The Last Year

Jill Talbot’s column, The Last Year, traces the moments before her daughter leaves for college. It ran every Friday in November, and returns this winter month, then will again in the spring and summer.  

Photo by Indie Talbot, train tracks at the Dallas Station in 2013

Trains thundered through that town, behind the woods that bordered our backyard. I’d stand at the kitchen sink and watch out the window, catching only flashes of the cars through crowded branches. I envied the train’s travel, imagined some town down the line and wondered if I’d been there before. It always felt as if I had. Those trains rumbling through northern New York all passed by midmorning, leaving the afternoon to rest quiet in their absence. I remember snow falling in diagonal lines, the woods silver-gray.

My daughter, Indie, liked to wander those woods behind the house we rented. She would have been ten or eleven then, her blonde hair a bob. She’d take a backpack and a walking stick with her, and I’d open the back door and call after her, remind her to watch the time, the light, and in winter, the snow’s depth. She’d turn and wave as the woods drew a curtain behind her. Once she came back to tell me about a pond with beaver dams, and another day she stomped snow from her boots in the breezeway while sharing her discovery: railroad tracks.

Not long after she was born in February of 2002, her father began searching online for an old truck. The truck idea was a part of a slow shift, like the guitar he learned to play, the thick beard he grew, the flannel shirts he started ironing before leaving for his maintenance job at a resort, where a woman in the event-planning office paid him just enough attention. When he found a blue 1978 Chevy C20 Bonanza with a white camper, he caught the Amtrak in Denver and rode it to King Street in Seattle. It took him almost two days to get there, longer to drive back. When he called from the station in Washington, he sounded far away, but not the kind of far I could measure by miles.

During those summer days in Boulder while he was gone, Indie rocked in her swing to Simon and Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits while I sat on our balcony reading Door Wide Open, a collection of letters between Jack Kerouac and Joyce Johnson written from March 1957 to November 1958. While I read, I kept the balcony door open, the screen door shut. From out there, everything appeared in shadow: the futon against the wall, the CD player on top of the TV, the back and forth of the swing, even the calendar on the kitchen wall, the one with trains in black-and-white. I remember staring into the apartment, feeling as if I were looking at a photograph of something that would soon end, and I couldn’t do anything to stop it. I knew before I knew, I was already looking back.

While Johnson waited in her Village apartment for Jack to come and go, and Jack dashed off postcards from Mexico City and Orlando and San Francisco, I realized I had my own Kerouac running rails and riding roads to places I still haven’t been. And then Indie’s father came home one morning long enough to say he was going. It was that sudden. And for the rest of that year, I left the numbered boxes on the calendar blank. I couldn’t bear to record any of those days, to name them. Every month I flipped the calendar to find another train before me, still. I’d stare at each one, wonder how time kept moving.

I don’t like to write about Indie’s father. I’ve done enough of that. But in this last year together at home, before Indie leaves for college, he is noticeably absent. She and I talk about him now and then. It’s as if he’s a man we saw once, missing a train. A stranger left behind at the station.

In 2013, Indie and I took the Amtrak from Chicago, where we lived that year, to Dallas to visit my parents. Neither of us had been on a train before, and we loved rocking along, stopping at the small brick stations, seeing passengers shuffle on the platform. After twenty stations across four states, I was surprised to realize we were riding the stretch of tracks that ran behind my parents’ house, the house I had lived in since I was nine. How mysterious it felt to watch the streets I knew so well from the window of a train. As if I had never been there before.

The other day I found a calendar in a box from 2010. “Classic Trains,” twelve steam engine locomotives. I was confused by the year because I thought it was the calendar that had hung in our kitchen in Utah. That would have been 2006. I bought it because I had checked myself into a rehab center outside Salt Lake City on December 9, 2005, after wine became a route I took too often. Indie stayed with a very kind family, friends, until I returned during the first days of January and bought the calendar. Many of my fellow patients were railroad workers, men who rode trains in the middle of the night. For months after we all got out, a couple of them would call every other week or so from a train. If there’s a sound to the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night, I heard it through the phone. I wish I still had the voice mail from the mustachioed hay-farmer-turned-railroad-worker, the message he left the exact hour (3 AM) of Indie’s fourth birthday. I remember every word: “Jill, it’s your ol’ pal, Andy. I’m riding the rails through some field in Oregon, but I’m going to break the rules and sound the four whistles for Indie’s birthday. I love ya, Jill.” And then the whistles sounded—one after another—as lonesome as I imagine we all can be sometimes. That was the last time I heard Andy’s voice.

In Texas in the middle of the night, the train whines beyond the woods outside my bedroom window. I turn over, half asleep, and sink into the sound of passing through, of going and gone, the four-whistle warning. Here, about forty miles from Dallas, the trains sing through every hour.

In his first novel, The Town and the City, Kerouac writes, “Suddenly there was the rumbling of the train coming … the giant engine overtopped them passing in a tremendous flare … It was time, time … the train … moving, moving.”

This last year with Indie is a thundering train.

The woods of what’s to come a curtain.

Listen, there’s the train now.


Read earlier installments of The Last Year here.

Jill Talbot is the author of The Way We Weren’t: A Memoir and Loaded: Women and Addiction. Her writing has been recognized by the Best American Essays and appeared in journals such as AGNI, Brevity, Colorado Review, DIAGRAM, Ecotone, Longreads, The Normal School, The Rumpus, and Slice Magazine.