How the Lonesome Engine Drivers Pine
Fiction by Sean Madden
Ethan Lynch is an amateur astrophysicist. He is also a jazz aficionado and, like yours truly, drives part-time for Finest City Limo. Occasionally the two of us go out for drinks.
Last October, at a lounge in Point Loma, Ethan had one too many and went off on a theory about the cosmos. He ordered another Tecate from the bar and compared the golden pint to the universe. “These bubbles floating to the surface,” he pointed out, “are like little solar systems, and ours is one of them. And we’re all flying through space, see, and for us it feels like there’s no end in sight. But eventually, it’s all just going to pop, and everything we know’ll become nothing more than foam.”
Before Ethan could take a first sip, I downed his beer and closed our tab.
I’m a theorist in my own right, though I have no good way of explaining how later that miserably hot autumn, just days after invoking her daughter’s name while talking to myself, Mrs. Flynn, the mother of a girl I used to work with as a teenager, materialized in the food court at the Escondido mall, eating a chicken Caesar salad. When I saw her I was standing in a nearby electronics store, killing time before a gig, browsing for one of those alarm clocks that replicates rainforest sounds. I hadn’t journeyed inland since the summer. Normally I stick to the coast, whether I’m on the job or not. It’s cooler out here. The hills are a little less brown, less scorched. That afternoon I’d broken routine to help another driver named Troy, in whose place I would later chauffeur a bunch of teenagers to the Poway High homecoming dance. Troy sings for a sludge doom band called Goblin Larva, and had to switch around his schedule that evening so he could open for some outfit called Scythewinder at the Belly Up Tavern. He knew I could use the extra cash.
But Mrs. Flynn. Before homecoming there was Mrs. Flynn. I waited until she was done with her meal. Then I followed her out to the parking lot and tailed her home.
Her blue Volvo station wagon, the one in which she used to pick up Fiona from the Big Wave, snaked through a San Marcos subdivision. Townhouses in the Tuscan style typical of North San Diego County. Jack-o’-lanterns grinned from porches. I parked the limo up the street, where half-dead daylilies flanked patchy lawns. Mrs. Flynn eased into her driveway; I watched in my rearview as she stepped out of her car. She studied the limo expectantly, as if at any moment some famous local might pop right up through the sunroof. When nothing so extraordinary happened, she disappeared behind a stuccoed alcove, and I, running late, fled the scene.
I mention talking to myself. Soliloquy, I think, is the term for it. I got in the habit a few years back. I examine my past out loud. Try to make sense of things that way.
After San Marcos, I got Ethan on the horn.
“So you and this Fiona,” he said, amidst the din of an In-N-Out Burger, our favorite fast food joint, “worked at the water park together.”
Her name on his breath conjured up decade-old snapshots I’d taken with the camera of my head. The sunsoaked reflection of Double Drop in the mirrored lenses of her Wayfarers. The revelation of a pierced navel whenever her fuchsia staff polo came untucked. The whistle between her lips. “We moderated the slides back then,” I said.
“That place closed down.”
“Casualty of the drought.” On the north side of Rancho Bernardo, a master-planned community overrun, I hear, with geriatrics, I passed by the once flush Lake Hodges, now a reedy marsh. “With all the restrictions, I feel guilty just drinking from the tap.”
Ethan laughed. “Meisner, you’re a madman. If you have anything to feel guilty about, it’s stalking this woman. You know you could’ve gotten yourself into trouble. It’s borderline criminal what you did.”
Ethan, the son of a retired cop, is leery of the socially deviant. The quiet ones, he says, are the most dangerous, the most likely to perpetrate the big crimes, like rape, murder. My aloofness around girls worries him. Impassioned pep talks and booze do little to change my behavior. At the bars I try to engage with the opposite sex, but for all my efforts I inevitably withdraw from conversation. Ethan says I get a glint in my eye then, like I’m thinking wicked thoughts. All I know is, ever since I’ve started talking to myself, I tend not to remain present for long.
“I wasn’t stalking her,” I said.
“What were you doing, then?”
“I just wanted a second look.”
“Jury’d love that.” I heard Ethan tear the wrapper off his cheeseburger, and my stomach grumbled. “You got some blue balls for this woman?”
“Not Mrs. Flynn,” I said. “I had a crush on her daughter.”
“Ever do anything about it?”
Ethan clicked his tongue the way he always does at my self-induced tragedies. “Where’s Fiona now?”
“Louisville, as far as I know.”
“She won a scholarship to a school out there.”
“I got an aunt in the Bluegrass. Nasty storm moving through those parts tonight.”
“Meanwhile it’s 95 degrees in Southern California.”
Ethan slurped from his straw. “I read someplace the other day that Kentucky has more running water than any other state in the continental U.S.”
I harbored a long-held hypothesis as to why this was, but didn’t feel much like going there with Ethan. Luckily he changed the subject.
“You listen to the latest disc by chance?”
He was referring to the mix CD he’d given me the week prior, one of many since we’d met on the job. “No,” I said. “Why?”
“At first I thought ‘Cyprus Avenue’ had inspired you to follow Mrs. Flynn.”
“Track eleven,” Ethan clarified.
I hadn’t yet heard the tune. Rarely do I listen to his mixes all the way through. Most of the music he shares with me isn’t exactly meant to be enjoyed. It’s a lot of stuff he finds notably weird. Some jazz, some not.
“Van Morrison,” he went on. “Off Astral Weeks.”
“‘Brown-Eyed Girl’ on that one?” I teased.
“Shit no. And forget ‘Brown-Eyed Girl,’ and ‘Moondance’ while you’re at it. ‘Cyprus Avenue,’ and Astral Weeks, in general, are more sophisticated. Headier. Listen to the song. It’s about you.”
I told him I was flattered, and we hung up.
The dashboard’s built-in GPS led me deep into Poway, Rancho Bernardo’s more rustic neighbor, made ugly over the years by wildfires and the ensuing lack of rain. Think charred hills, parched eucalyptus groves. Incidentally, there’s some money out that way, on the east side of town. A few Padres and ex-Chargers own mansions, horse property.
I entered through the gate of Palomino Estates, an older neighborhood with its very own park and rec center and, if I had to guess, a Neiman Marcus catalog in every mailbox.
Outside the single-story ranches, trucks idled. Teenagers clustered. The boys playfully tugged on each other’s neckties, while the girls, trying to preserve their hard-won glamour, shielded faux-lashed eyes from the sun. Everywhere, lawns had been ripped up and replaced with elaborate cacti gardens and drought-resistant shrubs, on account of peer pressure, I assume, as much as ethics and disposable income. Against the muted ochres and mauves of these ubiquitous dryscapes, the girls’ sequined, jewel-toned gowns popped.
My passengers, eight in all, were tucked back in a cul-de-sac, posing together for a flock of fortysomething, photo-snapping mothers. I got out and apologized to everyone for my tardiness and opened the back door for the kids to pile in. The girls went first. Then the boys, all of whom had buzz cuts but one. The outlier’s strawberry blond mane veiled his eyes. Sweat stained the back of his suit jacket in the shape of a diamond. He reeked of Brut.
“Sweet ride,” he told me, sincerely, as I shut the door behind his spicy stink.
Atonal rap blared from the rear compartment as we crossed into Carmel Mountain Ranch: a suburb of condominiums, driving ranges, strip malls. I dropped everybody off at a California Pizza Kitchen by the freeway and parked in the shade next to a limo nearly identical to mine but facing the opposite direction; its winged hood ornament aimed at a T.G.I. Fridays.
I got a text from Troy. “Young ones behaving themselves?” it read. “So far, so good,” I wrote back, and wished him best of luck with the show.
Troy had left Roasted Flesh, Goblin Larva’s latest EP, in my vehicle’s stereo as a prize for picking up his gig. I appreciated the gesture, but his music couldn’t frighten me more, so I was happy to eject the disc and replace it with Ethan’s mix. I skipped ahead to the eleventh track and closed my eyes and understood by the end of the third verse why he’d encouraged me to listen.
In “Cyprus Avenue,” Van Morrison plays the part of a guy who watches girls from his car, only these girls, unlike Mrs. Flynn, or Fiona, at the time I knew her, are underaged. They walk home from school down a tree-lined street in the autumn sunlight. The guy Van plays is in love with one of them, madly, but he can’t have her because she’s too young and that drives him crazy. His attraction to her is perverse, forbidden. It agonizes him. He gets so worked up that his heart races. He can’t keep his feet from kicking the floorboard. He hallucinates about her, swigs cherry wine and goes for a stroll along the train tracks of his mind. He imagines her as some kind of princess, riding high in a horse-drawn carriage. She wears rainbow ribbons in her hair.
I liked the song all right, aside from some of the instrumentation. The harpsichord, for all its ebullience, was grating. And though I found Van’s persona interesting, I was more curious about the lonesome engine drivers, these minor characters who crop up out of nowhere, who in a single line hang out at the train yards with nothing to do but pine and then are never mentioned again. Who were these guys, I wondered, and what exactly did they want? Why were they just sitting around instead of riding the rails?
When the twelfth track, a sort of meditative flute thing, began, I opened my eyes to see Strawberry Blond exit the restaurant with his date. They sat down together on one of the benches near the door. She gave him a stern look and told him something, and then he broke down in tears, and she left him there as if his crying meant nothing. I considered going to him but decided it wasn’t my place. That if at his age someone had come to comfort me like that I would have been humiliated. Eventually some other girl found him and took a seat there on the bench and held him in her arms. He cried some more, and they talked and within a few minutes were back inside.
An hour passed and dinner ended. I pulled the limo up to the curb. For some reason the GPS had gone glitchy, and I didn’t own a smartphone then, so when Strawberry knocked on the glass and asked if I minded his riding up with me, I said, “Okay,” because I needed his help with directions to the school.
“Just go back the way we came,” he said, buckling his seatbelt.
The rest of the kids clambered in, and the rap music resumed, but with the partition rolled up, you couldn’t really hear it.
“Thanks,” said Strawberry, as we set off. “I needed a break from everybody.”
After turning onto the main road, I started to feel as if his cologne might asphyxiate me. “Mind cracking your window?” I said. “A little stuffy in here.”
He obliged without a word, and warm evening air filled the cabin. The air-conditioning, by necessity, stayed on.
I introduced myself as Andrew, and Strawberry said, “Blake.”
“You having a good time, Blake?” I ventured.
“You know I’m not.”
Surprised and slightly embarrassed to have been caught spying on him, I admitted to having seen “something,” but what exactly, I wouldn’t say.
Blake squinted into the distance under his side-parted shelf of hair. It was a practiced look, something he might have seen a teen idol do in a movie. “Nicole decided it’d be great if we just went as friends tonight. Said she wasn’t ‘feeling it’ anymore.”
“Nicole your girlfriend?”
“You love her?”
It was a pointed question I didn’t expect him to answer, and, at first, he didn’t. He only brooded, with arms crossed firmly over his abdomen. Then he unpinned the boutonniere from his lapel, and, after putting his window all the way down, tossed it out.
“Littering’s a crime, you know,” I joked, but Blake didn’t seem in the mood. He was too sullen to smile.
“I could hardly sit next to her at dinner,” he offered, his arms crossed again. “I didn’t even touch my pasta.”
I asked who came out to see him afterward, and when he mumbled, “My stepsister,” all I could think to say was, “There’re worse things.” I turned up the stereo. “Like music?”
“Ever heard of Van Morrison?”
I skipped back to the eleventh track. “A friend of mine burned me this CD.” The opening chords of “Cyprus Avenue” tumbled out of the speakers. “Tell me what you think.”
After tolerating the first twelve bars, Blake said, “This sounds old. And that one instrument is pretty annoying.”
“I don’t know that I care for it myself.” I switched discs then for the hell of it, to see if he’d like Goblin Larva any better. The opening cut off Roasted Flesh, “Obelisk (Ruination),” came on like a banshee shrieking underwater.
Then Blake’s phone beeped. Hastily he retrieved it from his jacket pocket.
“Nicole?” I asked.
Texting intently, he seemed not to hear me.
“Sorry,” he said. “It’s her.”
“No worries,” I said. “I loved a girl once, at your age.”
Blake’s thumbs beat out the message as if his life depended on it, but I carried on, if only to slip into the past and perhaps get an outsider’s take on the stuff of my private ramblings.
“Summer before senior year,” I said, killing Troy’s dirge, “I was a slide moderator at a water park in Vista. They just closed their doors. The Big Wave. Maybe you’ve been. But I worked there with this girl, Fiona, who was a year older than me, and I was in love with her. From afar, you know. I never had a Nicole when I was growing up. Fiona and I hardly ever spoke. She probably didn’t even know my name.
“But there was this one afternoon, this afternoon, in July, or early August, maybe, when I caught her staring at me for a change. Or at least I think she was. It was hard to tell with her sunglasses on. But I remember it was a really busy day, just swarms of kids and their parents, and she was taking a break, leaning back against this railing near the Jetsetter. I was on the other side of the platform manning the Thunder Loop. I don’t know if these rides ring a bell with you, but they’re way up in the air. Seven stories or higher. And there I was, trying not to stare back, trying to do my job and play it cool, but then she did something that made it impossible for me to look away: she started untying the knot of her bikini top. I looked around to see if anyone else was seeing what I was seeing, but it was like it was just me and her, even though there had to have been about thirty other people around. And I thought she was just messing with me, but before I knew it, I had to tell the line of riders to hold on because Fiona’s top had come loose, and she was slipping it out from under the bottom of her work shirt.”
I paused for some sign of recognition from Blake, but he remained mute, glued to his phone.
“She held up the top,” I went on, sure that the next part would titillate him, “this green, ruffled top for me to see, pinched like this between two fingers. And I looked around again, but no one else had seemed to notice this beautiful girl undressing. I thought I was going crazy. And then the weirdest thing happened, the thing that haunts me to this day.”
I paused again, but Blake was still texting. Typing out a message that ran the full length of his screen. If I were a lesser man, not so tolerant of rudeness, I would’ve snatched the kid’s phone from his grip and chucked it out the window, like he had his boutonniere. But I just kept talking, for my own sake.
“She took the top,” I said, more to myself now, “and tossed it over her head, over the railing, down into the lazy river below, and I swear, I just know I saw her mouth the words, ‘Come find me.’ And then she disappeared down the stairs, and I kind of panicked, because nothing even remotely close to this had ever happened to me before. I knew what I had to do — there was only one thing to do — but I was an idiot. A complete idiot. I let a full minute pass before I asked the Jetsetter moderator to fill in for me, and then I rushed downstairs to find a whole mess of people and no Fiona in sight.
“After that day, I never saw her again. I asked somebody where she’d gone, and they said she’d quit. Gone off to college in Louisville. And that winter the rains never came,” I said, glancing at Blake, “if you were old enough then to remember, and now we’re in this drought, and it’s fire season year-round. And I just wonder if she’d have stayed, if I hadn’t have panicked, if I’d found her and given her a reason to stay, then maybe California would still be green, and we wouldn’t be frying in this heat a week before Halloween, and she wouldn’t have taken all the water with her to Kentucky.”
Finally Blake looked up from his phone, delighted, as if he’d just posted the all-time highest score on a neighborhood arcade game. “She wants to get back together,” he said.
At this, I slapped the steering wheel, and felt my foot pin the accelerator to the floorboard. The engine growled, and the already narrow gap between us and the SUV ahead grew tighter, but it wasn’t until our bumpers nearly kissed that I eased up and slowed down. I took a deep breath then, punched Goblin Larva back on, and, in spite of my jealousy, congratulated him. “If it’s all going to end in an instant one day,” I added, thinking of that bikini top falling through the air, “best to be with someone you love.”
Blake spoke again, but not in response, it became clear, to me or our near-collision; he’d been too busy staring at his phone to realize what had almost happened. “No offense, bro,” he said, turning the stereo down, “but your music taste sucks.”
For a moment, I said nothing. I just looked straight ahead and drove, mindful of the speed limit. There was a part of me still reeling from his news, a part of me that felt compelled to disprove Blake by reaching into the glovebox and putting on something I actually listened to. Like Keith Jarrett’s Fort Yawuh, or John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. Instead I kept Goblin Larva to a whisper, and laughed off the comment for the lighthearted jab I knew it was, so I wouldn’t find myself suddenly hating Blake for some juvenile reason. So I wouldn’t end up taking out my grief on him. My grief for having failed to act on my own good fortune. For having inadvertently compromised our state’s most precious resource. For squandering the all-too-sacred privileges of youth.
We arrived at the school, and Blake relieved me of his odor. I put the passenger window up and watched in my side mirror as he helped Nicole out of the rear compartment. The tonsil hockey began, and once the rest of the group spilled onto the curb, I was officially off the clock. From here, according to Troy, the kids were to attend the dance and then find their own ways home.
I returned to Carmel Mountain Ranch to have a late dinner at the In-N-Out Burger. Troy implored me via text to swing by an afterparty at Scythewinder’s bassist’s place in Pacific Beach. I considered the invitation over the last third of a strawberry milkshake, during which he’d added, “Quite a few babes here, man!”
“Thanks,” I replied, after dumping my trash. “But I have somewhere to be.”
I headed back toward the coast. Back to the rented pool house in Cardiff, where later I’d watch a documentary on the Amazon River and talk myself to sleep.
First I made a detour.
I left the limo idling in a court across the street. By now it was after nine. Most of the houses in the subdivision, including Mrs. Flynn’s, were dark. Her Volvo still sat in the drive.
On the way back to San Marcos, I’d given the meditative flute thing a few more listens. I’d thought again of Fiona. Her sunglasses, her pierced navel. The Big Wave.
One morning after Veterans Day, KUSI showed a crane dismantling the tubes. The lazy river, drained. Now it’s springtime, and soon the site will be home to an all-inclusive retirement center. I tell Ethan it’s just another part of the landscape altered. Another relic of a past life gone.
Later that autumn night, I texted Ethan about my encounter with Blake. What he’d said about Van’s song.
“Punk kid,” he wrote back. “That harpsichord is the shit.”
I’ve since come up with a theory about what those lonesome engine drivers pine for. But I think a part of me knew, long before I ever heard the song, before temperatures in San Diego could hit triple digits in mid-February, that there are places no train, no carriage, no set of wheels at all could possibly take us to.
The milkshake from In-N-Out had left me thirsty. Cottonmouthed. I snuck up to the side of Mrs. Flynn’s house and found the spigot. There was no hose. I knelt down before it and loosened the knob as far as it would go. The water came rushing out, and I drank. I let it run all over my lips and down my neck. I lapped it up like a dog. Like nothing had ever tasted so good. I drank as if Mrs. Flynn were watching me from above, as if it would storm overnight, as if Lake Hodges would overflow and flood the freeway. As if every lawn still remaining in Southern California would be as eternally green as Fiona’s bikini top. As if the bubble of humankind would rise and never, ever pop.
I drank and I drank till I was satisfied.