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Fiction by Addison Zeller

The Stupid Railroad

I could complain, but it’s usually light work—not always, but usually: really, if we sat down, it’d be completely bearable, but we stand on this railroad, either to operate or prepare to operate controls, or open or close hatches, or await commands to perform tasks that entail moving, or standing. At least I have work. All summer I worried management would downsize, or shift my position, to an inferior post or a superior one I was unqualified for. I saw it clearly: I’d spend a day panicking over new duties, I’d be hamstrung by self-doubt, nothing would get done, I’d be fired, everyone would know—but it wasn’t a real worry, only a fantasy of success. I’m like most people, no good but not bad. There’s security in that. I show in the morning and assemble with my group in the shed, stomp my feet and moan Pick me” when the slot opens and the doors creak. At worst my jeans fray from all the standing and stretching I do to remain upright. They wear out and disintegrate in slowly unfurling patches in the groinal and socket area. To no one’s notice. Who would care? The train sculptures on the station roof? My old group leader? For her it was a godsend to witness jeans in that state, worn in the crotchtal and reticulating areas: a source of welcome roughhouse bonhomie, a diversion once the ash lines of our cigarettes collapsed and the coffee filled with flies. We admire her so much, it’s barely worth doing without her. Her jokes, her good nature, her casual habit of recalling our names. Without her around, we’re down to ideating and obsessing in the work shed and in our private lives. Even now I feel a need to describe her in detail, but what’s the use? Someone replaced her. That’s how it is. She used to tell stories, anecdotes of railroad life before we were hired, and a neighborhood cat would poke its face in the shed. She’d click her fingers: it’d trot right up and roll on its side. We’d be so charmed, and as soon as it left on its rounds, she’d throw the window open and order us to check on the cat—she worried about it. We’d jump up and stick our heads out, only for the steam to blast our faces. Then she’d laugh and smack the small of our backs. That’s how it was. Deep trust. We wanted to tell her everything, confess our whole lives, unreel our stories in every detail, propel ourselves deeper into her memory than our names could take us. That’s how we were: jumping daily at her head, missing and sliding down the wall in a mortified heap. Most days, our mouths opened and dried up. We had self-awareness enough to know that what we planned to say was boring and pointless—would in fact convince her to forget our names and faces. The urge to be a worthy equal to someone—that’s what motivated us. Or not that—the urge to be a worthy underling: that’s what it really was. To be a worthy inferior—that’s what we wanted. Not to be disingenuous: inferiority is the first step to equality, after all. I’d lie half-awake in the dark to capture usable lines of prose poetry, knowing she wouldn’t be impressed by anything I wrote in full consciousness. But in the day, I revised every word in my mind, standing by the slot as the coffee filled up and my jeans unspooled. She was transferred to another shed. For a week in ours all you heard was the pop and thump of heating pipes. Then all of us were reassigned: one by one, we all left. Each on our own, in new stations, we stepped up to the engines of new trains, new faces staring down over the switches and ashy work gloves. I’m not sure which line I’m riding now, and when I look out to form an idea of the track, my face burns over with cinders.

Addison Zeller

Twitter: @amhcrane87
Bluesky: @addisonzeller.bsky.social
IG: @addison_zeller

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