Friday, November 16, 2007

About what follows...

Consider this an introductory posting.

It's introducing a fairly long story--probably longer than the one I posted at Halloween.

It needs introduction because I'm not posting it so much for the story itself (which I've been told is quite good), but because of what it says about me, and my relationship with my dad. I'm not going to say anymore about that at this point. I promise I'll talk about it after you read the story.

And please, do read the story, even if stories on blogs aren't your thing.

I will tell you a couple of things. My dad is a retired Episcopal priest. As you know I am Eastern Orthodox My dad has always supported my decision, unlike the father in this story. My dad celebrated 49 years in the priesthood on All Saints Day (November 1st)--and I missed it. I posted a silly "scary" story and didn't recognize my father's long committment to people, to the church, and to His Lord and Savior.

I'm sorry Dad.

I know you've read this but I hope between it and the essay to follow, you understand just how precious you are to me, how much I value the way you raised me, how much I regret every disappointment I caused you...

And how very much I hold your calling in the higest esteem, and how much (thanks be to God for giving me the opportunity) I love you.

Enjoy the story.

The Caboose

"I'm sorry, Father, but I can’t sell you an old caboose.” Edwin Hillyer was a sixtyish, heavy-set man with salt-and-pepper hair and the weathered face of someone who had spent years working outdoors. He spoke with the authority of an official decision-maker. “It is the policy of this railroad not to sell old rolling stock. Frankly, we get a better price from the scrappers."

The man to whom Hillyer spoke was remarkable not only for his height and full red beard, but also for his full-length black robe. He wore dark, horn-rimmed glasses that seemed to magnify his gray eyes. Father Christopher Lewis frowned, one hand stroking his beard thoughtfully.

“I’m sorry to hear that, Mr. Hillyer,” the Russian Orthodox priest said. “I am not a rich man, but I would very much like to purchase a caboose.”

The railroad’s division superintendent looked back at the priest with a mix of consternation and humor. "What the dickens would a minister do with a caboose?"

Fr. Christopher sighed. "It’s rather hard to explain. Number 99135 is important to me."

Hillyer’s eyebrows rose and he came halfway out of his chair. “THAT one? Do you know what happened in that caboose?"

"I’m familiar with the story," Fr. Christopher replied with a taut smile. "Please, I’m willing to pay for it and to have it removed from your property. I’d hoped you might be able to make an exception. I know that the company has let old cars go in the past."

“I can’t deny it. We’ve donated--,” he emphasized the word, “--items of rolling stock to charity concerns in the past. But you’re not planning to use it as a Sunday School, are you Father?"

"No sir. I simply want to own the car. Call it a favor to myself."

"I wish I could help, Father, but rules are rules. Perhaps you should try the Santa Fe, or the Burlington." Hillyer’s tone was friendly, but left no room for debate. “I’m sure you don’t really want that caboose. It wouldn’t do for a minister to be seen as morbid, would it?” He rose, offering his hand to the priest.

Fr. Christopher hesitated, then shook hands. “I wish I could tell you all my reasons, Mr. Hillyer, but I can’t. I do thank you for your time.”

Ten days later, Fr. Christopher sat in his car, staring across the yards at a line of old cabooses and steam locomotives. A few blocks away, the clock on the county courthouse chimed two. The narrow slice of the quarter-moon gave just enough cold, blue light to make the tops of the steel rails glint over the pitch-black shadows they cast on the cinders and ties.

“I can’t believe I’m doing this,” he muttered. He tucked a black bag under his arm and got out. Glancing left and right, he crossed the street and stood looking over a low fence. “God forgive me. The bishop won’t, if he finds out.”

In the distance he could see and hear the night-shift diesel shuffling cars. The usual city sounds had become muted with the lateness of the hour. As far as he could see there was no one near, and not likely to be anytime soon.

“Dad would be proud that at least I didn’t wear my ryassa,” the priest thought. An Orthodox clergyman almost always wore his robe, a custom that made him distinctive in town. His parents had believed that the clerical shirts worn by Catholic priests were mark enough of a devoted pastor, but in 1962 very few Orthodox would depart from the traditions of earlier times. “There’s something to be said for work pants and shirt, especially if you’re planning trespass and forced entry.”

It was a moment’s work to get over the fence, then he was picking his way across the web of tracks. As his father had taught him years before, Fr. Christopher did not step on the rails themselves. It would be too easy to slip on the silvery steel, worn to smoothness by countless wheels.

“Safety first,” he muttered, and chuckled ruefully. If he really wanted to be safe, he would be home in bed thinking about Sunday’s Divine Liturgy instead of sneaking around a railroad yard in the dark.

A wall of wood towered before him. Dark shadows hid the underframe and wheels as he moved alongside, looking for the number that would identify the car. There was not enough moonlight to see the faded numerals. He would have to cross over and check the other side to use his flashlight without being seen.

It was pitch black between the cars and Fr. Christopher had to wait until his eyes adjusted. The metal of the coupling was cold when he laid a hand on it, and he remembered stories about his grandfather, killed on the railroad when he was caught between two massive metal knuckles like these.

“That’s a pleasant thought,” he grimaced, “but at least these are already coupled.” The priest cautiously hoisted himself over the drawbar and jumped down on the far side.

As he did so, he caught a flicker of movement in the narrow confines between the cars on the next track and the row he had just crossed. The distraction caused him to catch his foot on the rail instead of stepping firmly beyond it.

Fr. Christopher fell to his hands and knees in the cold cinders and mud, banging his knee painfully against steel. He stifled a curse. “I can’t believe I did that,” he groaned. “You’d think I’d know better after living with a railroadman.”

Ted Lewis would have been right at home here, a familiarity bred of 30 years service. The railroad had been his father’s element, as the church was his own. “You wouldn’t find Dad poking around the sanctuary in the middle of the night, and he sure wouldn’t have fallen over anything if he did,” Fr. Christopher thought, getting to his feet and wincing. “If I was sensible, I’d go home.”

His need to know about caboose number 99135 outweighed his desire to do the sensible thing. He drew the flashlight from his bag and aimed it at the side of the caboose.

99006. This wasn’t it.

Now the question was which way to go? The cars were surely not in numerical order, and if he went the wrong direction he would have to work his way back down the narrow space between the tracks. The idea of spending more time than necessary in the dark confines was disagreeable, especially with the throbbing in his knee. Fr. Christopher sighed and headed to the right, limping slightly.

99244. 99399. 99002... It was a five-minute trip to the end of the string of retired cabooses. He had to proceed slowly, clicking the flashlight on and off, hoping no one would notice.

As he stood at the final car and contemplated walking back to check numbers at the far end, the priest sighed. “Kyrie Jesu Christe, eleison imas. Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.” He pointed the flashlight at the car’s number.


“Of course. Had I started at the end, I’d be on my way home.” Fr. Christopher pocketed the flashlight before slipping his hands around the grab irons. A quick heave had him standing on the warped steel grating of the car’s platform. A featureless wooden door separated him from what he hoped would be answers to his questions.

The caboose had been standing unattended and deteriorating for at least a year and he readied his crowbar as he reached out to push on the hard wood of the door. It was not padlocked and opened freely, to his surprise.

The black opening yawned like the maw of a great beast. With the windows boarded there wasn’t a hint of light within. Even moonlight did not penetrate the gloom.

Fr. Christopher gazed into the darkness, pulling at his beard. “So we reach the moment of truth,” he whispered. “Gospodi pomiloye. Lord have mercy.” He stepped inside and pushed the door almost shut—but not all the way. One doesn’t close oneself into an unknown place.

The darkness was warm, and much deeper than it had been between the cars. It was comforting, almost like standing in the altar when he celebrated Liturgy. He stood for a few moments before pulling out his flashlight and switching it on.

The beam of light revealed walls stripped of nearly all accoutrements of railroad life. Strips of paper where calendars and notices had been pasted hung down, stirring slightly when he walked by. The empty racks which once held fusees and torpedoes and signal flags hung away from the walls on a few nails. The hooks where lanterns hung were empty.

The only furnishings remaining were built-in benches at either end of the car, the leather cushions cracked and scarred from years of use. A look inside revealed a handful of spikes and a chain--all that remained of long years working on the railroad, now discarded and useless.

On second thought, it wasn’t much like standing in the altar after all.

Fr. Christopher stood below the cupola, looking up to the seats where conductors and brakemen would watch their train as it moved along the tracks. It happened up there. The priest felt a cold shiver run up his spine. “Dad, you killed yourself here. Is there anything that will tell me why?”

“I could.”

Fr. Christopher spun around and looked back at the door, expecting to see one of the yardmen standing there, or perhaps a railroad detective. There was no one; it remained closed. He turned his light into every corner of the caboose, but he was alone.

“Wonderful,” he said, shaking his head. “Now I’m hearing things.” After a few moments, the priest pointed his flashlight upward again and climbed the half-ladder that led into the elevated seats of the cupola.

There were no cushions on the seats here. They had been cut away and removed, probably because they had been stained with his father’s blood. The underlying wood had dark stains, but the scent of oil and creosote still lingered and he could not decide if the marks were anything other than railroad-related.

Sitting carefully on the splintered bench, Fr. Christopher ran his hands over the frames of the boarded-up windows. A few initials had been carved here over the years, but not T.L.

After a moment, he clicked off the flashlight and sat in the darkness, tugging at his beard.

His father had worked on this caboose for 30 years. Some railroads had adopted the practice of pooling cars, sending out train crews on whichever one was available. Until a year earlier, this road used the old practice of assigning a specific caboose to a particular conductor. His father had been using 99135 since just before Pearl Harbor.

Memories of his father played in his mind. Running the Lionel trains in the basement, learning railroading at his father’s hands. Christmas with a huge turkey dinner provided by his dad, who was a good caboose cook. Walking to the yard beside his father, seeing him waving from the caboose as it rolled past a street crossing.

There were less pleasant images as well. Dad coming home drunk, Mom in despair, eventually dying from the worry. The not-so-subtle disapproval when he converted to the Orthodox faith, increased when he became a priest. Worst of all, the harsh realization that his father had become an old man, before the end.

What had led him to climb into the cupola of this caboose and place the barrel of a gun in his mouth? “Maybe he didn’t know himself,” the priest murmured. “May his memory be eternal.”

“It was my fault.”

Fr. Christopher almost fell out of the cupola seat. He banged his already wrenched knee against the unyielding wood as he rose, and slammed his head against the low ceiling. “Who’s there!” he cried, trying vainly to see whomever had spoken in the darkness.

“Just me,” the voice answered. “Nobody important.” It was tired, the voice of someone who had worked very long and very hard. It held something of the creak of aged wood, well worn and mellow, but with a spine of hardness. It reminded him of his father.

The priest turned on the flashlight and lowered himself to the floor. Pointing it first right, then left, he could see no one. Crossing to the half-closed door, he placed a hand on the knob.

“Well come in here then, if you’ve caught me,” he said testily. The door remained motionless.

“It’s not a matter of ‘coming in’,” the voice replied. “I’m in, because I’m here.”

Fr. Christopher crossed himself, in the left-to-right Orthodox manner, and put on his most authoritative manner.

“What are you then, a ghost?” He tried to sound as if he was scoffing at the idea, but he wasn’t sure he succeeded.

“Oh no, I’m not a ghost.” The voice was silent a moment, and when it spoke again, it sounded amused. “At least I don’t think I am. I’m just…me.”

“Well that answers exactly nothing,” the priest said. He peered around in the gloom. Still not seeing anyone, he pulled the door open slightly and glanced out.

Moonlight still gilded the rails, and far down the track he could see the diesel switcher moving through the yard as it pushed a cut of cars onto a siding. A car horn sounded momentarily on the street. Other than that there was no other movement or sound. Fr. Christopher pushed the door shut again and leaned against it.

“I miss him,” the voice said. “I wish he hadn’t…done what he did.”

The non sequitur of a disembodied voice that missed his father caused the priest to laugh out loud.

“You miss him? I miss him. He was my father. But who the hell are you? Where are you, for that matter?”

“I told you, I’m me, and I’m here. This is where I am, and who I am.” The voice was patient, but weary.

“You’re not a ghost though.” It seemed to him there were only a couple of alternatives. “You’re not someone playing a prank. You’re not a demon spirit trying to tempt me, are you?” Being Orthodox, he conceded the existence of such spirits. Being a “modern American” created a certain amount of skepticism, however.


Whenever you have eliminated the improbable, the priest thought. “What are you then? The caboose?”


Fr. Christopher sat down on one of the benches with a thud. “You’ll pardon me,” he said very slowly, “if I find that hard to believe.” He could almost hear the shrug when the voice replied.

“As you will, but it’s the truth. Your father said the same thing, the first time we spoke.”

The priest looked around in the dark. “You spoke to my father?”

“Yes. He was a good man, he took care of me, always made sure I was in good repair. I miss him.”

Raising a hand, Fr. Christopher made a sign of blessing and whispered a short prayer of exorcism. He had seen his bishop do that when investigating a “weeping icon” of the Virgin Mary a few years back. It wouldn’t hurt to try, in case this was a case of demonic temptation.

“Are you satisfied?” the voice asked a few moments afterward. “If what your father told me was true, I would not be able to stand up to the name of Christ and the prayer you just said. So that means I’m not a demon, or a ghost either, right?”

The priest didn’t know what to say. The whole situation was too strange for words. A talking caboose--no one would believe him. If he even breathed a word of it, the bishop would likely have him suspended and sent for a psychological examination.

He didn’t drink, other than some wine. He didn’t take any drugs. He was not given to wild flights of fancy. If those things were true, maybe he was crazy.

“You’re not crazy, if that’s what you’re thinking,” the caboose said.

“There’s a healthy sign,” Fr. Christopher laughed darkly. “You’re not ‘the voice’ anymore, now you’re ‘the caboose’.”

“You came here trying to find out more about how your father died, is that not so?” The caboose sounded sympathetic, friendly, helpful. In fact, he sounded like a priest.

“Yes, but I certainly didn’t expect to have my questions addressed by an inanimate object. Or to have it tell me that it talked to my dad, let alone missed him.”

“Maybe it’s a miracle? Your father said you had a way with miracles. He was proud of you, you know.”

Fr. Christopher’s eyes grew wide. “He said that?” He was not sure which amazed him more: that his father thought his son a miracle-worker or that his father was proud of him. The latter is something of a miracle itself, the priest thought.

“Yes indeed,” the caboose replied warmly. “He complained about you joining the church, but over the years he spoke of you with much pride. He said you helped so many people. He was glad you had chosen another path than working for the railroad. The night he--did it, he said two generations dead on the railroad was enough.”

The silence that followed was long and painful for Fr. Christopher. To hear that his dad had come to view his priesthood with satisfaction rather than dismissal changed everything he had believed about the man. It was encouraging to know he had gained an acceptance for his son’s vocation.

“I suppose the Lewis family has a history of irritating parents with their career choices,” he murmured. He knew his grandfather had not been pleased when his father had joined the railroad.

“Oh, your grandfather was proud of your father, as your father was proud of you.”

“You knew my grandfather?” The priest leaned back against the wall of the caboose. His eyes had finally adjusted to the darkness of the interior and he could make out vague shapes in the gloom.

“Yes, I was his assigned caboose too, you know.”

“I didn’t. Did you--?” Fr. Christopher’s voice trailed off. It felt absurdly personal to ask. He tugged at his beard.

“Did I speak to him also? No, I never said a word to him, but there was something about your father that made me want to talk with him. I’m glad I did. After all those years of silence, it felt good to have someone to speak with.”

The priest contemplated the loneliness of being surrounded with active, talkative people, and being unable or unwilling to break silence. That something about his dad had inspired the caboose to speak shook his view of the man for the second time in as many minutes. Fishing for something useful to say, he offered, “I wasn’t aware the railroad used such old equipment.”

“I am that--old, I mean. I was built in 1900, rebuilt in 1922 and 1948, to make me more modern. Your grandfather was there for the first, your father for the second. There won’t be a third.”

“There would be if I could convince the railroad to sell you to me,” Fr. Christopher replied. It was quiet for a very long time after that. “Are you still there?”

“Yes,” the caboose said, its voice hushed and weary. “I cannot go anywhere, after all.”

“Did I say something wrong?” The priest was confused by the its lengthy silence, as if conversing with a talking caboose was not bewildering enough.

“No,” came the eventual, pained response. “But I wish to go to the scrapyard. I have caused enough pain to your family. You deserve not to be tormented by me.”

“I don’t understand.”

“I told you before,” the caboose answered, the voice like rending wood, a painful sound. “Your father’s death was my fault.”

Fr. Christopher had been told many strange and dreadful tales in his years as a priest. Yet this bald admission felt more strange and dreadful than anything else he had heard. He worked to find words that would encompass both his acceptance of the statement and disavowal of the guilt with which the words ached.

“That’s--well, I’ve not…there have been people who confessed sins to me before, but nothing I have been less prepared to accept,” he managed to say. “I don’t believe anyone is responsible for a suicide other than the one who takes his own life.”

“Well then, call it a sin of temptation.”

“Temptation is not a sin,” the priest said. “Giving in to temptation is the sin.” The peculiarity of saying such a thing to a talking caboose suddenly struck home. “Listen to me, discussing the nature of sin with you!”

“I tempted your father with friendship. After your mother died, he needed steady friends, and who was steadier than me? He sure didn’t need to drink, and you helped him stop that.”

“I did?” The priest thought his father had boot-strapped himself onto the wagon out of guilt for the death of his wife.

“Yes, you did. By being firm and unyielding on the issue. It was hard, but he did it because you were one of the rocks he could cling to. I was the other. I helped him to stay out of trouble by being there to talk with. He expected I’d always be there. And I wanted friends so badly myself. There aren’t a lot of opportunities when you’re a caboose.”

Fr. Christopher thought about laughing. There was something pitiable yet understandable in the words, even if he struggled to accept the reality of their source. He struggled with himself as well, learning how much he had meant to his father.

“I doubt that by offering my father friendship you forced him to pull the trigger,” he said.

The caboose sighed, and it felt as if the structure of the car trembled slightly. “May I tell you what happened that night?”

The priest was not sure he wanted to pursue this conversation to its conclusion, but he felt compelled both by the pain in the voice and the possibility of knowing exactly what had happened the night his father climbed into the cupola and shot himself. “Go ahead,” he answered, his voice strained.

“He had just gotten official notice of his retirement, you know,” the caboose began.

Fr. Christopher did know that--he had seen the letter. It had glowingly thanked the old railroader for his years of service, and set the date. For a man who defined himself so completely by the work he did, pretty sentiments and a gold watch would not be enough to make up for the loss.

“I got most of this out of him before he--before the end, though I didn’t know it when he came in here half-drunk with a box of Pabst under one arm and a bottle of vodka in the other hand. He had been on the wagon for so long after your mother died, but I guess he felt there was nothing left to lose.”

That hurt, the priest realized. “He hadn’t lost me. Why didn’t he come talk to me?”

“He was drunk, he was ashamed. Wouldn’t you be?”

Mulling that, Fr. Christopher thought of another question. “I knew he was upset about retiring, but why get drunk at all? As you say, he was on the wagon and doing well.”

“Because he found out that when he retired, I was going to be scrapped. That probably wouldn’t have been enough to send him back to the bottle, except that he tried to buy me. They turned him down cold.”

“I know how that feels,” the priest grunted. “Though I didn’t know about your--unique qualities--when I asked.”

“I told him to go home and sleep it off when he stumbled in here, said he should forget about me and let me go. He finished off the beer and the vodka and sat here for a long time. Then he left. I thought he went home.”

“But he didn’t.”

Another sigh seemed to shake the caboose. “No, he came back a bit later with the gun. He said he knew he was a disappointment to you, and that he had disappointed his wife, and had disappointed his best friend. I assume he meant me.”

There was a long silence.

“And then,” the priest asked, dreading to hear the words.

The words were sepulchral, cold, like the squealing of steel wheels on steel rails. “Then he climbed up in the cupola and shot himself. I talked the whole time, tried to get him to stop. But he ignored me. He just did it. I felt his blood pouring over my cushions and down my walls because I tempted him to be my friend and then couldn’t help him when he needed me the most.”

Fr. Christopher’s hand pulled at his beard as he struggled to find something to say. Sitting in a dark railroad car, hearing what amounted to a confession and offering counseling to a guilt-ridden caboose was a bit outside his usual work. He prayed, and a stillness settled on his heart, allowing him to order his thoughts and speak.

“I do not believe my father’s death was your fault. Having a deep and abiding friendship such as yours, especially after mom died, must have been a real joy. The thought of losing that, and his life’s work, and his embarrassment at getting drunk again was probably more than he could handle. His decision was due to a lot of things, but ‘your fault’ isn’t one of them.”

“You truly believe that?” the caboose asked, sounding hopeful.

“Yes, I do, insofar as I can believe anything about a talking caboose,” the priest replied with a sardonic laugh.

“You forgive me?”

“God forgives,” Fr. Christopher answered. That was the response of a confessor to a penitent Orthodox Christian concerned about his soul. He was not even sure the word “soul” could be applied to a caboose, or if God gave forgiveness to one which had spent years feeling guilty. But for himself, he could. “Even if I thought you had done something wrong, I would forgive.”

“Thank you, Father.” The caboose sounded relieved.

Fr. Christopher became aware that faint light was beginning to shine around the edges of the boarded-up windows. Dawn was approaching and with it more workers and passers-by.

“I’ll have to go soon,” the priest said. “You don’t want me to try to buy you, to save you?”

“No, please. I have served a long time, and I’m done. That’s not suicide, is it?” The caboose sounded quite concerned.

Fr. Christopher shook his head. “I don’t know. You’re not a human being, so I don’t know what rules God would apply to you. You’ve completed a life of service, though, and the decision to be taken out of service isn’t really yours. For the rest, let’s leave it in His hands.”

“Yes. May I ask a favor?”

“Of course, if I am able.”

“Do you have a picture of your father? And an icon of the Christ? I’d like to have them here with me.”

It was such a strange request, the priest could only agree. He took out his wallet and extracted a photo of his dad. The old man was smiling, dressed in overalls and holding his lunch pail and a lantern.

From another fold, Fr. Christopher pulled a mass-produced icon card, of which he always carried a few. He wedged them into the frame of the cupola window.

“I’m curious,” he said as he climbed down. “I understand the picture, but why the icon?”

“He used to talk to me about you and your ministry. He put an icon you gave him in the car, and kept it even though the other guys ribbed him about it. It was a real nice picture of Jesus with a lamb over his shoulders. I always liked it. It reminds me of him.” The final words were like the soft whisper of a breeze. “And maybe I hope, too. Maybe I hope.”

Fr. Christopher pulled the door open and looked out. The eastern horizon was beginning to glow. “I’d better go.”

“Father, bless.”

The words surprised the priest, but he paused on the threshold and made the sign of the cross in the air. “Through the prayers of the holy fathers, Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on us and bless us.” After a moment, he added, “Lord now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, according to Thy word,” and closed the door.

In the warm, golden light of a new day, he walked to his car and headed home.

Fr. Christopher had just settled down at the kitchen table with a bowl of cold cereal when the phone rang.

“Father, it’s Ed Hillyer. I just wanted to tell you I’ve spoken with the general manager and he says it would be fine to sell you number 99135. Once I figured out who you were and all--”

“Thank you, but I’ve changed my mind,” the priest replied. “I won’t be needing the caboose after all.”

“Well, I should tell you they’ll be hauling it away tomorrow. By Monday it will be a lost piece of railroad history. If you don’t mind my asking, why did you change your mind?”

Fr. Christopher looked up at a photograph on the wall. His father stood on the step of caboose 99135, one hand on the platform railing and the other almost protectively on the back wall of the car. He smiled.

“Call it a last favor to an old family friend,” he said, and hung up the phone.