I love trains.
Not those kiddy trains at amusement parks that demean children’s intelligence by converting industrial marvels into playthings. Trains are dangerous and should be considered with respect. A one-armed boy at my military school once neglected to make his obeisance to a train and ever after cursed his prosthesis. Not those small gauge railways in Britain, either; they are there simply for vaudevillian nostalgia. They are the locomotive equivalent of bangers and mash, something at which any real lover of trains or food would sneer. The London Tube is another matter. And German trains. And French trains and the New York City subway system. Urban rail systems, regional networks, cross-country trains, they demand respect; they are not toys, they are not vanities. A train is a considerable thing.
I’ve traveled to Seattle by train, Atlanta and Dallas as well. From Heidelberg to Berlin, Budapest to Vienna. My first trip to New York was by train. I wore a used gray suit, and imagined myself in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. I was nineteen. Along the trip I often thought of my maternal grandfather as I watched the rails curve ahead of me, because years ago he had laid track. Later elevated to less arduous labor, he cataloged manifests for the Railway Express Agency and traveled from Kemmerer, Wyoming, to Omaha, Nebraska, to Chicago, Illinois, and although he didn’t realize it, he witnessed the beginning of the demise of American rail travel. Born over a century ago he had experienced every form of travel but rocketship. It was when he was a toddler, just beginning to read, that he learned of the Wright Brothers’ flight. My mother later told me that together they had watched the moon landing. He was mesmerized, she said, smiling the whole time, his eyebrows raised, accentuating the crescent scar in the middle of his forehead. I remember that scar from viewing him in his coffin, back finally in Omaha. It looked like a permanently winked eye. He earned the wound during childhood by falling against a hitching post.
I grew up on trains. I attended college by train. I went to work by train. There was a station less than two blocks from my firehouse, and just over two blocks from my apartment. The “L” — the Chicago Transit Authority Elevated Line — provided a free ride for municipal employees. I also used the commuter lines that stretched outside of the city, and out of the state to Wisconsin and Indiana. I could head north to watch Milwaukee Brewers baseball and south to see Fighting Irish football. That line, the Union Pacific, also had a stop just a few blocks from my apartment. It was there that Capt. Rizzo told me, “Go get the head.” By then I was no longer the candidate firefighter, but until someone new came to our firehouse, fresh from the academy, I was still delegated to such character-building tasks.
It was the day that all of us at Engine House 37 had crowded around the television to watch the news of the space shuttle Columbia splintering upon reentry. The entire crew of seven died, mercifully unconscious, when their fractured craft depressurized and their lungs ruptured, while fragments of their disintegrating vehicle shrapnelled their unaware bodies. Debris and remains were scattered over Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas. I thought of how that would have broken my grandfather’s heart, the boy who grew up on horses and died in the era of space travel. Sadly, I had similarly reminisced of when the Challenger exploded seventeen years earlier. Now the impossible dream of spaceflight had become so successful that it was commonplace; the liftoff of the Columbia was not even televised. That was the tragic first half of this long day, but as the sun was setting we were alerted to an incident on the commuter line at 4800 North Ravenswood, just south of Lawrence Avenue. The engine was unnecessary and our ambulance superfluous. Truck 66 responded.
Ravenswood Avenue is a two-way street split lengthwise by a long series of iron bridges and artificial berms. Seen from above, these bridges and berms make a dotted line bisecting cross streets while ferrying passengers from the heart of Chicago to the posh old-money precincts on the far north shore and south to the vaguely rural and accented districts. The Ravenswood Station is very different now. Formerly just a narrow passage under the viaduct, its entrance is now a peacock of civic architecture. Back when I used it and when our five-man crew — Capt. Rizzo, Schulze, Monaghan, McGee, and me —from Truck 66 visited, it was merely a barren stone and cement walkway with stairs leading up to wooden platforms for north and southbound trains.
On each platform was a long and narrow shelter designed to hide commuters from the blistering summer sun and winter’s bitter wind. We walked up these stairs, chose the southbound platform and from it, although the light was fading, we immediately saw the body. It lay outside and perpendicular to the rails, inclined along the gradient leading up to the tracks, its feet obscured by shrubbery. I say it instead of he because, although he was human and only recently dead, the object of suicide is a negation of humanity — to not only stop living but to stop feeling, to erase oneself from selfhood, to erase one’s mortal identity. To refer to the corpse as Jimmy or Anne is a concoction of humane nostalgia, a self-serving act for the living that reflects the fragility and rejoices in the redemptive shiver we feel when realizing how lucky we are to have escaped its fate. But I am humanely nostalgic. So I will call it, he.
We walked to the end of the platform, slowly but without trepidation, and down the short flight of wooden stairs onto the pale gray stones covering the manmade ridge along which the commuter tracks ran. He wore a white t-shirt, remarkably unbloodied — the entire scene was surprisingly free of gore — and his baggy blue jeans, heavily cinched at the waist, suggested a recent and substantial weight loss. His arms were parallel to his sides as if he had taken care not to dismember any other part of his body. Just his head alone, he had determined, and he had been successful.
This was my neighborhood. He might have been my neighbor. It takes a good deal of fortitude to do what he did, I thought. I wondered if I had ever seen him walking through my streets? Did he have the idea in his head then? Did I talk to him at a bar? Did he order his pizza from my pizza joint, from the young, genuine Serbian fellow on the corner of Wolcott and Wilson whose pies hands-down beat the Octo-Italians down the street, on the corner of Wolcott and Montrose? I wondered if he was a Chicago native. Or did he travel here from another city, or state, or country? Did he come from a coastal location and that is why he chose Chicago, to walk along the shore of one the world’s largest lakes? Or was he a native who had wearied of the hot humid summers and the icy, skin-cracking winters? Had he watched, as I did, the repeated broadcasts of that short clip of the Columbia and its linear evaporation across the blue of the sky, cementing his hopelessness? I not only wondered why he did it — illness, loneliness, heartache, failure, rejection, money; considering every possibility but one, continuing — but why he chose this method.
I thought of this while I carried the head of my neighbor, primitively, like a trophy back to my clan. His hair was long and wet as if he had taken a shower just before he ended his life, analogous to some post mortem rituals of washing the bodies of deceased loved ones; a task he’d been compelled to perform for himself. Was this in anticipation of having no one to tenderly prepare him on his journey to the grave, and having no one, who would hold him and carry him? Had he intentionally left that to us?
Capt. Rizzo had given me the command because the head had rolled some fifteen to twenty feet down the tracks, buffeted by the undercarriage of the train and bouncing along the railroad ties, though it appeared as normal as a severed head could. The eyes seemed diffidently closed. By this point I was fully ticketed to the realm of conjecture and began to fictionalize, hypothesize, what actually motivated and preceded this desperate final act.
Chicago’s trains had served me well. They took me from Wrigley Field to Comiskey Park, the only opportunity to see a double-header these days, but more often to work. Riding the Metra — that is the official name of Chicago’s conglomeration of eleven rail lines that compose a vast commuter network second only to that of New York City — was entirely for pleasure. North was Ravinia, a music venue with its own station where one can picnic and listen to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra play in its summer home. To the south was Indiana Dunes State Park, a surprisingly wild landscape of windswept beach and grassland. But now, whenever I recollect the Metra line, the lifeless head makes its appearance. It is a permanent fixture. It is there in my memory with Solti, Barenbohm, and Muti, that girl in the Civic Orchestra with the violin bruise on her chin, on whom I developed a burdensome crush even though we never spoke; with recollections of running barefoot in the dunes in early May, wading knee deep into the lake, then immediately retreating from water not yet summer temperature.
Schulze and Monaghan unrolled and unzipped the body bag as I walked back the five yards with the head in my right hand, the hair still smelling of shampoo. It was a familiar scent. My sister Patty, a full-time nurse and hobbyist auto mechanic, used that shampoo — I think it was called Herbal Essence. I walked between the rails, my feet alternately thumping on ties and crunching on stone, as Shulze and Monaghan contorted the body into the bag. The platform was now illuminated, and the street lamps on Ravenswood Avenue perforated the mature trees on both sides of the split thoroughfare with light. As I moved the head forward to place it into the bag being held open for me, the gesture evoked a similar tableau: another head, in a different pair of hands, arrived on a faraway railroad.
It was during a trip to Paris, years earlier, and the haunting statue of a saint that I saw there. In a museum near the Seine, formerly a bishop’s palace, I saw a stone figure holding his severed head in his hands. It was Saint Denis, martyred by decapitation and the most famous of the numerous cephalophores in Christian legend — who, after his beheading, dutifully collected his severed head, bishop’s miter in place, and walked six miles while his still-animated head preached a sermon of forgiveness. This legend made me wonder if he had left a message for me, asking that his head be reunited with his body.
I knelt and placed the head into the bag where it belonged, atop the shoulders, then Shultz and Monaghan zipped the bag shut and lifted it to the platform, toward Capt. Rizzo and McGee; but, the black rubber carrier was roomy and, as they tilted it upward, the unmoored head shifted, sliding toward the bottom. Capt. Rizzo and McGee dragged the bag onto the platform then waited as the three of us walked back up. Like pallbearers, the four of them — Capt. Rizzo, Schulze, Monaghan, and McGee — knelt in unison to grab one of the loops at the corners. When it sagged, I grabbed a middle loop and walked along the right side of them.
As we walked downstairs toward the street, the head again followed gravity and began to tumble toward the lowered end of the bag. I instantly gripped it midway with my right hand, left hand still lifting on the nylon thong, keeping the head immobile. It was an instinctive gesture, like catching a bowl falling from a pantry shelf to prevent it from shattering into pieces, but the contents of this bag were already in pieces, not shattered but severed — and now detached from any connection to us, to the world. Yet his head was still midbody; I released it and allowed it to slide down, jerkily, with each descending step until it reached the bottom of the bag, crookedly near his shoulders, but hidden from my view. I could not tell if it was face-up or face-down, upright or sideways.
This was my second body on the tracks. First a little boy, now a large man. Considering the age difference, it would have been unlikely for me and the boy to encounter each other. But this corpse had been a man from the neighborhood, and he appeared to be near my age. He could have been a patron in the very good tapas restaurant down the street that couldn’t get a liquor license and closed after just two years. Or I might have run into him at the video rental store—next to Serbian Pizza—that was gamely struggling to make the transition to DVD. Or perhaps I would never have run into him, because he had been a loner, a whipping boy who had withdrawn from the world after desperately trying to fit in. One of those. One who does his best to fit in and takes the contemptuous scraps of semi-acceptance.
He was, perhaps, the good-natured butt of their I’m kid just kidding barbs, doing favors, lending money, until it finally became clear, until someone made it spitefully, viciously, contemptuously clear that he was a misfit, God’s mistake, and at that wicked barb the rest of his so-called friends laughed uncontrollably. And he went home, watched television, played video games, talked to no one. Then he phones no one and no one phones, and he goes out less and less frequently, until he can no longer consider leaving his apartment, tiny even by studio standards, unless it is an absolute necessity. And then there is a trigger. It could have been anything. Someone keys his car from stem to stern. An impatient shopkeeper yells, “Buy something or get out!” (unaware that his indecision is not an inability to choose one product over another but the fear of making a decision at all) so he makes a choice — not capricious but one he has been considering for some time now — and buys some sleeping pills and some beer and goes home. He downs the pills five at a time, chased by gulps of beer and arranges his escape: This must be timed precisely, he reminds himself. I can’t just stumble and crack my head and wake up, still me, tomorrow. But he has rehearsed this, he has studied the train timetable and knows which trains stop and which trains run express. And someone, from their kitchen window, will glance across the tracks and see him as he climbs on all fours through the hole in the barrier fence and up the mound, but then they will go on as if nothing was out of the ordinary, because he is already invisible, and he will lay his neck upon the tracks, and the platform will hide him from the apartments across the way, and he will fall asleep and dream of lives he might have had, of what he might have been — a firefighter, an astronaut; he will be running through flames, atop the flames, and the flames will not hurt him; he will be hurtling down to earth, thermosphere, mesosphere, stratosphere, troposphere, then the flash and the shock and the disjoining, with a rain of what had been once intact now dismembered and scattered over Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas, with his neck on the rail and waiting for the express train; there will be very little blood because the beer and the pills will have transported him, and there will be no pain from the hurtling iron blade because he will already be dead.
As we reached the bottom of the stairs it was evening and the streets were alive; the day had begun hot and muggy but sunset had brought a celebratory cool. The police took our body bag, and the head shifted again as they tossed it roughly into the back of their van, conversing, but not about the it in the bag. And so ended our relationship.
A white convertible streaked by, overfilled with young people singing along with the radio, blasting a song I could not identify. I never did that. Being a loner myself, I did not have a crew of friends with whom I would whoop it up. I go to the movies alone, in the middle of the day, among a scattering of retirees. At the museum I sit and stare at a single painting for one hour, then leave; but if someone sits down on the same bench as me, I leave immediately. I feel deeply uncomfortable at parties and avoid them if at all possible, citing my peculiar work schedule. I socialize best one-on-one, and only if I must. I live in such a spartan apartment that delivery drivers invariably think I have just moved in. I like watching television episodes that I have seen before. I follow an unwavering weekly meal regimen.
It would have been an easy walk home from the station. I might have picked up a video, ordered a pizza, and distracted myself into forgetting what I had just done, but I still had fifteen hours left on my shift. I climbed onto the truck and headed back to the firehouse, all the way along Ravenswood Avenue. I watched as Union Pacific trains resumed service.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Chicago Transit Authority