When my brother gets in the truck he sighs: “Dude’s dead as hell.”
It’s after midnight and I’ve been waiting in the company truck for over an hour. A body lays scattered about the railroad tracks less than a hundred yards away. I’m supposed to be on vacation.
I can’t see the dead man’s body from here. A copse of trees grown through with brambles blocks my view. And even if it weren’t midnight and the trees weren’t in the way, the swirling, stroboscopic red and blue lights of the police cruisers blind me, dark floaters drift across my retinas. All I see from the passenger seat of the truck is a limp length of police tape strung between an electrical pole and the metal post where the striped crossing arm attaches. The crossing arms keep going up and down, up and down, red lights flashing off and on, a loud bell dinging urgently, as men in white hard hats test to make sure the body parts haven’t fouled up the mechanism.
In the hour that my brother has been gone, I’ve seen three cars try to outrun the descending gates. This is alarming. The man that my brother has just confirmed dead was struck by a train whose engineer had thrown the emergency brake laid on the air horn and flashed the headlamps—but cars entering the tracks at the last moment like this would be hit at top speed. The driver and any passengers would have no chance.
My brother returns to the truck: “I’m sorry it’s taking so long,” he says. “We’re waiting for the police to finish up, then we can check the track.” He confirms what I already know: the train crew saw the man well ahead of time, they blew the whistle and flashed the lights but he just kept right on walking straight down the middle of the tracks. He says this, raises his eyebrows and gives me another cigarette from the box in his jeans pocket. He slams the truck door and crosses back to the other side of the street to rejoin the cluster of men in hard hats. A police officer with a wheeled measuring device ducks the yellow tape and disappears behind the trees. I sit smoking, watching the smoke fill up the cab and take on the color of the police lights, and imagine his role in this: approximating how long it took the train to strop, measuring the distance the body traveled after impact by the space between blood spatters.
It was only an hour ago that my wife, daughter and I arrived at my brother’s house in Dublin, a tony suburb of Columbus, Ohio. We were on our way to our parents’ house farther north, near Toledo, but accepted my brother’s invitation to stay the night, have dinner, catch up, hang-out. It would be a good way to break up the long drive from Virginia, plus we hadn’t seen each other in nearly a year, since before he got engaged, and moved with his fiancé into his own place, with his own furniture—nothing hand-me-down from our parents. I think he wanted to show it off to his big brother: the 50” flat screen television, the Pottery Barn furniture, the stainless steel appliances and the sweet yet skittish miniature greyhounds who dance about on their hind legs licking Charlotte’s face.
As we drove north through West Virginia, I kept telling myself I didn’t begrudge him a stick of furniture, or an inch of his television, but deep down I was jealous—we, my wife, Jess, daughter, Charlotte, live in an apartment smaller than the one Jess and I lived in before Charlotte was born. The color is going on the TV set we inherited from a friend who moved to New York City. All of our furniture is second-hand. And we regularly take Charlotte, who is three and very tall for her age, over to friends’ houses to bathe in their bathtubs. She is too big from the plastic tub that we wedge sideways into the tiny bathroom shower stall. But my brother has earned it all, working his ass off on the railroad, the same railroad our dad’s been working for over thirty years. He started working on rail gangs just like our dad and has already started his way up the ladder. He’s got a good brain: methodical and sharp, hip to all the shortcuts that lead to shoddy work because he’s taken so many himself. Things have worked out in the end for him; he’s mended his ways, found a good woman—a doctor—to love.
As we lugged our suitcases toward the house, Charlie’s cell phone rang. He checked the display—“shit,” he said, and by the way he said it I could tell it was work-related. He set the suitcase down in the middle of the street and answered it. He got a far-away look in his eye: “Oh, man . . . That’s terrible.” My brother has this tone of voice unique to tragic news, a tone that seems genuinely sorry and disturbed, which is how I knew something was really wrong.
“Shit. A pedestrian was hit by a train,” he said. “I gotta go check it out.” As we made our way up the drive to his house, he assured me it wouldn’t take long: just drive out there to the south edge of town, sweep the flashlight over the rail, call the maintenance folks with any problems, and come back. He wouldn’t even be the one to do the fixing; he just had to do the checking. “It’ll only take an hour,” he said. But I knew from the countless nights our dad had received similar phone calls that seemingly simple procedures can turn into all-night trackside vigils. I considered this history while standing in the doorway to their master bathroom—double sink, double vanity mirrors—while Charlotte splashed ecstatically like a liberated seal in their tub. We didn’t know his fiancé very well then, and I cringed at the thought of spending a mutually awkward evening, so even though I knew it was against the rules, I asked anyway: “Mind if I come along?” This seemed like a brotherly bonding thing we could do together, like kids who hear about a dead squirrel in the road and set out to investigate. He hesitated. “Just don’t tell Dad.”
“I hope I don’t see anything,” Charlie said as we merged onto the interstate headed for the south side, the rough torn edge of Columbus. “Most likely some bum was walking on the tracks.” Apparently, there are whole shantytowns along these tracks. I imagine lean-tos made of aluminum siding and old swimming pool tarps strung between trees, little encampments that usually get broken up by the railroad police because they’re such a huge liability. But then there are those that aren’t so much homeless squatters as they are wanderers. They see the tracks as a short cuts or long cuts, or to kill time before checking back in at the shelter. “I never report them to the police,” my brother says, lighting a cigarette.
Charlie is the wanderer of the family—a Kerouac fan, a lover of road trips and fast driving with one arm out the window, cigarette in hand, radio blaring. In another time maybe he would have ridden the rails, tramping in search of work from Ohio all the way to the central valley of California and back. “I see them all the time,” my brother says. “I tell them to stay off the tracks or something like this might happen.” I imagine my brother saying this standing on the threshold of the woods, bumming cigarettes to hoboes in wool caps.
We were both raised to be compassionate toward those who have less. Really, the one thing we have in common. The difference is my brother’s reasons for compassion stem from dropping out of college, selling plasma, and generally having a hard time settling down into what he wanted to do with his life. My compassion is intellectual, theoretical, theological: Whatever you do for the least of my brothers you do unto me, and all that social justice, liberation theology stuff. In fact, I applied to Masters of Divinity programs but didn’t get in.
Still driving, Charlie reached awkwardly behind his seat and produced a spiral-bound road atlas-looking thing—a track diagram. He laid the diagram in his lap and traced his finger over the sparse network of thin blue lines labeled with very small numbers and letters. The lines diverge, converge and form wide, sideways trees like a basketball tournament bracket. He was still trying to decipher the map as we exited onto a wide boulevard lined with check cashing joints, liquor stores, nail salons, and steel bar-windowed mini-marts where you can buy gold by the foot and pay your electric bill.
From the diagram he could see that the track where the man was hit ran parallel and just behind this strip of stores, so he turned right and headed in that general direction. But coming to the crossing we found no train. So we made a left and followed the tracks certain that we’d eventually come to the right crossing, the train and the dead man. This kind of intuitive navigating is possible in the Midwest because the land is flat and the tracks run straight and true across it, east to west and north to south, but the street curved sharply away from the tracks, into a warren of shoulderless roads lined with broken down houses. Finally, rounding a bend in the road we saw through the tangled brush and trees the bright headlamps and could hear the deep, industrial roar of the engine. It was black and still, awaiting a new crew—the policy in a fatal train collision. But there was no crossing, just these sickly trees and stacks of railroad ties.
We wound our way back to the boulevard and pulled into the first gas station we saw to ask directions and fill up.
“I’ve heard stories,” my brother said, as he wrote the mileage down in his gas log, “about pedestrians being hit by trains, and it isn’t pretty. One time, guys showed up and the victim was completely naked; he’d been dragged for hundreds of yards.” He jumped out of the truck and jogged across the parking lot to ask directions, and I sat meditating on the story. He hadn’t gotten to the gory part yet, the condition of the man when they found him. What would that do to a man? All I could think of was that they found him naked. I imagined the impact—several tons of energy simply obliterating his clothing, turning it instantaneously to fine dust, still floating in the air around his miraculously unblemished body which had come to rest in a deep crater, like an angel fallen to earth.
That was two hours ago. Presently, a police officer approaches the clutch of smoking, hard-hatted men, says something, gestures in the direction of the crossing, and ducks back under the police tape. The men stamp out their cigarettes and follow. I watch, breathless, as my brother ducks the yellow tape and disappears into the dark, behind the trees. For a while afterwards I sit staring at the exact point he crossed the police line, like the spot where a diver enters dark water. What will he see in the beam of his flashlight? The suspense is likely to be gruesome: a trail of blood and gore leading. . .
I eye the spare hard hat in the back seat. From some dark, windowless, basement room of my imagination comes a voice: Get out of the truck. Duck under the tape. But my feet are leaden, all but bolted to the floorboard. I am always at the periphery of tragedy, never the heart. I let someone else muster the courage, absorb the blow.
Charlie emerges from behind the trees and comes to the truck. He says the coroner wants him to highrail down to the body so they can throw it in the bed. I feel a shiver of excitement when I imagine the black body bag in the back of the truck and the sense of purpose, of being close to death, of being part of this. More time passes before a man in a jacket marked “coroner” approaches the truck and knocks on the window. “Hey, which truck are you going to use to drive down there?” he asks. “This one,” I say, patting the dash, authoritatively. He crosses to the street to work out the logistics with my brother. The man from the coroner’s office points, my brother looks in the direction of the tracks and the body. The suspense is thrilling, but the violence is taking place off-stage, much to the disappointment and relief of the audience.
In the end, we do not pick up the body. The coroner gets impatient and sends a team of paramedics with a stretcher down the tracks to retrieve the pieces and zip them up in a body bag. They heave the bag up onto the silver gurney and push it, clattering, across the gravelly shoulder to the waiting ambulance, lights off.
As the ambulance pulls away, Charlie gets back in the truck. “Sorry, I didn’t think it would take this long.” Immediately he lights a cigarette, starts the truck and executes a turnabout in a driveway just beyond the crossing. He says with trace of a nervous laughter in his voice, “I had to look.” His clothes were shredded; his elbow was over his head at an impossible angle; a foot separated from the body; bits of bone and brain and skin—just as I had imagined. But then he told me what I could never have imagined: a backpack, its contents strewn about: a sandwich in a zip-loc bag, a bottle of honey, the kind shaped like a bear. He also might have been listening to an i-Pod, my brother says. A pair of the iconic white headphones on the tracks. Wouldn’t he have heard the whistle? Those whistles can be heard for miles. My brother shrugs in a way that makes it clear he thinks the guy wanted to die.
I’ve seen him before, Charlie says. He lives nearby with his mother; he’s kind of slow. I realize that my brother has thought about this before, imagined the dead man’s life, why he’s walking the tracks, what he’s doing when not walking the tracks, followed him home in his mind. We drive the rest of the way in silence, our minds still sweeping those dark tracks, though my vision of the dismembered corpse is fueled by old zombie films, my brother’s by actual flesh and blood.
Every day for a week I check the papers, but there’s never any mention of the man’s death. It’s not the greatest injustice, but does it not judge the value of his life? I keep feeling that if I’d only been there to see the broken body, then I would have something to say about what happened to him, something legitimate, not a writerly attempt at transfiguration, a lame attempt to make sacred the body of a man I did not know, did not see, did not care to see.
Ultimately, though, I’m not up to telling you everything you need to appreciate the power of this evening spent waiting in my brother’s truck. One, It would take too long and two, it would do more harm than good. I mean, what I can say? –what I’m sure could be said by many brothers: I haven’t forgiven him for something that happened years ago. And now, here, on the verge of praising him, admitting that I admire him, that I’ve been wrong to not forgive him, even now, I want to turn back to this dead man on the railroad tracks.
Really, this is all a perversion of social justice, a red-herring. I want this man for my scapegoat, that his death might take away the history between my brother and I. I hoped that going with my brother that night, talking with him about this man—drunk, drug-addled, depressed, despised, who knows—we might finally acknowledge how close we’d both come to his fate: dissolution; disintegration; death. We’ve both been to this crossing before, heard the whistle, seen the piercing light. But I can’t bring myself to say it—he’s just doing his job and I’m doing mine.
My concern is that my job is dishonest; that what I am doing is romanticizing the tragic, seeing grit for glamour. There’s a sense that whatever happened to this man, whatever circumstances lead to his death are more real, more compelling than my own problems.
That was eight months ago. We’ve never spoken about that night on the tracks. Since then, my brother has married. At the wedding, standing around an icy tub filled with beer, my uncles were amazed at how their nephews had grown. Dancing with my wife and my grandmother, swinging my daughter around by her hands, I thought of the ceremony. The deacon, the owner of a local flower shop chain, offered a stirring homily from the hand-carved wooden lectern, a statue of Mary over his shoulder:
They have become united, [but] it’s wrong to think that they have merged into one person; it’s not like two streams meeting and becoming one, but two parallel streams, sometimes separated by a brief portage and other times miles; like two people who meet in a dense wood and decide to take up journeying together, not for a day, or a week, or a season, until it grows cold, but for the rest of their lives.
I suppose my melancholy came from the stunned realization that my brother had chosen someone besides himself, that he would now bend his will to another’s. Standing in the dark back yard surrounded by his friends and family, he seemed transformed by the vows he made, and suddenly the old anger seemed irrelevant, and I was ashamed.
Maybe that night on the edge of Columbus is doomed to be forever just a dark void between us—each of us unsure of its significance. I want to call him up and tell him that I think I have it figured out: We’ve both been to this crossing before, heard the whistle, seen the piercing light, and stood there for a few mad seconds thinking, “What if I just don’t move?”