Author’s Note: “When a childhood friend told me about his devastating work injury, my mind flashed back to a time when we were sure we were immortal and invulnerable. I wrote this piece as a tribute to our friendship in those younger years, and out of a desire to understand what drove our acts of daring.”
JOHN AND I NEVER WANTED TO MISS THE TRAIN. We left home early to be sure of it. High school freshmen, we clambered up the steep embankment to the railroad tracks every morning to perform our daily ritual.
At first, it was quiet up there. Early sun shone over the long stretch of tracks heading south to Detroit and north to Pontiac. We scanned the tracks shrinking away toward the north. There was no curve. You could see a train coming from a long way off.
We set down our lunch bags a couple of yards from the edge of the track and waited for the southbound train. It passed reliably every morning, not long after we arrived—early enough so we wouldn’t be late for class. There was something satisfying about this regularity.
We kept watch until we could make out the cyclops eye of the train’s headlight in the distance. Then John knelt, placing his head on the track as if bowing before an executioner’s ax. Laying an ear on the rail, he encouraged me to do the same. I complied without hesitation, as I always did with John. The rail was cold against my cheek. I felt the sharp, irregular edges of rocks beneath my knees through my jeans, sometimes a breeze on the back of my neck.
We knelt this way for long moments, facing each other. John’s face—sometimes grinning, sometimes deadly serious— blocked my view of the approaching train. Our eyes widened as the slight vibration of the rail became a steady hum in our ears. The only other sound was my own heart thumping, racing faster and faster until I couldn’t bear it. I was always the first one to tear my head away, to stand up and stumble back from the tracks. John quickly followed, more composed, barely suppressing a triumphant smile.
We looked up at the nearing locomotive, not yet close enough to make out a face in the front window. Sunlight glared off glass. Turning to reach for our lunch bags, we hurriedly unwrapped our sandwiches—John’s peanut butter and jelly and my bologna and cheese—and laid them carefully on the rail, side by side.
The sound of the approaching train was overwhelming now. The air around us changed. The barreling behemoth created a cyclone that ravaged our hair as we rushed away from the track. The engineer let loose a deafening blast from the horn.
The speeding train overtook our world, as if we were watching this scene on the big screen. In the clattering noise and wind, we watched from fifteen feet away, our eyes locked on the sandwiches. They trembled on the rail, small and insignificant in the path of the relentless leviathan. The mass and noise of it blotted everything out—any thought of the day’s classes, the anxiety of our home lives, the urgent need to figure out the world, to find our place in it. In that moment, there was only the train, the sandwiches, the two of us watching.
We stared, holding our breath, as the food meant to sustain us through the day met the steel wheels of the hurtling train. In a blur, the wheels intersected the sandwiches—first one, then the other. Bits of squished food sprayed out behind the wheels, splattering across rocks several feet from the edge of the track.
After the last car passed, we inspected the ground for the scattered remains of what was to have been our lunch. By mid- afternoon, our stomachs would rumble restlessly, but it was worth it. We would be up on these tracks the next morning doing the same thing. What probably started as a joke or a dare quickly became our daily routine.
I can’t say for certain why we did it. I suppose it was the thrill of it that appealed to us—feeling vividly alive in the face of mortal danger. Maybe it was an intuitive acknowledgment of all the things in life we can’t control—the way they eventually bear down on us, steaming and frothing out of the haze.
LAST WEEK, JOHN CALLED to tell me about his impending spinal surgery.
We kept in touch over the years, every now and then, though life had pulled us in different directions. Our shared past created a bond I felt could outlast anything.
John had always been larger than life—a reputation he’d carefully curated through one daredevil stunt after another: juggling as he walked across the high rail of a playground swing set, racing his skateboard up a homemade wooden ramp, without pads or a helmet.
It was the same old John on the line. In an unwavering voice, he told me about the pain, the pills, the lawsuit against his longtime employer. Rather than replacing a broken forklift, company managers taught employees a manual technique to “safely” unload 300-pound drums from delivery trucks.
Three of John’s cervical vertebrae were damaged in the accident, one of them semi-crushed. His doctor warned that without surgery, there was a high probability of paralysis. Surgery carries its own risks, I learned after the call, anxiously reviewing medical websites. Risks of infection, blood loss and permanent nerve damage.
“My doctor didn’t mince words,” John said, “This is serious stuff.”
Listening on the line, I felt a knot tightening in my gut. My mind jumped back to those fall mornings on the tracks. The low rumble of the train barreling out of the distance.
Alfred Fournier’s nonfiction essay is in the new edition of the Delmarva Review. He is a writer and community volunteer in Phoenix, Arizona. Fournier runs poetry workshops for Connect and Heal, a local nonprofit. His poetry has appeared in Plainsongs, The Main Street Rag, Third Wednesday, Welter, Ocotillo Review, among others, and his creative nonfiction has been in Lunch Ticket, Toho Journal, and is forthcoming in Kind Writers and The Perch Magazine.
Delmarva Review, Volume 14, presents evocative new poetry, fiction, and nonfiction by seventy authors that stood out from thousands of submissions during the year. The nonprofit review is available in print and digital editions worldwide from Amazon.com and other online booksellers, as well as from regional specialty bookstores. Website: delmarvareview.org.
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