The local shortline railroad that ran through Betty’s town made a sharp curve within inches of her house. For over sixty years, Betty lived with this oddity. Even with offers to relocate her home, Betty refused to leave.
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Betty Thorndyke has lived in her quaint, gingerbread-edged home for over sixty years. Her husband Charley, gone nine years, had built the house as soon as Betty accepted his proposal. Charley worked at Jaxon Industries, the local factory at the west end of their town. He loved the work, and thrived on having no land to cultivate, not even a lawn to cut or a shrub to trim. When Charley was not working, he was on the front porch with a can of beer in his hand.
Main Street in their little town spanned a mile-long stretch extending from Jaxon Industries at the town’s west end to Charley and Betty’s home, the last house on the east end. A short-line railroad served the factory and half a dozen other factories in the area.
Unlike many other rural main streets, this one had every shop occupied. Occupied and thriving. A hardware store, two grocery stores, a barber and a hair stylist, a diner. A strong local economy, thanks to the town’s factory, Jaxon Industries, which employed a number of residents from the town and the surrounding county.
Every morning, Monday through Friday, a diesel locomotive pushed two empty box cars down the track in the middle of Main Street to the factory’s loading dock. The engine then coupled to one or two box cars loaded with Jaxon product to ship out. The engine pulled the cars back up Main Street, turned north around Betty’s house, and headed for the other factories. Twenty miles up the line the engine set out the loaded cars to be picked up by a mainline railroad.
The rail curve from Main Street around Betty’s home was sharp, the trains passing within a foot of the house. Any stranger to the town stood in amazement watching the train navigate the curve.
Betty and her husband Charley had lived in the house since they were married sixty years ago. The railroad track was there first. Charley bought the property because it was so cheap. Who would want a house so close to a railroad track? For Charley and his new bride it was not an issue. The train passed only in the morning, only Monday to Friday, only moving at slow speeds.
Now long retired from her earlier career as a nurse, with Charley gone nine years ago, Betty sat on her front porch and waved to Benny the engineer each time he passed. Benny drove a re-built SW1200 diesel belonging to Forward Rail, the shortline servicing the area. It was a small diesel by railroad standards, but a monster when passing within a foot of someone’s front porch. The diesel’s shorter wheelbase and minimum turning radius made it an ideal choice for the town and the curve around Betty’s house.
In the summer months, with schools closed, Forward Rail had two men, one on each side, walk Main Street with the train to keep the local kids from climbing on the box cars. That, after one boy slipped and lost a foot under the train.
David Bauer, CEO of Jaxon Industries, was a decent employer. He paid his people well enough, considering he was the only game in town. But Bauer was a business owner interested in making profits. And additional profits were proving elusive. Bauer’s business had grown strong enough that he could ship more product. And in turn he could offer more jobs for the town. But that would require larger, longer box cars. And those cars would not tolerate the sharp curve around Betty’s house. Not without tearing the corner off her building. Bauer had first approached Betty three years ago. He offered to pay to relocate her house fifty feet back from the railroad track. The cost would be incurred equally by his company and by Forward Rail.
Betty refused the offer. The house was precious to her. The view of the countryside south of her front porch was magnificent. And having to move to a motel during her home’s relocation was in no way attractive to her.
Bauer came back with his offer yearly.
Betty’s answer was always the same.
The cost of moving the rail track away from Betty’s house would not be exorbitant, Bauer knew, but the down time would be prohibitive. Product had to move out daily.
Last year someone had proposed using trucks to move the product out to the mainline railroad. Bauer considered it. But he would have to build more loading docks. And the town would have to tolerate trucks moving up and down Main Street. Not to mention cutting seriously into Forward Rail’s business.
Both Bauer and the head of Forward Rail had also approached the town’s mayor several times to pursue eminent domain for Betty’s house. The mayor always backed down. Too harsh a solution, he said.
What the mayor did not say, not out loud – the town could not afford to offend Betty. For over thirty years, with her nursing background, Betty had run a free clinic for new mothers out of the church meeting room. Every Monday and Thursday morning she sat in the clinic, offering help and advice to the new and older mothers of the town. Rashes, scrapes and bruises, coughs, fevers – Betty got the moms through it all. Anything more serious, of course, had to be referred to the county hospital. After all, Betty was a nurse but no doctor.
So Forward Rail added an extra boxcar when needed to accommodate added product shipments. Not ideal, but workable. An impasse, but not a nasty one. All the factory workers and railway people still greeted Betty in a friendly fashion on the street and in the market.
Each Christmas Betty’s two sons and their families showed up to celebrate the holiday. The grandkids were fascinated by the huge train passing within inches of grandma’s house. They loved waving to Benny the engineer. Betty kept a jar of pennies in the house, and her two sons showed the children how to place the pennies on the rail before the train passed. The huge train wheels flattened the pennies, which delighted the kids.
Betty lost her Charley almost nine years ago. A tragic disappearance. Charley left home one evening to go fishing and never returned. He was never found. After seven years the courts declared Charley dead and Betty collected five thousand dollars on his life insurance policy.
Charley’s disappearance and assumed death had upset the town. There was a large turnout at his church service. More casseroles than Betty could eat in her lifetime. And Betty had soldiered on. Every morning, on all but the bitterest winter days, Betty sat on her front porch. Her failing eyesight would not allow her to create the beautiful quilts she once made. Now it was mostly knitting. Easier on the eyes.
Nine years ago, Charley and Betty had driven to a hospital two counties over. Looking for anonymity. Within two days Charley got his diagnosis. Terminal cancer. Less than a year to live.
Back home, Charley had spent all his free time for the following weeks digging a four-foot deep grave in their basement. The basement was windowless, dark, dank, not much more than a tornado shelter.
After he completed his task, he and Betty made plans. When he began to have trouble functioning, when the pain grew intolerable, they would initiate his last days. Betty acquired a strong sedative and a lethal injection.
Charley ordered a body bag online. On his final day, he gathered his fishing gear and set out one evening to spend the night fishing. He left his gear at the river’s edge and quietly sneaked back home in the middle of the night. He and Betty descended to the basement. Charley pulled the body bag over himself, leaving enough room for Betty to do what she had to do.
They kissed, held hands. After a while Charley simply nodded. Betty applied the sedative, waited for Charley to doze. Then she administered the lethal dose. She slipped the syringe into the body bag, zipped it up, and rolled Charley’s body into the grave. She spent an hour shoveling dirt back into the hole. She smoothed it over as best she could, dragged a sheet of plywood over the loose dirt, and laid an old rug over the plywood. She stomped down on the rug to flatten the soil.
A tear rolled down her cheek as she mounted the stairs.
A day later Betty reported Charley missing.
Now, nine years later, Betty will never move from her home. And her Charley.