I prefer trains to airplanes. Railroads are much more civilized. You don’t have to distribute your private belongings in plastic bins, submit yourself to the indignity of a strip search, or pad about in public in your stocking feet. I don’t like to go out in the world undressed. I have reasons for wanting to keep small objects always on my person, unmolested. And on a train, I can stretch my legs, change seats when I like, sit down at a table to eat. Best of all, I have the luxury of time—time to measure out the miles in coffee spoons or scenery; time to squander and to spend and to let the mind wander. A man like me savors time. It’s why I live the way I do.
Travelling the Empire Builder from Seattle through the Big Sky I happened upon a woman with a story to tell that I’ve never forgotten. I bumped into her quite literally in the Sight Seer Lounge while gaping at the view (Glacier Park, I believe, although it might have been Whitefish. In the American West, spectacular scenery is so commonplace, and one jaw dropping sight simply leads to another, until you get tired of your chin chapping from repeated strikes into your chest). She walked right into me, a swish of copper-colored hair, a whiff of lemony perfume, and a snatch of silk. I steadied her shoulders, thin and sharp under my hands. She looked into my eyes, her face so close, I caught the warmth of her breath. She inhaled, blue eyes going wide with shock as she stepped away, one hand over her heart.
I do have that effect on people. It comes with territory, I expect.
“Whoa, little lady,” I said.
“My God, my God,” she gasped. “I thought you were someone else for a minute! Good grief!” She laughed, though it might have been a sob. “It’s like you just sprang out of the floor!”
“No, I assure you, I’ve been standing here all along.” I patted her shoulder gently. I am used to flustered women, but those tears gave me pause.
I was relieved when the corners of her eyes crinkled and she smiled. She was, as they say, of a certain age, lovely in her bones. I liked especially the shrewdness in her gaze, as she looked me frankly up and down. “How could I miss you?” she said in a voice woven with golden strings of clover honey.
And that’s how I found Lacie Morgan Hayes.
We kept company for some time, as travelling people sometimes do, disembarking at Fargo to listen to music on the riverside, and then spending a week near the Twin Cities at a storytelling festival, where Lacie was the star. It turned out she made her living telling stories, crisscrossing the country in a vast, intricate web, stopping in libraries and folk festivals, schools and tent shows, coffee shops and church basements, transfixing throngs with her blinding charisma, lingering to hawk recordings and videos, staying up late at night in coffee shops, pirating the free Wifi to update her website. I admired her talent, delighted in her body and enjoyed her company thoroughly, for she was smart and funny, as well as beautiful. I followed her longer than I ever intended and she let me. “I can’t help seeming to fall in love with you, Chester,” she said, on more than one occasion.
Lacie told a variety of tales, geared for audiences’ ages and interests. My favorites were the ones about spirited pioneer women, culled from old diaries and first person accounts, threaded with folksongs and bawdy jokes. But she also had a horror and ghost story show that would about scare your socks off. The whole time we kept company, she kept working on a new show too, about the mythology of hobos and tramps. “Monsters and Miracles of the Road Less Traveled,” she called it. Or something like that.
“Traveler tales,” she explained to me. “The Big Rick Candy Mountain, Dream Trees, black dogs, devils at the cross roads. Road people always have stories. My favorites are the ones about doorways.”
“Into Elsewhere,” she said with a small, sad smile. “Fairyland. The Hollow Earth. Oz.”
“Oz?” I tried to laugh, although I admit, it sounded more like choking.
“Certainly.” Her gaze flicked over mine. She hadn’t missed my discomfort.
“I thought you got to Oz on a hurricane.” I tried to relax my tightening shoulders, taking her hand, letting what I have do its work on her.
“Tornado,” she corrected briskly, disengaging from my grasp. “But no. Plenty of people on the road walked to Oz, or blundered, or crawled, or were shipwrecked. Oz, or somewhere like it. Or so the stories say.”
I put my hands on her hips, trying to capture her lips with my own. But she turned away, with a light sigh and a shiver. She had never disengaged, never turned away before.
Right then, I figured I should probably think about taking my leave.
If you wonder what I did for a living, it was nothing. I hadn’t had to work in years, not since the Snowfield mine. I had taken to the road as a gentleman of leisure years before, following in the footsteps of the very tramps Lacie was researching. But she never recorded my story. I never gave it to her. Every time she asked, I changed the subject.
But she told me her story; on one of the last evenings we were together. We had camped in the Ozarks, where Lacie hoped to record insect songs as background for one of her podcasts. I held her recording equipment while she pointed a microphone at different crickets, picking out lone voices in the pulsing cacophony, selecting each pitch and timbre with the care of a French chef culling beans. Afterwards, she sat by a babbling brook while she made notes by flashlight, her lovely hair a curtain hiding her face. By then, I knew I would be leaving soon, and everything about her had become precious to me, the way her breath caught when I touched her, how her golden voice rasped a little in the early mornings. While she worked, my mind fell to dreaming about the pleasures I would have remembering her. Part of the glory of a roadside romance after all, is in recalling it. I was so deep into my reverie, I did not at first realize she had stopped her note taking and was now staring in my direction, her eyes gleaming in the darkness.
“You are so like him,” she said, so softly, I almost didn’t hear her above the sounds of the brook. “How can you be so like him?”
“Who?” I asked, though a part of me already knew her answer.
“The Shaggy Man,” she said. She bit her lip immediately, as if she regretted speaking the words.
“I’m not shaggy at all,” I said lightly. “I keep myself quite neat and tidy, in fact.”
“Yes, I know,” she said, her voice growing rich and sweet with unshed tears. “You keep yourself very nice indeed, Chester, though it wouldn’t matter to me if you didn’t. It wouldn’t matter a damn to me if you were covered in hair, or crooked like a dog’s hind leg. Because every time I look you, I am helplessly filled with love. You draw it out of me, like a moon draws the tide. One touch, and my whole body floods with it– desire, infatuation, lust—it’s thrilling and intoxicating and oh so familiar. Because that’s what he did to me. God help me, that’s what the Shaggy Man did to me.” And with that, she put her head down on her knees and wept, while the flashlight rolled from her grasp, dropped in the brook and went dark.
In the deep blackness of the forest, I kept silent, letting her cry alone. She didn’t weep long—she was a tough lady, my Lacie. Soon she wiped her face with her hands, cursed, when she realized the flashlight had died. Then she laughed and told me her story, in a great rush, taking a cue I suppose from the water, which ran unceasing nearby.
“It sounds so crazy. I know it sounds crazy,” she said. “But I met him, Chester. I did. I was in college, getting my Master’s degree, in folklore, in Wisconsin of all places. I had just started performing. I was still mostly a girl. And I don’t know if you really know Wisconsin–” I did of course; I knew everywhere; but I held my tongue while she spoke “—but a lot of it is still like a storybook illustration of long ago. I mean red barns, and silver silos, and fields of wheat and corn, big white farmhouses with wrap-around porches. In some places, you still half expect a horse drawn carriage or two to come clopping down the dirt roads. You know?”
I nodded, though she probably couldn’t see me in the darkness. It didn’t matter. She was fully focused on her memory, the brook, the night forgotten.
“I liked to walk in those days,” she said. “I still do, although it hurts my knees some now.” In the darkness, I imagined her smiling ruefully, the corners of her pretty blue eyes crinkling. “I liked to walk in the cornfields, and down dirt roads, and it was on one such walk, in the spring, oh God, on one of those days when you just know the snow is finally gone for good, and summer and all its promises are just peeking over the horizon. There’s blue sky, singing skylarks, warm rays of sun. It’s beautiful and you think your life might be beautiful, with everything thawing and growing around you. And it was on a day like that, a day so pure and clear it made my heart ache, that’s when I met the Shaggy Man.”
“You met a hobo in a field in Wisconsin.”
“I met the Shaggy Man. I met the man from the Land of Oz. He was reclining by the side of the road in a field, with his head pillowed on a canvas rucksack. I wouldn’t have paid him any mind, I’m sure, but he was dressed in the most outlandish clothes—
shags and bobtails and strings and bows from his shoulders to the tops of his shoes. Chester, it was like nothing I’d ever seen. Think of a fringed suede jacket, like the one Dennis Hopper wore in “Easy Rider” and you’d almost have it right. But it was funnier and more endearing than that. He looked like a clown prince and a hippy throwback and a wild artist-man, all rolled up and shredded into one. I remember thinking he must be some kind of travelling minstrel, or else why would he be dressed that way? And it was on the tip of my tongue to ask him about it, when he opened his eyes, his beautiful eyes, and oh, Chester! I fell in love! I fell in love, just like that, like snapping your fingers. I think I dropped to my knees in the clover, it hit me so hard. And he just smiled. He just smiled.” She gasped a little, and I glimpsed her pale hand fluttering in the darkness to her chest. I pictured tears pooling again in her eyes.
“He said, ‘Hello.”” Her voice had gotten very soft. “And then he said something like, ‘I’ve seen the most beautiful women in the universe, ma’am, but you might just rank up with the Daughter of the Rainbow.’”
She laughed in wonder. “And all I could do was breathe. You know? I just breathed and tried to grapple with these waves of feeling. And finally I choked out. “Who are you?” Because I had to know! I had to know, Chester. Because I was willing to lay down my life for this man. In that moment, I would have plunged a knife in my heart if he asked me to.”
“But he didn’t ask you that.”
“Of course not. All he said was, ‘Can’t you see? I’m the Shaggy Man.’ “
She laughed again, the sound rising above the brook’s babble like bells in the night. “’Can’t you see?’” she repeated. “’I’m the Shaggy Man.’ Of course.” She sighed.
“I ventured closer to him,” she went on, “and saw he was covered with bees. Bees everywhere. Big, fat, furry bumblebees, and little, hard-working honeybees, and yellow jackets and whatnot, all climbing in and out of his buttons and bows. He was like a hive. And I said, ‘Aren’t you afraid of them?’
“And he said, “No.” Just “no.” He said, “They won’t harm me because I have the Love Magnet.””
She shook her head, her teeth shining as she smiled. “Now with that I knew he was crazy. Of course I knew he was crazy, Chester. Only a crazy person says something like that. But I loved him, and I just wanted him to keep on talking. So I said, ‘The Love Magnet?’
“He nodded slowly. ‘Long as I have the Love Magnet, no creature in the universe is going to hurt me, and that’s a fact. Because they love me.” He gestured to the field beside him. “Lay yourself down and stretch out a spell and find out how nice it is to laze in the clover and listen to bees do their work. They’re singing up a storm. Singing like angels and it’s lovely, Miss.”
“And do you know, I was so head-over-heels in that moment that I did lie down next to him. Imagine me, a young woman, all alone in rural Wisconsin, lying with an obvious tramp in a field in the middle of nowhere! But I couldn’t take my eyes off him, and the idea of being near to him made me happier than I’ve ever been in my life. I mean, God Chester. I had never, ever been so happy, gently laying my head down on the grass next to that sweet, sweet man and taking his hand. Never ever, no. Not until …” And here she trailed off.
I finished for her, my voice soft. “Not until now,” I said.
She sobbed. “Not until now. Not until you.”
After a moment, I asked, “What did you do, then? You and your Shaggy Man?”
“Oh why, we lay in the field and listened to the bees.” She chuckled. “He was right. It was delicious. The blue sky above us, the soft drone of the insects, the heavenly smell of hay. It was the sweetest, most beautiful and strange afternoon of my life. We lay for a long time, just drinking it in, listening to bird songs, watching their silhouettes flit across the clouds. Then, when it got cooler and darker, I sat up and gave him some of my food. I had packed a picnic lunch for myself, crackers and cheese, of course—what else do you eat in Wisconsin? —and fruit. We talked. He told me he had been born in this world sometime in the last century, and then lived for more than a hundred years in a hidden paradise called Oz, where no one died or got old. He said he had recently become curious about the world he had left behind so long ago, and decided to take a journey here. He said the queen of his fairyland had lent him a Love Magnet, so no harm would come to him while he traveled in our world. He said he had gotten the love magnet himself originally, from an Eskimo on the Sandwich Islands. Can you imagine? He said “Eskimo” like a pure racist fuck and I loved him for it! I laughed!” She shook her head.
“What did he think of “our world” now?” I kept my voice light.
“Oh. What you’d expect. That there were so many things that seemed miraculous—men on the moon! Talking pictures! A cure for polio! Heart transplants! —but also that the air wasn’t as clear and people weren’t as kind. He said he was glad he had the Love Magnet, because otherwise he was pretty sure strangers wouldn’t feed him or talk to him, even if he asked politely. Then he said he liked best coming to farm lands like this, where he stood a chance of hearing a bird or two, and seeing a sky as blue as the one he once knew. He said people in the deep country still said “Hello” to strangers and pulled their motorcars to the side of the road to find out if you needed a ride.
“By then it was getting on night, and the stars were coming out, and the moon was just rising. I asked if he wanted to come home with me. I had a long, long walk back, you see, and I would have loved the company. And I wanted him. Oh God, I wanted him like I had wanted nothing before in my whole life, Chester. A man old enough to be my grandfather twice over, even if he didn’t really look a day over thirty-five.”
I forced a guffaw. “So you believed his story about the fairyland? About Oz? About being a hundred years old?”
“Yes. I didn’t see any reason to disbelieve him, Chester. You’d have believed him, too, I think.”
I let that remark pass. “Did you take him home with you?”
“No.” She sighed, ever so softly. “He declined my invitation in the nicest way. He thanked me kindly for my company, and my hospitality and my offer. But he said he wanted to go home to his fairyland as soon as he could. He told me I had helped him have as fine a day as he had ever had since his return to our world. But now he was done, and wanted to go home.” She added, “He told me I was a beautiful girl. I’ve never forgotten that. He told me my beauty was a gift he would treasure forever. But he didn’t take me to Oz with him. He didn’t even ask if I wanted to go.”
She put her face in her hands and we sat in the night, by the babbling brook. I see now that was a mistake. I should have said something immediately like, “Let’s go home, baby.” I should have said something like, “Well, that’s a lovely story for the moonlight and now let’s take our clothes off.” I should have said something. But I said nothing, and that silence spoke volumes.
She was always so smart and quick, my Lacie. “How did you get it, Chester?” she asked finally, lifting her face. “Will you tell me? Will you, please? I’ve been wondering for awhile.”
Of course I said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” But it was too late by then.
“I think you know exactly what I’m talking about.”
“What is it you think I have, Lacie?”
“Goddammit, Chester. You have the Love Magnet. Somehow you got it from him. How did you do it? ”
A half dozen things flitted through my mind in that moment. I wondered if she had searched my belongings already, found the hidden pockets sewn in all my clothing. I wondered if the Shaggy Man had ever showed it to her, and would she know it for what it was when she held it in her hand. For it wasn’t much to look at, this precious object, that kings would give their treasure troves to hold. It looked like garbage, really, something you would throw in a ditch without a second’s thought.
What I said aloud was, “Is this why you collect hobo stories, Lacie? Are you looking for the road to Oz?”
“Well, there must be a way to get there, Chester. After all, I met the Shaggy Man.”
Her voice was thick with longing. All I said was. “I didn’t realize you were crazy.”
“I didn’t realize you were a liar.”
We sat by the brook in our stalemate for a time. At last I said, “If you think I’m showing it to you, or giving it away, you have another think coming, lady.”
In the darkness I saw her chin lift. “You should leave, Chester,” she said. “I’ll wait here while you do it. I’ll wait a couple of hours, if you like. I can make some more recordings. The insects will sing until dawn.”
That’s when I started to say something like, “Come on baby, don’t be that way.” She was having none of it, though.
“Get out of my life,” she said. “Get out now.”
And so I did. I slunk away in the darkness and I headed to our hotel. I packed my things and hit the road again, never looking back. I didn’t even kiss her good bye. I heard her weeping as I left. I’m not proud of that. But no one would ever say I was a proud man. In the morning, I just caught a train in Chattanooga. I hummed a song while I did.
I never told Lacie of course, but I’ll tell you now, maybe because a man needs to unburden himself at the end of his life. Or maybe because I know you won’t believe me. But what happened was, I found him in the Snowfield mine, where I had been working as an engineer, digging for gold. I hated my job thoroughly, but it was profitable work, with a schedule that suited—six weeks on and six weeks off. I could travel how I liked, in between periods underground.
A road to Oz must lie there in the mine, or so I believe. That’s the only reason I can think of that a bobtailed clown prince would be wandering in the tunnels. There’s a road there, and it’s somewhere close to the Arctic Circle, maybe just to the side of Santa’s workshop, and leading perhaps to the Nome king’s rugged mountains. I’ll never know for sure, though. They won’t let me back in the mine, after what I did. And truth be known, I never even tried to find that road. At the time, I didn’t think to.
I loved him immediately, wandering as he was, maybe even lost in the tunnels of Snowfield. He was as sweet as Lacie said, and I was ready to feed him, adopt him, or suck him off, if he requested it. He was like a ray of sunshine, like a baby’s smile, pure joy, and pure innocence, in the earth’s least hospitable place.
I loved him; that is not a lie. It’s just I have never had a single problem destroying what I love. The Shaggy Man was lucky enough to spend most of his life with fairies, and talking animals, and children. If he’d bothered more with real, live human beings he would have learned it sooner: Love doesn’t keep you safe. It can help keep you fed, clothed, nurtured and fucked, but it can’t help keep you safe. There’s nothing safe about love.
Anyway, once I’d snatched the magnet, and I did, as soon as he showed it to me, I didn’t care a fig for him. I turned him loose in the mine and ran away from him, first chance I had. I don’t know if he died down there, found his way out, or tunneled back to the Oz. Maybe a bear ate him, like it did his Eskimo. It doesn’t matter to me. I haven’t had to work a day since I robbed him. And I won’t work ever again.
Instead, I ride the railroad, crisscrossing the country. I’m getting older, but the women I entice are not. They all have money and they all enjoy me, much more, I suspect, than I enjoy them. They come in all shapes and sizes. Some of them sing, some of them read books, and some of them have husbands. It doesn’t matter. There’s always another to love me in the next town, even the next train car. Love is cheap. It’s as cheap as a Cracker Jack prize.
More and more often, I just want to be alone. I hole up in hotel rooms. I get a bottle of bourbon and drink myself into a stupor, watching reality TV until I pass out. I never pay my bill. The hotel maids love me and so do the concierges. The owners and CEO’s of hotels think I’m a prize. I suspect they would love me, even if I left corpses in their swimming pools. I have that effect on people. It comes with the territory.
As for Lacie, she never did put together a storytelling show about hobos and the Big Rock Candy Mountain. Instead, she disappeared. I kept tabs on her for a long time after we parted ways, and when I saw that her website hadn’t been updated for over two years, I went looking for her in Tennessee, at the big national storytelling festival. I threaded through tents and booths, asking around. Everyone opened their hearts to me immediately. But the story was always the same. Lacie had vanished. No one knew why. Some suspected murder. Some thought she went into the Witness Protection Program. Some opined that maybe she just got sick of performing and ran off to Montana to be a housewife.
“The road wears on you,” one veteran performer told me. He did Western stories in cowboy garb. He was getting old, too. “It’s a cold place, the road. You never really put down roots, or find someone to love.”
“Maybe she found someone,” I said.
“Well, I hope so,” he replied. “She deserved it.”
Sometimes I sit in the Empire Builder Sight Seer Lounge and think about Lacie finally finding the way. I like to imagine that’s what happened. She must have heard a story somewhere I tell myself, one that gave her a clue to the road to Oz. Maybe it was me who tipped her off. I can’t remember if I made any comments about the Snowfield Mine when we were together. I probably did. And she was always a smart lady.
I look at the crags and peaks of the Rockies as they pass, and think of Lacie stumbling into daylight from a cave, into some undiscovered country, where gumps and nomes roam, witches and wizards rule, and no one ever dies or grows old. A place where stories are revered, and love is always innocent and a pure heart is treasured, instead of trod upon. The place all travelers dream of finding. The Big Rock Candy Mountain. I sit and I think that I could have used someone like Lacie in the mines of Snowfield all those years ago, when I robbed an old man of his prized possession, but failed to think what might be his greatest gift.
What a fool I was. What a goddamned fool. I thought being loved with no effort on my part, was the best gift a man could have, the best power I would ever own. It was worth committing a crime for, worth the guilt on my soul. But my greed was as great as my oversight. For it never occurred to me to ask one simple question. It never occurred to me to ask, period.
And the trains run on, in a rhythm as old as the cold iron road itself. Fool, fool, fool, the trains say. Keep the Love Magnet, they sing. Fool, fool, fool. The Love Magnet was never the point.
Elise Forier Edie is a member of the Horror Writers of America, Los Angeles (HWA), and the Authors Guild. In addition to writing fiction, she is an award-winning playwright. Her works have been published by World Weaver and Tartarus Presses, and have appeared in Penumbra and The Enchanted Conversation, as well as stages and theaters all over the world.