Car 393

[fiction]

Part I

Elsie Wood, Stenographer, Age 19

Late

The sun’s long gone
when I pull on my woolen coat,
set my hat on my head,
dash outside for the trolley,
late,
and I can only hope
I haven’t missed
the car that will get me
to Washington Street on time
to get the next trolley
to get me home
to Roxbury.

My heels clack
down the block
as I struggle to fasten
my fur collar around my neck,
wishing I hadn’t worn
a coat at all today—
though it’s a lovely coat—
because the November night
is surprisingly,
unseasonably warm.

It seems
like a night
to remember.

 

Screech

I hear it, the screech
of the steel wheels careening
down the tracks from the east
coming from City Point,
and sweat beads up
on the back of my neck
as I race for it,
my heels pounding
over the sidewalk.

Blimey,
it’s dark
out here.

The lone headlight
cuts down the street,
lighting the way
like a miner’s headlamp
shining against walls of coal,
the beacon that’ll lead
me home—
and not my real home
back over the ocean in Scotland,
but our third-floor walkup
in Roxbury
so far away
from the soot-choked factories
lining the streets
of South Boston.

 

Gong Clanging

I’m going to make it,
and already I can imagine
arriving home, can taste
the leftover roast and potatoes
from Sunday dinner.

But that’s not all.
If I’m being honest with myself,
I know this trolley is my only chance
for a glimpse of that Italian boy
who always gets on at the next stop.

Gong clanging,
the trolley barrels forward,
slowing just enough to stop for me
and my raised arm,
begging the driver to let me on.

 

Jimmie Macaluso, Laborer, Age 18

The Big Question Mark

I wait for the trolley, my mind drifting
from the never-ending day at the factory

to my still-bubbling euphoria over the Sox
winning the 1916 World Series last night

to the big question mark
in Washington, D.C.—

Will Woodrow Wilson win the White House again,
or will Charles Hughes kick him out?

But when the clang of the bell
sounds around the corner,

my heart perks up at the thought
that she might be aboard already,

that lovely blonde
in the dark blue coat

I’ve not yet worked up the courage
to approach.

 

The Next Trolley

Pressed close with my brother, Biggi,
I throng forward with the crowd

toward the trolley screeching
to a stop in front of us.

The two of us climb
inside the car,

but before the door claps shut
behind me,

a voice echoes through the air,
See you at home!

Our older brother, John,
three back in the crowd,

won’t make it on this car,
raises a hand to wave us on,

steps back to wait
for the next trolley.

I lift my hand in response,
watching his face

pop from the shadows
before we’re whisked away

from East First Street
in a lurching blur.

 

The Girl of My Dreams

We crowd inside, scrambling
for hand straps,

because of course
the benches are full as always

by the time
the trolley reaches our stop,

but I can’t help passing
my gaze over the car,

scanning the men—
because almost all the passengers are men—

for that splash of midnight blue
with a rim of fur around the collar

that tells me the girl
of my dreams is going my way.

 

John Macaluso, Laborer, Age 20

Lucky

Jimmie and Biggi
are lucky enough
to squeeze
onto the trolley.

Maybe tonight, Jimmie
will make his own luck
and finally
speak to that girl.

Me, I’m alone,
even when surrounded by others—
the quiet one, they say,
the listener.

I listen now to the mishmash of languages
washing over me at the trolley stop
(Italian, Polish, accented English, of course),
telling me how far we’ve all come,

reminding me
we’re a nation of immigrants,
happy to have found
our home.

 

A Chill

Though the breeze
is warm,
a chill runs down
my back.

I crane my neck
to the right,
but my brothers’ trolley
is long gone.

 

An Eternity

It feels
like an eternity
until the next trolley
arrives.

An eternity
in which
I consider
my place in this world.

Country,
home,
family—
I’m so lucky to have it all.

 

Lillian Frank, Stenographer, Age 20

Fish Pier

The sweaty, human stench that hits
me in the face when I squeeze
onto the trolley
reminds me of the rotten one
pouring off the open
barrels of slick silver bodies
in the thick, choking air outside my office
at Fish Pier.

The men who pile into the car after me press forward
and one gentleman already on the bench
offers me his seat,
Miss?
but I shake my head, sticking as close
to the door and the snatches of outside air
as I can get.

Somerville—home—is only a few miles
from here, but the potato and meat knishes
waiting for me there
are most decidedly a world
away from here.

 

Around the Car

While my attention remains focused
on each and every tiny whiff of fresh air,
my gaze wanders over the men filling up the trolley
with their might, their muscles, their weight
heavy on their shoulders,
coming to rest on the only other girl in the entire car,
a lovely thing with China-doll cheeks and golden curls,
her good looks commanding the attention
I can’t imagine anyone will ever devote to me.

Some of us share this same space
every day, traveling to work and back home,
breathing in this same stale, stifling air,
in the flickering lights that spark in the darkness,
but the only thing that binds us together
is our will to escape this drudgery
and make something better of ourselves.

 

Easy as Pie

I count the blocks to South Station,
easy as pie, since they go
backwards in the alphabet
from where I get on at D Street
to C, B, and toward the Summer Street bridge.

As the conductor squirms his way through
the car collecting fares,
I dig in my pocketbook for the last nickel
I stashed in my coin purse,
change from my fare this morning.

Meanwhile, the trolley clangs and barrels and lurches
forward with each start and stop,
and it seems that the motorman
is in as much of a hurry as I am
to spring out of this tin can
and walk the last stretch home,
because he’s barely slowing down
to pick up passengers.

 

Part II

Elsie Wood

A Glance

We’re getting closer
to Fort Point Channel,
closer to my stop,
and closer to his.

Gathering courage,
I lift my gaze,
shoot a glance
his way,
where I catch his brown eyes
shining,
his lips
smiling
as he looks right back
at me,
and I can’t stop grinning
at him.

He always travels
with one or two others,
this boy,
and in the months we’ve been taking
this route together,
I’ve heard them call each other
their American names
and once or twice, their Italian ones,
but if he ever lets me,
I’d be happy to call him
Vincenzo instead of Jimmie,
this lovely boy
who might someday reach out
and take my hand in his.

 

My Gold Bracelet

Nervous at my boldness,
I lower my gaze,
fiddle with the clasp
on my gold bracelet,
a gift from my mother
for my eighteenth birthday,
engraved with my initials, EHW.

What’s the E for?

I look up
to find the warm voice
and the intense gaze
of this electrifying boy
directed
at me.

 

This Sweetness

The air turns sweet,
and for a moment, I wonder
if it’s this boy’s breath
filling the air with sugar,
but then I remember
we’re passing
the NECCO Factory
by the channel, and I
drink in the scent,
drink in this sweetness,
drink in his words,
before boldly telling him,
I’m Elsie.
Nice to meet you.

 

Jimmie Macaluso

Our First Conversation

Joy bursts through me—
pure, dazzling joy—

at the musicality of her voice,
the sunshine of her smile,

the sparkle in her eyes,
and already

I am in love
with Elsie.

So in love
I almost forget

to respond,
I’m Jimmie,

and when I do,
my cheeks flame hot,

because I realize
everyone near us in this car

is witness to
our first conversation.

But then, I’m so smitten
I don’t even care.

 

I Hasten

I’d love to see you home
someday, Elsie,

I say, but then, realizing
it might be too forward of me,

I hasten to add,
or around town, or anywhere, really,

and she’s smiling at me, nodding,
telling me, I’d like that,

and I can hardly contain
myself, but then something lurches,

and I’m falling forward
with the car along the track.

 

Suspended

Things are going so fast
it takes me a moment

to realize this is more than love
dragging me forward,

when shouts, screams,
bedlam rise up from the front of the car,

the lights go out,
and the trolley crashes through metal,

barreling forward,
tipping downward,

hanging over the edge
of the bridge, suspended.

 

Lillian Frank

Rolling

Crash!

The trolley bursts
through the metal fence across the rails,
its steel wheels locking, grinding
over the tracks,
white-hot smoke hissing
up from below the car,
while the motorman tries to engage
the brake, thrusting his body
forward,
backward,
forward,
grunting, huffing, yelling,
before his panic-filled voice cries out,
Jump!

I try to get my bearings
among the shadowy buildings lining the street,
but I know we’re nowhere near
the next station, and I don’t recall crossing
the bridge.

The door springs open,
someone shoves me from behind,
sending me out of the trolley,
sprawling to the pavement,
other bodies bounding
out the door after me,
and I’m
rolling,
rolling,
rolling.

 

Into the Drink

Sounds from the trolley continue
grinding, screeching, rumbling,
and finally, the unthinkable—
an incredible splash,
followed by an eerie gurgling.

I’ve stopped rolling over the pavement,
saved by someone’s hand
grabbing the back of my coat,
the only thing
holding me back from the edge
of the bridge,
the only thing
keeping my body
from making the last flip
and following the trolley
into the drink.

 

Dazed

I shake my head,
push myself to my feet,
hold a hand to a sticky gash
on my head.

I gaze around me,
but I only see a handful
of similarly dazed men beside me
on the bridge,
and we hobble to the edge together,
spotting a handful of others
in the inky-black water below—
only a handful.

That trolley was packed full.

Help! we call out
to those running to the scene, Help!
Minutes later,
our voices have already
gone hoarse.

 

Part III

Jimmie

Crushed

Tumbling forward
in a heap of bodies,

some of them already crushed
on the ground, trampled underfoot,

the trolley crashes through the air, flying,
until it smacks into the water with a splash.

Someone screams, Biggi calls, Jimmie!
and Elsie freezes, her eyes big as the sea.

Water covers the car in mere seconds, swallowing everyone
inside, drowning out the sounds from our voices,

amplifying the rush of bubbles escaping
our mouths and rising up to the surface.

 

Dark

Shapes shift around me, struggling
in the chilling water, dark as coal,
while I press my lips together,
trying to figure out how to get

all of us out of this watery wreck,
but there’s no time, so I blindly grab

at the floating, flailing limbs to my right,
wondering if one belongs to Biggi,

until in front of me, I identify
Elsie’s slim wrist,

her bracelet smooth
under my fingertips.

I swim, pulling her toward the side of the car,
where one of the windows must be,

struggle to lift my legs, kick
the window with all my might.

 

Burning for Air

The glass shatters,
but there’s no time to think,

my lungs growing smaller,
my ears filling with pressure.

I give Elsie’s hand a quick squeeze,
before propelling her first

through the window, but her bracelet catches
on the glass, her fingers frantic.

The bracelet slips downward
past my hand, but I have to get it,

and I reach for it once, twice, again,
my head growing heavier,

my lungs burning for air,
until finally

my mouth opens against my will,
filling with salty water from the sea.

 

Elsie

His Strong Hand

My heart
hammers
amidst the panic,
in the darkness,
in this freezing
rush
of water,
but I can tell
the hand
on my wrist
is his
strong hand,
and he means
to save
us both.

 

A Gentle Push

A jerk
of our bodies
among all the struggles
around me,
and he’s guiding me
toward the window,
which he’s managed
to pop free,
but my bracelet catches,
falling
back into the car,
away.

I grasp for it in the water,
but Jimmie
gives me a gentle push,
sending me out of the trolley
into the channel,
and I know he’ll join me
in a moment,
but I can’t tell which way is up,
and I can’t find him
in the rush of bubbles,
and I panic
and gasp
for breath.

 

Nothing but Darkness

No Jimmie,
no air,
nothing but
darkness,
water,
cold,
slicing
through me
like glass.

 

Lillian

Retracted

Trembling, the lot of us stand
at the edge of the bridge,
which we now realize is retracted
to let a boat pass
instead of set in place
for the trolley,
creating a huge gap over the water,
but knowing how this happened
doesn’t help understand why,
and the pale faces around me register
nothing more than the same shock I feel,
as the rowboats and tugboats below
pick up only a handful
of additional survivors.

 

Footsteps

Another trolley clangs up behind us,
coming to a stop behind
gesticulating officials
and a swell of new crowds from Southie,
streaming out to help, gawk, cover
their mouths in horror.

Footsteps pound behind me
from the trolley,
and a young man leans over the edge,
scanning the water,
scanning the amassing crowd,
calling,
Jimmie! Biggi!
sobbing,
My brothers.

 

His Rough Hand

Were you on board? he asks,
his gaze scanning mine in desperation.

I nod, swallow,
unable to speak to this boy
who’s lost everything,
and instead, I reach
for his rough hand
and squeeze it in mine.

 

John

No One Below

We wait,
this girl and I,
even though she tells me
she has no one below.

We share our names,
our sorrow, our guilt
at having escaped
this watery grave.

As she waits
with me, I can see
her heart has also sunk
below the channel.

 

Car 393

Huddled under a blanket,
Lillian says everything
by saying nothing when divers
begin bringing up bodies.

Not until three o’clock in the morning,
when it’s finally empty,
do they hoist
up the trolley.

I break then, sobbing
under the weight of Car 393:
the trolley that crushed
my heart.

 

Gone

Lillian squeezes my hand,
and it’s finally clear
that the slick waters of the channel
have swallowed my brothers whole,

clear that tonight
I’ll have to go home
to tell Mamma
two of her sons are gone,

clear that I’ll have to let go
of Lillian’s hand—
once I can remember
how to breathe.

 

Author’s note: Based on true events from the night of November 7, 1916, this story relies on details provided in the Boston Globe article, “The Tragedy that Boston Forgot,” by Eric Moscowitz, October 29, 2016.

 

Kip Wilson is a YA writer with a PhD in German literature. Her work has been published in the Timeless and Spain from a Backpack anthologies, as well as Black Fox Literary Magazine, Cobblestone, and Faces magazines. Her writing has won several awards, including the 2017 PEN/New England Discovery Award. She’s the poetry editor at YARN. Wilson can also be found on twitter (twitter.com/kiperoo), and on her website, kipwilsonwrites.com.