Dreaming of Trains and Empires.
A cycle of stories written 1999-2002
I. An Advisor Delivers His Daily Report on the Empire
Your excellency, the Empire is calm today.
The border disputes with our neighbors have been settled, and the wars with our enemies ended.
Agricultural production is steady. In some areas there are droughts, and in others, abundance.
Population is rising in some districts, but falling in others.
Monuments are being built to new glories and conquests, and old ones are decaying.
However, I could not begin to describe what is happening in the vast domains under your reign, other than to say, they are only the same revelations and horrors that are always occurring.
But there is nothing of particular interest to report in this one space, this one instant of calm between the great waves of events and history.
II. Dreaming of Trains
I had a dream, I had this dream
In this dream, there was a convoy that had been wandering in the outlying regions of the empire for quite some time. Finally, they came upon some railroad tracks. A train would come by, they knew, and so they built a small town, with a train station and several smaller buildings. This way the train would know where to stop.
As an added precaution, a spy was sent out to meet the train and warn the conductor.
The spy made it to the tracks just as the train slowed to a curve around a mountain. Once on board, he fell asleep in an empty boxcar.
The train sped through the town. The convoy looked on.
Later on, the spy woke up and made his way to the engine car where the conductor was. He slid into the seat next to him.
"I was sent to tell you to stop at the town you passed, to pick the convoy up," he said.
"You needn't have bothered, it would've done no good," the conductor answered.
The spy looked down over the front of the train and realized the conductor was right.
I was standing by some railroad tracks.
I was walking in the direction that these tracks crossed, but there was a train running down these tracks, there was speed & inertia & energy which bisected my path.
So I walked, I walked around, thinking I had seen a crossover, which would allow me to walk over all this energy & noise which bisected my path.
But I couldn't find it, so I walked back, and there I realized that a part of me, that part that contained my true self, was on the other side of the tracks.
And the train, the train was slowing down, and in the space & time that existed inbetween the cars, I was able to see my true self more clearly, and I could look myself in the eye and even exchange brief words.
And I thought, hey, I could climb on the back of one of these cars, I could climb over one of these cars, and be on the other side.
And I said – Wait? Are there any cops? I couldn't see any cops, but there was limited time & space inbetween the cars which comprised the energy & inertia & motion which bisected my path, and maybe there were cops which I could not see.
And I thought, what if I fell off a car? The path across was not unobstructed, and I would be crushed by all that mechanism & motion.
And by this time, by this time the train had sped up again, and it was no longer possible to scramble over, and I could see myself, my true self, in ever-decreasing glimpses on the other side.
I had a dream last night about you.
In this dream, my mother kicked me out of the house, except I am who I am now, and I was with you. So we go, so we go to the train trestle, and we hop onto a passing train.
And the car that we're on, it is a cool, clean aluminum car, and we jump on to the roof and lie down by the overhang which we can roll under when the workmen walk by so they don't see us.
And we pass through the first city by my home, and then the multitude of cities that comprise the metropolis of the eastern edge of the empire, and I gaze in wonder at the buildings and the highways and the rivers and the bridges. The hues are amazing, the views always unobstructed, and I feel a little guilty about gaining such pleasure from my wonderment of the industrial objects that man made. You keep saying, "I don't like the view so much from this high up." I insist it's not, but when the dream is over, I realize you are right. About the height, not the view.
And we never leave the city although we are obviously passing through cities but there is never any country inbetween, only where we started was there, and the car has become an empty aluminum boxcar about three feet high that we can lie in, and, finally, the height makes you sick. You're going to vomit, and there's nothing I can do about it even though we can hear the voices of the workers and I know and you know that if and when you lean over the railings to puke, you will give us away, and probably hit them. And finally you have to vomit, and do.
And the train, the train is rolling into a station, it is Grand Central Station, which is mildly surprising but somewhere we must've realized that this had not been the first city the while time. And as we glide in, knowing we are discovered, the cars of the train disappear, including the roof and the walls of the one that we are on, until there is only a large sheet left that is gliding through the station, on a track near the ceiling, and below are the fare inspectors and policemen who grimly await our debarkment, and passengers who occasionally stare at us with that look you reserve for the shoplifter at the department store who's just been handcuffed by the security.
And I see pedestrian walkways overhead that I think for a second perhaps I could jump to, but I know it would be futile even if I could make it that high, and I am not seriously tempted by the possibility.
And as we glide towards the end of the station, approaching the its far end much too quickly, first you fall into a box above the waiting guards, and then me.
V. A Dream for Ariana
I had a dream last night. This dream had nothing to do with you, but I thought you might enjoy and appreciate it, so I'll tell it to you.
In my dream I was hopping trains. I was with someone, and it I suppose it could have been you, but it could just as easily have been anyone else.
I can't remember where we went or why. I think we were in Alabama, but maybe it was Mississippi. Hell, it could have been Texas. All I can remember is that we were east of Georgia, and we were going to Atlanta.
I keep having dreams about Georgia and hopping trains. Even tho' I've never hopped trains and I never, in my waking life, think about Georgia.
But I was hopping a train. I remember something about outside and gravel and tracks. Then there was a long sequence in-between. I woke up to screams on the street. I looked out onto the intersection of Manhattan and Roebling, which my window overlooked. There, a woman swayed down the street, screaming, "I love him, he's over there. I love him, he's over there." She was accosting a car whose driver seemed eager to get away. "She loves him, it's okay, nothing is wrong," I thought, and fell back asleep.
The next morning, when I woke up, I wondered why I had thought everything was okay. Whatever was happening on the street was clearly very, very fucked-up. I must have thought, "It is only somebody freaking out. It is not somebody being disemboweled and screaming for help, while everyone in the surrounding apartments silently watches their horrific death."
Besides, I had been very stoned when I went to bed, and I was surprised both that I woke up as easily as I did, and that I fell back into into sleep so quickly.
But these were things I remember and thought of later when I woke up. When I fell back asleep, I my dream continued to the end. I had returned to Atlanta. In my quasi-lucid waking interval, my dream's chronology had continued unabated, and by the time I returned to it, I had already gotten in Atlanta, had left, and was now returning again. I was on the same railroad, heading back from whichever state to the west it was that I had been in.
And it was a very queer railroad, because I remember - having been shown on my previous ride - that I could hop on top of a car, pull the metal up, and climb underneath it, such as if it was a rug. And so I did, and to my surprise I found that I was in the front car, and I could look out ahead of the train.
And this train was driving through a tunnel, as it had for most of the ride and would continue to into Atlanta. And as I write this I recall that Atlanta's original name was Terminus City, which I remember from having been obsessed with Civil War history when I was a child, growing up in a South when the very last people who had witnessed – and some went even as far as to claim participation in – this war were finally all dying, and in a region where it remained a time that had not been buried and relegated to history books. It was still a vivid collective memory and potent symbol, as losers hate to forget. And it was named Terminus City because it was where several railroad lines ended.
The tunnel was somewhat strange as well. It was quite pleasant, like a long corridor in a nice building, and there was carpeting on the floor. The carpet looked thick and quite comfortable, and it absorbed the noise of the train, so it was no louder than the sound of luxury car, an Audi or a Mercedes, cruising down a highway. There was nice lighting as well, subdued and somewhat dim but overall creating a very calm, soothing effect.
As the train rounded a corner – there were no tracks and this corner resembled nothing so much as a turn in your average family's suburban ranch home's hallway – there suddenly appeared three small girls astride bicycles, in the middle of the corridor. The train came to an immediate stop – I could feel the physical impact of the train's velocity catching up with stationary front. Two of the girls, who had been standing alongside their bikes and looking backwards at the train, immediately pedaled to the side of the corridor, where they could stay safely until the locomotive had passed. But the third girl stood there for a minute, looking over her shoulder at the train. She sent a withering look of disdain and contempt, before reluctantly peddling to the side, as well.
VI. The Minister Delivers his Second Report
The Minister took three steps away from the podium darkly.
What is it? they cried.
He blew his nose, shifted his weight slightly, and looked off into the distance.
Epilogue. Lawrenceville, Georgia Provided Many Soldiers to the Confederate Army and, Later, Attempted to Assassinate Larry Flynt
When I was a kid in Lawrenceville, we used to walk along the train tracks. They ran behind the old sewage plant, which had been torn down and razed beyond recognition by the time I was old enough to be let some freedom to roam on my own around the neighborhood. First I went there with my brother, and later, with my friends, who my parents had correctly labeled juvenile delinquents. They were only wrong in not including me in the category.
We used to go to the bridge where the highway passed over, and there we spraypainted shit on the sloping concrete sides. Ozzie, Black Sabbath, Nazi graffiti. I remember telling my friend, in reference to the later and defending its inclusion, "People get freaked out when they see this stuff." While I undoubtedly tried to say this in the authoritative voice that 13-year-old boys adopt, now when I back on it, I can only hear the vocal inflections of Beavis and Butthead.
Later, we made molotov cocktails out of gasoline, coke bottles and rags. Our experiments had taught us that rubbing alcohol burned too fast, and thicker bottles sometimes failed to shatter. At first we threw them at the sides of the concrete slabs that girded the bridge, but later we hurled them at passing trains. Fortunately, we never incinerated ourselves.
About the same time, we practiced a generalized pyromania which also incorporated a version of chicken. We would start fires, and see how big they could get before stomping them out. Once, I remember, we lit a patch of dried grass in the field where the sewage plant had been. The fire quickly spread out in concentric circles, far beyond our reach, as we looked on hopelessly. As it was reaching critical proportions, it suddenly extinguished itself. Perhaps it was some kind of mysterious intervention. Looking back, I can identify that as one of those moments where a slight turn of circumstances could have resulted in a far-reaching life changes. Similar to how, years later, it was fortuitous that I took two, and not three, sleeping pills before drinking vodka one winter night in Portland, which I woke up from 36 hours later.
But my self-destructiveness as a adult was far in the future, although the foundations of it were being forged at the time. Like when we broke into a trailer that was near a construction site. We tried to destroy it, but there was nothing inside. So we took iron rods and smashed out all the lightbulbs and windows.
But when we left, we felt somehow incomplete. We probably should have burned it down to obliterate this void, but even that would have failed to fill it, although all the exhilaration would have sufficed to cover it up for a while. The problem was, there was no reason for the trailer to be there. There was no reason for the concrete slabs of the bridge to be there. There was no reason, in fact, for the grass to be there. They were only individual elements, isolated from and independent of any overarching system of organizing logic or coherence. Raised on tv and coke, we intuitively understood this critique. It was part of who we were. We were constantly in touch with the continual anxiety caused by the illogic of the presence of these disconnected and senseless objects, and we responded to this by attacking what we thought was the root of it, which was its physical manifestation.
I have no regrets for anything that we did, which is easy to do since no one got hurt and we were never caught. But championing nihilism as a healthy response to inclusion in a system where meaning has been removed is comparatively simple as long as only private property is concerned, as any conflicts with humanism are left unaddressed. Regardless, while I maintain that our motivations were pure and admirable, it remains true that they could not, and did not, lead to a resolution of our dilemma, of our discomfort.