Now, when I look back on that leaden summer of my father’s passing, I see the month of June as a partitioning of two existences, the before and after, the universe a landscape of abstractions fueled by grief and memory; but in 1998, when I was thirteen, the world was split, simply, between my parents’ white-brick ranch-style home and the ground beneath the branches of an overgrown peach tree in the alley. I discovered the peach tree when I was carrying out the trash one afternoon. Heat refracted off the metal bins. Flies buzzed above the waste and I turned to go back to my parents’ gate, back to the house where inside my father was crying for more Codeine, when I saw the tree branches, like a curtain at the edge of the alley, fill with breeze.
The leaves were brittle and thinned at the tips. Peaches hardened and fell to the ground too early, but to me everything about those branches was sacred and of paradise. I leaned against the fence and crossed my legs. I combed for peaches that hadn’t fallen yet but were ripe enough to eat. Some were light green blushing to yellow. I savored each bite, pressing the flesh to the roof of my mouth with my tongue. My mouth watered.
I went back as often as I could. Maybe three times a week. The shade was cool and dark brown between the neighbors’ fence and the tree limbs, which brushed the dirt floor. I waited for birds and white butterflies. Black ants marched across my sandals. I spied on the neighbors driving by on Raleigh Avenue: the Johnsons’ Chevrolet Suburban, the Laceys’ Toyota 4Runner that smelled like pot, which my dad had told me was a worse kind of cigarette. I felt to see if the hard knots of my breasts felt bigger. They did, and less painful. To preserve my peach tree spot, I planted the leftover seeds. I imagined an enormous peach tree blooming at the edge of the alley on Raleigh Avenue with peaches like gold bells tucked away in the boughs. I pictured it thriving as few trees in West Texas do, flowering like a lavish bouquet in spring, the petals drifting down the streets like snow. And no one would know, I thought, in the years to come, after everything else that will have happened in the world, that I planted the magical peach tree at the edge of Raleigh Avenue.
I can’t speak for other children. I know the desire to imagine other worlds, alternate realities, is common. I obviously don’t know what my life would have been like had I not, at 13, had a father who was dying of fourth-stage colon cancer inside my parents’ house. Perhaps I would have imagined something more fanciful than another peach tree in the alley. Something with centaurs or dragons. Something altogether separate from this life; not of a tree rooted to the earth next to the dumpster in the alley, right by the fence that my father built. Between the posts I could see the empty yellow swings of the swing set he also built. He moved that swing set to three different houses before he died, each time untwisting then twisting back into the earth the twelve-inch ground anchors he used to secure each pole. I peeked through the peach tree limbs and saw the windows of our house. They were dark for how bright it was outside.
I didn’t stay long behind those branches. My mother would have come looking for me and anyone’s discovery would have ruined the whole thing. The ground there was secret and I became secret when there. I disappeared into the peach blossoms. The supine leaves.
Days, or perhaps weeks, after my father died, the neighbors cut the peach tree. I’ve lost count.
In the fall of 2011, when I was twenty-six and had, temporarily, given up drinking so much whiskey, I moved into a small house in Columbus, Ohio, two blocks west of active train tracks. I used to take walks in the evening, as the air dried to winter, and watch the train. It ran north/south, parallel to High Street, Columbus’s main thoroughfare. I’d been told once, by a soft-spoken and kind Midwestern man, that High Street was the spine of the city, and have, in the years since – during which I’ve taken up whiskey again, returned to my hometown of Lubbock, Texas, where I was found stumbling through the parking lot of a lawnmower shop called “Paul’s Parts”, by a policeman who said that the only thing that really breaks in a person is the heart – imagined that cities are lithe, scaly vertebrates sleeping on their bellies.
Beyond the tracks arched I-71, the interstate that takes you north to Cleveland or south toward Indiana and connects beyond to the highways fluttering like ribbons in the hills of Missouri, and bounds west to the red dust at the Oklahoma/Texas border. Someone or some group had fashioned makeshift benches out of quartered hay bales and placed them alongside the tracks. I happened upon them in a clearing beside the train when, one evening, I decided to walk toward the tracks. I imagined that we were all part of some secret train-watching society. But I never saw anyone else at the tracks. The smell of hay mixed with the acrid smell of steel. Blackbirds gathered on the telephone wires while I waited and the sky turned the color of smoke.
The train came through every day, or that’s how I remember it. I’ve been gone now for over two years. The train reminded me of the day’s passing, like a grandfather clock does the hour.
Maybe I shouldn’t refer to the time since I’ve lived by the train in years, but in days: it’s been eight hundred and twelve days since I sat on the hay bale benches and waited for the train in Columbus, Ohio.
Recently, I’ve started seeing a man named Michael from Utah County, Utah, who tells me about the Wasatch Mountains. He says that it’s not uncommon for a person of Utah County to refer to a particular mountain as “my mountain.” He tells me that often you’ll hear folks ask, “What do you think of our mountains?” But it wasn’t until Michael took me to Utah County that I realized that Provo, Orem, and Pleasant Grove are nested in the foothills of the Wasatch Mountains, like miracles of the spring melt. That, unlike the Flatirons in Denver, which are distant vistas in comparison, these mountains enforce their presence, like city borders. Like the walls of a river. A local woman told me that she knew each ridge, every idiosyncratic peak of the mountains in her hometown. Like creases in a face. To me, the mountainscape blended together in a fortissimo of crests and furrows against a sky of changing blues. Only time and awareness would reveal each one and lead to the kind of intimacy and longing that I heard once in Michael’s brother’s voice when we were back in Texas and he asked Michael, “Do you miss the mountains?”
The leap from a train in Columbus, Ohio, to the Wasatch Mountains is an ambitious one, and there is maybe nothing in common between them but this: they impose. They connect you to your surroundings. They remind you that you are alive.
In other words, when someone from Utah County tells me how much he loves his mountain, I want to say that I miss my train.
Sometimes, I waited an hour in a calm so quiet I could hear the clip of a car door echo throughout the streets. I heard the currents in the telephone wires. Then the train’s light and horn blared at the same time. The air that had settled over the tracks split like waves and blew tree branches back. Birds flew. The ground didn’t just vibrate; it pulsated in time with the spaces between the train cars, which flashed a slideshow of the interstate sparkling with headlights. It felt like the city might get up and crawl. The train was an electric shock. Further south, where the city traffic intersected, a bell rang. It kept ringing long after the train disappeared.
I haven’t found my third secret place yet.
When I was twenty-two, I used to climb onto the roof of my parents’ house at night and smoke Parliament Super Slims. The roof was shallow. The shingles glittered silver and stars were there as long as you could look. But I liked to tell my friends about it. Once, I took Emerson Stone up there after a long night of karaoke and we talked wise until the street-cleaning truck brushed Raleigh Avenue and the taste of hose water filled the air. I’d light cigarettes, rest my neck on the peak of the roof, and think about stars getting brighter as they age. I felt high and exposed on that roof, not hidden.
I found a yellow farmhouse six miles past the Lubbock city limits when I was twenty-seven. It sat like the center of a radar surrounded by thirty-two hundred acres of cotton land. For one year I lived there and learned to watch light. I studied the shadows of small gray rocks and lumbering beetles on a dirt road. Since moving back into the city, I miss hearing the register between a moth in the closet and trucks raging down the caliche. On the shelf in my kitchen sits a vase of cotton bowls gathered from the edge of the field behind the farmhouse where I used to wait for jackrabbits.
Though the farmhouse was remote and quiet, and I felt well-hidden enough to begin controlling again only those things I could – what I ate for breakfast, the number of squares I traced on a sketchpad, the time of night I turned off the lights and vanished into the buzz of insects at the screen – the farmhouse, like my mother’s roof, and many other places in my life, was a place I looked for. Secret places, like secrets themselves, or grief, or joy, can’t be sought and found. They happen. They form without beckoning and become places of belonging.
Still, I’m alert. I thought that maybe I’d discovered a third place the other day. I was walking my dog Jonah in our neighborhood of houses built in the 1950s. There were other people on foot, on bike. Other dogs tempting Jonah with their playful trots, their plumed tails. I take a different route every time, zigzagging through the neighborhood, trying to make a labyrinth of a grid, to surprise myself. We turned the corner on a street called Gary and a hush fell. Enormous oaks arched from both sides of the street and formed a canopy over us. To the east, a house, shrouded in ivy, sat vacant, a “For Sale” sign stationary in the yard. The house was blue with a red brick patio; it sagged into the ground like some old women do into their hips. The fence was in disrepair and peeled back like leaves. Grass glistened on the other side. An empty can rattled down the street.
It wasn’t my place. But the trees curved and quieted the street like a cathedral. The house was empty and waiting. I stood there a long time with Jonah. It wasn’t my place but it was close.
I was thirteen when the peach tree branches appeared, twenty-six when I stumbled into the train-watching spot. Perhaps there will be thirteen years between the second and the third place; perhaps I will be thirty-nine, the age my father was when he passed. Perhaps I have nine years more to wait.
Kathleen Dorothy Blackburn was born in 1984 on a U.S. Air Force base in Agana, Guam, and raised in Lubbock, Texas. After graduating from Texas Tech University, Kathleen earned her MFA from the Ohio State University. A Pushcart Prize nominee, her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Bellingham Review, Diagram, Iron Horse Literary Review, The Journal, The Pinch, River Teeth, and elsewhere. Her essay “Where Now Is” was listed as “Notable” in Best American Essays of 2013.
Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece?
A: The ending. I wrote it early, put it first. Then I moved it to the middle, before I realized it was the end.
Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve received? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?
A: Dennis Covington told me once to write like a house on fire. Erin McGraw said to get out of my own way. Both suggestions are similar, at least to me: I had no idea what they meant when I heard them. I’ve only recently started to figure them out. It has something to do with trusting the strangeness of my writing brain over anything else.
Q: What three to five authors and/or books have inspired your journey as a writer?
A: Kim Barnes, Claudia Emerson, Eula Biss
Q: Describe your writing space for us. Are you someone who finds the muse in a public space such as a café, or in a cave of one’s own?
A: I grew up in a big, loud family, and learned early how to tune every child’s howl, dog whimper, and sound in between, out. So, anywhere: that’s the short answer. But I’m also thinking about when I was working on my thesis for graduate school, and I moved into back into my mom’s place for three months. I stayed in my sister’s bedroom, and she was kind enough to give me some space in her closet, and two drawers in her dresser. Besides that section in the closet and those two drawers, no space in the house belonged to me; my privacy was completely wiped out. I’d go to a coffee shop, the library, a park. I could write in any of those places, and I craved my time writing. Because I’d become a kind of nomad in my life, I discovered my only privacy, my only space, was in the writing itself. That’s still true. The writing is the space.