Paul Merchant

Time is what keeps everything from happening all at once.

Dear Mary

I am writing this letter by the dim glow of my old Boy Scout flashlight. I hope you can read my handwriting. It is midnight. A train has just rushed past me. The railroad track, still warm, hums when I press my ear against it. The cold, damp air weaves into my jean jacket. And I am eating Western Family strawberry yogurt and drinking Perrier. (Sorry about the yogurt smudge.)

I came out here to write a short story for my creative writing class at Snowville Community College. You might have heard about my famous teacher, Barbara Scofield. Her latest novel, The Prey of Worms, a story about a mother/daughter relationship with hints of cannibalism, was on the New York Times bestseller list for two weeks. Anyway, I have been suffering from writer’s block all quarter and I thought that sitting on the railroad tracks at midnight might give me some inspiration. You see, Barbara also edits a literary magazine, The Asparagus Review. If she likes one of my stories she might publish it, and then I could be discovered by an agent in New York or something.

Well, the railroad tracks don’t inspire me, but the Perrier reminds me of you. We used to drink Perrier and listen to reggae on the school bus in ninth grade. Remember: Bob Marley and the Wailers singing Small Axe. You used to grunt (ugh) with Bob, and I found the Bible verse from the song in Ecclesiastes: “He that diggeth a pit shall fall into it.”

You should see the pits I have dug for myself. I am now a hundred pounds overweight and taking Prozac. I never had another girlfriend after you moved. Is your hair still long and black? Do you still screw up your lips and say “aluninum” instead of “aluminum”?

We once promised each other that we would never drive cars. You said, “Bicycles will take over the world.” Well, I rode my bicycle out here tonight. My tires sank deep into the gravel, and the seat was wet with rain.

I rode up to the tracks as the train was passing. The ground rumbled. The air roared. The passenger windows flickered. Metal clanked like a hammer striking an anvil. The train reminded me of Willa Cather’s “Paul’s Case” and Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Do you understand the allusions? Paul and Anna both threw themselves under speeding trains.

Well, after the train passed, my glasses fogged up. I sat down, got out my Boy Scout flashlight, and tried to describe the train for my famous teacher. I tried to show the train crossing the river on a bridge with spindly legs. I wanted to be published in The Asparagus Review. But the only thing I could think about was how you grew up and moved away.

I can’t write short stories, but maybe this letter will be published someday in a book called The Correspondence of Dan Bigelow. It might even be anthologized in an English textbook for a few hundred years. Freshmen would read it and wonder, “Who was Mary?”

Mary, do you still scream when you hear Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song?”

Right now, Russian olive trees huddle around me, black against a purple sky. Crickets creak like rusty hinges. A porch light from across the river dances on ripples in the water and sometimes stars shine through the clouds. Behind me, the headlight of a train pierces the night. “Dear Mary” was written in 1994 for a fiction workshop taught by Anna Monardo.