Journal: Heat lightning

After ten hours on the mic, using every tool we had -- humor, innuendo, confession, statistic -- to inspire our fans to give money to this most crucial of causes, a few of us took a break and wandered outside.  The studio had grown stuffy, packed as it was with supporters and platters of food and Sam's homebrew kegs standing straight and shiny and quiet in the corner like a pair of robotic butlers in sleep cycle.  My first few steps were stiff and staggering.  The tendons in my ankles refused to give fully, and my joints cracked as I moved.  My abdomen burned; I'd had to hold myself perched on the edge of the stool to reach the mic at just the right angle to be heard.  Hours of talking amounted to the best core workout I'd ever done.

In the parking lot and alley we reveled quietly in the pleasure of standing.  We stretched and breathed the clear air; Mike showed me his new tattoo and I slapped it and called it perfect.  The sun was just past setting.  In an isolated patch of western sky it flamed neon pink beneath an anvil of cloud, delineating in dark purple lines the upper ragged edges.  We talked of things that didn't matter.  Train after train passed, just yards away so that each time the people still in the studio watching the blog-a-thon live had to scramble to shut the doors so the sound wouldn't interfere with the feed.  And each time a train passed, we would wander, hypnotized, to the edge of the lot and stand looking down at its progress through the dusk.  The slowblink flash of the crossing lights lulled us.

"I love trains," I said, a little shy, a confession.  "I don't know why."

Becky, smart and efficient as always, proposed a reason or two.  I said, "I think I love them for a dumber reason.  I love them for some kind of awful pretentious literary-writer metaphor reason, but I haven't quite figured out what it is yet."

But I have.  I am just bad at articulation.  I love their contradictory nature.  At rest they are mute and obliging, seeming as tame as oxen.  In motion they are ferocious, unstoppable, with nothing to hold them to their implausibly tiny rails but the force of their own momentum.  And the sound of their horns -- that great, double-note, open-throated blaring.  I spent half my childhood in a town where the freight trains could be heard always, moaning in the background, the mood music of happiness, adolescent heartbreak, the suspended moment of consciousness before sleep.  I slept, as a girl, with my bedroom window open no matter what the season so that I could better hear the distant trains crying, even in my dreams.

Becky undid a little of their magic -- in this time and place, at least -- by telling us that the white shed beside the tracks was actually a huge sound system, and it played the train's horn for it so that the wealthier neighborhoods just south of us wouldn't be disturbed.  "You can tell it's a recording because there's no Doppler effect."  It made me sad to think of muzzled trains, trains with their tongues cut out.  Made even muter and ever more obsolete.  But one, the only engine headed southbound, did bend its call around us, moving so slowly the effect was barely noticeable.  "Ha," I said, to Becky, to the white shed.

The anvil of cloud had expanded and stretched, spreading arms to span the fundus of Puget Sound.  It was a looming purple face in the twilight, but directly above us the sky was still clear, though starless in the lightshadow of Tacoma.  The air smelled of warmth and sea water, of ions and old steel.  Soon lightning strikes fell to the south, great forks leaping from ground to sky; and in one particular patch of cloud across the water a persistent air current threw, every few seconds and for a half hour or more, great flickers of citrus-bright light, deep within the heart of the thunderhead, an illumination as regular and vital as a pulse.  We watched it in silence, exhausted from our long day, weighed with the near-futility of our cause, charged and pulsing with the imperative we all felt, to succeed, to make right, to make a difference.