Copyright (c) 2002 J.D. Chapman All Rights Reserved
The wind blows a small scrap of paper up against a track spike. The track spike is rusted, resting on its side, on the grime and oil encrusted rocks beneath a rail, askew, askance, the rail a blue steel top, the tie half creosote, half weathered and oiled, the years compressed in as if it had always been this way. No longer even the memory of a tree, the tie is now forever condemned to be a rail tie. It will remain between a rock bed and a steel rail accumulating years of passing grime and oil, forever nameless, one of a million billion rail ties. This one with a stray spike, a runaway, a renegade, left behind in the process or slowly wriggling free to find itself forsaken beneath the rail, its claim a shard of windblown paper. As the wind bends the corner of the paper upward it reveals numbers, some digits with colons, times of day perhaps, hours, maybe a schedule of some sort. Printed numerals in columns. But the paper is immobilized: it has become wedged beneath the spike. The spike is cold and nameless, distinguished because it is solitary and free, but otherwise unremarkable, a quantum of engineering. Although it has a rounded point it is mostly a square column with the top bent over and flattened, designed to be driven with two swift blows of a sledge hammer through a hole in a mounting plate and directly into a rail tie, precisely pinning the cold blue steel. Everything about the spike says Drive Me Into The Wood Tie with Two Swift Blows. It has failed in its purpose, sitting alone atop the rocks.
The rocks don’t care. They are special rocks, yes. But there are a thousand times more rocks than rail ties, a billion times more rocks than people. They are special rocks because they have been chosen for this purpose — to line the bed and support the blue steel rails; they are special because they are all the same size: no more than two inches long in a single dimension, no less than an inch-and-a-half in their shortest width. Each rock has its own personality and yet each rock is so similar to all the other rocks that one rock is no different from any other in the same way that no person is different than any other. Next to the paper a rock stands out because half of it is covered in oil, the top half dark, not black, but darker in the sense that oil seeps into the pores of a rock and then after fifteen, twenty, perhaps thirty years, makes the rock both water repellent and caliginous. A rock a couple inches from that has a bit of sparkle. Maybe it’s just how the sun glances a crystalline inclusion, as the sparkle fades after a few minutes. The panorama of rocks produces an umber path, a common man’s vista, a combination of all the faded sunsets that ever existed. Together the rocks speak of the unsung strength of the millions of nameless, they sit quietly and don’t do anything, not individually, and yet together they cradle the ties, they shore up the undulations of the land and make a stubbly bed for the blue steel rail.
The rail though. Ah, the rail. It is the princess: the culmination, the clarification, the purpose, the ultimate path, the quiet strength and direction and hopes and fiery distillation of intention. The rail is in stark and screaming contrast to the ties and rockbed. The ties and rockbed are the plebeian masses of peasants upon which the royalty of the blue steel rail presides. It makes no favorites, looks down upon everything, is careless in its abandon. Everything exists for the rail and the rail is the purpose of all existence. The rockbed exists for the rail, the creosote ties exist for the rail, the support plates and the spikes exist for the rail, the asphalt platform with the yellow warning line exists for the rail, the baggage cars sitting vacant down at the end of the station are for the rail. Somewhere in the unseen distance beyond the horizon a train depends upon the rail. But now it sits silent, stoic, blue steel, straight, flat, engineered. It passes between the bent flanges of spikes; it rests atop the support plates that rest atop the wood ties that rest atop the billions of rocks. It calls to you — touch me.
Of course, nobody is allowed to touch the rail. The yellow line on the platform (bumpy, frazzled, tattered by wear) is meant to keep people from touching the rail. Touching the rail is dangerous. No, it’s not electric: this is an Amtrak station — the locomotives that ride these rails provide their own power. It’s just a steel rail. But if you cross the yellow line to touch the rail then you have violated the code, you have done something to reach royalty and you are just a regular person, an oil-soaked rock, you are not royalty now nor will you ever be. The urge to touch the rail comes from the urge to be in contact with royalty, to experience what royalty experiences, to sense vicariously what it must be like to have so much attention and support lavished upon you. The rail calls out to you — touch me, touch me. It is smooth, oh so very smooth on top, not shiny like chrome but still reflective, burnished. You want to feel the smoothness of it, to see if your finger slides gently or clings just ever so slightly as it glides over the surface.
Then your mind is adrift — you vacate the train station, you have left Salinas, you are traveling through memories of your past, snippets of music, train music, Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, City of New Orleans. You want to pull yourself back to the present, but the rocks and ties and rail are silent, they allow you to slip away, they hold no sway, and you drift to beaches, forests, neighborhoods. You are on a bicycle, you are riding in a car, you are flying on a plane. Movement, scenery moving past windows. Looking out of train windows, clickety clack, poles and fences flashing past against a backdrop of rolling hills that slide along slowly. A fly buzzes your face — you flinch and pulse a backhand swipe up into the air and you are suddenly back, sitting on your suitcase on the cracked asphalt, your feet stretched out in their faded boots a few inches away from the cracked yellow line.
Paint on the asphalt, you follow the yellow line with your eye and it stretches down parallel to the track, a consistent five feet away from the rail line, all the way down to your left (perhaps one hundred feet) until the asphalt ends. The yellow painted line stops there although the rail, of course, continues onward. But at that point the asphalt slopes down into dirt, and although too far for you to see clearly, your mind’s eye shows the ragged edge of where the asphalt meets the dirt. Nothing planned (smooth and beveled) but rather simply the result of running out of asphalt, the last batch poured on that day forty, fifty, sixty years ago, the edges ragged and jagged, little pieces of tar-coated aggregate visible, places that are more dirt than asphalt, more asphalt than dirt. The yellow line now tracks your vision back down toward the other end of the platform and it is far enough away that you actually can’t see where the yellow line ends — it fades into the blur of heated air currents and shifts of light from the asphalt five or six hundred feet away.
You wonder about the station, the same as any train station with fifty or sixty years heaped upon its slumping beams and timbers. The wood siding is chalky with fifteen or twenty layers of white paint: paint that yellowed, got sandblasted and then painted over again, ample times now so that when chips of paint break off they are thick enough to survive on the ground for several months. Small piles of paint chips lie in windblown corners around the building. The roofline slopes a bit toward the middle thirds — two slight dips across an otherwise plain straight top. Whole sections of asphalt shingles are in odd colors where they have been replaced at various times. Wood boxes seem to nest in various locations along the building, perhaps with locks, now abandoned. Some of them have remnants of what could have been doors or a half shelf jilted long ago. Most of the windows are fogged with dirt; in the distant far end of the structure two frames are boarded over with plywood. Shadows move behind some of the windows — passengers milling around inside, perhaps a ticket agent needs to take a break to use the men’s room, or a tired traveler grabs a watery coffee from the vending machine.
Outside, the air moves unimpeded over the landscape. It has the mixed smell of the central valley — fresh and yet artificial, fertilizer and broccoli and kale and rye grass. If the wind shifts it has just the slightest tinge of pine from the Sierras, then it switches back to fertilizer and broccoli. The rays of the sun bleach the air as it passes, slowly irradiating out the major irritants, until by the time the wind reaches down to San Luis Obispo it has already lost all of its flavor. But here it is farm air. You look down the rails, wondering if you can smell the impending train. You wonder what it must have been like before the civilization of cars and airplanes: horses mumbling, the farm air still the farm air, when a train was a smoking locomotive. You think that you can feel the train in your bones… you can sense it while it is still over the horizon, ten, fifteen, or twenty minutes before it pulls up to the station. You expand your awareness to the smell of the diesel, the imperceptible rumbling of tons of steel miles down the track. It must do something to the rails — you want to put your ear flat on the rails, or just place your hand on the rails to sense the millidegree rise in temperature that must occur as the heat from the distant train precedes the behemoth by the speed of light. You smile at the painted yellow line.
In a listless fashion you focus your eyes gradually down the track, straight into a vanishing parallax point at the skyline. The most minuscule bumps texture the horizon with trees or hills twenty miles away. What will the train be? A bright light in the distance? A streak of black smoke? Subterranean rumbling? The farm air occludes any answer. A brown bird (a small bird, a common wren) lands on the opposite track and stands on a rail tie just off the far side of the blue steel. He cocks his head and then hops down to the rocks. You see the top of his head bob up and down as he scavenges something, crumbs from a former passenger, an old hot dog bun, a piece of a roll left from a hobo bum. He suddenly flies away and you just catch the flash of a piece of food he is gripping in his beak. You rise with a sigh — the blue rail has won, you concede defeat. Out of the corner of your eye you peek back at the station to see if anyone watches you. You give a phony stretch, then bend over to touch your shoe as if you are cleaning it or checking a lace. You nonchalantly walk out onto the rail line and give a cough, another stretch, eyes down the track. You bend down pretending as if you are picking up a piece of paper, but instead you touch the rail. You rub it just so slightly.
Exactly as smooth as it looked, burnished, it sticks just ever so slightly to the ridges on your finger, but it is colder than you had thought, quite cool actually. You clear your throat again and walk back over the painted yellow line and stand next to your luggage. It was no big deal. You don’t even take a second glance to vex if you had been caught — who cares, act like nothing happened and then nothing happens. You laugh at yourself, thinking how you could feign the grounds for putting your ear down onto the rail. Well, you can’t think of any logical reason (that you could get away with) to avert attention from putting your head onto the tracks. You imagine though what the noises inside the rail would sound like if you did more than put your ears on the track, if you had a stethoscope, a tiny clip microphone you could attach to the rail, and listen to it with big padded earphones and an oscilloscope. You think you could hear the squeal of the wind hundreds of miles away. Kids placing nickels on the track. The pings of the rail expanding and contracting against the base plates. The skwoosh of tires from automobile crossings. Distant rumblings. Perhaps the long piece of continuous steel would receive extra-long-wave signals from outer-space or short-wave whistles and enciphered messages.
You become suddenly aware of a radio antennae. It sits atop a hundred foot wood and metal pole — nothing more than a straight wire topping off the pole. You are surprised that you have just now noticed it. If you look carefully you can just make out an insulated wire running down parts of the pole; as the pole is down at the end of the platform and still on station property you figure that it must belong to the railroad. You begin to think about signals, communications, train schedules. You wonder if your train is on time. In your imagination you can hear the train engineer talking shop with the upcoming station. “Did you hear about so-and-so. When is that such-and-such jerk going to stop buying such lousy yada-yada equipment?” You can only barely guess at what they talk about — jokes that they’ve heard, rumors about the train line, things that happened to somebody’s sister or father. You wonder if the train folk have regular lives, TV at night with the kids, helping with Algebra homework.
Is that a glint on the horizon? You arise from your luggage and lean out over the yellow line to peer down the tracks. Yes, you can see something, the train headlight maybe, way down perhaps a mile away. It shimmers in the air currents. Or it’s just a reflection from a car passing over the tracks. No, it’s the train headlight, definitely. Then the station master comes on the speaker in a voice that is flat and casual (he makes an announcement like this every half hour or so, every day) but sensing that the passengers want some excitement he tries to make his voice convey something special, perhaps as if the circus is in town, but you can still tell it is just the routine arrival announcement. “Train route 81, Coast Starlight, now arriving on the Southbound track. All passengers for route 81, destinations San Luis Obispo, Pismo Beach, Santa Barbara, Ventura, Oxnard, Simi Valley, Glendale, Los Angeles, San Juan Capistrano, San Diego (he says San DeeeeAyyyGo, for dramatic effect) please prepare to board on Southbound route 81, now arriving.” Of course the train isn’t actually arriving yet: still a mile down the track it won’t be here for another couple of minutes. But people start shuffling, they gather up their luggage from corners or propped up against the wall; the small electric luggage tram pulls up a couple hundred feet down to the right, all of its tote dollies still empty.
Slowly you actually get the sense that a train is coming. Way out in the distance you subliminally notice something… the double long horn from the train as it approaches a grade crossing? You can’t really hear it, but maybe you can. Then you hear bells, no, it’s more like wind chimes. You turn your head and smile. Son of a gun, somebody has hung an old set of wind chimes over on your side of the station. It’s interesting that you didn’t hear them before, but then you didn’t have your awareness on listening. Something in the wind is different — the birds and nearby small ground animals have scampered away. You just fleetingly get the idea to rummage around in your pocket for a nickel to place on the tracks, then draw your lips tight and instead grab your luggage and pick it up, move it back a few feet, just to be doing something. People are milling about in small groups wondering where they should be standing — there aren’t any indications. The headlight on the horizon actually doesn’t seem to be getting much closer… you wonder if maybe the train has stopped for some reason out in the distance. People place their bags down on the asphalt and try to look calm and collected as if this is a daily routine. And yet they all have the same anticipation as you, they are frankly tired of waiting, tired of the spirit of tiredness that permeates the place, seeping into the asphalt, the yellow line, the bed of umber rocks. It will be good to get away from here. The blue steel rail leads to our salvation.
Now the train headlight definitely seems to be making progress. It is still the same size, but it is now a steady light, no longer shifted or flickering, its beam straight and powerful through the remaining atmosphere. And now, yes, you definitely hear the twin distant blasts of the horn; you imagine the ringing bells and flashing lights of crossing semaphores, cars stopped, our train is coming. Out of the corner of your eye you catch a parent pulling their young child back behind the yellow line and scolding. Your mind drifts again. Trains, steel wagon trains, huge smoking mechanical horses monstering across the empty prairies, an Indian on his stallion miles in the distance, a tear in the corner of his eye, imagining the future rails splitting the open lands into states, then ranches, then parcels. The Indian angry at the white man — confused why anyone would cobble together pieces of fire and rock and metal to create such a monstrosity, stretching clear across his panorama. Mile long freight trains, trains with hundreds and hundreds of oil tank cars, an oil pipeline on wheels. Trains of boxcars, cattle, new cars, frozen dinners, kitchen appliances. The train itself is now visible in the distance: just a small igloo shaped front with a bright light in the middle, silver and black. You breathe in as far as you can and let out a deep but silent sigh.
It was the full moon before Valentine’s day. You had been up visiting your Dad in Salinas — a long time ago he owned fifty acres of an almond grove, but after Mom died he got out (before the Sharpshooter bugs took hold) and put his money into some quality technology companies. Then as the market went through its ups and downs he had gradually moved from a three-bedroom beautiful house in Carmel to a two-bedroom place in Monterey, finally to a retirement townhouse in Salinas. So now your bi-monthly visit was just a train ride and a taxicab. After spending an afternoon with him and dinner at a Carrow’s coffeeshop you thought you might go out and look around. Visiting Dad is pleasant enough, but you can only chat so much about sports or the bad choices that people make. So it feels good to get some air under your shoes and walk. Night life is pretty scarce in Salinas, but you found a small dance club on Market street. Right after you walked in the door you saw her. Your eyes met and you fell in love the very first time you saw her. You stared at each other and touched souls for fifteen nanoseconds and then she made up her mind to never stare at you directly again. You stared at her every time you were around her.
As she dances she hikes up her bra, primarily to show you the mass of her breasts that would otherwise be hidden under her casual blouse. She has perfect breasts. They are not overly large, but you imagine that each fits nicely in each of your hands. You watch her dance, but you wonder if you might be too old for her — she looks as though she might be in her late twenties, and after all, you are now really middle-aged. You watch her for an hour — she dances with a couple of guys and apparently a couple of girlfriends, but she doesn’t seem to be attached to any one friend in particular. The next night you are back to watch her again. It was just an idea to visit again, like seeing a nice painting in an art gallery and then stopping by the same gallery on another visit, just in memory of your previous stimulation. After dancing for a bit (during a break in the music while you sit some distance opposite) she takes off her shoes, opens her legs, and curls her toes inward. You can imagine yourself making love to her. You are confused by your emotions — torn by your desires for what is simple and your knowledge to do what is right. You overhear one of her girlfriends speak her name: Beth. You return back to your father’s townhouse that night and tell him that you think you will stay in town another week or two — you are still waiting on your next contract; nobody in Los Angeles draws you back.
You fantasize about becoming rich perhaps. Maybe your dad has stashed away a secret inheritance — riches that go unpublished. You might win the Lotto. After you were a multi-millionaire then you could propose to Beth. Somehow the idea of being incredibly wealthy and free from the shackles of working makes it okay for you to propose to her. All the rich men have gorgeous wives on their elbows, gorgeous younger wives. Of course, you are only a contract technical writer, a stuffed white-shirt that lives from paycheck to paycheck. So society feels that it would be inappropriate for you to propose to a beautiful younger woman. Her friends would wrinkle their noses and whisper with a hand over their ear: what does she possibly see in That Man? The next day though you buy a Lotto ticket. The next night, when you go back to the club, she is not there. You ask one of her friends about her and she shrugs but doesn’t tell you anything more. You can feel your heart breaking. You visit the club once more the next night, but again she is absent. After a couple more days you return to Los Angeles and chide yourself for your soft heart. You are an old man and a fool.
When you return to Los Angeles you find yourself in a small coffeeshop one day writing. You meet three absolutely gorgeous drop-dead beautiful women, although you don’t say a word to any of them. One meets your gaze, but you don’t sense any romantic intent. You think more about Beth. You wonder how it was that you could never get your gaze off of her — she was an angel casting you in a spell on the dance floor. In a couple months, when you visit your Dad again, you make another trip to the club, purely on speculation, and Beth is there once more. You fall in love with her again immediately. Somehow you overhear a friend of hers talking to another friend and mentioning her last name: Faulconer. You wonder how such a beautiful creature could still be unattached. Perhaps she has some kind of serious health problem in the future… could it be that her lovers identify this problem and shy away from commitment? Now you are falling up and down at the same time: you feel like a struggling swimmer in a dream flailing to escape the waters as they circle down a drain. Normally when you love a woman you can see your future in her eyes, but you can’t read anything from Beth. When she chats with her friends at the club you stare into her brain thinking that she would be an incredibly demanding wife, but you are so enamored by her beauty that you find yourself on the verge of giving up your soul to her.
Back in Los Angeles again you find that you compare any potential woman now to Beth. When you see a cute Scandinavian blonde at the gym you ask yourself “would I rather marry her or Beth?” You always choose Beth, and when another woman reads this from your thoughts you are left alone with your thoughts as your only companion. You are quite certain though that if you and Beth got married you would get her pregnant immediately. You wonder if your life really comes down to this trade: having Beth as a wife and then future kids, or your independence. You are smack dab in the middle and you can’t decide. At night you hug your pillow and dream that it is her; you curl your toes in pleasure. You decide that you will just remain patient. You flash back on the vision of her sitting down once after a dance, removing one shoe, and pulling up her pants leg a bit to reveal a beautiful calf. It was white and smooth with well defined muscles, and you stared a little too intently. But now you doubt that anything will happen between you and her. You search for a Beth Faulconer in the Salinas phone book but she must be unlisted. Then you think you should search for her on the Internet. You hesitate, thinking that it might be an invasion of her privacy. But a couple of days pass and one night, while drunk, you type her name in a search box and you find her on a list of alumni, Beth Faulconer, Salinas High School class of 86.
Beth is 32. She is almost precisely half a generation away from you. She is just a squeeze below your expanded lower boundary for the allowable age for a wife. She is definitely ready to get married and you love her dearly. But her age makes it a complex and difficult question. Finding out that she is 32 is like following the hounds in a fox hunt, through meadows and over brambles, only to find that you have been chasing a hare. You might still be justified in taking her. You just don’t know. You play out a scenario in your mind… you get married, have a couple of boys, and then by the time the kids are in their teens you’re in your early sixties. By then Beth is tired of being with an Old Guy. She starts looking around and breaks your heart; naturally then you die. Well God Bless her anyway, for she is ready to get married. Your own indecision is breaking your heart. You will hang in there though and wait a couple more months until you visit your Dad again.
On the next visit to the club she sits next to you; you both watch the dancers and talk for a while. In your mind you are already asking her to marry you. She tells you that her family is on the East Coast, in Westchester. She makes a pointed effort to let you know that she is 33 years old, born on Valentine’s Day. She takes out a small round container from her purse and applies some lip gloss; the tiniest drop is just tingling from the base of her bottom lip and you force yourself to resist your very bad urge to reach over and touch her lip to clean it off. You notice that you are getting aroused — she is quite petite, small boned, with very delicate fingers, and of course she is the perfect size for you. You love her immensely but are at a loss for words: you don’t know what else to say. You end up thinking about her all the way home on the train and rationalize to yourself that it really is time for you to fall in love again.
When you get back to Los Angeles you talk to a friend at work about your feelings. He sums up all of your thoughts with about five minutes of insight — look, he says, she is young, she is going to want to go out and do things, be active, and you are just not going to be able to keep up with her. And again you realize that time works against you: the longer you are together the more you will love her, even as she loves you less. Things would be fine at the start, but eventually she would break your heart. The next time you visit your Dad you avoid the dance club completely. In fact, you stay away from Market street altogether. But then you pray to fall in love with her. But wait, you realize that as only half of the prayer — you also need to pray for her to fall in love with you. Ah, but you catch yourself: this seems like a dangerous course, so instead you make an equalization prayer: you ask the Lord to stop you from falling in love with her unless she also falls for you at the same time. You make the honor compromise. Dashing from the sirens and mermaids on the rocks, you steady course, you tighten the jib, you will navigate by chart and by sextant.
So now, with everything in place this time, on this visit you ventured to the dance club again. It could go either way — you were indifferent and hopeful simultaneously, but also realistic and protected. You saw Beth seated by herself at a table and you went over to talk with her, being gentle in your approach, averting your eyes, pulling up a chair to sit across from her at the table. You smiled as she looked up. “Oh, I’m sorry,” she said, “I’m just not in the mood for company right now.” You dropped your jaw, then closed your mouth with your lips sucked in. What had gone wrong? Why the sudden dismissal? You felt hurt and surprised, but at the same time you knew that it might have been your fault — a result of your own behavior. You left the club and walked on the streets for a couple hours, pondering, connecting with broken hearts in your past, and then realizing that perhaps she was testing you. Maybe she was hurting you deliberately just to see how much you loved her. So in the end you smiled to yourself even though your time for visiting Salinas had ended.
The ground begins to rumble and as you snap back to the present the sight of the train thirty feet to your left, just approaching the platform, is both impressive and thoroughly expected. It moves slowly, just slightly faster than somebody walking perhaps, and the rumbling is more the sound of engines than any track noise. The train has two rectangular front windows, but they appear dark and vacant. You clear your throat and now the train is ten feet to your left; your eyes wander the side of the engine, its painted markings, little words and arrows, steam or compressed air venting from hoses, a gigantic rumbling mixed with a low hum, steel caked with grit and dirt, tons and tons of metal. A slight squeaking sound from brakes, then gone, then squeaking, then a shoosh of steam directly in front of you. The engine passes, now a large sleeper car is in front of you, Coast Starlight clearly pinstriped on its side, windows with drapes, mostly closed. You catch the glimpse of a face through a window in the side of a doorway and it slides down the station. A dining car, windows undraped, a few people seated inside mostly looking out at the station. A small tableau is passing in front of you — people with their own stories and lives connected on these cars as they move along to their next destination.
Now that the noise of the engine is farther down the platform you hear the clunk-clunk of wheels as they betray a nearby rail junction. Clunk-clunk. A coach car — people standing in a doorway, people’s eyes behind windows, staring outward. Clunk-clunk. Another coach car, this one a bit older and more worn — a couple of kids making faces at the folks on the platform. Clunk-clunk. Another coach car, as old as the previous, this one pretty much empty, the gray hair from somebody sleeping in their seat pressed up against one of the windows. Clunk-clunk.
The train is now moving at a very leisurely walk. A gentleman in official Amtrak uniform, a conductor, steps off from the moving train and walks alongside of it while holding on to a vertical handrail. He lets go and approaches a group of people standing to your side. They pull out their tickets and he makes a motion with his arm: down that-a-way. You pick up your luggage and walk over in his direction, but a couple of other folks with backpacks have reached him first. He nods to them, inspects their tickets, and points them to their car. You show him your ticket, he smiles the perfunctory conductor smile… “Glendale,” he reads, “see if they have room for you on that car,” and he points one car to the left. The train is now completely stopped — a hulking monster of metal, a beached whale — and you walk along the train down to the doors to your left. A short line of people patiently waits as other passengers trickle out, one struggling with a suitcase. You wait at the back of the line, then a couple with their small child waits behind you. You peek around the folks in front of you up the stairs and see an elderly lady being helped off the car by another conductor. He surveys the line of passengers. “Okay folks,” he says, smiling and inspecting the tickets of the people at the front of the line. They begin up the stairs into the car. He gets to you, glances at your ticket, and nods. You climb up the stairs, place your luggage in the vestibule in the bottom floor, and then head up to the second-level seating area.
You catch a glimpse of movement from the side, turn your head to see people sliding by, then a pole of some sort, and then your mind puts two plus two together to realize that the train is moving. A conductor walks along the aisle checking the overhead earmarks, stopping at seats without a stub and asking the passengers for their ticket. He reaches your seat at the same instant that you open your jacket to remove your ticket from the inside pocket; he nods, punches a hole in your ticket, and places an earmark above your head. Outside, the last car of the train sweeps past the middle of the platform, the wake of air from the square back creating eddies on the ground and lifting up the scrap of paper that had been trapped against the spike. A gust of farmland wind from the valley blows the schedule down the platform — it flips end over end like an autumn leaf, past the end of the asphalt, onto the unpaved dirt, and up against a chain link fence. The force of the wind presses the paper against the wire rectangles, trapping it there against the base of the fence. The digits with colons, station times perhaps, the regular passing of the train on the blue steel rails.