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.
A 12-minute documentary from 15 years ago.
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.
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.
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?
The angel of death striking a door during the plague of Rome;
engraving by Levasseur after Jules-Elie Delaunay
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.
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.