by Michael Merriam
“Now boarding all dining cars on the main platform. Now boarding all dining cars for the Minnesota Zephyr on the main platform.”
The passengers began exiting the warm depot, hunched in their winter coats. Some pushed away from the bar, leaving cocktail glasses and coffee cups empty before them. Others stood from wooden benches, stretched and shuffled toward the train. A handful lingered, studying departure boards and timetables, seeking answers or possible escape until the conductors, their multiple arms wide, herded the malingerers toward the platform. Men, women, and children boarded under the direction of those faceless fiends, they who guarded the Zephyr and her passengers with single-minded tenacity, kept them forever feasting in the dining cars as the train rolled through the endless night.
If the conductors are fiends, the Zephyr is a dragon. Decked out in her winter holiday finery, smoke huffed from roaring diesel locomotives as she raced down the track, her headlamps great wide eyes cutting a beam through the eternal winter gloom to peer into the darkness, her horn a challenge to any train passing along the parallel track.
I watched from the Stillwater Car, a 1949 Pullman coach lovingly converted into a dining room. One of the passengers, a young man with black framed glasses, broke into a sprint down the ice-covered wooden platform. A pair of conductors floated to intercept him, reached out with long appendages and snagged the man’s coat. Losing his footing, he crashed onto his back with an inarticulate scream. The conductors dragged him onto the train. He could no longer bear the strain of the Zephyr’s love. He would be a jumper. Like Kelly, he would jump.
Kelly and I met on the train. I lived in Stillwater, Minnesota and sang in the Zephyr’s four-person cabaret group. She drove up from Bayport every evening, tending bar in the Lakewinds Car. We planned to move to Minneapolis together after the train closed. The Zephyr was winding down twenty years of entertaining and feeding customers. Twenty years of cocktails, five-course meals, and music from the 1940s and 50s culminating in one final New Year’s Eve run.
The Zephyr had other ideas.
Only I noticed when we sang our World War II set for the fourth time. Chad, Janice, and Stig, dressed in their faux-military uniform costumes, took up our act. I followed them because what else could I do? We performed a fifth time, my cast-mates glassy-eyed as they broke into “Sentimental Journey” once more while the customers in the Grand Dome Car continued to dine.
I slipped away. The conductors followed. While their uniform patches bore the names of men and women I’d worked with for half a decade, their faces were featureless, their many arms waving as they glided past diners intent on their prime rib and cheesecake, ignoring the monsters.
I kicked off the high-heels of my costume and ran, ran toward the front of the train, ran until I reached the engine compartment, ripped open the door and slipped inside. The engine was a dead end, of course. I grabbed a long-handled pipe wrench from the tools hanging in the engineer’s cab and barred the door.
Roy Cooper, an elderly gentleman with wispy white hair who embraced the cliché of the locomotive engineer with his denim cap and blue kerchief, regarded me with wild eyes. He smiled, showing yellow teeth, one missing on the top left. His hand rested on the throttle, the cab cast in an eerie red glow from the warning lights blinking on the control panel. “Look at old seven-eighty-eight fly! Bet she’s doing a mile a minute!”
If we traveled a mile a minute, it was a miracle. The Zephyr never traveled over seven miles an hour. We should’ve run off our six mile track hours ago.
“Roy! I shouted over the roar and vibration of the speeding locomotive. “Roy, you must stop!”
His shrill laughter sent me backing into the door. “No stopping the old girl now! Fast gliding down the rails forever, though no diesel fills her tanks.” The horn wailed at the end of his ravings, yet no hand grasped the pull cord to activate it.
I fled that hellish compartment, racing back down the train. The Zephyr bore locomotives at each end to make the excursion easier on the crew. I would find the brake, force the train to a halt, even if it meant tearing the train apart: better wrecked than an eternity riding the rails on a runaway ghost train. The conductors watched as I raced past, crew and passengers continuing their macabre dance of dining, drinking, and making small talk as the singers crooned on.
I reached the second locomotive and flung open the door.
Roy Cooper turned to smile at me with his yellow teeth, one missing on the top left. His hand rested on the throttle, the cab cast in an eerie red glow from the warning lights. “Look at old seven-eighty-seven fly!”
Too stunned to run, I turned away from my impossible encounter, walked back down the train on shaking legs, bare feet cold as blocks of ice on the thin carpet. For a time afterward I huddle in one of the tiny water closets and sobbed, only to emerge later—hours or days later—nearly as crazed as our engineer. I admit I raved for a time, my fear and rage breaking against the innocent passengers and crew. I threw the fine china against the walls, smashed bottles of wine and liquor, lifted chairs and slammed them into splinters, only to find nothing amiss on my return to any car I vandalized, as if the train could repair herself and pull an endless supply of necessities from the aether.
I abandoned my futile attacks and found others among the passengers and crew awakening to our affliction, a handful only, but among them Kelly.
We plotted insurrection, in our naivety. We imagined a thousand ways to stop the train, each plan more unlikely than the last. Once we rushed the engine compartment, took it over only to find the train unresponsive to our attempts at disengaging the throttle or using the brakes. We tried to separate a car from the train but failed to work the hitch. We considered starting a fire in the hope it would force the train to stop, but feared we would only immolate ourselves and so abandoned the scheme.
Faced with our impossible situation, most of our compatriots succumbed to depression, many of us raiding the never-ending supply of liquor in an attempt to find oblivion, but alcohol brought no relief.
A financial manager from St. Paul named William Coss became the first jumper. As the train roared and rattled, he tossed back his glass of whiskey, stood from his table, and kissed his young wife, who peered up in a bemused daze for a few seconds before turning back to her dinner with dedicated attention. The conductors closed on him as he made for the exit doors, but he moved too quick, and before the faceless wardens could intercede, he stepped off the speeding train, his body vanishing into the eternal night beyond. In time, others in our group sought the same release.
After the fourth jumper, the Zephyr shocked us all by pulling into a station. I studied the route maps and destination boards on the wall, determined we stood in the original, long-lost Stillwater depot on the old Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul line.
There would be no salvation here. The conductors herded us into the depot and while we found more food and drink there, the station agents made escape impossible. True demons, the station agents sport gray skinned heads reminiscent of jackals, they stand over nine feet tall on four legs with backward-bending knees, with whip-thin tails which strike with the force of an iron rod. Multiple tentacles grow from their backs, and where they touch with their sinewy limbs, bodies fall numb.
We took on new passengers, men and women from across time from the 1870s to the 2000s replacing those who jumped, filling the seats empty at the beginning of our trip.
Kelly continued to tend bar, served drinks for hours, never seeming to tire. She told me it kept her mind off our plight. I abandoned my own post, leaving the cabaret group one person down until Gloria Coss, widow of William, unexpectedly joined them, dressing in my old Andrews Sisters inspired WAC costume, her clear contra-alto replacing mine.
I studied the train, poked and probed into hidden corners. I learned all I could of the history of the cars and engines by reading the available placards, flyers, documentation, and tourist information. I moved from table to table, joining the diners, engaging them in conversations, coaxing their life stories from their lips over coffee and tiramisu.
I spent indeterminable hours with Roy, watching as he went about his business, served an apprenticeship with the old engineer. He soon left me to handle the controls, taking a well-deserved break to enjoy a steak and bourbon. I loved these times. I would sit in the engineer’s chair, hand on the throttle, the hum and vibration of the locomotive surrounding me, headlamps cutting the winter night outside. Trains traveling the opposite way would appear, ghostly in the gloom. The Zephyr’s locomotive would whisper their names to me: City of San Francisco, Old 97 Fast Mail, Sunset Limited, others too numerous to mention.
I’d served on the Zephyr for five years and thought I knew the train. Now I learned her deepest secrets, and she touched my soul. I suggested different songs to the cabaret singers, new songs whispered to me in the hum the wheels and rhythm of the rails, and they took them up. I coaxed passengers into setting aside their meals for a time to help shine the brass fittings and polish the dark wood paneling, or assist in the kitchen and take a turn waiting tables so the crew might be allowed to dine with the passengers on occasion. Sometimes those passengers took joy in their service, began to understand Her love for us.
This pleased the Zephyr and Her pleasure became our reward. New cars appeared after one of our infrequent stops to replace jumpers. A dozen sleepers, a library car, a smoking lounge. Near the rear of the train, coupled to locomotive seven-eighty-seven, Our Lady provided a private car for myself and Kelly.
But if my love for the Zephyr was born of having been touched by the Lady Herself, Kelly’s came from a resignation to an eternity riding the rails, and love born of despair is no love at all. “I can’t anymore.” Kelly’s brown eyes filled with tears as she regarded me. “I can’t.”
I tried to change her mind, reassured her of my love. I pled with her, begged, cried. In the end, I swore I’d jump with her, would leave behind Our Lady and step into the black unknown at her side if she so desired. We made love, naked bodies entwined, clinging to each other, our passion our promise. Afterward, standing before the open door, listening to the whistling rush of the wind with the blowing snow stinging our skin as we faced the waiting darkness, Kelly squeezed my hand. I nodded my understanding. She smiled and stepped into oblivion.
I released her hand. She turned, eyes wide at my betrayal, mouth open. Our Lady accelerated, and the night swallowing whatever words of surprise or sadness Kelly might cry.
Sometimes I see her in the glow of the headlamps, standing at a snow-covered crossing. Sometimes I see her outside, peering into the window of the car we made love in. I see them all, you know: all the jumpers—all the lost souls—and I weep.
The last of the passengers climb aboard and the conductors close the doors. I feel the Zephyr shudder in anticipation and hear the engines begin to rev up, gathering power, Our Lady impatient to rejoin the journey. I walk the cars from back to front, greeting each passenger. I check the table settings. White linens, silver, and glasses rest in their proper place. I introduce myself to the new arrivals. There will be time later to learn about their lives, to dine and drink with them, to teach them the joy of living on our Lady of the Eternal Rails, She Who loves us and provides for us, and asks only love and service in return.
I check on the entertainers, share a secret smile with Gloria Coss. We met for coffee and dessert when the singers give way to the other entertainment. Last night, she placed her hand on my thigh, placed her lips on mine. Soon, I would invite her to my cabin.
Roy greets me as I step into locomotive seven-eighty-eight. He nods and gives way as the low vibration of the powerful diesel engine fills my body. I release the brakes, grasp the throttle handle. Closing my eyes, I bask in the ecstasy of Her power. Her love washes over me. I push the throttle forward and Our Lady rolls, fast gliding down the rails into the night.
Michael Merriam is an author, actor, poet, playwright, and professional storyteller. His debut novel, Last Car to Annwn Station, was named a Top Book in 2011 by Readings in Lesbian & Bisexual Women’s Fiction, and his novella, Should We Drown in Feathered Sleep, was long-listed for the Nebula Award. His scripts have been produced for stage and radio, and he has appeared on stage in the Minnesota Fringe Festival, Tellebration!, StoryFest Minnesota, and over the air on KFAI and Minnesota Public Radio. Michael is a co-founder of the Minnesota Speculative Fiction Writers and a member of the Artists with Disabilities Alliance, the Steampunk Artists and Writers Guild, and Story Arts Minnesota.