End of the Line
The first thing I noticed--the first thing to reach out to me from the outside world, to pull me back in--was the vibration. I felt it on the back of my skull, bone-rattling, my head too heavy to lift. My brain was stirred and whisked as if all the memories within were trying to gel together --short term or long term, fleeting or fixed fast--didn't matter: they were all spilling out as the glob that defines me.
I was a mold for what poured out.
The next thing I noticed was the staccato. Miles of an iron horse's manifest destiny rolled beneath me, the puffing of the infernal machine above contrapuntal to the rhythm of the rails.
It was the soundtrack of my life.
Then the smell. Dirty air. Particulate. Coalescing gritty black with pulverized coal, granular cinders in my nostrils. When I sought escape with mouth-breathing, I coughed repeatedly, each hack lifting my head with knee-jerk spontaneity that served only to cock it back for each slamming report back against the floor.
I felt I would be stuck here forever.
I heard howling turbulence outside, going from high pitch to deep--the highs whistling higher and the deeps sounding lower--a tale of Doppler horror that defined the precipitous acceleration at work.
Ding, ding, ding...dong, dong, dong...dung dung dung...
I opened my eyes and saw the hand extended toward me.
"Here, lemme help you up, buddy," the elderly man said; he was frail, emaciated, like someone late for his Hospice appointment. I accepted his help and sat up enough to get my feet under me. I rose to meet him face to face.
"What the hell's going on?" I asked.
"No one knows. No one's ever known. It's as new to me as it is to you."
"And why shouldn't it be new to me? Or to you?"
"Because I'm dead, my friend."
"'Fraid so. Pancreatic cancer. I was just like you six months ago."
"Just like me? But I'm here, too! You're saying you're dead."
"Yes. My very next adventure. I had a great life and I thought that was adventure enough...but this!" He peered out of the windows.
"Did you see that?" he asked.
"Nevermind, it's gone."
"Whoa, wait a sec. This is just crazy."
"Life's crazy, so why not death?" he concluded, surprisingly non-plussed with the whole matter.
I took a moment to look out of the windows. Streaks of latitude defined the panorama-in-motion, streaks that became thicker the faster we seemed to go. It soon became a gray blur that racked in and out of focus until I could recognize a pageantry going by.
Tableaux of my childhood--my nurturing, my being loved, lessons learned and lessons wasted; my adolescence--the victims of my experiments, the puppy loves, the missed opportunities, careless spurnings, and meanness of moods; my young adulthood--the lies launched with surgical precision and the collateral damage I never looked back to see, the womanizing and the broken hearts, the lies of omission in the commission of profit, and the missed chances at my children, who grew up to be just like me.
"Did you see that?" I asked him.
"Nevermind," I said, "it's gone."
"Yea. It goes by pretty fast. Don't blink, you could miss something."
"I'm not dead," I protested, unable to refocus again on anything going by.
"No. I can feel my pulse, pounding in my chest. I can see, I can hear, I can smell the dirty air. I can taste it, too."
"So! I can choose to see, hear, and smell. I have volition. I can choose. I can even hurt you if I wanted."
"Are you going to hurt me?" he asked.
"No, of course not. That's not my point. Shouldn't freedom of choice be over if we're dead?"
"I guess your choices define you now."
"Choices when? Now? Then? When? No, that's not it. I mean life and death are separate. And I don't think a--" I glanced outside again. "--a runaway train and ghosts streaking outside the windows are the way we go. I mean, who's driving?"
"Don't know. They haven't even collected our tickets yet."
"They? Who is they?"
"Them," he replied, tossing his head to and fro to indicate two porters entering our train car from each end.
From one direction--the rear door--was a tall, red, and horned man with a long barbed tail whipping this way and that behind him as he clapped his steps our way; his scowl was one of perennial disappointment and resentment. From the other, the forward door, a silvery, winged, glowing woman with an all-welcoming smile glided ethereally toward us.
Well, this is new. I know what's going on here, I thought to myself--dreadfully, awfully, and fatefully. I really am dead. And now I'm going to my afterlife destination.
"Destination?" the angelic porter asked my fellow rider, enunciating it simultaneously with my thinking the word. The man patted all of his pockets, checking for something that might serve as a ticket.
"I know I have it here somewhere," he told her.
"Take your time," the angel offered. This is when I felt a tap on my shoulder at the hand of the demonic porter.
"Destination?" he seethed.
"Oh, I'm sorry," I explained, "I'm going where he's going. Yea, I'm with him. Together in life and together in death, always. That was--is--us."
The red, horned porter cackled wickedly. "You think this is death?" he laughed. "There is no death. Not ever."
"That's what I was thinking," said my fellow rider. His angelic porter smiled at him in agreement. There was something afoot here. I felt like some inside, private joke was being played out, and that I was being tested. Alive? Dead? No difference? Not mattering? Destinations and tickets?
"Is it hot in here, or is it me?" I wondered out loud. I perspired, and I saw the sweat dripping off of me as drops of blood.
Why was my porter the devil? Was my hereafter all set in brimstone? That was the smell I had smelt. Just then the train lurched forward, and the sounds whizzing by were even higher and lower than ever before.
Dink, dink, dunk...donk, donk, donk...dunk, dunk, dunk...
Then the train's whistle sounded in a faulty quivering undulation, followed by a solid, deep blast that was more like a bass trumpet blast than some knell.
"Oh," said the man out loud to everyone, "this is my stop." The train began to brake, quite aggressively, plowing through its coterie of steam and destiny. "Sorry about the ticket," he offered politely to the angel.
"My stop, too," I blurted. I grasped the man's hand, fastening a connection I planned to maintain until we had disembarked. The demonic porter just shook his head in disgust. "Don't do that," I commanded him. "Don't shake your head like that. Who's in charge here? I demand to speak with whoever's in charge here."
The angel and the demon both laughed, each differently in his and her own way.
"Why, you are in charge," answered the angel.
"Certainly have been all the time before," chortled the demon.
"Meaning," answered the angel, "that if life's the journey and not the destination, then the destination is defined by the journey." I nodded to her appreciatively.
"That's quite sweet. And quite trite, too. A real patronizing cliché. Look, I get it, I really do. I mean, there are lots of things I did I'm not particularly proud of, but I did some good things, too. It was a learning curve, don't you agree? I like to think I've learned from my mistakes. It would be unfair to say it's too late, right?"
"Unfair of whom?" the demon challenged me.
"Anyone. Especially of whoever's in charge around here."
"You were in charge," the angel said.
"Yea, I know, you said that. I mean now--whoever's in charge...now. And that's not me."
"Actually, it is," replied the angel.
"You mean I can just get off this crazy train whenever I want?"
"Of course," the porters said in unison.
"What happens then? Do I go to the wrong place, like dog Heaven? or this guy's hereafter?
"I'm sorry," said my fellow traveler with a little worry in his tone, "but...may I? I really don't want to miss my stop."
"Of course," his angel answered. He approached the double doors which hissed open and he stepped out, his wave goodbye the last part of him to be seen. Was the train stopped?
It was. Who knew?
"Yea," I said, "like I was saying, this looks like my stop, too. So...may I, too?"
"Of course," the demon answered, but suddenly I noticed the train had shot from its stop and was accelerating again. The Dopplers, the gray motion lines, the rattling of the floor. The next tableau.
"No way," I said. "I know that." What played outside the windows in the smoky murk was a particularly troubling life memory of mine. "That's not entirely accurate, though, is it?"
"How so?" The demon asked as if he knew the answer already.
"You know!" I shouted impatiently. "No! That scene's been purged, sanitized."
"Do you object?" asked the angel.
It was a trick question, I knew. Perhaps this was my test. What was it going to be? A lie of omission? One of commission? Could I even fool anyone here?
"Only yourself," answered the angel, reading my mind, which was unsettling because I thought I had at least that final privacy as refuge.
More tableaux rushed by. They weren't correct, either. They were solutions to the predicaments I had engendered. They showed things fixed. As if I had done everything right. Imbued with love, service, integrity, fairness, and compassion. But it wasn't me; it was my life, my memories, but not me. Instead, they were a resumé of excellence, not the mess I had made of everything. Everything that was important. I had been so blind. So stupid.
And I couldn't let this stand.
"No, no, no..." I stammered. "These aren't the real me, my real life. Things were different. If you're testing me to accept these as accurate, then do I fail. Or pass. Which?"
"You fail," said the demon.
"You pass," said the angel.
I laughed. I deserved that. Then the train stopped. The hissing, the wheels grinding, the bass trumpet sounding. I wanted to exit, wherever I was.
The doors opened for me as easily as they had for my fellow traveler at his stop. I seized the opportunity. Volition: I stepped out. I walked toward a large kiosk, which was empty. I entered and looked out from its grease-covered plexiglass. And in my head played a song I had once heard,
Time is a train, makes the future the past, leaves you standing in the station, your face pressed up against the glass...
And I saw a person much better than myself. Another lie. Another whitewash.
Just as the doors began to close, I jumped back onto the train. I wanted to set things right...the right way. Not the liars' way, via excuses and rationalizations and spinning. As much as I wanted the tableaux to be correct--to be that person much better than myself--there was pain that came with that. Denial of your failings and the rape of their importance was the pain of oblivion.
No, I would own me. If I denied myself, I was an abortion. I would be an empty space. I wouldn't matter. It would truly be oblivion.
"You're back?" the angel said.
"Yea. Let's get this train rolling again, shall we? I want to go where I'm meant to go--I don't want to get lost. Lost forever, right?"
"You are willing to go...wherever?" the demon asked. His face had changed. It was no longer a countenance of scheming entrapment. It had softened and was less red--less horned.
"Yea. Y'know," I said, almost as if I were on an equal playing field with the two porters, "I don't fear damnation. All that fire bullshit."
"No?" the demon asked.
"No. Not at all."
"Then what?" the angel added.
"I fear not having mattered at all. Even those things I did and didn't do, they all impacted everyone else. I'm a piece of the puzzle. A necessary piece. You can't force a wrong piece into the wrong puzzle. That's what all that--" and I gestured with my arms waving out to the tableaux going by sterilely and inaccurately. "It's all the wrong pieces. You force them and the puzzle's broken. So yes, I fear being defined as a lie, as something that never happened, as a cowardly refugee in the cowardly hiding place of..." I trailed off.
"Of what?" the angel asked.
"And why is that?" the demon asked.
"Because oblivion hurts," I answered.
"But it's oblivion," the demon pressed.
"The future's as much a part of my life as my past. Now take me to my stop."
"Very well," said the demon. Both porters turned to retreat back through the respective doors from which they had entered.
Take it as it comes, I thought. What choice does an honest man have?
The angelic porter, just before exiting, turned to me. "Where you're going," she said, "I think you're going to like it very much." The bass trumpet sounded once more and the train continued rolling along. Smooth as glass.