Please note: The following story was awarded an Honorable Mention in the 2011 Lorian Hemingway Short Story Competition.
He’d gotten himself into this mess by volunteering. That’s what happens when you’re an eager beaver. He’d never been one before and he wouldn’t be one next time.
What had he been thinking? Surely he knew better than to draw attention to himself. Oh well, too late. He needed to get on with it.
He knew there were hundreds of similar articles in those ridiculous magazines one found in variety stores or pharmacies.
On the front cover was usually some pretty young actress trying to move up from teenage roles to adult parts. Some agent had convinced her she’d get more exposure by, frankly, exposing herself.
In bold type spaced along the edge of the photo would be the enticing words, “Take This Test. What Kind of Sex Life Do You Have? How Do You Rate Your Partner?”
Or “Ten Things You Must Know to Maximize Your Pleasure.”
In the kind of publication he worked for, there were the same kinds of games, only dressed up in finer garments. He held a junior position with the business section of a well-known Toronto newspaper.
So the question was more likely to be, “How do you rate your boss?” There were usually half a dozen choices. Control Freak; Micro-manager; Motivator; Delegator; Schmoozer; or Holy Terror?
It became more interesting when comparisons were made between management styles and the animal kingdom.
“Is your boss a lion? A dog? A duck-billed platypus? A lemming?”
Sure this was silly stuff, but even supposedly sophisticated readers lapped it up.
Some of the tests were meant to be semi-serious. Most were designed for pure enjoyment.
Fitting into the latter category, and making the supposition it hadn’t been done before, an idea popped into his head over the weekend.
How about categorizing workers according to songs about railroads?
When the first several examples came easily, he became overconfident.
It all seemed a huge mistake now. But he’d felt compelled to take action of some sort.
At the daily production meetings, he was disappearing further and further into the background.
He’d been with the paper for five years after graduating from journalism school and was still mostly arranging equity and commodity prices into tables for readers to peruse.
Any stories he wrote were summaries of what came over the newswires. He was doing little that was original.
He knew he was in trouble when he started speculating about exiting the conference room in some form of transcendental liberation, leaving his body behind.
Maybe he could re-substantiate himself to enjoy a latte in the Starbucks next door. He’d check back with his body later, hoping his eyes hadn’t shut.
Or that everyone hadn’t left the room and he was sitting in the dark.
No, that wasn’t the way to approach the problem. It was too risky. He needed this job, and much more important, the accompanying paycheck.
He had to become more assertive. Go after what he wanted. He’d been hanging back too long.
So when the assignment editor suggested there was a spot to fill in the weekend edition of the spreadsheet, his voice surprised all his other faculties by uttering the words that placed him in this predicament.
“I have an idea,” he said. Everyone was so surprised by his emergence from slumber, he got his wish by default as much as any brilliance of presentation.
In all honesty, most thought he’d already left the room, in one form or another.
When the managing editor nodded his acquiescence at the subsequent pitch, a moment of panic set in. He knew he’d have to deliver.
“Thanks a lot, voice,” his brain said. His fear-encrusted eyes darted around the room, barely registering the reaction of others.
His forehead furrowed and a tiny vein fluttered. His sphincter muscles spasmed, then surrendered.
Illustrating worker types with the use of railway tunes? Why not according to kinds of cough syrup? Or brands of condoms?
Actually, the latter wasn’t a bad idea. At least he’d have been able to spice things up a bit. What had possessed him?
He was stuck trying to derive a number six to complete the second half of what he’d promised.
What a bold assertion, that he could come up with ten comparisons.
He’d chosen that number since everyone loves Top Ten lists.
He started easily enough. In fact, that’s what got him into trouble in the first place. He’d heard Arlo Guthrie singing City of New Orleans on his i-Pod.
It was about a train that would go hundreds of mile before the day was done.
It was no doubt symbolic of a perfect employee. And one that would probably be content with little official recognition.
In other words, the ideal worker bee.
He’d been having a crisis of confidence about his own efforts lately. Was he really trying to advance his career or simply putting in time?
Analysis of his work ethic formed only one half of a Greco-Roman wrestling tableau.
How did the company view his efforts? That put a different spin on the situation.
The company would want an employee who would go the whole distance each and every day.
Or seriously damage their emotional and physical health in the trying. That’s why companies have benefit packages. So their best workers can go on long-term disability insurance.
No, wait, that didn’t sound right. It was often the worst workers who got all stressed out and took sick leave.
If he could put the proper spin on this article, he’d be able to ingratiate himself with the higher- ups.
He started to feel a little better about his decision. Maybe he hadn’t committed such a great folly after all.
Morning Train by Sheena Easton was his second choice. The logic seemed obvious. Like clockwork, Sheena’s hubby reported for work every day from nine to five.
Her man wasn’t just dedicated. He was also on time. Very good! This was going to be easy.
Next came Midnight Train to Georgia. Gladys Knight refused to abandon her man in the hard times.
Maybe it was a bit of a reach, but he could make this embody teamwork. A one-for-all spirit-building exercise. Reminiscent of when his whole department attended a wilderness bonding symposium.
He was racking his brain trying to free associate on railroad terms to make more progress with his list.
Trestles, turntables, Pinkerton detectives, Pullman coaches.
Okay, maybe there was something in the Pullman idea. That would compare lower- and upper-berth cars on overnight trips to workers who were willing to sleep their way to the top.
Offensive? Possibly. Cute? Yes, if he could integrate it into the story-line in some laid-back way.
Everyone knew that sort of thing happened. Except he’d never been given the opportunity.
What was he, fish roe? Single and without a girlfriend, he should have attracted a nibble or two.
Such a tie-in might cause some readers to smile.
He could refer to the Chattanooga Choo Choo worker. For sure, that was a train with Pullman carriages and some hanky panky going on. Or, at least, so he imagined.
Maybe Wabash Cannonball employee was a better description. No, that sounded like an actual sexual position. Best to avoid anything too controversial.
Moving on to number five. What about Last Train to Clarksville? Who sang that one? He looked it up on Google. It was the Monkees. That led in an unfortunate direction.
A monkey could do my job, he thought. This wasn’t getting him anywhere.
Other railroad terms? Diesel, locomotive, caboose?
Caboose. What a funny word. He’d have to look up the origin of that one.
What’s the plural of caboose? Cabeese? Cabice? Cabooses?
In extremity, he’d been reduced to finding amusement in Latin-sounding verb declensions.
Unbidden, his mind merrily skipped on to Japanese phrasing. Kabuki, Kimono, Hari Kari.
Ooh, his failings were leading down a dark path.
He wondered if there had ever been a train made up of only cabooses. One locomotive up front and 20 or 30 “cabeese” strung out behind it. Like goslings. That would be something to see.
A caboose was probably the evolutionary next step after chow wagons on cattle drives. But they were now extinct. They’d been left behind. Abandoned.
That’s a whole category of worker right there, he thought.
The caboose employee was the one always trailing the others – the one not keeping up with the new technology that was changing the work environment every couple of months.
She or he would be jettisoned, discarded or simply forgotten in any corporate restructuring.
There was a danger in an exercise of this sort. He instantly realized he was a caboose employee.
He hadn’t meant for things to turn out this way. He wanted to be a feature writer.
But too often he’d stepped back to let the throng march by, content to be carried along in the slipstream.
To achieve his goal, he’d have to leave the caboose and become what, a conductor? No, even that seemed pretty tame. He wanted to be the engineer. Get to blow the whistle.
Whistle blower. Eureka! There was another category of worker. Maybe not so popular with the bosses, but a definite type nonetheless.
Desperation was lowering his standards.
There must be a train song with the word “whistle” in the title or figuring prominently in the lyrics.
He wanted to be a serious writer, but he’d been reluctant to jump in.
He knew wherein his reluctance lay. He’d seen the writers who did get noticed. They bared their souls. Soul Train? He’d come back to that one in a moment.
The best writers he knew talked about their pain.
There was a degree of exploitation in such efforts he wasn’t ready to assume.
He’d known suffering. Any child of woman can’t escape it. There is no avoiding it in this life.
Maybe he should do more drugs or alcohol? He could write about that. Or appear in a reality show while going through rehab.
He wrinkled his nose. It seemed like too much bother.
Besides, he did have his own addictions, to old Columbo and Get Smart episodes on TV.
And to self-pity. Thank goodness he’d fought and clawed his way to the other side on that one.
How had he gotten so far off track? Now there was an inadvertent pun if he’d ever made one.
He remembered Springsteen had a freight train rumbling through the middle of his brow in I’m on Fire. That only heightened awareness of his own throbbing headache. Where’s the Tylenol?
If he did tackle more serious writing, how would he populate his stories?
He knew there was a degree of cannibalism in any deeper work. One’s friends, relatives and acquaintances inevitably made appearances.
He’d have to carve them up and serve them as tasty morsels to a public hungry to feed on weakness.
He couldn’t do that. If he wrote about real people in his life, he’d disguise them. Make them fictitious characters. Render them composites.
His work would be autobiographical-ish.
There was another sure way to hide his private life. He’d avoid use of the pronoun “I” under any and all circumstances.
Back to the task at hand.
Come on, concentrate! He had to finish this piece.
Of course, there was perhaps the greatest of all railway songs, Folsom Prison Blues.
Prisoners locked behind bars, hearing a lonesome whistle in the near distance, promising so much that was unattainable. It would satisfy his “whistle” reference.
That was number five.
Some considerable time passed. He was at a loss again. What other railroad references could he draw on?
Could he slip in some well-known train images that weren’t actually based on song titles?
What about the Orient Express? No, he was afraid to touch that one. Not in reference to the work environment. Too many people were worried their jobs might be outsourced overseas.
Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina threw herself under a train. That’s what he’d have to do if he couldn’t deliver on this project.
No, no. He was feeling sorry for himself again.
His mind flitted back to Folsom Prison Blues. It was a phrase that might better describe how most employees felt about the companies they worked for.
Or even more accurately, how their customers viewed those firms.
Many entities were super aggressive in their advertising and selling campaigns. Try to contact them after making an actual purchase, however, and see what happens. Especially by phone.
“Hello. Please hold and an operator will be with you shortly. For monitoring purposes, this call may be recorded. Have a nice day.”
Now you’re a prisoner locked on the other end of the line until a voice breaks in every two minutes and says, “We’re sorry for the delay. There is currently a heavy volume of traffic. Please stay on the line. Your call is important to us.”
Cue the muzak version of Folsom Prison Blues.
You had to be tenacious under such circumstances. Hang on. Don’t give up. Be stubborn.
Say, there’s another idea. The Mule Train employee – stubborn but noble.
Suppose anyone would think he was cheating with that one? Probably. Some pesky readers were sticklers about the use of language.
This wasn’t coming together. He’d never arrive at numbers six through ten.
He wished he was still in the caboose.
He figured back there he’d have a better chance of surviving what was turning out to be a train wreck of a story.