By the Rails

This story first appeared in 2016 in South Dakota Review.


By Chris Evans

Matt has been missing for seventeen hours, at least officially. None of his friends wondered why he didn’t show for class this morning—yesterday morning—but two of the polite ones appeared at Mom’s door right after school let out, with DQ parfaits in a bag, thinking he’d stayed home sick. They said he’d been quiet at school the day before.

South Dakota Review

Around two in the morning in the parking lot at Alco Hardware, Matt’s best friend Soup leans out the window of his pickup and says he wouldn’t be surprised if Matt had gone out to the spot of the deaths to sit. Matt’s ex-girlfriend, Michelle, sits in the passenger’s seat, blonde, petite and unreadable.

“He’s always calling us from out there,” says Soup. “Usually drunk.”

“Matt drinks?”

Soup looks at me as though I should know better.

So I head north, the direction of the railroad tracks where the three girls died on the night of the spring fling: Gaby, Suzan and the other one. Matt had been in love with all three from a sexless distance. He says they must have been singing to the radio and failed to hear the train whistle, which the conductor blew three times. Police ruled out suicide and drunk driving. All five existing parents said the girls never would have done anything so foolish as racing the train. None have been able to say why their daughters would go out there on a school night, miles into the wheat fields, except to say the obvious, that this is what kids around here do when they get bored. They drive.

A half-hour later, I pull across the tracks and park between a pair of Cottonwoods, which across the state have been dropping their seeds unnaturally early this year. My arrival scatters the pods, which flutter to the earth like jaded snow. I kill the lights and step out. Someone has hung a fresh memorial on the railroad crossing sign: a wreath of flowers lit by the blue moon with a picture of the girls in the center, arms around one another, smiling. Two have braces, all three brown hair. One is midway through a blink. It seems strange that whoever hung the wreath faced it away from the highway, into a patch of trees that passes for Kansas woods, rather than toward the main road. On the approach, you see only white cardboard and ribbon flapping around the edges of the railroad crossing sign, with its giant X and two Rs, black on yellow, but when you cross the tracks and look back, there they are, awkward adolescents grinning from the other side.

A train whistles in the distance. Matt and I grew up just six blocks from the rail lines: miles from this spot, but less than half a mile from the place where the tracks cut through old downtown. I put my hands to my mouth and call his name. Cicadas chirp. I call again and hate myself for my lack of enthusiasm. I’m tired enough that I think I see movement in the trees, but when I look again, no one’s there.

I turn to the girls, cheery on the crossing sign, and say aloud: “So where is he?” I cough and under my breath add, “You’d better not see him before I do.”

Melodramatic.

I flip open my phone, thinking to call Soup or Mom or someone, but you can’t get reception this far into the fields, not when I was in high school and apparently not in the five years since. After I left for McPherson and the meat-cutting plant, Matt didn’t have it easy. He persevered by himself through Mom’s affair, our parents’ divorce and Dad’s death the year after. He suffered through the beginning and end of his first love, Michelle, who one night got into her rusty white Fiero and left him alone in Carey Park. He never called. I never visited. That’s just the way it was.

The whistle blows again. The headlamp swells. The train’s ditch lights wink, syncopated. A car approaching along the highway with its high beams blazing casts competing angles of light, the whole mix creating a chaos of brilliance and gloom that might inspire an artist like Matt but in me triggers only a senseless sting of panic. I look around and halfway expect to see my brother revealed among the trees, sketching away. Shadows fall across the dead girls’ faces.

At first I think the car might be Soup or one of the other guys, but it’s a sedan rather than a pickup. Only when the officer shines his drivers-side spotlight on me do I realize that it’s a police car, out on the highway, inspecting me from across the tracks. I pass the phone to my left hand and wave with my right. Mom called the police a few hours ago. They said they couldn’t do anything for us, but perhaps city dispatch put out an alert anyway, an APB or something, telling officers to be on the lookout for a longhaired farm kid in drunken mourning. Or maybe this cop’s bored and decided to help us out. His spotlight jerks across my body.

Then his other lights come on, red and blue. The car inches up to the tracks, gravel crunching. The girls’ faces glow with backlit brilliance. Off to my left the train approaches. The officer gets out of his car.

For a second, we stand there, him with one hand near his holster, spotlight aimed at my chest, my hand up to block the glare. The cop says something official-sounding into the CB microphone at his shoulder, but I can’t hear him over the train’s horn. The girls’ faces are whiter than anything else out here, brighter even than the cop’s spotlight. I take a step forward, and that’s when he draws his gun. He shouts something at me, points at me, at my left hand.

He sweeps his hand from left to right and down, diagonally. It takes me a while to realize that he’s telling me to drop my phone and another few seconds to surmise that he thinks my cell phone is a gun. Just last week in New York City, police shot a man forty-seven times for gesturing with his wallet from his front door. The train horn blares and the cop shields his eyes with his non-gun hand as the train gets closer, and he’s shouting at me and the train conductor keeps pulling on his horn, because he must see us out here, a probable criminal and an officer staring at each other across the tracks at three in the morning while his engine bears down.

The patrolman looks closer to my brother’s age than my own. It occurs to me that in the next few seconds all I would need to do is lurch forward in order to die, either by train or by cop. The thought pushes out worries about Matt. I think for a minute about my girlfriend back in bed, wonder what she would do when she heard the news, how long she would wait before sleeping with someone else. Death comes easy. Opportunities lie across every yellow median. Through thin wires at the side of the Woody Seat Freeway bridge. At the bottom of the Ark River. My grind at the Doskocil meat plant has provided a daily, up-close view of straightforward, unsophisticated mortality. Everyone dies. Even 15-year-old girls and brothers.

Sir, he’s saying, put the weapon down, throwing terrified weight on each word, staring at my phone, screaming across the tracks, arm sweeping again and again, left to right and downward.

The train cuts between us, shaking the wreath, causing the girls to wag their heads in admonition. They manage to hold tight for nearly half the length of the train, but then the adhesive sets them free and off they fly, red-and-blue lights slashing through the moving train and its low-slung grain cars, intermittently illuminating the girls, a strobe effect as they flip in the airstream and glide alongside the train.

I could spring for the trees.

Or raise the phone like a weapon, point it straight at his head.

Or my head.

I toss the phone to the ground and spread my arms, the universal symbol of firearm-induced surrender. After the train passes, the officer keeps his gun drawn and advances, both hands on his weapon, a half step at a time. He’s not as young as Matt, but he does look fresh and terrified, still younger than me. Probably he thinks he could die tonight. This part of Kansas hasn’t seen a murder all year. Not last year either.

“Where’s the gun?”

I stare at him and wonder whether I’m going to speak. When I do, my lips stick together, and for a barely perceptible moment I believe myself mute.

“It’s a phone.” I nod to the ground and keep my hands to my sides, arms parallel to the earth.

“We had reports of shots,” he says. He looks around his weapon at me, taking in my face. He speaks with authority but carries no air of competence. His forehead is scrunched, his eyes too wide.  “That you?”

“I don’t have a gun,” I say. “Only the phone. Right there. In the grass.”

“Don’t move,” he says. “Keep your hands up. Higher.”

He moves forward to get a better look at the cell while keeping his gun leveled at my chest.

“Get down on your knees. Put your hands behind your head. Do this slowly, now. You understand what I’m saying?”

I fall onto my knees harder than I mean to. He asks my name. I tell him I’m Andrew Bandon. Top mechanic of the class of 86 at Hutch High. First-string fullback. Andy. Resident of McPherson, 1619 Walnut Terrace. A Doskocil floor worker. Nothing special now, but an upstanding citizen.

The officer moves behind me and grabs my wrist, puts me in handcuffs, kicks me over into the grass, face down. Another car pulls up.

“I’m looking for my brother,” I say, uncertain whether the cop is looking at me. A rock the size of a golf ball presses into my cheek. A third car arrives, gravel and headlights. I hear a woman’s voice. A hand reaches down to retrieve my phone from the grass. I hear laughter, a man and woman both. The voices, three of them now, move toward the road.

Just when I think that no one is coming that, that they’re going to leave me where I’m trussed, someone shoves his hands under my armpits, pulls me up and walks me to the side of the road. For a minute this new cop looks as though he’s going to dust off my chest, but then he lets his hand drop. He’s an older guy. Fat. Bored and maybe a little embarrassed. In an exasperated tone he explains that someone has been shooting at the trains, that there have been reports of someone discharging a weapon at vehicles in the vicinity of the railroad tracks, that I’m not in trouble but that I need to wait a few minutes more. I need patience for just a few minutes more.

The cops, I realize, don’t know anything about my brother. They wouldn’t be interested in finding my brother unless he’s been pushed to shooting at the trains that killed his non-girlfriends. The older cop pats me on the shoulder and steps away, leaving me handcuffed with my arms behind me. He jock-walks back to where the other two are talking and writing things down and laughing.

Soup laughed when he leaned over to whisper to Michelle in the pickup. The bastard is probably sleeping with her. Probably everyone knows. There’s no possibility that her giggle was innocent. Three girls dead and more friends dead to him.

Dad owned a handgun. What would happen if I told the police? If I weren’t still handcuffed, if I could get a signal, I could call Mom to ask whether the gun’s missing, whether it’s still behind the door in the basement utility room. Did we move it? The first cop, who the older guy called Officer James—his first name or his last?—he’s still watching my phone, letting it rest on the roof of his car while he talks to the girl, his cute laughing sergeant, the two of them treating the phone as though it were a weapon after all. Officer James picks it up and holds it by the antenna, gingerly. If Dad’s handgun isn’t behind the door, it could be with the rest of his stuff, his stained white t-shirts and wide, aging belts. A skin magazine or two. A second gun: a nonsensical rifle for a father who never hunted. A baseball glove and barbells and scribbled drawings of girls and cars and soldiers from his platoon. Dad abandoned it all when he moved out.

“Sir?” says Officer James. “I need you to stay standing up there by the car, sir.” He steps out toward me but not far from the other officers and their three cruisers, probably the entire night unit here on the outskirts of town, leaving Hutchinson defenseless against—nobody. “Just a few minutes more. We’re almost done here.”

On the ground, not thirty feet from where I stand, the girls’ photo struggles in the tall country grass, lit up by headlights, a few flutters from the treeline. I laugh and James looks up. The girls making a run for it.

The only one whose face I can see is the one whose name I don’t know. Short brown hair. Braces.

We could use some help here. We’ve kinda lost our momentum.

“Sir? Did you say something?”

Officer James sounds more concerned than ever, even more than when he thought I could be some dire and gathering threat, a phone-wielding train-shooter. He and the woman inch toward me, heads cocked, neither of them worrying about my brother.

Did Matt tell me he wanted the handgun? Didn’t he say so at Dad’s funeral?

The woman claps Officer James on the arm, murmurs something in a falsetto, coughs and walks back to her car. She and the older cop start their engines. They pull across the tracks and idle out there on the highway, the two of them talking through the windows while James walks me to his cruiser. He unlocks the handcuffs and inserts them into his belt before taking the phone from the hood of his cruiser and handing it to me.

“Is there anything else you need?” he asks.

Pro-forma questions from police normally sound aggressive to me, a holdover from my graffiti days. But James is uncomfortable enough that I feel sorry for him. He’s trying to be sincere. What is he? Nineteen?

“We really are done here,” he says, an authority figure practically begging me to respond, to validate his position. Little Officer James will take abuse from his fellow officers for weeks to come. The patrolman afraid of a cell phone. His humiliation needles at me.  Have some fucking self-respect, Jimmy. You’re supposed to be in charge here.

“Listen, it’s okay,” he says. “You look cold. You should go home. We ran your plates, you don’t have a gun. Dispatch told me about the problem with your brother. Don’t worry. Go on home. Your brother will turn up. He’s just a kid, right? They sometimes—they disappear, then they show up later. Not the end of the world, right? They get over it. They’re, what do they say, resilient.”

Officer James stands there, gun holstered, phone extended, staring at me, silhouetted in his headlight beams, standing on the roadway side of the tracks with the empty wreath off to his left, unnoticed, the train long gone but another one inevitably on its way.

*


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