Wednesday, December 28, 2005

I hear that train a'comin'

Something's just not right when everyone in your family knows a different person who has been hit by a train.

This came up around the dinner table at my dad's house on Boxing Day. The tradition of morbid holiday discussion goes back to when I was very young, when my older sister told me about a woman who had been driving drunk after Christmas shopping and fatally crashed her car on the bend of highway in front of our house, which, though I hadn't known it until then, was named Dead Man's Curve. I question this story now—why wasn't it called Dead Woman's Curve?—but for years, I was haunted by the image of wrapped gift boxes scattered across the road among blood and shattered glass.

Anyway, the train thing: You might expect my dad might know someone who took a decidedly one-way trip by rail. One of the various bars he hangs out in is called the Railside Cafe, which, true to its name, stands mere feet from the freight tracks that run across the main street of the village of Cardinal. I've sat on a stool there, fingering a toothbrush that I had in my pocket and wondering how amazed the locals would be to see such a curious implement. They seem to take a casual approach to holding onto things like their teeth, their eyes, their fingers, and I expect, their lives. So my dad may very well have known one or two drunks who staggered out the front door, turned left, and got pulped by a train. I hope so for their sake. It's pretty sad to see all those middle-aged men sitting at the bar, watching junior hockey on TV, and listening to Springsteen's "Glory Days" on the radio.

But most of my family doesn't live in Cardinal—thank god—yet they all seem to know somebody who got hit by a train. Even my 10-year-old niece knew a couple of schoolmates who went out like Ray Brower in Stand By Me. And I know a guy who got hit by a train too. It didn't kill him, though. I knew him after it happened.

In high school back in Brockville, I worked at a local grocery store. A lot of characters come in when you work at a grocery store, especially when your hometown has a mental hospital, because everyone needs to eat. For example, there was the old harridan called Delta Dawn (for the flower she always had on), whose hunchbacked posture, croaking shout, and terrifyingly cranky demeanor made Anne Ramsay from Throw Momma from the Train look like Julie Andrews. She made a lot of trouble for the staff.

And there were the two developmentally handicapped guys who always came in together, an old guy named Homer and a younger guy named Mikey, who was very dependent on Homer. Last Thanksgiving, I saw an older, silver-haired Mikey by himself in Wal-Mart, and my heart broke a little, because it probably meant that his best friend was dead and he had to make his way in the world alone. But I didn't talk to Mikey, because back in the day, they made a lot of trouble for the staff too.

And there was the quiet, smiling little old guy with the thick glasses and the big dent in his head. He'd just come in, buy his newspaper, and leave. He wasn't any trouble at all, except that he gave us something impossible not to stare at and wonder about. Eventually we learned that he'd been hit by a train, as I said. I'm sketchy on the details, except that I think it was on the job somehow. He must have been one tough little bastard to survive that, and there were apparently only two ill effects of his injury. First, there was that big dent in his head, which couldn't have had any kind of plate under it, because the fleshy hollow of the cavity pulsed mesmerizingly with every heartbeat. And second, his choice of newspaper after the accident was the Ottawa Sun, which can only really be chalked up to some sort of brain damage.

I never had any customers later on like the ones I had when I was sixteen. Jesus, does anyone?


Blogger TinaPoPo said...

Two of my good friends work as conductors for New Jersey Transit. Apparently people get hit by trains all the time, and then they have to stop the train and go back and assess the damage. Which also usually means pick up the pieces. Anytime a train they're conducting hits a person, they get an automatic three-day vacation.

12/28/2005 12:46:00 PM  
Blogger Peter Lynn said...

Doesn't give them a lot of incentive to hit the brakes, does it? It gives them incentive to hand out tokens to people who look depressed, though.

A co-worker of mine saw someone jump in front of a subway. The person was just swept by in front of her. It sounded horrible. She seemed really haunted by it when she told me about it.

12/28/2005 10:08:00 PM  
Anonymous tom said...

Shuddering fleshy hollow of the head aside, I wonder how many of these stories (other than the ones where you know the victim personally) are apocryphal - I mean I heard about at least two people who got their heads knocked off by a passing truck or something after sticking it out a school bus window, but two people decapitated in school bus incidents is a large number for the small town I grew up in.

Mind you, a lot of those people were dumber than a bag of hammers. It could have happened.

12/29/2005 03:12:00 PM  

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