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Larry hustled over to Normanville, where he nudged a red and white 1956 Cadillac ambulance off the lot of the Ace Garage and pushed it along Main Street, a block and a half of weather-beaten buildings from the 1930s, till he reached the parking apron beside Normanville Station.
“Ready!” Larry announced. He held his breath.
The old switcher, never more than a few electrons away from stalling at the best of times, managed to waggle its last car of jittery kegs across the junction a split-second before the chemical train came roaring through.
“Yes!” Norman pumped his fist in the air. He took pride in his precision train management.
Larry and Norman had been model railroad buddies since they met at a heritage exhibit a few years ago. Norman at that point was newly retired from being an auditor. His mutual interest with Larry was that as kids they had loved model trains. “My folks figured it would keep my mind off girls,” Larry said. That remark seemed not to strike a chord in Norman, but on the other hand Larry took note that Norman had resurrected his childhood hobby a year after his wife died. He had spent several thousand dollars building this HO-scale set, the stated justification being to entertain his grandkids when they came to visit, which was seldom. “They’re pretty busy,” Norman explained.
“They don’t know what they’re missing,” Larry had answered, as supportively as he could manage. Larry didn’t have a family himself.
The Santa Fe was Norman’s favorite engine. It was red, yellow and silver like the blazing sunset over Arizona where he planned to move to one day except for having to hang back to entertain his non-visiting grandkids. The Santa Fe, notionally on a long haul, perennially snaked around the set with its string of tankers, using various alternates and cutovers to trace slightly different routes each time round. That engine had cost Norman 160 US dollars including multiple horn and bell sound effects. It blasted that horn triumphantly now as it pounded across the bridge over the Clearwater Valley and swept like the wind through Normanville, blowing past the gable-roofed passenger station as if it were mere décor.
Clementine LaBelle was not on the platform where customarily she would be.
Ah! There she was. Outside the Blues Kabooze, rubbing up against a shiny red Corvette owned probably by some spoiled rich kid. The Kabooze was an ex-caboose painted a moody indigo blue and converted into a bistro for local trend-setters. Larry hated the place, hated the name, hated cabooses painted indigo or anything other than red or yellow.
Larry and Norman were having an unspoken tug-of-war over Clementine.
Norman probably didn’t even have a name for her. Probably to him she was just some trophy chick. But to Larry she was “Clementine LaBelle," an exchange student from France. With her yellow hair, pert white blouse, red skirt, blue shoulder bag, she reminded him of Carol, a girl he’d been keen on in high school. Clementine shouldn’t hang around the Kabooze. She would end up running off with a ski instructor just like Carol did.
Larry lifted Clementine up and transposed her to the Normanville Station platform. “She got a job at the travel agency,” he announced. “They want her to test-ride the Orient Express on account of she’s from Europe so she’s qualified.”
“She’s from Europe?” said Norman.
From where she stood on the platform now, Clementine could actually see the Orient Express sitting on a sidetrack. It consisted of a single navy-blue passenger coach bearing the number 3425 and the legend Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-lits in brass-colored lettering. It was attached to a plain black steam locomotive. Larry conspicuously dusted off the coach and locomotive with his handkerchief but Norman feigned not to notice.