I rode the same train every day for minutes, or days, or decades. The routine of it helped slow what would be my eventual spiral into unsalvageable madness. Though, finally submitting to this lunacy was the best decision I ever made, even if it was made for me. Waiting was an agreeable state for me— something that required merely a vague physical presence. Showing up and limply occupying space, existing as another benign ornament decorating the already lifeless train stop. The daily ride functioned as an anchor to reality in many ways, even though the more I rode, the less I understood. I rode not to expedite my journey, but rather to divert, or because at the time, I had nothing else to do and the train kept appearing.
The train stop was at 615 North Michigan, and as far as I knew, I was the only person ever to enter or exit the train. The placement of the stop was perplexing enough. It was an unassuming tiny room with cracking khaki walls and water-stained corners. The smell of dwindling memories and damp tiles consumed the stop, which also had an indistinct picture of a child holding a bucket. Years of wear made the image almost unintelligible, but it still functioned as a worthwhile distraction from the rest of the stop. There was nothing explicitly depressing in the room except its apparent aging.
Additionally, indeterminable neglect had left the room as faded as my gray eyes as they gazed into the foggy window that obstructed my view to an empty parking lot. Some would find no dejection in the predictable corrosive nature of physical objects and beings. Still, I found myself obsessed with the notion of yellowing in harmony with the shoddy drywall. The forward propulsion of mindless repetition kept me alive while also painstakingly siphoning out the slightest chance I would do anything remotely significant in my lifetime.
I would later look back on the time I squandered waiting on and riding the train and wonder if I erected an impregnable cell of insecurities from which I would die alone someday. Squandered is a relative term in this case, as the commodity of time was so worthless I had no problem burning it and warming my hands in its contaminated exhaust. Its existence functioned as more of a detriment than a commerce, and it hounded me like a shit-faced debt collector trying to repossess everything I owned. I hear the train whistle in the distance. The sound itself functioned as a key rattling in an oaken-locked door, and stirred me from the concrete mattress that my brain habitually flirted with bleeding out on.
Part of me longed to be one of the commuters that had given up on the train. Those who refused to park in the lot, wait for the sound of anguish coming from the brakes of the hulking steel bastard, or indulge in the mundanity of the train stop at all. How long had the lot been empty? How long had they stopped riding? It was possible the parking lot was not for commuters at all, rather the delusional fantasy of a budget-friendly landscaper obsessed with the perceived beauty of steaming hot asphalt. An unending moisture hanging in the recycled air of the room made it difficult to breathe. I remorsefully inhaled the beads, which sat unmoving in my chest, hugging my lungs like layers of bark on a tree and stirring a dormant panic attack from its slumber. The painting on the wall began to rattle with the train’s slow ignition, as did the untold number of decorative vases filled with dying flowers that had accrued in the room. They formed a permanently grounded chandelier of thoughtless gifts, a shrine celebrating an inability to speak truth or to portray emotion. Countless presents tasked with expressing the impossible, the wilting leaves and stale water suggested failure instead of success. The rattle signified the start of the train’s journey, which meant that it would still be another hour or so before boarding. It came from somewhere else. Some other room I guess. I lit a cigarette and stared at the wall of machines opposite the painting of the boy with the bucket. Unlike the painting, they never moved. Their wires and tubes formed their own ecosystem, muscle fibers, and nerves weaving in and out of the floors and walls. Fiber optic roots from an ancient oak nourishing something far more precious than they would ever know. I stare at the black hole where they all seemed to converge, an abyss hurtling toward the inevitable.
There were undoubtedly other things on the train, but nothing like me. Nothing was composed of anything as frustrating as flesh and blood, both of which were constructed to fail—and I endlessly worried about that failure. The train’s liveliness juxtaposed the deadness of the waiting room, suggesting they were not related at all, often making me feel as though I was never meant to ride the train. The lumbering steel carriage and I seemed indifferent to each other’s being. We both realized the relationship was transactional in nature, me paying in more ways than I could have ever imagined. It followed no schedule from what I could tell, which would have been a frustrating nuance for a mode of transportation, but outside of the brief journey, my days were filled with staring at a dark mass of blankets that struggled to warm my thinning limbs beneath it. The unnaturally black cocoon grew darker by the day.
The train’s whistle blows again, belching its presence into the weighty air and destroying the rhythmic sonar’s strangle-like hold on a room gasping for breath. Then quiet. The sonar reestablishes its voice; its haunting Morse code homily longs for something even more monotonous yet. The gnarled orgy of blankets seems to stir, but I confuse actual movement with the slow drip of a water pouch hanging from one of the machines. Not yet. I look at my watch, the arthritic second hand moved with obvious pain, laboring under the weight of human desire. I have waited longer than I ever have before. It has never been this late, though I hastily apply the construct of punctuality to just about anything—even objects that are entirely unaware of any expectation. I demanded adherence to my imaginary rule set as a distraction and the train was coming dangerously close to betrayal.
I often wondered how the train ran. Who funded the train? What entity steered its rusted wheels? Did it have a purpose outside of precariously balancing my sanity? Maybe I entertained these questions as an additional diversion from the sadness that had recently found refuge within the friendly confines of my being. The notion of a train without an objective, save my aimless journey, created a dull paranoia that enjoyed a prosperous marriage with sadness. Sipping tea and comfortably growing old while I desperately sought a method for eviction.
The train’s whistle screams once more, now creating an unmistakable disturbance in the melancholy nest. I light another cigarette and the beeping in the room ceases. It is wholly quiet at the train stop. The silence pushes the smoke back into my agape mouth, and the fumes burrow enthusiastically into my capillaries. They retreat further still. My heart beats in my ears, stomach, and toenails.
I drop the cigarette onto the floor and quietly suffocate it with the toe of my shoe. My favorite part. The impending death rattle that would eventually birth life back into the dying womb that had kept us involuntarily together for so long. First, the uneasy groaning of the walls as the organ meat of the room begins expanding, preparing itself. The ribcage of beams and tiles bow to accommodate the ballooning features of the room. I step back and fall nonchalantly into a rocking chair I have fallen into hundreds of times before. Inexplicably, it is the only thing not moving, not cracking. An assumption of motion accompanies its curved legs; they lack the will or capacity to rock anymore. Perhaps unhappy with the predisposed conjecture, it quietly protests its sole purpose. Its modest protest provides calm during the chaotic transformation. Aged mahogany with the smell of fresh varnish and my fingers seek the familiar wounds in the wood to warm themselves further before the train’s arrival. I don’t recall the origin of that habit and its peculiarity isn’t lost on me, but the absentminded indulgence is a necessary part of the ritual. The inside of the wood is unexpectedly warm.
Next, the feverish shaking, the shattering of fluorescent lights, and the razing of the entire room. It always appears similar the next day, but for now, there is nothing. Myself and the bed. The sheets and eventually the featureless pale face, which would offer the train from its impossibly small mouth. I learned to cherish the moment immediately before the journey, taking comfort in the dichotomy between chaos and silence. I often found it was the only thing that could pry me from the depths of purposeless forward momentum, a forced reflection. The whistle blows once again and a dull glow begins to slowly form several feet in front of me. Its movements are similar to a mason jar of fireflies suspended by a bowing fishing line. I had fantasized about making something similar as a child, but there were no fireflies in my hometown and the time spent on creating such an elaborate lamp was counterintuitive to how carefree I was at the time. Nowadays, I worship the prospect of toiling away at something so frivolous. Obsess over every detail as a vacation of sorts and eventually create something I love but ultimately designate as waste, deposit the jar full of dead fireflies and simple fishing pole into the tide of a forgotten trash vortex already ripe with my creations.
As minutes, hours, or even days pass, the glow grows in size, bobbing methodically in the somber room, tilting from side to side as though determining my worthiness as a passenger. As though this was my first time riding. As though it had never seen me before. As though there is some inescapable denial. Eventually, when close enough, the luminosity unveils its final form. Placement of barely visible lines in the otherwise unnaturally smooth exterior would suggest a human face, or at least something once human. I wonder if I am projecting humanity onto the object to normalize the otherwise uncanny aura, but the lines seem more real than not. The lines were deeper once. Maybe when I first started riding. The light in the room clusters into varying pockets in a seeming attempt to manifest something ambiguously human. It mimics something it once saw, trying to breathe life into a collapsing memory.
An unidentifiable familiarity seems to be deteriorating with each ride. In some ways, I found the smoothed face more pleasant to look at, easier to digest, to comprehend. In other ways, its imprecision filled me with undirected concern and disgust for its willingness to alter the essence of what it once was. It exchanged perceivable shadows and wrinkles for a characterless orb state, and I wondered if the trade was consensual.
Egg-shaped, the vacant eyes peer forward, and the pupils are noticeably absent. The milky sockets rotate states of sopping wet and severe dryness in no particular interval until, finally, a hole opens in the lower half of the face and a train glides effortlessly into the room. The train’s wheels and carriage inherit a lubricant from their source—something that I approached with unbridled skepticism on my first few rides, but had now become another facet of my ever-growing ritual. I run my hands across the glossy exterior. The lubricant peels under my hands, molting onto the floor like dead skin. Some of the material seems to melt directly into my palms, making them as smooth as the face itself before receding back to their worn actuality.
My fingers search resolutely for the almost microscopic lever that would open the doors to the train car. Finally, I find it. The location of the lever seems to change with every ride, but there was never any threat of the train departing without me. Even if I don’t find it, the train doors always open. My search and eventual entry invariably depend on my fluctuating eagerness or readiness. The train always waits. A small game played between myself and the object I had grown to love. The inexplicable standoff always satisfied both participants. It wants me to ride. I want to ride. The pulling of the lever, with a texture and weight of wet leaves, was a mere formality in a foregone agreement, an unspoken promise to one another. Even on days of transcendent reluctance, when the doors opened, I dutifully boarded. On those days, the trip seemed longer than ever. There was an urgency in its motion on those days, a sad but unnecessary desperation to prove its capability. I never gave its willingness or ability much thought, but the concept of a train’s diminishing perception of itself was heartbreaking and confusing.
I looked behind the train as I sometimes did. A morbid curiosity about the condition of whatever it was that had fashioned the train. The face, as it was, sat in a deflated heap, tilted downwards and sagging heavily, yearning for the floor below. The lips of the train hole slackened to the point of actually touching the cracking tiles of the stop itself. The slumped nature of the skin like the slack of the face would suggest exhaustion, but upon closer inspection, it was unquestionably apathetic. The apparent disinterest conveyed by the shape the deadened eyes had taken was unsettling, given the achievement accomplished. I had the sudden urge to hold the cold-looking face, console it, though it demanded no consolation or warm words.
Conversely, the blackness of the hole begged me to join the face in its mood of indifference. Each of us assigned sympathy toward each other’s respective perceived plight: caring and uncaring, neither acting on the desire at hand. Our collective compassion never breached the tenuous threshold for action. We remained passive observers without will. The relaxed face was hypnotizing, and I craved a morsel of further scrutiny, but the whistle blew once more. I could sense the impatience of the unknown conductor responsible for propulsion.
The doors shut immediately behind me and I sat down on one of the sloped mounds, which looked and felt like taffy. The warmth of the substance suggested a prior occupant, but the cabin was as deserted as ever. I still can’t shake the feeling that someone was there or even still was. I always seem to just miss someone. . . . The immovable proximity toward fulfillment instills crippling helplessness. Uncontrollable and unpredictable circumstances dictated by a lunatic conductor. A conductor whom I was growing resentful of, questioning its judgment and capacity to execute the duties necessary to be a conductor. Whatever force was pummeling this train farther into oblivion sought to deprive me of a validation I badly needed—that I was not the only passenger.
Nevertheless, I rode. I had to know why. Years of senseless riding and gorging on structured pageantry had led me here. Sitting numbly in a pre-warmed seat and finally considering the catalyst of our relationship. Why had it started? What had fueled its longevity? Was there an ending?
The cabin was lined with thousands of tiny glassless windows. Their abundance and depth resembled an intricate system of glands and pores used for the cooling and filtration of a living organism. As far as I could tell, they do nothing for the train, a mere celebration of impractical décor inconveniencing something pursuing complete anonymity. Their volume and symmetry are remarkable, but it ends there. I want them to explain why I am here, or at least function as something more than an inadequate glimpse to the outside world, but they are just holes, and their triviality is maddening. The once charming cavities now reminded me of the neglected sponge occupying my kitchen sink, and I can almost smell the earthy film bleeding from every nook and cranny of its many crevices. Their size makes it impossible to see outside of the train and I grow more vexed at the blatant disobedience for which a window is traditionally created.
I light another cigarette.
It has never been unequivocally stated if smoking is a permitted pastime, but I have avoided reprimand up to this point. Burning the first cigarette all of those years ago on this train was a risk unlike any other. What a win that was. What an accomplishment. I celebrated that pathetic moment of significance for years to come before finally realizing the celebration had transformed into a ruthless obsession with the drink that eventually destroyed everything I loved. I still didn’t know what that life looked like. I only knew this ride.
There has never been glass in those diminutive windows and the night air carries in the distant smell of burning ethanol. Through the obstructed honeycomb of holes, I can see the train slowly beginning to move back into the face. Without a sound. My eyes are drawn to the mouth of the face gasping for air. It’s pained inhales summon the train, which feverishly abides. Numerous times the face fails to generate enough breath for motion, but eventually, it gains speed with each short breath, before finally succumbing to a baptism in nothingness. I take another puff of my cigarette, but it’s only filter, so I shove it into one of the holes. The filter shrivels into dust and empties into the greedy lungs of the night air. My meager offering seems to satisfy the evening abyss. Though not my original intent, I feel happy with my small contribution of garbage to the unknown ecosystem.
I peer over my shoulder, confirm the company of a small, dated camera suspended by flesh-like threads growing from the ceiling, and I begin to reconsider my initial diagnosis of the windows. When I first noticed the brutal red pupil dissecting my insides years ago, I met its probing gaze with understandable suspicion. Any feeling toward it has since disappeared. Now, the light wasn’t on, and the former glory held by the piercing red light was simply reduced to wilted burgundy. The tired transformation reminds me of the face. Either the batteries ran out or whoever presided over the camera decided there was nothing worth recording. I assumed without hesitation the latter. A solitary beige mass enjoying the complete absence of motion was a triumph unworthy of observation. There was nothing to do with any of the tapes anyways. No one to share them with. They are probably used as fuel to keep this thing running. Simply someone who was tolerating a perpetual state of stagnation aboard a train hurdling nowhere in particular. Maybe prior passengers warranted surveillance; maybe I was once as interesting as they were. However, the sheer willingness of someone to endure this day after day would suggest a deficiency in noteworthy hobbies. Anyone willing to entertain an obsession with such an unrelentingly mundane obligation surely had nothing left to give.
I turn back around and stare forward at the rest of the empty train car. It is only a matter of time before the gnawed gum interior awakens. I think the heat coming from the fluorescent lighting activates it and then second-guess myself. An oppressive hue feebly drizzling from an oblong bulb could never inspire the wealth of emotion that lurked in the seams of the taffy floorboards. That type of light was reserved as a tranquilizer for already sleepy executives after masturbating onto a stack of unreadable pie charts. It fed off the paralyzed losers shitting their ill-fitting pants in a five-hour strategy meeting. It was designed to burn brighter as hope and inspiration slowly bled out, and it drew its life from the translucent skin of the melting disciples who had no choice but to worship at its altar day after day. Not this one. This string of lights created something otherworldly. I didn’t think a fluorescent light was capable of creating something so beautiful until riding the train.
I glance down at my phone and observe thousands of missed calls, texts, and emails. A cruel red pin adheres to each of the insufferable modes of communication. Taunting numbers and their red bulbs bloat in an effort to emphasize disappointment. They beg to be split open and lapped up, bitten into and choked down, spat back up, and force-fed to the next unwilling participant in the cascading pyramid of pointless correspondence. I think of the rocking chair and refuse.
The floor begins to spiral and I realize the start of the parade looms. I deemed it a parade because there wasn’t really another word for it. The procession of eccentric happenings was always the same and it seemed like a celebration of sorts. Some facets resembled a heavily distorted commemoration, memories—but not. Because it happened every day, there was no correlation with any calendar holiday. I decided to abandon any contemplation in favor of just watching. Something about this moment suggested it required commitment to memory, a momentary break from the unquestioning completion of tasks. The floor turns from taffy to cotton candy moss, brightly colored and covered in white strings that tremble in the cabin air. Slowly, the strings adjourn their seemingly arbitrary motion, favoring instead a complex cycle of extending and intertwining. As the ligaments continue to grow, rip, rebuild, and fuse, I stare at the frenzied construction and cannot fully realize the complexity and synchrony. I begin to cry as the unusual threads weave their story.
A father teaching his son to grill on an antique lamp
A tiger made of marbles devouring a flesh flower
A record player spinning the sounds of human hair
A glass trampoline
A lamb smeared with mint jelly gumdrops
A gambler losing everything
An abandoned campsite with a dead comedian
A swimming pool full of pulled teeth
A rat servant reciting names of people who had died in the war
A mason jar of circus peanuts
The best Christmas tree
A hot air balloon fueled by the cigarette smoke of sinners
A tiny spider city
An owl with the face of a hound and the body of an ex-lover
An unopened letter from 50 years ago
A boy knitting an oversized quilt
A seafood tower of Polaroid pictures
A nail technician giving a manicure to a blade of grass
A bottle of Jack Daniels trying to save its family
A watermelon full of cactus needles
An ice sculpture rosary
A hospital bed
A television set
Incomprehensible emotions working in unison to prove that it wasn’t over, that they weren’t done yet. Not ready to give. Not yet, at least. In that ephemeral moment, they appeared incapable of letting me down.
“He won’t remember any of this?” I ask the man in the white coat, tears continuing to stream down my face. He doesn’t reply, but the gentle squeeze on my shoulder indicates he doesn’t have to. We both understood. Him sooner than me, and I begin to cry again.