from Lost Cities of Oklahoma
My mother, now ninety-three years old, is from the train-whistle town of Narod (pronounced Nay-Rod), Oklahoma. "Train-whistle town" is a phrase I learned from her, and in effect it means the same thing today as when somebody, when describing the smallness of where they're from, says "when you drive through, don't blink or you'll miss it." Many of my students are from small towns and cities in Oklahoma, and they will explain this paradox—of being from somewhere that is nowhere—by saying, succinctly, "there's nothing there." And while the "train-whistle town" means that, it also carries, now in 2015, a kind of nostalgia with it that my mother, who still uses the phrase, never means. And here's where I think the convenience of using a local idiom or regional platitude breaks down, doing a grave injustice to the speaker; because when my mother speaks of Narod she does not wax poetic about a time, say, of hat boxes, or radio dramas, or the day—after three years of without rain—FDR gave a speech during a downpour in Amarillo. Instead she speaks of a time and place with the rage one carries from of a life lived small, of the indignities of acute poverty endured, of self-loathing: see the summer afternoon when she's eleven years old and steals a tube of toothpaste from a friend's house and runs down to the tracks and, hidden by walls of sunflowers, eats the entire contents of the tube. She does it by the finger-length, squeezing out line after line, nobody telling her that any of it must be spared or saved or shared; just a wonderful minty glut consumed all at once and that, an hour later, she strategically vomits into a pig trough before coming through the backdoor.
In Narod the train arrived daily at 6:10 p.m. In summer this would be the hottest hour of the day; fall the hour of twilight; winter the hour without wind; spring the first hour in which the day began to cool. The function of the train—a Southern Pacific freighter—stopping in Narod was that it was a place where it could take on both coal for the engine and ice for the refrigerator cars hauling grapefruit from L.A. to Chicago. At 6:00 my mother's remembers that there was a little boy, a mute boy, who would run from his house on the north side of town, cross the tracks (always in two left-footed hops), fetch a large iron key from the station master's office, and turn on the town fountain. As poor as most of Narod was, a local cattle baron, a Scotsman named Cuthbert, had paid for a fountain to be installed on the quay, in plain view of the train's conductor. After the train had taken on its coal and ice, and after it had departed and gone out of sight, it was the mute boy's job to the turn the fountain off and return the key to the station master. After which, she says, he would hop the tracks the same way, two left-footed hops, and run home.
It is fair to think of the daily arrival of the Southern Pacific as a kind ecstasy. Think of what must of been the train's magnificence: its shape, color, power, breath. I mean, imagine the train's whistle as high and clean against a town full of soot and wind and dust. But my mother experienced the world differently than you or I. You and I know the poetic feeling of listening to a train disappear, or move out of sight in some way, say, slowly describing a horizon line previously unseen. But all such disappearances meant only one thing for my mother: that it had gone and she was stuck in hell.
Several years ago the first Automobile Association of America maps of Oklahoma were published without the city of Narod on them. By then the town had been swallowed by the northern sweep of suburban Dallas. When I drove my mother down there from Oklahoma City to show me the house she'd been raised in—and idea of mine that she was, at best, vexed about—we found that not only was Narod not on the map, but none of its artifacts seemed to exist in the physical world.
It was as if it had never existed.
When I pressed my mother about street names, about business names, she could no longer remember them. When we visited the chamber of commerce in nearby Frisco, Texas, and then the one in Plano, Texas, we found more ambiguity. There seemed to be a vague remembrance of such a place, or some place that sounded like Narod, but in their meager archives no documents could be found to prove its existence. It became obvious to me that the town had probably been unincorporated, but the absence from collective memory to where it had even been was disturbing. I became angry. I asked: there had been a train, there were tracks, a station for loading and unloading ice and coal. Was there not a record of this somewhere? A fountain? They assured me: it was gone now. I asked: old county roads? Farm roads that led in and out of town? They assured me: they're probably there, you should go look. But where? I asked. Where? And suddenly my mother, who'd been quiet until now, began to laugh. First to herself, then, as she became a kind of nuisance in the small office, outside in the parking lot. We tried to ignore her as I continued my questioning: a water tower somewhere? A silo? A church? Surely, even if in ruins, there had to be a church. But the woman in the office had stopped paying attention to me and began watching my mother who, laughing through her hands now, was crossing the parking lot toward my SUV.
George McCormick recently published in Epoch, Willow Springs, and American Literary Review. My short story collection, Salton Sea, was published in last by Noemi Press.