What Was Lost in the Waning LightDusk enters the harbor like an uninvited party guest, sharply dressed but sinisterly unshaven, flashing smiles at windows glazed orange by the setting sun so that someone looking up the hillside from shore – retirees, let’s say, dragging a pair of corgis along the pier, or hard-boiled lonesome men dangling fishing poles, or kids clutching ice-cream cones on the verge of collapse – might mistakenly think in the fractional moment before their brains catch up to their senses that a hundred rectangular fires are smoldering among the firs.

But moments like these pass without our noticing, so quick are we to dismiss them as sensory glitches and move on to the next thing, which is that the sun has suddenly disappeared behind the mountains, it has punched a hole in the ocean and daylight is slowly draining through. In turn, sunlight reflecting off the windows is being replaced by lamplight or the light of flashing televisions, and the occasional shadowy figures seen behind the glass can do little to assuage a suspicion they can’t quite identify as they look down on the town below and try to make sense of all this strangely shifting light.

But enough about the light. It matters only to the extent that it obscures or reveals the objects around us, like the jogger’s new shoes, which are orange, though not the same kind of orange reflected in the windows on the hillside. The shoes’ orange is patently artificial, honed to perfection by a team of designers and tested in focus groups to maximize its intended effect, which is to embolden the shoes’ owner. It is the kind of orange that makes you believe you can win the Boston Marathon, makes you believe the days ahead are healthful and many-numbered.

Step after step in an orange blur the jogger’s feet clank down the pier’s metal grating as the masts of great boats glide by in the marina. Passing a toddler and her mother he thinks of his own young daughter, who recently forced him to choose a favorite color. Toddlers are funny that way. Neutrality is not an option and so he selected orange because it was his favorite color as a child, and also because he once read that orange was the least popular color among adults, and what could be better reasons for formalizing what would otherwise be an entirely arbitrary choice?

A freight train passes to the east, back toward the hillside. The jogger envisions ghosts each time he crosses the tracks. The first ghost is his dad’s dad’s dad’s dad, who hung himself from the rafters of a waterfront mill up the beach more than a century ago. The mill is long gone, of course, replaced by a warehouse and then an office building and finally by a bar that employs a six-figure mixologist.

The second ghost is the jogger’s dad’s dad’s dad. At twelve, as the oldest of four children, he stuck around just long enough to know he didn’t want to raise the family his father abandoned. One morning, as his widowed mother and brothers slept, the second ghost snuck up the tracks near the station the jogger, heavy footed, is now approaching. There, in the lonely light of dawn, he jumped a southbound train and never came back.

Breathing hard, the jogger is thinking about how the intervening decades, the predictable procession of generations, rarely alters the blueprints of departure. He is also thinking about the third ghost, which is not a ghost at all but a real object, a train stripped of its physical mass, obscured by some mysterious force, a trick of light – dusk, let’s call it – so that it can no longer be seen by the jogger approaching the tracks. It is, in this form, not quite a ghost because it is visible to everyone but the person who most needs to see it. The jogger expects to meet one of these invisible trains someday. He imagines it bearing down on him each time he crosses the tracks.

Standing barefoot behind one of the lighted windows on the hillside, a woman parts the curtain to look out toward the water. Because her infant son has just vomited on her shoulder, she cares nothing for ghosts. She knows her husband is not due back yet, but she looks outside anyway because she feels a suspicion, amplified by dusk but also by his current situation, that he might not return.

For less justifiable reasons, he could emulate his great great great grandfather. He could jog down the driveway, retrieve a suitcase from the bushes and disappear forever, the liar, although the last light is now passing through the ocean floor, ushering in blackness, and who could reasonably expect to find anything in this collapsible crimson evening? Abandonment, angina, axe murder: there are so many ordinary ways to exit a life. She would be fine with any choice that takes him away. Let him have the barista, the poor girl. Someday she too will despise him. All that matters now are the kids.

The woman knows clouds are piling up behind the mountain peaks, though it’s too dark to see them. The people dallying on the waterfront stop to listen to the train whistle reverberating off the hillside. It seems to signal something more than a train’s passing, something troublesome, though the specifics of this collective unease are unclear. Up the hill, garage doors are rolling shut. Hoses are coiled against brightly painted siding. Still holding the curtain, the woman sighs. Let him try his luck on those tracks in this dying light. Let us save ourselves, she whispers to the world, or to her daughter dumping a bin of Legos on the kitchen tile behind her, or to her son lying in his crib, blinking into darkness. Let us keep this light inside where it belongs, she says, and then lets the curtain fall shut.

Photo used under CC.