Rick piped on the harmonica on the steam train that marched down the line. The rhythmic low notes matched the tempo of the train’s chugging. His face would crease as he slid to the higher notes, that wailed from deep inside his lungs.
He wore a disemboweled raccoon as a hat. His beard caught the condensation of his breath. Snow, tundra and pine trees surrounded the track on his route, delivering coal and canned food to the remote mining towns of Alaska, before the vicious winter totally cut them off. He shoveled a couple of coal heaps onto the flames and toasted his mottled hands in front of the heat. Deep lines were chiseled into the face of this hardy driver, his eyes gleamed in the glowing engine fire.
He’d run to these tracks at the age of 16, fleeing an alcoholic father and a bruised mother. His co-workers had taken him under their wing and he never looked back. It was intense methodical work. Hauling loads, watching the oncoming track, checking supplies on board were topped up and fixing the endless breakdowns on this rusty iron horse.
He lived between rest stops of the railroad’s outposts. These were normally cabins with a single bed, thick blankets and a cheap wardrobe that nobody ever used. He’d eat at the greasy restaurants in the town and visit dive bars in the evening – though never touching a drop of booze. He might have fathered many children he never met. The local chicks loved the out-of-towner. But there were so many small towns, so many routes, so many stops that the women who punctuated those lonely nights all blurred into one.
He’d sometimes see kids in towns that looked like his own, but it wasn’t his place to ask questions. They would grow up and fend for themselves just like he did. Besides he was as bound to this railroad as the rails on the sleepers. He was the lifeline to these towns. Sticking around after 30 years on the move would drive him insane. There were not many old-timers left anyway. Some had died early deaths from whiskey and women and the rest had moved south.
The young-uns didn’t know the first thing about these railroads. They’d never wrestled with moose or had a train derailed by hungry bears. His harmonica kept wailing until he saw a cloud of snow tumble ahead.
“Sweet Mother of Jesus!” he shouted and yanked on the brake lever with all his might. Sparks went flying across the rack as the ear-piercing scrape of metal on metal cut through the air. He’d not crashed into the snow mound, but this was another beast to deal with. A 12 foot wall of white powder was blocking the path of the halted train.
Rick got out the cabin and got down into the ditch to take a look at how long this avalanche went on for. Lucky for him it was narrow. It was time for the big guns. He got out the cabin to service wagon and pulled out the rocket canon. This would blast enough out of the block to him through. He unloaded it and rolled it deep into the ditch, put on his ear muffs and goggles and loaded the mother fucker.
“Booooooooom!” the machine went as it propelled Rick backwards. When the rocket exploded crunchily in the snow mound, it was like a million snowballs had been launched into the air.
Rick was sheltering for cover but a large block of ice had landed on his left shoulder. Such filthy language had never been heard before as Rick hopped around, but thankfully there was only a deer to hear it. Despite his agony, the train’s path was clear. Wincing and staggering into the cabin, Rick released the brakes and shovelled what he could with his right arm into the engine’s fire. It started chuffing along and he passed out.
The next thing he knew was a big clang reverberating through his body. And the pain. He touched his left shoulder, but his left arm was unconscious and unresponsive. It was also covered in dry blood. Someone opened the train’s cabin.
“He needs help!”
More blurry faces crowded over him but they all faded to black again.
“That was a nasty accident you had there. There should be at least to of you on the train at once”
He was in a doctor’s clinic, in a makeshift bed on the floor. He looked to his left to discover his left arm was missing.
“Arggh!” he screamed, but at least their was no pain. What had the doctor said again?
“Oh, we’re understaffed!” he barked.
There was a woman the other side of the bed. She was stroking his hair. She looked vaguely familiar. He creased his face thicker, trying to dig in the recesses of his brain.
“Remember me Rick? Iron Castle in ’49” she drawled “You remember… we danced, you took me your lodge, pressed me onto the floor and put Billy inside me”. She looked dreamy, happy and ethereal. Then her face turned blood red and furious.
“It’s been nothing but misery since! My Dad kicked me out, said I was nothing but a cheap whore so we had to run as fast as we could to the city. I got a job at the railroad HQ as a mail clerk. Come and find me Rick. I love you”
She disappeared. Rick reached out to where she had been with his functioning arm.
“You OK, Rick?” said the nurse
“You saw her, right?”
“The woman there”
“The only person who’s been here has been me and Doctor Dubrowski”
“But she was here”
“Maybe these painkillers are a little strong. You’ve been through a major shock, get some sleep.”
It all sorta made sense. He closed his eyes and started snoring.
He awoke once more and everything seemed to be in focus again. His arm was still missing but everything else was alright and seemed real again. A man in a uniform was offering him some papers to sign about sickness pay and liability something. He signed them and didn’t listen. All he could think about was the women he remembered who was tugging on the heart he didn’t know he had. He hated being here in this damp, stinky building wearing bandages and not able to move.
When the man left, he stood up. He ached and stretched. He looked around the room and found some clothes in a closet. He staggered out the clinic and went around town. He found a pawnbrokers where he offered his gold chain. The bastard didn’t offer much but it was enough for a ticket to Fairbanks.
He waited a couple of hours for the train in the station’s bar. The coffee was weak and terrible, the sandwich was stale but he put it down him. He needed food and strength. He went to the platform and played his mouth organ to make his withered body happy again.
The journey was uneventful and the passenger car was as barren as the landscape outside. They pulled in to the station with its long and numerous platforms – the only landmark here was a tall four-story office block overshadowing the station, made of purposeful concrete and steel.
“Where’s the mail room” he asked the receptionist. The lady in the tight uniform and red lipstick pointed the way half-mindedly. Rick went down the corridor with butterflies in his stomach. No woman had made him feel like this before. He didn’t even know if she would be there, or even if she would like him. Maybe it was just some stupid hallucination. He poked his head in the door. There she was with her typewriter. She was fatter and frumpier than his memory. But he went to kneel down in front of her .
She looked up, deeply buried in a thought about reimbursement for delayed cargo. Then there he was. Her body melted, her pulse raced and thumped out of her chest.
“Rick?!” she said confused, happy and bemused. “What happened to your arm?”
“What’s this?” shouted a short man who’d strode in, the woman’s boss.
“Nothing.” Helen said hurriedly.
“I’ll meet you outside in 10” she whispered, staring at him while Rick moved away.
He went outside and played his harmonica with more gusto and colour than he’d used in years.
When she joined him with a wobbly walk, they talked awkwardly, mist clouding from their mouths. He followed her along the icy sidewalks to an apartment block. She took him to the top floor. She jangled her keys in the lock.
A young man was watching the black-and-white television. He looked about 16 and had the unmistakable nose of his father.
“Billy meet your Dad” she said.
He turned his head, not quite comprehending… confused and muddled. As the words clicked in his head he walked over to the man and gave him a wordless hug.
Rick started feeling all sorts of things he didn’t know he could feel. His mouth was gagged for words and a single tear rolled down his tired face.