My boy’s passion for trains began with a picture book. A gift for his second birthday, it was a simple story of a train’s passage through tunnels, over bridges, under the night sky, and it ended with the words “Going, going, gone.” I remember finding the book after he’d died, rereading it, and feeling the hairs on my neck prickle when I came to the end.
Because he loved trains above all else, I found myself one warm summer evening seated by the tracks of a one-eighth-scale railroad nestled close to the hills of Griffith Park, surrounded by geezers in striped overalls and engineer hats. I was the only female present, at 34 by far the youngest, and the only one at the club meeting of the Los Angeles Live Steamers who didn’t have my own miniature diesel or steam locomotive tucked away in the metal shed. We’d discovered this haven for train enthusiasts one Sunday, when rides were being offered to the public. Zack, almost 3, was enthralled by the two miles of looping track and the miniature towns, bridges, and tunnels, all built by the members, including Walt Disney, one of the first.
Wanting Zack to have access to more than the occasional ride, I joined the club and arrived at the meeting hoping to connect with someone who’d invite him to climb aboard. I remember looking around and asking myself “What’s a nice Jewish girl like me doing in a place like this?” and laughing at the things we do for our children. I didn’t befriend anyone that night. But when I returned with Zack the following Saturday, his usual charm and ebullience found us an engineer on our first ride.
His friend P.J. was the oldest geezer there—a tall, tanned, rangy man, with a paunch hanging over jeans held up with red suspenders, a red kerchief flapping from the back pocket. His manner tilted toward gruff—he made no effort to charm children—but he and Zack were there to share an activity and a mutual love, not conversation. We spent so many hours sitting behind him on his little orange diesel that the brown wrinkles on the back of his neck became as familiar to me as an old map.
At 80, P.J. didn’t give a damn about the rules: after a quick lesson, he pressed me into service as his brakeman, even though I hadn’t taken the required test; and he drove too fast. Zack loved having his mom wave the red flag and blow the whistles for stop and go and clear. Unfazed by the scare, he trusted P.J., even after we’d derailed in the midst of a speedy descent. P.J. would take us on his Saturday chore runs collecting the garbage cans on his flatcars, and he volunteered to haul the children at all of Zack’s birthday parties, even though he’d show up late enough to make me worry that he’d forgotten.
Zack adored his own personal engineer, and, often with a bouquet from our garden in hand, he’d climb the stairs into the office, a retired, red, Southern Pacific caboose, to visit with P.J’s girlfriend, Irene. No longer able to ride the rails, she’d sit by the wood stove doing secretarial tasks, happy to make official LALS badges for Zack’s stuffed bears.
As Zack’s illness progressed, P.J. never commented on the skim-milk-blue shadows under his eyes, and never asked about the swelling on Zack’s neck and cheek that prevented him from turning his head to the right. Then one day, he quietly remarked to me, “I noticed a while back that Zack is sick, and I can tell how things are going.” I didn’t have to explain anything to him: he just knew, and accepted my confirmation with the equanimity of someone who was used to bad news. Later, when Zack was out of earshot, I told P.J. what I’d revealed to almost no one—that my boy had AIDS, contracted from a transfusion at birth.
We’d been given the death sentence right before his fourth birthday party, in 1986, and with a couple of exceptions, I couldn’t tell the families whom we’d invited to the Live Steamers to celebrate because I didn’t want my boy to end his life as a pariah. Because of the fears of a mother who knew our secret, Zack had to have two birthday cakes: a big one to share, and another, smaller one, which held the four candles he’d blow out. (I explained the two cakes to Zack by telling him one was special, just for him, to take home.) People were terrified of AIDS then—even a few of the nurses at our hospital refused to go near children they’d previously cared for, once they’d found out that the kids were HIV positive. But P.J. didn’t flinch; his behavior with Zack never changed.
Eventually, Zack—by now five and half—was too ill to ride the trains; he could only sit on a bench holding his panda bear, Bumby, and watch them go by. P.J. knew it was time to tell me, and revealed that he was Phinneas J. Bresee, a mortician, retired. I found myself staring for a few minutes, stunned, at the business card in my hand that confirmed it.
When I called, P.J. arrived dressed in a suit and tie, right on time for this occasion, accompanied by a younger colleague. Only his familiar presence made it possible for me to let Zack be taken from his bed, from our home. He gently wrapped my boy in his train sheets, made sure that Bumby was in Zack’s arms, and placed him on a gurney. Zack had found his very own Charon, so that I could let him cross the Styx without me.
And it was P.J. who took us for a final, secret ride in Griffith Park. He picked a time when he knew the place was empty and the caretaker away, for the rule we were breaking this time was a state law. My boy was in a small box on my lap instead of the seat in front of me. We rode through the echoing tunnel, along the fence covered with brilliant bougainvilleas, under the trees, until we came to the trestle bridge over the green meadow. P.J. made sure the coast was clear before he cut the engine. After Zack’s ashes had been scattered, he said, shaking his head and smiling, “I’m 83 years old; been in the funeral business all my life, but I’ve never seen anything like this.”
Perhaps he was tickled to be part of a caper. But I think he was moved that, instead of his accustomed venue—a cemetery—we’d chosen a place he and Zack both loved. We’d never know if Zack would outgrow his passion for trains. Now he was forever part of this playground, built by, and still belonging to, P.J. and the other boys who had managed to stay alive in men’s bodies.
Anna Belle Kaufman, M.F.A., M.A., M.F.T., A.T.R.-B.C., is an artist and an art psychotherapist in Sebastopol, California. Contact: email@example.com.