I had convinced myself that if I stared at my inbox long enough, something pertinent to my current project would appear and I'd have some work to do. Or at least get an answer to any of the dozen or so emails I sent the week before Christmas. No luck. Not much to do. Nowhere to go. The guy two seats down from me has the right idea. He's playing Tic-Tac-Toe on the window with a dry erase marker. All I have is this stupid notebook and this stupid brain. Amtrak #4 from Kansas City to Chicago is currently stopped on the tracks so a freight train can pass us. The conductor over the intercom tells us it's for safety concerns, but I was given the straight dope from Cafe Car Steve who was kind enough to give me a free refill on my coffee. Against Amtrak policy but I suppose at his age it feels good to break a rule once in a while. According to Steve, the real reason we were waiting for the freight train to pass is that Amtrak recently lost the right of way on all US railroad tracks courtesy of them shit-kickers in Congress proving once again they care more for the welfare of the wealthy than the needs of their citizens. The freight trains have schedules to keep for companies run by men with more money than God. Now that the law is officially on their side- they always get the right of way.
A slight adjust of my left eyebrow does nothing to change the number of new unread emails stored for safekeeping in my inbox. It still reads a mocking eleven. I keep certain emails marked as unread to keep them fresh in my mind each time I sign in. Or sign on. Whatever. Fuck. The inbox unread number has been stuck on eleven since two days before Christmas. More than anything in this moment I want a reply, a job, a piece of something I can tangibly DO, but no luck. No work. No answers. Nothing but Amtrak #4 piddling along taking me far, far away from quaint rural Missouri. Now the guy two seats down is playing Hangman. I need to pick up some dry erase markers. I always take the train unless there's no other realistic option. The extra time is more than tolerable when you consider everything that goes with it. A rolling countryside, room to stretch out, freedom of movement, and a complete lack of the obnoxious farce that is airport security. There's another pleasant amenity that goes with train travel: the people. I have met more pleasant, chatty, warm people riding trains in the last few years than I thought existed in the world.
I met a woman this morning who was pushing seventy and had never been on a train. A few hours into the journey she was looking back over her seat with the smile of a six year old spread across her face. Her eyes were darting from the window to the train interior and then back again all the while bouncing and bubbling all over with glee. She assured me she wouldn't be flying ever again. During a three hour layover I met the most jovial junkie ever to grace the St. Louis Union Station. Chuck had baggy prison issue civies, overly longish fingernails, and a sporty neck tattoo. A kraken, I believe. He was fresh off a fifty day stretch with the Missouri State DOC and was grateful for the extra can of Coke I happened to have on me. Almost as grateful as he was for the extra cookies he was slipped by the guards upon his release. His first trip to The Show-Me State had not gone as planned.
"I came here on vacation, and left on probation!"
He told me he was eager to make his way back to Texas where he assured me there was an oil rig job waiting for him. At that moment however, he was waiting on a bus to get him home to Council Bluffs so he could see his kids for Christmas.
Tis the season.
There was a profound air of absence at my home this year. This was our first family Christmas since my grandfather died. He'd been mentally checked out for the last couple years, but his physical presence was still missed. This was also my family's first Christmas since my younger brother moved to the second coast. It's almost a full year gone now since the charming little bastard left KC for the sunny shores of Hell A. I knew this visit wouldn't be the same without him. Warts and all, that kid is really the lifeblood of the season. The heart and soul of the holiday. Nobody bothered to mention at dinner just how quiet and tired everything seemed without him. Not sad, exactly. Not quite somber, but the vacancy was most certainly felt and most definitely unwelcome.
Now the guy two seats down is swapping pirate jokes. This man knows how to travel.
My brother wasn't there in his PJ pants and Santa hat sipping whiskey at 10am, passing the bottle to whomever made eye contact. He wasn't there to ensure we would keep with tradition and watch our usual marathon of favorite Christmas movies. He wasn't there to whip up his world famous hot chocolate which was sneakily spiked to perfection. It was this very same hot chocolate that caused an entire 2nd grade class of Christmas carolers to projectile vomit into the baptizing tub at Grace Baptist's now famous 1997 Hurling Christmas pageant. Maybe next year I should find a way to steal him back from the City of Angels. Without that kid around I may have to boycott Christmas altogether. It's just not the same without him.
My last experience in flight was actually only a few short weeks ago winging out west to visit him in his new home. The time spent wasn't so bad as any other time I found myself stuck in a situation where a train just wouldn't do. I was a bit unnerved to find the New American Airlines is taking over the industry. Be on the lookout for a dastardly monopoly which will have American Airline executives rubbing their nipples for years to come. I wasn't fondled much beyond reason and with little to-do got on my plane without incident. Once there, I found myself surrounded by teenagers.
Just breathe now.
The boys were bros in training who created confusion by switching seats and feigning ignorance when other passengers had to relocate last minute. The flight attendants were not amused, but clearly didn't want to argue so long as everyone just sat the fuck down. The girls were kind but constantly spoke with an upward inflection as if every sentence ended with a question mark. These people actually exist. Skylar (Girl #1) had never been west of the Kansas state line and was sweating bullets as we left the tarmac. Marla (Girl #2) had only ever been in a plane once before but held up like a champ and after a little polite conversation told me I should be a teacher. Damn fine compliment. The good-natured friendliness from these two mostly made up for the overall impatient complaining from their group. They grew quiet and more determined after asking about my religion and finding it difficult to place me into any of their indoctrinated concepts of theology. Mission kids. It all made sense. Jetting all over the world, spreading the gospel to poor unfortunate souls who never asked to hear it. The next hour and a half was a mile-a-minute, super-duper-friendly, just-cause-we-care-so-damn-much-about-your-soul testimony in a not so subtle attempt to not convert, they said. Just consider other options. A higher power, they said. Because we're not talking about religion, we're talking about spirituality.
Peace at last sipping Tullamore Dew at the Phoenix airport bar. Until the next delight. I've never quite reconciled myself with this obsession sweeping the nation over healthy living. Avoiding drink, avoiding drugs, watching what you eat. It simply doesn't agree with me. I get more mileage out of misery than merriment. Smoke and drink and junk food are a kind of 3-fold sweet slow systematic suicide. A pleasant reassurance that I won't live much past seventy. I want to slowly chip away at this cruel frame to ensure it simply crumbles when the pressure grows too great. Once you've been stuffed into a home your facilities have waned to the point that a legitimate act of suicide becomes all but impossible. This way, I continue my life in the hazy sleepwalking coma to which I've grown accustomed, and when the heart palpitations and liver failure start to get the best of me, I can simply amp up the Novocaine and slip away into blessed nothingness. What is this outrageous infatuation everyone seems to have with life? New life. Old life. Most people can't get enough. It's not that I've had my fill just yet, but I have most certainly had enough to know that I can do without the second childish years. Sans hair, sans eyes, sans teeth. And the rest. The world is enough to bear with all my bits and pieces in working order. Once I've lost that- I'm not sure I'll find much reason to stick around. Does anybody? That's a real question. Is there some bit of insight or great epiphany that hits in the overly-ripe twilight years convincing people of the virtue in hanging on? Is it custom, fear, a sentimental sense of duty that allows for this humble release letting fate turn the final screw?
Not a question likely to be answered anytime soon. You have to buy the ticket to take that ride. And I haven't earned my seat yet. My time in LA was quite lovely for the most part. There were Green Doctors selling marijuana cards at a very reasonable thirty bucks a pop, food trucks with every kind of food imaginable from South American to Central American, and the ever-growing laundry list of freaks roaming up and down the Venice Beach boardwalk. That evening we stood and watched the sunset, a deep yellow terribly bright fading into a glowing orange sinking bit by bit into the deep blue Pacific with a blood red signature sliver, its final kiss goodnight disappearing until tomorrow or forever depending on the next fourteen hours and what they had in store. My cynicism severely dented. My heart overfull and bursting. My stress and concern and anxiety melted away. Feeling a bit the fifth wheel, stuck standing between two couples longing for the touch and taste and smell of my sweetheart. The one who could take my love, absorb it, drain it, and give relief. We would have plenty of sunsets, I promised myself. In the midst of all this beauty, there was a dull ache. I wanted a partner to share it with. I wanted to feel her chest expand and release against mine. I wanted to wrap my arms around and hold her too damn close.
But of course that would have to wait for another night. I made it home safe from the west coast and there she was to meet me at O'Hare with a sign, an Irish coffee, and that HOT-DAMN dress of hers. I put on a tie, took her to dinner, and lucky me- the magic continues. Amtrak #4 finally got back on track, finally pulled into Chicago Union Station and had me home again where things make sense. Where things are loud, fast, crowded and filthy. Where food is actual food and available anytime. The EL will have me home in another few stops and after some ass-clown errands I'll be holding her again. Lucky me. Lucky us. Slowly learning that sometimes, whether or not you feel you deserve it- good things can happen. And if you're smart, you'll quit brooding over the why and wherefore, take a deep breath and enjoy it. -JN