Commuter Train

— Susie Griffith

She couldn’t contain herself.  The train had been sitting outside her kitchen window for 45 minutes.  Her friend, who lived on the other side of the tracks, texted her and said somebody had been hit by that train on its way into the city.  She watched it for a while, being sure to look out the one window without a screen so she could see it better.  She and her friend exchanged more texts, containing little solid information and much speculation.  She cleaned up the breakfast dishes, fed the dog, changed the laundry.  Then she just had to go see.

She didn’t even take the time to grab gloves or to stuff her unruly curly hair under a hat.  Simply tossing on a winter coat over her yoga pants, hands jammed in pockets, she walked out of the house, down the street, around the block.  She crossed under the viaduct to the other side of the tracks.  A woman walking towards her said, “Don’t go down there.”

“Why not?” she asked.

“There’s a body on the tracks.” And the woman passed on.

She paused.  Well, of course, I’m going down there, she thought.  That’s what I came to see.

She continued down the block.  She saw cops, an ambulance, a man finishing his morning run.  She looked over to her left and there was the body, under a white sheet, sort of strewn off to the side, half on the tracks, half on the embankment, as if the force of the train had gently nudged the body aside after trampling it.  There were cops around the body.  One of them obligingly lifted the sheet so they could take a picture of the body and she saw it.  Black clothes, shirt hunched up around the midriff, the un-humanly white skin of a porcelain doll.  She couldn’t tell if it was a man or a woman.

She stood for a moment, knowing that the cops would see her, knowing that they would tell her to move along.  She paused another minute, for as long as she dared, then she walked around the block as if she had been on an errand of little importance, an ordinary neighbor.  She got back to her obsessively tidy house and resolved to get on with her busy day, but the hovering train outside her kitchen window was an insistent houseguest that she could not dismiss.

There was no doubt that trains had always captivated her.  That’s why they bought the house with the train tracks behind it.  That’s why she laughed when the realtor considered the commuter line running through the yard a buyer’s detraction.  When the trains would zip by, she would often pause whatever she was doing to watch them go.  If they were sitting on their deck, her husband grilling dinner and she sipping wine, they would raise their arms gleefully and cry “Train!” as the heavy engine rattled the house on its journey past.  Before owning the house, she would sometimes go out of her way on dog walks to see the trains rumble by, making her dog sit to watch them with her.  One of her earliest memories was of her grandmother excitedly pulling an ottoman over to the bedroom window, just the right height for a small child to stand on and see the train pass on the other side of the lake, her grandmother’s arm loosely draped around her waist to keep her safe from falling.  She remembered the family game of counting freight cars rolling slowly past the crossing gate, her mother turned around in her car seat to entertain the children while her father tapped the steering wheel impatiently, trapped.

So, she had to see.  She had to know.

She went back to her kitchen to bake some pumpkin bread for the weekend, listening to the thrum of the engine outside her window, as steady as a heartbeat.  When she saw men on the tracks in their neon orange jackets, she opened the sliding glass door to the deck, hoping to catch their conversation but the engine was too loud.  Were they looking for evidence, a note, perhaps, that had been pinned to the black shirt?  Were they cleaning up personal affects that had been strewn as casually and as violently as the body?  Her friend texted her that the Internet reported it was a woman.  Had this woman been in despair of her life, or had she been taking a short cut that proved beyond foolish?  Had she looked up to face the demon of her choice?  Would her eyes haunt the engineer until the end of his days?  Or was her back turned, rendering her last act faceless?

Throughout the morning she watched.  The engine sat idle for two hours.  She washed up the dishes from her baking, aware that she couldn’t stop glancing up at the train, confirming it was still there.  When it finally pulled out, it slipped away from her so quietly she was startled to see it gone.  Which way did it go?  It must have continued on its path southbound, for surely she would have heard it going the other way.  It was as if it had evaporated.  One minute, it was there and the next, it was the quiet that had made her look up.  She felt a sense of betrayal, as if a lover had left town without saying goodbye, or a bad habit had faded away without the struggle of making it go.  She felt very alone.

With accustomed efficiency, she went about her day, ticking off household tasks, walking the dog, running into friends.  “Did you hear?  Happened right behind our house, I saw the body.” She knew enough not to call her husband with the news.  He would consider her fascination ghoulish.  But the rumble of the engine stayed with her all day nonetheless.

Her husband was out of town on business so she was alone that night.  She was still caught by the concept of someone standing on the tracks and letting the engine approach, feeling the vibrations in the rails, hearing the frantic wail of the train as the engineer tried to stop.  What does that impact feel like?  Does it knock your breath away?  Do you feel yourself floating?  Or are you just suddenly lifted, thrown, gone?

And why, with all the magical promise of mobility that a train offers, all the romantic imaginings of an undefined life, of fantastical places and people, why would that woman choose to stop its progress?

She was enthralled.

She walked the dog late that night, last walk of the night.  She had to go by.  The dog was confused.  Why are we taking this different path, he seemed to proclaim with every hesitant step.  She walked past the spot where she had seen the body, and she couldn’t resist.  She scrambled up the embankment, the dog pulling at the leash, afraid.  She stood at the edge, her foot on a rail, looking both ways down the dark tracks.  There was no train coming.  She could not feel vibrations in the rails.  The only sound in the crisp, urban night was a distant police siren.  She stood, looked down the long, uninterrupted distance, and she wondered.  What would it feel like?

 


 

Susie Griffith is an actor and writer who has pursued the non-linear career path of an artist, working jobs that span the gamut from paralegal support to hand modeling, box office retail to fitness professional. She holds a Bachelor of Science from the School of Speech at Northwestern University, where she studied theater, playwriting and screenwriting. She began her career working in theater management, and was a member of and served as the Managing Director and Grant Writer for Terrapin Theatre in Chicago for nine years. She also served as a grant writer for various not-for-profit organizations for several years, most saliently for Steppenwolf Theatre Company. As an adjunct career to theater and writing, she taught Pilates for 15 years.

Originally from Ohio, she now lives in Chicago with her wonderful husband, a timid border collie, and a mostly blind cat. In addition to short story and novella creative writing, she continues to perform in the vital Chicago theater scene, and uses her writing passion to create elaborate back-stories for her characters.