Monday, May 12, 2008

Last Stop

All day the boss had been on my ass. Nothing was right: the presentation should have been in grayscale not black and white, the spreadsheets organized by department not date. Even my tie looked ridiculous—red and with a slight sheen and exactly like one he wore last week. He was just picking fights. He’s always just picking fights.
But the day was over and I slumped into my seat. Copper colored sky drifted past the window and I figured all that bullshit didn’t matter much. Hell, the worst they can do is fire me. Some days I think the worst they can do is not fire me.
I was in the first car of the train. I always sat in the first car of the train. Maybe something in the back of my mind, a rollercoaster memory from childhood. Maybe because the middle cars are crowded and up here I always grab a seat. An hour to work and an hour home. Everyday. Barreling through North Jersey. Everyday.
My fingers were black from thumbing through the paper. Already past the good stuff, finished the sports and business sections during lunch hour. So I was onto arts and leisure, working my way around a movie review and taking long draws from a paper cup of stale, room-temperature coffee. The train was approaching the next station, another of the dozen between home and work, work and home.
Then the whole car jerked, slowed down real quick and I spilled weak coffee all over my power tie. Like nails on a blackboard only fifty-times louder, those emergency breaks. And immediately after, a hollow thud that shook the car and what sounded like wooden planks being crushed, splintered underneath the train.
We coasted for another quarter mile before coming to a stop beside the station platform. Outside I heard screams, hysterical cries but not clear enough to make out distinct words. Then, over the train PA the conductor announced we just hit a trespasser. Trespasser, what a strange word to use.
Some days I think the worst that can happen is they fire me. Some days I think the worst that can happen is they don’t. And some days I realize I don’t have any idea about the worst that can happen.

Every Thursday, every Thursday without fail, I take Madeline into the city to have dinner with Ma. I’ve tried in to persuade Ma to meet us out here—once a month, once a year, just once—but no. Ma, like so many her age, is set in her ways. If in the last five years she’s ventured below 59th street, well I’d be surprised.
So every Thursday without fail—after Maddy has finished her homework—we take a train into the city, then the subway uptown. And every Thursday Ma tells Maddy how much she’s grown and asks what she did in school this week and we eat. And then Maddy and I take the subway downtown and a train back into Jersey.
This week was a little different. We stood on the platform, Maddy’s hand tucked inside mine. She was talking about this and that, jumping from one subject to the next without a comma, period, breath in between. Her second grade class had a hamster and it had little babies that were pink and hairless and there were six of them and they voted on names and there was Pinky and Gus and Snowball and Gremlin and Fluffy and Cocoa and they all look the same right now so nobody can tell which is which except… Beside us on the platform was a young man, head bowed as if in prayer.
Maddy kept going. She hoped that we would have Italian food for dinner because she wanted spaghetti with one of those really big meatballs and she had measured herself last week and this week and she hadn’t grown at all and if grandma said she had then grandma was mistaken. A train was approaching on the track opposite. Probably a half-mile off but I could hear the distant growl, see the lights materialize, pinpoints on the horizon.
What commenced was difficult to watch. And as much as I wish that I had looked away, I simply could not. The young man—maybe twenty years old—climbed down off the platform and rushed across one, two sets of tracks, and waited, stoic as the low growl became a thunderous roar and the pinpoint lights grew larger and larger, brighter and brighter. I yelled to him. As loud as I could, I yelled. But he never looked away from the train. Maddy asked me what that man was doing why was he standing there what’s going on? I held her close, her face clamped to my chest so she couldn’t see.
The impact was amazing. Somehow I expected the man to be knocked down, pushed to the side. Hurt, probably killed but still there. It didn’t happen like that at all. The train plowed through him. A slap, like hitting a waterbed with the back of your hand, only so much louder. And he was gone. Just gone.
Maddy fought to look but I held her close. She asked what happened to that man why was he out there would he be okay? I pulled my phone from my purse and called Ma, told her we’d have to take a rain check on dinner this week.

It happens. Sounds cold, but that’s the God’s honest truth. Shit, this wasn’t my first. Not even my second. I’ve been a conductor for thirty-plus years. Nobody goes that long without one or two. And believe me when I tell you there’s some folks around here—fine as folks and finer as conductors—had themselves four or five in their careers. It happens.
 Old guard types handle it better. Used to be a time when, if you trucked someone, you’d have to hop right back in there and ride out your shift. Forget about a few days off, you’d barely get a cigarette break. The kids now—the ones who’ve been doing this for five years, sometimes less—they don’t handle it so well.
Must be the parents. Kids now, they grow up being told they’re special and unique and their shit don’t stink. Makes ‘em soft. One boy—started working here oh, a good three years back—he had a helluva time.
The kid was twenty-six, thrilled to land the job. Making more than his friends who went to college.  And hell, the trains are on tracks, practically drive themselves. Then about six months in the kid caught a suicide, double suicide actually. Couple young lovers looking to pull some Romeo and Juliet type shit. Sat down on the tracks, cross-legged and holding hands and just waiting. Boom.
Well the kid, he got the rest of the day off. And three more on top of that. But when he came back the following week he looked like a turd in a rusty can. Tried his best to keep on keepin’ on but within the month he’d resigned. No, they don’t make them all that tough no more, that’s for damned sure.
But me, this was my third. And call me jaded, call me cold but I doubt I’ll lose too much sleep. I did what I could. Blew the whistle, pulled the breaks. Like I said before, these trains are on tracks, practically drive themselves. If something’s in the way, something’s in the way. If someone’s in the way, someone’s in the way.
What I’ll remember most is this: closing in on the kid and he looked up, right at me. We locked eyes for a second, maybe two before we hit. And he didn’t look scared. He didn’t look scared and he didn’t look sad and he didn’t look angry. Then we hit and he didn’t look like much of anything anymore.
When finally I got the train to stop, a couple hundred yards later, I announced over the PA that we’d hit a trespasser. Always say trespasser because, for one thing, it ain’t up to me to decide what happened—suicide, accident or even the occasional murder. Always say trespasser because, for another thing, technically they are—ain’t nobody supposed to be on those tracks. Always say trespasser because, most importantly, it makes things a little easier on the passengers—a trespasser, well that sounds criminal, sounds like maybe they just might’ve deserved it.
So, I got the rest of the evening off. Another three days too. I don’t have all that long before I retire, a few years left on the tracks. And if this is the last one, well I’d certainly be grateful for that. But I won’t count on it. Still, I won’t beat myself up over it either. Because like I said, it happens. And I could live the rest of my life seeing those eyes staring up at me. Those eyes that didn’t look scared or sad or angry. I could see those eyes for the rest of my life or I could let it go. It happens.


mattl said...

"Hell, the worst they can do is fire me. Some days I think the worst they can do is not fire me."

Often my thoughts exactly.

Wants 2 fly said...

Great story Derek! I stumbled upon your blog and am now a fan! Keep up the good work :)

MistressManda said...

This is a cool story. I'm going to work my way through the archives too. Glad I found this...keep writing! :)

lisa said...

ok you won me over. feel free to send me email updates

i found a link that read; Like Palunuik, I do; so I clicked; I'm glad.

Anthony said...

the way that all tied together was perfect. i get the feeling you were the conductor. you see those eyes or you don't. what an excellent way to deliver the mental state of the character.

Leroy J. Powers said...

Great story. I'd been blog hopping though-out the day. Yours made me glad I stopped by. I'll be back...