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Assorted Fire Events: Storiesby David Means
RAILROAD INCIDENT, AUGUST 1995
The declivity where he sat to rest was part of a railroad bed blasted out of the hard shale and lime deposits cut by the Hudson River, which was just down the hill, out of sight, hidden by forestation, backyards, homes. The wind eased through the weeds, pressing on both sides of the track, died, and then came up again hinting of seaweed?the sea miles away opening up into the great harbor of New York, the sea urged by the moon's gravity up the Hudson, that deep yielding estuary, and arriving as a hint of salt in the air, against his face, vised between his knees; he was tasting his own salt on his lips, for he'd been walking miles and it was a hot evening. He was a dainty man in a white dress shirt tucked into pressed jeans; he was the kind of man who had his jeans dry-cleaned; he was used to unwrapping his garments, chemically processed, creased, charted out, and sanitized, from long glimmering bags. Up the road five miles his dark blue BMW idled still?enough fumes to keep it going?parked far to the side of the shoulder so that it gave the appearance of being one of the many such cars, people up from the city for the summer night pausing to retrieve some lost memory or to taste the wooded air one more time before going home to the embrace of concrete. He was the kind of man who would leave his car running for the sake of appearances, to help lull an imaginary stranger into an illusionary sense of stability: all was right with the world, she would think, passing, going about her business; when he stumbled out of the car it waswith her in mind?some strange woman passing on her way home?that he left it running.
Despite the aching in his feet from his awkward walk along three miles of railbed, he couldn't help but notice, hunched over as he was, the splendor of this place in the world beneath a wide-open sky, darkness broken only by the passing of a car on the road above him; during his journey night had come down upon him slowly, hardening over the course of several hours; his eyes had adjusted to the darkness and guided him safely to this place. He extended his legs and began to take his shoes off, edging the heel with the back of the other shoe. (He was the kind of man who untied his shoes first, removed one and then the other, seated on the little stepstool or else the edge of his bed; he was also the kind of man who used an ivory shoehorn to get them on in the morning, relishing the feel of his sock sliding firmly against cool smoothness, the use of an instrument for the simple task.) But this wasn't the time or the place for practiced rituals; he had come to betray himself, to rid himself of such things. He left them in the bushes, a lonely pair of fine, handmade Italians, one nestled against the other lovingly, front to front. He walked slowly.
Around the curve there was enough light?defused across the hazy sky?to make out the shards of broken bottles (if he'd been looking down instead of forward). The piece he stepped on, from an old malt liquor bottle, was as jagged as the French Alps, the round base of the bottle forming a perfect support for the protrusion, the only piece of glass for yards, seated neatly against the rail plate; it went into his heel cleanly, cutting firmly into the hard pad, opening a wound that sent him falling sideways. It was one of those cuts that open up slowly into the possibilities of their pain, widening from a small point into a cone; this was the kind of cut that gave the fearful sense of being unlimited in the pain it would eventually produce; he sat there and thought about it for a moment, not making a game plan but trying to conjure up some image from a Red Cross handbook he'd once memorized. (It was a requirement for his sailing classes.) He'd learned to make a flotation device out of a wet pair of blue jeans; he'd learned how to stanch the flow of blood from an amputated limb by using a leather belt as a tourniquet; he knew to pull the tongue away and to clear the throat of obstructions before beginning mouth-to-mouth; but here, alone in the absolute solitude of his pain, he wasn't sure what to do except to keep trying to recall a line drawing of some kind, one of those sketchy but useful diagrams of some acute human misery such as a compound fracture, the bone just a set of lines protruding out of some imaginary thigh, two swerves like a Picasso sketch; he sat there and let it bleed for a moment, hoping the tetanus might drain out. It seemed his life had become a series of such episodes, long searching silences as he tried to recall some image lost to him, a faint diagram of a circumstance and the proper manner in which to solve, to patch, to bandage the wounds until further, more professional, help could be obtained.
In the weeded suburban outback, hunched on the endless steel rail (forged in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and laid down during the late nineteenth century, and used to move limestone from the quarries along the Hudson, to build the great foundations for the great skyscrapers), he removed his shirt and fingered for the weak spot along the seam where it might give. To get it to tear he had to use his teeth.
He wished for a single clear-cut reason for walking alone half naked, the pain from his right heel burning up his leg, the makeshift bandage flapping. An explanation: perhaps the recent catastrophic loss of his wife, Margaret, her car simmering steam and smoke upside down in the wrong lane of the Saw Mill River Parkway, twisted wreckage betrayed by the battered guardrail, the outmoded roadway paved along a trail marked out originally by Indians, the taste of her red hair in his mouth when they last hugged. A soured stock-option deal?his fault. The blame placed on a computer glitch. McKinnen's firm face behind wire rims, fingers prodding his glass desktop, offering a good package. His wife's departure one morning; her words of explanation shaky in black ballpoint; the name of his betrayer an old friend, Samson, whose handshake still lingered in the palm of his golf glove upstairs. Better stories could be told if Margaret had died slowly, a long decline as her white cells submitted, the shiver of her lips as they formed her last words. It wasn't reason enough for his actions. He was certain of that. Their large house stood along the river, excitingly large when they moved in, now just too much house; perhaps all afternoon he'd walked the veranda and looked out at the flat water until, around three, a crew of yard workers arrived, shattering the poetic silence with their blowers and shrieking weed whackers, driving him up to the third-floor office where, face buried in his palms, he asked for his own salvation?salvation not from grief but from something he couldn't pin down, perhaps just things he hadn't done. Perhaps steps he hadn't taken. Maybe he fully accepted that she was nothing but void now; she was skirts hanging in the closet, the smell of her perfume on the unwashed linen piling in the laundry room, recipes torn from magazines piled on her desk in the den.
Again a faint breeze came. He moved forward along the tracks, leaving a pad print of blood behind him on each tie. Ahead of him the tracks curved farther into the darkness; to his left and overhead, the steel girders and chutes of the stoneworks.
To the guys who spotted him a quarter mile later he came out of the hazy air like a wounded animal, nothing but a shadow down the tracks moving with a strange hobble that didn't seem human. There were four of them, their own shirts off, nursing a small fire of twigs barely producing flames but lots of whitish smoke slinging in the heavy air. Even in the firelight you could see that they were all four skinny in that deprived way, knotty with muscles and the blue-gray shadows of various tattoos. The one who spotted him had just taken a long draw from a quart bottle of beer and was gasping for breath.
Jesus shit, he spoke softly, wiping back a long black clump of hair from his face.
The fuck's this? another said, parting his legs a bit as if to hold steady against an oncoming force. His jackboots crunched on the ballast. He pressed his hands flat against each side of his waist. One of the others stationed himself to the side, running his own palms over the smooth-shorn surface of his scalp in a repeated motion half fidget and half habit; each of them tingled and jittered. They could tell right away that whoever was coming, shrouded as he was in the dark, was enfeebled and in some kind of trouble, indeed, for his shirt was off and he was swaybacking from side to side, maybe drunk or tired or both and ready to be taken, to be seduced by whatever they felt like dishing up; he was all their night had offered, like a prayer answered, something to break up the tedium of dope smoking and empty chattering and cursing and everything else, and they all knew it, seeing him, and were ready.
The spot where they hung out, just before the tracks carved a dark hole in the overflowing cliffside, was strewn with old railroad debris, rails and tie plates and gobs of black tar and broken bottles; it was an outback hovel secluded and safe from everything, as purely wasted and unneeded as they felt themselves to be and, because of that, were; a bunch of rubbish and torn-away flesh, the self-made tattoos brandished on their own young flesh. They were young, tight, and eager. What they saw emerge was a man softening into middle age. In his limp was a slight residue of dignity and formality, the way he lifted his feet as if they were still shod and weighted by the expensive shoes; or maybe all of that wasn't noticed until, coming up to them, he opened his mouth and spoke, saying hello softly, the vowels widening, the cup of his mouth over those words like an expensive shell ... or maybe they didn't notice at all as they moved around him positing themselves in silence, wordlessly, the guy with the smooth head coming up behind him while the guy with jackboots took one step forward and the others moved in unison to his sides as if he might make some kind of break for it. (That was the illusion of tension their stances produced, wanted to produce, were eager to produce.)
It was later, in the dreamlike reproductions of those moments, that he realized that the silence in which they worked bespoke everything about their young bodies: muscles limber from stunts, flesh marred and bruised and burned with hard little bull's-eyes from the burrs of Dadheld cigarettes; the fuck you's of bodies being twisted into lockholds and half nelsons, pinned with knees in backs and sternums; bucked tendons and double-jointed bone breaks that sucked the air from their fourteen-year-old mouths in the recessed trailer park stuck down in the shithole wastelands near the town's toxic dump. These were the singing, mocking kids that he had feared before on walks in the city. Now he was happy to stumble upon souls rising up out of the darkness next to their pathetic fire. There was behind all this, as they worked in a silence that also bespoke the kick that was to come first from the man in the foreground, only the dull sound of the insects, a sound so prolonged it was blanked from his mind and filled in with a new, higher form of silence. The kick landed in his stomach. He fell. Slowly and with grace the two boys to the side came to him and gently helped him up, feeling his lack of resistance immediately, making note of it by bending back his arms behind him far enough to produce a rainbow of pain over his shoulder blades. Their job was to fill the beating with as much dignity as possible, to uphold the ballet of the scene, to make it worth their fucking while?to produce a stasis upon which their friend, with his long swatches of clotty black hair swaying now before his bowed head, might work; and he bowed slightly, directly in front of this shirtless man, letting the little grace period well up between them?then bowing closer and closer until his forehead was right up against the stranger's forehead, touching it there damp with sweat while he mouthed to him in the hushed whispers of a confessor, a priest muttering penances, We're going to kick your fucking ass, you know, so you might as well get used to the idea ... trailing his words off and offering up a kick to the groin hard enough to double the man over, the two releasing him on cue, so that he fell to the ground, his bloodied foot swiping against the rail; the smooth-headed one removed the wallet from the back pocket and opened it, stooping into the firelight, fingering the thick bills he pulled out, flipping the rest of the black leather into the weeds, where it landed, lying open, spilling into the darkness identification cards, photographs, credit cards, and bank cards that, when slid into the automatic teller machines and offered H H M H?his initials and those of his wife?would eject neat piles of bills, as much as anyone could want or need.
Blasted out of the hillside years ago (during the previously mentioned burst of enthusiastic rail laying) through a series of explosions that loosened the rock enough to allow men with pickaxes and shovels to labor over the piles, the tunnel was a ragged affair, a gaping hole dripping with springwater and a dank sulfur smell; it was a wound in the earth and the kind of place the guys liked to smoke their dope and even sleep summer nights, lying against one another and close to the wet side in case the occasional freight decided to pass through, swaying and creaking. These were ugly, beastly trains that spewed diesel exhaust and slunk along as if ashamed of the decrepit tracks, taking the flat grade along the Hudson River at a snail's pace; boxcars blemished and dented, the seals and emblems of their ownership scarred by weather, scraped clean, sprayed over?the whole hulking mess came through a few times a day, and even if the boys were in town, drinking or hanging out at the pizza parlor, they could hear it scream along the curve near the crossing grade.
It was to this tunnel that they dragged the man, yanking him along, his heels jumping over the ties, his mouth gagged with his bloodied bandage. One might wish it were otherwise, wish that these boys in their joy had decided to release him to the elements, toss him into the ragweed, the leaning stalks of wild bamboo, to rot or crawl his way back to safety; but no. The truth is that they knew as well as anyone what they were doing; there was here a scheme in place overall; the stars were aligned in certain ways and all was going as planned; if there is a God, and later, if the man was saved and taking on the deep question of his experience, he might chalk it up to (with the guidance of Reverend Simpson) a personal state of deus absconditus, abandoned in a sense like Christ on the cross; if there is no God, then this piece of blind bad luck began when he abandoned his BMW and started his trudge with great purpose, and no purpose, into the underside of the road, 9W, a road that usually took him on Friday nights to the city, over the bridge, down the West Side Highway and off at 72nd Street, to a parking garage of cool poured concrete, the thump of his car door, rubber against rubber, sounding particularly sweet echoing in those confines. At Lincoln Center he could park substrata and rise up into the concert halls without tasting fresh air: tonight it was Brahms's Symphony No. 3 with its mysterious second theme, the Andante that fails to reappear in its expected place in the recapitulation; and the third movement, of which he was particularly fond, Poco Allegretto, so rounded and soft at the beginning it would, if he had gone, remind him of the shoulders of his wife, of a moment twenty years ago making love in a small room on Nantucket, a fall night, the wintry nor'easter blowing with a nonstop consistency that seemed to smooth the outside world away so that there was only the soft wetness beneath him, and her shoulders. Of course listening from his seat in the third tier to the right with his eyes closed he would, had he gone into the city, have idealized and sentimentalized that first night of lovemaking with the woman who was two years later to take his hand as his beloved wife. The truth of that night was different, of course: awkward kisses, teeth clicking; shame over certain deformities. He did not hear the Brahms and therefore he did not go through that particular memory. (And perhaps stepping from his car, locking and closing the door behind him, the firm crunch of his leather soles on the breakdown lane, he knew that he was avoiding this memory; perhaps, or perhaps not.) Whatever choice one makes in the matter, God or no God, the boys felt the force of chance was on their side; they had a duty to uphold, knowing as they did that this man they were yanking along still had some small trace of dignity buried in the muffled, flat cries he was making. In movies, eyes in this situation dart around, glint with fear, search the sky for something to lock on to?but his eyes wandered the darkness slowly and without resolve, as if cut loose; at the mouth of the tunnel, feeling the cool cavelike air, he became still.
He would reenter the so-called world in a half hunch, with his knees bleeding and the sky overhead showing the first hints of morning; all insect life in the brittle weeds having fallen silent, there would only be behind him and down towards the hill a powdery hum of the conveyor belts drawing stone at the tail end of the night shift. In his pain certain natural opiates would have kicked in, chemicals that sustain the body in times of great trial and allow forced marches of one sort or another?great mass gatherings of the uprooted shuffling up dust that can be seen from jets passing, the ill-fated regions of Rwanda or wherever?those abuses of such extreme measure that we hold them out as testaments of a raw ability to survive physically against extreme odds: barely standing and barely crawling, he works his way thoughtlessly down towards a crossroad where, eventually, through good fortune and timing a kind old man in a Oldsmobile Cutlass will pull over, hitching up his sagging tan pants and tucking the tail of his white dress shirt (he's the Reverend Simpson of the Alabaster Salvation Church of Haverstraw, on his way to prepare himself for his morning duties), to greet this staggering vagabond. Perhaps because of some motion in the man's gait (again there is a certain control, even in this state of disrepair, perhaps because of the crease of his jeans or just the way his hair, although matted with dirt and dust from the tunnel, still had what clearly was an expensive cut, a layer that took care and time to acquire; whatever it was?perhaps just a goodly sense of duty of some sort, or a moral obligation rooted in his religious beliefs that required Simpson to stop for anyone wandering in tatters, decrepit, with the sunrise welling up over the river and his shoulders and the dew-slick rails and the road dipping down into a hollow of mist?he did stop, calling politely soft excuse-me's to the man, who on hearing him, and then seeing him, seemed seized with grief, falling to his knees with his dirty palms out and crying, breaking at that moment from his purely physical plight into something vastly emotional. It was the kind of scene that Simpson felt qualified to handle, holding this lost lamb by the naked shoulders, helping him to regain his feet and work his way by his own power up to the shuddering, ill-tuned Olds. In this beast of a car, rending their way along the edge of the river, one would hope for a conversation in which stories were slowly, through numb lips, related?not so much for the good reverend, who had little to say and needed only to nod kindly, to put his large fat palm on the leg of this shaking man, whose knees were covered with a polyester tartan blanket normally used for roadside picnics with his wife (for the good reverend was one of the last firm believers in the glories of the roadside picnic, being old enough to remember the days of the early autos, when the reality of the quick conveyance of the Model A was still somehow confused with the day-long adventures of the horse and buggy)?fueled by a lifting of weight and the elation and mercy of the pain he had traveled through: the death of his wife, financial problems, whatever ill might be construed as the cause for his act, a reason for walking alone down railroad tracks.
Last thoughts don't come easily, last thoughts rising above the shock and pain and the roar of blood to the eardrums and colors splashing behind eyelids, the ping of water dripping off the tunnel wall, the shuffled footfalls of the boys taking their leave, leaving him behind against the wall. The tallest of the four kids leads, yards ahead of the rest. Before going, he'd leaned down with his lips right up to the old fuck's mouth to test for any air and felt nothing, and to rest assured did a drop-kick with the toe of his Doc Martens?steel-reinforced soles of some kind of rubber that was OIL FAT ACID PETROL ALKALI RESISTANT and stood up to the toughest abrasions and work conditions, made in England, birthplace of the Industrial Revolution. His kick made the hard, solid sound of castanets snapping between the fingers of a flamenco dancer as the bones of the man's chin?a dignified sharp chin at that?did a wishbone break. He was leading the bunch, a few yards ahead, because he finished the fuck off and was entitled to his space. All the way up the river mists were rising out of the tidal waters, and here he was reentering the world, shivering and clasping the sides of his sweatshirt before lighting up a cigarette, waiting to let the others catch up. The other guys came out of the tunnel light on the feet, kind of jumbled against one another, bumping and backslapping. As a finishing touch they'd gone back and laid the body over the tracks?an afterthought, a coda, a grand finish that would stand out as one of their great moves so far because it was certain to come, that one rattling beast of a train that always chewed up the last bits of silence the night had to offer, waking birds up and down the line, birds that would hawk and chirp stupidly in their sudden intense hunger; that train, an old New York Central engine repainted with Conrail colors, would haul a chain of some fifty or so beleaguered cars; they'd be down in the shithole diner tasting the weak coffee and eating eggs when the train rounded that bend in the river; they'd have their elbows fixed to the formica tabletop and the slick-headed one would be saying Fucking A, it's a fucking trip, man. I mean fuckin' A, do you hear what I'm hearing man? while the others nod and allow themselves a few minutes of silence?not even a nervous Fuck muttered?a brooding contemplation deep and spiritual, full of weight, or weightless of morals, of God or no God, as their stars aligned or unaligned, depending on how you see it. The body was found a half mile down the track by the engineer, who saw it first in the disk of his headlight and began the immediate emergency procedure for stopping a thousand tons of stock, air breaks and friction breaks both applied, turning away so he wouldn't have to see the impact?actually he'd never see it anyway, hidden by the front of his locomotive, but turning anyway out of respect for the about-to-die. The body lodged up under the coupling, or parts of it at least: divided cleanly, the legs stayed back in the tunnel.
By the time the train got there he was gone, either a skull vacant of chemical and electrical activity, simple as that, or a soul rising up through limestone and shale into the twilight sky: he was dead. When he died, shortly after that final kick, going deep into the shock that precedes systems shutting down, the train was still in New Jersey, heaving and bucking along the backside of Newark Airport, close enough to the runways to give the engineer a fine view of a TWA flight to LA roaring into the night sky, that morose exchange of warning lights going from one wing to another marking the wingspan. A kinship the engineer felt with all machines was provoked in him as he watched it, leaning down, craning his neck to see out the narrow cab windows. A tail of heat, bending stars, poured from the engines, curving off into the violet light of the refineries and suburbs as the tracks curved away and the train cut its path through the wetlands; it was later, perhaps in some recollection of that night, the body, another drunken stumblebum finished off by his train?it was his third such incident in two years?later that he would also remember the sight of that plane taking off; not that he made a connection between the two events that night, but he felt somehow that there was one between the plane and the death of the man whose body had wedged beneath what was once a cowcatcher and now was just a square-cut chink of metal frame meant to blunt the impact if the train did come into contact with anything. Because the truth is this engineer was a good soul who still wedded a romantic love of trains and what they used to mean?stretching their vast rails across this great continent?with a particular sense of the demands of the job. He had an ability to take the ever-increasing frequency of bodies lying across the tracks and turn it into a philosophical precept of sorts: the world was failing, spinning into something bad and evil, away from what once was firm and hard and, of course, united with steel and wood and broken stone?clean, white right-of-ways, timetables seldom broken. The full weight and burden of the death lay on the engineer's shoulders because he did not know that the man had been dead for a good twenty-five minutes before his engine sliced the body in half; of course he had gone through the procedure of stopping the train, applying the brakes, radioing to Central with the information, using his recently installed cellular phone to dial up the Haverstraw police, and so forth, but none of this alleviated the weight of the death, which he carried with him for the next several weeks not as a debilitating grief or a sense of guilt but just as a bad kind of feeling, a bothersome notion, that somehow through some miracle or grace he might have anticipated the body in the tunnel, known by some small sign?perhaps the plane lifting off?that a man would be in the tunnel, and therefore saved a life. In the late-afternoon light, as he drank his coffee at his kitchen table and prepared himself for the shift ahead, he thought of the man whose body had had to be pried out from under the cab by rookie police whose eyes?glassy and wide?had betrayed their shock at the sight, a torso barely resembling a human figure; by taking a spiritual triangulation from those faces, lit by emergency arc lamps and flashlight beams, from his perch on the beat-up Naugahyde cab seat (he refused to come down from there, refused to participate in the cleaning away of the body), he had known and felt the damage his beast of a machine had done, leaving a smear of blood and guts. And there, one morning at the kitchen table, in his house down along the river beneath the stone quarry, within walking distance of this latest disaster?with his wife in the other room singing to the baby and outside, down a bank of hackweed and brambles, the Hudson sheet-metal calm?there he sat trying hard not to hear all that music that was being made and had been made by his machine and the lives living around him, and the Brahms he had never heard before but was now somehow hearing softly, that Andante finally reappearing again but now as a solemn chorale. Evening was falling softly over the Hudson Valley. Fall was nearing. The air was cool and clear. His child was asleep. His wife came out in her jeans and T-shirt and kissed his forehead softly, holding her lips there, knowing what he was thinking about because he had been thinking about it for two weeks now. The weight of that death. But it was time for work, her kiss said. Softly, he returned the kiss. He put on his jacket, went to look one last time at the baby, to pass his thumb over her eyelids. He walked up the cinderblock steps to his truck feeling the weight lift. Evening was falling sweetly between the trees. There was the smell of the water, earth, sky. A barge rested in the river, waiting for stone. Down the street kids rode their bikes around in circles. It was a good job even if things weren't going the way they should in the world. It was a good, good job.
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