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Keeping watch

Dark morning. Crowded station. Breath-trails roil in the air. School for me, work for them. Brakes complaining, the train pulls in. They drop into their seats, raise newsprint shields, and retreat. Eyes edge side to side but rarely meet. Too young to hide, I push to the head of the car, press my face against the glass, and stare a headlight's length along the tracks as the conductor releases the brake and we lurch down the dark.

Listen: the engine's rhythm, a skittery snare over a belly-deep conga beat. Picking up speed - bass runs, trumpet squeals, and a spray of blue sparks scuttling like stars from under the wheels. Faster still, a voluptuous uproarious din as the train, in samba spasms, shakes its hips, snakes beneath a sleeping city.

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Lord, we are alive! Whipping like a dragon's tail through the grottoes of a winter night. Down deep, we are unpredictable, improvised, a stream of wild notes careening along two silver staves, and the sharpest eye can see little more than a measure in the distance. Say what you like, or say nothing at all - but you can't deny the churning music, the racing heartbeats, the rolling zigzag dance. The train leans to a curve and an alto sax leaps free, wings beating, laughs and screams - all this, while half the world still eddies somewhere, embedded in their placid dream.

Don't look back - I always warned myself, afraid (I realize now) of how those hundred pair of eyes might look at me. So I pretended: This was how it was supposed to be. I was their sentry, their lookout man, keeping watch over the terrible undreamt beauty rushing toward us in the dark. I told myself: You were chosen for this job, and even in silence, they knew. It's taken much of thirty years to find out: I was, and it's true.

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