When I was little, my father before Christmas would dust off old boxes of Lionel trains left sitting in the attic, tattered paper still simmering orange and blue, the what-used-to-be-white a gnarled cream. Inside, the steel gleamed. The painted plastic shone like states colored onto a map. I had small fingers then, and I gripped the toys as my brother and father laid the tracks, often just a circle around the tree, sometimes slipping off. We had model buildings with fake snow, and some years we threaded tracks between the doorways we made face each other. It was a small town, there, on our floor. There must have only been a few tiny people doing very few tiny things. There was, I remember, a model post office where I imagined the tiny people could send infinitely small letters to equally tiny people in other tiny, floor-built towns, telling them of all the tiny things they did or didn’t do and learning about the intricate graceful fake snow decorating the other places they would never go, the trains powered by little boy hands humming by their windows, the dust they each mistook for snow, ash, speckled firmament of the heavens.
I am thinking about trains because I am on a train now, singing the rails back home to New York City after giving a poetry reading in my childhood home of Washington, D.C. My father heard me read for the first time in years and only, if I’m right, for the second time in his life, and I thought of him, a man who invested all of his early money in the rails because he believed a train that runs 500 miles to the gallon could never become obsolete, and how, when he sat four rows from my voice in front of a podium among a crowd of a few dozen, he looked so shrunken and small, near-cowering. I know we all age and each at different speeds, but some days I find myself trying to explain the importance of my father to a friend, and I can feel myself not getting it right. It’s how I don’t have his hands, the drifting patched melanoma continents of his skin, only the grin I have inherited from a lifetime of learning how to undermine the serious.
After the reading, people came up to me and mentioned how sweet it was that my father was in attendance, and I said yes, how sweet, yes, and they asked if he would ever say something to me about the poems I read about him, and I said no, he would never, no, a response which many of the people I spoke to noticeably found disconcerting. They scrunched their faces while I tried to explain my father to them, but failed. I tried to tell them that I didn’t want my father to say anything about the poems, that I would rather the two of us go out and order too much beef brisket and eat silently without wiping our hands, our language a syncopation of grunts and guzzles.
I spent a few hours after the reading sitting outside drinking beer after beer, talking with the same strangers who had been so interested in my father. Eventually there were just a few of us, in patio chairs amidst the low-lying buildings of the District, talking about the nothingness of death and the way in which being in a state of death is no longer a being, because, well, Descartes and the whole not-being-able-to-think-of-what-you’re-not-thinking-about. Someone chimed in something about a fear of writing nonfiction, about the debt owed to the past, and I remember saying something akin to what debt, believing, as I do, that nonfiction is perhaps the most playful genre of writing, how it grants the writer a story, but how each writer is granted a faulty memory, a memory that makes certain choices without the person’s knowledge, a memory that can be reshaped and realigned. The past is a pliant thing – it bends and even shatters. We are each our stories and the way we choose to tell them.
I took a cab home along Georgia Avenue, looked out the window at the city changing – what used to be those miraculous neighborhood joints serving pizza, Chinese food, and fried chicken now swapped out for the trend, the establishment of hanging lanterns. When I got home, I found my brother and father watching TV, bodies lit in blue and mellowed out by orange, the gnarled cream of walls boxing them in. They were like they always had been, forever. I sat with them for a minute. I don’t remember what was on.
Those winters before Christmas, in the time of laying down the tracks, my father seemed a gentle soul. He got down on his knees, and, in one of those memories I have to urge out of me, made sure the tracks aligned exactly. He never explained why we did this thing we did every winter, even in the year or two after mother left. We stopped later. We even stopped getting the tree. We once kept the tree up until April. When we threw it out, people looked at us funny, how we carried this dusted hunk of wood that trailed its dried needles across our floor and onto the street.
As a family, a trio of men, we failed at many things. We kept the floor steadily covered in old newspapers, the toilet bowls a rusted orange, our dinners microwaved or cooked quickly in drive-thru windows, our lawn overgrown, rat traps set and then forgotten about until the smell smelled, calling us forth from our different haunts, shirts held to our noses. It was fun, though. I’d be lying to say it wasn’t. It was fun to keep a mess, to leave Christmas hanging out until the spring, to eat bad and yell, mouths full, in front of the television.
When I read last night, my father wore a shirt he’s worn too many times before. He wore the same shoes he’s bought year after year for over two decades. He wore a beard over a face that has not cleanly seen the light of day since 1966. When he opened his mouth, it was with the same wiry grin that has prefaced so much beautiful nothingness over the years – jokes that didn’t land, feelings avoided, the mess accruing – headlines we step over with our feet.
Tonight the train hums over the Susquehanna after Baltimore and it is that patient float of black. Sometimes I think of forgiveness, and how, once you stop believing in God, it serves no real purpose. Sometimes, leaving someone instead of working for forgiveness is easier and more right. I do not like believing this. It makes me ache.
Tonight I ride the train and the train is a kind of silence if silence is a kind of murmur, a rhythm of whispers, and I think of what it means to love someone for a very long time and if, in loving that person, you change, or they change, and what it means to change with them, or for them, and if it is okay or fair to change yourself for someone else, and I think of my father and how he is a kind of train, and how sometimes a train stops for no reason and how sometimes my father would kiss me on the cheek, reaching across the night or a table, and I would feel his beard scratch against me, and how I do not have words for this, and how sometimes I try, on a roof somewhere, to tell someone I love how in love with them I am, and how I do not know if they keep a catalog of me in the same way I keep a catalog of them – a hair flecked through the sky, a body walking through a door, a look back, a touch, a kiss on the nose, a something reminded, a something faint, a stopping for no reason, a slowing down, a getting there, a slowing down.
There are moments on trains where you do not feel part of the world, frictionless and floating. You glide, powered by one simple push forward, your wheels spinning without gripping onto anything. It is sunset now, and the train rolls through small towns I have never been to. It feels as if my window could be a screen, the whole view not even real. This is why I thought of those winters, because of what I look at right now, a population of strangers doing the most basic of things – living.
I know we are all, each of us, granted one basic thing in the muck of all this being – the ability to make decisions. And I know how scary it is to be transported from one place to another without your permission, without ever deciding yes, I want to be taken there. Into love. Out of it. Toward Philadelphia. Away from New York. Back into the hole from which there seems no escape. There are people who are ruthless in their belief that everything is a choice, and there are people who fail to give credence to the nuance that often pervades each individual choice, sometimes making a choice no longer a choice at all.
My father laid down the tracks each winter and I didn’t. I watched him. I guess I made a decision not to watch him. I preferred it. I am preferring it now, how I can cycle through those memories like a flipbook and see this man who is aging now as he was back then – playful, on his knees, arranging a world for himself and his children.
Outside, as the train hums its same song, a sign reads Trenton Makes, the World Takes, and I think of my hands placing those fake homes along the tracks, and for a second, I believe in my imagination as it was back then; I believe in those tiny people and how it must’ve felt to be placed by a giant hand in a world with nothing familiar, with nothing but one or two homes exactly like yours, and that post office, yes, full of tiny letters. If I were tiny, I would believe in something greater. I am, though. I am.
My girlfriend texts me. She wants to move but wants to stay. New York City is a constant teetering potential for her, a lack of everything it promises, a fulfillment of so much, a promise, a promise, a promise. I don’t know what to say, so I just type I know too many times and put my head against the window and watch Pennsylvania ripple by. I both want her to go and don’t. There’s the part of me that believes that your mind will always play a certain kind of trick with you, make it impossible to settle – it’s the stubborn who make the most of things; the lenient only just get by. I want her happiness to be as easy to handle as the twist-off caps of the Yuengling’s I drink in the bar car of the train. I want it to be real and soulful. I want her to open the door in a city that is either the one she is in or the one she will be in and feel joy come bursting out, drooling out her mouth. I want her body to go numb and I want her to lay there, melted by the buzz and hum of life, the brilliant beautiful warmth of it, the ding-dong ditch of God, the gentle sweeping wind, the way the best things have no words, only a sort of stammering, a motion of the hands, a loss.
I’m on my way to New York, and the hassle of it is burdensome to bear. I think of how I will have to shoulder my bags, walk through the pissing, head-down crowds of Penn Station, find the uptown local, and put my head in my hands until I reach home.
Tonight the train bleeds a purpled blood into a sky lit up by pollution and the nascent light of people trying out this whole living thing. Last night my father held me for a second longer than usual and that was all I needed. Many winters ago, my father got down on his knees for me, and I know now that I needed nothing else.
What I have been trying to say is that there are lines we can draw between the points of things, and there are different names we can give those lines and different names we can give what they each connect. We can call those lines steel tracks. We can call them rivers. We can call them highways, county roads, sidewalks. We can call them decisions and we can call them mistakes. I want to unlearn the lines. I want the train I am on to know no tracks other than the ones it slides on now, and then now, and then now. That is what is so strange about the present. It exists, and it is gone in the amount of time it takes you to point a finger and say it exists. The moment you say you are is-ing, you are was-ing. The world ends and then it has ended and you are there, trying to deal with all that ending. The train still moves and my girlfriend is asleep and she won’t know I’m thinking of her until I tell her, later, that I was. She believes, I think, in choices. I am scared of them. I think we all are. Call a path between two points a choice, call it a dream, call it love, call it whatever the hell you want. Love the getting there more than the being there, and then call the being there a getting there for somewhere else.
Ah, fuck. Penn Station. Believe in God again, and pray for me.
Devin Kelly earned his MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and co-hosts the Dead Rabbits Reading Series in New York City. He is the author of the collaborative chapbook with Melissa Smyth, This Cup of Absence (Anchor & Plume) and the forthcoming books, Blood on Blood (Unknown Press), and In This Quiet Church of Night, I Say Amen (ELJ Publications). He has been nominated for both the Pushcart and Best of the Net Prizes. He works as a college advisor in Queens, teaches at the City College of New York, and lives in Harlem. You can find him on twitter @themoneyiowe.
Image: Tobias Carroll/Flickr