Somewhere Beyond the Bitter End

This is another in my intermittent series of posting things I’d written long before, so that they’re out there on the Net. I wrote this one quite some time ago, back when I was in the Bard Writing Workshop that Hun runs. I wrote most of it after taking a quick walk on a brisk October day right before that day’s meeting of Bard — so yes, this is yet another of my last-minute desperate writings because I didn’t have anything. But it came out OK. I eventually submitted it to The Hun Review and it made it … in 2007, I think.

The title comes from a Patty Griffin song.

“Somewhere Beyond the Bitter End”

He’d gone several blocks without even realizing it. His head wasn’t into the comforting contrast between the familiar warmth of his beat-up old jacket and the crisp fall air. His head wasn’t into anything at that moment, he was on auto-pilot, his legs swinging out a brisk but unhurried stride, taking him… nowhere, really. He slowly became aware of the streets mottled in fallen red and orange, the occasional car swinging by him on the left. He paused and wondered Where am I going? And then, almost reflexively sardonic, What the hell am I doing here? But that made the question larger than a Saturday morning walk, and he wasn’t ready for that, not yet, so he just began walking again.

He turned onto Broad Street and started into “downtown”, the hard kernel of shops and homes that had been swallowed by the sprawling suburban amoeba but not yet digested. There had been a time, he knew, now long past, that the spaces between this town and the next had been a divide as intimidating as that between Earth and Moon, when it had seemed logical to think of people living Over There as odd, rival, even alien. Then the interstate had punched through that barrier like a hydraulic ram through a two-century-old farm wall, and through the gap had come oozing… each other, really, the disturbing sameness that had settled over the countryside everywhere, turning fields of grain into fields of asphalt.

But “downtown” persisted, an isolated patch of high ground in a rising tide of ubiquity and mediocrity. He didn’t fool himself — the people living and working in the town’s center bore the same sameness as the inhabitants of the newest subdivisions. He should know; he was, he ruefully admitted, one of them. Yet, there was something to be said for the saving features of place. The people might be the same but the town was different. Its streets were too narrow for traffic and there was never enough parking. The buildings were small and varied and hunched over just a little bit, a tiny weary tilt you might not see unless you looked for it. Shops were eclectic and closed at strange times and not grouped thematically, and not a warehouse outlet among them. You passed fellow shoppers on foot, loping past them, not rolling silently on the lookout.

And right down Broad Street ran that which had first spawned the town and which still nourished it, a silver thread tying this “downtown” to the real one. Traveled one way, these tracks carried the people into the City, where they earned their living. Traveled the other, it carried them down to the Sound, where they spent it. Not as many took it that way anymore, not for twenty years or more, not since the opening of the parkway. Yet in the summer still the trains could be found packed with retirees and teenagers and anyone who wanted the water but couldn’t or wouldn’t drive there themselves.

He felt drawn to the rail. Neatly bisecting the town with a geometer’s precision, it had been the axis mundi, the hinge about which life had revolved. Now it had almost faded from communal consciousness, used but not noticed, except to be cursed on those occasions when you got caught at a grade crossing while the train chugged by. The rail didn’t seem to notice or mind its diminished status; it just plodded on, year after year, in a world that had moved past it.

He walked alongside the rail, following it like Theseus’ thread, wondering if it would lead him to salvation or the monster. He felt vaguely confident that he had some time before he need worry about a train overtaking him in either direction. The decaying ridership had forced an ever-lengthening schedule, one he had once known by heart, when he first arrived here and, still in a student’s habits, used the train for his frequent excursions to the vibrant City. He realized he hadn’t been to the metropolis, by train or car, in something like half a year; and then only to resolve some issue with his taxes. When had he stopped seeking the bright lights and high culture? Had he outgrown his youthful fascination, or had he just grown old?

Surprisingly soon, he was in “downtown”, in the tiny square that sat at the center of town. Here he came upon the platform that the transit people insisted on calling the “station”, a long slab of concrete that the tracks flowed around like a fallen branch in a steel stream. Never quite deciding which way he should detour around the station, he ended up choosing neither and instead climbed the cracked steps to the platform. This vantage put within his sight the whole of the square — the municipal building with a lone police cruiser parked out front; the two pubs that sat on opposite corners like sparring partners; the pharmacy. And of course, the bookstore.

The dilapidated ramshackle bookstore, stooped and overborne like its owner. The old man was in there now, he knew, shuffling about to meet the dwindling needs of the traffic in the store, a stream thinned and stretched by drought despite the relative crowds that flowed through the square on this mild October day. People didn’t read anymore, and when they did read, they didn’t want someone handling the books like a jeweler does a Faberge. They wanted a bibliographic supermarket that spit out books like boxes of cereal.

He remembered how uplifted he had felt, when he first arrived here, when he had gotten off that train and the first thing he had seen was a sign in the bookstore window, Help Wanted. This was an omen, he had thought. Here was his chance to live among the words that he adored. Here he would be surrounded by all the authors who inspired him, buoyed by them, transformed by them. He would breathe deep the musk of leather binding and stacked page and so absorb the essence of his heroes. They would be the silent chorus cheering him on to his own literary greatness. This little bookstore would be the stepping stone to his transcendence.

Now six years had somehow gotten away from him, and what was there to show of his transcendence? A rent he could barely afford and a car payment he really couldn’t, eked out by persistence in a dead-end job at a dead-end business. One lousy Saturday off every month, which he wasted by walking down to the store anyway. Scribblings and scratchings of ever-decreasing frequency and quality. One or two sales to journals sufficiently obscure and low-grade to stand as proof that no more were coming.

The bookstore vanished from his sight, blocked by a dinged-up silver wall. The City-bound train had lumbered into the station and was disgorging a handful of passengers. By a miracle of the bureaucratic ballet, at the same moment, the outbound train also slid into place. The station was full of people boarding and debarking, a swirl of humanity that isolated him. Then the platform was empty, but the trains were still there. To either side of him were open doors inviting him to board, to ride, to move.

He could do it, he realized. He could step to the left and get on the outbound train. He could take it all the way to the end of the line and then walk to the water and watch night steal over the Sound. There had been times when he found inspiration in the sky’s fire reflected in the water and in the leaves. He could get away from here.

Or he could move to his right and ride the rails to the City. He could count down the station stops until the train deposited him in the beating heart of the City, eight million stories and more unfolding everywhere he looked. He could bathe himself in the undimming light and lose himself in the throbbing pulse of the crowd, find again what he had discovered and misplaced.

The trains puffed patiently, whispering invitations to a different tomorrow.

Like synchronized musicians, two sets of chimes sounded simultaneously, high then low. On each train, the doors slid closed; then each train slid smoothly out of the station. At first with the inevitability of the tide, then with rising exuberance, the cars raced off in opposite directions, leaping toward their ultimate destinations.

He stood on the platform, turning his head first rightward then leftward, watching them slip away. Then he turned completely around and pondered the path he’d walked to get here. He took a breath, held it, let it go. He started back down the steps.

Anyway, by now, he figured, she would be packed and gone.

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