HG pulls a couple of folding lawn chairs out to the yard where he can best view the train pass by. The 5:08 afternoon train. He glances at his watch, five minutes to five; if anything, he was a punctual man. He pops the top off his Bud and sees his neighbor Bud wave his way. HG lifts the can in silent salute and tosses back a cool swallow knowing Bud is on his way over.
“Sure do miss that dog of yours,” Bud will say, helping himself to the cooler and getting settled in his chair. HG will nod and look at the spot where his one good friend in the world would lie beside him and watch for the 5:08. “She was the best dog I ever had, that girl,” he’d tell Bud and with luck, the train would haul past precluding any sort of further conversation. HG and Bud would sit in silence, watching the cars rumble by. After, Bud will call it an evening. “Well, see you tomorrow” he’ll say and head back toward his house. HG will finish off his beer and sit a bit longer, taking notice how the grass had grown where his Lucille had circled herself a seemingly permanent indentation. A month of Sundays was all the time his shit grass needed to reclaim the impression of her sweet gone self at rest beside him. Once he mowed, it would be as if she had never been there at all.
But Bud didn’t come over. He got in his car and pulled out the driveway with a tap of the horn. At 5:06 p.m., HG’s can of beer began rattling the metal arm of the lawn chair. His hand vibrated ever so slightly. The tracks took on a low hum, reminiscent of a held B flat. HG placed the train a mile south. He finished off his beer and waited.
Nobody really can fathom the size of a train until they live in a house with tracks close enough to grey your hair early if you had kids living with you. HG never had that worry. No kids, no wife, only his dog Lucille and now she was gone. The one constant in his personal life outside work was the 5:08 train. More than a time or two since his dog passed, he’d thought about sitting his lawn chair out on the tracks to face down the engine on his own terms. No sick dog to worry over any longer, no chance in hell of getting another. Bud though, these days the man visited him more often than previous, more than likely keeping an eye on him. But not this particular afternoon. Today could be his lucky day.
He stands from his chair too late. The train streaks past leaving HG wondering who in the hell had painted the 5:08 yellow.
“It’s the Brightline, training their crews,” Bud tells him the next afternoon. “It’ll be up and running tourists from Orlando down to South Florida soon. I wish I’d been here to see it.” His mother had found a snake in the garage the day before and needed him to get the damn thing out from under the washing machine. “Just a black snake, Momma,” he’d told her over the phone. “Raise the garage door and let him find his way out,” but no, she wouldn’t take no for an answer, convinced somehow the snake would get into the house and into her bed. “Momma, I told her, what’s he going to do, open the kitchen door and slither in beside you? Jesus, man.”
“Gotta help your momma,” HG says and pulls a beer from the six pack Bud brought over. At 5:08, the train flew by. Same old dinosaur dragging freight cars, not some futuristic bullet train wannabe. “Can’t say I enjoy the idea of a shitload of tourists getting that close to my house.”
“It’s that or them driving on the road. You been on I-95 lately, it’s a damn nightmare.”
“I’m not good with change,” says HG. “Not one bit.”
Next day, Bud brings his boy Ed over. The kid is ten, maybe eleven and sees his dad every other weekend though this is the second consecutive. Bud’s ex has her high school reunion down in Miami and did not take no for an answer. HG was inclined to believe Bud tended to attract domineering women.
The three sit back in lawn chairs hoping for the Brightline to zip by, that’s what the train sounded like to HG, a quick zipped zipper. He asks Ed, “What do you think about this tourist train?”
“I don’t know. My dad says it’ll help keep the maniacs off the road.”
“Including your Momma,” Bud says.
“You ever take a good look at a tourist?” HG asks Ed.
“I guess, they’re pretty much everywhere.”
“Exactly. Way too many, it’s unnatural. But did you ever really take a good look at one?”
“HG, the way I see things going these days,” Bud says, “you don’t want to look at anyone longer than necessary. People are, what’s that word, not sensitive, maybe uncomfortable …”
“Threatened,” his son says. “Their personal space is threatened.” Ed stands and stretches his arms out to his sides and turns a circle. “Mom says any person who gets past the length of your arms uninvited is way too close.”
“I don’t say this often, but Ed, your momma is dead on right.”
HG shakes his head. “All those mouse ears and Disney World tee shirts and sunburnt skin sticking to the seats, good God man. Makes my own damn skin crawl.”
“Say what you really mean, HG,” says Bud.
“Don’t get me started.”
At 5:06, the tracks start singing. HG’s beer can rattles the metal arm of his chair and stops. Rattles. Stops. The tracks hum, then skip, hum skip hum skip humskip humskip humskip humskip. The sound is wrong, plain wrong like a small plane choking too far from a landing strip. HG looks at Bud. He feels it, so does Ed and both run from whatever is coming their way.
HG is not much for running.
The yellow beast known as the Brightline grinds and screeches and skips and pitches forward like a black snake under a washer darting out a raised garage door but in this case, the runaway has jumped the track and deadstopped in a dead lean, six feet from toppling over and crushing HG’s house.
“I’d call that a threat, Lucille,” he says to his dead dog and pulls himself out of his lawn chair.
The passengers move quickly past the conductor and gather like pink flamingoes in HG’s front yard.
“Hey, Eddie!” A woman waves and hurries past HG heading toward the train. Bud and Ed meet her halfway. She hugs her son quick. “I swear you’ve grown and I’ve only been gone six whole hours.”
“What the hell, Lorraine?”
“Hold on, Bud. I’ve been in a train accident, for God’s sake.” She waves at a woman waving at her and talking on her cell. “That’s my old friend Cheryl. She’s calling for a limo to get us down to the reunion. She’s done real well for herself, voted “Most Likely to Succeed” in high school and she sure has.”
“Mom, are you okay?”
“Oh honey, yes. You know your momma, not much can throw her for a loop. I told the conductor, that’s my ex’s house right over there. He sits out front late afternoon and watches for the train to pass by, he’s probably out there right now with our son Eddie. I told him not to worry about my bags, I’ve got everything I need right here.” Lorraine pats her classic blue IKEA bag.
Bud tries again. “What are you doing on this train?”
“Oh that, well it’s a practice run carrying real passengers to Miami. No charge for being a part of Florida history. Oh and I get two cruise tickets as a thank you. We’ll go, Eddie, it’ll be fun. Oh hey, HG.” She pulls her sunbrella out of her bag and pops open eighty inches of oversized personal space.
“Still got that tent, Bud?” HG yells over the sirens of the first responders.
The Brightline head honchos didn’t offer much of an explanation to HG other than they were sorry for any inconvenience. The sheriff coaxed out the details. The house wasn’t in danger, the kinked train looked worse than it actually was, derailments happen more often than people realize. Routinely, the train was rerailed, up and gone, but a practice run with passengers required a more thorough inspection. Could be a couple of days, could be a week or more. Until then, nobody’s insurance would allow HG back in his house.
The sheriff helps HG pitch the tent over his beloved circle of Lucille. “No telling HG, how long you’ll be out here.” He motions toward the train. “Do us all a favor and let these assholes put you up on some fancy hotel on the beach.”
“Charlie, I’m blessed with an awfully good boss. Take all the time you need, he told me. With pay. I intend to do just that.”
“Well, I’m not one to run people off their property.” He picks up a mallet and starts pounding a tent stake into the ground. “Sure was sorry to hear about that dog of yours.”
“Lucille, that old girl was better than most people.”
HG calls the tent home for seven days.
With no 5:08 afternoon train to drink by, Bud comes over after dinner to watch the sun set on the reporters. The press had the nerve to use HG’s yard as a path to and from the train, no matter how many times he’d point them back out to the street. The sheriff put up police tape on his behalf. They ducked under it.
When the sun dips low in the west, HG and Bud move the lawn chairs inside the tent, open a beer and wait for a bit of help from Florida nature. Swarms of mosquitoes descend the reporters once the sun winks out and sends them running for their news vans with their microphones and cameras and loud talk. HG is no fan of mosquitoes. He hates them worse than deer ticks. He douses himself and Bud too with an ample amount of bug repellent and sprays the tent screen wet, reserving an extra squirt for any overachieving bloodsuckers trying to worm their way through the finely knit mesh. HG gets a lot of satisfaction taking out mosquitoes. Almost as much as watching the press itch and scratch the bites.
The weekend brings Ed and together with the press, they watch the train set back on the track. No cause for the derailment had yet been determined. Engineer error was the rumor reporters were trying to sniff out. HG didn’t much care. He wanted back in his house and the yellow beast gone.
“Phone books can derail a train,” Ed tells his dad and HG. “The big thick old school phone books. Some kids told me their dads told them, set a few phone books out on the tracks, sit back and wait.”
HG thinks about the phone books he’d run across the past few years, shriveled down to a puny pathetic book of yellow pages. The tissue paper pages he remembered, how his fingers would get smudged with the black ink when his mother asked him to look up somebody’s telephone number. He’d been about Eddie’s age when his mother’s dog collapsed in the kitchen. HG found the number for the veterinarian faster than a verse in the Bible. Knick Knack was the dog’s name and turned out the poor pup was full of heartworms. Even though she was an inside dog, the mosquitoes still got to her. All it took was one bite to give a dog heartworms, the vet had said. Back then, nothing could be done, other than to say goodbye. Look for the sunshine, sweetness, his mother whispered in the tiny pup’s ear. Didn’t make one bit of sense for an insect so miserable to take the life of a dog that gave his mother so much true love and vice versa.
In the car, his mother tucked Knick Knack’s collar and pink hair barrette inside her purse and with both hands, mashed down the horn hard. She screamed along with the wail of the old Rambler, tears running her face like rain. HG covered his ears, but didn’t take his eyes off his mother. He had never witnessed her or anyone else so upset. Her mouth was wide open as wide as the gator a guy wrestled down at the fish camp on the weekends. He would pry open its jaws and for a few extra bucks, stick his head inside. HG could never watch, scared something ugly was about to happen.
Finally, she took a breath. He ran back inside the vet’s office smack into a woman standing at the door fanning herself with a magazine. She felt damp like she had run through lawn sprinklers. She wore a sleeveless pink and blue flowered muumuu and surf shop flip flops. Her toenails were ragged and fungi dark. The woman was spectacularly sunburned. Cooked. She smelled of coconut and Noxema. The thick white cream plastering her nose melted a milky stream to her upper lip. She sweated hard from the heat.
“There’s a crazy woman screaming in a car, right out front, oh my GOD, she’s banging her head against the steering wheel!” she announced to everyone in the waiting room.
HG pushed past her to the front desk and asked if he could use the telephone to call his father. The receptionist offered him the phone book in case he needed to look up the number. He knew his father’s work number by heart, but he took it anyway and threw the heavy book as hard as he could at the sweaty sunburnt lady.
A direct hit.
When HG thought back to that day, he had no explanation for the strength behind his throw, other than perhaps possible adrenaline charged superpowers. He did get a speck of enjoyment watching the pages flutter madly like some sort of released wild bird.
The woman clutched her stomach and her mouth opened and closed but no words emerged. Shrill high-pitched barks did. Not from her, but from inside the Welcome to Florida! tote bag she’d dropped to the floor. A yorkie like Knick Knack shot out from inside and ran fast circles around the lady. The woman’s straw sun visor had shifted and slipped over her eyes, but the runny white Noxema cream, HG could very well see. The sloshy mess slipped down the bridge of her nose to splash her feet and settle in the ridged creases of those God awful toenails. Zebra toes, maybe the vet can help her, he had thought. She slid down the wall and the yorkie jumped into her lap and growled at anyone who got close.
The receptionist flew out from behind the counter and hurried HG back to the employee lounge. She sat him in front of a box of donuts. Take any one you want, maybe two, one for your momma, she might like a donut, here wrap her favorite in a napkin. She called his father and he came and drove them home, to the very house where HG still lived so close to the tracks. His mother could never bring herself to love another dog, but she set out a bowl of water every day in case a thirsty stray came by. Some days, she clasped back her bangs with Knick Knack’s special pink barrette and kept watch.
HG hadn’t called the vet the morning Lucille couldn’t catch her breath. He rushed her in and was rushed back to the examination room, but all the rushing around didn’t keep the vet from telling HG what he’d dreaded for a good six months. We knew this was coming, HG, you did everything you could. Cancer, it’s goddamn relentless. HG cradled Lucille and loved her and petted her and told her what a good old girl she was, always always he would love her and miss her. With her sweet head held to his heart, she sighed one last time and crossed over to where HG hoped his father and mother and Knick Knack wearing her pink barrette waited. He liked to think of them as passengers on the 5:08 train, looking at him sitting in the lawn chair watching for them.
That horrible sunburnt tourist woman, she’d be pinned to the tracks.