A guide for backstage reading

Yepikhodov: How nice it is to play the mandolin.

Dunyasha: That’s not a mandolin. It’s a guitar.

Yepikhodov: To a man crazed with love it’s a mandolin.

I started to develop a philosophy for backstage reading while working on a production of Sweeney Todd in Stockton, California. Reading Jack Kerouac didn’t do the trick. It wasn’t that it had me too often escaping to the dusk falling on the vines in Tracy, or the rainy night slices of apple pie with ice cream in Iowa, or the night that blew itself out with Denver jazz. It was that there wasn’t enough to hold on to. Only one passage: when Dean foresees the days when Sal will grow older and “sit in parks,” and Sal, feeling old, erupts at Dean, who leaves his uneaten plate of food steaming on the table and spends “exactly five minutes” outside the restaurant before returning to explain that he had been crying. The reconciliation scene that follows is one of the finest I’ve ever read.

Backstage books need to wrestle with us for our attention. They can’t just be mirrors to our mindfulness: we have mirrors all around us, and we’re constantly looking at them. Just as we are looking at the door swinging open at us, or the actors and actresses running shirtless down the hallway, or the wigs springing out of their pins, or the mugs of tea being spilled in a shock of steam, or the sweat melting our mics and our glittery makeup off our faces.

Being in the Sweeney ensemble was a costume-changeless vacuum of “Are they still singing ‘Kiss Me’ who turned down the monitors?” and “Which swing your razor is it this time?”

Under these conditions, I needed a book to sink my teeth into–and my heart.

This time around, I’ve been reading Chekov’s “The Cherry Orchard.” It had me from the first stage directions: “A room which is still known as ‘the nursery.’ ” It had me with the first line: “The train’s arrived, thank God. What time is it?”–isn’t it always with the Russians a story of what time the train is arriving? And by Mrs. Ranevsky’s entrance–even before I could gaze out at the frozen cherry blossoms under the moonlight, or breathe in the orchard air, or hear the birds singing–I could feel the sleepiness of a midnight journey in their bodies and smell the coffee: “I’ll just drink this coffee, then we’ll all go. Thank you, my dear. I’ve got used to coffee, I drink it day and night.” And I could taste the salt of tears.

In the interest of not spoiling the ending, I will say nothing more of “The Cherry Orchard” other than to say I have been afraid to read another Chekhov play for about a week. (As I said, it had me.)

I wish I could talk about all the books that carried me through other recent productions, but I know that I cannot offer a reading list that will appeal to everyone. (In honesty, most folk who hang out backstage are more interested in telling the whole green room what show they are doing next or singing the songs from a different show or actually interrupting our reading to ask us what show we are going to do next.)

Nevertheless, no one should have to brave a backstage experience alone. Here is a set of guiding questions. Here are all my hard-earned principles. May they provide the direction you need the next time you have to get through that “poignant” scene at the start of Act Two that gets longer by about two minutes every time you look at the clock.

When choosing a backstage book, ask yourself:
#1. Is it something you want to pick up? This will protect you from staring at the flicker of the fluorescent lights for twenty minutes or watching your castmate change while he tells you what he ate for dinner that night. It might be a challenge, but you need to find a book that you think will be more interesting than what your castmate ate for dinner.

#2. Is it something you can easily put down? It can’t be a page turner. It can be something by G. K. Chesterton or Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Something where you have no idea what’s going on anyways and–like the feeling you have when on a spree in an art museum–you just drift from image to image thinking, “It’s all so beautiful! Yes. Yes, that! This is it! Thank you five minutes to places.”

#3. Will it make others more interested in you? Sometimes this is positive–and who doesn’t bring a book with a colorful cover to their early rehearsals to help spark conversations with people they are too afraid to approach? But be careful, because your backstage reading can be self-defeating. I remember the time I was trying to finish Balzac’s La Cousine Bette during one matinee performance and everyone was like, “You read French?” and all possible sarcasms aside, all I wanted to say was, “I’m just trying to be freed. Please let me finish.” I take Balzac that seriously. No one else.

#4. Does it pair well with your show? The answer should be “No.” Not literally. Don’t believe me if I told you I was reading Virginia Woolf in an effort to preserve the socio historical consciousness of the 1910s when I stepped off stage. This was for a production of Mary Poppins. But believe me if I told you I had picked Mrs. Dalloway because of its language, both mind-bending and commonplace, its glimpses into the darknesses of the human soul along with its flashes of color, its climaxes that felt dizzying but at the same time like a gulp of fresh air.

I can’t say that every show will be like this. But, like a fine wine pairs well with the meal about to be brought out–we can’t see it yet but we know that it is coming, the steam is rising, our stage manager has told us the house is open, already the orchestra is tuning, and the voices of the gathering crowd are beginning to buzz in the monitors–the books we choose to read should help us savor the show we are about to feast on, with the people we will feast with, for hours on end, every night.

Slices of Onions, Part 2

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On Saturday, for the second time this month, I thought of my brother when chopping up an onion and texted him a line from an unwritten poem about onions and some theme of love. It feels like the time to share these lines, and what they have become, more broadly. This time I won’t even attribute what is said in the back rooms of my mind when I’m craving breakfast to the writings of French author, as I have been known to do on occasion. For, as the French say, “Occupe-toi de tes oignons.” Mind your own onions. Yes, they really say this. And I am taking it to heart.

The Blues

I could fall in love faster than I can cut up an onion
And when I hold the slices of my heart
I could cry more too
I could cry more too

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After the Blues

Last night, I cut up an onion, and I didn’t feel any sting in my eyes. No tears flowed. I imagine this is what it was like for you when you broke my heart.

But did you still put it in the sauce–this onion, your clean work of five minutes? The light of the end of the afternoon coming through your kitchen, did you stand over your stove and empty, with one pass of the back of your knife across the cutting board, the pieces of onion into the pan? Or did you pick them apart one at a time, the roughly cut ones, the thick wedges, the slivers too tiny to withstand the heat, the cones and the spirals, and place them with your fingers into the burning oil?

Maybe it was too late in the day. Maybe it was already too dark for you to see the rush of steam rising from the pan. But you could hear the hissing because you stepped back from each flash of oil, for seconds at a time, when you lowered each new piece into the heat. Still your hands got pricked, didn’t they? For precious too many minutes, you made this music of singeing then waiting then singeing again until all the slices of onion were in the pan and the burner had brought the oil and onions to a gentle hum.

You flicked on the light. The fleshier cuts were translucent and already turning brown. The thinner ones were crisping at the edges. You could feel the glow of warmth on your cheeks as you gazed into the pan, now close enough almost to feel the heat in your eyes. Could you?

You stepped back to the counter and returned with handfuls of diced garlic and shavings of ginger, which you stirred in with the onions. This is the part of the recipe that everyone asks for but that everyone knows is a secret. In another bowl were freshly cut chiles, and you added them to the pan, sprinkling them with salt, with pepper, and with lime. And soon even the back rooms of the house were filled with the perfume of spices, and filled too, when you turned back up the heat, with the sounds of sobbing: the gaspings, and then again the sighs, coming from the onions, the garlic, the chiles, and the ginger, in ruffles of steam.

I wish that I could have been with you to smell this sadness, to taste with you this love we shared one last time.

Slices of Onions, Part 1

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I remember listening to a news story a couple years back about Japanese families returning to their homes in villages harmed by the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011. For years, homeowners were only allowed one visit per month, and this not an overnight stay. They would use this time mostly to tend their gardens and take care of their houses.

This feels like the makings of a beautiful anime. It could show moments from before and after the Fukushima accident in the life of a family. It could show how generations of a family grow together and grow separately. It could show how we recover from tragedy and how we maintain our families in the loss of our home as it used to be.

My brother says that if you were writing a Japanese anime, you would have to start with the visual style. He says that this, rather than the verbal language, is the foundation of anime. I agree with him, but if I were to write a Japanese anime, I would write something like this. Here is my latest exploration of genre. Think of this as a scherzo. 

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UNCLE: This is none of your concern.

JIROU: Isn’t it uncle?

[Steam rises from UNCLE’S bowl of rice. He grunts. JIROU sits in silence.]

[Rays of sun fall on YOUNGER UNCLE and YOUNGER JIROU in their vegetable garden before the accident. YOUNGER JIROU struggles to pull up a weed stalk. YOUNGER UNCLE watches on with a smile of delight before placing one of his large hands over his nephew’s and the other further down at the root of the weed stalk. Together, they pull it up. It glints in the sun. YOUNGER JIROU’s eyes fill with water. His hands sting. But then he looks up at his uncle, his eyes shimmering through his tears with wonder. It really is a large weed stalk.]

YOUNGER UNCLE: In France, they have a saying. Occupez-vous de vos oignons.

YOUNGER JIROU: What does it mean?

[YOUNGER JIROU beats the weed stalk against the ground, casting off chunks of earth.]

YOUNGER UNCLE: It means, “Mind your onions.” It is, I suppose, what a woman might say to her neighbor when she catches her listening to her conversation over the garden fence. It means, “This is none of your concern.” Go back to your own garden.

[YOUNGER JIROU knocks more pieces of dirt off the weed stalk with increasing violence.]

YOUNGER UNCLE: But of all the plants in our garden, there is one that we should tend to with the greatest care.

[YOUNGER JIROU is distracted. YOUNGER UNCLE tugs at the root end of the weed stalk.]

YOUNGER UNCLE: One is the sweetest to taste. One is the most useful, when we are sick, for healing. When we are hungry, one is the most sure to fill us up with goodness. Jirou, do you not want to know what this plant is?

[He tickles YOUNGER JIROU. YOUNGER JIROU giggles. YOUNGER JIROU, curious, looks up into his uncle’s eyes.]

YOUNGER UNCLE: I am talking about the heart.

[JIROU grows silent. Gray clouds appear in the sky. Rain is coming.]

YOUNGER UNCLE: Above all else, we must occupy ourselves with the heart.

[YOUNGER UNCLE takes the weed stalk in his hands as YOUNGER JIROU releases it.]

YOUNGER UNCLE: If weeds take up root and choke the heart, even if the garden is filled with color and alive with the buzz of insects and replenished by its seasons of rain, even if we have all these, if we do not let the heart grow…

[He looks up at the sky]

YOUNGER UNCLE: …there is nothing left.

In honor of Saint Valentine

I get phrases stuck in my head.

Lines from poems that are unwritable. Bad moments of prayer. Bob Dylan lyrics. Psalms. Just glimpses. Just the words.

I was telling my friends today about the phrase I repeat, “I want slices of mango and avocado,” a line from a very sensual poem, a statement of something that she, that we all–let’s face it–profoundly desire.

But there’s another line I’ve been carrying with me. If I had to write a Valentine’s Day card, I think I would include it in the note. In the interest of being more romantic, I offer here a glimpse of my decidedly unromantic life.

I went on a sort of date once with a friend in college. It was the end of her senior year, and I was a sophomore. When we got in the car, she said, “You should feel special. I shaved my legs for you today.” I didn’t realize it in that moment–sitting in the car, parked, the spring wind still feeling cold in the trees, too early for fireflies, music playing in the grove–but that was the most provocative thing anyone had ever said to me. I did feel special but I guess I didn’t feel that special.

Tonight I broke the spell. My roommate asked me what I was doing later. Later. “What are you doing later tonight?” he said. He brought out a Chimay beer. “I thought we’d drink this. I’ve been saving this since you gave it to me.”

“I gave it to you?”

“Yes, when I drove you to the airport one time last year, you gave it to me as a gift.”

“Yes, I vaguely remember that now.” Then I said, “You should feel special. You’re the one person I’ve given a gift to in two years, and I’ve had a lot of people drive me to the airport.”

Sometimes I can’t tell if I’ve broken the spell or just doubled the force of the incantation. Blues poetry works the same way. “I’ll always be in love, it hurts me so bad. I’ll always be in love, it hurst me so bad.” Not demystifying but adding another layer of enchantment.

I’m still waiting for him to get back so we can drink that beer.

This marriage

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Sometimes when our friends get married–and I’m getting the negatives out of the way first–they act like their wedding is the first wedding we have ever attended.

“Now the couple,” they say, “would like to exchange rings. Rings are a symbol of their covenant. They will wear them on their fingers.”

“Vows are promises,” they explain. “The response is ‘I do.’ “

“Marriage involves love,” they tell us.

Sometimes when I go to weddings, I wonder, “How old do they think we all are?” And we all know that they know we are not children, right?, because they didn’t invite our kids to the ceremony. Still, I wonder.

Nevertheless, the wedding I attended this weekend awakened me, taught me something about the realness of marriage. And I was pleased and surprised.

Maybe it was because of the warm sun, visions of sparkling water from a grassy Santa Barbara bluff, the humming of cello music, some good cheese, candles and Persian poetry, the book of Numbers, really, the Avett brothers–American millennials can throw some good weddings; maybe it was loneliness: I had just written a poem about my drive down the night before, reimagining a meeting with someone in the concrete doorway of a Highway 101 rest stop bathroom as sheltering with them in their tenderness from the loneliness of the night. (Hey, I never said I wasn’t trashy.) And the full moon was rising. It must have had to do with that.

I had the idea that this marriage was a tree and that there are many jobs we must take on to care for our two friends. Some tend to the roots. Are they healthy? Are they reaching down into the almost unspeakable mystery, the darkness, the silence of the earth to find the water they need? Some prune its branches. Some pick and feast on its fruit, and others wait for the fruit to fall. Some lift their eyes wide through the leaves to the sky and bask in its shade. Some crunch on the fall leaves or count its buds then its blossoms in the spring. Someone, in the coldness of winter takes a shovel (so my grandfather would say–I know so little about caring for trees) and relieve the one branch that seems to bend a little lower under each season of snow.

And I felt that in some way when we tend to this marriage of our two friends we tend to every marriage. And that truly we tend to marriage itself–that tree in the resurrection garden whose gardener is also our savior who frees us. He welcomes us to walk with him in the garden paths, to participate in its rushing fragrance, to feed ourselves in its sweetness, to celebrate in its splashes of sunlight, to rest in its shades and its softness, to quiet ourselves in its morning dews and its evening hushes, to shelter ourselves together in its abundance.

And it is not the thought that messes us up, not that this is the only tree or the best tree or the most holy tree–only one tree can have this name, and it is the one our Lord was killed on, on which he suffered his agony–but that this marriage is the blessed tree that, together with all of its seed, strains towards what it hopes to symbolize–the marriage of our Lord with his people, of our time with God’s, of heaven with earth, of the river, the feast, and the city, Jerusalem, of the healing of the nations, in the last day and in that final and first new morning.

The worst musical moments of traditional Christmas: a list

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I’m just gonna jump right in.

50. There’s a moment in “Joy to the World,” my favorite Christmas hymn, when the whole congregation, the whole choir, and every voice track in the whole studio sings, without reflection, the lyrics–at once dazzlingly unsingable and gorgeously heartfelt:

The glo-or-ree-ees uhhhh-uh-uv

followed immediately by,

His righ-igh-tiou-us-neh-eh-ess.

Yes, without time even to take a breath, we force every last dotted rhythm of “his righteousness” through our vocal chords. In this kind of music, there are no winners.

49. “With th’angelic hosts proclaim.” It’s like we’re not reading it right. This and every apostrophe we find in hymnody–“ev’ry,” “heav’n,” “fortress’s’rGodabulw’rkneverfailing.” But this “Hark the Herald” example is egregious because the syntax of other languages–Italian, French, maybe more–governs the familiar article-apostrophe contraction in the song of everyday. I would have expected someone so revolutionary as a Methodist writer to accept once and for all that English is not like its forebears and give up trying to follow their rules. I would have expected hymnbooks to recognize that all human beings are musical and that if we can read music (or read, or share a hymnal, or stay awake in a pew) we can omit syllables to fit a line.

But these are minor cases, blemishes, compared to what follows.

48. The lyrics to “The First Noel.”

47. The lyrics to “The First Noel.”

46. The lyrics to “The First Noel.”

45. The lyrics to “The First Noel.”

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43. The lyrics to “The First Noel.”

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39. The lyrics to “The First Noel.”

38. The lyrics to “The First Noel.”

37. The lyrics to “The First Noel.”

36. The lyrics to “The First Noel.”

35. The lyrics to “The First Noel.”

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33. The lyrics to “The First Noel.”

32. The lyrics to “The First Noel.”

31. The lyrics to “The First Noel.”

30. The lyrics to “The First Noel.”

29. The lyrics to “The First Noel.”

28. The lyrics to “The First Noel.”

27. “The angel did say.”

26. Not “the angel said” but “the angel did say.” And it gets worse.

25. “Was to certain poor shepherds.” There are (at least) three possibilities. First, there are many poor shepherds in the world and in the Judean countryside, and the angel did say to only certain of them. Another explanation arises from the impulse to give some insight into the character of the shepherds. They were poor–what else? Well, for one, they were certain. Not quite certain or very certain. But certain. Certain poor shepherds. It’s a possibility. And the third I dismiss but I can’t disregard because when I was a child I interpreted the line as the creation of a knew transitive verb: to certain. “The angel did say”–so I heard the line–“(in order) to certain poor shepherds in fields where they lay (about the coming of the Messiah, finding him in Bethlehem, in cloths, in a manger, and this will be a sign, and on earth peace).” It almost works.

24. “On a cold winter’s night”–brace yourselves–“that was so deep.”

23. “So deep.”

22. This is the kind of thing that we say today when a friend makes a particularly truthful comment or that we never quite believe when we try to be poetic and someone says it of us. It is not something we say in any kind of poetry or songwriting. If we were in first grade and brought home a picture we had drawn of that cold and starry Christmas night but that included this caption, our parents would be embarrassed. They would not have put it on the fridge.

21. And this line has been accepted. Decade after decade.

20. Which gets me thinking: is this the world’s worst writing or the world’s worst translation? Some Latin hymn maybe? Thomas Merton decried the bad translation of liturgical texts, calling them “transliterations of the French.” The lyrics of this song are so bad, this could almost explain everything wrong with it.

19. But then I got on wikipedia. And look at the history: 1823 as the first known publication date.

18. England. 1823.

17. So we know it’s not a Latin carol or Old French. It’s not even some wayward carol from the 12th century, some lost sheep making its way through Christmas as this newly codified language called English began to emerge like a retrograde sun in the western hills. Something we need Seamus Heaney to interpret for us.

16. This wasn’t even a song from the 18th-century book of carols that we trounce through with joy each Christmas. We had “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.” We had Handel. We had the inspired Charles Wesley canon. And that’s just songwriting. We had Keats, Shelley, the second edition of Lyrical Ballads. Was this simply–and painstakingly so–a song meant to teach young children the Christmas story, picking the right parts, clipping their edges, and then pressing the folds into clunky rhyming lines?

15. Did the folk who inhabit our image of 19th-century London–we see them stepping into church for Mass, coats and hats on, songs in their hearts, we watch them returning home from the shops clutching parcels with bright ribbons, copies of The Pickwick Papers in hand–did the whole of respectable English, human, adult society simply shrug and say, “Oh well?”

14. In fact quite literally they did. Get on wikipedia. The Cornish songbook gives the chorus “O well, O well, O well, O well.” You can’t make this stuff up.

13. Cornwall, keeping it classy since the invention of the pasty. And, like, game hens.

12. But then, and perhaps first–and maybe this is the whole point–we listen to the music.

Noel, noel, noel, noel
Born is the King of Israel.

11. How is it that the very words of this song, if we take them at their word, will exacerbate and aggravate, will frustrate us at every turn, will ridicule our conceptions of childhood and Christmas and angels and stars and the robustness of an English literary culture, but that the music, if we listen–and we cannot help be listen–will radiate in our hearts and in our consciousness?

10. The music builds. First, there is the suggestion of good tidings. Shadows and whispers. There’s still darkness. The stiffness of slowly moving centuries in our muscles. Each layer being softly placed upon the next, the song grows. If the song soothes, it is not the large-scale events we recover from here, the mass destructions, brutality and cruelties. This music–this song–was never meant to help us respond to this.

9. But as we sing “Noel,” we hear rise within us the pure and full-throated lament of our daily miseries, quick agonies, friends lost, blank pages, loneliness, the same fears. We will sing the four glowing words, the same Noel, sung first, and then repeated three times, until we are freed.

8. And the bones of the song, the words, may haunt us, but we keep singing, and our lament fills the skies in the flesh and blood of music. The angels, if we follow our vision, have a different substance. Maybe theirs is starlight, “hope’s feathers.” A returning, the first new stirring. And as we join in, our sad song reaches–it does not strain–into joy. We hear the clamor of massbells, smell the sheltering of incense, feel the tenderness of a community awakened. The beautiful feet of the psalm’s messenger, the sprig of an olive branch. We can hear, after the famine, at last, the first hush of rain.

Born is the King of Israel

And all flesh will see it together.

7. And we learn that it is no longer the dark and the cold

6.  but the full singing, the lush notes–a vibrating reed playing on a column of air, so high the last “Noel” soars

5. a crying together with one accord

4. which is, truly, so deep.

3. “So deep.”

2. So

1. Deep.

My romanticism: a trip to Merced

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This break I’m going full Romantic poet.

It crept up on me.

There was a train ride. I was disappointed by the lack of fog. I sat backwards-oriented as the car glided out of the station, leaving Stockton for the memorable names of towns like Turlock, Modesto (where one can smoke for five minutes), Merced. I had the phrase “rapidly vanishing countryside” stuck in my head, and the sensation of barreling through farmland, rushes, meadows, streams, trailer parks and the like, a hundred changing vistas, glimpses of sun-kissed hills, furrows in our common humanity. But I was at this point still reading Virginia Woolf. I had only a historical interest in these things. What would Wordsworth think about the trains? Or Dostoevsky’s Russians? Not “Whence come ye? To what end?” I couldn’t feel the tracks in my bones. Not yet.

Coffee helped my mind flower. Once in Merced, Bethany and I had three cups. We put the baby down for a nap, and we cracked open our phones. Who was it that mentioned Victor Hugo in the first place? In a breath we were encircled by first lines. Stars were points of gold visible through dark branches. Night anointed the solitary traveler with its thick oil. The morning laughed itself to tears on the rose petals.

We went for a walk. (Check plus.) Carrying the young Ezekiel, (Another. Am I making the grade?) I pointed out a fallen leaf and attempted to draw a lesson. (Here the poet professor makes a faint underline and leans forward in his chair. The familiar creak. The inquisitive puff of tobacco smoke). “Leaves are the shape of tears,” I told baby Zeek, “and with reason.” Finding this lesson too harsh, though Bethany quickly pointed out that yes, winter is a time of mourning and dying and Zeek acknowledged that the leaf was indeed red–he might actually have said “truck,” we remembered that leaves can also resemble stars, perfect circles, and those silver fish that sometimes fling themselves in bright schools out over the crests of waves, arching their terrifically frigid bodies in giddy resolve because they too can rise and fall like Mother water, that cyclic medium within which they can hope to paint their lives. But what are they called? I’ll never remember their name.

“Leaves perhaps,” added Bethany, “are the fish of the sky.”

Here the poet wakes with a jolt from that great reverie–Reflection–and he makes some indecipherable but undeniably derisory comment on the margins of our hopes, spilt ink on the manuscript of our daydreams. Better for us to have included our last line in a footnote.

But I redeemed myself on the train home. Again finding myself backwards-oriented, this time returning to some distant home (remember I’m a Romantic poet now), I saw the mountains. We forget them when we trudge the valley. Un gran sierra nevada said the forgotten warrior between campaigns. The violence remains, we can’t forget it: sufferings, slaughters, from Mendocino through Madera. But so does the poetry. We name them together. Something we still need to be redeemed of.

There was a man across the aisle from me. He had the word “fuck” tattooed in cursive on his cheek. “How’s it going, bro?” he asked.

“I’m just looking at the mountains,” I said.

For three long breaths we stared out the window together at the mountains. White. Sunlit. Imposing sentinels but witnesses of all lightness.

The train hurtled on.