Plaster

In case of sudden radio failure, the relay of messages between conductor and driver defaulted to the ancient switchboard on the train’s secondary level. The snow had brought down transistor lines and apparently had even affected the reception of dishes and satellites. In order to communicate, Ceres ascended to the upstairs cabin to tap out cryptographic signals over the greening bronze telegraph plates. He never went up to that level for any reason other than a communication failure such as this, never collected tickets from passengers who had chosen to ride there in the single, spring-loaded jumpseats that played with your weight when the train rushed over the uneven junctures in the rails along the points.

That evening, as he brushed past these riders on his way to the cabin at the far end of the aisle, a woman stopped him and asked if he wanted to take her fare. She extended him a multi-ride ticket. The shape of the perforations marking off past rides matched that of his own steel punch, each conductor possessing his own unique, identifying validation, yet he hadn’t remembered seeing her before. Shocked by her honesty, he told her he never collected tickets up there, then took it and punched it and passed by everyone else. A bandage covered half of the right side of her face.

The train’s route traced a path through the districts of the city where salt factories and smokestacks churned away in anonymous silence, parts of town that that were fine with being forgotten and didn’t shout out their names. And when you waited for a train at nondescript stations somewhere in their midst, you weren’t sure that one would actually come by and stop; they struck you as abandoned, even illegitimate, like they had functioned at an earlier age but had shut down at some point and now only served the routes of ghosts; and when it snowed, the dust obscured the lines between the platform and the trackbed and filled in the spaces between the rails; and it looked even more like the station didn’t exist, and that you were waiting for something that was scheduled and supposed to come but never actually would.

A series of dots and mostly long, drawn-out dashes relayed the message that switches along the southern end of the route were frozen. From the downtown union terminus outward twenty miles, freighters, locals, and intercity trains were veering off their predetermined paths in the absence of radar and visibility, impeded by the blizzard. As of 6 p.m., no accidents had been reported. Ceres silenced the plates and descended to collect the remaining passengers’ tickets. As he passed by the woman with the bandage on her face, he noticed she had adhered another to her throat while he’d been gone, just above the line of her collar. He went about his business on the lower level, collecting payment for the journeys of other transient faces. The eccentricity of his passengers did not faze him much. Unlike the indeterminate stations, he considered all behaviors legitimate, each having credit and an authority of its own. The train began to strain and shudder against the drive of the snow. When it rains it pours read the lit-up awnings of the Morton Salt plant just outside the window aside their larger-than-life insignia of a raincoated girl and her umbrella, cradling a canister of iodized product in the crook of her arm, walking through the streaks of a painted diagonal storm.

He gave credit to all behaviors, that is, except to his own.

Just before Clybourn station, subtly and unsuddenly, the train came to a halt. Ceres continued working, and the passengers went about reading or sleeping or staring as if they hadn’t processed the arrest in motion or had simply expected it. When Ceres had finished collecting the tickets, he climbed again to the secondary level to reactivate the telegraph plates. Minutes later he found that they, too, had ceased to function. The engine cabin was only accessible from the outside, and in order to speak with the driver, he would have to exit the train. He looked outside at the snow, which he estimated to have risen to the level of his knees.

The woman’s seat was vacant when he passed back down the aisle to the stairs. He found her standing before the doors in the vestibule. She didn’t inquire about the trouble. I’d like to get out for a bit, she said to Ceres, indicating the doors, hinting that she would be back but that she expected the wait to be long, and as she grasped the railing for leverage and descended into the whipping ice, he saw that five new bandages wrapped the knuckles of her fingers.

Outside, the snow was quietening the earth. The woman departed in the direction of the tail, Ceres toward the head. When he reached the engine, he grabbed hold of the icy rungs, pulled himself up to the hatch, and tapped on the glass.

The same woman, now clothed in scrubs, her neck laced with a stethoscope, and with every other appearance of physicianry, let him into the cabin. The bandages still covered her knuckles, neck, and face. The driver was not there.

Are you hurt, she inquired, raising her voice over the engine blast.

No, said Ceres. Where is my driver. Their questions intoned themselves as statements.

That is disappointing, she answered, ignoring his question. Without pain, I have no business here.

Where is my driver? Ceres said again, this time much more like a question, almost a threat.

I have put him out in the snow, she replied. He was badly hurt.

Ceres turned around and looked out through the glass. Stationary cars, lampposts, and fences were being reshaped. The snow was covering whatever lay on the earth, losing it to sight. The driver was nowhere to be seen. Ceres had witnessed it many times, things kept intact under the accumulation of snow that the ongoing cold stiffened into ice, deemed missing until you saw them again when the temperature turned and the earth began to melt, an onyx ring, a discarded sandwich, the body of a child. A great coating of plaster and gauze, filling in the blemishes and gradients of surfaces.

When he turned back around, the woman was gone. Although he realized he had been focusing on the landscape and that the continuous churning from the engine overpowered most other sound in the closed quarters of the cabin, Ceres began to question the functioning of his senses for not registering her departure. It was then that he noticed the pulsing light on the control panel, indicating that the emergency switch had been thrown, and that the signals he had sent from the cabin on the secondary level had not been received by the driver at all, but had been rerouted to external receptors recently installed in the neighboring salt plants for instances of crisis such as this.

Soon, Ceres thought, they would be dispatching a fleet. Now it was only a matter of the wait.

***

When Ceres climbed back up into the vestibule, the woman greeted him, misted in white dust, her face further withdrawn under a bandage on her forehead above the left eye. Ceres didn’t recall having seen a wound or a reason necessitating this, remembering the texturelessness of the skin on her face when he punched her ticket on the secondary level, and when he had encountered her in the cabin. Was she something he’d invented? On his first meeting with her upstairs, and in the privacy of the engine cabin, he hadn’t hesitated to speak to her, but now how he saw that she slipped from place to place and changed her appearance from one minute to the nextâÂ?¦to speak to her with other people around, when in fact she might not really be thereâÂ?¦he hadn’t seen her interact with anyone elseâÂ?¦he nodded to her and opened the doors leading to the interior of the coach, then walked past the backs of passenger heads to the front, intending to make an announcement.

He turned deliberately, in order to gain time, knowing he had to say something, but not quite sure what that was.

Forty pairs of eyes were fixed on him, one for each day of the flood, and each set had a bandage adhered to its corresponding face, cheeks, chins, foreheads, and the bridges of noses hiding behind a weave of sterilized tricot.

The woman stood in the doorway of the vestibule, arms extended to the frame on each side so as to fill it up and assume a stance of challenge, blinking for added emphasis, waiting for what he had to say. Ceres ran his fingers over his face, aware of imperfections. We hope to be moving on shortly, he said, not quite a lie, because that is what he hoped.

And then, as if he had given the cue and had told them what they should be feeling, each passenger reached into his pocket or pack in perfect unison and pulled out a bandage to conceal another random space on his skin.
***
To say that the snow submerged the entirety of the landscape would have been a half-truth. Across the fields in the near distance stretched the railyards and its intersection of tracks, underlayed at intervals by flames of kerosene. Although they failed to keep the points from locking in the extreme temperature, they continued to burn in the alcoves formed around them by their heat, a thousand points of orange fire on black night, like one of the floors of inferno extending across the plain.

And then, Ceres spied a different sort of light in the distance, the red and white tri-headlights of salt trucks, commissioned to break down the accumulation of snow, approaching at a thundering pace from the direction of the factories on both sides, heading straight for the broadside of the coach.

Against all odds, the train had come to stop astride the unmarked intersection of a lone road transversing the fields, the sole artery of access and communication between salt plants. Moved by sheer selfish instinct, Ceres rushed into the vestibule without announcement to release the valve on the air-pressured exit. Within minutes since he had returned from the engine, the air in the valves had contracted to such a degree that its expansion no longer provided the pressure needed to separate the doors.

With a mind diverted from exit by doors and moved to something beyond impulsive self-interest, Ceres thought of his encounter with the woman as a doctor in the engine, how she claimed to have no business there in the absence of pain, and quickly reached to shut off the external coach lights running around the edge of the outside roof to submerge the train in the blur of the storm. The horns of the trucks did not sound before impact, the drivers thinking little more than that the storm had picked up, and the uncommon thickness of the wall of white before them had been washed up from the ground by the increasing violence of the overhanging system.

***

The woman, now in the company of three new physicians, tends to Ceres where he lies across the full length of a padded train benchseat. They have forced the exit doors and cut away his clothes, and are wrapping him in strips of elasticized bandage so that not so much as an inch of flesh is exposed. Ceres’ first inclination is to be pleased with himself. He and his passengers will not end up like the child buried in the snow. He has worked things so that help has arrived. Ignoring the scolding disapproval of the doctors, he props himself up.

The coach wall is not ruptured. An enormous bulge warps each end of the car on opposite sides, twisting the interior into the faint shape of an s. The passengers have rearranged themselves in the spaces that remain and sit as before, intact, facing forward and bandaged, waiting for an announcement.

The woman’s face hovers over his as she works. A fresh white stripe of cloth dresses the underside of her jawbone and chin. Ceres reaches up and pulls it away.

There is nothing there. She cries out in pain and recoils, clutching at her face. An instant later, each passenger reaches to his side and pulls away a bandage from the face of his neighbor. From the seats, in synchronization, the sound of unsedated surgery rises. Ceres returns his attention to his own body, runs his fingers over his abdomen until he finds the edge of tape and pulls. Expecting to see nothing, he looks down and sees that the bones of his cage have pierced the skin, that in the impact his insides have come out, and it is then that he realizes that he hurts, more than he has ever hurt in his life. He listens to the distress of the passengers, and suddenly he abhors them, hates them with their pain of what they only think is wrong. I’ll be sentenced for this, he thinks, and then his body must defend itself, and Ceres closes his eyes.

***

The roundhouse is warm and smells of cooking. When Ceres wakes, they are clapping. Among the locomotives in the midst of repair, his passengers, the bandaged woman, the physicians, the salt truck drivers, the police, his boss, the chairman of the railroad federation, his fellow conductors�they all stand around a table of steaming meat, applauding as if to strip their palms raw, and it has worked to rouse him. Ceres is finally awake.

One of his passengers brings him a plate. For you, he says, and sets it down in front of Ceres, and he sees that it is entirely meat. The passenger stands back, and then they are watching him again, and Ceres feels obligated to act. He takes a bite of the food, and they begin to applaud again. Every time he takes a bite, they clap. None of the others eat.

And then although Ceres is not finished with his meal, the chairman of the railroad federation motions with his hand, and a plaster statue of Ceres is rolled out onto the floor in the middle of them. For how you have saved them, he says, indicating the passengers. Deflector reads the plaque on the base, strangely shining, bronze like the default plates from which he’d sent out his signals.

And then they go out into the snow, to erect the statue between the intersections of the rails in the train yard, and even though his ribs are burning, nobody sees when Ceres takes the rest of his dinner with him and buries it in the snow just beyond the statue. To be found when the ice melts, he thinks, a piece of violence preserved beneath the snow, then silently, without a word, he returns his attention to the company around him. After the last words of ceremony are spoken, the bandaged woman comes forth to drape a stethoscope around his neck and hands him a red-crossed box. I used to be a conductor, too, she says as she does this, looking at him with the same unyielding gaze she assumed in the vestibule. Now you are a physician. And then again, on cue, as if this has told them how they should act, the people displace and line up before him.

The first approaches Ceres and lies down in the snow. The woman points to her knee, and Ceres understands that this is where he is to place one of the bandages from the red-crossed box. Each person approaches in turn to lie down in the snow and indicate a source of pain, and when Ceres affixes his bandages they rise and smile, fix themselves hot plates of meat, and go to sit with the treated to watch the progression of the line up to their appointed physician.

When the line of patients is halfway diminished, a four-coach train lumbers into the railyards. The doors breathe out in unison when their pressure valves are released, and what seems to Ceres like an endless stream of passengers descends from the cars in twos to take up their places at the end of the line.

In the spring, just beyond the train tracks, migrant workers crossing the fields on their way to the salt plant come across a body stripped to the skin. Although his eyes don’t see anymore and his hands don’t speak, they notice how preserved and unblemished he looks to the eye, a victim of the system that came through this winter, no doubt, one says to the other, and finding it needless to speculate any further, they nod in acceptance and continue on to the refinery to haul loads of salt and report what they have seen, remarking to each other about the faint points of pain they have both just begun to feel deep within the bones of their legs.

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