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Train Trestle

By Jennifer Vaughn

The yellowed square of newsprint between my thumb and fingers whips back and forth in the wind. I read it over one last time then turn my back to the wind and flick my lighter until the paper catches on fire. The flame eats the headline, then the print, then the picture. When I feel the heat on my fingers I turn and release the patch of yellowed paper. It flits through the air and the flame blows out. The charred scrap floats toward the river below. I lean over and watch it fall out of sight, then grab a bottle from the six-pack beside me and take a swig. I set the bottle down and, 150 feet above the Marion River, belch the beer taste into the air.

 

***

I started collecting obituaries when I was in Junior High. Michael Donavan died when his house burned down. The rest of the family, all of which survived, thought Mike stayed behind trying to save the dog. Sitting on the bus I heard the muffled news report mention a fire, but I didn't know it was Mike until Laura Mitchell sat down at our table in the lunchroom and spilled the news. I laughed. When anyone I know dies, first I laugh, then my smile drops slack, the blood drains from my cheeks, and my eyes well up.

The night after Mike died I opened the Daily American and he stared at me from his yearbook photo. The obituary mentioned the fire, his church, and school, but didn't say anything about him trying to save the dog, which also died. Grabbing scissors from the junk drawer, I snipped the paper leaving an empty square where you could read the movie showtimes printed on the next page. I dug through my closet for the cardboard scrapbook I hadn't touched since the Christmas my mother gave it to me, and then I framed the back of Mike's obituary with loops of clear tape and stuck it onto the first page of the scrapbook. In the gray space on the scrapbook page underneath the obituary I wrote "Died trying to save his dog."

My parents didn't want me to go to the viewing, but I insisted. When I got back, my father asked how it was.

"It was nice."

"Nice. It was nice?" He shook his head at me and walked out of the room.

 

Mike's clipping is the first to sail over the edge of the train trestle. The gray scrapbook sits open beside me with rocks holding down the pages. I pick up a rock, turn the page, and replace the rock. I peel off Jeff Graham, who shot himself on his living room sofa when we were in tenth grade. My handwriting underneath his picture says "Did his homework and laid out clothes for the next day." I set the paper on fire and release Jeff's obituary, watching it float toward the river. My dad never asked me how Jeff's viewing was.

After Jeff it's Rhoda Smith, Elmer Watkins, Hughie Ryan...

The faces and notes in the book start out familiar, but along the way, the people become strangers and my handwritten notes become fiction.

***

"What are you doing here, crazy girl?"

Carrie hops and steps toward me, avoiding gaps where the ties and tracks have broken. Walking across the bridge is like playing a game of hopscotch. She sits beside me and dangles her legs over the side.

"A six-pack? I can’t believe you brought a six-pack out here."

"You want one?"

She looks out over the river then turns her head to me and says, "Yeah, I'll have one."

Carrie twists the cap off a bottle of beer and snaps it over the side of the bridge. We watch until it drops out of sight, then sit and stare at the river. We drink and stare. Carrie's beer is half gone when she says "It's two years today."

"Yep."

"Are you okay?"

"I think so. It's weird." I look at her and then back out over the river. "He used to be older than me, and now I'm older than him."

"I never know if I should be happy or sad I wasn't out here."

"You should be glad. It sucked."

***

 

A group of us had driven to the trestle after a party. Someone brought a case and the guys would shotgun a beer then whip the empty toward the rocks on the far end of the bridge. The first pledge to hit the rocks got out of "cleaning duty," which was using a teaspoon to scoop water out of the gutters at the frat house. Danny turned to me for a good luck kiss, wound up, threw his empty, and then slipped off the bridge.

"Everyone freaked," I tell Carrie.

Some people ran back to the cars, some screamed, some stood and stared. I climbed down the scaffolding and gashed my arm on a piece of rusty something. Mark caught me part way down and forced me to climb back up.

Carrie says, "Evan told me if it had been a rainier summer they never would've found his body."

"He sounds like my dad. He said we were 'lucky' we didn't have more rain." I shake my head.

They dragged for a week before they, luckily, found his body down river.

We finish our beers and put the empties back into the container. I turn the page in my scrapbook and look at the headline that reads "Daniel Myers.”

"What is that?"

I peel the paper from the page and show it to Carrie. "It's Danny's obituary."

"I never read it."

"Here." I hand the paper to Carrie. "Don't let it blow away."

The pages after Danny's are blank. There are no clippings and there is no handwriting. I run my thumb along the edges of the paper then grab the empty book and throw it over the side of the trestle like a Frisbee. We lean over the edge and watch it spin through the air until it splashes into the water. On the bottom of the river the cardboard will rip and dissolve and my handwriting will become fainter until it's unreadable. The handwriting that wrote for Mike, "Died trying to save his dog," and for Danny, "Father-to-be."

 

Jennifer Vaughn is is an American expatriate living in Toronto, Canada.  She has previously been published in Farmhouse Magazine.

Photo "Old Beam," courtesy of Matt Hanson, California.


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