Mark Altenhofen was awarded an Honorable Mention for Nonfiction in the 2018 Prison Writing Contest.

Every year, hundreds of imprisoned people from around the country submit poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and dramatic works to PEN America’s Prison Writing Contest, one of the few outlets of free expression for the country’s incarcerated population. On September 13, PEN America will celebrate the winners of this year’s contest with a live reading at the Brooklyn Book Festival, Break Out: Voices from the Inside.

On a Railroad (Soo-Line)

In many towns, the tracks would have divided the population by who lived on what side—the haves and the have-nots—but in my town that wasn’t the case. Only two houses stood on the far side of the tracks in my youth. The delineation of poor and moderately comfortable (who were considered rich would be laughably lower-middle class by today’s standards) was gradual and worked outward in a rough cone from what could be loosely called the “industrial area” of my little town. The closer you were to Main Street and the Kraft Plant, the poorer you were. The exceptions being the trailer park on Sand Hill, and what were known locally as “governmentals”: a set of blue and white apartments subsidized by the state welfare office. We poor kids who lived outside of either of those places viewed ourselves as better off than the unfortunate bastards who lived in them; although, we all ate ketchup sandwiches and buttered noodles for Sunday lunches.

In a small town such as ours, age was less important than shared personal history in terms of friendships. Amongst my group, our ages ran the gamut and spanned nearly four years between the youngest and the oldest, of which I found myself firmly in the middle. Despite this, we were as close as family. The two Eriks, Craig, and Charlie were my constant companions from as far back as I can remember until high school took the first of us away. We hunted, fished, and camped together whenever we could. Summer nights in my youth were spent playing kick-the-can and ghost in the graveyard until we couldn’t see and our parents rounded us up with flashlights, just as winter days were for sledding and snow forts.

On occasion, our other friends and acquaintances would drift into our misadventures. Eggy was such a guy. His real name was Greg, but his baby brother couldn’t pronounce “Greggy” and the nickname stuck. Eggy was six years older than me and was my old sister’s friend. He was a master of the arcade games we had in town; his initials dominated the high scores for Donkey Kong, Mario Bros, and Pacman. True, we didn’t see him often, but he was a ubiquitous big brother to all of us. Eggy loved to go fishing with us and was always willing to help with our most perplexing homework, usually over pizza he had bought for us.

Regardless of our age differences, we all had one common obsession—the Soo-Line tracks. They held a certain appeal for we of the lower lot. For me, this lasted until the first of us got our license, and scraped together the money to buy his first junker.

Time and time again we were warned by our parents. They scolded us and cautioned that we would be sucked under the wheels of a passing train as surely as the battered, no-name vacuums our mothers used would suck up dirt. After a few drinks, one of the adults would break down and tell us of the tragedy that still haunted them. How their childhood friend had been swept under those cutting wheels, and how the blood sprayed; so like the dust that sprayed out of the vacuums. The storyteller would go silent and then we would slink away to forget as best as we could. 

Still, our attention spans were as short as their wallets are skinny, and we found ourselves playing and exploring along the Soo-Line as inevitably as the sun sets. Along those tracks we found cigarettes (once a full pack), half-empty bottles of whiskey, and aluminum cans galore that would be recycled at the end of the summer in hopes of being able to afford a new pair of hockey skates for winter. In summer, we followed the Soo-Line east to Schwinghammer Lake, where we would find eager fish waiting for our hooks and hungry leeches waiting for our bodies when we lept into the water. In the fall, to the west, it led to plump cornfields and woodlots where pheasant, rabbit, and squirrel waited to fall under our twenty-twos; our contribution to the family freezer. In winter, it acted as a trail for us to explore ever outward in search of new hills to sled and fence lines to trap.

The Soo-Line was not the sole property of youth, though. Others, who had once been young and full of bravado, traveled on occasion down its rusted steel path. They were infrequent visitors to a world we claimed for ourselves. This highway of imagination belonged to we who loved it, and the iron monster that traveled it. As explorers along those metal beams, Charlie, Craig, the two Eriks, and I learned to read the signs, both literal and figurative, that the Beast was present. We had respect for the Beast. This was its territory and we were only visitors, after all. The Beast, with its train cars decorated with graffiti in clashing colors and messages, traveled to unknown lands. Often, as it roared past and we felt its breath suck at our clothes, we would discuss where the Beast had been, what it had seen and where it was bound. We talked in hushed whispers so the sparrows and robins, and the feral cats that stalked them, couldn’t warn the Beast we planned to follow it one day. We knew the names of towns it passed through, but we didn’t know what was beyond them. The soles of our feet itched for adventure.

This wasn’t just a travel corridor for us, though. We grew up along the Soo-Line. We learned about and experienced friendship, loyalty, love, hate, sadness, joy, and betrayal there. Our forts and hideaways were along the tracks, most often in the densest brush we could penetrate. These were places we could gather away from big brothers and sisters, and parents. We celebrated these little bastions. When Charlie won a new bike at the church raffle (his first brand new bike ever) we gave him a soda shower like we’d seen baseball teams deliver after a game. Orange pop and cola had cascaded from his dark curls and over his elated smile as we cheered his good luck and patted his back. And we grieved in them. When I was nine, the day after my father’s funeral, my friends found me, half frozen, in our fort. They huddled around me, my family surely as if we were blood, and cried with me even though the tears threatened to freeze our cheeks on that cold December day. There was something special along the Soo-Line. We felt it, and we understood it. Or we thought we did.

Both the Beast, and the Soo-Line it claimed, held a certain amount of old-fashioned, wild magic. I’m certain it hadn’t been in the original design—this kind of magic rarely is—but it was imbued by generations of children, like my friends and I, who spent countless hours on or around it. After a time, that kind of magic takes on a mind of its own. I’m sure most kids found, experienced, or created a place like this. The park or field that felt like home, the abandoned house that stared at you with hungry eyes, the tree fort that felt impregnable and stood forever; these are filled with magic, they thrive on it. As we grow we lose the ability to see that magic, but a small part of us still remembers it.

Magic of this kind is neither inherently good nor bad, but it requires sacrifice to keep it strong. Most of the time it is small things that people don’t notice: the hours you spend in the fort, the baseballs you can never find in the tall grass field, or the fearful glances you offer the house on the corner. Sometimes that magic requires more. The Soo-Line required more. Every generation gave something, sometimes more than their due, to that wild magic.

For us it was mostly little things like lost change, broken toys, the time Erik R. sprained his ankle, or when Craig pancaked the wheel of his bike and knocked himself out. But the Soo-Line was still hungry, and demanded more. Craig’s dog Petey, who was loved by us all, was killed along the tracks. We buried his broken body, his fluffy white fur matted and his blue eyes clouded, where we found him beneath a raspberry bush. We made a cross for him and Eggy used his wood-burner to etch Petey’s name into it. 

For others, the cost was much steeper. Two people committed suicide on, or near, the tracks. This did little to lessen the hold that the Soo-Line held over us, except that we put little crosses by the orange spray-paint that was used to mark the bodies. We avoided those areas out of respect, but we didn’t avoid the tracks. You see, an unspoken agreement is made between you and the wild magic that resides there: allow me to play here and I will grow just enough to forget and allow the next generation to find you. Some adults remember it clearly, though. If their bond is broken, the wild magic loses its ability to hide and its dangers are exposed. Such was the case with our parents who warned us, to no avail, about the Soo-Line. They knew it was dangerous when it was hungry. We were too young and innocent to understand the Soo-Line was always hungry. 

The summer I turned eleven Erik Z.’s older brother bought his first junker, and our fascination with the Soo-Line ended abruptly. The last vestiges of the childish prism we viewed the world through were removed from our eyes.

One June morning, when the crappies and the sunnies were sure to bite, Eggy came to collect us. Charlie, Craig, and I had just spent the night watching the Friday the 13th movie, so we declined the five a.m. invitation. Instead, Eggy’s younger sister, Jenny, went with him to our usual spot along the Soo-Line on Schwinghammer Lake. The best place to find fish in the morning was directly beneath the trestle bridge.

Eggy knew the Beast’s schedule, we all did. The Beast only ran on the third Saturday of the month, and every other Sunday. It should’ve been safe. Didn’t he put the pop can on the tracks as an early warning? It would have warned him long in advance of the Beast’s approach. If the three of us had gone with, one of us would have seen the Beast in time.

In the end, for whatever reason we would never know, the Beast came around the corner and onto the trestle bridge on a day it shouldn’t have. According to Jenny, Eggy’s foot got stuck between two trestle ties. Jenny didn’t know the Soo-Line. She didn’t know the tricks and games like we did. If we’d been there, any one of us, we could’ve pushed down and to the side. We could’ve saved Eggy. Instead, Eggy saved his sister. He shoved her off the bridge and into Schwinghammer Lake.

After the funeral, Charlie, Craig and I walked the tracks one last time to Schwinghammer Lake. Already the Soo-line felt different—dangerous and foreign. Like a dog that has attacked you, never trust it again.

We set a soda can on the rail and went down the bank until we found the increasingly familiar bright orange spray paint. With a surplus Army entrenching tool we dug another small grave for Eggy. This time, instead of a cross we planted a seedling tree. It was a white pine, because that was what Eggy liked to plant as a Boy Scout. They grew fast and Eggy liked to see them progress. Or, as he once said, “It’s fun to see a tree that’s as impatient as me.”

In the hole beneath the tree we laid three quarters and a set of fish hooks.

We didn’t completely avoid the Soo-Line afterward, it would have been impossible. Besides that, it was still a short-cut; however, we were no longer drawn to it. It could’ve been that we had outgrown it, but I think there was more to it than that. Even our younger brothers, sisters, and cousins avoided it as well. The wild magic had asked too much and broken its coven with us. 

A few years later the Beast stopped stalking the tracks, and a few years after that the Soo-Line was torn up and the Wobegon trail put in. My home town has grown much bigger than I ever imagined it would. Housing developments filled with McMansions have sprung up in place of cornfields and woodlots, and there is an actual industrial park south of town. I have been told the closer you live to it, the poorer you are, just as in my youth. I imagine the kids who live there, though, still look down on the children who live on Sand Hill even though they all eat buttered noodles for Saturday lunches. They will have their own magic places as we had ours and our parents had theirs, but it will not be the Soo-Line, and it will not be haunted by the Beast. In many ways I’m happy for them it isn’t, because the wild magic there had turned sour and mean. In some ways I am saddened for them as well, because it was a special place and time for me and it will remain so in my heart, unforgotten.

I have never again fished the part of Schwinghammer Lake where Eggy was killed, but I have visited Eggy’s tree. It had grown quite tall in the ten years since I’d last seen it. A bench had been put near it along the trail. The last time I visited it I was with my family, and we had a picnic. I didn’t tell them about Eggy, or the Beast and Soo-Line, but I did warn my kids about the leeche —after their mother had waded into the water. Eggy would have laughed. As we packed our things I walked down to the base of the white pine—it had grown enormous in twenty years—and I put a quarter at its base. Joseph, my fourteen-year-old son, noticed me doing this. “Why’d you leave a quarter, Dad?”

I looked up at him. He was silhouetted by the sun and could have been any one of us at that age—Eggy, Charlie, Craig, or me—and I shrugged. He helped me back up the hill and I patted his shoulder, “Just in case a buddy of mine wants to play a game.”