(Originally featured in Arizona City Independent Edition, December 18, 2002)
A great thing about filling this space with whatever I choose, within reason, is that I can update something I scribbled years ago and hand the boss a piece that took very little effort in this century. I have to admit, that really appeals to my laz . . . uh . . . efficient side. Even so, I hope you're still entertained, and occasionally learn something from this column, no matter when the material first saw light of computer.
Of course, the best pieces are those I don't have to edit. The bit of poetic prose following this introduction is one of those. It's an example of writing for its own sake, an exercise I was compelled to jot down when the experience was fresh. Even so, the memory still moves me at each retelling, because of my long-time interest in head injury and its consequences.
I can't take all the credit. I thank the Spirit that put me in the right place at the right time, along with lessons gleaned from a poetry-writing group in Seabrook, Texas, back in the late '80s. Though I usually spew straight prose, exercises in verse honed my command of words. So, before I get to the main event, let me remind you aspiring writers that stretching into unfamiliar forms can strengthen your skills, no matter what type of literature you work in.
One last note: This piece originally appeared in a now-defunct literary magazine entitled Read Me, which was published for a few short years by the venerable Ron Fleshman of Everett, WA. The name has been revived by a younger publisher, according to the internet, but I doubt that it matches the qualities that earned Read Me a place in 1990 at Number 28 in Writer's Digest's "Fiction 50."
Now, for your reading enjoyment (I hope), here is:
CALLOW YOUTHS, MOVING TRAIN,
The witching-hour sky subdues chemical-plant lights as I approach the railroad tracks. Day is done; home to work. Head injuries on afternoon talk radio; evening writers' meeting.
Flashing red lights warn of a chemical train crawling across the tracks. I stop behind the left car. Another parks beside me. I switch the ignition to ACC. Respighi begins on the radio as my lights dim to park.
Long train, long wait. Too dark to read; my mind can't sleep. The train stops with no end in either midnight distance. Screeching tires announce two cars behind us. Douse their lights, expel their passengers. Daring youths in light summer clothing approach the stationary train.
Boys lift one railroad crossing arm. If they break it, who will pay? Red lights flash warning of danger. I memorize the license plates: 530 5QS; 903 1GK. Kids weave among parked cars. I lock my door.
Kids push two coupled chemical cars, and the train begins to roll. Sneakered feet move away from wheels like huge meat-slicer blades as the boys cheer their success.
Bodies run wildly among cars. One boy returns to challenge the slow-moving train. He jumps a ladder to ride across the intersection, then drops into the grassy right-of-way. Emerging from the benighted field, he accepts his friends' congratulations.
Their buddy's success inspires. Two run around cars, under the crossing-guard arm to jump on connected cars for a free ride across the intersection. They escape into the grass as two more take up the challenge. Respighi runs with them, picking up with the speed of the train. Meat-slicer wheels roll across tracks as soft-shoed feet run up next to them. Young male bodies fly into the weeds, unprotected heads ripe for landing. Two carloads provide a steady stream of intrepid youths, two by two, challenging meat-slicers and head injuries as red warns them of danger. Respighi fills the night with exuberant melody.
The game continues. The train picks up speed. The music swells. My heartbeat matches the music and the speed of the train. I see severed limbs and broken heads. I cannot stop my tears.
Engines, at last. Two of them, pushing the speeding chemical train across the intersection, into midnight oblivion. The last ride is over. The players won every round. They cheer each other on the deserted side of the street, until the train opens the way for the opposing lane of cars.
The game is over. The players return to their bullpens. Turn on their lights. Start their engines.
Traffic moves slowly across the tracks, picking up speed. Two cars roar behind me, gaining rpm's, preparing for the next challenge. One passes in the right lane, the second, across the imaginary yellow-lined median. Two carloads of callow youths disappear into the distance, toward the traffic light and road's end. The radio voice announces Respighi and begins a commercial.
Safe at home, I discover one back car door still unlocked.