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Racing the Train

A selection from Racing the Train, my memoir-based novel.

I cringe at the sound of the clanging bell as the flashing red-eye lights at the railroad crossing warn traffic to come to a stop. A pair of black and white striped gates descend, each one blocking an opposing lane. Off in the distance, but not too far, the sound of a racing freight train, its insistent horn blaring a threatening tri-toned chord. But the scariest sound of all is the motor of our ‘54 Chevy as Daddy guns the accelerator. Daddy’s getting ready to race the train.

“Paul, don’t,” my mother warns, her self-righteous tone-of-voice fueling his insistence.
“We’ll miss the Daily Double, if I sit here and wait for that train.” he explains. “We’re going now, goddammit.”
I scrunch my eyes closed as tight as I can, and ball my fingers into a fist. Silently I begin to recite an Act of Contrition, the prayer the nuns taught us to say whenever we might be in danger of death, or upon retiring for the night, whichever comes first. I am violently shifted to the opposite side of the back seat as the car veers out in a sudden jerk and begins its breakneck streak toward the tracks. In spite of my best efforts, my eyes pop open, irresistibly drawn toward the black plume of smoke that is plummeting toward the crossing, and we seem to be destined to meet it. I want to scream, “Daddy, stop!” but no sound comes from my open mouth. Inside my head I am screaming, but no one outside can hear.

Tires squealing, motor racing, the cars outside my window whirring by in a blur of bluegreenblackredbluewhitetan, my back is flat against the seat as the Chevy gains momentum. I wonder how my brother, John, can just sit there so calmly, doesn’t blink an eyelash, just sits there like a little soldier, almost detached. But then, he’s seven years older than I am, he’s lived through this more often than I have. Mom says Dad just has to gamble, whether it’s his last dollar on a horse race or his family’s life on a speeding train. I catch a glimpse of her making the sign of the cross just before I feel the bumps from the first pair of tracks clacking beneath the tires. I can feel something else, too. I can feel the vibrations from the train as it lunges down the track to meet us, blaring its ferocious warning. “Get off the track, you fool,” it seems to say (or is that my mother screaming?), “get off the track or die.” Oh God I don’t want to die yet, not before I grow up and have a chance to really live. Now the car veers violently to the left. I feel four more bumps, and I know we’ve made it! My heart is pounding so hard I can barely breathe and in spite of the awesome fear, I feel exhilarated. We beat the train! Hooray, we’re going to live!