"Down Along the Lionel Lines"


Darby always wanted to own the Santa Fe. Elaine over on the sofa had never shared his passion. She said, "Hmmm." He asked asked what "hmmm" meant. She said, "You misspelled 'aggressive'.”

Part of his old train sat on a section of track on the Turkish carpet: black steam engine, tender, hopper car, boxcar and caboose. Their longtime home had been a cardboard box in the basement, but they were now on a siding by the coffee table. He lay on his side studying the locomotive from ground level, and while not the Santa Fe, it was, he told her, a classic from the age of steam. Elaine said, "I thought you use spell-check. 'Aggressive’ has two G’s. It's your resume and you blow 'aggressive'."

"Thank you, Elaine. Like you're perfect." Aggressive. He reminded her Cory was coming to dinner.

She said, "Never edit yourself. You always tell me that." OK, OK. "Did you call Ned?"

"The Santa Fe diesel is red, yellow and silver, as beautiful as any locomotive could dream to be. Every Christmas I begged Santa for one, I sang him 'Santa Claus Is Coming To Town'. I asked God and every year I got royally stiffed. So much for prayer. I also wanted a bascule bridge -- b-a-s-c-u-l-e b-r-i-d-g-e.”

"You didn’t spotlight your award-winner Lemmon ads."

"I do use spell-check. Do you know what a bascule bridge is, Elaine, darling?"

“Don't be snarky. Spotlight the Lemmon Account. That was a good one. And that beer thingy."

Darby said, "It’s a drawbridge with a huge weight on one end, like the railway bridge at the government locks. It goes like this,” and he raised his forearm up and down like a crossing gate. Up and down, up and down. "I guess you don't know everything after all." Elaine glared at him. He said, "A lot of good 'Lemmon' did."

The VP/Creative Services did the dirty work and told him, "We’re cutting your job.” The agency had lost money and three large accounts, including one of his, and was chucking bodies out of the fourth floor, corporate's version of Michael Corleone telling Sonny, "It's just business." He had an appointment with HR. Human Resources sounds nurturing, like a library or grief counseling but its thin-lipped head handed him a sheaf of papers and went over his rights:

(1) Read This

(2) Talk To Your Lawyer

(3) Sign

A headhunter in a cheap suit across the hall couldn't get him a cushy ad-agency job but would enroll him in classes on interviewing and networking. Darby said, "I will not beg."

The next day the house was quiet except for the fridge kicking on. Losing a job turns life cockeyed and tints perception. A photograph taken when their daughter graduated from high school with them all smiling looks like someone else’s family. It does not, however, rank just below losing a family member but kicks off a grieving process: shock, disbelief, grief, anger and lawyers, condolences, offers to help and eulogies. Mourners phoned not knowing if he was weeping or sitting in the dark, locked & loaded. He was neither, but was performing in Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn Attend Their Own Funeral.

***

In Edward Hopper’s “Early Sunday Morning,” a row of stores stand darkened, a barber pole and fire hydrant cast long shadows along the pavement, blinds are half-pulled. Not a soul is in sight, but that makes it real. Who’s up early on Sunday anyway?

Early on his first post-career Sunday morning, Darby lay in bed in the crepuscular light before the sun elbowed through low-level clouds. The night that had tormented him had disappeared into the dawn. Three joggers had the road to themselves. He caught a fragment of conversation; one of them laughed. He had nothing to do, no Monday morning meetings, no lurking presentations. The days had been hot for this part of the country. This morning on Dogfish Island -- where did they get that nickname? -- was Puget Sound cool, with the bedroom curtains gently blowing in.

He read some Billy Collins then got up and made coffee.

***

Elaine said, "You're letting this paralyze you."

"Never," Darby told her from the railroad tracks and handed her his laptop. She set his resume on the end table and looked at the screen as if scanning for spam on diet pills. She read aloud, "'Big-Data Engineer, Full-Stack Developer, Engineer for Logistics, Forklift Operator, Clinical Research Associate Regulatory Manager, and Medical Writer'. So?"

"They're the hot jobs."

"This is what you've longed to do, drive a forklift."