First, a brief overview of the plot…
Two small town young men stumble upon a train filled with tons of high-tech media gear. On board they find a stow-a-way – a crazy old sage who calls himself the King of Trains. The King has been living on trains, in self described “exile”, since the 1970s. The King too has ended up on this specific train by accident, and as the train suddenly begins moving down the track, it becomes obvious that the three of them are now stuck together in a serious adventure. This adventure includes their discovery that there is something very suspicious about the earth’s impending collision with a comet and that government and big business seem to have formed some sort of surprising yet temporary alliance. They have also discovered that the train is being driven by a narcissistic college sociology professor who has utopian plans of his own for the high-tech equipment on board.
If you’re a fan of political satire, Christopher Buckley, or the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, then you’ll love The King of Trains!
A train had come to a somewhat abrupt stop in the railroad crossing just ahead of my pick-up truck. Behind the crossing a couple of the train cars had come off the track and made that accordion shape trains sometimes make when the front end stops faster than the back end. The cars were not tipped over. Nothing was smoking or on fire. And because I was pretty sure Jarred and I were going to be stuck at that railroad crossing for a while, I thought it would be a fine idea to get out of the truck, walk over to the train, and make sure everyone was alright.
Jarred was my neighbor. We had spent the majority of that morning sitting around the Wheatville job bank, hoping to pick up a day labor gig.
Wheatville, Washington is a farming town with a deceiving name. There isn’t any wheat grown there. Actually, the town is rather famous for its lentils. But sometime during the great depression, Wheatville’s city counsel members were feeling serious pressure to create jobs after a neighboring town’s mayor was killed. He was found hanged by the neck in a tree at the entrance of the recently vacated Sundance potato processing plant. Supposedly the mayor (a man who had himself lost his parent’s fortune to speculation) had confused his recent election with a mandate from the people to punish the wealthy folks who he deemed responsible for the great depression. When the town’s folk caught word that the mayor had denied Sundance a zoning permit that could have preserved the plant and their jobs, they formed a mob and hung him. So much for the mandate. To avoid the gallows themselves, Wheatville’s town leaders were laying out the red carpet for whatever business looked their way. Word had come that Henry Amstel, of Amstel Grain & Flour Co., was looking at eastern Washington and the Snake River to construct a new mill and train depot. As part of their bid to attract Mr. Amstel, the city counsel changed the town’s name from New Chicago to Wheatville. They had even printed five thousand custom grain bags to present to Mr. Amstel. Amstel Grain & Flour Co. Wheatville, Washington.
However, the truth was that Mr. Amstel already knew where he was going to build his new mill and train depot. The news traveling west, that the company was prospecting for a new location, was just some creative public relations at the dawn of Public Relations. In fact, for the two years prior to the announcement of the Amstel Grain & Flour Co. expansion, Mr. Amstel had been buying many of the small and connected lots of land about 40 miles north of Wheatville. But he was not buying the land in his own name. A man ahead of his time, Amstel was buying it through the use of 16 shell companies that masked his intentions. If any of the local law makers became aware that the land was actually being purchased by Mr. Amstel, they would have rushed to levy new business property taxes on all of his future purchases. By the time Wheatville’s city counsel had come to recognize what Mr. Amstel was up to, it was too late to cash in.
The town that sprung up around the new flour mill quickly became Wheatville high school’s fieriest football rival. In fact most of Wheatville’s residence would spit when anyone mentioned the Amstel Tigers. But then one day, in the 1970’s, the Amstel Grain & Flour Co. suddenly closed. All the town’s people left and the buildings fell apart. There was nothing left but the old train depot they used to load and unload goods off the barges that ran up and down the Snake River.
At about noon a call came in to the job bank that a home builder needed a couple of guys to unload terracotta roofing tiles from a flatbed truck. And that is where we were headed when all this mess with the train started – toward the northwest edge of town, in the direction of the eight half-built homes that represented Wheatville’s new urban sprawl. The development was called The Shawls at Broken Coyote. The homes were built by Morris Homes. Construction was financed by Unity Bank. It was a project Mayor Schindler took most of the credit for.
At the sight of the blocked road and derailed train cars, Jarred took a break from complaining about the fucking Juan’s costing him millions by using the emergency rooms as doctors’ offices and started complaining about how typical this shit was of all the stupid fucking jobs the job bank sent us on. Jarred complained about everything, but I was pretty sure there was nothing typical about a train wreck. I was also pretty sure that until that moment neither one of us had ever actually seen one. I took a deep breath, pulled up the parking brake, and reminded myself that by 6:00 p.m. Jarred would be back in his miserable trailer with his fat old lady, and I would be free from his constant complaining.
Jarred’s old lady was fat. Her name was Jolene, which she always thought was so funny because it was like a woman’s version of the name Jarred. She just could not believe that she ended up marrying a man with the male equivalent of her name. I never really considered that a man and a woman could have equivalent names until I met Jolene. Jolene was 12-years-older than Jarred. She liked to tell everyone that she went to high school with Jarred’s mother. Jarred likes to remind everyone that that is impossible because his mother never made it to high school. Jolene was the assistant manager at the Wheatville Pizza Hut. She had worked there so long she could remember when you used to be able to sit in the restaurant and it had a salad bar and waitresses. She would always get so sentimental when she talked about corporate removing the salad bar. This was puzzling because as fat as she was, she did not look like the kind of girl who sat around eating salad all day. But I did not know her back then.
Jarred and I had grown up together, but had never really been friends. He would tell you we had been friends since we were five. Small town folks can be funny like that. Never really friendly but always been your friend. Jarred and I had picked up ties over the last ten months. That was the point in time that I unknowingly rented the trailer directly next to his in the Pheasant Run trailer park. See, in trailer renting there is not much in the way of due diligence. Had I walked around a bit, checked that management kept the gravel roads oiled, and introduced myself to the neighbors, I would have seen that Jarred was one of them. I could have moved on up the road and checked out trailers at River Vista. But I did not. So there I was. Neighbor and “friend” of Jarred’s.
If Jarred did have one redeeming quality it was that he was always unemployed, which made him a good person to go looking for work with. The morning of the train wreck Jarred was a bit sluggish. He had been up all night fighting with Jolene about keeping their dogs separated. See, Jolene’s father had died and she had come into possession of some bitch German Short-hair, a pointer (a bird dog if you don’t know). It had “papers”, as she kept saying over and over, and she was sure Jarred’s pound dog was trying to fuck it. She didn’t want her papered dog fucked by a pound dog because she had plans to breed the bitch. Anyway, an argument had led to Jarred working early into the morning on a fence inside their fence that separated the two dogs from one another. But the fence had not done any good. By the time I had stepped out onto the porch the following morning, that old pound dog had dug a hole under the fence and was fucking the shit out of that papered bitch. Now, I had a friend who worked at the pound and I knew that they neutered all of the dogs before people adopted them so Jarred’s dog wasn’t going to impregnate anything, but Jarred and Jolene didn’t know that. It certainly wasn’t my business to tell them.
As we approached the train, Jarred began hollering, “Hello? Anybody in there?” There was no reply.
“I smell gas. Do you smell gas?” Jarred asked.
“No,” I replied. There was no smell of gas. There was no spilled gas. Jarred was just looking for a way to suggest we turn around and get out of there. I continued walking up to the train. It was so quiet. There were no creeks of settling metal. There was no engine noise or spinning iron wheels. Not even the occasional hiss of a cracked hydraulic line. It was as if the derailed train had been sitting there for months. I got to the side of the train car. I thought I might look into the window, to see if there was anybody in there, but the windows were still a good foot taller than my eyes. I turned to Jarred, who was kneeling down and looking under the train, “just checking to see if there’s any gas leaking,” he said.
“Come over here and give me a boost,” I said. “I want to look in these windows to see if there’s anybody in there.”
Jarred came over, put his knuckles together, and then started trying to tie his fingers in knots, to give me something to stand on. He was having a hell of a time.
“Just lock your fingers together and give me a boost.”
“I’m trying, man.”
Jarred had never actually given anyone a boost before. He wasn’t someone who others thought they could count on to lift them up. Jarred was becoming frustrated. I kept trying to put my foot in his finger bowl, but every time I put any weight on the thing it would crumble and my foot would kick down into the gravel that lined the railroad track. “Just hold your hands together – I don’t weigh that much!” Jarred unlocked his hands – got on his knees, and pushed both his hands into the gravel, making a table with his back.
“Just get on,” he said.
“Stand on your back?” I asked.
“Just do it,” he said, defeated. “I put lotion on my hands before we left the job bank and now I can’t hold them together.”
I stepped up to Jarred and put one foot on his back.
“Where did you get the lotion?” I asked.
“From Ms. Evan’s desk,” he replied.
“Why?” I asked.
“So she would think I smelled good,” Jarred said.
I grabbed the outside rim of the train’s window with both hands and pulled my other foot up to Jarred’s back.
“Wouldn’t she just think you smelled like her?” I asked. He did not answer. “Did you ask her for the lotion?”
“No, I grabbed it from her desk when she went next door to ask Howard if he had heard anything more about that comet. Now just drop it and look in the god damn window.”
I stopped looking down at Jarred and looked up at the sky, suddenly remembering the comet. Its science name was B/11 Lester or something like that, but it was nicknamed Copperfield’s Comet – after the Las Vegas illusionist David Copperfield. This is because the trajectory of the comet was such that it seemed to disappear and reappear almost like magic, as it ducked behind the moon and other “heavenly bodies”. This made it very hard to see. I had not seen it. No one I’d known had seen it. And it was almost impossible for astronomers to track exactly where it was headed. Scientists expected the comet to come dangerously close to earth, and soon, but because it had been over 200 million years since the last comet had hit the earth, the media was assuring the public that it was impossible that this comet had any real chance of crashing into us. Unlike other comets, which are generally discovered by “amateur astronomers”, this comet was discovered by government scientists tracking important space events from an installation in Ohio – whatever an installation is. Because the comet’s movement was so unusual, only the very best of the amateur astronomers claimed to have even seen it, and only for a few moments at a time – which earned them jobs at the installation. The government had released some photos of the comet, which looked like a blurry star with a blurry tail. Other amateur astronomers who had been unable to locate the comet themselves verified that the photos looked like other comets they had seen. Looking into the afternoon sky, I didn’t see anything.
Jarred grunted and I pulled my head up above my hands and looked into the train car window.
“Damn!” I yelled down to Jarred.
“What is it? Are they all dead?” Jarred asked as he began to sway under my feet.
“No,” I said. “These windows are tinted. I can’t see anything inside. We’ll have to try and open one of the doors.”