Author Susan Bergeron
Sue Bergeron is a New England writer who originally hails from South Jersey and is not embarrassed to admit it. She’s married to Ronald Bergeron and together they have an adult son named Ron. A female pioneer who entered a field of work that in 1980 was comprised almost entirely of men, Sue was a career railroad conductor who spent 25 years working for the NRPC (Amtrak). Her stories draw heavily on her amazing journey and many escapades riding America’s beloved but often maligned railroads. Sue has also enjoyed a long and storied part-time career as a singer, and a stage and film actress (when not hitching up boxcars). A member of the Screen Actor’s Guild for almost 20 years, she’s had the great privilege to work with a cavalcade of world renowned and talented actors, script writers and directors. There’s no doubt that her knack for scene-building and dialogue is due, in part, to her exposure to the world of drama, whether it be on stage or in the film industry. “My stories are actually little movies I see in my head, but I prefer to write them as prose. However, I do want my readers to experience my stories and see them as though they were watching a movie.”
SUNNY’S LAST RIDE ©
A novel by Susan Bergeron
Chapter One: Deliverance
A bit of amnesia lingers this morning, with some stomach distress. I can’t find my socks and I forgot my wallet. My teeth feel like suede. Even my hair hurts. Nevertheless, I’m attempting to navigate my nineteen year old Mercury Cougar convertible to work through rush hour traffic, on the second most congested highway in the country, with double vision, yet. And it’s snowing. And I’m late.
I’m still suffering from the weird after-effects of a potpourri of chi-chi cocktails I drank at the Christmas party last night. The Boston Trainman’s Association Christmas party is an annual event where a beer-swilling bacchanal usually ends in a pig-pile of drunken Irishmen from Southie fist-fighting with a bunch of liquored-up Italian boys from Federal Hill. I wouldn’t miss it for anything.
My 72 Cougar is equipped with an engine pulled from a 1970 XR-7, so with the four-barreled carburetor and Ram Air, my 351 Cleveland is a bad-ass engine. Many a time this powerful dinosaur has saved my pathetically tardy ass. But what good is three hundred horsepower if the road is getting so slick that the damn wheels can’t turn? I’m in deep shit now.
I’m supposed to report to South Hampton Street yard at 5:30 each morning to help switch out Number Ninety-One for the morning run. But today? ---I pulled the plug on the alarm and slept until 7:10.
I’m the brakeman. The brakeman’s the stew, the flunky, the go-fer. It’s not like an office job. A brakeman running late is in seriously deep shit. Especially, when you’re a lady brakeman.
Train Number Ninety-One departs from South Station at 7:00 a.m. each weekday. Heading west, it stops at Readville and then makes the Providence stop at 8:00. From there, the big iron sloth then straggles down the shore-line to New Haven, CT., where the crew does a turnaround.
Number Ninety-One is certainly on the road by now and headed in my direction. Lou Patterson, or “L.P.,” as everyone called him, used to be our engineer. Before, when it got to be 5:45 and I still wasn’t there, he’d call my house from a pay phone in South Station on his way to get coffee at Shecky’s. My husband, Ronnie, switched the phone over to my side of the bed a long time ago, after being startled one too many mornings by a wake-up call from Lou. Ronnie used to slap my ass and shout, “Sunny! It’s the railroad again. Get your lazy ass outta bed!”
The phone doesn’t ring before dawn anymore. Unfortunately, Lou’s dead and gone now, replaced by Dusty Jenkins. This new guy waits for no one. He once had the balls to leave the president of the railroad behind. Every morning, right after he gets the train orders, Dusty sets his watch to the U.S. Naval Observatory’s atomic time clock and when it’s time to go, he goes. Exasperated, the rest of the crew stopped giving me wake-up calls a year ago. In fact, even though the conductor lives only two miles from me, he won’t car-pool with me. He waited at the curb one too many times while I searched for my underwear, or hat, or some other lost item.
Today, it’s too late to catch up with them at Providence. Normally, that would have helped to minimize the damage. It might have softened my punishment, reduced the number of times the conductor would bounce balled-up ticket receipts off my head. But things are very different this morning.
I’m driving north to Providence, from a little bay-side village where I live. The storm is chasing me from the southwest, pushing the wind right up my ass. At this level of tardiness, I’d have to be doing eighty-six miles an hour to catch up with them, but I can’t push it too hard in this much snow. I’ll have to blow by the exit for Providence and try to catch up with them further north, at Attleboro, MA., a commuter stop where Number Ninety-One is going to make a special stop. There’s a sliver of a chance I’ll make it if they have to wait for the Night Owl to pass and the train dispatcher decides to stash them in a siding. I can almost count on that happening. The Owl’s always late.
I pass a school bus full of bouncing kids. Checking my rear view mirror, I can see the railroad signal tower rising high above Route 95. The board shows the signals for the trains going past me in the opposite direction, the westbound trains headed toward New York. I see a red over yellow over red aspect—a Medium Approach: Proceed at medium speed prepared to stop at the next signal. The tower quickly disappears behind me in the Cougar’s rear view mirror. Did Number Ninety-One already go by?
The bus is next to me now, its windows all fogged up. The kids are waving. A fat tongue is pressed against a window. One kid is writing “Fuk yoo” in the frost with a pudgy finger. I wave back, smile, try to relax.
It’s not like I haven’t had to chase a train before, but today is not a good day to over-sleep. As I comb my tangled rat’s nest of bleached hair in the rear view mirror, I brake to shake a Ford Explorer off my tail. The show-off, in his brand new four-wheel drive, passes me in the breakdown lane and flips me the bird. My coffee mug jumps out of the console and spills cold coffee down my boot, sending an electric jolt through my sockless foot. Jesus!
Anxiety is building, pushing the nausea up into my throat. I figure if I try to sing with the radio I can push it back down, but it’s no use. My throat is too dry so I snap the radio off and start tail-gating a ten ton flatbed hauling steel girders. My foot presses down hard forcing him into the travel lane.
The wreath is in the backseat. When a member of the crew dies it’s traditional to display a wreath on the front of the engine during the week before Christmas. The ceremony is going to be on the platform at exactly 7:52, during train Number Ninety-One's brief stop at Attleboro. The widow is going to be there. It’s now 7:48.
I’m on the verge of a nervous breakdown. If I make a mess of this I’m done for. The eastbound signal tower comes into view in front of me. It’s the last tower I’ll be able to see before the railroad disappears behind a wall of factories. I’m barely able to make out the ‘all green’ aspect poking through the veil of heavy snow. Clear: Proceed to the next interlocking, not exceeding maximum speed. This could be an ominous sign. Train Number Sixty-Six, the Night Owl, is due into Boston at 7:55. If it’s behind me, I’m golden. But if it’s on time my train is probably running on schedule, which is not a good thing today. There’s no way I’ll ever be forgiven.
Our conductor knew Lou Patterson since they were kids. Tony was even L.P.’s best man. Rumor had it lead poisoning killed Lou off at age fifty-four, but that was a lie. He drank himself to death.
Tony “The Toilet” Tavarozzi has been the conductor of train Number Ninety-One since 1980, the year I began my railroad career as a parlor car girl who served cocktails in the First Class section. One time I asked one of the trainmen why they all called Tony that. “The Toilet,” the guy explained, “has seen more ass than a Port-A-Potty at Woodstock.”
Tony’s known as the Captain, the Chief, or the Big Boss. He’s even in charge of Lou’s replacement, Dusty. Most people don’t understand that, they get it backwards. They think the engineer’s the boss but he’s not. Sometimes the regulars ask, “Who’s driving the train today?” They even get that term wrong. Nobody drives the train. They run it.
My husband Ronnie wasn’t able to join me for the party, as he was away on business, so I had to find somebody else to chauffeur me, seeing how I planned to get hammered. As far as the trainman’s union is concerned, the party is mandatory. You had best attend, unless you want to find a dog turd in your trainman’s case the next day (to indicate that you’ve been branded a party-pooper). And since Tony was back on the O’Doul’s, I had asked him to give me a ride to the party. Reluctantly, he agreed.
A native of Boston’s North End, he moved down to Shawomet Beach rather than stay and see his old neighborhood get torn up, thanks to The Big Dig.*
Even though Tony the Toilet’s reputation preceded him, I wasn’t worried in the least about him ever trying to hit on me. He liked his women petite and delicate. He favored dark Italian beauties. At five feet eight and a hundred and sixty pounds, I’m not exactly the type of gal who would ever raise the old periscope for a guy like Tony. According to him, a female whose blood is tainted with Eskimo blood, and one who is married to a crazy Canuck, to boot, is cod fish bait---just one notch above chum on the food chain. He once asked me if I chewed my husband’s boot laces for him. Another time it was, “You eat blubber for breakfast?” He makes it sound like I just flew in from Nome and wear mukluks to work. I never should have told him that my grand-pop was from Newfoundland, or that my great-grandmother was an Eskimo.
To tell the truth, I would have rather gone to the party with some Eskimo women instead of Tony. Italian women, Irish women—any kind of women would have been better company than him. But there were no women to go with. In 1991 I was still the only female train crew member from Rhode Island who worked in the Boston division, and at that time the division employed over three hundred men.
It was about six-thirty when Tony swung by and picked me up after work. The annual soiree is always held at Mr. G’s, a tiny dive bar that’s just on the outskirts of Attleboro. As we pulled away from the curb he said to me, “On the way home we’re gonna make a stop. We’re gonna pick up the reef at a Christmas tree lot on Oak Hill.” But we ended up closing the bar, and in a moment of sheer genius Tony stole a nice big pine wreath off the front door of Mr.G’s.
The massive wreath was trimmed with beautiful crimson velvet ribbon and gold-encrusted pine cones. Across the top were sparkly plastic letters that spelled out “Seasons Greetings.” Before we piled into his Mazda he said, “You carry the reef, Sunny, cuz I gotta carry the wire and the tools and alla my shit.” Then he tossed the “reef” over my out-stretched arm, just missing the half-finished Mai-Tai I’d absconded with. “And don’t forget to pull that ‘Seasons Greetings’ crap offa there. Just wouldn’t look right.”
“No problem, glad to do it for old L.P.”
“That’s right. Remember---he was a real stand-up guy,” said Tony.
But that was a load of crap. It was true if you were talking about working with L.P., but it was a different story if you were his wife. I knew he cheated on her. Of course I never told anybody. That was the rules. Railroaders have a code of silence like the Masons do, and it’s as strictly enforced as the Mafia’s infamous “Omerta.” You don’t include outsiders, not even the husbands or wives. What happens on the rails stays on the rails.
“And don’t fuck it up.” Tony continued on about delivering the wreath. “Cuz if you do there’s no way you’re ever gonna be able to un-fuck it, you understand? His widow’s gonna be there for the ceremony, for Chrissakes.” A blast of cold air flooded the car as he tossed the contents of his ashtray out the window.
“What’s her name?” I asked.
“The widow’s name!”
“Jesus Mary Joseph. She’s Mrs. Patterson, ya dipshit.”
Suddenly, I regretted having drunk that last Mai-tai.
Most mornings, when I slide into the parking lot of the yard facility, if I can hear Tony testing the brake pipe on the opposite end of the train, I know it’s time for me to run like hell. The brake pipe whistle has a distinct sound, high and reedy like a flute.
I toss my car keys to the first yard worker I see and shout, “Park it for me.” When I return at night I usually find my sporty coupe parked next to the yard foreman’s trailer. There’s always crumpled-up beer cans under the front seat and the gas gauge is on Empty.
After the crew completes the brake test, Dusty always checks his atomic watch; when it’s time to leave the yard he gives two toots, puts the control handle in the first notch and away we go. He’s supposed to wait until the conductor gives him a hand signal to proceed but he never does. As he shoves the nine car train backwards into South Station he stares straight ahead, oblivious to any animals, humans or parcels that might be tumbling on or off the rest of the equipment behind him.
In the past, Tony has been tolerant of my last minute madness, but he’s made it clear there will be no mercy if I mess up this time. “We’re gonna make a quick stop at Attleboro tomorrow—at exactly 7:52—and we’ll dedicate the reef.” He reached behind my seat, feeling around for the six-pack of O’Doul’s stashed under the Herald. He had already killed at least a six pack of the fake beer back at the party. “Diane Patterson is gonna meet up with us. I say a few words, we give her the corsage and zing-zing, we go.” He threw the bottle cap out the window and sucked down half the bottle of panther piss in one long draft.
Since Attleboro was not one of our scheduled station stops I was concerned.
“But the Owl,” I said.
“I know, I know, the Owl. But see, we won’t delay her. Listen, I got it all figured out. We got a window of one minute and fifty-two seconds. Then Numbnuts, up in C-Teck, he’s gonnna catch on to the little red light goin’ blink-blink on his screen…”
“Are you crazy?”
“Lookit here, Sunny, people stop for all kindsa shit. What if we seen somethin’ stuck in the gauge? We’d hafta stop then, right? ”
“So you’re gonna see something stuck in the gauge?”
“That’s right. We’re gonna see a shoppin’ cart, Sunny—but only if he calls us on the radio about the delay.”
“A shopping cart.”
“That’s what I said.”
“Who’s the night trick dispatcher for the south side tomorrow?”
Dick Balducci worked the midnight to 8:00 a.m. shift up in South Station’s C-Teck, also known as the Star Wars Unit. C-Teck was railroad lingo for Centralized Train Traffic Control System; it’s an automated remotely controlled train monitoring system staffed by train dispatchers located on Boston South Station’s fifth floor.
It was a large quiet room with a forty-foot long movie screen that covered one whole wall. The screen showed a map of the Northeast Corridor. All along the map little blinking lights in red, green, yellow and blue indicated where every train in the system was at any given time. The Colors had various indications and a blinking red light meant somebody was “dead in the water.” I had little reason to ever go in there but I had toured the Control Center once or twice. It was a soft dark place. A dozen or so men---train dispatchers---sat in big comfy chairs, hunched over terminals that resembled air traffic controllers’ stations. Each man was responsible for his own assigned district---or piece of track. I could see why some people called it the Star Wars Unit. The room had the feel of a planetarium, with its high dark ceiling and twinkling lights. It resembled the bridge on a movie starship, complete with all the bleeps and bloops going on in the background.
The men (there were no women that I ever saw) murmured into little microphones, talking to the Train Director and the engineers. Quiet was necessary, in order to concentrate on the very important work of not lining trains onto the wrong track. Those guys were the “steering wheel” for all the trains. They had to be able to listen carefully to what was coming out of the little intercoms on their desks. You could not be a loud mouth or a clown and work in C-Teck.
Everybody knew that each morning, after work, Balducci crossed the street and went directly to the Essex Hotel lounge and got completely shit-faced. But, remarkably, he somehow managed to come to work sober every day. When he worked the dispatcher’s desk he was a real stickler for following the Book of Rules. Some of the guys played fast and loose with the rules, bending them here and there, but not Dick. If Number Ninety-One's little red light kept blinking for too long he was going to bolt over to the Train Director’s desk in no time, asking questions.
I knocked back the rest of the Mai-tai and tossed the empty glass onto a balled-up Patriots sweatshirt in the back seat of Tony’s brand new 91 Mazda.
“What if we’re lined for the inside...”
“Don’t worry. The Owl gets the inside track every morning, you momo!—where you been? Num-ba one track’s been outta service for a month now. Where you think they put the Owl?—num-ba t’ree, you dope, like always! If num-ba t’ree has been the Owl’s track since 1953, then guess what, Einstein—num-ba two track, she’s gonna be ours at Attleboro! You just pray that it don’t, by some miracle of Jesus, change, and we’ll be all set, capice?”
“Yeah, but why don’t you just ask for permission, Tony?”
“Because Balducci’s gonna say no. That’s why.”
“Why doesn’t the widow just meet us in Providence?”
“She don’t wanna drive that far. Supposed to snow tomorrow. But she wants to take a picks-cher for the family album. Keepsake, see. Then bing-bang, she splits. Would you quit widda questions! Jesus, you women like to talk, talk, talk.”
He swung the Mazda into the parking lot behind the Bess Eaton Donuts and parked behind the dumpster. “Gotta check the rear wheel, kid.” I knew what that meant. It was time for him to unload all that near-beer. He jumped out and went behind the car. I heard the slob whiz all over the dumpster and then he jumped back in the car and continued down County Street.
The Mazda started to warm up. I wondered if the wife would still want a snapshot if she knew about the girlfriend. I took off my Isotoners and had started playing with the heating vent louvers on the Mazda’s dashboard, mindlessly pushing them up and down with my index finger.
“Cut that out, you idiot. Anyways, like I was sayin’, Sunny, don’t you be late. You make sure your ass is on time tomorrow.”
Suddenly a Mercedes jacks up in front of me. I push in the clutch and pump the brakes, missing the car by an inch. A pain shoots up my right leg. The result of a former train accident, it throbs like a toothache whenever the weather’s wet. Five hundred feet from the exit for Attleboro station, traffic crawls to a near stop. Christ, now what?
A helicopter hovers overhead. It’s the Chopper 10 traffic reporter. I snap on the radio again. “...tanker rolled over in the right lane...it’s a parking lot down there, folks...you’re on the brakes until 295….” Fuck me.
In a moment of desperation, I edge out of the high speed lane, pissing off the tractor trailer with the girders. He blasts his air horn as I nose my way across three lanes of traffic. I cut off a turtle in an ancient Plymouth hatch-back and jump the curb. I take a short-cut to the exit ramp, by-passing three hundred feet of hopeless gridlock, by barreling across the lawn that abuts it. Horns blare, windows roll down, loud voices swear. A guy changing a tire in the breakdown lane throws a snowball at my car in anger.
The heavy Cougar slides down the steep slope of the snow covered abutment and swivels onto the exit ramp. I head for Verndale Street, which cuts out the intersection at County Street, and then I turn up the one-way at Pembroke Avenue. I’m going in the wrong direction on Pembroke but there’s no other choice. If I take a chance on Bushee Street I could get jammed up behind the Dunkin’ Donuts traffic that spills onto County Street. I won’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of making the train unless I risk the detour. All the parking spaces on this side of the station will be full by now. I need to get to South Main Street so I can park, illegally, under the bridge. And I’ve got to do it in less than two minutes or I’ll blow this thing. I’ll need forty-five seconds for County Street, minimum, half a minute for the traffic jam next to the feed store, and another forty-five seconds to park and climb the Stairway From Hell.
I’m already over the twenty-five miles an hour speed limit but I grip the steering wheel hard and apply another half inch of pressure to the accelerator pedal. The speedometer creeps up to forty-seven. I slip the hated uniform necktie that I’m required to wear, under my collar, attempting to tie a Windsor knot while I steer with my knees. The back end of the rear wheel drive Cougar fish-tails wildly and suddenly the car leaves the road, skids across a lawn, and sends some poor kid’s Radio Flyer sled careening through the air. The sled sails heavenward and lands in a pile of snow in the bed of a Ford pick-up truck.
I run over a plastic lawn display, crushing Santa’s head. And then, ever so gently, I ease the Cougar’s front end off the curb and head back into the empty side street. A black poodle is chasing my car now. I take a right turn, blast through a stop sign, swerve, and side-swipe a BMW that’s double-parked.
I jam on the brakes and skid. My St. Christopher medal pops off the sun-visor and lands in my lap. I squeeze my eyes shut, grab hold of the medal, and pray as hard as I can for divine intervention.
After spinning three or four donuts, the Cougar finally comes to a stop, sideways in the middle of the street. I cut the engine, open the door and stick my head out to look for the dogs. A smashed-up BMW is one thing but a puppy is another, for Christ’s sake. The dogs are nowhere in sight. Oh God, please don’t let them be under my wheels. My head swivels frantically. I spot them. They’ve already reached the end of the block and they’re still hauling ass. Missed them. Thank you, Sweet Jesus!
I turn the key in the ignition. After it sputters and dies three times I slip the car into neutral; I have no choice but to attempt to pop the clutch. I open the door, jump into the street and grab hold of the door jamb. I push with all my might, finally getting up a head of steam. It’s an insanely desperate move because I’m going in the wrong direction on a one-way street that’s got a hill in the middle of it. As I approach the crest the wheels begin to slide on the slick road surface. There’s the sound of a truck motor coming from somewhere—but from where? Where? In a few seconds the Cougar won’t be able to stop. It will only be able to go down. Down and down and…
Snowflakes as big as cotton balls are flying. The ghost of Lou Patterson appears in the frost of the side view mirror. Terror fills my heart as the frame of the door slips out of my hands and the car gets away from me. “Don’t fuck it up, you understand?” I can see Tony Tavarozzi’s black eyes boring into me through the wall of snow. I can smell Tony’s pizza breath. I grab for the bumper but instead I end up with a hunk of snow in my hand. I rub it in my face.
I wipe the ice crystals out of my eyes and run faster. “Come baaack!” I scream at the runaway car. At thirty-six years old, I’m no marathon runner, but even with the bad leg I can still move pretty fast when I have to. I’m skating behind the dual exhaust pipes, which are probably jammed with snow halfway to the muffler. Bet that’s why it stalled. Finally, the tires grab hold of a patch in the snow scraped to the bare pavement by a plow. When I hear the magic sound of wheels finally turning on sandy asphalt, I run like hell to catch up. I leap back into the driver’s seat, stomp on the gas and clutch pedals and jam the shifter into first gear. I’m pumping the gas pedal furiously. Because there’s no way to un-fuck it. And I let out the clutch.
As the car roars back to life I slam the door and see fat plugs of snow fly out of the tail-pipes in the side view mirror. Knew it. The 351 Cleveland growls like a nasty little kitty as I wind her out on the freshly plowed street. The Cougar picks up speed, jumps the crest and then slides down the other side of the hill like a toboggan. I’m blinded by the foggy windshield. When I strain forward to wipe off the frost with my glove, I hit the tuner button on the radio by accident. Carol of the Bells by The Emerson String Quartet begins to pour out of my speakers. I clear a spot in the windshield just in time to see a snow plow heading straight for me. I watch with an inexorable fascination as it narrowly misses my front end, skids on a patch of ice, slides sideways and then twirls and slams head-on into a fire hydrant. The crash uncaps a glacial fountain of water that spews upward into the blustery sky.
The string quartet’s cello takes a solo now, its sweet and husky strains drifting out of my dashboard. I can see a wall of steam engulf the truck’s grill and the bright red fireplug rolling down the hill. The Cougar spins once at the bottom of the hill and I take a deep breath and finesse the steering wheel. Go with it. Gentle now, don’t jerk the wheel. I feel The Almighty cover my hands with His again.
I bring the car to a stop by putting it in neutral while keeping one foot on the brake and one foot gently on the gas, in case it stalls again. I roll down the window and wipe off my side mirror with my elbow. The ghost of Patterson is gone, thank God. My own glassy eyes, brown marbles, stare back at me from the mirror. Abject fear has caused my pupils to slam almost completely shut.
I can see the truck driver hop out of the cab and sink into a snow bank that swallows him all the way up to the top of his green and yellow John Deere ball cap. The plow’s blade is hopelessly mangled. After twisting off my radio I hear him cursing at the damage. In the background, a Conway Twitty love song pours out of a speaker that’s dangling from his truck’s broken door panel.
“You all right?” I ask him. He hops up and down from inside the fox-hole, trying to get a look at me.
“Yeah, I’m fine but you ain’t gonna be after I knock yer head off, you asshole. Look what you did to my truck!”
“Sorry, but it wasn’t my fault. You skidded.” I hear muffled cursing and fragments of his tirade, such as “insurance card” and “busted grill” and “one-way street.” I figure he’s alright if he can hop and shout like that. It’s time to go.
I ease off the brake pedal. I’m invisible now. Covered in white, the Cougar blends almost perfectly into the snow, all but the tires and the wide black sport stripe under the air scoop. The truck driver can’t see me as I flee but he can probably hear the sound of my car’s tires crunching the broken glass that covers the street. “No! Come back or I’ll kill you!”
I cringe at the sound of his panicked cries. He’s a wild animal with a thorn in his paw, a bear trapped in a net. I feel sorry for him but the clock is ticking. I check my watch—7:50. Two minutes left. Jesus! The widow!
Blinded by the relentless cloud of fog that keeps steaming up my windows, I wipe the windshield with the palm of my glove and turn up the defroster. I push the accelerator a little too hard and the Cougar fishtails. As I peel out of there, his desperate cries against the dulcet tones of Conway Twitty singing “I Can’t See Me Without You” fade away.
I hear my train’s horn---the dreaded two long blasts followed by a short one, which means they’re at a crossing only two miles from the station! Got to hurry. I whiz through the school zone---blessedly vacant of cars due to the snow day---going fifty miles an hour. Then I catch another break by gliding effortlessly through every green light on a twelve block stretch of County Street. I’m back on schedule.
When I turn right onto Wall Street at the Cumberland Farms milk store I see another snow plow. Fuck! It edges out of the parking lot of Conlon & Donelly’s feed store and pulls right in front of me. He drops his blade and slows down to ten miles an hour. I bang my fist on the steering wheel in frustration, passing him on the left in the no-passing zone, then slide into the curve onto South Main Street doing fifty-five. I’m under the trestle now and can feel it start to rumble. Shit. Other side. Quick. The plow driver lays on the horn and in my rear view mirror I can see him give me the finger.
I ditch the Cougar on the street below the trestle, in a handicap parking space, ensuring a fifty dollar ticket. I grab my traincase and hook my free arm through the four foot prickly circle of fresh balsam and scramble up the slippery steps---all thirty of them. Up, up! My heart is on fire. Breath is crystalizing. The bell! Air brakes are hissing. I smell diesel. Oh God. The widow.
When I reach the top of the stairs I’m next to the rear of the train. I can see that The Hungry Kitten, the little coffee shop attached to the ticket office, is in full swing. People pass by me with out-stretched hands full of cinnamon apple Danish, grilled blueberry muffins slathered in hot butter, and little kiddy-sized boxes of Kellogg’s One Hundred Percent All-Bran cereal. I smell special house blend coffee, gourmet coffee, cappuccino, hazelnut caramel latte and burnt brake linings. I can see that way up front, nine cars away, several people are gathered in a circle next to the front locomotive.
I limp toward the group. I’m red, I’m puffing, and there’s spittle and foam around my lips. My eyes are stinging. Rivulets of sweat stream down from my forehead, my hair matted to my face, while everyone else around me is shivering. The weight of the traincase makes my shoulder ache.
Passengers that have been lining up for the 8:05 commuter train to Boston clog the platform. It’s a blessing that I’ve forgotten my trainman’s cap. What if someone spotted my uniform? A mob would surely encircle me. Confused by the unscheduled train stop, they’d hammer me with questions. “Which train is this? Why is it early? Why are all the doors shut?” I’d have to run and then it’d look like a chase scene from “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” The late birds are confused. Fingers point, people quiz each other. A sweet voice behind me answers a baffled businessman: “They made an announcement,” the voice says. I turn my head and see a grandmother in a fur coat, holding the hand of a small child in a red ski cap. “This isn’t the 8:05,” says Grandma, “just be patient and wait, dear.”
The train platform is now a skating rink; it’s become The United Nations on Ice. An out of tune Spanish voice is singing “Felice Navidad.” There’s a trio of bow-legged crones gossiping in Portuguese. Standing next to them is a Chinese couple engaged in some lively sing-song chatter. A skinny Hmong man dressed in his coat of many colors is carrying a tower of packages wrapped in bright Christmas wrap and he’s scolding a young woman tagging behind him. She carries a crying toddler in her arms.
I see Tony up ahead motioning me to hurry and I hustle faster. I’m feeling dizzy and I start to slip when an older gentleman catches me by the arm. The wreath stabs him in the face and I apologize, but the words come out in a hoarse croak. I hear slushy sounds, hissing sounds, a seeing-eye dog barking. Cars honk, there’s metal slamming, a wooden door creaking, and rock salt crunching. A teenage punk sneezes in my face, on purpose, then laughs loudly. There’s a wracking cough here and there and a frantic man shouts, “Wait! Hold that train!” A snow plow rumbles under the bridge.
My bad leg is on fire. Keep moving. The air is thin and moist. I inhale wet newspapers, sweat, fresh snow, garlic breath, Shalimar perfume. The heady aroma of freshly baked Christmas cookies coming from the bakery next door mingles with body odor escaping from heavy wet woolen coats. I stop for a few seconds, swallow hard, choke down the bile rising in my throat. I skate through a new wave of smells; Aqua Velva, diesel fumes, cigars, wet mink, and the fresh scent of pine mingle with the swirling snow. Bridges and Buildings comes toward me in orange florescent rain gear, pushing snow-blowers. An eddy of dirty ice and water pools on the walkway in front of me. Keep going. Step around it.
The huge wreath is pricking me in the face as I finally approach the front of the train. My stomach is churning.
I instantly recognize Tony Tavarozzi’s personal brand of Boston contaminated English coming from within the small crowd. He’s just wrapping up his speech when he spots me. In front of him a small woman wearing a holly corsage on her black woolen coat is crying softly into her handkerchief—the widow.
“And so, in memory of our de-uh depahted brotha, Lou Pattasin, we hereby dedicate engine num-ba t’ree-fifteen to him, and will display a reef on the front of it, fort-wit, until Christmas day, for yuz all to rememba him by. This he-ah concludes ow-ah saramony.”
As I hand Tony the wreath he grabs my wrist, pulls me close and whispers, “C’mere, you. Get up on this fucking step box, Nanook, and get the thing hooked up so the widow can take her damn picks-cher and we can get the hell out of here.” Those black eyes! Dusty won’t even look at me. Tony grabs the step box and clunks it down in the snowy trap rock between the rails. “Here’s the pliers, now climb up on that cowcatcher.” The men hoist the wreath over the nose with a rope. With the clock ticking, I frantically climb onto the wobbly step box and try to get a foothold on the cowcatcher. Dusty taps his atomic watch and warns Tony, “Fifteen seconds, Skipper. Better get a move on. Big Brother is watching.”
It has finally stopped snowing. The conductor nods to Mrs. Patterson and she snaps off a few shots of the three of us standing solemnly under the wreath, which has been successfully secured to the nose of the locomotive. Mrs. Patterson then smiles at me. “I’m so grateful you made it through this God awful blizzard, Sunny. I almost missed the train myself, you know. I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart, for delivering Louie’s wreath. He’d be so proud. He always liked you, you know. Talked about you all the time at the dinner table. Said only nice things, of course. But he did wish you’d been more punctual.” She chuckles. Tony is behind her rolling his eyes and making the universal railroad signal for “Stop”---he’s got his elbows out, furiously slicing his hands through the air horizontally. Dusty’s tapping his watch again. The widow takes me by the wrists and pulls me up onto the platform, gives me a kiss on the cheek and hugs me tight for a long moment. I mean a really long moment. She won’t let go. Tony starts coughing. “Ahem. Well, ur, good luck to you, Diane. All of us are sure gonna miss Lou around here. God bless you. Um, as much as we hate to leave you…” She finally lets me go and Dusty and Tony take turns shaking her hand good-bye. Tony tips his hat and turns to go.
Once his back is toward the crowd, out of everyone’s view, Tony shoots me the sign of the Italian horns. An evil look crosses his face. He leans into me until his lips almost touch my red hot ear. His venom pours forth: “You’re dead!” He turns in a flash and scrambles up the side ladder, disappearing into the cab of the locomotive. Before Dusty leaps up the ladder and follows him into the cab of the engine, the engineer spits a fat plug of chewing tobacco onto my boot. The steamy brown wad slides off my toe and burns a hole through the virgin snow. The acrid smell shoots right up my nostrils like a burning spear. The engine compartment door slams shut. The fly window opens and I can hear the radio loud and clear: “Boston Dispatch calling Number Ninety-One, answer, please. You’ve got an All Clear there at Attleboro interlocking, Mr. Jenkins. Why are you stopped? Number Ninety-One…?” The window snaps shut. Dusty Jenkins’ angry face stares down at me from high above and he’s flipping me a double bird.
I wheel around and make for the wrought iron railing next to the trestle. Gripping the icy railing with my soaking-wet Isotoners, I send half a gallon of Mai-tais, Daiquiris, Cape Codders, White Russians, Sombreros, and eggnog cascading down onto the pristine snow-covered roof of my 72 Mercury Cougar parked in the street below. The poisonous stew splashes onto the windshield and slides down onto the hot steel of the hood, which is still smoking from the heat of the massive over-worked V-8 engine underneath it. A cloud of vapor rises. I recoil in horror and let go of my train case. I fall on my knees, sinking deep into the snow. The contents of the silver case tumble out; seat checks, overdue revenue reports, cash, coins, tickets, lipsticks, tampons and coin wrappers are instantly swallowed up by the snow. Has Lou’s spirit come back from the dead? The mysterious cloud---climbing higher, coming at me from the street---is it a specter? A shade? A spook? What phantom is this? The Ghost of Christmas Past? Snot runs down my face and a gush of tears begins to crystallize on my cheeks. I wipe my nose with the back of one of my Isotoners and it’s then that I realize that God’s hands have ceased to cover my own pathetic hands. When did that happen? On my feet again and tugging on the wet gloves, I watch the cloud as I finally manage to yank them off my frozen fingers and heave them over the railing. “But I did make it, Lou. I delivered, didn’t I? I delivered.” My hands, now cold and naked, are still completely devoid of any divine warmth, of any guiding force. I reel back, terrified, floundering in the snow as the putrid vapor comes for me, about to cover my face. Then suddenly, the wind changes direction, blowing southwest with the train. The spooky cloud follows it and then dissipates into the frozen air as Number Ninety-One rumbles away over the trestle, the mournful wail of the horn trailing behind it in the wind.***
*Addendum: The Big Dig refers to Boston’s monumental undertaking, officially called The Central Artery Project. It would become the world’s most expensive urban construction project in history, would replace whole neighborhoods, and would have a major impact on the daily running of South Station. The project surrounded the station and all of its seventeen tracks, and even ran under the tracks.