young people to read to the children. Our reading night on Tuesdays is quite popular, so we’re trying to add other nights, but getting people willing to read has been a bit of a problem.”
“Well,” Jonathan said, debating the idea as he spoke. “I suppose I could, but what time?”
“Wednesdays at 6pm would be good.”
He paused slightly. “Okay, I’ll do it.”
“Great. Can you give me your name and phone number, please?”
Jonathan swallowed. “Um, Jonathan Carpenter . . .” The trailer didn’t have a phone, and he didn’t remember the phone number of the trailer park. Not that it would matter. The park manager would just hang up on them. Wait, I know a number they could call. He related it to Madalin.
She smiled and patted his arm. “Thank you, we’ll see you next Wednesday.”
“Sure thing,” Jonathan said. He’d better forewarn Sy about the possibility that the library might call for him. Otherwise, they might be in for a rude surprise. Still, for the first time since arriving in Jamesville, he felt a sense of satisfaction and connectedness creep into him. He had an obligation to come back and a purpose for doing so.
* * *
As dusk descended upon Jonathan, he pushed the trailer door open, hoping that Mom would be there. The dark empty interior confirmed his expectations, already dampened by not seeing his grandmother’s car parked outside. Where was she? It had been almost twenty days, and still no sign of her. At least the work at the Iron Horse kept him busy. Otherwise, the uncertainty would be driving him mad.
He stepped inside and grabbed a candle from the kitchenette counter. Digging into a jacket pocket, he retrieved the matches he’d taken from work, struck one, and lit the wick. As candlelight flickered, he pulled the door shut and wedged it closed with an old piece of two-by-four found near the park dumpster.
When he turned around, his eyes fell on the school registration forms. Over the last couple of weeks, he had searched the trailer, finding most of the needed documents and information. But even so, his one intractable problem was the need for a signature. Maybe, if he was lucky, he could get his Abuela to sign it. The calendar on the wall still showed a month and a half until the first day of school. Still plenty of time, but was it realistic to expect anything to change between now and then? He rubbed his eyes. Stop this. You’ll be spinning in circles with no means of escape.
Banging on the door caused him to jump. He peered through the kitchenette window that gave him a sidelong view of the door. Bud McFarlan, the fat middle-aged trailer park manager, stood there. The man always looked the same, wearing a black food-stained Steelers jersey and ratty khaki cargo pants. With a sigh, Jonathan pulled the two-by-four from the door and opened it.
The manager frowned at him. “Where’s Alma, or better yet, your momma?”
“They’re not here . . . at the moment.”
“Whatever, I still need the rent. Tell them I want it in cash and not one of those post-dated checks.”
“How much is it?”
“A hundred plus twenty for utilities.”
“That includes electricity?”
“Nope, just water, sewer, and garbage. Like I told your momma, you got to work that out with the power company.”
“Hang on, I think we’ve got enough to cover it.” Jonathan retreated into the trailer and dug into his pillow. Six twenty-dollar bills were everything he’d earned so far in almost three weeks at the Iron Horse. That left him nothing left over, and he still needed to eat.
Jonathan turned around and spotted McFarlan leaning into the trailer and peering at him through the doorway. He walked over and handed the manager five twenty-dollar bills.
He glanced at the bills and shook his head. “Not enough, kiddo.”
“Guess we’re skipping the utilities this month.”
“Enjoy stinking, and stay away from the dumpster,” the manager said, pursing his lips and narrowing his eyes. The corners of his mouth curled upward as a glint came to his eye. “But tell your momma we can work something out.”
Jonathan tried not to get nauseous. “Okay.”
McFarlan walked away with a smile as Jonathan secured the door. No running water. At least he could get something to drink at the Iron Horse. But what about taking a bath? For that, there was no answer.
Another problem was the inability to lock the door. Anyone could get into the trailer while he was gone. He marched over to his pillow, pulled out the last twenty, walked over to the sink cabinet, and tucked the money into the gap between the sink and plumbing. He opened the cupboard. Three cans of spaghetti, a can of pears, and two cans of peas. All he had until he could get to the store.
The candle flickered and died, plunging the trailer into darkness. He considered relighting it for a moment but didn’t have the energy. His stomach grumbled, but he ignored that too. Instead, like a blind man, he felt the way across the trailer to his bunk. After kicking off his shoes, he slipped under the covers. His hand crept out and touched the cool outlines of the picture frame, which he couldn’t see but knew was there. Goodnight, Mom. Come home.