The walls of her caboose were covered with vulvas. Cleavage peeked out at her from printed grey and black lingerie. Nipples, pinched and teased, watched her from every angle. Lithe legs and perfectly placed fingers, the bodies of strangers hung up like trophies. Clipped from ads, calendars, magazines. They used to have heads and feet, but as the collection grew, more room was needed for the parts that mattered.
Petra leaned back, resting her head against a pair of legs splayed open, hiding a printed vulva behind her hair, which itself was hidden beneath a navy cap. She was female but not feminine. She was shaped like a human, not a doll. When she first hired on, the men on her crews would laugh. They’d point at the faceless images and ask if she was interested in women.
“Sure.” She’d shrug. She had a mother. Sisters. She grew up with other girls. Had women as friends, worked with them when she started nursing school. “Women are interesting.”
Of course, it wasn’t what they meant, she knew. Their scoffs confirmed what she thought all along: she was in for a fight.
At first they called her by her name. Not her first name of course. It was like the military in that sense. She was “PQ Kalinski” on the board, but to others it was just Kalinski, or Kal; eventually someone called her Petski and it stuck. It wasn’t attractive, but it was better that way; easier to be androgynous and forgettable then pretty. She’d seen the handsome boys who hired on with her get their faces smashed, fingers crushed, spirits broken. Eventually, it became a learned behavior. They found the next round of shavetails and tore the beauty from their worlds too. Soon everything was colorless. Steel and ash and heat.
She was happy no one ever asked about the Q.
Her official job title was brakeman. It didn’t bother her to say it, but the others called her a brakette. That didn’t bother her either. Not letting the little jabs hurt was hard but eventually the pain became as natural as the ache in her muscles and the stiffness in her joints after countless hours working.
Petra watched her conductor while he looked over a stack of forms on his desk. This one was okay. They’d worked together enough for him to remember her name and treat her like a person. Still, it was his hack and his collection of pussies and titties.
He sensed her watching and met her stare, adjusted his glasses, “What?”
She shrugged but didn’t look away. He was handsome but weathered by the work. She liked looking at him, even if she wouldn’t admit it. “What’s the plan?” She finally asked.
“We’ll set off six cars at the steam plant in Gravesend yard, then shove north to . . .”
He went on, his mouth moving, his explanation clear. She knew what they were doing before she asked, but she wanted to hear him tell it; to hear another person’s voice. It had been hours since she actually spoke or heard anything but the noise of her train. She was grateful for it in the wilds, but here, so close to Clarion, things were different. More safe. More ordinary. She needed human words to remind her that she wasn’t steel also. Of course, there would be more sweeping hand gestures followed by more toots on the whistle and more groaning metal against itself; but a moment of human connection was appreciated.
“You doin’ alright Petski?” He asked.
It threw her off. She didn’t expect anything other than a list of moves. She tried to look natural. “Yeah. Everything is fine.”
From the bunk above hers the other brakeman coughed and stirred. The conductor gestured and walked out the rear door of the caboose. She followed. It was bitter cold outside, made even worse by the cross breeze from the river they followed.
“What’s up?” She asked, trying to hide the anxiety from her voice.
“There is a rumor going around about you.”
She waited. The silence made it worse. She wanted to look to his eyes to see how bad it was but the night sky was overcast. He was nothing more than a black shape in the dark night. Perhaps she should have taken comfort in that thought, since she too was hidden by the shadow; protected from the careful insight of her body language. Light rain stung her cheeks as she tried to keep her cool.
“Some people are saying they’ve seen you drinking.”
“Everyone drinks after work.” She didn’t want to sound defensive.
It was too late. She knew she already sounded defensive. “Whatever. It’s bullshit. People talk.”
“Petski, I like you. I don’t want this to be a thing. If it happened, then I don’t want to know about it. It’s in the past now. Just know, you’ve got eyes on you, and they’re not mine so they’re not looking out for your best interests.”“Cross my heart, I’m not drinking on the job.”
“That’s not all they say.”
Here it was. She knew where this was going. She cut him off. “It doesn’t matter who I see when I’m off the clock.”
“Look, it’s none of my business. It’s just that some people see it as . . .”
He paused. She was glad she couldn’t see his expression. The words were uncomfortable enough. “Unnatural?” She asked.
“I wasn’t going to use that word.”
“Well. You’re right. It’s not your business–and it’s not anyone else’s business either.” She let her anger stew. “Beside. I’m not seeing her anymore anyway.”
“Was it because of the drinking?”
Petra didn’t reply.
The river snaked away and the tracks curved the opposite direction. They came down a steady grade directly into a guts of East Zephyr. Rows of factories framed either side of the tracks before opening up to the dead ends of alleys stretching off the main drag.
Along either side were mostly little darkened houses, some even with motor cars parked in their shallow side yards. Occasionally there was an odd building that took up the whole street or a burned out husk that had been a house. So close to the tracks there were some sidings and little factories but the further they went, the more urban it became. Eventually it was only business with apartments on the upper floors. Here was where any you wanted could be bought at any hour for the right price. Petra knew these places; every town had one.
Finally, they crawled behind a the last alley in East Zephyr. It dead ended with a tall building that looked terrible from behind but she’d heard it was one of the best clubs in town. Along it’s side exit door, a lone electric lamp shined down, cutting the darkness in a place that would otherwise have been completely invisible. There stood a man, carefully dressed but oddly positioned. He seemed almost surprised or confused, standing under the harsh light. She was used to people watching the trains, fascinated by the lumbering giants, but this was something altogether different. His eyes were such that he seemed to be looking through the train, beyond it perhaps. Searching for something he lost.
As the caboose passed the club, Petra made eye contact with him. Normally she would have felt safe, protected by the darkness and the distance between them, but this was something different. The stranger’s eyes found her there, looking right back at him, and cut through her, warning her. He knew who she was; what she was.
Or he didn’t and she was just projecting.
The train picked up speed the whistle wailed into the growing lonely darkness. As quickly as they found each other, she was gone and he was out of sight. They passed out of East Zephyr and up along an elevated track. Before long the earth beside them fell aside and gave way to a long steel bridge across the river into center city Clarion.
Everytime she passed from the wilds to outer Clarion she could feel some kind of difference. The atmosphere had a change in it, something became clearer but also oddly unpleasant. The air didn’t feel right but it also didn’t really feel different; at least not different in any tangible way. By train, it was anywhere from six to ten hours from her depot in the wilds to Inner City, and by time they got there her anxiety was sky high. The worst part was crossing the bridge into Center City. It was like passing through some ethereal barrier that both rejected her and made her feel complacent. She could never totally explain it in words so she had stopped trying.
Beside her, the conductor shuddered. “Something about the city.” He said.
She tried to look into his eyes but the darkness defeated her.
“Takes it right out of you,” she said.
Before she finished her thought he was already back inside. She watched him through the window, his eyes thoughtful, in another place all altogether. When he climbed into the cupola she lost sight of him completely. Now she was totally alone, suspended over the pitch black river below and the night sky all around. It was the tiniest ounce of freedom in a world so rigid. As close to floating as she might come.