On the Fringe of the Congo

by Thomas Healy

Chisholm, leaning out his window, blew a long blast on the whistle as the train chugged toward the wooden trestle bridge. Almost at once, a loud bellow blared through the light mist, and he smiled at the familiar response. He blew another blast and the elephant he had disturbed bellowed even louder.

That ought to give the passengers a thrill, the engineer thought, as he started across the creaking bridge.

A boy, walking along the tracks, waved and he tipped his cap while the girl beside the boy clamped her hands over her ears because of the clacking wheels. Chisholm didn't blame her, idly adjusting one of the cotton balls stuffed in his ears. The train was so noisy he scarcely needed to bother to blow the whistle because people could hear it half a mile away. Maybe even farther on a clear day.

"This crate looks old enough to have operated in the backwaters of the Belgian Congo," a grizzled conductor said to him soon after he went to work at the railroad.

He laughed.

"I'm serious," he insisted. "Sometimes when I'm aboard this train I half expect to see people with bones through their noses watching me from behind the trees."

Around the next curve the train rattled past the monkey house, the screaming as shrill as ever, past an empty bird pond, past the lions den where a lioness slept beside a huge boulder. Just behind the den, on a sloped field, towered two giraffes, their necks as thick as fire hydrants. It was natural for someone employed at the zoo to imagine he was in Africa, certainly Chisholm did at times. But as soon as he pulled into the miniature train station, with its cotton candy and ice cream carts, he knew he was not in Leopoldville.

* * *

Chisholm wasn't someone who, as a youngster, wanted to ride every train he heard rumbling through the night. It wasn't something he ever really thought about growing up where he did in the highlands. Indeed, until he enlisted in the Army, he had never been aboard a passenger train, not even the scaled down one at the zoo.

It was not until he was sent to the state penitentiary for writing one too many bad checks that he became fascinated with trains. One clattered past the north tower every other morning at a quarter to five, and not a day passed when he didn't wish he could hop aboard it and escape his confinement. He could not see the train from his cell but from the guards he learned that it was the color of the sun with usually four boxcars. Columns of smoke poured out of it that rose almost as high as the tower. Always the engineer blew the whistle as he passed.

His first cellmate, an arsonist, was very familiar with the train because he used to ride it with his father to go trout fishing in a nearby canyon. His name was Jonas Kincaid but many of the guards called him "Casey Jones" because of his detailed knowledge of trains. He knew, for instance, that the standard-gauge railroad track of four feet eight and a half inches wide was based on the distance between the ruts worn by chariots in the stones of the Roman roads of Britain. Even so, he insisted time and again that he was not a "foamer," by which he meant someone who foamed at the mouth whenever he came across a train.

Perhaps not, but Chisholm had never met anyone who was as informed about trains as Kincaid. And it was because of him that he also got interested in them, and though he never thought of himself as a foamer either, he did hope to find work at a railroad when he got out of prison. Trains represented what he had been deprived of behind bars: freedom and independence. On a train, even a zoo train, he would be in perpetual motion and that was satisfaction enough for him. He didn't need a destination, he just needed to be going somewhere.

* * *

Before leaving the rest room, Chisholm looked at himself in the streaked mirror above the wash basins. The knot of his red bandanna appeared a little loose, he noticed, tightening it, but otherwise he looked as credible as any engineer working out of Union Station. Smiling, he took out of the back pocket of his bib overalls a striped cap and put it on, pulling the brim almost down to his eyes.

The train wasn't scheduled to leave the station for several more minutes but he often arrived ahead of time so he could walk around the platform for a while and greet some of the passengers. It was a practice the director of the zoo encouraged, as if he and the other engineers and conductors were part of the exhibit, but he didn't mind as some did. In fact, he rather enjoyed the attention he received on the platform. He believed the people who asked him to pose for photographs with their children and grandparents were showing him some respect. That was something he seldom had received in his checkered life, and if he had to wear a uniform to receive it, he wasn't complaining.

"You ever going to work on a grown-up train?" a little girl asked one afternoon after her mother snapped her picture with him.

"I don't know."

"You can run one, can't you?"

"I believe so."

"You should do it then."

He knew as a convicted felon it was unlikely he could ever operate a "grown-up" train so he was grateful to the prison chaplain for finding him a position with the zoo railroad. Still, he was tempted sometimes when he had a day off to put on his uniform and go down to Union Station and see if he could sneak into the engineer's chair on some passenger train and maybe start up the engine and blow the whistle. But he knew if he ever got caught he would be right back in a cell, regarded once again as menacing as someone out in the forest with a spear in his hands.

© 2010 Thomas Healy. All rights reserved.



Thomas Healy was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest. His stories have appeared in such journals as Flask and Pen, Freight Train, Midwest Literary Review, and Stymie.

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