THE AIR ABOVE THE RAILS
"Thank you for coming. I know it's difficult being here."
"I'll be headed back to the rails soon."
"I'd like to convince you to stay."
The man with the chocolate brown mustache shakes his head: unthinkable, he says. Already he has turned away cameras and a tape recorder. The manmade light of the comfortable living room glares in his eyes like the noonday sun, though only a small lamp or two has been switched on for the occasion. Sometimes he reaches with a jolt to tug at the thick, cropped hairs above his cheek -- a nervous twitch. But mostly he sits stiff as stale bread, his fingers intertwining at rigid angles in his lap to make a pattern like tracks. Only a moment ago a call came in from the local paper: Everyone wants to run his story. They've all seen him, held their breath. But he turns his face to gravel and refuses: interviews, book deals, late-night talk shows. He wants to be alone with the rails. They call him a fool, a visionary, a masochist, but he is more like stone, unquestioning and simple.
"Why have you agreed to come?"
His shoulders rise and fall in a shrug, the corners of his muddy suit crinkling momentarily around the stiff inseams and then loosening to fit his form. He should reek of traffic, of diesel fuel, of waste and decay, but instead he smells like fresh clay and cold rain. His face is not unpleasant. Those dark, wide eyes so used to watching the sky roam the small, musty room, his widening pupils like secret tunnels, escape routes to understanding his stony mind.
"Is it because of me?"
His gaze turns downwards, to his folded hands. His sun-tanned cheeks flush the color of a bruised peach. He has not spoken for many years, especially not to a woman. Years ago, when he first took his spot on the rails, he was forced to defend his position, to shout out to railway workers and jeering children: leave me alone! Now everyone knew, like with the night and the day. Here would be the man with the mustache, lying between the rails.
Who could guess what he ate, how he went to the bathroom, when was the last day he put on a fresh pair of pants. As he lay there, his body pressed flat between the metal rods that shot the passing trains overhead, either his back or his stomach scraping the dirt and stones below, was he thinking, was he mourning, was he crying? Was he even alive? Newcomers to the area often wondered in horror -- how was it a dead man was left there on the tracks? Yet always he shifted, or crawled forward some steps, though never while anyone watched him. And of course he breathed, ever so slightly, eternally careful his expanding chest did not reach up beyond the rails where wooden boxes of commuters headed back from the city zoomed by at speeds unimaginable.
"How do you live like that?"
"There's no other way."
"You could stay with me. No one would hurt you here."
He glances around the room, suspicious of each foreign object -- the coffee table, the family photos, the paintings on the wall. "Could I have some water?" he asks. So he is human, after all. Perhaps, normally, he licks the condensation from the rails, or holds a small bowl to collect the moisture from the dropping of clouds. "Thank you," he says, and drinks slowly, unsure.
"Would you like to do anything? Go somewhere? We could have lunch, or watch some TV." Surely he has missed out on years of news, of life, of history.
"No, no," he wags his head, "I will just sit a while longer."
Silence. The sounds of cars passing by. "Now that you're here, am I really worth it? Worth coming off the tracks?"
He settles deeper into his chair. "Yes," he says. "I knew you would be." For the moment he looks content.
"Do you watch me? When I ride the train?"
"Every day," he admits, with a faint upturned grin, his real first smile in years. "When you go off to work I can peer across the rails and into your train car window. Unless you sit in the aisle. Then I can only make out the colors in your hair."
"And on the way home?"
"Then you are above me and I can see the backs of your legs through the holes in the floor, the straight-hemmed skirts you wear and the fancy blouses, but the heels you always hold in your hand, over the edge of our seat, because, I imagine, you can't bear to wear them at the end of the day. Am I right?"
"Yes. And can you see my face...from down there?"
The man places his hands together as if in very delicate prayer. "No," he whispers, and reaches up to push a strand of wispy hair back up across his forehead. "I never saw your face until the day you came to the rails, the day you asked me to leave. Kneeling down like that. Nearly begging. I still can't think why I should matter to you at all. Still, it's true, I couldn't resist. So I'm here now. But not for much longer."
"Why must you go back?"
In one instinctive motion he moves his hands from his laps and lays them flat to his side, as if aware of an oncoming train overhead. "Because I do." His voice is cold. "It's the only place in the world that's safe."
"But I don't understand. Of all the places in the world it seems one of the least safe, so close to danger."
"There are so many other dangers in the world." His eyes are glazing with the thought. Perhaps he has lost a mother to a stray or accidental bullet; perhaps he has lost a lover to an incurable spreading cancer. All many years ago. "I have found the one safe niche where no other pain would dare come near for fear of it's own destruction. As long as I do not move, nothing can harm me."
"Pressed flat between the rails?"
"Yes." He is smoothing out his dirt-caked suit as if preparing to go.
"What do you do? Don't you get lonely?"
"Well, I always have the trains. At all times there are people to watch."
"What can you see, there in the cars? Can you look up women's skirts?" A question aimed to make him stay, just a little bit longer.
His mustache twitches and he laughs softly, but high-pitched and sweet as a child. "Sometimes," he allows, "but I enjoyed the pleasure much more years ago, when I was younger man. Women wore larger skirts then. Big hoops with lacy panties. None of these prim crossed legs and pants-suit numbers. I've been living on the tracks a long time. It's become a different world."
"And when there isn't a train? Then what do you do? Do you ever stand up and stretch, look around, go for a walk or something?"
"No, no," he dismisses the question with a bobbing chin. "It's important to stay very still, to have faith in the existence of trains. Any moment there could be danger." For a moment he is silent, considering. "And if there isn't a train, there's always the sky. Oftentimes that's what holds my attention, the air above the rails. Except that now," he coughs a bit and takes a sip of his water, "I must admit I've scanned it so closely, all through the seasons, the night and the day, that..."
"I felt I needed some company. Some change. If just for the little while." Now the man stands fully, and extends out his arm. "So thank you, but I must be headed back to the rails."
"Won't you get lonely again?"
"Perhaps. Unless..." He pushes his lips hard to form the words. "Unless you would like to return with me. We could lie head to toe and stay perfectly flat. I couldn't see you, it's true, but on better days you could wriggle my toe or I could press my foot to you ear. That would be something, wouldn't it?"
"Me, go the rails? I suppose I couldn't leave you alone. But I also have an idea. Instead of lying head to toe, what if we lay crown to crown? Then, in between trains we could lift our heads just high enough and kiss, out there, in the air above the rails. If that's the kind of thing you mean." He shifts on his feet and rubs the base of his neck. Clearly the idea seems to him most amazing.
But, "It's not safe."
Yet when we reached the tracks and lay our heads together, flat, just touching, it was he who raised his lips to mine, above the level of the rails. I looked to see if the coast was clear and instead caught sight of the approaching train, metallic gray and vicious: undeniable. His mustache tickled as his mouth moved on mine, not hurriedly, not worried. He had heard the oncoming whistle from a very great distance away.
Bonnie Ruberg hails from the Philadelphia area, and currently lives in New York state. Her work has appearing in numerous magazines, including Stay Free!, The Glut, Word Riot and Somewhat Literary Journal. She is likewise the editor of a new print and online literary journal, Verse Noire.