Last Stop on the Line


Hillary Thalmann

            You watch the sun rise from the driver’s seat of the train.

             The giraffes stretch their necks skyward as the first pale fingers of light transform them from silhouette into glowing color, nose-tip to neck, neck to dusty sand. They stand completely still until the light reaches the tips of their hooves, and then they swish their tails and nod their heads in rhythm to the zebras’ morning exuberance. From their pen on the other side of the tracks, the lions begin to roar, one lioness first, and then the other three join in, their rough song the first raw rush of noise in the day.

             You watch all this from the seat of the train, back bent over the controls, revving the engine with the train kept in park. The air pressure growls to life in the engine and then flits from car to car. You wake with your train, feeling the energy of the coming day spreading through this extension of yourself. The morning comes as it has always come and how you once thought it would always continue to come.

             A long time ago, life was more difficult. You remember the swollen skin on your fingers, the numbness as the pain turned to hard callouses. You remember how the muscles in your arm burned as you unhitched cars and rehitched cars—righty-tighty, lefty-loosey—shifted the tracks this way and that and then all over again in reverse. Blew the whistle, rang the bell, blew the whistle, train grease past your elbows, train grease under your fingernails, train grease smeared on cheeks and noses and pinstriped overalls.

             Your boy came then, when you wanted to give up, the little broomstick kid with the black hair like ostrich feathers smelling sweetly of hay and fading manure. They put him on this train with you. They made you a pair.

             You made him a little room in the corner of the train shed where you lived. Amongst the wrenches and air pumps and cables, you built a cozy nook of soft sheep-wool covered in flannel. You gave him the little sock monkey that the gibbons once left for you as a present before they went away. You slept on the other side of the shed closest to the warm engine so that you could always watch the train and your boy, even when your eyes were closed.

             Pan was happy. He loved the train with its whistle and its bells. He loved Twiga, the oldest giraffe at the zoo, the one who wore a spot shaped like a perfect heart on her side. When you and your boy came to visit her each morning, she would prance over, knobby knees knocking, heavy hooves plodding, and rest her slim giraffe face on your shoulder. Pan learned all the right ways to stroke her soft nose and sneak bits of bread onto her curling purple tongue. You loved when he laughed as the slick ropey wetness twined around his fingers. Twiga always stayed a moment with you once Pan had run back to the train. You’re lucky, lucky, lucky. And you would look after your boy and smile. I know, I know, I know.

             Your boy loved you. He called you Iya.

             The zookeepers noted this and were pleased.

             You remember all of this today as you watch the sunlight slide past the giraffes and puddle on the ground. You remember because today is the last day your boy will come strolling down the tracks, late of course, yawning and stretching in the morning light.

             It was because he asked the question.

             On the day that he asked, you drove the train filled with laughing children and your boy took tickets. When the train came chugging back into the station, bells ringing, whistles tooting, and you saw him with her, you knew. She was tall and lanky, with shiny chestnut hair and that long Roman nose that some think is a particularly aristocratic trait to breed into families. Your boy was smiling at her in a dizzy sort of way.

             You were frightened that day. You had seen that look come into the young giraffe’s eye, and then into the young lion’s, and then into the young zebra’s and each of them disappeared, one by one. When you asked the zookeepers about it, they only ever smiled.

             On the day that your boy asked the question, the Roman-nosed girl rode the train just once. Pan looked after her with eyes that wanted, for the first time, to leave too.

             He asked you that night.

             “Iya?” he asked as you were both kneeling against the train cars, releasing the trapped air from beneath the wheels, legs burning gently from crouching so long.

             You answered your boy reluctantly, pulling on the whistle of the train to squeeze any last breaths of air from the engine. The train gasped quietly and was silent.

             “Why can’t we leave?”

             “If we knew, you might have left. I’d be here alone.”

             “Do you know how to do it?” Pan’s wide eyes looked up from wiping the day’s dust off the engine.

             You have been here so long that you do know. You have watched the zookeepers with their gates and locks. You have tried it yourself and waved at a terrifying freedom that you were all too happy to close the gates upon.

             “No,” you say. “I don’t know how. Don’t hold that wet rag in just one spot. It’ll rust.”

             “Iya?” asks your boy. “Have you ever wanted to leave?”

             “It’s harder out there in the world. Why would I go?”

             “I don’t know.” Pan hesitated. “But what if there were someone you would go with. Then would you go?”

             “No,” you said.

             Your boy left it at that.

             Today, the old giraffe Twiga watches you with her liquid eyes as you prepare the train for a last stop on the long circle of days that you thought would have no end. Not so very long ago, they sent Twiga’s Little One away. The question came into the little giraffe’s eyes, and that meant she needed to go. You wept with Twiga then, and she weeps with you now because she knows that your Little One is being sent away too.

             She comes to you with her knobby knees knocking and her heavy hooves plodding and pushes her head over the fence so that it rests on your wide shoulder.

             I’m sorry, so sorry, sorry, sorry. Her eyes are big and full of heavy giraffe tears. You stroke her neck and slip bits of bread onto her curling tongue. I know, I know, I know.

             Standing there with Twiga, the train waiting for you at the station, you remember the day when your boy was just learning to control the great power that was the train. You had been sitting with him all day, first helping him with the brakes as he gunned the engine and spoke into the microphone, then slowly adding in the whistle blows and the bell rings, and finally, the brakes, giving up your authority, bit by bit, until he was driving alone.

             It was gradual. He didn’t notice until you were helping him load up a new train’s load of people and you slipped quietly into the first car. Your boy hesitated at first because he couldn’t find you. Then he shifted the gears and took the train around the tracks alone.

             When you asked him about it that night, you asked if he had been nervous.

             Pan thought about that for a moment, lips pursed together, pensive. “No, Iya,” he said. “I know this train too well. I know to brake as I go down one hill, and to add more power as I go back up another. I know where to whistle, and where the bridge is, and what to do if the guinea fowl peck around the tracks. It doesn’t change. But if it ever did, I might be nervous then.”

             “That’s the nicest thing about trains,” you said. “They just keep turning and turning, never changing. They just keep leaving and then keep coming back.”

             Pan nodded, his mop of ostrich-feather black hair falling into his eyes. “But isn’t that how life is too?” he asked.

             You shook your head. “No.”

             Your boy reached out and squeezed your hand.

             Pan comes to you today as you bury yourself into Twiga’s sweet fur. Underneath the pinstripe overalls with the thick layers of grease, he is wearing the dark suit with the red-rose corsage pinned to the pocket that the zookeepers gave him for his journey. He holds a rusty key between his fingers and twirls it carefully. He sees you and a trembling smile flashes out of his bright eyes and quiet face.

             He stretches his hands out to you and pulls you into the passenger seat of the train. The whistle sings out gaily and the train dances at his touch on the shift. The animals come into the bright sunshine to watch the train take another turn around the tracks.

             “It’s strange,” your boy says. “I’ve gone this way every day, every time around the train tracks, for so long. It seemed so complete. Now there is another train to take me away.”

             You nod sadly. “That new train, it’s just another turn of your wheel. You’ll see.”

             “Will it make my life now seem incomplete?”

             “Maybe. But I hope not.”

             You’re back at the station now and the zookeepers are there, waiting. Pan pulls the sock monkey from out of his pocket and pushes it into your hands. It is more fragile than you remember, threadbare from childhood ecstasies and tears, and it stares at you with its glass-chipped sock monkey eyes. Your boy unbuckles his overalls, lets them slide off his grown-up frame. He looks at you, waiting.

             You pull him towards you and ask again if he must go. He nods resolutely, and you bring what was once yours to your chest and hold it there. You can feel his strong arms pressing tight against you, and you press back, kiss wet kisses on his cheeks. When you let him go, he has already gone.

             You take the train around the tracks. The sun follows every turn, up from midmorning, radiant at noonday, burning downward from afternoon to dusk. You watch the sun set from the driver’s seat of the train and you watch the darkness as it slides up behind the giraffes. They lower their long necks and wait patiently for night to come. The lions begin their roaring and you cry with them, not because anything in the ritual has changed but because everything else has.

             The train lags that night when you unhitch the cars—righty-tighty, lefty-loosey— and the tracks stick in place as you try to shift them back and forth. You’ve forgotten how hard it is to do this alone, how much the grease can slide up your arms and how much your arms ache from twisting and banging the cars apart. Those callouses you formed years ago have been softened, and it isn’t until tonight that you realize that they have ripped away, leaving everything that is tender exposed.

             You take the sock monkey to your sheep-wool bed when you lie down next to the warm engine of the train. You wonder at your boy, wonder if the bunks in his new train are soft, wonder if the terrain is steep, wonder if he’ll get to where he’s going by the time he wakes in the morning—late, surely, as always. You find it strange and sad that you have never been where he is going, and that nothing where he is will remind him of you. Yet everything here aches with his absence like a sock monkey without an owner or like a train without a driver, spinning in circles around a hole that has suddenly caved into the earth.

             You lie in the gasoline and woodchip smelling shed, alone for the first time in a long while. You hear your boy’s voice without him being there, the thoughtful baritone, the memory of how his cheekbones would tighten into a smile whenever he saw you coming. You hear him say “good night,” and you almost speak out in reply. Trains never change, you remember. Why don’t they when something more important does?

             The zookeepers leave at midnight to go home to their wives and their sleeping children. You know because you know too much. You’ve watched them from behind your iron-wrought fence, the beams from their flashlights illuminating a world in which you can never remember having stepped foot. They hide the long rings of keys and combinations beneath the train bridge over the creek. You have fondled those keys before, fitting keys into rusted locks, turning them open and then quickly twisting them closed again. You know.

             Tonight you step out into the star-encrusted night, listening to the crickets sing in the waves of June grass and cottonwood trees. The creek under the bridge is slow from the hunger of the hot summer days, and you hear its lethargic trickle beneath you as you pull the keys from their hiding place. There are lots of keys, but that’s alright because there are lots of animals and much to keep locked away.

             You begin by unlocking the train shed, which isn’t so extraordinary because you have your own key for that. The animals stir when the key first turns in the ignition. They peer up over the partitions of their fences and look at you in surprise and awe.

             You can hear them thinking. The Little One is gone, gone, gone. She’s gone mad, mad, mad. They watch because they think you might try the unthinkable, and they are right because you do.

             The third key on the key ring, aside from the one to the train shed and the one to the train, unlocks the zebra stalls. You jiggle the key into place and turn until the door yields to you and transforms from a shield of captivity to a portal of freedom. It’s easier than you remember. The zebras step out into the night cautiously, and they look at you, sad in a way because you have ruined what has always been. You kiss their fuzzy noses as they come, and then they kick up their heels as if having remembered something they had always forgotten. They are gone.

             You set the ostrich free. You set the elephant free. You set the hippo and the kudu and the nyala free. You hesitate before unlocking the gate to the lions’ lair, but you do, and the sleek tawny cats come to you with their night-glowing eyes, purring and rubbing up to you before they too are gone.

             The last key on the ring, after the keys to the rhino and the gazelle and the leopard, is the key to the giraffe pen. This key is rusted over more than any of the others have been, and your palms sweat lightly as you turn the key this way and that until you finally hear it click.

             Twiga comes up to you as you work and lays her gentle head on your wide shoulder. You don’t need to do this. Everything will be okay, okay, okay. You reach up to her and stroke her sweet nose and sneak bits of bread onto her curling tongue. No, no, no. It will never, never, never be okay again.

             You pull the door open, and the other giraffes peer out, scramble back, and then step between the door of what has always been and what can never be. Twiga comes last and there are heavy giraffe tears swelling in her shining eyes. Good-bye, good-bye, good-bye.

             You watch the giraffes run, their heads bobbing up and down in waves, uncertain of how to best use this space which is now theirs for the taking. Their dark silhouettes disappear into the still darker darkness that has become both the future and the past.

             All the animals are gone now, and you are the only one who is left. When the zookeepers return in the morning, they will know. You will watch for them as they come and watch their faces turn to seething red in the early morning light. Maybe they will find the animals, bring them back. Maybe they will bring your boy back. They know and you know that trains just go in circles. No matter where they go, trains always come back.

             The sunrise comes hesitantly, its first pale fingers seeking the giraffes and not finding them, not sliding down their long necks and puddling on the ground. There are no bucking zebras and whinnying exuberance. The first lioness does not start her roaring, and the others do not join in. The day seems unprepared for the lack of that first raw rush of noise.

             Your boy does not come down the tracks from the train shed, yawning and stretching in the morning light—late, surely, as always. He does not come even though you are looking for him.

             Your train is awake beneath you and you do not move. Trains come in circles. Trains always come back. You always come back. You wait for something to happen—a sunbeam to burst, the first columns of people to find a zoo that no longer exists, a black-haired boy to come yawning down the tracks. It wouldn’t be so much to ask.

             You watch the sun rise from the driver’s seat of the train.

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