A train is an excellent place to sleep, especially in the summer. No
thought need be taken as to when to turn left or staying in your own
lane. You can sit down with your luggage stuffed over your head or
under your seat and not worry about a thing until you get to where
you’re going. The train will gently rock you back and forth until you’re
sitting with your mouth hanging open so the whole passenger car can
inspect your dental work. And if you’re on the cheap train somewhere
in Eastern Europe, the heat is particularly insistent upon your
John Boyal discovered this soon after his own train chugged out of
the station.. He hadn’t realized before that trains in the former
communist block would be so different from the air-conditioned and
relatively clean bahns he’d been riding for the past month. The train he
was currently snoring on looked like it had salvaged seats from his old
school bus, except for the minor difference in the language of the graffiti
and an increase in cigarette burns. Air conditioning gave way to
windows that weren’t sealed shut as they had been in most other trains,
though everyone but John was reluctant to open them. The reality of
this difference was driven home when he had stepped on the pedal to
flush the toilet and a trap door opened inside it to reveal the train tracks
zooming past directly below him. He understood finally the need for the
sign asking him in six languages, (including English thankfully), not to
use the WC while the train was at the station.
John fought valiantly, but briefly, against his sleepy fate. He was
fine in the minutes before his train left. He sat with his window open
reading his travel book and not noticing the dirty looks the locals were
giving out. But when his train departed ten minutes late, the words
began to blur together. He pushed on, forcing his brain to understand.
But, at the end of the page talking about bars and clubs, he realized
he’d been thinking about calling his sister the whole time; his eyes
passing over each word but not stringing them together into sentences.
In desperation, he got up to use the restroom, making his
discovery about Eastern European Locomotive sewage systems. Upon
returning to his seat, he found the window mysteriously closed. Without
pausing to consider the implications of somebody closing his window
when he wasn’t looking on a train where his window was the only
ventilation, he opened it again and plopped back down next to it. The
open window was like a door from a furnace into an oven. It was only
slightly cooler outside, but at least the air flow evaporated the sweat off
his body. John’s seat was really a bench with room for two people. The
train was not crowded however, so no-one was sitting next to him.
Picking his book up again, he made another halfhearted attempt at
reading about walking tours. But the train rocked him lazily back and
forth like a baby until he gave up.
He resigned himself to one of the greatest train pastimes;
watching the world pass by through his window. These trains also went
slower than their western counterparts, he realized. He tried to be
interested in the fields and trees, perhaps with a mountain in the
distance. It seemed as though every meter was a repeat of the last. His
head fell forward and he found they were passing through a small town.
Most everything was varying shades of brown and grey except for the
flower gardens and the bedraggled woman wearing a neon green blouse
and purple jeans who was waiting for the train so pass so she could
cross the tracks.
The town was gone all too quickly and John was left to again
consider more fields and trees. He leaned his head back against the dirty
seat to avoid further whiplash and pondered what life must be like in
such a brown little town. Soon, his eyelids got heavy and it became
difficult to keep his jaw closed. The fields outside began to bur as they
picked up speed. He threaded between a couple of trees and then turned
out to fly over the barley in the direction of the mountains. He was
suddenly very interested in them and wanted to investigate.
His sister, however, could not fly. So he landed in order to walk
with her and tell her how very interesting the mountains were in this
part of Europe. She listened and nodded until he started telling her
about his intention of taking a walking tour of bars and clubs. Then she
began to get jealous of his trip to Europe and all the fun he was having.
He could see her sitting at the kitchen table back home, yelling at him
through the phone about how it just wasn’t fair that he could fly and get
to tour Europe. Then, at the very moment that she jumped up and
slammed the phone into the wall receiver, he both crashed into the side
of a mountain and jumped himself awake. There was an elderly woman
who looked like she just stepped out of Doctor Zivago standing over
He realized that she had just slammed his window shut, waking
him up. The scowl on her face conveyed that she was deeply displeased,
but he did not know why. She said something in what could have been
the language of the ancient Persians for all he knew, but he understood
that she was unhappy from the tone of her voice. Apparently, she had
said her piece and did not need a response. She turned and walk/
hobbled away. John turned around in his seat and watched her as she
sat down four rows behind him, ignoring him.
“She said the wind was giving her a headache.” John turned back
with a look of complete, flabbergasted confusion on his face to find that
the English language had originated from a small girl who was suddenly
sitting across the aisle. She was wearing all black, from her dyed black
hair to her black skirt and black combat boots.
“Huh?” John could manage no more than this bewildered grunt,
given his recent sleep and the bizarre circumstances of his awakening.
“The wind gives people headaches,” the girl answered matter-of-
factly. John guessed that she was only 15 or 16. But her English was
excellent, with only a small accent that was almost British.
“What?” He was wiping the drool from his chin now and
struggling to grasp the concept of headaches being a symptom of wind
overdose. The girl laughed now, which seemed out of sync with her
mourner on the way to a war front motif. He noticed now that the
luggage next to her was even an army rucksack decorated with inked on
band names ranging from Eminem to Demon Hammer.
“I guess it does sound strange, but it’s true! At least that’s what
the old people tell us. Maybe it’s the spouses’ tale.”
“The spouses’ tale?” Usually being awake was less surreal than
being asleep. John shook his head and blinked until her face came into
focus again. “Sounds like an old wives’ tale.”
“Yes! That’s what I meant! I’m sorry, I mix them up sometimes.”
“That’s alright.” He paused and looked around for a moment,
thankful that something was finally making sense. She just looked at
him as though she was waiting for him to do something interesting.
Finally he looked back. “You don’t really believe that do you?”
She frowned. “I don’t know. I guess so. Why not?”
“I don’t know.” Now he frowned. “I just never heard of that
before.” He paused again to watch as they passed through another small
brown and grey town with colorful flowers and colorful people. It could
have been the same town, except he thought he saw a house with a
“Thanks for helping me. I had no idea what was going on.”
“I could see.”
“That must be why somebody closed it before.”
“This is the second time? On this train?”
“She laughed again and Johnny still thought it seemed strange.
“The whole train must hate you!”
“I did notice nobody was sitting around me.”
She stopped laughing and a look of offense came over her face.
She said quite seriously, “I did!”
“Of course! Except for you!” Her smile returned and they
continued talking for some time. He questioned her about herself, but
she always managed to answer without really saying anything. At the
end of half an hour, she had heard quite a bit about his travels and
home, but he hard learned nothing. Even when he asked her name, she
had said, “In English, they might cal me Gloria.” She did not even
surrender her real name, only what it might be translated into in
John would not realize this until later though. His head fell
forward again during a lull in the conversation. When it snapped back
up, Gloria was next to him, reading his travel book. It snapped up again
and she was gone, the travel book lying there alone. Her bag was gone
also and when he turned to look behind him, all he saw was the door
between the train cars closing.
Looking forward again, John found that the train had acquired
some new passengers. Standing by herself at the other end of the car
was a woman as scantily clad as she was unattractive. John’s first
thought was that she must be a prostitute. I don’t see how she could
make any money. Her blond hair was scraggily and what little clothes
she was wearing looked like she dug through the trash to find.
His initial suspicions seemed to be confirmed, however, when the
door leading to the car up ahead opened and an equally grimy man
walked in. He strolled up to the woman and leaned in to say something
quietly to her. She turned to face him, and after a few moments of
talking, they disappeared back through the door. John’s face twisted in
disgust as he watched this, but after only a minute the man came back
into the car alone.
John breathed a sigh of relief. The man skulked through the car,
putting his hand on chair backs to keep his balance. John watched his
eyes study each passenger in the car. When his eyes passed over John, he
knew the dirty man would be coming his way. Even in that oven of a
train car, this man wore a big, bomber style leather jacket with his free
hand buried in it. As he got closer, John understood why he needed that
other hand to steady himself. He was wearing those huge, chunky boots
with thick soles John had seen so many guys wearing, but could never
figure out why.
When he came to John’s seat, he leaned in as he had done to the
girl and said a few short words. Then he plopped down across from
John with his left hand still in the jacket pocket and his eyebrows
raised. John had anticipated this, but when he started breathing again,
he could still smell the man’s rancid breath.
“I’m sorry, I don’t understand. I only speak English.” John had
said those words so many times in the last month that they just spilled
out habitually. The man blinked and looked a him in much the same
way that John had first looked at Gloria.
“English? Oh…sorry…oh, me English too!”
“You speak English?” John asked in disbelief.”
“Little, little. Oh, what is your named?” He stammered out his
words without inflection. John found himself reaching out to shake his
hand and give his name. The man responded with a name that was so
foreign sounding to John that he knew he’d never be able to pronounce
or remember it. That’s the problem with foreign names. They’re so hard
to remember. After butchering it several times, the man ceased to
“OK, OK…George.” The man said and pointed to himself.
“Alright, you be George, and I’ll be John.” It was odd, but after
talking to George for just a few minutes, John found him to be quite
likable. They were almost the same age after all. George’s English was
terrible. Some of the words he said John actually recognized as German
from his time in Germany and Austria. But after a month of hearing
English spoken this way, he found it relatively understandable. After a
while, John finally asked what he’d been wondering.
“Who was that woman up there?” He asked, pointing up toward
the front. George’s face twisted in confusion, and then widened in
“Woman!” He exclaimed, pointing also. Then he shook his head
violently. “No woman!” He was laughing now, and it was plainly at
“OK, whatever. What’s in your pocket?” It took George awhile to
understand what a pocket was, but when he did, he withdrew his hand
to show that there was nothing there. John could see however, that there
were marks in his palm where he had been gripping something. The
hand stayed out while they talked about other things, but after a while it
snaked back in without either of them noticing.
John began to notice the signs of a bigger city passing the
windows and he realized that they must be approaching his stop. Sure
enough, a man in a uniform came up from behind them and
interrupted. John recognized this as the ticket checking ritual even
though he didn’t understand what was being said. The ticket man took a
look at the paper John handed to him, stamped it, and then pointed out
the window confirming that this was indeed John’s stop. He checked
George’s ticket also, and then moved on through the car.
John stood up and thrust out his hand to bid George goodbye.
That accomplished, he retrieved his large backpack and made his way
toward the door. On the other side of the door was the room that held
the bathroom and a narrow hallway to the next car. There was also a
glass door that led to the outside world. It would lock while the train
was moving so no lunatics could throw themselves off. When the train
was stopped you could open the door and three metal grate steps would
extend automatically in a rare feat of Eastern European convenience.
As the train came to a halt, John opened the door and stepped
down to the concrete platform. He stretched his arms out wide and took
a deep breath of the burning air. It had been an interesting trip, but he
was glad to be off the train. Around him, more people were getting off.
A slight shove came from behind him as he stretched in everyone else’s
way and then the old woman who’d shut his window gave him a friendly
elbow to his ribs on her way by. John just grinned at the idea of her
telling her family how rude the American had been at the dinner table
that night. The ugly woman George had talked to exited from the car
ahead and ran off, disappearing down some stairs and into the tunnel
that lead under the tracks and to the main station.
John, moving to follow her, turned and stopped at the top of the
stairs. He took a last look at the train that had given him so many
strange experiences. His interactions with the people on that train had
been far more interesting than all the gaudy cathedrals and other
ancient buildings he had seen. He wouldn’t have expected such
excitement from a slow, hot train. The train, however, was not yet
finished with John Boyal.
As he looked, he saw several men in uniforms through the train
windows. The had just entered John’s former car and were moving
quickly towards the next. To John, they looked like police. One of them
apparently saw what they were looking for because he stopped suddenly
and pointed ahead of him. John saw his mouth moving but couldn’t
hear anything through he closed windows.
John was interested by this new turn of events. Who are those
men? And what are they chasing? He watched them running and
stumbling through the car, grasping the seat backs to thrust themselves
forward. It was slow motion. People on the train were turning to look
now as the first policeman knocked over a new passenger trying to stow
his luggage. The men behind him tripped and fell below John’s sight but
reappeared a few feet further up. They were still shouting soundlessly
behind the glass.
The train shook and lurched forward. It was leaving the station
already. This time, all three men fell back and then forward with the
movements of the train. More silent shouting, and then two of them
raised their hands, holding guns. It was at this point that the train launched
it’s last volley of phantasmagoria at John in the form of George
exploding through the train’s glass exit door. Everything hung in the air
for a moment. John had time to recognize George as he flailed through
the air. Why did he do that? As John considered the light reflecting
off the shards of glass that floated in the air, George landed.
George took a few steps even as he lost balance and fell to the
ground. Just as quickly, he was back on his feet and running. John
could see that the glass had torn his jacket and cut him. George ran
toward John. In the moment just before he flung himself down the
stairs, George met John’s eyes and John saw recognition in his face.
Then George was flying again, touching just a few of the steps on the
Time suddenly returned to normal for John. George rounded the
corner at the bottom of the stairs and disappeared into the tunnel.
Policemen shoved him aside as they descended after George. Other
people on the platform were talking excitedly. John just watched the
police dash down the tunnel. All he could think was how boring it would
be to take a walking tour of bars and clubs of the city. He looked back at
the train as it left the station and saw Gloria looking out the window at
him. If it hadn’t been too late, he would have just gotten back on the
train and ridden it until it reached the end. Nothing else sounded the
least bit interesting.