Sleep

Some of us get the flu in the winter, and sometimes in the fall and summer, too. My Uncle Francis got the flu in November, 1930, and after six days of it, it killed him. He was just twenty-five years old at the time and was about to graduate from Columbia University in New York, in mine engineering. Just before he became deliriously sick, he had been deliriously happy. He had met my Aunt Hettie Cervantes Wilson and they made love among the fiddler crabs, on the beach, in a cove, near Killam’s Point, on Long Island Sound. That night he caught the flu. The six days that followed were a rhapsody of deep looks and holding hands, then of guilt – when he connected love-making with his getting the flu – finally of shock and anguish and a penetrating New England embarrassment when he realized he was dying.

In nine months, my cousin Cynthia was born, with the beautiful eyes, they said, that came from Mexican blood. When she was ten years old, our grandfather Francis Claypool Bennett died. A week before he died, Aunt Hettie and Cynthia visited him. My grandfather was something of a writer, and so he wrote about his last visit with Cynthia, in his pinched and now trembling hand.

“Christmas Day I received a package of implements, tools really, wooden planes, for half circle rounds and hollows, English boatbuilding chisels, and punches with pear handles, all packed in a longish crate of gleaming white boards, tongue and groove, and polished with some kind of potash or pumice or chalk – to make it white, and remove the flaws. I started to pry up the lip of the lid, which was inclined and beveled and slanted and sloped, until I saw it was latched, with an inset lock of brass, which itself was pinned in the pine boards with black locust pegs, squared not round.

Grandpa, you’d better wake up. I think you’re talking in your sleep.

The box was a casket and came from Vermont, sent by the housekeeper of my long-gone uncle, who had made two for himself, and she wouldn’t be using the other, nor the implements inside. I wondered how that could be.

When I took out the tools, the finest handsaws, a ship’s adze, apple wood gauges, there was plenty of room, I saw, for whatever would go there. You’ll know, if you think about it. I really intended it to be for myself, when the winds are blowing and the fire’s out and I can’t even stay awake for an hour a day.

Are you dying, grandpa? little Cynthia asked. Or are you just sleeping, more than the cat?

I won’t know if I’m dying, I said, trying to remember whether I was awake or sleeping. Did you say something about trains?

What trains, grandpa?

The ones on the trestle, I said.

What’s a trestle? asked Cynthia.

It’s the bridge at the canyon, which soars through the air, made of logs and girders and railings and stairs.

What’s it do? Cynthia asked me, behind the thinnest veil of doubt.

The trains cross it at midnight, climbing the grade. The trestle echoes and thunders and shudders and sways. And the night is cold and wintery and clear, with a moon in the east, and black in the river. The gorge.

Cynthia smiled, wisely. Trains? she said, and her eyes grew wider, pretending. Does Mommy know?

I don’t think so, I said, nodding. I can tell when the girl thinks I’m raving. Stand behind me and rub my ears, so I don’t fall asleep.

Do kids ride the train? I could hear the guile.

It comes near the house, I sighed. It saved Lonnie Lonadou when I was young. He had pneumonia and was dying. It snowed till the banks drifted up under the telephone poles, piling and swirling, icy and cold. The roads were blocked by twenty-foot folds. The wake began at the Lonadou’s. People brought preserves, lit candles, fought through the snow. No horses could move. There was no way Lonnie could be brought to the Norwich hospital.

Did he die, grandpa? Cynthia asked. Here, let me rub your ears some more. I had her hooked.

Old Mrs. Larsen was listening in. In those days everyone listened to the phone when somebody called. She heard Lonnie was dying. She called her brother in Utica, who belonged to the union. There were two snow trains in central New York. One at Binghamton, heading to clear the tracks to Schenectady. The other lay in a ravine near Syracuse, with both drivers dead and the boiler still steaming. The Binghamton blower worked through the night. It blasted the snow in glittering moonlit arches back from the tracks. A union man yelled from a house, another from a milk can platform. Finally, a union man swung up on the engine, from skis, nearly dying beneath the wheels.

What happened? asked Cynthia. Grandpa, wake up!

I’m awake, my love.

The train, the snow blower.

The wake, I said, was in full swing. My Aunt Betsey was there. People ate pie, drank cider, opened jars of dark cherries, talked in groups. The boy lay dying. It was a funeral before he died.

And did he? asked Cynthia. Grandfather! I love it when I have her hooked.

What? Did he die? I rubbed my eyes and remembered the night. I was young, just your age, Lonnie was my friend.

The train, grandpa. What about the train?

The first thing we heard was the blast of the whistle from the other end of the valley. She came up the grade, which was blue and silvery from the moon, gleaming and puffing, all lit up by her fire. They said two men shoveled, with the iron door always open, so the fire filled the cab, splashed light sideways on the meadows, lit up the pines and cedars and junipers. And two great plumes of snow roared to the side. Men ran beside her, shouting her on, and fell down in the snow. It came to their chests. She came at a pace like a fast walk. People rang bells, first at the church, then the school. Car horns, the factory whistle. Men wept, women wept, of course. I danced in the snow and watched the blower. Men lifted Lonnie right in his bed and all. The only place was the cab, in the glow of the fire. And my Aunt Betsey and his mother rode right up there with them. And men shoveled coal, dropped water, and Lonnie was in Norwich by the first grey of dawn.

Did he die, grandpa? Grandpa, open your eyes. Did he live, grandpa?

Rub my ears, Cynthia. Yes, he lived, what did you think, I smirked. Her mother asked me later, when she heard the story, what about the dates? I just smiled, and asked, “Are you questioning my sense of history?”

That’s what my grandfather wrote. I found it in a box of papers my Aunt Libby gave me when she went to live with one of her daughters. Cynthia was 12 years old in 1937, the year I was born. She was on the Empire State Express, the fastest train of the New York Central line, returning from MacDougal Street, in New York City, where she had watched me being born. On a crisp fall night in November, the Empire Express approached the bridge four miles east of the Norwich grade, at a town called New Lindstrom, and for some reason never slowed from her sixty-five miles an hour. Insomniacs awake and reading at that hour reported the usual thunder of the train. A few recalled how the noise never diminished. Then the screeching of metal and snapping and tearing, as the whole center span gave way and the Empire Express carried my cousin Cynthia into the dark, icy waters of the Chenango River, forever.

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