“Harry got up
Dressed all in black
Went down to the station
and he never came back
they found his clothing
Scattered somewhere down the track
In a New York Minute
Everything can change
In a New York Minute
You can get out of the rain
In a New York Minute”
“New York Minute” – Don Henley
Train tracks can take on a whole new meaning when you’ve grown older.
As kids, they are a source of wonderful, intriguing mystery. Huge, fast moving iron giants would roll by on the very same tracks that only a moment ago, we were walking on. Where did they come from? Where were they going? Could we ride on them someday?
Yet there is something forlorn about a solitary set of train tracks carved into the landscape, snaking through a desolate part of America, seemingly a waste of materials and effort. Only until the next great train came along. Then it all made sense.
I am perched right in the middle of just such a desolate stretch of land, between just such a solitary set of tracks. I am only 10 minutes outside of town, but I may as well be in a deserted West Texas prairie, dodging tumble weeds and wondering big thoughts.
What brings me here today is the prospect of ending my life.
Not an earth shattering idea for me. I’ve been here before. Maybe not this close, but I sure have danced more than once with this concept.
What brings me here today is a simple, declarative phrase that stitched itself across my brain this morning at the same moment I gave birth to my first conscious thought of the day.
Answering ‘why’ to the suicide question is easy. The resume that trails from my neck like a storm-tattered, wind-worn Superman Cape is chock full of disappointment. Divorce. Dead mother. Dead sister. Dead brother. Dead best friend.
Why not? A much more complex conundrum, indeed.
Joining that group in the ballroom of eternity, or wherever the hell it is we go, would not be a bad thing. Might even be fun. Hell, it’s got to be better than the current dance floor I’m on, where my every step is out of synch and both of my feet are left.
Despair is not new to me. What burbled to the surface almost immediately upon waking this morning, after pretending I couldn’t figure out what those two words portended, was my father, who at this very moment was probably on his third martini while placidly watching a ballgame. He had many more reasons to grab fate by the chicken neck, shake it violently, and then take his own life.
This man had endured real hardship. He’d lost an eye and his left leg in Korea, on his third tour of duty, as he carried a fallen soldier to safety. He’d survived colon cancer, and then watched as his wife of 35 years, and my mother, had been whittled to almost nothing before succumbing to the very cancer he’d beaten.
My dad saw his best friend and Army buddy, a man sentenced to a wheel chair by his own heroic act on the Mekong Delta, saving five of his comrades by falling on a grenade, die suddenly of a heart attack, right in front of all of us, as we were about to watch my mother lowered into the earth.
The man literally toppled out of his chair, landed heavily, and rolled once and into my mom’s freshly dug grave. If it wasn’t so tragic, it would have been hilarious. None of us laughed.
There’s more, of course. My dad is 79 years old, and he’s seen it all, heard most of it, and guessed pretty accurately the rest of it. You live an examined life like my old man, you see way too much, and unfortunately, there is no ‘consumption’ arbiter for the soul. No ‘full’ or ‘empty’ needle on a gauge that warns you. No cosmic dip stick telling you when to add, or more importantly, stop adding. There was no gatekeeper, and when things filled up and began to spill over, you mopped it up as fast as you could. At least that was the old man’s metaphor. I kind of liked it.
The images that stalk your night dreams, he told me once, those early morning howls that force an awakening to a sweat-bathed, shivering reality and a shuddering acceptance that the day was about to begin, had become commonplace for him. He said that those initial moments when it happened, he often longed to float right back to his pillow and return to the horrificness of his dream. At least it was familiar. Each day, consciousness seemed to promise him only one thing: Surprise. He hated surprises.
My death will surprise him. Probably.
I called him this morning. The conversation was speckled with the flotsam and jetsam of two men who would have nothing fresh to say to one another for the rest of their lives. It was our tacit acknowledgment that the sameness of our relationship would never improve; never get a burst of interesting, compelling insight on either of our parts. It simply was. Not unlike most marriages, if you ask me. The desultory acceptance of banality is what keeps many people married well past the autumn years.
I told him I loved him as we signed off, which was rare. I wonder if he red-flagged the comment and sank back into his recliner, propped his prosthetic leg up onto the age old ottoman, laced his hands behind his head, and thought about why I would tell him that. Today. It’s the kind of curious statement that might prompt him to mull and ruminate. To mold in his mind like hamburger, balling it up, making sure the mental spices were mixed in well, then flattening it out to make it ready for the grill.
I don’t think even he is capable of making the intellectual leap to my declaration being a thinly veiled goodbye. We occasionally tell each other those three words, usually on holidays and birthdays. Today was neither.
Today, February 17, is the day before my 55th birthday. A non-descript Tuesday. Non-descript, that is, until I do what I’m about to do. From this day forward, my birthday will be inevitably linked with sorrow and regret and pain, tied tragically to the day before. I am about to ruin these two days for my father. Forever.
I hear a distant train whistle. I look down the track, but can’t see it. About a mile and half down, the track veers to the left and out of sight behind some rolling hills.
I don’t move. I’m comfortable. Maybe even resigned. I’ve never been this close. I’d thought often about what would go through my mind, if it still worked, during the final moments of my life. Many of the scenarios I’d entertained were flights of fancy, some macabre, but none of them involved the serenity I feel coursing threw me now as I watch the train appear around the last hill and straighten out on the tracks, heading straight for me.
I had taken a cab from my condo to my location. About thirty yards away, there was a small concrete turnaround where a tiny shelter used to be, back when such a minuscule structure could be pressed into service as a train station. Only some scattered bricks and prongs of rebar jutting up through the cement remained. And weeds.
Layered underneath the slow steady roar of the train engine I heard what sounded like a car engine. I turned back to where the kiosk had been and watched as a cab, maybe even the same cab, as there were only three in town, drove up to the turnaround.
The first of what would become continuous blasts from the train resounded as apparently the conductor spotted me.
The train breaks began to screech. The squealing nails on chalkboard sound is eerily apropos, the sort of disconcerting, grating noise one might expect to hear as the final audible salute of their time on earth.
I am sitting Indian style, centered exactly between the tracks. I watch as under the opened rear door of the taxi I see the narrow end of a cane extend out and onto the ground. Then a brown-shoed foot, and another. Rising above the rolled up window of the door is the obvious silhouette of my father, the anxious look on his face obvious even from the distance.
I glance back at the train, its cacophonous trumpeting like that of a charging steel elephant. My calmness is disconcerting. I pinch my arm, searching for any sense of dread, whether manifested physically or emotionally.
My father leans on the door frame, watching me. Helpless.
I have a crazy, almost inexplicable thought ping across my mind, like a very slow, almost cumbersome shooting star.
Can dad tell how far away I am with only one eye and no depth perception?
The cab driver is now out of the car and sitting on the hood, one foot on the ground, the other resting on the bumper, his arms crossed as if watching the filming of a movie. His turban and impassive Arab face battling my father’s pained expression for the right to be my final image.
The train’s brakes are now fully applied, but the futile effort means the ear-splitting screeching will be my final sounds. I am unsure as to which is nobler: looking at my father or facing the iron beast poised to remove me from my sadness.
For once, my father wins.
© Copyright 2017 Bill Rayburn. All rights reserved.
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