Iron Ladder to Heaven
I first met Gunther while running from the cops on a bright July afternoon. I was picking blackberries next to the tracks in an area I would later learn to call a “side out” when I heard the pig. I was knee-deep in the bramble, getting pricked by thorns with every step, but I was hungry. I collected the berries, some ripe, some green, some mush, in the front of my shirt, which I held out to make a basket. It made me feel like a farm wife, collecting fruit in my apron for a pie. As I weeded through the thicket I heard a sharp whistle—the kind you use to call your dog inside at dusk. I popped up like a meerkat and saw him. And then I fucking ran.
“Hey! Girl! You, there!” the cop called after me. It was just then that a train came, and I realized what choices I had. It was a near-empty freighter headed south-bound going no more than five miles an hour—what I’d been waiting for all afternoon. To my right were the great plains that rolled and rolled until they touched the sky. If I ran that way, I could expect a slug between my shoulder blades at best. At worst, maybe he would catch up and have his way with me. I wasn’t a very fast runner.
The train approached and I lunged for it. The pig was on the other side of the tracks, so I waited for an open car and heaved myself up by its iron ladder. I always told Janie that cargo trains wouldn’t be made with ladders if they didn’t secretly want people riding them. She would just scoff and say that they were for the rail workers to load and unload shipments. But I didn’t want to believe her, so I never did.
This was only the third time I had ever hopped a train. The first was a few months prior when Janie and I were fooling around by the tracks behind her trailer park. We always talked big shit about leaving our tiny town together and never going back, so when we saw the empty train inching up, I convinced her to hop it with me.
“We would be like hobos,” I’d said. We were about to graduate high school then. She wore a pink t-shirt that read Class of 1999 in curvy black letters.
“What’s the fun in that?” she’d responded. Ever since we were kids, she would do anything I asked. Not because I pressured her, which, sure, maybe I did sometimes. But because she secretly liked doing stuff she knew was wrong. As soon as I started for the boxcar, she followed.
We stayed on for maybe half a mile until she got skeeved and jumped off. It never did speed up at all. I hopped off after her and told her she was chicken shit. She called me a trouble-seeking know-it-all and wrestled me to the grass, where play-fought and then laughed until we kissed. Soft and secretive, how we always did.
The second time I hopped a train I was alone. That was when I left for real.
Now, after pulling myself in, I belly-flopped onto the wood slab floor to see a scrawny man sat cross-legged in a dark corner of the car, baseball cap down over his eyes and chewing on a piece of grass with his back teeth. I could smell him almost as well as I could see him. Sour milk and aluminum cans. I held back from retching at the risk of offending the stranger. I was grateful to have escaped the cop, but I didn’t want to press my luck—this man could be just as dangerous. Relief and fear did the tango in my stomach like old lovers at a wedding.
“Well look’t you!” he said.
His voice was high and squeaky. Kind of like Nan’s, I thought. He must have been around her age, too. That is—old.
“Where you headed, girl?”
I picked myself up and swung my pack over my shoulder, trying to remember which pocket my knife was in, in case it came to that. But I also thought I might play it cool. This was only my second day out, and I was starting to realize that I might need to make some friends if I wanted to get anywhere worth going.
“How you know I’m a girl?” I asked.
Three days before leaving I took a pair a scissors to my curly brown hair and chopped it all the way up to the ears. Janie said I looked like Raggedy Ann, so I went to the bathroom and used her dad’s electric razor to shave the rest of it off into a neat buzz-cut. I thought people on the road would think I was a boy that way. But judging by how the cop and this character both called me “girl” it didn’t seem to be working.
“You got tits, don’t you?”
I looked down at my shirt, a men’s extra-large. My breasts were obvious. Together, swinging, sad. I hunched my shoulders.
“Yeah, I guess I got tits.” I scanned the car and sat down on one of the overturned milk crates that lined its walls. It was empty otherwise. “Where are you headed, then?”
“I live here, girl.” The man spit out his blade of grass and dug into his pocket. He was wearing blue jeans that were caked at the knees with orange dirt and a black long sleeve shirt that was more hole than fabric. Gray patches of hair poked out from underneath his cap. “Hey girl, you got any food? This diner seems to be closed.” He turned his pockets inside out to show me they were empty. I wondered if it was his roundabout way of telling me he was safe. Like, he didn’t have a knife or something.
“I got a name,” I said, reaching into the largest pocket on the thigh of my cargo pants. I pulled out a handful of blackberry mush that I had managed to stow away and spilled it into his palms.
“You got a name, do ya? You gonna tell me what it is?”
He lapped the fruit out of his hand with his tongue.
“You don’t look too much like a Pauline”
“Gunther,” he said smiling. His lips and what few teeth he had were tinted purple. He reminded me of a kid, the way he got so excited about something as simple as blackberry slop.
“You look exactly like a Gunther.”
I looked out the door and saw we were rolling faster now, which was good. That meant the cop hadn’t tipped off the conductor and wouldn’t be searching the train. The flatlands of western Iowa rushed by in a haze of brown and blue and green, and for the first time since I’d left I actually felt like I was leaving. I rested a hand on my front left pocket over the Huntsman knife I’d swiped from Janie’s trailer. It was to remind me of her, I told myself when I took it. I wondered if she was thinking about me—if she knew I was gone.
I looked over at Gunther, who had pulled his hat further over his eyes and was swaying back and forth in tandem with the train. He seemed to be a part of it all. Just another cog or gear pushing forward the great locomotive machine. Like without him, it would all stop. For some reason I didn’t feel like he was going to hurt me.
The noise of the tracks beneath us and the wind outside grew louder as the train sped up. I leaned back and pulled my copy of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings out of my pack. It was the only book I brought from Nan’s house, and I’d read it countless times before. I flipped to the chapter at the end where Maya runs away from her father and lives with a gang of kids at the junkyard. It was always my favorite part. I carefully scanned the familiar lines until my eyes felt heavy, and then I let them fall.
Gunther and I stayed together for the next week and a half. We walked the tracks some and searched for food in dumpsters at stops, but most of our time was spent sitting in boxcars that were too loud to hear each other talk in. He knew which way what trains were going and how fast they’d get there. He told me all about side-outs, which were areas where a train would slow down to change direction or let another train pass, creating the perfect opportunity for a couple of delinquents hop on. He knew which side-outs were safe and which ones would have cops patrolling them.
The most important thing about train-hopping, he taught me, was to always make sure you had a little bit of food to hold you over for the ride. Sometimes a train would go and go for a full day before slowing down enough for us to jump off, and we had to be prepared. Gunther’s favorite were ketchup packets. He would pick one up wherever he saw them and carry them around, waiting for the perfect moment to rip one open and slowly suck on the sweet paste. One packet could last him a whole hour. Eventually, I came to like them, too.
When Gunther finally asked where I was going, I told him Colorado. I didn’t know why I’d chosen it that spring when I sat down at the Colfax public library and came up with my plan. I guess I was tired of being somewhere that was so goddamn flat all the time. I remember sitting on the floor of the magazine section flipping through a plastic-sheathed National Geographic, all the way at the far end of the library where the frosted windows reached up to the ceiling and the muted light would shine tenderly on your page. It must have been a Colorado travel guide or something, but when I saw those jagged mountaintops covered in caps of Christmas-white snow it looked so incredibly opposite from the droning Iowa landscape I’d spent my entire life staring at. Janie and everybody else in our class had figured out their futures by that time already—college, trade-school, taking over the family business. Janie had gotten a scholarship to Ohio State University. I was just planning to stay in town and work at the diner for a few more years. It was all I knew how to do. But then I saw those mountains.
As for logistics, I knew Nan wouldn’t notice I was gone. She barely noticed me when I was there. When she was supposed to be raising me all those years. Whenever I’d ask Nan for anything at all—field trip money or new shoes when mine were busted through the soles—she’d just say, “why don’t you go find your mama ‘n ask her?” It was her favorite joke to tell. As if I would even recognize my mother if I saw her on the street. I had to have been five years old the last time I saw her. As she was storming through the house the day she left, I tried my best to memorize the curves of her cheeks and the dark, severe eyebrows that always made me think she was angry with me. I guess I knew she was leaving for good. Even then.
And even now, I was always thinking about the last time I’d see somebody. Fearing it like death. I had a habit of holding on too much.
So, when I told Gunther I was headed to Colorado, he said he’d take me there. When I asked if that’s where he was going, too, he said that he wasn’t going anywhere, and that going there wouldn’t be any different from staying here. I soon realized that I was lucky to have ran into him. When I first left, I could barely tell whether a train was going east or west on my own—especially since so many of them used side-outs to turn around and head back the way they came. But I was learning quickly.
We were digging through trash in the back of an apartment complex the only time Gunther told me anything about his old life. Normally we didn’t talk too much about personal business. Our conversations were mostly tactical—where we were going next and how we’d get there—and sometimes they were jovial and light. But never personal.
From the outside, Gunther probably seemed like one of the crackheads that crawled around my hometown begging for change and laughing at lampposts. I always stayed away from those freaks out of fear, but Gunther was different once you heard what he was saying.
“What d’ya think that is? Hubba Bubba?” He pointed at an off-white glob on the pavement that was imprinted with a shoe-sole pattern. We had just made it to Kansas and were searching for food before our next ride.
“What’d you say?” I was standing inside a dumpster ripping black plastic bags open with my chewed-up fingernails and tossing my findings down to Gunther, who was waiting on the blacktop. A half-full bag of flattened hot dog buns. An unopened box of Kraft mac and cheese.
“Hubba Bubba! You know, with the pink wrapper. Well, I guess they all got pink wrappers.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” I leaned my forearms on the edge of the dumpster and peered at where he was hovering. “It’s gum, Gunth. Someone’s chewed-up, spit-out bubble gum. Who cares?”
“Can you make a bubble?” he asked. He had torn into the cartoon-blue box of mac and cheese and was crunching on the hard noodles. Bits of it spilled out the gaps in his teeth when he spoke. “You know, like a real big bubble.”
“I guess, if I tried.”
“No! No, kid no!” He threw his arms back in faux-frustration and sent noodles flying through the air. “You gotta know if you can make a bubble!”
“Hey! I wanted some of that!” I laughed, and he bent down and started picking up all the little pieces. “Can you make a bubble, then?”
“Naw, I never could. My sissy was the best at it, though.” He walked the collected pasta over and carefully slid it into my hands, making sure none of it dropped as it transferred from his cupped palms into mine.
“Sister?” I asked, crunching down on the starchy morsels one at a time, savoring them. I realized I was starving.
“She would blow a bubble so big that when it popped it’d get stuck on her forehead.” Gunther laughed as he remembered. “She had no hair like you, ya know. All-a hers fell out.”
I slapped the rest of the meager meal into my mouth and rubbed my hands on the top of my head. The once-prickly strands were starting to grow in and curl around my ears.
“Mine didn’t fall out, though,” I said. “I’ve got hair, technically.”
“Yeah, well, potato tomato. What else is swimmin’ in that pool? You see any catsup?” Gunther said catsup like Nan did. I wondered if it was an old person thing.
“Here, I got some.” I pulled two ketchup packets out of my thigh pocket and tossed him one. “What was your sister like? She younger than you?”
“She was younger. But I guess you can’t be old or young when yer dead.” He took the empty box and threw it back in the dumpster, over my head. “Or I guess maybe you can. She’s nineteen forever, in that case.”
Before I could ask another question, Gunther said, “We better get a’movin, little girl! We’re gonna miss our boat!” and started for the street.
I propped one foot up on the lip of the dumpster and used my momentum to topple over, just barely landing upright.
As we strolled out of the apartment complex and onto a nearby service road, I ripped the ketchup packet open with my teeth and suckled the nectar out as sparingly as I could. Gunther’s was bobbing up and down, hanging from the side of his mouth.
“You ever had Fruit Stripes?” I asked him as we walked.
“Ever had who?”
“Fruit Stripes gum. It came in this package with a zebra on the front.”
“Never heard of no zebra gum,” he answered, turning left. I followed.
“I used to love Fruit Stripes. Only thing was, the flavor all went away after you chewed for like, twenty seconds.” I waited for him to respond, but he didn’t. “Well,” I continued, “I remember this one time when I was a little kid. I got a whole pack of Fruit Stripes and I was sitting on the stoop, chewing it and spitting it out onto the patio. I don’t know why I did it. I just chewed until it lost its flavor, spit it on the ground, and started with a new one.” Gunther was a few paces ahead. He looked at me over his shoulder. “And when my daddy came home and saw all that gum on the floor, he beat the living shit out of me. Right there with his belt in front of the whole neighborhood.”
Gunther shook his head.
“Goddamnit, Pauly. Why you gotta be so goddamn serious all the time.”
He slowed down and walked beside me. It was nearly dusk. Cicadas hummed low in the distance and the sky glowed orange ahead, beckoning us to come. Move forward, it said. Come here. It will be good over here.
We weaved between stretches of grass and desolate back roads, and although we couldn’t see the tracks from where we walked, I trusted Gunther knew where to go. He always had a way of taking us off-course and then bringing us right back on again. It was like he could feel the deep rumble of the trains in his belly wherever he went. Like a radar, always blinking green, summoning him onward.
Suddenly, Gunther shouted, “There!” and pointed at the bushes to our right. We ambled through a thin strip of brush and on the other side were the tracks. Seeing them again felt comforting—more comforting than Nan’s house ever had. And then a spotlight careened slowly around the corner, illuminating us in its glorious yellow-white warmth. And then a horn blared. “All aboard!” Gunther yelled with a point of his finger to the sky, and we went to it like moths fluttering toward the moon, jumping and skipping into the blinding future.
Maybe Gunther was different from all the other street freaks that you’re supposed to stay away from—or maybe they’re all like him. Just grown-up runaways, probably searching for something that was lost a long time ago. Maybe Gunther was looking for his sister, and when he saw me, he figured he’d found her. Or maybe not. I guess I never really found out why he wanted me around.
“Why you wanna be a boy so bad, Pauly?” Gunther asked one day.
We had just hopped a train heading southbound. He said this one would probably take us all the way to Topeka. The train was still dragging on slowly as we moved around the car creating our own little nests. I got the left half, where I carefully laid out my yellow tattered beach towel and pulled all the items out of my pack, making sure each one was accounted for. Book, sweatshirt, knife, flashlight, extra pair of socks, four ketchup packets, plastic water bottle filled with brownish rainwater, and Janie’s photograph, folded in half at the center. The train car was scant compared to my bedroom at Nan’s house, but not all that different, really. A mattress on the floor and it would have basically been the same.
Gunther didn’t have many items to worry about. Just the clothes he was wearing and a plastic shopping bag loaded with whatever food we’d found that day. Everything else was temporary.
“What’d you say?” I asked
“Why you wanna be a boy so goddamn bad?” I shrugged and he pointed at his head, referencing the state of my hair.
“I don’t wanna be a boy, I just thought if I looked like one people would leave me alone.”
“That does kind of mean you wanna be a boy.”
“I guess, if you look at it that way.” I finished putting each article back into my pack and sat up on my knees.
“Somebody hurt you?” he asked. He looked down at his fingernails, which he was picking the dirt out from underneath of with a soda can tab.
“Who ain’t been hurt?”
“I ain’t been hurt,” Gunther said, “not the way you been hurt.” He looked up at me.
“You don’t know how I’ve been hurt,” I said. “You don’t know shit, old man.” He smiled at me like he knew what I was feeling, but there was no way to know if he did. I realized then that I knew Gunther in the same way I knew everybody else I’d ever known—from the outside. And no matter how hard I could try to merge with him, I would still only ever be on the outside. It was sad in one way, but it was also a bit of a relief.
“You ever heard of Sylvia Plath?” I asked.
“Who’s that, your momma?”
“No,” I laughed, “she’s a writer. She had this book of journals that I was reading at the library last winter. You wanna know what she wrote in them?”
“Tell me Pauly.” Gunther threw his arms behind his head and waited for me to tell my story. He left his fleshy, human torso unarmed, unprotected. He knew I wouldn’t attack, and I knew he wouldn’t, either.
“Well,” I said, “I would go to the library almost every day after school in the winters so I wouldn’t have to go to back my Nan’s house right away. I must’ve read like 200 books over all the years I did that. Last year I found this Sylvia Plath book. I recognized the name from her poems I read in Mrs. Wheeler’s class. It was a book of all the journals and diaries she’d written over the years. I started reading it and thought it was alright, but then I got to this part where she talked about wanting to hitchhike, or something…” I stopped and wondered if I should tell Gunther that, at the time, I had already started thinking about my own plan, but I cleared my throat and decided not to. “This part nearly made me cry. So, she’s talking about how being born a woman is a tragedy. How if she were a man, she could do whatever the hell she wanted without worrying about being hurt, how her interest in people just made men think she wanted to sleep with them. There in her journal, she wrote, ‘I want to talk to everybody as deeply as I can. I want to be able to sleep in an open field, to travel west, to walk freely at night.’”
Gunther only huffed.
“Seems like a fun lady, huh.”
I retreated to my side of the car and let the silence sit until the speeding sounds of ungreased wheels on squeaky tracks took over. I looked down at my tits, hanging underneath the same men’s shirt I’d worn when I left home. I remembered the first time I took my shirt off in front of Janie and how she said my torso looked like a frowny face. She’d poked each of my nipples with her fingertip and said, “these are the eyes,” and then delicately traced the white appendectomy scar on my belly, “and this is the little frown. Why is she so sad?” We laughed and laughed.
Night fell and Gunther and I laid awake looking at the ceiling. We always rode at night, so I hadn’t seen the stars since the night before I left, when I laid with Janie in the grass near her trailer. The fireflies were just starting to come out then, and Janie and I blurred our visions so the stars and the lightning bugs became indistinguishable from one another. When we did that for long enough the bugs looked a trillion light years away and the stars looked like they were floating around the sky, kissing each other as they collided. We laughed and laughed as we held hands in the grass, relying on one another to stay grounded so we wouldn’t float away with the rest of the luminescent specs. We kissed that night like the stars were kissing, and when I woke up the next morning, still there in the damp, dewy grass, I closed my eyes again and listened to her short, muffled sleep-breaths, trying to remember them. It was a funny pursuit, to try and remember something while it was still happening.
“You ever miss anyone you used to know?” I shouted to Gunther over the wind. It had to have been an hour since either of us last spoke.
“Who are you missin’, your Nan?” Gunther asked from his side of the car. I wondered if he was living in his own memories over there.
“No, my Nan is a piece of shit.”
“Was she the one who hurt you so bad?” he asked.
“Well, who was it then? Your daddy?” We turned our heads to face one another. I could barely make him out in the dark, but every few seconds we passed a light along the tracks and his face flashed soft yellow, his white hair swirling in the wind.
“Yeah,” I said. “I mean, it was a lotta shit. But yeah, I guess he hurt me, too.”
“What’d he do, touch ya or somethin’?”
I tried to remember the image of my father and nothing came to mind. It didn’t make me feel anything. Just empty.
“There was a lot of shit. He left after that, though. Just like everybody.”
“Is that why you’re leaving now, too?”
“I’m leaving ‘cause I didn’t wanna be where I was,” I said. “You know, you’re probably the first man I ever met who didn’t try to fuck me.”
He looked back at the ceiling and thought about what I’d said.
“Yeah, well, that’s cause I ain’t got no dick.”
I was the first to laugh, and when I couldn’t stop, he joined me. The image of Gunther—old, scrawny Gunther with a Ken-doll crotch sent me over the edge. The two of us laughed the way Janie and I used to laugh. We laughed so hard I thought I was gonna piss my pants. It was funny if it were true and it was funny if it weren’t, and either way I didn’t care. I laughed until I fell asleep, and in my dreams I laughed even more.
The next morning, I woke up at dawn and noticed the train was slowing down, probably coming to a stop soon. Gunther was asleep with his hat pulled over his eyes. I sat up and drew my pack up close to my chest, smelled the dusty canvas and ran my fingers along its jagged zipper. I felt a heaviness in the center of my body that was familiar to me. Like if I stood up I would fall right back down again, break through the floorboards, the tracks, the dirt, and fall all the way to the center of the Earth. I pulled Janie’s photograph and a flashlight out of the front pocket and looked at it until the sun came all the way up. It was her high school graduation picture. She gave it to me a week before I left. Though, at the time, she didn’t know I would be leaving.
“What’s this for?” I’d said, “doesn’t your dad wanna keep these to put on the fridge? Be so proud of his pretty little girl?” I nudged her side and she smiled.
“We have more. I want you to have one.” She pushed it toward me. “But you better keep it forever. When you’re old and wrinkly I want you to remember me.”
“You think you’re not gonna be old and wrinkly right there with me?” It was the day after graduation. Janie would leave for Ohio State University on scholarship in August. I told her I’d keep working at the diner that year, then figure my life out. Maybe take a gap year, like the college kids called it, and register late. But the truth was I had already put in my two weeks’ notice at the diner.
“Pauline.” She looked at me very seriously, in a way I wasn’t used to. “You know it doesn’t work like that. Not the way we want it to.”
And I did know. So, I nodded and took the picture.
And then, in a freight train inching its way through the early Kansas morning, I looked at the creased photograph. The wispy blonde hair she’d had when I’d met her as a child darkened as she got older and now fell in layers at her shoulders. Her eyebrows were perpetually arched in a way that asked you what your business was, even if she wasn’t actually saying it. I studied her features in print as I had countless times in person, lying next to her, neither of us speaking. In the weeks before I’d left, I worked at burning her image into my vision so everything I saw was overlaid with her outline. I never wanted it to leave me. But now, I wondered if it would be easier to let it go.
Gunther moaned and twitched quietly in his sleep as I collected the rest of my meager belongings into my pack. I folded the beach towel and shoved it in last. Gunther had laid out our game-plan for getting to Colorado, and I was pretty sure I remembered which way to go and which trains to hop.
I knew had to jump out then, because if I waited for the train to come to a stop the screeching would wake him up. I wanted to kiss his forehead, but I knew that would just wake him up, too. I looked at him one last time, laying there with a hand on his belly, rising and falling with his breath, but I had to look away before too long. I knew better than to get another image etched in my head.
I left Janie’s photo behind in the car, though I did kiss it once more before setting it down. I left my last three ketchup packets for Gunther, too. As a thank you.
Finally, I jumped off the perch and onto the dusty Kansas earth, kicking up dirt as I fled from the train, feeling lighter with each step I took. I didn’t fall through to the center of the world like I thought I might. It almost felt like the opposite. Like I was floating up into heaven, or whatever there was up there in the sky.