by Zack Bean
And then the day they tell us that bad boys sometimes leave pennies and nickels on the train tracks to flatten them out, that we should never, never, ever leave coins on the rails, that something as small as a penny could derail a train, send it screeching off the tracks and into the river or the woods; well, of course we run home and lay all our money out onto the rail, little pieces of copper and nickel glistening on that iron bar that stretches off into the afternoon like a perfect dream. Waiting, waiting, one ear to the track, a small vibration, then the approaching rumble and clack and then the conductor waving his arm as the train roars by, the great snake of industry slithering off to wherever, scattering flattened little discs of metal in its wake. We look for them in the gravel, and whose was whose doesn’t seem to matter anymore, because none of it will spend—the money has been devalued, pressed into shapes the man at the corner store won’t recognize.
One of us shows our father, and he shakes his head in disbelief. A quarter? You wasted a whole quarter?
But we like them more now, the way they’ve been smoothed out and disfigured by metal on metal, the way no two look the same. Yes, we understand why bad boys do this. Train versus pennies, we understand. We could spend a fortune like this.
And nobody has to tell us what else the bad boys do—we’ve already slipped into the natural order of things. Like predators who’ve picked up a fresh scent, we’re sniffing out our paths, through fistfights and broken windows, through cigarettes and jewelry that nobody paid for, through the bottoms of whiskey bottles and into back seats of old sedans with girls whose names we’ve forgotten, and on and on through the endless nights— through hawkbill knives and tire irons and Saturday night specials, through twenty-nine days in jail in Little Rock, Arkansas, through the trains we jumped and the jobs we couldn’t keep and the silver handcuffs that made perfect circles around our wrists again and again, perfect circles, and through the river of our mothers’ tears that we swam across to get to this place where we sit, writing letters to sons we’ve never met, saying Listen, save your pennies, save your nickels, stay away from trains, even though we know it’s already too late.
Zack Bean‘s fiction has appeared in Fiction, Pank, and Cream City Review, among other places. He currently teaches creative writing at Montana State University.