Train Call

My brother and I could hear the train for miles, minutes, before it passed by our house, wobbling the cupboards that weren’t one hundred percent secure on the tile floor of the kitchen and the mudroom. A rumble like thunder grew louder and louder with each passing second. When the whistle blew, confirming what we’d hoped, we rushed from the house like we were the ones fueled by fire, and the screen door slapped behind us, each clutching a perfectly good penny we were bent on destroying.

Before we sold the house on Maple Street, after eight years that brought me from a preschooler to a teen, potential buyers seemed concerned about the house’s proximity to the train tracks at the edge of our property, less than a football field away from the house itself. "How often does it come?” They would ask. “Is it loud?” And, if they had kids or were thinking of having kids, which they always were (kids were the only reason to buy a house this size, this uneconomical):“What about children? There’s no fence. Is it safe?” For most parents or soon-to-be parents, living this close to the train tracks was like having the interstate blasting through the front yard.

After the train’s head had snaked around the bend, my brother and I knelt beside the tracks, which trembled and shook. Our hands were steady as we placed our pennies on the iron; the dates on the pennies determined which was whose because we couldn’t count on the pennies being in the same place after the train had roared past. Searching through the stone and weeds for our still shiny, flattened penny was half the fun.

We backed away, down the slight slope and off the stone onto the narrow strip of weeds that separated the tracks from our yard. The whistle had become a yell that rang our ears. The closer the train got to flattening our pennies, the closer it got to us, and the more excited we became. My stomach churned; my eyelids stretched. As always, I prepared to watch the moment of impact, to see the supreme crushing power of a locomotive transform Lincoln’s head into a balloon.

The train came. The train went. I never saw it: the moment. Maybe I closed my eyes at the last second. Maybe it’s not something that can be seen. As much as we had yearned for the train to arrive, we now begged it to leave, to hurry up and go already so we could examine our pennies, thank you very much.

If the penny somehow, amazingly, remained on the tracks, we peeled it off the iron like gum from the underside of a desk. It was incredible how cool to the touch it was. We expected it to be hot, or at least warm every single time, but it never was. More likely, the penny was no longer on the tracks but beside them on the ground where it had been thrown, where it lay among the weeds, a bent and misshapen light that seized our attention, stopping us in our own tracks. We’d wipe away the dirt and compare our trophies, my brother and me. His was flat and mine was flat but his Lincoln appeared more bloated than mine, and I checked the date to be sure, but the better, more destroyed of the two was definitely my brother’s and that was that. And we ran our pennies back into the house to show our parents, who’d seen this one million times but always seemed surprised by just how flat and perfect our pennies were this time. And we put our pennies on our bureaus or shelves, and we forgot about them as soon as we’d shown our parents. And we didn’t think about doing this again until we’d think about nothing else but doing it again, when we heard that whistle louder than anything else in the world.

Merrill Sunderland is an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at George Mason University where he serves as the editor of the literary journal Phoebe and works for the annual Fall for the Book Festival. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Airplane Reading, Full Stop Magazine, Junk: A Literary Fix, Microfiction Monday, and Zest.​ He’s originally from Cape Cod, Massachusetts.