I am four years old and skipping along Silver Street, holding my mother’s hand. We are going to see the train. My brother rides his tricycle along the side of the road and with her free hand my mother pushes the baby carriage in which my two sisters sit facing one another. The tracks cross our road down near the main road, not even a mile away from home, but when I turn around after we’ve passed the brook I cannot see our house at all so it seems a great distance. When we reach the tracks, we stand far enough away for safety but close enough for the engineer to see us and wave.
We can hear the train before we see it. There’s a crossing just a mile away in the center of town and another a few miles in the other direction in Connecticut. No matter which way the train is traveling, it must sound the crossing whistles – two long, one short, one long – to warn everyone of its coming. The deep rumble of the engine and freight cars follows quickly on the heels of the last whistle and I peer around my mother’s skirt to watch the engine chug its way toward us. It is very exciting.
The train pulls closer. Now I can hear the clanging of the couplings and the groans and creaks of the swaying cars. I can see the engineer high up in the engine, see him pull the rope for the crossing alarm and raise his arm to wave. The whole train is on us all of a sudden with a flash of metal wheels, the undersides of boxcars and tankers and open coal cars clicking past as we count them - one, two, three, four - all the way up to twenty on good days.
At night I lie awake and listen for the train to go by. In the dark, the whistle sounds lonesome and I think of the engineer high up in his seat, leaning out to wave at the stars and the moon.
By the time I am twelve, the parameters of my world have grown and I often go to watch the trains by myself. There is a factory building now on the far side of the tracks and sometimes a boxcar waits there for the train that comes up from Connecticut. When the door is open I can peer in. Usually the car is empty but one day a man is sitting in the car. He has a grizzled beard and his clothes are frayed and dirty. In front of him is a little Sterno stove and on that sits an opened can of beans. He looks at me and nods. I look around; no one is watching so I pull myself up into the car and sit down.
“Beans?” the man asks but I shake my head. His voice sounds rusty, as though he hasn’t used it in a while. I tell him my name and ask his.
“Beans,” he says, holding out a dirty spoon. I am afraid suddenly, though the man has not moved nor uttered more than those two words. Still, if my mother knew I was talking to a stranger… I hop up and go to the door, then turn back. “Bye,” I say. Beans just looks at me and nods.
As a teenager, the fastest way to walk into town is on the tracks. My friend Jeri-Lynn lives on Main Street but her house backs on the tracks so when I visit her, I go that way. I make a game of walking the rails, holding my arms out like a gymnast for balance. By the end of the summer I can walk all the way to her house without falling off once.
This morning the sun draws me out early. I breathe deeply in the sweet, chilly air when I hear a familiar whistle. I stand far enough from the tracks to be safe and close enough for the engineer to see me and wave. I count - one, two, three, four - all the way up to twenty. It is a good day.