The train tracks were not used as frequently as they may have been in days past. They cut the corner of the edge of town, past a power plant, over a bridge, through a bird sanctuary, below and downhill from multifamily housing. When the tracks weren’t being used by dastardly cartoon villains to tie down their damsels in distress or jumped across by Québécois separatist youth playing their most dangerous game, when they weren’t being walked by Denver dreamers counting the ties or laid down in overglued segments by careless preadolescent boys, when they weren’t proving the limits of Euclidean geometry or being used to determine just how flat a penny could get, they played host to the dying Great Northern East-West Railroad.
Great Northern East-West sent a train through Wormwood two or three times a day, depending on the day, usually in the later hours, dusk and midnight. The great freighter was mostly empty at that point, perhaps having deposited its cargo on prior stops. Several of the iron car doors were always slid open. There was no way to see the train from the windows of the abutting multifamily housing, but it was only a short walk to where the entrance to the bird sanctuary allowed direct pedestrian access to the tracks.
It is here that Esmarelda Villa Lobos wanted to be. She spent the afternoon with Galatea Eboreus eating foul sandwiches and drinking earthy dirt-soiled tea, watching the windows and walls, cleansing their palates between each bite or sip with freshly cut orange slices. They listened to 1950s bebop or 1970s glam rock and talked of everything they could. Eventually, when little made sense anymore, they heard the distant whistle. Esmarelda said that the last time she was in town, at the hardware store, she overheard a woman telling the clerk about how the conductor on the Great Northern East-West blew the whistle each night just for her. It was his way of saying hello as he passed through the darkness, unable to stop.
Their direction and depth would change with her viewing angle, like smoke-stained mineral fiber Mona Lisa eyes.
But the train only went that one way, said Esmarelda. How could he say hello each night? And if it wasn’t each night, how did anyone know which night it was? These were the days before easy connections in the palm of your hand, and Esmarelda enjoyed quietly making her protest. Galatea was fixated on the number of cracks in each ceiling tile. Their direction and depth would change with her viewing angle, like smoke-stained mineral fiber Mona Lisa eyes. It made it hard for her to get a reliable count.
When the whistle blew that evening, Esmarelda wanted to be there on the tracks, at the crossing into the bird sanctuary. It was a slow-moving freight train, and they stood by the rails well before anything other than the silence of the stars was happening. Galatea bent down and pressed her ear to the cold metal. She didn’t hear or feel anything, which was enormously disappointing, though she tried valiantly to keep herself from feeling disappointed. It was a perfect night.
When she stood back up, she could see that Esmarelda already saw the light. The train was some ways off, but there was movement. Brighter, louder, Esmarelda wanted to stay there on the tracks for as long as possible. She wanted to feel the train coming towards her. She wanted to see it head on. This is a bad plan, said Galatea. This is a bad plan, Esmarelda. This is how bad after-school specials go. We’re in a bad place, and this is a bad plan. Please come away.
I’m fine, said Esmarelda. It’s so beautiful. And it really was. Nothing but the closed darkness of sanctuary forest, a slivered moon sky, and the urgent inevitability of this dazzling heavy beast. Bearing down, brighter, louder. Esmarelda remembered earlier in the afternoon when she saw the passing bicycles from her other windows, the ones not facing the tracks. There was no one riding them. Just the empty rolling bicycles. It seemed a lovely way to go. Riders so weightless they weren’t even there. But she listened to Galatea, whose pleas grew more urgent than the angry hello-whistle. Stunned they stood as their hair went wild.