[From time to time, I write a story in an hour based on some stock image.]
As runaway companions go, Jimmy wasn’t bad. He could read fifty different kinds of hobo sign, knew the difference between poison ivy and Virginia creeper, and always gave you at least half a tin of potted meat if he had it. He could hold his own in a conversation about Dick Tracy or Brick Bradford, too.
In fact, the only thing that complicated traveling with old Jimmy Day was that he had to carry his brother around in that milk can.
The thing looked heavy, and though he’d fashioned canvas straps to hang it off his back, Jimmy wasn’t always able to leap into a boxcar as easily as I could. There was also the care and feeding to worry about, and when we’d set up camp off in the woods by a railroad yard, he’d always have to pour water or chunks of hot dog inside.
Colin was his name, the brother in the milk can.
I figured there were just a couple of possibilities for what was going on with Colin. Maybe there had been a real Colin who’d died young, maybe as a baby, maybe in his mama’s womb, and Jimmy had just taken on this milk can as a symbol of his dead brother’s spirit. Maybe there’d never been a Colin at all and Jimmy just made him up, adopted him as an imaginary traveling companion who would never leave him like his parents probably had. Or, hell, maybe Jimmy was just pulling my leg with the most persistent practical joke I’d ever seen.
But as much as I mulled over those possibilities on the hoof with Jimmy, walking the railroad trestle ties or crashing through the woods, none of them ever seemed quite right.
When Jimmy talked about Colin at all, it was about something he needed.
“We’re gonna need to pour off Colin’s pee in the next couple of miles,” he’d say, breaking the beautiful silence of a sunrise. Or he’d knock on the side of the can, saying, “Quit squirming, you little shit.”
Look. Though there were a few kids back then who ran away from home because their folks just couldn’t afford to feed them anymore, a lot more of us left because our families were full of monsters. There was only so long I could last with my old man before he either killed me or I started getting used to the belt and the fists, before I started thinking that was the way the world worked and it was good. So when Jimmy came walking with me, I just figured he’d put all of his scared into that can and called it Colin.
It’s funny to think now that Jimmy and I were only together about six weeks total, and funnier still to think that everything he needed to know about me and I needed to know about him could get transmitted between us in about a third of that time. He liked the Cubs and I liked the Indians. He’d read the Count of Monte Cristo and I hadn’t. He thought that if a guy could learn how a radio worked, he could pretty much write his own paycheck. I thought if a guy could get into the woods, he wouldn’t need a paycheck.
I lost Jimmy near Glenmont.
We woke up that day from our lean-to in the far corner of a farmer’s field — Jimmy was a genius at lean-tos — and we crouched our way through the corn to the water pump. We cleaned ourselves up as much as boys like to do and Jimmy tipped a little in for his brother and sloshed it around.
“These locals ain’t gonna do it for us,” Jimmy said finally.
We’d been hopping the short trains all the way from Pennsylvania because they went slower. When they creaked through an intersection, you could jog alongside a flatcar and leap onboard even with a milk can strapped to your back.
“What we need is some thunder. A big one, heading all the way out West. I’m not even talking Texas or Oklahoma. I’m talking California.”
I wouldn’t have admitted it then, but Jimmy was pretty much in charge of my own running away. I’d planned to build a placein the mountains somewhere and be a modern Daniel Boone, but California sounded good to me if Jimmy was going there.
“It’s like the whole goddamned country in one state. They’ve got mountains. They’ve got deserts. They’ve got snow. They’ve got an ocean. They’ve got Marlene Dietrich, for God’s sake.”
“You don’t gotta sell me on it,” I said. “Let’s go.”
“Colin wants to be in the movies,” he said. “I told him he doesn’t have a face for it, but he’s got a dream and we’re going to Hollywood.”
“Okay,” I said. There was no stronger way to agree between guys like us.
He clapped me on the shoulder. “They’ve got woods there, too.”
We followed the tracks to somewhere near Cleveland where all we could do was wait for the right train and the right cargo. Hoppers and gondolas weren’t good, full as they usually were with coal or gravel. Flatbeds weren’t fun, either, with the wind liable to blow you off. Boxcars were best, even if they were a cliche. They’re like rolling hotels. You can keep your Pullman cars; Jimmy and Colin and me slept best on packing straw.
While we camped and waited two days for just the right freight, a question came to me that might be gentle enough to get at the truth about Jimmy and that milk can.
“You think your mama ever worries about Colin?” I asked.
Jimmy, smothering what would be our last fire with sand, paused to think that over.
“Maybe every now and then, I figure,” he said, finally. “More him than me. There’s folks that go and folks that stay, and they don’t like much to think about the other in case they’re wrong.”
I don’t know what expression crossed my face, but it made Jimmy say, “And sometimes there are folks who can do both and know when, folks like us who are going to find somewhere we’re supposed to stay.”
We heard the rumble along the tracks before we saw the locomotive, and then the whistle sang out and we knew our ride had come, carrying our future with it.
We backed away in awe at the sleek new engine, and I’ll admit I was nervous that we’d ever latch on. It had slowed for the turn, sure, but it would take heroic leaps from both of us to make it. Our best bet would be a flat car with plenty of room for error, but all we saw were boxcars.
“We gonna do this or not?’ Jimmy said, bouncing on his toes with Colin on his back.
I watched. I counted. I took the best estimate I could and pointed to a car with an open door. Jimmy grinned and nodded, and then we started to run. With the biggest leap of luck in my life, I rolled inside.
Then a half dozen things happened at once but I only saw three: Jimmy reaching for the car, one of Colin’s straps breaking, and Jimmy’s ankle getting caught between the rail and the tie. He cried out quickly, still cheerful I guess, and Colin’s milk can bounced into the car and then back out again. Jimmy reached but didn’t make it, but the strap was caught and the pulling began. He had just enough time to unhook Colin and not enough time to unhook himself.
Jimmy was ripped, that’s the only word for it. He was stretched to the limits of his body before the two halves split somewhere in the middle of his torso where all the squiggling organs lived. I screamed, not that he heard it, and I swear that the last thing I saw before the cloud of blood was his eyes right on me and a peaceful smile on his face.
Then he was gone and the milk can was rolling down the gravel embankment to the stream.
I jumped off, leaving my bindle behind. I screamed all the way down those tracks to where he’d been, the wheels of every empty boxcar squealing with me, but there was nothing left where he’d been but a lot of red rocks.
It hadn’t been my fault. It hadn’t been his. It had been Colin’s, that’s what I decided. That’s what made me run shrieking down toward the water, and that’s what made me kick that milk can a hundred times until my toes went numb. I called it names. I told it to fuck itself. I fell down beside it as the rapids washed over us and I screamed into the hole that I hoped it would die.
The stream was freezing but I didn’t feel it. I splashed in the shallows, lifted the can, and tipped it so the lid fell open. I shook and shook, knowing nothing would come out.
But then it did. Then Colin came out.
Or slithered might be better to say. Or oozed.
There came this hollow sucking noise like when you’re pouring cold beans out of a can. A bulge of peachy flesh bubbled out at first, and it grew longer and longer like a dollop of pancake batter. I kept shaking, both myself and the can, until Colin fell into the stream with a splash.
What Colin was, I couldn’t say. What he looked like — he looked like dough. He looked like clay. He looked like a streak of smeared paint. He looked, Jesus help me, like a fried egg with that single panicked eye of his swirling in every direction, searching for Jimmy, not sure why he was so cold and so wet. What he had instead of arms and legs were nubs, and they groped for stability on the smooth rocks.
It was the eye, that eye looking at me, pleading with me, at least as human as mine. It was that bubbling cry from a hole in the flesh, something like the cooing of a pigeon.
I stomped in huge strides back to Colin, slipping on a stone and gouging my knee on another. My blood raced downstream but I didn’t cry out. I crawled to Colin, told him to hold on, told him I was sorry.
Colin. Jesus Christ, there was an actual Colin.
I held the can as best I could for Colin to get back inside, but he’d grown weak. His flesh was turning blue, almost black at the edges, and he needed my help. He took my hand with the last strength he had, and I guided him slowly back into his home, into his shell. It wasn’t a pleasant sensation, no, his body, but there was a strange comfort to him, too.
I had to curl his sides a little to get him inside. I had to gently fold his head. I had to tilt the can to let gravity do its work, and I had to carry Colin out of the cold and build a fire to warm him.
I’ve never said I was sorry so much in my life. It was my chant. If Colin heard, he didn’t say. There just came a time long after dark when I knew I could stop, when I knew it would never be enough.
I guess I could have been a lot of things if it hadn’t been for Colin. Maybe I’d have gone to college after we got to California. Maybe I’d have written a book or bought a ranch or built myself that cabin in the woods.
But Colin wanted to be in the movies, and by fucking God, he was going to be in the goddamned movies.
You’ve probably seen the movies he’s been in. You might remember a little-known art film called Citizen Kane where he played a milk can in Charles Foster Kane’s childhood home. You might remember him from the backroom at Rick’s in Casablanca, too. It was after that that he got a reputation for being something of a good luck charm, and that got him roles later on in Gunsmoke and Little House on the Prairie and pretty much every Western you can think of. He’s one of those eccentric artsy little things that Hollywood likes to indulge to feel bohemian, I guess.
One thing I’ll tell you is that Colin didn’t work for free. Though he wasn’t much of a materialist — the only vice he developed was a fondness for coffee ice cream — he needed an assistant to take him to the studio on time, to help him get clean, to buy him the ice cream and spoon it gently into the can. And that assistant really only needs a roof and a bed and a place to read books.
Colin’s last role was in Unforgiven. We’ve got a picture of him with Clint Eastwood at the retirement party that Clint’s agent has promised to sue us for if it ever goes public. There was talk of an honorary Oscar, too.
I think Colin’s getting sick. One of the ways I know this is that he isn’t asking for ice cream as much. Another way I know it is that I’m starting to have dreams, dreams about Jimmy, dreams about the railroads, dreams about the open spaces and lonely creeks between here and those tracks near Cleveland. I’ve been testing out the weight of that milk can these days, wondering if I can carry it. I’m not as strong as I used to be and never as strong as Jimmy, but Colin doesn’t weigh as much anymore either.
Last night I dreamed of the cabin Colin wants to give me. I dreamed of where he wants to die and where he wants me to live.