by Dave Sokolowski
I’m late for a meeting. Very late. So late, in fact, that I’m not sure whether the meeting is worth attending anymore.
I’m standing on a train platform. The train will take me to my meeting. The next train that comes along will take me to my meeting. This is why I am late. It’s not my fault, you see, it’s the train’s, or the conductor’s, or a passenger’s. Anyone but me. How can I be responsible for my tardiness when it’s the train’s fault I’m late?
You see, I’ve been standing on this platform for a very, very long time. Almost a few years, maybe more. Time slows here on the platform, I watch the wheat in the fields surrounding the station move in the wind. Slowly. It sways back and forth, back and forth. It doesn’t mind. It’s not late.
Yes, I’m surrounded by wheat. It has grown up and around me in the time I’ve waited. I was here before the wheat, but now it surrounds me. I watched seasons come and go, the plants whither and grow, and I waited. Now the wheat stretches for miles, sways in the light summer breeze; the sun shines warmly, but I am not hot. Notes for the meeting are in a case at my side.
Across the tracks stands an oak tree, an old oak tree, one much like those in my parents’ back yard, much like my childhood. It’s funny — the tire swing sits, unused, marking human interference with the tree. It could have been a black oak, with green lichen, brown wheat at its roots — but someone made it their own. Put a tire swing on that tree, for the kids, you see.
I haven’t seen anyone at this station for some time, while I wait. Not for a while has someone (maybe someone beautiful and intelligent and drifting into my day like the lone cloud that creeps from the horizon into the white-blue sky until I look up and notice, say “That looks familiar, much like my cat Tarp,”) crept up behind me until I smell first then hear them, “Where are you going?” And I tell the truth, while they stand, wearing a yellow sun dress spotted with blue flowers, watching my mouth, until I tell them who I am meeting, then their lips turn downward, disappointingly, unsure of my actions, truly. Then they sometimes ask “How long have you been waiting?” and, again, I tell the truth, tell them about my patience and obedience, proudly describe my distinguished waiting for this train.
They sometimes offer to drive, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they back away slowly, sometimes they turn and run. Sometimes they cry, and sometimes they smile lightly, as if they understand, then stand on their toes, kiss my cheek, wish me luck. But every time they leave for good. I don’t see anyone a second time.
And so I wait for the train to come.
Until tomorrow. Someone’s coming tomorrow. I can tell. This person may or may not be who well, must I say, yes, I must, I don’t know. Did you follow that? Let me say it more clearly, because it is a complicated issue, this arrival, this meeting. Let me say it clearly so we may both understand:
Tomorrow someone comes to tell me something. I may or may not know this person, I may or may not like what they have to say, I may or may not want to do what they tell me. But, regardless, my waiting is over. I will have a first meeting before my second.
Do you want to know why I know this? Do want to know how I can tell the future? How I can see ahead and understand my own fate, yet have no will to control it? It’s very simple, you see, very simple indeed. All I did was look; it was so simple I’m ashamed to admit it. But it’s the truth. And often the truth is simple, so simple.
I turned around — that’s what I did. Turning my body to the right was the only physical action needed. When I turned I saw the sign, and that’s when I knew. The sign said everything. This just happened a second ago, while you were thinking about my cat Tarp. When you were thinking “That’s a weird name for a cat,” I turned and saw the sign. I don’t know why I turned, but I do know I’ve never turned that way before. That’s why I hadn’t seen the sign that said:
TRAINS DO NOT STOP HERE
My case, black and upright like a doctor’s, is heavy when I lift it. I don’t remember it being heavy, but, then, I also don’t remember the last time I lifted it.
I lean down, unlatch, open the case. As I do the summer breeze strengthens, grows, grabs the notes from my bag, scatters them out, over the tracks. They flip, turn, fold, float through the air, undoing years of preparation and study. It took me many, many months and years and days and minutes and hours to put these papers in the correct order. Now they tumble across tracks, around the oak tree, into fields of wheat; from my feet the years disintegrate. My case is now empty.
I jump down from the platform onto the rail line and grab at papers; one here, one there, just a handful left within reaching distance. Dammit. I let them blow away. I really worked hard on these, they took me a long time, you know. And now what?
“Charlie.” My mother’s voice, soothing, calming, preparing my favorite dinner: spaghetti and meatballs. I look up toward the voice into the rising sun; the glare blinds.
“Hello?” I ask. Is this it? Is someone coming to settle the score, show me the way? I look to my right and then my left, down the rails that ride into the writhing wheat. Behind me is the oak, the station ahead obscured by the sun. I hold my hand up to block the sun, squint, ask again, “Hello?”
Tarp strolls to the edge of the platform, sits in front of me, just arms’ reach away. He wants a scratch, it’s been so long, and I oblige, pet his gray fur, scratch his dark ears. He smiles.
“Wow. Tarp, it’s been so long! How are you? What are you doing here? How did you know I was here? Have you eaten? Where’s your flea collar? Does Choosey know you’re back? Wow! She’ll be thrilled! This is great! Someone else is coming soon, you know. Someone’s going to come and show me the way out of here. You see, I’ve been waiting and waiting and waiting but no train ever came and then I was talking to these people here and I saw a cloud that looked like you and when we were all thinking about you I finally saw that sign over there and it said that the trains don’t stop here and I thought Oh Shit because now I’m going to have to wait for someone else to show me the way and I’ll be all alone but I’m not cause you’re here and we can wait together and I’m really glad to see -”
Tarp jumped down between the tracks, jumped again over the tracks and to the oak. He walked around behind it and now I couldn’t see him.
“Tarp? Where you going? We’ve got to wait here! Tarp! Tarp?” I crossed the tracks and looked around the tree to see Tarp disappear into the wheat, a space, just a bit, set behind the tree, an opening no bigger than a strand missing in the thick, endless wall. I walked up to the wheat.
“Tarp? Tarp? Come back! We’re waiting for someone!” I stood at the wall of wheat. “Tarp?” I ducked my head through the wall, through the wheat that has grown around me, spreading, moving, listening.
A trail blazed, only two feet wide, runs ahead of me into the mass of meal; a thin curtain of wheat hides a path (all these years?) that Tarp now walks; it stretches out in front of us. A line, a choice, some point I never noticed. An option never considered. Paths in front of us all our lives, paths we seek but never explore. Tarp was now a good 100 feet ahead of me, he was shrinking to a dot.
I raced to catch up with him.
My shoulders swished against the wheat. The path was worn, dirt, traveled; an end-line for some larger tributary. The ground was hard and my boots chunked along.
I was getting closer to Tarp, he had stopped and I could see his dark shape against the light path walls. He was just ahead. I was almost there.
Information Dump: I got Tarp for my tenth birthday. I came home once, 14 some-odd years later, and he was gone. Disappeared without a trace. The day I arrived he left. My sister, Choosey, was heart-broken. You see, I was gone for most of those years. He may have been my cat, but she cared for him, and I don’t think he ever forgave me for that.
I’m just upon Tarp and I realize the dark shape is not a cat but rather a porcelain channel dissecting the path perpendicularly, only a couple feet across, carrying some dark liquid; originating to my right — I peer up the flow, it disappears into the wheat horizon — flowing slowly past me to, again, a point outside of my perspective. I kneel to the channel, the untouched porcelain glimmers like a bathroom sterilized; the murky liquid gloops and glops along; no smell comes from this black, retching, churning substance and it seems unlike anything I’ve ever seen.
I want to stick my head, perhaps, maybe just my hand, in this muck. Tarp walks up to the opposite edge, tilts his head this way, then that way. Turns and continues down the path. I stand, step over the channel, follow.
“Where are we going, Tarp? I’ve never seen this path before, it’s kind of weird, don’t cha think? It’s strange that you knew where this path was when I didn’t and when you’ve never been here before. Have you? Maybe you have been here before? Have you? Which reminds me: where did you go when you left? You just disappeared. What were we supposed to do? Choosey was really upset, you know, I know, you know.”
We were coming upon the path’s end. It just stopped. Like a wall impenetrable.
“What are we going to do now, Tarp? It just ends. Should we go back? Maybe we can follow the train tracks, if we leave now we can go all the back and start over cause that’s what you should really do, is start over. We should go back, you know, now, you see.”
Tarp looked up at me.
“Charlie,” he said, “shut up and listen.”
Silence. Slow. A pacing. Touch. Breath. Inward a feeling incomplete, something I forgot to do, to say. A breeze, touching, lifting, moving without concern for detail, yet with deafening precision. That’s all it took? A movement, cause, pressure, accurate.
I looked at Tarp.
He stepped through the wall.