I sat on top of the train for a while, staring out into the great fields of Iowa, like a night watchman on a metal perch. Glancing up at the sky and breathing in the brisk. Converting cold air into warmth for my already numbed fingers. Fingerless gloves have their functionality—especially for a man of the rails like myself, but in this kind of cold, functionality be damned! The burning in the back of my throat being inflamed with each inhale. My nose red. It was hard not being resentful of these long, hard shifts. I could have joined the others at the end of the yard by the fire. But I had this defunct urge to be alone with my thoughts. So there I was. Hours wasted. Trying to clutch onto each and every moment. Reexamining my life, like we all do from time to time. Hoping to inspire myself to seize the day, or night, as it was freezing cold.
At the same time, my mind traveled far and away. Miles away from here. Like the world-weary traveler I once was, always going through the same cycle of regret.
Her eyes forever lost in the sky.
Since the beginning of time, seafarers and tramps found direction thanks to these stars, but with each glance up I felt lost.
Her lips never to be touched again. My hand never to be held. Her books to never be read. My dreams never to be realized.
Sometimes it’s too much.
The time between summer and winter has a way of making one self-reflective. The leaves of autumn fall and decay into a kind of darkened sentimentality. The bereavement of the earth is in full view for a season and the nature that once hid the decomposing and remorse recedes. The sins of all us men on display. It’s a beautiful time.
I’d stare out at that sky forever, transfixed by the glittering luminescence above. Every star twinkled with truth, knowing that it was my destiny to be amongst them. Just wanting to be in the presence of something that connected me to every great traveller out there. Feeling small in the scope of something so big.
But some Jimmie-yard-boy was yelling in the distance and broke my train of thought.
I leapt from my metal perch to see the commotion. Found that as usual, there was more work to be done.
“Time to lean, Time to clean,” that’s what old guy Johnson said. Slave driver of a boss, the dick was.
He was a numbers man. Believed in the American dream. Brought up to believe in Capitalism and that if you worked hard enough you can be a millionaire, just like Steinbeck said. He didn’t believe in the frivolities or “fru-fru” as he called it. He had one simple rule; when you were at work, you worked. If you didn’t feel like working, he’d find somebody who did, and you could find yourself a new job. And you couldn’t ever use the excuse that “there was no work to be done,” because in the train-yards, there’s always work to be done.
I told him once that we were allotted a certain number of breaks. Told him it was union policy. He called me a pinko and threw a push-mop in my general direction.
I didn’t take this personally, mind you. I rather enjoyed the tension. It reminded me of my father. It reminded me of life before I became a statistic.
That jimmie-yard-boy ran up to me as I joined the other grunts. Said we had to do a rail switch for an oncoming freighter. I obliged and headed to it.
It’s amazing how quickly one is conditioned to oblige and mindlessly go about tasks. Like we were preordained monkeys on a mission. We could make iPhones, design digital realities, and brew pumpkin spiced lattes, but we can’t fight the system. Only wars in far away lands. The reality of it all made me sick, but that’s why I did this. Why I took this job. Why I never returned home after Lynn. When you find out your life is a “matrix”, who can return home to the hustle and bustle? I certainly couldn’t ever face my father again, recognizing the white-collar slave he was. Besides, he’d never forgive me for leaving school.
I latched onto the ground-throw and pulled it in time for the giant freighter to switch tracks right before my eyes. It was like a behemoth, it was so big. And the ground trembled beneath it. Industry would live another day.
I sat beside the tracks at the ground-throw and waited for the miles-long-train to pass so that I may switch the rails again, lest we have an incident right out of some crappy Ayn Rand novel.
It was moments like these that made me love this job. I was technically working, but I had time for my thoughts. I sometimes wondered what the other guys did with themselves during these long bouts of inert silence. But it was an exercise in futility and I always returned inward. Sometimes I’d gaze at the stars. Sometimes I’d jot down my thoughts on an aged legal pad. Tonite, I thought about the night I left home.
Lynn pushed us to go on the road. Black city river, she called it. She had the same feeling of wanderlust that we had. But she had a certain amount of follow-through that we lacked.
I still remember the feeling of excitement I had when I sat with Lynn and Staultz in that diner, as we itinerized our trip. We would follow in the footsteps of the great travelers and writers before us. We would be pioneers.
I still remember telling my father that I was leaving. It wasn’t meant to be a permanent thing. I just honestly had no idea when we would return. So I just said I was leaving. He wasn’t happy. I could never have foreseen that my lack of return date would be so foreshadowing.
I remember telling him that I felt lost in the world, that my privileged and sheltered life could never bring me any future. I had seen life through frosted glass and televisions. But I wanted to live it. Walled off in some gated community prevented me from growing and there was no other sensible remedy but to wander until I had found myself.
“You’re just running away,” he said, “being a man means not running away.”
He couldn’t understand. He came from Belarus. He lived on the other side of the wall. Literally, he was a part of the USSR. He didn’t have the privilege that smothered me so. I envied him that. But he couldn’t connect my need to be on the road with anything but escaping from responsibility.
“Radley, we came to this country so you can learn and go to a good college,” he yammered on, “You repay us by becoming a bum?”
I’ll never forget the conflicted feeling of shame and anticipation I had that night when I left. I knew that he would feel this way, because what reasonable parent doesn’t? He was much more like the American parents than he would ever want to admit. Obsessed with college and the status quo. He wanted me so earnestly to follow the rules of society.
I didn’t know how to convince him that this is what I wanted to do with my life.
So I just left. Convinced that one day my happiness and fulfillment in this life would prove him wrong.
Screeching, and clanking echoed through in the distance and brought me back to the train yard. Seems like I’m always the only one affected by these cumbersome sounds. Then again I’m always the only one lost in myself.
The final cars of the freighter passed before me and I flipped the ground-throw to switch the rails. The hairs on my face may have grown a little longer in the time I spent waiting. But these days all I have is time to wait.
Jimmie-yard-boy was yattering at me to come hang by the fire, but I couldn’t really hear him since I was doing my best to dredge back to my metal perch without any other interruption. I’m sure he said more, but I couldn’t really care.
I climbed the frosty ladder, my fingerless gloves damning me to the exposure again, and sat atop the train’s roof. Residing myself to the brisk air and my thoughts again.
I thought of the beat travellers who took to the road, back when the road still meant something. How I so badly had wanted to be one of them.
Days spent fantasizing about toiling the earth and being an explorer. I recall the hunger to see new things. I was starving for more. The romantic notion that life could be nothing more than a knapsack and the horizon as my home. But even then, I was conflicted. I was afraid of the unknown. Scared of what life would be like if I couldn’t predict it. But the person I had become, scared me more. I remember once frolicking in fields. Sipping on coffee every time, like it was the first time. Crying because I realized that it was beautiful to stand in the rain. Joyful, at the thought of the future.
And then one morning I woke up and was on an express train to death. Sun rose always in the same place. Alarm always went off at the same time. Went to work at the same meaningless job, everyday. I’d put on a uniform that was meant to strip me of my individuality. All for money. So that I could pay for college. So that I could get a better job. So I could provide for a wife and 2.5 children. And pay for their college. And die.
I couldn’t rationalize that lifestyle. I wanted more. I sought a way of life that wouldn’t rob me of my soul. You never know when one may come in handy.
Larkin would fuss about her soul all the time and it seeped into my consciousness like inception. She would insist that others were ripping hers to shreds. But it was really society. So much use that worrying did her. She was dead now. And her soul damned.
But before she came into my life, I was afraid. Afraid of the day when I would have to choose between what is and what could be. A job or a knapsack. She guided me. But there I was, alone. Paying the penance for a life less ordinary.
I knew I didn’t want be in this train yard. Some faceless grunt. My hunger was still not satisfied. But my resources were exhausted. And I, at the time, beat. But as I stared at Larkin in the constellations, I finally I found direction.
I could see myself months later. I could see myself with a knapsack. I could see myself on the road again with the stars as my only friends to guide me.
I sat there pondering my future and continued to stare out. Out upon the unending wheat of Iowa.
Out upon the now rising sun.
Out upon stars that were no longer visible, but were always there beside me.
Upon the road in the distance, beyond the train yard. Lustful and black.
Upon my brothers in labor, tired but wasted.
Once more, I leapt down from my metal perch and walked through the train yard. My eyes towards the horizon, towards the road. Towards the passing men readying the train. Thinking of autumn and the leaves. And how telling they truly are.
They would die like everything does. But not without showing their many colors and beauty. They would dry up and become compost for harvest. The leaves would feed men. And the passing men would one day become leaves. It all seemed so beautiful.
I walked on, beyond the yard and watched the others dredge on, knowing they would never appreciate the beauty of the leaves… I could hear the work of industry, grinding and gnawing at the earth. Taking everything. But giving nothing back. Miles laid out before me. I stared out into the distance and I walked. I walked and left this yard. I walked and left this yard to walk along the black city river to be amongst the leaves and toil the earth. Never to be free, never to be chained. But never to be alone, always amongst the stars.
–Art by Petra
–Art by NiiCoLaZz