Cover Photo: Night Train by Steven Bryan Bieler

Night Train

"Maybe by Maxine's lights I don't know my own wife. Maybe I don't even know what I don't know about my wife."

It was midnight when I muscled the sink out the front door and heaved it onto the rest of the scrap in the yard. Emily couldn’t tell me again that the damn kitchen was too small because we didn’t have a kitchen anymore, except the refrigerator and I’ve got that up on wheels.

Last week when we still had a kitchen and I walked into it after work, Emily yelled no and dropped the pot roast smack in the sink. She backed out with her dripping hands up and said it’s too small it’s too small. I said why did you drop the pot roast in the sink and she said would you please hurry up. I said someday we’ll buy a bigger house with a bigger kitchen and maybe a color television but why did you drop the pot roast and she screamed in or out and two days later she packed up and went to stay with her friend Maxine.

I know our kitchen is shaped like a shoebox and not a whole lot bigger, but that doesn’t seem like a good reason to ruin dinner and run away. The day I had to take the work train up to Scalp Mountain I tried calling over to Maxine’s but Maxine won’t let me talk to Emily and I guess Emily doesn’t want to talk to me anyway. Maxine said Emily said she’s already said all she has to say. While I was up on the mountain I tried to think of everything Emily said she’s already said. I took stock:




Four, 5, 100, it’s more of the same. All that stuck in my head was the afternoon 16 years ago when I met Emily. She was the barefoot girl playing ping pong at a summer party. She wore a yellow dress and her bare arms flashed in the sun when she served. I was so lost in the past I almost got run down by a rattly old gondola in the present.

I’m not sure how to proceed here and I already have a problem where I don’t know how to proceed and all this not-proceeding is lying in my gut like gravel.

That’s why I was considering the kitchen while I pushed my dinner around my plate. I decided I could improve things by knocking down half the dining-room wall and maybe make a bar out of it. That would be up-to-date. Get rid of this tile, put down formica. Might as well rip out all the cabinets, too. I got my sledgehammer, pry bar, and drywall saw and went to it. I guess I should’ve pinned up sheets and maybe protected the floor because now the furniture is salted with splinters and dust but I’ve got everything pulled out and piled on the front lawn.

Schottze from next door came over around 10 and asked if I was OK and if I was OK then could he help. Schottze has six kids. He looks for ways to get out of the house, plus his wife probably wants him to find out about Emily. I said I’m good and no thanks but I’d be glad to hire your sons to haul my old kitchen away. He said fine and I’ll send them over after school tomorrow. Am I making too much noise I asked. Not much he said, in the ruckus he lives in he can barely hear a thing. After Schottze left it started raining and that helped to quiet things down.

No way do I want help. I have to think and I have too much to think about. You see it’s not just Emily that’s knocked me off level. The wind is knocking our trains right off the rails. After we laid track on that shelf on the south face of the Scalp, we discovered a rogue wind that rockets up the side. If one of our boxcars happens to be going by at the same time, kapow! I tried telling Emily about this a couple of months ago but I’m not sure how seriously she took it or if she was even listening. She was carrying folded laundry and when I said this she said I’m sure you’ll fix it, Elston. She wasn’t looking at me.

Well I thought that figures, the woman thinks I can fix anything because I fixed her iron. This isn’t an iron failing to heat up, this is a boxcar tipping over at an altitude of 4,000 feet. Do you know what a mess it is when a train splits in two but she just put the clothes down on a chair and walked out behind the garage and got out her cigarettes. I figured I should leave her alone, she must be tired of the yardmaster calling me in the early hours to roust out the wrecker and roll on up to the ridge. It’s time-and-a-half but after the fourth incident this spring the thrill kinda wore off the money and I guess Emily felt the same way because I just remembered:

1. Emily said she’s isolated out here in the woods.

She said you’re on a train all the time, Elston, you go places. I said yeah but I’m just a mechanic, I don’t go far. I’m always home for dinner. She said that’s not her point but I didn’t understand what her point was. 

It was late and raining and I wished Emily hadn’t run off to Maxine’s because with her gone this is just a house with a furnace pumping warm air into empty rooms. I had no more kitchen to demolish and I wasn’t sleepy. I put on my slicker and got my flashlight and an umbrella and went for a walk.

The board of directors are on us about these derailments, and the division super is looking a year older every week. They’ve brought in some smart boys from corporate in Spokane. They’ve been swarming over the track and the terrain and taking altitude and azimuth readings and gathering every day in the command center they set up back of Arky’s All-Nite to calculate warm air/cold air differentials and wheel tolerances. The first thing they discovered was Arky’s pie. I can’t get any apple pie since this gang moved in. I’ve noticed they’re not going for the cherry but I’m not taking their leftovers.

Meanwhile the road has posted a $500 bonus for any employee who comes up with a wind-proof solution. It’s been my secret plan from the start to win that $500 and stash it away and maybe surprise Emily with it in 20 years but it occurred to me tonight that if I won the $500 we could buy a kitchen Julia Child would be thrilled to cook in, plus think of the money I saved by doing the prep myself. But it’s been two weeks since the reward was offered and so far the only part of my plan that’s working is that no one else knows about it. I still don’t have a clue. Like I said, I’m not fixing an iron here.

To get the ball rolling and gather data I casually asked the super what he thought was causing this rogue wind. I can’t gather data from Maxine because she told me yesterday she doesn’t want to get involved and she said I should know my own wife. The super wasn’t anymore helpful than Maxine. He told me not to worry about it, these boys were experts. The super thinks I’m just a grease monkey. He’s going to think different when I win the $500. Which I’d better do soon, because if the visitors come up with the winning idea it won’t look any too good for the home team.

After reviewing the situation I realized I was still perplexed about how to stop these derailments and why Emily went to stay with Maxine, plus I’d been standing on this corner so long I had practically memorized the azaleas growing at the edge of somebody’s muddy lawn. I can’t think when I’m standing at a siding. Wait, that’s another thing.

2. Emily said her whole life was standing still.

How can her life be standing still? I’m the senior mechanic now! The rain wasn’t falling hard but it was falling steady and there were some ambitious puddles where the sidewalks had buckled. Here I was trying to keep trains on the tracks and I couldn’t keep my feet dry in these loafers I’ve had since our honeymoon. You’re only as good as your equipment. My Dad was a quartermaster in World War II and he always said that and I always hated it when he said that but now I say that.

Start again, I thought. What do I know about Scalp Mountain?

1. Rogue wind on the south face.

2. Knocks over boxcars.

3. There’s a dog across the street. A small red dog with white markings and a short snout and sharp ears like a fox.

4. One summer Emily and I hiked above the Scalp trestle and up to the subalpine meadows. We lay around through the bright blue afternoon under those stunted pines. We had to move with the shade every 40 minutes. I timed it. Emily said she wanted to stay there forever. I said this meadow is inaccessible in winter with all the snow. She said we’d use stilts. Then I knew she was just being dreamy. I got into the spirit of the thing and said we’d have to join the circus to learn to use stilts. She said she wished we could join the circus and then I knew she wasn’t being dreamy anymore and I told her about the time we had to unload half a circus train before they could handle the grade over Imperial Pass but Emily and I had to move again with the shade and then I think I fell asleep.

Maybe by Maxine’s lights I don’t know my own wife. Maybe I don’t even know what I don’t know about my own wife. I know I don’t know this little red dog. It swaggered up to me as if it owned the street. I didn’t think it was planning to attack. I put the flashlight under my arm and said hi dog what are you doing out here and bent to show my hand so the thing wouldn’t bite me. Right away I dropped the flashlight and a line of rain sluiced off the umbrella and onto my neck. What a rookie move. I would’ve laughed if it’d been someone else standing out here. The dog was of the female gender, I’m pretty sure, and had a collar but no tag. I straightened up and the rain worked its cold-hearted way down my back.

Where do you live you stupid dog I asked. Don’t you have enough sense to stay inside? The little dog ran into the street, turned and bowed at me. I’m not going to chase you I said and then I took a step toward her to scare her away and said go home and she ran across somebody’s lawn and around a big, darkened house.

I headed down the sidewalk and thought about boxcars and their vertical steel sides. The dog came up to me and tried to get me to play again. I returned to the darkened house with her following and said go home, you’re off the clock! She cocked her head and waited for me to say something else, like maybe dinner. I checked her collar again, in case I’d missed a tag the first time. No tag. This was one wet dog.

Maybe this wasn’t her home? There was no one around to ask. When we were out for a Sunday drive, Emily would cry if she saw a dog that looked lost. I always told her they knew what they were doing. Do they? The red dog frisked away again, down the street. I walked after her. She dashed behind another house and there were no lights on there, either. Why don’t people lock up their animals?

 I decided to go home. I wasn’t doing anybody any good out here. The dog circled in front of me, then ran down the block and around a corner. She was leaving the neighborhood now and getting close to Westcott Avenue, a road with a double yellow line. Through the relentless, slow-motion rain I saw taillights. We had track on the other side paralleling the road, the line to West Divide. There was forest on the other side of the track, dense second growth with tangles of vines and brambles. I bet all those trees and rotting leaves and little furry things that lived there smelled pretty good to dogs. I heard another car.

Hey dog I yelled and the dog came running which made me wonder if somebody with an ironic-type sense of humor had named her Dog. Dog planted her muddy front paws on my jeans just above my left knee but I was ready. I had folded the umbrella and laid it down and the flashlight was in my pocket. I bent down as if to pet Dog but instead I grabbed her and held her to my chest. I got a good whiff of soggy furry canine. They smell like sweaters. She couldn’t have weighed more than 30 or 40 pounds and I could feel her heart beating through her fur and my slicker. I figured I’d just march on home with her but I guess she didn’t care for being kidnapped by a stranger because she started squirming like a dolphin. She was all muscle. She squirted away and bolted down the road that joined Westcott and ran across Westcott and I heard brakes and then through the gap between two houses I saw a car slew sideways, then straighten and keep going.

Emily would surely be crying by now. I ran across Westcott, which thank God was empty of crumpled doggy bodies. I crunched up the ballasted roadbed and stepped over the rail. There was a flickery streetlight a couple hundred feet away. Even in that light I could tell these ties were due for replacing. I stepped over the other rail and went down the gravel and under the tree where Dog sat, her muzzle covered in mud, her tongue hanging out and half an oak leaf stuck to it. On the other side of Westcott was a row of houses filled with sane people, sleeping. On our side were dark wet trees, dark wet drapes of ivy vines, dark wet weedy things. The trees were shedding all the water they’d been soaking up all day. I felt like I was standing in the spray behind a waterfall. I should’ve worn a hat. I should’ve worn goggles.

I said Scalp Mountain in the rainy silence, but I was sick of Scalp Mountain and who cares, one of the Chosen Few was going to win a Nobel Prize for their brilliant engineering solution. I might get my apple pie back but I couldn’t figure how to get my wife back.

And then way off to the left I saw the headlight. It was the 12:20 freight transfer to West Divide.

The 12:20 should’ve passed long ago but Barnaby is the regular conductor on this run and he always stops at Arky’s. It’s near the tracks and he likes the pie. Then they have to crowd the schedule to make up the time and instead of poking along at 25mph they’d do close to twice that on this straight stretch of track with no grade crossings to watch for.

I ran up and over the roadbed and out onto Westcott and yelled Hey Dog, let’s play, but now it didn’t want to play. The deep growl of the SD9’s motors welled up out of the ground and Dog growled too.

I took stock.

1. Here’s what I had in front of me: One dog, free-rolling. One train running late.

I had no confidence I could hold this dog, especially with the ringside distraction of a freight train.

2. Here’s where we had to go: My house, half a mile away.

Maybe the kitchen didn’t have anything to do with anything.

3. Here’s what equipment I was carrying: one pocket knife, one flashlight.

Penalty weight.

My spies at Arky’s told me the Spokane boys were experimenting with a kind of louvered contraption they aimed to bolt on top of each boxcar. This isn’t a fancy contraption problem. My feet squished in these sponges I had for shoes as the reflections of the diesel’s headlight ran down the rails. This isn’t a fancy problem at all I thought as I shucked out of my slicker. Those boys at Arky’s are shingling themselves off the roof and here I’ve been doing the same thing. I unbuckled my belt and yanked it out of the loops as I sprinted over the track and down to where Dog was pacing. I wrapped one end of the belt around Dog’s collar and cinched it and drew her into the ivy and squatted down and held the belt and her as the 12:20 hammered by. The engine’s ditch lights lit us up and Dog barked defiantly and tried to escape and I could see Barnaby high up in the cab, eating of course, and then the air whooshed last fall’s moldy leaves into a tornado as the line of boxcars rocked past. The caboose rattled by and took all that sound of rolling steel with it. The leaves settled and the rain fell and a drift of diesel exhaust like stale brimstone settled on us.

It worked I said.

By the time we were in sight of the pale piles of sodden plaster and wood on our front lawn my back hurt from walking slightly stooped to hold onto Dog with the belt but I had everything all worked out. Everything except Emily, but as we came up the walk she opened the door and I said we are going to build a windbreak on Scalp Mountain with the junk we have lying around the backshop, how about that? She said what happened to my kitchen and I said we’re going to fill a string of hopper cars with rocks and set them on the ground beside the track and that little idea’s worth 500 clams. And then I started crying and begged her to please tell me what it was she’d said that I’d missed and I guess she had her hands full then with the house busted up and a crying husband and a barking dog but she went at us with towels and Dog and I eventually quieted down.

Emily told me Schottze called to say I was demolishing the house so she got Maxine to drive her over. I asked her was she going back to Maxine’s and she said yes she came over to make sure I wasn’t dead. Maxine was outside in her car. I promised her we would build a new kitchen and she said we’ll talk about it later, Elston. She said where did you find Cinnamon and I said her name is Dog and Emily said who names a dog Dog and I said well she answers to Dog and Emily said what do you know about dogs and I said I’ll tell you this I know when a dog needs help and she said good.

Unsung novelist, unstrung music blogger, far-flung hiker. Put a bird on it. Played chess in high school, played chess in college, currently plays chess.