A train pulling through the gray winter on the morning after Christmas. Sky still dark, snow melting in the drizzle of rain, windows fogged so the scenery ticking past feels almost like a secret—a peeling billboard, chewed-up utility pole, scrawl of graffiti—all of it glimpsed for just a breath before it’s gone, miles behind, windows fogged again. Boston to Rensselaer, Rensselaer to Syracuse. That is the itinerary. But early in the trip, somewhere just outside Worcester, Massachusetts, a man leaps in front of the train and is killed.
At first, none of us know what has happened. The train slows to a rest. Two of us leaning against each other in the seats, trying to will ourselves back to sleep. We search out each other’s hands beneath the blanket of our coats, squeeze each other’s fingers. Too early in the morning for conversation, but we likely wouldn’t have much to say to each other anyway, exhausted from the ritual of holiday, the obligations of family, the days spent traveling, and exhausted to some degree, I can say now, with each other, the relationship funneling toward its end, even if we haven’t yet realized it, even if we still whisper promises to each other in the night, voices hoarse with tears, clinging to one another like a child to a dream in the moments upon waking. I wish I could remember what any of the trouble between us was beyond the fact that we were young—nineteen, twenty-two—and when you feel like you need someone as desperately as we needed each other, you can’t help but hurt the other person, can’t help but be hurt, again and again and again. It was the kind of love where we punched walls because of how much we cared for each other. The kind of love where we pressed the tips of knives into our palms when the other person wasn’t around.
We slip in and out of consciousness, dreams full of the sound of other passengers—coats shifting against seats, someone rooting through the overhead—and we hope that we will wake into some new life, some new version of ourselves, where we are happier and kinder and where we don’t feel lonely sitting next to one another.
Instead, we wake to the same gray view, rub the sleeves of our coats against the window to reveal the smokestacks bleeding into sagging rainclouds, the ends of railroad ties giving way to a ravine messy with gravel and slush, crumbling brickyards, slanted houses that must shake whenever the train rolls by, and everything melting in the drizzle, the horizon cropped with chain-link fence.
“How long have we been like this?” The first words either of us speak that morning, and it takes a moment for me to realize that you are talking about the train. I check my phone; nearly two hours since the train stopped. Passengers standing now, chatting across the aisle, children watching cartoons on a laptop, the bright colors visible between the seats. A couple behind us talking about how there must be something wrong with the train, something mechanical that is being fixed, though by now, I can feel it—a grim knowledge taking shape in our minds, filling up the car. We all know something more than just the train is wrong and our imaginations can’t help but darken. A mother quieting her toddler. Someone whispering, “It must be so horrible.” The conductor walks hurriedly down the aisle toward the front of the train, fingers twisting the knob on his walkie-talkie so that, for a moment, the entire car is cut through with static.
When we’ve been stopped for near to three hours, the conductor appears again, standing at the front of the car, announcing that, because of “police activity” on the track, the train cannot move forward. In another thirty minutes, we’re all stepping out into the cold, lined up alongside the track, porter directing us toward the back of the train, everyone hoisting luggage across the gravel ravine, then out onto the road, where a fleet of buses awaits, the clack of railroad replaced with the rumble of diesel, and on through the narrow streets, past darkened houses with strings of dead lights, the neighborhood filled with a gray hush, then a slow turn toward the on-ramp and the gentle rush of speed against the windows, hum of the road beneath us, your hand in mine again, huddled beneath our coats again, everyone still whispering, solemn and worrying and thankful to finally be on our way. And you and I wishing, silently, that there was anything—anything at all—that we could do to save ourselves.
All told, nothing else happened that day. The bus left us outside Albany, where we boarded another train north to Schenectady then west, the sky dark again by that time, train barreling through the night, and on to Syracuse, a friend meeting us at the station, the two of us offering our yawns and tired laughter and thank-yous when we finally pull up in front of our little apartment on Clarendon Ave. We sleep like rocks and in the morning, we scan the local news from Worcester until we find the headline: Man Dies After Jumping In Front of Train. I’ll read the man’s name, but by afternoon, I’ll forget. Later, unpacking, I’ll find the ticket stubs from our trip and I’ll tuck them into a shoe box in the closet, thinking they’re important, but unable to tell myself why. It’s not about me or you. And it’s not about the dead man on the tracks. I’ll remember looking through the fogged glass, you snoring gently, my jacket bunched between our shoulders. I’ll lie awake at night, alone, years later, in a city hundreds of miles away from all that, and I’ll hear the sound of a train whistle in the distance, and I’ll think it is the most comforting sound in the entire world.
© Tyler McAndrew
[This piece was selected by Heather Cripps. Read Tyler’s interview]