A Month of Short Stories 2017, Day 4 – Attitude Adjustment, by Tim Gautreaux

Big Boy 4018

Over several years, for the month of June, I wrote about a short story that was available online each day of the month…. It seemed like a good idea at the time. My blog readership fell precipitously and nobody seemed to give a damn about what I was doing – which was a surprising amount of work.

Because of this result, I’m going to do it again this year – In September this time… because it is September.

Today’s story, for day 4 – Attitude Adjustment, by Tim Gautreaux

Read it online here:
Attitude Adjustment, by Tim Gautreaux

Sometimes he would close his eyes tight and try to remember what had happened—how, in the heavy forest south of Passion Gap, a train had been trumpeting a monstrous chord of warning through the snow, but Father Jim, driving toward his church, creating a new homily in his head, had failed to hear it. He was proud of his sermons and wanted to get this latest one just right. The road twisted through a railway crossing, but with no crossing arms or blinking signals, Father Jim never saw the locomotive of a 100-car coal train explode into his vehicle, shoving it a quarter mile in a veil of flames and coppery sparks. The impact thrust the priest through a million diamonds of windshield and he landed in the middle of Highway 16, his skull fractured like a dropped melon, his hands tracked with cuts, both legs broken and bleeding. He lay in the snowy road for an hour while an ambulance crew came up the mountain through the developing blizzard, the engineer and brakeman crouching over his body, trying to stop the bleeding with shop rags.

—-Tim Gautreaux, Attitude Adjustment

A long time ago, I worked for the EPA as a consultant on a technical assistance team. My job was to provide my expertise on various technical subjects (emergency response, chemical cleanups, analytical chemistry, safety plans… that sort of thing) to oil spills, chemical accidents, and Superfund Emergency Removals. In 1982 I was sent to Livingston, Louisiana to help after the derailment of a train carrying a large amount of chemicals in the center of town. I spent about a month there working on various parts of the response and cleanup.

If you really want to know, I’m visible in the video at the 8:57 point, wearing blue coveralls and a blue cap leaning on the door of the van.

Years later, at a Writing Marathon in New Orleans, I told the story of the derailment and cleanup. Someone said that a local well-known writer Tim Gautreaux had written a fictional short story based on the Livingston train derailment called Waiting for the Evening News. I had read Gautreaux before and enjoyed his short stories. I dug around and found the collection with Waiting for the Evening News in it and eagerly read the story. Though his point of view on the accident was very different than mine – it was pretty cool.

I think I sent the author an email… maybe not. At any rate, I never met or talked to him, but still felt some sort of a connection.

Today’s story, Attitude Adjustment is a simple tale of a Catholic Priest that survives a horrific car accident – a collision with a coal train. He comes out the other side severely damaged, both physically and mentally. It becomes almost impossible for him to deliver a proper sermon or confession. He resorts to a lot of little tricks simply to help his mind get through a normal day.

This leads to a misunderstanding with the Federal Government, specifically the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms… and things don’t go very well for him.

Or maybe they do. He is a good man after all, and a tough man, and it looks like he might make it through after all.

Tim Gautreaux Interviews:

I’m not interested in labels; I’m interested in storytelling. And nobody even knows what a Cajun is. I put a redneck character in one of my stories in Welding with Children, and a lot of people have called him a Cajun, and he’s from Alexandria, which is the most un-Cajun place on the face of the earth. And he’s not Catholic, and he doesn’t have an Acadian surname. Anybody from the region understands who that fellow is, but people out of the region will read other things into it. I just can’t worry about that.
—-An Interview with Tim Gautreaux: “Cartographer of Louisiana Back Roads”, from Southern Spaces

I think most little towns in America present a mixture of all sorts of cultures, and this makes me suspicious of stereotypes based on the assumption that a certain region is peopled by one type of person. Back in the 1950s I thought Texas was all cowboys and oil men listening to Hank Williams or Bob Wills, yet traveling by train through Texas with my transistor radio I picked up Mexican polka music played on German accordions. This marriage of musical cultures introduced me to the idea that no region is one thing only. A writer has to keep this in mind when he deals with setting. Don’t oversimplify, and pay attention to what’s around you culturally. Awareness of class and culture is money in the bank for a fiction writer.
—-A Conversation with Tim Gautreaux, from Image

Three generations. The smoking diesel pulling the steam Big Boy, while the electric DART train zooms by overhead.

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