Serpent Blog

Picture of a Train  

He rode up on an old blue bicycle that was too small for his frame. A girlís bike with tassels hanging from the handle bars and a white basket studded with little purple flowers. He had the swollen red nose of an ancient drunk and a wore a black stocking cap that drooped over to one side. He was well over six foot and he looked like a circus clown straddled over the bike as he peered into the darkness of the garage, wincing, shading his eyes with his hand.

He said his name was Mack. He said he was from Nogales, Arizona. He said he loved garage sales. His two front teeth were split wide like a wishbone and his face was weathered brown. He had thick fingers all black under his nails and he propped the bike up on my mailbox. He walked straight back into the garage, passing all the good stuff ¨the vintage Philco radio, the shoebox full of old postage stamps, the shawl-collared tuxedo, the alligator golf shoes. He went to the back and crouched before a framed oil-painting of a large picture of an old train, big as a wide-screen T.V train.
How much?
Twenty, I said.
He cringed. He picked up the picture and carried it out into the light of the day. It was an old painting. A steam engine pulling a line of boxcars off into a desert sunset, with a big red caboose in the foreground beneath a purple sky, reefed with pink tinged clouds and a long billow of smoke curving out behind the locomotive like a kite-tail. The train was passing through a red-rock desert with the shadows of saguaro cactus stretched long across the sand and rock formations carved by ancient lakes to rival the architecture of man.
Mack just stared at that painting while some kid came up and bought the Philco and an old timer haggled for the gold shoes. Mack leaned the picture on the side of the house and got back on his bike. He peddled away slowly, looking back over his shoulder, and then, swinging the bike into a driveway across the street, looped back over to the train.
Twenty? He said.
Alright, fifteen.
Ainít got but five, he said.
Canít do it, I said.
Mack straddled his bike, his chin resting on the handlebars. He looked like a dog watching a cake on a stove. Then he smiled.
Was a time, he said, when I rode them rails. Slept in boxcars, camped in train-yards, made my living with these.
He holds up his hands, and they donít look good. Thereís nothing sadder than an old manís hands.
When I was your age, he said, I never stood still. I seen all this country, and them was the best years of my life.
He turns his head to the side, even more dog-like now, looking at the painting from a new angle and smiling wide enough for me to see that his wishbone teeth are the only ones heís got that are still his own.
I can hear it, he said. Hell, I can almost smell the damn thing.
Then he mounts up on his bike and turns to ride away.
Mack, I said, Wait. Take the painting.
For five? He said.
No, for free.
Canít do it, he said.
Then give me the five dollars.
He wass the kind of man who kept his money in a silver clip. All ones. He counted them out and made sure the heads were all facing the same direction.
Bless you, he said. Happy trails.
And with the picture under one arm, he rode off down the street, whistling.

In all the years I owned that train picture I had never hung it, though took it with me through three moves. It was too big, and the colors too vibrant. I liked it because the rendering of the desert reminded me of a backdrop from a road-runner cartoon. I bought that picture for fifty-dollars at a flea market in Sausalito a long, long time ago and I knew I bought it for a reason. Sometimes you have to pass things on.

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