"Down Along the Lionel Lines"

July 1, 2019

     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."

     "What I long for is you getting off my back."

     "Online lists do not mean you're looking unless you actually talk to someone or get a degree in big-data engineering." He said scroll down. "Darby, if you don't call Ned I will." They sat silent, mentally circling each other to land another jab. She pointed to the screen: "Franchises? You're going to buy a Dollar Store." He said he might. She said, "'Darby Leighton's Club Pilates' ... 'Darby Leighton, Mr. Mattress'. I'd rather see you out of work."

     "I'd be an entrepreneur, a bedrock of our nation."

     "'Darby Leighton, Mr. Portable Toilet'."

     "I can get a franchise for a hundred grand and Rex Tillerson has promised me the start-up money and more."

     She said, "You want me to think you've been up until two in the morning working on your future instead of watching TV."

     Darby said TV was instructive: "I've ruled out Alaskan crab fisherman. I've made up a list of franchises I'll franchise after naming myself CEO" Elaine sat stone-faced. "Militia starter kits ... " She said Not Funny. " ... seasonal lawn decorating."    No reaction. "Prisons." Nada. "Prisons are booming. We lock up more people than China. People can buy a half-way house or the Big House complete with gun towers and the Chair."

     "You're hiding."

     "Conservatives can dish out hard time and liberals can do rehab. They'll get federal aid, tax breaks and IRS deductions."

     "What time does Ned get home?"

     "Personal trainers to teach kids to hit curve-balls so they can make The Show or go to Harvard." She put her fingertips to her forehead as if meditating. "Cory’s bringing Jill.”

     Elaine closed the laptop. "What's she like?”

     "I met her when Cory brought her by work. She matches her nouns and verbs and doesn’t wear too much make-up. She said ‘me and him’ but everyone does.”

Elaine said, “I don’t.”

     Darby lowered his head to the track. "I said you're perfect, Elaine. Flawless."

     “Stop it.”

     “She has Che Guevara tattooed on her calf.”

      “You're frustrated and being demeaning.”

     He handed her the locomotive. She held it with both hands and said it weighed more than a cast-iron sink. “One-hundred-eighty bucks. The Santa Fe’s worth more.”

     “Ned -- ”

     “The Pennsy GG-1’s a ton.”

     “Whatever that is. Did you talk to Ned?” Like he was deaf or slow. “When are you going to talk to Ned?” We'd been over this. "You need to talk to Ned."

     Ned. Ned. Ned. That’s the difference between Elaine and me. She checks receipts at the supermarket to make sure the cashier hasn't overcharged her. I stick 'em in the bag and scoot. He said Tomorrow. "You said that yesterday.” He said he got busy. “You said that last week.” He got real busy. “Doing what?”

     “Railroading.”

      She said Ned can help. Darby said Ned will gloat and he hated when he gloats even if it's not to his face. "He's had more opportunities," he said.

      She picked up a block of wood from the coffee table with windows and a door painted on it that he made when he was ten. She said, “Ned won’t gloat.” Darby'd wanted a kit, but his dad said use his talent and make his own buildings, and Elaine said he was right. He took his engine back and set it on the track and said he should have been an architect.

     “You’ll get back up.”

     Here we go again. “Or?” Elaine said she was trying to be understanding. “Or.”

She turned my building around. “‘Depratment Store’”? You spelled department ‘Depratment', D-E-P-R-A-T -- ”

      “I was ten, for chrissakes.” Elaine assured him she could spell “department” when she was eight. "So I'm dyslexic. Go ahead and belittle me. Or?”

     “Yes, 'or'," all hard edged, "and I mean it.”

      All aboard, engine pulling out. “Or you’ll be heading down that lonesome railroad track.” She said it wasn't like he had cancer or in jail or Cory died. "Thank you for your compassion, dear. I also wanted a refrigerator car with a guy that pops out with milk cans.”

     "Who pops out -- a little guy who pops out with milk cans."

     "Goddamn, Elaine."

     "You’ve got to move on with what’s left of your life.” She set my depratment store down next to a vase of dafs and held up his resume as a doctor would an x-ray. “I have my own job to worry about. Colleges are also cutting back and Melissa’s majoring in French. At least Cory’s working.”

     “Telemarketing -- ragging people to buy time-shares in some frigging condo.”

     “It’s just temporary.”

     “Like school.”

     “He’s got one semester left. Give him time.” She was always babying him.

     "We've given him six years."

     “He’s trying to figure it out.”

     "On my dime."

     “On his dime, Darby.”

     He asked Elaine if she wanted him to list what they'd given him, and she said,    "Peanuts." He said college tuition is hardly “peanuts.” She said look at Ned and Marylee’s kids.

     He said, "Maybe that’s why I haven’t called him.”

     “How many cars have we given to Cory or Melissa?” She moved the dafs an inch and said, "Ned and Marylee bought cars for all three of their kids, and outfitted Callie’s house, top to bottom. Bedroom suite, living room suite, dining room suite, china, wall-to-wall ... ”

     “We gave her a platter.”

     “Ned hired Thad at fifty thousand.”

     “Ned’s got a law firm. I don’t have a law firm or cash to outfit a split-level in Pine Ridge. I don’t even have a job. I do have a train.”

     Elaine said, “Not Pine Ridge -- "

     "And a depratment store."

     "Callie lives in Fircrest.”

     After he reminded Elaine they had shelled out eighty grand for Cory’s college he picked up a model-train figure of a kid in a striped t-shirt, blue shorts and a little round cap. He held it in front of his face and said in a squeaky train-set voice, "I'm Tommy from Tiny Town." Elaine said Cory was late but Darby didn't let go. Squeaky voice: “This jerk holding me got through college in four years and a job using what little creative talent he has.” Elaine said he was feeling sorry for himself. Still squeaky and bobbing: “An honest appraisal, ma’am.” Elaine thumbed through the latest New Yorker from back to front. Tommy: “Creative talent -- now he’s watching his choo-choo train and getting threats from his loving wife.”

     “You're pushing things.”

     Tommy: “He gets whacked and she says he's pushing things."

     Elaine went into the kitchen for a glass of wine, and headed upstairs with The New Yorker. She said, “This time don’t rely on your wit to lure me back.”

     Still squeaky: “He wanted to set us up in the basement, but his son was all video games, so I’m rotting away, doing solitary in this dark old box and his beloved and precious wife is threatening to run off.”

     Elaine shut the bedroom door a shade too snappishly. Darby decided to let the temperature drop and walked to the small park nearby and sat on a bench. Well, why not? The Park Bench has been a longtime go-to cartoon setting for pensioners and fired execs talking to elderly ladies feeding the pigeons. He sat in dappled sunlight in a breeze off the sound. Like a general on a reviewing stand, he watched the walkers, joggers, cyclists, moms pushing strollers the size of Mini Coopers, and a woman with a spray of hair rollerblading with a parrot on her shoulder. A toddler headed my way until Mom called, “Madison, honey, come back here. I don’t want you off by yourself!”

     Stay away from men wearing sunglasses!

***

     Back home Darby stood Tommy in front of the engine. Elaine was rattling around in the kitchen. It's time to pull out Rex Tillerson. "Elaine, I have a secret benefactor." Rattle, rattle. "I've been waiting for the right time to tell you." She came into the living room and stood behind the sofa. He showed her a computer printout. "I got an email a while back." More silence, which is Elaine-speak for Bullshit. He read:

 

            "'I am Mr. Rex W. Tillerson, United States Secretary of State by profession. 

            After our investigations with the FBI and CIA we discovered you have not

            received your fund.'"

 

     He said he knew Rex was no longer secretary of state but still had a lot of money, and continued:

 

          "'Your outstanding contract payment is $1,850,000.00 USD loaded in an

          ATM Visa Card."

 

     Elaine said, "That's it?"

     No, Elaine, it is not and quit being so skeptical. He read:

 

          "'Your Visa Card will be mailed immediately and kindly reply with your ATM

          Visa Card: Your Full Name, Address, Phone Number and Passport Copy.'"

 

     Elaine said, "Rex Tillerson has never said 'kindly' in his life."

     Darby said, "I've also heard from the current secretary of state. They both promised me the Supreme Court signed off on this and all I had to to send them three-hundred bucks." Elaine told him to go upstairs and lie down. He picked up    Tommy: "Ma'am, we know it's the Nigerians."

     Elaine sat down and said, "First you, now Cory. I thought he was only thinking about going to Mexico."

     Cory and his girlfriend had floated the idea about Mexico a couple weeks ago, but in the abstract, like moving to Nepal or taking up tap dancing. It was eating at Elaine, and he hadn't been any help. She said, "Cory's just like you. You both talk in figure 8s -- heading out one way then doubling back and curving back around, crossing and recrossing."

     "His lease is up in a month."

     "I never know what to believe."

     "Stop fretting -- they could be heading to Paraguay."

     Elaine said, “That's only thirty days.” Her voice had turned raspy and Darby didn't mean to pile on, but he was also fearful. He said, "I hope he doesn't go barging out in search of local color and end up with a chest full of ammo. A couple of urchins discover his body rotting in the desert, or the jungle, or whatever the hell they have down there, wallet gone, picked apart by buzzards or parrots. The cops find nada, and everyone will be really sad as we bury him out at Eternal Bliss."

     "Don't."

     They sat for several minutes, listening to the neighbors' dog howling, like they were in fox-hunting country. He and Cory had roughed her up. He said Cory would never take the trains. Elaine finished her wine and said, “Your father wanted you to be a pharmacist.”

     "I’ll put my noble beast back in the roundhouse. Maybe I’ll set up the whole thing downstairs."

     "You should have done it when he was little."

     "Ancient history. I started to but he was into 'Star Wars' and I never wanted to push him."

     “If your dad had wanted to set up some old relic from his childhood, you’d have rebelled.” Darby said, Not true. She said, “Like with his old catcher's mitt?”

     He felt like chucking the engine through the living-room window, but held it to his eyes as if looking for a flaw in the headlight. “If we go broke I’ll sell it, then bust up the furniture to burn in the fireplace.”

     Elaine said, “You'll be doing it alone.”

     “Goddamn it, Elaine, we're both upset.”

     “You thought Cory would be some suit, playing golf on Saturday with your train running around his basement.”

     "I never dreamed he’d be working in a boiler room or taking off for Mexico with some chick. I thought we'd be through worrying about him when he got out on his own, and here we are worrying about him."

     “Yes, we are. There, are you happy? We're parents." Elaine's voice was breaking and he wanted to hug her. "Now get yourself back on the rails and plow ahead.”

     “Or?”

     Elaine marched toward the kitchen, Darby behind her. She topped off her wine and he poured a finger of gin, then she reversed course and walked out to the back deck with the gait of a night nurse. "Exactly.”

     "Or?”

     "Call Ned."

     "Or?"

     "You and Rex Tillerson. Darby, you can be so remarkably obtuse. And thoughtless." She closed the living-room door with the same deliberation.

     Darby picked up his resume with “AGGRESSIVE!!!” in red ink and her big, brassy printing.

     Call Ned.

     Aggressive.

     How had he missed "aggressive"? He lay on the rug and watched the locomotive sitting beside the track for a long time. It almost seemed to be starting to move.

 

Tim Menees grew up in Seattle. He after college and the Air Force, he drew editorial cartoons at the morning paper in Pittsburgh for thirty years. His work appeared in national newspapers and news magazines. His short stories have recently been published in Ariel Chart, Smoky Blue Literary and Arts Magazine, and Pilcrow & Dagger. His non-fiction pieces have appeared in Boomer Cafe. He draws cartoons and writes for The Pittsburgh Quarterly, paints and plays the piano.

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