BY B.J. BEST
Be careful of the trains, my boss said to me after I completed my training. I stared. Hooo-whooo, she said, imitating the mournful sound of a far-off locomotive. I instinctually tilted my head, wore dreamy eyes. She clapped her hands sharply, then gave me a hard look that said, Be careful of the trains.
I began work as a Cliché Installer. I was more reliable than the cable TV guy. That was the company’s motto: We’re more reliable than the cable TV guy, the unreliability of the cable TV guy itself being a cliché.
We provided vultures for people lost in deserts. Yellow traffic lights with police cars sitting on just the other side of them. Inside-out umbrellas for city-goers on blustery days, and for the newspapermen who photographed them. Candles for romantic dinners. Cigarettes (we had a very favorable agreement with Philip Morris) for post-coital lovers.
We had a cadre of scientists. The daily functions of the operation were nearly inconceivable. We had a dedicated logistics team just to manage the travel of our stable of actors. How else are you going to make sure the wailing aunt in the too-short dress gets to her five funerals, while also ferrying the ditzy bikini blonde from beach to beach to pool party? Once we even had to take her to a grocery store. “A woman in a bikini in a grocery store is not a cliché,” we told the client, but the client complained long and loud enough (the customer is always right), so there she was, all nipples and gooseflesh and shivering by the ice cream, and then she caught a cold and had to miss a week of law school.
Some technology was classified, of course. Other solutions seemed so obvious: we had a warehouse of rainbows, packed in tight by an arduous system of cranes and gantries. But no one knew how to get them back out to deploy them for anniversaries or graduations, until one scientist went home and brought back her old pair of roller skates.
Slowly, I got tired of putting pictures of children in traveling businessmen’s wallets, beer in the hands of seventeen-year-olds behind barns. And all the stagehand’s machinery—ropes, pulleys, counterweights—to handle the management of the moon.
I never knew there were tracks near my house. But one night, unable to sleep, I heard the distant moaning. Hooo-whooo. It was so low and wistful. Hooo-whooo. It made me think of third grade, or of Paris, even though I’d never been. Slowly at first, then night after night. Hooo-whooo. Its call was like a siren, in both senses of the word, and by then I was fully conversant in the installation of omens.
I told my boss half-regretfully that I had to quit. It’s the trains, isn’t it, she said from her desk. She gave me a sad look, then stood up as if to shake my hand. She saw my new cowboy boots, my vintage stickered valise. She opened a manila folder and handed me the ticket she had already purchased in my name.
B.J. BEST is the author of three books, most recently But Our Princess Is in Another Castle, a collection of prose poems inspired by video games. He has recently published flash fiction in Pleiades, Moon City Review, and The Cossack Review. I got off the train at Ash Lake, a verse novella, is forthcoming from sunnyoutside. He lives in Wisconsin.