I check for ice on the windshield by touching the glass. Today is the first of October. The harvest time is almost over. Winter creeps closer and closer. We are all a little scared.
Guys talk shit about betting football games out of truck windows. My wife is stowing money away for Christmas. Some leaves change color, others remain green. Still, decay is in the air.
I pull up the hood of my sweatshirt to trap heat around my scalp and ears as I step out of the car.
It is quarter to six in the morning and the moon and stars are bright overhead, burning through the city glare. Inside the GE factory an alarm sounds. A plume of smoke is released from a stack.
The sky bleeds red enough to scare sailors but no one is expecting rain. Sometimes it comes anyway.
Fallen leaves mashed by passing trains slick the rails. The wheels of the spiker sometimes spin without gaining purchase.
The mornings are cold. We are stationed at the northernmost point of the line, near the border of New Hampshire, land of snow and stone.
A row of crosses without criminals nailed to the timber: defunct electrical poles lining this stretch of track. A triplet of young foxes pokes their heads out from the brush.
Winter is within range. The trees yawn with every leaf lost. The sky is high and clear.
We bundle up and we grow beards. Exhalations made heavy from effort are now visible; small, fleeting clouds of soul.
The wide span of the Merrimack dominates this valley it has carved. The old river has outlasted the mills and factories that once poisoned it.
The sky is bright at six-thirty in the morning. It is a hollow light, absent of heat, illuminating a world caked with frost.
A nor'easter will strike soon. It will bring rain. Far from the ocean, closer to the hills that precede the mountains, the rain becomes snow, the first of the year.
The time has come for us to look forward to Thanksgiving and Christmas. They keep us chugging through the cold and dark and snow and ice. Set the table. String the lights. Make hard the heart and wait for Spring.
A murder of crows is perched on a tree top near the entrance of the rail yard. Snow rides on the air and should arrive in time for lunch. The midday Christmas shoppers will grumble. The plows will emerge from garages.
We turn our eyes skyward and beg for more, more. Bury us until the season turns and the sun melts the banks and drifts into the rivers and ponds and sea. Let the clouds be a veil of solid gray until April. My blue eyes burn too easy against the glare.
We promise to lock ourselves inside. We will bolt all the doors. Any adventuring into frozen wastes will be for food, diapers, booze and birth control. Tell the job we'll be back when the tulips and lilacs bloom.
Five grown men pack into a pick-up for a thirty-six hour stretch of driving lifeless city streets, pushing shovels and snowblowers across buried train station platforms, spreading rock salt over stairs and handicap ramps. This is what awaits us when all of the rail has been changed.
This year, let us disappear into the late November fog banks rolling off the river. Call us when it's over.
The end of the rail-job has come on the last day of November. It is a Friday.
Someone punches holes in the bottom of an empty spike keg. He fills the keg halfway with twigs and leaves, and we have a fire near dumpster. We crowd around the flame, we extend our naked hands, we feel the joints in our fingers warm and crack. The smoke stains our jackets and hats with its smell.
There are tools to sort. Separate the good from the broken. The ruined mauls, the busted hammers and shovels and picks are stuck into the keg. What cannot be carried must be burned.
The sun is a pale disk burning at the fog, a flashlight shining through wax paper. A single gunshot cracks through the woods on either side of this gravel yard in the old town of Bridgewater. The quiet that follows the bullets is soft and full of warning.
The prison on the hill is hidden by the mist.
Dogs are barking as a pack: are they in pursuit?
I wait. The naked maple branches bend to the breeze. I wait. The echo of the gunfire fades. I wait for the bullet to hit. A puff of dust in the stone. Splintered bark in the trunk of the tree near the fence. A dark stain spreading down the sleeve of this sweatshirt.
Here comes the New Year, rushing this way.