originally published in Big Hands #9
My mom has gone to sleep after a bottle of wine shared with church friends. After putting my brother to bed the house grows still and evening-quiet. Something about the quality of these suburban nights–low cloud cover, soft breeze, like a ghost wafting through. I take my mother’s little Subaru out onto the dark empty highways. Islands of civilization, floodlit parking lots pock through the impenetrably dark wilderness of central Carolina. The quiet, moisture-filled air whispers through the country’s empty corridors, nature slowly retaking what once belonged to it. I drive through Cary, past the mall, past my old high school, under the harsh glow of the big Carolina moon, the lush green landscape of meadows and evergreen trees like a plush mattress to sink into; the wrought-iron town clock at the edge of town by the highway on-ramp, always keeping time. Orderly, everything in such perfect order! a network of sprinklers set to come on at night and keep the patches of astroturf grass by the sidewalk fresh and neon green. All the lights of the stores on hours after the employees have left–squares of illuminated blues, pinks, yellows like a Mondrian painting. The moon bright and clear and in the distance and the white monolith of an Embassy Suites like the Arc de Triumph shaded back in the pine trees. The trees shake in the wind, making wispy noises in the friendliest way. The employees are shutting down the glowing Starbucks across the street, the windows all fogged up, a girl with a hat and apron standing out on the curb shaking out a rubber mat. I drive down the Beltline and park my car in a gravel lot set back in a student-housing neighborhood, the houses partitioned into ramshackle apartments. Somewhere downtown, a lonely train whistle. I have been coming to this spot for a decade now, like a Christian to the river, to dunk my head and be reborn into new life. I make my way into the thin copse of woods that divides the gravel lot from the hidden world of the train tracks below. The woods have grown wild in my long absence, and are now choked out in kudzu. The clay looks blood red, everything looks bigger and more fertile now. Prehistoric-looking neon vines climb up to my waist. Looking down at the tracks, I regret all the time I’ve sold away—all that invaluable, irretrievable youth, given away at bargain basement prices. So many things have happened over the years—the negative, cyclical patterns repeated over and over while the worthwhile potent memories recede until they become foggy and shadow-like.
The train tracks remain a hidden world, persisting quietly in the 2001: Space Odyssey future—a wayside relic from a time when iron behemoths carved through the inky black primeval wilderness on a diesel-stained voyage through the night. The world of the train tracks is completely different from the world seen through the window of a speeding car—this network of disused lots, shadows cast from backyard floodlights, stray dogs howling, underpass bums drinking, concrete monoliths and telephone poles engulfed by kudzu. A string of rusted old freight cars sit off to the side, like a commuter waiting for a bus that will never come. Walking alongside the forsaken string, I find a grainer with a porch and pull myself up on the cold metal latter and sing a little song to myself, Johnny Cash. Then I jump down onto the rocks and do a kind of a jig, The rock island line is a mighty good road the rock island line is the road I ride, and hope that no one is watching—some hoboes were probably laughing at me from the bushes. I feel the leathery exoskeleton that I show to the world, all wrinkled and blanched from years of waste, begin to crumble away and reveal the smooth untouched thing underneath. The blood pumping through my veins feels warmer, more full-bodied. Then it all floods back—the early years—the broken glass, burning sunset, the hope that slowly boiled down to a simmer. I lay down on the gleaming quicksilver tracks in the moonlit Southern night, and remember…After a while I get up and march towards the emerald-lit skyscrapers of downtown Raleigh. Down the line, a wide-open empty junction—the dusty little five corners is a kind of stage set, the trash and gloom coming together to form a shanty city in the nook of the overpass. The kudzu and graffiti have grown wild over the years, fed by moonlight. The old central prison has been replaced by a shiny, sterile new white structure.
The NO MORE PRISONS graffiti piece that once faced the structure has since been removed. I hear the sound of a train horn blaring and then see the light plowing down the track and jump out of the way as a bullet-like Amtrak barrels past—I look in the windows of its bright lit-up windows of its cars, people inside clamoring for their luggage as the train pulls into Raleigh. They look out the windows at me, lonely figure in the littered Golgotha switchyard, as the train speeds past, Afterwards it becomes silent again. I look around and see the tracks splitting off in several directions. I ask God for some sign of which direction to go. He said nothing—he no longer spoke to me. The silence in my head is deafening. There was a track that went out under a crumbling stone bridge, and in that direction were clouds, white in the dark sky, that looked like snow-capped Northwest mountains risen on the horizon—those mounds looked so beautiful, so perfect and picturesque framed underneath the green ivy and the stone, like a portal to a different world. I headed that direction. The air smelled like honeysuckle. I walked under the old stone bridge feeling possessed, my feet no longer my own. The damp underpass was filled with abandoned shopping carts and mattresses and red clay like giant anthills. On the other side of the bridge, the landscape opened to reveal a garden of hidden verdure—vines hanging from trees, a freshly mowed meadow, streetlights and a cabin against the track gravel. Continuing, the track eventually came to a long trestle bridge over Western Boulevard. The headlights of vehicles passed underneath, where were they all going? Stepping forward to cross a bridge I looked down and felt dizzy. Wasn’t I too old to be tempting fate? The safe thing to do would be to walk down to the road and cross. But a hidden voice told me to dare. So I started across the creaky, tar-smelling bridge—the maw of asphalt yawned between the irregularly spaced rail ties. And as I crossed I looked down at the cars passing below and the rows of quaint little shotgun-style houses, and dreamed about how nice it would be to live in one of them, to settle down in a place where you would always knew the river was flowing right outside, a river that would carry you across the country—so nice to know that you could leave anytime. And with the option to leave always there, you could just stay put forever and savor it all. How nice to buy bookshelves and accumulate cats and finally have a place to put all my books and records and art that has for years been gathering dust in a shed behind my mom’s house! I tiptoed across the bridge, praying and mumbling the entire way. Upon reaching the other side, I felt unabashedly proud and alive, as one does when one tempts death and emerges unscathed. The big pine trees swayed gently, as if congratulating me, and there were fresh cut meadows and cicadas all over. The air above my waist was hot and humid, while the air below my waist was cool. The landscape eldritch—Fireflies swarmed all around me, little neon lights and sunset lit up red clay hideaways.
Up the track a bit, a wooden sign swung ominously–“Welcome to Dorothea Dix”—Dorothea Dix, a century-old baroque mental institution that had recently closed down due to patient abuse. The inmates were shipped to a number of satellite facilities and there was a heated debate over what to do with the land (naturally, developers wanted to put in condos and pedestrian malls, while the citizens wanted it to be a dog park) The state government dragged their feet and delayed, so for now it was in limbo, a vast swath of fields near downtown. Up on the hill, a couple of abandoned dormitory-style buildings loomed in the dusk. The well-maintained road led deeper into the vast estate, much of it dark, except for a few flickering streetlamps left on to deter trespassers. At the top of the hill, Dorothea Dix dead-ended in an enormous field that stretched as far as the eye can see, as if the city ended completely and all that was left was unbroken nature. Walking among the structures, illuminated by greenish streetlamps, I found myself in a large parking lot. State-owned cars sat unused and the fluorescent bulbs buzzed. A great air-conditioning unit rumbled out behind one of the buildings, like some dying god. Not knowing where to go, I started walking into what looked like a little park that surrounded by huge Van Gogh bushes that seemed painted onto the night in thick oily impasto. Moving through the bushes, I followed a little path into a graveyard, the final resting place for the mental institution dead. Hundreds of scary movies flashed through my mind and I ran screaming out past old paint-peeled buildings that rose to menace me as I passed. A streetlight flickers on and off in a strange syncopated rhythm as I run out of the estate, coming to a little dirt path in the woods beside Western Boulevard. I follow the path toward some distant glow and the dirt slowly turns into fresh asphalt. Car headlights zoom by in both directions and I see the whites of drivers’ eyes staring out at me like a fugitive or hitchhiker. The road comes out of the dark woods—a bright fluorescent blooming BP gas station sign is lit up like a green beacon—I stumble up into the parking lot, drawn like a moth to incandescence. Dark green wilderness and trees surround the light green and white BP plastic. Soft radio muzak plays from hidden speakers. I walk in through the automatic sliding glass doors. Inside the gas station, the air-conditioner freezes sweat to my skin. The lights perfectly illuminate the products in the aisles, each of them appealing and necessary in their own way, each designed to be desirable. A tired-looking attendant slouched behind a digital screen, fiddles with his iPhone, looking bored. I shuffle over to the cooler, lit up with appealing blue lights, and open the case. I look over the dozens of beverages and grab a bottle of Sprite. The attendant rings it up, not looking—both of us lost in our own heads. Back in the blanket-humid Southern night, drenched in fluorescence, I open the bottle with its perfect carbonated hiss and gulp it down, satisfied to live in no other place than this one, no other time than right now.+