BY MARY KURYLA
In the corner of the basement Mike’s stepfather had installed a large table constructed from 4’ x 4’ sections of plywood for the display of a Lionel Train engine that mounted steep papier mache alps to a church in a grotto, chugging on through green pastures, around a painted pond to the contented village beyond, at which point the tracks swerved and dropped down into a small town busy with milk deliveries and iron works and a sweetshop below a second floor office supply where Mike worked when he wasn’t otherwise engaged in watching his elderly mother die.
—— + + + ——
At a standstill, that’s how Mike had found the town. But ever since he’d replaced the knuckle coupler on the locomotive, business was booming. No big deal, hardly deserving of the keys to the city! Hadn’t the townsfolk already bestowed upon him the finest house on Main Street, the mansion’s white columns heralding bygone eras? Rumor had it that the roof of the mansion was hinged and could be opened up to the sky. Mike told the townsfolk there were easier ways to catch him in flagrante.
That got a big laugh. Folks in this town knew about funny. Kidding around got you respect. Respect meant something to a guy starting again from scratch.
—— + + + ——
Mike’s mother was running on the ancient treadmill — again. Soon as he stepped out of the basement, she started up the thing. Mike warned of the potential hazards, of power surges, of loose connections.
His mother’s sneakered foot tapped the basement carpet spongy as mushroom litter. What did he know about treadmills, she wanted to know?
Why, he was the guy who could fix anything. He put the mach in machine.
Sometimes Mike’s good humor missed the mark. Sometimes his good humor even unfastened his mother’s tight tongue. The treadmill was not what needed fixing. Mike needed fixing. Isn’t that what he came here do? In her day, when a body got laid off, a body looked for a job.
—— + + + ——
But Mike already had his work cut out for him. It was no easy thing to make the pretty Miss Floss laugh.
Mike rapped his knuckles on the glass candy counter in the sweetshop. Miss Floss automatically opened the counter’s sliding door and commenced scooping yellow twists of cellophaned candy from a tub. How high her fine tight derriere rode.
Mike told Miss Floss to keep her candy.
Miss Floss straightened. Scooper poised, she gave him a questioning look. A butterscotch slid into the gaping bag. Mike explained that he’d returned in order to care for his ailing mother, never expecting to be so pleasantly surprised by Miss Floss here. Miss Floss tilted her head and blinked.
—— + + + ——
His mother was back in the basement, pounding the treadmill. But the minute he stretched out on the sofa bed, she leaned over the handrail to nag him about stripping off dirty sheets, about putting on fresh ones.
Yes, ma’am, whatever she needed. Obviously a middle-aged son had no reason to move into his mother’s basement unless she required constant care. If she preferred to make out that she was doing him the favor, no harm done. The harm was in this endless treadmilling. What was she getting in shape for? She already ran his life. He should unplug the thing.
—— + + + ——
Instead Mike tried with flowers. He’d seen their blue from the train the day he arrived. Early this morning he’d chugged back up to the Alps to where they sprouted in ready-made bouquets. Miss Floss was sure to bury her flat little nose in the blooms.
But when he produced it from behind his back, Miss Floss snatched the bouquet from his outstretched hand and thrust it in a drawer. Not so much as a sniff.
Rumor had it that Miss Floss moonlighted as Chief of Scenic Enhancement for the railway. Bad move, Mike, plucking bouquets off the Alps. Okay, he screwed up, add it to the resume: Mike O’Malley, pilferer of flowers. The important thing was did Miss Floss know what kind of flowers they were?
Miss Floss bent over, slid open the cabinet of sweets and reached in for a butterscotch. Tossing the cellophane, she popped it into her mouth. How capably she rolled the candy on her tongue. After lengthy rumination, she shook her head.
When Mike told her they were blue floss, in the language of flowers a symbol of painful recollections, Miss Floss’ eyes squeezed shut. But the more she pushed down the laughter, the more pressure built up in her until the butterscotch shot from her lips. Mike just had time to duck. Good thing the sweetshop windows were plastic — or else.
Miss Floss opened up the drawer, took back out the bouquet, snapped off a bloom, and stuck it with a pin to her hat. Who could stay mad long with Mike around?
—— + + + ——
Mike’s mother was busting steam. How fusty the basement smelled since he’d set up camp! Had he ever heard of opening a window? Or maybe it was jammed. But, wait, wasn’t he the guy who could fix anything?
Mike lurched back from the train track he’d been redirecting and plopped onto the sofa bed. Tugging the pillow out from under him, he used a corner to wipe his hot brow.
Meantime, his mother snapped on the overhead fluorescents and switched off the power on the train set, pointing out that Mike had never played with trains as a kid. She parked a dry hand on his shoulder. Did he want to speak to someone about his new…interest? Her doctor, for example? She snatched up the pillow. The pattern of blue floss against the white background on the pillowcase had once been pretty, but sweat stains and drool and god knows what else now marred the fabric. She planned to wash it if Mike ever woke up.
Woke up? There was no shuteye with his mother’s eternal treadmilling.
Shuteye had become a big subject with Mike since his marriage derailed. Maybe Mike would like to speak to her doctor about that?
Derailed? Well, two could play that game. Rumor had it that Mike’s ex phoned daily to check on him. What his ex never understood was that he had a vision. A vision made a man vulnerable. He needed a woman of strong character to bring up the rear.
—— + + + ——
Oh, happy day! Miss Floss had accepted his proposal of marriage. Wedding gifts were already rolling in from the townsfolk. But Mike was the one who should be giving gifts to the folks in town. And really. Paper clips from the office supply and butterscotches from the sweetshop. But why stop there? The town needed new delivery trucks, street lamps, and telephone poles. Time to do business with the big guys. Hang on, he could give the folks here a town, a new town! Put up a schoolhouse with a playground, assemble woodland scenics of cedar trees, 9 per box, and crack open a caribou pack. For the hoboes and the out of work, he’d order bungalows. Not everybody could go back to his mother. The things he could give them — a trestle bridge, a stone culvert, a town hall! What about all the wedding gifts coming in? Time to build that loading platform, align the tracks, lubricate the loco’s wheels, replace toggle switches and worn couplings. But not every coupling could be replaced — his tie to his mother, for example. That woman was a dynamo! Speaking of steam, he’d trick out the train engine with a whistle sound gadget that made real smoke. How was that for service? But Mike had more to offer than just parts and repair. He had a vision. He could do anything. Be anything. He would be mayor of this town.
—— + + + ——
Mike was running on the treadmill when his mother stepped into the basement. Though old, the treadmill performed well. Selling it would solve a lot of problems, along with providing some much-needed shuteye. Would she mind if he posted a want ad?
The only business Mike had with want ads was the employment section, his mother informed him as she elbowed onto the machine.
Well, if his mother wasn’t open to reason then she had better open her checkbook. Mike intended to do business with the big guys. That meant laying out cash to buy the necessary parts and pieces to upgrade the town.
Cash? Don’t talk to her about cash. She’d been laying out plenty of it since Mike showed up. What Mike needed was a financial plan. Ever heard of a little restraint? Show some initiative beyond tinkering with model trains, and maybe she’d set up a weekly allowance.
—— + + + ——
Mike hunched over the sink in the second floor office supply restroom. He drank glass after glass from the tap as Miss Floss placed a hand on his back, pat, pat, pat. His pajamas were drenched. He couldn’t sleep. She picked up the empty bottle of prescription pills and made a face.
Mike was troubled by dreams in which his mother was plotting to take over the town. This was no joke. There was a major celebration to plan for. The town wasn’t prepared for the flood of incoming wedding guests. Why, he still hadn’t redirected the train tracks to accommodate overflow. Here Mike was, at long last invested with the power he’d sought, and his mother threatened to undo it all.
His fiancé adjusted the blue floss pinned to her hat. The curtains rattled on their rods. The morning train was speeding into town.
—— + + + ——
Wait! Pull brakes! Lower the crossing gate! Stop the train! The tracks, they hadn’t been redirected. Too late. A couple of locomotives smacked head on. What a mess. Derailed cars formed an X with no center. Passengers flung from cars lay inert on the ground. Townsfolk encircled the injured, hands lifeless at their sides. Men bearing a casualty froze at either end of the stretcher. In a tangle of traces, horses stalled beside the wheel of a tipped dairy wagon. Busted jugs pooled gluey skins of milk. An entire rail car pierced the sweetshop’s window.
Someone was nudging Mike from behind in hard mechanical thrusts.
Why, it was Miss Floss. Her hand shot above her head, launching the hat off her head. Like a railway signalman, her index finger jabbed at something behind him.
Mike turned from the wreckage to find his mother splayed on the treadmill, her small head askew, the unblinking eyes reflecting fluorescence, her limbs animated solely by the unremitting cycling of the belt.
Pat, pat, pat, again Miss Floss’s hand was on his back, gentler this time. Mike must help his mother. She handed him a phone. Call 911.
But the town! Mike must save it! All those folks hurt and helpless on the rails. Now more than ever he must restore the town. Mike felt a squeeze on his esophagus. Would Miss Floss be so kind as to bring water for his hiccups?
But Miss Floss could no longer fetch water from the tap. She was caught in the motion of signaling. It had only been through some build up of pressure that she’d managed to activate at all. She was winding down, evanescing by the second.
Mike wasn’t worried. Miss Floss would come around — good as new — once she saw the recovery plan the new mayor would implement now that he had access to funds. Time they all got the town they deserved.
Mary Kuryla’s collection Freak Weather Stories was selected by Amy Hempel for AWP’s 2016 Grace Paley Prize in Short Fiction. Freak Weather Stories is out October 2017 with University of Massachusetts Press. Kuryla’s stories have received The Pushcart Prize and the Glimmer Train Very Short Fiction Prize. They’ve appeared in Epoch, Witness, Greensboro Review, Pleiades, New Orleans Review, Copper Nickel, The Normal School and Alaska Quarterly Review. Her award-winning films have premiered at Sundance and Toronto. She’s written screen adaptations for United Artists and MGM. Kuryla was a scholar at New York Summer Writers Conference and a Margaret Bridgeman Scholar in Fiction at Bread Loaf Writers Conference. She is at work on the novel Stay and a novel-in-documents called The Onawayans.
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