The Locomotive


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Jury

Chris Pais grew up in India and came to the United States to pursue graduate studies in engineering. His work appears in Poetry India,The International Journal of Heat and Mass Transfer,Wild Roof ... [+]

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In a world of flux and motion, he finally felt that his life of a hundred missteps was reaching an even keel.

In high school, he was a gifted athlete with a talent for sprinting. He felt a sense of power as he ran on the track, hitting the finish line as the crowds applauded from the stands with the East Bay Hills in the distance. They called him the locomotive. There was no money to be made or fame to be had bolting down a track as fast as his legs could carry him. A well-meaning coach suggested he try the football team. After a few seasons, his body was beaten and broken, jolted and jarred, and injured to such an extent that he was incapable of holding a position on any sports team. He barely scraped through high school with a diploma and did not secure any college athletic scholarships.

He registered at the local community college. It was only a train ride away and the strong hum of the engine as it pulled away from each station reminded him of his sprinting days and gave him a feeling of power and freedom. He was interested in the new field of computers, where he enjoyed the introductory courses and got the best grades. The professor praised him for his aptitude and said he would do well in the field. Silicon Valley was not far away, and there would be many promising opportunities. 

An uncle told him that there were a hundred different ways of making a living, but he should stay away from those evil machines with radiation that would damage his eyes, ruin his brain, and suggested he become a paralegal. He hated reading. He hated law. He hated rules. He didn't care about writing. A few months later, he dropped out of community college and found work at the local fast-food restaurant, flipping burgers, tendering change, inhaling exhaust fumes at the drive-through window, and going home at the end of the day, tired and smelling of stale grease and ketchup.

After what seemed like a hundred years of food-service drudgery, he became the manager of the restaurant and was treated as a celebrity by the employees. Less experienced hires marveled at his energy and speed, his dexterity with the cash register, his encyclopedic knowledge of the daily specials, his ability to deal with irate customers and non-compliant suppliers. Always on the move, they called him the locomotive, his childhood nickname. He was popular with his employees and trusted by the owner of the restaurant.

Soon, he was asked to manage a second restaurant. Then, a third one. He moved out of his mother's basement into a studio apartment. He worked long hours and, at the end of the day, came home with a sense of accomplishment after buttoning up the loose ends, reconciling the cash registers, and locking up the restaurants for the night.

A few years later, he met Lisa and she moved in with him. Lisa saw how much he worked—and how little money he made—and convinced him that a man of his talent and industry should be running his own business rather than being a serf to someone else. You have to move, she said. Staying still will get you nowhere. He told her that the restaurant's owner was considering retirement and promised him a share of the business in a few years. Although he had a hundred reasons for staying at his job, he couldn't find fault with Lisa's argument. They were expecting their first child and it would be so much better if he was making more money.

He quit and used their savings to buy a video rental store in the neighborhood; he would no longer have to deal with the heat of a kitchen, tardy employees, sub-standard suppliers, fussy customers, or the tired smell of a grill. Here, he could sit in air-conditioned comfort while customers took home canned entertainment by the hundreds. There was the occasional unsatisfied customer, but he found that it was much easier to deal with an unentertained customer than a hungry one, and he slowly settled down in his new line of work. Business was steady and lucrative. They moved into a small house, had a second child, and led uneventful middle-class lives. Video tapes became DVDs. Business started to grow.

After a few years, they bought a second store. Then, a third store. He hired employees to run his stores. Some of them worked for him at the fast-food restaurants he used to manage. He and Lisa moved into a bigger house, bought a bigger car, went on cruises, and sent their children to private school and summer camps. They sponsored the local Little League and were a popular couple in their little Bay Area suburb.

Around him, things were in motion. The internet started growing and people began to watch movies at home. Consumers got tired of going to a store to pick up a video tape or a DVD. The flow of customers slowed down to a trickle and he could no longer afford to pay his bills. To cut his losses, he sold the first store. Then he sold all of them. He sold his house and some of the prized possessions he acquired when business was good. Soon, Lisa left him.

He now lives in his mother's basement and works in a distribution warehouse packing anything from diapers, detergent, and stereos to food, hardware, and toys, dispatching them to all corners of the country. He does this with speed and efficiency. Nobody reports to him. Nobody calls him the locomotive. He does not run the show. He is one amongst many working in the neon-lit bowels of a building so large you need a bicycle or a golf cart to go from one end to the other.

While going through the daily, dreary, mechanical motions of packing and sorting, the conveyor belt in constant motion, he often thinks about his mother who needs more of his help these days. He thinks about Lisa and the kids. He has not seen them since Christmas. He thinks about the hundred missteps in his life and how he could have been a star athlete, or a computer programmer, or the owner of a fast-food restaurant, or a family man. He remembers being called the locomotive and all the train rides to community college and wonders how things would have turned out if he stayed with sprinting, or with computers, or with the fast-food business instead of moving around. He is now just another anonymous employee packing hundreds of boxes, day after day. But he feels a certain calm knowing that consumers will always buy things, and there always will be a need for people like him. In a life full of motion, he's made a hundred previous missteps, but this just feels right. He feels safe and secure in the ordinariness of his existence. As he stares into the distance along the long aisle that feels like a deep canyon, he hears a steady beep and sees a robot carrying a package to the loading dock.

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Carrie Kartman · ago
Another fine tale; the world awaits the next one!

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