More on Alyson Hagy's "Brief Lives of the Trainmen" from her collection, Ghosts of Wyoming (Graywolf Press).
As I mentioned last week, I like Alyson Hagy's "Brief Lives of the Trainmen" even better than "Border." I hadn't thought of the accumulated vignettes as flash fiction, Dan, but that makes sense. Each vignette is self-contained. I agree with John's point about this story building by accumulation. Strung together artfully in this particular order, they build in power.
One of the few recurring characters is the cook. She appears in the first scene, rousting the Callboy ‘with the ring of her iron ladle across the brake spring." He dresses, using a rope that was a gift of the cook to belt his woollen trousers. "She used it to lead the pig before she butchered him."
The cook has a powerful effect on most of the trainmen.
Ode Redfern and an engineer, Joe Hanna, fry eggs on a shovel held over the boiler's fire (good touch, that). "The cook sells them eggs at an exorbitant price. They don't dare complain about her."
The transitman is unable to procure eggshells from the cook to clarify his coffee.
Billy Dolph gets up early in hopes of snagging two breakfasts, but the cook is on to him.
Joe Hanna mistakes the cook's rooster for a prairie cock and shoots it. "The cook must be placated."
Lafayette Rule, the brakeman, has the last word in this story. He witnesses the cook "beating some young fool with a tent stake amid cries of robbery and murder." The story grows and grows, will have "ten verses and chorus once the rail gangs slaver into it." And so the speculations about what riled up the cook sends the story into its soaring ending. Read aloud, its rhythms are gorgeous:
O creation, thinks Lafayette Rule, as he fingers his vest pocket for the tidy sum he owes the whiskey trader. There will be spirit to spare over the cards tonight. Despite the absence of eggs in the hash, there will be laughter and roaring in the dark. And how else might a fellow wish to end his day if he must in this wilderness of industry and theft? We are Liberty's living fuse, snorts Lafayette Rule to himself. We are miscreant hands on the Diviner's line.