The Derailment of the Mikado

Ten minutes before the program was scheduled to begin, the Mikado rested on its side—black, sleek, and quiet. The technician stood on a stool, leaning in over the Plexiglas which enclosed the exhibit, his perch precarious. “That train was off the track the last time we came here,” Jason said. He and his mother sat in the small gray exhibition booth, waiting. Dust filled the air, mixing with the odor of smoke and electricity.

“Mom, do you think they’ll run them all today? I’ve never seen all the trains run at the same time.”

The technician overheard the boy and shook his head, smiling. “Not today, I’m afraid. I’m trying to get the Mikado running, so I’ve got to keep my eye on her.”

Trains were Jason’s passion, and those at the B & O Museum ran like real trains, with stoplights, switches, and whistles. Although Jason was only nine, he knew the whole story of Tom Thumb and how the train had defeated a horse. He had his own train set that he’d constructed with his parents. It was permanently set up in the basement of what was now his mother’s house. When visitors came to the front door, they could often hear the faint whir of an engine coming from the basement.

Now his mother touched the black hair at his temples, smoothing it down. She wore a plaid skirt and a red sweater, with her hair pulled back from her face in a gold barrette. She resembled a schoolgirl in uniform, except that the red of the sweater was probably too bright. If the technician turned around, he would see her blue eyes resting on the clock.

“It will be about five minutes, folks, and then we’ll be ready to begin,” he said, his long arms still dangling inside the Plexiglas, his fingers gently rubbing the tracks. “If you’re wondering why we only run the trains for the first ten minutes of the hour and half hour, it’s because this is an old train set, and the tracks get really heated up. We’re trying to guard against damage.” As he began to climb down from his perch, his brown corduroy pants tightened at the seams. He crouched on the seat of the stool, poised like a human gargoyle, before stepping to the floor. Other people filled the stands, and a tall man seated himself in front of Jason, blocking his view.

“Mom,” he whispered. “Can I go in the front row?”

She nodded and swallowed. She reached a hand up, held it in the air, suspended above his shoulder, and then brushed her fingers against his neck. “I’ll stay here,” she said.

Jason looked down for a moment, his face in shadow as he appeared to study the floor. When he lifted his chin, the light from overhead captured the smooth planes of his face. He gave his mother a slight smile and touched the hand that rested in her lap.

“You go ahead,” she said.

He nodded and turned, moving quietly to the front row.

Only five or six kids populated the small exhibition stand, not too many for a Saturday afternoon, but with their parents, they filled the benches. Jason’s mom had to look between a man with a red beard and a woman with triangular earrings and a long graceful neck to see Jason’s dark hair in the first row. His hands gripped the rail in front of him.

The technician climbed up to the engineer’s booth, a young Wizard of Oz above them all, his head emerging from the top of the booth. “Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen,” he said. “Welcome to the finest model train layout in the country.”

Jason turned and smiled at his mother. She raised her eyebrows and rolled her eyes to make him laugh.

The technician’s narrative was unfamiliar to many of the observers, and they gasped when the man in corduroys told them that it would cost $350,000 to reproduce the model today.

“It doesn’t look that big,” one man mumbled to his wife.

“It doesn’t look that big, does it?” the technician said to the audience. “But when things function properly, we can run six freight trains and three passenger trains through here.” He smiled. “Of course, we have our share of derailments. But even though these are only models, we like to take a professional attitude toward our trains, and any wreck troubles us. Today, I’m working through a problem with the Mikado – the ‘Mike’ as she was affectionately known in the twenties, thirties, and forties, during the height of her popularity. Also known as the #4400, she proved quite a versatile train, used for pusher service as well as high-iron passenger service before being retired in the late forties and early fifties.” He surveyed the audience, and a slight proud grin overtook his face. “Quite a looker, isn’t she?”

The audience murmured in appreciation at the black vehicle moving slowly over the tracks. Jason nodded his head.

When the technician started the trains, a series of loud clicks filled the quiet, and then the trains began to hum on the tracks, moving slowly at first and then picking up speed as they dodged into tunnels and climbed over bridges made of Fink trusses, where the crisscross of metal made a shadowed pattern against the plastic blue-green of the Monongahela River. The trains disappeared into one part of the three-sectioned exhibit and then reappeared in another, slowing only when approaching a yellow signal and speeding through as green flashed. At the top of the booth, the technician bit his lip, his eyes on the Mikado as he eased her over a section of track. In the front row, Jason’s shoulders tensed as he kept his eyes on the trains. The technician fielded questions from the crowd, and his pleased look indicated that he would probably go over the ten-minute allotment.

After five minutes of the program had passed, Jason’s mother slid out of her seat and walked to the ramp leading out the stands. She entered the large room behind the exhibition, where Jason’s father waited against the gray wall.

“Right on time for the hand off, I see.” Her voice didn’t quiver, but her eyes appeared watery. She didn’t look at him, staring instead at the exhibit of the Bollman silver, the tea service and platters with ornate little trains and miniature surveying tools forming the handles.

“I got his bags out of your trunk,” Steve said. “Thanks for mailing the key.”

She took the keychain – made from a variscite stone that she and Jason had purchased on a school field trip to a rock show – and looked at the other exhibit cases. Twenty or thirty model trains stood immobile behind the glass, trains in reds, blues, greens, and blacks, lined up like runners on starting blocks, ready to take off. Steam engines, diesel engines, cargo trains, and passenger trains.

“I know this is hard for you.” Steve reached over and put a hand on her shoulder. Voices echoed from the cavernous room across the way where patrons who weren’t watching the program moved between full-size versions of retired engines and passenger cars, their shoes slapping against cement floors.

She raised her shoulder to shrug her hand away. “For a minute,” she said, “I think he really blocked it out. Forgot about it completely.” She paused. “The trains, you know? They absorb him, just absorb him.” She faced him, her head tilted. “But who are we kidding, thinking this will somehow make it easier?” Her voice gained speed. “I think it’s mean,” she hissed. “Mean to use this place that he likes so much to help us pretend that this transfer isn’t such a big deal.”

“Today will be the only time,” Steve said. His words sounded rehearsed, even more stilted and planned than the technician’s. “Just this first time, when he’s not used to it. In three months, when he comes back here from Florida,” he paused. “When he comes back to you,” he emphasized, “we’ll do it straight, the whole dramatic scene. All the goodbyes and tears. No pussy-footing around. No matter how hard it is.”

In the corner of an exhibition case a paper conveyance ticket listed how many troops, nurses, and servants had been conveyed from one place to another on a particular day during the Civil War and how much the conveyance cost. The receipt didn’t indicate whether the federal government had paid the bill or not. The air lay heavy with dust. In the next room, the running trains sizzled as they moved along the tracks. Various people in the crowd murmured. Jason smiled at the trains moving steadily along the tracks.

“I’ve got to go,” she said. She stared into Steve’s eyes, her jaw stiff. “We said a version of goodbye this morning, but tell him everything I told you.” She looked at the floor. “And maybe you could grow a backbone and tell him that it was your idea to do it this way. Tell him you worried that if he said goodbye to my face, he wouldn’t be able to let go of me.”

“He wants to be with me, too,” Steve said. In the display case, their small outlines reflected in the glass. “I’ll concede that he loves you more. You’re his mother. But do you have any idea what it’s like to be only second best?”

“Of course I do.” A noise came out of her throat and Steve’s face softened. Jason’s mother closed her eyes and lowered her head. “I hate you for this,” she said. She reached out and grabbed his shirt sleeve, twisting the blue and white stripes in her fist, pulling at him with more strength than he anticipated. He expected to hear the rip of fabric and feel a bristle of air against his skin. But the cloth held, and she let go, hurrying to the stairs, bolting down quickly, her gold barrette disappearing last.

He walked up the ramp to the exhibition stands, where Jason sat mesmerized in the first row. Steve took a seat behind Jason, the wood beneath him creaking as the trains moved over the tracks, one of them flying faster than the others, passing the Mikado, passing the other, slower freight trains. This faster train was meant to be a diesel – a newer, more efficient train. In the booth above, the technician beamed with pleasure; there had been many oohs and aahs and several intelligent questions during the program.

Steve reached his hand up and placed it on Jason’s shoulder. Jason turned. “Dad,” he said loudly. The lady next to Jason turned also, frowning when she saw the boy’s face. “Mom?” the boy said, his voice strained. Several more people looked in the direction of the boy and Steve. The man with the red beard examined Steve’s clothes and face. The technician stared at the track.

Steve smiled. “Hey,” he said. “I’d recognize you anywhere.”

“Mom.” After Jason spoke, the exhibition stand was quiet, and the tall man behind him wondered if he would say the word again. But then a snapping sound came from the track, and Jason jerked his head back to the layout, his eyes searching for an aberration. In the middle of the stockyard section, the Mikado had reared up and now teetered in the air, thrashing above the track. She fell over on her side.

Jason stared at the layout, his shoulders rising and falling, his breathing uneven and quick. He turned and looked over the crowd behind him, scrutinizing each member of the audience. The lady with the triangular earrings smiled encouragement as Jason peered around her, his body reaching and craning a bit when he spied a flash of red. Then he sank back onto his seat when a stranger’s face emerged. He lowered his head.

The technician climbed down from the engineer’s stand to pull up a stool in front of the section where the Mikado lay. Jason’s hand moved back and forth over the rail in front of him. Finally he looked back up at the layout. “Gosh, Dad,” he said. “Did you see that?” He spoke to his father, but his eyes remained focused on the technician. He lifted his head and finally leaned back to meet his father’s gaze, his voice scraping the air. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”


Dawn Newton has published short stories and poems in Gargoyle, the South Carolina Review, the Baltimore Review, and other literary magazines.  She lives in East Lansing and hangs out whenever possible with her grown and almost-grown children, her husband, and her dog.

The opening paragraph of Dawn Newton’s “The Derailment of the Mikado” was first published, in a different form, in The Mississippi Review.

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