Here’s a little something I cooked up earlier. Now it’s time to clean. Part 2 tomorrow, if you’re lucky. It’s gonna be a long day at work. So I might not get to it.
He’s just a guy. I try to tell myself that every morning. But midmorning every day, I walk back to the same railroad track just off Highway 32 and talk the same guy into getting off the track before the same cargo train splatters him all over the landscape.
This rail line once belonged to me. Not literally, no. I would walk the track every day before work. The serene quiet was calming. As soon as my ears started ringing from the quiet and right before I couldn’t handle the silence any longer, the daily train would fly by. Its horn blasting, its wheels grinding against the rails. Not really sure why, but the locomotive is always at the rear of the line of cars. Never waited for it to return, but I assume when it comes back through town, the locomotive is at the head rather than the rear. My guess is, my brother also never took time to determine if this were true or not.
For four years and four months I’ve walked that line every morning. At 6:30AM, I get up, take my shower, and head out. With an hour before I have to leave for my morning commute, there is just enough time to walk far enough into the wood along the track to come up to an bridge overlook.
It’s beautiful with its twenty foot drop into a gully where a quiet brook floats through. The overgrowth makes the water tough to see from the rim and impossible to hear. Instead, only a gentle rustling of the leafy overhang trickles into the ears. It’s so beautiful, I’m content stopping a moment to take it in, then I turn and head back to the house.
These morning walks are my life raft. Working with ‘at risk’ youth takes a lot out of a person. I hate that term ‘at risk’. By the time I see them, risk has already taken its ticket and sat down. Trouble is merely waiting at the other end of the line. Since they receive no encouragement from home, my job is to attempt to prove to them that living life straight edge and by the book is somehow more lucrative than selling drugs or themselves. My job is to sit beside them at the train station and try to convince them not to get on the train while everyone else around them roots for them to join the rich, short-lived, fast life.
Almost every teen in these precarious positions fall hard. The lucky ones end up in prison. The rest just end up underground. Then their children grow up without their parents, just as they did, and the cycle repeats itself. Over and over. Those few who end up in our inner city program have a fighting chance. Each of us Brownstone city dwellers who work there have a caseload of about ten teens. But those ten kids cycle through quickly.
Once they end up in prison or dead we stop working with them. After all, our job is to keep them from those terrible outcomes. I have the strongest success record at the organization. I’m still batting .500. That means, once every six months or so, one or more of my kids disappears.
I cross my fingers on the first day they don’t show up for our appointment. One quick and painful phone call to the Department of Corrections and I found if they are incarcerated or just in a morgue marked as a John Doe. The walk along the tracks helps clear the head and mentally prepare for the day ahead. At least, that was the plan from the beginning.
On the second day I walked along those tracks, just as I came up on the gully and the hidden brook, I found a man standing on the tracks just on the rim across the bridge. He just stood there, staring straight back toward me but his gaze continued passed up the track. Tears streamed down his face. Instantly, I knew that look. Many of my faces had those same looks when they were right at a precipice. Either they would buy my argument and not do what they were going to do. Or I would have to make a phone call the next day.
I yelled across to him but he did not respond. The bridge spanned a mere twenty feet, so he was within ear shot. The train’s horn bellowed in the distance. Without a reaction from the crying man, I walked across the bridge. All the while asking his name and if he needed any help. His glassy eyes stared right through me. Standing inches from him, I told him my name and held out my hand. For a moment he continued to look at something well beyond me. The train’s horn got closer. I could feel it rumbling through the railroad tie.
Turning, I could see the train was less than a minute away from us. With no time to spare, I asked the man again for his name. Nothing. I slapped him once across pale face. Slapping I hated almost as much as I hated making those phone calls. But they were very effective, and I rarely used them.
The man flashed red and sneered right before his glazed over gaze focused on me. Then he softened. I was in.
“Come on,” I said as I guided him off the track.
The train thundered by just as both our feet stepped onto the rocks. I’m glad I was not watching it come at us. We never would have survived.
Staying calm in instances when death stared me in the face has always been a strong suit of mine. How I do it, I don’t know. That’s how I bat .500. That’s why I need the walk.
We sat on an embankment of rocks a few feet from the track for several hours before he spoke. One rule learned long ago, after that initial close call, assuming they survive like we did, it is of the utmost importance that they make the first move. Because, as we all learn the hard way, until they make their first move, nobody is out of the rough waters just yet.
“You didn’t have to.”
I did not respond.
“You could’ve let me do it.”
Another thirty minutes passed.
Another hour passed.
“My wife died yesterday.”
I said nothing.
“We were married six years. Six years this July.”
Another long while.
“She was my fire. My everything. I just couldn’t see myself without her.”
“I don’t know.”
I took a tissue out of my pocket and handed it to him. He blew his nose hard enough to rustle the nearby tree leaves. Then more silence.
He chuckled through his tears and sniffles. That’s normal for a man in his situation. Trust me, I know. It’s a good sign too. The worst is passed us.
I finally say, “Can I walk you home?”
“No,” he clears his throat. “I just live over the ridge there. I can find my way back OK.”
“Very well then,” I added, patting him on his knee as I stood. “I’ll be on my way.”
That is when I realized my entire workday was spent with this man. However, guilt did not bubble up. It’s hard to feel guilty when your job is to save lives and you take the day off to save a life. He caught me looking at my watch, “Sorry if you had somewhere to be.”
“No worries,” I lied. “Nothing I couldn’t reschedule,” which was not a lie.
He stood, “Do you make this trek often?”
“Well, I was planning on it.”
“Every morning then?”
The man wiped the last of his tears away and bit the inside of his cheek, “Maybe I’ll see you again.”
Quiet again. I broke the silence first, “You gonna be OK, sir?”
“Oh, yeah. Yeah, I’ll be fine. Just one of those moments. You know.”
“All too well,” I smacked him on the back a couple times. “All too well, indeed.”