In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was a man doomed by the gods to push a rock up a hill, watch it fall back down, and then repeat the process for all eternity.
Raymond Haleback never did like train rides. The bumpy trips, the noise, and to top it all off, the crowded compartments, all made trains one unappealing package to him. He would much rather drive; unfortunately, he hadn’t been given much of a choice in this case. His car was in the shop, there was an out of town business meeting, and he hated flying even more than he hated trains. So here he was sitting in a full six-person compartment across from the grumpiest-looking woman he had ever laid eyes on. She had been the only one here when he walked in, and he had given her what he thought was a friendly smile. She gave him a look that made him wonder if he had just run around naked in the compartment. Raymond internally sighed. At least you’re allowed to drink while riding, he thought. He quickly decided that it was high time for a little pick-me-up from the small bottle of scotch in his bag. He usually didn’t approve of drinking this early, but today looked like it would merit a premature nip from the bottle. I’m getting up as soon as this train gets moving, he resolved. He took another quick glance at the woman. I just hope we don’t hit a bump while I’m drinking, he thought. From the look of the lady across from me, I’m apt to get a lecture for just having the bottle, much less spilling scotch all over her dress.
* * *
Why can’t this trip be over! was the only thought for which Mary Connif’s mind had room. Her particular gripe wasn’t really about trains, but about crowded spaces. She hated the claustrophobic compartments that train rides inevitably contained. You would think with all of mankind’s scientific advancements we could figure out a more comfortable way to take us across the country. At that moment, the rather large man sitting next to her got up and bustled his way out the door, knocking her knees together with more force than she thought was really necessary. This type of travel is more fitting for livestock than civilized society. With this thought, she smirked and glanced at the man occupying the seat across from her. Well, it might be a little presumptuous to think we all are civilized society. She had noticed him the moment he walked into her compartment. The enchanting dark eyes… but then she looked down at the hideous rumpled state of his clothes. Honestly! He looked as if he had slept in them! Then he gave her a look she considered rather fresh. Thought he could woo her with those sparkling eyes, those deep wells of… Never mind! She knew his type all too well. Men who thought the world of themselves, and believed women would swoon at their mere presence, like cattails swaying in the breeze. However romantic a visual that was, with the wind making a sighing sound as it passed through the reeds, her feet being cooled by water lapping the river bank, and looking up and seeing those wonderful, warm brown eyes… They had walked hand in hand then, without another soul around, but she wouldn’t have noticed even if they were standing in the center of a mob. The only thing she cared about was staying close to him…
A conductor’s announcement abruptly stopped her wistful memories. “Attention ladies and gentlemen, we are now leaving Fair Crossing Station. We are an express train, and will skip Hyde Station, so our next stop will be Huntingdon Ridge. Enjoy your ride.” Mary couldn’t believe herself. Had she really been thinking about those ridiculous times again? Well, wherever her rambling sentimentalities might try to lead her, she knew one thing. She wanted nothing to do with the man sitting across from her.
* * *
John Sage turned off the intercom, rather pleased with himself. Despite all the obstacles he had dealt with this morning, they were actually able to get this train out on time. Most engineers cared very little about the timeliness of their trains, but John was an exception to that rule. He cooperated with the conductor, the rest of the crew, and even the track switch operators, to make sure he never ran a late train. For thirty years he had been successful, but this morning was one of the fiercest tests of this resolution. To start out with, he was running a new route, and a route that hadn’t been run in a long time. For as long as he had been working as an engineer, the track to Hyde Station had always gone around Greenhorn Mountain, a necessity that added miles onto the trip. However, someone up at corporate found out that there was an old train track that actually went right over the hill. So for the past six months, construction crews had been working around the clock to get this track back into shape. Today Sage was piloting its first run. That added more paperwork to the already large piles that were required for getting a train out of the station. Then one of the crew members called out sick, and of course there was bad weather the night before this epic run. Yet all the issues ended up being resolved, and here they were, leaving 12:14pm on the nose.
He pushed the throttle forward and immediately heard the slow chug of the engines starting. The train took its first jump out of the station, and off they went! John locked the throttle in place and sighed. There was nothing quite like driving a train on a sunny day like this one with a clear stretch of track in front of you. Just as he was feeling the cool breeze seeping in through the window, he looked down at the throttle again. He noticed that he had put the speed a little too high, and decided to back it down a notch. There’s definitely no hurry, we left with plenty of time. Besides, from what I hear of this hill coming up, I’m going to want to have plenty of coal.
* * *
Raymond had just about run out of patience with this trip. He couldn’t find a comfortable position in his seat, and every shift resulted in another glare from the lady across from him. The looks she gave him reminded him so strongly of his mother’s condescending stares it was a little jarring. Ray didn’t know why all of her wrath was reserved for him, though. He would have thought she would have been more upset at the obese man taking up about a quarter of her seat. Typical woman, he thought, always getting mad at someone else rather than dealing with the real problem. He would never understand how women dealt with conflict. The idea that women were the ones who wanted to resolve issues and men were the ones who wanted to ignore it was a load of garbage. Yes, women want to talk. They wanted to talk about everything except what the real problem was. Take his mother, for instance. She pestered him about everything, from his job choice, to his choice of girlfriends, even to his diet, for heaven sakes! But when it came to the real problem, the fact he decided to leave the Catholic Church, she didn’t want to talk any more about the subject after the first initial conversation. It didn’t matter why he left, because once there was a real issue they could actually discuss, she didn’t say a word.
The train started to go up rather steeply, which immediately triggered a pain right behind his temples. Well, the immediate cause of discomfort was the jerk of the train going up an incline, but Ray thought this headache had been building for a long time. He decided now was the time for that scotch he thought of earlier. He didn’t care that it wasn’t even half past noon. Some days, a man just needed to have a drink.
* * *
This trip has barely started and it’s already turning out to be worse than I thought, Mary decided. Her compartment was completely full with people who all seemed to be larger than normal, and the man across from her just wouldn’t stop fidgeting. He acted like a 5 year old who needed to go to the bathroom. The train isn’t that uncomfortable, for heaven sakes! Why were all men like that? Always complaining loudly about being squished into small spaces, as if trying to assert how big they were? As the man moved again, she thought, Your big, manly shoulders don’t take up that much space. Honestly, it was amazing how men could use the most innocent, innocuous acts to assert their dominance.
Oh, and now he was getting up again. She hated people who waited five minutes after a train started and then got up to get their bag. If they were only going to wait five minutes, why not just keep what they needed in their lap? This wasn’t an airplane, for heaven’s sakes, with tray tables in an upright and locked position. She really didn’t like this man, and so she fumed for a while about the uncomfortable situation. Unfortunately, her fuming was rudely interrupted, first by an unpleasant lurch of acceleration, then by an even more unpleasant feeling of liquid soaking through her dress.
* * *
John Sage had quickly discovered why the track had gone around Greenhorn Mountain for so long. When the train first started going up the hill, he thought the track was a little steep, but figured they wouldn’t have any problems. About a minute into the trip, he changed his mind. The incline was insane! The workers couldn’t seem to pile the coal fast enough. The heat from the fire was enormous, threatening to bake him in his clothes. And still the hill dragged on. He was really starting to become concerned. Just when he was seriously wondering how he would stop the train sliding backwards, they reached the crest. Finally! John thought. I was afraid we’d run outta coal. The train went over the hilltop, started its downward trek, and suddenly John Sage was looking at the steepest drop he had ever seen on a railroad. “What the devil?” he exclaimed as the train picked up speed. The now roasting boiler multiplied the already fierce acceleration from the incline. The conductor’s hand immediately started applying pressure to the brake. There was a slight slowing at first, but then John pulled too hard, and the lever snapped off in his hand. He stared at the metal rod in horror, not even noticing the jump in speed the train made. Well, if we weren’t in trouble before, we are now. Hyde Station’s at the bottom of this hill, is closed for repairs, and we’d need the switchman to get us on the right track. He looked at his watch, which read 12:20pm. Unfortunately, he won’t be there for twenty minutes, and at the rate we’re going, we’ll be there in five. As he stared out the window at the speeding track, he wondered aloud, “I sure would like to know what to do now.”
* * *
Four cars back from the terrified conductor, Raymond was dealing with his own type of fear. I spilled it on her! I actually spilled half a bottle of scotch on her! Unfortunately, when he looked at the expression on her face, he quickly realized that he picked the worst person in the compartment to spill his drink on.
“Ma’am,” he began, faltering for words, “I’m terribly sorry, the jolt caught me off guard; I truly am sorry…”
“Yes, well, young man, being sorry doesn’t change the fact that my skirt is now soaked and I reek of alcohol. I don’t know why you couldn’t have waited another 10 minutes to bring that… that booze out.”
He was a little taken aback by this abrupt response. Being called “young man” by someone who couldn’t have even reached her thirties was a little strange, and Raymond thought calling her skirt soaked when he only spilled a couple ounces more than a bit rich. But considering he wasn’t the one sitting with scotch spilled on his clothes, he tried to be accommodating. “Again, I really do apologize; I can pay to have it cleaned if you like.”
“Pay to have it cleaned… as if that would do any good! I’m still going to have to go through this entire ride being overpowered by fumes. I’ll probably be intoxicated by the end of the trip just from the smell.”
Where does she come off! he thought. He had tried to be helpful, but this train ride already had him tense, and this lady’s… no, this girl’s attitude was the last straw. “Listen, I’ve offered all I can; if you don’t want any help, just say so and leave that attitude out of it.”
She looked shocked and then sputtered, “Well of all the cheek…”
“Cheek? I tried to be polite twice, and was told off quite magnificently. Why in the world do you talk like a crotchety old woman when you can’t be any older than I am?!”
At this comment, one silver-haired lady let out a loud “Hmmph!” and left the compartment. The rest of the passengers started to look more obviously uncomfortable. One man began to rub his nose, and a woman across from him stared at her magazine so intensely that she appeared to have unearthed the meaning of life from its pages. Yet the two arguers were oblivious to their surroundings.
“I don’t know what in the world gives you the right to shout at me like that, especially considering I’m the one standing here with the sodden clothes.”
“You’re clothes are not ‘sodden‘!” Raymond roared.
“I am drenched, positively drenched, in the devil’s own brew!” Mary replied.
They were standing now, leaning so close to each other that their noses were almost touching. At this very moment the battle was cut off by the conductor’s voice over the intercom.
“Will all passengers please take their seats? I repeat will all passengers please take their seats? We are experiencing some rough track, and the ride might be slightly bumpy for the next few minutes.”
* * *
We are in trouble we are in trouble we are in trouble! The statement ran continuously through Sage’s head like a wailing siren. And while there were more pressing matters at hand, the only thing he could think of was that train crash just outside his town as a boy. He and his friends had been playing stick ball when their playing had been interrupted by something that sounded like thunder. They had all felt the vibrations in the ground. They hadn’t been sure where the sound had come from (it had felt like it had come from everywhere) but a cloud of smoke soon followed. They ran towards the smoke, and found the train that ran through their town had somehow derailed and the engine had exploded. Thankfully, by the time he had gotten to the crash site the police and the ambulance had arrived, but he was still left with visuals he had a hard time forgetting. In particular, he remembered one woman who had been carried to the ambulance on a stretcher, bloodied beyond recognition. The worst thing was, instead of being unconscious, she had been screaming at the top of her lungs. She screamed all the way to the ambulance. There had been no intelligible words, just animal cries of agony.
Fifty years later, her screams were still threatening to freeze him up. Gotta think of something; gotta think of something! But what?! He guessed they were five minutes away from the station, and unfortunately, the switch operator hadn’t decided to come back from lunch early. John paged the operator on his radio about every ten seconds, but still no answer came. Will he just pick up the blasted radio? Unfortunately, the more he paged, the more he confirmed his fear: the operator wasn’t there. He was now heading to the same end that he had witnessed so long ago.
* * *
The nerve of him! Mary Connif thought, as she stood glaring. The nerve! She had known he would be trouble, and was glad to see her predictions proven right. And then that phony apology he gave! She could see him laughing inside. He was most likely the type of man who found other’s misfortunes terribly amusing, who thought seeing someone trip was the height of humor. This insight, combined with the already uncomfortable situation of the train ride caused her to snap. Then he had the gall to get angry with her! Saying she talked like a crotchety old woman; what right did he have to criticize her speech?
The conversation came to an abrupt halt with the conductor’s announcement. The man across from her sat down suddenly, and angrily, with no verbal response to her last statement. Ha! she thought to herself, he couldn’t think of anything to say! With an angry yet triumphant huff, she turned around to get her purse. She simply had to get some perfume to cover up that stench. As she was rummaging around in her bag, another gentleman in the compartment said, “Ma’am, you probably to want to sit down.” She turned to him, saw the apprehensive (well, actually terrified) look on his face, and said, “Yes, yes, I’ll sit down shortly,” but continued to search her bag.
A moment later the woman who earlier had been so inspired by her magazine said, “Miss, I think you really should sit down. I don’t know what the problem with the train is, but I’ve never seen the countryside whipping by so fast as it is now.”
“Yes,” Mary replied, “I’ll sit down in a second.” She reached deep into her bag, and finally grasped the little bottle of lavender perfume she always took with her. She tried to carefully maneuver her arm out of her bag, but after experiencing a great deal of difficulty resorted to yanking it out. At the same moment, the train hit a rough stretch of track which caused Mary to lose her balance. Instinctively, Raymond stood up to catch her, hitting his head on the luggage rack in the process. As Mary fell back, she accidentally popped the top of the perfume off, which ended up sloshing all over the front of his shirt.
* * *
Through the haze of panic that threatened to engulf him, Sage could only think of one option. Under the train’s caboose there was actually a pair of emergency brakes. The problem was, with a train as long as this one, using them while going at this speeds might do little except rip the caboose from the rest of the cars. Unfortunately, Sage had run out of options
He hustled to the back of the train, grabbing one of the coal boys while he went. Though it felt like an eternity to walk all the way to the back of the train, they made it, with about two minutes until the train would reach Hyde Station. “Are you ready?” he asked the coal boy, and then both of them pulled the lever together. The brakes made their awful grinding sound, and though the boy looked about ready to soil himself, Sage was actually comforted. Nothing had broken yet, and the grinding brakes might slow the train down enough to make any impact negligible. But then he heard a different grinding noise, and Sage now felt he was about to soil himself. The connection between the caboose and the next car was making that noise. “We’ve got to get out of here!” the conductor yelled, and the boy obeyed wholeheartedly. They rushed out the door, jumped onto the next car, and felt the train jolt forward as the caboose broke from its coupling. Sage swayed dangerously and grabbed onto the railing. Once he steadied himself, he glanced behind them and watched as their last hope quickly fell away.
* * *
There were few things that George Wilkins hated more than indigestion. He was a man who liked his food and liked a lot of it, so anything that interfered with this pleasure was a mortal enemy. While he often battled with his stomach’s irritating foe, Wilkins never had experienced anything this bad before. He had just finished his beautiful roast beef sandwich, a sandwich that was truly a work of art. Beef just this side of rare, mayonnaise luxuriously slathered on, onions piled high, and all of it slightly compressed between two fresh slices of Italian bread. His mouth still watered thinking about it. George had just devoured this masterpiece, and was about to move on to his bag of kettle cooked chips, when that familiar burn hit his esophagus. And then intensified. He had never felt anything this bad before. As he reached for the roll of antacids he kept in his shirt pocket for such occasions, he was actually starting to worry that this might be something more than heartburn. His anxiety increased when he realized he had left his medication back at the switching station. Of course, the time he experienced the worst heartburn of his life, he would leave his only relief a good long walk away. This was really not his day.
He pushed himself back from the table, heaved his rather large body out of his chair, and struggled back to the station. The trip truly was an ordeal. His eyes were blinded by tears from the pain; there were quite a few sets of stairs to maneuver, and approximately every ten seconds he had to bend over to alleviate the burning sensation in his chest. When he finally made it back to his post, he grabbed his antacids, flung the entire contents of the container into his mouth, and started chewing in one fluid motion. Only after he had swallowed them did he hear the mayday blasting from his radio
“TRAIN 309 ETA IN ONE MINUTE! TRAIN 309 ETA IN ONE MINUTE! TRAIN IS SUFFERING BRAKE FAILURE, REPEAT TRAIN IS SUFFERING BRAKE FAILURE! TRACK MUST BE SWITCHED, I REPEAT TRACK MUST BE SWITCHED!”
Huh? George Wilkins thought. Train 309’s not supposed to get here for half hour. He immediately looked out his window, and saw the aforementioned train hurtling down the hill before the station. “Holy crap!” he screamed. He rushed over to the switch, but then doubled over with another bout of heartburn. I swear I will never eat onions again. Still in pain, he made it to the track switch and yanked the lever with all his might. Just in time, too, for at that moment, the trained roared by the station.
When he could finally breathe again, George looked up at the switch. Hmmm, looks like I pulled it a little too far. Track 5 wasn’t really in use anymore, but not because of any problems with the rails, as far as he knew. I’m sure there’s plenty of track for them to coast to a stop, anyway.
* * *
I guess this is it. The train conductor had told everyone to sit down and buckle in (as if it would do any good). He then sat down, hoped for the best, and got ready to die. The station was about 30 seconds away… 15… 5… 3… 2… 1…
And then nothing. No explosion, no propulsion from his seat, no pain as he was smashed against the front of the train. Wait, where was the crash? John Sage opened his eyes. They had made it! The switch operator must have gotten there in time, and so they blew right past the station!
For the first time since childhood, John Sage started crying. He cried quite helplessly for a while, then sat up and wiped his eyes. He looked in front of him, noticed the incline they had now started to climb, and sighed. Hopefully this will slow us down. Then all coherent thought vanished from his mind, only to be replaced by feeling, the feeling of being happy to be alive.
* * *
Raymond’s shirt was soaked, and the scent of lavender was just reaching his nose. He was standing in the middle of a crowded train compartment, with a strange woman in his arms, and his head, throbbing painfully, was growing a bump where it had made contact with the luggage rack. The word ridiculous did not even begin to describe the situation in which he found himself. Yet with all the possible responses there were to these circumstances, the only thing he wanted to do was laugh. And so he did. He laughed long and hard, and surprisingly, the woman in his arms joined in. The other passengers surrounding them now stopped looking shocked and uncomfortable, and just started to look annoyed. Yet the two were once again unaware of everyone around them.
“I… I really am… sorry,” Mary said through gasps of laughter.
“We were both being a little crazy,” Raymond replied, and this very mundane statement just started them laughing all over again.
Mary stood up straight and looked at Raymond once again. He really did have nice eyes, and his clothes weren’t that bad. “Well, I guess we’re even now.”
“I would say so,” Raymond answered. “Though I hope your head doesn‘t hurt as much as mine does.”
“Oh, I am sorry about that,” Mary replied, and with real sympathy. She then reached up to touch the place where a bump had started to form. “I’m pretty sure I have aspirin in my purse, if you would like some.”
Raymond shook his head. “To be honest, I think I’m still going to have that drink, and I promise I won’t drench your skirt with it this time.”
He still wants a drink after all this? Mary thought, but figured it would be more prudent just to nod. He gave a brief thank you, and took his bottle back out. This time he produced a glass, and poured some of the amber liquid into it. He took a swig, and breathed a deep contented sigh.
As if on cue, the train started to get bumpy, and Mary started to get a little nervous. “Sir, maybe you should put that away. The ride seems to be getting a little rough.”
Then the train took a particularly ferocious jolt, and before Mary knew it, she was wearing alcohol on her blouse as well.
I can’t believe he just did that! We were just getting to be on good terms too! She took a deep breath, and got ready to scold him once again. He was really going to get it this time.
* * *
When John had finally composed himself, he noticed how steep the incline was getting. Worried that they could start going backward, he added some more coal to the boiler, even though all instinct told him not to. We’ve just got to get to the top of this hill, and we can coast from there. The engine chugged slowly up the hill, and finally, just when it seemed impossible, the train reached the top, went over, and John Sage found himself looking at the steepest drop he had ever seen for the second time that day. The last car (no longer the caboose) got over the crest, the train jumped forward, and all John could think was, Round two!