The Dead Man’s Switch

My teenage son Gary flew over the great rock in the middle of the island in 1954, and he decided on another way of describing its shape: a mechanic bent under the hood of a Nash. The original was a bear scooping ants from a tree stump and so the name, Hungry Bear Island. The families left Monday afternoon in three cars. Our company float plane, flying in later this clear Tuesday morning from Saskatoon, will take me east to Manitoba wheat fields threatened by an outbreak of angry rust. My wife’s sister was once known for her love of rough camping and bushwhacking in this area, before they built on the land. She said she never realized how boring cabin life could be until she stopped roughing it. We had four games of cribbage going at once, the kitchen cabin open till midnight, fiddling contests in the “square,” railroad stories about mountain lions in trees overhanging the tracks from my sister-in-law’s husband Bill, and she would periodically poke me in the side. “I’m losing my mind. There’s nothing to do.”

I have a soft spot for this sister-in-law, Lena. When we moved to Minneapolis, she took in my younger son so he could finish his last year of high school in Saskatoon. Now that he was in college she was full of wisdom. “If you ask me, I’d make him stop flying,” she said five or six times. “Men and their machines. When my Bill was young you could see it in his eyes—he fell in love with me on a train. Now look at him—he’s dying out along with his beloved steam locomotives. He says he can’t stand the new dead man’s switch on the diesels.” I tried to find a joke about dying out and dead man’s switches, but I could not come up with one. “The next war Gary will be drafted,” she continued. “This Eisenhower is bound to want to fight again. Stalin, or whoever’s in charge over there, is likely exterminating more Jews or Armenians—wonderful people. Do you know my new butcher Danny?” My other son had been rescued from disgrace in Lena’s eyes when he decided not to become a minister. My wife’s sisters had a running argument over ostentatious Christianity, which Lena detested. “I don’t tell people how to do their business,” she said. We all knew what she meant. “Teaching at university is good,” she said, about my older son, who was doing a PhD in Minnesota. “You keep up with things. Science doesn’t pass you by. You’re not obsolete at sixty like Bill and me. Of course, he’ll come up to the University of Saskatchewan when he’s done, won’t he?”

The sisters, especially my wife Elsie, worried Lena was losing her mind. In their cabin kitchens they would grill each other. “She’s getting so crotchety,” one would say. She was always crotchety, I’d respond. “She talks all this cracked politics and anti-religious tripe.” I’d remind them that she had never gone to church, preferring Sunday hikes, and she had hated every Prime Minister and American president since Coolidge. “She doesn’t go camping anymore.” There, I pointed out, is the problem. Unlike all of you, she’s getting old. “Oh Eric,” they said in unison.

I took my sister-in-law Lena out beetle collecting with me the last day at Christopher Lake. Lena asked me why I still worked for Robin Hood Flour—I’m a cereal chemist. “Can’t you do the entomology full-time?” she wondered. I found the idea very amusing, and Lena decided she couldn’t stand to see me rooting about in tree trunks like a common bear, so she turned back. I was in the forest bog east of the lake when I smelled diesel. A little further on, I heard the idling engine. The sound was steady when I stood still. It did not grow or weaken. I knew only railroad tracks crossed this bog, but a locomotive would not make such sounds unless stationary. Sure enough, through the woods, I spotted the gleaming metal. The cabin light was on, trees hung over the lone engine. The sight was startling. I’d ridden plenty of locomotives with Lena’s husband Bill. I had spent enough time in railroad yards. But here was an unfamiliar sight: a train in its natural setting. I called out for the engineer. I climbed into the driver’s cab and fingered the radio dials, thinking of calling for help. The nearest town was five miles away, the nearest people in our own cabins halfway across the lake. “Hey you,” a voice shouted. “Outta my train.” I turned to see Bill stumbling up the small grade to the tracks, buttoning his fly. “Oh Eric, it’s you.” We shook hands. I was very glad to see him again. We had already said goodbye once that day. I’d forgotten he was transferring the engine north. He had driven up in it Friday and left it ten miles south of the lake at a yard. “Had to pee,” he said. “Came on me all of a sudden like a news flash.” I asked to see the dead man’s switch. Bill said, “A device designed by executives in Montreal to torture engineers.” If you release the pressure the current is cut off, I asked, and the brakes are applied automatically? “By force of death, instant illness, or urinary necessity,” Bill said, laughing.

“Grampa,” my second grandson Brian says, in the darkness.

I am confused and worried. “You’re in Northampton, Massachusetts,” he says. I feel around me, worn cotton sheets, a soft corduroy bedcover the family used for the children, who are all grown now, like this young man. I want to refute my grandson’s statement, but the evidence is against me. “You were talking in your sleep,” he says. “You said something about Calvin Coolidge. Want to hear a story? When he was just starting out as a lawyer, Cal used to go to Rahar’s for lunch every day. Rahar’s is still on Crafts Avenue, you know. He ordered the same meal and same whisky for lunch, every time. One day there was a sign, over the bar. ‘Second well drink free,’ it said. He had his same lunch and one drink, then went back to work. After work he returned to Rahar’s and sat down at the bar and said, ‘I’ll have that second drink now.’ What I love about this story is that Calvin Coolidge had a whiskey for lunch every day.”

I laugh, appreciating this young storyteller’s desire to talk me out of my terror. My grandson is writing a novel about me, and he enjoys asking about ancient history, as he rarely did when he was growing up. I was startlingly clearly back at Christopher Lake, Saskatchewan in 1954. It is of course December 1985. I have cancer, but I can’t die. I find more and more evidence that my wife Elsie will be unable to cope without me.

“What was the dream about?” the twenty-nine-year-old asks. I wait a moment for my head to clear. I am drenched with sweat. I rearrange my pillows behind me. I tell my grandson I was recalling a trip to Christopher Lake. I remind him who Lena and Bill were, and he chuckles at me for thinking he wouldn’t know them. I tell my grandson that this “dream” was unusual because it got a few of the details wrong. Why would I be able to remember the past so well and yet be able to know my younger son was not the one who stayed behind with Lena and Bill? It was my elder son, this boy’s father, who stayed with Lena and Bill. Also, Bill never drove diesels. He was retired along with his beloved steam engines, which always had a fireman in the cab with the engineer. The dead man’s switch arrived with the diesels, where there was often only one man at the controls. What was the purpose of these easily recognizable flaws in the story? My grandson says, “Maybe you wanted to know it was a dream, so you could enjoy the experience more. If it were a pure return to that time, how would you be able to savor the sensations?”

My grandson continues talking, despite having exposed this lovely revelation to me—he should stop to savor it himself, but he can’t know how he is affecting me. He is telling me stories from my past, which he does well now, although he has difficulty keeping straight the fictions he is writing and the facts he has gleaned from my own probably inaccurate stories. I cannot concentrate on his voice.

Lena did become mentally deranged, within a dozen years, and in retrospect we all saw the evidence years before. I worry now that I won’t have the courage to tell my sons about Elsie. Bill died in 1967, and really life was never the same after that. I am glad to be with this grandson, but that trip to Christopher Lake was a time free of pain and worry when I climbed up into Bill’s engine and saw him buttoning his fly. I rarely feel nostalgia for places. People and places intertwined will do it to me. I miss Bill and Lena terribly, but I see that it is my own impending death and Elsie being stranded in the world without my help that worries me, in this dream. I don’t mean that I am so important to her well-being. But she is deteriorating, her memory failing, her soul dwindling away little by little, and I have been hiding her condition from my sons as best I can.

I try to pay attention to my grandson, who is saying something else, but I can’t keep track of the words. His young face shows concern, embarrassment, and distraction, all ordinary feelings for someone in his position. I stand unsteadily. I walk toward the bathroom. I need to pee, and this makes me think happily of Bill in the woods. I reach for the doorknob. I believe I took the train through this town in 1933. The tracks from Montreal come down the river valley, which opens up south of the Vermont-Massachusetts border. It was fall, brilliant golds and red. The spires of the town appeared before anything else. I was sitting on the side opposite the river, watching the hills to the west slide by, listening to an old farmer from White River Junction talk about milk prices. I opened the window before we reached the station along Pleasant Street. The smell of fermenting leaves and apples overpowered the farmer and me. He stopped talking. A moment ago, I think my grandson said, “Don’t open the window. It’s below zero.” I disagree, but he is still among the living, and this gives him a certain amount of authority.

Brian Kiteley is the author of two novels, Still Life With Insects and I Know Many Songs, But I Cannot Sing. His collection of fiction exercises, The 3 A.M. Epiphany, was published in 2005 by Writer's Digest Books, and his fictions have also been anthologized in The Best American Short Stories and The Four-Way Reader. He has received Guggenheim, Whiting, and NEA fellowships, as well as residencies from the MacDowell Colony, Millay, Yaddo, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. He has taught at the American University in Cairo, Ohio University, and is presently the Director of the Creative Writing program at the University of Denver. He has recently completed a novel, The River Gods, a 400-year history of the town he grew up in, Northampton, Massachusetts. Website: