The car isn’t routinely maintenanced. It is never booked or reserved. Its passengers never disembark. No engineer can remember coupling or decoupling it. I certainly can’t. No conductor ever passes through or punches a ticket. The car is there and not there, depending on the level of your attention. One thing is certain – it’s along for every journey.
Each occupant is a man, and each man wears a hat, the same hat – of that much I’m sure. Each is reading a paper. The time of day or night doesn’t matter at all. Their attention never wavers, and the rustle of pages never ceases. They turn them, crease them, fold them, unfold them, but they read continually. Some move their lips, but all move their eyes and never shift them away from the page. I’ve walked through the car, and you can cough in a man’s face, but he’ll just keep reading. They don’t sleep, they don’t call for coffee or stand and ask for the toilet. All they do is read.
As they scan the print, the words also never run out. The white newsprint never turns yellow, and the sections never come to an end. The lights in the car never dim and, to my knowledge, no one has ever replaced a bulb. The one thing that does change is the edition. That changes continually, for each man, like days on the calendar. It changes as the days change, in fact.
At the front of the car, the days are younger and, if you look over a shoulder, you’ll see events ten or even twenty years past. The end of the war. The beginning of peace. Stand in the middle of the car, and the papers are closer to right now. Problems with the economy. Celebrity gossip. Go farther back and, of course, the words describe things to come. Dark things. Awful things. Things that aren’t awful by themselves, but awful in that they happen over and over and over again, in a manner of speaking.
It’s those things that haunt me. I couldn’t help myself. I had to look. You’d have done the same. Who wouldn’t want to know what lies in store, if only who wins the World Series, or who is the next president. And that’s the thing. There is no next president, no more World Series. I’ve pulled the car for years. I’ve pulled it on so many hauls, I stopped thinking about it so much. It has a way with your mind. You’re pulling time, and time is fleeting, even in the memory. It’s hard to remember from day to day, hour to hour, that the car is there.
And then I had the bright idea. The idea that comes when the company taps you on the shoulder and says you’re better off with early retirement, because there aren’t so many routes any more. There’s just no need to keep going down the same track when there’s all that sky, and jets can keep up with things so much better. You don’t get much for a pension any more. The new guys don’t get a pension at all. I guess I’m a dinosaur.
Maybe we’re all dinosaurs soon enough. The train too – it’s been in service since October 1943. I figured I’d make a little bet, maybe a big one, just some extra padding to help me get a better place, settle in, get really old. So, I was looking at the paper, my own paper, and I remembered the car. It took me several hours to find it again, even though it was never disconnected from the train. I kept forgetting and going back to the engine, and there’d be my newspaper, and I have the same idea again, and then go looking again. I did find it, finally, on one of those tries – I couldn’t tell you how many times I walked back and forth.
The men were still there. I wonder now if they’re actually the same man, just a little bit changed as you walk from one end of the car to the other – they’re the same man at different times. The pages were still turning. The papers were all on different dates than before, but the lineup was still the same, so I went toward the back. And that’s when I saw it, over one of their shoulders. The end of the railroad. I thought it made sense, and it serves the company right. But I kept walking down the aisle, and I noticed something else. All the pages of all the papers had the same headline from there on back.
The men kept turning the pages, but the dates never it made it past the time when, it finally dawned on me, the car would stop, be taken off the track, along with the rest of the train, and that would be its last journey. I’ve given this some thought. See it never occurred to me to write it down before. And even though I can’t seem to find my way back aboard the car, I know it’s there. I think when the train comes to a stop, so does everything else. I think the world ends on that day.
They gave me my last check. I was supposed to clean out my locker and go live the rest of my life, but I didn’t see the point. I just left everything for someone else to find. I already know the clock is winding down on the railroad, and on me – I’m getting old. But what if it’s winding down on the world, too? What if everything just stops, just stops moving, and every moment after that is the same moment, and there’s nothing else again ever? What if the end of the world comes with the end of time, the end of this time – the time we’ve come to know? What if everything just retires from the universe, and it all stops rolling, like a movie that finishes on a freeze frame?
I don’t guess it matters what I’d bet on, at this point. I don’t guess it matters much to me anyway. I don’t know when it’s happening. It’s been months. I’m getting a steady small check. At what point are they pulling the train from the line? When does the car stop rolling down the track? My ninth grade English teacher would call that a metaphor for anything you wanted it to be – life, thought, existence – something of your own, something universal. I guess if it’s a metaphor, we’ll know soon enou