A Giant Tangent, Chapter 2: The Balancing Point

I checked my watch. It had only been thirty minutes since we jumped on board this northbound freight, but I could feel several hours’ travel in my bones already. The romance of hitching rides on trains was already fading, and in its place was a growing longing for a real chair.

“If you have any change in your pockets, you don’t want to sit there.”

“I’ll be fine, Jack,” I said, annoyed, as I bumped and rattled and literally flew up off the floor of the train car.

“Any false teeth?”

What’s your problem? What’s it matter if I have change or false teeth or what?

“Brother, you’re sittin’ right over the wheels, and box car wheels don’t like company — they’ll shake ya down so hard your change will be in your shoes and your teeth will be in your pockets. You’d best move over here where the ride’s smoother. And have a drink of this, it’ll settle your stomach down quick-like.”

Jack was right about the wheels, and he was right about his wine, too. We sat side by side over what had to be some kind of balancing point on the freight car floor and hardly felt a bump. As we passed his pint of port back and forth, watching the sun come up over the Tehachapis, my thoughts turned back to the week before.

It had been a bad year, and it was only February. In fact, it had been a bad couple of years, and that was about as honest as I was going to allow myself to be at the moment. I felt like I was caught in some kind of sequence that was running its course and not yet complete. There had been a divorce, a car crash, a bout with cancer, and the death of my dear old pops. When my department was informed last week that the company had been sold to an equity management firm, it wasn’t hard to imagine what was next.

Still, there was some comfort available in the news. Even if the new ownership, aptly named “Blackstake” decided to turn us all out onto the streets, I’d already experienced far worse. In fact, at 52, middle age was bearing down on me, and I felt like I was bearing up under it pretty well.

And all the while, Jack was observing me closely, another one of his endearing and annoying habits. Really, Jack was an observer of people in general, and was very skilled at summing up situations before others even noticed anything worthy of analysis.

“Brother, you’re not sober enough to be this quiet. What’s eatin’ at ya?”

Jack, you’ve probably got a better idea than I do. I don’t do analysis well, but I know when something isn’t right, and I’m feeling that now.

The loud, jostling clack of the car as it bumped over the tracks punctuated my thoughts and brought them forward at an increasing speed.

“I mean, it’s been a fucked up couple of years, hasn’t it? And all of it comes after years that I just seemed to sleep through. Really, what happened in my forties? While you were out seeing the world, I was driving a mouse in a cubicle. My big accomplishment? I’m an expert at Microsoft Word, Excel and Powerpoint. And now, these people are poised to dump us all and do I care? I don’t know! But something about it is sickening.”

Jack pulled his Luckys out of his pocket, gave the pack a shake and held it out to me.

“Thanks Jack, but you know I don’t –

“Brother, just take the goddamn cigarette. I know your problem and it’s not new to me or you or anyone else who’s had a lungful of responsibility. But remember who you are now, you’re a giant, and pardon the pun but that’s no small thing. In three steps we’ll be halfway up this state and there’s no looking back for you. Now take a look at that.”

Jack motioned at the scenery out the large door on the right side of the car. I’d simply describe it as stunning, but Jack never let a strong impression go without a full blown soliloquy.

“That sun has been doing that same thing for millions of years, coming up over those mountains just like that, shining through those pines just like that, blazing through that morning haze just like that, and where have you been? You’ve been worrying about schedules and budgets and memos; you’ve been using up your precious life on someone else’s cares.

He had a point, at least at that particular moment, and by changing the subject he was doing it again, gently bumping me in another direction, maybe not the right direction but the direction he knew best. And I don’t even think he thought it was best for me, but it worked for him and he was loaning it to me. There was comfort in that, anyway.

“Brother, you know what I see?”

The train had been slowing for several minutes and as the rhythm slackened, the car grew quieter. We bumped along, and I took my time before answering.

“What’s that Jack?”

“I see a scroll, an untold tale that’s just unfolding across the sky like a kind of road or a path, and our names are written on it and there’s all kinds of untold adventure written on it, written ages ago. This train is destiny, man, it’s pure steel power chargin’ down the track and it knows – we don’t but it does – it knows where it’s goin’ and when it’s arrivin’. I’m real sorry about this state you’re in brother, it’s real mixed up but it’s not in front of us, it’s not on this train, and it’s not on the scroll.”


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