Maybe we’re always one short step from madness. Maybe it’s like pulling a muscle in your back, one minute you’re vertical and the next horizontal and of the intervening seconds not a whisper of a memory but lost, subsumed, in a pure and perfect radiance.
Once I stooped to pick up a lunchbox and found myself splayed across the floor. Another time I reached down to unkink a garden hose and felt the tectonic plates in my spine shift sending me lurching into the picnic table, my vision blinded by pain so luminous it swallowed all thought and feeling, a supernova of nerve endings.
Today I moved a certain way, not physically but metaphorically, psychologically, emotionally. I moved just so.
Today, mostly, I waited. Waited in the early morning while watching a live GPS update from the Challenger, the world’s largest operating steam locomotive, docked overnight in Marysville. I wanted a shot of it crossing the Frankfort elevator to match a similar image taken of No. 844, Union Pacific’s other operating steam engine. According to the update, the train was late pulling out. So I waited, keeping a close eye on the Twitter feed.
At 8:26 a.m. the train was backing from the rail yard. GPS reckoning showed it just north of town, almost to the bridge spanning the Big Blue.
Waiting jolted to a frenzied haste, pedal to the floor, the white line a blur. Nothing, nothing could be left to chance.
Two photographers stood by the crossing. We waved and I drove down a side road to get into position. Mounting the camera on a tripod, I framed the view and settled down to wait.
And wait. And wait some more while the sun rose higher and shadows slid from the track. Time lost all relevance. Pigeons wheeled around the elevator. A flock of Franklin’s gulls wove the air in serpentine coils. I finished my cup of coffee and waited and at long last heard a whistle. Unmistakably diesel.
It roared past. The men at the crossing walked back to their trucks and left. Did they know something I didn’t? I felt compelled to wait, and wait I did.
While waiting, I argued with myself. The train had engine problems; it had to dock for an emergency shipment of coal for the power plant; it took an alternate track. It would be here any minute.
But the minutes bled away and away, and with them my resolve. When after two hours I knocked down the tripod and drove into town, I was greeted with a friend’s astonishment at having seen Challenger come through. Her estimate of its arrival placed it within minutes of its Twittered departure from Marysville.
I stared at her with incomprehension. It couldn’t have, I said. There’s no way.
Shock turned to fury which bled away into disgust and a great weariness. I felt like a jilted lover. I wanted my morning back.
The drive home, a mere 14 miles, seemed interminable. By the time I arrived I was well entrenched in an abyss that seemed more home than home.
Such a minor note to generate such consequences. Such triviality. But then, it’s always the little things that blindside us.
At the grocery store I sensed a rising tide of panic. We’d gone for milk and vegetables and chocolate and the aisles were mostly deserted which was a relief for I wanted to hide, to withdraw turtle-like into my shell. I was exhausted and gritty eyed and deeply depressed. For a moment I rested my forehead on Lori’s shoulder. I’m not right in the head, I said. Something’s wrong.
Familiarity has a statue of limitations. I’d been here before and forgotten the opening stanzas and somehow almost welcomed what would follow while simultaneously rejecting it. While fighting it. It’s always a toss-up who will win. I felt myself slipping. I felt myself letting go.
What keeps us sane? Or more importantly, what brings us back from the brink? A snatch of music, a poem, the touch of a lover’s hand, physical manifestations of something deeper than the soul. Recognition of some necessary thing that has no name.
Throughout the evening I found myself stopping to look at a framed photograph of a battered old piano. Light comes from the left and spills in a soft glow on the far wall. Other than the piano the room is barren except for a broom leaning against the wall, out of the frame, behind the photographer. I remember it there, its worn bristles nestled in a soft hillock of duff. Other than me looking down at the print there is nothing in the room, or there is and suddenly isn’t. Was.
And as suddenly reappear, surprised to find myself stationary when all had been in motion, to pour another cup of coffee, to close windows against the brisk autumn air. To do something irretrievably forgotten. Interrupted. Stalled. Restarted.
Lori said, what are you looking at, and I said, the picture. The room was bright with blues and greens and a rich chestnut on the ceiling, but the artist had leached out the colors except for the browns on the piano. The monochromatic treatment gave the piano a living presence. Shadows darkened one corner in opposition to the light. Emptiness and spatial dimensionality. Loss and becoming.
What do you see, she said.
Salvation, I wanted to say. A straw to grasp, flotsam to cling to. A lighthouse.
I wanted to say, after today I can’t believe I did that, that I ever made anything beautiful in my life. That I’m anything other than a failure. And didn’t, for I could not trust myself to speak.
Her arms slipped around me in a warm embrace. How can I help you, she asked.
You just did, I said, and took the first tentative step on a long, long road
Sad, and sweet. I know the feelings. Hope you are feeling better. Love you, Uncle Tom!
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