“This isn’t working,” I admitted. “Not anymore.”
Heidi and I stood next to the gate at the bottom of what the dog-eared guidebook we had purchased when we decided to move to Southern California assured us was “The Shortest Railway in the World.” Riding it was the only item on the guidebook’s list of “The Top 25 Things to Do in Los Angeles” that we hadn’t checked off.
As the sun set, however, none of the dozen light bulbs lining the arch that topped the pillars at the station on Hill Street turned on. Painted in black on orange, the two words at its pinnacle – Angels Flight – threatened to disappear into the twilight. The twin funicular cars sat, stalled, at opposite ends of the approximately 300-foot track to the top of Bunker Hill.
“I told you our guidebook was out of date,” Heidi sighed. Leaning against the peeling paint of one of the pillars, she slipped her smartphone out of her pants pocket. After tapping out Angels Flight on its touchscreen, she hit the Search button on its web browser.
“According to this article in the Times, the National Transportation Safety Bureau shut down the Angels Flight after a quote-unquote ‘minor derailment’ a few weeks ago,” she summarized. “Apparently, the operators were using a tree branch to hold down the start button.”
As she attempted to scroll through the article, frustration started to set in. “Hold on, hold on, my signal isn’t strong here…. The use of the stick appears to have been an attempt on the part of the operators to, to … override a safety system that had detected a problem.”
I looked down at the guidebook in my hand. “Just trying to ignore the problem, to go through the motions – up the hill, down the hill, up the hill, down the hill, up the hill—”
“Yes, then down the hill,” she snapped. “I see the pattern, Charlie. But what was the point of it? Why up and down this hill, day after day?”
In the deepening darkness, I squinted at the description of the Angels Flight in our guidebook. “When it was built in 1901, Bunker Hill was a fancy neighborhood full of prosperous people whose homes were at the top of the hill and whose jobs were at the bottom of the hill. Before all the affluent folks abandoned downtown for the suburbs, the Angels Flight used to make 400 trips a day up the hill—”
“Yes, then down the hill,” she sighed. “Why are we still here, Charlie?”
“You mean, why is the Angels Flight still here?”
“No, I mean why are we still here, in Los Angeles?”
“Because we haven’t done all ‘The Top 25 Things to Do in Los Angeles’ yet?” I flourished the foldout checklist tucked inside the cover of the guidebook. The 24 checkmarks weren’t all in the same color ink. Hell, they weren’t even all checkmarks – a couple of the boxes had Xs in them, instead; one was simply filled in neatly, like an answer on the form for a standardized test. But that wasn’t the answer she wanted.
Without a word, Heidi tore the checklist out of the guidebook. Ripped it apart.
As she shredded it, I suddenly understood that checklist had become our tree branch – an attempt to override our problems. Since we had decided last weekend to ride the Angels Flight, to check the last item off the list, I had had the words of “Angel From Montgomery” – the live version that John Prine and Bonnie Raitt duet on – in my mind. All week, I has assumed the connection to our visit to the Angels Flight was simply the “angel that flies” in the chorus.
Make me an angel that flies from Montgomery.
Make me a poster of an old rodeo.
Just give me one thing that I can hold on to.
To believe in this living is just a hard way to go….
But the words that came to my mind at that moment, the ones from the last verse, those were the ones that truly mattered.
And I ain’t done nothing
Since I woke up today.
How the hell can a person
Go to work in the morning
And come home in the evening
And have nothing to say?
Heidi and I had nothing left to say to one another, had nothing left to do with one another. Without that checklist, we had nothing left.
Silent at last, we stared at one another for what felt like a long time. Finally, she looked down at the wreckage of the guidebook.
“I never meant to stay,” she whispered.
I nodded. “You just meant to be a tourist.”
Here, at last, was our delayed derailment. Like the Angels Flight, we weren’t working. Not anymore.
“Angels Flight” was originally published by the Journal of Microliterature in 2015.