The Friend That Went to War and the Friend That Went to Law School
"In Case of Emergency" by John Cotter, recommended by Electric Literature
INTRODUCTION BY BRANDON TAYLOR
I first read John Cotter’s excellent story “In Case of Emergency” before the world stopped. The pace of my own life at that time was so fast that it was hard to imagine a world in which I might have thoughts again. I found it hard to read fiction, and what fiction I did read was all sleek engines and antic premise, as full of histrionic fizz as the life I was trying to escape.
However, Cotter’s story felt like an entreaty to slow down. For one thing, it opens with a stalled train. A man on a quarterly business trip is observing his aisle-mate, a woman he doesn’t know. But just as you think you know what kind of introspective and slow story this promises to be, a figure emerges from the hazy distance outside the train, seeking help. It’s the kind of odd, near myth of a story that I associate with writers like Raymond Carver or Peter Taylor or Flannery O’Connor. Writers for whom disruptions in the regular rhythms of life had all the depth and curious shadows of oracular legend.
Earlier in the story, the marshes come to beautiful, fleeting life in Cotter’s fluid prose: “Outside the window was all salt marsh, that depth of green you only find in high summer, when the daylight’s not glaring off the water, a few spots of gold through the dark stalks.” The marshes, we learn, are close to his college friend Taylor’s house. The narrator has lost touch with him, but every time he passes by on the trip from DC to Boston, he thinks of Taylor. Now, stuck in those marshes, our narrator and his aisle-mate, who turns out to be a doctor, jump the stalled train and wade out to help the man who has come in search of them. They move with the strange figure, and our narrator moves toward a revelation about himself and about Taylor, a former soldier.
That his revelation has something to do with class and also masculinity is not mysterious to us as the reader, but it is to the narrator. And there’s a magic trick of a moment that I won’t spoil that feels like a kind of transubstantiation at work.
This story first called to me like a voice out of the dark. Not to get too lyrical about it. Reading it was like spiraling down into the mind and heart of a person at conflict and unease with themselves. Then, reading it for the second and third times, as shutdowns swept the nation and we all retreated into our apartments, it took on another resonance for me. We’re all just trapped on a train with strangers. We look out the window, waiting for a figure to emerge bearing either answers or news from another world, hoping that at any moment the train will regain its power and carry us to safety.
It’s the rare story that makes me nostalgic for mass transit. It’s a rarer story that mines a moment of stillness for such richness and depth. Cotter’s story is both.
– Brandon Taylor
Senior Editor, Recommended Reading
The Friend That Went to War and the Friend That Went to Law School
“In Case of Emergency”
by John Cotter
A woman I didn’t know tapped at her laptop across the Amtrak aisle, Northeast Direct. She had to be running on batteries because the whole train’s power had shut down. Like when they used to switch to electric in New Haven, the reading lights snapped off and quiet appeared, making the hum we hadn’t noticed at once audible and gone. Outside the window was all salt marsh, that depth of green you only find in high summer, when the daylight’s not glaring off the water, a few spots of gold through the dark stalks. You feel as though it would be soft and cool to the touch.
I had this idea that we were invisible, the train and everyone on it. That minute when the lights overhead banked out and the engine coughed, it was like we’d shrugged on a magic cloak. Adjusting my eyes, I could make the darkening window fill with her reflection—the stranger over the aisle. I saw her hazily, an outline colored in. In the glass she looked maybe twenty-two or twenty-four: grown but with a leanness in her neck like a teenager’s, serious-minded. Maybe it was my fantasy; I was lonely enough to feel wistful about a stranger. Without realizing I’d been doing it, I had a story for her face, a personality: shy kid, straightened into one of the professions, keeping up with work even if the outage might have offered her an excuse to break off. She probably did well in college. College couldn’t have been long ago.
I turned my head to look across the aisle. The window had lied. She had to be forty, my age, as though twenty years had passed in that second. The kid I saw in the window lived in a world of potential, so many things she hadn’t done for the first time—travel, real estate, heartbreak, maybe kids. The woman across from me, meanwhile, had filed whole parts of her life into drawers she wouldn’t open a second time. Maybe life was starting to bore her.
I turned back to the window. I watched the tip of her nose vanish, watched her chin sharpen by blurring. I had to remind myself that even though the train was stopped, the past kept receding at the same rate.
Earlier, I’d caught a glimpse of something she hadn’t, a reminder of my old friend Taylor’s house—we were passing through his part of Rhode Island—or rather the auto-parts store across the street from Taylor’s house, on the other side of the rushes, spike grass and mermaid’s hair nearly camouflaging the place at the marsh’s edge. I made the trip from DC to Boston once a quarter and always thought of Taylor when the train approached Westerly.
But that’s not entirely true. It wasn’t the Rhode Island marshes that made me think of Taylor so much as the marshes outside of Newark, when I looked up and caught sight of the Freedom Tower rising out of a hillock of trees, radome and beacon. Twenty years ago I’d been drinking coffee with Taylor in the kitchen of our dorm suite at UMass when the planes hit the old towers. My dad called the house phone. “We’re at war.” He sounded excited. “Pull your head out of your ass and turn on your goddamn TV.”
I was a sophomore, badly matched with a computer science major. Taylor was the one who turned on the TV. Aside from the fear and the anger everyone else felt—anger that didn’t know how to occupy itself—I felt trapped by my dad’s voice. He’d been right all along: the world was booby-trapped. He’d tried to snap me out of my dreaminess all through my adolescence, yet it wasn’t until that moment, age nineteen, I saw how delicate my safe life was. Guys like Dad thrilled to it.
Six hours later, Taylor and I were distractedly eating soup I’d reheated when he said, “Are we gonna go over there and kick some ass or what?”
It took me a minute to realize over there meant Afghanistan, but of course on the evening of September 11th Taylor would have been implying some indeterminant zone of dry mountains on the other side of the world, halfway to the other side. Taylor didn’t seem like he was serious, just giving in to a feeling. This was the same Taylor who avoided conflict unless he could make jokes about it, who made himself the butt of those jokes to diffuse any tension. But I worried because his money hadn’t come through for that year and his situation was precarious. Isn’t that why people join the army? It’s a place for your body to go.
“Are we gonna go over there and kick some ass or what?”
I tell myself now I wasn’t ever going to join up and, looking back, that story makes sense. But I don’t want to misrepresent things: I was susceptible to manipulation back then, the power of suggestion, cowed by my father but also afraid of being shot in the desert.
“I’m picturing Osama Bin Laden’s mother.” Taylor got solemn. “Crying her eyes out, ‘cause her son is dead. Can you see that? Just pulling at her hair she’s so sad. I wanna make that happen.”
I said “Here’s to it.”
“You in, man? I’m dead serious.” Taylor said the same thing when our buddies Rudy and Noah showed up later with Rolling Rock and, like me, they both said yes. I’m surprised I had the wherewithal to caution them.
“You guys aren’t going to do anything right away, right?”
“You worried about what Jenna’s gonna say, man?”
Jenna was my girlfriend. She was on her way to join us.
Rudy held my eyes. “Dude, there’s pussy in Afghanistan.”
“Go call Jenna and get your balls back,” Taylor said. “Tell her we’re gonna save the world and you’re gonna need ‘em. Seriously, you in?”
Rudy got surly. “There’s no faggotry in the army though. That’s probably why he’s not interested.”
Strength, at times, is just the concealing of a weakness. All my life I’ve been subject to powerful emotions, usually anxiety, tearing at me from the inside, but I’ve generally been able to hide these feelings: inappropriate fear, inappropriate joy. The minute I heard Rudy say “faggot” I had the impulse to surge up from the couch and belt him. Not because I was gay but because Rudy was an asshole. I was barely able to put up with him for short stretches; I only hung out with him because of our suitemate Noah, a shy kid who played basketball with Rudy. But I learned early you have to control those inner jolts of emotion because anything you act on becomes something you can regret. Ten years after his discharge from the service Rudy filled his mouth with C-4 plastique and lit the fuse. Taylor called to tell me. He said, “It’s the first time I’ve ever felt sorry for that guy.” Perhaps, but they’d stayed friends, served together. Taylor was closer to Rudy by then than he was to me.
The sound of a couple of teens playing cards in the aisle drew me back to the train car. A sound where there wasn’t any. We’d been stopped for over half an hour and decorum was breaking down at the edges. Strangers relaxed their voices. The club car started handing out drinks—they couldn’t keep them cold.
A woman three rows back: “I heard it was a line down; that was an hour ago but the radio said they were getting another train to either push or pull—that’s what the radio asked: push or pull?”
I got a free beer from the club car. When I came back my unwitting companion across the aisle was still tapping at her laptop. What I had been taking for a nonsense flicker above her hair grew larger, caught my attention. My first impression, illusory, as though I were half asleep, was to take it for something supernatural, a little angel of thought coming out of her head. It was a black spot with shoulders, with arms and legs. It was a human figure, a real one, not above her head but above its reflection, on what I now realized was my own side of the train, in the marsh. Wait—someone was walking toward us. What was he doing out there? My adrenalin released. This was real. A grown man: stomping out there to move forward. No, he was catching his footing, brushing away tall grass as he staggered toward us, his arms in a panic. An older man, or a drunk one.
Turning to the woman (later that night, along with the EMTs, I’d learn her name was Swetha) I met her eyes and asked, “Are you seeing this?”
Swetha’s face ran the gamut: stranger danger, act like you don’t hear, evaluate risk, he doesn’t sound insane. “Are you addressing me?”
“There’s someone out there.”
She couldn’t see him from her side. She made a decision. Cautiously, she moved closer. She didn’t wear perfume.
She said, “Okay that’s terrifying.”
She looked South Asian, sounded like a New Yorker.
“Do you know that guy?”
“Why would I know him?” But she gave me a look that implied I’d arranged this with him. A joke on her.
I said, “I’m Brett.”
She brushed that away.
Out there in the evening light the stranger’s mouth moved, shouting. White hair in a cap. He wore a fishing vest but it was high tide and there was no boat. His arms waved. He wanted us to come outside.
“Do you think he’s in trouble?”
She laughed with her nerves. “Maybe he’s saying we’re the ones in trouble. Seriously, though, the engineers probably see him.”
But he stayed there waving. She left to get a conductor’s attention. I kept watching the guy outside shout at the train’s dark windows. I knew that something terrible was about to happen. I nearly took my phone out and called Tina, because she’s serene. She’s the one who keeps the children calm; they see right through my attempts at authority or competence, but Tina has infinite patience. Our oldest, Belle, is bad with the dog, bosses him around in a way that confuses him. Only Tina can get her to stop. She does it by crouching at Belle’s level and entering her world completely—what is she trying to get the dog to do? What a great idea! Only dogs can’t do that, but here’s what they can do …
In the weeks before Taylor joined the marines I stepped carefully around his pride. I told him he wouldn’t just be shooting at bad guys—that in a real war everyone crawled out broken if they crawled out at all. I reminded him about how my dad left his tibialis muscle and part of his foot in Vietnam, how he resented his cane, how that stick made him defend his war, and by extension all wars, because if Vietnam was a waste of time then he walked with a cane for no reason; he was a sucker.
Taylor said, “I think that’s between you and your dad, man.”
Taylor said, “This isn’t Vietnam. They started this.”
The old panicked guy looked toward the windows ahead, like he was searching for someone, but he couldn’t see inside the train because the lights were off. Maybe we were just shadows behind the glass.
Swetha was back. “I can’t seem to find anybody. I guess, um, maybe it’s not our problem?” But she stayed beside me, watching the stranger wave, breathing on me, transfixed. He heaved himself closer to the train, almost falling into the marsh as he wrested himself up onto the pebble grade, raised his fist to hit the metal. I could hear his shout but not the loudness, as though he was shouting into a pillow.
“There’s no conductors you said?”
“You can look.”
The man’s face crinkled. Why didn’t a conductor go outside and learn what the problem was? Were we about to be pushed or pulled?
I said, “Stay here? Keep an eye on him.” She’d have been within her rights to say where else am I going to go?
At the end of the car I found a couple of elderly girls gesturing exclamations at one another, an open bag of M&M’s between them. It was almost like sign language, the eloquence of their white hands in the dark car. They were telling a story about something bad, having fun telling it. A row of backs. Passengers in what looked to be a long line to the club car. If drinks were free the line would be long. I took my place at the back because if they weren’t taking cash the line would move. I’d talk to the guy in there.
There was a time in my 20s—a few months—where Taylor was my best friend, Noah was decent enough, always around, and Rudy was just a pain in my ass. Fifteen years later I was a patent lawyer with a laptop on a train, one who didn’t even make time—an hour—to get off the train when it passed my old friend’s house. Who didn’t even text my old friend, say I’m riding by your house. Who felt guilty. We’d moved in different directions—that was the story. The arguments we had when Taylor came back from overseas weren’t the cause of our distance, just a symptom. Taylor wasn’t stupid, but he didn’t think the way I thought. It wasn’t just that he didn’t have generalized anxiety disorder. When the photos from Abu Ghraib were published—naked prisoners on leashes—Taylor emailed me a picture of Lee Miller in Hitler’s bathtub. There were drastic differences between those pictures, but when I tried to explain he acted like I was splitting hairs. I’d tell him, “People got killed at Abu Ghraib.” He’d yell, “Yeah man, nobody got hurt in Dresden”; the mood back then made it impossible to hold a soap bubble of thought in your hands and pass it to someone else without the bubble bursting. If the person you were trying to communicate with had a big, persuasive personality then you were hopeless. What I wanted to tell Taylor, but couldn’t tell him in a way he heard, is that he would never torture a prisoner, at least not without a genuine sadist like Rudy egging him on. But Rudy was involved. And Taylor must have identified with Rudy in some way that never made sense to me, some way he hid from me, because Taylor used the fact I’d missed Rudy’s funeral as an excuse. Noah died eighteen months later of an overdose and Taylor—my only point of contact with Noah—kept it to himself. I would have showed up for Noah’s funeral, but even making a distinction between the two men was something Taylor wouldn’t stand. And here I was half a mile from his house; every minute I didn’t text him estranged me further. It felt aggressive, like I was punishing Taylor for signing up.
The line wasn’t moving. I had to crouch to see out the window in that car. The tide was going out, so the dark grass looked taller. I couldn’t find the shouting man, but my view was poor from inside. I was struck with the dark feeling there was no one at the counter after all, that we’d all been abandoned. I squeezed and excuse me’d up the car. A flock of suits clogged the doorframe until I patted their shoulders and shuffled them out of place. As soon as I got inside the club car I went cold: the server was gone. Plenty of explanations. No CLOSED sign. He might just be locating more coffee in storage.
Anything you imagine can be true, and half of what you imagine is anxiety. I wouldn’t be home in time to read Belle a story. She’d fuss if I wasn’t there—or did I only hope she’d fuss? I pushed back, annoyed with myself, preemptively annoyed. The line cleared. At the end of my own car I pushed the touch-plate to open the bellows, felt the air change before I’d stepped into the gangway. Real outdoor sounds: planes humming, voices traveling through open space. The outside door was hanging open, the door to the marsh. I stood dumb in its presence, the muck smell of crabshells and algae creeping with the last of a wet heat. A dangling red handle—pull for emergency exit. Someone had done it.
We were about to be pushed or pulled. Approaching the door, taking hold of its frame (I was violating the agreement we make with Amtrak, the agreement to participate in no activities beyond sitting, buying food, visiting the bathroom) I leaned out into the real air, which felt agonizingly forbidden. I could be kicked off the train for this. Beneath us ran a grade of raised earth and pebbles that stretched the track around a bend. To the left spread marsh that, further on, welcomed an inlet. I heard a splash, turned to locate it, and found her out there: Swetha, though I didn’t know that was her name yet. She wasn’t on the train anymore. She was slushing through the cold marsh after the white-haired stranger, shouting, “Was he breathing?”
Her voice carried over the water.
I found the latch for the stairs and—heart in my throat—dropped them from the door. She must have jumped down—a long jump. The stairs fell to ease my descent to the grade. By the time I reached the pebbles I was already shouting back. They kept running.
“What’s the emergency?” I shouted. “Is this why we’re stopped?”
I didn’t know her name yet, so I couldn’t shout it.
The water touched my ankles lower than I’d expected, tide going out. I flailed for the side of the train. This was crazy. I couldn’t follow two strangers into muck. I was trying to sleep in my own bed tonight. But I put the first foot in because I didn’t want a woman tricked and hurt, and because I had the eerie intimation the problem had something to do with Taylor. Of course it didn’t have to do with Taylor. But we were too close to his house—if there weren’t a copse of trees at the end of the marsh you could see it from here.
Dead fish and something earthier. I felt it more than I breathed it, mud draining into my shoes. This is how you learn marshes, some mysterious tragedy. Jesus, let it not be Taylor.
“Do you need help?” My voice loud. “Club car was empty!”
They were running, as much as you can run in a marsh. My legs lurched their way. Possibilities: had the train hit a car? The grass was tall where my neighbor and the panicked man slowed ahead of me. Their bodies rose as they moved onto it. A kind of island. That higher ground was where I found them, leaning over a canoe. It was been banked there by someone. A white boy—college age—lay propped against the stern. His lips were blueish.
Swetha flew into action. Okay, she had to be a doctor, something like that. “Help me pull him out of there,” she told both of us. “Cradle his head.”
I grabbed the kid’s LL Bean boots while the stranger—the boy’s father? uncle?—eased his head down. He was too heavy for a fit-looking kid. He was dead weight. She had his coat open, reached for his pulse, locked her fingers together, pushed his chest. Cardiopulmonary resuscitation. Steps were being taken. Was he already dead?
“How can I help?”
She didn’t answer.
“Are you a doctor?”
The old man was breathless, his face all wide eyes, moving mouth. He mimed his hands up and down—he couldn’t have known he was doing it—as Swetha worked on the boy. “I called them,” he said, “I called 911 first thing.” He looked up at me, panicked. “Can you call them too. Please now?”
She kept working at his chest a long minute. I called 911.
“A salt marsh outside of Westerly. I … I don’t know, there’s a young man unconscious and unresponsive. We were on a train.”
I couldn’t remember when my hands had felt so cold. But the air wasn’t cold. The light was fading because I struggled to look at Swetha, to make her out clearly. I still had Taylor’s number on my phone. He was in the damn army—they got medical training there.
“Hello? Is Taylor there? Oh, no I wanted him for … it’s Brett, I met you at the wedding.” Taylor’s wife answered, her name was Maddy. Maddy something. “Taylor knows medical … uh, I mean I’m by your house. Just in the marsh. He’s at work?”
She couldn’t understand why I was calling. A baby howled in the background. She apologized, said she couldn’t leave the house, said if I was in trouble I should come there. She offered to call Taylor at the dealership.
I’d wanted Taylor there to think for me. I didn’t trust myself to think. Vaguely, I felt ashamed at this. Mostly I felt dizzy.
Swetha shouted, “Come here. I’m going to give him breaths. Right here.” She pulled me down kneeling. I knelt beside her in shallow water, the kid’s chest cold to the touch. It wasn’t warm like something living, the fire in us, spirit furnace. Somewhere, in a corner of my mind, I was aware of the sound of what I later came to understand must have been two trains coupling. Escaping steam. I realized that was the sound weeks later while I was pulling weeds out back: that vegetal smell, murk and dirt.
“Not so fast.” She put her hands over mine, showed me how hard to pump his chest: hard.
I hadn’t been pumping a minute—I can’t be sure, but I assume I was feeling time much slower than it moved—when I felt a push back against my palms. A quiver. It panicked me because I didn’t want to lose it. I used all the concentration I could drum up to push as steady as I’d been pushing, even as I shouted, “It’s beating! We maybe got him!” and Swetha felt for his pulse again, pulled back my arms to stop me pushing. Before she did, an instant before, I felt the kid’s warmth return, life in his heart, enough to spread up my arms into my own chest. He was breathing. He wasn’t awake but he was breathing.
I rubbed my hands together but they were already warm. The sound of his labored breath in the water acoustics brought my own breathing down. I’d been gasping with pleasure, a pulse up my chest of real joy rising and rising against my throat as I stood there staring at—what? an osprey nest. People built those on the marsh, tripods of timber. Frogs clicked and croaked surrounding us: all of the marsh was alive.
Swetha had her phone out now. Two hundred feet away from us, in the humid night, the pair of kissing engines and the cars that trailed in opposing directions switched back on with a wooosh and pulled off from the marsh, north. I didn’t see it for the boat lights growing larger, EMTs grounding a PVC against our small island. By the time the boy was strapped to a palate any far-off lights from the train were obscured by the flashlights moving around me.
“Pop your head out of your ass,” Dad used to tell me, “the world isn’t all effervescence and light.” I used to be impressed he’d put it so well, effervescence and light.
We introduced ourselves to the EMTs as some firemen drew up a pontoon. Swetha, who turned out to be a doctor, an osteopath, briefed everyone on what had happened. The old man told me his name—I’ve forgotten it, though I remember his son’s name. I hold that name to my heart. I haven’t had the courage to look him up. Swetha shook our hands, laughed nervous and elated.
Later, when I researched CPR on my laptop—Amtrak, when I got hold of them, was able to hold it for me behind the counter at South Station—I learned that while it was effective in clinical settings, that patients reliably lived for years after their hearts had been started up again, CPR in the field was less promising: various reasons, length of time that the patient was clinically dead, transportation. But it was possible. Young, otherwise healthy people, “free of comorbidities,” lived long lives after CPR in the field, just not many of them.
Since I’d called and talked to Maddy I had to go to Taylor’s place. Madeline was too busy putting the baby down to understand what had happened, but she understood I was safe—I’d always been safe—and set me up in the yard with a pair of Taylor’s warm socks and beer that tasted like cake. She said Taylor’s shift was almost over; when he got home he’d drive me to Westerly so I could catch a late train. I called Tina, tried to explain the emergency. She took it in with suspicion, put Belle on the line, told her to say goodnight to daddy.
“Night Daddy Night Daddy Night Daddy.”
I hoped Taylor got held up at work. I didn’t want to see him because I was crying by then, to my humiliation. The excitement drained out of my body; I shook wet sobs off my face, trying to keep it down so Maddy could get the kid asleep. But I couldn’t stop the sound or the shaking. My life was blinkered until that moment, made of mostly fear. I’d moved as though the earth was thin glass. Because I’d been thinking about it earlier, or because of the beer, I kept coming back to that afternoon fifteen years in the past while I cried, sitting with the three of them and the TV on, that day I kept my mouth shut and stared at the screen. I could have tried harder with Taylor. I should have even tried with Rudy, come at him with patience, brought life. Jesus, the way he died was so useless. Did the way Rudy and Noah despaired have to do with what they’d seen or done? Should I have tried to beg them off the army more gravely that afternoon? Should I have said, “The chances anyone you shoot at will have done anything even remotely connected …” But it was my own ass that concerned me, my future.
I’d signed up for pre-law, then applied to law school at BC. I didn’t talk politics unless I knew someone well. On the TV talk shows hosts floated racist accents. We poured our treasure into bombs. Taylor deployed to Fallujah. My dad clipped a yellow ribbon sticker on the back of my car and I just left it there.