Meet Arthur Swanson; an introverted, socially awkward and 59-year-old autodidact with Asperger’s syndrome, who’s just been fired from his long-term position at a New Jersey property developer. Concerned that he is suffering from the Hopi term 'koyaanisqatsi,' or a ‘lack of balance,’ he makes the decision to transfer almost one million dollars in company funds and abandon his former life to start over in San Francisco. He jumps trains to stay under the radar, and along the way he’s befriended by several drifters, all while being pursued by Max Chapsky, the fixer, confidant and consigliore of his former boss. As he travels however, Arthur goes through several experiences and a radical transformation. He becomes a social media hero, joining with others to bring attention to the growing economic disparity he sees, until a final protest on the Golden Gate Bridge goes horribly wrong. But in various ways the seeds of his efforts have been planted, and he continues to affect the people he’s met.
The germ of this novel actually began years before while researching an architectural competition (see ‘Bus Shelter’ on Architecture page). I stumbled across the subculture of trainjumping and became fascinated by it (note: for anyone interested in the details, I highly suggest reading the excellent Hopping Freight Trains in America, by Duffy Littlejohn). In the first chapter we see Arthur’s first attempt to run away, and get a glimpse into the recent events of his life.
A DIFFERENT ENDING
Chapter 1 (early March . . . somewhere in New Jersey)
“Throw the bag, dude!”
This is what the man inside the boxcar yells to Arthur Swanson. Arthur is not in a position to ponder, analyze, rationalize, strategize, weigh options, consider data or draw conclusions. He is now running for his life.
Just moments before, after several frigid hours studying the railroad cars being humped by switch units and yard workers, he finally found the perfect ride. One lone, open boxcar, inserted among a string of dirty oil tankers for reasons known only to the railroad gods. The only problem was that the line had begun to move. A westbound hotshot with four diesels at the head, straining like sled dogs at the end of their tethers to accelerate several tons of rolling steel towards a cruising speed of seventy miles an hour.
His rapidly firing neurons told him there was no longer time to think. It was time to act. Now.
As he sprinted from his hiding place in the trees, he had not remembered the cars being this large. Grainers, forty-eights, gondolas. Double-stacks as tall as two-story buildings. Steel wheels like circular scythes, large as truck tires, reaching up to his waist. One slip, he knew, could easily remove a leg or an arm as quick as a deli slicer. And as he ran, his aging body battled against his awkward, uncomfortable new gear. Stiff, unbroken hiking boots biting into soft ankles. Burnt orange, overstuffed parka hissing with each step. Fanny pack riding his hip, with a matching backpack swinging maniacally on his shoulders like a demonic toddler, pushing him towards the creaking undercarriage below.
And inside the fanny pack and backpack, his few remaining possessions. Clothing and food. High frequency radio scanner to listen in on railyard schedules. Extra batteries. Smartphone loaded with the most recent apps for weather, maps, nutritional charts, first aid and other emergency travel information. And an electronic tablet storing his lifelong observations of everything around him. His way of making sense of the world, collecting and gathering the myriad details of life, all carefully rendered in hundreds of meticulously handwritten notebooks. Vast amounts of data on human interactions, habits and behaviors, which he had forged into the tools necessary for the multimillion-dollar stakes of real estate development. What median apartment rate necessitated a nearby drycleaner? How far would women travel for a yoga studio? Information which was then further refined to handle the granular details of square footage rents, amortization schedules, property values, profit margins and such. A process not unlike his first love, chemistry, where precisely measured mols of compounds were deconstructed to break intermolecular bonds, changing states of matter to reform relationships and serve other purposes. Only Arthur was now separating people, property and money, evaluating and rejoining them into different combinations. Whether in a laboratory or on a spreadsheet, the process was surprisingly similar. Because life always came down to the numbers.
Until all the numbers finally ended with a whimper. Thirty-eight years, five months and eighteen days, to be exact. Followed by an additional thirty-two minutes and twenty-seven seconds of uncomfortable touching via twelve forced handshakes, five backslaps and two awkward hugs. A cardboard box filled with four pens, seven rubber bands, eleven paperclips, five sticks of gum, three lozenges, and half a sleeve of low-sodium crackers. And the sheaf of papers handed out by human resources detailing what to do after termination of employment.
But, now. Arthur sweats like a compressed sponge, his lungs aching as if they are being scraped out with razor blades at each breath. The man inside the boxcar leans out, grasping the door with one arm. He is lanky and grime-streaked, with long stringy hair that swirls like a dervish beneath his filthy red bandana. Arthur’s eyes drop to his t-shirt with faded lettering written across the front. A bar called ‘The Rooster Tail,’ and underneath in pink letters, ‘Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.’
Phosphorus, he thinks. Atomic number, fifteen. Highly reactive and poisonous.
Then, a second man appears in the doorway. Oily baseball hat turned backwards over a bullet-shaped head. Shorter and powerfully built, with close-set eyes, bent nose and thick lips. The kind of face that sensible people will cross the street to avoid.
Dangerous and degenerative. Atomic number, eighty-six. Radon.
Phosphorus bends closer and motions towards himself. “Throw the bag!” he repeats. Radon nods in dumb agreement.
Arthur shakes his backpack loose, swings it over the edge and watches it tumble inside. Then, before he can react, Phosphorus grabs his wrists and pulls back until he is suspended. His upper body is spread out against the dirty wood floor planks as his legs windmill wildly over the edge.
The tramp stops and grins. Arthur looks up at rotted teeth, jaundiced eyes, and fingernails that look like they’ve freshly dug their way out of the grave. Radon leans over and unlatches the fanny pack from around Arthur’s waist. He yanks on it, and the nylon strap whips across his pale belly.
“Thanks for the shit!” And with that, Phosphorus lets go.
Arthur’s feet hit the gravel first, and the rest of him follows. A scream leaks out. He flails his arms and legs to avoid the steel wheels. Stone chips fly around him, digging through clothing, skin and pride. He rolls down the embankment, sky and ground switching positions like a frenzied kaleidoscope until he eventually comes to a stop. His heart jackhammers inside his chest as he lifts his head in dread of finding an amputated arm or foot. Everything, thankfully, is where it should be. He then turns towards the train and sees two faces, growing smaller with distance. The men wave back with stupid grins and finally duck back inside. Arthur rolls to his back, his rapid breaths turning to vapor clouds in the cold still air, and he stares into the sky.
I am fifty-nine years old, he thinks. I have been robbed of thirty-one hundred and twenty-seven dollars worth of equipment, and twenty-eight hundred and thirty-four dollars in cash. My destination is eleven hundred and eighty-three miles away from here. And in thirty-six hours, the auditor’s statement will arrive at my former place of employment. Where they will realize that nine hundred and eighty-two thousand, seven hundred and thirty-six dollars is missing.
Conclusion: my initial attempt to disappear has gone poorly.
(Patrick Stuart; sample from novel, 1054 words)