Winter 2009 [Issue No. 15]
Wigwag Week ▪► Paul Silverman
The next sound after the alarm clock shrieked was the clank of corn-fat train cars uncoupling, and for another day Tawny decided not to bother herself with the hot plate. She threw on her blue uniform dress and walked past the forlorn city beach, the little sand crescent that had come to resemble a landfill. Once again she saw them there, and stopped to look enviously at them: the two sleek women in matching red kayaks – sunlit women, skimming in the mirror of water that stretched to the mountain peaks at the far, fading end of the lake. Then she turned and gave herself over to the arched bridge that looked away from the lake and mountains as though scorning them. Underneath sprawled a twisted, dark vastness of railroad track and groaning behemoths, and when the bridge dropped her onto the concrete grime she checked herself out in all three pawn shop windows, paying special attention to that short-sleeved right arm of hers, wondering if she’d been fleeced paying double for the eye-of-the-sun tattoo, only because the tattoo man had called her arm double-sized and then some.
Tanya Burgee was the name on her worker identity card. It peeked out of the mock-o-dile purse she snapped open to pay the sub man. “Tuna, twelve inches,” she said, pressing into the glass counter and slapping both arms on the top, the better to peer into the stainless steel tuna trough and follow every move of the scoop. The sub man, a zit-pocked boy with pale eyebrows, flicked his eyes up and down – from the array of breads and toppings to the arms that sat like whole thighs fogging the glass.
“Don’t look at me,” Tawny said. “Look at what you’re doing. I want everything, and extra black olives. But I don’t want any less tuna. You open that roll and spread it wide.”
Even with her eyes glued on the sub man’s blond-fuzzed hands she was aware of the darker man behind her, all elbows and metallic flash, seated in the tight corner where the self-serve soft drink case met the once-white wall, now yellow as cooking oil. He had a coffee within reach and papers in his hand; but his eyes, at this moment, were straining to zoom in on the same place her eyes were.
The zit-scarred face flared pink. “Banana peppers, green peppers and hot peppers too?”
“I said everything. And you got to put on more mayonnaise. I like mayonnaise with my tuna. That means mayonnaise on both sides of every scoop. You can’t put in more, you’re gonna have to start again.”
The sub man began to lift the swollen, finished sandwich onto the plate. “Not so fast. One more scoop for a regular customer,” Tawny said. “Don’t you know you got to take care of the regulars.”
She received no argument whatsoever, paid for her bomb and looked around for a seat. There was a whole floor-full of them empty except for one – over in the corner by the soft drink case. She took a booth in that general vicinity, close enough to look him over. For all the baldness on top there was a forest of black on his praying mantis forearms and significant fingers, which seemed to have extra knuckles. There was a scab on the bald head and another under his spear-point of a nose; and now the eyes, black as the olives on her tuna, had suddenly gone into hiding behind yellow reflector sunglasses. But Tawny was still sure she had seen this man somewhere else.
Two hours later she pushed her bed-changing cart down the ninth floor carpet of the Highline Hotel, the only stretch of runner that hadn’t been torn up when the place was still called the Remington and condemned. “Squalid as a spittoon,” the Combination Gazette had said. Tawny knocked twice on Room 927 – and he opened the door.
Tawny didn’t get the chance to put on 927’s new bed sheets until they had sweated up the old ones. The introductions were over in a matter of seconds. “I like the way you controlled that guy making your tuna sandwich,” the man said, without a trace of slyness. Then he stepped back with a slight bow so she could roll her paraphernalia into the room. “Might you do the same for me.”
“Take off those shades and I’ll let you know.”
The eyes told her he was one of those unique men who enjoyed spotting a woman a hundred pounds, and maybe even more than that. She saw promise, too, in the long-knuckled digits and their opulence of midnight-black hair running right up to the cuticles. Tawny grabbed the longest of the fingers and led him onto the mattress and straight under her, her swaggering chest-work, just where she knew he wanted his face to go. There he stayed for the duration, sprawling and moaning, like the spidery train jungle that writhed under the arched bridge, its stonework suddenly the pedestal for an erupting thundercloud.
It had been that long a time for her.
His name was Al – Alton Fred Huston – and he told her he was checked in for Wigwag Week, arriving a few days early so he could “prepare.” Now that his cologne was all over her, the memory burst out of the thick air, clear as a noon sun ball: she had seen him skulking around the Highline two days in a row: waiting for elevators, flashing those yellow lenses and various baubles in places like the Hopper Car Café and the Iron Horse Lounge. Al climbed out of the sheets and stood before the contents of his pockets on the oak dresser. He fixed his string tie and clicked open his chained watch, a conductor’s collectible. Forty six hours and thirty eight minutes, he said, till the official kickoff of Wigwag Week, so named for a once-popular signal arm at rail crossings, one of the sturdiest ever made. Everyone who was anyone in traindom would be there, including the strongest EVP of the Great Pacific Northern & Central, a coal and grain monolith. And that was the point of everything, Al said, his black eyeballs blackening even more, till they seemed hard as buckshot. But at the bloodshot corners Tawny saw something else: a seepage of yellow into the white ovals; sickly and sour as pus. Although she didn’t read books she could read eyes. What she found written there in the jaundice dulled the glitter of his black pupils, his pearl buttons, his hammered-silver cufflinks. The spots that shone instead, in a hellish way, were the two that scabbed his head and upper lip. Jagged and rusty, more like flakes of rotting metal than preludes to budding skin.
“Gotta get rolling,” she said. “I’m two rooms behind.”
He put two fingers on a drawer knob and seemed to waver about pulling it. “What are maid’s hours these days?” he said. “And let me add I don’t find you exactly the maid type.”
“Split shifts. That’s the good part of this work. Driving a semi from Bend to Bangor don’t generally include split shifts.”
“Trucker huh? Well, I can see that one. When does the split shift split? There’s a place I have to go. I’d like to ask you to accompany me if…”
As he ventured forth with the invitation he completed the slow drawer pullout. Inside the open drawer was the last and crowning item for adorning his person. The way the pearl handle slid into the pocket told her it practically lived there.
“Some sleek piece,” she said. “In like Flynn. Not even a bump in the cloth.”
“My Baby Browning,” he said. “Not for sale, not ever. Just about everything else you see here is.”
“You want me to accompany you someplace, you tell me something. I need to know more about that pearl baby of yours.”
Al said he was a gun dealer, thirdly. And secondarily, he was a dealer in knives. “I go around to shows, these hook and bullet shows. They’re here, there, everywhere. Problem with this market today, tell you the truth, is too many shows. It kills off the mystique. Too many greedy promoters in this world.”
“You sell Baby Brownings at shows?”
“Not this Baby Browning. I told you. And I don’t do much at shows anyway. Occasionally I find items from other dealers. But I find more at pawn shops.”
“So where do you sell?”
“We’re in the age of eBay, why fight it? Long live eBay. Before eBay I had a little notebook with numbers in it. That was my store, that was all there was.”
They left it that more would be imparted to her when the split came in the shift. Upon her return, he said, he would have refreshments as well. And Tawny found he meant what he said. When she reappeared, now crossing the threshold of 927 on her own time, he had three items out on the service table: a decanter two-thirds filled, and two whiskey tumblers. All had that vintage heavy-glass feel, with the Great Pacific Northern & Central logo - and not those dull straight-up letters of today but the original marque, the shield glaring like the grille of a locomotive about to run you over.
“I like Coke with my Jack,” she said, frowning. “That could take hours in this place. New help comes in tomorrow.”
“I know you better than you think.” He swung open a door under the TV and cracked open the red can. It was warm-ish, but she decided to let it pour. Sipping, she said, “Now you tell me what a big cheese from the GPN&C wants with hooks and blades and bullets.”
He had a small fistful of pills to wash down with the first slug from the tumbler. They all had to do with blood. Blood thinners, blood pressure. He did it with a smooth roll of the Adam’s apple, as though chasing pills with corn whiskey was his normal way of medicating. “As I was saying, there’s one focus of mine that’s second and another that’s third. The primary is something else, and that’s not even a business - not yet. It’s still a passion, strictly. I need to find a barn out by Reunion, it would be best within the hour.”
“You won’t do that by the Interstate. No GPS either. That’s a back-roads special. Cow paths and Forest Service. Shame, I do like these glasses.”
In the car, Al told her how he fancied trains and always did. “Not model trains, though. Those little midget cars, the way they scamper around the rug, they’re all mice to me.”
He stepped on the pedal. “I like big and real.”
“Don’t I know you do. Now let me show you some short cuts.”
Ten minutes later he was cursing the ruts and rocks on the swerve she had taken him on, saying he should have rented a dune buggy.
“You can always let a professional take over.”
“Watch yourself, trucker. You’ll be answering to the Alamo people. That’s a ten four.”
Eventually, the ruts gave way to dirt that was smoother but bone-dry. Dust-clouds invaded the AC. Tawny had never seen a man spit into a real silk handkerchief.
“Before I give you the real short cut you need to tell me this.”
“You ever offed anyone?”
“Not one. Two. Their names were Briggs and Stratton. I shot a lawnmower once, and you would have shot it too. When do we get there?”
The barn was where Tawny began to sniff what Al was up to, and not because the walls were lined with Western art, mostly paintings, but because his spine seemed to leave his body the moment in he walked in. Off came the yellow lenses and in their place, a sense of yellowness from deep inside him, the coward’s kind, starting even deeper than the liver. But Tawny had nothing against cowards: most of them, in her view, were only dogs that had been kicked until something burst.
She held his hand and the sweat of his palm seemed so yellow it was as though he were peeing through his skin. It seemed to make no sense since all they were doing was viewing pictures in a curious locale – this was a barn that hadn’t seen hay for ages, and it had a wood floor bent as planks in a funhouse. Orange bugs crept over the tilting floorboards and over their footwear, too, whenever they stood still.
“So what do you think?”
Tawny wanted to take him out of this rattletrap, dry him off, spray Deet on each of them and barrel-ass back to 927 and the whiskey glasses.
“Where’s the farmer and the farm?” she replied. “It’s spooky. That’s all I think.”
“We’re here a little
early. What about the pictures? You like Western art?”
“Ever hear of Wilhelm Ferry? Excuse me, stupid question. Why would you.”
When a section of wall suddenly swung into motion, revealing itself as a doorway, Tawny expected the Baby Browning to go off, and perhaps a few machine gun rounds along with it. Al mopped his sallow brow, excused himself and slipped into the crease, which swung shut, leaving her alone with the orange bugs and the cowboys and Indians.
She assumed the two brown-wrapped rectangles were paintings, given their size and heft. But no information was forthcoming from Al, only a request that she help him load them into the vehicle. More details would be announced, he said, soon as Wigwag Week was in full tilt, the Highline a hundred percent occupied, and the Presidential Suite filled. “With Mr. you-know-who. He stays there every year, without fail. The titan of trains.”
A few miles from the barn
and his color seemed better. His mood too. “If we get back before your shift
I got something to show you. Ever go down to the station?”
He snorted and snapped open that train watch of his. “You people in Combination slay me. You’re a railroad centerpiece, a switchpoint for the biggest piggybacks in the country. Even a major passenger feeder. Yet you hear that whistle hoot off the mountains and it’s no more to you than ass-gas whining in the wind.”
The speeches ceased for eighteen miles. He drove relentlessly, nearly smacking into a Charolais, a jumper that had strayed from the herd and defied the barbed wire. For a moment he got that look again, awash in dread, and she wondered if he was having an attack of some kind.
But then they hit the outskirts and the downtown, the sketchy railroad district with the rusted rolling stock and the smashed bottles of bum-strength muscatel. But out of this morass rose a proud station building that still had its vital mass and momentum. And the two of them cut quite the figures strutting through the human buzz of the church-high interior: he with his elegant droop of watch chain, Atchison Topeka pocket scarf and double-scabbed head; she with her blue-uniformed, mighty caboose and yellow flower pin in front, worn in sympathy with the pain she saw ever lurking at the edges of her Alton’s eyes.
“We’re in time for the 5:36,” he said. “Let’s go out on the platform.”
The platform, vaulted in flawless, open azure, was Al’s stage. His voice boomed above the wind sweeping across the endless scramble of tracks, and he seemed to have grown taller.
“Look at all those people. Look at how far down they stretch. You think a plane could bring a crowd like that? There’s nothing like a train.”
His outstretched arm led Tawny’s eyes down the full length of concrete, which disappeared around the bend just like the train tracks. It grew more crowded by the second, as the young and old swarmed out of the terminal building. Underfoot was a slight but bottomless rumble, the kind that registers in the gullet, if not the Richter scale.
It wasn’t 5:36, but it was close enough. In slid the Silver Bullet, up from Alma on the Canadian border, smooth as mercury filling up a thermometer stem. The mass of silver steel instantly dwarfed the human flood, transforming even the tallest humans into insects clamoring on the sidelines. The disgorged passengers seemed propelled by magnetic energy, slamming into the arms of loved ones. For some reason, Tawny’s eyes locked on a little girl, a Shirley Temple type, who was hit by a great stuffed bear, so bloated a toy she couldn’t get her arms around it or notice the older man who foisted it on her.
Al returned to the soap box, but Tawny didn’t mind – she could feel the heart he was putting into it, the blood pressure. He excoriated Amtrak – for doing away with the classic amenities: the domed observation car, the lounge car with the fabled cocktails.
“For a spell in the late forties, there was even a jazz car – Fat Man Kincaid playing this bebop.”
The new passengers climbed into the tall cars and the Silver Bullet exerted itself into a moving state, unstoppable as a glacier, its direction the waiting mountains. The sheer size of the procession pulled at Tawny’s arm, made her want to wave, although she didn’t know a single soul on board.
“The cars are taller here,” Al said, “but the Indian trains are wider, because of the animals. I went all the way to Baltistan to see one of them – the last run of the Karakoram Star. Amoebic dysentery loves me – I can look at an ice cube and catch it - so I didn’t eat the whole time I was there, not a rice ball. But my blood pressure pills are supposed to be swallowed with food. When I got back here I felt like the train’d run me over. The hospital said it was close. Pressure 65 over 39 and falling.”
“I can help you with that,” Tawny said, aiming her eyes below the belt. “Tonight.”
On the way back to the Highline he asked her if she’d ever been way up there, up in the Presidential Suite.
“Too many times,” she said. “It’s a hell-hall to clean. One pubic hair in that tub, they fire your ass. I used to do that whole floor, the sixteenth.”
“The bigwig, what will he be able to see from there?”
“Oh everything there is. The windows wrap around. He’s paying for it.”
“The train yard, end to end?”
“Of course. And beyond and beyond. The lake, even the saddle way back where the trains duck into the tunnel. See where I’m pointing?”
Tawny thought of the two ladies in matching kayaks, both skinny as rails. She pictured them nibbling jicama salads on the verandas of their lakefront McRanches, sipping shimmering concoctions with their rich, bull-armed husbands.
“The big bastard checks in tomorrow,” Al said, “he and his flunkies. I have an appointment up there after dinner. I’m gonna be his dessert, sweet when I go in, rich when I come out.”
The talk was boastful, the eye corners mucky as the Yellow River – Al’s Pinocchio feature. Tawny took somber note. “Uh huh,” was all she said.
There were two maids on the ninth and one good vacuum, able to snarf cigar butts like they were dust motes, and Tawny was prepared to do battle to get her hands on it. Geraldine, half her size, saw her steaming down the corridor like a Peterbilt and backed off. The power vac knocked a good twenty off her night-time split, and she was slipping her house key into 927’s slot just as the last thread of purple sank out of a sky that was now black as a tux. The beefed-up room service staff deployed itself on all floors, airlifting liquid supplies to the newly arrived Wigwag revelers. Al sensed the change in the air like a penned-up animal. She walked in on him pacing from one wall to the other, his neck swiveling erratically and his nose up, as though he were seeking a scent from somewhere above the ceiling.
“Making plans,” he said, pointing to the two paintings that stood tall against the foot of the bed, both of them still shrouded in brown paper.
“Can I see?”
“Now? Why now? Why rush the night?” To keep her at bay he grabbed the throat of the decanter, bourbon-brown and full to the very top. He popped a fresh can of Coke and poured her the Coke and Jack in just about equal proportions. She felt the rush before it even touched her lips.
After a while he took her arm, pressing his sharp thumb dead-on the tattoo, and led her to the foot of the bed. But not to unveil the pictures. Instead he switched the lights off, and commenced a whoop-dee-doo with a glow-in-the-dark condom. As before, she straddled, strong as a buttress, and let him nibble the low-hanging fruit. But the glow rose so high and no higher, and in the end the only shots that squirted out were from the decanter. This time she poured him one, and another, and so on. “Let it go to your head,” she said. “Your head can use it.”
Tawny looked out the window and found a kind of clock: a sidewalk wino struggling from one end of a wide BAIL BONDS sign to the other, crawling slow as a hermit crab. In between sips she checked it, and guesstimated a two-hour span for him to cross from the B to the S.
Eventually, they ordered up roast beef sandwiches, gushing mayonnaise at Tawny’s request. She ate three of the four halves and both orders of chips. Al had no appetite, he was already filled up, he said – with his strategies for tomorrow. When he spoke he blinked rapidly, as though the lids were clicking off points he would make in his art pitch to the EVP.
At midnight, they clinked glasses and sucked the last of the Jack dry. But Al didn’t reach for the phone: he wasn’t about to buy his bottles at room service prices. He wobbled over to the closet, unbuckled a valise, extracted a new black-labeled quart and re-fueled the decanter. “High-test, full tank - is that right, Madame?” She nodded, half her attention on the gathering shuffle and stomp of feet overhead – all those empty rooms now hopping with the cream and the crap of the railway world. Honchos and hoggers, as Al put it, hoggers being the engineers who ride up in the locomotive.
“Tomorrow will set a record for Janitor-in-a-Drum,” Tawny said. “And Drano. Those heavy-footed guys sound like toilet pluggers. Look, I can’t stand the suspense. Give me a lousy peek.”
“Okay, Cinderella,” he announced, “it’s time.” Al whipped out an ivory pen knife and surgically slit the brown paper. Small, deft cuts to keep the wrapping intact so it could be re-used for his trip to the Presidential Suite. He swept it away with an abracadabra flourish. “Behold.”
When in doubt say nothing. In lieu of moving her lips, she squeezed his hand.
“Well, what do you see? Tell me.”
What she saw were paintings with the same unexciting features as the ones in the barn. Same colors, same sky, mountains, etcetera. But instead of cowboys and Indians providing the foreground action there were trains. One was long and winding. The other was up close and barreling.
And that’s what she told him she saw. Trying to keep her emotions neutral, trying to keep his balls intact. “I’m a trucker, not a painter. What do I know?”
He wasn’t happy with that. “You don’t know Wilhelm Ferry, you really don’t. That’s for sure.”
He proceeded to give her a jaundiced-eyed art lecture, the point being Wilhelm Ferry was a just-deceased artist whose sales were posthumously rocketing. Of his hundreds of paintings, only two were known to have featured trains. “These here, you’re lookin’ at them” said Al, beating his concave chest as though he were already inside the railroad’s vault and filling a forklift with bricks of gold. “Same as Winslow Homer, ever hear of him? Painted all boats, all in the ocean, and only two or three canoes in a lake. Those canoe pictures, now, that’s what you want to own. It’s all about scarcity…”
When she again keyed herself into 927, it still felt like the pitch-black morning hours before, her whole being still stuck in the quicksand of the dream she’d had, the nightmare that was impossible to shake off. In it she was walking by the city beach, staring at the two ladies in matching kayaks. One moment they were skimming across the lake as usual, but the next moment one of them was gone, vanished, the empty kayak now trailing and forlorn, falling ever farther behind. As she woke in a fever, the dream had posed a question but couldn’t answer it. Was the empty kayak waiting for Tawny? Or had she already tried to board it, and, with her boulder of a body, fallen into the lake and plunged to the bottom?
Al had convinced her to leave him to his own machinations all day long; to not even make her normal cleaning rounds – and now she wished she had told him to screw off and not mess with her job. The place stank like a Jack Daniel’s factory after a gang fight. Al huddled in a far corner, yellow as a canary, his whole bony body scrunched like it had gone under a steamroller. She saw the two spots leaking red and hurried over to him. No longer scabs, the sores had popped open and were bleeding freely. The word stigmata came back to her, from a time in her childhood.
“Were you picking at them. What did you do?”
“I wasn’t picking shit. It’s the blood thinners. Sometimes they just break through.”
The booze was everywhere, soaking into the carpet, the mattress. She yanked tissues out of the bathroom dispenser and dabbed at the two red puddles, first the head then the upper lip. The bleeding sores pushed Al’s physical weirdness over the edge. He now looked leprous as well as jaundiced. He squinted and scowled like a man in acute physical pain.
“Stop it,” he yelled, and slapped her hand away.
In the opposite corner stood the two paintings, no longer upright in straight, symmetrical positions, and no longer wrapped. They leaned against the wallpaper at helter-skelter angles, trains shooting into space in ways that made no sense to a sane eye.
Tawny grabbed his chin and made him look right at her.“Did you go up there? What did he say?”
Al slapped at Tawny’s hand again, but she held on, demanding answers. “Did you even get in? Did he see you?”
“Fuck, yes, I saw him and he saw me. Now I’m down deeper in the shit than you are. I can’t even buy a tuna sub for breakfast.”
“What did he say to you? Did you get a chance to…”
“He had a freak-ass little bastard with him, about two feet tall. With a magnifying glass. He said they weren’t even Wilhelm Ferrys.”
“Weren’t even shit. Weren’t worth the canvas they were painted on. Hahaha. Here, want my watch? Got cash? Nice watch. Elgin, circa 1904, twenty one jewels, the real deal.”
“Well, bring the pictures back, goddamn it. Bring ‘em back to that barn.”
Al slapped his thighs and shook his head like a rag mop, shook it so wildly he spattered blood on her skin and blue uniform.
“What the fuck you think that barn is, baby, WalMart? Thirty days and your money back? You know what? You deserve to be a maid.”
She drew back her arm and smacked him. Hard. His head shuddered like a bobblehead. More blood spattered. But all he did was cackle crazily, a Halloween movie sound that smacked of dancing skeletons and scarecrows come to life. “Do you know how much I paid that barn fucker? Do you know where he is now? Do you know what country?”
She was about to rush back to the bathroom to pull more tissues. She scanned the room and thought of how much hard labor it would take to clean it, the arsenal of chemicals, the superhuman rubbing and scrubbing…
But suddenly Al was on his feet, and the pearl-handled pistol, the Baby Browning, was out of his pocket. He aimed it at one of the paintings and squeezed: crack-crack-crack. The smell of gun oil mixed with the bourbon reek made her food come up her throat.
He just stood there, grinning like a fiend, and shot at the picture as though it were a shooting gallery target. He blistered the wall behind it too, the faded and stained Victorian wallpaper. She screamed at him, sure that in a half-second the cops and the manager would break the door down, even though music from the convention-packed bars had turned the elevator shaft into a giant, throbbing speaker. She screamed some more and out came another gunburst as he let loose and strafed the second painting. Ripped holes right across the serpentine train. Tawny was about to run at him, slam him with all her weight, as though she were a train herself. But he moved like a jackrabbit – spun around and turned the Baby Browning on the decanter and the two glasses. He shot and they shattered, and the Jack spurted all over the table, flooding yet more whiskey onto the already polluted carpet.
When the gun finally stopped shooting, Tawny thought of stupid, everyday things to do at once, maid things: wadding up bath towels and flinging open the window. Shooting floral air-spray over the bullet fumes.
But Al slapped a new clip into the pearl handle and pointed the barrel at a new place: the side of his own head. He spoke to her in an eerie flattened tone, cold and low. “If you don’t want this to go off, you’ll go home. You’ll get out of here now.”
It was as though she didn’t matter at all. As though the only things that did matter to Al were the paintings, and how they had betrayed him, played him for a fool. Tawny staggered out of 927 and pushed open the staircase exit door, not even waiting for the elevator. She wished she could be the paintings, the pair of bullet-ridden train scenes. She was jealous of both of them, they were her rivals – and never in her life had she felt quite as awful as she did now: a circus of a fat lady, so fat she wasn’t even visible as a human being.
Next day, she squeezed herself into a uniform and made the pimply sub man regret he had even come to work. She rode up the Highline Hotel employee elevator and walked into a cop’s nest of yellow crime scene tapes, gawking, hung-over guests and a yawning reporter. The rooms adjacent and across from 927 had been emptied, and 928 had been turned into a police interview room. Tawny was instantly directed to a long line of other maids and waiters and maintenance men. There she stood, for a seeming eternity, making up evasions and denials in her head. As it turned out, she needed none of them – all the authorities asked her were the same routine questions they put to the other employees. To them she was just another cleaning appliance, a round machine that did rugs. And in the end, no one had been hurt or died, Alton Fred Huston was long gone, and the idea that a room had been trashed on the kickoff night of Wigwag Week was a fairly unspectacular one.
The yellow tapes came down, the repair people hammered and sawed for a few days, and then, one afternoon, Tawny knocked on the door and opened it, pushing her cart with its customary array of powders and liquids, brushes and rags. As she crossed the threshold into the future, the greater part of her soul ached for the past: Al waiting there in his debonair threads and trademark shades, waving her in and escorting her to the decanter, the shielded tumblers, and, with his railroader’s dream-spinning, to points of call she had never even imagined. Instead, what she found was a run-of-the-mill briefcase, the kind they sell on special at Staples, and the sour wake of a tractor salesman in need of a stronger foot powder. The following day was a new odor: medicinal mouthwash and belly gas and potpourri sachet – and open on the bed the purple plastic garment bag of a couple who’d spent their whole lives shopping at Sears and Penney’s, and reading the bible to each other. And the next afternoon she found 927 simply unoccupied, sheets and toilet paper untouched, a freshly baited trap waiting for the stumbling entrance of a new captive.
Each time the lock yielded to her key she endured an immeasurable half second, a black hole of a moment when 927’s door was open no more than a spider-crack, when she was powerless to keep her eyes from searching for him, dumbly expecting to succeed. The moment was like a mountain, and on the other side of it lay miles to cross, a plain of gloom.
On her thirty fourth birthday,Tanya Burgee ate a whole cake, tipped the scales at 293, and realized that Alton Fred Huston had, in all likelihood, been her life’s love story. The fog of time had rolled in a little more each and every day, clouding out the mad, bad stuff and artfully curling its wisps around the raucous, joyous episodes, immortalizing them. She daydreamed of the night a Willie Nelson song had floated up from the bar, and how she had hushed her voice and said, as though she were speaking a poem, just those two words, Willie Nelson. And then how Alton, his connoisseur side all in a ruffle, how he had turned and away and declaimed, “any guy in a bar can sing better than Willie Nelson.”
But what possessed her more than anything, swarmed over her like a low, persistent fever, was her penchant for sinking into the day he had brought her to the train platform. How he had stood there in the cacophony of meeters and greeters as the Silver Bullet came to town, whistle blaring, somehow making himself the impresario of all the hooplah and hullabaloo.
Then came a day she had off, raw and gray, a thunder-sky so low invading her room that no action she took could affect it, not even flipping on every last light switch and pounding a six pack while the morning TV babbled Regis and Kelly.
So she took off for the depot, for a pre-noon train that never had been a barn-burner, never had drawn the crowds like the 5:36, but she could stand there nonetheless and feel the arrival of a rip-snorting, steel-shouldered visitor, the train itself. And as the ten-car bruiser rolled in and stopped just short of her feet, she felt the steamy exhale from the engine vents and flirted with the odds, no worse than the lottery, of paying this depot visit daily and, maybe once in the who-knows-when, maybe one time she’d see him alighting like a Daddy Longlegs, hair slicked and shades and shoe-tops bouncing the sunbeams, all hopped up for another shot at Wigwag Week.
The straggle of de-training passengers hooked up, for the most part, with a complimentary straggle of welcomers. Once coupled, they all drifted into the building, leaving the long, wide platform barren except for Tawny and the prairie gusts that blew gray drizzly air over the cars as though washing them for the journey ahead. Tawny walked a long way back, from the locomotive past the dining car and several passenger cars, determined to see the train off since the train, the mechanical mountain itself, was all there was to see off. As she walked, the handful of new passengers climbed aboard and disappeared into the blocks of steel and slits of dark-tinted window.
She was quite a ways down, in sight of the back end, when the train roused itself and groaned into solemn movement. And out of what seemed to be nothing but the empty air, a woman appeared on the platform, running alongside the moving cars and waving a slip of paper. She was slim and pretty in that golden way and Tawny thought of the Shirley Temple girl trying to wrap her arms around the giant, stuffed bear. Only this time the girl was grown up and trying to catch something even bigger, a whole departing train.
Tawny turned and watched as the woman cranked and pumped, actually gaining on the locomotive, and then she saw where she was heading – a car far forward where a uniformed man, a train worker, hung half his body out, stretching his arm in her direction. Moments later the woman caught up and found an instant where she was running even – just enough time to slap the paper at the man’s grasping hand. He pawed at it, snatched it, then dropped it, and the now-crumpled slip jittered on a blast of wind like a wounded kite trying to stay up. Then it plunged into nowhere, sucked under the titanic belly, and the paper only re-surfaced when all of the cars had rolled over it, just another wisp of track trash, now no different than the candy wrappers and wadded Kleenex bobbing and skittering from empty rail to empty rail. The woman bent over, fighting for air, and Tawny watched her as she finally got her breath and limped towards the building and succumbed to the door. As for Tawny herself, she turned and became so hypnotized by the bouncing piece of paper, so aching to touch it and read it, she was unable to budge an inch, not even after it had blown far across the tracks and completely out of sight.
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