Originally published in PLEASURE 2014
Illustration by Carlos Gonzalez
Journey to the Ills
That intractable aloneness descends. Steady sidelong and furtive all morning, peering around corners, noir detective slitting peeks through venetian blinds slat by slat and all the while fighting off this dead certainty of a devastating encounter on each one’s other side. Minute-by-minute suspicion, sidewalks, entrances, lobbies. Outwardly dull workaday interactions shot through unmistakably with something sinister. The train station ticket clerk, for instance, seems to respond to your request to be routed to Mobile through Tuscaloosa with a split-second flash to the eyeball, jetblack nasty iris-wash and a knowing, toothily lupine smile... later it will occur to you that it might just as likely have been a polite ‘no’ or any number of other ordinary rejoinders far as anybody’s concerned, longshot at comfort, though, since what’s got hold of you is this uncertainty, this never quite knowing whether or not what you’re seeing, hearing, doing, or saying is, you know, the real thing. That kind of hopeless private existence, the kind people fake overcoming at dinner, in conversation with friends of family, in bed with lovers--occasions only serving to reinforce the notion from which they’re meant to distract, namely that no one is going to understand you, not ever. That those things seen, heard, dreamed cannot be explained, that even as they possess real importance it’s all so fleeting, heartbreaking, fugitive, tied to the moment and liable to slip away with every next thought. That you’re living inside a point of pure being, set to vanish upon waking and never be recaptured. That you’re tripping, still, and are maybe a little scared you won’t ever come down.
Have pity for the solipsist who’s high; it can be a hard way, and lonely. Only comparable with childhood, its cold certainty, unflinching kid’s understanding, a viewpoint that no grown-up could claim to share, so intricate and subtle it’d just be a hassle to try to explain and, without fail, it was never worth the effort anyway. Each fantastical scenario so ornately appointed but talk to your folks about it and of course they think it’s real cute, laugh it off, that’s about it. In every sense it was reality, unbendingly primordial, and in that way it would never yield to any adult equivalent… existence since then had never compared for realness. Your more engrossing dreams and drug phantasies would come to be the closest thing, no real consolation in the face of memory.
Or that of recorded history, collective memory so refracted, so dumbfoundingly unmooring. Walk around stable in the present day or consider your past, your specific, generation-gnawing past, and see those legs cut right out beneath you.
As your train wheezes to life--smog-choked a dusty yellow on corroded brown driftwood-splintery tracks, bombed-out railyard view giving way to dingy American Southscape and a swollen lump of morning moon out the open dining car window--you begin to run what memories you’ve got. Stoned ape, can’t hardly think but here goes nothing as you open your suitcase and find a crumpled paper bag, nice waxy translucent, with a frayed old souvenir photo inside. Who put it there? The image--gone yellow-gray and gauzy as memory, gauzy as the stiffed component layers of a hard plaster cast on a broken arm--depicts your father’s father, for whom you were named but never met, lately beaten with the other Jews of his medical school class, each of them similarly arrayed--limbs balanced in slings and crutches, gazes hard-set, squinty strabismic--offering now, in 1941, this posed tableau for purposes of documentation and verification of the Iron Guard nightmare currently seizing wartime Romania.
This same year, even in your idler imaginings occurring at roughly the same moment (like another star in a constellation whose farflung members, often millions of lightyears apart, are nonetheless contorted into a comforting pattern by the myopic earthbound viewer who, marooned on the prison planet and capable of detecting only the ghostly flashes of their long-ago light, conceives of them as existing together, on some two-dimensional planar surface, at exactly the same time) your great-grandfather, your mother’s father’s father whose face you haven’t even seen in a photograph and whose name you’ve never learned, is shot and killed by rampaging Legionnaires in the streets of Bucharest.
Neither of your parents is born and each man is anonymous one to the other. Could they ever have met? A constellation. Is there such thing?
“Old heirloom or something?” from the curious passenger peering over from across the aisle, pointing at your photo with one gloved hand, ridiculous mint julep in the other.
“Sure, whatever,” you say without looking up, kinda rudely if you had to characterize it, which you don’t, so.
“Actually a real renaissance in shortline railroad operation’s part of what many are calling this whole mess’ silver lining. The fracturing of the east coast mainlines has opened up slews of track for reclamation by those heretofore middleman railroads--‘hosts,’ landlords, only sort of overseeing the passage back to incorporated track, employees walking on eggshells around agency crews, real sorry, didn’t mean to suggest we built the thing--”
“Uh huh,” hours later and this customer, still sitting in the adjacent seats and still talking your ear off, could maybe tone it down some.
“Of course, the further south you head is where you start getting into the real shortlines, that is, the shorter and shorter ones, less and less legal, as ‘unincorporated’ starts to mean something more like, you know, ‘treasonous.’”
Haven’t caught his name or his business. His look is unruffled enough, suppose--actually clean as a whistle and sharp as a tack in an absurdly on the nose Southerner’s Halloween mishmash, seersucker ensemble, straw hat, even, Christ, a Tom Sawyer blade of tallgrass between his teeth--but observations, among them the state of the section of dining car you’re sharing, piled with his luggage, broken-zippered duffel bags and duct-taped milk crates, not to mention the way he’s talking awful fast and acting not far off from terminally jumpy, conspire to convince you you’re dealing with someone no stranger to what’s ‘less legal.’ Nothing on which you feel any pressing need to pass judgment, though, considering it still seems halfway-likely that you’re hallucinating this whole encounter.
You finally make with the greetings and he introduces himself as Push. Push as in pusher-man? Well yeah, turns out all this funny business here owes more than a little to his status as wheeler dealer extraordinaire, the man to see if you need anything moving from Tuscaloosa’s Druid City to those shadowy Ills and anyplace in between.
How’s business? The sense is he’s got a lot to say but can’t, quite. “There are massive entities, real powerful forces angling at planting their hooks in these parts. Huge interests at stake,” shaking his head, “things you wouldn’t... I mean, it’s all in the ghost discussion.”
“Huh?” says pretty much your whole vibe, if not your voice specifically.
He gestures offhandedly around the train car and you notice for the first time that your fellow passengers are all behaving, well, kinda odd, picking up on some manner of extramundane display and pointing excitedly, trying to take photos, clamping hands over the eyes of their innocent charges--one lady laughs, another screams. It is some sort of supernatural exhibition, one seeming to come from a single intelligence onboard--perhaps within--the train. Take this Rorschach effect: deepening shadows of evening’d be one thing, but look up at the ceiling and all of a sudden you’re seeing whole theatrical setpieces in ghostly silhouette--a distended, long-limbed humanoid body, an accusatory disembodied eyeball, a grimacing face, a set of dripping fangs.
“Are you seeing this too?” is all you can muster over the hubbub.
Push nods indifferently. “I wouldn’t worry, harmless, really more of a ‘Not Me’ kind of thing.”
“Oh man,” incredulous, “you don’t read Family Circus?”
Rather than clarify, you resolve to plow ahead. “You mean you’ve seen this before?”
He nods. “Not here, specifically, but it’s no real surprise. Sort of your standard postcivilizational symptom. Everywhere the State pulls back a little, its march of time, Pilgrim’s Progress etc., you get this kind of signal noise. I guess the idea being in the absence of the overpowering stream, everything that had previously blended tends to stick out more, the ratio getting real low, you know, till all you can hear is hiss.” As the tape runs out, you think.
“And can it affect anything, you know, tangibly?”
“Oh yeah, course it can. Even so-called random interference has its own agenda, else it wouldn’t be hanging around. These old ghosts have been waiting, buried in the mix, past detection for most of us. Waiting for the laws to change.” He points at an inkblot death scene enacting itself on the bathroom door. “At the very least, now they’re able to tell us they’re there, a pretty major step in itself. And who knows what else?” almost gleeful, “I mean, this is brand new science.”
The train arrives at its last stop just as dark announces itself in earnest, climbing a steep hill at great length and effort, belching and gulping with what is either some sort of Sisyphean flair or else an actual hopelessly dangerous lack of horsepower. As everyone prepares to debark you grab your suitcase and look over at Push, who hasn’t budged.
“Back up to Tuscaloosa, I’m afraid,” twirl of the grass blade, “Packages waiting.”
You step onto a colorless concrete platform, no signs, no flags, and begin to file toward the wedged-in yellow-railed staircase that runs the whole far side of the hill, peering, across altitude gaps and night’s pressure gradient to what appears to be smatterings of a population on the other side. You’re not sure, in this air, if those are lights you’re seeing. A great deal of volume seems to be concentrated in the space all around, though you couldn’t really get into specifics, only note this fullness, inquire, if you could keep your voice steady in the asking, whether or not it had anything for you. As the train pulls away you look back once, are seen to draw something in, and in the pale gloaming, as the stars rise, descend toward the faint outlines at the bottom.