Pennies on Train Tracks
You taught me to lay pennies on tracks to get flattened. Smooth brown ovals we stowed in this Skippy jar we buried under the house like pirate treasure. You showed me the brightest places on the tracks are best to get really flat pennies because that’s where the wheels make the cleanest contact. You told me a flying penny can put your eye out. You never said, step back.
You talked about vagabonding cross country. Your favorite story to tell, mine to listen to. You climbed ladders between cars, stowed away on freight trains carrying fruit, feed, met other like-minded people. The joy, you said, the joy is in taking chances, eluding the fascists and getting the fuck out there. I sat on my 5-year-old hands as your hair-knuckled finger jabbed the air.
The story where you hung out with your friends by the tracks when you were a teenager upstate you told only when your eyes were filmy red, breath rank from a days-long binge. You guys got drunk, high, bored. You saw a train coming, waited for it to pass the signal, threw a switch as it entered the junction. Engineer didn’t know to brake. Train derailed at like 70 miles an hour. Into a grocery store. Cars torqued and twisted, brick wall shattered. Engineer died. You, released after four years.
The year after you got out I was born. I know this like I know birthday parties are for other kids, that a fourteen-year-old girl who cries is a goddam baby, that the blue-rimmed plates in the kitchen sink didn’t shatter when they hit the floor, but cracked so sharp you could’ve slit her throat.
Mini-interview with Catherine Chiarella Domonkos
HFR: Can you share a moment that has shaped you as a writer (or continues to)?
CCD: There are so many authors whose writing I try to emulate or avoid. Roxane Gay’s early short fiction had a great impact on me. She is always fierce and unafraid. To me, her stories are pared down to their essence, no padding, no fluff. Her writing inspired me to submit to PANK, where she was an editor and I was first published.
HFR: What are you reading?
CCD: I’ve got a few books going right now: Harsh Times by Mario Vargas Llosa, a novel about turmoil in Guatemala in the 1950’s; The Hero’s Way: Walking with Garibaldi from Rome to Ravenna by Tim Parks, the author’s recreation of Garibaldi’s trek; and fairy tales from all over the world. As many as I can get my hands on.
HFR: Can you tell us what prompted “Pennies on Train Tracks”?
CCD: It started out as a story of family dynamics, and as I drafted characters, it was the relationship between father and daughter that drove me, the impact of the father’s stories on his child, until it became also a story about telling stories.
HFR: What’s next? What are you working on?
CCD: I’m pushing myself out of my comfort zone, testing the waters of the fantastic and magical. I’m not there yet, but I’m determined.
HFR: Take the floor. Be political. Be fanatical. Be anything. What do you want to share?
CCD: In 2009, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi presented a TED talk about the danger of a single story. “The single story creates stereotypes,” she said, “and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” Years later, her words still resonate with me. So, on my platform here, I say, let’s resist the temptation to simplify each other. Not just as writers, but as human beings. Each of us is multifaceted and complex. It can be work to know each other’s stories, but it’s always worth the effort.
Catherine Chiarella Domonkos’ short fiction has appeared in PANK, apt, Flash Frontier, and elsewhere. She has a master’s from New York University and lives in Greenwich Village.