Tom Sheehan ~ Two Old Ladies Contend with an Obsolete Freight Car

“I swear by all that’s holy, Agnes, I saw smoke coming off that old decrepit freight car down there where the railroad left it behind when they pulled out, and it sure ain’t fog.” Her hands-on-hip stance was pure declaration, and understood by her twin sister.

Audrey Standish was pointing out to her sister, down across the abandoned stretch of railroad tracks of the old Saugus Branch Railroad Company, to the lone, deserted freight car whose logo had faded into history, the Saugus Branch with it too. “Hasn’t been a toot down there in years, but the firemen were there a few weeks ago and Harry at the store said kids had tossed a lit bundle way up on the roof of it, maybe trying to burn down the last freight car seen around here since Tut wore spectacles.”

Joy at her imagery was obvious to both ladies, the stretch tenable and measurable in the face of recent attempts. Audrey one time called it “Bits of writing on the run,” and the adage hung on for long use, sometimes prodding elegance for them.

Agnes replied, “I bet that shabby donkey’s older than we are. It was there the first time I came around the corner after George went off exploring the wrong end of the world. Was that ’48, Audrey? I can’t remember. He’s been gone so long it don’t count no more.” They might as well have tickled each other again at that point.

Each of the sisters clung assiduously to the common vernacular in speech and the statement it made for them, as if bi-personalities flourished freely, at whim and will with each of them.

Agnes fluffed her hair again, a thick bun of it that looked comfortable on her back as she walked across their room on the second floor of an early and sumptuous turn-of -the-century brownstone, the last century, the whole place called Appledeck, once owned by the Lord of Apples of the Northeast, Audrey’s first husband’s father, both the husband and the father long gone downhill, and her retaking her family name, as had her sister Audrey, each of them holding dearly the name ever so tightly, like Honor’s due.

Both of them hid their small faults with a sense of ease (a small pimple, a fold of facial skin, a mold as slight as possible, a neck blotch) as if they didn’t believe in them at all or at first glance, carried their slight frames with an ageless ease, preserved by purposeful inner garments, adding bonus to outer presentation with the same type tools of the trade and age that women have made excellent use of for centuries.

“He wasn’t in any hurry either, Agnes,” Audrey continued. “We both remember that. Hung on like molasses on the edge, ‘fraid to let go of you, knowing you’d be coming here to live with me and we’d be bound to talk about him forever. Oh, we are the pair, aren’t we?” The chuckle was a twin’s chuckle, a twin’s approach to punctuation, a twin’s shot at persons of the past. They’d been exact twins in so many ways for all their 87 years.

The ladies exhibited much energy and good looks in their old days, the way some beauties can manipulate and crush these forces to themselves as good as ownership.

Audrey went right back to the topic of the abandoned freight car. “They ought to get rid of that monstrosity, ‘s’all I can say, except those wild kids might do it yet if we give ’em enough time and space. They can get things done when they want to, them being their own locomotives and hot to trot.”

Agnes giggled anew. “The next time we see any smoke, we aren’t calling the fire department. Let it get going enough to burn right down to the tracks they don’t even use any more. ‘Member when we used to go all the way into Boston on a train almost stopped at our front door, especially on the way back?” She licked her lips in a comic gesture that both of them employed at times where the hyperverbal was wanted and would be marked as nearly visible.

“A movie, dinner, catch the last train home. Good times with the good boys, the ones that never tried to fool around …”

“And the ones whose names we can’t remember.”

The laughter was creaky but solid. “‘Member that Charlie from Chelsea wanted to share both of us. Would have worked if Georgie only hurried a little quicker on his way out to his topsy-turvy adventuring.”

The two elder ladies were speaking about an old boxcar on an old abandoned railroad siding beside an also abandoned lumber company yard, Clifton Woodworking, Inc., on a section near Denver Street. The freight car’s been bolted/locked/welded shut for years, impervious to theft, rot or disappearance, as far as anybody knows, including most likely the man who last snapped the doors tight some 30 years earlier.

“Look at that article we saved from the Globe, Agnes. That was only one year after our ’47 graduation, but the old line was too curvy for them even then, as they seemed to say, gave them reason for the shutdown.” She shook her head in wonder and her thin white hair flew around, tossed the way feathers would fly. “We got 90 to get to, dear, so let’s not go too fast, and let someone who’s still full of fun catch up to us.”

“Like we were, deary. Like we were. And you still take the cake.”

The temperature dropped a few days later and as the two ladies were watching the 10:00 o’clock TV news, Audrey switched her gaze toward the idle tracks, staring with awed attention at the ancient freight car.

“Agnes, it’s there again, the smoke, on the old freight car, like it’s going straight up from Hell and nothing in the way. It’s near white, too, like Pa’s Christmas fires used to be, right off the top of his chimney like celebrating whiteness all the way around the block.”

A momentary recollection passed through both ladies, as silence eased it on its way through their memory banks, alert, awake, awaiting each tap of recall, the pictures coming along with each incident risen from the past.

“We ought to keep a closer eye on it, Audrey. I’m of the mind some hobos are living in it. Some of them old boys they found living in tents on the far side of the cemetery, the ones come home from Europe and the crazy Pacific and no place to get to, no house of their own, like their ladies run off with someone else while they were gone off to war, crueler than the war was.”

“You got a thing for any one of them, Agnes, them poor lost critters?”

“Any two of them or even a few of them, lookin’ at the clock so to speak.” She rubbed a portion  of her thigh with an almost casual interpretation.

“We are twins at the go, honey. Me feeling the same way, and not for the first time. Let’s really watch to see if anybody’s living in that old monstrosity. I’m going up into the attic or down cellar to find some field glasses old wanderin’ George kept near him, me never really knowin’ what for all that time.

It was not a week later, Agnes owning the glasses like a Christmas gift every night, that she exclaimed to her sister, “I damned well knew it, Audrey. There are two gents living down there in that old freight car.”

“They any good-looking, honey. Should we get ’em to guest up here with us, give themselves a break, put that old freighter at rest, us at some new kind of old excitement. For land’s sake, girl, what have you been gluing your face to all these nights. Are they companionable? That’s all I ask, Are they companionable?”

The question sounded old hat in a hurry, the umpteenth time she had expressed her loneliness for male company in any order, any time, but plain companionable from the outset.

She shook her dress and said, “I have to take this in at a few places, catch my old self at my best. You, too, girl. We put on the best show we can while we can. Give ’em a choice at us and then choose what excitement they got life for, if we’re lucky.”

They slapped hands in the middle of the room, possible joys at or near bubbling.

Audrey, at a particular measurement, said, “You’re old woman childish, honey and it looks damned good on you.”

Agnes faked a toast for the moment: “To those men or to those who roust them from their sanctity of place, an old freight car full of dreams we hope, us having enough of our own.”

“How do they get inside? We’ve never seen those doors open.”

Agnes replied casually. “I’ve seen a flashlight at night, under the bottom of the freighter, like they have a way up into the car from underneath, like a trap door nobody’s ever looked for. We could shake them up, make them nervous  before we sneak them up here, make ’em sure at home once we get them showered down and such. Don’t have much of that down there, I’d bet.”

“Let’s get a couple of new tooth brushes next time at the store, so we don’t mix them up with ours. Let ’em mix up with something else.’

“Like where Georgie never wanted to go, but straight up from his own Hell.”

“Or straight down.”

“You should be a tour director or carry a pointer to show the way to the little boys’ room,” she uttered with a condescending acceptance,” and immediately adding, “Or the big boys’ room.”

“I tell you again, dear sister, we got everything going for us; a big house, a small fortune, and a need for comfort and companionship of the first need of the day.” Her judgment was swift, when she said, “We got nobody to leave anything to or for. Nobody and nothing ever, lessing it be one sweet heart in the whole world finds us before it’s too late.

“Let’s try picking on those boys down there, or those gents spending nights in an old train. They got to be on their last dime. Let’s get them up here and we’ll have some enjoyment all the way around.”

“They need baths all the way around, you can bet on that.”

“Hell, girl, we could bathe a dozen of them in a couple of swishes in the three bathrooms we have and hardly ever use the other two. What nobody knows, nobody cares.”

“You’re cooking already,  Hon, so you ought to go right at dinner for four.”

“You are a number, girl. A number. They’ll love you to pieces.” With that, the two hugged in a semi-ridiculous celebration of reality in their mix and midst.

“They’ll last until his nibs ever comes back and then we’ll tell him to shove off again, the cupboards now full, Bozo.”

They spent the afternoon in hysterics, spoken dreams, odd participations, “like the whole world’s coming after us, sister of mine, top bitch, giver of orders, mistress of awed ways, calibrations, out with the new and in with the old.”

Agnes said finally, “We have to go down there and get in that box car, which seems unlikely at our age, or those gents have to be hauled up here or called up here. We have to have some way to get them up here where we know they’d be better off than they are now, just as we would by having some men around, the kind that don’t go off to do their exploring but get it done on the premises, our premises. She cupped herself in memory.

Both ladies went rapturous in giggles, Audrey saying, “I’m glad you’re my sister, sis.” She added, but we have to have a way of getting word to them, and I have an idea. We start a small fire down there and pass a not to Charlie Parkinson’s son on the fire department when they arrive on site, and they always answer the call. I met him a few times and I know he’d help us out, and with a big wink too.”

It was a pure moment of thought and calculation, and measurements by the very gods when Agnes blurted the challenge of the ages: “There’s no way we cannot contend with an old down-and-out freight car for the favors of two gentlemen who just might be the salt of the earth except for the accidents and pains of all sorts that come about in this life. It’s history in the making and we’d be in on the ground floor, every square inch of it we can use.”

She licked her lips when Audrey patted her on the back and said, “Finders, Keepers, sis. Finders, Keepers.”

So these two sisters, their energies stoked by wonder and hope, gathered brush and dry grass and lit a fire beside the freight car and soon there came the firemen and Chuckie Parkinson in his helmet and big fire coat and black boots accepting their slyly slipped note along with a few measured words: “Chuckie, do us a favor,” Agnes said, sidling close to him, “for up under that freight car is a hidden entrance leading to where two gentlemen live. Please give this note to them as a secret from us and tell them that we ladies lit the fire and we expect them up on the hill before morning comes along. We’ll be waiting on them.”

There was a humorous but acquiescent look on his face when he said, “Sure, Ma’am, “I’ll take care of that for you ladies. Dad always said you two women had the good spirits and the best of intentions. He remarked on it several times over his late years, as I recall. He had that good glow in his eyes until the last day.” He exhibited a cautious pause, looked about him, the small and harmless fire put out, slipped the note in his pocket and said, “You ladies can go back home now. I’ll be sure to take care of things for you.”

The look on his face held its place, and Agnes and Audrey Standish, from a long line of Colonial settlers and developers of land grants of varying magnitudes, signaled a neighborhood friend, at the wheel of his roadster, who drove them back to their home on Standish Hill. Agnes had earlier declared, “The walk down hill, Hon, is a piece of cake, but we’ll have to finagle a ride back home. Should be easy for a pair of dames on the loose.”

A few hours later, the good humor of the sisters was immediately visible when they opened the door with outlandish hats on their heads, clothespins on their noses, clad in their finest housecoats, each one holding a small basket containing soap, wash clothes, towels, and a change of clothes, from inner to outer layers for, of certitude, their expected company.

Hilarity of a certain degree was affixed at their door, breaking down all kinds of resistance.

Agnes spoke first, saying to one of them, after close scrutiny, “You follow me, buster, before I even know your name, and Audrey will lead your pal to another bathroom. We have three of them, for your information, if you’re interested. Do your very best, both of you, to make the best use of them, head to toe, front to back, in and out, all over without missing a single spot. You deserve it and, I can’t repeat it more forcefully, so do we.”

Each of the ladies thrust the basket in her hands to one of the men, apparently each gesture signifying their personal selection of one of the guests as “her special visitor,” with “special liberties and rights” attached to her selection. Either of the sisters might have called it “Love on the Loose.”

For the first time in a week and a half of Sundays, the Standish sisters did not see their twin sister for one free moment to compare goods, swap extremes, score their delightful activities, or unfold their destinies though for that period of time they were able to hear the screams and shouts of long delights and pure satisfaction among the brethren, from both sides of the aisle and the overhead accommodations attached and reached by separate and ornate stairways rising in sumptuous glories nearing venerable heaven’s infinite gratuities.

The hellos were long gone between couples as affairs developed keen attractions in spite of the source of beginnings.

“Professor George Hustings,” Agnes announced to Audrey one morning, “was kicked out of college based on a pack of lies, lost his professorship, refused to fight for his pension he was so angry, been on the streets all this time, about 12 years worth of nothing until now. We’re going to get married, and the sooner the better. I can’t tell you what he’s done for me, and what I’ve done for him in this short time.”

“We’re still working it, girl,” Audrey said, “still moving on the high road for me and my own railroad man, I’ll have you know. He was a policeman who accidentally shot and killed a young man thought bent on thievery, and was summarily dropped from the police force, his weapon retracted from him, and walked off to anonymity. It’s been a nine-year haul for him, but we’ve found resolution.”

There was a clicking in her throat behind spoken words. Her eyes were aglitter and aglow, as she added, “No need going into superlatives, but he’s been there and back every time since, and I’m the benefactress if such a term be used for the good side of eternity ground into the flesh of this here good old Earth.”

Her hug around the smiling ex-cop had already imprisoned him in due place.

Of course, the Standish mansion on the hill was thrown open to the town only a few weeks later, two days after the old freight car was burned to its wheels, still standing in place but nowhere to go, even on a downhill-grade of tracks of the old Saugus Branch Railroad Company, the ways and means gone forever, except the new kind of old memories getting a new kick-start… for however short the new run might be.

 

Tom Sheehan is the author of Jehrico ~ Many Tales of a Mexican Boy Finding His Way in the Old West, now available in quality paperback from Hammer & Anvil Books. He writes from Saugus, Massachusetts.

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