Department of Human Resources

“Whistle Stop”

by Jordan Moffatt

 

Alec had taken the train between Toronto and Ottawa many times to visit his girlfriend Sophie – he would say “too many times to count,” but the actual number was nine – and his experience on the journey had ranged from boring to mildly interesting. He would usually nap for most of the five-hour trip. Sometimes he would take a book and read for a bit. He liked reading on trains, since it was the only form of transportation that he could read on without feeling the need to vomit soon afterwards. On this train ride, he decided the best course of action would be to put on his headphones and listen to the mix-tape Sophie made for him. She mailed him the CD with the note “listen to this and think of me next time you get on a train to come and see me.” The mix-tape included the songs “Train in the Distance” by Paul Simon, “Slow Train Coming” by Bob Dylan, “This Train Don’t Stop Here” by Elton John, “Midnight Train to Georgia” by Gladys Knight & The Pips, “Peace Train” by Cat Stevens and many more train-related songs. He was very excited to listen to Sophie’s creation, and to think of her while doing so.

A half an hour into the trip, somewhere around the booming metropolis of Oshawa, Ontario, Alec was listening to “Train in Vain” by The Clash and looking in vain for moose outside his window. He was enraptured enough in the search, as well as the dulcet tones of Joe Strummer that he failed to notice that a woman was making an impassioned speech at the front of the car. The nice lady sitting next to him, Marjorie the Friendly Retiree, alerted Alec to this event by nudging him in the shoulder. He took off his headphones and turned to her.

“Something’s happening,” she said.

They both focused on the woman at the front of the car.

“All I’m saying is that we haven’t stopped yet, so who knows if we’re ever going to stop!” The woman yelled. The woman was around fifty years old. Her name was Linda. She was wearing a very elaborately coloured sweater and her sunglasses were perched on the top of her firm hair, as if she had forgotten she had placed them there several days ago.

“What’s going on?” Alec said to Marjorie.

“The wi-fi is out,” she replied.

Linda continued her speech. Her arms were flailing with conviction.

“We have no contact with the outside world! We have to take action!”

“We stop in Kingston in just about an hour. Maybe we should wait until then,” said a man seated in 10D.

“You want to wait? Anything could happen before Kingston!”

“She’s right!” rejoined a fatter man in 2A.

“Thanks, sir. What’s your name?”

“Jim.”

“Jim is right,” Linda said. “If this train keeps going, with no connection to the rest of society, then it’s just going to be this group in here forever. If we are going to be starting a new civilization on this train car, then we need leadership. If no one has any objections, I believe I should be that leader.”

Alec was stunned at this development. It was not the calm ride he was hoping for.

“This all seems a bit drastic,” he said to Marjorie.

“Sounds like you should be the leader,” she responded.

Linda stood on somebody’s luggage to give her just a couple more inches of height. “Well, if there are no challengers, then I accept your nomination as Train President and—”

Marjorie stood up in the middle of the aisle and interrupted Linda.

“The young man seated next to me would like to challenge you for Train President!” she said.

Alec was twenty-five, and nearing the age when he didn’t want to be called “young man,” but he was fine with it. He wasn’t as fine with being nominated for Train President; he wanted to nap. But the damage was done, and so he felt he might be able to add a voice of reason to this strident and paranoid train political discourse. He stood up and brushed his Trudeau-esque mane of hair away from his forehead. “Canadian Railroad Trilogy” by Gordon Lightfoot played silently through the headphones balanced on his neck.

“I just think there are some people on this train who believe that we are moving too quickly in unwarranted steps, and I’d like to be a voice for those people,” Alec said.

“So be it,” said Linda, as she sat down in a huff.

A steward named Clark emerged from behind the snack car.

“Someone is going to have to moderate this election, and as a representative of Via Rail, I believe I am uniquely qualified for that position. All in favour?”

There was unanimous consent from the hoi polloi.

“Very well. We will reconvene in a half an hour for the debates, and we will hold the election on our five-minute stopover in Kingston,” Clark concluded.

And so the campaign began.

Linda started to hand out her business cards to everybody as quick as she could. This was an effective means to allow the passenger to get to know facts about her. Particularly, they now knew she was Linda Carlson, and that she was a Realtor from Smith’s Falls. Alec attempted a different strategy. He stayed in his seat and waited for people to come over to him and discuss matters. It was ineffective. The first poll, taken by Joe in 12B eleven minutes after the drop of the writ, showed 72% support for Linda, 12% support for Alec, and 14% “I don’t know.”

Alec would have to step up his game, and he knew it.

Fifteen minutes in, Alec kissed the train baby, and began shaking everyone’s hand. Linda took a washroom break, which gave Alec a huge opportunity to make up some ground. After twenty minutes, Joe the pollster found that the margin had decreased. Now it was 50% support for Linda, 44% for Alec and only 6% “I don’t know.”

Fearing the worst, Linda began attacking. She claimed that Alec was “disgusted” by economy class “plebes” and would be much more comfortable in business. She also said that Alec had a “blatant disregard” for the rules, demonstrated by his bringing eight bags onto the train. This wild accusation was easily refuted, and did more to damage Linda’s campaign than Alec’s.

At the debates, the momentum for Alec continued. He pledged to “not do anything” as Train President, because “we don’t really need one.” Linda countered with fear mongering: “What if the wi-fi is out because everyone on earth has died?” This drew some applause from Jim in 2A, but was considered risible by most everyone else because they had been texting with their friends.

After the debates, the train pundits called Alec “measure in tone, full of energy, and possessing a bold vision for the train’s future.” The train newspaper, written in crayon by eight-year-old Nadine in 35B, ran with the front-page headline “LINDA BAD, ALEC GOOD.”

The tide had turned. With thirty minutes to the election, Alec sat back down in his seat behind Marjorie. He thanked all of his supporters for their hard work, and then he settled in for lunch. He had a ham sandwich and a Perrier. He was confident about the election, and listening to “C’mon ‘n Ride it (The Train)” by the Quad City DJs only helped to increase his mood.

They all cast their ballots in Kingston. No matter whom they were voting for, or who was likely to win, everyone felt good about voting. They were exercising a democratic right. It was an honour simply to be a part of the process.

Ten minutes later, Clark the Steward announced the results. It was a landslide: 78% for Alec, 20% for Linda, 2% “I don’t know,” and one vote for Clark the Steward. “Not sure how that one got in there,” said Clark.

A victorious Alec strode to the front of the car to deliver his victory speech.

“I may be your Train President, but I’m also just a passenger. I’d like to make the next two hours as smooth and uneventful as possible. Thank you for voting for me, and I’ll see you in Ottawa.”

Then Alec went back to his seat, slid his headphones back onto his ears, and took a nap.

Two hours later, Marjorie once again nudged Alec.

“Mr. President,” she said, “we’re here.”

Alec put his headphones on his neck and grabbed his baggage from the overhead compartment. No one else got up from his or her seat; they were waiting for Alec to go first. He tentatively walked down the aisle while receiving uproarious applause.

“Thank you,” he said, and then he hopped off the train.

It was an exceptional train ride for Alec, but now it was behind him. All he wanted now was to see Sophie.

There she was, standing at the end of the terminal, her blonde hair so bright it was actually giving off light. He didn’t notice he was taking any more steps towards her. It was like the world was shrinking just to get the two of them closer together.

“Hi,” she said. It was the greatest two letters he had heard in his life. They had been apart for two weeks, and it was two weeks too long.

“Hi,” he replied.

“Did you have a great train ride?” she asked.

“Yeah, it was amazing.”

“Why amazing? What did you do?”

“I just thought of you the whole time,” he said.

She leaned in to kiss him, and caught the last song on his playlist: “Love Train” by The O’Jays. She liked the song, so she kissed him again and again and again until it ended.

She is so lucky to be with a Train President, Alec thought.

 

 

 

“The Gift of Gibb”

by William Blomstedt

 

One day we decided it was time, high time, to get rid of Robin Gibb.

Sure he was a nice guy. Sure he was fun at parties and at bat mistvahs. Sure whenever you wanted to hear ‘How Old Are You’ or ‘Another Lonely Night in New York’ it was much cooler to ask Robin sitting on the bean bag across the room rather than lose a quarter to the jukebox with fuzzy speakers. Yes, it was great listening to him talk about what Barry and Maurice were like at the dinner table when they were kids and of course we always enjoyed hearing what it was like to have an album ranked 26th on the Swiss charts in 1983. And we didn’t mind him bobbing around the house with his goofy blue eye-glasses and extra long neck. We could put up with his constant, sloppy puns. We accepted how he would inevitably pop into the kitchen and dip his finger in the gravy right as we were plating the turkey. All those things were fine. It was something else that bothered us about Gibb. Something we couldn’t put our fingers on.

It happened on a day Robin wasn’t at home. He had gone to Berlin to give a Goldene Kamera whathaveyou to his ‘good friend’ John Travolta. His ‘good friend.’ That was line he always used, even though they probably had never really hung out. Most likely they just shared a few lines at some Saturday night disco and all of a sudden they were on a first name sledding-budding terms. He was always bringing these good friends around; heavy hitting stars like Prince, Tom Jones, Boy George, even Carrot Top would come in the foyer and maybe say a nice word about the chandelier while Robin went upstairs for his Pogs or baseball mitt or whatever they were about to do together.

So Robin wasn’t in town and we held a house meeting. It was a strange meeting. Not much was said. Not much needed to be said. We were sort of all in it together, but no one had the words to say what we were in. The thing is, we had never kicked anyone out of the house before. It was a big place, big enough that if two people didn’t get along they could take rooms in opposite wings so they wouldn’t have to see each other. Or they could strictly regulate opposing sleeping and waking schedules, so that all contact could be avoided, except in dreams where the dreamer is always in the right. But with Gibb, something was different. Something needed to be done.

No one really knew how he worked. As a human, that is. Elsie thought he was a well disguised machine, like an ATM that chewed up someone’s hand and had to go on the lam. Jesup thought he was a really quick statue, and no one could refute that either. At the meeting, Pearson asked if anyone wanted to stand up in Robin’s defense, and looked at each one of us around the circle. Most avoided eye contact and picked at their frayed jeans or latest scab. Hampton, of course, spun around in circles. Seamus the Epileprechaun raised his hand and began to say something in his adorable Irish accent, but only got a few words out before he was rolling and twitching on the floor and we had to find a dowel to put in his teeth. After that the silence returned; a true awkwardness we hadn’t felt in a long time. But when Pearson’s eyes passed over the last member of the circle it was final. We had our first expulsion from the house. The meeting broke up in an unusually subdued manner, without a single Nerf gun fired.

Hoop did the dirty work. He gathered Robin’s stuff: his Stieger award, his honorary doctorate of music from the University of Manchester, his lava lamp, his platinum records, his clothes, his odd collection of antique pitchforks, and piled it into a small mountain on the curb. It sat there for a few days, attracting hobos and birds, until Chester Hurtlespace returned from his afternoon stroll and said everything was gone. Robin didn’t come in and say goodbye. But how could he after we had betrayed him? It was what everyone wanted, but a touch of shame accompanied many of us for weeks, even months. Could we have done something more? Could a sit-down tell-all session with goofy Gibb have made us open our hearts? Could we have struggled through our inescapable mental blanket of confusion to verbalize what bothered us about that Manx musician, wangler of white soul, the Back to Mass a god damn chusetts crooner?

We will never know. Just after his expulsion, someone opened the jukebox of the Rumpus Room and crossed out the Bee-Gees card inside. Our lives carried on, the incident fading and joining the static of guilt that we carry in our thoughts and breath. But still sometimes, late at night, we are jolted out of bed by the sounds of ‘Please’ or ‘Wait Forever’ or ‘Give Me a Smile’ coming from the Rumpus Room and no matter how fast we scurry to see who put the quarter in the jukebox, the room is always empty.

 

 

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