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Walk On Past



A woman died here last week, hit by a train.

The tracks run parallel to the rumbling river of I-5, which is my neighbor. Amtrak runs along here, two trains a day to and from Portland and California. Sounder, the commuter train that links Tacoma, runs here too, and that night last week a train taking people home hit a woman on the tracks.

I am coming home in the new dark. The time change isn’t old yet and the night is shallow after autumn dinner. The bus lets me off to a mass of police cars: Seattle cops, sheriff’s office, transit police, cars, vans, white institutional pickup trucks. None of the lights spin and traffic goes by unconcerned. I see cops but there is no one to ask until I start up the hill. I spot them immediately, and not from their cameras: the rough but technically adept, indifferent and vaguely jaded cameramen of the local network affiliate. There are two of them as I go uphill, with one behind me jaywalking to the other side of the bridge, where there is no sidewalk. Only cameras and sticks: no live shots tonight. I ask the first guy what the story is. Dunno. Train hit somebody. He is not too busy, not framing a shot, but has that diffidence I remember from my days behind the camera: I have this big camera and am doing important things. He is agile but scruffy, focused by a jaded lack of curiosity. I tell him thanks. He looks into the distance at the stalled train. Yeah.

I don’t bother to talk to the second cameraman, setting up his shot. I know they are getting some pictures to put over a talking head for five seconds at eleven tonight. If it was a big deal there would be lights and intense but vapid and distracted reporter-faces near-shouting into microphones.

I walk through the pink sodium light under the bridges holding up I-5, get my mail, go inside. A local TV website has a small headline lost in a riot of ads and spinning weather forecasts: woman killed by southbound train.

No further thought goes into it, not then.

I do not dream so much as wake with a memory. In high school a girl was killed by a train. She had been riding in a pickup truck’s open back when the driver raced a train. The railroad passage through town was a celebrated axle-cracker. When the kid driving floored it to beat the train, the jolt was so violent it popped her out like a cork, straight up to land center crossing. It was a very long train, the kind that takes a half-mile to stop.

I was not far from this, that Saturday night in high school. Along with some other weirdos and harmless ne’er-do-wells I was at someone’s house down the street, flipping through Grue comic books and listening to inane conversations about punk music and Star Wars. We were no less bored than anyone else in the country-turned-to-suburb town, but we were inside, without beer. The main street was just out the window, and traffic volume picked up, or it stopped. Someone was in a doorway, yellow from the bulb. We are walking down the sidewalk no one walks in little Texas towns-turned-suburbs. The house is a few blocks from the crossing. That part of town was poorly lit then, and I remember the black bulk of the train, lights broken by legs clipping through the undercarriage. I remember milling around, not sure why I was there. Someone was crying in screams.

Rising out of that linear pause of sleep the morning was blue, and I heard a voice from twenty-five or so years ago–the voice of a ne’er-do-well hanger-on who died while I was in college. He said this on that black spray paint night: Yeah, they’re croaked. Cops would’ve called the helicopter if there was anything left.

Situation normal

Situation normal

The next morning it is now, just like always. Cops are gone from the corner they occupied the night before; traffic susurrates along. Everyone is going everywhere they always go, one to a car, staring ahead in the fog of now, meaning their sensing selves are somewhere else. No ghosts hug the shadows, aside from those always there I never see. I get on that bus, but the one going the other way, and ride on vinyl seats next to air and tired black men in black cloth coats.

The days start and end and walks home go over the same train tracks where the same trains go. Nothing stops or changes.

The day I’m supposed to meet a coworker friend and her husband downtown I don’t, because I get up so late I might as well drive. Traffic shows an uncanny green through the midmorning city. I decide on the I-90 bridge, the bigger Interstate floating bridge, then up to work. Boxed in at the on-ramp the orange traffic sign warns of a large accident before my turn for work. Four lanes blocked, expect long delays.

Traffic is fine until the last mile or so, and even then proceeds at an idle creep, not a braked crawl. The exit for the loop freeway is long and I speed around up over all the other blocked lanes. Traffic is diverted to the left shoulder, blocked off by flares. There is nothing to see but the eerie oddity of an empty city freeway, men walking the middle of it. There are cop cars and fire trucks, but the lanes are clear except for dark plastic lumps.

Looking away I drive on and realize I am driving on. Four lanes blocked: what scale of violence. How that must have sounded. How few survivors. It stays with me at work in the identical corporate halls. I am a kid again wondering how I can not be a monster to be doing normal things, going about normal life, when there is suffering in the world.

There is always death out there, at every moment, and everything keeps going. We are all doctors, cops, cameramen. Once you see too much you realize you must choose: hold back or collapse. Friends, family, cats, dogs, horses: none any easier, and at some point we must stop. We all hold back because we are only animals and we can only save so much.

There is always work to do, and doing it becomes easier, and then easy. How easy is too easy? My inner child still wonders.


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