The train arrived on time. In all the years that I’ve had to take trains, I don’t think a damned one of them were less than a half hour late. I take this to be a good omen as I board, maneuvering my luggage through the tightly packed crowd. Winter always makes people odd and this one was particularly cold. After pushing and pulling and dodging my way past families, brooding young men and confused old women, I find my seat. A window seat, another good sign. As the train begins crawling away from the platform, I notice that the seat beside me is still empty. This trip is getting better and better, I think to myself just as a large man ambles down the walkway, turning his craggy misshapen head left and right and looking for a place to land himself. Then he sees me. “Well, hello there, fella. Looks like we’ll be riding this one together. Name’s Jim. Yours?” he mumbles out in some indistinguishable southern accent. A twang cultivated by gut-rot moonshine and the searing warmth of ignorance.
“My name’s Martin. Where are you heading?” He seems pleased by my response and intent on making a friend.
“Well, I’m on my way to the City. Business, you know. Always running, thought taking a train would be a good way to relax. You know, no rush but just take it easy. You?”
I stop to think. Why am I doing this? I could have stayed home and let the world continue to spin on it’s merry axis and refuse to take part in the events that surround my insignificant existence. But no, I’m on this train, racing through meadows and fields and god knows what else, screaming into the unknown tomorrow with nothing to do but wait. Who or what will be waiting for me at my destination? The letter gave no name, just a place and a tone that told me not to forget it. Fuck it, I hadn’t had a vacation for a while. “Well, Jim. To tell you the truth, I’m not very sure. Just kind of moving forward. Where I end up is where I end up. What do you do for a living?” Keep it vague, no need to spill my growing paranoia onto this poor bastard. Not like I could explain it if I wanted to.
“Well.” He hesitates and I notice the large and ominously black briefcase at his feet. His child soft hands toying with the tag around the handle. He was blushing. “Well, you see, I… Ha. How can I explain this. Well, I’m like a traveling salesman. I go from place to place and meet with clients who are interested in my product and I work out the details. It’s a pretty lucrative operation. A little hard on the home life as I’m sure you can imagine. I don’t have a wife or anything so I guess I ain’t missin’ much.”
His dress shirt shows pit stains that no amount of washing will ever erase, his teeth were the same yellowed colour of a cafeteria wall. A wife does not appear to be in Jim’s near future. “What’s your product, Jim?”
“Well, you see. It’s a mail-order bride outfit. We find these nice young gals out of Russia or some other god forsaken place who really want to come to America and we find the fellas who want someone they can rely on. Someone who won’t judge them and won’t hurt them. We’re really just the middle men to people’s dreams.”
“Is that legal?” I ask. I’ve heard of businesses like this but never thought they were real. Imagine, paying some sleaze with bad hair to fly a girl, a girl that you’d never spoken to and only knew from the photograph that you’d been shown, all the way from Shit Hole, Ukraine to you. Bought-and-paid-for love. The thought made me shudder. Jim must have noticed my discomfort and tried in his own way to reassure me of the legality and moral rightness of such a venture.
“No, no, no, no. It’s completely legal. These girls want to get out of where they are from. We’re not kidnapping anyone. They want an adventure, they want love, they want a real life. In America. With a chance to get a good job and these guys just want someone to love and take care of them. I mean, sure, maybe we have to sidestep a few legal hurdles to make sure everything works out smoothly and maybe we sometimes test out the merchandise when they get in. But we’re still only making sure the guy is getting what he’s paying for. Damn, lemme tell ya, those girls can do some crazy shit–” His eyes wander out the window for a moment. His words trailing off as he gets lost in his own narrative. Suddenly, he snaps out of it and seems embarrassed. “Sorry about my language. You spend so much time on the road, you can forget your manners.” He’d been wearing a wolfish grin the entire time he was talking. He had this gleam in his eye that made me uncomfortable at a very primal level. Something more than the guy’s occupation and moral apathy frightened me.
“Well, Jim. I don’t really know what to tell you. Seems like you are really lookin’ out for the welfare of all god’s little people. Listen, I think I’m going to go see if this place has anything to drink so I’ll talk to you later.” I wave goodbye and hurry down the hall. The dining car was four up and I needed a drink badly. Got to find a way to stall as long as possible, maybe he’ll fall asleep or something. If not then this is going to be a very long train ride. I can see my luck beginning to drain away.
When I finally reach the dining car, the train is in full swing. Babies crying, old people snoring and even a few angry commuters yelling at a steward. In the corner was a buzzard of an old woman. She wasn’t doing anything particularly strange, just staring. But she didn’t even have the decency to stare at the milling sideshow that surrounded her. Instead, she was just staring at this weird brown stain on the seat across from her, the only vacant seat in the dining car. I went to the bar and ordered a beer, paid the kid behind the counter and walked over to the stained seat.
“You know that might be shit?” she blurts out as I’m sitting down. “I’ve been staring at it since we boarded and I think it might actually be human feces. I wouldn’t sit on that if I were you. Do you know how many diseases you can contract from shit? A lot. I’m not sure how many or what they are but I’m sure you can imagine your discomfort at having gotten sick and dying because you were dumb enough to wallow in someone else’s shit. I would be horrified.” I have no idea what to say. Taking a drink, I try to tune her out and focus on the passing landscape. Winter always made nature unsettling to me, as though what I’m seeing isn’t quite true. The grays in everything come out a little more, like concrete under weathered paint. “What’s wrong with you? Young man, I’m talking to you. Oh sure, go ahead and look away. Drink that beer, because when some shit disease takes hold of you, that will be the last thing you remember: that tasty beer. Well, I’m just trying to do a service. I’m trying to warn you but you’re too dumb to listen. You young folks, I don’t understand it. All you do now-a-days is drink beer, yell at your TV’s, and not think. Back in my day, we had goals. We had dreams. What do you have? A beer and a shit stained seat. That’s what.” Running out of steam and breathing hard, the buzzard floats out of her seat and with a glare in my direction, wanders off. She stands awkwardly for a moment, unsure of what to do now that she doesn’t have her seat and the stain until she notices something at the bar and heads straight to it, already beginning to yell at the poor kid for having his elbows on the counter. I continue drinking my beer. Finding myself thinking about the stain and wondering if it is shit and why the hell was I willing to take the chance of getting sick by sitting here. I eventually shrug it off and think about how much time is left on this ride. Without noticing, I had been scratching a groove into the table with a quarter. What’s going on with me? Why am I on edge? Nothing is gonna happen. Well, maybe something will but what is the point in worrying about it? If I did do something wrong then I will probably deserve whatever it is that I’m heading towards. But I can’t think of any particular incident that would provoke a message from out of the blue containing only an address, a time and a short message: “We need to talk.” No name, no number. Suddenly, I feel a warm hand on my shoulder and look up into the dumb face of my sales man. He’s smiling.
“Hey Martin, I hoped you’d still be here. What’s that stain you’re sitting on?” He leans closer, his breath sour in my face. “Is that shit?”
Banner Image: By Charles O’Rear, 1941-, Photographer (NARA record: 3403717) (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons