Tuesday Sampler: Song of the Rails by Helen Osterman

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In our mission to connect readers, writers, and books, Caleb and Linda Pirtle has launched a new series featuring writing samples from some of the best authors in the marketplace today. Tuesday’s Sampler features Song of the Rails by Helen Osterman.  If you’re looking for award-winning love story, this is the book you want to read. As Helen said about her novel: Does their love transcend the limits of space? Is any love deep enough?

Song of the Rails was a finalist in the East Texas Writers Guild First Chapter Book Awards contest.

The Story

Eve Moore appears to have an ideal life: a lovely home, two grown children, and a husband who is a good provider.As the years go by, Samuel Moore becomes an abusive alcoholic. After a violent episode, Eve packs her things and leaves.

Through a mutual friend, she meets Paul Connors, a retired psychology professor. They fall in love, bur live three hundred miles apart. Neither is able to relocate so they go back and forth via Amtrak.

Can Eve and Paul sustain a meaningful long distance relationship? Does their love transcend the limits of space? Is any love deep enough?

First Chapter

Helen Osterman
Helen Osterman

I knew my marriage was over the night Samuel killed Skip. Strange how he loved that dog, with an affection that he never directed toward me or the children. It was abnormal, as if everything lacking in his life was embodied in the animal. Skip went everywhere with him: to the construction site where he checked on the progress of a structure his company was building, to the liquor store where the dog sat guarding the car for his master, and at the side of the bed where Samuel slept. My husband would reach his hand down during the night to stroke the dog, as he had once caressed me. Those days were a distant memory, as if they had happened to someone else in a different time and place.

That fateful night Samuel began his nightly ritual of drinking himself into a stupor. Black clouds roiled on the horizon. A sharp wind picked up, gradually growing stronger, bending young trees in its wake, howling an almost unearthly sound. Was it a portent of disaster? Deep inside I knew something was going to happen that night, something that would change my life forever. I sat on the sofa, wrapped in an afghan, shivering, trying to read, jumping at every crack of thunder, mesmerized by every streak of lightning—waiting. For what? I didn’t know, only that it would come.

“Gonna get more beer,” Samuel said, whether to Skip, or to me, or to himself. I looked up from my book wanting to hold him back, but something stopped me. Perhaps I hoped he wouldn’t return. That thought had crept into my mind more and more frequently of late. I watched him grab a leather jacket and cap and disappear out the door.

Skip raised his head from between his paws, saw his master leaving, and bounded after him, slipping his body through the closing door. I heard the garage door open, the truck door slam⎯like a warning in the approaching storm. I walked to the window, my steps dragging, as if dreading to reach the glass. Skip stood in the driveway, whining, his ears flat against his shaggy head. I wanted to call out, to warn him, but it was too late.

The truck shot out of the garage. I felt the thud as if it were my own body under the wheels. Samuel stopped, got out, and stared down at the animal, its body twitching in the last moments of life. He lifted the dog’s head in his arms, stroked the matted fur, lay his ear against the animal’s chest. Then an unearthly cry rent the air, like the primal scream of some prehistoric being. I would never forget that sound.

Samuel gently picked up the dog and carried him into the house. Without a word he laid Skip on the counter in the laundry room and began washing and grooming him, like an undertaker preparing a body for burial. I was an outsider in this ritual, watching for a long time, then turned and walked away. Samuel never even saw me.

Later that night I lay in bed waiting, didn’t know for what. The storm still raged; rain and howling wind beat against the windows. The truck started, the engine gained momentum, then a sickening thwack. The engine again, this time in reverse, then the forward momentum, and again the pounding. With each boom I felt our relationship sinking deeper and deeper into oblivion.

Slowly I went to the window and watched Samuel hammer the vehicle into the ancient elm tree, over and over again, until it no longer moved. The bark of the tree hung in shreds, exposing the raw wood like a gaping wound. He had ritualistically killed the machine as it had killed his faithful companion.

* * *

Recently the phone began ringing at odd hours. I could hear Samuel’s muffled voice. He would turn to me and say something like, “There’s somethin’ wrong at the construction site-a safety problem. Gotta go check it out.”

One day I found a woman’s handkerchief in a pocket of his coat. “Oh that belongs to the new secretary. Fell on the floor and I picked it up. Forgot to give it back to her. No big deal.” I knew he was lying, but it amazed me that it really didn’t matter. When had I stopped caring? It had come on so gradually that when I looked at him and saw a stranger, I wasn’t surprised. I simply went on with my day to day existence, accepting the inevitable.

Samuel had always been a social drinker; usually, after a few cocktails he became the life of the party. Soon the glass was filled with mostly whiskey and very little of anything else. Then he would become sarcastic, moody, and verbally abusive. We found ourselves invited less frequently to social functions.

When would I reach the end of my tolerance? When would I find the strength to leave this empty life?

And what about the children, Jill and Robert? They had grown into independent young adults. I remembered the day Jill came to me bubbling with excitement. She had recently graduated with a degree in Archeology and was working at the Natural History Museum.

“Mom, look!” She came running into the room waving a letter in her hand, her blond ponytail bobbing behind her. I could just make out the gold embossed letterhead as she wiggled her thin body back and forth.

“How do you expect me to read it if you keep waving it around like that?” I smiled at my lovely daughter, so full of promise and dreams of an adventurous future. How I envied her strength and determination.

“It says,” she continued assuming a theatrical pose, “that I have been invited to join an Archeological dig in Egypt sponsored by the museum.” Her voice rose with each word. “Isn’t that fantastic?”

The words didn’t fully register on my brain. Egypt? It might as well be another planet. My little girl with the golden curls and the inquisitive green eyes was slipping away from me. When did she metamorphose into this independent young woman? I felt the emptiness already and she hadn’t even accepted the position. But I knew she would. Adventure was in her blood.

“Aren’t you happy for me, Mom?”

I composed myself, swallowed the lump in my throat. “Of course I am, dear. But isn’t this rather sudden?”

“Not really.” She screwed up her face. “I didn’t tell you and Dad that the notice went out to the Museum three months ago. When I applied I didn’t think I’d get it. Thought they would prefer someone with more experience.” She preened. “But, I guess they liked my credentials.”

I smiled. And they wouldn’t have to pay her as much as someone with more experience, I thought, but I kept that to myself. “Have you told your father?”

A dark frown crossed her lovely face. “Not yet.”

“What do you think he’ll say?”

She shrugged. “Who knows? He doesn’t pay much attention to any of us lately. I don’t think he cares.” She frowned. “What’s going on with him, anyway?”

I put my arms around her. “Of course he cares,” I lied. “He’s been having a lot of problems with his latest construction project, that’s all.” I hesitated for a moment. “Maybe he’s going through a mid-life crisis. You know, there’s been a lot of talk recently about male ‘menopause.’ He may be trying to find his true self.” What banal words. But I felt I had to defend him, at least to Jill.

She looked at me with an expression that spoke volumes. I wasn’t fooling her with platitudes. She planted a kiss on my cheek. “Will you miss me a whole lot?”

“Every minute of every day.” The house seemed to be in mourning already. I felt the emptiness.

Jill was right about Samuel. When I told him, he said, “So that’s how she repays me for giving her an education—goes off digging in some desert.” He made a guttural sound and poured himself a glass of whiskey−his solution to everything. “Well just let her go.”

And she did. Within six week she was packed and gone from my life, leaving a huge emptiness that was impossible to fill.

Robert had just begun law school at a prestigious college in the East. I had urged him to go away to school, far from his father’s negative influence. Yes, independent and self-assured, my children were finding their own place in this complicated world.

But where did I belong? Here with Samuel? No, something important was missing from my life and I intended to find out what that something was.

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