Tia Jensen

The Art of Leaving

I found the tokens in his sock drawer, round coins that looked like foreign money. I recognized them, years later, displayed in a dusty railroad museum. Used for rail travel, they’d had value. His drawer had been full of them. Tokens discarded among unused bullets and mismatched, hole-laden socks.

            We never went anywhere. Rails led places, hardened steel carried loads over hills past homes. But we never went anywhere. He nicknamed me “Alien.” He didn’t understand why I wanted out; convinced I was a changeling, swaddled and swapped at birth. He always stayed.

            My father worked in transportation: Railroader. Goods carried locked in iron and steel boxes, sat on metal wheels. Everything, a stop, then a leaving. He stayed. Roll, Roll, roll away from here.

            We found piles of Travel + Leisure, intermixed with X-rated magazines, tucked in boxes under the stairs. Dusty spaces, exotic places. He never spoke of yearning. Locations beckoned, and exotic women. Yet he stayed.

            The white, plastic yard chair that buckled under his weight, softened in the sun. He waved to everyone passing. The chair, now abandoned, bowed, misshapen, tucked beside the house. “Waiting to see the tulips come up” he told me, the spring he didn’t make it. Tulips broke through the soil, but hadn’t yet flowered, when we broke the soil to put him in the ground.

            Chain smoker. Benson & Hedges menthol lights. Puffing a rhythmic sound of train. The oxygen tank on wheels tethered, trailed a long coiled tube. Roll, Roll, roll away from here.

            Rails with few merging lanes, no exits. They go. He never rode. Worked in that rail yard. Set the brakes. Asbestos filled his lungs. He stayed. On this path, unable to leave the rails, his final train yard ran in circles.

            Trains passed each dew-fogged morning along a track at the bottom of our front yard. Soon the caboose, we waited in anticipation for this entertainment. It arrived on schedule. The crossing arm a lighted metronome. The man who stood on back, I didn’t know, but would wave to anyway. His arrival, at the end, started my day.

            Chugga-chugga, chugga-chugga, ding, ding, . . . Gone.

            He fought to stay . . . but went off rail. The round bloated tummy, the ankles that ballooned and swelled. The quiet whistle of air deep and braked. A heart pumping, chugging against tar hardened lungs. All was on schedule to take him. 

           When I left home, I didn’t take a rail. I flew.

            Tokens that could take you anywhere. Unspent. Those cigarettes will kill you. He knew. She tried to kill him, he knew. Didn’t matter, would not have changed a thing. His stone inscription: For ever and always, till death do us part... He stayed.

            In all the ways my daddy never moved... I moved farther.

            Always with a bad pun or joke on his lips along with a balanced cigarette. He used a nickname that sounded tough, “Butch”. His own name Albert, was too palsy. For the town crowd he’d say, “Call me Art.”  ART— his initials. Little education. Architect dreams. He’d sketch things with  an untrained hand and creosote stained fingers. His true art: stability—a hardened stubborn Here.

            He fought to stay . . . but went off rail. The round bloated tummy, the ankles that ballooned and swelled. The quiet whistle of air deep and braked. A heart pumping, chugging against tar hardened lungs. All was on schedule to take him.

            Going into the hole: He would stand next to smokers and reminisce.

            I could always count on Daddy. Like clockwork, he would show up tired, lay on the floor and convince us to walk on his back. Gandy dancing: three girls with bony, bare heels. We stomped him flat.

            Hoarder, collector, he filled the void, packed it, double stacked it, put everything into a container. His garage held my childhood playground. I’d excavate a tunnel. Mine the mound. He’d keep everything. Never let it go.

            Hands that gripped tightly. Creosote stained fingers, the smell of oil and gasoline. Fuel for someone else’s journey. He reeked of it.

            “Where’s he at?”

            “Still Decoursey? Ah yah, Decoursey. My Daddy worked that train yard.”

             Yard. A distance. A parking lot for trains.

            A green, grass landing in front of a home.

            I work now far from his bluegrass.

            Lands where rails end, pitched into rolling sea. End of the line.

            Westward Ho. A sunset destination. Too far gone. A forever leaving.  Roll, Roll, roll away from here.

            He dreamed of Scotland. Bagpipes played at his funeral. The sound greeted me at the end of that one lane road. The air of a lone piper filled the valley, bounced echoes off the hill. A train horn blasted a single long wail.

            A neighboring farmer stepped off his tractor. Removed his hat as the funeral procession passed. I didn’t know him. Did he know us? Did it matter? I was leaving.


            Years, I missed Daddy but had been so far gone. . . . It took hours to find his grave, that still raw, earthen mound.

            Home. I did not recognize the trees, the fields, the bramble lined fences. “Daddy help me find you.” I rolled down the windows, turned off the navigation system. The roads it couldn’t find, the streets that had changed name with each generation. Which way? My early landscape there though hidden. I had to get lost to find him. Trust instinct. Follow the fences.

            Breath in- childhood. Exhale- Go back.

            I daydreamed Daddy careened off that mountain knob on a handcar, hooting and hollering, having a helluva time. I woke to his calling. And then I was there.

            The graveyard full of labors that he refused to leave undone. Each year. Find the name. Tend the family. Tend a stone. Repeat the rhythm. Visit often. I think I can. I think I can. I think I can find you. High on the hill, the place of family bone. Who are your people? Where are you from?  That old house, near rail bed cinders. My history. My home.

            “You are happier the farther away you are from here,” my husband said.



            Last facing conversation: Daddy sat parked in the recliner; I stroked the white curls I had never felt permission to touch before. Smoky spirals of silver, refused the chemo that threatened to take them, still clung to his stack. He looked up, we both knew he couldn’t stay. The whistle blew. His last words simply, “I feel safe when you are here.”

            Safe. Here. End of the line.

            Safe? Daddy, like when you held my hand as I strapped roller wheels to my shoes that first time. That kinda safe?

            Or Safe like when you balanced my bike seat as I pedaled hard against you, yelling back, “Now Daddy! . . . Let go, Let go!”

            Yes. Now. Free to journey. The air brakes grind—It’s time.

             Time for leaving.


Tia Jensen grew up in Florence, Kentucky. She was introduced to creative writing at Kentucky State University. For the last four years, she has participated in the Appalachian Writers Workshop. Her creative nonfiction has appeared in New Southerner and Still: The Journal, as well as the anthology Chrysalis: Outer Castings and Emergence.


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