The Crossing

Nighttime. Pitch black.

No light except a lone halogen bulb mounted on a hanging fixture above the door of a small storage shed. Its corrugated steel is dusty and slightly rusted, its single window, security glass with wire webbed between the panes. The grass rustles in the wind with the dark night back drop. No stars. They’ve been blacked out by the dust and clouds and the only sound left is the whistle of the wind and the grass being caught in its breath.

One hundred and eighty degrees from the shack and a few steps away are steel tracks. They create a crossroads here with the dirt road rarely traveled so the only warning for the oncoming engine are yellow signs on opposite sides of the tracks and road with their backs to each other. Like guards they man their post and only waiver slightly when they are blown upon by the mouth of the clouds. They are marked with dents from slugs and hollow point bullets from guns fired by the residents nowhere near here who find entertainment in destruction of property knowing they’ll never get caught in the country.

The gravel on the road opposite the shed crunches. Two feet in leather boots make strides in the direction of the tracks, purposeful but obviously in no hurry. The tops of the boots are covered by black work pants, up to a t-shirt covered by a black cloth jacket that covers him down to mid-thigh. His hands are in his pockets and his eyes are fixed on the tracks. His eyes are cold and analytical like that of a snake as he comes closer and closer to the tracks, leaving footprints in the dust which will be forgotten by the morning.

He stops with his toes against the rail and looks down for a moment. He can see the affect of steel upon steel in streaks of reflection against the long metal rail. He lightly kicks his toe against it just to feel that it was real, that it was solid. Then he bends down and puts his ear to the steel and listens for the vibrations of an oncoming engine, barreling its way towards him. All he hears is silence.

He rises to his knees and reaches inside his pocket. He produces a carpenter’s nail he’d pulled from a two by four surprisingly straight and holds it to the light. The tip creates a pinprick of light. He palms it and pulls a picture out of that same pocket. He looks at it for a moment with the same cold analysis that he did the crossing. There were memories there but they’d long since been rendered neutral if not turned to ice in his mind. The wind picks up momentarily, causing the tall grass to whisper unintelligible secrets to him and the picture flutters against his knuckles.

His brow furrows and he looks down at one of the wooden ties, then back at the picture and nail. He kneels down and holds the picture to the surface of the tie with the tip of the nail and produces a claw hammer from his pocket. He nails the picture to the tie with some effort as the wood is old and knotted. He stands up, observing his handiwork, tilting his head to the left and then to the right. He looks up to see a light in the distance and he stares at it as it gets closer.

Its horn blows.

He turns to face his accuser straight backed and solid like the signs to his left and to his right. His spine is made of steel and his eyes are floodlights.

In one fluid motion he hurls the hammer in the direction of the train. He takes a deep breath with his eyes closed and his head back, inhaling the smell of dust, steel and country grass as if it were the fragrance of a flower. His head levels out and his eyes look straight forward. It’s coming closer still and it blows its horn. He looks down to the picture nailed to the tie, breathes from his ribs, brings his eyes up, then back down again. The eyes in the picture look, unchanging, right back at him.

“Goodbye,” he said.

He steps off the tracks and into the night, the gravel crunching under his feet. He barely feels the wash of the train careening by.

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Tales From an Open Book: Passing Train Cars

I realize this makes post number three for the evening but my mind sometimes work in great leaping bounds and this a great place to put my thoughts in a possibly useful place.  The idea of this and, hopefully I’ll do this more than once, I’ll put up a story or experience that I may not have shared with a lot of people or maybe anyone.  There are a lot of things stored up in my head and I try to be what I dubbed this post and maybe posts like this in the future.  I am an open book.  Honesty is very important to me and so is trust.  Honesty builds trust.  I trust that none of this will be used against me and, even if it is, I don’t think I would care.  I will not hide from who I am or what I have done in the past.  I think some people lack that.  And it makes me sad.  But, let us begin.

Last summer, I spent a little over a week in Tennessee visiting family and seeing the sights.  I started in Clarksville where I was staying at my aunt and uncle.  At 1AM, after a long drive, I was greeted by my aunt with a hug and a 6 pack of Guinness.  How very grateful I was, but my stomach was not very happy with me.  I had abused it with an entire 4 pack of Red Bull and a lot of junk food.  So, I suffered that night and off and on throughout my stay there.  Oh, well.

Clarksville is a very large urban sprawl and I had actually been there before.  I got the tour from my cousin and then I got introduced to her friends.  This is really the part of the story I wanted to get to.  First, in Clarksville, I was introduced to her best friend and her dad.  Her best friend is an interesting mix of hippie and… I don’t know what and he and his dad lived in a house, more like a bachelor pad.  We drank there and there was talk of drugs and jam band festivals.  It was very much like home.  I loved these people as they loved me and, despite the drugs they talked and my being a little buzzed from the Jack and Cokes.  It was good times and we would hang out a few times during my stay.

Her best friend then took us to a party in the rich part of Clarksville where a bunch of young kids were drinking, smoking pot, taking shrooms and I don’t even know what else.  I remember the upstairs was dark and there was a Phish DVD on the big screen TV.  There were a couple of acoustic guitars, a nice bongo drum, and a couple of kids packing a bowl.  This immediately made me nervous because I was, I think, the only one of age at this party.  I was told not to worry, this was a secluded community of Clarksville and cops didn’t really trek in there much.  There were no parents, no supervision.  I was doing everything I could not to freak out at this at the time. 

What really twisted me around was sitting outside with Best Friend and Cousin and this one kid.  Then the question came up as to whether this kid, we’ll call him Billy, believed in God.  Even in the infancy of my faith I cringed at the answers Billy was giving.  It ranged everywhere to trying to ask for a definition of God.  Then he brought up the clockmaker theory which, I guess, is that there is a great creating entity who put this entire world together, set it in motion and then just watched it spin.  Best Friend would then begin to explain the love of God and the salvation in Jesus.  Then he did something I thought was very special.  He asked Billy to go on a walk.  So, up the long driveway they went and into glow of the street lamps.  At which time, I uttered my surprise at the events that had just unfurled.  To this, my cousin responded that this was always his way of trying to reach these lost kids.  I was floored.  I still reel when I think about it.  But God would show me something far more staggering and beautiful to be sure.

A day or so later, my youngest cousin took me to Memphis.  She attends college there at Christian Brothers University as a Philosophy of Religion major.  She showed me around town and then we met up with her friends she had made from college.  I was wrangled into a small apartment with four girls.  Usually, I would be okay with this.  I sat on a wicker ottoman and listened to them talk and the conversations quickly trekked into territory in which I had not tread and do not wish to ever treat in my lifetime.

They began to load up the bowls on their pipes, setting lighters to them and getting high.  All the while these girls would speak of nothing but drugs and the deals they needed to make.  I analyzed each of them intently.  Two of them, in my heart, felt like this was their escape.  And I wasn’t passing judgement or trying to exhibit some sort of pious pity on these girls.  I just felt that, in my heart and in my gut, that this was their life and what it would continue to be.  For a couple of hours, I sat silently.  In my head I began to wander outside myself and my environment, so these people probably thought I was quite odd.  When it was time for everyone to get their nicotine fix, we headed for the back door.  Everyone would finish theirs and head inside.  I took a seat in the door frame.  The weather was nice enough that I just sat and pondered my situation.  I head heard endless talk about “bars” or xanax, adderall, pot… I just couldn’t attach myself to the situation.  And it grieved me but not out of pity but because I felt it in my heart.  I can’t really explain it.

So, it would come to a point when the night came.  I was watching the other people walking around the complex and just thinking about how badly I wanted to leave.  My cousin came over to me at one point and said that the attendees were worried I wasn’t having a good time.  I told her that I wasn’t and went back to my cigarette.  At some point, everyone came back outside for a cigarette.  I wandered off into the yard toward a chain-link fence with barbed wire at the top.  My experiences in Memphis later would best explain this.  I’d want barbed wire too if I lived there.  It was then, at that fence, that I felt a rumble under my feet.  I was so lost in my own thoughts that the vibration sort of brought me back to the moment.  There was a railroad crossing about 20 feet from me.  I watched through the fence as the train rumbled and screeched past and it was then that I felt God calm me.  In the weight of the heavy Memphis air, I felt at ease again despite the hollowness I had been battling.

And it was then that I returned to my perch in the door, smoking another cigarette.  I must have gone through an entire pack in those hours.  I prayed that God would send me something, anything that would bring me out of this state and out of myself.  I wanted someone to talk to, to bring my thoughts away from the inside of my head and back to the external.  And, literally, moments later I heard footsteps and a man with dreadlocks sat down next to me and introduced himself.  He and I got into discussing ourselves.  It would turn out that we would save each other from the situation.  While he was partaking in the festivities and I was not, it didn’t consume him.  It did not possess him as some of the other people there.  He was also the only other guy there which, admittedly, was a big help.

There were a few things I took away from these situations that I will carry with me forever.  It is that God appears in the least and the strangest of people sometimes.  I also learned the dangers of myself and the dangers of internalizing myself.  There is beauty in many things and that includes people who participate in recreational drug use, that God can be in there too.

One thing that stuck in my head, however, was the sense of calm I got from watching that train pass by that night.  I’m sure everyone there thought I was out of my head at that moment, because I was pressed against that fence just watching.  I didn’t understand it other than the effects.  Then, not too long after I returned home from my little trip, the Pastor at church told the story which I have been unable to locate anywhere.  So, I’ll quote from memory and I apologize in advance if I got it wrong.

There was a preacher who was acting in such a way that his congregation thought him suicidal.  One day, they all followed him down to the train tracks and there he stood, watching the train go by.  When they asked him why he was watching the train he said, “I just wanted to see someone else carry a heavy load.”

The meaning was not lost on me.  So, I do not look back on my time in Memphis or Clarksville with anything but love because it was then that I felt God’s love for me.  With that came the realization that God creates loving people for his work out of the hearts of the people you don’t expect it sometimes.