He visits the old train mechanic John Joseph once a year. It all depends if he's still alive or if he can be found. Corey eases his way around alcohol-soaked squatters and descends the stairs. A silent luminescence falls through a window at the end of the hall.
The doors had all been unpinned from the hinges and taken away. Corey peers into an old boudoir with mattresses along the wall with tattered grey army blankets. A thin little man was squatting by the window, peering out into nothingness. The man doesn't divert his gaze toward Corey’s direction. It was deadly cold in the room. Corey turns and goes back and down the stairs.
Mrs. Blackwell opens the door.
"Cold enough for ya'?" Says Corey.
She motions him in. Freddy is sitting by the stove with a gang of men. All of them are drunk or working at it. When Freddy turns and raises his head, Corey sees that the city rat himself is reeling and swaying from left to right.
"What did you do to get drunk this quick?" Corey says.
"Drinking Whiskey is how! Have a drink with us, Corey! Come on ole' buddy. Give him a drink Steve-O."
An angular man with sparse teeth holds out a quart pickle jar ample of brown liquid. Corey waves it away.
"Yep, that's the one."
"He ain't here," says Freddy.
"I can see that."
"I told that fool not to give him none of that whiskey," says Mrs. Blackwell speaking behind him in a muted shriek.
"Well, I never poured the stuff down his throat," says Freddy.
Corey looks around.
"Well, I suppose that does it then. To hell with it," says Corey. "I'll be on my way. I haven't seen the old man since last Christmas. Figured it was time to check in on him again."
"Who is this cat?" Says a scrawny looking dread-locked stoner, his small skull adorned with thick black ropes.
"He's cool, man. He's cool," says Freddy.
Corey turns and goes out. He pulls the door behind him and walks along a narrow cinder path past another lot of drunks and junkies. Pale eyes stare at him from their chilled perspective. He crosses the street and heads towards town, all things in the grainy backdrop holding the subtle obscurity of something prophetic and profound.
Some minutes later, Corey approaches a man in an alleyway that had come out to gather pieces of crate wood and paper.
Old John Joseph looks up and asks, "What time is it?"
"I don't have a watch," says Corey.
"Well, I'll be… Corey. It's good to see you, kid."
He motions him inside.
Joseph has a little fire going for a stove, and he pulls his bed crosswise from it for warmth.
"Come sit by the fire," Joseph says, "I didn't know it was so cold."
"I brought it all inside with me," says Corey. "Passed by Freddy's place. Had a ruckus of people. Said they filled you with a whole lot of whiskey. How ya' been?"
"Mean as ever," says Joseph. "How you been making it?"
"I'm about froze out," says Corey, "thought I'd better stop by and check on you and see if you were still living."
The old man chuckles to himself.
"Well, Lord," Joseph says, "a little cold ain't gonna kill me, I suppose. Go on and sit down."
Joseph raises himself slightly and rocks to the side as if he's going to make room, then subsides in the same place. Corey sits on the edge of the bunk, which was strangely like his own. His hands feel the scruff of a rough army blanket, thread-pulled and worn. Joseph was reading some coverless book, and he lays it down, removes his glasses, and pinches the bridge of his nose.
A small desk sits against the wall and in cubby holes are yellowed times tables, bills, receipts, and cover pages. Across the desk are old newsprints and magazine clippings. The old man's eyes follow Corey’s.
"I dun give up on all the newspapers. Them stupid words and their fake news and such," says Joseph.
"How's that?" Asks Corey.
"I never read one of 'em where someone wasn't murdered or shot or sick from getting a shot. Something always going such as that. A man shouldn't believe everything he reads."
"Yeah, I guess you're right," says Corey.
"This world, I never knew such a place for meanness. Cruelty and macabre idiocy. No other way of describing it."
"Was it ever any different?" Asks Corey.
"What's that?" Says Joseph.
"I said, has it ever been any different?"
"Nah, suppose not," says Joseph.
"That stuff has always been in the papers, hasn't it?" Says Corey.
"Yes, that's right. I just give up on it. That's all. As I get older, I don't wanna hear about it. People are funny. They don't wanna hear about how nice everything is. No, no. If there ain't someone that's been killed in the papers, their day is a waste of time. I give it all up myself, ya see. All the murders are just pointless."
"What isn't pointless?"
"Accidents. Big ones. Like train wrecks or car wrecks, or natural catastrophes. Them things will make you stop and think," says Joseph.
"Did you ever see a wreck?" Asks Corey.
"Oh yes," says Joseph.
"What's the worse one you ever saw?"
"Train or car?"
"Train. You were an engineer. I never seen a train wreck. The worst one you ever saw," says Corey.
"Seen or heard of?" Asks Joseph.
"Either one," says Corey.
"That's hard," says Joseph. "I seen a boiler cut loose in Oklahoma and blow the entire locomotive cab and all up onto an overpass. There was just the truck left sitting on the track. They'd stop to take on some water, but before they could fill her, the crown sheet went, and boom. I dun seen that. But I heard of this one that blew up in the docking station in Texas that blew the whole thing up along with a lot of other buildings besides it. They found one chunk of the boiler that weighed eight-ton a quarter-mile away from the wreck. Another piece weighed almost a thousand pounds that tore a man's house down a mile away. I remember reading about it like it was yesterday. I'll never forget seeing all them pictures in the paper. There were like thirty-two killed, and I dunno how many others were maimed for life."
Corey looks at the old man curiously.
"A thousand-pound piece of iron went a mile?"
"Yessir, maybe only a half-mile. But oh yes. If it hadn't hit that feller's house, it might still be going."
"Did you wanna see it?" Asks Corey.
"See it? See it from where?" Says Joseph.
"Hmm, I see," says Corey.
He sighs and allows old John Joseph to gather his thoughts.
"Course there's been a lot of worse wrecks than them," says Joseph. "There was an engine that left the track from North Carolina about a decade ago. This hot box caused the axle to break, threw some cars onto a bridge, and killed nearly ninety people. But your worst wrecks were when one car would run right inside along the other on them rails."
"That sounds horrifying," says Corey.
"Horrifying? Huh, a train wreck? Make ya' think though, don't it?" Says Joseph.
"Sure does," says Corey with a surprised look. "Makes me think about the wreck of my own life. Time for making some changes, I suppose."
The old man ignores Corey’s epiphany.
"I remember a train running a double-track going in opposite directions. Just about the time they got near one another, the whole thing just folded up and dropped into the river. The trestles, tenders, locomotives, cars, folks inside, all of it. Kaboom. Back then, most of all them trestles was just wood. Not a great idea to have the main supports made of chopped-up trees. The coaches was wood too, and they had hardwood stoves in them like this one here and when they'd wreck, they'd tip over and set the coaches on fire and burn up everyone inside. Riding a train back in them days was something you'd give some thought to," Joseph says.
John Joseph rose heavily from the bed and opened up the stove to drop some pellets in the fire, and sat back down again. He dabs his nose with the backside of a knuckle. Outside it had grown almost dark, and a cat appears at the window and whines.
"You can't get in that way, hairball," the old man calls. "You gotta' come to the door like everybody else."
Corey is glad to see the cat still around. Keeps the old man company.
"I could care less about nothin' when I was young. I was always easy in the world. Saw right through it. Never cared to just go wherever," says Joseph.
"You ever thought different? Like how you happened to end up here?" Asks Corey.
"Nah. And, I ain't ended nowhere yet. I can still remember when I used to hobo it."
"Oh, yes?" Where'd you go?"
"In the mountains of Colorado out of all places. There was this one winter night. I reckon it was the most cold I had ever seen. I had just a smidgeon of tobacco, about enough for one or two smokes. I was in one of those slat-sided cars, and I'd been up and down in it like a dog trying to find someplace where the wind wouldn't blow. I rolled me up in a corner and lit me up a smoke and threw the match down."
Joseph clenches the fire iron tightly and looks into the flames as if reminiscing.
"Well, as you have it, there was some stuff laying about the floor like tinder, and it immediately burst in flames. I hopped up and started jumping on that fire, but it ain't done nothing but burn faster. It wasn't two minutes and the whole car was on fire. I ran up and got the door open, and we were going up this grade along the mountains and through the snow and with the moon shining down on it. It was blue looking and dead quiet and them big ole' black pine trees going on through there. I jumped for it and landed in a snowbank."
Corey’s eyes are fixated on the old man.
"When I die, I don't think I'll have ever seen anything as beautiful as that train on fire going up them mountains and around the bend and them flames lighting up the snow and the trees and the night."
Corey allows the words to resonate. Them train wrecks sure did make him think. They made him wonder.
“What’s that?” Asks Joseph.
“The beauty in the disaster.”
“I reckon it’s a good thing they be building them different nowadays. Remember that though as you get older. Even in the wreckage, there’s beauty. Some things always gotta change. No way around it. But some things should just let be.”