The young man walked past the televisions on Quincy Street, averting his face for fear of seeing himself in the screens. He rounded a corner shaded by green lindens and littered by cigarette butts. Reminding himself of his plan, he headed onto Clinton, where he entered a tan, nondescript building. “Do you have sixth grade math?” said a man there, a man who was interviewing him.
“Yes,” the young man replied. “I even finished high school.” The young man scratched his face. The young man had long, blond hair, but the interviewer didn’t seem to care.
The interviewer tapped his clipboard. “Joe. Joe Eloy. That your real name?”
The young man nodded. It was real, his name. Other things were false, like his avoiding of televisions, his lie about finishing high school, and what they taught about rain forests at school. The teachers didn’t know how endangered the majestic rain forests really were, because the world was corrupt, evil. Joe glanced about. In the large office room, a myriad of tables and chairs stretched into a humming distance. He noticed the other young men and that they were black. They would all go to jobs on the south side, the interviewer had mentioned. Sweat beaded Joe’s neck. Joe imagined the men shuttled to a desolate center, instead of working by a lake or in an office. Joe thought to protest their fates, but the interviewer’s curt facial expression deterred him.
“How do you feel about a job on the Chicago railway?” the man said, flipping his clipboard.
Joe nodded. Joe nodded and nodded and tried not to think of the dark alley where he awoke that morning, confused and covered with blood from some bewildering other source. And there was the hubbub and the police—and the news-reporter with her camera—and Joe escaped. Did they know his name? Fear pattered Joe’s chest.
Outside, the city blossomed into spring.
“This is Forest Park,” said a red-headed man. The train yard fanned out before them. A uniformed figure followed a line of box cars that sloped toward an orange engine, exploding softly as they coupled. A nearby Chicago suburb flickered in the midday haze. “We’ll be taking the Iowa route each day. Out to Iowa, then back. You’ll be our new brakeman, our only brakeman,” wheezed the man, who was on the portly side. “They trained you properly, I hope, these past few days. I’m the conductor, Errol.” Errol lowered his voice. “Some freight trains have two brakemen, but we have only you, kid.”
“So don’t screw up,” Joe replied. He wore a tool belt now. It fit snugly against his gray trousers.
“And there’s the engineer, of course, and the fireman,” Errol continued. “You and the fireman are responsible for fixing things if we break down, in addition to your usual yard duties.”
“You live near here?”
“I just moved here,” Joe replied. He had left the city’s dark labyrinth of canyons. With his pay advance he took a small apartment in the quaint neighborhood near the yard. He tried to recall the look of the bed and walls, but blanked. In any case, he’d never be there, which was the point.
“There’s something strange about you, kid,” Errol said. “But I can’t quite put my finger on it.”
“I’m a city boy,” Joe replied simply. “Born and raised.”
“Well, you’re in for something different now,” the conductor said.
With the cabin window open, the train horn blasted through Joe’s skull at every crossing. The engineer sat in his seat to the right, at the controls, and Errol at his left. Joe sat behind Errol and watched the tablature Errol kept, a kabbalah of nomenclatures tracking grains, coal, or other shipment data depending on the day, rows which shifted each time they made deliveries at an industrial station along the Illinois corridor or when they reached a stop in the corn state. The cabin trapped heat.
“Want water?” Errol said. “It’s hot as the Mojave Desert in here.” He passed a canteen back to Joe.
Joe had forgotten his. He drank.
“The brakeman is the low man on the totem pole,” the engineer said, opening his bag lunch that smelled of rank salami. “Watch and learn. So what do you want to be when you ‘grow up’?” the engineer said, sneeringly.
“I want to work in a rain forest, and save something there,” Joe said. Joe thought of his mother, back in the city, then tried not to. She wouldn’t like the rain forest idea, just as she worried about other things he did.
The engineer burst out laughing. Maybe he was supposed to say he wanted the engineer’s job, Joe thought.
“He’s just kidding,” Errol said. Errol reached back and tapped Joe’s arm, then took the canteen. “You are, ain’t you?” He eyed Joe’s face and added, “Don’t answer.”
“You might be from the city but you’re a hippie,” the engineer said. “Cut your hair hippie.”
“What about you?” said Joe to the engineer. “What do you want to do?”
“Buy a house with cash. I’m married,” he replied. “Keep doing jobs like this, I’ll have it soon.”
With all this talk, Errol had fallen silent. Joe found this peculiar. Perhaps Errol didn’t know what he wanted. The fireman wandered in back, and Joe wondered if he hoped for action, a streaming box fire to ignite the prairie.
Joe went outside the engine, scaling the edge. A drop-off station neared. The engineer complained he felt that the cars were bunching, pushing the engine. A brake line connecting cars failing. At least they’d be in station. A pinhole sun radiated. The wind ruffled Joe’s tied-up hair. Blue and brown of field ran past. This wasn’t an adventure film, he told himself. If he fell, the fall would be fifteen feet. Once he hopped off, he’d walk a mile or two of train length, spot the rupture. Replace hose or gasket, wrenching and elbow-greasing.
He could suture wounds; he could fix things.
The sky sang brightness.
“Where did you live, Joe? Before getting the apartment?” Errol asked in the third week of Joe’s employ. They had just done some challenging couplings in the yard. Hanging outside the back train car, Joe orchestrated using hand signals to the fireman and engineer in the engine ahead. The engineer sped up or slowed down until the box cars behind locked, and Joe saw them knuckle together properly. Joe got off and connected hoses. Errol congratulated Joe on a dangerous job, well-performed. They were chit-chatting now inside the dank train.
“With my mom,” Joe replied. “In an apartment above a tavern. Later I stayed with friends. I didn’t like the tavern. It isn’t my mom’s fault. She works hard but it’s all she can afford. The tavern bothers me. You never told me where you live.”
Errol slapped Joe’s shoulder. He didn’t answer. “Mind taking over for me? Just check that these rows tally? I need to take a nap.” He handed Joe the papers. And then he flopped on his fold-out, falling fast into a honking snore despite the irradiation of cabin noise.
Joe was the brakeman. Joe couldn’t take naps, no matter how foggy his brain felt. A newspaper poked out from Errol’s pillow. Joe startled; his blood froze. The heading bore the date May 8. The day of the alley—the day he was hired. Errol’s pillow hid the remaining lines. Joe reached out, but an invisible hand stopped him. Panic throbbed his ears. He tried again. But he could not violate the sanctity of a man asleep. He stole away with only the tally sheet.
However, the next day, Joe felt the winds of their relationship change.
They were working in the yard. The sky bright blue. Trains rolled silently through the yard, headed for couplings. Silence meant danger and Joe kept alert as he moved about outside. A shipment fell off a forklift, crushing a worker. The man’s leg stuck forth from the crate. Joe’s crew gaped as bells rang and authorities came.
Later, when they traveled, Errol looked pensive. He pulled Joe aside and Joe nervously studied Errol’s face. Then, Errol said, “I have a secret, Joe.”
“You do?” Joe said, exhaling.
“Truth is, Joe, I’m married.”
“I didn’t know.” Joe shook his head. His chest untightened.
“In fact, I’m twice married.”
“I’m married to two women. One on each end of the line. I have two families, three kids—two with my Cynthia in Forest Park, and one with dearest Amber near the Iowa yard, in Cedar Town. That’s why I never talk about getting a motel room when we overnight in Iowa.” He reached out, hushing Joe’s lips. “Please, Joe, don’t say anything ever. They don’t know about each other, my two families, and they can’t. I’ve been supporting them. I’ve been splitting my paycheck equally, giving my all. I’m splitting my time equally. I save nothing for myself except basics. I love them all, and the accident in the yard got me thinking about whether I’ve done enough. To save. For their future. What if I die? And they find out…?”
Joe felt confused. Joe didn’t know what he thought. Joe thought of his dad who left him and his mom, left when Joe was eight so they had to live above the tavern. But the conductor was his friend, he decided. Joe felt camaraderie for the first time since running through the city streets with his friends getting up to mischief.
“I promise I won’t say anything,” Joe said.
In late summer, they had a breakdown. The train ran to a halt in the middle of purple Iowa dusk. A failed brake had dragged and caught on a bend and then the brake box started alight, nothing Joe could have averted; but the engineer seemed cross with him as they investigated. The fireman started to contain the blaze. Joe sprinted out into dusk with his black flare-bag slung tight over his shoulder. After running well over a half mile, his throat bulged and sweat engulfed his ears. He kept running until his train had long vanished behind the bend, and then he stopped. Panting, he jerked open the pack. He pulled out a small square-shaped detonator, wrapped in red paper. He shakily placed the detonator onto the rail, tying it—neatly as possible—with two straps. He placed another detonator. A train clamored distant, in the same direction, and if the detonators didn’t work, didn’t go off under the train and make fantastic noise as designed, the train would barrel on and they’d collide.
But the charges went off when the locomotive passed, likely shaking the engineer from an end-of-shift torpor. He stopped and the incident ended calmly. Joe’s crew spent the night in a cow town far from their usual stop. Errol—jokingly calling Joe “hero”—good job hero—joined Joe in his motel room, where the two drank rum and laughed, though they knew how hard the day would be.
Next shift the engineer gave Joe a hard stare. Management was investigating. Where had maintenance failed? Errol sided with Joe. In two days it was deemed simple wear-and-tear and Joe was cleared.
The engineer’s rancor—persistent, despite the verdict—colored Joe’s days. Joe double-shifted on another Iowa line. When being shuttled back, not working, Joe dozed off on-train for the first time, amid harsh rattling. Suddenly he saw old friends, his best friend Nick included. They ran in a street gang, nonviolent. They stole leather gloves from the black market, as they did in life, but in the dream the market stalls kept shifting, so the gloves were harder and harder to find. They stole bread from the corner grocer and worms hollowed out the bread. They hot-wired a stranger’s purple boat of a car and returned it by nightfall, but the middle-aged owner waited on the dark curb, and knew their names. Now he saw the train’s dark. No. Rotten spice and meat. The alley near Cicero street. He and Nick slept there that night. In half-sleep, Joe felt a slimy feeling, an alien hand moving under his shirt, his belt, lower, locking on flesh. His eyes flashed open. The concrete under his back. He saw a head with Medusa locks. A man glared down, greedy, crazed. The man’s hand under Joe’s clothing. The knife Joe clutched—that he’d slept with—thrust out and hit flesh. Fear knocked Joe unconscious.
Joe sat up, the hard cabin around him. He rubbed his neck. He sipped coffee from his thermos. He felt he’d just had a nightmare, a terrible one, but couldn’t recall any details. Why did his heart batter his chest? A sense of violation crawled out of his nightmare. He bent over, wanting, for a reason unbeknownst to him, to hide his underbelly. He tried again to recall…but nothing. Then, for some reason, he remembered the alley. He couldn’t remember anything about that night, nothing except the circumstances: Nick’s mother kicked them out of her apartment, late, so they had nowhere to go. In fear, Joe and Nick slept in the alley with knives. At daybreak Joe woke with blood covering him. What had happened? Had he hurt someone? They saw a body, asleep or dead. They heard yelling around the corner. Nick said “run.”
Joe thought, I may have killed a man.
In September, the irritated engineer asked for a transfer. His replacement was a taciturn gentleman, but Joe and Errol tolerated him.
One unseasonably warm day in October, in Forest Park, Joe was working in the yard. The yard master blundered and assigned Joe’s train, and that of his old engineer, who was incoming, to the same track. Shouting and waving, the yard master alerted Joe, but nearly too late. Joe jumped off the head engine and ran ahead. He got down on his left knee in the hard gravel to throw the lever, switch the track to the correct course. The lever would not budge. Sometimes switches got stuck. Grunting, he gave it all his might, feeling his forehead strain and eyes bulge with pressure. Why continue with this torture? he thought in a blur. The engineer had given Joe a bad report and affected Joe’s pay raise, though Joe was in good standing otherwise. He imagined the engineer’s eyes advancing. The engineer sneering, calling him “hippie” and “rain forest man.” The engineer surely sweating, because he’d crossed the danger point and couldn’t stop now. And Joe didn’t have to throw the switch.
Joe threw the switch. The engineer safely passed.
The next day restlessness gnawed him. He had 15,000 dollars divided up between the Forest Park bank and his mattress. He hadn’t been in contact with the past. He made calls. He found Nick’s older brother, but not Nick. On the phone, Nick’s brother told Joe about a job on the ore boats—they needed help for the last months of shipping on the Great Lakes, before the locks froze mid-January. Joe, muscled and tan, quit the railway. He said goodbye to Errol.
He went to the city, got off the commuter train downtown and walked toward a building on Monroe. He had an interview. The flat gray of Lake Michigan rose across the angled street. Amid cold steel-gray drizzle he considered his quiet mother waitressing at the steak restaurant, living in her apartment where she kept a marigold on the sill. He picked up a corner payphone. The tavern noise screeched into his mind; the brassy voices from the bar confused him. He heard the great swirling sounds of thick-headed, taunting gangsters and bosses, the ogres who haunted him in his room from below and caused him to never go back. He hung up the phone, having never dialed, and exited the booth. Rain slanted sideways, cutting into his jacket. He felt for something in his pocket, an item Nick’s brother mailed after they discussed the ore boats. Something Joe found important at first, but later did not. It was a section of newspaper.
STABBING CRIME IN THE CITY
May 08, 1974
Early this morning a man,
identified as Homer S. Walkins,
was stabbed in an alley near Cicero street. He had
allegedly been out late frequenting the taverns.
Police and a woman reporter, nearby due to reports of an office fire,
witnessed the unkempt Walkins, who was bleeding from the arm,
running wildly onto Cicero
and gesticulating and howling among the parked cars. The alley was investigated.
It was apparent a long-haired street urchin had viciously attacked the man,
and when encountered, the urchin ran into the street and disappeared.
It was not possible to get photo or name identification.
Another drifter, Nick Shannon, was unhelpful. The victim
received stitches at a nearby hospital. No one else was harmed.
The newspaper didn’t matter. The newspaper didn’t matter because Joe couldn’t remember. There was only the black swelling void in the pit of his stomach. The article may well have been about somebody else—the person depicted seeming alien, unrecognizable. Joe glanced toward the harbor. There the boats awaited him.
Heather Sager is an author of short fiction and poetry. Her stories appear (or soon will) in Little Patuxent Review, 45th Parallel, Vestal Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, Columbia Journal, and elsewhere. She lives in northern Illinois.