Iron and Clay: A Doomer Tale

Jim was the smartest kid in Glenns Ferry, Idaho.

He aced every math exam, always tested well in science and English, and got exemplary marks in history.

He was otherwise a normal, well-liked kid that played football and soccer throughout high school. Though he was never the star athlete, sports kept him active and grounded and provided him a good set of friends off the field and year-round. All of them knew he was the smartest of the group, but he never made a big deal out of it, preferring to go with the flow and help with homework only when asked.

If the gang was going to do something stupid, he was going to do it, too. Glenns Ferry was a small town, and the gang of gangly white boys mostly got away with their stunts; when they got caught, discipline tended to be handled by fathers, not the law. Luckily, they all preferred pizza and video games to things like cow tipping or drinking a majority of the time..

Jim had a beautiful girlfriend named Courtney he managed to land as a junior, after months of flirting and months trying to get up the courage to ask her out. They loved each other as much as kids could love each other, which is a lot, but as Mormons, they avoided having sex and routinely talked about getting married sometime in the future. Jim’s catholic friends teased him about it, but they were all virgins just like him.

All throughout his schooling, everyone told Jim he was destined for greatness. He was going to work for NASA, or find the cure to cancer. After talking to his math teachers, he became attached to the idea of becoming an aeronautical engineer. Designing machines that flew – even to space – began to occupy his mind as much as video games. He began taking math and science much more seriously, even driving up to Boise State to take an early seminar in differential equations prior to his senior year.

He also took up programing with a few of his friends, and they produced a functional, though ugly, computer role-playing game for an English assignment that landed them in the local papers.

As he approached graduation, he was offered a spot in the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology and was ecstatic about it. Accepting a spot meant postponing his mission trip, but after talking it over with his parents, he took the leap. As a fresh-faced 18 year-old kid, he packed his bags and went to Cambridge, Massachusetts, enrolling as an engineering student.

MIT was the first place that Jim ever felt that he wasn’t special. In fact, he quickly realized that he was in the bottom half of the pack in his math skills, but he adjusted to the challenge quickly. At the same time, he had trouble finding friends. Everyone was so… different from him. They all came from big cities, many weren’t even from America, and it seemed like all he ran into were graduate students who couldn’t be bothered to talk to him, even when he had labs with them.

It was lonely, and so Jim concentrated on his studies, calling his girlfriend every night until she left for her own mission trip and he had to subside on postcards sent once every-other week. He stayed in Cambridge for Christmas after talking to his parents: a plane ticket was just going to cost too much, and his loans were already pretty large.

Eventually, though, he did find a group of friends toward the end of his first year, and they filled in his social needs like his old friends. They were from smaller towns, too, and had done a few of the things he used to do, though none of them had been spelunking. He told them he would take them sometime, but the opportunity never arose. They were always too busy with studying, programming, or gaming.

He flew home that summer to find town much the same as when he had left. Most of his friends weren’t there – they were either on their mission trips, or else had joined the military.

Early in the fall semester, Jim’s girlfriend broke up with him via telephone. Apparently, she just didn’t think it would work out with him living out of state for school. Jim was heartbroken, but his friends were there to cheer him up. They even got him to talk to a girl at a bar and he managed to get her phone number. They went on a date, but nothing more than that – still, it was enough to remind Jim that other women existed.

Jim and his friends found distractions in a few new hobbies they found together – things they could play indoors during their downtime, like Magic the Gathering and Dungeons and Dragons. William, the best looking and perhaps smartest of the friends, often mused that he could design better systems, but he never bothered to make his own game. He, like Jim, was too busy with schoolwork, and was content to play 3rd Edition D&D despite his gripes.

Jim made it through the semester. His marks suffered initially, but he passed all of his classes without much trouble in the end. One of his friends, Reggie, got academically disqualified. They all said they’d keep in touch, but Jim only talked to him once during the spring semester. After that, he was mostly a memory.

Things rolled on like that.

In their third year, Will left MIT to attend a state school near his hometown, feeling convicted that his destiny was to be a fantasy author. He emailed Jim frequently at first, but then the communications dropped off. Eventually, all of his freshmen year friends fell away by either leaving school or graduating.

At the end of his Junior year, Jim got a wedding invitation from his ex-girlfriend, whose family was still close with Jim’s. He took out a loan and attended a special seminar on thermoacoustic materials in Japan to avoid going home for the summer and being subjected to the wedding.

It was the loneliest few weeks of his life, and he did nothing besides attend the lectures in English and hide in his Osaka hotel room. His friends would ask him about the experience after the fact, and he would play it up, but he always knew that although he had flown to Japan and spent weeks there, he had never really been there.

Jim finished his undergraduate degree with high marks and was faced with the choice to pursue a graduate degree or look for a job… or go on a mission. He had racked up huge amounts of debt from his degree, and wondered if payment could be postponed for a religious obligation. He had already been accepted to several schools when a headhunter for Boeing of all places found him and asked him to interview for a job. He interviewed for the job in Los Angeles, but the actual job was in Seattle.

Once again, his parents told him to pursue his dreams, so Jim packed his meager possessions, sold his car, and flew to Seattle, where he moved into a tiny but expensive apartment.

The job was in quality control of plane body components, which was tedious work, but had the potential to lead to what Jim really wanted work in – design. He got a few hints from his higher ups that he would land a design job if he had the master’s degree after all, so he started taking classes for his MS at night.

He had never been busier. He never made any friends in Seattle, except for work acquaintances who would never invite him out on the weekends because he didn’t drink. He didn’t date, or even consider dating. His first set of neighbors might as well have been non-existent. He only saw them leaving on weekends, but they never said a word to him. They eventually moved out and were replaced by a couple that smoked pot relentlessly, making the entire complex reek in the hallways, and it even stunk up Jim’s apartment, until they got arrested for dealing. After that they were replaced by a family of Asian immigrants who said nothing to him, but always eyed him suspiciously and argued loudly in the hall in their home language.

At the end of two years, he got a call from General Electric, who wanted him for a design job in their aerospace program. He had to move yet again – this time to Cincinnati. It was a fast move and he had to give most of his furniture to charity, but what he could fit in his old used pickup he took with him to his new city.

The job turned out to be more quality control, along with a lower salary than what he had been told. He could barely cover rent in the apartment he had found ahead of his move. It seemed like all of his money was going to rent and to pay down his student loans, which were growing now that he had to pay back the tuition from his MS. He slogged it out for a few years, not even bothering to buy furniture for his apartment, then was finally given the design job he had wanted. It was enough to get his head above water and start saving for a house, but the work didn’t satisfy him the way he thought it would. He was working on engine components, which though challenging and technical, was not working on planes or spaceships.

Then he got another call from Boeing. They had his dream job waiting for him in Los Angeles: aerospace design.

He moved once again, this time to El Segundo, excited to, after a decade, finally get to have what everyone told him was his destined dream job.

The rent in the Los Angeles area was more than he had ever experienced, more even than Seattle. He paid almost three thousand dollars a month for a small two-bedroom apartment, but he was making such good money it didn’t bother him too much. He could still pay his loans and have a little left over, though he was worried he would never own a home when all the houses in town were over a million dollars.

For the first time since arriving in college, Jim felt like he had time to really think, time to spend with other people.

The thing was, the other people around him were nothing like him. They weren’t Mormon… most of them weren’t even Christian. They were from different towns, different states, different countries – but nobody was from Idaho or, it seemed, Los Angeles. His best friend at work was a Muslim named Amir – the only person he had met in what seemed like years he could talk about God with, but the conversations were hard, so they mostly talked about games.

Jim got into his first serious relationship since high school with a Jewish woman named Darlene he met through a mutual at work. They got along great, he thought, but the relationship ended after two years, quite abruptly. Darlene thought they were too different, that he was too rigid. Of course, their final argument had come up over religion, when he mentioned off-hand that he would want to raise their children as Mormons.

This wasn’t what offended her; apparently, she didn’t want children at all.

Jim was surprised at how well he took it. He barely felt sad – just disappointed.

At the age of thirty, he was starting to see all of his friends from home on Facebook with children, their kids re-living the youth he had experienced so many years ago in the 80s and 90s. They were doing the same things – fishing, playing Nintendo, even camping.

He realized that in every city he had made, at best, temporary friends that left shadows in his life in the form of facebook profiles. He saw their posts from time to time, but all the response he could muster was hitting a like button; he nothing to say to them, except for Will. Will always was posting about his game designs. He was shipping home-made table-top RPGs and was building a video game in his free time, and Jim felt slightly jealous that Will had moved back to his hometown and gotten a job at a pizza parlor instead of finishing at MIT.

In the time since college, Jim’s only real hobby had been gaming, and it had been forced to the margins of his workaday life.

Not knowing what else to do as a single thirty-year-old, Jim started using online dating apps to try to find a partner – someone like him. He found himself in another relationship rather quickly. Her name was Sara, and she was from a small town just like him, though she came from Texas. She wasn’t Mormon. She was a Baptist, but of course it had been years at this point since Jim had gone to church (he never did complete his mission), so he considered it close enough.

They got married quickly by Los Angeles standards, which was two years later.

They pooled their resources together and put a down payment on a town house, which was a steal at 850,000 dollars. With both of their student loans and the mortgage to cover every month, they decided to put off having children for a few years.

A few years came and went, and Jim came home early from his design job one day to surprise Sara with a birthday present, only to find her entertaining another man. A divorce quickly followed. When everything was settled, including alimony, Jim silently counted himself lucky that he hadn’t had children with Sara.

He was back to living in a one-bedroom apartment, but in Inglewood rather than South Bay, and he was poorer than ever, still driving his beat-up truck.

One night, Jim got an itch. He picked up his phone and called his friend Will. He was surprised when Will picked up (he had apparently kept the same cell number since college).

“Will, this is Jim, from MIT.”

“What’s up dude?” Will said in the same ever-positive voice he had back in college.

“Not much.”

“Living the dream down in LA?”

Jim looked around at his sparsely furnished apartment. The most expensive things he owned, indeed the only things he valued, were his computer and his television. “Yeah, I guess.”

“Designing spaceships? That was what we all wanted back in the day. We should have been making model planes instead of working on Everquest hacks.”

“Not quite planes just yet. It’s mostly little things…” Jim realized he couldn’t remember what project he was currently working on. The blank in his mind startled him slightly.

“It’s in the industry, though, right?”

“Yeah, but it’s kind of tedious. It’s really tedious, actually. Doesn’t matter though, it’s good work. What are you doing these days?”

“You know what I’m up to; you chat with me about it all the time. You never post about you, though.”

“Sara and I got a divorce.”

“Yeah, that sucks, man. LA is a fun place, though, yeah? Especially single I reckon.”

Jim laughed. “Maybe for some people. It’s busy. Always a million things to do, but I never have the time or the money, or know the right people to do any of them.”

“There’s millions of people there.”

“Yeah, I know, but… It’s hard to find similar minds out here.” Jim chuckled. “Everybody is from somewhere else and nobody wants to know you. You know, at my last place I only met my neighbor one time? It was when I was clearing my stuff out. He wanted to know if there was a room for rent. He didn’t realize Sara and I were married. Just thought we were roommates.”

“I felt that way in College. It was hard, being alone all the time. If it wasn’t for you and the other guys, I’d have probably offed myself. That’s real grim, I know, and I’m past it now, but that’s what it was like. Everybody is a stranger that couldn’t care less if you died. Especially the teachers. Anyway, thanks for being my friend is what I guess I’m saying. It mattered.”

“You’re welcome.” Jim was silent for a few moments, then said. “How did you manage it? Just walking away from your dream?”

“Shit, man, it wasn’t a dream. I was the smart kid, I was supposed to go to a big name college and get a job for NASA – that was what my parents wanted. I didn’t want to design spaceships, I wanted to fly them. I wanted to go on adventures. I wish I’d joined the navy or something.”

“How about now, though?”

“Life’s good. I do some things I don’t like so I can do other things I do like – that’s what I say if I’m being honest. I don’t tell my employees that I don’t care about the pizza business.”

“Employees? Did you buy the place?”

“Naw, I took out a loan and opened my own restaurant, then a few more here and in Tulare – that’s the next town over. Couple franchises. Easy business to manage. As close to a kit as you can get. Scales up nice. I might add one up the road a bit. Lots of little towns between here and Fresno.”

“If you don’t mind me asking, how much do you make?”

“Who cares, dude? I do as little as possible to pay down my mortgage and spend my time doing things that matter.”

“Just humor me, please.”

Will laughed at him. “Fine. I made eighty-five grand last year from the franchises. Not a ton, but plenty to live on, since my mortgage is small, and I don’t have to work that much to keep it going. I hire managers to do all the real work.”

“Damn,” Jim said. “Not bad.”

“How about you?”

“I get about a hundred thirty-five.”

“Doing better than me.”

“You wouldn’t say that if you were here with me.” Jim felt tears welling up in his eyes. “I got nothing, man. Nothing. I don’t even have a dog. I live in a shit part of town… and I don’t know how to walk away from this.”

“Just go home.”

“There’s no engineering jobs at home.”

“So? Just hit up your parents until you find something to do.”

“I’m thirty-six.”

“So?”

“My parents aren’t taking in a thirty-six year old in who just felt like quitting his super-high paying job.”

“Then come crash on my couch. I’ll even give you a job. Visalia isn’t that far away.”

Jim laughed. “I have student loans and alimony.”

“How much in savings?”

“Nothing.”

“They can’t squeeze a turnip, then. Let ‘em try. I’ll pay you under the table.”

“I can’t. It’s too much. I have to have this job… I…”

“Don’t listen to me, man. I’m just a guy who likes to make games.”

“Is that fun?”

“Oh yeah. It’s hard work, but I love it. I’m finally getting to play some of them with my kids, too, which is awesome.”

“I didn’t know you had kids.”

“Yeah, I got married like right after I got back. Sherry – she actually hated me in high school, but that’s a whole ‘nother story. Four kids, so far. I never post about them, so it makes sense you wouldn’t know.”

“Yeah. Listen, I should go. Thanks for chatting with me.”

“No problem. I’ll call you tomorrow.”

Will hung up and Jim sat in his darkened apartment for a few minutes, just listening to the cars passing by outside and the neighbors arguing in Spanish.

He imagined another life – one where he ignored everyone’s advice, went on his mission trip, and married Courtney. He came back to reality when his phone buzzed. It was Will, texting him his address in central California.

Jim stood up and looked around his barren apartment. After some thought, he realized that everything he cared about would fit in the trunk of his car: his computer, his old gamebooks, his TV, and most of his clothes.

With a half-smile, he unplugged his monitor and keyboard, and started packing them into a duffel bag.

It would be best to be out before the traffic on the 405 going north got bad.

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