Follow the Railroad Toward Nothingness
I didn’t know why people cared about inflation. I knew I wanted money, and I knew the larger the number, the more money I have.
My dad said I was only a kid and couldn’t understand the complexity of this world, but I couldn’t care more than “the larger the number the more money I have.”
He was a good dad, nonetheless. We lived in a small house at the center of Brea, a city small enough to use “at Brea” instead of “in.” You could drive through it without realizing that you’d just done so.
With less than a two-hour drive from Los Angeles, we weren’t a poor city with cracked walls or shoes hanging on rusty fences, but we were definitely not Beverly Hills.
A city like us—straight up middle-class, not too many street fights, not too many mansions—was what the public overlooked all the time. Yet I felt it was fine.
I remember my teacher in eighth grade saying he was lucky to grow up at Brea and live here as an adult because these days, it was hard to stay in one place, especially near LA. It was nonsense to me at that moment, but after seeing no one but old gentlemen and ladies with mindsets in the 80’s as I walked home after school, I believed him.
At first, I believed my teacher was saying not every younger generation liked Brea anymore. When I got into the money talk with my dad, I sort of understood my teacher’s real meaning.
“Christina, now, when you are still fourteen, I want you to know that I can give you a comfortable life. After eighteen, if you extremely need help, I will help you, but to an extent,” my dad said one day when I got home. “Just don’t expect me to feed you forever. I’m sorry.”
I listened with a straight face. He looked really sincere when saying that, shaking his head slightly, but he was worrying too much, for not every kid was like those in movies who wanted hugs and comforts all the time. I was expecting this talk, and I wasn’t sure why he was sorry.
“I know that,” I said after he finished.
After dinner, I went into my room to mess around with my model trains. Those trains were my only toys because I didn’t like any others, and I might have liked trains too much for someone my age. My room was simple, even bland, as a friend had said. I didn’t have walls painted in rainbow colors or posters of celebrities, not even pictures of my family. All I asked for was a soft bed and a closet.
My dad had asked me if I wanted to put some decorations in my room. He said that each time he walked into my room, he felt cold. Every time I replied with “how about more train tracks?” The only thing he successfully smuggled into my room was a formal-looking navy blue dress that would freeze me to death if I dared to wear it to a dance.
I can’t remember why or when I fell in love with trains, but I do know that back in those days, I had enough plastic tracks to let my trains circumnavigate the house.
During weekends, I and my three friends would go to an abandoned railroad not far from our block. My teacher had said it used to transport coal found at Brea decades ago.
The three friends were Adrian, Zack, and Michael. I didn’t care that I was the only girl in the group. Gender was overrated anyways.
“Where does this track go?” Adrian asked the question he always asked.
“LA? I don’t know,” Michael gave the reply he always gave.
Then we stood around and talked, like always. Michael wanted to go to Iceland. Zack said he wanted to live on the East Coast, and Adrian said the East Coast was garbage after his visit to New York.
“I want to go to LA,” I said.
That made everyone quiet.
“Well… then go. It’s right over there,” Michael replied.
I didn’t talk about it anymore, just looked down at the ever-stretching track. I always dreamed about following this track to Los Angeles and living there. I didn’t know why Los Angeles. It might be because of the skyscrapers that my teachers always talked about.
Adrian used to have a crush on me, so I asked him whether he liked trains. He said he didn’t, and he preferred cars or planes. I can’t recall his reason for liking cars or planes, but I can remember punching him hard. We returned to just being friends again.
High school went by with me finding every possible train track combination at night and going to school with a faint black ring around my eyes.
None of the universities accepted me. Dad was disappointed because he suspected I didn’t mention in my application that my skills with trains was enough to get me a railroad engineering degree already.
He wasn’t pleased with his daughter having a degree lower than him—he had a bachelor’s degree in history. So he gave me two choices: community college, or I was on my own.
Since he added that he would help me a little bit financially if I were to choose community college, so I did. I saw no reason in rejecting the free money.
I picked a community college on the edge of LA, where its packed office buildings looked like Lego houses outside my apartment’s window. I got a part-time job at a nearby Ralphs. The job was fine. Monica, my co-worker, liked trains too, but Mr. Schneider, the store manager, was an asshole.
I made some extra money freelancing art and book cover designs on Fiverr. I just put railroads into every project, and that seemed to work. Norris first contacted me for a design that he would pay two hundred bucks for, and then we realized that we lived on the same street. That was how I started dating him.
“Have you… ever been into LA instead of… I don’t know,” he made an indecipherable gesture in the air. “Hanging around outside of it?”
We were in my apartment that day. He had already graduated, so he watched me do my homework with a victorious glee.
“Not really. I don’t have the time,” I said. “But I want to.”
“Then are you free on Saturday? We can go there together. It’ll just cost you one morning.”
“Bring enough money, though.”
I didn’t know what that meant, but I had made a few bucks the day before from freelancing.
It turned out that I didn’t bring enough. Norris had a car, and when we drove past a parking lot, the money I had with me only covered the parking fee there for two hours.
Two burgers from a dirty restaurant cost the same as a two-topping pizza at Brea. I acted as if I couldn’t choose which one to buy, so I let him order his first. After he paid, I said to him that I couldn’t finish a full burger in one meal. He ended up giving me half of his.
It was afternoon when we finished driving around downtown LA. Time seemed to cost double, too.
“Does LA have a train station?” I asked before leaving.
“Of course!” He replied.
“Can we go there?”
“You want to go for a train ride?”
“No, I just thought… it might be a good place to visit.”
I could see confusion written in bold letters on his face, but he didn’t ask why.
When we arrived at Los Angeles Union Station, we didn’t head in with other passengers. I walked to the edge of the station where only repair workers would come and the only thing separating the tracks and me was a rusted metal fence. I stood outside the fence and watched the tracks intersecting, dividing each other, and weaving themselves into giant cobwebs. They looked like snakes. No, they looked like one snake, one pregnant snake giving birth to many little ones.
I looked in both directions, and I couldn’t see Brea. I wasn’t expecting to. The buildings blocked my sight when I tried to look far. This problem didn’t exist at Brea. The only obstacle there was the horizon.
“What’s so funny about trains?” Norris asked after seeing me smiling at the trains leaving the station.
“Aren’t they beautiful?” I answered as an Amtrak pulled out of the station.
“But they are…”
He didn’t finish the sentence, but I knew what he was going to say. When we returned to my apartment and he was about to kiss me goodbye, I acted first and bit his upper lip. Not enough to draw blood, but enough to make him yelp.
A month after graduating, I got a phone call from dad saying he was moving to somewhere in Nebraska, where a cousin of his lived. He sounded sincere in the phone call, just as sincere as the day we had the money talk.
I didn’t ask him why, for I had already gotten used to living independently, and I enjoyed it. He sold the house at Brea before he left. I had no feelings toward that. I was still surviving.
The city I currently lived in wasn’t as expensive as downtown LA, yet it made me live like a puritan for one and a half years before I could buy a car. I didn’t feel like getting loans. That was when I realized that seeing the gas price near four twenty wasn’t something to put you in a good mood in the morning.
My love toward trains didn’t decrease with time. Norris endured my unexplained visits to local train stations for a year before we broke up, which was okay by me.
After another half a year of using three credit cards—buying grocery with one and paying it with the other two since I couldn’t make enough money from my job and freelancing each month before it was due—city life was getting the better of me, so I decided to go back to Brea for a weekend. My emotional attachment to its junior high was what saved the city from being eliminated from my memory. I also found out that Brea had a motel that cost fifty-five a night.
The abandoned train track was still there, but they built a trail along it and named it “Trail at Brea.” I was mad that they fenced the track when building the trail, for I couldn’t walk on it anymore. I asked around about jobs at Brea, just out of curiosity when thinking that if my teacher was right, people must be fleeing from here, so there would be more open jobs, and those on the “Breaia diaspora” might use this opportunity to come back.
Apparently, I was not the only person having that thought. None of the stores, not even those small, family-owned shops, needed a bag girl. Brea’s Coal Museum did offer me a position as a tour guide, but since they were built in memory of Brea’s mining ages, they didn’t get much income and could pay me less than a thousand.
“You grew up at Brea?” The lady at the museum asked before I could hang up the call.
“Yeah, why?” I said.
“Not a lot of people know about the Coal Museum anymore.”
“What happened?” I asked. I was slightly surprised because when I was in school, almost everyone at Brea knew about it. It wasn’t a popular place to be, and its location was remote, too, but it was Brea’s symbol, just like you can’t find many grizzly bears in California, but you think about California when seeing a picture of it.
“Time has changed, you know. Everyone is going to LA and San Francisco and all those places. No one really likes small cities, especially small cities outside of big cities.”
“I still like Brea. I mean, it’s quieter than LA.”
“But it’s almost as expensive as LA.”
“No, my motel is only fifty-five bucks a night.”
“Their breakfast isn’t free.”
“That’s how you get customers these days. You either have a partnership with the city so they constantly buy stuff from you, or you do tricks. And if you aren’t a business owner, then you really need some luck.”
It turned out that not even tricks could save Sunny Beach Motel. When I was going for a walk at night, I overheard two of their staff saying the boss might shut it down.
And as I stopped by a pizza place that dad used to take me to, a medium pizza was the same as an extra-large before.
Norris called me Saturday evening, saying he had been doing some traveling by train after we had broken up, and he wanted to start over again. He also sounded sincere, and he offered to split the living cost. So I said we could try.
I gave him my location, and he arrived before dinner. He drove a Jeep instead of his old sedan.
He said as we went out to get some burgers that he now worked for an insurance company in downtown LA.
“Isn’t parking expensive there?” I asked.
“I have free parking in my company’s basement,” he replied.
He then told me about how he had taken the train from LA to Seattle and back. I was slightly jealous of him, for the last time that I had stepped into a train when I was young. I had hoped this would change, but no change came. I only watched the trains.
“It was nice, actually. The scene along the trip was amazing, and we stopped a few times, actually. I think once there was a broken track.”
He then went on to talk about the train cars. His hands waved like a fanboy as he talked. I didn’t mind him unintentionally spitting on me a few times. Train-lovers deserved toleration.
That night, when I took out a box of model trains and tracks that I always carried in my car, he looked slightly surprised.
“Do you carry it everywhere?” He asked.
He watched me lay out the tracks in the motel room. None of us talked during that few minutes.
“How much time do you spend on them?” He spoke at last, after seeing that most of the plastic tracks had lost their paint after being used too much.
“Every hour when not working or sleeping, I guess,” I said. Then I added without thinking, “Don’t you do something fun too?”
He shrugged, “Not really, at least not after I got the job.”
“Work takes up most of my time. LA is a busy city, you know that.”
I didn’t know that. After the trip with him to LA, I had only been inside LA a few times. I spent the rest of my time in a two-mile diameter circle with my apartment as the center, except for going to train stations.
“My work doesn’t take up a lot of time,” I said, placing the model trains onto their tracks.
“Are you still working for Ralphs?”
“Yeah, and I’m still freelancing and working part-time for another store.”
“I think you are much better than that.”
I looked up at him.
“Yeah,” he nodded. “I think you have the potential to have a job much better than what you have now.”
“But I don’t feel like working all night.”
“Isn’t… hard work what gets you a better life?”
“Yes, and I think I’m working hard enough.”
He sighed, “Christina, you can’t spend too much time on toys anymore.”
At that moment, I hated how he said it. It made me feel like I was still a little girl who didn’t want to do her homework.
“Trains are my passion!” I exclaimed.
“Then you should try to get a job at a train station or something and not waste your time on fake trains.”
“I thought you said you like trains.”
His mouth was open but no words came out.
“You are twenty-five this year, right?” He struggled with the words.
“You can’t be…”
“I can’t be wasting my time anymore?”
“Yes. Yes, you can’t waste your time anymore, if you still want to live anywhere near LA.”
“I know what I’m doing.”
We didn’t talk for the rest of the night. Before I went to sleep, he said he would go for a walk. He didn’t return.
Which was also fine by me.
Before heading back to my place, I stopped by Trail at Brea. Surprisingly, not a single weed had grown along the abandoned train track. I stood as close to the track as the fence allowed me and looked toward the direction of LA. The path glimmered under California’s warm sun, and the track was the way toward heaven, or at least what I had thought was heaven.
Now, I knew the end of the path. In a sense, it was a heaven, but a crowded heaven, so crowded that for things as majestic as train tracks, they had to be clumped together and filled into a tiny station like trapped animals.
That was the thought that made my stomach churn when thinking about Los Angeles again. I started caring now. The thought of caring for something made me shiver a bit, so I held on to the metal bar on the fence.
Maybe I still hadn’t truly grown up and let go of my crush on railroads, but I do mind now. I would care for things more than “the larger the number the more money I have.” At a small town like Brea, these thoughts and worries fade away eventually, like the beautiful sparks jumping out from a campfire. I needed to care, since we people from Brea gave our little flash, and we would be gone.
Zhihui Zou is a freelance journalist living in Southern California. His creative work has appeared in San Antonio Review, Short Fiction Break, Sandy River Review, and elsewhere. During weekends, he likes to play tennis with his friends.