Lydia can’t decide what causes what. Is it all because of that one evening when she was nine? Or was everything already fixed in place? Either way, she likes to tell herself the story of Before and After. And she pictures that distant evening as though from the perspective of a crow perched high in a tree. She sees the Ohio River behind her childhood house, its languid gray-brown expanse not blocked by a line of trees—like in summer—but visible in November. And to the side of the house are railroad tracks raised high on their gravel bed and making a sharp turn to follow the twisting bank. And, suddenly, there it is, careening too fast around the bend. And somehow—like a snake whipping out on its belly—the head of the passenger train makes it past the turn still clinging to the tracks while the bulging middle veers far outward and is derailed. Train cars tumble down into the gully. And Lydia remembers the rumors she hears in the days that follow. About some kids who supposedly find a severed arm. And even now, these years later, she still pictures herself sitting at the kitchen table that evening and eating supper with her parents, who blur in her thoughts into a motionless tableau. Sitting there when the world is suddenly an explosion of sound. And the three of them leap up. Run out the kitchen door. And Lydia sees a train car that has split in two and is spilling its dead onto the ground. And she remembers faces bright with blood as survivors stagger. And does this moment alter her? Or maybe, more precisely, subtract something? She doesn’t know, except that she goes, over the next few years, from having a small handful of friends to having no friends. And by the time she reaches high school, she spends nearly every moment by herself, and by the time she graduates she has yet to kiss a boy. But then, in college, she loses her virginity in her second week. His name is Ed Markham. And what does Lydia feel while this is happening on his dorm room bed? She feels what a river surely feels as a train derails beside it, which, of course, is nothing. It doesn’t matter that she is one thing one moment and something else the next, like those passengers on the train. None of it seems significant, not really. And it’s not until her final year of college—she is going for her education licensure—that she first wonders if she is possibly in love. But it happens so gradually, she never sees the dividing line, if it exists at all. His name is Archie McDermott. Tall and lanky and a little goofy. He wants to teach high school math. And the first time she tells him about the train accident, they are in her bed and she is speaking the words directly against the warmth of his skin, sharing the news with his collarbone. He sits up like this is something profound, but the words, to her, feel no different than the clouds slipping by outside her apartment window. But, in any case, they marry and, after graduation, are both offered teaching jobs in the city and live in rental house overlooking railroad tracks. Lydia doesn’t expect the trains to derail, but still—and with a strange, detached curiosity—she watches for it. And then, not even two years later, their son is born. They name him Cal, and Lydia lies with him on her chest and watches a snowstorm out the hospital window, and that snow makes her think of dream confetti. She knows she should feel happy as Archie talks to their son in a baby voice, but happiness, to her, seems like one more religion with an imaginary god. But the next summer when Lydia’s father dies of a heart attack and she and Archie attend the funeral, she is pleased to feel at least momentarily guilty. Shouldn’t he have mattered more in her life? So when the divorce from Archie arrives two years later, she tells herself that this is yet another important demarcation, but still—still—doesn’t she wake each morning and fall asleep each night no differently than before? And six years after that, she returns with her son to her childhood home. Her mother has had a stroke, so Lydia cooks for her and helps her to the toilet and is the mother now. Surely this is of some significance. But even when the second stroke arrives and Lydia sees her mother slump forward at the breakfast table, it all seems, strangely, like a forgetful dream. And after the funeral is over and Lydia walks down to the river, the water is the same as it’s always been, though it is also different. She crosses over to the railroad tracks and stands in the exact spot where the train slipped loose, and she imagines herself back at the supper table on that distant evening, back with her pork chop and her baked beans and her apple sauce. And she imagines another Lydia flying high above the land, a crow-Lydia. And what does that Lydia see? The train, though moving too quickly, clings its body to the tracks and holds itself in place. And the other Lydia, the kitchen-Lydia, tells her parents about her day at school, and then, despite that it makes no sense, her mother is still alive in the present and her father is still alive in the present and Lydia and Archie are still married in the present and little Cal is still sitting between them at the table. And all of them look up as the train goes by. And all of them look back down when it is gone. And does this change anything? Does it?
Doug Ramspeck is the author of eight poetry collections, one collection of short stories, and a novella. One recent book, Black Flowers, is published by LSU Press. His story collection, The Owl That Carries Us Away, received the G. S. Sharat Chandra Prize for Short Fiction. Individual stories have appeared in journals that include The Southern Review, Iowa Review, Southwest Review, and The Georgia Review. His short fiction, Balloon,” was listed as a Distinguished Story of 2018 by The Best American Short Stories. He is a three-time recipient of an Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award.