My new house was close to the railroad tracks that cut through the city’s lower south side. When my insomnia kept me awake, I heard the trains’ hooting calls, each one a warning to cars and late-night ramblers that they were passing by, crossing through, and I could not sleep until their wailing whistles subsided.
I awoke one night in a terror; the house’s shadows trembled as a train passed by and an engineer with no mercy yanked the whistle cord, producing one long scream in the night. I imagined the engineer in his engine, his grimace at the dark that surrounded him, glaring at the streetlights that winked at his slow-moving train. Everyone within blocks of the tracks jolted awake, but he didn’t care. I heard this particular engineer several times: the angry call of his whistle gave him away. Some nights, when his whistle was particularly loud and I was bitter about lost sleep, I imagined that his wife had just left him, and I created for him a home as dark and cold as the night through which he passed. His whistle screamed to the neighborhood, and the people were forced to listen. But other nights, the nights when I was already awake and alone in the dark of my room, I imagined that the whistle was anxious, not angry: the engineer’s wife waits for him at home; she’s just returned from her night job as a police dispatcher. She has made three sunny-side up eggs, two for him and one for her, and buttered three pieces of toast, one for him and two for her, and poured two tall glasses of cold orange juice. After breakfast, they will retire to bed and, curled together, sleep through the sunlit hours.
But the trains sounded distant during the day. Even when I am at the bus stop, much closer to the tracks, I only faintly hear them over the sounds of traffic and birdsong. And the bus, too, has its own hissing, rumbling noise, which masked the sounds of even the closest trains. The people on the bus and I have grown accustomed to this noise and to each other, having seen each other so often that we became caricatures to each other: the old unshaven man whose fingers fidget the entire ride, whose pot belly extends below his shirt; the tiny woman who always wears a Mi Rancherito polo, who pays her fare in nickels and dimes; the twenty-something guy with arms covered in dulling tattoos, who wears a University of Utah hoodie on cold mornings; the thin young woman with a sparkling wedding band, whose long, straight hair hides her face; the middle-aged woman whose body flows over the seat of her motorized wheelchair; a young man with a mental disability, who stared at me with an empty expression when I got on and never looks away when I stare back; and me, the college kid with thrift store clothing and a book bag with a squirrel patch on it. These people all live close to the tracks, too, and I wonder how they slept. But nobody talks about the trains. No one talks at all. We tried to keep our eyes watching the window or beyond, feeling claustrophobic in our proximities as the sun rose over the mountains.
One of the other engine drivers was matter-of-fact in her pulling of the cord: three short bursts of cacophony, each one the same length, a rhythm I could appreciate as I lay not sleeping on my foam mat. She pulled hard and released quickly; her arm pumping three times in rapid succession. She knew that people were sleeping, that the woman with the sparkling wedding ring and her husband were together in bed after their baby was finallyasleep, praying the rumbling pitch won’t stir her; that the tattooed man was just barely passing out after a night hard studying; that the restaurant worker must rise in less than an hour to make breakfast for her family before catching the early bus to Mi Ranchaerito where she will make lunch and dinner for smiling strangers; that I did not sleep but fitfully all night and was just barely sliding into sleep. She knew all this, knew that we in our houses had our concerns, but she has hers, too. She gave no defense for the way things are. She knew that her charge cut through the middle of our quiet night, but still, the whistle had to be whistled.
One overcast afternoon I walked down to the tracks perchance to see a train, which I didn’t. The neighborhood appeared to be empty; I passed numerous overgrown lawns and weedy gardens. The highway humming in the distance and the birds singing in tangled trees provided the only accompaniment to my feet’s thumping cadence. I stepped onto the train platform, a barren concrete slab with a few benches encased in a heavily scratched glass gazebo. An itinerary taped to the glass told me that the passenger trains that rolled through twice each night moved between Chicago and San Francisco. Another poster showed two teenagers with coolers of beer at their feet fishing off a railroad bridge, unaware of the large train approaching behind them. I turned away from the poster and towards my house. Two older ladies, a mother and grandmother, had come out to sit on the crumbling steps of the peeling house that faced the tracks. Several children played with a rotting pool table under a large oak tree, and I smiled at them from my place on the sidewalk. The women nodded from behind their fence but kept speaking only to each other.
I kept thinking of that poster, and that night, another engineer: His whistle built in a slow crescendo and died away with a mournful coda so that I only heard because I was already awake and waiting for the morning. He started with his fingers just lightly on the cable, just a touch before he added pressure, then, slowly, more, climaxing at the same moment be began to release the cord just as slowly, as though once he had a grasp on it he was hesitant to let it go. His was the train in the poster, and he knew the importance of the whistle. Without the warning, cars will run across the tracks too late, or teenagers, high or drunk or just stupid, won’t get off the tracks. He has felt the train shudder with a sickening thud as those teenagers with the fish and the beer died on his watch. It wasn’t his fault, and he knows it wasn’t his fault; the police, his girlfriend, the company lawyers and grief counselors, his pastor, and the teens’ families have all told him that it wasn’t his fault. There was nothing he could do. The track had already been laid, the velocity of the train beyond his control. He has made his peace with the families and God and himself, but when he is alone with his thoughts on the train in the night the whistle builds and falls with his remorse. He whistled a warning and an apology both, a whistling wave that broke on us all, but all we could do was listen.
BIO: Scott Russell Morris is a faculty member at the University of Utah Asia Campus. His essays have previously appeared in Brevity, The Chattahoochee Review, Superstition Review, and elsewhere.