The first train station in Lynchburg, Virginia, was built in the 1850s, but the tracks were laid before that. They shipped – sometimes folks, sometimes freight – straight past here from New York to Louisiana and back again. Passengers started getting on and off in our central Virginia city when the stations were built. People still board here, the ones interested in taking Amtrak instead of their own vehicles. But the tracks that run outside my apartment window are a different line. I sit in the armchair and hear a not-too-distant horn. My daughter mimics a methodical “choo, choo” without even looking up from her toy puzzle pieces. The Norfolk Southern railway (once the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad) runs across my line of vision and out of sight. This particular line moves freight, only freight, lots of different kinds. In the late 1800s, it carried raw copper, lead, salt. In later years, it connected into westward lines to transport coal. It carries a lot of coal today, still. Also, sometimes car parts.
Who is able to live under the eaves of a train track? Anyone who’s stuck around long enough to suppress the intermittent rumble into the hinterlands of the subconscious. By our second week in this apartment, the sound of the nearby train had diminished to white noise. But sometimes I notice the stretch of cars chugging by, and then I’m like someone driving by a wreck; I can’t help looking. My imagination runs wild. I ask my husband, who knows about transportation, if there are ever people aboard, going places. He says no, these are not passenger trains. I shed my book-bred fancies of boxcar children and circus performers and even the train that plummets disastrously over a bridge and into the chilly depths of Marilynne Robinson’s Fingerbone Lake. As usual, I am out for fiction, a particular type. I am out for some imagined grand scenario untethered from reality, unchecked and untrue. Fact: it is only coal in those train cars, or auto bumpers. Still, I keep watching.
We live a good quarter mile from the tracks. Several blocks of uniform houses lie in between – straight from “The Truman Show,” my husband and I laugh. How do those people in their vinyl-clad homes, I wonder, insulate against the loud train’s noise? Something awakens in my own air-conditioned conscience, and I wonder, with a jolt, what it is I’m insulating against. Like the character Gil Pender in Woody Allen’s film Midnight in Paris, I am hooked by an ambient sentiment of days past, the boom of some purportedly happy industrial age.
The truth is, here we live like suburbanites under Central Virginia’s low peaks and high hills, but that coal train and her mountain-hollowing industry came first. The coal comes from somewhere and goes somewhere else, and who carved it out of which mountainside, and who will benefit? And the freight trains: who loaded what materials onto them, and then went home to what kind of meal with what tired family to greet them, or to what lonely apartment? Or do any livestock travel therein, and what treatment have their short animal lives born? The hill-hung pastures I pass on my drives to the grocery store should be enough to remind me that life isn’t all smooth asphalt and easy energy. This country was built on the backs of men and women whose black and white photographs look awfully nice on the fireplace mantel in my faux-rustic decorated home. And someone, somewhere – probably me! – relies on the hard work of folks today, even now, on another end of the train track. People whose faces I will never see. Meanwhile, I crank the air conditioning up a notch.
In the fiction world of the novel Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, the train that has hitherto passed over Fingerbone Lake like clockwork commits the untrain-like act of unpredictability: it goes off-track. It plummets from high bridge into deep water, sliding smoothly into the depths, never to be discovered or seen again. Nary a ripple remains on the surface to mark the disaster, and at first, the lives of one local victim’s family seem just as impossibly unaffected. Three daughters and their widowed mother draw close, a tight unit. They go on with their days. But as the narrative races down the generational lines, the wreckage begins to show. It shows in the psychological cracks that spread, slow and quiet, until the pent-up fragmentation and sorrow of years pushes through, a deluge that leaves the children and grandchildren of that long-ago train crash dangerously – and relievedly – exposed to the elements. High and safe as their home may stand above the lake, the family can’t ignore forever what lies at the bottom of the water, or the raw memory that each passing train signifies. Truth will out, as they say. No more sweeping the difficult past under the rug; the rug is afloat on the waters of a flooded life.
It’s not just the past that needs to be flushed out into consciousness. If you ask my husband what he thinks the modern age’s biggest oversight is, he will tell you: “Cars.” We travel down highways and interstates, fifty cars at a glance to one single stretch of road. The waste of money and energy alone sends his mind, built for efficiency, reeling. Then there are the safety issues. Do so many of us really operate heavy machinery every day without a second thought? Yes, we do. And the culture of aloneness: we love our private travel spaces, even if we pay for them in fuel, in auto payments, in precious time, and sometimes with our very lives. An internet image search for “Atlanta gridlock” on the night of Tuesday, January 28th, reinforces his notions. And an article at the Other Journal last spring echoes his sentiments:
“When the future is unimaginable, societies tend to become spectacles, indulging in cakes and carburetors. Our grandchildren will likely look at us with the same distaste with which we view 1950s gender politics or the institutionalization of the mentally ill.”
How to make the future imaginable, then, so we can see what is really going on here in the present? In her nonfiction essays, Marilynne Robinson talks about the concept of the “imagined other.”[i] She says that we will build the strongest communities, that we will love each other best, when we learn to hold each other in imagination. And by “imagination,” she means the kind that can see what’s true, whether that’s by way of fiction or hard-and-fast fact. She means we should hold other people in our minds with empathy and understanding, arrived at by knowledge of who they really are and what their lives are really like. Arrived at by a willingness to watch and actually know what’s on that train, and who has loaded it, and what life is truly like for them.
So I keep watching the train; my mind still whirls with notions. My daughter says, “Choo, choo.” I get down from the armchair and join her, and together, we complete her puzzle, locking the remaining pieces in place. The image is pastoral: a horse, a cow, a pig, and a barn. I think of people, past and present. I am still out for fiction, but this time, I try for the best kind: the kind that blocks the white noise of decades. The kind that sees who’s really there. I keep my ears and eyes open, and my mind, too. I tell myself I will ask better questions as I go through my days. I keep watching the train.
1 [i] Robinson, Marilynne. When I was a Child. “Imagination and Community.” Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York: 2012.