I remember the soft yellow light streaming in from the horizon and the car rocking to a halt when father stepped on the brakes. Face tense, his fingers nervously combed his dyed black hair. He smiled his broad, crooked smile, examining his fine, minute, yellow teeth in the rear view mirror. The tip of his tongue gingerly traced his thin lips. "Let's go, boy," he said. I followed his swift pant legs out of the narrow roadside near the railroad crossing. A bird flapped out of the tall cattails, bending in the breeze with a flurry of feathers and slight cry. I stopped for a moment to listen and watch and then quickened my pace. My father stopped before a dusty hill, wiping his sweaty brow with his handkerchief, monographed P.A. for Pedro Amaro.
When my father informed me after supper that we had someplace to go there was something urgent in his voice. He did not say where we were going. Now here we were at the top of a hill swirling with dust. I saw the rail cars scattered along the train tracks, as if a huge fist had knocked them off the track, the sides of some cars torn open. My father's legs looked wobbly when I reached his side. I rubbed my eyes, blinked, and watched my father wandering along the wreckage shaking his head. Here and there men in dark suits and blue hard hats walked in and out of the scene, surveying the damage. Some men and women from the village walked among them. In tears, one woman walked in a daze before turning her head away.
The red signal of the railroad crossing lights glimmered in the sun as if they were glaring at me. I wanted to touch them. The zebra-striped arms of the crossing rails were warped, white paint peeling, arms hanging loosely, but there were no waiting cars only the shrill whistle of wind. "Boy, you can look around," my father said, "but don't touch anything. Stay close. I'll let you know when it's time to go home." Not much happened in the village, making the derailment even more shocking. I nodded and started running, but he yelled after me, "Walk, don't run. Don't break your neck!"
Shortly afterward, in the distance, I saw my father talking to a large white man in blue overalls. Like my father, he was a railroad worker, his foreman. My father was pumping him for information. The foreman pointed to the front of the line. The engine was on its side with a huge center dent and the windows shattered. The wooden train ties scattered like toothpicks. I will never know what they talked about exactly since my father never told me, but I imagine the foreman held some theory that my father agreed with because I could see my father nodding his head as the man spoke. My father's hands never seemed more animated. They scratched his head at times and at other times stroked his chin like pecking birds.
While my father continued talking to the foreman, I wandered away and counted eleven derailed cars. Only the last two at the end of the train were left standing. The rest were on their sides and scattered about in a zigzag pattern. Just a short distance ahead of the wreckage the rail tops glistened in the fast settling sun. I started tip toeing across one of the rails. For better balance, I held my hands out to the side. I imagined I was high above on a tightrope. I walked slowly, swaying gently to and fro but not so much as to topple over. Inwardly, I smiled to myself, pleased with my progress, the voices of the workers and the gawkers faded. I gazed back over my shoulder, scanning, not seeing my father.
I stopped and closed my eyes. I swear I could hear the three long, ear-piercing whistles that sang out when a train was rumbling through the village. And I could hear the mix of squeaking wheels and the powerful chugging diesel engine that I had heard so many times before. Then, I heard my father hollering, "Get off the rail, you damn fool! Right now!" His cheeks were flush. As an old railroad man, my father had a respect for safety. It was a fundamental rule that no one, especially children, should walk on the rails. Too many people lost their lives to trains while failing to move out of the way. Still, at the time all I heard was his anger, and I jumped off, slowly hovering in space, and descended languidly before touching down.
So many nights while lying awake in bed, with a roll of blankets over me, sweaty and unable to sleep, I have examined this moment, obsessed by it. Often, I imagine what my father was feeling. Since he was a mechanic for the train company, perhaps he blamed himself for the derailment or feared he would be blamed; perhaps it sliced open a chasm of fear inside him. But I doubt he is still falling, like I am falling? When I leapt into the air, three dark birds were flapping under a huge, rolling bank of clouds and my feet were defying gravity, lifting off the ground, my long dark hair flying upward, and then the turn, the breathless apex, and the drop, not some hurried descent, but one painfully gradual, methodical, inescapable.
Some nights I still feel his hand on my shoulder, the tight grip that spun me around, so I could see his knitted eyebrows, clenched teeth, dark eyes squinting, with his thick, gnarled index finger pointing at me. He led me by the wrist to the car, his free hand opening closing into and out of a fist. Yet, he never said more than, "Never do that again, stupid boy!" Then the car sputtered and lurched into a suddenly chilled darkness. I climbed into the back seat and unfolded a blanket I found in the trunk and covered myself from head to toe. Usually, I hated covering my head but I felt like hiding from his gaze. Soon I was drifting off to sleep to his muttering under his breath, it's not my fault.
The next morning bright streaks of light shifting though the Venetian blinds woke me. As I sat up, my shadow loomed against the wall as if ready to pounce. I smelled smoky, and black grime and grease underlined my fingernails. The alarm clock rang and my mother said, "Rise and shine, hijo!" Suddenly, I cried uncontrollably into my pillow. But no one heard me or found me. At the dinner table, I ate my tortillas and scrambled eggs silently. When my mother said, "Is everything OK, your father seems upset? What happened? What did you see?" A sob burst out of my mouth. She picked me up and placed me on her lap. I told her everything. She hugged me and said, "Hijo, this too will pass and be forgotten."
Now late at night when I walk my leash-yanking dogs down the deserted streets I often hear the train rolling through the sleepy village, the whistle blasting three times, the creaking of the rusty wheels turning, and the warbling of metal. I imagine my father long since dead is aboard. He is the engineer of the train and spits a glob of brown chew out the cab window, striking the carless streets below, and then blows the whistle three more times just for me. I know that someday when his train finally stops, I will board and take my place beside him at the controls and we will roll until our train derails in a thundering eruption of smoke, steel, and coal; the past and present colliding as the future slides into the dirt.