O, reason not the need! Our basest beggars / Are in the poorest thing superfluous.
King Lear, Act II, Scene 4
The Colony Station was dead. Colony served a suburb that had never been built. The Colony Neighborhood was nothing but a field for prairie dogs, and Colony Station was a concrete garden, a place where the train conductors stopped to let the summer heat and the winter chill on board.
Then, on that baking summer night, a bell chimed, and you could hear a twinging vibration coming from the tracks. The tracks whistled and whined with electricity, the headlamp of a train was rounding the corner.
The 9:58 J-Line train arrived at Colony, and a voice filled the vacant station.
“I see you, Trash Man.”
The train rocked forward once as it came to a full stop. The doors hissed open. No-one stepped onto the Colony Station platform. Whatever cold air the train’s AC managed got overtaken by the thick summer heat.
The speakers crackled on again. “Don’t think I don’t see you.”
In the conductor’s cabin, Brown held the transmitter in a shaking fist. Slippery palms. The cabin AC was on a repair backlog. Heat radiating off the instrument panel. 90 degrees at 10 PM.
He looked up at the surveillance monitor and clicked the channel to Car 4. The lower-left quadrant of the screen was occupied by a black mass: trash bags. In the middle, the Trash Man, with the whole car to himself. He looked more like a pile of dirty clothes than any human form: squat limbs and a distended belly, covered in patched sweaters and a floppy hat.
“Last chance, Trash Man!” Brown yelled. No movement. The train hummed on its tracks.
A fist pounded on the cabin door. “Come on, man!” said a muffled voice. “We’re burning up here.”
“Let’s goooo!” shouted a woman.
“Off, Trash Man” snapped Brown. “Off!” The monitor image stayed still.
A voice came from the radio:
“Central dispatch calling W-09.”
“Yes?” Brown responded.
“You’re clear on northbound, no reports of debris. Please proceed to Arsenal Station.”
“Dispatch,” said Brown, “there’s this guy in car four. He’s got ten, hell, twenty bags of trash with him. Every night, he’s stinkin’ up the whole damn place. Last night the cleanup crew wanted to puke, it got so bad.”
On the other end, the clatter of fingernails on a keyboard. It was ‘hell’ they were writing down. No profanity allowed on official rail channels.
“Car W-09, does the person in question pose an imminent threat to himself or others, as per section 45-B-77 in your policies and procedures manual?”
“With the smell, I’d say so.”
“Car W-09, if a passenger is preventing the operation of a Metro Rail service, you need to hit the emergency button on your panel.”
A new knock came to the cabin door, even harder.
Brown looked back up at the monitor. The Trash Man was looking back.
Brown closed the doors.
“Dammit” he said, slapping the panel. He released the brakes, and the train rolled out from Colony Station at 10:02 PM.
Brown didn’t risk another call from dispatch. He entered Union Station at 11:30 PM, locked down the brake, and threw open the door. He stormed the length of Car 1, threw open the doors to Cars 2 and 3, pushing past a lady slow in gathering her things, and shoved a stubborn door to Car 4.
The Trash Man was gone. He was always gone, by the time he got back there. One man and twenty trash bags. Brown craned his neck out of both side doors, feeling like a rube in a dumb comedy. You’d think you’d see someone like that skulking away.
One thing was left behind: the smell. The smell felt like a hard shove to the chest, sudden and hostile. It meant an extra hour of thankless work for the cleaning crew, but Brown truly hated that smell. Somehow, it brought back memories of the hospital rooms and dialysis centers which seemed to crowd out, little by little, all other memories of his wife Cynthia.
Brown hated the Trash Man. He was more than a nuisance. Train conductors dealt with nuisances all day: the bleary-eyed bums, the shifty drug runners, the street preachers. The Trash Man topped them all. He made Brown look like a fool. He got to stink up a man’s train car and flee into the night. Damn him. God damn the Trash Man.
At 11:45 PM, Brown stood in line at the employee restroom near the F-Line platform. It was still in the high 70s. His lower back felt like a mangrove swamp.
“What’s going on in there?” Brown yelled at the bathroom door.
“Give him a rest”, said his companion in line. Cheryl had been with the rail department for three years, starting as an electrician chasing down blown fuses.
“The staff toilets were busted down south” Cheryl said, “We’ve been holding it for three hours.”
“Just use the public stalls” said Brown.
Cheryl turned to him. “I ain’t squatting down in front of thirty people like I’m in county jail.”
Brown sighed. The city had stripped the doors off the stalls at station restrooms. The Rail Authority said too many people were using the stalls to shoot up.
Cheryl was watching the 10-o’clock news highlights on her phone. A new family planning clinic in Denver was being protested by the Reverend Jonah Melchior LaFontaine. On the phone screen, the Reverend’s gold suit shimmered in the flash of the press photos.
“As it was when Rome burned, my brothers, so it will be! We have seen the rot and dismemberment of the American family, the surrender of man to his own sin, instead of to God. Here, in this Sodom of glass and steel, our own babies are mutilated and murdered by government bureaucrats. The blood of the innocent is on their hands.”
The Reverend reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a jar. Brown winced at the screen. The jar held, floating in milky fluid, a preserved fetus.
“Look at the works of man!” said the Reverend. “Look, by God!”
“Turn that crap off” Brown grunted.
Cheryl pocketed the phone.
The next night, Brown was back at Colony. The Trash Man was there. Brown pulled something out of his pocket: a phone. It felt strange in his hands, he’d never owned a smartphone before. Cheryl had to show him how to use it. He opened the camera app, slid it to video mode, and pressed ‘Record’ with his thumb.
Brown shut the doors, and pushed the accelerator forward. He tried to wick his brow with a hairy forearm. Would they ever fix the cabin AC?
With one hand on the accelerator, Brown lifted the phone towards the monitors. The tiny lens rolled the monitors into focus.
Brown pulled back for a moment.
The Trash Man was looking at him. Did he know Brown was driving tonight? Was there an expression beneath his floppy hat, a scowl, or maybe a smile?
When he got back to Union Station, Brown took the express elevator to the top-floor control room.
Brown slapped his phone down on the security desk, showing a thumbnail photo of the Trash Man.
“See?” said Brown, “He’s real! Every time he gets away, but now you have proof! Now, what we need to do is put out an APB for this guy, set up a checkpoint between Colony and Union. Maybe after the baseball game, you can spare some people.”
Brown hadn’t noticed that the security clerk was busy at her computer.
“What are you writing?” Brown asked.
“Mr. Brown,” said the clerk, “it was a violation of passenger privacy rights to make this recording. You are scheduled to meet with the Rail Office of Passenger Civil Rights tomorrow morning, where they will determine possible penalties.”
Brown choked out a laugh. “This man is a menace! People won’t ride that car for days once he’s been on. And what’s he hiding in those trash bags, anyway? Why don’t you investigate that?”
The clerk held out her hand. “I will take the phone, please.”
“Yes, take it!” said Brown. “At least get him off the train.”
“You misunderstand,” said the clerk. “We need to identify this individual and let them know their rights may have been violated. We’ll return your phone upon completion of the investigation.”
“That phone wasn’t cheap,” said Brown.
The machine-like reply: “We’ll return your phone upon completion of the investigation.”
Brown held his uniform on a wire hanger and slammed his locker door. Cheryl was waiting in the hallway.
“Brown, I heard about what happened, I’m sorry-”
“Get the hell out of my way.”
Cheryl stood in the hall, arms in the air. “Brown, wait!”
“Don’t wanna get drunk and bitch about it?” she called. “Just remember, the rest of the world had a stressful day, too.”
As Brown walked to his car, at the far corner of the employee lot, he thought of the Trash Man. When he came home to his studio apartment, he thought of how his employer was looking out for the Trash Man. As he waited for the microwave to take its sweet time heating up his Mesquite Barbecue TV dinner, he thought of the blurred face looking back from the surveillance monitor. By the time he fell into bed, Brown had decided to stop the Trash Man, no matter the cost.
Brown’s course of action was decided, as usual, in the shower the next morning. The shower was always an idea factory for Brown, but this new idea troubled him. One sliver of his mind fought the idea, it told him people would get hurt. Brown dismissed the objection. It would be the Trash Man’s fault if someone got hurt. The system was made for people like the Trash Man. Too often, the system sided with the wrong kind of people: guilty people. Sometimes, to do good, a good man must step outside of the system. It was as logical as turning on your windshield wipers in a summer thunderstorm.
“Thanks for shopping EZ-PZ” said the clerk. The buzzer above the convenience store door rang as the customer left.
All things considered, Muriel felt good about this latest job. It was the only convenience store she’d worked, at least in Colorado, where the owners maintained the AC. The store was a cool oasis along a lonely stretch of Port-Au-Prince Boulevard, the last chance for hurried families before the highway-robbery prices at the airport gas stations.
It was a quiet morning, another aspect of this store she wasn’t used to. A flatscreen TV in the corner ran on mute, in two weeks, this would be the TV where, eyes welling, hand to her mouth, Muriel would learn, like the rest of the nation, about the living nightmare called the Trash Man.
At most, she could expect the Adams County police to come by in an hour. Of course the police tried to play it cool, but it was the coffee and coconut-dusted donuts that brought them by. After 5 PM, there would be an influx of traffic from Buckley Air Force Base, and its encircling defense contractors. That was their main business.
This was why Muriel didn’t mind when the phone rang that morning, not knowing she was to be the trial run for the Trash Man’s end.
“EZ-PZ Fuel Station Port-Au-Prince,” said Muriel, “how can I help you?”
She had never heard the scratchy, amicable voice on the other end before.
“Yes, is this Muriel?”
“Yes,” she said, repeating, “how can I help you?”
“Well, Muriel,” said the voice, “This is Louis Friend in the Omaha office, and I’m going to need you to do something for me.”
“You see, Muriel, some of our Denver-Metro locations are experiencing software issues. We’re afraid it’s some kind of ransomware virus from Russia, maybe you’ve heard of those?”
“I mean, I’ve heard of-”
“I’m getting reports from locations in Boulder, Westminster, Limon, Parker. They’re locking down the POS terminals, they want 800,000 rubles to unlock them.”
“How much is that?” Muriel asked.
“If the managers try to negotiate, it goes up to a million.”
“Muriel, the best thing you can do right now is to remain calm.”
Muriel did not remain calm. “Let me know what you need, Louis.”
“Are you alone in the store right now?”
“My junior associate is coming in soon.”
“That’s not what I asked, Muriel.”
“Yes, I’m alone.”
“Without drawing attention, do you see anyone outside, watching the store?”
Muriel tried to conceal herself behind a display of Skoals and American Spirit, and peered out the window.
Outside, the pumps lay quiet beneath their awning. The parking lot held one car: Muriel’s white hatchback, with its bumper sticker that read 7-11 Was A Part-Time Job.
“No,” Muriel exclaimed in a whisper. “I don’t think so.”
“Good, that’s good. Now, I need you to go to the electrical closet.”
“And what do I do?”
“Let me know when you’re there, I have instructions.”
A row of keys jingled in her hands. The TV played a newscast of Jonah Melchior LaFontaine, praying for hellfire upon the people of Denver.
Muriel unlocked the electrical room, and a single light came on.
“Go to the fuse box” said the voice on the phone.
She pushed aside a clutch of brooms and mop handles, revealing the metal door to the fuses.
Muriel took a moment to regain herself.
“I’m here” she said.
“Open the fuse box.”
Muriel pushed a finger into the plastic latch, and the door opened. She looked at the double row of fuses.
“Good, Muriel. From what we’ve gathered, the Russian virus is using old connections to access the records. I need you to reset the system by flipping all the switches.”
Muriel frowned and cocked her head. “Louis, this doesn’t feel right. Are you sure I need to do this?”
“Muriel”, said the voice on the phone, “This is the only way to solve this problem. The managers who failed to do this are looking at one to two months of sales records locked by 256-bit encryption. Now, EZ-PZ can offer assistance to managers who negotiate, but there are federal concerns about doing business with overseas organized crime, and we cannot guarantee release from liability if you pursue that path.”
Muriel scanned the names taped next to each switch. “I wouldn’t go to jail for this, would I?”
“Not if you flip all the switches, Muriel. That’s the only thing that would work. You have the full approval of management. Now, let me know when you’re ready to do it.”
Functioning AC or not, Muriel blinked the sweat away from her forehead. Half the switches said DO NOT TOUCH in all caps. Everything in her work experience told her a total shutdown would lose the day’s transactions, not preserve them.
“Sir,” she said into the phone, “Before I do this, I’m going to need some-”
“This is the only way. I know you’ll do great. Let me know when you’re ready.”
She put her thumb by the first switch.
“I’m ready. Tell me when to go.”
Her thumb jittered next to the switch.
“Sir? I’m ready.”
“Hold on, Muriel.”
The nail of her thumb nudged on the plastic, bending it a hair’s breadth.
“Muriel,” said the voice, “Thank you for your patience. It looks like our IT department has taken some steps towards neutralizing the virus. Do not flip the switches at this time.”
Her thumb lifted away from the switch, and rested down at her side.
“Anything else I can do to help?” she asked.
“Not at this time. We will be in touch.”
Muriel heard the line disconnect to dial tone. She shut off her headset.
Twelve miles away, parked next to a field, Brown pushed the prepaid phone against the steering wheel until it broke in two. He snapped the SIM card like a wafer and threw the phone pieces into a cow pasture.
The shock had overtaken him, Brown could not believe it could be that easy. A notebook lay open on the passenger seat, with tabs open to his research material: notes from web forum threads about EZ-PZ corporate policy, employee profiles, notes on regional executives.
Brown looked out the windshield at the cow pasture ahead of him. He had passed through this field hundreds of times, and never seen it from the road.
This was the Mazin Cattle Farm, established in 1937. When the J-Line was planned, any financially feasible route required a line straight through the Mazin pastures. Old man Archer Mazin refused exorbitant offers, until the Rail Authority invoked eminent domain. You may remember the story from the newspapers about this, and how the bulldozers were met at Mazin’s fence line by farm hands packing rifles and shotguns.
Mazin finally agreed to let the J-Line bisect the family farm, on the condition that his cattle have right-of-way. Every week, the Rail Authority control room received a call with the Mazin farm’s schedule.
Brown turned the keys in the ignition, and drove back towards Denver. His future revealed itself in the battered blacktop running beneath his tires. In the coming weeks, Brown would become an expert in the dialogue between Mazin and the Rail Authority. He would learn the rules of their engagements, the conventions that bound them, he would study them like any other language. It flowed from a logic that pulsed bright and electric in his veins.
That night, Cheryl and Brown waited outside the Employee Restroom. Cheryl had her eyes focused on a TV screen one platform over. A newscast showed Reverend Jonah Melchior and his Church of the Seven Churches at the family planning clinic. A protest outside had come to blows, and the Reverend stood before the cameras, showing a slight tear in his suit’s breast pocket, clear evidence of a fallen world’s “culture of death.”
Cheryl laughed, shook her head. “For chrissake, that’s what I’ll be driving home through tonight.”
Cheryl looked back over at Brown, sitting on the concrete steps that led to the skywalk.
“Brown?” she called.
Brown said nothing. His eyes stared off towards the far station platform, the pupils darting left and right with a vivid concentration.
“Brown?” Cheryl called again. “You OK, man?”
Brown looked up and shrugged. “Yeah, crazy world.”
“Oh, Brown, has he been on the J-Line again?”
Brown began pressing harder on his blisters, and Cheryl began to see something rising in his eyes. “He’s never on a reg’lar schedule. Still scaring off riders. Tonight I had a mother press the intercom, the stink was so bad her little girl was crying.”
Brown looked up at Cheryl, smiled. For the first time, she saw how ragged Brown looked. It was like he’d been laying tar on a desert highway all week. What lurked in his eyes was growing stronger, and Brown smiled.
“I wouldn’t worry though. That swine has some fun times ahead of him.”
Cheryl had a sudden wish for the occupant of that restroom to hurry up. Brown had gone away, and this man on the concrete steps just handled his messages.
“Brown…”, Cheryl started, “Sometimes I think I might head out of here. I mean, away from all this heat, and the stupid policies, and the drug tests. Don’t you ever get sick of it?”
“Hell of a question, Cheryl.”
“I’m serious. I’ve got some savings to move out to San Diego, starting a restaurant. Maybe it’s something we could work on together.”
Brown rolled his eyes, and looked back down at his hands. Those blisters would pop any minute now.
“Change would do you good, buddy, and…” Cheryl stopped, trying to sort out a jumbled mess of words, “… and I’m a little worried that if you keep this up…”
“I’ll what?” asked Brown.
“You’ll do something unreasonable.”
Brown laughed under his breath, wiping the sweat from his forehead. “Well, Cheryl, sometimes reasonable people must do unreasonable things.”
Cheryl shuddered as the pit in her gut made itself known. “No, Bud, you must never say that.”
Brown was off the steps before she finished. “And don’t call me that, Cheryl.”
“I’m sorry, Brown.”
“I have a train to run, Cheryl. I don’t go fly-fishing. I don’t collect stamps. I run a clean, orderly, punctual line for the Rail Authority. A clean uniform, a friendly smile, on-time service from Dove Valley to Union Station. But he’s there, watching me in the monitors, taunting me, violating my train with his fetid, rotten, garbage.”
Brown leaned in now, what hid in his eyes was loud and piercing, his face a rictus of loathing. “The damn renal failure took Cynthia, the Trash Man won’t take my train from me.”
Cheryl stood fixed to the pavement as Brown’s footsteps faded away. The door to the employee restroom opened.
“Sorry,” said the co-worker. “Were you waiting long?”
Cheryl didn’t answer. She turned to watch Brown’s silhouette disappear down the train platform. The heat that night, that ungodly July heat, dragged on Cheryl like a stone. It dragged her into the deep conviction that soon, sooner than she dared to consider, something terrible was going to happen.
The night Brown and the Trash Man met was registered as the hottest July 27th on record. Nothing stirred the air that night along Blake Street, except Brown and the wings of a few crickets. Brown was standing on the most peculiar corner of downtown Denver. It was peculiar because it was the last corner to have a working pay phone. The last bits of change fell down into the coin slot, and Brown heard the dial tone. He had practiced this before, but now his heart thudded on his ribcage.
First step: the directory tree. The call connected.
The robotic voice played: “Welcome to the Rail Authority Directory. If you know your extension, please dial it now. Para espanol, oprima el numero-”
Brown punched the extension into the worn metal keypad.
“Maintenance and Control, this is Eric, what’s your crossing guard.”
Brown took in a mouthful of the hot air, and began.
“Yeah, Eric. This is Don Sannis, crossing guard 2042. I want to know when I can get my confirmation on the scheduling change.”
A pause on the other end. “Oookay, Don, what scheduling change is that?”
“We’re moving the herd back from grazing at 9:30 PM tonight. I put in that change two weeks ago, where is my confirmation?”
Another pause, the clack of keys. “I’m sorry, Don, I’m not seeing anything here for a change to the herd schedule. Please keep to the normal schedule until we resolve this.”
“God dammit!” shouted Brown. “I put in that order two weeks ago with Mazin’s direct instructions. I sent it to Jonas Desmond for confirmation, and he said he changed it. I have not heard anything back since then.”
Now Eric in Control had a problem. This was cleared with his department head, Jonas Desmond, who was on vacation in Fiji. If Brown were in Eric’s place, he would drop everything to verify this claim, but that kind of thinking got Brown reprimanded. Eric would know better than to think for himself.
“Oookay, Don, I-”
“Eric, your track crosses through the Mazin property. If you want to look up the contract, feel free to do so, but it clearly states we have the right to move our herd with notice. Well, I gave notice, two weeks ago, and if you don’t see it, then you need a better communication system.”
“We’re just trying to look out for your safety, Don.”
Brown gripped the slippery phone. “You drive a train through our farm, and you lecture us about safety. You know what? Never mind. I’ll let Mr. Mazin know you can’t get things organized. You should hear from our legal staff later tonight. Goodbye.”
Brown rubbed the phone against his uniform, hoping it might sound like a phone about to hang up. For a moment, he thought it might not work. Maybe he’d hoped for too much.
He heard a tiny voice in the speaker: “Wait, wait!”
Brown put the phone back to his ear. “Yes?”
“Don, I’m moving you ahead on the schedule. The J-Line will announce a delay between Colony and Arsenal Stations from 9:25 PM to 9:55 PM. The delay at 10 PM has been cancelled.”
Brown sighed. “Thanks, Eric. You saved my ass.”
“Don’t you mean your hide?”
“You betcha. Take care.”
Brown hung up, shaking. As he walked toward the lights of Union Station, he passed the boutique clothing stories of LoDo, and the dead-eyed mannequins looking down on him. His skin seemed to vibrate against the air. In two hours and fifty-three minutes, the lives of Brown and the Trash Man would be entangled, linked by the violent collision of elementary forces.
Colony Station, 9:59 PM. As he’d done many times before, Brown clicked his surveillance monitor to Channel Four. The grainy shape of the Trash Man occupied the frame. Though Brown was about to find out how the Trash Man made his exit, he never found out how he boarded without being seen.
Brown’s lips pulled back to a toothy scowl. Tonight, his chest held a dull, lumpy ache.
“For old time’s sake” Brown hissed, and he hit his intercom button.
“No trash bags” he said. “Please exit Car 4, sir.”
The image on the monitor didn’t move. Brown checked the green glyphs of the clock: 10:00 PM.
Brown waited for the green light on the station signal. He cycled the surveillance monitors, returning to his view of Car 4. The Trash Man was still waiting. Only the hum of the dashboard, and the rumble of planes taking off from the airport.
Brown raised an eyebrow and sighed. “Didn’t think so.”
The doors rolled shut.
The red eye went green. Brown hit the confirmation switch and released the brake. The J-Line rolled forward, and Colony Station receded behind them.
Brown had checked his prior route data for this part of the line. He’d averaged 17.4 miles per hour. Going faster would raise questions. So would going slower. So would setting the precise speed in the automatic controls. Brown had the experience. He held firm on the throttle, keeping it within two miles per hour of his average speed, faster here, slower here.
He thought of Cynthia. If only she could be here tonight. She’d appreciate how smart he was. Brown would win, Brown would win! What wonderful words. Each electrical pole they passed closed the distance to Mazin Farms.
Brown slowed for the blind corner ahead of the Mazin property line and tightened his safety belt. Just as the corner unwound, there it was. He could see the farmhands, pulling the odd ornery cow across the track, and looking up dumbfounded into the oncoming lights. They leapt and stumbled across the rail ties to the gravel shoulders, flailing their arms in a futile warning.
The first cow in the train’s path was a big ol’ beaut of a thing. The cow seemed to glow in the train’s headlamp, beyond it, the herd, a shapeless form at the edge of the light beam. On cue, Brown yanked on the horn. The cow froze in the horn’s wail, glowing brighter, wet, wild eyes gleaming.
In the instant before impact, Brown had the sudden realization that this was all real, this was not some dream to stew on while shuffling in the restroom line.
“Oh, shit” coughed Brown, and his body braced back in the seat as the beast filled his field of view.
The cow was reduced to an assortment of extremities. A violent shudder went through the whole train, making Brown’s wrists sting as he braced against the controls. He cursed and yanked the emergency brake. Brown was gripped tight by the safety belt, one shoulder slammed against the windshield. The whine of sparks and lowing cattle crowded around him, he heard screams behind the door. Some travelers were making a connection to the airport line, their luggage becoming projectiles, knocking between the handrails like pinballs. It took 500 feet for the train to stop, smoke and fire leaping from the screaming tracks.
When Brown was sure the train had stopped, he opened his eyes. The sound of the cattle was smothering. His shoulder was banged up, aching in its socket. He drew his fingers over his nose, felt blood. He fumbled for the emergency signal, made a quick message for the passengers to remain seated for first responders, and headed out into the cab.
It was worse than he thought. People had been hurt. He tried telling himself they’d be getting some very generous settlements. This was an accident, after all. Some misplaced paperwork. It was in the service of catching a dangerous menace.
Brown passed a grey-haired woman still holding to the overhead rubber strap in a vice grip. Her legs had given way, and she swung from the strap in a tiny arc.
“Ohhhh God,” she moaned, eyes frozen in the frame of the collison. “Ohhh, Jesuswhatwas
“‘Scuse me, ma’am” Brown said. He averted his eyes from hers, he could not look at those eyes right now. “Help will be here shortly.”
Brown gripped the latch to the rear door and pushed it down. He threw open the door to Car Four, and met the Trash Man for the first time.
The smell was execrable. It was like the mix of weed and portable toilets at a summer music festival. The Trash Man looked up from the floor, still stunned. One foot was caught in an armrest, twisted the wrong way.
The Trash Man’s eyelids fluttered, and his lips moved at voiceless words. His arms swung at the air ahead of him.
“Nice to meet you, Trash Man” said Brown.
The Trash Man said nothing back, just rolled his rotund body on the floor, eyes crossing as he strained to get up.
There was a pounding at the door. Brown whipped his head to the sound. Could the police be here already?
He stepped over, the pounding went on unabated. There were loud voices in what sounded like a chant. Brown reached for the emergency door release bar and pulled it open.
“Move, man, move!” cried a man in a gold suit. Brown was pushed out of the way, and the congregation stormed the train. Outside, he could see cars pulled between the farm fence and the train tracks.
With two waves of his hand, two thirds of the reverend’s followers split off to check the other cars.
“Saul” the reverend called out. He stepped past Brown like he hadn’t even seen him. “Saul, are you here?”
The reverend looked down, and seemed to take it all in at once: the Trash Man and his twisted leg.
“Ohhh” said the reverend, and he crouched down. “What has happened, my son?”
One hand reached out to touch the Trash Man’s scraggly face, but then, as if he hadn’t seen them before, he looked around at the trash bags. The reverend rose back to his full height, towering over Brown.
“Ohhhhhhhhh!” the reverend cried, his mouth curling around in agony. Convulsive arms moved towards his head, his fingers tapped at his lips.
His followers, mostly women, followed suit, the car filled with a choir of shrieking and wailing, faces distorted with groans until they looked like wax figures melting under a sun lamp.
Brown could see the reverend swaying, he fell against a kinked hand bar, the gold jacket tore open across the back. Brown could only stare on as their voices broke, and they tore at their faces with their fingernails.
“Suh-sir” Brown stammered, “This train is experiencing an emergency. You’ll- you’ll need to step off the train and let first responders through.”
Brown threw his hands to his side. Can a man not have his moment of triumph?
“Sir!” he snapped.
The reverend didn’t listen. Instead, he shuffled toward the fetid plastic bags. Tears were running down his face and dripping into his open mouth. He stooped over and reached into one of the plastic bags. Brown heard the tinkling of broken glass.
As the reverend lifted the object from the trash bag, and all eyes converged on it, Brown could not understand. The smell of the preservatives was making him dizzy, and what he saw blanched his face and curdled his blood.
The reverend lifted the tiny fetus over his head. The preservative fluid ran down his arms, staining the sleeves of his suit.
“All for you, Lord!” he cried, “All for you! Look at the evil men have done!”
He looked down at the Trash Man. His snakeskin shoe delivered a kick to the Trash Man’s ribs. The Trash Man responded with a wet grunt.
The reverend shook a finger. “Fool! You should have packed them better!”
Brown could barely register a reaction as he looked down into the trash bags. He saw the reverend had plenty more to choose from.
He looked up and around at the wailing congregation, their arms flailing to the fluorescent overhead lights.
“We’ll have to get new ones” said the reverend.
The red glare of police lights scanned across the train car as Brown backed away.
The next cable news cycle was well-served by the events of that night. The mugshot of the reverend, and his toady, the Trash Man, could be seen pasted to signs at protests and vigils across the nation. The Trash Man had been the icon of evil for Brown, but to the public, he became known as a homeless convict, who had done time for burglary. He had made $400 stealing medical waste from the family planning clinic over two months, to be used in future protests. An Arkansas statesman running for President said the man’s theft of the fetal remains made him a hero for troubled times. Several members of the Church of the Seven Churches were sent to jail, and the church built a tent city across from the correctional facility, keeping vigil over their heroes.
The Rail Authority had a call-recording system, but only for complaints. The call from the pay phone was tied to a recent wave of “Swatting”, prank calls meant to bring a police response. Brown escaped suspicion, and the Rail Authority paid out millions to the passengers, and Mazin Farms.
The mayor and the rail authority chief pinned a medal on Brown for his quick action in the collision. There had been four concussions, broken collarbones, compressed discs, and of course, the Trash Man’s twisted leg left him with a crook in his walk, but nobody had died. On the black-and-white newsprint, in blogs and local news spotlights, Brown became the working-class icon that united people of all walks of life.
Brown let the adoration go ignored. He’d given his heart and soul into laying his trap for the Trash Man. He’d risked his own safety to see him cornered like the filth he personified. In total, he’d spent two minutes with him. Brown didn’t even have the chance to wrench an answer from his nemesis.
Now, the Trash Man belonged to everybody. His face was captivating, and traveled far online. He was no longer the enemy of Brown, and all things clean, he was a public enemy, the subject of long essays in magazines. He didn’t belong to Brown, he belonged to everyone who had heard of his infamous crime.
The Colony Station was reborn. A new developer bought the suburbs and pushed forward. Millennials crowded the train. The Trash Man affair ensured that the line was well-staffed with security.
Without the Trash Man, Brown was restless. He couldn’t help but check the cabin monitors at every possible chance, hoping to find the Trash Man’s successor.
When Brown got home, he passed by his framed awards for apprehending the Trash Man. In the shower, he rolled through the images he’d seen in the monitor: the cock of a head, a man with his hood pulled up, the skateboarder with one hand on his front pocket. What was in the pocket? Drugs? A knife? A gun? Which of his passengers would come after his train next? As weeks passed, he resolved to narrow down the suspects to the last.
He found his men three weeks later, in the biting chill of December: two regular riders who boarded at Broadway.
Too shifty, Brown thought, too quiet. Not up to anything- yet.
“I see you, hooligans” Brown shouted into the microphone. On the monitor, he saw the two men look up, trying to find the source of his voice.
The brakes slowed the train to a hissing stop at the Downtown Hub. Brown glowered at the monitor, teeth chattering.
“Don’t you move” he said to the microphone. Brown had five minutes to get the train cleaned, pick up the juice cups, the discarded passes, the occasional used diaper from someone who should not have passed on their genes. After that, he had to send the train back down south.
He has time, Brown thought to himself. He locks the cabin door behind him and looks through the open doors. There they are, he said to himself. Two men headed for the stadium.
He leaped onto the platform, bracing against the cold. The men were headed past the station, to a narrow sidewalk next to a construction site. It felt wrong to Brown. The station was well-lit, street lights that glowed orange, yellow, and purple, from the different upgrades over the years. The walkway was dark.
Brown walked faster. Someone new had come for his train. There would always be someone to take that train away from him.
Brown passed beyond the glow of the station lights. The train sat idling at the platform, passengers still boarding, shivering in their winter coats. Only a few could have heard the raspy voice coming from the concrete walkway…
“Don’t think you can get away from me!”
The W Line to Colony was late that night. In the coming weeks, when a trucker moaned at the price of diesel, or a working mom got her card declined at the supermarket, they would say the same thing:
“Just like that train conductor in Denver. No good deed goes unpunished.”
Brown was found at the bottom of a cold stairwell two blocks from the stadium, curled into a bleeding ball with no wallet.
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TEXT © Nicholas Bernhard
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