He heard the major chord first; a sustained, full C, but the train was not in sight. Odd for the desert, he thought. Yes, strange, sound before the image, a complete reversal of the accepted, the ordinary, the reality of the desert’s flatness. Everything so close, seemingly within arm’s reach, when, in fact, the shrub, abandoned depot, or mountain are ten miles away. A desert constant, the unresolved tompe-d’oeil that the brain attempts to correct, but never succeeds. Still, he has never heard the train before seeing it approach at his particular point in the desert: his winter home, the abandoned line shack on the Salt Lake Line. A relic of another, slower place in space and time.
Again, the long, full blast from the engine’s horn, but still no train in sight. He walked back into his cabin, looked at his sleeping palette, ‘Yes, I am awake.’ Returning to the rails, he scanned the parallel lines of steel that ran endlessly in both directions. Again, the visual slight-of-hand, as his eyes followed the rails out, slowly collapsing from two equidistant lines into a single, bold blackstroke that disappeared in both directions. A third blast of the engine’s horn, arrived, and still . . . no train.
He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small plastic bag filled with pills and pot. Counting the pills, surveying the weed. ‘Same as I had yesterday, so no, I am not using, I'm sober, now.’
He stepped closer to the rail, dropped to his knees, then stretched out on his stomach, placing his right ear directly on the warming face of the rail.
“A baby sleeping in mama’s belly,” is how Shep described it to him eighteen months ago. Shep could calculate the distance and time from the whisper and the faint vibrations he heard and felt in the rails. ‘This guy's like a bottle-nosed porpoise out of water,’ J.B. thought.
“Don’t rush, none, you hear?” chuckling as he stood up and brushed himself clean. “Seven miles, shade over eleven minutes ‘fore she gets here. Gives me time to tie up tight, have a smoke ‘fore I jump up on or scurry up under her. Damn I hope there’s an open boxcar. I hate sailin’ the blinds underneath, just getting’ too old to hang on up under there, have trouble stayin’ awake down there, up against her belly.”
Shep appeared, one night, a new constellation, discovered and fallen alongside his cabin. Walking out to urinate in the morning he saw the old man curled up asleep inside his Bronco. He fixed him breakfast, supplied a bed and books, liquor and conversation. ‘A week and a half of graduate school before that apparition disappeared,’ J.B. mused.
‘Fifteen miles close, to forty miles an hour, so figure about twenty-three minutes, so why haven’t I seen it, yet?’
Standing up, straightening his back, his eyes followed the rails out until they were no longer steel, but simply a part of the distant desert. No sign of an engine. A gentle breeze pushed sand and scrub brush swirling past his feet. Another stronger gust followed,and then another and another after that creating a series of eddies‒roses in the dirt‒everywhere.
‘Can the wind do that? Pick up a sound, like a hurricane and jump it? Sling it forward?’ He closed his eyes and took several deep, long breaths. Opening his eyes, he saw a vulture climb up and hang on an updraft. Scrub mesquite held fast against the gusts of wind. A slight hint of water filled his nostrils, and there, again, the full, melodic C.
‘Funny, no drugs, no food, not even a cup of coffee. Just awake and I hear the approaching train before I see it. I know it’s there, I felt it in the rails. Like knowing a star is there before the light arrives. Wonder if anyone else has ever felt or heard a star before they saw it?’