Saturday, October 29, 2011
There is a place before the use of words, a place of smoke and mist and fog. It is the place of starting out.
People talk about what is universal to humans but they miss this point: even if you have no formal religion and baptism or initiation or whatever, you know what starting out means. I know.
Starting out—there is nothing like it. The southern West Virginia winter morning is a fog bank of low cloud smothering the world in secret.
It hangs over the rail yards down past Sacred Heart Church and school and the smoke of the trains roll up into it and the whole white and brown brume covers me. I breathe it in, icy and stale and sour at the same time. And that is the world, the whole world.
When I step out on the porch at five it is still murky dark; the street light just opposite is like a dying punk that can barely light itself. Our house, like most houses in the town, hangs on to a steep bank on the hillside. I can barely make out a few more streetlights, big bulbs with tin saucers over them, muffled and bluish yellow, down by the convent. And out past that, darkness and more fog, but I have to guess at that.
I stop for a moment on our high porch which leans out over the street below like the quarter deck on a sailing ship in Two Years Before the Mast or Treasure Island. I go in the basement below the porch—I told you the house is on a hill side—and rattle the grates under the coal fire, then shovel in coal and punch it with a poker, then take out the “clinkers” (coal burned into a hard, shiny rock) with a tool like a claw, and pile them into a rusty can for the garbage man. I stand for a moment with the furnace door open and watch the new coal catch and feel the heat on my face. Then, it’s time to go back out: icy cold razor wind sharp up the nose and chill trickling down the back of my neck. Everyone inside asleep above me, everyone down the hill asleep too, including Father and the nuns. If anyone is awake it’s a few engineers and switchmen, maybe a few coal miners in vans on the way to the shafts down south, but I don’t think about that yet. I just want this, the quiet emptiness. It’s just me, I think, me and the world, and the world hasn’t started up.
The empty canvas newspaper sack rides my shoulder. Like the cassock and surplice at Mass, it makes me official, but this is different: I am in charge. I get to decide to go or not go, to go the way I want, I can even start from the other end of the route and come back if I want to, I can even skip a house and lie and say sorry I missed it, I can go fast or slow, I can stand anywhere I want along the way and listen to hissing and ding-dong of the switch engine bells in the yards. For at this moment no one is looking at me. No one is watching me, no one is seeing if I make a mistake or make faces or drag along or peek in windows or dawdle or dance or waste time or throw rocks or dream or stop and swing on the butt-cold swings or not pay attention or go off somewhere in my head or daydream or think about something I’m not supposed to think about or ain’t allowed to think about (or say, like “ain’t”) or didn’t ask permission for or have to account for. No, I can stop right in the middle of the street—it is dizzying to walk right down the middle of all the streets, swinging my newspaper bag—“like a fool,” Mom would surely say—and think about something that often comes to me, that there is somewhere in the hills and mountains a place where no one but me has ever been, where there is a cold spring pouring out of the rocks and ferns and I can kneel down, cup my hands, and drink the pure stream all I want to. Thinking about it, I swing the paper sack madly around my head. “In the beginning,” I recited from Genesis in a school program, “God created . . . .” “What a rush,” the druggies would say in later days. He could do whatever He wanted. Perfect freedom. I stand on the porch and step out into the fog of the world unfettered and unafraid, to taste that freedom for the first time, and I love it beyond all hope and all reason.
Or, I think about old Stony Ridge on the other side of the tracks, where the torrents of fog come rolling down its long slopes, and where the mortar shells land just where I put them when I squeeze the steely in my pocket. I may fire off a few before I start down the stairs, just to scare the gooks, even if I can’t see the bursts. Watch out, I say with grim determination, we have the power, we will beat you in the end. Squeeze, fire, silent wait, whoomp.
Down past the school, the convent, the rectory, the church, wisps of fog swirl under the street light at the corner. I turn down past the filling station to the bridge. This is the gem, the downtown morning route I earned after slogging through two crummy afternoon routes. Yes, that’s right, turn left at the church where all that black murmuring is sleeping inside with the single red sanctuary lamp hanging by its chain over the cold stone floor. He’s there in the closed tabernacle watching me, flits across my mind; no, He’s asleep. There’s a tiny chill as I dare to wonder if it’s true, and I am down Monroe Street through the neighborhood of decaying houses built by the railroad for its bosses. The railroad people are mostly gone except for an older couple slumbering in the house with the grand white columns; their daughter, a blond lady gym teacher, is sleeping too. Later, she will walk her two Irish setters, Pat and Mike, wearing her horsey jodhpurs. Let her sleep, let her walk them in her sleep. Let Mrs. Keen in the apartment house next door sleep before she teaches steel-clad grammar without ever a smile on her heavy face. Let everyone sleep. I am awake and walking down the middle of the street.
Then I come to the downtown. I can go one of three ways now, my choice. Left over the hump and past the colored Catholic church where I serve Mass sometimes and down past the movie theatres where my Dad works, straight past the auto showrooms and garages, right and down the main street by the railroad. I can feel my feet twist in the fun of making up my mind. There is a moment of grinding, like when the big Mallet engines drop sand on the tracks to keep from sliding; so I go that way, where the steam and coal smoke rise up brown and orange into the fog cloud, and I can hear the big engines breathing hard as if they are waiting for something. Above the wall that separates the street and the yards, I can see the smokestacks and the top of the boilers, hear a switch engine pushing an extra sleeping car down the siding for when the morning passenger train comes in from Norfolk. I don’t see anyone on the street except a few brakemen coming off their shift like tired ghosts, their lunch pails dangling empty. Then an engine lets out a long sigh of steam as if it’s tired and old and I can smell the coal smoke warm and brown settling down over the street and dropping hot cinders on my face. Somehow I feel I am part of all this, that I with my canvas sack on a mission to get and deliver the newspaper am part of something much bigger than myself, that I am the brakemen and the engineers and the silent dark buildings with the coal smoke from their chimneys, all moving toward something called the dawn.
But I don’t want to hurry it. I saunter some, looking in the windows of Woolworth’s and the movie posters at the Colonial. That movie will run today, but right now Clark Gable is frozen on the poster, grinning serious and thoughtful, one gun pointed skyward. But I will bring the news to the sleeping town. At the newsstand across from the passenger station I see the wired bale of newspapers sitting in the doorway and think, no, I will beat you, I will have the papers all over the downtown before you open your doors, Mrs. Goulasch.
A police car sails smoothly past. A warning. Get on before this is all lost and changed and there are people on the streets, lights coming on. At the newspaper building, I come up the back where the trucks are loading more newspaper bales for out in the county. Here they come, the morning papers rolling down the conveyor belt and I’m in line waiting for mine. Crawfish counts them out with his huge ink-stained thumb, ten at a time, but I count them over, I am tired of being shorted. Back out of the shouts and the grumbly motors rumbling, I am in the silence again, carrying the words. At the corner I stop a second and look at the front page, the news I will take from office to office and house to house, what the people are waiting for, Panmunjom and the 38th parallel and the Choisin reservoir and President Eisenhower and the communists in our government. At school, I will know all these things as if I had lived a life earlier than everyone else. I will be old and wise and secret. I will know.
The silence is an ocean of waiting, despite the train noises and the occasional shout or starting car. I float back into it, the bag of papers on my hip, the bill of my earmuff hat over my eyes. Monday let’s say, a light load today, the paper slim and serious after the weekend, and this a school morning again. I have not said any prayers and don’t even think about it. I will hear about all that later, that is part of the day that hasn’t started yet though Mass will start in about an hour now. I don’t really think about this as I breathe in the fresh day of fog and smoke but I do think about words, especially strange words I don’t know the meaning of. They are like the box cars on the railroad, the freight train racketing along with its announcements: Susquehanna, Lackawanna, Rock Island Line, C&O, B&O, New York Central, Chicago and Northwestern, Virginian, Chessie. Peace Talks, Dogma, Arbitration, price controls, OPA, liquor, sex, extreme unction, brain washing, salamander, permanents, icebergs, blizzards, persecution, displaced persons, divorce, atom bombs, salt rising bread, girdles, griddles, grits, bump and grind, boogey woogy. I say them out loud and watch my breath make more fog with the words. Hic Est Meus Corpus Meum. But if I say it nothing happens. Why?
I am in why, which is better. The answers I get when I ask questions never satisfy me, so I am better in why. While it is still dark and foggy with the great smoke clouds rolling up off the yards, the billows—there’s a word!— rolling in on themselves and trailing away behind as the engine moves down the tracks, the thunder of the wheels on the track pounding the earth below like a mighty hammer, and the long whistle of death as the coal train announces the sorrowful news of the long lonesome valleys that stretch forever in both directions. I stop to listen. I can feel it as the rumbling of the Mallet wheels rolls under the street and passes up into my legs. The only other time I feel like this is when I’m reading and I hit something that shakes me inside, a terror or a wonder. But the trains make reading better because you can look up from the book and know the words have that kind of power and loneliness. I wouldn’t want to read up in our attic if I could not see and hear the trains.
Which is another place and time where you have that freedom, the toasty warm attic at the top of the two storey-house (all the heat goes up there) down by the rail yards, just you and a stack of Life or Look magazines and some old books and some things your uncles brought back from the last war, a sharp shell fragment, an ash tray made of an ammo casing. The engineers of the switch engines wave, even sometimes the engineers or conductors of the coal trains. You don’t know them and they don’t know you but there is a kind of friendship there that makes me feel good. Best is when a caboose is heading off west and the conductor in his red kerchief waves with his lantern at you leaning out the cupola window and waving like you know him, especially at night or in the early morning, like something great and important is happening that you cannot begin to understand and it will never happen again the same way.
Then comes the time when the sun begins to burn off the fog and the street lights switch off and the grey noises and people begin. The last paper has been plopped on a porch where they probably won’t pay up, some of the people standing out waiting for it and looking at their watches. They irritate me, I don’t even count them, they are day people, part of the world ending my time alone. Traffic is picking up, the first busses stop at the bank and rumble black exhaust, waiting to fill up. Delivery trucks bring the milk and bread to the restaurants, which turn on their neon signs to lure the railroad men and the passengers from off the first train, soldiers and sailors from Norfolk, salesmen, big shots followed by redcaps and hopeful winos cadging for dimes. Sometimes, before heading home, I cross over the avenue and walk through the train station, hoping to sell the extra paper I have left over.
For no reasons except my own, I stand on the platform and look at the Pullman cars and the dining car that pull in under the sparsely lighted steel canopy next to the ticket window. Red caps, some of them with baggage wagons, hurry around, ready to sing out to the people getting off. Here it comes. The passenger train eases in magnificently, stops with bursts of steam that flood the platform; I wait until it will start out again with an occasional slipping of the big wheels on the steamed tracks. Inside the dining car there is another world, a bright lighted world I am outside, will never be a part of. Big men with cigars reading newspapers and finishing breakfast, fancy ladies in furs primping and looking out cold at me, a sad, hopeless being who can never bother them. Watching the cars move slowly out with important, staring conductors standing at the doors makes me feel I am dying and alone. The cars rock over the rails, couplings squeak and groan. Slowly, slowly, the world of the train floats out and I get the sensation that two worlds are moving, mine and theirs, but then, no, the morning news is this: I am stuck here and they are gone, the rickety- rickety-rick fading down the line. And the whistle sounds, one blast long and slow, a few short, as if the train is saying something I can’t grasp.
It’s all grey now, my sack is empty, the day has started, no one cares what I have done but me, but I don’t know for sure if that’s bad or good. It’s like when you start to tell somebody of something great that happened to you and you can see in their eyes they are a thousand miles away, just waiting for you to stop talking and you wish you hadn’t started. I cross the street back where the newsstand and the restaurants are coming alive with sailors and soldiers and whores. I walk back up the hill to our house and creep in to read the newspaper by myself before anyone else gets up. Years later, I miss the feeling of those mornings and want it back. I want the smell of my socks dried out on the hot radiator or hung on a chair by the coal fire grate when I get ready to go out in the morning. My socks, warm for my feet.
Starting out. It’s what I want again. It’s what we all want.
Copyright 2011 R. Kenton Craven