Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Railroad, pt. 2

Spike - 437 words
Sarah Van Name

It was the first day of Christmas break when they started to cut down the forest. The sounds of sawing and the soft pillowed thumps of falling trees flooded the air from nine to four, when dusk and cold started to drift in together. My parents had moved here in part, I knew, for the peace and quiet, and the way my mother’s wrists tensed as she made breakfast on those days told me how upset she was at what she must have considered an invasion. I had suggested to my dad that we wait until then to pick our tree – we could just grab one from the ground and you wouldn’t even have to deal with the cutting, I had told him – but he had refused, and the day after Thanksgiving we’d gone out together and chosen the best tree there was, broad and plump with needles.

When I looked out the window at the work, a quarter or maybe even half a mile away, all I could see was a cloud of dust and intermittent flashes of orange vests. I went out to survey the damage on weekends when it was quiet. They were doing a good job, not cutting down much more than they had to. By new year’s there was a broad, flat swath of dirt running as far as you could see in either direction, surrounding by military-straight lines of trees on each side.

I remember it was new year’s because on new year’s day they drove in the first spike. In my books I had read about inaugurating train tracks and was rather excited. I expected the mayor, maybe, a crowd of important people in nice shoes, a ribbon.

There was a tree still standing a little ways back from the dirt, and I sat in its branches all morning with a book waiting for it to happen. The men showed up one by one, late, hungover and yawning. Finally the foreman yelled, “Okay, come on, let’s get to work,” and they dispersed to get their tools. I peered through the pine needles. I saw the foreman say something to one man, who nodded, and then I watched him kneel and pound in the first spike.

No one else had looked. There had been no celebration – no ribbon, no mayor. I hopped down from the branch, my thighs sore and prickled from the bark, and walked back home, where I sat at the kitchen table with my dad and watched the cloud of dust in silence, the mystery and drama of the railroad filtered into the hard cool air for good.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Railroad, pt. 1

446 words - Railroad
Sarah Van Name

I grew up with the meadow, reaching for the tops of the grass. I don’t remember leaving for years and years except to go to the sparse farmer’s market a couple miles down the long dirt road that connected our house to another, more well-groomed dirt road that connected to a highway that was as mystical to me as the ocean. We grew our own tomatoes, and I remember eating barely anything else for most of my childhood. There was school, and homework in the basics of spelling and multiplication, and there was the pond and the soft sticky sweetness of the Southern atmopshere, April through September.

I didn’t know it then, but we were about fifty years behind the rest of the world and my parents must’ve liked it that way because they never tried to catch me up. I didn’t know what computers were until the school got a couple; there was no Internet access at our house. I didn’t know what cell phones were; there was no reception. I was never bothered by any of this until much later, when I realized that life had been a different thing – shinier, more metallic and sharp – for other girls.

One warm September aftenoon, when I was thirteen, I opened the door to find my mom and dad sitting at the kitchen table, hands folded and waiting. I thought quickly but I hadn’t done anything wrong.

“Sit down, Margaret,” my mom said. My dad was quiet and and his eyes were focused on not me but the treeline, beyond the pond, the thick deep green of the pines.

“What is it?” I asked. And I thought again. My grandparents were in good health; I could see the dog, droopy-eyed and sniffing at the couch, in the next room.

“We were informed today that the state is building a railroad track up to D.C., and it’s going to run right by us.” She paused. “Just past the pond over there. They’re going to be cutting down a path through the forest so it can pass.”

My dad’s expression hadn’t changed. He was still scrutinizing the tree line, as if imagining what it would be like to have a shrieking metal beast slide through it every hour. “Can they do that? When do they start?” I asked. I was more curious than troubled. I had never seen a train except in my history textbooks.

“It’s not our property, technically, so yes. It’ll be a couple months.”

I think she expected me to have more questions. But I was already daydreaming of leaping from the ground into an empty boxcar, like a dirty-faced urchin searching for a different sky.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


269 words – cowboy
Sarah Van Name

At eight years old, Sergei wanted nothing more than to be a cowboy. He didn’t like the Western-inspired movies that were the standard in the Soviet Union at the time, but preferred the American ones smuggled in by his father. This troubled his mother, who feared that he’d sneak his toy gun into school and pretend to be shooting Indians, who in Soviet-made films were the protagonists. But she needn’t have worried. Sergei was a quiet, well-behaved child who understood and accepted the rules of the society he had been born into.

After school let out he would come home and lie in front of the TV to let The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly flicker across his pale face, his chin propped in his hands. At 6:30 his father got home and looked in on him, at which point the movie would be almost over. The man would look at his son, give a greeting which was usually responded to with an absent wave, and sigh as he left the room, wondering if he had done the wrong thing by bringing the outside world into his country and house and always concluding yes. The movie was done by dinner, which was placed on the table at 6:45 precisely.

Before bed, while he played checkers with his parents, Sergei would try to recreate the stories in his head with himself as the main character. Above all he was excited to learn how to ride a horse. As he fell asleep, Sergei imagined himself growing up to be like Clint Eastwood: brave, square-jawed, and a little faded by dust.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Not Your Average House

360 words – average
Sarah Van Name

I was driving through a residential section before we hit the highway.

“You know what I’m most excited about for when I grow up? Owning a house.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah. I’m really, really excited about owning a house. I think about it a lot.”

“What’s your dream house?”

“It’s gonna be three floors plus an attic, Victorian-style, with the outside painted blue with dark purple shutters and white detailing. Or, like, white woodwork. I’m going to have a lot of guest rooms. My kitchen is going to be bright yellow, my bedroom is going to be brown, my living room is going to be red, and there’s going to be stairs in the living room. And under the stairs there’ll be a nook where I’m going to put a loveseat. I haven’t figured out the dining room yet. But it’ll be a really nice kitchen, because I’m going to do a lot of baking and cooking and stuff. I don’t know what I’m gonna do with all the other rooms, though.”

“I mean, if it’s not very big and you only have four rooms per floor – “

“Yeah, four rooms and a bathroom per floor. So that wouldn’t be too bad.”

There was a silence and the music drifted through the heat of the car like ribbon on wind.

“The weird thing about this is that when I picture this house I don’t ever imagine living in it with other people. I mean I’m going to have guests. Tons of guests. But I don’t think about having a family. I don’t think I’m the kind of person who’s just going to find someone, magically. I’m trying to get used to the idea of being alone.”

“Well. If I end up alone and unmarried in my thirties – “

“I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

“ – I’ll come and live with you.”

“I would like that. I would give you a big guest room with lots of colors and yarn everywhere and blankets.”

“Thank you.”

“Did I ever tell you that I plan on having you in my life for, like, ever? There are just some people I think that about.”

Tuesday, November 2, 2010


Stage - 127
Sarah Van Name

“The plate is a stage,” my brother tried to explain to me once.

“The plate is a plate,” I told him.

“Yes. But it’s more than that,” he insisted, and I leaned against the walk-in refrigerator to watch him work. It was three A.M. and we were alone in the restaurant, chairs upended on tables and velvet curtains closed against the outside world.

“What do actors do on a stage? They tell stories. And food tells stories on the plate.” He ladled chocolate mousse, mahogany-dark, into a small glass cup, placed a spring of fresh mint on top. “See how I’m putting this in the middle of the plate? It’s lonely, but proud. Aloof. It’s like a princess in a tower, and that’s how it tastes, too.”