for Tamim Ansary
“Hey Bo,” a man greeted me, “aren’t you Boneyard Zeke?” I shook my head. “You’re sure you never greased the line on an uphill grade, to hop a midnight freight? Or brained a yegg with a mollymawk’s talon? Or heard an engine calling you, at 4 a.m., someplace that isn’t within a hundred miles of any track?”
I had heard that sound, but “Late for a meeting,” was all I had time to say as I hastened to the office park.
“You never spent decades pursuing something you can’t chase down or define?” the man called after me. “You never conceded you’re on a wild wampus hunt?” I redoubled my pace. “One thing I’ve learned,” the man screamed, “is never play Catch the Knife with a man named Crazy One-Eyed Jak. Leave that to the mushfakirs and the umbrella menders.”
I spent my day screening the output of a program that verified educators were following the best practices detailed in the accompanying evaluation tools. Analysts were ranked on how closely they were in conformance, and their supervisors graded based on the aggregate scores of the employees processed. These figures auto-populated spreadsheets generating customized presentations promoting the extension of the process to a widening demographic, uniting knowledge professionals around a common vision for system effectiveness.
When I ran into the hobo again after work, he was lying on a sodden blanket, just reminiscing. “You aren’t Boneyard Zeke,” he said.
The tarp next to him moved and a woman emerged to give me a cool stare.
“When your dog dies,” the man said, “you bury him alongside the track. Sometimes,” he added, “you have to ride the river rails.”
The woman nodded. “Bring a bucket full of skulls,” she recommended, “in case you need to spark a conversation.”
When I asked their names, the man said, “You know the difference between man and dog? A dog doesn’t change his name.”
“My dog changed his,” the woman disagreed. “But he was a grifflehound.”
“They used to call you Sugarboots,” the man added. It wasn’t clear who he was talking to. “One thing I’ve learned is, never feed scrub-biscuits to a mollymawk.”
Both advised me to spend time outside a town called Purpleknife, and recalled a luminous cave painting of a wampus inside a freight tunnel somewhere, neither could remember where. They agreed North Dakota looks best when you’ve only just figured out you’re not in Arkansas. “If you see Nutsy the Fish,” the woman said, “tell him I’m not interested.”
I returned to my apartment and filled out forms.
At work the next day, I had to undergo a routine evaluation, my manager reading from a list of approved questions and evaluating my answers. “What is something you have done recently that was a quirky thing for you to have done?” she asked.
The question ricocheted around my mind.
“Here is a list of our company values. How would you rate yourself out of 10 in terms of how well you, individually, fit into each one?”
I threw out some random numbers.
“What is your biggest weakness that isn’t really a weakness?” she read.
“Taking customer engagement to the next level?” I assayed.
“You are a new addition to the project crayon box,” she read. “What color would you be and why?”
A sobbing sound hatched in my throat. The manager checked a box, underlined something, and squiggled on the back of her form. She asked an assistant to make photocopies of it, and handed me three motivational checklists. “The wampus is a fearsome critter,” I muttered to myself.
That night I looked for my hobo friends but only saw a rabid raccoon in an alley who looked as if he was trying to forget or remember something. Perhaps I also heard engines shriek, continents away.
Back at work I engaged trainers in active learning with purposeful, targeted instruction, online communities, and pathways to improving capacity. I serviced clients with customized content, training, and support, as well as capacity-building tools leveraging technology to improve efficiency, sustainability, and scalability.
Our office was testing new software that quantified workplace motivation levels by analyzing body language excerpted from video footage. Outside, all the while, summer was falling like a backhanded blow to the jaw.
I went to office supply to grab a bedroll and some scrub-biscuits for the mollymawks, as many as would fit in a Number 10 gunboat can. None of those items being in stock, I checked out early and hiked to the freight depot.
Motorcycles are loud on sultry evenings. Along the road I fell in with a punkgrafter who might have been Nutsy the Fish. When I asked him his biggest weakness that wasn’t really a weakness, he said, “Sleeping on my side. That’s how the weevils crawl into your brains, and their babies eat your gray matter.”
“That should have been my answer,” I said.
“Hindsight’s 20/20. You on a wampus hunt?”
“Sometimes you have to ride the river rails,” I said.
“If you stand behind the switch gear shed at twilight, the leftward track goes northsouth, but the rightward track goes eastwest until you reach a tunnel so long it reenters itself.”
The poet Rumi says, Boneyard Zeke’s anyone who listens to bones. Unless that’s a faulty translation. My bones said to move on.
“It’ll be a cinch,” Nutsy the Fish predicted.
“They get to you,” I said, “the mushfakirs and umbrella-menders.” Nutsy the Fish looked like a police composite sketch of himself.
I felt the vibrations before I heard anything. And after the first hiss of compressed air, I began sprinting.
A trail of boxcars rumbled through the overlarge night, racing rainclouds. A trackman who wasn’t Crazy One-Eyed Jak lolled on a flatcar, meditating, a bucket of skulls at his side, while migrating birds cast shadows on the moon.
Clanging, clattering, and moaning, this train was a symphony so long that even if I never boarded it, it might never completely overtake me. For now it felt good to run beside it.