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.