I caught sight of Angel as she stepped out of the doorway of the crew shack. She was immaculately attired in her very clean, newly pressed overalls. She had on a red engineers cap emblazoned with yellow polka-dots, but on closer inspection, were actually embroidered little yellow hearts. Her red bandanna loosely hung around her neck and over the bib of her overalls. Freshly shined brown work boots finished off her ensemble.
She headed straight down the side of the roadbed which, leading down from the coaling facilities, was always dirty with unburned coal and clinkers left from hurriedly cleaned fire boxes. There were also large puddles of oil and standing water from the overflow of the tenders when they were carelessly filled. It amazed me she was able to stay so clean – Jiminy Cricket! she fired a steam locomotive – but she did, and now I knew the secret: Angel levitated over all of the mess, without stepping in any of it because, after all, she is an angel.
This would be our last trip together in this locomotive 3751. Soon I would be in command of one of the brand-new diesel ‘E’ units, which would be on the front end of all the ATSF Super Chief passenger trains. I was blessed to have her as my fireman through the years of steam, now she would join me operating the new wave of railroading.
She came alongside of the cab without looking up to acknowledge me. I saw directly down on her delightful head and shoulders, the same parts of her body I was recently caressing while we lay in bed. She was singing a little tune, oblivious of my presence above her in the cab window.
At the rear of the cab, she turned and mounted the ladder up to the footplate between the cab and the tender. Swinging herself in and around the back wall of the cab, she stepped to my side and holding my head in her gloved hands she sang a little verse, “Whatcha got cookin’ good lookin’?”
“Wow,” I proclaimed. “You could make a hit song out of those lyrics.”
“Maybe I will when you retire in a few years.”
“The Hosteler left us here on the `Ready Track,` they didn’t have the room down near the station. When I got the briefing and manifest, I saw that it’s a really long train this morning. In a few minutes, we’ll have to back down and couple on,” I said staring out the cab window trying to mask my thoughts of the ‘human’ women I wished were in my life.
“Not only long,” she replied. “Heavy too, there are several sleepers, and three baggage cars, not to mention the additional REA cars up front. I hear there’s a film crew from Los Angeles, they are going to film a movie in Chicago, a musical about the old prohibition days. She’s the star.”
“You mean the starlet with the little boy, the one we saw a few months ago? Is she on the train?”
“Yep, in the last car, the vista dome observation with the VIP suite and she’s with that big-time movie producer the tabloids are making all the fuss about.”
“How do you know these things?”
“I know them, that’s all, I just know things. Her little boy wants to see the engine again, they will probably stop by at Lamy.” I could see the excitement and the confusion in his eyes. He so wanted to see that woman again. I could almost tell he was rising up.
“Well, let’s drift on down then,” he said.
“Okay baby, I’ll get up some steam and straighten out that fire. Doesn’t anyone know how to lay a good fire anymore? By the way you were in pretty good form last night. Do you like that trick I showed you?”
“Oh, be quiet. I can’t think straight after a night like that, I think there is a rule against it – eight hours from body to throttle!”
I raked the fire and started the stoker, so I could throw coal way back into the corners. The pressure came up, I sensed a good healthy fire going.
I saw him turn on the tender backup light and start the bell ringing. He turned and faced backward out the cab window. Releasing the engine brake, he moved the power reverse lever to reverse position. There was a hiss of steam from the mechanism. Without looking he reached behind him and found the throttle; cracking it open slightly we moved slowly, drifting back down the track to the waiting train.
He knew automatically where the rear of the tender was, it was a very big tender. He told me once he counted the railroad ties below the cab as a way of judging the distance. The train supervisor had positioned a man at the head of the REA car where we coupled on and with hand signals, he was able to show how far the couplers of the car and tender were apart.
Slowing the engine to a crawl the inches went by, without the slightest bump the couplers came together and latched solidly into each other. The train supervisor gave the sign to pull ahead and test the security of the connection.
He moved the reverse lever, it was just enough to allow the engine to pull forward and take the slack out of the connection. A sign was given, one of the workmen attached the air hoses from the tender to the train line. With that sign for the brake test, my engineer let air into the train line while carefully taking up the slack in the train.
It was done, all done, we were now one big long train. Other than the crew, no one else would have noticed the ballet that was going on to make us one.
I noticed he took the same care in his lovemaking. Carefully attending to all the little details. It gave me the shivers to see the dance unfold once again, this time with a behemoth passenger train but somehow, all the same, all about caring.
We sat there listening to the hiss of the escaping steam from all the various mechanisms that allowed an engine like this to function as a unit.
I stepped up beside him and cupped my arms around his shoulders.
“Did you see her this weekend? The widow at the Grange Hall?”
“Yes, I went to the Grange for the roast beef dinner, she was there. I sat across from her.”
“And, and then what?” I asked with great anticipation. Never in my dreams would I have believed he would make the first move.
“I said hi,” he replied rather pensively. “Do you think I started the conversation off okay? I mean, I didn’t know what else to say.”
“You did fine, yes, terrific, a very honest way to start a conversation. What did she say?”
“She said, ‘You must be a little lonely with Claire being gone. Why don’t you come over to my place this Sunday at noon? I can bake an apple pie, we can have pie and ice cream. I mean if you’re free and all. I mean, I don’t know what I mean except I would like that.’ Yes, I would like it too and hoped that she wouldn’t see me blushing, I could hardly speak my legs went numb.”
“And then, then what happened?” I asked over and over again.
“Then! Then! Bucky Armbruster busted in and plopped down right beside her and started telling her how much money he made at The Chicago Mercantile Exchange, trading butter futures last week.”
“Ah, oh,” I hope the widow wasn’t going to fall for all that money. I couldn’t help it, I just blurted out, “You mean the Bucky Armbruster, Robert Wayne Buckwalter Armbruster the third? Do you know him? Personally?”
“Cut it out,” he said in an irritated voice. “I’ve known him since grade school, that big overgrown lout. There’s nothing special about him, we all put our pants on the same way.”
“Well maybe not all you men put your pants on the same way.”
“What?” He was getting more irritated as the conversation wore on.
“I am just foolin’ with you Honey Bun. Remember what happened this morning? You got flustered and put your shorts on backwards!” Hoping to change the subject from this morning’s romp, I asked, “What went on at the table after Bucky arrived?”
“Bucky started telling stories about how his businesses were so successful. Just talking out loud to the table in general. All the people at our end of the Grange Hall could hear him. Not only was he loud, he’s fat. You should see his gut hanging over that five-inch belt buckle, I thought his chair would collapse from under him.”
“You’re not jealous, about the money?” I asked demurely, trying not to laugh out loud at the description of Bucky my man was giving me.
He sighed, “No, I know what I am up against. I’m getting older and a good woman is going to need some other man, younger, with a future, not just a pension.”
I felt him slump down in his seat, as if he was succumbing to the weight of the world around him.
“How did the meal go afterwards?”
“During the time that Bucky was spouting off, the widow glanced at me and said in a low voice, ‘I hate to leave you with that oaf, but I have the ladies quilting bee in a few minutes. You just never mind about him and come over on Sunday for that apple pie, we can have a good laugh.’ Then she patted the top of my hand and I nearly fell apart, you know, from the strain of losing Claire, and the possibility of a new relationship. I’m so grateful I have you, Angel, I don’t know what I would do without your direction.”
We sat there, just sat, while he regained his composure.
“It’s getting to be time to go.”
I turned and took my seat on the fireman’s side.
“All aboard. All aboard,” I heard the call and checked the steam pressure: 230 pounds with plenty of water.
He gave two blasts on the whistle and we moved with great precision out of the station.
Since we were underway, I made up my mind to sit in the spare seat behind him and just hold his hand and I pondered, if you have ever wondered why steam engine whistles seem so forlorn, it is because of all the loves gained and lost while working on the railroad.