He bumped right and left, up and down, in his red upholstered cabin seat as the train jutted and jabbed along the rails through the mountains. He gazed lazily out the cabin window at the bold green foliage of the Smokey Mountains. It had been a while since he’d seen them and he really did not miss them.
In a frigid February of 1901, he was brought into the world as James Ryan Mallory and known as Jimmy for every moment thereafter until he left Jasper, Georgia. James had taken his education as the greatest opportunity to escape the city limits of his childhood. Through every season, every hunger pain, every beating, he buried his emotions, thoughts and dreams into the books given to him by the school and the ones sheltered in the little Jasper library. When his one-in-a-million chance arrived, he didn’t look back.
Now in June 1929, James rested his head against the sturdy, vibrating wood wall behind his cabin seat that served as a wall of his small traveler cabin. He’d successfully stayed away for all this time. He returned now as a failure. He didn’t know how he would tell anyone the truth. She’d written him very few letters in all his years away from home. When he first left, he sent letters to her weekly. After months of no response, he reduced himself to writing the big events such as graduation, his job offers, internship, hire and promotions. After his father died, she began to write him occasionally, telling only about his sisters and weather conditions. As uninformative and disinteresting as her letters were, he was grateful to finally have some word from her.
He watched the trees that covered the mountainsides move by in a blur. The edges of the peeks were smudged by the rising mist in the morning heat. It was going to be a hot day, as it always was in June, and would not be a good day. James sighed and tried to keep his thoughts off his mother, off her current condition and all the implications attached to it, off Jasper. It seemed too late for all of that. Here was the station.
The train began to slow and blow its whistle. It was a jolting experience, shifting back and forth unevenly as the train braked against its powerful momentum. He ran his fingers through his hair and clutched onto the edge of his cabin seat, trying to balance himself. Why did I come? Why did I come? James thought over and over to himself. Why? Why? Why? In just that moment, he became a child again, succumbing to the same emotions and intimidation. Knowing that the moment he’d look out that train window, he’d see every tree and building just as it had been every day of his life, including the day he left. Nothing ever changed in Jasper, Georgia.
James had closed his eyes so tightly that he began to see stars darting and floating beneath his lids. He felt dizzy and lightheaded. Breathing deeply, he forced himself to open his eyes and look out the window. All he could see was light and blurred color with the dark shape of a man on the platform. He blinked. More blur. He blinked again and suddenly saw his father’s cold, angry face burning with rage at him, standing in a fight posture waiting for him to get off the train and face him. A gasp escaped James’ lips and he closed his eyes tightly again, rubbed them, whimpered to himself and opened to look out the window once more.
On the other side of the window were the same trees and buildings he’d seen every day of his life, especially the day that he left. His father was not there. The blur was nothing more than an optical illusion of a fir tree. James calmed himself with the knowledge that he’d just hallucinated from stress. He’d gotten himself so emotional that he was seeing apparitions. James tried to laugh off the moment, his irrational fear of the past, and felt almost relieved that his relationship with Allison had ended. If their relationship had not been severed by the foolish anger of her father, he was sure Allison would have retracted in revulsion at the condition of his childhood and the reality of his family. Allison had felt his childhood tales of poverty and innovative imaginations were charming. She was a debutant from a very wealthy New York family, and he could not allow the reality of his past to become too real for her. Allison Parker would not have understood and it is likely her family would have rejected him then. The key to his charming southern roots in the New York City society circles was that he was disconnected from them. He imagined the disaster that this muggy, steaming mountain would become in his relationship. He imagined her horror at having to deal with a neurotic man who she was currently working towards having a future that was entirely reliant upon him as she treads her delicate feet and designer footwear over muddy roads and tried to sleep in a stuffy, dark shack on a moldy mattress and every pest that could infest. James knew it was all for the best that he would never see his precious Allison again. He was nothing more than a lost puppy, a southern hillbilly dressed up as a gentleman and no amount of education and expensive suits would ever change that. He couldn’t expect New York socialites to accept him. He couldn’t accept himself.
The door pushed open with a clang. “Sir?” spoke up the young attendant, “Welcome to Jasper, Georgia. Will you be continuing to Atlanta or may I please assist you with your belongings?”
James sighed another heavy sigh and pushed himself up off the seat into a standing position. “No,” he coughed out, “My journey ends here. I, uh, I think I got it. Thank you, boy.” James dug in his pocket and brought out a quarter.