By: Jon Patrick Sage
Outside through the damp evening, a train lumbering northward, is low through the glass of my window. At 11:30 pm, and as an adult, I am awake, typing at my desk. Yet, this is the same town that I grew up in, and remember the same northbound train, through the bedroom window of a young boy who had been asleep, until the rumble of the steel wheels– heralded by the piercing whistle of the locomotive… At every crossing it rattled the panes, and I knew every one of them– 3 signaled crossings within hearing distance of Jonesville, and by that time only the remembrance of the pounding of the tracks was felt, with remnants of the whistle barely audible, some 10 miles away by now. But even still, tonight as it was then, the sound carries long and lonely in the clear and cold night time air, and even more so if the window is carefully cracked open, if only to break the silence, allowing the movement of the coolness of night, so as to bring sleep that much easier.
As the train is now out of town, and rolling now past the place that I heard it as a child, it becomes apparent that nothing has ever stopped. The trains move now as they ever did, but without the caboose, and now hauling mostly cars, steel, and liquid tankers of some sort. The box cars of years ago, that would often have had one or more half opened doors, a highway for another sort of traveler, are seemingly lost in the time lapse; as if the box car has either lost its use, or simply fallen out of vogue. However might be the case, the train still travels on time; to some undisclosed location, where it is invariably followed again in a few hours by another north bounder… carrying roughly the same number and types of cars… minus the caboose.
The town I live in was named at its founding by a railroad man, one who held some amount of influence, and who in the mid-19th century, decided by his own will that I should someday live within the influence of his trains. Seymour was an intersection of the railroad, and conjoined the East to West rails with the North to South ones, or vice versa. Either way, or however it came to fruition, I have always listened to the passing trains in the darkness. The rail traffic was often compounded and accompanied by the hum of the tires of the semi-tractor trailers, moving along Interstate 65, or along U.S. Route 50, one of the great roads, leading from Baltimore to Sacramento.
All of this, with me at the junction of them all.
How could I not think of movement, of travel, of the wander-lust that has been my life’s calling and will surely reside with me, until the end presents itself on the horizon? The ending that slowly rotates toward a person with the absolute certainty of the sun rising in the east, and setting in the west– and one that cannot be outrun! At our very best, we can only hope to coincide with the natural disappearance of the ball of fire, leaving in that quiet night, rather than being consumed by it in the awkwardness of midday.
Over the years, through my early travels, and on into the time that I had begun to think such necessary movement would become un-necessary; I endeavored, like most others, to build a worthy existence. I married; raised a few kids; began to see myself as a member of the community; welcomed a granddaughter into this world; a world which, at that time, showed no signs of wavering. I finished a bachelor’s degree and then entered graduate studies. I became, in a way that I had always wanted, but never quite expected– comfortable, even contented, and at times I even felt complimented by some supposed level of success.
And still, late in the evenings, and often at times of controversy, all that was obvious, above the din of an ordinary and work-a-day life, was the passing of the night-time train, not a mile from my window.
I hear it now, this evening, and look around at surroundings I might have only dreamt of in my youth. In those days I had secreted away, possibly 2-3 books that had arrived from the mail order book club or the always looked forward to- Book Fair at school! What a grand event. I looked forward to the book fair, always making sure that I had at least a few dollars to spend, to buy a Brand New Book, and one which was all mine. I remember, even still, the neatly lined rows of books, some hardcover and some paperbacked, mostly were in paper, and some older ones bound in stiff cloth bindings. All of them for sale, and I wanted all of them… to settle for maybe 1-2 per year was not what I would have wished for. Indeed, I wanted the entire library.
I now have most of the entire library.
I cherish my books, and my office… my home office. I have several categories of books, reference, religion, fiction, non-fiction, biography… prose and poetry, all in one room, and all mine. This now, for many years, has symbolically represented and fulfilled my other need– to move, to travel, and to not lead the ordinary life. Paradoxical, really… you can’t have both, and yet; I want both. At the very least, I would be content with one, if the other could simply vanish, never to be seen again. And yet, neither will disappear, for both have always been with me!
I listen as the train passes, and this evening, the sounds along the rails carry dreadful notes with them, and leave me feeling as helpless as the air that is forced from the pathway of the train. The train, with all its momentum, stops for nothing; and neither do the life events bearing down on me now. Too much time has been invested, or if you will– wasted and miss-directed, in the development of happenings upon the horizon. And makes nearly impossible for any other transition that which is obvious, to occur now. I hear the train passing, through the open window, and in its path, the life and library that I simultaneously gaze upon. It all must go, or at least be laid idle… The books cannot go; the pictures on the shelf cannot go; the comfort of the swivel chair behind the maple desk… cannot go. They must stay– alone.
My eyes move, up through several collections: Durant; Defoe; the religious texts; the Histories of Greene and D’Aubigne; several shelves of 17th and 18th century philosophers; Masonic and Esoteric authors; the artists of the occult; all of them… I built this library, as I built my life, hoping to be able to stay and wanting for the other life, the traveling kind, to become a memory. Not a decade ago, this room– now so warm and comfortable, was a shell, with four walls and a wooden floor. Now, it is lined with bookcases, and it is warm, it is MY sanctuary, and the thought of that which now looms foreboding, is frightening. I must leave this room, and travel on ahead. I will travel not only from this room, but from this house, and from my life; my family. I am undeniably and unmistakably reminded of the flight of the Joad family from Oklahoma, and the manner in which the house they left quickly turned from their home, into a vacant and wind torn shambles– lost without its family.
In the most vivid manner possible, I prepare myself for what the Joad matriarch endured, prior to their epic departure and journey, and even though I may or may not clean out the room, the sentiment, one of determined albeit unwilling departure, carries the same solemn sickness:
“Ma was just through the door, and she heard his words. Slowly her relaxed face tightened, and the lines disappeared from the taut muscular face. Her eyes sharpened and her shoulder straitened. She glanced about the stripped room. Nothing was left in it except trash. The mattresses which had been on the floor were gone. The bureaus were sold. On the floor lay a broken comb, an empty talcum powder can, and a few dust mice. Ma set her lantern on the floor. She reached behind one of the boxes that had served as chairs and brought out a stationary box, old and soiled and cracked at the corners. She sat down and opened the box. Inside were letters, clippings, photographs, a pair of earrings, a little gold signet ring, and a watch chain braided of hair and tipped with gold swivels. She touched the letters with her fingers, touched them lightly, and she smoothed a newspaper clipping on which there was an account of Tom’s trial. For a long time she held the box, looking over it, and her fingers disturbed the letters and then lined them up again. She bit her lower lip, thinking, remembering. And at last she made up her mind. She picked out the ring, the watch charm, the earrings, dug under a pile and found one gold cuff link. She took a letter from an envelope and dropped the trinkets in the envelope. She folded the envelope over and put it in her dress pocket. Then gently and tenderly she closed the box and smoothed the top carefully with her fingers. Her lips parted. And then she stood up, took her lantern, and went back into the kitchen. She lifted the stove lid and laid the box gently among the coals. Quickly the heat browned the paper. A flame licked up and over the box. She replaced the stove lid and instantly the fire sighed up and breathed over the box.”
Unlike the Okies leaving forever for the promised land of the orchard in California; I may leave, but not in such a permanent manner. Unlike Ma, in the forlorn structure that was the Joad’s family home, I won’t feed that which I have built into the all-consuming fire, never again to be remembered, and certainly never again to be gazed upon. At some point, I WILL return, perhaps to this very room, in this exact same chair, looking at this same desk, and even– hearing the same train echoing against the heavy darkness. However, when that does occur, and I do sit here, once again; how much more will all of those constants have changed? Or, how little will they have remained the same?