Writing inspired by the SWC creative writing prompt: Write a travel story based on a popular song title such as “Yellow Submarine” by the Beatles. Perhaps your characters really are brightly dressed submariners with mop-top haircuts. Or maybe the people in your story take a ride in a “Little Red Corvette” (song by Prince).
Take (the) A Train
(A tribute to Duke Ellington with a mention to Lawrence Welk for allegedly muffing the title of Duke’s standard)
By Connie Phlipot
The battalion of iron grey ticket machines lined up at the entrance to the train station — the first line of choice, the first barrier to entry. Destinations. The list began with well-known suburbs of the city, then tailed into stranger and stranger place names borrowed from ancient Rome or Greece. Etruscan perhaps. Multiples of Xxs must be Basque or Albanian.
Anneli chose one far down the list — plenty of Xs and other combination of letters she didn’t know how to pronounce.
One-way or round trip. Her risk-averse inclination said round trip; her parsimonious side — one- way. She might come back from another station or via bus. Or not at all. She punched in one-way. Coins clattered deeply in the steely machine. It churned a second of two, then the ticket floated into the receptacle.
Platform 35. Anneli didn’t know the station had so many tracks. The train left in 30 minutes; she had plenty of time for a coffee at the cafeteria. An old-fashioned long coffee in a heavy white mug. The name of the porcelain company was stamped in fuzzy red letters on the bottom of the cup. A company that no longer existed in a country that didn’t either. Anneli twirled around on the round, red-upholstered stool to look at the people entering the train station. The whole of her small country was advancing towards the tens of tracks stretching out beyond this city.
Platform 35. She picked up her bag and started to pay for the coffee. The waitress, shook her head, the perky white paper cap bobbed. “We no longer accept this money.”
“But I have no other.” Anneli squinted at the coins like the ones she had just used to buy her train ticket. “And the money was good five minutes ago.”
“Oh, well, things change fast around here.” The waitress smiled. “Don’t worry. Just go on your trip. When — or if— you come back you can pay for it.”
Should she try to exchange her money for the new one? Anneli didn’t have time. Maybe at her destination.
The station was so much larger than it had seemed from the outside. The first platform Anneli came to was 75. The next one 76. She spun around in the other direction and her feet slipped on the recently washed floor. 74. She picked up her speed, but the tile was so slippery. The dampness wasn’t from cleaning, as clops of mud and small branches littered the floor. Rain? Inside? A flood? She walked quickly, a power walker in a race, head bent forward like a desperate bird. She was sweating. She unbuttoned her coat, stuffed her wool hat in her pocket, no time to remove the coat.
The train attendant standing outside the wagon door blew his whistle as she reached platform 35. “Quick, show me your ticket.” Anneli dug into her pocket. The ticket was waddled up under her hat. The attendant clucked his tongue. “Normally, I’d make you get another one. But there isn’t time, get on board.” He smoothed out the folds and wrinkles and handed it back to her. “And have a good trip.”
She took a breath and looked down the aisle. The train was about half full. The passengers were a mix of ages — an older couple dressed for hiking in quilted jackets and thick-soled boots were on her right. Beyond them a girl bent over a book, her hair hiding the text. A few rows ahead were two free seats facing the direction the train was going.
Anneli settled down by the window and looked at the rows and rows of tracks spreading out like an accordion. The train wheezed as it picked up speed and the other tracks disappeared beyond the horizon. Her breathing slowed. She was no longer hot, in fact, it was pleasantly cool. A window must be open. Good, some fresh would bring in the smell of pines or of hay when they left the city.
The elderly hiker walked past enroute to the toilet or cafe car. He nodded as he passed her seat, then, before reaching the end of the car, he turned around. “May I sit here?” he asked Anneli.
“Yes, of course, but, umm” she didn’t want to embarrass him, but maybe he was confused. Forgot his seat, or his wife.
He laughed and took off his felt hat. “No, I’m not senile. I just like to talk to people, different people.”
“Oh, of course…. but I’m not interesting.”
“Everyone’s interesting. But don’t worry, I’ll start talking.”
Anneli sighed. A long life story that she would have to pretend to listen to. She smiled, faintly, not unfriendly but not enthusiastically, she hoped.
The hiker played with his hat in his lap. “And, no, I’m not going to talk for hours. People always expect that. Old man, needs an outlet. Always on transmit they say. No, I’m a receiver, too. really. You see, I’ll begin with a few questions. If you like them, you can ask me.”
Anneli smiled again, a little intrigued, but the three-week old magazine in her pack was clamoring to be read.
“I don’t need your name, but you can tell me if you want. What I really want to know is where you are going.”
Anneli pulled out her ticket. She didn’t remember the name of the place she had picked randomly. She showed him the ticket, mumbling that she didn’t know how to pronounce it.
“Ah, yah, Some say it like this… he rattled off a name that bore no resemblance to the letters on the ticket. “And others like this…” It was something entirely different.
(To be continued, or not.)
Sunday Writers' Club Member
Connie draws upon her experiences as a former U.S. diplomat in her short stories, flash fiction and creative non-fiction. Her novel-in-progress is loosely based on her grandparents’ lives as Belarusan immigrants in the coal mining community of early 20th century America.