Staring at the corner of his small, shaded, shared room which smells of disinfectant, death and old wool, all that’s left of Jake’s life stands on the shelf before him: dusty, unframed photos (faded images of lost faces, youth and health) on a teetering pile of once comforting books, earmarked and yellowed, barely held together by their cracked and broken bindings.
Lifting them from their place would reveal a thick outline of their long neglect.
The books are now just painful reminders of his last stroke and the words are un-consoling strangers among the unclear images that come, and mostly go, of what’s come and all but gone in Jake’s long, lonely life of merely living long.
Yet there’s something on that meager shelf the old man will treasure forever.
It came to him one summer from his only uncle, Joe, a large, quiet man with the strength of a bull, who worked his whole life in the northern logging camps bringing down trees and building other men’s wealth.
Their meeting was brief (but the moment still strong) in a desperate childhood filled with hunger and want.
He’d come down from the highland forests the summer Jake turned six.
The air was stifling – thick – as was Joe’s large frame filling the door of the derelict cabin where the boy and his mom scratched out their living mending shirts, washing laundry, running errands.
Whatever work to be found up and down the great, green mountain.
The unexpected visit surprised Jake’s mom, who hadn’t seen her brother since they were young; sent off as soon as they could earn a living on their own.
She embraced the waist of the burly, bearded man, who returned the hug with one, massive, tree-trunk-of-an-arm, then turning to his only nephew with a wide, toothy grin, Joe revealed his hidden arm where two objects lay in his giant, calloused palm.
With fingers big as branches, using bits of paper, bark and wire, the woodsman had turned simple scraps he’d found around the camp into a logging train, with a smokestack engine coupled to a car fully loaded with tiny, timbered logs tied up with string.
But it was absolutely everything.
Sitting at the large, well-worn work table together, Jake’s uncle and mother searched for words to close the gap of so many years; while the boy rested his chin against his sinewy, tanned arms crossed atop the hard-scrubbed pine.
Staring eye-level at the train.
Hesitant to touch it for fear it would, like a fidgety spirit, fade away.
Or worse – break in his young, but hardened hands.
Just studying it – knowing it was his – was more than enough for the boy.
The brief visit would be the first and last time he would see his Uncle Joe, whose large, lumberjack’s frame had barely left the shadow of the shack before the grind of what would be Jake’s life had begun again.
Having that train in his sight each day – the one made just for him a lifetime away – made even the strangest places left behind and those ahead, endurable.
And Jake feel fairly human.