The piece for this week is from Mitch Kalka who has produced a poignant work of black comedy that mixes themes of family and death in a mixture that works brilliantly and expertly.
Working on the Railroad
I think it was my voice that did me in. When I was younger, it lacked expression and tonal range, to the point where “Shit, my hand is on fire!” came out with the same amount of enthusiasm as “I’ll have the soup, thank you.” When I sang, I sounded like somebody talking, and when I talked, I sounded like a boy whose dog just died. And that was when I talked at all. I was incredibly introverted, which didn’t help with the gloomy impression I gave.
Between my quiet, unenthusiastic nature and my monotone voice, many people worried that something might be seriously wrong with me. It wasn’t so much the case with close friends, but everyone who only knew me from a distance was convinced that I was dangerously depressed. My best friend Sam’s mom was especially concerned.
“Is that Mitch boy depressed?” she would ask him. “He’s so quiet.”
“Mitch is a complicated man,” he would tell her.
To this, she would reply, “Sam, I can’t help worrying. Maybe you could spend more time with him?”
She had assumed that my quiet nature was a sign of serious depression and that this horrible affliction could be staved off by Sam’s frequent companionship. While quietness is probably up there with the key signs of depression, spending time with her son was going to do little to cure what ailed me. I was suffering from depression, to be sure, but I had been my whole life and saw no real need to change. I was comfortable in my gloomy, quiet little world. Besides, Sam was already spending plenty of time with me, coming over to my house every day after school to smoke my pot and watch my family’s basic cable, and none of our time together really made me any happier, at least not in any fundamental way. Yet she pressed on, convinced that all I needed was more interaction with normal, non-depressed souls like her son. I don’t know what she thought might happen otherwise, but whatever her fears, she would occasionally go to such lengths as calling me and inviting me over for dinner. “We’re having meatloaf!” she would say, as if depressed people just couldn’t get enough of the stuff. I could take it or leave it, but I could never help being touched by her gesture. I always accepted the offer, walking over to Sam’s house on many a meatloaf night.
Shortly after dinner was cooked, Sam’s mother would leave for her night shift with UPS, leaving the rest of the household –Sam, his young niece, and his father, Steve– to entertain my supposedly troubled self.
“I hear we have to spend time with you,” said Steve, sitting down to dinner one night.
I nodded my head.
“Mitch is going to kill himself,” offered Sam.
“That’s too bad,” replied Steve.
“You know, killing yourself is a sin,” said Sam.
“What’s with you and sinning lately?” I asked.
“Sam’s been reading the Bible,” explained Steve.
“Is it any good?”
“There’s a lot of smiting.”
“Oh yeah, God hates everybody in this book.”
We were quiet for a moment until Sam asked me a question. “When you do it, what song are you going to listen to?”
“Kill yourself, you sinner.”
“Geez, I don’t know. Why, what would you listen to?”
“‘Oh Sweet Nothing.’”
“Really? Good choice.”
“You think so?”
“Yeah, I mean, it’s a long song, so you won’t feel rushed or anything.”
Sam seemed to be validated by this. “What would you listen to, Dad?” he asked.
“Oh, I suppose I’d listen to ‘I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,’” said Steve.
Steve had a thick Minnesotan accent and an even thicker mustache. You could tell when he was smiling because one end of it would rise up slightly. “Really?” Sam and I said in unison. “‘I’ve Been Working on the Railroad?’”
“Yep, pull the trigger right at ‘all the live long day,’” said Steve, his mustache reaching for the sky.
Our conversations probably weren’t what Sam’s mother had in mind when she invited me over. If anything, they seemed to validate the idea that I was going to end my own life.
“I’ve got some bad news,” said Sam.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Mitch, I don’t want you to go killing yourself, but we’re out of ketchup.”
Sam’s niece rolled her eyes at us while we continued eating our meatloaf. It might have been a little dry, but in a strange way, it was one of the best meals I’d ever had.
A fantastic study of realistic family life interspersed with perverse humour written in a sparse, minimilist style. Come back next week for another exciting new submission!