Amtrak 234. A serialized short story by Herb Schultz

Part Eight. Billy Rubin Visits the Crash Site.

Rubbing his spasmodic lower abdomen, Billy race-walked toward a stand of trees behind Dinsmore Golf Course’s 15th green but he didn’t make it in time, and soiled himself. The volume accumulated in his baggy pants would have defied the flow of the flush had he gone to the bathroom back at the clubhouse, as he now knew he should have done. Any normal person would be crestfallen if they shit their pants, but Billy had long ago transcended whatever shame was associated with losing control of bodily functions. He was a lush, and he acknowledged it. Embraced it even. Lushes shit their pants. Lushes puke on things. That’s the way it was.

Billy stripped off his trousers, threw the stained shorts into the woods, looked about tentatively before wiping himself off with a rag torn from the ball washer, and pulled his trousers back on over his bare ass. After taking extra special care to zip up, he ambled sheepishly back to the green where the hole borer was still screwed into the ground awaiting extraction. Just as Billy grabbed the handles in preparation to yank out the borer he was startled by the near-simultaneous sounds of a train blasting its horn, a hard impact, steel crumpling, glass shattering and a screech of metal-on-metal that lasted for nearly a minute. He knew immediately the cacophony indicated a collision involving an auto and the Amtrak train he “saw” departing the Rhinecliff station moments earlier. And he knew exactly where the accident had occurred: the only grade crossing along the Amtrak route absent warning lights and automatic gates. Billy had crossed the tracks there many times although not in a dozen years.

The rutted lane passed by the Mills Mansion, terminating at a secluded spot along the Hudson River where Billy used to deliver beer and liquor to under-aged kids who worked at the golf course during summer breaks. Some of the teens waited tables or worked the prep line in the grill room; others hosed down golf carts and refilled ball washers with soapy water. On the weekends the kids would pool their money and place a booze order with Billy – the usual fare: Colt 45, Bacardi, Smirnoff, Yago Sangria – leaving him with enough cash to buy something for himself. At that time, Billy was downing a bottle to a bottle-and-a-half of vodka a day plus a six-pack. The deals with the under-agers allowed Billy to fund a couple days of imbibing. One summer, Billy bought liquor for the teenaged son of a doctor who played nine at Dinsmore every Wednesday afternoon with two other MDs and a pharmaceutical rep. The kid traded Quaaludes stolen from his father’s office for the liquor. And when the ‘ludes became increasingly difficult to steal, the doctor’s son made drugs-for-liquor deals using amphetamines and Valium as the new currency.

Punished by his addictions, Billy’s body aged 40 years over the course of 15. His hair turned white and thinned down to a few greasy strands across his crown; his nose came to resemble a scrotum, mottled with purplish veins; plaque on Billy’s remaining teeth grew thick, and glistened like Miracle Whip. And Billy’s skin, which appeared reptilian from the extended time spent in the sun, took on a yellowish tint like a Crayola crayon labeled “maize.” In the more recent years Billy had backed off somewhat from consuming the massive quantities of drink at the zenith, but he still met the definition of a problem drinker. He had begun to recognize the insidious social impact of his condition. Billy nearly lost his job (and his freedom) when the golfing doctor discovered the Quaalude-for-liquor connection, deciding after virulent threats not to press charges. And Billy was saddened and ashamed at the pariah status he had attained at the Beekman Arms and other local establishments where he had ruined the ambiance with his drunken antics. He harbored no doubts that the frequent pains in his side stemmed from severe damage to his bottle-scarred liver, but he could not and did not want to stop drinking completely. Drinking had become so woven into the fabric of his daily life, an activity so necessary for life to be normal, that Billy could hardly imagine slogging through an entire day without alcohol.

But at this moment alcohol was not on his mind.

Billy climbed into the John Deere and sped off across the fairway at the vehicle’s top speed of 15 mph, driving around a fence marking “out-of-bounds” onto the county road running parallel to the golf course. He turned onto the rutted lane, and as he approached the unguarded crossing he spotted a sea of sparkling glass. It wasn’t until he got to the fateful crossing that he could take in the full effect of the collision: the Amtrak train idling on the tracks flanked by automobile detritus about 1,000 yards to the south. (Having spent so much of his life around the links, Billy calibrated distances in terms of golf holes; the train appeared to be about two par 5’s away.) As Billy drove the Deere alongside the tracks on the bumpy gravel access road, rakes, a weed-whacker and a garden hose flew out the back. He had to swerve often to avoid striking pieces of the car. When he glimpsed what appeared to be a severed bloody limb in a ditch, he abruptly steered his shocked wide eyes forward and continued on.

As Billy approached the crash site the pandemonium revealed itself. Passengers on board Amtrak 234 craned their necks to observe the activity through scratched windows, the women covering their mouths with their hands, the men standing shakily with their hands in their pockets. The Amtrak conductors stumbled around outside the train lacking apparent direction. One conductor listening to a voice on a walkie-talkie turned toward a clutch of passengers who had disembarked and shouted loudly, “Everyone back away! Get the fuck away from the train! We have to back – will you fucking move? We have to back up the train!” Billy recognized the agitated man with the walkie-talkie to be the conductor he “saw” minutes earlier – the one who barred the cat-owner from boarding in Rhinecliff.

The engineer of Amtrak 234 blew the horn and moved the train back about ten yards so as to disconnect from the remains of the Saab that were wedged beneath the locomotive. Billy and the others looked down the tracks in unison upon hearing the siren wails of the first responders. The New York State Police got to work managing access to the wreck site, knowing that without strict control the multitude of ambulance drivers, fire crews, local police, press people and gawkers would create a Gordian knot of gridlock on the narrow gravel path. Billy pulled the Deere to the side as an ambulance approached, escorted by a State cop. From his vantage point, Billy had a partially obstructed view of the crumpled vehicle; the passenger compartment was all that remained. Engine, wheels, roof, trunk – all had been shed over the 1,000 yard span leading back to the crossing. He was quite certain that whoever was driving the car had been killed instantly, pieces of his or her corpse strewn among fenders and bumpers and drive train. Then Billy overheard a conductor advise the trooper that a person remained strapped into the only intact seat left, alive and remarkably lucid. With his view obscured Billy shuffled closer to get a better look, but his jockeying was interrupted by a very intimidating State cop whose imposing figure was amplified by the forward-slanting Smoky-Bear hat atop his crew-cut block of a head. Just to look upon at the trooper’s chiseled face was enough to bring a grown man to tears. “Get back, sir,” he instructed Billy in an even tone exhibiting professionalism and respect. It was also clear from the tone that resistance was futile. Still, Billy felt the need to speak up.

“Uh, Officer, I uh”
“Sir, I don’t want to have to tell you again. Get back on the train, now.”
“I wasn’t on the train, officer. I came over from the golf course. I think there might have been more than one person in the vehicle.” Billy said “vee-HICK-el” as that’s how every real cop on TV said it.
“How do you know that?”
“I was driving my cart along the path here and I thought I saw–” Billy gulped slightly “–a leg or arm, y’know, back along the tracks about 500 yards.”
“What’s your name, sir.”
“Billy Rubin, I work at the–”

The cop motioned to a colleague to come over; he said a few words to him.

“Mr. Rubin, please take Trooper O’Brien here to the location where you think you saw a body part.” Billy and Trooper O’Brien got into the John Deere and proceeded north. Billy began to worry that maybe what he saw was a dead animal, or something that was never alive to begin with. The cops would consider him an addled jerk who wasted valuable time. Then Billy felt horrible for hoping to be vindicated by finding a human body part after all.

O’Brien abruptly hopped from the moving cart, apparently spying something of interest. The cop tilted his head onto his shoulder and spoke into a microphone pinned to his shirt. “I’ve got a limb, here, looks like part of a leg.” O’Brien walked into some high grass and bushes, using his feet to bend aside the thick foliage. Billy stayed back in the cart. Suddenly the cop stopped bushwhacking, and bent down out of sight. A second later he stood upright and shouted into his shoulder, “I’ve got a victim here! Barely alive! 500 yards north – look for my signal!” O’Brien stepped sprightly from out of the weeds onto the gravel path and waved his arms frantically. Billy saw several officials stationed by the locomotive scrambling into an ambulance and taking off at high speed in reverse as there was insufficient room on the narrow path to turn the vehicle around. Trooper O’Brien thanked Billy for his help and told him to leave the scene.

By this time a number of resigned passengers were walking away from the site of the catastrophe, some carrying luggage, some vainly pulling wheeled suitcases that refused to roll on gravel. As Billy prepared to take off in the John Deere a man in a suit offered him $10 to drive him to the nearest public building. Another passenger made the same offer and soon Billy – richer by the equivalent of three bottles of cheap vodka – was transporting five expensively-dressed NYC professionals willing to sit atop wet bags of fertilizer rather than to schlep across the rolling fairways of Dinsmore Golf Course all the way to the clubhouse high on the far hill.

Next. Part Nine. Billy has a Vision Like No Other.

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