Glimpses of a girl going off the rails

March 13, 2011 

I could see the entire trajectory of the young woman's fall even as I passed her at 40 miles per hour.

The first time I saw her, she was getting off the high school bus.

I was parked behind it, fuming as I watched the high-dollar exhaust spew out the tailpipe. Because instead of letting the girl off at the store and turning around in the big gravel lot, the bus would turn left at the crossroads, then creep a few dozen yards to the girl's driveway. It would then move a few yards ahead to the railroad tracks, stop, then proceed two miles into the next county to turn around in somebody's driveway, wallowing out a mudhole with its big rear doolies. And on its return trip, it often passed the girl, already walking back to the store, having paused just long enough in her doorway to dump her books. She was apparently home alone that time of day, and with no one else her age around in that neighborhood, she amused herself, I surmised, with sugar water, bad company and maybe a few hands of video solitaire at the store.

One day I saw that she had acquired companions: two shaggy-looking boys who went on to spend many afternoons with her, hanging around the bridge and a nearby abandoned building. But even around one another, they seemed bored and aimless. Every time I passed them, they were throwing rocks.

A few months later, approaching the train tracks, I saw the girl standing at the end of the bridge. She was in a bad place. No guardrail, no shoulder, and the rail crossing just steps from her the site of several train-car collisions. One I had stood and watched; two cars, train whistle moaning, the massive engine shearing off the front ends of both vehicles, a girl splayed behind the wheel of her suddenly alfresco sedan, limp and dazed and cursing bitterly.

And here, now was this high school girl slouched against the bannister, not watching traffic, feet nearly sticking out into the highway, the big trucks blasting by blowing road grit into her downturned face.

I glanced back at her in the mirror. She seemed chilled, pensively huddled over herself as if she were shielding a fragile flame, and her bearing suggested to me that here was a troubled young woman. And I remembered another girl on the bridge . . .

. . . The phone had jangled one evening after dark. It was a neighbor lady telling me that a young woman in the community had "gone off in the river." As she spoke, I looked out the window at the night. There was a ghostly fog seeping up from the bottom, and I pictured it shrouding the icy black water and the snags of dead trees under the bridge.

The rescue people dragged the river and brought out the dogs. But as days, weeks and years passed, no trace of her was found. She had walked into the fog and vanished.

. . . And so the images from that night flashed behind my eyes as the figure of this latest troubled girl shrank in my rear-view mirror. I wondered whether I should go back and see about her; maybe I could avert another tragedy. But I didn't. I drove on.

Some time passed before I saw the girl again. It was summer, and she was headed in the direction of the store, a large, white, matronly purse hanging from her shoulder, a baby bump bulging under her T-shirt.

I drove past her again and rumbled across the tracks, past all the symbols and metaphors that had surrounded her at the crossing: the signs, the bars, the red lights and bells. I felt a little responsible for her situation. I seemed to have been the only adult who had seen the danger she was in. I could have warned her; tried to wave her off those tracks, talk her off that bridge. But the truth is, no one on earth could have reached her. The track she was on, that train was always going to hit her.

And though the girl was most likely blindsided by the pregnancy, I believe the despair I sensed in her that cold afternoon was the result of being struck by a hard truth of life. At such a frightening time for her, she had been utterly betrayed and deserted. Because two other vanishings occurred since that day on the bridge. I haven't seen either of those slumped-over boys again.

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