(Originally published 2008)
Humidity hangs heavy like a damp wash rag on my head and the sun is going down. Though not fast enough for me – the wasps keep coming ‘round and buzzing my ears. Only slightly less annoying is the ice in my cocktail watering down its contents faster than I can drink it.
There is a distant rumble which sounds odd until it becomes familiar at its approach. It is unmistakable. Plastic Big Wheel tires on a sidewalk. The cats don’t like it and are rattled and look about wide-eyed. I find myself unable to keep from smiling at them. They spend too much time indoors to be fierce predators. Then I laugh when I think of the neighborhood I remembered that familiar sound echoing through almost every day. Perhaps it was a Green Machine…I wonder if they still make those?
The sun sets lower now. The kind of blue sky at dusk before ball field lights come on or the countdown at the drive-in would begin. At least at a drive-in before daylight savings time. No sound of traffic here except the honking of geese flying east to the pond over the treeline. A gold finch lights on the cherry tree, twittering its business but the cats could care less. I don’t believe these felines have ever climbed a tree. The finch seems to mock them for it – almost as much as the robins and the rabbits who live under the shed less than a yard away.
The lightening bugs have now joined the fray of the garden party. They arrive fashionably late but it’s always good to see them. I’m hearing Big Wheel tires again but the cicadas and crickets all but drown it out now. It’s funny how they don’t complain to each other about the noise their neighbors make. I catch a glint of shiny railroad track in my vision and my eyes follow it into the trees. I am reminded of a long walk down similar tracks in my pre-teens to sneak into the drive-in up the road. The trees seemed lit up like Christmas with so many fireflies. An otherworldly green led our way home on those nights. The perfume of clover along the tracks was the smell of hide-and-seek.
I start to think of drinking from garden hoses when a heron passes over head, reminding me where I am and that I need ice for my drink. Upon my return from antarctic foraging, I find my seat has been stolen by one of the two non-predatory cats. As if he thought my chair out of the three others was the weaker of the pack to conquer. Chances are better he’s just spoiled. I don’t begrudge him his perch and say, “I snooze, I lose, eh?” He looks at me with half-closed eyes before blinking annoyingly. If he could talk, he’d probably ask why I didn’t bring him treats since I was up, after all. I take the seat across from it and prop my feet up on the seat cushion next to him. He purrs audibly.
The cicadas are still playing their music quite loud. No school nights or early commutes for them. I hear a dog barking off in the distance and the wind picks up notably. I can smell the faintest hint of rain when the breeze tickles my nose just right. It’s going to be cooling down now. I scan the sky to see darker clouds headed in from the west. I’ll think I will just stay out here until it looks like trouble.
There is a train whistle coming from the city, the same direction as the approaching storm. The bellies of the clouds are orange and then gray, an altogether different sight than otherworldly green trees. This is the color of a dying fire, smoldering slow under the ashes just before it goes out. I wonder if the train will outrun the storm. They are both leaving the city at the same time but at what speeds? I think I’ll put my money on the train.
A wind gusts abruptly, startling the suburban cats of prey back to the sliding glass door. That holy gate to sanctuary and treats they don’t have to work to catch. I get up and let them back in to their unnatural habitat. They seem surprised that I closed the door without following them inside. They stand looking out at me, pitifully, through the glass. It’s too late, they’ve shown their mettle. I turn and walk against the gusts to the middle of the yard, feeling the cool grass on my bare feet. A glance backward shows the cats have have moved on from pleading at the door. I smile and note that even suburban cats have pride. I walk a little further to survey the clouds and they reveal bright orange underbellies now. They are thickening over the city like smoke.
I looked down the tracks for signs of the train approaching. My eye naturally follows the shiny rail to the horizon; the city’s orange glow reflected on the tracks. The city. I imagine people there the way I used to at the drive-in. Some come for the show and then there are the players on the big screen. Observers talk and pick apart stories – the players stories always bigger than life. Both sides seem to have a fair share of one-dimensional characters.
Those whose dramas seem to unfold over loudspeakers, echoing out into the night for all to hear; while others are just whispered, like smeared lipstick promises in backseats. Reality or fantasy, lovers or conquests – I know the best scenario of them all is the one unscripted, simple and unmasked behind the scenes. I shake my head, smiling vaguely at the thought of what characters are on the city’s marquee tonight. But I’ve seen that movie – put the speaker back on the pole and start the car. I’d rather go for a drive down a road I’ve never been on.
The storm is coming. The train whistle echoes out again and I see his light coming closer. A few drops of rain fall on my cheek. I head back toward the house to pick up my pen and paper. I have work still to get to. The train blares his approach to the nearest crossing now as I open the door to go inside. The skies haven’t opened up just yet but he’s barreling along at a good clip.
For a moment, I picture the engineer as a simple man I thought I knew well. I believed I would have enjoyed sneaking to the drive-in with him. But I have to dismiss that silliness. It turned out he was probably too city for me after all.
No matter where my imaginary train conductor is headed, he’s staying dry this time. I smile because we both won that bet. I think its best to smile while on your journey, no matter what your destination. I appreciate a good storm because I’ve weathered a good amount of them. You learn to respect the strong ones and then intuitively you find what to be watchful for. I will risk standing in a good one once and awhile because they make you feel alive and rain makes things grow.
Next time, I think I’ll put my money on the skies. The odds are always against his train remaining dry because storms are guaranteed to come…especially on those one way tracks with no stops in between.
All I can do is wish my conductor the best of luck on his journey.