by Caleb Tankersley

My boyfriend and I found an impossibly cheap apartment with large windows. Cathedral windows, the landlord called them. We both cringed at that, but the light flooding the living room in the morning did have the look of the sacred. The kitchen was long and open with beautiful subway tile. Thick lacquer gave the black cabinets a professional glow. Of course, there was a catch: a few feet outside the windows were a set of tracks, frequented by hulking trains.

We almost didn’t take the place. We’d just moved to a new city for my boyfriend’s job, a great career step for a young journalist but with little money. I’d been unemployed for six months, searching for work in advertising, writing copy for some obscure company that sold European clothes or lawnmowers or band aids. At least that’s what I told my boyfriend, Gregory. The reality was I’d stopped looking after so many unreturned emails. My desktop was loaded with dozens of resume versions. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, just looking to contribute somehow. It was more of a feeling. In those awkward Skype interviews I wanted to pour myself out to those pixelated faces: “I can do anything if you’ll give me the chance to care.” During an internet lag in one interview I actually said as much out loud, hoping the idea would carry through the wires and waves without the words. Turns out they heard, began scribbling with sour faces that shone clear through the grainy screen. I didn’t get the job. Or the fifteen after. Eventually I quit applying, made up elaborate days spent filling out forms, networking in coffee shops around the city. Gregory never fished for details, just said “you’ll get something eventually” before turning a page in whatever novel he was reading. He rarely discussed his own work, a crime reporter for the main city paper. We were content remaining mysterious to each other.

Gregory thought the trains would be too much, that the noise would psychologically damage us. He imagined all our muscles constantly tensed, unable to relax in our own home. But looking around taught us we—meaning Gregory—couldn’t afford better. So the next week, we moved in our dishes, our couch, our little row of succulents. We weren’t sure we could actually survive a hundred tons of speeding steel on the other side of the wall. Bricks normally appear sturdy, but the walls of our new apartment seemed flimsy with the tracks easily visible from those grand windows. Gregory hefted a box of books, set them down on the kitchen counter. “How is this even legal? Aren’t there codes to prevent this kind of thing?” Still, we tried not to worry until something actually roared by.

The tracks were not used by commuter trains. No sleek silver bullets. The tracks were designed for commercial freights, rusted boxes of steel hauling oil or lumber or minerals, their hides covered in intricate graffiti. The landlord was honest with us: these trains were not quiet. They were not going to silence their horns near the building. Rather, the landlord warned us the horns blasted as they approached. I imagined the conductor, a tired, bored man with overalls stretched across his paunch, gathering sadistic joy from his horn, breaking up our days, forcing us to stop and notice.

The first train came through while I was washing dishes. I’d scrubbed the same plates three days ago, just before packing them into boxes. But Gregory was convinced that dust had coated them on the journey, so every single dish we owned needed to be washed again before being arranged in the cabinets. The water in the sink formed the tiniest ripples seconds before the sound hit my ears, all-encompassing, like listening underwater. The noise moved in waves, steadily more forceful until I could see the train, a shadow of gears and iron between flashes of light. Squeaking wheels added a randomness to the percussive clacking of the cars, each ticking by with a steady rhythm. As the sound faded, Gregory stuck his head out of the bedroom. “That wasn’t so bad.” We smiled, happy to have gotten away with it all.

Two more trains came that first day. One arrived during a moment of rest. I’d stopped unpacking to scroll through Twitter. The train passed with incredible speed and no horn, just a dark flicker in the window followed by rumbling that shook the building. But the distraction got me up and working again. Later in the evening Gregory and I began fighting about something as inconsequential as where to place the succulents. We weren’t looking to hurt each other. But the pressurized tension of the move had to be released somehow. Just as the angry statements were subsiding and adequately apologized for another train blew through, this time a horn sounding the entire way. We immediately grabbed each other, kissed furiously. It didn’t develop any further as we were both sweaty and surrounded by our lives in need of unboxing. But the moment was a nice way to christen a new place.

The first night was the greatest, deepest sleep I have ever known. My dreams were lolled on the light memory that freights were moving a mere fifteen feet from our vulnerable, sleeping brains. But the trains did not disturb us. Instead they left a light, floating impression of sound, like living near the sea.

Over the next several weeks we discovered their erratic intervals. We might go hours without hearing one, then suddenly three in fifteen minutes, moving in opposite directions on the same track. I would stand close to the window, sparks blinking off the wheels, and wonder how they moved through each other, how there had not been a collision. I thought about how near it was, this great beast, a thing from another time, growling outside my window. If I opened the window and leaned I could have touched it. It traveled fast enough to take my arm off.

Something in the train relaxed me, a low-level positive beam. Similar to the antidepressants I used to swallow but without clear-cutting every emotion. I’d wake up motivated, began applying all over town. I determined to fulfill all those lies I’d been telling Gregory, sending resumes and meeting contacts. He was more buoyant too, his energy high even when staying up all night covering the latest bout of violence.

I began to watch the trains more instead of just listening. Often they were streams of black tanks concealing some dangerous liquid. Sometimes they were enormous bins of coal or wheat, even stacks of imported cars. The only person visible was the conductor, though I could never be sure exactly who he was. When I heard an approaching train I pressed against the cathedral windows but caught only a vague glimpse of him, an impression of a human being. He was old, a white beard flowing down the side of the engine. Or so I thought. Was he happy? Did he love his job? Did he know his effect, how these trains were changing us? I attempted to draw him but came away with vague scratches. I had never been a talented artist, which would have been convenient. A better reason for sloth. Was it even the same conductor? I assumed this logically impossible, yet there he was every time, the whisper of a smile and a white beard blowing past us.

The trains did interrupt movies and TV shows. At first we would pause and wait for them to pass before recalling who was trying to kill who. But eventually we accepted the noise as a kind of contribution, a way to emphasize emotional crescendos or skip over useless dialogue. These moments became fate, part of the universe’s design.

The trains intensified sex. The first time we fucked in the apartment, Gregory and I laid back afterward and stared at the ceiling, each of us breathless, emptied and unwound. While the world flashed swiftly just outside the window in thunderous noise, we were moving with each other, our own sound absorbed in the music of the train. We began to hold back, try not to come before the train’s arrival, wanting some auditory parallel with our own. We were disappointed when the alignment didn’t work. Eventually sex felt more about the train, our attention only half on the other person’s body, our ears piqued and desperately listening for some roar far off in the distance.

My networking coffees dried up. I spent less and less time searching for work. The majority of my day was in front of our massive windows, occupying myself there in order to be present, to witness the trains. I read books in an uncomfortable corner, overwatered the succulents. All trying to be closer to this phenomenon we had absorbed, the conductor, the light and sound and low reverberations he brought. I grew suspicious, imagined it all differently. Was it scheduled with us, the way the trains came at perfect moments, giving form to our lives? Or were we shaping around them, molding ourselves to fit the trains?

I invented stories about where they were going, what all the cargo was for. How the conductor spent his Saturdays. The tracks sped east for a time before suddenly diverting south, continuing past the border, over the Panama Canal, through the Amazon, down to Tierra del Fuego. This is where the conductor lived. Every week he traversed two continents, bringing mercury and sulfuric acid and liquid nitrogen to scientists, delivering danger to keep us all safe and ticking. On Saturdays he sat out on a bluff overlooking the ocean spray, sipped beer and lounged in his chair, let the waves lull him to sleep.

Sometimes the conductor came from India, traversed the arctic ice sheet. Sometimes he delivered live animals, mythical creatures that beat their wings and clawed at the edges of their containers. He was 200 years old, driving them since the first trains. Born with them. The stories were infinite, a way to pass time while I waited for the real thing to come by. All the little games you play with yourself to stay alive.

My phone vibrated against the kitchen counter. It was hours later that I picked it up and listened to the voicemail. One of the networking contacts had come through. I was offered a job, marketing for a local environmental advocacy group. The pay was decent, the work gratifying. But as the voicemail ended my fingers moved on their own, deleted the message and set the phone down. I watched the floor for a moment, unsure what was happening. Then I returned to my corner, the uncomfortable reading nook against those great, glorious windows that let a little too much light in.

The weight difference between a train and a car is like an elephant crushing a soda can. The front grill of the engine is called the pilot, also known as the cowcatcher. This prevents an animal or person—when struck—from crunching beneath the wheels, causing derailment. Instead the body is flung upward, sailing in the air, twitching above the cars as they safely pass.

The trains continued to pulse through our lives, though we were living them apart. Gregory was busy chasing the latest crime statistics at all hours. I spent more and more time watching, feeling the rhythm of the cars pulse through the wood floors, up my legs and into the rest of me. A buzzing sensation carried to the bone. I’d briefly been telling him the truth, pursuing real employment. But it was back to lying again, quick snippets about applications, promising leads, interviews. Gregory would sigh and say “It’s okay. You don’t have to feel bad. I know it’s tough out there.”

Several months into the lease the landlord slipped a note under the door. The trains would be stopping. Someone had been in violation of safety codes, the builders or the transport companies. Lawyers had gotten involved. It was decided that traffic would be diverted to another line. We read the letter together. At the bottom was a short paragraph explaining that—what with the unsightly locomotives out of the picture—the rent would soon be raised.

We decided to break our lease, move out immediately. While packing our things, Gregory asked me why I didn’t take the environmental advocacy job. He’d run into the contact at a bakery, been questioned about it. “What have you been doing all this time?” His neck turned red and splotchy. But I had no clear answer, just looked out the window, tried to keep all the muscles and skin of my face still. The succulents were all there in a row, long dead, rotten shadows of their old selves. Tears rippled at the edge of Gregory’s eyes. But he never liked to cry, pulled them back into their ducts. He began arranging his own things, separately and with care.

I couldn’t stay in the apartment. Besides not affording the new rent, the walls radiated silence that felt heavy and clammy on the skin. I missed them both. I missed it all, wondered what had really become of me as I shut the door to the place for the last time. They really were fantastic windows.

Since then I’ve been couch surfing, counting on the generosity of old friends until it runs out. Lying on old sofas and air mattresses and blankets stretched across a floor. Sleep is hard to come by, but when I do the dreams are vivid. The conductor is coming for me, a wisp of beard covering him like a dark cloud. I’m on the tracks, struck and lifted high by the cowcatcher, but it’s not painful at all. It’s a beautiful sight, an enormous line of cars like a rope leading into the past, stretching off and over the horizon.

Caleb Tankersley is the author of the chapbook Jesus Works the Night Shift. You can find his work in CarveThe Cimarron ReviewPuerto del SolSycamore Review, and other magazines. He is the Managing Editor for Split/Lip Press and lives in Seattle.