Transparent as moonlight, silver hair made wires by the wind, an old man stood at the railroad crossing. Midnight had come and gone, a freight train roaring, trailing littered leaves all around him. A cold November air built autumn's derelict mansion with those leaves, his home for the evening, but it was gone with another gust. No shelter for the helpless.
I watched him from my pickup, trying to decide if I should stop and give him a ride. He was shivering, bone white in the damp, dressed in black tatters. The primary shame of our century is that a propensity for human kindness is often kept in check by suspicion, disgust, and fear. I had an impulse to help, but I hesitated.
Just as I determined to offer him a lift, the lights of a semi rose over the ridge in the gathering fog. My eye was distracted for an instant; when I looked back, he was gone, one more old leaf blown away.
The semi clattered by. I turned left to cross the tracks, scanning the trees for some sign of the vagrant traveler. He'd vanished.
Another failing of human beings in this century is an almost complete inability to recognize an omen, even one so obvious. A November ghost is always an omen. I'd been out all day collecting old stories for a new book, ancient lessons for the young millennium. One more lost apparition seemed a fitting punctuation to a long day spent in the past.
The ride up the mountain took longer than usual. Mist turned torain and slowed my progress. The year was old, the night was long, and there's no darkness like a moonless midnight on Blue Mountain. My headlights made valiant effort, but only emphasized the black trees, black road, black air. Occasional lightning made shadows dance in the woods; thunder rattled my truck's windows.
I was glad to see my cabin come into view. The rain was falling harder, and I dashed to the front porch, shielding my ancient Wollensak tape recorder. Inside quickly, fumbling for the switch by the entrance, I managed to hold back the gloom of the night with a little kitchen light and some extra noise setting down the bulky machine.
It was a ridiculous indulgence in nostalgia, the Wollensak, when modern technology was so much more convenient and infinitely more efficient. But Alan Lomax had used a machine just like it to record music and stories that had once filled the mountains, but only existed in the Library of Congress by the end of his lifetime. Sounds that were gone from the American hills forever were captured by that recorder for generations to hear. I fancied my mission was the same: a kind of sonic archaeology, sifting through the sand of boring reminiscence hoping to catch a glimpse of a rare, priceless artifact. Alas, most of my day had been sand, now soggy, and I was exhausted with little to show for my efforts. All I wanted was bed.
No matter how long I stayed away, a few hours or the long years of my university life, I always had the same sensation when I came back to my family's cabin. Inside those walls the past was not gone, memories of my deceased parents were as real as furniture, unsettling as an autumn storm. I'd been home for nearly two years and still felt strange, dripping onto the floor, to think of the place as mine. The downstairs had changed little in years: small, bright kitchen to my right, muted living room to my left. The rugs were old, but the floor was clean; everything was as my father had left it.
I locked the door behind me, turned out the kitchen light, and headed for the stairs. Lightning illuminated the windows, muffled thunder vibrated the roof. I would have made it safely into the harbor of dreams in my bedroom upstairs but for the pricking pin of red light blinking on the phone answering machine.
I halted my lumbering. What could there possibly be in my life that couldn't wait until morning? I thought. What message would be important enough to keep me from well-deserved rest?
Still, I pictured myself lying in bed, eyes open, staring at the ceiling, wondering who had called, what they wanted.
Insomnia has a million evil assistants.
The phone machine was on the kitchen counter next to the espresso machine. Three steps took me to it. I tapped the button and was delighted to hear Lucinda's voice.
"Fever? You still out?"
I tensed. Her voice was filled with trouble.
"I'm calling a little after midnight," the recording continued, "so maybe you're already asleep, but if you get this anytime tonight, please, please call me. I've gotten some bad news. I guess I just want to hear you tell me it's all right, or something foolish like that. Please call me. I'll most like to be up all night."
I could hear the distress, the torn syllables. She'd been crying, was trying to sound composed or brave. Something serious had happened.
I dialed her number. She answered on the first ring.
"Yes, hello?" Her voice cracked.
"Lucy, it's Fever."
"Oh, thank God." She fought to keep herself even. "Could you come on over here, do you reckon? I really need somebody to lean on."
"What is it? What happened?"
"You know my little nieces, Rory and Tess?"
Teenaged girls, sweet as cider, Rory and Tess were popular with everyone who knew them. What came into my mind at that particular moment, for some reason, was how proud Rory, the younger, had always been of never missing a day of school. She delighted in recounting endless new lessons--Platonic thought, the heroines of Thomas Hardy, the mysteries of algebra--almost as much as lording her attendance record over her older sister. Tess had forever lost a perfect attendance award early in her scholastic career as a result of an incident, as it later came to be known, involving the school play.
Tess was supposed to have played Betsy Ross in a Fourth of July pageant. She would meet George Washington at his home and say, "It is I, Betsy Ross, bringing a new flag for a new nation!" and everyone would sing "You're a Grand Old Flag." I'm told the rehearsal went smoothly. The day of the show, however, Tess was pacing nervously backstage, saying her line over and over, when the incident occurred. In a matter of seconds her elaborate costume caught on a nail, ripped, and fell off. Two sizes too big, held together with pins, the dress was a pile of rags on the floor.
She stood at the door of George Washington's home clutching the American flag, dressed only in a bonnet and underwear, and began to cry.
"I can't come in," she yelled when she heard her cue, "because I'm back here necked!"
That concluded the play, and Tess skipped school the next day.
It was a story often told. I'd heard it at least five times at church meetings or family gatherings, but I never tired of it. Tess was a blond, serious and hilarious at the same time; Rory's hair was chestnut colored, and I couldn't remember ever seeing her when she wasn't laughing, or about to. They were unusually filled with light, joyous all the time, the kind of children rare enough in the mountains and unheard of in the city. Lucinda wasn't as close to her own sister, the girls' mother, as she was to the favorite nieces.
"Of course I know them. Are they all right?"
Her moment of silence made me swallow.
She was crying and trying not to let me hear it.
"They're dead, Fever," she choked out.
I don't remember what I said to her, but I was in my truck before the next clap of thunder, skidding down the wet, black road toward her house.
A thousand things to say flew through my mind as I sped along the highway; none seemed good enough. Part of my problem came from the fact that I didn't miss any of my own departed relatives, who fellprimarily into the good riddance file. There was also my abiding belief that death was welcome, kind, the end of a slope; a new horizon. I was steadfastly more frightened of a lingering life than a quick death. Although the image of the girls being hit by a train was something I wanted to avoid, the event, nevertheless, seemed to me a spectacularly efficient way of dispensing with the inevitable. I rejected that tack as a way to comfort Lucinda, however. Not everyone shares my views.
The rain around her house was steady, the night was ink, liquid and opaque. I could barely make out a single living room light through curtained windows, orange the color of jelly sugar candies, a comforting glow.
I was surprised not to see any other cars in front of her house. Bad news in Blue Mountain generally provoked a battalion of well-meaning friends and curious acquaintances with great food and lame comfort.
I was barely out of my truck when her silhouette appeared in the doorframe, arms crossed, Kleenex in hand. Her loose dress was nearly devoured by a huge, gray, open cardigan. Her auburn hair fell around her shoulders like autumn leaves.
"No one else is here?" I called, closing my door.
"It's one in the morning, Fever," she answered patiently. "Besides, you're the only one I called."
"Oh." I pocketed my keys, bounded through the rain and onto her porch. "Well, here I am."
"Thanks," she managed, frozen in the door.
Given my general discomfort with affection, we could have stood that way for a while, awkward, not knowing what to do or say. Luckily the drive had afforded me time to compose my words, and I took charge. Three small steps and I held her in my arms.
"I love you," I said plainly, "and it'll be all right."
The accident happened in Pine City, only a few miles south of Blue Mountain. The girls had been to the movies; their ancient Volkswagen Bug stalled at the railroad crossing on the edge of town, and atrain hit it. Our mutual friend Sheriff Skidmore Needle had called with the news, which seemed a little strange to me, but he knew how close Lucinda was to the girls and I let it go under the circumstances. Details were not related, thank God; Lucinda's nieces were pronounced dead at the scene.
"Even if they were stalled, why didn't they just get out of the car?" she said for the third time, pulling another Kleenex from the box on her lap. "I don't understand."
We sat in her living room and talked about the issue for nearly two hours. It was a calm room, a reflection of Lucinda's spirit in general. The walls were a pale ocean blue, the sofa was a perfect gray contrast. A dark, ancient Oriental rug covered the wooden floor. Over the stone fireplace: a three-hundred-year-old family portrait of distant relatives, a Scots landowner and his brood who claimed kinship, by marriage, to Robert Burns. The painting was old, but the smile on the wife's face always seemed modern and mischievous to me. I stared at it to keep myself from giving in to Lucinda's dismal mood. I felt I needed to stay lighter in order to help her.
"Oddly," I told her toward the end of the second hour of my visit, "I wrote an article last year about train hopping, hoboing some people still call it, and you'd be surprised at the statistical incidence of accidents like this one. At crossings, I mean. Dozens of interviews on tape talk about it, and I got the statistical information from the Federal Railroad Administration." I put my hand on her forearm; my voice lowered. "And of course you realize that quoting statistics at a time like this is a sad attempt on my part to distance us from the emotion of the moment."
I thought she might smile.
"How many?" she sniffed.
"How many people are killed at train crossings?" She dabbed her eyes.
"Oh. Over four hundred in 2001."
"Four hundred people," she said, shaking her head, "didn't have sense enough to get out of their cars and they got hit by a train?"
"No," I told her, "nearly half of those four hundred were what they call 'trespasser fatalities,' people who were trying to jump on or off the train illegally."
"The ones you were studying for your article, the hoboes."
"Are there still hoboes? Seems like something from the Depression." She set the box of Kleenex down on her coffee table, a converted antique trunk.
"Plenty," I said. "We call them homeless people, now."
"Oh." She closed her eyes. "Well, we do have those in abundance."
"There you are."
She yawned; a good sign, I thought.
"Could you sleep?" I ventured.
"Fever," she said as if she hadn't heard me, "I don't believe in statistics. Numbers. My little girls are people. Were. They were smart. They would have gotten out of the car when they heard a train coming. Something happened to them."
"Lucy," I sighed, moving closer to her, "you're tired; you need some rest."
"No," she insisted, gathering strength. "This isn't right. It wasn't their time." Her eyes shot into mine like searchlight beams. "You have to find out what happened."
"What happened," I said as gently as I could manage, "was a terrible, unbelievable accident. You'll make yourself crazy thinking anything else."
"I already made myself crazy," she shot back, the beginning of a vague hysteria edging her words. "That's why you have to do this for me. I can't rest until I know what really happened over there in Pine City."
"I don't see how it will help."
"If you look into this and say there's nothing to my fears," she told me, attempting to collect herself and sound reasonable, "then I'll leave off. But I have a feeling about this thing, a bad feeling I can't shake." She drew in a sobbing breath. "I can't think that a thing like this could just happen."
There it was, the fear behind the fear. She meant: How could God allow it? I should have realized that would be her overwhelming darkness, but I often forgot her basic religious underpinning. Still, I found myself wondering something along the same lines. If there was nothing more than blind fate and cold statistics involved in the loss of such beautiful children, what sense did anything make?
"Okay," I said softly. "You go to sleep, and I'll speak with Sheriff Needle first thing in the morning."
"Then you'll go to Pine City."
"Then I'll go to Pine City," I affirmed.
"Good." She let out a long, branching sigh. "You know that's the first time you ever said you love me. I mean, when we were on the porch earlier tonight."
Her head found its way to my shoulder.
"Is it?" I smoothed the hair from her forehead.
She was already asleep.
A MINISTER'S GHOST. Copyright © 2006 by Phillip DePoy. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.