Mental Contagion

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Tin Can Mental Contagion
Opening the Can: Publishing in 125,000 Easy Steps
by Gene Dillon

The Baptist

I discover an active set of railroad tracks by the silo out behind the diner. A freight train passes by real slow, lurching sluggishly and making the most awful sounds, like Godzilla battling Gamera under the sea. Inside the restaurant, I can pinpoint nobody that I would feel comfortable asking for a ride to take me away from this place. Every last one of them eyes me with small-town suspicion and animosity. I’m a stranger with something more than pie and coffee on my mind.

There is nowhere to hide. Not enough trees, too many angry dogs… And I don’t know how to hot-wire a pickup truck. I look up at the passing railroad cars. The train is running left-to-right, toward the setting sun. I can’t see the beginning or the end of this thing, but the next dozen cars or so are all matte-black painted tankers. I had expected the tankers to contain oil or some type of chemical, but no. Stenciled upon the back end of the first tank in 2-inch high, pale yellow letters are the words “INEDIBLE TALLOW.”

I’m sorry, but I just don’t like the sound of that.

I estimate that I still have a couple of minutes to ditch this guy, but you never know how long it takes a man to tend to personal business after a hearty late-afternoon breakfast. There is no time to wait for an open boxcar and ride in hobo comfort. I have to jump on one of these tankers, and just hang on. I wait to read the contents of the next car. This one is different.  It reads, “EDIBLE TALLOW.”

Geez. I don’t care for that, either. 

I’m afraid he’ll come looking for me any second now, so I jog to my left, poking my head up and down to see what they’re keeping in the next one. I find my answer about one-third of the way from the end, at eye level. All it says is “TALLOW.”

That’s good enough for me. I like mystery.

I reverse my direction and get in step with the speed of the train. Reaching for the metal ladder fixed to the end of the tanker, I am jerked forward, nearly losing my shoe, or my foot, or my entire leg, under the wheel of the train. With time for nothing else, I adapt and master the necessary maneuver quickly, pulling my big body up with all the strength that I have in both of my arms and then I strain to get my right foot up onto the bottom rung.

Home free!

I flatten myself against the ladder as best as I can, and put my head down, as if this will make me only partially visible. I see some bushes and trees about a half-mile ahead. In this part of the country, that means we’ll be crossing a river or a creek, which is good news, because it most likely means that I will not be followed. But, cripes, are we slowing down? I think we’re going about 2 miles per hour.

I lean outward to my right to take another peak around to see how close we are to the river, but I have to pull my head back immediately to avoid having a low-hanging branch drag across my face. Once we are clear of the tree, I cautiously peer around the side of the tanker again.

Oh no…

It’s him… parked in a vacant lot, leaning against the grill of the hummer with his arms folded in mock judgment against his chest. He strolls over to my moving train.

“Where do you think you’re going?” he wonders aloud.

Like he doesn’t know. “I found a ride. I’m going home,” I reply.

“Home? What home?” he asks of me, which is just too strange because he actually sounds exactly like Clarence, the angel in It’s a Wonderful Life.

“You’re insane,” I accuse. “What are you even talking about? Who the hell are you anyway? I don’t even know your fucking name!”

He continues walking alongside me in his flip-flops, keeping perfect pace with the train. “My name,” he declares, “is Jean Baptiste!”

“No it’s not!” I yell. “Shut up!”

I can see now that he’s going to have to either give up, or remove me from this ladder by force. I climb two rungs higher and note the approaching trusses of the bridge through a thick, impenetrable tangle of bushes. He’ll never get through that stuff.

I’m wrong again. He weaves his way through the thicket, keeping his eye on me. “Come on, Gene,” he pleads. “Come down off the train.” He’s running out of room. “Let’s do this thing, Gene.”

“What do you want from me?” I plead.

He trips and steadies himself. “I want what you want from yourself.”

“What are you, Dr. Phil?” I ask. “Go to hell! You’re out of room, and besides that, I’m out of time. Thanks for all the advice, and good luck to you.”

“I ain’t stoppin’!” he announces, and continues on toward the edge of the embankment.

“What are you doing?” I inquire nervously. The river looks high and muddy, and it’s moving pretty fast. “Stop!”

“No!” is his reply, head down, determined. He ditches the flip-flops and keeps on moving.

Before I can jump off the “tallow-car” to stop him, his foot slips on a fern, and he tumbles down the slope. The angle is roughly 60 degrees, and he cannot stop himself as he slides a full 30 feet on his bare heels through the weeds and the mud before a halting launch sends him flying face-first into the North Platte River.

“Help!  HELP!” he cries out, flailing in the water. This is his second imitation of Clarence today. Should I believe this? Do I have the luxury of time to be an asshole right now?

No, I don’t. Actually, I never do. I keep forgetting. Ducking my head around a thick wooden beam, I take one-tenth of a second to prepare myself for a jump into the deepest part of the river. I close my eyes and hurl my bulk off the train, feet-first. Falling through the air takes an eternity…

I land hard, with my feet planting themselves firmly into the muck about 3 feet beneath the surface of the filthy water. The sting sends a shock right up my spine to the top of my skull and then right back down to my feet. Having plugged myself like a lawn dart, I struggle to keep my body upright, but the current here is too strong. I lose my balance and fall back on my ass, with my feet still planted into the ground. The river is now passing by with a slow but steady flow several inches above my face. Now I’m the one who’s thrashing. I paddle and thrust my face upward as best as I can, begging for somebody to please come down here and drag us out of this, the most dangerous 3 feet of water in Eastern Colorado.

In the brief glimpses I am able to take of my partner in death-by-drowning, I notice that he seems to have given up the fight—no more splashing, no more screaming—the end may be near for him. But wait…no… The son of a bitch is standing up! He stands up in the shallows reaching halfway up his thigh, wrings out his fedora, places it back on top of his head, and trudges over to me gradually across the current. With a strong right arm, he grips my own right forearm and pulls me to a standing position.

“I’m stuck,” I explain, without thanking him.

“Only if you want to keep those running shoes,” he says.

He bends over slightly so that I may brace myself on his shoulder and pull out my left foot, then my right. “They aren’t running shoes,” I inform him. “They’re walking shoes.”

“That’s even worse,” he replies.

* * *

I have moved my writing desk back down to the basement. Michelle now has to run her business out of some combination of the bedroom and the dining room. The reason for this is that we now have a houseguest living in the last 2 rooms of the addition.

He made me run one of my stories past a proofreader. She ripped it apart pretty good. Uh…  Pretty well. I had no idea how suspect my grammar was. Is. Then I sent the story out for possible publication. As I sit here waiting for rejection letters, I’ll continue shaping a dozen other stories. I finished the opener—the one about the plumber. It’s done. I can hardly believe it. The entire contents of the book are in the hands of my editor friend in Illinois.

JB refuses to leave until I am done. He can stay, but I refuse to call him by his alleged name. He’s a decent guest. Clean, quiet…

Sure eats a lot of eggs, though.

Mental Contagion
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