Hugging the Rail

by Louis Wittig

Wittig_Rail_imageWhen 51-year-old Jason Daniels killed himself by jumping in front of a subway train on Christmas Eve of 2004 his friends and family had questions.

I didn’t know JJ then, but I had questions too. I was headed to a meeting on Christmas Eve and I was riding on the train that took him, seated six cars back from the front. It seemed to me a major anomaly, almost supernatural, that I was so close to a person I’d never met at the precise and very intimate moment when he became unmeetable. I felt sure that I had been near when something deep and important happened, and I wanted to know what I had been near to. The questions I had were like clouds. They lacked specific form. I simply wanted to know.

The 197-word New York Post article that ran on Christmas day stated that a terminally ill man had leapt to his death beneath a subway train on New York City’s Upper West Side.

JJ’s friends and family did have a specific question: JJ was sick? He had been at work the week before. No one had ever seen him take even an aspirin.

After I read that article (which was the only article), I thought about JJ for weeks. The longer I thought about him, the more acutely I felt that moment I’d had on the train just afterward was falling through my fingers. I tracked down people who loved JJ and talked to them. I said something about being a writer, and working on a “piece”, but I don’t think they believed it, or cared. More than once, I thought of it as an episode of Law & Order and myself as Jerry Orbach. In total, I spoke to three people: JJ’s niece and two people who worked with him. One of them, I can’t remember who, gave me a document JJ had written. Not a suicide note. JJ didn’t leave a note. It was a memoir he’d given out as a party favor the year before.

The sentence in the Post article about terminal illness didn’t make sense to them. But what really didn’t make any sense at all came three sentences later: “A source said Daniels was ‘hugging the rail’ as the train operator tried desperately to stop.”

Days afterwards, JJ’s brother Peter and niece Angie descended to the 103rd Street platform and stayed there for a while, looking down at the tracks, trying to figure that one out. Angie thought it meant that JJ had been kneeling in the track bed, with his left shoulder to the oncoming train, and holding the rail as if trying to lift it up. But why would he do that? At first JJ’s boss of 15 years, Edmund, didn’t think JJ had jumped at all. He thought JJ had tripped or been pushed onto the tracks. But then that phrase “hugging the rail” sunk in after he’d re-read the article twenty times. If it was an accident, JJ wouldn’t have grabbed the rail and held on. The way Edmund started picturing it, JJ had been lying down in the track bed clutching the rail like a teddy bear. But if he was lying down in the track, wouldn’t the train have glided right over him?

All they wanted to know from me was did I see JJ? How was he positioned? What did he look like?

It seemed a strange question to ask, but I didn’t say anything about that. I answered the question as best I could. It was harder than I’d expected. Now, years later, I think maybe it wasn’t a question at all.

Here is what I can tell you about Jason Daniels:

JJ is smiling. This is in a photocopy of a photocopy of a photo that I got. His hands are tucked into his winter coat pockets. He’s standing in a road, next to a sign that reads “Daniels Road”, in Allendale, South Carolina. He’s wearing his glasses. And he’s smiling so wide that his face is scrunching up, turning his eyes into two crescent-shaped squints. JJ’s moustache is his pride. It is one black shape so solid you’d think it had a steel frame. JJ looks like a middle linebacker who converted to loveable dork in middle age. A purse-sized messenger bag hangs awkwardly from his left shoulder.

JJ was born a few miles from this sign, in 1953.

The first thing JJ clearly remembered about his life is a hurricane. He was two. The afternoon is sweltering and dark. There are no sounds. The worst of the rain is over now. JJ is looking up at the ceiling, and now the living room is falling apart and a sycamore tree is in the middle of it.

Now it’s raining again and JJ’s father is yelling. JJ’s mother grabs him by the hand and runs. JJ’s four older brothers are running in front of him, across the back yard. The wind had dragged the family’s green Ford, normally parked in front of the farmhouse, behind the back shed. JJ’s mother is pulling hard at his hand and the faster he toddles, the faster he slips and falls. He can feel the wet grass on his shin.

JJ was trouble. But whenever he threw over a glass of milk or ran away, his brothers would rally around him.

“He’s the baby,” they’d plead to Mom. With years of use, those words came to have a sing-song rhythm, and later the lilt of an inside joke. When his brothers were smoking, JJ would tell Mom exactly when and where, a smile creeping up his face.

Every December 18th, his brothers brought him along out to the edge of the farm. They chopped down a six-foot Carolina long needle pine. After dinner that night, everyone sang out of tune and strung the tree up with red, orange, and green bulbs the size of eggs. The living room smelled like walnuts and pine and apples for weeks. On Christmas Eve, JJ put himself to bed as soon as it got dark.

On New Year’s Eve, JJ stood on the porch with his parents and watched as his brothers fired off bottles rockets in the yard. As midnight came closer through the dark trees and invisible fields, JJ heard the sparking hiss and the long soft chirps of neighbors setting off Roman candles a half-mile away.

JJ played the piano in school, then he switched to the drums, and then to the alto saxophone. The family owned a roadhouse in Allendale, the Daniels Inn. On thick summer evenings, JJ worked in the kitchen grating heavy blocks of cheese and stirring stewed beef. When the kitchen doors swung open and closed, cool air and the sound of bassists tuning up in the club seeped in. JJ was afraid of dancing. He was safe and happy in the kitchen.

JJ spent his kitchen money on bus tickets. He would get on a bus in Allendale and ride to Georgia, D.C., and New York and then come back. He rested his head against the cool, vibrating windows, watched the highway flow down under his field of vision, and tried to imagine all the places he could go in his life.

When he had to choose where to go for college, he picked the University of Georgia. He liked that it was only two hours away from the boiled peanuts and salt-dusted watermelon slices of home. When he had to pick a major, he remembered Dobie Gillis. He used to watch it every Tuesday night on his family’s black-and-white RCA. The show always opened with a fade-in on Rodin’s Thinker before panning to Dobie’s monologue. JJ liked that, the Thinker. So he majored in Art History.

Between classes and lifting cameras for the school TV station, JJ took a bus to Wichita Falls, Texas, a shadeless town halfway between Dallas and Oklahoma City. He lived there for two months and came back to South Carolina. He thought of it as a transformative trip.

Every night in his dorm room, JJ would pray that he could stay in college and avoid the draft. In 1973, when Congress abolished the draft, JJ graduated college. He found the nearest recruitment office to campus and enlisted in the Air Force. JJ thought it was kind of funny. He guessed, and it was only a guess, that he liked deciding for himself.

JJ was like everyone else in that every day he lived, his life seemed to be coming into sharper focus, every present moment more important and more real than the moment that had just disappeared. But looking at him backwards and from the outside it’s just the opposite: Just as JJ becomes more fully himself, fully adult, the individual moments of life disappear from my view. The closer he gets to the present, the less detailed the story he wrote about his life becomes. His first day of school got several sentences. Entire years of the ’70s do not. JJ spent the better part of a decade in the Air Force. What his job was there is unclear to his friends and family. He jumped at the chance to take stations in Germany and England, and the hour his leave kicked in, he left base for Paris, Copenhagen, Berlin, Milan, Marseilles, Frankfurt. But that’s just a list of proper nouns. There are many other places that may have been more important. When he tried to articulate what traveling meant to him, he told people that the shopping in Mexico is very affordable.

Faced with his second re-enlistment, JJ decided he wanted a home and moved to New York. His brothers Peter and Frederick were living in Brooklyn. JJ landed a job with the IRS in Manhattan. When he learned he could add his military time to his civil service career for pension purposes, he quit. He wanted to travel again and a friend had urged him to go for it. JJ got his dream job as a ticket agent for Pan Am airlines. He could fly for free. One of his co-workers was a woman, Honey. They became friends and stayed close for decades.

Angie is Peter’s daughter. I met her at a diner early in March. JJ had been gone two months. The ice above our booth window was melting in long, thin licks. Angie leaned back and brushed shiny black ringlets of hair off her shoulder. She said that nobody would ever know why he did it, but as we talked, she confidently mentioned several reasons why she thought he’d done it: He was getting older and didn’t have anyone. And plus, he was a damn drama queen.

When Angie was young, her father and JJ looked nearly identical. JJ would come out to the house in Brooklyn, usually with a tall, handsome buddy of his from the Air Force. It was magical, because for a few hours it was like she had a play version of her dad. JJ would drop down on the floor and have tea parties with her. She and her brother would build microphones from erector sets and sing. JJ would stay for the entire talent show. JJ would take her brothers and all his other nephews out to the movies. When they came back from seeing E.T., the little boys ran from room to room scream-giggling: “Uncle JJ cried at the end! Uncle JJ cried!” The adults rolled their eyes. JJ cried a lot. Usually over some man.

“See, I never laughed at him. I never would have,” said Angie. After they would make fun of him, Angie would go upstairs to her room, think about how they hurt him and cry. She cried for her uncle until she was 13. “I was never like the family either. I liked art and music and things like that. I wish he just knew that.”

After I ran out of questions for Angie, and then ran out of pancakes, we walked over to JJ’s building, a few blocks away. Angie knew the super. He still had several bags of JJ’s stuff. I’d suggested that looking at his flatware and towels might help me. The super was out. We went to catch different trains in different directions.

Before we did, Angie told me that for some people, their family is their family, and for some people, their friends are their family. She said JJ’s real family was the people he worked with. Especially his boss, Edmund. She asked me to call her if I found out anything.

When the Gulf War oil spikes killed Pan Am, JJ took the same job with Delta. JJ would pack a suitcase on Friday morning, go to work at the airport, and at 5 o’clock look up at the big board and get on the first plane leaving New York.

Seattle was one of his favorite cities in America. JJ loved the small town feel it had. He flew out to see it in the early ’90s, he had a week of vacation and nothing else planned. His first day there JJ met a guy in his hotel who suggested he see Cook Inlet, in Alaska. That night JJ flew from Seattle and saw it. From Alaska he flew to Portland, Oregon, for a day. From Portland he flew to Atlanta for lunch. From Atlanta he caught a late flight back to New York, went back to his apartment, re-packed, and headed out on a flight to Zurich, for a one-night stay.

JJ couldn’t explain why he loved this trip as much as he did, why he remembered it for decades. He said it was a silly trip, because what he’d seen was mostly airport interiors.

I don’t think that was entirely true. I think that JJ must have looked out the window of the plane in the middle his many trans-Atlantic peels. Sometimes, though you can’t say it, looking out of the window is the entire point. You look over the wing, and you realize that you are in an infinite country of sky. And then you’re taken: No matter how hard you try, you can’t look back at your book or your Coke. You’re pinned to the surrounding boundlessness. Pain surfaces in your neck, but you can’t move your head back because the whole world down there is as remote and unimportant as the sky is for most of your life. A cold pinpoint that feels light blue and infinite spreads across your chest in every direction and pulls a deep breath down into you. You are cutting across the sky like a placid Norse god, but looking down at the still ocean nothingness, you can see that you’re also not moving at all. You want to be at this window forever. Forever unreachable. Forever closing in on a destination but never there. And then the captain’s voice elbows in to inform you that you’re beginning your descent into Zurich, and then you finish your flat Coke.

When Delta moved its operations, they offered to move JJ to Cincinnati or Salt Lake. JJ quit and soon he was working for Argo Travel Systems.

It was sweating hot out the evening I met Edmund, JJ’s boss at Argo for Edmund didn’t even know how many years. I met him at a Starbucks far downtown, near their office. Edmund wore an affable cream-colored suit and a pencil moustache. He dried his head with a white handkerchief, and said that maybe Spain was JJ’s favorite place. JJ also went to an S&M convention in Chicago every year.

The way he talked about JJ, I thought we would close the Starbucks.

“I genuinely loved JJ,” he said, putting his hand over his heart. When I told him that JJ’s niece had said his co-workers knew more about him than his family did, Edmund looked genuinely shocked. Later, when I got to the point where I asking questions for the sake of not looking stupid, like what TV shows JJ liked, and Edmund didn’t know, he turned his head slightly as if something outside the window had caught his attention and fell silent. There was nothing particular outside the window. Edmund looked puzzled, then sad. Then for five minutes he looked like he was on the cusp of saying something.

JJ sat in a cubicle in the exact geographic center of Argo’s midtown office floor when Edmund was hired. Edmund left for a few years for another job. When he returned, JJ was still right there.

JJ loved being at his job. He never took a sick day. He was the office manager, though he never had an official title. From paperclips to South African train schedules, if you needed it JJ would make it appear. JJ was the office teddy bear. Though people being people, they dumped all the filing and bookkeeping they didn’t want to do onto JJ. Every so often, JJ would come into Edmund’ office and pull the door shut.

“I’d tell JJ, ‘You don’t have do their work. Just tell them no.’” Edmund remembers. “And he just had this shrug. He’d flash this thin little smile he had and shrug, like it was all a joke. And we’d go on like that: I’d yell at him, he’d shrug. I would say he didn’t like doing everyone else’s work. But he did, because he kept doing it.”

JJ didn’t make much, though he never brought it up. The internet was eating the corporate travel business inch by inch. JJ never mentioned to Edmund any plans for his future. He had a catch phrase he used. If you asked him for anything, JJ would smile and reply, “Anything for you.”

Edmund had to get back to Brooklyn by eight. I was glad. His answers had gotten smaller and smaller. I’d felt like I was wasting his time by continuing to ask for them. But I couldn’t stop. Edmund stood up and asked me to let him know if I found anything.

As he stooped for a second to find his umbrella under his chair, he told me almost as an apology, that I should remember as close as they were, his and JJ’s relationship was ultimately a boss-employee relationship. But Janet: She worked with JJ too. They had lunch together every day and were inseparable on the weekends.

At his mother’s funeral in South Carolina, JJ was a mess. He couldn’t stop crying. His brothers had to hold him upright in the small Methodist church. Angie wrote him a letter when she got back to New York. She said she didn’t care if he was gay. She just wanted him to be happy. JJ sent her back a card with fifty-dollars in it. They were close for a while. Angie was in college in Virginia. She’d drive the six hours up I-95 to spend the weekend with him in Manhattan. She’d bring her friends. JJ liked the attention. He would lead them to glittering Indian restaurants. They would all go early dancing at the gay clubs JJ knew. She invited him to her graduation. He didn’t show up, and didn’t send a card or a note, or call or e-mail. She didn’t hear from JJ for years.

JJ found Janet Anthony on her first day at Argo. He gave her a hug.

“I like you,” were the first words JJ ever said to her.

Janet wears red lipstick. There’s a fascinating gap between her two front top teeth so that as soon as she stops smiling and rests her lips together you want to see her smile again so you can steal another look.

JJ was like one of her girlfriends, but sweeter. When his affection for Janet overflowed, JJ would buy a corn muffin from Dunkin Donuts and leave it waiting on her desk. He was always the first one into the office every morning.

When JJ heard Janet laugh from across the office, his head would surface above the top of his cubicle wall and swivel around, looking to see who had made her laugh. He didn’t like that it wasn’t him. He secretly hated it when she talked to other people too much. She would notice after a few days that he wasn’t speaking to her any more. Janet waited. If JJ was really mad at you, he would find every picture of you he had in his apartment, go out to Staples, storm back home and use Wite-Out to brush you into a milky, cracked silhouette. Within a few days, or a week at the outside, a corn muffin would always turn up on Janet’s desk again.

On waning Friday afternoons, close to 4 o’clock, JJ would sidle up to Janet’s desk.

“Anything after work tonight Love?” he’d ask.

Usually there was. JJ consistently wanted to take Janet to the cheese shop around the corner, but she wouldn’t stand for the smell. So JJ left the office alone and met her later in a Gap a few blocks away. They walked from store to store, dragging hangars along clothing racks, talking about steak marinade, Six-Feet Under, who was in his life, who was in hers. JJ was proudly non-judgmental. There were so many of these Friday nights, all so nearly identical. She remembers their form—what shoe stores they went to and what time they left in opposite directions—but struggled to find again their content, even as they were happening.

JJ did talk constantly about his nephews. He said little about his niece. Janet says JJ didn’t like Angie. With her it was always about material things, she wanted JJ to buy her this, take her there.

They talked about Michael: JJ dated Michael for years. Michael was short. He drank a lot and loved self-deprecating jokes. He may have been some kind of pastor, might have thrown parties he didn’t invite JJ to, and might have been married to a woman. For weeks of Friday nights, JJ would say nothing about Michael because they weren’t speaking. In 2003, JJ broke it off with Michael. In 2004, a few months before his death, they met in a hushed midtown restaurant for a closure dinner.

In all the Friday nights Janet spent with JJ, why he had broken up with Michael never came up.

“Our friendship, it was close,” she said, folding one hand over the other on her lap in a way that I didn’t know what it was, but it wasn’t a concession. “But it didn’t go beyond certain limits.”

They knew each other for the better part of a decade. She had called him outside work, at home, maybe twice. The person who knew JJ best in the world, Janet said, was the woman he’d met working at Pan Am. Honey. Honey something.

Angie’s phone rang on a clear afternoon in mid-November. JJ was as excited as anyone had ever heard him. He was throwing a 50th birthday party for himself in a few days. He needed Angie to cater it. Angie was glad to hear his voice and then irritated to hear his request. But she couldn’t say no.

At work, JJ had been spending weeks on the phone buying decorations and gift bags. So far as people knew, the only writing JJ did was e-mails, but the month before his party, he was writing day and night on the memoir he would staple and hand out.

The night of the party, Angie drove into Manhattan with mountains of mashed potatoes, salads and fried chicken wobbling and sliding around corners in her back seat. She carried them up to JJ’s place on the 15th floor.

His apartment was beautiful, like it had never been before. Dozens of white candles burned gently, their light caroming off new faux gold decorations. JJ’s apartment seemed bigger than ever it had been or should be. JJ hardly spoke to Angie that night. Sweat glimmered along his hairline and he was moving through the guests throwing his arms around two and three people at a time, calling for someone to take a picture. There were so many people. Aside from her father Peter, and a few relatives, Angie had no idea who any of them were. Peter told Angie later that he thought maybe JJ’s hair was getting softer and finer. Edmund tried to arrive fashionably late, but people he didn’t recognize were standing in JJ’s apartment door laughing when he came in unnoticed, and they were still there drinking champagne when he left, which was later than he’d planned on leaving. Edmund wondered how JJ afforded the place.

Copies of JJ’s memoir, Daniels’ Road, sat in a stack on a side table for browsing. The first 22 years of his life, plus extensive descriptions of banana cream pie and cornbread, fit between pages 5 and 8. The next 28 years fit on pages 9 and 10. On page 11 he thanks his friends and family. “Will see you all in 2028 for my 75th and 2053 for my 100th,” he wrote. And then there are a few pages of family trees and photos. JJ cut and pasted so many pictures onto these sheets and copied them in such high contrast that they’re difficult to actually see.

2004 was a perfectly adequate year. Angie got mad at JJ. JJ said she’d brought one tray of chicken, and wouldn’t leave him alone when the tray got slightly scratched. He went to Spain, lost a little weight or didn’t, depending on who saw him, and started going to Popeye’s for lunch. He met a guy named Walter and suddenly Walter Walter Walter was all he could talk about. Walter wanted JJ to meet his family upstate. A year to the day after his party, one of JJ’s sisters-in-law left a message on his machine, and another sent him a card, to wish him a happy fifty-first birthday.

The next morning JJ was in a low mood. He appeared over Janet’s desk as soon as she arrived. JJ and Janet have the same birthday, November 18th.

“Love, can you believe that no one called me for my birthday?” he asked her, and waited for her to reassure him.

He asked several people around the office that day the same question. Could they believe it? Edmund took JJ into his office and talked to him while ringing phones went unanswered, trying to explain to JJ that fifty-one isn’t a milestone like fifty. It’s the only day Edmund remembers seeing JJ down.

“JJ, it’s no big deal. I’m telling you. It’s not that they don’t care, it’s just,” Edmund begged him. “JJ, will you just do me a favor and try to keep perspective? Just try, is all I’m asking.”

“Anything for you, Steven. Anything for you,” JJ said and shrugged.

No one who knew him believes that how JJ felt the day after his fifty-first birthday had anything to do with anything, not truly. But it’s the last notable memory that anyone in my reach had of him. So we turn the pebble over and over.

JJ had the good time he normally had at the company Christmas party a month later, on a Friday. He stayed late to clean up. Snow fell silently on JJ, Edmund, and Janet as they all walked out the building at the same time.

He called in sick on Monday. JJ got through to Edmund, told him he was out of sick time, and JJ asked to borrow some from next year. On Tuesday, someone forgot where the printing invoices were kept, called JJ at home, and for five or six minutes, his voice climbed up from a deep speakerphone pit and floated above the cubicles. Wednesday is completely unknowable. It probably took JJ a while to clean his apartment and drag all his personal papers and photos to the trash chute. That could all have been Wednesday. Or Thursday morning, before he took a train Brooklyn and handed his brother Peter a sheet of notebook paper with his e-mail and AOL chat passwords and a list of phone numbers jotted on it.

If you add it all up, everything that JJ verifiably did during his last seven days of being, it comes out to four or five hours in total, at least two of which were riding the train out to Brooklyn and back.

When JJ left his apartment at nine in the morning on Friday, snow was on its way again. JJ probably felt sure about everything. Days later Angie would find an e-mail in JJ’s inbox that suggested he might have been meeting Walter for breakfast, but it was a vague message. By a little after noon, the snow was coming and JJ was weaving his way up Broadway, through people distracted by glitter-red store windows and pools of cold green water gathering in potholes. A man who cries at E.T. and runs out to get cold medicine for his co-workers even when they tell him not to had to know what dismembering himself on Christmas Eve would do to his friends emotionally, and to the stranger who had to drive the train over him. As he crossed 101st Street, then 102nd, he had to know he was going to ruin everyone’s Christmas. That must have been exactly what he wanted. He ducked down the subway stairs, paid his fare and drove towards the far edge of the platform, where the train bursts out of the tunnel and into the station. Where the tunnel meets the station the train is going its fastest and is least able to stop.

JJ waited. And he thought. And he waited, for what I hope felt like an eternity. And he thought. And he heard the metal echo coming. And he felt the hot Doppler draft of tunnel air every train pushes in front of it. And then he jumped onto the tracks. He landed on his knees, with one second left.

The train stopped just slightly harder than trains usually stop when they stop in the middle of a tunnel for no reason. A woman standing across the car from me, who wasn’t gripping the handrail tightly enough slips, dances a moment in centrifugal space and almost falls over. We could hear the electric hum of the car that’s normally buried by the thunder of rapid transit. It hummed on and off. The air circulation ducts clicked, blew warm air and clicked again. A stocky MTA employee came through the car murmuring, and a knowing whisper spread in his wake.

“Someone is under the train,” a rider down from me whispered to no one in particular. We were all a little excited by this. If this was really happening, it was a very New York thing to happen, and we were all collecting these New York things. There was a muffled announcement that we understood to mean we should begin walking to the front of the train. A nervous cop yelling “keep moving!” over and over again got us out onto the platform in single file. He told us to just get out of the station.

Squat maroon columns line the edge of the 103rd Street subway platform. I dropped out of the line of passengers heading for the turnstiles, and worried that the cop would see me and yell at me, I hid behind one of the columns. When I couldn’t hear the cop yelling anymore, I leaned out from the column and looked back at the front of the train. I hadn’t heard the name JJ Daniels ever before.

When a train hits a man head on, you have an idea of how that aftermath will look. It’s hard to imagine how you could be too wrong. A few years later, on a heavy summer morning I went to catch a train from 231st Street. When I got there the station was taped-off. I realized that someone (after JJ it didn’t occur to me to find out who) had just jumped on the tracks. 231st Street is an elevated station. The tracks run down Broadway at roof level. If you were standing on them when the train came, the elevated track ties would work like a splintered cheese grater. The intersection beneath the 231st Street stop was blocked by cops. A sanitation guy was spraying down the asphalt with a hose.

There are theories about what illness JJ had that might have been terminal, but no gut feelings. Angie notified everyone on the list he’d given her dad: It was mostly his office and his IM buddies. And when no one else volunteered, she cleaned out his apartment. She looked every place she could think for prescription bottles. She called the reporter from the Post but he never called back. Before she dragged the boxes of JJ’s sheets and blue, faux-leather bound atlases out to the hall, Angie had his mail forwarded to her P.O. box. She was sure she’d get a credit card bill or a letter from his doctor eventually. There’s so much of that stuff. All she got was junk mail and eventually a letter from me.

I could have found out for sure what JJ was sick with. I can see two different ways to do it now that didn’t cross my mind before. When my Google search for a woman named Honey in the tri-state area lead to an unmanageably long and vague list, there were other avenues I could have gone down. And when Angie said her father and uncle probably wouldn’t want to talk to me, I could have pressed her a little. But instead I gave up.

Why JJ died and what he was thinking as he barreled towards his death are still very compelling questions, to me at least. I’ve come up with a thousand possible plots that would fit in the spaces he left, and asked every question, many times, even if I was only asking myself.

Of all the people in the world who thought they were close to JJ, and who wanted to be closer to him, at the moment of impact I was the closest one to him. The more I tried to know, the farther away I got. Every piece I came to know demanded ten more pieces I couldn’t get. That was just JJ’s life. And it wasn’t an abnormal life except for how it ended. In over five decades of him being a person just like me, all I could know for absolutely sure about JJ were absolutely mundane, like that he liked boiled peanuts. Next to the sprawling unknowability of his life, why he died felt paralyzingly small.

Even how JJ was positioned relative to the train, what “hugging the rail” meant, the one thing his friends and family wanted to know: I couldn’t say. And I had been right there.

When I leaned out from behind the column and looked back at the front of the train, where JJ had been, there was no sign of him. There was nothing but the filmy steel face of the train, humming into itself. There was nothing dripping off the train. There were no dents. Nothing stuck or even scuffed on its bumper. There was nothing protruding from under the train. I could see maybe a foot or two into the dark cave space between the train and the track bed. I thought that if I stared intently down at that darkness my eyes would adjust and I could see. So I did. But that was ridiculous. Anyone who wandered by would have guessed that the train had just blown a small fuse.

When I told this to Angie, Edmund and Janet, they nodded and looked disappointed.

JJ died on Christmas Eve almost ten years ago. I spent a long time trying to fit the pieces I knew about JJ into a shape. It was like doing a puzzle where both sides are plain cardboard and you only had an indeterminately small percentage of the pieces. Then I quit. Then I quit again and again. When thoughts of JJ occasionally came up for air, I realized that I missed him, though I had no idea what I was missing.

Then a couple weeks ago, after JJ’s birthday but before Christmas, I realized that JJ wasn’t a puzzle. He was Jason. And that would have to be enough.

Editor’s note: Names and some other identifying details have been changed.

Read The Story Behind “Hugging the Rail” on our blog.

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About Louis Wittig

Louis Wittig works in the advertising industry in New York. He feels that if he leads with that fact, rather than the fact that he tries at writing, you will judge his work on a curve. Like you'll think "this is good for some guy." He would appreciate your thinking that. His short fiction and humor has appeared online at Punchnel's, and Gravel.

Louis Wittig

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