I

Seeking refuge from my relatives -- whom I love dearly, but from whom I must flee for varied and diverse reasons -- I board an Amtrak train, accompanied by my dear mother, bound for home. Ha-ha, not a month ago at Student Congress Nationals I was debating the future existence and funding of the national rail system...I chatter garrulously, a little more nervous than I'll let on. I've never been on a train before, not a real one--just the RTA (Cleveland's Regional, or Rapid, Transit Authority, www.gcrta.org).

And so we beat on, wheels against the track, born back ceaselessly against the wind. I slept; it was cold. We inquired about the temperature--it's turned up all the way. Chalk it up to a bad thermostat, the nice man tells us (and he whispers to my mother: there are a hundred Amish schoolchildren in the next car, and they're not like us--they don't bathe).

I slept again. When I woke, I inspected my cell phone and dismayedly discovered that half an hour ago it had engaged a 1:37 call with 911. Fortunately, trains move fast and nothing came of it. No police--maybe a fine from the phone company.

We arrived; we took the RTA for real this time to the end of the line and walked the last mile home.

My girlfriend came by and greeted us. We ate pizza. Then we discovered the corpse.

At midnight, a dead, rotting chipmunk had found its way into the playroom. The exterminator wanted over $100 for a night rush job, so my girlfriend and I decided to move the corpse.

To make a long, depressing, and sickening story short, there were maggots. Scores if not hundreds of teeming little Drosophila larvae the size and shape of rice, segmented and quivering. They crawled across the floor and burrowed into minute cracks in the wood.

I got most of them out that night and morning, and then I slept, fitfully.

The next morning, I moved the couch and found the rest. In the course of eight more hours, I had expended one broom, two dust pans, two brushes, and a fork (yes, I killed them all). Eight hours later, I took bleach and lime and covered the hardwood floor with lime, sprinkling things with bleach. Three great black plastic contractor bags full of maggots and maggot-ridden apparel lay on the curb; half a bag of lime (more than enough for our entire front lawn) sat impassively on the floor killing the survivors.

If we hadn't come home early, the maggots might have infested the house. However, my father would have been there, and I would have no responsibility in the gruesome task.

I can't get the maggots out of my mind.

I fear chipmunks.

I fear death.

Goddamn trains.


II

My mother was out, staffing a debate between judicial candidates. An old long-lost friend called and I did not miss the opportunity (though engaged with my girlfriend) to take down her name and message (she left none). Two hours later, she called back--but my mother, running late, had not yet returned.

"I'll call back tomorrow. I've got to catch a 5:20 train."

The following evening, she did indeed call back, and so I said "bye-bye" to my girlfriend and handed the phone over to my mother (who displayed no wonderment at this amazing feat of call waiting technology). They talked for hours, though I did not eavesdrop. I slept.

The next day my mother told me.

Toni was the sister of my mother's friend. Her pig husband left her; his pig lawyer took everything in the divorce and got nearly complete custody of their child Nathaniel. She had nothing; she had quit from her job when she married him.

She was diagnosed as depressed and given pills. Her Prozac she palmed when proffered, preferring, I suppose, to view the world unaltered. Then one day, she took all those pills at once.

Within a few weeks they released her on her own recognizance. "I'm OK," she said. "She's OK," said the psychiatrists. "It's OK," said the police. They let her out, and she went home.

The next day she went to the nearest RTA station -- a month earlier I had probably ridden through it. She walked down to the very end of the line and waited, waited, waited.

She walked out in front of the oncoming train and knelt down. A note in her pocket read simply: "I'm sorry, everyone."

The driver and the first-row passenger both saw her, both powerless. Both now are institutionalized.

The mother--her mother--by purest chance came to this same Rapid station and spied the police cars all around the train. In the back of a squad car she was told what had become of her daughter.

For a long time, no one could talk about it. October 4, 2002 was the memorial service--it came a year late. A week later, her sister called my mother and poured out her life.

The mother has joint custody of little wide-eyed seven-year-old Nathaniel now--she gets him on weekends.

I fear desperation.

I fear death.

Goddamn trains.


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