For the last thirty-five years, Jim had never needed to set an alarm to get up in the morning. The train rattling by would wake him up at six a.m. without fail. And more often than not it was the same sound he fell asleep to at night.
He still remembered how upset his wife and two daughters had been when the tracks were laid out all those years ago. “It is so loud! I’m tired of waking up in the middle of the night.”
“I can’t study because of a train zipping by every other minute,” his then teenaged daughter had exaggerated, and the younger one had obviously copied the scrunched eyebrows and scowl to the detail and said the same thing – except in a squeakier voice. And they were right. It was really loud. The vibrations were barely perceptible: windows would shiver, the handle of a tea cup on a table close to the outside wall would change direction, dreams would be disrupted, eyes would flutter awake or one would jump out of his/her skin if they were watching a thriller in the middle of the night. And then there were the images that came with the sounds, wheels whirring in a silver blur, people in hats looking out their windows, someone’s head slowly leaning towards their neighbor’s shoulder, bags shifting in the luggage compartments, the metal tracks holding steady. The rattling of the tracks and wheels would always be accompanied by the blaring of the horns, since there was a crosswalk right behind their small, pink-roofed house.
It was not the sweet choo-choo we teach our kids to make – it was an obnoxious prolonged siren that jarred your nerves.
But like other sounds associated with trains, the family grew used to the wailing too. Jim was always charmed by the idea of having a rail crossing so near their house but like he told his family when the trains first started clanking by: “we can’t afford to move!” Not that he wanted to. They had moved into this house five years into their marriage and this is where their first daughter was born. The couple had been trying for several years but this is the house that changed their lives in so many ways.
Now that his daughters had moved out, and Jim and his wife were both retired, it was the house where they wanted to die. The little house with the pale yellow walls and a pink roof that was supposed to be bright red. There was a little park across the rail crossing that he would go to every evening for a walk or just to sit on the bench. And every Monday, he would take his lunch and go sit there under a tree around noon. These were the routine things he loved doing, and he took them as seriously as he took his job (he used to be a painter. He would paint people’s houses and garages and small shops). Sometimes he would take his leftover pails and touch up the blue of a swing set, or the benches that were scattered near the trees.
“Do you want me to make you a turkey sandwich too?” Jim asked his wife that Monday.
“Yes, love,” she replied from the sitting room where she was watching TV. She wondered if she should remind him she doesn’t like mayonnaise with her turkey but decided to see if he would remember on his own. It was one those things they still kept up as a couple: Jim would forget important dates and little personal details about his wife of over forty years; his wife would remember everything from how Jim wears only plain colored socks (no stripes, no polkas) and eats his spaghetti with a spoon; Jim would not realize his wife takes extra care to buy plain colored socks and give him a spoon on pasta nights; she would remind, chastise and nag him about the dates and details he missed; Jim would not see what the big deal was but he would always apologize and then go on dutifully to forget again.
But every now and then, he would remember something that was important to her, and she liked to give him that opportunity.
“I’ll see you in about an hour!” Jim called out from the kitchen as he made his way to the back door. “Your sandwich is on the counter.”
He grabbed his hat and cane and slowly walked towards the rail crossing. It was a cloudy day, and humid. It was going to rain today, he thought to himself as came to the white crisscross and the lights that flashed when the train was near. He looked both ways and stepped onto the little platform that lay across the lines. A rumble. Jim looked up and wondered if it was thundering already, and just like that, he stubbed his toe on a rock. Caught off balance, he stumbled and fell off the platform. He was stunned for a couple of minutes and then he heard the rumble again. Louder this time and he stared up at the sky, blinking because he couldn’t see too well. Where are my glasses? he thought, and he felt the throbbing in his left leg. He had just managed to sit up halfway, leaning on his palm pressed to the railroad. When he heard the sound again he didn’t need his glasses to see the blurry shape that had turned the corner and was rushing towards him. He saw his cane lying a couple of feet away and the blaring was there, so, so loud, and Jim’s elbow gave way and he was back on the ground, seconds before the train ran over him.
Jim’s wife had just brought her sandwich into the sitting room when she heard the blaring honks of the train melt into the sirens of ambulances and police. She wondered what had happened and then was sidetracked by the first bite. She smiled and shook her head happily. No mayonnaise.
So yeah, my first trip on the train and we ran somebody over.
Amtrak is pretty cool, huge and silver, not as fast as it looks but still hefty and powerful. The seats in coach are nice, dark blue and comfy, plenty of leg room, wide windows, and erratic leg-rests. Then there is a very sunny dining area where you can sit around a table and eat bland sandwiches or yogurt, or play cards while the windows stretch further and wider, and there are also semi sky-lights that kind of curve around the corner above the regular windows but don’t stretch all the way across the roof. The outside scenery is not exactly breathtaking – no snowcapped mountains or endless fields of bright red tulips but I still like it.
Junkyards, gnarled, stunted trees, dusty roads, small houses and bungalows peeking out from behind overgrown bushes; a discarded, rusty boat sitting lost outside a one-story house that needs a paint job, but they have a huge trampoline, netted in on all sides to prevent little ones from busting their heads open because of an extra energetic jump; there are small pools that I don’t need to see too closely to imagine the leaves and butterfly droppings in the water. There are fields, faded greens and yellows in the bright summer sun; bursts of sunflowers that grow haphazard in huge families by the train tracks and in between empty parking lots.
And the gentle rocking of the train, that was sometimes like a kid’s rollercoaster, bust mostly just soothing.
Other than the part where we ran over a pedestrian near the rail crossing in Fort Worth, Texas. Apparently it was an elderly man. Nobody really noticed it or paid much attention to the train stopping and the placid announcement by the crew that there was an “emergency” which is why we stopped… and then the minutes ticked away, the power was shut off and the heat (it wasn’t warm for me but people were starting to fret and sweat). And then the rumors started spreading, from one nervous person to the other excited passenger: “I hear they found a body!” said a lady in a loud whisper, crossing herself. I found that a little hard to believe. But then straining our necks to look out the windows on one side, we could just see the blinking lights of police and ambulances grouped around the center of the tracks a few feet from where we were stopped.
The crew didn’t tell us much. We stood there for around two hours and the only information we would get now and then was: “there has been a fatality. We are caught up in paperwork with the authorities. We are sorry for the inconvenience”.
Yeah. Fatalities can often be inconvenient.