Michael knelt down, his right knee digging into the thin layer of frost; a dark circle of moisture slowly spread across the knee of his blue jeans as it began to melt. The sky was steel gray, lined with a featureless sheet of clouds as evening slowly rolled in. The cold Pennsylvania winter seemed closer than ever, even if it was only October. A gust of wind sent a few of the toughest leaves falling from the trees above, their will to resist the inevitable finally broken by the relentless chilling breeze. In the distance, an air horn from a solitary freight train cried out across the valley, reverberating up the hollow and onto the small promontory where the tombstones scattered across the hillside like seeds broadcast by a fierce storm. Michael looked skyward one last time as a small blast of wind cut across his face. An old oak tree groaned from its vantage at the highest point as the wind and the last light of day slid away?
A single tear formed in the corner of his eye, a blast of mist erupted from his mouth as Michael began to speak...
I died last May. It was May 5th to be exact. The night started out innocently enough, I suppose. Two of my friends and I were out celebrating the successful battery of finals we had most likely passed that week. Do you remember Jack and Mark? They came home with me one weekend that you had come to visit the folks. Anyway ...
It started out in a place appropriately named "Smokey’s." The thick haze generated by a mix of locals and college students permeated every little nook and cranny of this tired but lively old building.
Around (four?) the bartender shouted "Last call" and the patrons filed out in a drunken depression, their heads hung low as if they had been evicted from their very homes. The old "You don?t have to go home, but you can?t stay here" act. My friend Jack had driven. He was more than willing to drive us back home in his week-old Eclipse, but we convinced him that we?d be better off walking. In retrospect maybe he should have driven. No doubt we?d gotten a few hundred feet before getting a safe ride home in the back of the police cruiser that sat just around the corner on Fifth Street every Friday night. It worked out that the shiny new Eclipse spent the night alone in a gravel parking lot deflecting bits of stone spewed by the oversized tires of a dozen Ford and Chevy pick ups whose owners weren?t afraid of (another) DUI.
Picture in your mind, three college juniors -- too drunk to drive, and almost too drunk to walk -- staggering back to their fraternity house. At what seemed like the careful guidance of the senior man, Jack, we decided on taking a short cut he was convinced would cut "hours, perhaps days!" from our journey. It seemed so innocent then; five months ago feels more like fifty years now?
Several hours before the sun would rise above the Alleghenies, we were walking down the railroad tracks that ran past the Laundromat across from our dorm, which was a good five-mile walk if you were sober. After a mile or so, I began to wonder just how "short" Jack’s shortcut really was.
Now Grandpa, here’s where it gets interesting. In order to get back to our apartment and get some much needed rest, we had to go through an old railroad tunnel and then across a bridge on the other side. Well I wouldn?t try that sober. But alcohol has a tendency to limit your vocabulary, and that night sober had been cut short along with most other words over four letters. Steve and Jack were wobbling along happily behind me as we entered the tunnel. In the blackness, my nose filled with the stench of creosote and damp gravel mixed with just a hint of diesel fuel. I flicked on my lighter to see where we were. The dim orange light danced off the black walls, stained with a hundred years of steam, smoke and oil. This was a short tunnel, but it was a good two hundred feet to the bridge and our progress seemed painfully slow, as if walking in a dream through invisible cotton candy. I remembered hearing the distant howl of a diesel air horn, but my impaired mind or maybe wishful thinking told me it was just my ears ringing from the sound of the band that had blared on for hours back at the bar.
By some miracle, we reached the end of the tunnel and stepped carefully onto the steel deck of the bridge. Having drank the least by a wide margin that night, I suppose the walk had begun to help wear down the effects of my drinking. As fate would have it -- and Murphy’s Law insists -- the train wasn?t my imagination; it was real. A pinpoint of light formed at the other end of the tunnel. Everyone knows, the only time a train crosses a bridge is when some trespasser is trying to invade its space, almost as if it waits, a Cyclops with its only eye shut, on some siding until it catches sight of prey; then it attacks -- its steel wheels screaming down the track.
I carefully weighed my options: jump 75 feet into the swirling nothingness of the black hollow below, out running a ten-thousand ton train, or getting killed. In the black fog of the early morning, and the steadily growing pain in my head, simply hanging over the side of the trestle never occurred to me.
The train was only going 20 mph when it emerged from the mammoth stone facade of the tunnel portal, but to outrun it on the slippery steel deck would have been impossible. Steve hung over the side. Jack and I ran for dear life, only a hundred feet of track ahead of us, and thirty feet between us and the train. The rumble was deafening, I might have been able to think clearer if the damned engineer hadn?t been blowing that horn so appallingly loud. Under the circumstances, I think one blow would have been adequate. The smell of fresh diesel smoke and dirty heavy oil filled my nose. I began to hear the shrill squealing of brakes behind me.
Jack ended up jumping over the side, bouncing off one of the mammoth wood support timbers. Despite the roar of the locomotive, I actually heard the wet thud of his body. He didn?t die. I later found out that by some miracle, bouncing off the bridge, then crashing through a thick canopy of trees, then into the black creek swollen by the Spring thaw had provided just enough cushion the save his life. Supposedly, he hit the creek feet first and sank just fast enough to hit one of the boulders giving him a double compound fracture and a limp, I understand, will follow him for the rest of his life -- probably bothering him on those days when it rains or threatens to. Another miracle wedged him between two boulders with his head above water, so that when the rescue workers arrived, they would find him hypothermic, but alive -- missing about half the blood in his body. Steve got tetanus from the jagged shard of rusted steel deck he?d hung from and a few stitches on the underside of both hands. In fact, I understand he was still hanging there trembling when the emergency crew arrived 20 minutes later, ghost white with a matching tuft of hair and babbling nonsense. I wasn?t so fortunate.