It had been a Sunday afternoon. One of those days where it really feels like a Sunday, with the abysmal work week waiting just around the corner. It was about six o’clock or so when it happened. I can remember exactly where I was standing when I heard the drumming, revving sound of an engine and the bu-dump bu-dump bu-dump of something rolling — quickly rolling — across the railroad ties.
It was 1970 and I shared an apartment with two guys. We had all just finished our junior year at Oregon State.
“What the hell is that?” Bob had said from the kitchen. We were all thinking the same thing. Several seconds earlier, each of us had straightened slightly at the sound, our ears focused, our bodies frozen. Bob had been at the sink, his methodical dishwashing momentarily suspended. Dewie had been slumped in a stupor at the unclothed dining table, his right hand crunching an empty bud can and then unceremoniously drumming it upon the wooden surface in a rhythm which mimicked the mystery noise.
“Shh — Dew, would you stop?” I asked him. It was growing louder, more incessant. We all gravitated towards the kitchen window which had been flung open earlier in a pointless attempt to vent out the summer heat. It faced westwards, towards the tracks, and through it the orange sun of late August was melting us down.
“What is that?” Bob repeated.
I pushed him aside so that I could see, my eyes straining into the sun-washed view. Eventually it emerged: the boxy Cadillac zooming along the trestle, its wheels straddling the tracks and jouncing across the splintered beams.
“He’s goin’ fast!” Dewie said. We all looked at each other suddenly, a joint realization dawning. The trestle ran across the Willamette River, its tracks balanced about fifteen feet above the stiff current.
Careening down the narrow stairs, our bodies jostled towards the exit like water surging through a channel. The soles of my worn sneakers drummed in a rhythm that was much like the tires across the wooden ties.
Funneling through the back door, we heard nothing as we pushed ourselves into the parking lot behind our complex. The sound had mysteriously ceased.
We could see the train trestle above the river silhouetted against the indigo sky like a giant piling over the water. When its structure first came into vision, we all halted at first, our heads turning this way and that, listening. All was silent.
Dewie was the first to move. As he jerked in the direction of the river, we all instantly followed, our anxious hearts pounding in disbelief.
Past the green dumpster, around the back of the Mexican grill, and then into the weedy grass which was neck-high this time of year, we pushed through the green to the water.
“Holy shit,” Bob muttered. “Holy…”
There, floating calmly in the water, almost as if it had always been there, the sun-faded roof of the Cadillac was softly disrupting the currents of water that were filling and edging around it. I rushed towards it, my ratty jeans wicking up the wet as I waded in and then went under.
It was cold. A steely, pulsing cold. I dove down into darkness, the murky image of the door was barely visible to me. I thrust myself towards it, pushing my forehead against the foggy glass, my fingers cupped around my face.
A stray sunbeam had found its way through the passenger window, illuminating the interior in a watery glow. At first all I could see were the wedding rings, glimmering. They were stacked upon each other on the ring finger of the left hand which was clutching — still clutching — the steering wheel. I desperately pried the tank-like door open and it screeched like a wailing baby as I forced it away. After the rush of gray-green cloudiness, a white head emerged at my feet, the feathery hair waving back and forth like wispy silk in a breeze.
She was wearing a peacock blue dress with purple flowers. Underwater, the fabric seemed to be in its element — the flowing edges billowing like seaweed. It was soft, like the wet petals of a flower, and as I pulled her out, I was surprised how frail and thin she was, barely more than a skeleton with little flesh to her elderly bones. She easily could have been ninety years old.
Setting her down as softly as I could upon the grass, I could hear Bob telling me that Dewie had left to get help, but it didn’t matter. She was gone. Long gone. I tried not to look at the sunken bone-white face, the shocked blue eyes, the age-spotted skin. So old.
Back inside our apartment, we idled for awhile, pretending to busy ourselves. Bob slapped a rolled newspaper at a renegade fly and Dewie scanned the sports page. I stood at the kitchen window.
Was it all too much? I wondered. Life without anyone else? All I could think about was the image of those rings, soldered into my memory as something poignant that I could not grasp. So many rings for one little finger, so golden in that light.
Some weeks later I read a poem in the Corvallis Gazette. They had a weekly column where amateur poets could submit their hearts onto the page for others to quickly gloss over and soon forget.
I couldn’t wait for you my darling
The world is much younger than I am now
I seek your memory in the gold blue depth
where no one else can find me
Brittany Bilyeu Enquist says: “This is actually based on a true story from my father. When I was 27 years old, he told it to me as we drove through the town where it had happened. It seemed such a poignant and stirring memory that I wanted to set it down in words.”
This story is sponsored by
Clarion West — Apply now through March 1 to attend our 2014 six-week workshop for writers preparing for professional careers in science fiction and fantasy. ONLY THREE DAYS LEFT TO REGISTER!