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Cherry and the Vet




Cherry and the Vet








         The Capital Limited was picking up speed out of the station. The heavy bed of snow absorbed its approach. It appeared suddenly in the whiteout, big and lumbering, pushing snow like wash from the bow of a ship. The friction of the train’s wheels made a steady grinding and shrieking noise. The voices in the truck got louder. Steve Bloom wiped breath from the truck’s window and watched the Limited roll past. The train’s windows moved like frames from a movie film. In one of the windows there was a young man who looked to be about Steve’s age. He was wearing a shirt and tie and holding a cup in one hand, newspaper in the other. The foreman blocked the view of the train and tapped on the window. “Keep your hands and feet out of dem switches if ya don’t wanna lose em.” The foreman’s frozen whiskey breath and snot steamed from his beard. He removed a pint bottle from the inside pocket of his grease-stained coat and turned his back to the men.


         The switches filled with snow as fast as the crew could sweep them. They got back in the truck and moved down the line a mile or so and stopped by a siding. The foreman ordered the crew to get kerosene burners off the truck. Jack Traverski lit a burner with his lighter and poured flames over the rails to expand them back together at the joints. The oily smell curled around the crew and they liked the warmth of it. Jack lit a cigarette and offered one to Steve. Steve took the pack and lighter from him and read the inscription on the Zippo: U.S. Marine Corps – Jack – Fuck Communism


“Did you?” Steve asked staring at the lighter.


“Did I what?” Jack snarled.


“Fuck communism?”


Jack dropped the kerosene burner on the snowy ballast. He snatched his lighter and cigarette pack out of Steve’s hand.

“Asshole.”


***

         It was Jack Traverski’s third run-in with the authorities. It was a typical weekend for Jack and his buddies. They were seniors in high school and knew they were going nowhere fast. Each weekend they bought beer from an older friend and would drink along the railroad tracks that led to the steel mill. Someone got the bright idea to smash the headlamp of a locomotive. They hung a steel bucket filled with rocks from a bridge over the main line tracks. When the engine approached, Jack swung the rope but it was too short and the bucket missed its mark. The train engineer reported the incident to his dispatcher who called the local police. Jack and his friends were arrested and each charged with criminal mischief and underage drinking. The judge didn’t care —  it was prison or the service. Jack quit school and joined the Marines.



***

         Jack Traverski and Steve Bloom were new to the railroad. Jack, being a Marine veteran, got first hiring preference. Steve knew someone who worked for the state employment office so he was placed on the hiring list. He graduated from college in 1975 just in time for the stagflation recession - a perfect shit storm of long lines for gasoline, high unemployment and inflation. He was having no luck getting a career-starting job so it was easy to settle for underemployment with the railroad. It was like being locked in a prison of inertia where he allowed himself to wallow. Some of his college friends were starting their careers, moving out of their parent’s homes and buying new cars. Steve was in career limbo, living with his parents and praying for a furlough from the railroad.



         The crew went back and cleaned the track switches. The snow continued to fall and it got so cold Steve’s work gloves stuck to the wooden broom handle. He slid his hands out one at a time from the frozen gloves like a snake shedding skin. The foreman told the crew it was another day of mandatory overtime. They moved in a work train with a caboose for the crew to keep warm overnight. Three more pull-apart rails were burned and everyone headed back to the work train. Steve removed his work boots to warm his feet. His wool socks were soaked with sweat and he placed them near the coal stove in the caboose to dry. Some of the men gave Steve a dirty look. 


“Hey new guy, what’s with bread bags?” Tad asked in broken English, shaking his head. Tadzio Kozski was the oldest man in the crew. The others in the caboose laughed. Steve thought the plastic bags would keep his feet dry, but it had the exact opposite effect. “Yakass,” Tad grunted, and the men laughed again.



         Tad and the foremen worked as laborers for more than thirty years on the railroad. The work made them mean and their meanness made them loners and their loneliness

made them appear to be stupid. Their skin smelled of creosote and the sweat of old men. The foreman would walk like the Frankenstein monster while mocking Tad’s accent. Tad would lower his head and mumble something in Polish. Sometimes he’d clench his big gnarled fists, “I kill you, foreman,” he would whisper.



         Tad brought the same lunch to work each day for as far back as anyone could remember. His Limburger and red onion sandwiches was another reason the others stayed away from him. He was a pack mule of a man - a confirmed bachelor whose only vices were homemade wine and watching the TV show, Gunsmoke. “Matt Deelon is real man, not like foreman. He’s fair man, not no good, lazy drunk.”




         The door of the caboose flew open and a whirl of snow blew in. The foreman tripped as he stepped into the caboose, catching himself on one of the bunks. “Close the

fucking door, ya born in a barn?” Jack asked. The men laughed and Jack glared at the foreman. 


“Got something to say to me?” The foreman asked Jack.


“Yeah, when we going home?” Jack asked.


“You don’t wanna make money, then get out a here. What do I care,” the foreman slurred. The foreman pointed to Tad. “As long as I got the Polack over there, he’ll work.  Got nothing else going. 

Am I right Polack?” 


Tad shook his head and grunted something in Polish. 


“I got paperwork to do, so I’ll be in my truck. Don’t stay in here all night. Dem switches ain’t cleaning themselves.” The foreman staggered out of the caboose.

“He got paperwork,” Jack motioned his hand like he was taking a drink and the men laughed.

“Cipka,” Tad grunted and stood-up pulling his work coat over his slumped shoulders.

“You’re going to make us look bad,” Jack said.

“Sweep switches, pussy,” Tad grunted.

“You’re a cipka!” Jack shouted as Tad opened the caboose door. “Close the fucking door, ya born in a barn!”




         It got quiet in the caboose - the warmth from the coal stove made everyone sleepy. A couple hours went by and Steve awoke to the smell of wet clothes and sweaty bodies. He gagged and covered his mouth and nose with his forearm. Jack showed Steve

the cigarette pack and motioned to follow him out of the caboose. The wind grabbed the caboose door and the frozen handle slipped from Steve’s hand. It slammed like a shot and Jack ducked.  “Asshole!”



         The foreman’s truck was parked on the ballast road beside the track. The engine was running and Steve and Jack could see someone sitting in the front seat on the passenger’s side.

“That looks like Tad. That’s the last place I’d expect him to be. Looks like he’s eating

his lunch. God, it must smell like shit in there. Foreman must be passed-out in the back seat. I’d love to see his face when he wakes up,” Jack said. He pulled a joint out of the cigarette pack and fired it up. “Take a hit, Cherry.” Jack offered Steve the joint.



         Jack and Steve walked down the main line alone in the dark. “This isn’t where I thought I’d be after four years of college,” Steve said looking up at the clearing sky. The snow clouds moved quickly eastward.


“You mean freezing your ass off working sixteen-hour days? Hell, Cherry, this is all gravy compared to where I was four years ago,” Jack laughed.




 “You weren’t freezing your ass off in Nam,” Steve said.


“I was trying not to get my ass shot off while you were drinking beer and chasing coeds.”


“Yeah, look how far I’ve come,” Steve replied sarcastically.



         Light from a Full Wolf Moon flecked the new snow. The dark lines of rails stretched out before them, converging into infinity. “I used to look up at the night sky in the jungle. It calmed me down to know it was the same at home —  Big Dipper, Three Sisters, the North Star,” Jack said. He pointed into the night sky, sweeping his hand back and forth. He found another joint in his pack and fired it up. “Eight thousand miles from home and it’s the same,” Jack’s voice cracked. “Damn cold.” As they walked further, they noticed two large snow lumps straddling a rail. Jack kicked one of the lumps. The new snow fell off a body. Jack knelt down and brushed snow off the head. The smell of whiskey wafted upwards. Cold sweat dotted Steve’s forehead and he staggered back a step. “Ain’t that a bitch,” Jack said as he reached into the torso and pulled out a warm pint bottle. “No sense wasting this.” He unscrewed the plastic cap and took a long draw from the bottle. “Cheap shit, but it’ll keep us warm tonight.” Slowly, like the burn of rust on the polished surface of a dream, Steve reached for the bottle. In the distance, lights appeared suddenly and grew larger, and then the shrieking of wheels.







William R. Stoddart







William R. Stoddart is a poet and short fiction writer who lives in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His work has appeared in Adirondack Review, Ruminate Magazine, Pedestal Magazine, Every Day Fiction and other publications.

 



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