Meet You at the Door

There was no dodging the voice of the dead
Illustration by Selena Wong
This happened back in the dinosaur days, in the town of Gull Lake, population 800. The gulls had all died, and if ever there had been a lake it had dried up. On the Saskatchewan farmlands, oil pumps bobbed up and down, up and down, looking like black grasshoppers on speed. Folks were fuming about the metric system and had a nickname for the new top-loading railway car: a Trudeau hopper. I had other preoccupations. A ghost had chased me out of university and had hounded me for a year in Greece, Italy, France, and Spain. And now I was back in Canada, to take a summer job in a place where I knew no one.

I had hitchhiked into town. I had come to work in the one-room station of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Hitchhikers held up their thumbs every which way back then and jockeyed for the best spots on highway ramps. As for me, drivers usually stared good and long and pressed the gas pedal harder. Eventually, a priest took mercy on me in Medicine Hat and drove me all the way to the Gull Lake turnoff at forty miles an hour. I walked up the gentle grade into town. On my left arm, balanced against my chest, was an L. C. Smith typewriter, heavy enough to be a weapon of war. Catapulted over a battlefield, it could have taken a man out. In my right hand was a classical guitar, purchased in Granada from the man who made it. On my back was a knapsack, stitched with the Canadian flag, so Europeans wouldn’t take me for an American. It was 1977. The summer job was part of my recovery plan.

The only advertised room for rent in Gull Lake was above the one bar in town. The Mad Dog. No way I was staying there. I knew, from my late father and from the men before him, that certain places would only bring trouble to a person like me. I passed the bar and walked into town, ringing doorbells and asking to rent a room. The first five doors did not stay open long enough for me to explain that I had a job and would pay for the full five months — in advance, if necessary.

At the sixth door, a woman answered. She looked like she had been born around the time of my great-grandmother. Everything about her was white. Hair. Socks. Nursing shoes. On her clothesline out back, flapping in the wind, hung white underwear the size of a parachute. She stood no taller than five feet. Blue eyes, clear as lake water. She stepped back when she saw me, but listened as I spoke. She said she didn’t mind my working nights. She said her own son Jimmy could keep a job for about as long as she could hold a spooked horse. He was a no-account, if God’s truth be told, but what could you expect from a grown man who still went by “Jimmy”? He had stayed in her basement suite for a spell. This was after his wife had thrown him out but before she had taken him back, which was about as dumb a mistake as a woman could make. She said, what can you do about foolishness but let it be? It struck me that I should nod and say nothing.

She said I was welcome to stay. Twenty-five dollar a month. She pronounced it “dollar.” In the singular. The Spaniards in Andalusia had done the same thing, dropping the final s, perhaps to shake me off the tail of their speeding words. She asked if I wanted to see the suite. It had a bedroom, a kitchen, and a bathroom. Twenty-five dollar a month. No, I told her, I would just take it. I said, here is twenty-five dollars for the first month. You don’t have to pay me yet, she said. No, ma’am, please take it. She took it. The bills disappeared into her apron pocket.

Her name was Eleanor Hadfield. She lived alone. She had been widowed long ago. Her son stopped by every Sunday for lunch after church and brought the groceries on her list. He overcharged her, she confided, but it was just a few dollar and she didn’t care. She didn’t get out much, but she still ruled over her kitchen, garden, and clothesline. As she spoke, Mrs. Hadfield kept checking out my hair.

Have you ever seen a mammoth pine tree in southern Spain? No branches all the way up, but at the top there is an eruption of foliage. I had an Afro like that. It was big, and it took over, and it buried me beneath it. Also, I was dark. Like the best part of a chocolate ├ęclair. Some of my looks came from my father and his people. And some came from spending much of the past year in southern Europe. I had stayed in shared rooms, youth hostel style, sleeping inches from strangers, one looking clubbed and comatose, the next snoring like a purring brontosaurus. I had changed cities every night, on the run from that voice in my head. Come on, it said. Come over here. It’s not so bad. I did it. Can you provide me with one good reason to go on living? Is there one thing about the world that can justify living another day? Come over this way, it said, I’ll meet you at the door. The voice tracked me like a bounty hunter and charged like a bull. For a year, I had stayed on the move, but it hadn’t worked. There was no dodging the voice of the dead.

From my bedroom one Sunday morning, I heard Mrs. Hadfield’s son railing about me. In the small house, I heard every word. Why had she not consulted him before renting to me? What if I ransacked her house and stole her valuables? It wasn’t right for her to be alone with me. Have you considered this, her son kept saying, have you even looked at him? Jimmy, she said, he’s a gentleman — may not look like one, but he is. Mother, he said, nothing good can come of this. Jimmy, she said, eat your pie.

In the eyes of Eleanor Hadfield, perhaps the typewriter saved me. Soon she began to ask me to join her in the kitchen for pies, cakes, cookies, and roast beef. Most of all, she liked serving me potatoes. Fried, baked, cookie-thin and roasted, or boiled. Under gravy, over rice, in casseroles, or all alone.

One day while I was writing, she brought me a mug of tea and said, “I got more ways for potato than all the keys on your typewriter.”

“I bet you do.”

She ran her finger along the platen of my L. C. Smith and declared that it was as smooth and hard as her rolling pin. “What are you so busy writing?”

“Just trying to get my thoughts out.”

“I hear you typing half the day,” she said. “Fingers coming down like rain.”

“Does the sound bother you?”

“No,” she said. “I like that sound. I sleep easy with it.”

I had been typing since I was thirteen. On my mother’s L.C. Smith, my friend Howie and I made up our own Typing Olympics. Stopwatch in hand, he would dictate a sentence and clock me. Have you considered, my asinine acquaintance, that it would be advisable to abdicate before accentuating the world’s ailments? He timed me, then took his turn and beat me by five seconds. On the sly, he had been typing a’s repeatedly. Training his left pinkie. The last time we raced each other, it got stupid. We were seventeen. Howie wanted us to give each other lines about world poverty, time the results, toss back a shot of rum, and do it again. Toss another shot. Do it again. I gave up after two shots. He kept going. Had to get his stomach pumped. At the hospital, his mom gave me a look that said, “And I trusted you.” I carried that look in the back of my mind until I had something worse to think about.

Passenger trains didn’t stop in Gull Lake, but freight trains had to pull off onto the side tracks to let other trains overtake or pass them on that long, single track across the Canadian prairies. The dispatcher in Calgary and conductors moving all across Saskatchewan and Alberta could not communicate directly. They had to go through me — the operator. I took orders from the dispatcher and passed them along to the trains highballing east and west through town.

I worked alone in the station, starting at 7 p.m. and often working right through until 6 a.m. I had the guitar and the typewriter for company, in the hours when I was not needed. Actual work accounted for no more than two hours each shift, but I had to be perfect for every one of those 120 minutes. It was my job to know more than any person in the world about the trains that thundered each night through Gull Lake, Saskatchewan. You had to radio for permission to leave the chair and go to the bathroom. You radioed again, once back in the chair. The dispatcher in Calgary knew how often you pissed in an eight-hour shift, and how long it took you. It was a firing offence to sleep on the job. If I slept, someone could die. And I already had one person’s death on my mind. My job was to type up the dispatcher’s orders, when they came — always in a rush, always at the last minute — and to pass them along to oncoming trains. I had to be able to type them up at fifty words a minute, and typos were not allowed. It was in the rule book: if you made a typo, you had to say so. Then you had to rip up your order and ask the dispatcher to give it to you all over again, while you typed. All while the train was bearing down on you at fifty miles an hour.

From my chair facing the station window, I had a clear view of the farmlands, the bobbing oil pumps, and the sky. Usually there were no clouds, and blazing stars. “We’re burning up out here,” the stars seemed to tell me. “Would you at least have a look?” Stars begged you to look at them for, like, five million years. And I couldn’t. I had two radios to manage. On my left, the one for incoming and outbound trains. It only worked when a train was within a five-mile radius. This radio connected me to the engineer in the lead car, who usually said nothing and just drove, and to the conductor working in the caboose. It was the conductor who did all the talking — to me and, through me, to the dispatcher. In the radio to my right, I could hear the dispatcher any time, but he could only hear me when I pushed a foot pedal under my desk.

One Tuesday in June, weeks after I had settled into the job, a conductor got in my ear at 2:49 a.m. He was on a westbound train. Number 901. I knew it. It was a freight train. Usually about 100 cars. More than a mile long. Travelling at full speed, a beast like that took ten minutes to stop.

“Gullick. You there?” It was the voice of an old man. Some conductors liked to kid around on the radio. Others were all business. This one sounded as if he liked to hunt bears, drink beer, and watch strippers.

I pulled the train mike closer. “Gull Lake here.”

“Are they robbing the cradle?” he said. “What are you, like, sixteen?”

You kept your mouth shut with the dispatcher, but conductors were fair game. So I said, “And are they stealing from graves these days? No live bodies left?”

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5 comment(s)

Nobody in ParticularJanuary 03, 2011 12:41 EST

Dammit! You almost made me cry.

Puts me in mind of a trainman from Montana I know and love... Eats nails, spits tacks, only one wreck over ice heaves, quite gentlemanly, humourous and erudite. Blasphemer too, but oh well..

Very much enjoyed this story. Thank you for bringing Canadian prairie train life so clearly in focus.

Long may your wig be hooped!

AnonymousJanuary 20, 2011 09:55 EST

I loved this story. I had a grandfather who worked on the trains - for many years in the dining cars. His younger brother died one night, getting caught between two trains in the railyard in Calgary. I have a very old friend who worked a job just like you described in small prairie towns - he will love this story, so I'll buy the magazine and send it to him. I also attended university in Toronto where I met and became friends with a beautiful lady named Audrey. She would have loved your stories and your success. Thank you.

AnonymousFebruary 03, 2011 09:58 EST

A great story. I was wiping my eyes at the end.

Gary SudermanMarch 12, 2011 20:11 EST

Wow! I was a station agent in Canora, Sask for summers while I went to U of M and then travelled, all in all 6 summers, 1972-1978. We used a Y-shaped stick with the orders tied in a string stretched between the branches and held in a clip at the base. That was one amazing story, and technically absolutely correct. I'd forgotten about the pedal you had to step on. Brilliant.

Gary SudermanMarch 12, 2011 20:11 EST

I would like to be able to take and share this with the students where I teach. How would I go about that?

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