Saturday, March 31, 2012

Train

I'm falling in love. Sometimes I fall fast. Sometimes I fall slow. Most times, I can't tell. This is one of those times. I've fallen in love with the train. Its stinking, roaring, mass hurtling along has charmed me, taken from me, opened my eyes and given to me. The train is filled with humanity, all its trash, stories, tears, smells, hopes and inescapable realities. When we ride, we go with people we might otherwise never meet, companions we would never choose on the road. The train does not follow the roads though, it is the disruption and ruin of roads, and travels its own line. A line fixed in place, spiked to the earth in case it might otherwise try to move, because the places it runs are not necessarily kind or wholesome. The rail is fixed to places of waste, degradation and abandonment, thus passing tie by tie across truth and among beauty. Things otherwise unseen.

When I get on, I see the old man sitting by the window across the aisle from where I like to sit. I say old, but he is anywhere from forty to eighty. His skin is pale, a melanin rich hide disused to the sun. His clothes, a white wife beater and blue shorts lay over him with a looseness of hand-me downs, or lean times. We talk, eventually, and he tells me today is his first day on the outside in nine years. He doesn't say what he was down for, but he shows me drawings he did while he was inside. They are all for his daughter, made in the half-light glow of the block after lights out, with the stubs of golf pencils hidden by day. Pencils were contraband he tells me, and it was hard drawing with only the last inch or so. The sketches are masterful, of beautiful Hispanic women, their long flowing hair drawn across the entire pages. There the graphite is laid on in fine long strokes until it shines and has the texture of hair. Across cheeks, it is carefully smudged and erased, to give blush and dimple to the faces. Each sketch is a different size, on torn pieces of copy paper and blue lined notepaper. He speaks with pride, and confidence, of the making of the sketches, the stealing of paper and pencils. When he says he's going to give them all to his daughter tonight, his voice shakes and his eyes wet, though only the smallest amount.
While we're talking, I take off my glasses to wipe away some dust, and he see's the birthmark, a single dark freckle really, below my left eye. He touches his teardrop tattoo, and with a smile tells me I have the killers eye. I have no hope, I gave it up, so I just nod and say maybe.

The pale gray concrete ties, in multitude beneath the rail, are as bones of some ancient colossus windswept from dark volcanic sands. This is a desert carved out of another, the railroad right of way barren and scattered with the loose debris of industrial function. Between the rails like ribs, and the cottonwoods, this journey is a skeletal one. The trees in summer have burned, and not regrown. In the coming winter, they will be barren and stark white. In ancient graves are the altered forms of children, held from birth to be sacred offerings, their bones twisted and misshapen by bindings. These trees are like those bones, nothing that can be known beforehand, all angles different, unexpected and sinister. The rail is ordered, a mechanistic cruelty. The trees are laughter, along the river, their ghastly twists natural and always returning to leafy greenness. There are bones, and then there are bones.
There is a lie beyond these windows, that we free of the signs of human presence. Yet it is that very thing we ride in and atop. The train does not move through empty wastes, but rather is and is surrounded by the debris of people. Broken and thrust from the sand, like more old bones, gas station drink cups, broken electronics and indistinguishable refuse. These things scatter the holy lands, beside sheep carcasses and car bodies burnt and rusting. Are these things bereft of meaning, apostasies in the sacred dirt for not being killed pots or real bones? Or are they the only objects which carry the human truth?
No land is a waste, until someone sets foot on it and declares it so.

Along the train tracks there is much truth in the land, that protected yet rarely inviolate right-of-way. Down against the bricks and among the weeds are beds of rotten cloth, soiled sleeping bags and scavenged foam. The very same materials as beds of plenty, but stripped apart and ruined, brought down to fluid stained fundament. In some of the beds are actual bones, decorated with jerked strips of failed flesh. The winds will open these bundles, and play the weightless, waterless, lifeless tatters. Prayer flags for still living losers, asleep in stolen beds, the spirit of the dead ground into the remnants beneath them.
These things are beautiful, and I am glad to see them, these gifts of loss and misery. I would not be able to, if not for riding the train. This great machine, this diesel devil, iron horse, this beast of will and smoke. I am in love with this thing, in its beauty and filth, for all it passes through, and all it carries.