At the End of Our Century

We’re standing together at the end of “our” century wondering alone what the hell just happened. It was an ethereal thing, like an accent, something like a ragtime roll born on a riverboat, that kept us lingering around one corner of the room for so long. That tool, which came from our tongues, really, no longer had a job to do. “Do you remember,” says I, “when you was pullin’ riverboats an’ I was pushin’ barges? We sure had us some different sticks.” But you don’t feel like talking much. But maybe you’ll belt out a line: “Ain’t no more cane on the Brazis, it all done been turned to molasses.” Typical, you saving your last word for the damn sugarcane. Not a note, not a melody for the gang nor the walking boss, no hammer gone shine gone ring on down canyon-way, nor “I don’t b’long to you, walkin’ boss”. No nothing. You learned long ago that the light was brightest in the deepest tunnel, and even now at the end of the job you ain’t got no respect for nothin’ ‘sides the work. We’re standing at the end of our century with the final spike driven in and we ain’t got shit to say. I mean, we ain’t got shit… Des’itute. Maybe somethin’ like: “It happened to the best of ’em… and now this other dark age has come”. For the unwritten record takes its place, writing nothing of it all, as it never did anyways. The light is brightest, deepest tunnel. Finally: “I’ve got mouths to feed,” you say, brow sweat hardly yet chilled, “I best be fillin’ ’em in with coal ash before they figure it all out… that it was all just one mad, lost, brisk and misguided expenditure of love. If we’d bridged a continent, it’d hardly mattered. In the century to come, they’ll find the remains of a steel driver’s family, victims of familicide, pistons to the backs of heads, and they’ll know that we truly lived in the time of the engine —but what an American engine it was.” I watch you in resignation disappear into that valley. Finger raised, I froze in time the indication, the verdict, and the ritual: There. There. There lies a steel-driving man. But, you know what? Ain’t nobody out here lookin’ for you.

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