This poem, which I wrote last year, is reprinted from Grey Sparrow Journal, Spring 2015, in memory of my childhood friend Dan Lawrence, whose memorial service takes place today in Baltimore, our hometown.
He was the boy who loved trains
of all kinds, and trolleys—back
when they still ran along the roads to
Carney and Towson, all the way
to the route’s end, Woodlawn or Windsor Hillsplaces I knew only as names
on placards, black print on white in
the front of those streetcars
or white on black on the turning
signage at the side of the car,
Irvington, Forest Park, each
He was the boy who set up the Lionel
trains on the sheet of plywood
painted green to look like fields
trains that ran past a station, a school,
a town hall, fields with tiny metal
cows that grazed on painted wood.
He wore the motorman’s hat
or the engineer’s striped cap,
stacked glossy train magazines on his bookshelf,
talked of nothing but steam locomotives,
electric trains, old straw-seated trolleys
bus routes through Baltimore
till his world expanded and he learned
the subway lines in New York and Boston,
discontinued private companies,
public utilities, anything so long
as there were cars carrying people
or empty cars late at night or in the
first run out of the car barn.
Car barn— when was the last time
someone said those words
or cared about car barns?
Now he’s often confused, often
unsure of how to log into email, uncertain
which day it is or where his wife goes
when she leaves the house.
Someone said the cops came one day,
he might’ve done something wrong.
They pushed him down into the squad car
as he yelled, talk to my wife, please,
call my wife, she ‘ll explain.
It’s nothing like that, we later heard.
It’s his mind, it’s slipping,
He fears he can’t remember things
won’t remember the stops on the Number 19 line
won’t remember where they built
the diesel-powered buses we rode to school,
their fumes sweet and nauseating all at once.
When we were young he let me throw the switch and
start the train running. Sometimes
he let me drop a pellet into the engine’s smokestack
and gray smoke, pungent like incense, poured
out of the engine as it clicked along the tracks.
Sometimes he let me throw
the switch so the train turned off onto
a loop that led to the roundtable
where he did repairs, touched
up the paint here and there, let
the engine rest.
Heads together, we leaned
over the painted wood platform, the tracks
in the train world he created.
Light slanted in through the basement window.
Look, he said, flicking on the red signal.
He slowed the train to a halt, pointed
to the coal car. We need more fuel, he said.
He threw the switch then. I thought
he was king of the railroads.
In memory of DanLawrence, 1948-2015