June 10, 2013 | By | Comments (15)
Rick Bragg

Illustration by Jack Unruh

I remember a quiet so complete a lone cricket was a cacophony, a single drop of water boomed like a stick hammering a bass drum. I remember space, vast and long, remember cotton that stretched to the end of everything, interrupted only by ribbons of blacktop that led to exotic places like Leesburg, Piedmont, and Rome. I remember a dark that dropped like a lid on a box, not only the absence of light but a thing that could swallow light altogether, the way a mud puddle does a match tossed from a passing car.

It was the early 1960s, in a place called Spring Garden, Alabama, where I would lie in my bed in a big, ragged house and wonder if the whole world had stopped spinning outside my window. I would have asked my big brother, Sam, about it, but he would have just told me I was a chucklehead, and gone back to sleep. I have never slept much; I think I was afraid I would miss something passing in all that quiet dark.

Then, sometime around midnight, I would hear it. The whistle came first, a warning, followed by a distant roar, and then a bump, bump, bumping, as a hundred boxcars lurched past some distant crossing. They were probably just hauling pig iron, but in my mind they were taking people to places I wanted to be. A braver boy would have run it down and flung himself aboard.

And then it was gone, without warning, and I would go to sleep, grudging, and dream about oceans, and elephants, and trains.

I miss the stillness. It is an antique in this shrill, intruding life, an all-but-forgotten thing of no real value, like inkwells. It is as if we have tried to fill up what stillness there is with all the mindless claptrap we can conjure, as if a little quiet or a patch of peaceful dark is a bug that has to be stomped before it gets away.

In restaurants, I am forced to eat my meatloaf with the television tuned to two mental giants ranting about a topic they manufactured that morning, apparently from mud and straw. In a doctor’s waiting room, a televangelist told me I was going to hell, then Rachael Ray made me a tuna melt.

At any given moment, on a plane, in a lobby, anywhere, I hear the TV at war with a dozen personal electronic devices. I am certain that, if I were sitting on a rug woven from palm fronds and dead army ants in the middle of the Amazon, I could hear the ubiquitous song of an iPhone.

I miss the wind in the cedars, I miss that sifting sound. Sometimes in summer, we sit on the porch of our old house in Fairhope to watch the dark fall, but sometimes the neighbors get to hollering about, well, living, and how do you go over and say, “Excuse me, but you are messing up my dark”?

It is enough to wish for a lightning storm. There’s that moment when the lightning flashes and thunder shakes the house. The power flickers and dies, and a dark stillness falls. And you’re swallowed up by a pure, old-fashioned silence, free of the hum of the refrigerator or the air conditioner, free from all the man-made background noise that makes you feel less human.

I do not sleep any better now. I live most of the year with sirens and squealing tires. But someone, somewhere, is looking after me, and sent me another train. I hear it bump through the city of Tuscaloosa in the small hours of the morning, and I dream and wonder, again, though I know exactly where it goes.


  1. SJRust

    Thankfully we still have some stillness in the Adirondacks.

    October 24, 2015 at 3:25 pm
  2. Columnist Response: Stillness by Rick Bragg | Mrs. Raymer's AP Lang & Comp
    August 26, 2015 at 9:13 am
  3. Kyle voyles

    First time I’ve heard of Rick Bragg And he’s pretty good… I really like his short story Stillness, it has great character and emotion!!!

    August 20, 2014 at 9:25 am
  4. Denis Kiely

    One more reason to love Rick Bragg, one of the most thoughtful and funniest people in American

    June 19, 2013 at 5:42 pm
  5. Geneva Bundrum Ballenger

    Rick you are still my hero, and my favorite writer, simply because i can close my eyes and see the same things. I love ya cousin.

    June 19, 2013 at 2:07 pm
  6. Annie Onofrey McClendon

    Love me some Rick Bragg….

    June 18, 2013 at 11:19 pm
  7. Lydia Bedwell

    That giant black vacuum used to stretch upwards to Crivitz, Wisconsin. As a child I could feel the terrible beauty of a world that held mysteries unfathomable by other people. I opened my bedroom shade and looked into the abyss knowing a time machine was hurling me into an age I did not understand and did not want to enter. Then the soothing drug of a distant train, the Crivitz milk train, would remind me I had a history to hang onto in the wilderness of childhood.

    June 18, 2013 at 7:44 am
  8. Pam Dedwylder

    I remember as a child going to my grandmothers house in Stovall MS (do you know where that is?) In the middle of nowhere surrounded by cotton fields only dirt roads led there.We would play ain’t no witches out tonight until it was pitch dark our parents would call us in and one by one we took a bath in the big tub with claw feet.All the cousins would pile in two big beds in one room windows open.In the near distance was the Mississippi river right over the levee it was completely quiet.You could see the search lights and hear the fog horn of barges.Oh the memories are calling me HOME!!! MISSISSIPPI DELTA

    June 17, 2013 at 10:27 pm
  9. susanleefeathers

    Your writing made me remember, conjure silence…can that be done. Reading brought me ro the edge of memory and for a second I could “hear” the wind moving among the cedars…God bless you. I, too, knew a place where the train whistle and the rumbling cars broke that silence and then let it fold back in on itself, run out over the contours and fill the space.

    June 17, 2013 at 8:16 pm
  10. Vernon Fowlkes

    Indeed. In the quiet dark is freedom. And I too love the sound of a freight train in the distant dark. Thank you for this remembrance.

    June 17, 2013 at 7:44 pm
  11. Kristy Lowe Dennis

    Last night that very stillness. A storm across Lake Weiss, and the power out by six. Giving up on Alabama Power and the Southern Company, my wife and I in bed before eight. The only sound the soft drops on the lake and the tomato plant/ beneath our window. The room warmed. We opened the door. Screenless. Soon inside was darker than the night outside save the distant flashes of lightning moving toward the east, toward Rome and beyond. A few lightning bugs found their way inside and hovered above my bedside table where my Blackberry lay dying and blinking red. A dance of yellow blinking flight, above a red blink, unmoving. We fell asleep. I woke hours later, the lights on the ceiling fan whirling above us. My wife’s hair across the pillow, like waves lapping the bank. A clean well lighted place. One that would haunt the soul of Ernest. Or Hank.

    June 17, 2013 at 7:44 pm
  12. Teresa Jenkins Harris Hoops

    Rick always takes me home again………….

    June 17, 2013 at 7:14 pm
  13. Glynn Wilson

    I hear you man. I search it out, the peace, quiet and dark, some days in the heart of the Talladega National Forest at Lake Chinnabee Campground — or at the kitchen table with the TeeVee off. At those times I think of my dad, sitting there in that spot eating a scrambled egg sandwich with the TV off, taking a lunch break from the cacophony of analogue phone switches in the old Southern Bell telephone company office. Hey, you used the word cacophony, my friend, LOL. Hearing the sound of those switches, all day long, now that was a cacophony : )

    June 17, 2013 at 5:26 pm
  14. Russ Cash Jennifer Parker

    I grew up south ga, I miss walking the red clay road between my grandmothers house and my uncles house, there was always adventure in the ditches, turtles,snakes, bugs, blackberries on the fence row. Watching the approaching thunderstorm at night in all its scary glory. Gliding or rocking on the front porch, until the house cooled enough for sleep. My favorite was my grandmothers fried chicken hmmmmm I can still smell it frying and my mouth waters for it. J parker

    June 11, 2013 at 8:43 pm
  15. J.e. Farris

    I loved this story – made me cry with sweet remembrances of my childhood visiting my grandparents in Thorsby, AL – the dark when it got dark, the almost scary peaceful stillness and how I long to have that for just a little while again – think I’ll go find it somewhere…!

    June 11, 2013 at 7:55 pm

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