Just for a moment, Derek Hamilton sensed greatness. He had woken up in the middle of the night and was now getting over the shock of seeing the vast expanse of Utah floating by his window. Greatness. He felt it for a fraction of an instant. It was there in his grasp. It was right there...
The moment of spiritual awakening however, disintegrated as soon as Derek figured out where he was. He was on a train, the “California Zephyr” to be exact, and he was heading “home” after working for the summer as an office assistant on a ranch in Wyoming. As he listened to the soft rumble of the train on steel, with the minor creaks and grinds of the cabs sliding together, a calming, numb fog began to surround him. The engine was moving forward, the conductor was at the wheel, and that meant that Derek was where he was supposed to be. He was on a train heading toward San Francisco. All was in order. Nothing was particularly great.
But, awesome Utah! Outside the window was a cozy desert enclosed within glistening mountains. A crescent moon softly lit the frame created by the cabin window and to Derek, the view was both fantastic and intimidating. His awe and his terror were gripped into a singular emotion and it almost made Derek want to walk out naked into the wilderness, cold rocks crunching against his bare feet, until he passed out in the dust, whispering his last will and testament to the wind. The key word there was almost.
The man sitting next to him mumbled something out of his sleep tangled body. He was a nice hopeful businessman who thought it might be more enjoyable to get to Reno from Denver by train. Earlier he told Derek that he could see a little bit of the country and still meet his appointment in the morning. He didn’t look like he was sleeping that well in coach, though. He looked like a tired gorilla trying to scratch his back. One would have thought that his company might have sprung for a sleeper car.
“It’s not...” A recognizable mumble.
It’s not what? Derek wondered what the something unuttered could not be. It’s certainly not a bed.
“Nice and easy, baby. That’s it.” Another mumble from the man next to him.
Derek was starting to have a little fun, but after that the man curled up in the fetal position and said no more. Derek waited, but there was nothing left to entertain him and so he turned back toward the window, back to all that land and space where his mind started to conjure up memories and visions.
He remembered sitting on a secluded beach in the nude, the sun dipping in and out of clouds. He thought about the drunken nights in England, of him staggering out of the pubs by himself, content with a hearty buzz. Then Derek started to think about how all journeys behind glass tended to lend themselves to such mental wanderings. It was as if, in some strange way, they all ended up forming a disconnected tapestry, some pattern, some...
Yet, Derek didn’t want to think right now. He had thought too much already and there was so much left to sort out in his mind. You see his mind was a blur. It was a blur of jobs and women and mountains he had climbed and it was so much easier for him to just take that mess and place it in a little box in his head where the lid could be covered. Shutting the box and placing it in the far corner of his skull was far simpler than dealing with the chaos within it.
And so, with the memories and visions stored away safely for later unpacking, Derek felt the warm and enclosing sensation of sleep creep up his jeans to his T-shirt. When the sensation finally hit his eyes the stars, touchable in their distance, softly disappeared.
“So Derek, did I say anything of interest?” The business man was now awake. Derek knew his name started with a J—John...Joe...Jack?
“Uh, you mean while you were sleeping?”
“Yeah, my girlfriend always says I mumble when I’m sleeping.” Jared...Johnny, maybe it was Jose?
“Well, what was one of the things you said? Oh, you said, ‘Nice and easy, Baby.’”
“Oh yeah, I was having a dirty dream.” He looked into the space about four inches in front of him, seemingly amused with some image.
“I’m sorry, this is really bad, but what was your name again? I’ve been racking my mind and I feel really stupid because you remember mine. I can just see myself four years from now on a crowded street shouting something like, ‘Hey you!’ and then watching as everyone on the block turns around.” The currently untitled man smiled.
“It’s Jade. Hippie parents, remember?”
“It’s flooding back like the Red Sea after Moses walked through it.”
“Wow, Derek that was good. Moses, Red Sea, that’s good stuff. I’ll remember that one for my girlfriend.”
“Just remember to keep things nice and easy and you’ll be fine.” Another smile. Derek was on a roll.
At about this time Reno rolled up too. Jade got his carry-on stuff together said good-bye and headed out of the train into the “Biggest Little City in the World”. To be honest Derek had never seen a bigger little city. He never knew what the distinction was between a town and a city and so to name Reno the “Biggest Little City in the World” seemed to be a pretty clever use of the English language. The more Derek thought about it, the less sense it actually made, but he didn’t think about it for too long because he was now waving a farewell to a new friend, a friend that had probably been conceived in the back of some weed-filled theater showing Yellow Submarine, but a new friend just the same. Derek liked meeting new people. It made him happy to know that he would probably never be alone as long as he was open and willing to share himself with others. Nothing beats the cozy cuddly feeling of human connection.
But, as with most of Derek’s moods, the emotion was fleeting. As the train pulled away from Reno in order to begin its ascent into the towering Sierra Nevada Mountains he started to feel lonely. Nobody was sitting next to him and he didn’t want to make the effort to talk to anyone else.
Then a thought came into his head, brilliant in its urgency as he looked at the landscape: the only thing that he really wanted was for the woman of his dreams to be sitting next to him! But then the thought passed and he realized that he didn’t have any idea who that woman could be or, even if he did, the person that he wanted just wasn’t there. He felt an ache grow just below the heart. It was too scary to meet someone else because the world’s rejection could easily paralyze him within the cage of his own body.
Luckily, Derek was not lost to the feeling yet. Not lost by a long shot. It was true that he had been there many times. He often thought about loneliness while journeying from one place to the next. Whether that journey was by foot or by train he was always thinking about something, but even if that thing was good or bad, it was still just a thought.
So, with the river gliding below the train and the giant mountains blasting out of the earth around him, Derek decided to think about the times he came up into these mountains as a kid. Whether it was backpacking with a Boy Scout troop or with his family this land had always fascinated him. He had seen snow for the first time up here. He had also seen something like God up here once as well and, as the engine climbed higher and higher, so did his thoughts. As he careened around Donner Summit he couldn’t help but think about the woman he loved in England, the way she smiled, the softness of her hands, and the mysterious pastel fragrance of her make-up.
Over the next forty-five minutes or so Derek Hamilton thought more about sex than about his idealized, yet very real, woman in England. It’s actually a very good thing that women can’t read the minds of men because they’d soon realize that it’s very easy, disgustingly easy in fact, for men to think about sex. For example when Derek started to think about the girl in England he started thinking about all the other girls he wanted to seduce. He then started to think about girls in general and that led obliquely into the thought of breasts--big breasts, little breasts, breasts he would like to feel with his hands and breasts he would like to suck with his tongue. Then he looked across the aisle and there was a rather unattractive woman with large breasts. The woman was probably in her 50s, but she had wonderful breasts...wonderful. Round and firm. She must have had plastic surgery. Jesus, they were like ripe fuzzy cantaloupes only pleasurably squishy. Derek couldn’t stop sneaking glances. Anyway, you get the point. It wasn’t hard to occupy Derek’s mind for forty-five minutes or so with such beautiful examples right next to him. You see, it’s so hard for men to seem civilized when it comes to their obsession with thoughts of great sex. When a man becomes horny, the mind almost always shuts down and it’s easy for the little man downstairs to regain control of the whole ship.
Luckily his slightly perverted slant was interrupted by a call to the diner car. Lunch was being served and for once, Derek was extremely hungry. He normally got very uncomfortable when he had to eat with strange people, but today he was so starving that he would be able to talk for hours about what they were eating and how much of it he was able to eat. That would more than adequately cover the conversation space required during such social encounters.
He was placed in front of a couple in their 50s and a rather slim giddy woman in her 40s. The reason she appeared giddy was because she was just laughing at a joke that she had apparently made. The couple across from her had a glazed lost look, but they were listening to the woman attentively...just not laughing.
“Hi. Derek.” He put out his hand to the man in the couple. A strong handshake was given and received. The business world would’ve been proud.
“We’re the Jensons.”
“Where are you guys headed?” Derek asked. The man looked to his wife.
“We’re going to Sacramento to see our son.” Mrs. Jenson responded. “We came all the way from Chicago.”
“Long trip, huh?” At that Derek slid into his seat. The couple smiled shyly, their eyes looking down.
“And I am Linda Cox. I came from Wisconsin and I’m heading to San Francisco to get away from my kids.”
“You sound happy about that.”
“Well, things have been really hectic at home for a while. 9 year-olds vomiting, fun stuff like that.” Derek liked the use of the word vomit. He always liked people that could use words like pissing and shitting in normal conversation. “Anyway, business was slow for my husband so he said he’d take care of the kids.”
“That’s great!” Derek was all for it.
“It is isn’t it.”
“You should’ve done that when Billy, John and Annie were growing up.” Mrs. Jenson said to her husband. An uncomfortable pause followed.
“I cooked dinner a few times.”
“They were terrible. We had to order pizza.”
“Hey, at least we had food to eat.”
Before a minor marital squabble erupted into an all-out brawl, the waiter interrupted. Everyone ordered quickly, the food was simple, hamburgers and chicken sandwiches were the most appealing options. It wasn’t too hard to decide.
“And where are you coming from my dear?” Linda’s eyes were very attentive. She seemed like a genuine listener to Derek. Her kids must love her.
“Well, I just got finished working on a guest ranch in Wyoming. It was actually pretty cool. I had a great time, made some wonderful friends, figured out the meaning of life. It was a good life experience.”
“Oh come on. You didn’t figure out the meaning of life, did you?”
“Sure.” Sarcasm was reigning.
“You’re a funny one.” Linda was silently laughing through her smile. “So are you going to find another job?”
“Let me just answer all your questions -”
“Oh, so now you know what I’m going to ask you.” This conversation was turning into a game. It was almost like flirting, but in a motherly nurturing sort of way.
“I think I know what you’re going to ask. I’m heading home to San Francisco. Before I worked at the ranch I was a student in college. I graduated four months ago and now, even though I could probably get a job doing something important, I feel like wandering for a bit. Figure out what I want to do next. That sort of thing.”
“Close to all my questions. A valiant effort indeed. Gonna travel?”
“Maybe. Don’t know. The grand path will eventually be revealed. I have faith.” Derek grinned and at that moment his eyes and hands tried to create a solid vision of the future that would stand for all to see about 4 feet above the table. Nothing appeared.
“That’s what our Billy did.” Mrs. Jenson said encouragingly. “He went out West to find himself.”
“Diane, Billy is a bum.” He let it sit like lead for a second. “Look, Derek right?”
“Derek, our son went out West to find himself and now we’re going to Sacramento to get him out of a homeless shelter. Don’t ever, ever, make your parents do that.”
“I will do my best Mr. Jenson.” Derek quickly, very quickly, became quiet and solemn. Mr. Jenson was not particularly threatening, but he had the look of a man who had probably been in the Korean War. If he didn’t have a reason, he wouldn’t try to kill you, but if he did...
“Look don’t do your best son, just don’t do it.” Mr. Jenson really wanted to get this point across. “It’s the worst thing that a parent has to face besides one’s kid dying on you.”
“OK, I might die, but I won’t make my parents get me out of a homeless shelter. Sound good?”
“Good.” Although Mr. Jenson recognized the statement, he still didn’t seem happy. Nothing would probably make him happy, not even his own son. No wonder the kid ended up on the street, Derek thought to himself.
“You look like a nice boy. You’re not at all like Billy.” Mrs. Jenson was trying to cover up the unnecessary tension, but the thing that actually did the trick was the food. As soon as it came every one dived right in. Linda turned to the waiter.
“Thank you very much, very much indeed.”
As the meal slid to a close the conversation grew fairly tame. They talked about how the seasons changed in different parts of the country and the differences between either traveling by airplane or by the train. It wasn’t very exciting, but it filled the time like peanuts do in a stomach. Nothing of any substance, yet it made everyone happy because some empty human space was engulfed by something foreign. In this case, the foreign object was banal utterances of bland knowledge.
Yet, there was something that broke it up a little bit. The slight alteration began with Linda.
“So, Derek, your future.” Her hands moved to her knees. “Are you excited?”
“Well, the rest of the train ride looks extremely exciting. I’ve got a wonderful view of the chair in front of me.”
“Derek, you are a funny little boy. I like you.”
“I like me too.” Linda smiled at that as well. She smiled a little bit too much actually. “Back to my future. I’m very excited and I’m also very terrified. The future is vague. I mean I don’t even know what I’m going to be doing two days from now, let alone next year.”
“How about a little plan. I think we should meet up in San Francisco while we’re both around. What do you think?” Derek paused, but it was not a long one. Some decisions with people aren’t very hard.
“I’d love it.”
“Oh great! You can show me around the city. Hey, I will know a native!” She brought out a pen, an address book, and grabbed a napkin. “Here’s the number of my hotel. This is wonderful -”
“Well, good-bye.” Mr. Jenson, the new champion of polite rudeness, started to get up. His wife dutifully followed. “A pleasure to eat with you.”
“Pleasure.” Mr. Jenson and Derek exchanged a lame handshake. Derek felt like he was holding a dead snake and he was glad to see the couple head down the car in the opposite direction and out of sight. “Well, Linda, I think I’ll head out too. My bladder is killing me.”
“So honest about his body. I like that in a man.”
“Oh...so I’m a man now?”
“You definitely look like one to me.” Mrs. Cox looked very coy at that moment. She was actually very attractive for a mother and a wife.
“A man it is. I will talk to you later.” He held up the napkin and began to walk down the aisle.
“I will talk to you too.” The way she said that sentence required eye contact, forced it in fact. Derek started to feel heat rising in his face. Something else started to rise too.
And with that Derek left the dining car. Another friend had just been made on this journey. Maybe even more than a friend. He could have sex with an older woman. He had done it before.
Yet, when Derek got back in his seat he wasn’t thinking about the possibility of a sexual escapade. In fact the thought of it made him a little nervous. Instead he was thinking about a little lake that had just passed by his window. The water was clear and he could see a few remnants of some shattered logs along the muddy bottom. The train moved on.
Derek had been next to many bodies of water like that in his life and for some reason each lake would usually stir up a detached, almost melancholy, emotion. It didn’t matter where he was. Derek might’ve been next to a lake in England or river in Italy or some hidden pond located in the back-country of the Sierra wilderness, but each time that feeling would unconsciously seep into his system. Often when he was by himself, he would slide his fingers into the icy liquid before him and feel the temperature change with a calm depression that could only come from the direct perception of coolness. Then, after dipping his fingers in the water, he would take them out and rub them together slowly, rhythmically, like a man savoring the warmth of massage oil on newly heated palms. Always, at such moments, Derek would look over his scene, himself and the water before him, and search for the answer. In fact Derek would yearn for it. He’d want to hold the answer up high in his hands, with such force and intense passion, that any man who saw it would understand the ultimate answer to all of the questions ever asked. If the workings of the world ran like water...
But as the train slowly glided down from the mountains the image of the lake began to fade. In fact, within seconds, Derek was no longer thinking about anything at all, amid the steady soft rumble of the rail journey. Instead his body existed more as feeling, a sad numbness, like near-freezing water gliding over a stone, wearing the substance away by unnoticeable degrees one molecule at a time.
After a few hours Derek arrived at the final Amtrak stop of Emeryville on the eastern side of the San Francisco Bay. In order to get into the actual center of San Francisco, Derek needed to take a bus from the train that would drop him off directly in the heart of the city. The day was warm, in fact it was unusually warm for the Bay Area at this time in the fall, and he was pleasantly surprised by the weather as he threw his belongings into the bus’s storage compartment. As he let go of the bags, Derek actually felt manly. Muscles. He had them. Derek grunted silently to himself.
“Well, hola!” A thick Hispanic accent poured from the speakers. “Call me Joe, but my name is Juan. I will be taking you to the great city of San Francisco. The first stop will be the ferry building. I suggest you stop there first for two reasons. The first reason is that you can get your luggage there. The second reason is that it is the only stop on the bus trip with a bathroom. We all have to go sometime. Why not do it before you see the Golden Gate Bridge, eh?”
With that the bus started and Derek smiled. Juan, no Joe, seemed to love his job very much. He was one of those unsung heroes in the tourist industry and as they entered the evening traffic, Derek began to wonder what it would be like to have a job like that. You’d wake up in the morning, you’d drive people into one of the most amazing cities in the world, and then you’d go to bed feeling happy and proud that you did a good job brightening some tourist’s day. Derek could see it now: there’s some letter in his mail-box from a retired couple in the suburbs of Philadelphia, ‘Dear Mr. Juan: Thank you so much for providing us with such a wonderful introduction to such a beautiful city. Even though Edna Jo got food poisoning and threw up for days, she couldn’t stop raving about your witty comments. Just precious. Sincerely, The Smulches.’
“The traffic on the Bay Bridge, as you can see is moving. Look, to our right, a car is moving.” A woman in the back stifled a chuckle. “And up ahead is Treasure Island. Isn’t that just a Treasure?” Derek had to grin at that one. “The reason they call it Treasure Island is because the Great Pelican Man hid 400 pounds of gold there. OK, I actually don’t have the slightest clue about how it got its name.”
Joe laughed at that one, but Derek could feel the jokes starting to wane. People were starting to look annoyed and Derek was finding it harder and harder to imagine nice letters from the Smulches. But then, like a good nap, all the annoying things in the day were blissfully forgotten when the city actually appeared.
What Derek saw was more than a postcard, it was a real life steamroller of awe. The fog was just coming over the buildings and the sun was turning the skyline into a startling neon orange expression. It was like looking at a newly dusted lava lamp. The objects in view were fluidly fresh and yet there also existed an ancient curiosity, unfathomably deep, that made you want to gawk at it for hours. The Bay Bridge, the Transamerica Pyramid, Alcatraz, the sunset and the clouds were all there to be seen by some special individual, himself to be exact, at this very unique and unrepeatable moment.
Out of the corner of his eye Derek was surprised to notice Linda looking at the city. She must have gotten without him seeing her. Her lips were slightly parted and her frame was loosened by her obvious respect for the scene. He started to imagine what her body would be like in bed: her tightened toes scraping at the sheets, her fingernails forming marks in her palms, her chest rising and falling in quick sharp gasps. Sex. As Derek envisioned Linda scraping off her clothes in the bus terminal he felt the napkin in his jeans. The paper material was slightly coarse but he could still feel the marks of ink left by her handwriting. His nail circled the name, the expensive hotel, and the magic number, but then he started to feel stupid. Well, not so much stupid, as apprehensive. It began to grow into a sensation that was almost too obvious for his head to ignore. What it came down to was this: He couldn’t do the dirty deed with somebody’s mom! He needed the sex, but he didn’t need the hassle.
So as the bus got off the Bay Bridge and began to carve its way into the city streets, Derek took the napkin, crumpled it up, and lodged it in the crack between the seat and the side of the bus. It felt good to ignore the fairly free erotic experience...well, maybe it didn’t feel that good, but it was the right thing to do and, as the city felt the last rays of sun glide upon the striving heights of steel and fog, Derek began to feel a surge of that beautifully self-created romantic experience known as...greatness.