Riding the Rails
Georgie eyed the oncoming train. Standing to the side of the tracks, partially hidden by overgrown bushes, he could just barely make out the BNSF emblazoned on the double orange engines. He clutched his duffel bag to his chest while bouncing up and down on the balls of his feet like a rookie boxer eager for the big fight.
“This is it, Georgie m’ boy.” Usually the sound of his own voice calmed him down, but tonight it made him jittery. The stakes were too big for him to relax, not until he was safely seated in front of the roaring fire in San Francisco, roasting marshmallows and vienna sausages with other vagabonds from all over the country who’d gathered to share their stories.
The train blew its whistle, signaling its slight deceleration as it approached the crossing to Georgie’s left. Old Bill had told Georgie that was when you had to make the jump, just as the locomotive came to the crossing. Pick a car, jog until you come alongside, throw your bag in, and jump. “Piece o’ cake,” he’d said with a toothless grin, hunched over his pie in a dingy diner next to the train depot, his unwashed hair framing his face like a gray halo.
But as Georgie studied the cars hurtling past him, it didn’t seem easy at all. Most of the cars were either tankers or intermodal containers; neither had room for extra passengers such as himself. That left only hopper cars open to the elements. He’d have to take his luck with whatever might be inside. Hopefully something soft, like grain, and not crunched-up cars with metal bits waiting to slice him to smithereens.
He closed his eyes, wiped his hands on his dirt-stained jeans. The coupling rods squealed and groaned in protest as the train rumbled across the track. “C’mon, Georgie. You can do this. Count to three and go.” Another breath, still bouncing on his heels. “One. Two. Three.”
He opened his eyes. He hadn’t moved. To his right he could make out the end of the train.
“Now or never, Georgie. That blue hopper there looks nice. C’mon, m’boy. You can do it.”
He nodded his head and began to jog, his duffel bag bouncing on his shoulder. If Old Bill could still ride the rails, then so could Georgie. Old Bill with his cane and arthritis, slowing him down despite his spry appearance. Old Bill said he’d been doing this for decades, since he was Georgie’s age.
The blue car was nearly upon him. Georgie swung his bag up, square into the hopper. It landed with a soft thud; a nice cushioned load for the nearly 1700-mile journey to California.
Now it was Georgie’s turn. He reached for a bar on the edge of the car. His fingers brushed the metallic edge, then slipped off. He stumbled but caught himself, fearful of being crushed under the train’s mighty wheels. He looked up; the blue car, with his bag, was at least fifty feet ahead of him.
“Gonna have to try again, Georgie.”
He put on a burst of speed, but his target chuffed away faster than he could run. He stopped, panting, as the last of the train, a black engine, slid past him.
“Wait!” he called into the dusk. He waved his arms. “You have my bag, you bastards!”
The engine whistled in response, a low, powerful whine that made his skull ache.
Georgie stood in the twilight and watched the locomotive recede until its lights were indistinguishable from the fireflies dancing around him. Deflated, he pulled his cell phone from his pocket.
“Hi, Ray? Can you come pick me up at the old downtown train depot?”
Sitting on his flight to San Francisco the next day, George rehearsed his story to tell around the campfire. Books on trains, vagrants, and travel from Omaha to San Francisco filled his lap; he wanted his story to be watertight. He didn’t want to lose face in front of veterans like Old Bill.
“So, you like trains?” asked the man in the seat next to him.
George shrugged, smoothed the edge of his sports coat. The man had obviously seen better days; frazzled gray hair was pulled into a ponytail, and he continuously sucked on his dentures. He looked oddly familiar.
“I’m Bill.” The man cocked his head, squinted at George. “Have we met before?”
E.D. Martin is a writer with a knack for finding new jobs in new places. Born and raised in Illinois, her past incarnations have included bookstore barista in Indiana, college student in southern France, statistician in North Carolina, economic development analyst in North Dakota, and high school teacher in Iowa. She draws on her experiences to tell the stories of those around her, with a generous heaping of “what if” thrown in.
She currently lives in Illinois where she job hops while attending grad school and working on her novels. Read more of her stories at her website.