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Jul/Aug 2002 fiction

The Last Rail-Rider

by Jason Gurley


Art by Bob Dornborg

 

Riding the rails wasn't so easy to begin with, but after I managed to find myself an unlocked boxcar that first time, and rode it seventeen miles from Farmdale to Givens, and saw the way the land opened up from the small box it had always been for me into a great expanse of unfamiliarity, I resolved that the difficulty of the experience would not prevent me from pushing forward.

There were eighteen major rail companies in Givens, which was the only town I could get to from Farmdale. I made Givens my home. I found an abandoned smokehouse just a mile from the tracks, and I hunkered down under a bench—not on top of it, just in case somebody came poking around.

At night I fell off into the old smell of hickory and warm pine chips while the trains rattled and barreled along the tracks outside. There was the Columbia, and the Midwestern Trailer Company, and Barnaby Lines. The Southwestern came through several times a week, and the Grant-Major. For the longest time I stayed in that smokehouse, just absorbing the coal smoke of the passing trains, learning the names of the lines and studying the tracks as the wheels flashed over them. I stayed in that smokehouse every night from my sixteenth birthday on. I think about it now, and it's a wonder nobody plowed that thing down while I was asleep. It's gone now.

I went into Givens every few days and did odd jobs for a few bucks. There was a barber who paid me ten dollars to sweep his floor for a business-day, and sometimes I worked with a shamble-footed old fellow who did odd jobs himself. He just wanted a little company while he hung gutters and fixed broken windows and burned out old tree stumps. Never asked me to work, and never let me when I tried, but still paid me half of what he made on every job. I got into the habit of putting away a dollar from every day I worked.

And then all of a sudden I turned eighteen. It came from nowhere. I was wandering through Givens, heading for the Miss Peach, a diner where I washed dishes once or twice a week, when I saw an electric sign at the bank flash the date and time. September 28. 4:32 PM. I squinted at it, wondering what was so familiar about that day, and it hit me: it was my birthday. I counted back, and guessed that I was eighteen. And with that realization was the surprising awareness that I was free—I was now a man, and could go anywhere I pleased.

That's when I decided to ride the rails.

I'd read about it before, and seen old movies about bums who rode all over the country, seeing great sights and collecting free meals from sympathetic store-owners. But all of those movies were in black-and-white. I wondered if anybody rode the rails today. I decided that I didn't care. I would be the one to resurrect the lost art of rail-riding.

Of the rail lines that passed through Givens, almost all were major corporate lines with security personnel and full-time live-aboard staff. Some were tour lines, like the Amtrak that came through once a month, but most were just freight lines with flashy new cars and bright wheels.

But there was one, the Kentucky Blue Line Special, that was different. It had its own station on the Givens tracks, and cycled trains in and out at all hours of the day and night. Its cars were shadowy with dirt and coal-smoke grime, and the people who worked it were unshaven and sometimes drunk. I would sit outside the smokehouse at night and stare at the rail station, at the lengths of untended boxcars and engines, and long to climb inside and ride. It took a month of wishing to build the nerve, and I came to a decision: Givens would always be my home. I would ride the Blue Line out, see the world, and return in its belly to my smokehouse. The world would be mine, and I would stop only long enough to rest my head beneath that old bench.

 

The Blue Line Special had seven routes that originated in Givens and circled the Midwest. I learned that most of the world was outside of my reach; the Blue Line was the only line I could hop easily, and it only went through six states. But those six states were five and nine-tenths more than I'd ever seen, and the world seemed to grow exponentially.

I never worried about being spotted on the Blue Line. I could sleep day or night in the cars without anybody noticing. The cars were largely empty, so there wasn't much freight to inspect from leg to leg, and they smelled of wet wood and vinegar. The line workers avoided them. I came to love the scent.

In November I caught the Blue Line from Givens to a small town in Kentucky called Black Hole. I sat in the open door of a boxcar—never any danger of falling out; the Blue Line topped out at speeds slower than the average dog can run—and watched the town approach. It was difficult to call it a town, actually. It was more of an accidental assortment of buildings near one another, like some great building giant had thrown these ramshackle homes to the wind, and they'd all caught the same current and landed at odd angles in the mud and sod. The homes had foundations not entirely level to the ground, and chimneys that were falling away from their walls. I didn't see any cars in driveways—didn't see any driveways, actually—and it almost looked like the town was abandoned.

I knew very little about science and astronomy then, and even less now, but it seems to me that the town was perfectly named. The Blue Line broke down directly across from downtown. I sat with my legs dangling out of the car and looked up the length of the track at the engine, which was engulfed in black smoke. The engineer jumped out of the cloud of smoke and tumbled down the gravel embankment. He picked himself up and started running crazy-legged across the mushy field that separated the tracks from the town (the field was black, as if someone had been pouring old kitchen grease on the dirt for hundreds of years). The engineer was yelling something. Two other line workers apparently understood him and leaped from the train. They rolled and bumped and bounced down the gravel slope and lay still at the bottom.

The engineer saw this and began running as fast as he could toward the two men—which wasn't very fast at all; running through that field, I would later experience first-hand, was like slogging through a swamp that sucked you deeper with every step. But he arrived, and for a moment stared at the engine, upwind from both of us.

The smoke was thicker and blacker and ripe with tendrils of bright blue. The engineer saw this and began moving as if the train were about to explode. He snagged the two motionless men by their collars and began to walk backward, dragging them along. Their limp arms and wrists and feet bumped over loose rocks and scattered debris, and when the engineer reached the field, the weight of the two men began to sink all three of them.

I didn't understand all of the fuss. Sure, there was something wrong with the train, but trains had broke down before, and there was never anything like this. I unwrapped an apple from my pack and chomped noisily, amused by the antics of the disappearing train-workers.

And then there was a muffled boom from the direction of the engine, and the front wall of the boxcar groaned and buckled, and the hitch that connected it to the car in front of it burst through the wall in a splinter-storm of old, damp wood.

I dropped the apple and leaped from the train myself, forgetting my pack, in which was all of my food—two more apples and a Lunchable—and clothes—a dirty pair of socks and a greasy engineer's cap I'd found on the tracks back in Givens. I toppled down the slope and landed staring up at the black sky, coughing at the sudden black smoke, in a town called Black Hole, Kentucky.

A warped chunk of iron thudded into the dirt beside me, hissing and giving off steam. I looked at it carefully. It was a bent railroad spike.

 

Like everything else that afternoon, I was sucked into Black Hole. I sat on the steps of the courthouse, holding onto the rail (if I let go, I would slide to the opposite end of the step; apparently nobody had leveled off this foundation either) and watching as a maintenance train from Givens appeared on the tracks and began assessing the damage.

The Blue Line was a disaster. The engine had exploded somehow, and the front end of the train was bucked up like something massive had stepped right in the middle of it. The nose of the engine pointed up at the sky. Fifty of the sixty cars were damaged. The last ten seemed okay. Most of the cars in front of them had absorbed the shock. A half-dozen cars had vaulted free of their bindings and rocketed through the air, landing in the grease field. One had already sunk out of sight, and the foreman of the maintenance crew had sloshed out into the field and climbed atop one of the other tossed-aside cars and was staring down at it, shaking his head. I heard they were only able to rescue one of the three line-workers, and it wasn't the engineer. It was one of the other two, and he'd broken his neck when he'd jumped from the train. He was already dead.

"I've never seen you," a voice said.

I looked up, but didn't let go of the railing.

A middle-aged woman in a brown, faded suit jacket was standing there. A feather was in her hat, but not a stylish feather. It looked as if she'd discovered a dead pigeon on the road and plucked the feather out for her hat. Its spine was broken, and it pitched way off to the side of the hat. There was even blood on it.

I shrugged at her. "I'm not from here."

"Were you on the train?" she asked. She sat down beside me and immediately began sliding down the stair to the opposite side. She grabbed at my arm and hung on for dear life, and I was immediately confused. I was repulsed by the sight of her—her eyes were smudged with black, like she'd spent her days working in a coal mine, and there were enormous gaps between her teeth (I realized a moment later that she only had every other tooth)—and at the same time, I'd never been this close to a woman before. It somehow excited me.

I stumbled around a bit, then said, "Yep."

"I'm sorry about your coworkers," she said. "I heard they all got killed. It's a miracle you survived. Were you in the first car? That one?" She pointed at the engine.

"I was in that one." I thrust out a finger at the fiftieth car, letting go of the railing, sending us both sliding down the step. We crashed hard at the other end, and she gripped her thigh.

"I'm sorry!" I said.

She shook her head, biting her lip with pain (her teeth were like a zipper missing its other side) and squeezed her eyes shut so hard that a cloud of the black dust flaked off of her skin.

"'S okay," she managed to say.

She turned out to be a smarter woman than I thought. I mentioned something about the unique name of the town and she proceeded to expound on the theories of the black hole and spacial space and dark matter and universal magnetism, all things I didn't understand. When she finally came around to asking why I wasn't in the engine, I was ready to spill my guts to impress her.

"I ride the rails," I said.

She stopped, not having expected this, and studied me carefully. "You ride trains?"

"Yes'm," I answered.

She noticed my lack of possessions and said, "Well, now, I guess you do."

And for a moment that seemed to be all she was going to say. I opened my mouth to further try to impress her, but she said, "Isn't that illegal?"

"I think so. Well, yes."

"I thought it was."

"Yep. I'm a criminal, I suppose."

But she ignored that and mused, "I wonder how that's even possible these days. What with computerized security and motion detectors and cameras and such."

I said, "The Kentucky Blue Line Special doesn't have none of that stuff. It's old."

She thought about this. "So you take advantage of the elderly, then."

"I..."

"I can't stand a young man who doesn't respect his elders," she said, and stood up. I slid into the gap she left behind and stared up at her walking away. That was when I noticed that she wasn't wearing a skirt or pants, just walking around bare-bottomed. I guess her clothes had been sucked into Black Hole, too.

 

The next morning the track was surrounded by rescue vehicles with flashing red lights and two helicopters that hovered overhead, shining spotlights even though they obviously weren't needed. The helicopters had large winches on them, and one was attempting to pull a fire truck out of the grease field, where it had apparently sunk with all of its firemen inside. I watched tiredly as the helicopter slowly drew closer and closer to the ground. It was ultimately swallowed up by the field with little fanfare. Everybody was too busy trying to figure out a way to get the exploded train off of the tracks.

 

For two weeks I sat on the courthouse steps and watched the commotion. I slept there. Someone brought me a pillow and blanket one night, which I appreciated, but I awoke the next morning just in time to see them sinking beneath the surface of the grease field.

 

On the fifteenth day I woke up and the tracks were empty. But not even so much empty as missing. I wandered around the grease field and down the length of a cotton field toward the gravel incline. I was a half-mile away from the explosion site when I clambered up onto the tracks, and began walking. The gravel was scorched black around the site, and as I approached I decided I would see if the explosion had scorched the tracks themselves. That'd sure be something to see. But something struck me as strange as I drew near the blackened gravel.

The tracks were gone.

Well, not exactly gone. At a certain point, the tracks turned off of the gravel track bed and headed straight toward the grease field. I saw the tracks disappear into the field in two places: coming and going. It was as if the field had sucked on the tracks like a piece of spaghetti. The tracks, I noticed now, were slowly sliding past me. I could actually hear a sucking sound as they were pulled into the field. There was a great metallic whang, and a railroad spike popped straight up in the air. Then another, and another. I jumped away from the tracks and down the incline and walked beneath the twin rails as they moved overhead, casting veinlike shadows on the ground beside me.

 

I don't try to determine what happened in that town that day, though I seem to have an eternity to think these things out. Something about the explosion, I suppose, must have spontaneously created a black hole in that stupid field. Beneath the field, actually. But that's silly. Maybe it was me. I thought about my childhood, and how my mother had one day disappeared. If I had wandered around Farmdale, would I have discovered her ankles-up in a garden somewhere?

Black Hole slowly disappeared. I woke up one morning and found the courthouse gone, presumably into the field. The ground under it was misshapen and pit-like, and I was at the bottom of it. Later I saw the zipper-tooth woman jogging backwards, right into the field, and two brick houses followed her. For months it was like this, until there were no actual man-made constructions left for the field to swallow up. It started pulling at trees and grass, and before I knew it the ground in all directions was just blank brown dirt. All of the gravel from the track bed was gone, and I looked around one day and saw that the world was just two colors now. Brown and blue. Dirt and sky. I stopped moving, because I couldn't tell where the field began or ended anymore. So I just sat in one place and watched. I stopped sleeping.

A while ago I saw a cloud thrashing about in the field, and when I woke up the next morning there was no sky, just utter blackness. The earth soon followed.

 

There is just me and the field now, on a blank screen of blackness. I sit and watch it all day. It refuses to take me into it, for reasons I don't quite understand. I've asked it, but it never answers.

I see now that the dirt of the field is disappearing. Black Hole is swallowing itself, and when it is gone, where will that leave me? I am as alone here as I ever was, and now there are no lines left to ride, no six Midwestern states to explore. I don't exactly know what I'll do, or how I'll do it. I am the last of the rail-riders. There were many before me, but none will follow.

 

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