The Train Singer’s Song

by George McCormick


I had been watching freight trains from the window of my 10:00 TuesdayThursday class all semester. The classroom was on the third floor of a four-story brick building, a converted dorm, located on the edge of campus, beyond which a set of railroad tracks rose out of a shallow ravine on a gravel ballast. Class ended at 11:10 and usually by11:15 (and never later than 11:17) an eastbound BNSF freight train would pass.

Some days I had needy, or previously delinquent, students that I had to deal with, but other days I’d leave my things on the lectern and go to the window and watch the trains. Often, in the plains, you’ll see impossibly long trains, especially strings of coal cars that will stretch out to two and three hundred cars long. But this train that passed the college was short—twenty to thirty cars—and the track that it traveled through town on wasn’t the main line but a spur, which meant these cars were part of a larger string somewhere on the edge of town. The cars themselves were mixed—boxcars, flats, grain hoppers—and from my vantage most appeared empty. Soon I was taken by a simple question: what did they take from Lawton, Oklahoma? What did this city produce that was desired?

In the next week I became so transfixed with this question that one day I ended class early and decided to follow the train into town. I gathered my things—my slides, my lecture notes, my stack of student portfolios—and went down the stairs and out into the parking lot to my truck. At 11:18, after the train had passed, I drove out of the parking lot and over the tracks and turned left onto a kind of frontage road that ran parallel to the tracks. I followed it for a mile or so before it dead-ended and I was forced, in a series of impromptu left and right turns, to follow the train by sight. When I lost it for several minutes, I cut through a neighborhood near the tracks and spied it again—the orange top of the engine—a quarter mile away, as it moved behind a windbreak of cypress. I followed it a short distance, another half mile or so before the road curved. I followed the curve through a traffic signal, passed several blocks of light industry, until suddenly the concrete cylinders of a grain elevator appeared before me. It was several stories high. Two-thirds the way up the first cylinder, in fading gray paint, it read: LAWTON CO-OP. The road now emptied into a warehouse directly across from the elevator. I pulled into a connecting dirt and gravel parking lot and parked on its far side.

The train had come to a stop at the base of the elevator and a moment later an alarm sounded somewhere within the complex. Next, a red light above the elevator’s arm began flashing. I didn’t see a single person around. From inside the elevator I could hear a machine come to life and a moment later a rush of material, some kind of gray powder, came roaring from the open mouth of the arm and into the open bed of one of the grain hoppers. It took several minutes to fill the car, and when it was finished the whole train bucked and shuddered and moved forward until the next empty car was underneath. The wind suddenly picked up and I watched as a gust gathered the elevator’s loose powder and swirled it together in a rising helix toward the sky. It twisted as it rose, and when it reached the top of the elevator it framed itself against the blue sky, moving strangely, like a jellyfish, or a murmuration of starlings, before being pulled apart. A second plume now formed and rose similarly, and what struck me was the way in which these twisting plumes were no wider than each of the elevator’s cylinders, but just as tall, so that for a moment they looked like a hologram of the building, or the ghost of an ancient tower, before rising and disappearing.

The gusts now blew grit and garbage across the parking lot and I got into the cab of the truck and closed the door. I got my camera out of its bag and attached a density filter, and from inside the truck I began searching for another powder cloud to photograph. I took several photos while I waited when, suddenly, I noticed out of the corner of the viewfinder, a figure.

I turned the camera on it: a boy, shirtless, with dark red skin, jogged across the parking lot toward the train tracks. I lowered my camera and watched him as he approached the track’s ballast: instead of climbing up it and crossing as I expected, he followed its slope eastward, away from the train, for another twenty yards or so before stopping at the opening of a broad, round, concrete drain pipe. He crouched down and peered into it for a moment and then, just like that, disappeared. A minute later the train sounded its horn and slowly began the process of disembarking from the co-op. It was louder leaving than it had been arriving, each car bucking, the connections locking and tugging, the wheels squalling as they began to roll. As I watched the train gain momentum and make its way back around the curve, I kept one eye on the mouth of the dark hole the boy had ducked into. I took several photographs of the grain elevator: of dust rising from the train and wind, of the fading co-op sign, of the elevator’s arm with just a trickle of powder now falling from it.

Then, just as I was about to go, I saw the boy emerge from the pipe. He was skinnier than I’d originally noticed; he wore big, baggy shorts that came down to his shins, below which he wore high-tops without socks. Whereas he’d jogged before, now he walked, with a soulful gait, and he seemed to be singing to himself as he went. A gust of wind rocked the truck again, and as I raised my camera and watched the boy through it I wondered: is he impervious to the wind or just oblivious to it? After he crossed the parking lot I broke my camera down and put it in its bag and turned my truck around and headed back to the university.

I took several photos while I waited when, suddenly, I noticed out of the corner of the viewfinder, a figure.

A week later, on a windy, overcast day, I drove back out to the parking lot across from the co-op in hopes of shooting the train and the dust again, only in a more muted light. I had no particular image in mind that I wanted to capture, only the working notion that a different quality of light would produce different results. I had no idea what the dust, or the gray powder clouds, would look like without shadows, or without the depth of the blue skies as before, but I was curious to see.

Again the train came in around 11:20 and as it came to a noisy stop, resting just below the elevator’s arm, again the alarm sounded, the red light illuminated, and the gray powder came pouring out. I set up my camera but didn’t take any pictures. Instead I found myself waiting, hoping, for the boy again. And when he arrived—again jogging, shirtless, only this time wearing a pair of jeans whose knees had been blown out—I watched as he made his way to the ballast’s gravel slope and walked along it toward the drain pipe. He disappeared into its mouth and again the train disembarked shortly thereafter, sounding its horn as it went. When the train was gone, and when the boy emerged, again I was tempted to raise my camera, center him as he walked and sang, and photograph the grace he carried as he crossed the parking lot. But I did not. Instead I watched as the tracks and the co-op and the drainpipe all returned to silence. In the coming days I meant to return, but for one reason or another, I did not. And it wasn’t until toward the end of the semester that I found myself again staring out the window of the converted dormitory, after class, watching for the 11:15, and thinking about the jogging boy.

Then one day, just past Thanksgiving, I drove back out to the parking lot. I waited for the boy, telling myself that now that it had grown cold, I probably wouldn’t see him again. When the train pulled in and he didn’t show, I got out of the truck and walked around the dirt and gravel parking lot. There was an extraordinary amount of broken glass everywhere, and I became conscious of how my boots crunched in it as I walked in widening circles from my truck. Then there was the boy, moving from my right to my left, across the parking lot, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was as if I were watching a wild animal in its element. A coyote beside a river. I stood still and as he crossed he paid no attention to me or the truck. He jogged with his hands close to his chest and his head down, and again he seemed to be talking, or singing, to himself. I watched him as he made his way across the parking lot to the ballast, then turned and headed east, away from the train, toward the pipe. Across town I could hear an ambulance; above that sound was the sound of the gray powder, falling in waves, from the elevator’s arm into the grain car, and I wondered what my part in this whole scene was, exactly. I held up my camera and scanned the tracks to the east in the viewfinder. I walked across the parking lot and up the gravel to the tracks and walked between them. When the train started up again I stopped and listened to it, shot several photos of it, and watched as it pulled out—its cars bucking and shifting down the string—and began to head, slowly, in our direction.

Then, below the sound of all of this, I could hear the boy’s voice emanating from the pipe. It was either singing or shouting, I couldn’t tell. I walked the track in that direction, and as I neared it I listened closely: there were words but I could not make them out, and there seemed to be a kind of chorus that was repeated. A moment later the train sounded its horn and I climbed from the tracks down the ballast to the ground. Then the train was on top of us, a moving mountain, and in this sonic space, this cover, this square, I moved toward the pipe’s opening. I knelt and peered in: there, about ten feet inside, was the boy, his back bent along the curve of one side of the pipe and his feet pressed against the other, his eyes closed, his lips snarling as he screamed into the sound of the train overhead, and his hands—at times clenched in fists, other times pointing violently—moved with dexterity and rage. I was fearful that at any second he’d open his eyes and see me, but he didn’t, and somehow I knew that as long as the train was overhead he would be spellbound. I tried to listen more closely, to hear the boy’s song, but the echoing through the pipe blotted out all other sound. I watched the boy another twenty seconds or so, then got back on my feet and backed away from its mouth. A moment later the last train car passed and I watched it, I took pictures of it, as it rode away, down the track, and disappeared after the first bend. Back in my truck I watched the boy emerge and make his way across the parking lot, heading back the way he’d come. The way he’d come every day, every week, for how long?

When the boy was gone I got my camera and walked out into the middle of the parking lot. I took photographs of some wind-blown garbage pressed into a fence. I took some of the grain elevator, the tracks, the dark awful mouth of the drainpipe itself. I knew these photographs would never mean anything to anybody but me. Or him. Though the idea of the boy ever seeing them would always, of course, be impossible.

Originally published in This Land, Vol. 5, Issue 16, August 15, 2014.