Bill carefully slid the cloth back and forth four times. Four slow wipes with a clean, white rag. Four wipes a night, five nights a week, 50 weeks a year for 30 years. Bill pressed the 8-track firmly back into its slot and clicked the player on and off three times. Three times a night, five nights a week, 50 weeks a year for 30 years.
He nodded his head in relief. It still works, he thought. He scanned his freshly ironed uniform for dust. He found six gray white flecks on the dark navy of his jacket and four more on his pants. Bill looked at his watch (11:18) and then checked the time and track of his train (11:57, track 8). He straightened his cap and tightened his belt.
Tonight was going to be the night. Tonight, after 30 long years of failure, after 30 long years of coming painfully close, Bill Camshaw was going to do it. He was going to pull of the greatest joke of his life. Tonight, the number 53 train, from Apalachicola, Florida to Atlanta, Georgia was going to pull out of the station at exactly 12 a.m., midnight.
Bill grinned. His entire body shook from the excitement. No, no, he thought, not yet. He looked back at the 8-track player he had opened and wired into the PA system of his train, the 8-track player that had sat, completely unused but for being clicked on and off three times each night, for 30 years. Tonight, though, tonight was going to be different. March 22, 2003, was going to go down in history, emblazoned on the memories of every conductor, every ticket seller, and every passenger aboard train 53. Bill took eight deep breaths and smoothed six wrinkles out of the front of his jacket. He had to calm down. He had to focus. He had exactly 39 minutes to move a 2,000 pound Holstein onto track 8 and then only three minutes to move it back off. Bill took one last look at the 8-track, “Midnight Train to Georgia,” by Gladys Knight and the Pips, and dashed off to find his cow.
Ever since anyone could remember, Bill Camshaw had had an obsession, an obsession with numbers. His first memory was of his mother’s pearl necklace, not the color, mind you, but the number of pearls, 154. He couldn’t tell you the color of the pearls (pinkish-white) or even if they were real or not (they weren’t), but he remembered 154. He sat there, on the soft red cushions of the First Episcopal Church of Apalachicola, counting each and every pearl, over and over again. At the end of the sermon, his mother took his left hand and led him out of the sanctuary and back to the car.
“Now, Billy, tell me, what on earth were you doin’ with my necklace?”
“The beads. There’s 154.”
“There are 154.”
“There are 154.”
“My my, that’s such a big number for such a little boy. It’s such a blessin’ to have such a smart, smart little boy!”
Blessing wasn’t the word the doctors used. They called it “obsessive compulsive disorder” or simply “the OCD” when Billy was in the room. They gave him pills, tiny yellow pills, pills that were going to stop him from counting all the words in his books and help him read them. They didn’t. The pills themselves weren’t the problem. The problem was taking them. It wasn’t that Bill would forget. It was quite the contrary actually, Bill never forgot. He remembered too well. Two pills, three times a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year. Bill kept count of every pill he’d ever swallowed. He stopped at 22,456, on his 17th birthday.
“342. 343. 344. 355.” Bill sprinted alongside the tracks. After 412 steps, he saw her, tied to a stake in the ground. Even through the dark of a Apalachicola spring night, he could see her. With the lights of the train against her 19 black spots, she’d be impossible to miss. He paused in front of her to catch his breath. He couldn’t stop smiling. This was going to be perfect. After so many failures, Bill was finally going to get it exactly right.
This was the most elaborate of Bill’s attempts. It seemed like he’d tried everything, everything but this. He couldn’t believe it. Once you really sit down and think about it, he thought, it’s so obvious. A cow on the tracks. The story was as almost as old as trains themselves. Cow wanders onto tracks. Train is delayed, in this case for exactly three minutes. Cow wanders off tracks. Gladys Knight blares over the PA.
Passengers all keel over with laughter. Bill becomes legendary. There was no way it could fail.
He’d tried to keep it simple before, but it just didn’t work. No matter what he did, something always went wrong. He’d faked mechanical failure. He’d wedged doors open. He’d hired a homeless man to pull the emergency break. He’d pretended to have an epileptic seizure. He’d even tried just pulling out a few minutes early, but something always went wrong. The mechanical failure didn’t show up on the system readout. A passenger found his old tennis shoe wedged between the train doors. The homeless man spent his $20 on booze and passed out before he could pull the break. A doctor on the train could tell he didn’t really have epilepsy. When he tried to leave early, some old woman started running for the train and caught her heel in the gap between the platform and the doors. She broke her right ankle. They had to wait for an ambulance for 11 minutes.
“Some people are just so damn inconsiderate,” Bill muttered to himself as he started to untie the cow. “I mean, we always say, ‘Pay attention to the gap.'” Bill shook his head. The train was supposed to leave at 12:03. He was only leaving three minutes early. If she didn’t leave herself at least that much time to catch her train, it was her own damn fault.
It wasn’t all her fault though. Bill had pleaded with the station supervisor, Tom, to let him leave at midnight, but Tom just didn’t understand.
“Jesus Christ, Bill, is this about that whole Gladys Knight thing again?”
“Tom, it’ll be funny. I promise. Just please, once, just this once, let me leave at midnight.”
“Bill, come on now, you know I can’t do that.”
“I’ve been workin’ here for 30 years and you can’t do this for me.
This is all I want. I promise, all the passengers’ll love it.”
“If you’ve been workin’ here for 30 years, then you should know that it ain’t me. It’s the machines. We work on a 24-hour clock here. Midnight is 00:00. The computers don’t like that. It screws up the system. It’s the whole Y2K thing. Hell, I don’t know. Maybe once we upgrade we can try to–“
“Well, why can’t we upgrade?”
“Bill, you’ve asked me this hundreds of times–“
“Fine. 1,042. I just don’t–“
“Well, this one makes 1,043.”
“Bill, would you just shut up for one God damned second? It ain’t me. It’s the computers. We can’t upgrade right now. We just don’t got the money. I think I am bein’ more than reasonable right now. I looked the other way when you rewired the sound system on your train. Why, back in ’81 I even moved your train over to track 8 because you said that it would be funny–”
“It is funny! Come on, Tom! I’m gonna play an 8-track on track 8! That’s funny!”
“Right right, I get it. I just don’t see why this song ain’t gonna be funny at 12:01 or 11:59. I mean, it’s almost midnight.”
Tom didn’t get it. No one got it.
Bill looped the rope (six times) around the rusty iron of track 8, and tied it tight. He looked down at his watch and squinted to see the time in the dark. It was 11:47. In exactly 10 minutes, he’d see the cow and tell Tom. In exactly 13, he’d have her off the tracks and Gladys Knight and the Pips would perform a sold-out concert for all the folks on train number 53, track 8, Apalachicola, Florida. Bill started running back toward the light of the station.
Shelley had moved out fast (41 minutes), she didn’t take much with her (eight boxes), and she said even less (six words):
“I just can’t do this anymore.”
He’d taken the night off. As he skipped the 13 feet from his car to his front door he could hear her laughing. He pressed his nose into the bouquet (nine pink roses, six white irises and 12 stems of lavender) and inhaled deeply. The clear cellophane crinkled around his face. She was still laughing. He rang the doorbell twice. A shirtless man answered the door. Bill turned around and walked very slowly, the 13 feet back to his car.
“Shelley, baby, why don’t you come back?” He pressed the receiver into his ear.
“Bill, I can’t. I can’t live like that anymore.”
“Why? I love you.”
“I don’t love you anymore. I love Carl. Carl makes me happy. Carl makes me laugh. People just grow apart, ya know?”
“I can make you laugh, baby! You know I can make you laugh. Just wait ’til–”
“Wait ’til what, Bill? Wait for this song thing?”
“It’s gonna be so funny, Shelley. I promise, baby, once you–”
“Look, Bill, I can’t be in a marriage with you and Diana Ross.”
“Yeah, Gladys Knight, whatever. I just don’t see–”
“Diana Ross? How could you think Diana Ross? Diana Ross doesn’t sing “Midnight Train to Georgia”! How would Diana Ross be funny? It wouldn’t! I’ve talked to you about this every night for the last 14 years! I’ve told you about this 3,456 times! — Hello?”
Bill boarded his train. Bill looked at his watch: 11:56. One minute left. It was time to start his announcements. He flipped on the speaker system and slowly brought the microphone to his lips.
“Good evening and welcome aboard train number 53 to Atlanta. Atlanta, Georgia. Leaving at 11:57. If you could all please take your seats, we are about ready to start our– Whoa, I’m sorry. It, uh, it appears that, that, that there is a cow, looks like a Holstein, on the tracks. I’m sorry about this delay, folks, we should have her off the tracks in about, oh, I don’t know, about three minutes, maybe?”
Bill’s heart was racing. He only had three minutes. He grabbed his walkie-talkie and flipped to channel 12. He now had only two minutes and 47 seconds.
“Tom! Tom! Tom, are you there?”
“Yup. I’m here. What’s the problem this time, Bill?
“Well, I ain’t sure, but I’m pretty sure there’s a cow on the tracks. I’d say about 214 feet down the tracks.”
“Yeah, uh, looks like a Holstein. You better send someone out there to move her.”
“No problem, no problem. It may take a while though. Some guy had a heart attack on track 14.”
“How long, Tom?! How God damned long?! I have a train full of people here!”
“Whoa, Bill. Calm down, okay? We’ll get to it. It might take a few minutes.”
“Twenty? I dunno.”
Bill dropped his walkie-talkie. His lungs burned as he raced down the tracks. He had one minute and 34 seconds. 150 feet. His heart was racing. 200 feet. He could see her. 214 feet. He fell to his knees and started to untie the rope.
“Why the f**k did I tie this rope so tight?”
Four beads of sweat rolled down his forehead. The rope was undone. He looked down at his watch. It was dark. It was impossible to see the numbers.
“Go, cow! Go! Get outta here! Go on! You’re free!”
The fat Holstein stared blankly back at him for a few seconds and then lowered her head back to the ground.
“Go! Get the hell outta here! God damn it!”
Bill threw his body against the cow. She didn’t budge. He pushed her as hard as he could. His feet slipped in the gravel around the tracks. He cut his knees on the sharp stones. He leapt to his feet. Bill clenched his jaw tight. He was not going to lose this time, not to a cow.
Bill drew back his right foot and kicked her, hard, in her udder. She mooed in pain and took off into the warm Apalachicola night. He froze. His jaw dropped open. He felt horrible. He had kicked a cow in the udder. That was like kicking a woman in the breasts, he thought. Then he remembered why he’d done it: it was a shit-or-get-off-the-pot situation. It was either the cow or Gladys Knight. He had no other choice. This udder bashing had been bad, yes, but a necessary evil, an unavoidable pothole in the road to comedic glory. His lips curled into a smile and he took off back toward the station.
His legs ached as he stepped back onto the train. He dashed past the confused passengers to the front of the train. His eyes shot down to his watch. It was 11:59 and 42 seconds. Bill had 18 seconds. Eighteen seconds to close all the doors and start the train.
He slammed his fist down on a bright orange button. The doors flew shut. He had nine seconds. He yanked the throttle lever down. The train lurched forward sharply. Suitcases tumbled down from the racks. An old man in the last car lost control of his walker. A young girl’s porcelain doll fell from her hands and shattered on the floor. The train left the station, and Bill looked nervously at his watch: midnight.
His hand trembled as he flipped the switch on the PA. Six percussive beats echoed through the train. Brass instruments resonated from the speakers. Gladys Knight’s voice crackled warmly from the 8-track player.
Bill fell on the floor with laughter. He gripped his stomach and ran his hands through his sweaty gray hair.
“Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes!”
He quickly stood up and regained his composure. He took three deep breaths and started to walk out toward the first car. He could already hear the side-splitting laughter, the rumbling applause, the thunderous chant of all the passengers aboard the train:
“Bill! Bill! Bill! Bill!”
He flung open the door to the first car and braced himself for the praise that 30 years of ceaseless effort and a Holstein were sure to garner.
He listened closely. The music was still playing. Maybe they just didn’t realize which song it was, he thought. He sauntered up to the first passenger.
The bald man reached into his pocket and produced a one-way ticket.
Bill stamped it and passed it back.
“So, whaddaya think of the song?”
“Gladys Knight and the Pips. Pretty nice. Gotta love Gladys Knight.”
“Yeah, ain’t it hilarious though?”
“Just think about it. ‘Midnight Train to Georgia!’ ‘He’s leavin’! Leavin’! On that midnight train to Georgia! Georgia!’ This train left three minutes late! You’re on the midnight train to Georgia!”
The man stared at Bill. It was the same stare that the cow had given him only two minutes and 26 seconds earlier.
“Yeah yeah, I get it.”
“And you don’t think it’s funny?”
Bill’s eyes grew wide and his nostrils flared.
“Well, I guess it’s funny, but doesn’t she say ‘L.A. proved too much for the man?'”
“Yeah. So what?”
“Well, this is the midnight train to Georgia from Apalachicola, not from L.A. If we were comin’ from L.A., then, well, then it would be downright hilarious. I’ve never actually been to California myself, but I suspect that it’d go over pretty big out there.”
Bill’s shoulders slumped down. His eyes fell slowly to the floor. He walked down the entire train (632 steps) without a word. He stamped each ticket (227 in all), returned to the conductor’s cabin and quietly closed the door. He lowered himself carefully into his chair and looked out the window.
He could see the lights of a farm. There were 11 buildings.