By Albert Chen
October 16, 2003
I need to speak with you urgently but I can’t. The electricity is out in the city and I am sitting in the tunnel leading up to the station. We have been stopped here for some time and there is no phone reception; so I am taking the time to write you this letter even though no one writes letters any more.
I know we’ve had some challenges lately, and I know we are trying to work things out.
We haven’t been happy for some time. Last night was only the most recent incident in what has been a long string of incidents. You have been saying a lot of things but until recently I have not been listening.
And yet something you said this morning really struck a chord with me; I have spent the time in the tunnel thinking about another stopped train fourteen years ago…
* * *
We had been stopped a mile from the station. And in the steaming sun, the wheat fields gleamed over-bright with amber. We were near the end of the line and the few people remaining on the train drew the shades against the sun and closed the doors to trap the conditioned air.
In the curtain-darkened car, I sat restless, unwilling to re-read my book, unwilling to sit quietly. To pass the time, I got up and walked the length of the train.
Each successive car was the same, shades drawn, and people asleep or reading or speaking in low tones. Quiet filled the space and an oppressive claustrophobia of canned air settled around me. I passed the cafe car, through first class to the last car.
When I opened the door, I was met with a vast difference. Every window was thrown open, and the curtains billowed with hot air. At the end of the car, the door lay gaping at the endless miles of track.
I walked to the doorway.
She sat on the last step with her elbows propped on her knees and was smoking a cigarette.
She looked out at the Midwest vastness and paid little attention to the heat and sun. She wore a men’s “A” shirt with a button-down tied around her waist. With her hair in a ponytail, I could see the muscles in her back move as she raised the cigarette. She made no outward movement of acknowledgement as I sat next to her except to smoke her cigarette and look out into the field.
And it was silent for a while; the hot breeze blowing along the wheat, the endless track marked by telephone poles curving out to the horizon. The smell of cigarette smoke tinted the summer air. I didn’t smoke, but it smelled good.
I turned my head to catch a glimpse of her face through her bangs and as I did, the sun turned her hair to gold.
She knocked the butt off the end of the cigarette and dropped it onto the gravel between the tracks. I reached into my pocket and pulled out a tin of lemon drops. I was about to offer her one when she spoke:
“How much money would it take for you to drop that tin?”
“Come again?” I asked.
“How much would it take for me to take your lemon drops and throw them away?”
“These cost 75 cents if that’s what you mean.”
“So for 75 cents I could take the candy from your hands and throw them away and you wouldn’t care?”
“I am not sure I understand.”
“I was sitting here thinking about how much money it would take for me not to care if you took my cigarette from my mouth and throw it on the ground. The cigarette probably cost twenty cents, but if you gave me twenty cents and then took my cigarette and threw it away, I would probably be mad.”
I was silent, speechless really.
“If you put five dollars in my hand,” she said. “And then threw away my cigarette, I probably wouldn’t be mad… unless it was my last cigarette.”
“Wait,” I said, “you are saying you were sitting here thinking how much money it would take for someone to deprive you of something and it still be okay?”
“Yeah, I was thinking what it would be like to be rich.”
“That’s not what its like to be rich.”
“How do you know? Are you rich?”
“No, not really, but I know that isn’t what I would do if I were rich.”
“To each their own I suppose.”
“You don’t know me.”
“No, I don’t, but that is crazy.”
She turned to me for the first time and I saw that she had hazel eyes.
“I was sitting here thinking how much money it would take to be able to tell someone to go screw, no matter what the consequence.”
“I still don’t understand what you are talking about. Money isn’t about doing anything you want.”
“Isn’t it though? Doesn’t money give you the freedom? Doesn’t it give you the power?”
“I think that’s really short-sighted.”
“Perhaps, I was just thinking about it though.”
I thought for a while. How much would it take for someone to take something I was using and I wouldn’t care.
“‘Fuck you’ money.” she said
“I read it in a book, they called it drop dead money, but I like ‘fuck you’ money better. It is the amount it would take to be able to do what you wanted.”
“Hang on a sec here; there are two things you are talking about. There is the money it would take to be okay if someone took something of yours away and there is the amount of money that it would take to be able to walk away from anything. It’s really two different things. “
“I don’t see it.”
“Okay, if you were in a fast-food place getting a burger and I walked up to you, gave you some money and took your meal away. That amount of money is the first case.
The second is the amount of money it would take for you to turn down an offer of something.”
“What kind of offer?”
“I don’t know, a job, a promotion, a proposal.”
“If I had a Big Mac, you would have to hand me fifty bucks for it to be okay.”
“If you didn’t ask, put fifty-dollars in my hand and took the Big Mac out of my other hand it would be okay.”
“Isn’t fifty-dollars a little high?”
“I’d think twenty at the most; I could just buy another one.”
“What if there was a long line? What if you were hungry? What if there wasn’t enough time? No, it would take fifty-bucks.”
“Wait a minute, that’s not what we were talking about.”
“That is exactly what I was talking about. Let’s escalate. Let’s say you were riding your bike, I stopped you, handed you a thousand dollars and took your bike. Would that be enough?”
“How much was the bike?”
“Exactly. You have to think about it. How much so that you wouldn’t have to think about it?”
“You have to think about it. What if it was a thousand dollar bike? What if I really needed to get somewhere?”
“Doesn’t matter. Ten thousand? A hundred thousand? A million?”
“I’ve never thought about it.”
“Five-thousand? How did you get to that?”
“That’s the point. It’s the amount so that it doesn’t matter.”
“That doesn’t make sense though; you aren’t taking to account the circumstances.”
“But that’s the point. It does take into account the circumstances. Five thousand is what it would take for the circumstances not to matter.”
“You are frustrating you know.”
“That’s what they tell me.”
“Okay, how about a car?”
“You know, it’s interesting. I asked a friend about this and they said the price of a new car.”
“How do you mean?”
“They said the price of a new car. They said that because the car depreciates, that all it would take is the price of a new car.”
“Do you agree?”
“So how much?”
“What if your car was worth more?”
“But aren’t you taking into account the circumstance now?”
“I am taking into account the circumstance and thinking about how much it would be.”
“But what if the car were worth more?’
“I don’t understand.”
“It’s okay, you don’t need to.”
“Is there some sort of formula you’re using?”
“Not really. I mean, I guess sort of. It’s just how much things mean to me I guess. That’s a formula right?”
“I meant a mathematical formula. Like a certain times the cost of the item.”
“Nothing like that, but if you think about it, it is not the same for everything. I mean maybe it is a certain multiplier for one item, but a different one for a more expensive one. But then, what if something has no value?”
“Sentimental value or irreplaceable, But then how can you put a monetary value on it?”
“How do the courts do it?” she asked.
“What do you mean?”
“I break something irreplaceable, or something with sentimental value. There is a monetary value to the item, but it doesn’t replace the item. Let’s say you sue me. You would ask for a certain amount – to cover pain and suffering. It’s kind of the same thing.”
“I guess that makes sense.”
“Ooh, I had a thought. How much if I punched you in the nose right now?”
“What!? You are crazy, you know that?”
“It’s a good intellectual puzzle though. How much to punch someone, or chop off their leg, or kill them?”
“That is ridiculous.”
“What if it would make something else okay? Kind of like the yakuza? They chop off a finger if they do something wrong.”
“That is brutal and sociopathic.”
“I guess so. It is interesting to think about though. It challenges convention.”
“And that’s what you like to do?”
“Challenge convention? I guess so. I mean, it makes for interesting conversation doesn’t it?”
“I guess so.” Interesting” is a good word for it.
“You don’t think about things like that?”
“Can’t say I do.”
“It must be boring.”
“I don’t think so. At least I didn’t think so.”
“What do you think about when you daydream?”
“I don’t think I daydream anymore.”
“That’s really sad. When you walk into a bank, you don’t think about how to rob it? Or don’t you wonder how the clutch works in a car?”
“I don’t. Really.”
“Wow, not to wonder. That sounds really boring.”
“I’ve never thought about it.”
“What were you thinking when the train stopped?”
“That I was going to be late.”
“How I was going to get home.”
“After all of that, after you started to get bored and before you decided to walk to the end of the train.”
“I didn’t think of anything.”
“You must have thought of something.”
“I didn’t want to read my book again.”
“I was bored.”
“Okay, so what did you think about?”
“I thought about walking the rest of the way to the station.”
“So did I.”
“I thought about how hot it was outside.”
“So did I.”
“I thought about how everyone else was just sitting there and letting things happen to them.”
“See, so was I.”
“I wondered what was in the rest of the train.”
“So you got up and walked.”
“What did you think about when you got to the end?”
“Look, I know I am boring. Life does that to you.”
“It doesn’t have to.”
“You learn to be practical and realistic. It’s one of life’s lessons.”
“Because there is no time in the day for anything else?”
“But now you have time. You always have time, but people stop being creative because people don’t think they have time.”
“It’s an interesting thought.”
“You don’t have a girlfriend, do you?”
“Why do you say that?”
“Either you don’t have a girlfriend or she is not very inspiring. Boring men are usually uninspired.”
“My last girlfriend was very inspiring!”
“I knew it. She was inspiring, but now she is gone.”
“So you are boring. You think about work and where you are going, but you don’t think about how you are getting there or where else you could be going. You don’t think about life and don’t take advantage of life. You don’t let life surprise you. “
She put a finger into my face.
“It makes me sick the way you are wasting your life.”
“I hardly think…”
“Exactly, you hardly think.”
“Now wait a minute…”
“No, you wait a minute! Maybe you have a girlfriend, but she is probably bored out of her mind. But I don’t think you have one and the reason probably is she was too bored of you!”
I had nothing to say. She was shaking, she was so angry. Then she turned sharply away and looked back over the horizon. I just looked at her in profile. Her nose was lightly freckled and the dirty blonde hair gave the impression of the all-American girl. Her lashes were dark and swept the air as she blinked. She was young, but then again, at the time I was too, and her adamant attitude only lent to a very attractive strength.
While we were silent I thought about what she said about being boring. Truth be told, I was boring. I had just finished school, I was working for the first time, and the transition from the hedonism in college to a routine in the work day that I felt was very mature and healthy.
At the same time, what she said was right too.
I tried to think of something to say, something in my defense about living, about work, about girlfriends, but I couldn’t think of anything.
Then, her shoulders slumped and she turned back to me, defeated.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “That got out of hand. I don’t even know you.”
“No, its not. I just get carried away about people.”
“No, you were right, I am boring and I shouldn’t be. I should take the time to look at life.”
“And enjoy it.”
“And enjoy it.”
“Don’t be. It gives me something to think about.”
“Yeah, you should always have something to think about.”
“Be inspired,” she said.
“It’s not always that easy.”
“Mister, can I give you some advice? Something to help you on your way?
“Sure,” I said.
She leaned over and kissed me long and hard. I could taste the cigarette from her mouth with my lemon drop.
“Daydream and dream,” she said when we were done. “Daydream and dream, it’s a good mantra.”
Before we had time to become uncomfortable, the train made a lurch as if starting to move.
“We should go back in,” I said.
“You go ahead,” she replied, and shook out the last cigarette from her pack.
I got up and brushed off my pants.
She lit her cigarette, put her elbows on her knees and looked out at the sun setting over the wheat field.
I pulled a five from my pants pocket and handed it to her.
“Don’t smoke, its not good for you,” I said.
She looked at her cigarette, looked at me, smiled, and then tossed it onto the tracks.
* * *
What you said really struck a chord this morning, and I have spent the time in the tunnel thinking about another stopped train fourteen years ago.
I know you were angry when you said I was boring, but I have learned that anger doesn’t make you say things that you don’t mean, it often makes you say things you can’t say otherwise. And you know, you are right. I am boring. I am uninspired.
Years ago while on a stopped train in the middle of a wheat field, I learned why I was boring. I just didn’t understand it then. And now, I am thinking of the taste of cigarettes and lemon drops. I am thinking of hot air blowing through an empty train car. And I am thinking of how much money it would take to simply walk away. You know what? It’s not all that much.
I am thinking about a lot of things, I am thinking why trains break down. I am thinking about how to rob a bank. I am thinking about fifty-dollar Big Macs – I don’t expect you to understand.
You see, what you said struck a chord – and while I’ve been beating myself up for it, I’ve been thinking, and I remembered that there is more than one reason that one might be boring and uninspired. I am thinking of a promise I made to a young girl fourteen years ago, and I’ve decided that when the electricity comes back on, I am going away for a while. I am going to find a stopped train on a gold wheat field. I am going to find the taste of lemon drops and cigarettes. I may not find any of those things, but I know that I will find the time to daydream and dream.