ENGINE, RIDER, ENGINEER

by Sara McAulay


On Sunday afternoons when I was small, my father used to take me to the depot to watch the trains. There were still a few steam engines then; I remember the sound they made -- the thoughtful chuff. . .chuff as they inched with ponderous dignity away from the station after taking on the handful of passengers who always seemed to be there on the platform with us, waiting to go I couldn't imagine where. I remember that the engineer always waved, and for years I thought this was because he thought he knew me. I always waved back. Although the engineer was never anyone I recognized, I didn't want to hurt his feelings.
 
If the train was late or if we had arrived at the station earlier than usual, my father would amuse me by singing, telling stories, making me laugh with riddles and jokes. From time to time he'd check his watch and then cock his wrist so that I too could see. I remember the way the second hand moved, tick by discrete tick, round and round the little gold pin in the center. Once when I was very young, my father told me that the machinery that ran that watch of his was the same machinery that moved the sun and stars and caused the wind to blow. I stared at him. My dad? Of course! I'd known it all along. But when, one rainy Sunday, I whispered to him that I knew, he laughed, and picked me up and hugged me. He had been joking, he said, just joking. A watch was to tell time by, nothing more. "Look! Here comes the train."
 
And sure enough, there it always came, its headlight glinting in the distance.
 
The rail is cold against your cheek, there seems to be no comfortable position here tonight. Try kneeling and your back begins to ache, lie on your belly and the cinders of the roadbed bite through the thin fabric of your shirt. Rise above it, you tell yourself (it's what you always tell yourself. Mind over matter, a simple rearrangement). You smell the creosote of the ties. You smell woodsmoke, wet leaves, the clean scent of earth and stones. Every so often the wind shifts, bringing the river to you, its dank green smell brushing your face like Spanish moss.
 
The train is late. This train is always late. The cold rail sucks the warmth from your body, your face grows numb and yet there is that familiar flutter of excitement, quickening your breath. Tonight is not a dream! Your fingers tingle where they clutch the splintery cross-tie, and words to long-forgotten songs march through your mind.
O they gave him his orders in Monroe, Virginia

Saying, Steve, you're way behind time             

This is not thirty-eight, but it's old ninety-seven              

You must put her into Spencer on time.
 
Time and time again in dreams you have fitted yourself along this very rail--one leg, one arm, one eye on either side. Time and time again you have seen yourself fall open in neat halves; red flesh, black seeds, white fibers. You have seen this, and seen the long train groaning to a halt far down the track; seen the engineer running toward you in his bib overalls and striped cap--waving instead of a lantern a message of great importance. This is how it is in dreams. But now the rail itself is like a blade, not meant for waiting, and so you kneel and crouch, roll onto your back, sprawl on your stomach, and the wind shifts again, taking the river from you.
 
My father was an engineer. For years I thought that meant he was one of those brave strangers who waved to kids from the high cab of a locomotive. Other children envied me. I bartered my way onto kickball teams and into best-friendships with promises of long rides with my dad someday. "He'll let you ring the bell," I always said. It was hard to accept that instead of driving streamliners for a living, my father designed highways.
 
Now I too am an engineer, a specialist in vacuums, negative capabilities, lift and drag. I have been married and divorced, had lovers and lost them, made enemies and friends. No children. Nothing that lasted; even in my work, nothing so concrete as a freeway or bridge. I have traveled in every continent, but I always return to the house where I lived as a child. I stay with my mother, who is in her 80's now, a little deaf but still spry. Sometimes when we play cards in the evening she will look up and say, "I thought I heard a train."
 
It's her way of distracting me from the game, of giving herself an edge. I play along. "Probably the nine-oh-five," I always say, no matter what time it really is.
 
The train runs over you. You hear it all - -engine, whistle, scream of brakes. This time it's real, you tell yourself; tonight is not a dream. But before the lighted cars have finished flashing past, before the engineer can leap from the cab to deliver his message, the passenger appears, your nemesis, clutching his death in angry hands. "This isn't mine!" he grumbles. "It's too small. It pinches." As if it were a shoe!
 
The engine's wheels have emptied you. laying bare not soul but ends of bones, crosscut macaroni veins, glistening viscera on which the upflung cinder dust has already begun to settle. Soon the ambulance will be here. A crowd will gather. The passenger holds out his cupped hands, fingers pressed together to contain what is in fact a very little death, a mere demise.
 
"Fix it." There is no mistaking the resentment in his voice.
 
Who knows who he is -- this train-rider, this shorter of circuits, this gummer-up of works. (Indeed, who knows what train this is: A Train of Thought? The Great Train of Being? The nine-oh-five?) Who knows on what level this experience keeps taking place, night after night and year after year, or where this man has come from or where he thinks he's going. All you know is that he seems destined never to get there; that he seems destined to leave the train night after night at just this place and at just this time, death in hand and armed with accusations or protests with which to distract you from your course. You have no idea why he has singled you out -- why you, and not someone else five miles on down the line.
 
Luck of the draw, perhaps. (Poker or gin, your mother will shuffle the deck but refuses to deal. "I take what life brings," she says. And then, all innocence, "Do I hear a train?") Luck-infidel that you are, you hold with your mind to the certainties -- loneliness, disillusionment, bad teeth -- but the passenger whines like a gnat in your ear: "No fair, no fair!" -- as if it were your fault, whatever it is. And even as your mind gropes for truth or meaning, even a horseplayer's hunch, you know you've been tricked, had, suckered -- again.
 
All that is left of this night is the sound of a retreating freight, faint now and growing fainter -- a far-off, loving rumble, like a purr.
 
My father grew up on a farm in central Iowa in the Model T days, the youngest of four boys. Claremont Creek formed one boundary of the family farm. On the far side of the creek was a spur of the Illinois Central line, used just often enough that the rails stayed free of rust. He and his brothers used to walk out to a little rocky bluff that overlooked the Claremont and the tracks. It made a pretty picture, he often said: stream and level cropland and bright steel rails, the cross-ties as even as stitches.
 
From that bluff, he told me, he and his brothers could see the train coming for miles -- a tiny black speck that seemed to grow, on sunny days, out of the dazzle of empty air. One moment nothing, then something -- a pinprick that blossomed while they watched, taking on shape, becoming a train before their eyes. All this before they ever heard a thing.
 
Like a door opening, I used to imagine. A door opening in a fairytale, and something--the dragon? the good witch? -- coming through. I have never understood why I found this idea so appealing as a child, or why, even today, my scalp prickles when I think of vast distances; when I think of the future (fate, if you will) as a glimmer of potential on the far horizon.
 
It's different here. So many hills, so many trees, so many houses that you can never tell where or what anything is until it's right on top of you.
 
It steadies you to touch the rails, to listen like a surgeon with your fingertips. Tonight is not a dream. Tonight you will see everything, miss nothing, hold to your true course until the engineer arrives.
 
Your fingers hear the silent throb, the thready pulse of promise. Bystanders begin to gather, the cold steel sears your cheek and your teeth chatter as you stare into the darkness vowing, this time, not to blink.
 
"No fair." Peevish as a tired child, the passenger confronts you. His death dangles, a malfunctioning yo-yo, at the end of its frayed string. It will not walk-the-dog, will not go round-the-world, will not even climb up its cord to nestle in his palm.
 
"I deserve better." He holds his death out to you, no longer a yo-yo but a mirror.
 
Three photographs:
 
1) A studio portrait, taken before I was born. It shows a roundfaced young man, studious in wire rimmed glasses. His hair looks wet; probably it was slicked down with Vitalis. Even under the most careful scrutiny his sense of humor remains hidden in the picture, yet I remember him as funny -- fond of bad jokes and silly jingles. He knew dozens, maybe hundreds of lugubrious songs about train wrecks and mining disasters, which he used to sing in a thin, nasal voice, rolling his eyes mournfully when he got to the sad part and then scooping me onto his lap: "It's just a song, baby. Just a song."
 
2) An enlargement, hand tinted, of a black and white photo taken during the year he spent in Bolivia as part of a team working on the Pan-American Highway. In this shot my father, in khakis and a white shirt with rolled sleeves, squats in the dust in front of a reed hut. A green and yellow parrot perches on his shoulder; my father has turned his head so that he and the bird are eye to eye, and appear to be having a conversation. Parrots were great talkers, my father liked to say, adding with a wink that since this one had known only Spanish, it had been necessary to hire an interpreter.
 
3) A family snapshot, taken in the Fall of 196_, six months before he died. He had been ill for over a year, and we had spent the last few months making what everyone knew but no one would admit were last visits -- to Iowa, to northern Minnesota, where he had spent a summer once; and south to Richmond, where he and my mother first met. This photo shows my mother seated on the marble steps of the State Capital. My brother and I, sixteen and ten, sit beside her on the next-lower step. I am leaning against her knees, my mother squints into the sun, and all of us are laughing at something my father, out of sight behind the camera, has just said. The late afternoon sun is low at his back, casting his shadow crookedly across my mother's ankles and my brother's lap.
 
This is the picture I have studied most intently. But no matter how often I look at it, no matter which way I turn it in its frame, the elements of the composition remain unchanged: a woman, her two children, the shadow of a man. I strive in vain to understand the significance of that shadow, and of the fact that I alone am untouched by it.
 
In college you studied calculus, physics, astronomy--comforting disciplines in which, sooner or later, questions would yield answers. You took up with pure mathematics as if with a new lover, hoping perhaps to give new meaning to the phrase "safety in numbers"; hoping that life might yet reveal itself as structured, an equation, solvable for x.
 
These days you keep a tidy house, straighten pictures on the walls, deal the deck your mother shuffles -- perhaps she knows something you do not. All you know is that structure is a blanket drawn over the face of failed loves and bad decisions; that life is freefall, Brownian, the margins error-filled. If there is anything more you will find it in that childhood doorway with the dragons and the witches, in the half a heartbeat between here and not-here, between train and not-train, self and not-self.
 
A woman screams. For a moment you are afraid you may have been thrown clear, but the great wheels gather you to them, almost drop you, snatch you safely up again. You hear sirens and barking dogs, see flashlights bobbing across the stubblefield. The moon has risen, its light running like a flame along the rails.
 
The passenger's disembodied grin mocks you from the branches of a nearby tree. "It's not what you think it is," he cautions, "none of it. Get down to brass tracks. Beware of fatal at-track-tions."
 
Night after night I study the three photographs. In my mind I frame questions for which my mother or brother (now far away in Cleveland) might have ... not answers, but perhaps some kind of clarification. The questions are foolish, I know that -- why him? why me? why our family and not some other? -- and the words that emerge are not the ones I intend. My brother, long distance, congratulates me on a recent publication. My mother shuffles the cards and tells me, "Listen. I think I hear a train."
 
Once I think we sat at the controls. I remember, or perhaps I dreamed, that I snuggled in my father's lap on a high stool, facing an array of dials and switches. There was something called a Johnson bar. I remember the feel of the throttle in my hand, the vibrations coming up through all that steel into my palm, and the warmth of his hand as he held mine steady on the lever. I remember the smells of oil and hot metal, sweat, tobacco, and the sound of our laughter as, together, we drove the train. And I remember the rush, the surge, the way my heart bolted as we shoved the throttle forward--no longer merely driving but somehow one with the engine itself. I remember how trees, cars, whole towns fell away behind us and the rails raced out ahead.
 
I remember the strength of his arms around me and the power of our wheels as we thundered down that gleaming track, gathering speed so that at the horizon, instead of following the earth's curve like ordinary, gravity-bound mortals, the two of us would leap straight out into the sky and disappear.
 
A variation on this theme:
 
You are alone at the controls. You see the dark shape, the lump, the bundle on the track ahead. It could be a bomb. It could be a baby. It could be a drunken old woman, a sack of potatoes, at this speed who can tell? You don't know where the brake is. You don't know how to blow the warning whistle. Helplessly you watch the dark mass on the track fly toward you like a bearer of bad news. You see a face -- male? female? No one you know, yet eerily familiar, as ogres sometimes are in dreams. The mouth opens, becomes a scream. There is a barely discernible thud, followed by an obscene little flicker of satisfaction, at the moment of impact. Then nothing.
 
Later, of course, you are exonerated. "Not her fault," someone says. "She's not that kind of engineer."
 
Some things retain their substance: morning sunlight on the breakfast table, a vase of daffodils. I remember rough-cut cross-beams, sticky with creosote, on which I clambered hand over terrified hand to the top of the rickety, canyon-spanning trestle that summer when I was eight and we rented the cabin in the Colorado Rockies. Those beams, that cabin must be real. I remember all of us sitting on the front porch, eating tuna sandwiches and looking down the canyon at the steep-pitched roofs of the little town of Buckland. Sometimes we'd watch the train pull in -- a freight with two or three, even four engines for the long, high-country haul, or perhaps a sleek streamliner with glass-domed observation cars. "Just think how far they're going," my father would remark. Or, more pensively, "Just think how far they've been."
 
Why him? Why me? Why us? I want to ask these questions now, silly and childish as they are, but the words change shape as they leave my lips, or the connection is bad between my house and Cleveland. Or my mother, trying to fill out a straight, distracts me by hearing imaginary trains.
 
I play along. But I remember waking up to darkness, peering down the hallway from my bedroom to the bathroom door, which stood ajar, its edges softened with escaping light. I remember the murmur of my parents' voices and the hiss of water running in the sink. Someone turned the water off, and in the silence my mother's voice rang with what I much later came to recognize as desperation--at the time I took it for authority. "Say it, John," she told my father. "Say it, and believe it. If you don't believe, it won't come true."
 
My father coughed, and behind the cough I heard a tinkling crash, as if a glass had fallen and broken on the tiles. "I will get well," he said.
 
In my mind this scene has the jerky graininess of a very old home movie: a short loop in which the parents meet in the bathroom night after night, and the child, frightened and confused, clutches her stuffed bear while her brother snores lightly in the next room, oblivious to it all. Night after night that child stares down the dark hallway at the light-framed door behind which, night after night as the film loops and loops, her parents repeat the ritual phrase: "I will get well."
 
Of course he'll get well. He's her father. So why is she afraid?
 
Anxiously she searches her soul for sin, makes promises, makes deals, gives back the dollar she stole from her brother, but nothing works. Her father's face takes on a cuprous, oily sheen. His hair falls out and he grows daily thinner and more frail. His breath stinks. He stinks, betrayed in the end by bladder and bowel. The gold watch droops from his wrist, its band as loose as a charm bracelet. Perhaps, the child decides, he isn't her real father at all. Perhaps she was adopted.
 
One night she lops off a blond braid and burns it in the bathroom basin, breathing in the stench of scorching hair. Perhaps the smell will kill her. Perhaps she can die (oh noble child!) in his place. At first this thought excites her, and she imagines herself an angel in a gauzy pink robe, fluttering ping wings, sitting at the right hand of a benignant and healthy God. But the foul sweet odor of sickness has saturated the walls, the very bricks and plaster of the house, and the child wakes screaming from a nightmare in which all clocks had human eyes, and hands of human bone. I didn't mean it! she prays. Don't make me be the one!
       He was going down the grade making 90 miles an hour              

       When his whistle broke into a scream

       He was found in the wreck with his hand on the throttle

       Scalded to death by the steam.
 
"Say it, John," my mother insisted, night after night or so it seemed. "Say it and believe." But I had learned to listen not to her but to the distant freights that whistled as they crossed the river, heading north, heading south. With my flashlight hidden under the covers I studied old library texts. Mass, weight, velocity, drag coefficient--you could work it all out on paper, predict down to the pound, ounce, minute, second, inch. Aberrations meant human error. Trains did what they were designed to do.
 
"Say it, John." My mother's voice might tremble but the freights called me to them; I could glide away to safety on cool Euclidean rails. I will get well, my father said; I will get well. Die, I told him silently, and left the sewing scissors handy on his nightstand. Please. Just go on and die.
 
That night, in a last gesture of sympathy, I wet my bed.
 
"Accident! Accident!" someone shouts. "Down by the trestle! Come and see!" Already a pushing, noisy crowd has formed. Excited children wheel by on bikes, calling to their friends -- tonight is not a dream. Already you can see the engineer shouldering his way through the unruly throng, his message in his hand. "Here I am!" you call, but the crowd closes in. You blink, and he is gone.
 
Not so the passenger, of course. Persistent as a panhandler he tugs at your arm, offering his death in a crumpled, damp brown bag such as winos use to disguise their bottles, and asking without a trace of irony, "Feel like getting smashed?"
 
And suddenly you understand. He envies you. You're a driver, a shaper of your own destiny. All he can do is ride.
 
You ponder this revelation and find it comforting. Things fit, fall into place securely. Smiling, you ask, "How can I help you? Tell me what you want."
 
What he wants is to party. He giggles and hiccups; his death sloshes faintly -- the bottle must be nearly empty. "Lishun," he slurs. "Alive we have a liddle input. Dead..." he belches moistly "...they put ush in." Then, with a leer and a wink, he drains the bottle and flings it from him. "Rotgut," he says, the old edge of resentment creeping back, and fixes you with the familiar accusatory stare: your fault; no fair; apologize; make restitution; und so weiter.
 
Anger wells, real anger, unexpected and frightening. "It's not my fault! Not my fault, do you hear? He was the one who left. I was the one left behind." Tears of self-pity blind you, scalding, delicious: "Never again," you tell him fiercely. "I do the leaving. I choose the place and time. I want you to keep out of my way."
 
He laughs outright. Reaching into his pocket he asks, "Is this what you've been waiting for?" and hands you the engineer's message. You open it with trembling fingers. Surely it's real, you tell yourself, surely genuine, tonight is not a dream! And the page feels real enough. Carefully you unfold it:
     Feed cat
Turn out lights when leaving room
Recycle aluminum.
 
His throat feels brittle--dry and crisp as the shed skin of a cicada in your hands. "Fight! Fight!" someone shouts. "Down by the trestle!" The ground merely shrugs as the train rumbles harmlessly past.
 
Yesterday a letter arrived, from the husband of my first woman lover. I have never met him, nor have I seen their children, two little boys. But now this letter out of the blue, and a snapshot.
 
I didn't recognize the beach--some anonymous plot of coarse gray sand, gray-green water that I took to be the Atlantic. My old lover stands mid-calf-deep in gentle surf, her younger boy, a toddler, on her shoulder. The older child, perhaps six or seven, squats at the water's edge, intent on an elaborate sand castle.
 
My ex has buzzed her hair and lost weight since I saw her last; she is sunburned, and smiles at the camera. I was just thinking how well and attractive she looked, what a butch she could have been if she'd been able to let herself go with it, when I notice the scar, recent enough still to be an angry red, curving left-to-right above and below the bra of her bikini.
 
Her husband's note rambled: short on specifics but long on optimism. "They think they got it all."
 
Some response seemed called for, but when I sat down to write, the only words that came were, "They never, ever, get it all."
 
Later, looking at the photograph again, I found my eye drawn to the castle builder, the seven-year-old. So busy, so absorbed, so innocent. I could almost feel the salt sun on my own bare back and hear the pat-pat-pat of my own small hands firming the castle's sides and shaping its crenelations.
 
Don't look up, I wanted to tell that child I'd never met. Whatever you do, don't ever look up.
 
Yesterday a letter arrived, from the detective you hired to find the passenger, missing since the night of your altercation by the trestle. The letter contained instructions, coordinates, a small map marked with a red x -- the fee was reasonable, considering. Below the signature was the scrawled suggestion that you wear a disguise "such as a dark cape or false mustache -- this man may be dangerous."
 
And now you have been following him for hours --long enough that you are tired of skulking in the shadows and ducking into urine-smelling phonebooths each time he turns around. Long enough that the gun in your pocket feels like a cinderblock, and you feel sure that everyone you pass can read your mind, and plans to turn you in. Let them, you tell yourself grimly, adjusting your mustache. After you have dealt with the passenger, let them do with you as they will.
 
In a way you are relieved to find he hasn't changed. Petulance surrounds him like a cloud of midges and he wanders up one side-street and down the next seemingly without aim or destination. "May be dangerous," indeed! Your mouth is dry, even your eyeballs feel dry, but if you blink you might lose him, and somehow you understand that failure now will mean the end of it. You'll never have another chance.
 
At yet another intersection he pauses yet again, looks left, looks right, consults his watch. A flickering neon beer sign in the window of the corner bar casts an intermittent pink glow across his cheeks, and for a moment you have the distinct impression that the man is lighted from within, and that what you see is the lifeblood pulsing through his veins.
 
Witnessing this, perhaps you should feel something. Perhaps you do feel something. But you have come to your decision. Since the passenger doesn't like the death he was dealt, you'll provide him with another.
 
A moment later he seems to come to a decision. He straightens his shoulders, gives himself a shake, and strides off at such a pace that you are hard-pressed to keep him in sight. Up one street and down the next, but no longer aimlessly; he's a man with a purpose, and the crowds of evening strollers draw back respectfully to let him pass.
 
Finally he arrives at what appears to be his destination, a small boutique or "shoppe." It is quiet, intimate, tastefully appointed. One would expect to find evening wear here, designer gowns. Instead, deaths of all kinds are ranged on hangers or stacked in boxes along the walls. You see Auto Accidents, Plane Crashes, Tetanus, Rabies, a dozen kinds of Gunshot Wounds. Snakebite, Electrocution, Heroin Overdose, Shame, Embarrassment, Broken Neck, Broken Heart -- this shoppe has them all. Contagious or not the diseases are boxed: Cancer. Clap. The Common Cold.
 
There seem to be no other customers, no salespeople. You slip inside unnoticed and conceal yourself behind a velvet drapery while the passenger makes his way along the racks, humming under his breath and trying things on: Throwing Self on Grenade to Save Buddies. Smoke Inhalation (Daring Rescue Attempt; Child's Pet Saved From Burning Building).
 
He is enjoying himself, clearly, his pleasure so infectious that before long you have forgotten why you have been following him -- you have even forgotten to be annoyed that, apparently, he has outwitted you again, and is finally going to take matters into his own hands.
 
What bloody catastrophe will he choose, you wonder, as he strips off Non-Opening Parachute in favor of Accidental Ingestion of Ground Glass. What lurid, headline-grabbing heroics? Much against your will, you've begun to like his style, and you step from your hiding place intending to tell him so. Perhaps, expert that you are in these matters, you can offer suggestions or advice; help him make up his mind.
 
But the passenger is no longer smiling. Pensive, he stands now at a glass-topped display case in the corner of the room. Silently you join him. The two of you stand side by side as easily as lovers, arms about each other's waists, gazing down at the charming nut-brown arrangement beneath the glass: Natural Causes.
 
The night is warm. I hear frogs in the culvert, the hooting of an owl, the shush of the breeze in the tall grass. Soon it will be dawn. I can't smell the river but I know it's there, off to the north, coiling slowly toward the sea. Kneeling, I touch my lips to the track, but it has nothing more to say to me tonight--no silent hum, no distant trembling, no sense of the yielding of the earth, and for a moment I feel empty and depressed. If not tonight, when? If not this, what? The steel is mute, innocent, pure as crystal in its unconcern. Seeming infinite, still it begins. It runs its course. It ends.
 
Why him? Because.
 
Why me? Why not?
 
It's true they never get it all. We carry it with us, pass it on and call it life. And for the first time since I was a little girl watching for the train, this feels all right to me.
 
It is a long walk back to the house where my mother is waiting, shuffling the cards and wondering where I am. A long walk, but only once do I hesitate. Only once, responding to some voiceless cue, do I stop and turn one final time, searching the darkness for the light.
 
 
 

© 1985. This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in The California Quarterly, Fall '85


Sara McAulay is a professor of English and director of the creative writing program at California State University, Hayward. She is also the author of three novels (Catch Rides, In Search of the Petroglyph, Chance) and numerous short stories, essays, and works of creative nonfiction.