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"The Railyard Man"

The conductor crouched on the locomotive’s floor and lit a cigarette, the moon at his back. “Goddamn hoboes,” he grumbled as he duck-walked over to a stool behind the coal box. “Sumbitches ride my train like it’s them what owns the goddamn thing and not the MOPAC.” Back in the dark recess he was invisible except for the cherry on his cigarette.

Standing on a railroad tie, Archie leaned through the locomotive’s cutout door, stooping to rest his elbows on the plank floorboards. His mind wandered so far afield it took a moment to recognize the conductor's jab for what it was. He gave the man a sideways look. “You tellin’ me how to do my job?”

“I’m tellin’ you there’s a job needs doin’,” the conductor snapped, the glowing cigarette tip bouncing with the words.

Archie sighed. He’d come to the locomotive hoping for pleasant conversation and warmth from the firebox but found neither as it turned out. He looked down, pretending to study the iron track, then tapped out shave-and-a-haircut with the toe of one scuffed boot. His pride told him to stay put a few minutes so as not to appear he was doing the conductor’s bidding because as the railyard's man, they were peers.

The cold cut through him like piss through snow, though, and when his teeth began to chatter, he decided he’d made his point. “Guess I’ll be moseyin’ along,” Archie said as he unhooked his lantern and crunched down the slope of crushed limestone ballast toward level ground.

Shivering, he checked his pocket watch. Eleven-thirty. He snapped it shut, then stroked the cover, his thumb rougher than the trench warfare he’d survived at Somme. The watch had been a gift to himself on his return, a symbol of the civilized things he’d hoped would re-ground him, for his time in the forests of France had changed him as surely as it had his comrades who'd hobbled home on crutches in one boot. You could only pass so much time huddled against the earthen trench walls amid the dull whump of artillery, clawing on your gas mask with trembling hands, charging across No Man's Land past piles of viscera so fresh they gave off steam before you ceased thinking about the future. Spending so long convinced- convinced- each day was your last rejiggered something in your brain.

Even after returning home to Oklahoma, he had to force himself to think about the future, about what life might be like in a year, or five. On a conscious level, he knew these things were important. It just surprised him that his reaction to the prospect of whatever lay over the horizon was so blasé, as though he’d bitten into an apple to find it had no taste. Other doughboys at the Tulsa VFW post told him this was a common phenomenon, and their advice had been uniform. Give it time, they said. Wait it out. It'd ease up as he reacclimated to life back home.


Problem was, thirteen years had passed and he was still waiting.

Archie pocketed the watch and looked ahead to the Tulsa Station’s landing. Kerosene lamps guttered on the deserted platform, but the only interior light was a soft glow that rose and fell behind the chiffon curtains in one of the back rooms. The train’s brakeman and engineer would be back there with the switchman, warming themselves by the pot belly stove with coffee and a flask. He was close enough to the illuminated room that he could hear laughter and the machine-gun clatter of shuffling cards. Then the door opened and the stoop-shouldered brakeman came out with a lantern and a newspaper under his arm.

“E’nin Archie.”

“Silus,” he nodded back, then craned his neck to look past the man into the room. “Say, y'all ain’t playin’ poker back there, are you? You know what'll happen they catch you. Trust me, the size of the chunk they’ll take out your ass won’t fit in your hat.”

“Naw, just rummy. My momma raised an ugly child but not a stupid one.” For two years after the crash of ’29, the trainmen ran a floating craps game in that back room. The station’s corporate masters had looked the other way, at least at first. But then Jericho Buchanan ignored his rounds until a horrible screaming of brakes and whistles announced to the room’s occupants that the Memphis Junction had narrowly missed colliding with the Rockport, and that, as they say, was that. The edict came down the next day anyone caught gambling on the premises would immediately be given a one-way ticket to the bread line, full stop.

“Fair ‘nuff. I’ll be joinin’ you boys shortly.”

“We’ll save you a spot by the stove," Silas said over his shoulder as he toddled in the direction of the outhouse. As his voice faded in the distance, Archie heard him singing, “Boss makes a dollar, I make a dime, that’s why I shit on company time.”

Looping the lantern over his elbow, Archie blew on his bare hands and set off. The cold breeze sliced his face and watered his eyes as he trudged along the curving line of boxcars, the lamp bouncing off his hip. There was plenty of activity during the day to keep a man from getting bored, but this time of night the stillness was so complete it felt as though he was staring at a painting. Archie picked up his pace, stamping his feet as he walked to get the blood moving.

He smelled it before he saw it. The wind shifted, bringing with it a whiff of something incongruous. The potbelly stove back at the station burned coal, he knew, but now he got the distinct scent of wood smoke. And that could mean only one thing.


His concentration immediately focused in the way of those hardened by combat. Swiveling his head, he assessed his surroundings, scanning for the source of the smell. Then far down the long, gentle arc of boxcars, he saw something. At first he thought it was his imagination, but as he stared, it happened again. A thin wisp of smoke, snaking like a ghost from a boxcar door.

All thoughts of the back room and its warm stove forgotten, Archie trotted in that direction. When the stream of smoke became continuous, he broke into a run. The boxcar was far away, almost a hundred yards, near the bend that hid the rest of the train and the caboose. He’d covered half the distance when a dull orange glow outlined the sliding door. By the time he arrived, the smoke was billowing and he no longer needed the lantern.

Without breaking stride, Archie hoisted himself up and inside the boxcar. The floor was concealed beneath the thick smoke and when he landed his feet hit something so slick he had to pinwheel his arms to keep his balance. Coughing, he trundled open the opposite side’s door and hung his head outside to gulp fresh air as he whipped off his peacoat. Once he’d grabbed a lungful, he ducked back inside to frantically beat his coat at the orange flames beneath the gray haze. The air around him eddied and swirled, giving him momentary glimpses of the fire’s source. Half of the boxcar was loaded with loose straw and bales of hay which had somehow ignited.

For the first time, he became aware of a sound competing with the fire’s crackles. Whimpers of fear were coming from somewhere in the depths of the acrid clouds. He peered through the dense smoke and saw a man curled in the fetal position on the opposite side from the fire.

“Goddamn you, help me!” Archie screamed at the man, but instead of moving the man’s whimpering mutated into a high-pitched keen. Archie began boot-scooping the flaming straw out the open door and smothering the flaming bales best he could with his coat, slipping and sliding all the while. He singed his hands flipping the bales end over end and out the door, one after another, reducing the fire’s fuel. Slowly the tide began to turn and for the first time he could see the floor was slicked with fresh horse manure.

Once only embers and scorch marks remained, Archie wheeled on the man. For the first time he got a good look at his companion, and the smoke’s irritating his eyes made him think he was seeing things.

The man looked like a cherub who’d fallen on hard times. Chubby and pale with overly trusting eyes, he had the pampered skin of the chronically indulged and thinning hair through which his scalp was visible. Archie assumed the man's barber had to use his best guess where to sculpt the fellow's delicate beard as his flabby neck rendered his jawline invisible. The simpering man wore what appeared in better days to have been a tuxedo but was now caked in mud as were his bare feet, and grass sticky burrs dotted his clothes. He’d apparently tried to compensate for a missing bowtie with a splash of color because he wore a red bandana knotted rakishly under one ear. What really drew the eyes up, though, was the deep blue eyeshadow that extended past his plucked brows like a demented clown.

The man’s bizarre appearance wasn’t enough to quell Archie’s anger. He shouted, “The hell were you thinkin’, settin' a fire in here? You could’a burned up the whole goddamn train!”

The man didn’t answer. He clutched his knees, rocking in place and emitting a pitiful mewling, the guilty sound of a child caught standing over the broken shards of Mother’s favorite vase.

“Up on your feet, asshole. C’mon. Let’s go.” Archie grabbed the stranger’s collar and tried to hoist him but was met with dead weight. The man’s only response was to clench himself tighter into a ball and raise by an octave his whining, as if searching through trial and error for a frequency that would magically teleport him away.

Drawing his nightstick, Archie pointed it at the stranger like the finger of God. With an edge of steel in his voice he said, “Do not make the mistake of thinkin’ I’m fuckin’ with you. I ain’t.” He paused for effect, then continued in a near-whisper. “Now you got to the count’a three to get your ass up and movin’ or I’m gonna stomp you so hard you’ll piss blood for a week. Hear me?”

Over and over, the stranger clenched and unclenched his filthy toes, rocking more vigorously.

“One…” Archie tightened his grip on the nightstick. The stranger breathed down his sobs but made no attempt to stand.

“Two…” Raising the baton over his head, Archie was debating where to land the first blow when the stranger looked up and said with precise, aristocratic diction, “I would like to go home, please.”

Archie hesitated. “The fuck did you say?”

The man sniffled. Once again he said, “I would like to go home, please.” The softness of his voice made him sound younger than he looked.

Most any other hobo would have been seeing angels by now courtesy of the nightstick. But there was no defiance in this stranger, no resistance of authority. Rather, his noncompliance was rooted in helplessness, in hopelessness. There was something about the sincerity in the man’s voice that made Archie lower the stick.

He squatted so he was at eye level with the stranger. “What’s your name?”

“Mortimer,” the man sniffled.

“Mortimer what?”


Archie did a double take. “You from those Honeywell’s? They your people?” The family name was well known throughout the region. Money as old as the hills and blood as blue as the sky.


“Get out,” Archie said, impressed. “So what’re you doin’ here?”

“Where is ‘here’?”




“Well, what?”

“Jesus, you touched in the head or somethin’? What the hell’re you doin’ out here?”

“I— I don’t precisely know.” Mortimer glanced around the boxcar with an astonished expression, as though he was seeing it for the first time. “May we return home now? I’m cold and I wish to sleep.” He began to unbutton his shirt.

That was enough for Archie, who’d seen the things desperate men bartered for in the shadows. Once while inspecting the empty cars of a Freightliner laying over on its way to Shreveport, he’d caught one hobo sucking off his traveling companion. The fellow on the receiving end had skedaddled, looking comical as he jumped to the ground and ran while pulling his pants up over his erect penis. The other man had been furious that Archie chased off his partner before the two cans of Vienna sausages that’d been promised could be handed over.


He now held up a hand to interrupt the simpleton, saying, “Whoa, whoa, whoa. No need for that.”

But it wasn’t what Archie was thinking. Instead, Mortimer pulled open his shirt to expose his pasty chest. Tattooed above his pendulous man-boobs were the words, “If found, please return Mortimer to Honeywell Manor, Wichita, Kansas. You will be generously compensated for your time.”

Archie let out a low whistle. “Well I’ll be good and goddamned.”


Two days later, Archie found himself wondering, Can a stink get into your skin permanently like a tattoo? The cloying smell of fish had saturated Archie so thoroughly he feared it'd become a part of him. After all, if the stench had impregnated the sheet metal walls of the delivery truck so completely that the vehicle reeked while empty, what hope was there for his flesh? This rate I’m gonna spend the whole reward on bath salts and scrub brushes, he thought.

Somehow he seemed the only one in the truck to mind. Behind him, Mortimer sat Indian stye on the floor wrapped in a blanket, staring out from under a wool hat with ear flaps at the brassiere models in a tattered Sears-Roebuck catalogue. He studied their coquettish poses with the intensity of an art critic, stroking his favorites, running his fingers with their old manicures slowly along the page. And the truck’s owner, a friend of a friend named Isaac Hershberg- well, Archie was left to assume the man had long ago burned out his olfactory wiring like an overloaded circuit breaker.

Archie thought the fiftyish and stocky Hershberg might be the happiest man he’d ever met. He was certainly the most talkative. When a mutual friend introduced them— Archie needing a ride to the Honeywell place, Hershberg looking to make some money on the off day from his job delivering fish from Galveston to Tulsa— Archie hadn’t asked many questions. Just, would the truck get them there and back, and what was Hershberg’s commission to be? If he had it to do over again, Archie would’ve still hired Hershberg, but he’d have liked to had the chance to prepare himself was all. When they’d pulled out of Tulsa before dawn bound for Wichita, Hershberg began a running monologue that had lasted the better part of the eight-hours-and-counting drive.

“— that’s why I’m still willin’ to go hirin’ a gypsy. You hear talk all the time, ‘Oh, they’re so lazy they'll shit in their own bed and kick it to the bottom with their feet. Yer never gonna get a days work out of ‘em.’ That’s bullshit, though, you ask me. Now, don’t get me wrong, they’ll rob you blind. That’s true. No argument there. Hire one and you gotta watch him like a hawk. But they’ll out-work a goddamn mule. I mean it. F'rinstance, I saw this one, he fell off a roof, must of thowed his shoulder out or sum’m. Me, I would'a been headin' to the doc toot-sweet, but this sumbitch? He just put it up in a sling he made out his shirt and went back to work one-armed. I know, right? Damnedest thing I ever saw. So here’s the key. You payin’ attention? Here’s the key. You gotta hire just one of 'em at a time. That way you kin keep an eye on him. Hire two?” He stuck out his lower lip and shook his head. “Askin’ for trouble. Like 'ere was this one time I was lookin’ to expand my run to Freeport—.”

Archie zoned out again. At least Hershberg didn’t require active listening. He supposed driving endless loops must be lonely business because the soliloquy continued until the delivery truck turned onto a gravel lane that dead-ended at stately Honeywell Manor.

The sun’s kissing the horizon made Archie adjust his hat as they puttered past the manicured lawn and sculpted hedges that sloped up toward the main building. It did the word “mansion” justice, with its façade all elaborately detailed carvings heavy on tendrilled cannetilles and filigree. Rococo windows reflected the fading light onto gilded seraphim dancing in the waters of the fountain that formed the centerpiece of the circular drive.

They’d no more braked to a halt when the cathedral-style door swung open. In the doorway, a dour man with matching gray hair and vest watched them dismount in contemptuous silence, as if debating whether they merited a butler’s formal greeting.

Barely looking up from the brassiere ads, Mortimer brushed past the servant and disappeared inside. Neither man acknowledged the other except for the butler’s wrinkling his nose. Judging by Mortimer’s purposeful strides, Archie set the over/under for a wager on how long before the chubby young man was masturbating to the catalogue at ninety seconds.

In a tone that sounded like the one he’d use to shoo two panhandlers, the butler said, “Good evening gentlemen. I’m Wilkinson. I take it that one of you is Mister Keating?”

Every molecule in Archie’s body cried out to tell Wilkinson he could lose the snob act now voluntarily, or in a minute by default when Archie put his boot so far up his ass the steel toes would block his vocal cords. But he didn’t have the money in hand yet, so that would have to wait. “Guilty as charged. This’s my transportation, Mister Hershberg.” Hershberg pulled at the brim of his hat, then, thumbs hooked under his suspenders, he rotated in place, gawking. “Man, that fountain’s bigger’n my flat back home. You mind if I jump in, scrub off the road real quick? Be the nicest tub I ever took a bath in.”

“Pardon?” the butler asked, incredulous.

“It’s a joke, son. Lordy, this place is som’m else, innit?” He leaned forward conspiratorially. “Just ‘tween you, me, and the lamp post, what’s it worth? I mean, gotta be least three, four mill I’m thinkin’. Am I right?”

Ignoring the question, Wilkinson turned to Archie, “We were all so relieved when you sent your telegram. Master Mortimer’s latest sojourn— well, suffice to say, there were those of us who feared the worst. Please, do come in. May I take your coats?”

Archie answered for the both of them as they stepped into the imposing entryway. “Nah. I don’t think we’ll be here long. I know y’all are busy. If we could just settle up on the reward money, we’ll be on our way.”

“Yes, yes, quite right. Please, walk this way.” Following Wilkinson down a hallway redolent with hand-carved wood and textured accents, they stopped before a heavy oak door that stood ajar. Indistinct voices emanated from within and Wilkinson listened for a moment before rapping with one knuckle. There was a pause, then a woman’s voice said, “One moment, please.” This was followed almost immediately by a heavier voice, a man’s baritone, saying, “Nonsense. Come in.” Archie wasn’t sure, but he could have sworn he saw Wilkinson heave a momentary sigh of resignation at hearing the man’s voice. Then with his fingertips the butler pushed open the door.

The room was wall-to-wall books, heavy leather-bound volumes that Archie guessed would smell like pipe smoke if he could get the fish smell out of his nose. Above a fire in the hearth, a shrewd-looking old man with wizened eyes and a regal bearing glared down from a portrait on the mantel. Commanding the room was an antique desk, the polish on its dark wood throwing distorted reflections of the flames. Behind it sat a woman, mid-thirties and so thin she seemed to be made up of angles. She was attractive in a simple way, plain but pleasantly so. Her everyday beauty was marred by a jagged scar that ran across her temple, but with her hair pulled back she seemed to own it, a fact that pleased Archie, although he didn’t know why. 


The dark circles under her eyes told the room the woman clearly wasn’t her best at the moment. Exhaustion weighed her down like a child wanting a piggyback as she yawned widely, covering her mouth with an open palm. While her fatigue was obvious, less clear was the degree to which the middle-aged man standing across the desk from her was the cause.

At least Archie was relatively sure it was a man. The obese figure’s husky voice and pencil-thin moustache suggested as much, but the individual wore a flowing caftan, muddying the picture. The lower half of the loose dress clung damply to the fronts of his thighs, and the sharp ammonia smell of urine managed to fight its way past the fish smell. His vague resemblance to the dignified man in the portrait was diluted by the crushed velvet beret he sported at the moment and the Persian cat he carried in the crook of one elbow. With the other hand he held a wand on which were mounted ornate opera glasses. Despite only being a few feet away, he brought them up and looked Archie and Hershberg up and down suspiciously. Then, satisfied, he turned back to the woman behind the desk.

“You were saying?”

“Reginald, we have guests. We can finish discussing this when they leave,” she said in a tired voice.

“Nonsense. There is no time to waste. Fortunes could be made and lost while we sit here dithering. You know my feelings on this. Her insight is needed. Her counsel vital.” Reginald’s tongue was thick, garbling words in the way Archie had seen in people after a stroke. He weakly waved the arm with the opera glasses in their direction. “Besides, they seem to be worldly men, entrepreneurial in spirit and used to matters of high finance.”

The woman sighed. “Fine. Wilkinson, when you leave would you be so kind as to call Madame Minerva and inquire as to the source of the delay in her arrival?”

The butler said, “Oh, forgive me ma’am. She telephoned a short time ago to say that her carriage’s horse unexpectedly drew up lame and she would have to arrange other transportation.”

The woman got a smug look. “Very well. One would think that a fortune teller of her prodigious talents would have been able to predict such a tedious complication. Nevertheless, Reginald, we will have to table this discussion for the moment. Now will you excuse me so I may tend to our guests? Hopefully they will forgive our rudeness.”

Reginald’s jowels sagged in a pout as he turned to leave. His bare feet slapped the floor in a way that first struck Archie as petulant, but which he then realized was a consequence of the man’s stilted gait. As he Frankenstein-walked past, the butler followed, closing the door behind them.

The woman rose, displaying a formal bearing. “Do forgive me, gentlemen. But as you can see, Reginald can be quite persistent. I’m Edna Tinsley, the Honeywell’s caretaker and accountant. Now, which of you is Mister Keating?”

Archie raised a finger and smiled. “That’d be me.”

“I trust nothing has changed with the amount upon which we agreed in our exchange of telegrams?” Her eyes flitted to Hershberg and back. “No last moment exigencies?”

Archie didn’t know what an exigency was, but he didn’t want to appear stupid so he shook his head.

“Very good.” She sat and after putting on a pair of half-moon reading glasses pulled a leather check case out of a drawer. With a fountain pen that looked to cost more than Hershberg’s truck, she scribbled for a moment, then tore the check from its perforations. Folding it, she handed it to Archie. He opened it briefly to confirm the amount and felt his stomach leap in delight. It was the equivalent of two months’ wages.

Tinsley closed the case, then leaned on her elbows and rested her chin on her laced fingers. “I trust everything is satisfactory?” When Archie nodded, she said, “Well then, if our work here is done, I bid you good day.” She replaced the ledger in the drawer and pulled a sheaf of papers to. Without looking up she said, “Would you mind showing yourselves out?”

Archie jerked his head to the door and Hershberg took the cue, ambling out the door the way they came. Archie followed but hesitated with his hand on the knob before turning back to face the woman. “Actually Miss Tinsley, there’s one thing more.”

Tinsley took off her glasses to let them dangle by the chain. With all the patience her British hospitality could muster, she asked, “Yes?”

Archie hesitated to ask, but then thought, Hell with it, I got the money already. “Ma’am, what the hell is goin’ on with these people? I mean I always heard money makes you strange, but these bunch’a blue bloods are the weirdest sumbitches I ever met. They look like they been eatin’ crazy by the spoonful.”

She stared at him for a moment in silence then instead of answering, fetched a silver cigarette case from her pocket and tamped one down on the back of her wrist. She spent several seconds trying to light it with an engraved Zippo, muttering at it until Archie stepped forward and used his own. She took a long drag and let out two dragon plumes of smoke before leaning back into the chair. With a coy half-smile, she said, “Why Mister Keating, whatever do you mean?”

“I just get the feelin’ you know somethin’ ‘bout this you ain’t tellin’.”

“Well, I do suppose some degree of an explanation is in order.” She stared at the ceiling, choosing her words as she took another drag, then asked, “Tell me, Mister Keating, do you believe in God?”

Archie was caught off guard. “Come again?”

Using the tone of a parent explaining to a child where babies come from, she said, “God. Do you believe in Him?”

“Kind’a question’s that? A’course.”

“I envy you. Sadly, faith is a gift with which I have not been blessed. Nevertheless, I do believe in the wages of sin.”

“But what’s this gotta do—?”

“I suppose you believe then that God created Eve, and that it was she who brought Adam the apple?”

“Ma’am if you’re getting’ ready to blaspheme, then I’ll just be on m’way,” he said in an irritated voice.

“No, no, not at all. Or at least I don’t mean to. But I take it you also believe that Satan slithered forward on his belly and somehow turned their love into a betrayal?”

“Obviously. Bible says so.”

“Very good. Then you’ll understand that just as God created Eve in the Garden of Eden, so too did He create Eleanor Bailey in Liverpool some thirty years ago.”


“Her name is unimportant, really. But she was the pox-riddled whore whose legacy continues to ravage this family and their once-proud name.”

“Ma’am, I’m afraid I’m still not followin’—.”

“Reginald Junior is Mortimer’s father, you see. It was on a recreational visit to Liverpool that both succumbed to her feminine wiles. They were content to bring her back here to Wichita as a sort of concubine-in-waiting. She leapt at the chance to be a kept woman obviously. And all she brought with her was her papers and one other very special gift.”

“And what was that?”

“Syphilis, Mister Keating. Quite untreatable I’m afraid. Now in its late stages, it continues to consume the brains and bodies of both father and son like a wildfire on the prairie.” She looked somber. “I must confess, I don’t see it as a great loss. It was Reginald Senior who built this empire before his death, you see.” She gestured respectfully at the portrait hanging over the fireplace. “Mortimer and Reginald Junior have been content to coast through life enjoying the fruits of his labors. The irony is that it wasn’t until Reginald Junior was deep in the throes of the disease that he began to show interest in leading the company. To now see them transformed into a pair of feebs— well let’s just say that of all the emotions with which I must contend, pity isn’t one.”

Archie let out a low whistle. “The syph? No shit.”

“And so it falls to me to clean up their messes. Placating Reginald by pretending to take advice from this money-grubbing fortune teller before making decisions about the business. Arguing with vendors about exchanges after Mortimer’s more extravagant purchases. Paying rewards,” here she gestured at Archie, “when Mortimer wanders off. Thank God I insisted on that tattoo. I felt like I was putting tags on a dog’s collar.”

She stubbed out her cigarette. “Don’t get me wrong, it is nice to set my own salary. And what kind of Philistine wouldn’t want to work in such opulent surroundings?” She looked around wistfully. “But it takes its toll. Emotionally. Psychologically. There’s days like today where I don’t know how much more I can stand.”

“Oh come on, now. Is it really that bad?”

A long pause. “I’ll say this. If I believed in hell, I’d say the Devil is watching all this somewhere and taking notes.”


Six months later, Archie was helping himself to leftover birthday cake in the station’s back room. Around the time the weather warmed up, a new manager for the railroad yard had appeared, a woman, and the skepticism among the rank and file at the prospect of working for the fairer sex had initially been palpable. She’d won them over quickly enough, though, through the simplest of ways: treating them fairly and feeding them continuously. Stews, roasts, pies, cakes, there was always something delicious to be found in the back room these days, and Archie had put on enough weight that he’d had to go up a notch on his belt.

The real test had come when she had to fire Sergei Solenko. The Russian was a drunk, a ne’er do well who’d only kept his job out of the old regime's pity. But when she’d found him one afternoon passed out in the privy, pants around his ankles and chin on his chest, she’d let him go on the spot. There’d been no grumbling or anger among the other trainmen, though, just shrugged shoulders and acceptance. That was when Archie knew she was going to work out.

Eating with his fingers, the whistles and chuffing brakes of the 10:15 arriving with passengers from Wichita made him check the clock. He still had seven minutes left on his break, and his gaze drifted over a newspaper that lay scattered over the large table. He was sucking the icing off his thumb when one headline grabbed his attention.




Wiping his fingers on his bib overalls, he pulled the paper over.


“A manhunt for the Honeywell family’s lead accountant has turned up signs of her alleged suicide, Wichita Police reported last night. She was wanted for questioning after an external audit revealed that millions of dollars had gone missing from the family’s fortunes under her watch.

Until recently, the Honeywell family name has been known across the region for its association with oil and gas production. Over the last year, however, the disappearance from the public eye of CEO Reginald Honeywell Jr. and rumors of behind-the-scenes strife at the company’s top levels have led to fears of executive instability.

The corporate structure was thrown into chaos two weeks ago when authorities were called to the family’s palatial Wichita estate after the eponymous patriarch was found dead at the bottom of a dry well in a remote area of the property. Before the opening of the inquest, opinions were divided as to how the manner of death would be adjudicated given that the well’s cover had allegedly gone missing. While the Wichita Coroner eventually declared it accidental, the junior Honeywell’s daughter Regina Coppedge nee Honeywell has been vocal in her belief that foul play was involved.

Those suspicions multiplied when an audit prior to disposition of the junior Honeywell’s last will and testament revealed a portion of the family fortune to be unaccounted for, with the missing funds totaling in the millions of dollars. Authorities scheduled an interview with the family’s lead accountant, Miss Edna Tinsley, but she went missing prior to that meeting. A subsequent manhunt culminated last evening when police found what they characterized as a suicide note allegedly written by Tinsley secured to the guardrail in the middle of the Wayne R. Winslow Bridge’s span. Dredging of the Arkansas River’s swift-moving waters for her body is set to commence this morning at first light.

‘It seems pretty clear what happened here,’ said Wichita Police Chief Earl Monroe. ‘She could feel the net closing in and decided to take her own life.’ When asked whether she was responsible for the missing funds, he said, ‘That is the working assumption right now, yes.’

Son Mortimer Honeywell was not made available for comment, but when asked if she thought Tinsley might be responsible for the missing funds, Coppedge said, ‘Don’t be daft, of course she took the money. If I sound angry it’s because I am. Unfortunately, her guilty conscience did not nudge her to leave behind any indications of where she hid it. I fear we’re never to see that money again. Edna was very talented. God knows it could be squirreled away anywhere. If you ask me, this is indicative of a breakdown of the moral—.’


Archie closed the paper and went out on the platform, digesting what he’d just read. He watched the crowd mill about, some disembarking, some boarding, many just stretching legs or cricking backs. His gaze drifted lazily, people-watching and enjoying the warm morning.

It was the open train window that was her undoing. That, plus plain old bad luck. She’d donned an auburn wig and arranged the falling locks so they tightly framed her face. Now with her back-knotted basin hat pulled low and exaggerated sun glasses, she looked perfectly nondescript, a random face like any other gazing down at the platform from her seat on the train. Archie just happened to be looking in her direction when a blast of air blew the curls and hat brim off her face, momentarily revealing the long jagged scar curling around her temple. She nonchalantly leaned back away from the window, rearranging her fallen locks. It seemed clear that she either hadn’t noticed Archie or didn’t recognize him, standing amongst the crowd as he was.

As he watched her, she stared into her lap, reading. He thought she looked remarkably calm. He admired that. She was clearly daring, audacious even. Maybe a little dangerous. Was it possible she’d actually pushed Reginald down that abandoned well? Rather than making Archie recoil in horror, though, the thought actually made him feel a little, what? Exhilarated?

Sweet baby Jesus am I really thinking about doing this? he thought. Thirty-two years old, in the middle of a Depression? In the end, it was something his Grampa Max once said that convinced him. He’d taken seven-year-old Archie to his favorite swimming hole, back up in one of the canyons on Lake Eufaula. Encouraging him to leap off a rock ledge into the cool green waters, he told his nervous grandson, “If you’re gonna walk on the ice, you might as well dance.” It’d taken all Archie’s nerve, but Grampa Max had been right of course. And now here he was, more than two decades later, contemplating another leap into the unknown.

“All abooooard,” came the call from the conductor and the crowd began to mill up the steps like cattle in the chutes. Archie watched them flow around him, sorting themselves into a conga line as they disappeared into the train. Bringing up the rear was a woman in tweed shepherding a young boy wearing leg braces. He scooted up the steps with surprising efficiency, clearly long-practiced. In her arms the woman held a baby who looked backward at Archie, a long string of drool bridging mouth to finger. Casually, Archie fell in behind them and ambled up the steps.

As he made his way down the aisle, the locomotive began to chuff more vigorously. The wheels slowly turned and the car crept forward, picking up momentum. It had just started to rock side to side when he made it to Edna’s seat. She had a copy of the Saturday Evening Post open on her lap, smoking as she read it. As he watched, she lazily licked one finger and turned the page. He plunked down, startling her.

She didn’t recognize him at first. Taking off her sunglasses, she scanned his face and mustered an indignant, “May I help you?” Then her eyes darted down to his brass name plate, “A. Keating.” That was when it clicked, and her pique morphed into fear. The sight made him remorseful, but he knew one way or the other that would change here in just a moment.

“Can I bum one of those?” he asked, and without waiting for her answer leaned forward to fish out her silver cigarette case from her open bag. He lit up and took a long drag. “So. Where we goin’?”

The fear slipped from her eyes, replaced by bemusement. She didn’t answer for a few moments, then as a half-smile curled one corner of her mouth said, “New Orleans.”

“Great. No self-respectin' outlaws'd be caught dead in someplace borin' like, I dunno, Cleveland or sum'm. What I hear it's the kind'a town that'll make us feel right at home.”

Her eyes were so expressive he felt he could read her thoughts.

What to make of this handsome, interesting man? Is he a threat?

No, don’t think so.

What does he bring?

Remains to be seen.

Take a chance?

Yes, for the moment.

Need be, how confident am I he could be… dealt with?

A pause. Then, Quite.

There it was once again, that hint of danger.

She gestured at his name badge. “You need to rid yourself of that. What name would you like? To travel under, I mean?”

He thought about that. “Why don’t you choose?”

She looked pleased. Leaning back, she assessed him as though deciding whether to buy a rough painting from a promising young artist. “Well, you’ve clearly got a bold streak, a bit like Charles Lindbergh. And I suspect you’ll be a bit of a project, sort of my own Eliza Doolittle. So there it is.” She nodded. “Mister Charles Doolittle, I’m pleased to make your acquaintance. I’m Miss Greta O’Keefe." She extended her bent wrist. "Now you say ‘charmed.’ Alternatively, ‘enchante’ is acceptable. And then you kiss the back of my hand.”

He smiled and did as she commanded, then flicked ash into the pocket of his coat. He thought he could live with these rules as the price of partnering with her.

And if he couldn’t? Well, the war had taught him how to sleep with one eye open.




As with many of my short stories, it was a random visual that served as a seed for "The Railyard Man," this one a song lyric. In Bob Dylan’s “Idiot Wind,” he sings:


There’s a lone soldier on the cross

Smoke pourin’ out of a boxcar door

You didn’t know it, you didn’t think it could be done

In the final end, he won the war

After losin’ every battle


Don’t ask me what it is about that image of smoke pouring out of a boxcar door that’s always stuck in my filter, but I can’t shake it. I think it might have resonated with a memory from my childhood of being horrified as I watched Ernest Borgnine kill a train-riding hobo with a sledge hammer in the 1972 movie Emperor of the North. It’s funny, I went back and rewatched the movie while I was in the midst of writing this story, and that scene is positively tame by 2023 standards. In fact, much to my surprise no blood is actually spilled— this despite my recollection that the scene was a festival of gore. Like I mentioned after “Dead Snakes,” it’s notable the degree to which childhood memories can embellish traumatic events.

At first, I thought Archie was going to be more of a Borgnine-like character, but I was really happy to see that as the story progressed he turned out to be, well, if not kind, then at least more human.

But through the first drafts, the story was still missing something. It didn’t all click until I sat down to watch Netflix’s Peaky Blinders. The ways in which World War One scarred so many of the men who fought in France is something I don’t often think about, which I guess is kind of strange given how familiar I am with PTSD in the modern era. Just plain old recency bias, I guess. In any case, that idea led to Edna’s creation and the rest quickly wrote itself.

While I’m on the subject of Bob Dylan, I have to pass along an unrelated anecdote about one of my Physician’s Assistants, (let’s call her Penelope). Late twenties and achingly earnest, she might be the world’s biggest Taylor Swift fan. Now, I like to describe my operating room as a benevolent dictatorship, and one example of this altruism is that I generally permit others to choose the music we listen to while performing surgery. When it’s Penelope’s day, we don’t even ask anymore, the circulator nurse just queues up something that any Swifty would love. For my part, I often pick Bob Dylan. Not just because I enjoy his music, but also because I feel I have a duty to expose his talent to a generation who thinks anything that happened prior to the millennium is ancient history and, therefore, irrelevant.

So Penelope and I were doing a case together once and “Tangled Up in Blue” came on. As my eyes rolled back in pleasure, I told her it’s my favorite song of his. I then mentioned that when he plays it live he introduces it by saying, “This next song took me ten years to live it and two years to write it.”

Without a trace of sarcasm, she looked up at me across the patient and said, “Oh…my…Gawd. Taylor Swift can write a song in, like, an hour.” Then the corners of her eyes crinkled smugly above her surgical mask like this mic-drop fact had just won the debate.

With a Mormon-in-a-titty-bar look on my face, all I could think of to say was, “You know, I have a pretty good vocabulary, but I’m truly fucking speechless right now.” 

Man, I'm getting old...

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