Car 393

YA Fiction in Verse

Originally published in the Winter/Spring 2018 issue of Lunch Ticket

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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.

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.

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 window 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.

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.

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 dated October 29, 2016.

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