“A Brother’s Token,”

Fiction by Peter Bar

Breaking out of prison isn’t hard, you’ve just got to be patient, watchful, and lucky. If you can get those three stars aligned, eventually your time will come.

My time came just before midnight on Dec. 31, 1932. That would be eight months, one day, and seven hours ago, if my little brother’s pocket watch is still keeping proper time.

I’ve found time can be a fickle thing when locked in a cage. It can tug at you in different ways. Sometimes it slips, and sometimes it grinds, but if a man has a purpose, it can roll right along like a train on a track.

As a boy, I liked all kinds of trains, but as a man I fell in love with one train in particular. For six years, I lay in my cell after lights out, listening to the far-off whistle of the Hannibal Express rumbling south into the night. I dreamed about that train. And then one night it called to me.

Like I said, eventually your time will come.

I started running in the prison yard. Wall to wall. The inmates lifting weights would watch me pass, and they’d laugh, hollering that I was the fastest man they’d ever seen going nowhere. But I was going somewhere. And I kept at it, in the heat, the rain, and the snow, until I knew I could run for nine miles straight, not pacing myself like a distance runner, but absolutely flat out, like my heart was gonna explode.

And then, at 11:57 on New Year’s Eve, with my fellow inmates gathered in the mess hall waiting to celebrate another year behind bars, and every guard in the joint sneaking more than the usual nip of booze, I broke the lock on the kitchen service elevator and climbed the shaft to the roof. I jumped to the wall then lowered myself on a rope of knotted kitchen aprons. Once on the ground, I ran straight into the dark embrace of the woods that lay just beyond the prison’s perimeter fence.

And I kept running. After nine miles, I reached the railroad siding outside of Jefferson City. The Hannibal Express was slowly rolling out onto the main track. I heard the whistle, that beautiful beckoning whistle, only this time I wasn’t lying in a dank cell, I was right alongside an empty boxcar. I swung myself up through the door and collapsed into the sweet-smelling hay. And then that whistle sounded again, as if saying farewell to the guards and their bloodhounds baying deep in the woods. I lay back, closed my eyes to the clickety-clack of the wheels, and drifted off to sleep like a newborn baby.

I switched trains outside of Mason City and rode west into big empty country, watching the miles roll by, horizons stretching to the end of the world. At night I camped alongside the tracks under skies that looked as if they’d been shot straight through with stars.

It was easy to disappear. Thousands of men had taken to riding the rails when things went bust in ’29. I was just another fella, moving down the line, looking for work in the hundreds of small towns across America.

I kept moving, eye over my shoulder for the law, crossing paths with all kinds of men. Some were city folk, factory workers, shop owners and such. Others were farmers who had lost everything when the dust storms started rolling across the plains. A few men were running from something, like me, but most were out searching for work, wondering how they were gonna make some money to send back home.

I came to see how that can wear on a man, the constant searching, always hoping for a way to get by. Lots of fellas on the rails seemed to be at the end of their line. There’s a look to it, a haunted hollowness in the eyes. One day the world starts telling a man he ain’t worth nothing, and it keeps telling him, whispering it day and night, until he starts believing it. When that happens, he’s done for.

I think the only way to keep yourself from falling into that well of despair is to have some kind of purpose, a plan, and hold tight to it, don’t let it go.

I had a plan. Once I figured it was safe, I was heading home to Oklahoma, going to see my Momma, my little brother Hank, and his new bride, Luanne. The girl of his dreams, is what he wrote in his letters. His ray of sunshine. He’d been pressing to bring her up to the penitentiary before I went over the wall, writing every week, asking when they could come, but I kept making excuses. Prison’s no place for a young bride.

Besides, I knew my time was coming.

I’d already started running in the yard. I’d see my family on the outside soon enough. I’d spend some time with Momma and apologize for all I’d done. I’d tell her that a man can change. Give up his past ways. I’d make her understand that I could never go back to being what I was. After I set things straight, I’d stop by the cemetery at the edge of town, put some flowers on my sister’s grave, and then head for the Mexican border.

That was the plan.

Only that plan changed when I learned I had some business to tend to down in Kerrville.

I rolled into Kerrville on the westbound track this morning. I jumped off a coal car about a mile outside of town. The day’s heat was already coming on, bleeding up out of the earth as I made my way across a dying cornfield to a small stand of cottonwood trees running alongside a dry creek bed.

I’ve been sitting here in the shade all day, back against a tree, carving a small piece of white birch. I got pretty good at woodcarving in the prison workshop, and I’ve been putting shape to a small blue-winged teal.

When the sun goes down, I’ll tuck my knife in my shirt and head into town. Bring the little carving. Leave it as a token. From my brother Hank.

When we were boys, Hank and I used to watch the flocks of blue wings heading south from Canada after the autumn harvest was in. We’d lie on the big flat rock — the one that Daddy couldn’t budge with the tractor — and they’d just glide overhead for hours, long dark ribbons drifting across an October sky.

We’d listen to the wind bending the tall grass and talk about our dreams, what we might grow up to be, the places we would go, things we’d see. I was gonna join the Navy, sail the world; Hank wanted to go off to college. Little boys’ dreams can change, however, and our bright October skies went gray with winter when our little sister fell ill with the fever.

When she passed, Daddy took to drinking, his grief slowly turning to anger, and some nights Momma would hold us and cry, whispering that he was born with a violent streak. I now know people aren’t born violent, they gotta choose to be that way, they gotta let that darkness in. And then once it’s inside, it can fester, and eventually roll out to others, like a ripple coming off a black stone dropped into a pond. My brother Hank somehow managed to block that ripple coming off Daddy, made it wash around him, while I chose to let it wash through me.

I came to understand this the day I found Billy McDade beating up my little brother behind the schoolhouse. McDade was a bully, every town has a couple, and I remember only thinking about protecting Hank when I got between them. When I didn’t stop hitting Billy however, it wasn’t Hank I was thinking about, it was Daddy.

    Billy McDade spent eight days in the hospital, and I spent nine months in a juvenile detention facility up in Wheaton. I was 16 when I went away, Hank was a week away from his 14th birthday. 

Daddy said juvey would set me straight. I had to smile at that. When I got out, I just drifted to St. Louis with some of my new friends from inside, bad seeds, wise guys. By the time I turned 24 I wasn’t a wise guy anymore, I was a menace to society. That’s what the judge called me when he handed me my 20-year hitch in the Missouri State Penitentiary.

After I went into prison, Hank started coming up to visit. He’d taken over running the farm when Daddy passed, just stepped up and took care of Momma, letting his college dreams slip away. I tried to talk to him about it, wanted to tell him I was wrong not to have come home, but he’d just shift the conversation, ask how I was getting by inside, talk about the farm or the price of wheat. That was just Hank’s way, putting others first. We were always different, like two seeds cast into a fertile field, only Hank got a little more sunlight, I got a little more shadow.

The weather was beginning to change when I figured it might be safe to go home. I lay hidden in the high grass, watching the farm, till the sun went down. When the sky turned purple black, I went down to the house and slipped inside the back door. The rooms were empty.

I found Momma at Aunt Mabel’s place down the road. She was sitting alone, slowly rocking under the dim porch light, head down, her frail fingers working along the beads of her white rosary. She was surprised to see me, but it wasn’t a happy surprise. I was the bad son. Her face looked empty, robbed of any dreams she may have once had. When she spoke, her words came out in heartbroken, chopped-up sentences. I sat down on the steps just outside the reach of the light, and she told me about Hank. When she finished, she couldn’t see me crying in the shadows. Didn’t need to.

    Just a month earlier, she said, Hank took his 12-gauge out to the rock where we used to watch the flocks of blue wings flying south. Shot himself when the sun came up. Some banker fellow had gone and foreclosed on the family farm. He said he could extend Hank’s credit. Fix things. He kept coming back to negotiate terms, but he didn’t want to save the farm, he just wanted Hank’s wife.

    Luanne let it happen. Momma said she heard them laughing one night when Hank was late coming back from town. The farm was just about bust by then; I guess Luanne wanted more.

Momma took Hank’s pocket watch from her sweater pocket. There was a photo of Luanne inside. It was small and grainy, but it was easy to see she was beautiful, raven black hair, dark eyes, deep like wells, with just a hint of mystery. And something else. My brother never saw that something else, but the banker fellow did.

Momma told me they’d run off together a week after Luanne buried Hank in the ground. Rumor had it they had moved down to Texas. Kerrville it was.

Three years into a drought, Texas was drying up. Plenty of farms for a slick banker fellow to foreclose on, plenty of lives to ruin. He’d be easy to find. As easy as dropping a stone into a pond. Watch the ripples slowly roll out.

Momma was squeezing my hand like a bird when I said goodbye. I was gonna tell her again that a man can change, give up his past ways, but I didn’t want the last thing I ever said to her to be a lie. 

Peter Bar is a web designer who spends summers in Montauk. His fiction has been published previously in The Star.