Monday, October 7th, 2019
Up until 1981, the Adirondack Railway served fifteen towns in Adirondack Park. Clifton Heights was one of them. Started in 1887, the railway stretched from Remsen to Utica. It transported everything from freight, to livestock and, starting in 1950, passengers.
In 1981, most of the railway was shut down as changes in state and local infrastructure found them being used less and less. Budgets became strained, and upkeep too expensive. The tracks laid dormant until 1992, when the Adirondack Railroad Society petitioned New York State and Adirondack Park to restore sections of track running from Thendera to Minnehaha. The motion was approved and the tracks restored, becoming a tourist experience known as the Adirondack Scenic Railway, offering scenic train rides.
Clifton Heights, about forty-five minutes from Thendera, was originally named as a stop on the scenic railroad's tour, and renovations began on its decommissioned depot - Webb Station - on the southern end of town. At the time, the Clifton Heights Town Board believed the scenic railway would bring more tourists and therefore more business to town.
Unfortunately, for one reason or another (as often happens in Clifton Heights) renovations of the depot continually stalled. The projected timeline had to be adjusted when, upon start of renovations, it was discovered that rot and water damage was systemic and far worse than originally estimated.
Also, the renovation crew struggled through regular equipment malfunctions, accidents, and mishaps. Stories began to circulate that workers didn't like the depot for reasons they couldn't identify. Many would quit with little notice, or they simply never returned. Wilder stories claimed contractors and electricians thought they heard voices when working there alone.
For two years, the Adirondack Scenic Railroad ran around Clifton Heights as work on the depot floundered. Eventually, in 1994, the ASR decided to shorten their tour and bypass Clifton Heights entirely until the town could finish renovations on Webb Station. That decision served as an anticlimactic death knell to the depot's restoration, and the project was scrapped not long after. It remained abandoned and unused until, nineteen years later, it became the winter home of town vagrant, Marty Haskel.
Marty's story was neither tragic nor uncommon. A football star for Webb County High (one of the best outside linebackers ever to play in Section 3), Marty didn't think much of classes, homework, or the value of formal education in general. Pursing a college football career was never a consideration. When he turned eighteen and realized he'd never pass enough classes to graduate, he quit school and started looking for a job.
The first one he landed, he stayed at for twenty years. Lineman at the Clifton Heights lumber mill. Marty had been drinking since he was old enough to occasionally nick one of his Dad's beers without the old man noticing, but it wasn't a problem, not at first. Gradually, however, it consumed him from the inside out.
No sad or tragic event was the cause. For whatever reasons (perhaps not even known by Marty himself) the linesman keep drinking a little more and a little harder every year. To quote a phrase used often by Clifton Heights old timers, "Marty usta to hold the bottle, but now the bottle holds Marty."
No horrific accident caused by on-the-job intoxication led to Marty's firing. His boss, Sheldon Temple, simply wearied of Marty coming into work late on Monday mornings with a hangover, or not coming in on Mondays at all. When he did fire Marty, he did so through an apologetic phone call, one which Marty received amicably, understanding Sheldon's reasons perfectly.
And of course, the events which led him to living in Webb Station fell with the mundane predictability of dominoes. Over the following year, Marty landed and lost three jobs in a row. Working garbage disposal, on the Webb County road crew, and finally, a can and bottle sorter at The Can Man, the bottle and redemption center outside town. Bills went unpaid. Pick-up truck repossessed. Finally came eviction from his apartment above Chin's Pizza and Wings on Main Street, after not paying rent for five months straight.
He'd started bedding down in the old Webb Station after his eviction. In an ironic turn, his father had been one of the contractors who'd worked on the station's ill-fated and doomed renovation. He'd never believed the stories of voices and that the renovation had been cursed; had told his son repeatedly they were stories made up by union joes who just wanted to get paid more.
In his time living in old Webb Station, Marty had never heard any voices, or anything outside of the ordinary, up until his last day there, today. All he cared about was the shelter it offered from weather, in which case, it suited him just fine.
Somewhere along the line, Marty sobered up and stopped drinking entirely. No one knew how, or could pinpoint exactly when. Regulars at The Stumble Inn simply saw less and less of him, until eventually, they realized with a start they hadn't seen him drunk and leaning against the bar in months. Word spread gradually, and when people noticed Marty about the town, they noticed his generally cleaner and sober appearance.
However, for reasons of his own, Marty never chose to find another steady job. During the summer and spring, he managed almost daily employment bailing hay and doing odd jobs for three different farmers. Every Saturday, he cleared brush and deadfall around the Commons Trailer Park, out on Bassler Road.
When the carnival came every year, for a week, Marty cleaned the grounds before opening and after closing. During the winter, he shoveled the front walks of several older Clifton Heights residents. Handy with small engines, he fixed lawnmowers, tractors, and other small engine vehicles for a decent fee. Local small engine mechanic and retired Methodist minister, Jeb Hawkins, let Marty use his garage on Loughlin Road for his jobs.
Thus, Marty earned enough money to buy a decent pup tent, a sleeping bag, and several changes of seasonally appropriate clothing. Once a month, he brought his clothes to the laundromat on Main Street. He even opened a savings account at Clifton Heights Federal Credit Union, though sympathetic overlooking of the bank's "occupancy" requirements by a considerate clerk was needed. A kind word from Sheriff Baker greased the wheels considerably in that regard.
He fished, and hunted by bow and arrow...though only in season, and every year he even bought a proper hunting and fishing license. Saturday nights he splurged and bought dinner at The Skylark, and his funds allowed for a moderate biweekly grocery budget.
Marty never again bothered to pay for lodging. No one knew or understood why. During the warmer months, he camped in the farthest plot at Shady Acres campground by Clifton Lake, in exchange for clearing camping plots of debris.
When the weather started to cool and move toward winter, he pulled up stakes and camped out in Webb Station. Sheriff Baker knew all this, and technically, if he wanted to, could've booked Marty for vagrancy and forced him to clear out. Instead, he simply checked on him over the course of winter, and one year let him have a Coleman propane lantern and stove which he didn't use anymore.
Today, Marty was making his first trip to the depot to set up for the winter. Shady Acres was closing down for the year, and the nights had taken on a chill. He'd packed all of his belongings - including his tightly rolled pup tent and sleeping bag - into an oversized hiking backpack with a rig to carry the sleeping bag and tent, and hiked his way to the depot. Cars and trucks honked as they passed, and he offered them all his usual spare nod.
He first heard the strange sounds as he was about to enter what had been the ticket waiting area. It was a soft, sucking sound. A liquid squelching. Like someone trying to pull a booted foot out of muck. He paused, the sounds turning his stomach, and sending an instinctual shiver through him. Whatever made that sound was something wrong. He knew this deep inside. Something not right, something unnatural.
It had never before occurred to him that, during the warm months when he camped at Shady Acres, something might move into his winter home and displace him. That realization hit him forcefully as he stood just outside the doorway to the ticket area. Something had indeed moved in, and this was no longer a place he could stay. Just standing there, as those wet puckering sounds filled his ears, he felt the change in the air. This place was no longer his. It belonged to something else.
Deep conflict waged inside Marty as he stood there listening to something ooze, smack, and suck. To survive as he did required mettle and resolve. To have endured alcohol withdrawal here in the dead of winter and all alone that first year necessitated bravery and fortitude. To say sober had required resilience.
In many ways, he'd decided not to find regular housing after getting sober merely because he'd become proud of the resilience he'd developed. He was afraid that comfort and ease (even if it was just the comfort and ease of a roof over his head) might inevitably lead him back to the bottle.
He didn't back away from things easily.
And yet, Marty had lived in the rough for the past six years, and not only that...he had lived in the rough of Clifton Heights, of all places. He, perhaps even more than Sheriff Baker, understood the strangeness of his town, having many times had to endure it alone. He'd done that, however, and was still here, simply because he'd learned discretion and wisdom. In some cases - especially in Clifton Heights - avoiding unnecessary precariousness was an essential survival skill.
So he resolved his conflict quickly. He backed away from those awful sounds (which he couldn't help thinking sounded like a blasphemous infant nursing at the breast of something monstrous, or some shapeless creature consuming gelatinous muck, or something toothless gumming and sucking on dissolving flesh), and carefully made his way out of the depot, into the woods.
He would find somewhere new to spend the winter. Even if he came back later and the depot proved to be empty, he could feel the taint in the air and would never be able to shake it, and he'd never be able to stop hearing those terrible sounds in that building. Whatever lived there now had turned the depot into Its place, no longer fit for him...or anything else, for that matter.