Sample Chapter from Gone Dead Train

Chapter 1

A Summons To Sandy Creek
from upcoming novel

The phone rang a little after 1 AM.   Ronnie Box called from northern New York.  “Nobody’s dead, “ he said in the hard country drawl of the North Country, “but there’s somebody here you ought to talk to.”

“At one in the morning?”

“She won’t talk to no one but you and only to your face.  It’s family, Luke.  It’s what you’ve been looking for.”

“Who is it?”

“She won’t say.  She says come alone.  Says she’s dying.”

“Do you believe her?”  This was a dumb question.  Ronnie Box doesn’t waste people’s time, certainly not at one in the morning.  He works for the town of Ellisburg, which is next to the village of Sandy Creek, where the Salisburys came from.  He gets up at four in the morning.

“If you ain’t coming, she’ll go right now.”

“I’ll come.”

I hear Ronnie talk to someone.  Can’t make out what’s said.  “She’ll meet you at the Hotel Martin in Sandy Creek at 7 AM tomorrow.”

“Jesus.”  Seven fucking AM?  “All right.  I’ll be there.”

“You been looking for this a long time, Luke.”

I’ve been trying to uncover a family secret—my father’s biological parents.  It’s complicated.  He doesn’t want to know or won’t tell.  It’s all mixed up in the rise and fall of the family, in my sphinxlike father, the Second World War, why his older brother killed himself, how two people as wonderful as my grandparents could have experienced so much triumph and grief in their long, complicated lives.

We get older.  We’re surrounded by riddles.

The world asks: Who are you?

Memory asks: How do you talk to the dead?

The phone rings.

A therapist told me maturity is forgiving your parents.  Think about that.

            What about forgiving yourself?

If the person talking to Ronnie is who I think she is, this woman has grieved a long time.  Yes, I will go, and I will drive, twenty-three hours from Sarasota to Sandy Creek.  All the way from now to somewhere lost in time.  Except it isn’t lost anymore.  Someone won’t let this slide over the horizon of memory.  Someone is making a last stand to say goodbye, hello, set a record straight, demand an explanation, give one.  I will go.

I move in an uncoordinated, sleepy daze.  The daze is physical, my brain is working hard.  Pour the coffee left in the French press and heat it in the rusty microwave that provides my culinary expertise.

I’ll drive.  I want time to think, talk to myself, get the record straight.  I have looked for a long time.  What I don’t know can’t be pretty.  Will I to have to defend Salisburys, living and dead, to someone forgotten, who can’t forget?  What does she want?  The law respects deathbed confessions.  Maybe this person only needs touch, recognition, a word.  Maybe she cannot be reconciled by touch, recognition or words.

I want to call my brother Mason but it’s 1:30 in the morning.  Mason and his wife don’t answer their phone.  They screen the calls from his wife’s mother and our mother.  Mason is a lawyer in Charleston, South Carolina.  I’ll call his office from the road.

At a certain age we get interested in family history.  Maybe it’s the last chance to answer the world’s question.  The last chance to be the wise man who knows his father.  Maybe we never know our fathers, can’t, aren’t supposed to, but at a certain age, we try.  Must.  At a certain age, family is what’s interesting.  The last subject standing after ambition, sex, money, fame, have receded towards the long night we all go to.  Family—questions answerable and unanswerable—family—who gets forgiven and who doesn’t—what went wrong—what needs to be known—known and understood—known and corrected—known and forgotten.  Family.  The undiscovered, infinitely fascinating, ever-changing country.  Who was my father’s father?  Why doesn’t my father care?  What did my grandparents do to get those children they adopted?  Why don’t I know?  What story shadows the story I know?  It goes back, back—tail in mouth—beginning in end, end in beginning.  Return.  Know it for the first time.

Return where?

The past?

Do we ever leave?

Is it here now?  Like the unconscious?  The rest of the iceberg?  The Tao?  Original Sin?

Robert Penn Warren said truth always kills the father.  My father is very much alive.  But truth is somewhere twenty-three hours north in the December wind off Lake Ontario.  Will I be asked to answer for things that happened long ago?  Things that made me and made the people who made me.  Sins and omissions hover just over the horizon of who we are.  Will I have to defend who I am?  Who I was told I am?  Defend people long dead?  People I loved very much?  So much went wrong in that family.

I’m a novelist.  I like stories.  Gossip.  At a certain age we take our place in the line of those who tell the stories.

Search.  Make sense.  Tell.

Then the phone rings.

I know this story runs through the little towns by Lake Ontario where Grandpa came from and we went in the summer.  I know war is mixed up in it.  Ambition.  Leaving the North Country.  Marrying money.  Adoption.  Wounds.  Suicide.  A generation of bad marriages.  Loser grandchildren.

What do we owe the past?

What does the past owe us?

A phone call comes out of the night like a whale breaching the surface.  Who is your father?  In this family the question is literal and spiritual.  Few questions are more spiritual.  Who is your father?  What made him?  Made me?  Contemplate your face before you were born.

My mother’s Virginian family embodied Napoleon’s remark about the Bourbons.  Never forgot anything, never learned anything.  The Salisburys were different.  Much forgotten.  Never told.

I was born into The New York Social Register and I’ll die in a barrio in Chelsea, Massachusetts.  Things could be worse.  I could still be in the Social Register.

The phone rings at one in the morning.  A person I trust tells me to drive from Sarasota, Florida, to Sandy Creek, New York, in the middle of the night, to meet someone I’ve never met.  It could be trivial, false, sentimental, a mistake.  It could be a leviathan breaching the waves.  I’m on sabbatical from a marriage and Bunker Hill Community College.  I returned to Sarasota to write a novel based on my family.  The phone rings.  It’s not a novel anymore.

Why me?

I’m willing to drive twenty-three hours to find out.

We seek our fathers.