2016 Creative nonfiction Contest Judge's Choice ~ Richard Hague
There was a story told in the days when, in my early manhood, I worked a couple of summers on the Penn Central Railroad as a fireman. In those times of diesel engines, the fireman was a sort of luxury, a burden even, from corporate’s point of view. No longer was a person needed to shovel coal into a puffing belly’s innards; cylinders and pistons and electric generators took care of all that by then. It was not long after I last sat on what was still called “the firebox” and watched for signals from the lantern-waving brakemen in the middle of the night that the job was finally phased out. It persisted as long as it did, I would guess, because of union insistence, and a concern over safety issues. There were occasions when the engineer could not possibly see around the train; the fireman was an extra set of eyes on the inside of the long curve.
The story was this: a brakeman had somewhow stumbled between two cars just as they were coupling. The huge metal knuckles met and joined inside him, at about waist level and a bit off-center; he remained upright there, incredibly still alive for a time, talking to his companions, until the cars were pulled apart and he collapsed dead on the tracks.
Whether true or not, I heard many such stories of death and disaster on the railroad—they were at the same time warnings and brags, meant to impress young fellows like me who need to be reminded of their rube-ness and their low status among the scarred-but-still-standing dukes and kings of the rails. Nevertheless, I understand this story now as a sort of foreshadowing of the pain and agony of that human uncoupling and devastation of our innermost selves called divorce.
My first marriage hardly deserved the name. It lasted less than two years, at its end my wife having just turned 21, hardly grown up, and myself almost the same age, equally green and untried. Still, over those brief months we had known one another, important things had happened to us. I had taken a full-time teaching job while going to graduate school—thanks to a few strings pulled by Thomas G. Savage, S.J., chair of the English Department at Xavier University, I was a teaching assistant with no teaching duties, just the scholarship, and my wife was to graduate a year or so later as one of the first few coeds at the formerly all-male school. In even such a relatively brief period, though, certain intimacies had developed, and certain dependencies had been formed, and certain ways of doing things had solidified into a sort of domestic routine. It is no small thing to have clean clothes, or a refrigerator with decent food in it, or a steady paycheck from a reliable, middle-class job, or a somewhat like-minded companion, or a ready date for any evening both parties feel like recreating. So when an uncoupling ends even a brief marriage, readjustments become immediately necessary, and they are often difficult and unprepared for.
Psychologically, the consequences were severe in my case. My default emotional position has always been anger: if I am frightened, I react in anger; if I am insulted, I react in anger; if I am abandoned, I react in anger, even sometimes panic. I was a wreck for two or three years after our divorce; had my father, like Polonius in Hamlet, sent a spy down to study my behavior, it would have looked like this, if we telescoped the first year or two into one season of surveillance: during the school year, I regularly stayed out until the bars closed on weeknights, drinking heavily, smoking a whole pack of cigarettes before midnight, prowling for company of any kind, though leery to deepest misery of being rejected once again. After school—I skipped out two years in a row on graduation, once right in front of the Principal as I was about to step into the cathedral of St. Peter in Chains, which felt way too much like punishment and prison to me at the time— I took off for the woods, my self-imposed exile and rustication (more on that later), where I lived alone in a trailer on a high ridge-top ten miles from the county seat. I endured panics, fears, freak-outs, hallucinations both auditory and, weirdly, olfactory—(I could have sworn, one long sweaty, moonless night, that some wretch with a cocked pistol was standing just outside my window, smoking a cigarette before he stepped in to blast me in my bunk and steal my stuff.) I constantly scratched bloody my chigger bites, nightly picked ticks off myself, was almost taken to the ground by multiple stings on the backs of both knees when I inadvertently mowed over the mouth of a hornet’s nest, was nearly snake-bitten by copperheads more than once in the woods, and finally got floored in a bar fight after winning seven straight games of eight-ball at the Malaga Crossroads Café, too drunk to read the humiliation and growing anger of the locals.
There were bobcats and puff adders, there were wild turkeys in the evening parading right across the lawn outside the trailer’s kitchen window; night skies so full of stars that the sight was, and remains, inexpressibly beautiful . . .
I must immediately balance this report with the wonders I encountered, living out there in rural Ohio, in one of its poorest, least developed and least inhabited counties, in the middle of the eastern portion of Wayne National Forest. There were bobcats and puff adders, there were wild turkeys in the evening parading right across the lawn outside the trailer’s kitchen window; night skies so full of stars that the sight was, and remains, inexpressibly beautiful; the sound of yellow-breasted chats, the largest of the warbler family, breaking out into their maniacal song in the middle of the night; the tick and zee of crickets and katydids; the silence at mid-day in between rushes of wind and the far-off calls of hawks and crows and the lowing of cattle two ridges away; floods that rose so fast in the creeks people were cut off from their homes between leaving for the grocery store and coming back; the entire days that went past without more than three cars going by, hours apart; the fantasies and dreams of girls I had on homeless township roads that sometimes went right across the creek in a shallow spot and died off, like a faulty sentence, in the middle of an abandoned upland pasture.
So the benefits of that kind of emergency uncoupling-engendered bachelorhood might almost outweigh the spiritual and pyschological debits. I grew accustomed once again to the solitude I enjoyed as a boy, holed up in my closet entomology lab, or out in the shed which I converted, for a couple of summers, into a museum of the intensely local: catfish heads in alcohol from the river down over the hill; crawdads from the many runs that spilled into the hollow below us; butterflies, moths, and beetles from the yard, or the woods around, snakes I’d captured to display for a season in home-made screen-fronted cages made from old dynamite boxes and wooden fruit bins.
Getting back into civilization, then, literally and figuratively, was a tough adjustment. Cold turkey, uncoupling almost violently from the rhythms of dusk and dawn, high noon and early twilight, the birdsong around me always, and the hum of passing hornets and bees, and the clackety clatter of grasshoppers later in the summer leaping through the broom sedge, breaking away from all this, I returned from almost ninety straight days in the woods to the city, my apartment close enough for me to hear the freeway through the open windows. I remember how astonishingly loud the city seemed; it took a couple of weeks to recondition myself to its low steady hiss and moan, its sudden whines and roars. Returning to the classroom was even louder, or at least seemed so: from none mostly to one or two voices heard in a socially crowded day in the country, here were twenty-five or thirty all at once, six times a day. That I didn’t go berserk still amazes me.
By the fourth year after my divorce, I think I began to date again, haphazardly, with no intention of marriage soon, if ever. After a time off from a failed marriage, one feels a sort of disqualification, or at least I did. Perhaps my mother’s unspoken but pained censure of my divorce, allegedly the first one ever in the five generations of any of our families in America, added to my sense of incompetence. This is perhaps the deepest scar of uncoupling: the sense that you blew it, and that one chance might be all you get. It takes a long time to recover from, and equally it takes some serious luck in new girlfriends of an age or extent of experience to know spiritual damage when they see it, and of sufficient character and patience and love to help you through it. Without that, many of the worst things might, and sometimes do, befall a man: unrestrained swarping, hopeless addicting, deep despairing, feckless rampaging. Sometimes one or another is unavoidable; for some, an unstinting and vicious fate seems sealed. There is, sometimes, no healing, none at all—just one of the multifarious masculine forms of coming apart, freaking out, breaking down, dying.
Richard Hague’s “Uncoupling” is from his book-length manuscript-in-progress titled The Book of Ing: Essays from a Manhood. He is editor of two recent anthologies: Quarried: Three Decades of Pine Mt. Sand & Gravel, a production of The Southern Appalachian Writers Cooperative and Dos Madres Press, and Realms of The Mothers: The First Decade of Dos Madres Press. His long essay "A Day And A Night On The Late Big Bone" won Nowhere Magazine's Spring Travel Writing Contest, and his essay "Hoopies, Hillbillies & Me", part of an ongoing discussion of Appalachian Identity at the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition's salons in Cincinnati, will be presented in early November, 2016. It also appears in the most recent issue of Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel. He continues as Writer-In-Residence at Thomas More College in Crestview Hills, Kentucky, where he is teaching The Course Of The River, a literature class based on the Ohio River in stories, poems, and photographs. His collection of long poems and sequences, Beasts, River, Drunk Men, Garden, Burst & Light is forthcoming in fall 2016. This is his sixth appearance in Still: The Journal.