In the beginning, there was Industry. But that was, like, a long time ago.
Let’s be clear, just in terms of what we’re talking about, for us, we of the millennial generation, we disjointed weightless children of the service economy: Industry was this whole massive complicated and physically cumbersome process of tearing the ground up and out of itself and hauling it to the lips of the pits and shaping it into shapes and forging it in forges and then moving it—taking the various metals and stinking heaps of coal and coke and forming them into machines and then heaving those machines onto trucks and trains and barreling them from one dirty noisy place to another.
The smell of the smoke stacks! The rumble the roar of the engines! Clank! Clang! Industry!
In the beginning the nation was strong, physically, not metaphorically so, a big strong metal-plated butt-kicker of a nation, and it took care of business, baby: big heavy things got lifted with cranes and placed on railcars and hauled, long-haul, from Here to There and Beyond.
And Indianapolis, in those distant days and decades, boy oh boy—Circle City was a City with a Capital C, for it was a cog in this mighty clanking machine of machines called Industry. It was a place with a P, a node, a fixed point in the interweaving matrix of Industry. This matrix that was America, America that dug things up out of the ground, America that soldered things together and shot them through with fire and made them hum, that took all that shit (you’ll pardon me) and got it where it had to go.
Let’s say we’re clear on all that, and move on.
Just as the City moved on, and burgeoned, and was bisected—pierced, run through—by a rail line, the Monon, that proudly bore the weight of locomotives. These were beasts like thunder, like a thousand bison yoked and engined, charging at a mad rush every day through the heart of the City. A line was drawn by the men with the trains, so to speak, a perfect line, a geometrical arrow shot down the middle of the city like a bullet from a gun. So the tracks could be laid, tie by tie, tying here to there, and there to onwards.
It was necessary, it was imperative, it was good that the Monon Line should be laid.
And lo, all that happened.
The City organized itself around the line, like two halves of a fruit, the people of the town streamed up and down in swarms along either side of the tracks, built up their neighborhoods in clusters along the line, like bulwarks upon a riverbank. There was no wrong side of the tracks. There was the thunder of the engines on the line, the rumble of the ground that it cleaved like God parting the waters. There were lines of happy boys and girls waving yoo-hoo! and woo-hoo! to the cattle cars and coal cars as they passed, standing teary-eyed in the billows of exit smoke emitted by the swift-flying cabooses, little’uns with smoke in their eyes and soot on their faces, waving goodbye to the evercoming and evergoing Men Of the Trains, big burly fellas with big calloused hands and dirty kerchiefs. The men sped through like conquerers, every day, leaning forward over the cowcatchers, with the engineer blowing his powerful whistle, splitting the city in two with his mighty and terrible awoo!
Here comes American power. Here it comes! There it goes! Here it comes again!
It wasn’t just the coal and steel cars, either, wasn’t just the heavy metals running in and out of the city on the Monon Line. It was people that got moved around too, people in their hundreds and thousands, people running North for work or South for a week of R&R on the Gulf of Mexico. It was hobos crouched drunk among the cargo, it was men in top hats and waistcoats—the sorts of things people wear on trains, you know?—murmuring about portfolios and dividends standing swaying gently in the dining car. It was ladies in long skirts and complicated undergarments, glancing up from behind a broadsheet paper to meet the eyes of a handsome stranger. It was contented people of all stripes, smoking in the smoker to the clankalank of the wheels beneath, rolling over and past and through the City with a Capital C. People fell in love in those sleeper car berths, people struck deals, won fortunes over cards, while the city shot past in the dark.
Yes, lo, seriously, just as the coal cars rolled with coal the people cars rolled with folks, and every one of those people was a complicated machine, each of these machines but a cog in a larger still more complicated machine called a civilization.
Those were times, though, weren’t they? Those were TIMES.
They called Louis McMaster “Sweet Lou,” that’s how sweet he was.
He had been born a sensitive lad, with peering chestnut eyes and a Rockwellian cowlick, and even when he grew strapping and strong his eyes stayed soulful, and he would peer at the girls and the girls would swoon. (Swooning means fainting from strong feeling. Girls used to swoon, at one time.)
Louis played fullback at North Central, and laid roof on Meridian Kessler mansions, and all the while was still Sweet Lou, slicking his hair back for a weekend social, turning the heads of the well-bred girls and their sisters and mothers, to boot.
His stayed sweet and his eyes kept their charming glow, but those big dark eyes had seen nothing for months now but MaryAnn, with the bright red hair.
In her presence Lou’s color changed, his workingman’s tan got flushed as if reddened by an undercoating, and his graceful starting-fullback feet tripped and stumbled beneath him. She was too much, said Sweet Lou, just too too much. But things were going well, nevertheless they were. Out they went for walks, through the bustle of Washington Street, around and around the Circle, holding hands beneath the overlocking dogwood branches at Holliday Park. Kisses were stolen in the shadow of the museum, deep in the groves, kisses and promises exchanged, sun warm on their summertime necks.
It might have gone on like this, for another season, anyway, for another year, had not the War ended, one of those wars that takes a capital letter, so complete is is warlike-nature, so pervasive is the toll it takes on all it encounters. The War ended, before Sweet Lou himself was old enough to be swooped up by its claws and tossed in its maw, but not before it took its toll on MaryAnn’s Uncle Lou, who came home to Chicago physically whole, but absolutely rattling with madness.
If only he had served on a boat, and not on land.
If only he had deployed a year before, or six months later.
If only he had gotten a deferment, for some trumped-up cause, and stayed at home and stayed at his job—which was, just by the by, as a railroad porter.
None of those things came to pass. The Uncle of Sweet Lou’s MaryAnn did go to war, and he did return with his head intact but rattled so severely by cannon’s boom and tank’s rumble that he couldn’t think straight anymore, and he trembled when he walked and he left his mouth ajar for long periods, with pools of saliva forming in the pit beneath his tongue like rainwater in a wheel well, and dripping out slowly when he tried to make conversation.
Hence the request from MaryAnn’s aunt that she come up north for a spell and help out. MaryAnn had been a girl in Chicago, had moved to Indy only in her early teens, before Sweet Lou—and now she was being called back by the powers that be, no power stronger than love, to aid in the recovery of her poor wartorn uncle.
It was a torpedo in Sweet Lou’s tender heart.
“Will you be long?” he found the strength to ask.
“Well,” said MaryAnn, “I can’t say.”
Then Lou got quiet, ashamed of what had been his first and most burning reaction: Maybe he’ll die.
He thought it immediately, and thought it hard, and hated himself for thinking it and nevertheless couldn’t stop thinking it. This man after all was a veteran, a former railroad man who had flown off to war and been blasted in his brain in the service of his country. He had made a great sacrifice and here Lou was wishing his sacrifice had been just a little bit greater, so that he, Sweet Lou, could have his delicate bird MaryAnn all to himself.
But Sweet Lou couldn’t help it, he really couldn’t, and all through the long weekend that followed, with MaryAnn making her preparations and purchasing her tickets, the thought did not flee him. Maybe this shellshocked uncle would kick the bucket, after all; maybe he would pass unexpectedly, and wouldn’t that after all be a blessing for him, and for MaryAnn’s aunt, and for MaryAnn herself?
Wouldn’t it just be better for everyone, thought Sweet Lou?
The weekend passed.
It was the Sunday night before the Monday when the train would gobble her up and take her away. It was that night, on the eve of MaryAnn’s departure, when her one-way ticket had been purchased and her valise carefully packed with her summer dresses and fall coats and winter mittens (for who knew in what season she would return?), that Lou made what might have been a mistake. They were out for a walk downtown, under the shadow of the monument, a train whistle sounding tauntingly in the distance, and he couldn’t hold it in—he asked her one last question. He should have just enjoyed the night. He should have simply held his sweetheart’s hand and hoped for the best.
“Are there other people that you’ll see?” he said. “People that you know?”
And MaryAnn got very quiet, in a way that Lou was not used to, and she looked this way and then the other.
Sweet Lou waited in the miserable silence of the night, while the hand that held MaryAnn’s grew cold; while his heart inside his chest turned to porcelain and then to lead. Whatever train it was rattled along, somewhere up on the Monon, and its distant rumble was like machine gun fire on the next battlefield over.
“Well,” MaryAnn answered him at last. “No one that matters.”
“Oh, good,” said Lou immediately, but his heart died just a little bit more inside the prison walls of his ribcage, turning from lead to something more like coal. Because what she had said…wasn’t that just the kind of thing that a person says, meaning the exact and terrible opposite?
No one that matters. The way she had said it. There is someone that matters.
A friend from childhood. A second cousin, twice removed. A city full of strangers in handsome and fashionable clothes.
“Oh, good,” said Sweet Lou one more time, telling himself that it was fine, that everything was A-OK, that the calling of his heart to hers that he had heard was real and permanent. But his heart did not change back to living red muscle. It remained what it had become: cold and spiky like an unexploded grenade.
She kissed him however like she meant what she said, and she kissed him again the next morning, at the Amtrak station on South Illinois, while the railroad train hissed impatiently in its stable, waiting to gobble her up and bear her away.
And lo, that’s what happened. On she got and off it went.
He let go of her fingers one by one as the train revved up, reared back, and chugged away. Then he stood on the platform with the other lovelorn suckers, his stomach ducking and rolling as the train raced her around the bend and off toward Chicago.
Let’s cut to the chase on this thing: She never came back.
He waited for word, Sweet Lou. Never did she call, never wrote, certainly never did show her apple-red cheeks within the borders of the City.
He grasped at sad, stupid rumors: a friend of a friend who said he had seen her, up in Chicago. Six months had gone by at that point, with no word, no telephone call, no telegram. Lou too proud, too scared, to send out messages of his own. The friend of a friend had been up for a weekend, interviewing for art school, and had seen her, wheeling the old rattle-brained uncle through Wicker Park, and at Lou’s prodding the friend of a friend said that, yeah, the old man seemed pretty bad off.
At those words, “pretty bad off,” Sweet Lou’s heart danced to life and sung a little, like a caged bird given a flashing glimpse of daylight outside his curtain wall. He didn’t care, by that point, that his hopes were pinned on the hope of a brave veteran succumbing to his wounds. He was past that. He pumped the friend of a friend for every detail, trying to make sure it was her (but the cousin’s cousin couldn’t be sure), wanting to know if they spoke (they had not).
In the end, this bit of information wasn’t much information at all, but it gave Lou a surge of fresh hope, like a wheeze of air from a billows, sent him to the station the next day, and the day after, and there he stood on the platform as train after train huffed into its harbor and exhaled its smoke and opened its gold-plated mouth to let the passengers free. He would die soon, the uncle. She would come home.
But she never did. As noted. She never got off one of those trains.
What Sweet Lou did was, on such days, he stood with his hat crumpled against his chest for five minutes—ten—minutes—twenty. Sometimes an hour. Sometimes he let the sun go down, let the workers in the restaurant cafe put the chairs up on the tables, before shuffling off, down the station steps, back into the deflated city.
And then, eventually, time resumed. Time started up and rolled forward, like metal wheels on a mighty track.
Years pissed themselves away. Industry stumbled and slowed. The pits coughed up their last and were paved over and made the foundations of vast “big box” stores selling all manner of useless garbage, cheap beach towels and cases of flavored water and celebrity magazines. The locomotives that had rushed and charged through the City on legs of steel came more rarely, and then very rarely, and then basically they just stopped. The haze of blue railroad smoke burnt away and revealed the abandoned tracks of the Monon, running long and weedy down the center of the City like an appendectomy scar.
Sweet Lou was still standing there—this is what, twenty, thirty years later?—standing on what used to be the railroad, at various bends in the line. One hand up over his eyes to block the sun, looking north to Chicago to catch a glimpse of her when she comes.
She’s not coming. I mean, it’s been years. Things change, Lou. She’s never coming back.
More years went by, calendar pages were torn off and blown away like in old-timey movies, as in parodies and pastiches of old-timey movies, and civic improvement swept into the City and the rail line became the “Rail-Trail.” They pried up the old tracks and bent them upwards, like forced smiles, into Kryptonite locks. The happy weekend people came, happy dads in khaki pants, happy kids in Spider-Man helmets, rolling around in neon bike trailers hitched onto Giant ten speeds, happy moms with flowing skirts tucked up, the better to bike. Everybody laughing and hollering hello on their way to the playground, on their way to ice cream, on their way to the bright new future of the bright new City.
Serious cyclists in European bike shirts and tight black Spandex zipped past like low-flying drones, with water-bottle cases bolted to the frames of their impossibly thin titanium thirty-speeds. On Monday through Friday it was the commuters, gentlemen with their neckties tucked between shirt-front buttons, ladies with their pumps stuffed in their pocketbooks, wearing their sneakers to pedal, all the way down from Carmel or Meridian-Kessler to where the Chase building lords it over downtown.
They don’t know that he’s there. They don’t notice him, Sweet Lou, but he’s out there still, he really is.
Just a creepy old man along the trail. A man in an old-fashioned button-up work shirt, eyes squinting against the sun. He will bear no ice-cream cone. He is of grandfather age by now, and he looks it, but there will be no child hoisted up on his shoulders, no happy little feet kicking against his chest. Get close to him and you can smell it, coming off him in waves, billowing puffs of railroad smoke and longing. He keeps himself trim, he shaves. And of course he gets plenty of exercise, wandering the upper and lower reaches of the canal, in search of what he knows deep down is long gone. Of what he knows has been lost.
What he looks like, in other words, if you see him there pacing along the banks of the canal, is he looks like everything that’s ever been left behind.
They zoom right past. They go around. They careen around Sweet Lou like a statue—the bicyclists on the recreational trail that used to be the railroad line that took his true love away.
I swear I’ve seen them go right through him, I swear to fucking God I have.
One day he’ll die, of course. He’s not really a ghost, he’s a person, and one day his lungs will give way or his heart will make a final fumbling pulse, and he’ll fall over backwards and tumble off the bridge at Kessler Boulevard, or he’ll slide unnoticed into the canal.
And then at last, the trail will just be a trail, a good old family fun trail, and not a rail-trail anymore.
Ben H. Winters’s new novel is Countdown City, a sequel to last year’s The Last Policeman, which won an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America. His other books include the New York Times bestseller Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters and the middle-grade novels The Mystery of the Missing Everything and The Secret Life of Ms. Finkleman (a Bank Street Best Book of 2011 and an Edgar Award nominee). He lives in Indianapolis and teaches writing at Butler University. Check out his work at BenHWinters.com.
Monon Bridge photo by Eric Schmuttenmaer (Flickr: Indianapolis Art Center Artspark-10) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.