Just outside the Belmont station the train came abruptly to a stop and we sat for a minute while the conductor and motorman conferred in low voices. With a tight look on his face, the conductor opened one of the doors, leaned out, and peered into the lightly swirling snow. “Hey,” he began calling into the night with a gruff voice. “Yeah, you. Get over here.” A moment later he pulled himself back into the train. Then a mountainous man with a heavy garbage bag of possessions slung over his back climbed aboard. The conductor closed the doors and stationed himself at one end of the car with his arms folded. The motorman watched curiously from the half-opened door of his compartment.

In the harsh light of the train the man had the look of a cornered animal. He turned a slow circle, squinting at everyone who would meet his gaze. His face was framed with wet curly hair that was knotted by the wind, and his narrow eyes seemed to be reading a secret text that was written on our faces. A lumpy and badly fitting coat hung from his shoulders, the sleeves charred as if he had just emerged from a fire.

“Where did you think you were going?” called out the conductor with a grin. In answer, the man closed his eyes and silently moved his lips.

We had been sitting for several minutes when the silence was broken by the crackle of the motorman’s radio. The man glanced suspiciously in the conductor’s direction. “You call the police?” he asked. His voice was low, contemptuous. In answer, the conductor shrugged his shoulders helplessly.

Sighing loudly, the man took two long steps to the door, grabbed the emergency handle, and let himself back out onto the tracks. The conductor ran down the aisle after him. Leaning out the open door, he called, “Hey buddy, do me a favor and walk in the direction of the station.”

Across from me, a little girl jumped out of her seat. She took off to the end of the car and pressed her face against the window. A minute later, she returned. “He got away,” she said with great disappointment to her mother.

“Too bad,” the woman replied. She had a bored, distracted expression that suddenly changed. “Do you know what was in that bag?” she asked her daughter slyly.

The little girl shook her head.

“Parts of people’s bodies.”

The girl’s eyes opened wide and I could hear her taking a deep breath.

“Yeah. You know, he finds dead people, then he cuts them up and carries them around in his sack and sells the parts to hospitals. He’s probably got lots of money hidden away.”

“No,” whispered the little girl, “he doesn’t.” Her face fell apart and she began to wring her hands.

“One time,” continued her mother, who was enjoying herself, “I was goin’ somewhere and I was going to take the train, and then I got a ride, and I found out later that the train crashed and there were all these people killed. It said in the newspaper that there was blood drippin’ down on people in the street and everything.”

The little girl began twisting around in her seat as if she were trying to avoid a snake.

“Don’t pay no attention to her,” another voice suddenly cut in.

The little girl turned and stared at an older woman sitting alone across the aisle.

“It’s all true,” continued the little girl’s mother, opening her eyes wide, “he goes around collectin’ body parts. Heads and arms and legs just like that guy in Milwaukee.”

The little girl looked again at the older woman, but her face was stony.

“Another time…” began her mother.

“Shut up, Cindy,” said the older woman.

With a start, I realized that the three of them were together, that they were mother, daughter, and granddaughter. I was surprised and a little frightened looking across the three generations. While the little girl was still lively enough, the other two seemed to be in advanced stages of destruction. In particular, the older woman–who couldn’t have been more than 50–wore a haunted, grieving expression. Her thin hair was turning gray, and she cradled her head in one hand, as if trying to either remember or forget something very painful.

The little girl had jumped up and gone to sit with the old woman.

“Stop it, you ain’t scared,” said her mother irritably. She held her hand out to her daughter, who refused it with a fierce shake of her head. “I ain’t gonna have you scared of things, get over here.”

The little girl turned to her grandmother for help, but the old woman was silent.

“I said, get over here,” her mother repeated loudly.

The little girl slid reluctantly back to her seat and wrapped her arms around herself.

“I wish this train would get moving,” resumed Cindy. “They’re probably waiting for that bum to get off the tracks. I wouldn’t care if they ran over him,” she continued with a mean smile at her mother.

“They shouldn’t run over him,” said the little girl timidly.

“It’d serve him right,” her mother shot back. “There are plenty places for somebody like that to go. Besides, he’s up to no good. I really do believe he’s got something in that bag. Maybe,” she added, leaning down to her daughter, “he’s got your daddy in there.”

The little girl jumped up crying, but her mother cut her off, grabbing the back of her coat and jerking her into her seat. “Sit down and shut up. I’m just foolin’ around and you know it. Your daddy’s at home, you’ll see him when we get there. I don’t want to hear no more from you.”

“Let her sit by me,” said the old woman.

“No, she’s sitting by me.”

The little girl made a face that her mother pretended to ignore.

“You know,” said Cindy, “I saw Faye the other day, and she was telling me all this trash about her family that I didn’t want to hear. Like about that idiot brother of hers. And she went on and on and on, and then she tells me that she thinks she has cancer. And I just started laughing.”

By now, the old woman didn’t even seem to be listening.

“Yeah, I just started laughing because she’s always saying she’s dying and shit like that. She just wants everybody to feel sorry for her, but I don’t feel sorry for her even if she does have cancer, which she doesn’t. And I don’t believe her. And I said that to her just like I’m telling you. So she told me that I was a coldhearted bitch.”

“You are a coldhearted bitch,” said her mother dully.

Cindy winced. She turned in her seat, folding herself up like a crumpled piece of paper, and moved as far away from her mother as she could. She wrapped one arm around her daughter.

“I wish this fucking train would get moving,” she said after a long time.

“Me too,” murmured the little girl in a low voice. She had folded her arms protectively across her small chest.