through

***

Picture a train heading south. Or in any direction, really. It is sort of irrelevant at this point. The only thing that matters is to get away from here. cheapest ticket out, you had said when you arrived here. The girl in the booth had been a bit confused by this. Don’t you wish to specify a destination, she managed to say eventually, flummoxed. if i did, i would have done so. Poor girl. Not imagining why anyone would need something other than this place, other than a home and a job and a drug store counter and sharing a soda with two straws with some insipid Billy or Donnie. She had obliged, after a minute, when it seemed your temper might get the best of you, when your glances were getting furtive and impatient.

For now there was waiting. Waiting for the train, the violent scream of brakes transferring energies to places they did not want to go, counteracting the physics of momentum and perpetuity. Waiting for the exeunt, the sliding gliding of doors opening, the viscous spill of the exodus of the passengers before you. And then it would be your turn. Finally, mercifully, justly your turn. Your turn, first to depart, to be on your way, to be going places; eventually (a smile quickening your face as you think it), it would even be your turn to arrive. Finally, mercifully, deservedly arrive.

The first part of the train to appear is its wake, rushing air prefiguring the throng that follows, singing a hum, a rumble, its warning song. Lights pummel you from deep in the tunnel. Up the heart jumps, once. The lights seem to bend directly into your chest, as though the force of the train’s speed were exerting gravity, so fast it slides along. Up the heart speeds, to match the thumping whirring grinding tumbling train.

Creeeeeeeeeak to a stop. Panting for air after its labor, the train gasps open its doors.

No one exits.

You were expecting…something. People milling this way, that way, bumping thumping into you. You hesitate. Maybe they have all been lulled to sleep? Are they retrieving their bags? Someone closer to the train (not you) leans their head in. Just a few people on board, he says, plenty of room. Those waiting (including you) start pressing forward. Boarding is smooth, easy, fast, despite the fact that it seems everyone in the city is trying to board today. As you sit, the doors seem to close multiple times, though this is not possible. You are left feeling quite safe, invincible even.

Somewhere cars and yards ahead, there is a conductor. He will direct the train. You will not meet him as long as the train is moving. (Perhaps after you may.) He does something, pulls some lever or presses some button, or maybe barks some order to some other hapless guy, but whatever he does, however it works, there is a lurch and the train is moving. Up the heart lurches with it.

***

Your first train ride. You will not be able to express it to anyone, the feelings, the excitement, the…(is that…fear?), the sights and sounds and people you meet and places you go: to try to sum it up seems silly, demeaning, void.

The train is clipping along quickly now, and you are staring out the window as it emerges from the underground station. Blurs by like brown cows and green fields rows of grain like pond ripples and swoop birds and cars driving but look stopped and whiz by like poles telephone poles look like bar codes or world flying by like an assembly line! It is all too much, too fast and powerful to take in, and you are sure even though it was wondrous that you missed a great deal. too bad you won’t be taking another ride this way soon, you tell yourself. The first day of the trip is jovial, the passengers are boisterous and affable, and it seems that your life in that other place, that stinking wretch of a town, though but minutes and hours behind you is merely a bad dream now, fading into the light of reality and severed from you by fleeting memory. Already it has begun to sink into the mire of the past, and you can’t help but smile as you are settling in for the night.

***

Awake with a thump, and the train is not moving, not moving at all. Though it is night, outside is tinted with specks of orange glow and the horizon is blood red like the stars took the night off or something, all obscured because the window is fogged (it was so clear earlier in the day?) Everyone is looking around, and has there been a word from the conductor and no one has heard anything and should someone go check things out and

gunfire. Unmistakable, from outside, sounds of gunfire. Automatic, a drum roll of bullets. Children are inside this train, and they are crying. Women are holding them. Men are faking brave. You don’t know what you are what you feel anything at all. Up jumps the heart, not the same as before. This feels like your heart is trying to hide somewhere, jump out of your chest and hide somewhere safer.

Shouts. From outside. Getting closer. Is there an emergency button or can we call someone and what the h___ is going on outside and it seems like the orange is slowly conquering the view and that’s when you realize that its

fire. Blazing outside and who knows where we are and what the h___ am i doing on this train?!? And now the orange seems to be sliding, ever so slowly sliding to the left and that’s because

the train is moving again! You could hardly tell, the motion was so imperceptible and the shuffling of the people around you and your own franticly panicking made it impossible to see, but now you sit, breathe, and you can feel it! Whatever was wrong, the conductor has gotten it fixed, or his engineers or something, but you are definitely moving. anytime now we will be zipping along like before. Not yet. anytime now…still no. ok, seriously, anytime now. Is this all he could get out of her? Three, maybe four miles an hour. Not changing. Not gaining. What is gaining are the shouts, the gun blasts. The fires. Closer each minute, closer. And then it grips you: you aren’t going to make it. They will reach you before the train is fixed, and you will be dragged into the chaos of whatever is happening outside, and you will probably die. And you know that as you are dying you will see the train click into gear magically and speed off into the distance, moments too late to do you any good.

The window beside you pounds, pounds, pounds. A gun butt is jamming over and over beside your face, and the window is so fogged now that you cannot see who holds it, but you imagine they aren’t here to hand out girl scout cookies. Everyone around you is screaming and holding to each other in the center of the car when

the lights flicker, then go off. Power is slowly draining from the train, and now the car is rocking back and forth. The outsiders are pushing it, shoving it, shaking it mercilessly, and soon it will topple, derail, and die.

There is nothing to be done.

You close your eyes.

This is not at all

what you bargained for.

Should have stayed at home.

{Loudest noise you’ve ever heard}

***

Eyes flutter, beat, slowly like butterfly wings flap open.

Impossible.

You are sitting in the same seat, on the same train. It hums along, windows clear, day outside bright and wonderful and brown cows and green fields and on and on, as far as the eye can see. Around you, children sleep, mothers hold them smiling, men stand, gaze lovingly at families, breathing relief. Was that…did you dream that? It was so real, seemed so terrible.

And you can’t help but smile yourself when you hear, finally, the voice of the conductor.

“We are through the night.”

So it was real.

“There are more nights ahead,” he says, “but I will get you where you are going. I promise you that.”

For some reason, you believe him. After all, he got you this far, right?

Picture a train heading south. It isn’t the train you were expecting, but it is still intact and still hustling along. And though you haven’t met him yet, you feel a pretty immense sense of confidence in the conductor. Wherever he takes you, you will be ready now.

You settle back into your window seat, scenery whizzing by furiously. You try to memorize it all.

***

Author’s Note: Part poem, part essay, part speculative fiction, part allegory, i was entirely unsure how to classify this. So i called it fiction, for lack of a better term. Also, thanks to Mr. Powers for the use of his first line. i have no desire to give the impression that i either stumbled into that line by coincidental accident nor that i borrowed it and am claiming it as my own.

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2 thoughts on “through

  1. I was going to ask you if you had read the interview where Powers talks about that line. Then I started looking for it online and finally realized it was not an interview, but rather a discussion “Powers” has in Galatea 2.2. Then I couldn’t remember or determine if he actually started any novel with that line after all. Did he? Anyways, what a Powersian type of confusion for me to have.

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    • To my knowledge he never did. It would have to be a novel post-Galatea, and as i believe either you or i have read all of those, we would surely know. A funny confusion. Thanks for reading.

      As for this piece, i am not sure whether i like it or not. It did not come together as i had hoped. Regardless, thanks for reading.

      Like

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