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TheEmpire Builderwas late leaving Chicago but the train was by no means crowded. The conductors had divided the passengers among the four coaches and Sharon had her choice of several whole seats. She popped her shoes off and tucked her feet underneath her legs and watched the train staff and station crew on the platform. The men and women who worked for Union Station were clad in reflectorized vests and hard hats and weighty tool belts that made them waddle when they walked. The people in Amtrak’s employ all wore ties and jackets; even the women, Sharon noted. The Amtrak people glided across the platform.
But the advertised departure time was 3.15 and by 3.45 Sharon was getting impatient, fidgety. She put down her book (Graham Greene’sOrient Express), stepped out into the aisle, and stretched. The car was warm. She walked down the aisle slowly, nodding to a few of her fellow travelers. There was the typical Amtrak range of young mothers traveling alone with their babies, old men, students from Europe and Asia, a smattering of others. She opened the door at the end of her coach and stepped into the sleeping car.
The smell was different: it was a mix of smells mostly—coffee from a pot in an alcove, a gritty smell of diesel, and then there were the tinctures of hand soap and perfume. Her coach, she realized, smelled of industrial strength rug cleaner and, more faintly, sweat. She heard some laughter from the far end of the car and walked toward it, a little curious. Two women laughing… Perhaps she’d just say hello. The compartments she passed were all empty and she lingered at the door of one, number 6—it wasn’t big, just two plush seats facing one another, a bevy of electronic controls over each one, but it had a fine window that ran the length of the room. It was an extra $200 for this. Maybe someday, she thought.
There was a closet next to one of the seats, by the window, and the door was open revealing a narrow full length mirror. From out in the corridor, Sharon studied her profile—slender, she thought, and her breasts were small but not so small as to qualify her for what her friends called the itty-bitty-titty-committee. She kept her dark hair short, almost boyishly so, though it was getting a little long now, she thought.
And suddenly, in the mirror, a man was at her side. He was her height and was dressed in a blue suit and a white shirt; his tie was black or very dark blue. Startled, she whirled to face him but was awkward and almost fell. “Take it easy,” he said, laughing. And then, “We do ask that you keep your shoes on when you’re out of your compartment.” Sharon followed his gaze down to her bare feet on the carpet of the corridor. And she was suddenly aware of how pale her feet were and then of how pale her whole body was underneath her jeans and cotton top. Even her nipples—she’d noted in her own mirror that morning—were a washed-out looking pink. Her mother’s father had been Italian but the rest of the family tree was Scotch and German, “an even whiter shade of pale,” her own father had always said. The man at her side was black—his skin was the color of tea, he had a big mustache, he was about forty which made him ten years older, more or less, than Sharon. “I’m sorry,” she blurted, and felt so hot that the carpet seemed cool beneath her toes.
“Don’t worry about it,” he said, shrugging. He wore an Amtrak name-tag; his name was William O’Leary. He was smiling at her. “What compartment you in?”
“I’m in the coach,” she stammered, “the one just right there.” She pointed over her shoulder.
He shook his head, exaggerating the motion. “Well, this car’s just for the Pullman passengers,” he said, “so I’m gonna have to bahis firmaları ask you to go on back.” Still smiling. “Just watch those tootsies when you step between the cars,” he said.
She realized that the train was finally moving.
She’d eaten a late lunch so she took the last call for dinner in the dining car. It was eight-thirty when she sat down and ordered the chicken barbecue and a little bottle of red wine. The waitress, a young blonde woman with high cheekbones, brought Sharon a salad and the wine and then busied herself by the kitchen window in the middle of the car. Sharon’s chicken appeared shortly, just as the train was coming to a stop at the Minneapolis station.
She was on her way home to the old house at the edge of Minot, in the desolate middle of North Dakota. Her mother was getting out of the hospital and was going to be healing up at home. It had been a cancer scare, but everything had turned out OK, a false alarm. Still, it had occasioned late-night phone calls, protestations of love, instructions on where important papers were, where money was hidden. The whole episode had lasted a week during which Sharon had often felt like a character in one of Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion monologues. She was the only child; her father was ten years dead. She’d left Minot at eighteen for college in Chicago and twelve years later—after graduation, an impulsive and bad and mercifully brief marriage to a young professor, a good job at the Illinois Arts Council, a decent apartment near Lincoln Park, eleven lovers, and a tattoo—she was still there.
She’d go home to Minot to see her mother three or four times a year, and she always went on the train, this train, the _Empire Builder_. It pulled out of Chicago every day and arrived at the King Street station in Seattle forty hours later. On board, Sharon would stare at the schedule and imagine arriving in Seattle; she’d never seen the Pacific Ocean and promised herself that someday she’d take the _Builder_ all the way. She liked the train a lot—the relaxed pace, the camaraderie of dining car and bar car, the chance to think. She’d leave the office on Randolph Street halfway through the afternoon and arrive home at the beginning of the next day.
Eating in the dining car usually meant sharing your table with strangers but there weren’t many customers at last call and she had the booth to herself. The train began moving again and Sharon picked at her chicken and read her Graham Greene as the Minneapolis neighborhoods drifted by. A man appeared at the top of the stairs in the middle of the car, looked around, and took a seat in the booth catty-corner from Sharon’s; she nodded to him and he smiled at her. The cook.
“That barbecue OK?” he called and she answered that it was and he said he was glad to hear it. The waitress brought him a coffee and Sharon went back to her book and in a moment was lost in it.
A familiar voice jolted her and she looked up and saw William O’Leary had joined the cook at his table. They were talking about whether or not any time could be made up after the late start, agreeing it was possible but not likely. In mid-sentence he locked eyes with Sharon and then shushed the cook to call across the aisle to her. “Hey, how’s my sweet feet doin’?” The cook glanced at her and giggled and Sharon understood that fun was being had at her expense. How was she doin’? She was doin’ just fine and she reached inside herself for language to let William O’Leary (and his plaid pants’d companion) know that.
“My feet are just as funky as they ever were,” she called back smiling, clear and cheerful and loud enough to turn a couple of heads at a nearby kaçak iddaa table. The waitress, down in the middle of the car, guffawed.
Three hours later her feet were bare again but lost in bedclothes. She was naked, on her back on the folded-down bed in room 6, and she was fucking William O’Leary like there was no tomorrow. He’d come once but had gotten hard again quickly and was deep inside her now and her pale body was arching against him, rising up to meet him and then falling back, again and again. She was hitting her stride—”I could do this all the way to Seattle,” she whispered to him and then stuck her tongue way into his ear. Her short hair was slick with sweat now and plastered to her head and his big hand was on her head, stroking and pressing. He groaned and rolled off her onto his back and she reached down and took hold of his dick and rubbed her palm into its head. “Are you Irish, Mr. O’Leary?” she said.
“Among other things,” he replied and pulled her on top of him and found her vagina and was inside her once more and they were grinding. Sharon felt something start to happen between her legs, the beginning of something nice. They kissed as they fucked, their tongues searching in each others’ mouths and Sharon was remembering other lovers. It had been a while, half a year, since she’d made love with anyone. Made love?
“What are youdoingto me?” she whispered to William O’Leary.
“I’m fucking you,” he whispered back, and thrust deeper inside her and made her gasp and quiver a little. It was the answer that she’d wanted.
“Fuck me, you goddamn Irishman,” she said and ground her clit against the base of his penis. But she was losing her way, thoughts were leading her off the path. He’d asked her if she’d had black lovers before and she had and said so but now she was remembering them—the guy in college all junior year and the man she still worked with but that had just been once when they were both drunk some Friday. And then she was remembering white boys she’d fucked and white men and the one Japanese guy who’d had a really thick penis. She heaved herself off William and made her way with her lips down his body until she was kissing his dick. It was lanky (compared to the Japanese man’s) and he groaned as she teased him with her tongue. She thought about how white men saidcockand how black men saiddickand she was trying to remember what Kenji had called his when she heard the horn sound for a grade crossing; she sat up suddenly and watched the window until the flashing red lights streamed by. William said, “Would you do that some more?” His dick was very hard and glistening in the moonlight.
When he’d asked her if she’d had black lovers she’d asked if he’d fucked white women and he’d said that he had, this when they were first naked and looking at each other’s bodies—no virginities to be lost here. But now she realized the more interesting question. “Listen,” she said, “this is the first time I’ve fucked anyone on a train. Have you ever fucked anybody on a train?” She stroked his dick lightly with her hand.
He laughed. “Just once,” he said, “in Saskatchewan.”
“Canada?” she guffawed, covering her face with her other hand. And they both laughed and then she put his penis back in her mouth and made him come.
They slept for a little bit then and when William woke Sharon was staring out the window. He pulled her to him. The moon was still visible, but higher. “I really like this,” she said, “crossing it this way.”
“The boys up front are making it go,” he said. “Five crew changes between Chicago and Seattle—the engineers and conductors are fresh every eight hours but Robert and myself in the sleepers kaçak bahis and Lara and Freddie and Tony in the diner, well we go all the way to the coast without stopping. If you and I could do what you said a little bit ago and fuck all the way to King Street it’d be one thing. But I gotta go back to work pretty soon.”
“How soon?” she asked. His arms were around her and his right hand had dropped down to her female part.
“In a little bit.” He had her clitoris between two of his fingers and he was rubbing her gently as though he had all the time in the world. Let your fingers do the walking, she thought.
Suddenly the train lurched a little and the rhythm was different. “Are we slowing down?” she asked.
“It’s the Devil’s Lake subdivision, a stretch of old track,” he said. “We’ve got a speed restriction. It’s the only place on the line where the rail’s not welded and smooth. We call it stick-rail. Be still for a moment and you can feel the difference.” He stopped fingering her clit so she could pay attention.
She’d been thinking about how black women saidpussyand that she had been taught, in college, to talk about hercuntbut now she was listening to the train with her whole body. “Clickety-clack,” she said, “clickety-clack!” It was the old sound, the old feeling of riding the train.
“The rail’s just a little delicate here,” he said, “so the train’s got to step lightly.” His fingers came back to life and they rode like that for a few minutes. Then, without words, they shifted and William put his head between Sharon’s legs and let his tongue take over from his fingers. She leaned back and gazed carelessly out the window. TheEmpire Builderwas moving slowly through the night. Clickety-clack, clickety-clack. She stopped thinking about old lovers and taxonomies and gave herself, her whole woman’s body, to the clickety-clack, to the restricted speed. She was going down the track and she was in no hurry, even as she felt her breathing start to change. She was headed for something nice, something very, very nice.
It was warm in her mother’s house but Sharon had known it would be and had packed accordingly. The last day of her visit home she was lounging in sandals and a t-shirt, linen pants. The train was due in at six p.m.; William O’Leary had rotated to theCoast Starlightfor the rest of the month so she’d not see him on the return.
Evangeline Thayer had come over for coffee and sweet cakes and Sharon was letting Evangeline coo over her. “I remember you when you were just a little skinny thing, all knees and elbows, and just look at you now! A fine handsome woman. And thirty’s not that old anymore.”
Evangeline was pretty, even at sixty-ish she carried herself well. She had never married and Sharon wondered all the typical questions. She was an English teacher in the high school (though Sharon hadn’t been in her class) and there’d been talk among the students. One of Sharon’s friends had said she had it on good authority that Miss Thayer had a long term man friend in Fargo; another said it was a woman. Everyone’s life was hidden, Sharon realized in high school; you never know.
“Those sandals are certainly nice looking,” Evangeline said. They were blue suede, Israeli-made, both sturdy and delicate. “But you’ve always had really pretty feet,” Evangeline said, looking at them admiringly. Sharon’s feet were slender, just like the rest of her; she didn’t wear nail polish. William had teased her about being barefoot but later he’d kissed her toes and she’d liked that and she liked remembering it in the midst of this tedious conversation. She smiled at Evangeline.
“Are you flying back this evening?”
“Oh, Sharon won’t fly, not if she can help it,” her mother laughed.
“Honey, how’d you get out here?” Evangeline wanted to know. “I hope you didn’t drive.”
Sharon smiled again. “I came on the train,” she said.
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