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by Eleanor Cooney 13 days ago in humanity
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Fast Wheels

“B’DAMN,” said the train.

It woke her like the super, pounding on the door for the rent. Train? What’s this?!

Daryl loved trains. Couldn’t get her on an airplane with a shoehorn and a barrel of Vaseline, but she sure loved a train.


Nothing sounds like that but a train hitting rough track, hard. Her waking mind insisted this was real, she sat up and banged her head. What? Upper bunk—berth. I’m on a train, in a sleeper, top berth, where…?

She looked around. Sleeping compartment. Under her, the window framed a world she did not know, a world that was going by fast, from the sound of the track. Keshunkkeshunkkeshunkkeshunk—hardly any pauses. Where are we, and what’s the hurry? She slung her stocking feet over the edge of the bunk and slid to the floor. The lower berth was unoccupied and undisturbed. Out the window, the awesome trainside spectacle slid by at an admirable pace. The bigness and exoticness of the view did not help settle her mind. It looked like another planet, out there. It looked like the train was in thin air. She shook her head, shaking off things that don’t make sense. Her long, copper hair settled back in place. It was an unlikely shade of red, a color one would not expect to find outside of a dye job, but it was undyed.

Stop. Just stop. Think. Are you in danger? Are you awake? Are you mad? Is this real? What’s your first concern? Prioritize! What’s first? Ticket! Do you have a ticket?

Quick three-sixty of the small room. The compartment is bare. A tune erupts in her mind, “She’s got a ticket to ri-i-ide…”. It is a tune from when she was still a he, an awkward, uncertain little boy. She absolutely doesn’t want to get into that, now, especially since she apparently doesn’t have a ticket to ride.

It goes dark, suddenly.

Ogod, now what?!

The window has gone dark. She puts her face next to the glass. Her dilating pupils see dim things flying by. The sounds are louder, too.

Tunnel! We’re in a tunnel!

Just as quick, it’s daylight again, and again they’re suspended. She mashes her face against the window to see forward, see where they’re going, where they are. A steam engine comes into view. With only her right eye to see it, there’s no depth perception, and the sight makes no sense.

That’s us. That’s our locomotive. We’re entering a curve.

She glances right and down. Far below, what appears to be a toy train lies tipped over, partly uncoupled and disheveled on what appears to be a canyon floor, a stunningly deep canyon floor.

My God! Nobody could’ve survived that!

Unlikely as the sight might be, the context is insistently real, undreamlike—trees, canyon walls, the crumpled little wrecks—even the rust on them, extensive enough to be apparent from this distance, everything is in normal color. Dreams are funny with colors. Nothing funny about these. The disastrous sight and the empty space prompt a sensation from her bladder.

Gotta pee. New Priority One.

She throws open the compartment door and steps into the narrow corridor in time to collide with a conductor. Uniform and cap. They speak together.

“Perdóneme señora!” “Oh, Excuse me!”

The train takes no notice, its clackety-clack proceeding with indifferent calm. Embroidered on the conductor’s chest: “Chepe”.

“I’m so sorry, I should have looked first.”

He starts away from her, gallant but in a hurry. “Please, no. The fault is mine.”

He is going. She speaks to his departing figure: “Oh, uh, is there a ladies room, Mr. Cheap—a, um, baño?”

Idiot! “Excuse me: Mr. Chaypay?”

Kind voice. He turns his head to indicate: “Last door on your left, madam.” He didn’t ask her for a ticket. Odd. No ticket and the conductor in too big a hurry

Is anything normal here? Where’s “here”?

The lavatory is co-ed, man and woman symbols on the door. “That’s appropriate,” she thinks, as she closes the door, then frowns. The world has taken her transformation with far less resistance than she herself, her mannish face and form still troubling to her. Breasts she has and is happy with. Beard she has not and is happy without. The rest is more convincing and successful than she imagined it could be. Despite the time since the change, it is only her own approval that eludes her. Her girlfriends and man friends were angels all.


An especially hard one, it jolts her out of the brief, unwelcome reverie. She rises, refastens. The urge was stronger than the need.

I couldn’t have slept long.

The corridor is still empty. The door flies open at the car’s back end. The conductor is running toward the front.

“Is something wrong?”

“Please, señora, go to the last car. Go quick!”

She does not. Instead, she follows Mr. Chepe forward, priorities forgotten, her special place on earth, at this moment, a mystery, destination unknown. Let us pause.

The Copper Canyon Train, in Mexico’s state of Chihuahua, is an imposing achievement for any place or time. In 220 miles, it counts eighty-six tunnels and thirty-nine hair-raising bridges. Begun in 1910, it became an unintended collaboration between Mexico and the United States, clawing its way from the Pacific Ocean to the lofty heights of the Sierra Madre mountains on tracks that improbably jut from canyon walls and coil around the mountains, sometimes in full 360-degree turns. The canyon—actually a string of canyons—is greater in all dimensions than Arizona’s Grand Canyon, longer, deeper, more varied. From high up, in winter, you can gaze down from cold perches to summery depths, where it is always warm. As you follow the vertiginous prospect up and down, the plant, animal and human communities likewise change, oaks down there, pines up there; snow up there, running rivers below. The people and communities have different customs, tribal associations and languages. The Copper Canyon Train is unlike any other. It is affectionately called “El Chepe.”

Daryl knows none of this. She knows only that she knows practically nothing. She rushes through the noisy car connector, a spot she normally lingers in, cool and rackety as it is. It was the best place to smoke, back in the day, and the best place for an intimate, shouted conversation over the noisy trucks, in the breezy outside air. She does not linger. The car she enters is empty of passengers, as is the next one and the next.

Then she is at the front. This time, the next car is the engine, and she still has not seen Mr. Chepe.

She pauses only an instant and and yanks open the door. Chepe! He is a slender man and does not fully conceal from her the object in front of him, which is the engineer, a man named Valedor, presently inert, a massive man, slumped forward onto the train’s controls. Chepe is lifting the engineer’s heavy inboard arm, ducking under to place it around his shoulders.

Desperately: “Favor, Valedor, ayudame, vamonos!”

As well move a mountain. Valedor does not aid him and does not move. The conductor feels someone behind him, flashes a despairing glance at Daryl. “¡Boulder on track. I cannot move this man!”

She is the same height as he, but more muscled. Years of treatment have raised her voice, brought her breasts, made smooth her cheeks and chin, but her muscles—she has mixed feelings; muscles come in handy—her muscles have stayed.

And now she feels an enormous blast of adrenaline. She feels as though her clothes should burst. She should turn as green as a super-hero. She presses Chepe’s shoulder away from Valedor, not too gently. Leaning into slumping man’s side, she puts the mighty arm like a stole around her neck and then leans away, her feet the fulcrum, her spine the lever, and heaves. It stirs the heap of flesh. She shifts his feet an inch closer, heaves again. Good thing I took a leak. Valedor, floppy and limp, rises from the metal seat. She steps left, the other hand and arm now as far around the barrel waist as it will reach. She half lifts, half drags the body left, away from the controls, her legs and Valedor’s nearly tangling with Chepe’s. She is holding most of the engineer’s four hundred pounds, steps another little step and ungently lowers the engineer to the metal deck. She says, voice straining, “Chepe, drive the train!” He is not settled on the floor before Chepe steps over him and takes the driver’s seat. At once the world is a great, musical, beloved, magical, relieved, prolonged hiss. At once the Copper Canyon Train decelerates.

Valedor got a call in the engine. A dispatcher said a boulder had fallen on the track ahead, that the train could not pass. Valedor was almost dozing at the time. He looked quickly at air-pressure gauges, reached for the brakes and felt an elephant sit on his chest. The elephant made everything dark, and Valedor slipped away to some other place. Chepe sent the passengers to the rear, the last car. Perhaps one or two would stay on the track. The others would surely fall down. Then Chepe headed forward.

He smiled at her, a radiant smile. “Chepe is the train,” he said. “I am Miguel.”

He was handsome. She was not beautiful. She looked at him without seeing. This was one part she didn’t like, the tendency of her mind to go full speed in different directions. Still she stared blankly at him, as his expression began to change from amazement to puzzlement.

It did not diminish his admiration and wonder that she turned abruptly, left face, like a military man. “I have to fix my face,” she said absently, and hurried off.


About the author

Eleanor Cooney

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