The Conductor

by A.W. Hill

THE RAILROAD YARDS are still at this time of night, the invisible pivot between one day and the next. Still, but not quiet. Railroad yards are never really quiet. They creak like the bedsprings in an old cathouse; they moan softly when the river wind detours through the open door of a cattle car. The atoms of memory in the these old diesel juggernauts still groan with the stress of laboring through the Cumberland Gap. And there are memories in the plush upholstery of the fine old passenger cars, as well, of the groans and sighs of another sort of exertion.

I have come here to enjoy a recollection for one last time, before age and infirmity deny me the ability to recall. For seven years, from 1957 through the Spring of 1964, I was conductor on a private and highly exclusive leg of the Chesapeake & Ohio run from Newport News, VA to Louisville, Kentucky. The train, known to all as The Fast Flying Virginian, left Newport News with two engines and seven passenger cars and arrived in Louisville with one and four. I’ll tell you what happened to the rest of the train, for it’s a story that can now be savored as myth. As far as I know, none of those whose reputations might be damaged by the telling of it are still among the living. None but me, and I have neither reputation nor virtue to lose. If witnesses to debauchery were named as accomplices, I might be held to account at the gates of Heaven, but that would be only if God is a moralist, and if I once believed he was, I no longer do. Whatever occurs on earth between man and woman, he permits by way of divine abstention.

The Chesapeake & Ohio was born as a coal line, and the Virginian ran the old track laid by hand and hammer through the voluptuous Shenandoah Valley and the strip-mined wilderness of the Appalachians. In my time, Number 96 carried not coal, but those made rich by its extraction. Just west of Charlottesville, however, at a point equidistant from Richmond, VA and Washington, D.C., the train continued to make, as if by habit, what used to be the last water stop before the steep ascent into the mountains. Even in 1957, this was an anachronism:the engines no longer ran on steam. But there was, at Mt. Pisgah, a solitary depot at which I and my crew of six black porters waited patiently, playing Pinochle. And there was, more often than not, a phalanx of black limousines lined up behind the depot, camouflaged by night, big V-8’s purring, their passengers eager to get on board and begin what they invariably called, in Southern lilt, “the festivities”. Some of the limos had driven all the way down from the Capitol, others from cities nearer by; some appeared as if delivered out of the mist that draped the perpetually damp and fertile valley. In the later years of the Virginian’s run, when regular passengers had come to know me and I them, my crew and I were sometimes joined for a hand or two by those who had tired of the mute company of their drivers and the pliant leather of the back seats. They were hard men in soft suits, and their varnished accents inevitably dipped toward the vales and hollows of their birth when they felt themselves to be in the company of “working men” like myself and the porters. They observed decorum only when accompanied by either their “distinguished guests” from Washington or their feather-hatted mistresses, some of whom had come all the way from Hollywood and whose familiar features were leant only the flimsiest disguise by the black mesh which covered their faces. I have played Pinochle with senators and ambassadors, torch singers and movie stars. During those years, more celebrity passed through the Pisgah depot than had likely passed through the lobby of the Plaza Hotel in the same span of time.

At Mt. Pisgah, Engine No. 1 decoupled from the lead car and rolled through a switcher onto a side track. There, it waited for Number 2 to bring it the three first-class Pullman cars: two sleepers and a club car. Number 1 then rejoined the four remaining coach cars and continued on to Louisville with all its regularly ticketed passengers. In all those years, none of those passengers - save for one curious young man - ever questioned the unscheduled stop or the loss of half the train. A blind eye is bred into all good Southerners. Oh, there was talk, plenty of that. Gossip is the libretto of Dixie’s opera. But no scandal, no expose. In that day, the lions of the print press understood that powerful people have powerful appetites, and probably understood also that discretion might one day earn them a pass to the “festivities”. Given what they’d heard, it must have seemed a small price to pay, for whatever itch desire inflamed could be scratched aboard my train. As for the young man I mentioned, he was a sailor on leave from the base at Newport News.

He left the train to get a breath of mountain air and wandered across to the side track, where he stood and gawked as three showgirls in silk dressing gowns were escorted aboard by no less than an Admiral in full dress whites. The officer paused on the grated steps for a moment and stared down the recruit, ready to swear him to silence upon pain of court martial, but then had the good sense to beckon the sailor on board and treat him to the ride of his life, a far better guarantee of his confidence.

And so, as the Virginian dieseled on west to Kentucky, my Number 96 - now dubbed The Sportsman II - headed north along the Great Valle, with the Appalachians on its left and the Blue Ridge on its right, and Front Royal, VA our final destination. They tell me that it’s one of the most beautiful stretches of rail ever laid, but I honestly couldn’t say. We travelled between the hours of midnight and five a.m., so the great, heaving mountains were never more than a looming presence, flanking us as we cleaved our way through a blackness only fleetingly pierced by the light of a clifftop cabin. The limousines followed up the old state highway which ran, for parts of the journey, parallel to the track. Occasionally, I’d step between the club car and the sleeper for a cigarette and spot a pair of high-beams -- then another, and another -- breaking around a bend in the road some quarter-mile distant, tailing us like a procession of slow barges moving up the canal (though, somehow, the limos always arrived at Front Royal before we did). I was once joined out on the platform by an ash-blond woman in an ermine stole who’d just consumed the semen of seven men as lustily as a New Englander swallows Masapeake oysters. She was smoking a cigarillo and said, while exhaling a plume of blue smoke, “Too bad we can’t lose them. I’d ride this train forever.”

It will by now be apparent that The Sportsman II was a pleasure train with a highly exclusive clientele, though by no means was it merely a rolling bordello. None of the women who boarded her over those years was ever paid, as such, for her company. They came, just as the men did, to experience that freedom from all prohibition that only transit can provide. Nor were the women ever treated poorly (had that occurred, it would have been my sworn duty to stop the train and put the offending party off to make his way through the wilderness). No, our patrons had the good breeding to know that if you wish for a woman to behave like a pagan, it’s best to treat her like a goddess. If anything, the women of The Sportsman were more lascivious than the men. God knows, they had greater endurance. I’ve come to believe in the years since that my train provided them with something closer to the “natural state” of things, and this notion was most piquantly affirmed by a well-known society hostess who’d come aboard in the company of her Cuban houseboy.

“You know what?” she asked me. She was seated on the toilet in the gentlemen’s room (which, for reasons unstated, she preferred to the ladies) and had asked me to “stand guard” just outside the cracked door. “In a perfect world ... a world with no ‘bad girls’ or ‘good girls’ ... no husbands or wives ... I’d screw everybody.” I said nothing, but I must have shifted my weight or chuckled unconsciously. “I would,” she insisted. “Even you, sweetie. Why not? It truly is what I do best.”

The club car, which was the center of the festivities, was a fully restored classic Pullman from the 1910’s, down to the red plush booths and polished brass. Each and every accoutrement aboard The Sportsman had been hand selected by the Proprietor for its quality, and this was equally true of the libation dispensed at the bar. We served only Kentucky Bourbon whiskey and its derivatives, at least twenty varieties from private old family distilleries, none aged less than ten years. There was seltzer and branch water for those who favored it, and our highball glasses were of cut crystal mined from caverns deep beneath the Kentucky bluegrass. One of the club car’s time-honored erotic sacraments involved the application of a smoky-sweet liqueur distilled from thirty year-old mash, a favorite digestif reputed to have aphrodisiacal effects. A lady, after being caressed to the brink of fever by the men present and freed from constraint by good bourbon and the primal rhythm of the rails, would disrobe down to her shoes and her hat (for reasons of ritual, a lady’s hat was seldom removed and the fine mesh veil rarely left her face). She’d plant her pumps in the soft carpet in front of the bar and then lean in, resting her bare arms and a rouged cheek langorously on its laquered oak surface, so that the span from her shoulderblades to her tailbone described a forty-five degree angle. The bow-tied bartender, acting as celebrant of this carnal mass, warmed a snifter of the liqueur over a bunsen burner until it reached the temperature of a warm bath, then gently pushed aside the woman’s hair to expose the nape of her fine neck. The woman, as you may have guessed, was to serve as both altar and rail. Meanwhile, the communicant -- the first of three gentlemen selected by lot -- had knelt behind her on the ceremonial velvet cushion, his nose at the height of her anus, his waiting tongue extended just short of the plump teardrops of her buttocks, within tantalizing reach of her upended cunt. It was against the rules for any but the designated third man to make contact with her flesh. The penalty for violating this rule was excommunication from the festivities.

Before dispensing the liqueur, the bartender urged the woman to extend her coccyx and lift her ass until she was able to feel the heat of the gentleman’s tongue a scant half-inch from her sex. This exercise not only made the rapture more dizzying for both supplicant and goddess, but contracted her back muscles to form a gently banked channel which neatly contained the liquid amber as it flowed down her spine from nape to tailbone and dripped bountifully into the communicant’s mouth. As he rose from the cushion and left her, the second man approached and the ritual was repeated. By the time the second man had drunk his fill, there were urgent murmurings among the onlookers. Breasts had been freed from lacy bodices to be fondled; groins were feverishly pressed against willing backsides. I often found myself perspiring beneath my cap and experiencing a sort of sexual vertigo (the Proprietor required strict celibacy of the Sportsman’s crew). The third man came forward and was stripped to the waist by a pair of “ladies-in-waiting”, who then pressed him to his knees and administered three lashes each with a cat o’ nine tails. Now the viscous firewater, color of blonde tobacco, flowed for the third time down the sacral spine, only this time it was allowed to run down the cleft of her ass and onto the tender lips of her vagina, where its astringency begged for the healing balm of saliva. The experienced ladies could stand nearly a full minute of the exquisitely fiery torment before they cried out for the tongue; the novices screamed out and pleaded instantly for relief. But whether novitiate or abbess, each ended up with a man’s nose pressed into her rump and came with the profane fury of a maenad.

There were many such entertainments performed in the club car of the Sportsman II as she climbed snow-dusted foothills under jeweled skies. Some were boisterous and giddy, others almost reverential in tone. Common to all of them was a single element: a rarefied appreciation of the juices squeezed from sexual congress, most especially of that admixture of the male and female essences which results when the pot is stirred (rumor has long held that each bottle of the Proprietor’s special sour mash liqueur contained a thimble full of it). Not a drop was ever wasted; no stains were ever found on the combed wool carpets or in the plush velvet booths. All of it was, in some fashion, consumed. I cannot tell you how or when the festivities were originated, or why all who boarded my train -- yes, even the first-timers -- seemed to know them as familiar, as if recalling some long-dormant memory of tantric excess in Eden. It is said by the old hands that the Proprietor learned much in his track-laying days from a Chinaman by the name of Li Po, a railroad worker whose strength and stamina were said to have exceeded that of men twice his size and whose sexual wisdom was legendary.

I won’t attempt to catalog all that I saw during those years; that would risk reducing a kaleidoscope to a mere peephole. For purely selfish reasons, I don’t wish to diminish the memories. But if you can imagine it, wish it, desire it, it occurred, if not in the club car then certainly in the sanctum of the private sleeping compartments, where crisp linen sheets were cast in the hue of virgin snowdrift by blue night lights and porters with skin dark as bittersweet chocolate (darker for the starched white jackets they wore) rustled discreetly down the aisles, attending to every need. There were paddlings administered to pink, yielding bottoms, sodomies of every variety known to man, petticoats cast off and petticoats kept on for effect, women whose pleasure was to sit blindfolded behind the compartment door, awaiting the soft knock that signaled the arrival of the first, then the second, then the third of her anonymous satyrs. There were captains of state and industry whose aching hunger for humiliation equalled their lust for conquest and women who could dance between the two poles. But the most singularly erotic event I ever witnessed involved a famous actress, her equally famous consort, and a dead horse.

The Sportsman made no stops between Mt. Pisgah and Front Royal, but on one fragrant Summer night, an exception was made. They came aboard in the deserted mining town of Parkland, accompanied by two plain-suited agents. We had, of course, been told to expect them. Now, they say that She was able - in her last years - to wander unnoticed in crowds, disguised only in head scarf and sunglasses, but I am quite sure I’d have spotted her in any surrounding. The walk, seductive but sweetly clumsy, gave her away. That, and the nervous giggle and earnest chorus girl handshake as she was introduced to me and my crew. He was godlike in spite of his affliction (the outline of the back brace was visible above the vent of his powder blue suitcoat). Of all the notable and notorious people I met, I don’t recall seeing anyone who looked so much like the picture in my mind’s eye. He shook my hand and offered a broad, gleaming smile, then unbuttoned his jacket and stepped into the club car, working the room with his blonde chorine in tow.

Once the train had pulled away from the empty depot, they settled back into a plush booth and were allowed the zone of privacy which all honored guests of the Proprietor received. The bartender brought them each an aperitif and trimmed a fat Cuban cigar for him. After the first puff, he smiled widely, raised the cigar in the air and said, “Thank you, Fidel,” which elicited hearty laughter from all aboard. After that, the party went on about them as if they were king and queen hosting a feast of flesh. In the booth next to theirs, a woman parted her legs to allow a man’s head beneath her skirts. On the opposite side of the car, a well-known lady writer hiked up her skirt and unhooked her garter while her admirer flicked his tongue across her distended nipple. When she could stand no more, she pushed him away, stood up, folded herself over the table and cried, “For God’s sake, Harry, fuck me before I expire!” The subsequent display, in which the lady writer seized the edges of the table and thrust her buttocks fiercely into the man’s groin in exuberant synchronization with the k-chunk -- k-chunk -- k-chunk of the train’s wheels on track, so aroused the guests of honor that the actress rolled up her own skirt and wriggled onto her lover’s lap, crying out sharply three times as he slipped into her. At the moment of her third cry, there came the sound of a horrible impact and the airbrake screeched into service, drowning out all but the most ardent moans.

We had hit something big. I could gauge its weight as a matter of simple physics; it slowed the locomotive almost as much as the brakes did. The dullness of the impact told me that it was organic and not mechanical. I shuddered, pulled aside the club car’s heavy door, and stepped out onto the landing, flashlight ready, waiting for the train to slow to a crawl. Then I lept onto the spongy, pine needle-strewn red earth and began the long walk to the head of the hissing locomotive, followed shortly by my chief porter and an assemblage of guests which included the actress and her companion (their coitus rudely interrupted by whatever unfortunate thing had impeded our juggernaut). I had a feeling of dread as deep as the black ravines which surrounded us.

It was a silver-gray mare, fully saddled and festooned as if for a parade. A military horse. I reasoned that she must have bolted from the grove of cottonwood on our right, spooked perhaps by a black bear or a wild Virginia boar. I swept my flashlight’s beam across the track and the gravel shoulders ahead and into the brush beyond: there was no sign of a rider. The collision had left gruesome damage: her neck and both front legs had been broken and her skull split by the impact, and yet - amazingly - she still drew wheezing calliope breaths through her flared nostrils. I felt myself get a little weak in the knees and turned to wave the passengers back and direct the porter to make a search of the bramble for her mount, though I somehow felt certain that she had come with her saddle empty. I glanced at the actress, who seemed both shattered and spellbound. Her escort, a man who had seen violent death in the Pacific theater, comforted her, though his own face was creased in evident distress, no doubt from the pain in his chronically troubled back.

The engineer jumped down from the cab and joined me at the side of the beast, where we whispered plans for its removal and disposal. The local sheriff would have to be notified. Some money would probably have to change hands. The mare whinnied pitifully and tried to lift her head.

“Should we put ‘er to sleep?” the engineer asked me. There was a hunting rifle in the engine compartment, never used. I nodded, and was about to go fetch it when I heard a whisper of satin and smelled Chanel and musk. It was the actress.

“No,” she said softly, dropping to her knees on the splintered ties, just beside the mare’s head. “Don’t. She’s almost gone, almost gone ....” I didn’t question her. She lifted the massive head with its gaping wound and laid it on the soft folds of her skirt, stroking the mare’s nose and humming faintly. Within seconds, the pink satin dress was saturated with blood, and within seconds more, the mare was dead. I leaned in and slipped the head from her lap, then called for two of the porters to fetch shovels and rope. I helped the actress to her feet, assisted by her stoical companion, who brushed the hair from his forehead in characteristic gesture and told me, “Thank you. We’ll leave you some room to work. You’ll let me know if I can help.” I nodded, though a salute might have been more fitting.

All during the removal of the corpse, he held her close in the bright beam of the locomotive’s cyclops eye, not minding that the blood and tissue on her dress were now on him, as well. From time to time, I stopped working to wipe my brow and glanced at the two of them: rocking, whispering, both kissed by pitiless fate. A wind rose out of the grove from which the mare had raced and lifted the thick hair on his scalp, and I was struck by an awful vision.

Later, after we had resumed our journey, I made my customary rounds of the sleeper cars with the head porter. Though initially our patrons had gamely tried to continue the festivities in the club car, most had now retired to their private compartments and were conspicuously silent. Only the cabin assigned to the actress and the statesman rocked with libido. The door was slightly ajar, whether by force of the train’s movement or deliberately, I can’t say. I could see the bloody dress and a pair of silk stockings hanging from the bunk. She was astride him, rising and falling in ever more rapid strokes. The porter halted and turned, and I put my finger to my lips. Then she came softly, and after that rose and shut the door.

That was the Summer of 1963. In April of 1964, the Proprietor discontinued service on the Number 96, and her engineer and I hauled the club car and two sleepers to the great, sprawling train yard in Southern Ohio, where they remain today, and where I have come to stir my memories and pay my last respects to those two souls who flaunted eros in the face of death.


A.W. Hill lives in Los Angeles. His first novel, a supernatural thriller entitled Enoch's Portal (ISBN 1-891400-59-2) was published in June 2002 and acquired for motion picture development by Paramount. A screenplay, Little Black Book, a comedy about a modern-day courtesan, is currently being shopped to studios and actresses unafraid to soil their reputations. More info about Hill and his alter-ego, P.I. Stephan Raszer, can be found at

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The Conductor © 2001 by A.W. Hill






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