Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts
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Short Story
7230 words
SHJ Issue 4
Fall 2011

Good Advice

Steve Heller

Our spirit is inside the baseball rising into the light.
—Robert Bly

In the summer of his forty-fifth year, a time when he should have been coming into his own, Frank Kellerman lost everything. And then, when he had precisely nothing, something happened that saved him.

It was not a miracle—oh no, he would never call it that. Not unless miracles were meant to be confused with horrors for which we have no name. It was more in the nature of a coincidence, the kind he had read and heard about in stories and legends since he was a child—but never believed, of course, for he knew things could never happen exactly that way, except in stories.

But this did happen. It was the only momentous coincidence in Kellerman’s entire life, a coincidence that made him believe, forever after, that there was no such thing.

Disaster came in three stages. In the space of a single day, Kellerman lost his business, abandoned his wife and son, and took up with an easy woman he used to fool around with when he worked on the railroad. Stage One actually began back in late May, when an Oldsmobile whose brakes he was adjusting fell off its jack and crushed his hip, fracturing his right pelvic bone. The accident was entirely his own fault; he should have waited until his hired man Ed Looper was finished changing the oil on that Falcon he had up on the hydraulic lift. The accident laid Kellerman up in traction in his own bed, forcing him to turn over management of his beloved garage and auto-body shop to Looper, who in just over three months managed to ruin the business it had taken Kellerman more than a decade to build. The garage was Kellerman’s life’s dream, and the knowledge that it was slipping out of his grasp pained him more than the broken hip. But by September, when at last he could crawl out of bed under his own steam and limp a few steps, using his son Curly’s Little League baseball bat as a crutch, it was almost too late.

He had one last chance: Refinance his note, using his house and five acres as collateral.

“No way,” Babe said when he limped into the kitchen and told her his plan. Babe was a short stocky woman with a heavy bosom. When she fixed her cool gray eyes on him and set her jaw, her entire body seemed to harden like her will. She folded her arms across her chest and stood between him and the screen door, blocking the path toward his future.

“Why the hell not?” he asked (though he already knew the answer) when he had cooled his anger down just enough to speak. He leaned against the end of the bat handle and glared at Babe, wondering how he was going to get around her this time.

“It took us ten years to own this place free and clear,” she replied flatly. Her mouth worked up and down, but no other part of her body moved. “We’re not going to risk our home. I won’t sign.”

Her words struck him like a heavy blow to the chest, and he shifted his weight backward, leaning on the bat handle. Immediately a sharp pain stabbed his hip beneath the cast. He winced, but said nothing. Why, why had he put half the property in her name? He took a deep breath. Well, he had to do something; he wasn’t going down without a fight. He’d go see Schroeder at the Yukon National Bank anyway, and show him that Frank Kellerman was back on the job.

“Well?” Babe said.

“Well’s a hole in the ground,” Kellerman replied, and took a halting step to his right.

“Where you going?” Babe demanded, and braced her fists on her hips.

“Around you and through that door.” Kellerman took another step. She’d either let him pass or they’d both suffer the consequences.

Babe eyed his ginger, crab-like movements for several seconds, then shook her head and stepped aside. “I’m going to call Schroeder right now and tell him I won’t sign.”

“You do that.” Kellerman pushed open the screen door with his shoulder. As he crutched his way toward the driveway, he heard Babe’s voice call after him.

“This is our home, Frank. When are you coming back?”

Kellerman laughed. “If I don’t get this note fixed, what’s the point of coming back?” As the words escaped his lips, he noticed Curly watching him from behind the propane tank.

“Com’mere, son.”

The boy emerged very slowly from behind the tank, then walked stiffly toward his father. Kellerman was struck by how thin he was: a toy boy made of pipe cleaners. He had that I-don’t-care-anyway look on his face, and as he came closer, Kellerman could see his eyes were focused on the bat. Curly had left it by Kellerman’s bed when they were going over the box scores in The Daily Oklahoman.

“I’ve got to borrow your bat for just a little while, son—until I pick up a crutch in town. OK?”

Kellerman watched the boy’s brow wrinkle into a frown. This was 1961, the year of the great home run race between Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle, the race for Babe Ruth’s record. Today, September 2, the race stood: Maris 51, Mantle 48. Curly was pulling for the Mick, a fellow Okie. The bat Kellerman was leaning on was Curly’s special Mickey Mantle signature bat, the one he used to hit fungos on the back acreage, pretending he was the Mighty Mick, knocking ball after ball into the upper decks of stadiums around the American League.

“Don’t worry. I’ll bring it right back.”

The boy raised his eyes then, and Kellerman saw a look there that told him what the boy had on his mind had little to do with baseball. Kellerman laid his left hand on Curly’s shoulder.

“I didn’t mean what I said to your mother. We’re just having a fight.”

Curly looked down at his feet. “Another one?”

Kellerman sighed. “The same one. But we’ll get over it. Daddy needs to get back to work, that’s all. Then we won’t fight so much.”

Curly looked up again, his eyes hopeful now. “Are you going back to work now?”

“Soon.” Kellerman squeezed the boy’s shoulder. “Today I have to talk to a man at the bank, then I’ll be home.”

Curly glanced back toward the screen door, and Kellerman looked too, but saw no sign of Babe. “OK,” Curly said finally. “You can borrow my bat.”

A minute later, with the help of the bat, Kellerman had shoehorned himself into the Studebaker Silver Hawk parked in the driveway. To compensate for the hip cast, he had to shove the driver’s seat all the way back. With his arms and legs almost fully extended, he could just manage to steer the car and brake. Thank God the Silver Hawk had an automatic shift.

“I can do this,” Kellerman said, and tried to ignore the pain that shot through his hip as he reached his right foot toward the accelerator. The problem with the brain and the body is they’re connected, Dr. Kiner had told him.

“I can do this,” Kellerman repeated as he turned the key. When the engine growled to life, he muttered “Frankenstein at the wheel,” then started off for Yukon.

The wheat fields north of Yukon were just beginning to ripen, the flat green sea beginning to ripple with gold. But Kellerman did not notice the brilliant display. Instead, he felt as if he were driving through a vast colorless empty space. For more than a decade his life had been his work, his garage. What would be left, he wondered now, after the bank took it away? He had already lost Babe, the Babe he had fallen in love with years ago in Kansas City—that slim, sure-footed woman he had followed home from the National Biscuit Company one evening only a month or so after he had been transferred up to KC by the Frisco Railroad. He was walking along, minding his own business, when he saw her face—an ordinary face, except for those luminous gray eyes that seemed to know him, completely, in a glance—for only a second or two as they passed on the sidewalk. When he turned to follow her, he had little idea why he was doing it; she knew his purpose before he did. She knew better than to look back over her shoulder even once, though his timid, following steps rang out clearly on the pavement behind her. After three blocks she climbed the front steps of a red brick row house. Then, without so much as a backward glance, she disappeared inside and sent her father, a bald hook-nosed man who wore black suspenders and a torn white T-shirt and smelled of beer and onions, to the front door to greet him. My name’s Frank Kellerman. I’m here to see your daughter, he remembered himself saying.

So I hear, Anton Greychek replied.

She knew him too well, too soon. In their twelve years together he had done nothing to surprise her. Nor she, him. They both accepted this as the natural way of things. So, aside from the joy of watching Curly grow into a skinny but spirited boy, Kellerman had learned to take his pleasure almost strictly in his work. He was the best engine man in central Oklahoma. He had respect. And now the Yukon National Bank was ready to take that away.

And so, on the morning of September 2, 1961, stage one of the day he lost everything, Frank Kellerman gripped the wheel of the Silver Hawk with both fists and drove toward Yukon, wondering what the hell he could do to turn his life around. He could think of nothing, however. And worse, there was no one he could ask for advice. The only man he had ever truly trusted was old Pete Yuri, the diesel foreman for the Frisco Railroad up in Fort Scott, Kansas, where Kellerman had worked for a year right after he married Babe. Yeah, Big Pete Yuri. Bigfoot Pete. The man with the biggest clompers you ever saw in your life. Feet you could water ski to China on. A man like that naturally commanded respect; he stood on a firm foundation, so to speak. Besides, Pete Yuri had saved Kellerman’s life the time the Red Devil Express almost crushed him under its wheels. Kellerman was just climbing down the steps of the dining car, where Hondo the on-board cook always sneaked him a roast beef sandwich, when the train started up without warning. The engineer was supposed to wait for the all clear signal from the brakeman, but the Red Devil was twenty minutes behind schedule that day, and the engineer had a seventeen year-old Italian girlfriend waiting for him in Oklahoma City. The first lurch threw Kellerman against the side rail, where he struck his head. That was all he remembered, for the blow stunned him. What happened next he heard later from the freight handlers at the station. He would hear conflicting versions of it in the months and years that followed, from men who had seen it with their own eyes, and more who hadn’t. It became part one of the Legend of Bigfoot Pete Yuri.

The second lurch threw Kellerman forward, off the train—but a loop in his overalls caught on the assist handle and flipped him back under the train, just behind the front wheels of the dining car. The loop held as the Red Devil began to drag him, battered and unconscious, over the tracks.

Pete Yuri was standing in the middle of the maintenance yard when the Red Devil started up. While the astonished brakeman screamed and waved his red flag at the engineer, Yuri raced toward the dining car. As he neared the car, the loop in Kellerman’s overalls snapped and dropped him sprawled across the rail about dozen feet in front of the slowly rolling rear wheels. In a single swift motion, Yuri grabbed Kellerman’s dangling right arm, planted his own enormous feet against the tip end of the track tie, and yanked Kellerman out from under the train.

When the engineer finally saw the brakeman’s flag, he grabbed the brake lever. As slowly as the train had been moving, it still took almost a hundred feet to bring the Red Devil to a stop. By that time, Yuri had laid Kellerman out beside the tracks and called for a stretcher.

Three hours later Kellerman regained consciousness in St. Mary’s Hospital. Standing over him like a big gentle bear was Pete Yuri. Kellerman tried to speak, tried to ask Yuri what had happened, but pain struck the words out of his mouth. His right arm, right leg, and seven ribs were broken. A couple of doctors were bracing his neck for whiplash. Helpless and bewildered, he looked up at Yuri. The diesel foreman leaned forward and whispered in Kellerman’s ear the second best piece of advice he would ever receive:

“Sue the railroad.”

He did. Two years later, in 1951, Kellerman settled for ten thousand dollars, plus hospitalization and back pay, and bought his garage and auto-body shop in Yukon.

Yeah, Bigfoot Pete Yuri, Kellerman thought as he gripped the wheel of the Silver Hawk. Yuri would know what to do. It’s his garage too, in a way. Maybe I should give old Pete a call.

Kellerman shifted slightly in the car seat, and another pain stabbed his abdomen beneath the cast. No, he decided. This is my own mess. Can’t ask anyone else to pull me out of it.

It’s all right, he told himself as the big neon YUKON’S BEST FLOUR sign atop the tall gray grain elevator on Highway 66 came into view ahead. You’re back in control.

On the way to the bank he passed his garage and auto-body shop. To his astonishment, it was closed. The doors and windows all locked up. The yard around the cinder block building was empty, not a car in sight. This was a weekday, and Looper should have had the place open for business.

“Hello! Hello!” Kellerman yelled, and banged on the office door with Curly’s bat. In his hurry, he’d forgotten his keys to the place. Standing in the empty lot, he felt a sinking sensation, as if the gravel he was standing on was slowly turning to mud. He shook it off. “What the fucking Sam Hill’s going on here?” He started to drive over to Looper’s house and beat on him till he found out, then changed his mind. Steady boy. The bank’s closer. Get over there and straighten out that loan.

“Let’s not get violent, Frank,” Clarence Schroeder said when he saw the bat. Schroeder was a tall broad-shouldered man who looked as grim and gray as the Yukon’s Best mill elevators.

“It’s just a cane,” Kellerman said, easing down into the big leather chair in front of Schroeder’s desk. “Unless you don’t want to renegotiate my note, that is.”

“Mmmm,” Schroeder said.

Kellerman tried to smile through the pain shooting up from his hip. He couldn’t sit properly in the chair. I look like a broom propped against a barn, he thought.

“I can guess why you’re here, Frank,” Schroeder said when they were both settled.

Guess! You prick, Kellerman thought.

“So I better ask you straight off: Your wife still set against a second mortgage?”

Lying bastard, you know what she thinks. “There’s no moving her on that point, no sir.”

“Then I’m afraid we’ve reached the point of no return, Frank. Unless you can come up with some additional collateral. My advice is to sell—if you can find someone to pick up your note.”

Bastard! “Look, if you could just carry me another month or so.” Kellerman said pleasantly. “You can see I’m up and around now.” He tried to cock his head to look less stiff.

“Yes, I see. That’s good, Frank, but you’re way overextended now.”

Kellerman felt a twinge of something besides pain in his gut. “Look, don’t you see? I’m back to work now. People will start bringing their cars back. The money will be coming in again, just like before.”


“I admit the place ain’t been too well run while I was off. I left Looper in charge. That was my mistake. But that’s all changed now.”

“It’s a matter of simple arithmetic…“

Kellerman looked at Clarence Schroeder’s eyes. They were dull gray, eyes that didn’t really look back at you. Lifeless eyes, like the eyes of a man whose brain was dead but whose body still worked as if under a spell. A zombie, Kellerman decided, like in one of those old horror movies on TV. The problem with the brain and the body is they’re connected. Not Clarence Schroeder’s, Kellerman thought.

“So on your behalf I called some interested parties…“

Kellerman watched Schroeder’s mouth go up and down. It was amazing. Words came out, exactly as if the face before him were…alive. But these were words only a dead man could utter, said the way only a dead man could say them. As he listened to the dead voice speak, Kellerman felt something begin to happen inside himself: something fading, like a light growing dim. The face before him remained clear and sharp, but the words it spoke became garbled. No matter. Kellerman felt strangely at ease. Numb. He forgot the garage, the loan, everything, as he watched the zombie face in front of him. He felt nothing. He gazed at Schroeder’s face and tried to imitate it. After a while he caught on. It really wasn’t too hard. You looked, you blinked, you turned your head and smiled. It was easy when you were numb.

Then they were both standing. Kellerman saw himself shaking hands as Schroeder led him out. “It’s better this way, Frank.”

Better? Of course it was better to be numb. If you were numb, you couldn’t feel. And if you couldn’t feel, you didn’t have to think, didn’t have to decide about anything. If you were numb you could just drive, the way he was driving now—staring, blinking, eyes on the road ahead. The road stretched out before him in a straight line toward the distant horizon. He didn’t know what road it was. He didn’t care. He followed the center line, never looking left, never looking right. It was easier that way, not seeing what you passed. There must have been traffic along somewhere along the way, cars and trucks and young men hitchhiking. There must have been landmarks, places and things he would have recognized, had he looked. But seeing those things would have given him a sense of distance travelled, of time passing. He would have noticed the sun slipping down behind him, the dark road ahead becoming dotted with lights. He would have noticed the moment he turned on his own lights to drive deeper into the night, the moment he passed from stage one into stage two of this fateful day. He would have noticed, somewhere along that road, the point when he had gone too far to turn back.

When he finally stopped, he attached no significance to the stopping place. It was a place like any other along the road. He might have recognized it, had he tried. He might have recognized the particular combination of lights that led him, finally, to turn off the highway. He might have recalled the peculiar pungent odor of the place, the way the night air made his skin damp and tingly as he got out of the car and approached one light among many. The door before him was like any other door. He did not notice special features that might have made it familiar. And when the door opened, he was not surprised. The face that appeared was a woman’s face, a face he recognized from the days when he had ridden the line from Fort Scott, Kansas to Afton, Oklahoma for the Frisco. That much he could see. But in the shadowed doorway he could not see the brighter image of himself reflected in her eyes, nor the wonder with which it was received. Had he noticed any of these things, he would not have been astonished by her question.

“Lucky, is it really you?”

He didn’t answer, for in truth he didn’t know. It might have been him, Lucky, twenty-six year-old diesel locomotive mechanic with a dream of someday going into business for himself. It might have been him standing on this dim porch, knowing, feeling nothing, waiting for whatever was to come. It might have been him. He did not resist the turquoise-ringed hand that led him inside, into the third and final stage of the long, incredible day.

Her hair, thick and perfectly fluffed and curled, even at this hour, was a brilliant shade of red. Her eyes, though blue, were more brilliant still.

“How did you hurt your hip?”

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Whatever you say, Lucky.” And with that, she did not speak of the past, but seemed to regard him as a gift of the continuous present, a line unbroken by time or events. If he had looked deeply into the curious shimmering blue of her eyes, he would have seen that she disbelieved the image there, that in her eyes he was not a zombie but a ghost. Not the forty-five year-old failure who tottered on one leg before her now (he had hobbled to her door without the aid of Curly’s bat), but as the strong, bright-eyed man-child who once stood proudly on this same spot just inside her door and described, as only a lover could, his dream of the future. If he had thought about it, now, almost two decades later, he would have remembered that she had seen many young men in this way, and had helped them feel the wonder and beauty of their own visions. If he had thought about it, he would have realized that was why he was here. But he did not think. He felt only the moment.

“It’s all right, Lucky. Talk to me.”

He must have talked then, for quite a while. But he would retain no memory of what he said to her that night, no vision of the future nor the past, that he might have expressed. Later, in her bedroom, he lay silent and fearful on his back as she loomed over him, the sheet and blanket draped tent-like over her back and shoulders and head, enveloping the two of them in a small dome of night. She moved on him gently, hardly touching the cast, her weight a source of dark pleasure, quicker pain.

When morning came, he remembered who he was. The guilt he felt was like a blade of light that peeled away the layers of sheet and blanket covering him, laying bare his nakedness before Babe and his son. He shivered under this light too cold and sharp and bright to bear. He had to go back—but how could he? How, in this light, could he present himself to Babe? To Curly? He had to do it somehow. He turned toward the still-sleeping woman beside him and said her name.


Her eyes cracked open. She rolled her head and looked at him. He could see, in the colder, harsher light that shone on them now, that her blue eyes had lost much of their luster. She was already alert, however, though for a moment she did not reply. The left side of her mouth dipped slightly; the tip of her tongue flicked across her lip.

“Yeah, Lucky?”

It wasn’t a case of gathering strength or will or even guilt. As he looked at Matti his mind was suddenly filled with other names: Babe, Curly, Babe, Curly…

“I’ve got to go.”

She took a deep breath and held it. He noticed then, the tiny lines and sagging flesh that recorded nineteen years since his early days on the Frisco. It was amazing she was still here in Afton (Afton! Two hundred miles and a day from Yukon.). He looked at her hair, burnt an even bolder, brighter red than in his Frisco days. The make-up didn’t work. She was just a ghost of herself now, and so, he realized, was he. He felt pity for them both. He leaned forward and kissed her on the forehead.

She recoiled. “Get out.”

He limped to the car. In the front seat lay Curly’s bat. Kellerman hung his head for a moment, then turned the key. In a minute he was back on the highway. The road was different this time. Instead of focusing blankly on the center line, he was conscious of certain facts. Fact: He was forty-five years old. Fact: He had lost the thing he had worked all his life for. Fact: He had abandoned his wife and son to sleep with a whore. Fact: He was a very weak man.

As he drove, the weight of these facts soon began to crush him. Only one thing was clear: He had to go back. But as he left Afton, he crossed the Frisco tracks that ran north into Kansas, and he remembered Pete Yuri. Bigfoot Pete, who had once saved his life. Ahead was the intersection of U.S. 66 and Highway 59. If Afton, why not Fort Scott? The logic shamed him, but at the intersection he turned off the road home and headed north.

And so, without knowing it, Kellerman chose the road that would change his life forever. Years later, he would come to realize that it was this moment, the moment he chose to turn north, and not the events that followed, that determined everything. Years later he would understand that he alone was responsible for choosing the path that led to knowledge, the road that led him to discover that the universe is not random, that there are no coincidences, and that the truth of this world is to be lived in one’s life, and revealed only in stories.

The miles swept by. He drove out of need now. A need for counsel. A need to know how to reconcile, as the lawyers put it. Babe was not a forgiving woman, and she had never faced anything like this. He had never done anything like this; he was as surprised by what he had done as she was sure to be. He didn’t know how she would handle it. She might take him back without a hitch. She might not. He had to explain it right; he had to have the right…words. And Curly…what could he say to Curly?

One man would know: Pete Yuri. Sure-footed Pete.

Kellerman remembered the time the Frisco laid off the whole crew for a week. To pay their rent, he and Yuri drove down to Frontenac, Kansas to pick up a load of moonshine they could sell by the bottle in Fort Scott. It was the planting season in southeast Kansas, and the miles of dusty plowed fields depressed Kellerman. This was the year after Matti, before Babe, when his dream of owning his own garage and making something of himself felt more like a distant memory than a goal. He had the feeling his life was drifting by him, plain and boring as the flat brown fields that stretched out all around them. He looked over at Yuri, a bear of a man who could crush Kellerman in one fist. It was hard to talk to a man as big and tough-looking as that, but he was determined to try.

“Pete,” he began uneasily. “You ever feel…like you’re out in an…emptiness?”

Yuri leaned back and propped one enormous foot on the dash. “Only when I’m riding with you.”

Kellerman chuckled, but persisted. “No, I mean like you’re not going to get anything out of your life.”

Yuri looked over at Kellerman. “You don’t look to me like you got anything to kick about.”

Kellerman nodded. “Well, you oughta know about kicking, anyway.”

Yuri wiggled his boot. “Wouldn’t talk. Not with that beaver sniffer of yours.”

Kellerman crinkled his nose and said nothing. He didn’t know another way to put what was on his mind. Maybe a man like Yuri never felt like this.

Then Yuri looked over at Kellerman and spoke to him in a voice that sounded like a hurricane ripping an oak tree out of the earth: “SHHHIIIITT, Frank! Don’t be a dope. You got plenty.”

Driving down the same road by himself now, Kellerman smiled at the memory. A man couldn’t listen to a voice like that and not believe it. He wanted to hear that voice again. Honest Pete. Speak to me, Pete. Let me have it.


It was midday, warm and sunny, when he drove into Fort Scott. The town looked amazingly the same. The hospital, the old fort, the brick streets all as they used to be. Kellerman suppressed an urge to wave to the winos sitting on park benches across the street from the Athenium Hotel. He crossed the tracks and pulled into the lot by the depot. The old brick building looked a little run-down, but there were plenty of cars in the lot. Plenty of trains lined up in the loading yard too, mostly afternoon freights filling grain cars for the big bakeries in Kansas City. Not many railroad men, though, Kellerman noticed as he took Curly’s bat, pried himself stiffly out of the Silver Hawk, and limped along the tracks toward the repair yard.

On the edge of the yard he spotted a crowd gathered around the middle of a long train of grain cars. So that’s where everybody was. The crowd seemed excited about something. Approaching the commotion, he caught the arm of a brakeman, a young kid, running out of the crowd.

“Hold on a sec,” Kellerman insisted. “What’s going on? Where’s Pete Yuri?”

The brakeman stiffened and gaped at Kellerman. “The engineer!” he cried. “The engineer!” The brakeman broke free and ran toward the depot.

Kellerman felt something cold spill suddenly from the base of his throat down through the center of his chest into his stomach. He leaned on the end of the bat and stared at the retreating brakeman for a long moment, then turned and limped and pushed his way through the crowd, shoving the railroad men aside with his free hand—until at last he saw what they were gathered around.

Speared between two grain cars, the steel couplers driven right through the center of his wide belly, stood Pete Yuri.

He was alive. Standing perfectly erect, his broad honest face an expressionless milky gray, almost transparent. His colorless eyes stared vacantly into the distance over the heads of the crowd. No blood was visible where the train couplers had penetrated his blue denim coveralls, linking up inside his great belly in a steel grip.

The crowd of railroad men was hushed now, awed by the sight before them. Yuri stood tall and still, like a giant encased in ice. As he stared with the others, Kellerman got the impression that the moment itself was frozen, the scene before him preserved somehow. Maybe the man who stood, incredibly, before him wasn’t really alive after all, but merely preserved, like a trophy or the body of a dead king, placed here on this spot as a monument to something.

Then Yuri’s chest moved: swelling, then shrinking no more than an inch with the motion of a breath. And Kellerman knew the horror before him was real. How? How had it happened? He remembered now the hundreds of times he had seen Yuri move expertly between the box cars, never once taking a false step, never once taking a chance as he shouted directions to the men working around the big trains. This time he had miscalculated. For perhaps half a minute Kellerman stared silently at the man who had once saved his life not fifty feet from this spot. Then Kellerman limped forward out of the crowd, until he stood directly before Yuri.


The figure before him remained frozen. The crowd was still.


And suddenly the frozen giant began to thaw. Slowly, his colorless vacant eyes rolled toward Kellerman, focused—and knew him.

“Pete.” Kellerman began to tremble. He saw recognition in Yuri’s eyes, felt the weight of their knowledge begin to crush him, but didn’t know what else to say. There was nothing else to say.


As the word escaped his lips, Kellerman saw something else in Yuri’s eyes. A look of…what? Pleading. Please, Yuri’s eyes said.

Please what? Kellerman’s own gaze answered silently.

Then, almost imperceptibly at first, Yuri’s eyes began to move: Downward, from Kellerman’s face to the child’s baseball bat he leaned on.

Kellerman looked down at the bat, then back at Yuri, and felt the blood begin to drain from his face. No. No.

Yuri’s eyes remained fixed on the bat.

Kellerman teetered. Pete. The scene around Kellerman began to spin. He had no feeling in his legs as he limped forward another three steps, until he was only an arm’s length from Yuri. He got his balance on both feet, closed his eyes, and raised the bat.

“Hey! HEY!”

They never would have stopped him, were it not for his hip. As he cocked the bat, a pain stabbed through his gut and he stumbled, allowing the frantic hands of the crowd to reach him after the initial moment of paralyzed recognition. They pried the bat from his hands—it took five or six of them to do it—and rushed him to the back of the crowd. He collapsed, then sat quietly, pinned against a stack of track ties by two grim-faced gandydancers. More shouting followed, interrupted by the wail of a siren. An ambulance pulled up next to the train, and four medics rushed out, bearing a stretcher. Around Kellerman, the railroad men murmured and shook their heads.

Then another siren approached. A path through the crowd opened, and Kellerman watched a police car drive through. Inside the car was Yuri’s wife, Loretta.

“He doesn’t want her to see!” Kellerman shouted, then hung his head and sobbed. Pete, Pete, forgive me. I was never as sure-footed as you.

The crowd became quiet again. Kellerman stared down at his feet and covered his ears, trying not to hear the sound of Loretta’s hoarse shrieks as she ran toward the tracks. He knew what would happen in a few minutes. Everyone knew. They would uncouple the train.

Kellerman closed his eyes and saw red, then pink, then gray, then nothing. He felt himself inside a void, fading into it, dissolving, into nothing. When he reopened his eyes he found another pair staring down into his own: the cool professional eyes of a medic.

“This one’s all right.”

Then another voice he recognized as one of the old-timers from his Frisco days: “Frank. Frank Kellerman. What the hell are you doing here?”

Kellerman rolled his head and saw the face that went with the voice of a yardman whose name, he now remembered, was Murphy. “I…where’s…“

“It’s over,” Murphy said.

Kellerman looked straight up into the clear blue September sky. It’s an emptiness, Pete. Now you know.

“I know how you must of felt when you saw Pete like that,” Murphy said to Kellerman. “I don’t blame you for what you tried to do.”

Kellerman said nothing.

A minute later he was sitting up. He looked out over the yard. The train of grain cars was now divided at the point where Yuri had been standing. The yardmen in blue overalls were doing something to the tracks. Kellerman shivered. The ambulance remained by the gap in the train, but the police car had vanished. The railroad men stood around the yard in groups of four or five, talking in low voices.

By the time the ambulance finally left, quietly this time, the voices of the railroad men had risen as they told and retold the story, the final chapter of the Legend of Bigfoot Pete Yuri. In the years ahead, Kellerman would hear the story many times, different versions, from men who were there and men who weren’t. In some of the stories it was he, Kellerman, who had been the first to discover Yuri speared between the grain cars. In some versions he had seen the accident as it happened, seen Yuri trip, and actually tried to push him out of harm’s way and save his life the way Yuri had once saved his own. In other versions Kellerman wasn’t even at the scene. In one story he would hear it was the sound of Kellerman’s honking car horn that distracted Yuri and made him stumble on the tracks as the grain cars linked up.

In the years to come, Kellerman would never contradict the teller of the tale, nor even try to sort out for himself, from all the different versions, what actually had happened. Instead, he would simply listen without comment, as he did now, as Murphy and Homer, and Bobby Ray and Scissor-Eyed Sam described how Yuri was awake and alert to the very end, a tower of strength. How he showed no fear as he stood there squeezing Loretta’s hand as the priest gave him his last rites. How he gave Loretta one last, long, gentle embrace and told her that he loved her. Then the policemen led her away. When she was out of sight, the depotmaster asked Yuri if he was ready. Yuri said he was, then gave the order himself. The depotmaster passed along Yuri’s high sign to the engineer.

“Naturally Tom tried to clear everybody out of there, but nobody’d move an inch,” Murphy said. “I’se standing no more than twenty feet away from Pete when that diesel revved up. I watched his eyes. You could tell he could hear that clunk, clunk, clunk coming right down the line toward him as the engine pulled the slack out of that train. He was wide awake. He knew the exact instant it’d reach him.”

When the cars uncoupled, everyone agreed, Yuri did not cry out. Bigfoot Pete Yuri stood firm to the end.

There was more, but Kellerman didn’t stick around to hear it. When the dizziness had finally passed and his arms and legs would move as he willed them, he limped back to his car and left Fort Scott without speaking to anyone.

He left on the same road that had brought him, retracing his path backward. He hardly knew it. After what had happened, it didn’t seem to matter which road he chose. The road he was on led back to Yukon, the place where less than twenty-four hours ago his life’s dream had died, where he had abandoned his family, a place that now seemed more a memory than anything else. Certainly not a place he could any longer call home. He might just as well keep driving south, toward Texas, toward the Gulf. He might just as well keep driving until he ran out of road.

But this is not what happened.

What happened began to happen just outside Pittsburg, Kansas. Outside Pittsburg it began to rain, hard. The water rolled down the windshield of the Silver Hawk in waves, and he could barely see the road or the lights or the town ahead. But neither the rain nor the road nor the town mattered. What happened inside the car didn’t matter. What mattered was what happened inside Kellerman as he drove. What happened would have happened, had it rained or not, had he drove on into the night, or had he stopped. What happened inside Kellerman as he approached Pittsburg was the reason he would not drive on to anywhere. And why, in the years to come, he would never try to determine the true story of Pete Yuri, what had really, actually happened in the last few minutes of Pete’s life. And why in the future Kellerman would always believe every version of the story of that fateful day, if the teller told it well. He never had to know the facts. The facts, he knew, were unimportant. What was important was what happened inside Kellerman’s head as he held the car on the road, in the rain, outside Pittsburg.

In his mind’s eye Kellerman saw in sequence three faces: Pete Yuri, his big honest bear’s face drained of color, his desperate eyes asking Please; Babe, her luminous gray eyes locking onto him, Kellerman, seeing him, knowing him instantly, completely and forever; and Curly, his clear bright child’s eyes lifted skyward, following a moving object with fierce rapture, the cords of muscle in his thin neck drawn taut as he prepared to unleash the power of the Mighty Mick.

When the last of these had vanished from Kellerman’s vision and he saw the road before him once again, his course was set. He drove on through Pittsburg, into the night and the rain, sheets of water pouring over the window like the cool sweat that covered his skin. He opened the window and let the rain spray in, soaking and chilling him through his clothes, keeping him awake, alive. He drove all night, stopping once for gas in Claremore. He spoke to no one. By morning the storm had passed, and the wheat fields around Yukon glimmered gold in the clean light.

And so he returned to his family. After another long, wrenching day and night, he convinced his wife and son to take him back. He bought Curly a new Mickey Mantle signature bat and swore to Babe that they would hold on to their home, no matter what. They did. He never abandoned them again, and recovered enough of his will to get another job, a lesser job, on the maintenance crew at the state capitol. Although he tried, he would never again earn enough money to buy back his beloved garage; in fact, he would never again be his own boss. But he hung on, through the years. Even after Curly grew up and left Oklahoma for Hollywood, then Honolulu. Even after Babe and he grew old and sour together, knowing each other far too well. Even after Babe died unexpectedly, years before what should have been her time, and left him to spend his final years alone. And though there were many days, especially in his last years, when he suffered doubts—when it was clear his life had turned out to be much less than he had hoped it would be—through it all he stood firm, remembering the advice Bigfoot Pete had given him, and knowing, in the vague mysterious center of his enduring heart, that he had plenty.

—Previously published in Contemporary World Literature (May/June 2011)

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury