by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
June 30, 2008
MAKING THE TRAINS RUN ON TIME
CARTERSVILLE, Ga. -- They live across the street from you and something about them tugs at the corners of your mind. They have lived there for years but you hardly know them. As you pass by you wave or say hello. They wave back and some vague order is again confirmed.
They look fiftyish ... maybe early sixties, and when you think about them you remember he has worked for years at the aerodynamics plant over in the next county.
In the Spring she clips her rosebushes and he repaints the trim on the house. In the Winter you can set your clock by her as she moves to cover the rosebushes before the brittle bite of November's first freeze. He labors with the awnings and they disappear again into the shed in back of their house.
You can't remember them ever borrowing anything from you or asking anything of you, and the only time you were ever in their home was the morning he slipped on their icy front steps. You saw him lying there in the snow like a broken doll and you grabbed his hand as the ambulance crew carried him into the house.
His wife offered you coffee after the medics carried her husband upstairs and put him to bed. You felt out of place in the nothing-out-of-place orderly oldness of the living room, as though no one lived there. As though they were just passing through.
On the piano was a faded picture of him in an Army uniform and by it a later one of a young man also in uniform. You remember not long after you moved into the neighborhood, years ago, there was some mention made of their son being killed in the first Gulf War. There were also pictures on the piano of a gowned, capped, tasseled young woman. A daughter, the woman said. Married now and living in Virginia.
You found yourself wondering how the woman spent her time while her husband was gone every day to work. There was a hollow grey silence to the house as though it had never know laughter or music or the sound of children or grandchildren. Did they, you wondered, ever quarrel ... or make love vigorously?
You knew they never got involved in community projects or protests. You knew it because a politically active teacher friend had used it as an argument to get you to run for the seat coming up in your State Senate. Hers was a "look at the good people right here on your own street who don't even know we're moving into a global recession" argument. And she added to it the old saw: If you ain't part of the solution, you're part of the pollution.
These neighbors and many other people in the neighborhood had passed silently through the beginnings of the new Iraq War and, as you looked around their living room, you noticed the absence of a television set, and you felt a growing uneasiness for them ... and for yourself.
You had not intentionally withdrawn from politics or community caring. It had just happened slowly after the girls all graduated and left home, one by one. You had waited a long time to submit your little poems and short stories and so you posted a sign on your front door: "Writer working. Do not disturb." And the keyboard became your family, your solace, your constant companion.
Afghanistan and Iraq did not registered on your daily reality anymore, you mused, than it had here in this quiet, funeral-parlor kind of place. Reality was for them, no doubt, a letter or a phone call at Christmas. Maybe reality was whether they should have their daily bowl of raisin bran first thing in the morning or a couple of hours before they went to bed.
I can't know such things, you thought, as you mumbled to the woman to call if she needed you. You made your way quickly across the street and into the comfortable clutter you referred to as "my mansion."
But something played around the edges of your mind. Something called for admittance. Some long-ago ambition, unrealized and relegated to the backrooms of your mind.
You wandered around your well-stocked library. The books did not bring their usual small joy. You pulled down your college English 101. On a dogeared page sprinkled with iambic pentameter a forgotten poem seemed to cry for attention, and you remembered where you were sitting in class and how the students sighed and shuffled their feet at the teacher's droning.
The poem was an obituary notice for a man who had lived his life without enough significance to have a name. He was simply JS/07/M/378. He had passed through life without a whisper or a shout and:
"He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be
one against whom there was no official complaint."
The poem rippled on through the ripple-less life of a good quiet man and concluded with:
"Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd.
Had anything been wrong, we certainly would have heard."
You recognized that W.H. Auden was making a poetic plea for individuality, a subject dear to your personal soapboxes of yesterday but, reading it now, and seeing yourself as another JS/07/M/378, the poem took on extended meaning. Mediocrity defined; the comfortable life challenged. The mist moved in the forgotten regions of your mind. The last methodical, uneventful 10 years of your quiet and simple life starting falling like dominoes in slow motion.
If you, your neighbors, and the millions of Americans just like you were once the backbone of your nation, were you now by your complacency and lack of involvement a silent part of its current pain?
The pondering itself was painful. The truth ran along your nerves like some unwelcome disease.
But I have earned my solitude, you cry. I contributed. I carried my daughters to three different schools every morning. I went to work every day. I paid my dues. I have a right to write. Yes, I know. I never try to get anything published but that doesn't mean ... I don't know what that doesn't mean. I'm going for some hot chocolate and tonight I am gonna watch that sexy Dr. House.
But your recliner has lost its magic. "House" is a re-run. The hot chocolate grows cold and lumpy and you know nothing will ever be the same again.
You dial your friend, the political activist, and you say "I've changed my mind. If you and the rest of the Libertarians in the state don't think I've been out of action too long or that I'm too old at this sassy, satisfied stage of my life, you can throw my name in for that Senate seat. And tomorrow I'm going across the street and visit - really visit - with this nice old man and woman who live there."
You don't remember the rest of the conversation. You just remember climbing into bed very late and very satisfied with yourself. You fall asleep humming softly "God bless America. Land of the free, home of... ."
AR Correspondnt Elizabeth T. Andrews lives in Cartersville, Ga. Her Website offers other columns and poetry by her. Write her at email@example.com or P.O. Box 816, Cartersville, GA 30120