The tarnished grille of the old Ford was nosed up against the rail lines
that ran north to Canada and south to Mexico. A railroad cop rolled out
of the evening gloom. John Boyd raised a thermos cup in salute, grey
eyes peering at the rearview mirror. The yard bull recognized him; a
retired engineer with nothing better to do than stare across empty
tracks. The cop responded with a flick of his hand and idled away across
the empty parking lot. JB sagged back against a saddle blanket spread
over cracked vinyl. The thirty-five-year old seat groaned in protest.
He remembered the Ford new, or nearly so. Lorelei had come, moved right
over to Dunsmuir and married him. He could hardly believe it. The
newlyweds planned to start a family, so JB traded in his Mustang for a
1968 Galaxy 500 four-door.
It was in Denver that he met her. He had been five years with the
railroad by then, just turned thirty and working toward being an
engineer. Lorelei was ten years younger. The freight crew laid over in
Denver, and in those short two days, Lorelei shattered what JB knew of
the world. On the next Denver run, she agreed to marry him, eager to get
as far away as he could take her.
It wasn’t a year later that Jamie was born. He came into the world while
JB was hauling freight to Seattle. Having a baby was a wonderment. The
new father marveled at how quickly Little Jamie could change. He would
come back from a week-long run to find the baby could do all sorts of
new stuff. JB thought it was magic, thought everything would stay just
the same, all new and shiny. But somewhere along the line, the thing
went off the tracks.
John Boyd sipped his coffee as his eyes roamed the empty tracks. Sure,
there were moments, but he didn’t notice them until after. Like coming
into the front room where the baby was fussing in his crib, and Lorelei
at the window just staring off at nothing.
Lorelei left him while he was on a run to San Diego. He came back to an
empty house, all the kid’s things gone and a note on the formica table
in the kitchen. You could do that back then, just disappear. That’s
exactly what Lorelei did. She disappeared. That was the second and last
time that JB’s world was shattered like glass. He tried looking for her,
even hired a private detective, but nothing came of it. After that, he
just stuck to railroading.
JB winced at the bitterness of the coffee. He fished a pint bottle from
the side pocket of his canvas work coat and poured a slug of bourbon
into the cup. He tasted the doctored coffee and ran his mind back over
the years. Jamie would be about thirty-two by now, old enough to be in
the seat of a locomotive. If he sat here long enough, JB might just
catch a glimpse of his son, head leaned out the side window of a big
diesel-electric, eyeing the tracks for trouble.
Lauren Byrne walked to the Mexican funeral parlor secure in the
knowledge that she could still turn the heads of men. Past fifty, and
yes, plumper than she once was, the contours of her mourning dress still
attracted looks of longing. It was true that the heads she turned were
flecked with gray, but that was fine with her. The older caballeros were
refined, easier to bring to heel, and generous. She was about to bid
Vaya con Dios to a man who had possessed all of those traits.
She threaded past the idlers and parked cars that lined the busy road.
The late morning sun baked into her black moiré dress. A license plate
caught her eye, the word California hovering in red cursive above blue
numbers and letters. Propelled by instinct, her right hand shot to the
brim of her black hat. In one fluid movement, the hat was in front of
her face, a shield against prying eyes.
Three decades gone and she still felt the need to hide her face, to
protect the place she had carved for herself in this world. Lauren
believed in being careful. She would never go back to being Lorelei, the
little princess chained in a dingy room.
Why did men want to trap women like pretty things in a snow globe? Like
her father back in Denver, wanting her to stay forever. She grabbed the
first chance that came along. She thought John Boyd would be her prince,
but married life in Dunsmuir was no better than her father’s prison.
She remembered JB coming home from his little train rides, gone a week
and expecting everything to be just the way he left it. He treated her
and the baby like artifacts, insects caught in amber to be displayed on
Lorelei learned hard lessons in that bungalow, but once she learned
them, she held them close. She would never be trapped again, not by
anyone or anything. Lorelei packed her new-found knowledge up with her
toddler son and fled south. She became Lauren Byrne, a young woman
learning to guard her independence in a world trying to take it away.
Jamie grew into the only man that did not try to ensnare her. Memories
of her son swirled behind the shield of her black hat. He had been the
sweetest of little boys, but his sweetness was tinged with sadness. As
he grew to a young man, Jamie was too busy trying to trap himself to
bother with her.
Then he was gone, heading farther south, away from everything he knew.
Did he make to Machu Picchu, or Tierra del Fuego, all those places he
talked about? His last postcard came from Quito, but that was years ago.
Lauren stepped into the cool dimness of the empty funeral parlor. The
formal service would come later, and a crowd of the dead man’s friends
and family. She would not be in attendance.
She fitted her hat back to her head and composed her hair. At the center
of the foyer was an illuminated glass case housing a statue of Our Lady
of Guadalupe. One corner of the glass case was cracked. A jagged line
ran across the reflected surface. The moment was broken by a somber
figure stepping from the shadows. He greeted her with quiet formality.
One hand raised, the black-suited man ushered Lauren towards an open
Luis Alvarez walked between the steel rails, his slow steps matching the
spacing of the timber railroad ties. A heavy plastic bag swung at his
side and the thin handles dug into the flesh of his left hand. The
discomfort was a welcome distraction. Thoughts of the gringo had taken
up his whole morning. It was not good for a man to chew too long on the
The bulging bag held food of the kind that required no cooking. The
gringo was not safe with fire, whether from bad luck or the demons in
his head, Luis did not know. Jamie was his name, pronounced in the odd
way of people from El Norte. He spoke rarely, and then with the accent
of one from Mexico, his Spanish peppered with strange words.
Luis knew almost nothing of Jamie or how he came to the village. As much
as he could judge such things, the young man seemed the age of his own
son, now married and gone. Luis rented Jamie the small hut behind his
house before he learned that the gringo suffered from demons. It was
after the fire that Luis came to understand. When he sat with Jamie and
listened to him speak, Luis saw the trouble in his eyes. By then it was
too late, for the ghost of Luis’ dead wife had become fond of the
Jamie liked to sit on the covered porch outside the hut. The sagging
wooden platform faced the empty railroad tracks. There were two old cane
chairs beside the door. When he could, Luis sat with the young man. The
two watched silently for a train that came twice a week. The rare
appearance of a locomotive would cause Jamie to smile, and sometimes to
As Luis walked, he thought about his conversation with the young priest
from Cusco. It was difficult to speak with a priest not of the village,
a man younger than himself. But Luis had promised his wife he would stay
with the church, so that morning he had gone to the padre to seek
The city priest listened gravely. He asked if the young man was
Católico. Luis said they had not spoken on the matter of religion. The
padre suggested that perhaps the demons were an illness of the mind.
Luis was willing to care for the young man and the church might be able
to help as well. The Lord would surely smile on such work. If the
officials learned of the gringo, they could send him to some big
institution. Luis left the church with the padre’s advice in his ear,
and also the whispers of his dead wife.
The wooden stairs creaked as Luis climbed to the porch of the old shack.
Jamie turned at the sound, and on his face was the sweet smile of a
young boy. Luis held up the bag of groceries and Jamie nodded in thanks.
He reached out a hand to pat the empty chair beside him, then swept his
arm out toward the railroad lines. Luis lowered his weight into the
chair and laid the bag on the plank floor.
Reaching out a gnarled hand, Luis squeezed the gringo’s shoulder. Jamie
nodded again and smiled; his arm still raised before him. Luis’ eyes
followed Jamie’s outstretched hand as it traced the twin ribbons of
steel from the steep mountainside to the valley far below.