Bill stopped the car on the railroad tracks. He turned off the engine. I was in the back seat of the little Mustang convertible with Anthony. His brother Joe sat up front. The brothers were moderate people. They didn’t drink the way Bill and I did. I had a beer and so did Bill. It must have been the sixth or seventh of the evening. Stopping the car on the tracks struck all of us as a Bill thing to do.
“Wouldn’t that be something if a train came along?” Bill said, swigging the last of his beer and holding up his hand, indicating he wanted another from the cooler sitting between Anthony and me.
“Yeah, Bill, it’d be funny as hell,” Joe said. “Now, let’s get moving.”
Anthony gave Bill another beer, which he opened and drank right away.
“I mean, it happens in movies all the time,” Bill said. “It can’t happen to us.”
We sat there with the windows open. The air was heavy with humidity. We listened to the frogs calling and squeaking down by the river. We were all quiet a minute. The park was empty and the night black and absorbing.
Bill, Anthony, and I were seniors; Joe was a junior. This was one of our Friday nights. We were bored suburban kids who didn’t fit in with almost anyone else in school. I suspected, for Bill and me at least, it was because they didn’t drink the way we did. I know that Bill was a friend in name only. Had we better opportunities we would have taken them.
We weren’t athletes or stoners. We weren’t musicians or anywhere near the popular crowd. I was a fat kid. Bill was just a strange guy who drank more than anyone I’d ever seen. He was a rich kid, too. Anthony and Joe were just regular nice guys. We got on with everyone well, we just weren’t the kinds of people other kids called on a lonely Friday or Saturday night.
Nothing better to do, we’d go to some Kansas liquor store, where, at the time, 18-year-olds could buy watered down beer. Since we both looked old enough, we had been buying beer since we were 15. We’d stock up on a couple of cases of beer and hit the road, just driving around, drinking. Once in a while, Joe and Anthony would join us. They would have a couple of cans, lingering over them for the night. Bill and I always had 12 or 15 beers over the course of a night.
Drinking and driving. Somehow, we did these weekly outings and didn’t get hauled in by the cops. We just drive, sometimes as far as Drexel, about 55 miles south of where we lived. We used to take the back roads to Harrisonville and, one time, made it as far as Urich, 60 some miles away. We’d drive there and drive back. We’d talk about what we wanted to do with our lives. Bill was from a family active in Republican politics. I was already firmly Democratic. It made for lively conversations—increasingly lubricated the more time we were away from Kansas City.
That night, Bill had picked me up and already had Anthony and Joe in the car. We went to a couple of liquor stores across the state line before we found one that would sell us beer without asking for ID. We wended our way back across the line, mostly because Johnson County, Kansas, cops had little to do but look for speeders and people who ran stop signs. We wanted to take no chances getting caught. Our parents would have a fit. Plus, we didn’t know what happened to underage kids caught drinking and we didn’t want to find out.
We had driven out along the length of Blue River Road from Swope Park in the city out to Martin City. It wound through dense forest. There were no houses or settlements for the 15-mile length of the road. We drove slowly, pulling off every now and then at park shelter houses to walk around, take a pee, and smoke. Since Bill didn’t let anyone smoke in his car, Joe and I would wolf down Marlboros and spend a minute looking up into the trees, listening to the night sounds of the forest.
By the time we made it down to Minor Park, Bill and I had already put on a buzz. We drove into the park and around the shelter houses and baseball fields. Coming across the old steel-truss Red Bridge, Bill had parked the car on the tracks and, in Bill fashion, dared us to wait until a train came to get off the tracks.
Joe, Anthony, and I thought it was a good joke. Bill was laughing and going on about trains and cars and movies. Suddenly, the tracks began to sing.
“I think I hear a train coming,” Joe said. “Let’s get going.”
“A train! Wouldn’t it be our luck,” Bill laughed.
“No kidding, Bill,” Anthony said. “Let’s get moving.”
I looked past Anthony and thought I could see the trees lighting up down in a curve in the tracks. Soon enough, the front light of a train came into sight.
“No shit, Bill,” I said. I rubbed my eyes to make sure I wasn’t seeing things the way I did when I got drunk. “It’s a train.”
Bill finally looked across the car and saw the train approaching the passenger side of the car. He turned the key. The car turned over but didn’t start.
“Just like in the movies,” he said.
He tried the key again and then again. The engine didn’t respond.
“What the hell do we do now,” he said.
“Start the fucking car!” Anthony exclaimed. He never cussed. He was serious.
Joe opened the car door and was ready to get out. The train kept coming. It now had its whistle going full blast. I imagined the engineer could see us.
Light filled the car. Bill started to panic, he voice going up a few octaves. Joe was out of the car, yelling at us to get out. He waved his arms, gestured to us to get out. Anthony pulled the button to let the seat up but was having problems getting out of the small and crowded back seat. There was nothing I could do, as Bill kept trying to get the car to start.
I had a brilliant idea. I grabbed the now hysterical Bill by the shoulder and shook him. The train was less than a few seconds away from hitting us.
“Listen to me,” I said. “Let your foot off the clutch and turn the key. The starter will pull us off the tracks.”
“Let the clutch out and turn the goddamn key.”
Bill did it, and the car inched forward in fits until it was just off the tracks. That second, the train screamed by. I looked over at Anthony, and he was frozen. Joe had sat down in the gravel next to the road. The car door was still open.
“Put on the brake or the car will roll back,” I screamed at Bill. I looked out the back window and the train was passing just feet from my face. I don’t know how far the car was from the train, but it couldn’t have been more than inches. If Bill let the car roll back, we were done for.
After a few minutes, there was a general relief among us as the last of the train passed. Bill was crying now, and Anthony was just coming to his senses.
“Now, just wait a few minutes,” I said. “Don’t try to start the car now. Let it sit. It’s probably flooded.”
Joe climbed back in the car. “Damn,” he said. “Only in the movies?”
We couldn’t get the car started and ran the battery down. The solution, I figured, was a jump start. I had Anthony, Joe, and I push the car from in front down the incline past the railroad tracks. When we had a good momentum, I yelled at Bill to let the clutch out. The car started right away.
Anthony and Joe had had enough and demanded Bill take them home. After we dropped them off, I fetched another couple of beers out of the cooler. By this time, Bill had regained his moronically happy demeanor back.
“How about that?” he said. “Who knew it could happen to us?”
“Everybody, Bill. Everyone knows you don’t jack around on fucking train tracks.”
“How do you know so much about cars?” he asked me.
“My family has only ever driven used cars, old ones.”
We spent the next couple of hours driving until we ran out of beer. When he dropped me off, I got in trouble for coming home drunk again. But I didn’t care. At least we weren’t decorating the front of a freight train.
That incident with the train changed everything. I only ever saw Anthony and Joe at school and they didn’t have much to say to me. Bill and I would meet from time to time but it was never the same. We drank. We didn’t have much to talk about.
I saw him again years and years later. He was opening a fast-food franchise and said it was an opportunity for him to make lots of money. I was sober by that time. He said we ought to get together for a couple of beers soon. Yeah, I said, that would be great.
I never saw him again. I saw the fast-food place open and operate for a few years. Then, one day I drove by an empty storefront.