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A Dry Vapor of Shame

by Douglas Page 2010 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED That morning we were standing near Tunnel 2, not far from Bodfish Road, when he spotted two men approaching. I didnt notice him pull the gun out. Not long after leaving Highway 58 above Caliente and dropping down into the remote rolling foothills of the Tehachapi Mountains the railroad tracks appear. Train lovers consider this part of Californias vast Kern County sacred terrain. These tracks are the main line out of Bay Area ports and the fertile San Joaquin Valley, kept busy carrying Americas salads and sedans eastward. Mecca, the famous Tehachapi Loop, lies nearby, a few miles up the grade. Here, lower down, on the western slopes, the tracks meander on a steady climb from the valley floor through brown bunchgrass cattle ranches before encountering loftier hogback barrens. During the early months of spring this corridor alters its complexion to vivid greens, washed with the wild orange of wind poppies and lavender tints of speckled fairyfan. The area is too remote to attract many visitors, but the devout are rewarded for their trouble. This applies especially to photographers. No matter what time of year, there is something exhilarating to rail fans about lying in wait with a camera by the tracks, composing a shot that exploits the contrast of nature and machine in their most marvelous dress perhaps at the entrance to a century-old stone tunnel or leaning out over the tracks as far as you dare above a road cut, trying for a different angle. For a season or two a decade ago, I enjoyed train sitting here with my brother. Wed rendezvous near his apartment in Tehachapi the night before, then leave at dawn, cameras and coolers stocked for a day in the bush. Outdoor photographers generally prefer morning light, when the angle of the sun is low and contrasts fresh. Sometimes our wives would join us. Other

times he and I would set out alone, the women choosing a controlled hike through the sanitary aisles of Target over another dusty adventure at the end of a dirt road. My brother was different then, still mostly garrulous and country hip, usually fun to be around, his approaching psychosis only a faint specter in the distance. He still had good days. Four years younger than me, he was also bigger, although prone at times to fatness. Hed earned more athletic awards in high school, married before I did, and fathered children before I did. I told him once it seemed like he was my older brother. We spoke almost daily and spent so much time together the wives sometimes felt they had each married both of us. We drank a little, smoked dope a little, and played the music loud, laughing at life and our good fortune. Then, one day he branched off into hard liquor and harder drugs, leaving me to my wine sipping, as he called it, and I lost him. Months passed, then years. He didnt come out. I decided to go in after him. Scotch. By then, the whiskey had already begun to erode his spirit, drawing as much out of him as he drew from the bottles, dissolving the best parts of him first, leaving a crust of anxious misery in their place. I suspect the same chirping colloquial wit that attracted people to him served also to mask an inner insecurity, possibly rooted in survivor guilt. As a Marine during the Vietnam War, while the rest of his infantry battalion, including his best friend Stan, went off to fight in the jungle, he was sent to the Marine base at Kaneohe, on Oahu, and for two years managed the toy department at the post exchange. While Stan dodged bullets and eventually died in combat, my brother sold Barbie dolls and hoola hoops to Marine wives. He was never able to reconcile the lurking notion that he had let his buddies down, that he had gotten no closer to the fighting than GI Joe action figures. The whiskey, most likely, medicated the regret. Over the years, he grew more and more reclusive, more than once finding a willing woman and disappearing into the woods of coastal Oregon or northern California for years at a time. There were the woods around Redding, then the woods on the Rogue River. This time it was Tehachapi. Usually, these lengthy bivouacs landed him in another detox. His abuse of whiskey cost him two marriages. When he finally got sober, after stern warnings from the doctor who stopped his abdominal bleeding the

last time, he had nowhere to go, no career to prevent insolvency, and moved back home, broken, at age 48, to inhabit his old bedroom at Moms house. No longer able to consume alcohol but still dogged by his demons, he turned to daily marijuana use. In Alcoholics Anonymous, this is known as marijuana-maintenance. I confronted him one time about this apparent sobrietal contradiction, after Id quit drinking and using myself. Im sober, he snapped. Marijuana was never my problem. He said the only requirement for AA membership was a desire to stop drinking. It dont say nothin bout dope, he said, making a stand. The implication was for me to mind my own bloody business. The chronic pot smoking lubricated his slide further from the mainstream of life, and further away from me. Mentally, the continual marijuana abuse first pollinated anxiety, then panic, and finally clinical paranoia a once-garrulous man, now grown reticent and uselessly suspicious. Politically, seduced by the spittle ragers of right-wing talk radio, he turned his back on the progressive politics we embraced together in the 60s. Once, when Ronald Reagan was running for governor of California, we handed the candidate some Teamster literature at the North Clairemont Womens Club in San Diego, to remind him he had once been a proud union president. My brother was with me the night in 1979 I carried a sign through a packed Escondido City Council chamber while the assembly was being addressed from the podium by a minister attempting to convince the council not to approve a cable companys application to bring cable television into the community, because cable means HBO and HBO means movies with bare-breasted women. A child could see this filth, this pornography, the preacher warned, waving a Bible as I shuffled slowly past the podium in front of the dais with a sign that read RELAX. ITS ONLY PUBIC HAIR. San Diegos CBS outlet on Channel 8 caught the incident for the 11 oclock news, but the local newspaper photographer missed it and asked me to walk through again. I refused. My brother cautioned him about managing the news. My brother is no longer available for these political drive-bys. I miss his company and support and resent his betrayal. He now rather enjoys shaking his reactionary politics

in my face. Before I stopped going to the trains with him, he liked to play the philistine rants of the Ayatollah Limbaugh on a portable radio during train sits, laughing when Id walk away. Its now been seven years since Ive seen him, but Ive heard from another sibling that his head is now shaved, in solidarity, I fear, with the racist right-wing lunatic fringe. The last time I went train sitting with him, early in 2001, his demon, the specter, was now dressed in his clothes, carrying a loaded gun. On previous train outings hed hinted at having a pistol with him. I thought he was joking. There were never any guns in our family, not since wed moved west many years earlier, when we were much younger. Dad had a snub-nosed .32 pistol he was supposed to carry when he worked for the Railway Post Office. But he never wore the holster and never fired the gun, not even for fun. He joked that he didnt know where the bullets were. I knew where they were. They were in the grip he carried on the road, the one that smelled of train soot and dirty socks, rolling loose in the corners on the bottom, right next to the gun. And, in the attic, on the kitchen end of the house, there was an old double-barrel 12-gauge shotgun that was almost too heavy for me to lift, left there, I presumed, by the grandfather whod built the place. My parents never knew that more than once Id snuck up into the attic from a step-ladder in the utility room, snapped those barrels in place, and attempted to lift the weapon high enough to draw a sighting out the east vent, toward the Williams back porch on the far side of the tomato patch. But my 9-year old arms were neither long enough nor strong enough to hold an aim. Its for protection, he said, of the gun in his pocket at the trains that day. From what? I wondered. Hell, here we were at the end of some wagon tracks, a mile or two from the road and seven miles from the highway, taking in new air from canvas deck chairs, sipping coffee, waiting for a train to photograph. We might have been the only people within 12 miles, and probably the safest. He gave me the rat face, as though Id made his case for him. I scoffed. What, have there been reports of old fat white men sodomized out here in the bunchgrass barrens?

Nope, an there aint gonna be, he said, patting his back pocket. I would have laughed, but some things just arent funny. Later, it hit me how tragic it was and how sad I felt to see my brother, once an all-city offensive and defensive lineman, reduced to a gun whacko, a quivering sociopath, so convinced of imminent attack that he thought he had to carry a loaded pistol to protect himself. I took it as further evidence of his growing psychic instability. That morning we were standing near the run-up to Tunnel 2, not far off Bodfish Road, when he spotted two men approaching 50-yards away, down track, carrying cameras and tripods. Calendar shooters, I said, watching then tramping along the crushed granite roadbed. My brother just stood there, silently. I didnt notice him pull the gun out. Mornin, I sang out when the men got closer. They looked at us, nodded once and hurried on up the tracks. Then it hit me. Theyd seen what I hadnt. My brother held the gun tightly against his right pants leg, morning sun glinting off its glossy barrel, finger on the trigger. When the photographers were far enough out of range I heard the double click of him uncocking the hammer. I felt a chill. I no longer knew this man. The mesmerizing scent of diesel soot and dusty sage vanished, subdued by a dry vapor of disappointment and shame. Now, I stalk trains alone, or with my wife, who enjoys reading or quilting in the morning sun while I wander the alluvion fields by the tracks, stirring new smells of sage while stalking a westbound coal train, with a camera and time on my hands. Unarmed. ####

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