At the start of the shift I grab the folding chair out of the crossing shack and set it up next to the door. I’m hoping to catch some action: drug deals run day and night in the parking lot of the Burger King on the other side of the tracks.
It’s almost November and unseasonably warm, which is good for business. Girls in short-shorts sit on the hoods of cars, smoke cigarettes, comb hands through long hair. Boys with inked-up arms compare rims and subwoofers. Others keep inside the cars, waiting for customers to approach the open windows. It doesn’t take long. Soon enough, hooded figures slide up, hand over folded bills, and are sent to receive their purchases behind the Burger King. They form quick, indiscreet clusters around one of the boys hanging out next to the dumpster, and scatter a few minutes later when the transaction is complete.
I swat at moths. The handheld radio at my feet crackles. The dispatchers are talking to the engineers. When the bells ring and the gates come down, I stand in the middle of the street and hold the orange flag over my head until the train rushes by. Then, it’s back to my chair. The night moves the way it always does: long, murderous drags of isolation and boredom between trains.
Eventually, the cops roll into the parking lot and, thank fucking God, the pace picks up. The blue and red lights on the top of the cruisers flash, but the sirens aren’t singing. The buyers melt into the dark at the first wail of the sirens and the machine-gun-flash of the blue and reds. The kids in the cars, the kids who weren’t fast enough to disappear down a side street, get caught. They’re thrown facedown to the pavement and catch a knee in the back. Plastic cuffs are zipped around their wrists. When the suspects are hauled into custody and the cops and cruisers disperse, the lot goes quiet again. It’s not long before bodies begin to creep out of the shadows, tentative at first, and approach the new cars with girls on the hood, money in hand, hope brimming anew in their eyes.
The air remains humid and thick. It draws sweat from my forehead and the back of my neck. The sky is dark without the moon or stars. The street lights cast an ugly glow.
Near the end of the shift, the bells ring and the gates lower across the street. A train is coming. I clip the radio to my back pocket as I get out of the folding chair and walk into the middle of the street. I stand a safe distance from the tracks and hold the orange flag over my head. It’s automatic by now. I’m barely there. I’m so far away, it’s almost too late when I spot the kid on the bike.
He’s young, maybe twelve or thirteen, skinny little shit. He’s pedaling his ass off, bent over the handlebars in a push for momentum. He knows the train is coming and he thinks he can beat it.
In this situation, I’m supposed to bring the radio close to my mouth and say, “Emergency, emergency, emergency; pedestrian on the track at the Rantoul Street crossing.” But when I look south and see the oncoming headlight getting bigger, the speed of the collapsing distance, I know right away: the radio is useless. Even if the engineer hits the brakes, that kid is fucked.
I drop the flag and radio and get as close to the gate as I dare; my waist presses against it and pushes it toward the tracks. I throw up my arms. The velcro of the orange vest I wear over my t-shirt tears away at the chest. I wave them back and forth over my head.
“Stop!” I point down the tracks. “The train! The fucking train! Stop! Stop!”
The kid’s eyes bug out when he sees me. His jaw drops when it connects, why I’m yelling and jumping up and down like an asshole. He snaps the pedals back. The bike’s tires scratch the tar and burn into a skid. The bike wrenches sideways. The kid leans back, fighting for balance. Then I lose him. Several thousand tons of blurred metal and light fills the space that separates us. I keep screaming, but I can’t hear it.
It’s only later, during the ride home, on a dark stretch of highway that cuts through the crowded beach towns of the North Shore, my heartbeat not so loud in ears anymore, that I realize it was the flash. The flash off the chrome spokes of the bike wheels as they spun, reflecting the streetlights overhead. That’s what caught my eye as I stood in the street. That’s the only reason I saw the kid.
Just past one in the morning I park the truck along the sidewalk next to the house. Our apartment is on the first floor. The windows are dark. The dog must be asleep otherwise she’d be barking; she knows the sound of my truck and gets excited when I come home, usually.
The neighborhood is quiet and calm. All I want to do is rest my forehead against the steering wheel and fall asleep right there. But I can’t. I go inside and drink two beers at the kitchen table, undress in the bathroom and go to bed.
This is one of those nights Eddie refused the crib, so Katie, who is two months pregnant and too tired to fight, just gave up and brought him to bed. When I come into the bedroom they’re lying back to back, their shoulders touching. He wakes up when I lift the covers and climb in. He sits up, rubs his eyes, and starts to sob. I shuffle back to the kitchen, grab the bottle already made from the fridge. Katie will scold me about this. The sugars in the milk will rot his teeth, she’ll tell me. But it shuts him up, I’ll shoot back, he’ll lose those teeth in a couple years anyway, and I need to sleep. So what the fuck.
I hand Eddie the bottle and lie down. He rests his head on the crook of my elbow and drinks. I brush his thick brown hair off his forehead. Together, we stare at the spackle on the ceiling. We watch the shadows grow long and shrink with the lights of passing cars. I drift off with toddler talk and suckling sounds close to my ear.