I can relax now, close my eyes and take refuge in the train rocking back and forth as it moves over the rails with a rhythmic clatter.
Getting here was tense. The faceless crowds in the station, milling and jostling, the acrid mix of sweat and piss and diesel fumes, the anxious line of people waiting to buy a ticket.
“Why didn’t they buy one in advance?” I could not help wondering, annoyed that they were in my way.
“Not everyone can do that,” the grim-faced clerk said as he pounded my ticket with an old-fashioned metal stamp. “The Frankfurt train leaves from platform three,” he said. “You should be on time.”
As the black porter stuffed my bags under the seat of the compartment, the sleeve of his uniform slipped up his arm, revealing the small tattoo of a naked woman. “Do I tip you?” I asked, always uncertain with social rituals.
“That is up to you sir,” he said, his face betraying no emotion.
After I handed him a bill or two, he touched the visor of his cap and slipped away. Collapsing on the seat in a pile of exhaustion, I mused about what the porter might be like when not on the job, if the woman in the tattoo was anyone specific, how all of us wear uniforms to the rest of the world, our lives hidden and secret even to those we love and trust.
“Ticket?” the conductor asked, interrupting my daydream.
“I’m sorry?” I said, struggling.
“Your ticket, please,” he repeated.
Fumbling in my jacket, I found my ticket and handed it to him.
“Do I need one?” I asked, surprised.
“You’re changing at Smyrna,” he said. “All passengers changing at Smyrna have to have ID.”
After more fumbling, I handed him my passport.
He glanced at the photo, then at me, then smiled. “Your birthday is Valentine’s Day!”
“Must be nice,” he said, returning my license, punching a hole in my ticket, then turning to leave. “Get some for me, lover boy,” he said, winking as he left.
The wheels grew louder with the screech of metal against metal as the train braked and slowed.
“Nothing to worry about,” the conductor said, handing me back my ticket. “We’ll be in Smyrna in an hour.” Touching the visor of his cap, he smiled then went on his way.
“Conductor!” a woman’s voice yelled from the next compartment.
“Yes, ma’am?” I could hear him say.
“This is not my compartment!” she yelled.
“I am sorry to hear that,” he said as he proceeded down the corridor.
“You have to wonder what that means,” Leonard said as the dining car attendant filled our wicker basket with fresh bread. The sleeve of his starched white jacket pulled back briefly to reveal the tattoo of a naked woman.
Leonard folded over the linen napkin lining the basket, removed a slice, shaved off some butter, then spread it on the bread. “The prospect is nightmarish.”
“I saw her in the station,” I said.
“What does she look like?” Leonard asked, biting into his bread.
I had to think. “I think she is short,” I said. “Yes, elderly, a little stout, with gray hair and thick glasses.”
“That sounds like your grandmother,” Leonard said.
That was true. Had I imposed my memory on this woman?
“Or maybe one of my fellow economy passengers,” he said, stirring his coffee. “It was good of a toff like you to share your table with me.”
“Why wouldn’t I?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know. Some wouldn’t. Especially when they learn I’m a musician.”
“I love music…” I started to say, when the train rounded a bend and a flash of sunlight blinded me. It struck like a physical blow and I closed my eyes in pain.
“Smyrna!” the conductor’s voice bellowed down the corridor. “Next stop is Smyrna!” he said again, passing our compartment.
I thought I should get my bags together, reached below my seat, then remembered I was going through to Frankfurt.
“Nice talking with you,” Leonard said as he took his bags from the overhead bin. “I get off here.”
“Oh, do you live in Smyrna?”
“No,” he said. “But I have to change trains for Frankfurt.”
He moved toward the corridor, then turned. “Hey, can I ask a favor?”
“Do you mind if I use you in a story?”
“I’m a writer. I’m always looking for good stories.”
“How am I a story?”
“The conductor’s reaction to your birthday.”
Confused, I shrugged again. “Sure. If you like.”
Leonard smiled and headed away. As he passed the next compartment, a stout, elderly woman with thick glasses stepped to the door and watched him leave. She shook her head.
“That boy will come to no good,” she said. “I’ve known him all his life.”
A loud screech of metal against metal as the train slowed to a stop in the Frankfurt station muffled my reply.
My head ached as I opened my eyes, then shut them again quickly as sunlight sliced the shadows of my compartment like Leonard cutting the butter with his knife.
“Smyrna!” the conductor’s voice bellowed down the corridor. “Next stop is Smyrna!”