Fantasia on a Train Station

for T.S. Eliot

We are boarding the train and steam is leaking out of its platform. It’s like a huge snake speaking in the cold that forgot to bring his body along. The voice of steam is curling up around us as we coil in a queue toward the train, our feet shuffling in a slow fall of scuffed dominos . . . ribs of belly muscle expanding and contracting.

Or else . . . are we the body?
(We are thinking this is some reptilian testament to time in its extinguishment of measurability.)

We notice, above the trees, beyond the train, old men in black shroud coats are floating. (It is thought to be a sign of autumn.) Some of us gesture and say, “It must finally be autumn.”

The old men are speechless, their eyes unfocused and downcast. If their feet were moving . . . they would be shambling to a silent dirge (but instead it is much worse).

This floating slowly, steplessly, in a westward arc, following the moon and stars, bleeding into blur (like an opened aperture into silver) . . . this floating is evidently the sign of something much worse.

There are janitors, unceremoniously uniformed, on the platform, standing around (old buckets and mops) as if something will soon be dirtied. But now, they are still as lampposts waiting as the lamplighter and the dark both stroll to work (to sell a medicine and a medicine for that medicine). The janitors’ faces are carved with the expressionlessness of waiting.

We are boarding now, each luggaged with a bell jar the size of a large head, but oblonged. We are filing in, gripping our respective jars with both hands. Inside each jar a kind of frayed green light is twitching. We sit down in the train as it winds itself up like a giant steel spring, contorting into its impossible yogic coil.

Through the windows we see old women pacing on the platform, old widows hunched (humpbacked?) and wearing black lace veils.

As the train aches to its heavy wheels to move, we notice the janitors moving toward the old women as if to . . . we do not know. (As if to what?) The janitors have dropped their mops, which seem like wooden puppets, de-animated, whose lives drool out in little gray puddles from their yarnthick hair.

(We wonder, is it like the diffusion of memory after death?)

The janitors appear to be approaching the old women in order to lift their veils. Any minute the old women’s veils will be lifted . . . but now the train is slowly entering the tunnel.

We notice how the train enters the tunnel, how it pushes its wide metal body into the tunnel’s dark gap, how the sound of its churning is squeezed in at us.

On board the train everyone’s bell jar is rattling quietly, and we are reminded of a breeze blowing a porch full of wind chimes. We are all thinking of porches as the outside light diminishes.

(The tunnel has no appetite for light, it seems.)

The trees below the procession of old men in black shroud coats start to drop their leaves (. . . this is definitely reminding us of autumn). But the leaves seem like so many tears cried by the old men, fluttering down like the curved lips of spoons falling through a yellow oil.

Despite this, our attention is turned toward the tunnel with its refusal to munch on the outside light (not even a nibble out of courtesy for the passengers who are guests here).

How the train is entering the tunnel seems especially important to us.

Inside the tunnel there is no light, but the green glow from our jars seems to spill on everything so as to make the train car a tube of eerie green, a green that seems like green strobes in the distance.

(Yet there is no distance.)

Meanwhile, outside, beyond the platform, the old men are opening their shroud coats slowly like a succession of Red Seas parting. The old men are parting the leaves of their coats and displaying their withered genitals.

(Their left eyes are bulging with a sinister glee.)

The janitors have reached the old women. The janitors have lifted their veils. And now the old women are kissing the janitors (who are appalled) with shriveled lips, covering them with ancient wet shriveled old woman kisses.

The janitors look much younger now that their fingers grow dainty, clipped around the veils’ lace, their lined faces filling up with the wet of kisses like dried creekbeds when the beaver dams are blown.

Inside the train, where it is a distant glowing green, it is becoming quite clear that this tunnel does not have another exit, and the train slowly dies to a halt.

The train is sitting in confusion wanting to obey an order from the engineer who is sitting in confusion.

We all look at one another and say nothing. The train begins to move sluggishly into reverse. The train is moving out of the tunnel backwards. (We are noticing the train’s special backwards movement out of the tunnel.)

The train tiredly retreats into the station where the old women in veils are pacing and the janitors are darkened lamp posts.

In the night sky the procession of old men has set behind the trees. We stand up one by one and let our bell jars fall. They all fall to the floor and shatter with the sound of very thin glass. (They shatter in the aisle like dropped Christmas ornaments.)

We are now moving our bodies off the train.

We are exiting the train pulling our tickets from our coats’ breast pockets. We are not satisfied with the train ride, and we wish to tell this to someone who was not on the train but could assume responsibility.

We walk past the old women pacing but don’t look toward their faces. (We are looking for someone else, someone responsible.)

Meanwhile, the janitors have boarded the train with their buckets and mops. The janitors are mopping up the mess of green light in the aisle. Their mops are soaked with green, and they smear the green glow all over the floor of the train.

The green doesn’t seem to be coming up, but the janitors are sloshing it around with their giant paint brushes.

The janitors are humming in unison.

(The green seems to be increasing.)

We have found a man in an elevator that had gotten loose. The big box scraped and squeaked toward us. The man in the elevator is wearing a black top hat.

He goes everywhere in that elevator, always holding down the open door button so he can talk to people outside who do not need to use the elevator. Although, all he ever does is listen.

We tell him the train is a dead end. We say there is no opening on the other side of the tunnel and probably no tracks leading out either.

He listens to us.

We suggest this train be retired and hauled over into the corner of the station. We suggest this could be seen as a testament to history that doesn’t require us to ride through history on it but only to seize on to it lightly with the cobwebs of nostalgia . . . and then be released lightly.

We glance at the train to indicate which one we mean, and it is bleeding green glowing water from its doors and windows. The train appears to be humming . . . and hunkered, and it hisses restlessly in its clambering steams. Imprisoned, but molting.

(All of this suddenly reminds us of autumn, and we stammer.)

The old hunched women with the black veils slide past us into the elevator. Their hips brush our hips (and they feel . . . of dry polyesters and bones and little latched diaries).

The man in the top hat bows, almost imperceptibly, and removes his finger from the open door button. The elevator doors close (like a mouth, after a yawn, closing on nothing), and the elevator drifts heavenward, a huge black cube of helium.

Soon it vanishes into the night.

We look at each other.

We will try the train again, but we are not entirely hopeful.

[see note on poem]