Let’s set this scene. It is March 15th, 2009. I am on my laptop. Dano is on his Commodore64-era mobile telephone. There is a movie. I don’t recall the title. It is in downtown Chicago on a Monday night, I am working part time, not due in the office that Tuesday, and I have no excuses. Except for the part where I get from here to there.
I never do. I stay home in the house by the tracks – the home I thought I was building within the walls of the house that built me. Every Tuesday, mid-morning, a freight train passes a block away. Four months later, this would all quite literally derail.
No wait. Let’s set this other scene first. It is late March, 2007. I am standing in Garrison, North Dakota, yards away from a BNSF spur, Canon to my eye, positioning a setting sun behind a freight car abandoned to graffiti artists and wildlife. I fire. I inhale. The god of Flickr captions whispers in my ear . . . Empires Weren’t Built Here. My father, not two weeks past, rode the Empire Builder to a location not far from here (not far in miles, an insurmountable distance in every other way).
No. There is more. Something further back. A childhood in the covered grandstands of NoDak Speedway, modifieds, late models, and the occasional sprint car circling the dirt track. The only shiny objects distracting enough to pull my gaze away from the racing are trains and planes. My eyes drawn upward with each vapor trail, transfixed as the train roars past turns three and four.
Over all of this, the ever-evolving playlist: Songs About Trains. If you miss the train I’m on, you will know that I am gone . . . you can hear the whistle blow one hundred miles.
Empires Weren’t Built Here. Let’s call this Part 1.
So where were we? Ahhh yes. March 2009. A little over a year ago. There is a movie, and Dano wants me to meet him in the city, and I say “No.” With prodding, I say “Not unless you drive me.” It isn’t possible. I’m on my own. Logistics. He says “Get on the train.” Mmmmm. No. What holds me back is an indescribable fear. I have been on trains, high speed trains shooting across Europe. I have never been responsible for myself before, for the arrangements, for getting off of the train at the proper location, for getting from that point to an ultimate destination. My hand, always held. I will get in my car. I am profoundly uncomfortable without a car close by. An escape vehicle. But at the same time, I am profoundly uncomfortable driving in the city. Navigating. Parking. Not getting murdered. You know.
There was no movie. There was frustration from Dano, a train man for both business and convenience. There was a lunch on the 17th in Marengo, a town that couldn’t be less Chicago. I showed him a simple girl with limited capabilities. I showed him a simple girl from a small and remote world. I have never in my life felt more like the child of a town of 200.
A month later, there was an Edvard Munch exhibit at the Art Institute that I was anxious to see. Dano would be going, again without me. Unless I got on that goddamn train by myself. Then the train delivered something I wasn’t expecting – a death. A jumper. A plan. A man’s story ended in front of a train and the delay – the messy inconvenient delay of death, making all of those commuters late for dinner – the delay meant that Dano was over his allowed hours of service. The government wouldn’t let him work the next day. He wouldn’t be going to the Art Institute from the downtown Chicago train station, he would be going there from his home in the suburbs. Saved, I was, by that jumper. Saved from my own paralyzing fear of having to expand my remote little world without somebody holding my hand.
I spent the night reading, obsessing over death, but a different death. Not the jumper, but a baby, a blogger’s child who died unexpectedly. I shouldn’t say that I was obsessing over that particular baby, that particular death, but the global idea of death in the self-published world. I kept hitting the grieving mother’s Twitter account, reading backwards, seeking out the last words she said before the whole world crashed down on her. The last thing that she documented before the big awful thing. Would people do this when I die? What would be my last blog post? What would be my last status update? When I am gone, what will you see as the very last thing I’ve chosen to publish to my audience?
I spoke about this extensively as we rode the train together into the city, as I absorbed the rhythm of the train into my body, the rhythm that is the foundation of all of those songs. I watched each step and filed it away for the future, for the time when I could do it alone. Our conversation built from my fear of what my last status update would be to what if I wasn’t the person who died? What if it was another tragedy I survived, and where would the internet fit into it? What would I share? What would I hold back? What would be construed as capitalizing, given my advertising revenue?
And god. Oh god. What about that book? What about that novel in the drawer that I can’t look at because of the death? Her death that I wrote years before it happened, yet doesn’t appear in all versions of the story, the suicide of the character that I was never quite sure was me or her. Would that book ever see the light of day? Or would I succumb to this fear of being viewed as a pillager of my own tragedies and betrayer of my family, peddling their pain for pennies on the internet?
And then Dano and I were there, standing not where you’d expect me to be, in front of The Scream, a good place to contemplate my seemingly genetic madness – “From him I inherited the seeds of madness. The angels of fear, sorrow, and death stood by my side since the day I was born.” (Edvard Munch) – no. I was standing before The Sick Child. In a room full of drafts and alternate versions of The Sick Child. Surrounded on four sides by the death of his sister. Death in the Sickroom. Even before reading the history and confirming my suspicions, the 124 year-old criticism from his contemporaries was palpable in that room. The profit. The money. Peddling the death of his sister for pennies on the internet.
Dano and I discussed it from the steps of the Art Institute and back to the train station, the entire ride home. Whose pain is fair game? Where does my story stop and the story that isn’t mine to share begin? What do I owe the other characters in my life, how can I protect their pain while telling my story? The book. Oh god. The book. Death in the Sickroom. The jumper. The last tweet. The book. Oh god.
The rhythm was ceaseless, the rhythm of that train. I have thousands of rail miles on my odometer since that day.
The book left the drawer.
There will be a part 2.