Alex heard the whirring of engines. The train had stopped again, so she checked her phone. She hoped to reach Williston before dark, maybe meet Kristin and get some dinner. After that, the man in the black Dodge would pick her up. He was the first of four visits she’d arranged that evening. His name was Mark.
“Excuse me. How long on this stop?” She asked the conductor.
“At least an hour. Waiting on a freight train, Miss,” he said. “We’re in the Bermuda Triangle, right here. Anything can happen.”
She knew that already. She smiled and looked out the window with her good eye, watching the fields of wheat switch around in the hot summer wind.
“Think I’ve seen you before, Miss. You go to Williston a lot?”
“Yeah, some. My grandma’s there. I help her on weekends. You know, groceries and stuff.”
The conductor nodded his head and continued up the aisle.
In Alex’s bedroom closet, up on the shelf next to her shoebox of cards and letters and photos, was a pink ballerina jewelry box she got on her fifth birthday. It had little compartments all over, and when you opened the lid, the thing would plink out a rusty, broken version of Swan Lake. In its center was a secret door, under which she kept the cash. She had 100s—that’s what the men would hand her. It was like they went to the bank well-aware of their intentions enough to demand certain bills. They knew the cost of entertainment.
Before the weekend, Alex had counted $3,000. Another $2,000 and she’d have enough to buy a new glass eye, one that wouldn’t stick inside the socket and burn like a rash half the day. After the new eye, she’d save more money; maybe enough to get out of the trailer house before winter. Get out of Rugby, North Dakota, too, where a stepbrother still lived—the one who shot a BB through her cornea when she was 12. By accident, the dad said.
Alex tried not to think about the men, other than what to charge. And lucky for her, she had repeat customers, most of them just lonely and restless from long days working the oil patch. Waterloo, Iowa. Thunder Bay, Canada. Arlington, Texas. They hadn’t been home in a year, except on Christmas.
The freight train barreled past, shaking her car as it went. Alex watched the white letters flash by: BNSF, BNSF, BNSF. Then a stream of black oil cars, and then nothing. She knew this spot. Out on the horizon, she found the old church. It was gray with flecks of white, the paint worn off by fifty winters of prairie winds hitting the wood and chipping away at it. A bell hung in the tower, stilled by desertion. Just across the dirt road was a cemetery, peppered with tall, gray headstones that stuck out like mismatched porch banisters. A perfect square of white picket fence surrounded it, the grass browned by drought. Ghosts, Alex thought. Ghosts filled the church at night. Wandering souls. One day, she would to drive there and look in the windows, maybe walk up the steps. See the ghosts.
An hour passed. The conductor took the card from the panel above her seat. WST, it said. Williston, North Dakota. Then, across from her, the conductor pulled the card above the dark, stumpy man with the scar on his cheek. Although he spoke broken English and had no place to stay, it didn’t matter. She told the man that. The oil companies would take in just about anyone willing to pick up a pipe or a shovel.
“Williston, ten minutes,” the conductor said.
Alex slung her backpack over her shoulder and checked around her seat. You don’t need much on the weekend, she thought, especially when you’re turning it. The stuff you do wear don’t take up space.
She checked the time and walked down the steps to the lower level, just ahead of the dark, stumpy man. About 300 yards from the tracks was the RV park she’d go to later. A sign at the entrance said, “Propane and Laundry.” This is where she’d meet two men. She would do whatever they liked, and she would not ask questions or look at the bent-up school kid pictures on the dressers. This was business, and Kristin always said to keep it business. Don’t get emotional. And that’s what she did. She had learned the art of detachment long ago.
“Watch your step, Miss” The conductor took her forearm as she stepped off the train. “Now, you be careful out there.”
Alex was overdressed for the August weather. She took off her sweatshirt and stuffed it in her backpack as she made her way to the street. She would call Kristin, and they would get dinner. After that, she would text Mark. He’d pick her up and they’d go back to his trailer, the white one at the end of the row. Good thing it was at the end of the row, too, because you couldn’t tell those places apart, except for the black numbers nailed to the right of the doors. He was number 14.
“I’m gonna marry you someday.” He said this to her as she lay on her back watching the ceiling fan spin, the setting prairie sun throwing orange beams across the blades. He said he loved her twice, in between the clicks of the fan motor. He circled a hand around her breast.
In the distance, a freight train blew its signal into the night. Williston had a rhythm to it now, like Fargo. It did not sleep. She did not sleep. How could she sleep, with a bad glass eye that tore skin when her eyelid moved around it?
Alex got dressed and kissed Mark on the cheek. He had left her cash on the kitchen island, next to his cigarettes and ibuprofen. She folded the four hundreds into her pocket and said goodbye in a whisper. She walked down the row of white trailers to a waiting truck. It was Nathan.
Paula Danovsky’s nonfiction work has appeared in consumer magazines and commercial arenas. She is evolving from her journalistic core as she writes from her mobile desk in the Wisconsin backwoods. You can find her on Twitter at @Paula_Danovsky and at www.pauladanovsky.com.