Trains

Some nights like tonight—it’s chilled and clear—the sound of the trains working the switching yards a quarter mile south of us seems much closer. Nightshift crews at work. I can hear the cars connecting. A through-freight’s horn sounds for the grade-crossing at Pleasant Valley Road. A long consignment, the rumble of passing wheels on rails lasts long enough for me to ignore it. 

On my mother’s side, all the first- and second-generation immigrant Irishmen worked on the railroad. My mother’s grandfather lived in the section foreman’s house between the tracks. Not all of them were in the country legally. There are railroad bridges between Buffalo and Canada (over one of which my dad had a part in moving Prohibition whiskey).  I always had a thing for trains. I was of that generation when trains vanished from American consciousness. Boys younger than I did not receive train sets for Christmas.

At one point in history only Chicago had more miles of train tracks than Buffalo. I have firm boyhood memories of the bigger-than-life bronze bison on a high pedestal at the center of the rotunda in the vaulted deserted cathedral of Buffalo Central Terminal.  Terminally empty, pigeons and their droppings on the bison’s stained back, a cold marble breeze. As a teenager I paid for steam-engine excursions on the CNR over in Ontario. In college, I survived a continental summer on my Eurail Pass, sleeping on trains, living on trains.  

Anyway, I keep thinking of those guys working out in the switch yard. (“Guys” is gender-neutral, though the odds of a woman on the crew are pretty slim.) It’s not yet December, but the nights are getting nippy. I don’t know what railroad shifts are, but they are probably somewhere midshift. Can they smoke? I spend a lot of time wondering about people’s jobs and how they do them. I ponder who decided to make this cardboard box this way. Why did this shy woman choose to be a nurse? What do truckers think about on those long empty stretches? Can you care much if what you’re selling is worthless? I wonder what caused our mailman’s limp. I was in Ireland once with a doctor who only took photographs of men working.   

One thing I like about this town is that the tracks run right through the middle of it, and traffic has to stop, backed up, to let the freight trains pass, no contest. Nothing digital about it. It’s like the past intruding, interrupting. Men working here. Stop and watch.

email to Catherine

molokai_hawaii_dirt_road

C. Buchanan

I Google Mapped your house tonight, satellite view,

and zoomed in as far as I could, a virtual fly-over

wagging my imaginary wings.

Strange world we live in.

 

Does isolation breed the past?

With the present stalled in its tracks

and the future a black hole, we go wandering

through the doors we never locked behind us.

 

True anonymity is to die in a plague.

Culture steam-shoveled into a common grave.

No chorus left to sing our hallelujah.

Your house from the sky is dark at night,

but on Google Maps the past sun never sets,

that truck in the drive you sold two years ago.

Duck and cover now

then and now

Do you remember duck and cover drills? Always a pleasant break. I recall us all crouched down like little Muslims facing Mecca on the floor of the marble windowless hallway of our convent-housed grammar school, boys on one side, girls on the other. The Commies wanted to fry us, a concept as abstract as the church’s triple threat of limbo, purgatory, hell. I found the purported godlessness of the bad guys alluring.

From duck and cover to shelter in place, not a bomb but a microbe this time. That macro/micro-spectrum thing again. One difference this time around is that the biggest threat to yourself is yourself and your neighbors, not some foreign impersonal power. Do not touch your fucking face! Your hands can kill you. Death by your own (unscrubbed) hand. Don’t crouch down together, keep your distance, a marble hallway’s width apart at least. And not just until the nuns tell you that you can get up, but for this present’s equivalent of forever.

 

 

The Quarantined Self

birds nest

A certain sense of pride of place. I was here first, nine months ago, in isolation.  Alone with the minimalist worries of solitude. Enough cigarettes? How many days have I worn this shirt? One of those dilemmas today—the birds have returned, cardinals and robins, arrived as if booked on the equinox moon, welcomed, pairs chasing each other in foreplay flight around the yard. One robin—or is it two? each species has its own customs—decided to build its honeymoon nest on a blade of the overhead fan in the carport, right outside my study window. A bum idea. The fan is still today, but any fair breeze will revolve it, launching the nest. I am impressed by the bird’s relentless industry. I recently read an article about how architects have been mesmerized by the complex physics of nest construction. Blackboards filled with chalked formulas. A fair amount of construction material is discarded onto the hood of our silver Corolla below. The dilemma: do I switch on the fan and dislodge this labor-intensive piece of avian art, or do I allow its completion and await the inevitable tossing of the nest with its unhatched or tweeting inhabitants? How do you inform the innocent of their errors? Something ethical to ponder on an otherwise empty day. Connie doesn’t want robin shit on the car. I turn on the fan. The almost-finished empty nest survives its cement floor landing, a perfect round chalice composed of nature’s basest detritus. I want to apologize, but to what?

 

Untitled

broken glass

Photo: C. Payne

America has a lot to answer for.

Why is growth the only gospel?

Why is war our major business?

Why were all the rivers dammed and

the salmon moved to canning farms?

Why are celebrities our only saints?

Why did Marilyn have to be blonde,

bleaching her pubes for DiMaggio?

 

All the answers are illicit,

offered up like altar sacrifices

by high priests who walk away

as their minions slice up their

lies and serve them as communion

to the blind faithful. Body of death.

True Colors

winn-dixie 2

He wore only white because of the dandruff. On porn sites he lingered only on women of color. Greenbacks were tender based only on faith, and fortune came only out of the blue. All red-white-and-bluers were con men, and the sun ain’t yellow it’s chicken. The clues were all in the spectrum. Inside the white light of reality was a prism of partial truths with no outlines, and behind them the shades and shadows of doubt as deep as space. There was safety in all this uncertainty, a soft unknowable comfort zone simple answers could not supply.

Stick a fork in it. People were starving, and she was buying stew meat for her dog, a mut, a cur. He liked that word cur, a word with an onomatopoetic root—there were too few of those—Old Norse for growl. He knew that she herself was vegan, one of those in denial of their own incisors. Cloven-hoofed cud chewers, okay by Leviticus. She wouldn’t wear even faux fur. He followed her around the Winn-Dixie, pushing the basket in which children were not allowed. What if you were buying one? Or just frozen parts of one? On sale. Cheaper with your Winn-Dixie card. No telling country of origin. No USDA-approved stamp.

What to serve with them? Fijians had a specific leafy cannibal plant that they ate with human flesh, something like kale. Don’t waste your kill, eat your enemy. A turn down the feminine-products aisle, foreign, forbidden country. Why were the lightbulbs also in this aisle? No wonder he could never find them. Outside the store, people were dying. Not in the parking lot, but everywhere else, all over the globe. How often were you aware of living—and dying—on a globe? A fucking globe, the same shape as an 8 ball.

He counted the items in their basket in Roman numerals—XII. IV more and they would be banned from the Speed Checkout line. He knew better than to speak. Winn-Dixie was a deafmute sphere, the cone of silence. Private secrets, the kind that are not real or are in type so small on the backs of cans you know that they are lies. He wondered why she had worn red pants. Why had he not stayed in the car, safe and primed for escape?

That’s right, the lights. The bright colored lights in the store windows versus the darkness that swallowed him when she shut the car door.

 

The Minor Leagues

 

Dayton

Safe at the plate, safe at second. You can drill cut-off plays endlessly, but in the end it all comes down to judgement. Is judgement teachable? Bryant didn’t react. He didn’t say anything. Sometimes remonstrance is pointless. When the shortstop came off the field, Bryant just ignored him. As the years burned themselves out, Bryant found peace in ignoring—or pretending to ignore—things and people. Back in the day, as they say, he would have humiliated the jerk in front of everyone in the dugout. Now, just his normal distracted scowl was all he could muster. Down four runs, two innings left—it was as good as over. Dinner wouldn’t be too late tonight. They were on the road in Bowling Green. There was that mediocre steak house near the hotel.

The steak house was closed; it looked like for good. Bryant ended up at a little Japanese place. He had spent his final two years as a player with the Hanshin Tigers. He had learned to appreciate Japanese food. And Japanese femininity. His waitress’s hands were like a musician’s—delicate elegant strength, sinews and veins. She never looked up at him. He appreciated that respect. He was past the age when he wished to be looked at. It went along with disappearing. Just a four-hour drive up to Dayton for tomorrow’s game.

—*—

 Cherokee. At least that’s what grandma said her grandmother had been. She hadn’t known what brand of Cherokee. That would make her—what?—one-sixteenth Indian? Was that enough? She would have to come out as an Indian if she wanted to include this new material in her act. These days you could only make fun of ethnics if they were of your ethnicity. Even then it was tricky; it had to come across as making fun of yourself. One public PC protest could crash a comic’s club career. She would again be just another Uber driver.

It was typical that Sylvie had no one to consult about this, to weigh the pros and cons of it. Bobby was useless. Yes, he was funny, but clueless. His humor was based on his lack of connection to reality. She knew what Nadia would say. Nadia no longer thought anything was funny. It was like laughter had become her existential enemy. She had that weekend gig coming up in Dayton. She could try it out there, and if it bombed drop it. Did it even have to be about Indians? Yeah, it did.

Sylvie knew the legends about the classic New York Jewish comics sitting late over coffees in a Midtown coffee shop, trying out new material on their peers, whose only response would be a clinical “That’s funny” or “That’s not funny.” Had they worried about what group they might offend? She was a woman. She could make jokes about tampons and husbands and boob jobs, playing with her stereotype. What other stereotypes were untouchable? Was that coffee shop still there?

—*—

Bryant drove. He wouldn’t take the team bus, couldn’t stand being trapped with all those kids. He appointed one of the coaches as nanny. He also always tried to stay at a different hotel on the road. They weren’t a team that way—the always changing roster, kids coming and going, either moving up or crapping out. That shortstop. Doesn’t have it. It rained off and on all the way north. He stopped in Louisville for lunch. It was raining in Dayton. The game was rained out.

Sometimes it seemed like he had spent his whole life on the road. It was sort of home, if home is what feels most familiar. He had spent thirty years being traded, hired, and fired, changing cities. Hotel rooms, motel rooms, rented rooms—they were all the same. He never had to change a sheet, buy toilet paper, fix a meal. It was a sort of Zen existence—everything he owned he carried with him. Driving, he would pass vast rental storage places and wonder what-all people kept in them that they couldn’t fit in their already over-stuffed big houses.

The older he got, the more comfort he found in his routines. It was like the pleasure he still found in running practice drills, the repetitions like a timeless meditation. Whatever room he checked into, he followed the same routine, claiming it with his little rituals of unpacking, ending with a trip to the ice machine and his first bourbon on the rocks.

—*—

The Jolly Rodger Club, Dayton. “Is there anyone here tonight who identifies as Native American? If so, would you please join me up here on the stage? I need your help and protection.” No one came up. So, Sylvie went ahead and used the new material. No one protested, but there weren’t many laughs either. Tough crowd, but then she wasn’t at her sharpest. She felt more in-sync, more at home, with big city audiences, where she didn’t feel the need to excise the occasional prick or motherfucker or pussy like she did here in the boonies. What was humor without some off-color spice? A judgement call. Nadia thought vulgar language was cheap, demeaning, especially for a woman.

She was always too nervous to eat before a show, so afterwards she was starving. It was late. She had seen an Arby’s on her walk from the hotel to the club. It was still open.  A drive-thru place, the only other walk-in patrons were a drunk couple arguing as they ate. She took her French dip and Swiss, fries, and large Mountain Dew back to her room. The downtown streets were deserted. She had an old routine about trash and the age of over-packaging she could revise and substitute for the Indian bit, make it local by listing how many wrappers and packets were inside her Arby’s bag. Hotel rooms made her paranoid. She double-locked the door.

—*—

It was a god-awful sound, a high-pitched, undulating electronic scream, like a female robot being tortured. Bryant jumped from deep dreamless sleep to an adrenaline rush of bright flashing white and red lights and abject panic. For seconds he didn’t know where he was, what was happening. Then he spotted the source of the sound and the flashing lights on the ceiling of the hotel room. Its message was flee.

As he fumbled to pull on his trousers and shirt, the attack on his senses continued, and panic transformed into anger. Shut the fuck up. I hear you. I’m out of here. With his palm he felt the door before opening it. In the corridor all was amplified. Other doors opened. Other guests in degrees of undress wandered out, a few just wrapped in blankets. No smoke, no heat, just the chaos of the alarms. Speech was pointless. Bryant headed for the Exit sign to the stairwell at the far end of the corridor. Others followed. He checked his pockets—room keycard, cash, cigarettes and lighter. The bedside clock had said 3:45.

—*—

Sylvie was awake in bed watching Raymond Burr crack another case when the alarms went off. Her nervous tummy hadn’t taken to the French dip and Swiss, and now she was waiting for Xanax to come to her rescue. She liked to think of her body as a keystone cops flic. She hit all the switches in the room, but nothing would turn the sucker off. Usually she slept naked. Or was it nude? Naked alone, nude with others? But hotel rooms made her self-conscious, and she was in shorts and a tank-top. If that sound and the strobe lights didn’t stop, she would have to leave the room. She went to the bathroom and brushed her hair. She wondered if Raymond Burr was descended from that other Burr, Aaron? Ray was Canadian and hadn’t Aaron escaped there after becoming famous?

Ray had hid being gay so well. There were other people in the corridor, all looking like zombie movie extras. Big women shouldn’t wear sheets. There’s a trick to tying a toga. The sound was even louder in the hallway, coming from all sides. People were headed for the Exit sign. What did they know that she didn’t? She was floating a bit. The Xanax had arrived right on time. Everyone was barefoot.

—*—

Three flights of stairs to the street door, six if you counted the landing turns. Still no smoke. Bryant was impressed by how quiet and orderly everyone was, as if they’d been drilled as evacuees. More people joined the flow at each floor. A woman carrying a sleeping toddler, a man on his cell phone. The stairwell was only minimally lit, but the noise was now muffled. At the street door the column halted. Outside, the rain had returned, heavy and slightly sideways in the street lights. Behind him people sat down on the stairs. They waited in silence. Outside now there were sirens, and the rain was lit by flashing red lights from vehicles they couldn’t see. A child started crying.

They waited, and Bryant got bored. He moved to the propped-open door and lit a cigarette. Almost immediately, calls of complaint came from the stairwell. A draft was pulling his smoke inside. It was as if, suddenly, the smell of smoke had unlocked all the fear and frustration and offered an acceptable target of outrage. Some man called out, “You fucking asshole.” Bryant took one last puff and flicked his Pall Mall into the rain.

—*—

Sylvie spent most of the wait playing games with Anthony, the eight-year old who had ended up on the step beside her. Eventually, a fireman came to a door above them and said all was clear for them to return to their rooms. No explanation. There was a lot of grumbling, but no one was going to confront a fireman. When she got back to her room door, she realized she was locked out. She hadn’t thought to bring her keycard. There were no pockets in her gym shorts. She just stood there, stupidly, staring at her door. A man walking past her asked, “Locked out?” It was that husky gentleman people had yelled at for smoking a cigarette. “Yep,” she said, “keyless and clueless.”

“I’ll call the front desk and let them know. 322? There are probably a bunch of folks in the same boat. Could be a while.”

“The shit’s creek without a key canoe.”

He laughed.

“Say, could I bum one of your cigs? So that I can at least break a law while I’m standing here?”

She ended up waiting in his room with an illegal Pall Mall and a Jim Beam on the rocks in a plastic glass. His name was Brian. He was cordial in a formal way, almost as if he was afraid of her or something. He reminded her of her dad that way.

—*—

Bryant was surprised she accepted, in this age of paranoia. Of course, she had no reason to fear him, but she didn’t know that. These days you were supposed to be wary of everyone you didn’t know, even though the vast majority of people who got hurt were hurt by those closest to them. He never got her name. When she asked and he told her what he did for a living, she said, “So, you’re an entertainer, too.” She said she was a comedienne. “Of course, your job is to make people cheer, not laugh.” He liked her unguardedness.  She seemed to say whatever came to mind.  She said her dad had taken her to Cubbies’ games when she was a kid. Bryant didn’t mention that he had played the bench for the Cubs for a season back then. He asked about her work. She just made jokes about it. There was a knock at the door. Her room was unlocked. She finished her drink before leaving.

—*—

He looked different in his uniform. It suited him, his Ruthian bulk. Not those pajama bottoms the players were wearing these days, but proper baseball knickers with high blue socks. The uniform was gray, of course, his team being on the road. He had that authoritative manager’s nonchalance as he strolled out of the dugout to meet the home-plate ump and the other manager and hand over his starting line-up, as if he had done it a thousand times before, part of the job.

The Dayton Dragons vs the Madison Muskies, a Saturday double-header to make up for the rain-out the day before. Sylvie had a good seat on the third-base line. The stands were half-empty. She was there because of her dad. She hadn’t been to a ball game in years, but she had nothing to do before getting ready for her act, and it was a perfect ballpark afternoon. The players all looked so young as they ran out to their positions. She had a bag of peanuts and a cup of beer.

When the Muskies came to bat, she was surprised to see Brian walk out to the third-base coach’s box. In the majors, managers didn’t do that. He did that job, too, giving the signs, clapping encouragement. In the sixth he was even jumping up and down as he waved a runner on to the plate. She cheered—to the displeasure of those around her—when the umpire gestured safe. The Muskies won. She had to leave before the second game, go back to the hotel to prep and get nervous.

—*—

Bryant got directions from the front-desk clerk. There was just the one comedy club in town. He’d had dinner and was feeling good after taking two today. The poster outside the club gave her name as Sylvie Silver. He’d wager a stein had been lopped off that last name. Time had been syncing in his favor all day, and she came on stage soon after he sat down with his drink. A youngish loud crowd. This was a college town.

She looked good on stage, as if she belonged there, in a long slinky dress with a slit up the side. She paced with the microphone as she worked. Her act wasn’t bad, but she was having trouble holding the crowd, mostly young guys getting drunk. She had hecklers to ignore. One especially obnoxious jock-type jerk at the bar was yelling sexist comments. Bryant got up and went over to tell him to stow it.

“What’s it to you, old man?”

“That’s my girl up there. She’s just starting out. Give the kid a break.”

“Or what?”

Bryant just smiled. Dealing with Neanderthals was part of what he did. The guy shut up.

Sylvie got Bryant laughing at a skit about Indians with a princess named Running with Scissors.