Near the Tracks

by Susan Tepper

Mercury’s house is close to the tracks, at night the train whistles keep me awake. We came here in the springtime and now it’s the fall but we haven’t enrolled in school. Mercury says there’s still too much work to be done in the house, so much cleaning, and once the house is complete we can enroll in school.

“I’m your closest relative,” he said the week our mom died. He’d stooped looking too tall for our apartment living room. He said, “I came to collect you two. Pack your stuff.”

I said, “How did you know where to find us?”

“Your mother and I kept in touch.”

He took us away in this old Cadillac. Jackie my little brother who is seven cried and banged on the back window.

I didn’t remember ever meeting Mercury. He said he’s our mother’s first cousin and saw me in my bassinette at the christening. He gave a bunch of details about my mom and her family. “This way you’ll know I’m not a serial killer,” he said.

“What is a bassinette?” I had to shout over Jackie’s screaming.

Mercury explained it was a basket type thing with satin lining. “People used to put babies inside but not anymore.”

“Is that the only time you met me?”

He said he’d been at a few of my little girl birthday parties.


His cheeks hang in long folds same as his brownish-red hair. Makes me think of a horse. He doesn’t shave but every few days. Heavy lids cover half his eyes that are turquoise—like my mom’s drop earrings. When Mercury stares it’s like he’s looking through walls.

“Pick up that rug and give it a shake,” he calls out from the other room. I’d just been looking at the throw rug thick in dog hair wondering if he once had a dog.

He also says things like: I’m proud to be a vet. At first I thought he meant a dog and cat doctor. He meant soldier. Two tours in Nam he likes telling us, and that everyone has their time to die.

The morning that Jackie found Mom, half on the floor and half on the couch, part of her breast hung from her bathrobe.

“Look, her titty,” Jackie said. He didn’t know she was dead.

I said, “Put that right out of your mind.”

Her tongue stuck out, too, a funny grayish-mauve same as the couch. Jackie believes Mom soaked up the color before she went on to heaven. I let him think what he wants. I don’t believe in heaven. I did at one time. When we used to play on the roof of our apartment building. Dirt up there was inches thick. When I asked Mom who brought the dirt up she said God.

Lots of weeds in clumps, and some grass growing up there too. Down below was all city— the streets with dangerous men hiding guns. Rapists. People who cut cell phones out of back pockets. Up on the roof felt like being somewhere—Mom used to call it going up to the garden. She planted some pot. She giggled and even started looking better with nail polish and a colored hair band. Cooking us chicken from time to time, instead of McNuggets leaking grease through the bag.

Whenever Jackie starts to cry and whimper over missing our Mom, I tell him it was our happy time. I have to swallow to say it. And that some kids never get a happy time. “Take Pete. His dad beats the crap out of him.” This makes Jackie nod and be still.

If Mercury is paying attention and hears, he might say, “Ya got that kid? Ya understand? Listen to your big sister, she has the chops.”

I always smile acting like anything Mercury says is fine by me.

I don’t cry and say I’m only twelve and want to go back to the apartment and I miss my friends and school and even the old dangerous neighborhood. I just smile and dust more things. Mercury has issues about keeping the house clean. The first day here he gave me a blue rag to wear in my back pocket.

“I don’t mind junk around but I can’t stand the dust,” he said.


Jackie and I have certain jobs. One of mine is to sort out the trash. Every day I go room to room and pick up any trash I can find. It’s hard because there are so many things that could be trash. I have to ask Mercury: “Is this trash? Is this trash?” It starts to drive him crazy. “Just throw it out,” he says.

The first time I got a full bag I said, “Where should I put the trash?”

“With the rest of it. Out behind the sheds.”

The property is huge and stretches back to the tracks. It’s woodsy but the trees are thin. Other houses on both sides. But far away. Hard to see through the thin, packed in trees. Those sheds, made of white metal, are like mini-houses behind Mercury’s house. Not far from the tracks.

The day I carried my first bag of trash behind the sheds I saw them. Hundreds of other white Hefty bags. Maybe a thousand. Piles. I stopped short like a flying saucer had landed. Practically unable to breathe. At the apartment we used to put out the trash and the garbage truck picked it up. Here the trash never gets picked up.

When I asked Mercury, he explained he likes to keep his past life close by.

What! What about us! Our mom is gone and our apartment and our garden on the roof. Our school and our friends. Mr. Rodriguez from the bodega who gave us free gum. Gone. I clenched my hands into fists saying nothing. Mercury sat in his recliner changing the channels.

Now that I’ve been doing it a while, I don’t think any garbage truck could find a way through the trees and stumps. Every day I go back and toss the bags with the rest. I don’t look or aim. Sometimes an Amtrak train shoots past. I stand there watching the sky moving.


In Mercury’s house there are no clocks. He doesn’t wear a watch. He explained that time has no meaning.

“If time has no meaning then how do you know when Jeopardy comes on?”

“You tell time by the moon and stars.”

“There is no moon and stars in the daytime.”

“Tara, the moon is always there. You need to look for it.”

Oh, boy, I’m thinking. “Well I can’t see it.”

“Read Einstein,” he tells me.

“How can I? You won’t let me go to school.”

He scratches his gray whiskers. “You won’t find Einstein in the schools. Maybe the colleges.” He squints changing the channel. “That’s a long way off. It’s, like, forever. Maybe.”

Forever? College is forever? “I’m already twelve,” I say.

“Don’t count, Tara, it will wreck your life. Read the books I have in the den. All the books in there will give you what you need to know.”

“You mean those old paperback mystery books?”

“You think a book needs a binder to be good?”

“That’s binding, Uncle Mercury.”

He’s changing channels cursing the remote.

“Do you want me to run the vacuum?”

He thinks a moment. “Nah. Too noisy. Do it later.”

Later when? Later will be time to go to sleep. “Well these floors look pretty dusty if you ask me.”

I say this to get him. Dust. It’s my only weapon. The wood floors collect a white powder from the trains flying past. Even though he keeps the windows shut. Dust finds its way he explains to us.


After a supper of canned stew and lima beans, Mercury says, “We’re going to see the man.”

Jackie on the living room floor is stretched out playing Chinese Checkers. I played a few games to keep him company. Until I couldn’t take it anymore. “What man?” I say.

“Al the tattoo man.”

“Are you getting another tattoo, Uncle Mercury?”

He smiles and says we’ll see. He’s trying to unstick a window with a screw driver.

“Why bother if you never open it?” I say.

“Because it’s the right thing to do. You need to learn that basic principle, Tara.” He’s grunting fighting the stuck window. “Damn thing won’t budge. C’mon, you two. We have a date with a man about a horse.”


“Al and me go way back.” When Mercury grins a wide space shows between his front teeth.

Jackie is bouncing around the place looking at all the tattoo stuff. I just want out.

Al tells my brother, “Hop up on that stool.” As soon as Al takes hold of his arm, Jackie starts howling and pulling away. Mercury grabs him in a bear hug.

“Listen,” he says. “I gotta have you both marked. I can’t have you two getting lost on me. Not now, not ever.”

“Just do mine, Uncle Mercury. Please.” I stick out my arm. “I’ll keep an eye on him. I won’t let him out of my sights. I swear.”

Mercury is staring at Jackie.

“The kid is really too young,” Al says.

“Not in other cultures.”

Jackie squirms away jumping off the stool. I move toward it, when Mercury says, “Stop!”

He grabs my brother, lifts him up and sets him back on the stool. Jackie about to throw another tantrum when Mercury leans in, eyeball to eyeball. “You don’t want to get lost in the wild lands around here.”

“He’s going to puke and faint,” I say. “He does that when he’s really scared.”

“Use the vise,” Mercury says.

Al snaps Jackie’s small arm down. Jackie kicking and screaming and crying. I feel my stomach turn over. “Please, Uncle Mercury. I’m begging you.” I grab Mercury’s arm.

“Don’t ever touch me,” he says.

He keeps one hand on Jackie’s head while the needle pumps. Jackie cries non-stop.

“Does it hurt that bad?” I ask my brother.

“Not very bright, Tara.”

“I don’t like it when he cries. I always took care of him for Mom.”

“We’re almost done,” Al says.

“Your mother was a sorry woman.” Mercury moves toward the window lighting a cigarette.

Al is nodding. I wonder how Al could have known my mom?

“I thought you liked her,” I say to Mercury. “You said you saw me in my satin bassinette. That you and Mom kept in touch.”

He puffs the cigarette looking out the window.

When my turn comes I don’t make a sound. I get a sun like the one Jackie got. The same as on Mercury’s left arm. Mercury is humming. “We three are bonded. Three is a lucky number.”


Now Jackie is scared to leave the house, scared it will mean another tattoo. He’s watching the TV, set to the weather channel. “Did you finish your Cornflakes?” I ask him.

“They have no nutritional value,” Mercury says. “All sugar. Read the label. Tara you have to learn to read labels.”

Most of what he says I pay no attention. After the tattoos I hate him like I’ve never hated any living thing. In his orange recliner, digging junk food out of the deep side pockets, he tosses a few Cheetos at Jackie. I bend and pick them up putting them into the white Hefty bag.

“This is the best time of year to journey to Deer Lake,” Mercury’s saying. “We’ll go later if the weather channel gives the thumbs up.”

Can’t we just look out the window to see the weather, I’m thinking. “It’s gray and cloudy,” I tell him. “It could rain.”

“Nah. The weather channel just cleared us.”

“Well I’m bringing an umbrella.”

“Suit yourself.”

Of course we don’t go to Deer Lake because Mercury is so comfortable in his recliner and there are some shows he feels he can’t miss.

“Where is Deer Lake anyways?” I’m squirting the triple window with glass cleaner.

“Tara, darlin’, you can see the whole world by just following the tracks. That’s how lucky you are to be here. The whole world in a line along the tracks.”

He must think I never went to school. “There’s the ocean,” I say. “You can’t walk on the ocean to follow a line.”

“You walk a ways and you come to Deer Lake.”

“How do you know it’s Deer Lake and not some other lake?”

Mercury laughs pounding his knee. “Deer Lake is the first on the itinerary. Tara you missed a smudge.”

I check the window which looks clean to me but give it an extra wipe. Since the tattoos he has taken to calling me darlin’ and Jackie little man. It’s so gross.

“After Deer Lake,” he’s saying, “a few miles down the tracks you run into Gold Pond. That one is a dead ringer. You’ll never see pond scum that color anywhere on this earth.”

“Which way do you have to walk along the tracks?”

“North, darlin’. It all happens north of here. That’s where the world begins to open up.”


“Jackie bring your windbreaker,” I tell him.

We follow Mercury outside, around behind the house toward the sheds then walking toward the piles of Hefty bags.

“It stinks back here.” Mercury’s holding his nose.

“It’s the garbage,” I say.

“Just follow these tracks and you will see the entire world.”

The entire world along his stinking train tracks. What a joke. I trudge behind him with my head down looking out for rats. I don’t want to step on a live rat. It’s colder, more windy here by the tracks.

“Today we will journey to Deer Lake. If that goes OK we’ll take another journey soon.”

Jackie and I say nothing.

Mercury stops walking to look back at us. “Aren’t you kids interested in my second world destination? What’s with you today? Kids just want to play the computer games. That’s why I won’t have a computer in my home. The schools, too, full of morons for teachers and those computers. You learn by seeing the world.”

I take a deep breath and feel the garbage stink move into my belly. “Of course we want to know. What is the second destination, Uncle Mercury?’

“That’s more like it. I’ll tell you but you gotta swear to keep it to yourselves. OK? You both swear?”

“Yes, I swear.”

“Hey, little man, you swear too?”

Jackie looks up at Mercury in a way I can’t quite describe. Then he nods.

Mercury claps his hands together. “OK! I need my people onboard. After Deer Lake, some time after, we’ll journey to the lake of golden slime.”

The wind is picking up and I shiver. “Why is it called that?”

“Golden slime covers the lake like a bedspread. You won’t believe your eyes.” Mercury has stopped walking. He looks ecstatic.

“Shouldn’t we get a move on?” I hate that we stopped back here surrounded by hundreds of bags of rotting garbage. Petrified a rat will run out.

“Righto. Let’s roll.” He steps forward and we follow him.

He talks about the different places he will take us to see. A lake with trees half dead sticking up from the water resembling animals. He says that lake holds powers for those with the courage to sink down under its waters.

“Can we go swimming there?” Jackie wants to know.

“Of course not,” I whisper.

The clouds open up then we get hit by too much rain to keep going.


Mercury cooked spaghetti with clams for supper. Jackie is whining. He doesn’t like clams. “Pick them out,” says Mercury.

“Here, give them to me,” I say. “Put them in my plate.” I look over at Mercury. “Did these clams come from the golden slime lake?’

“From a jar at the A&P.” He looks suspicious all of a sudden.

“Oh.” I was hoping some of the special powers might be inside the clams, and I would eat the clams and get the special powers. “They’re good anyway.” I don’t mention they taste rubbery and the clam sauce has too much salt.

Mercury licks his fingers. “Never used a napkin until I went into the army. Basic training at Fort Bragg. They turned me into a soldier. But too hot for napkins in Nam. I never use them now.”

“Uncle Mercury, do you think we can start school sometime soon?”

He picks up his food and empties it into the trash.


Every day I go roaming. Now I have my tattoo so he always can find me. I watch the trains thunder past and I form this dream: A person will jump from the train forcing it to stop. With a few skips I’ll grab onto the railing and pull myself up on the train. Eventually it will move forward again taking me with it. But I know this won’t happen. It’s like a fairy tale. I know I can’t leave Jackie behind, and he’s too little to pull his way up the side of a train.

SUSAN TEPPER is Second Place Winner for the storySouth Million Writers Award 2014. She is the author of five published books of fiction and a chapbook of poetry and has received 9 Pushcart nominations. She pens a monthly column about all things writerly at Black Heart Magazine, and is the founder/host of FIZZ reading series at KGB Bar, NYC these past 8 years.