Last Train to Clarksville

Train_TunnelRobin Meloy Goldsby, stripped of her middle-age invisibility cloak by an unshaven train engineer, tries to find her way back home.

I stand on the train platform and wait for the 5:54 to Overath. Rays of late summer sun cast crooked shadows on the determined faces of commuters. We’re at the main train station in Cologne, Germany, and all of us are trying our best to get home. Students in jeans, musicians with guitar and trombone cases, office workers in Esprit mix and match suits, and senior-citizen shoppers lugging cloth bags of discounted groceries—we crowd around information boards, benches, and vending machines. We are Germany’s middle-class—daytime travelers waiting to be whisked from the city to another place. A robust man with a rosy face sells Bratwurst and Brötchen to those who have skipped lunch or are thinking about skipping dinner. I have been eating all day, but still, my stomach growls at the smell of the grilled pork. I don’t eat meat—so I ask for a plain piece of bread. It is crusty, white and carb-laden.

I met my friends Christina and Christina for coffee today. They are willowy blonds, both of them twenty years younger than I am. Christina One has a new baby; Christina Two has a new career; I have an odd feeling that I am morphing into their Great Aunt Edna—a nutty and slightly eccentric older woman, reasonably well-preserved, but, like the September sun poking through the smudged glass ceiling of the train station, maybe trying a little too hard to keep on shining. I love my circle of young friends—I have about six good pals who are in their thirties—but they are just so, well, young. They still have menstrual cramps and waistlines and instant-recall memories. Some of them even have mothers my age.  Not one of them, as far as I know, actually has a Great Aunt Edna.

I rip off a piece of bread and glance at the automated board overhead. Good. My train is coming. The S25 to Overath—right on time. How I love rail transportation in Europe. Moving more slowly than usual, the long red train creeps into the station. I chew my Brötchen as the lead car, the one housing the engineer, edges past me. The engineer, let’s call him Axel, leans out the window. Axel is hot. Axel knows he’s hot. Axel is literally hot, too—sweaty and dirty and just a tad unshaven, and he smiles in my direction. Whoa. Smile is not the correct word. He leers in my direction. Shouldn’t he be watching the track? I turn around to see where he’s looking—must be a college girl in short-shorts, or a super-model wannabe, or an Eastern European pole-dancer in thigh-high boots—but I stand in a cluster of forlorn looking teenage boys and men in dark suits. The brakes of the train squeal. I turn back around and face Axel. He grins at me again, runs his eyes up and down my body, and does a funny thing with his tongue. He points and me and nods. Oh! I don’t know what to do. As a happily married fifty-five year old woman, I’m out of practice with nasty-nasty flirting.

I’m so flustered that I salute Axel with my half-eaten Brötchen, a gesture that immediately makes me a strong candidate for Desperate Woman of the Year. Saluting with a Brötchen? The heat rises in my face as I step onto the train.

I sink into my seat. What in the world was that? I guess I don’t look so bad today. Quick, what am I wearing? White linen pants, tennis shoes, and a black t-shirt. There are breadcrumbs on the t-shirt, but still, it must be a pretty hip outfit. Axel is like, what? Twenty-eight? I wonder what would happen if I went up to his cockpit (is that what they call the engine car of a train?) and knocked on the door. Not to jump on him or anything, just to ask him personally why the hell he glad-eyed me. I’ve spent over a decade being ignored by guys like Axel, and I’m curious why today, of all days, I’m a target.

My fantasy conversation goes like this:

“Was it the linen pants?” I say. “Or the Brötchen crumbs?”

“I love mature women,” he replies. “And you, with those adorable little Ecco sneakers in just the right shade of taupe? You, baby, turn me on.”

“Oh, thank you, Axel,” I say, feeling a little shy, but not the least bit tempted by him.

“You’re so youthful, so full of vitality,” Axel says. “Your face isn’t falling down at all. You’re hot.”

“Me? I’m hot?”

“You. You’re hot.”

Never mind that Axel would be speaking German—guys who look like Axel don’t speak English—his words would be poetic and warm. He would be polite in a sleazy way. He would never once mention the term MILF. He would smell like grease and engine dirt and Mennen Speed Stick deodorant, even though it’s not available in Europe. He would run his fingers through his filthy hair, bat his sleepy (and slightly bloodshot) eyes at me and say: “You, little lady, do something to me, and it ain’t just the shoes. Come on up here and sit next to me; I’ll let you drive the train.”

I go on and on like this, eyes closed, deep in a menopausal Thomas the Tank Engine fantasy. Funny isn’t it, how one lascivious look from a train engineer could set me off this way. I have gone from Great Aunt Edna to Sydney Leathers in a mere ten minutes. The words to “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” flash through my brain. Someone’s in the kitchen with Dinah . . .  ah, a mid-September reverie. I wonder if I should wave to him when I get off the train. Or leave a trail of breadcrumbs. Just before I get to the Dinah won’t you blow part of the song (an ill-advised lyric if there ever was one), I open my eyes to see how close I am to home.

“Holweide. Next stop Holweide,” says the computerized voice over the PA system.

Holweide?” I say to no one in particular, but everyone hears my panic. “Where is this train going?”

“Holweide!” several people answer in unison, a Greek Chorus with a smidgen of Schadenfreude.

I am on the wrong goddamn train. That goddamn dirtball Axel, or whoever the hell he is, tricked me. He did that tongue thing, I turned into a wobbly-kneed idiot, and I got on the wrong goddamn train. He probably has a scorecard on his sooty engineer’s desk, where he keeps track of how many pathetic middle-aged women he can confuse. I feel like charging into his cockpit and kicking him in the caboose.

I’m fuming. While waiting for the train to reach Holweide, I have another fantasy conversation with Axel:

“What’s the matter with you?” I ask. “Do you think this is funny?”

“Not my fault you fell for it,” he says. “Works every time. You MILFS get all steamed up and just step right into my clutches.”

“I didn’t step into your clutches. I stepped onto the wrong train.”

“Gotta double-check the board, lady.”

“I didn’t double-check the board, Axel, because you were drooling at me from your cockpit window and I was distracted. Shame on you. And I am not a MILF. I am a well-adjusted and happily married mother of two grown children. I don’t need looks from guys like you to feel good about myself.”

“Could’ve fooled me. And it’s not a cockpit, you know.”

“Whatever.”

***

I get off the train at Holweide, humiliated, tired, and wishing I hadn’t thrown away the rest of my Brötchen. Axel leans out the window, doing his engineer thing, and pulls away from the platform without giving me a second glance. Maybe he never even gave me a first glance. I wonder if I’ve imagined the entire episode. I am now sure that my face really is falling down and that these shoes are not very cute at all.

It’s not like I haven’t dealt with a leering man before. It’s just that it hasn’t happened in ages. I’m out of shape, so to speak. I used to sit at my piano and laugh at guys who acted like Axel. Buffoons! But now, a dozen years after donning my middle-age invisibility cloak and my Great Aunt Edna shield of elegance and eccentricity, I’ve been reduced to blushing and performing the Brötchen salute. And if that’s not punishment enough, I’m in some God forsaken place called Holweide with nothing to do except wait for the train in the opposite direction to get me back to where I started.

Life. One step forward, two steps back. Just once, I’d like to go sideways.

***

“John,” I say to my husband. “I am in Holweide.”

“What?” he says. “Hole what?” The phone connection is dicey.

“Holweide!”

“What are you doing there?”

“I got on the wrong train.”

“How in the world did you do that?” he says.

“Long story. I’ll tell you later.” I’m not sure if I’ll confess or not. John—handsome, intelligent, and  the polar opposite of bad boy Axel—is the love of my life. It seems pretty stupid to tell him I got on the wrong train because a hunky pervert with dirty hair and a long tongue cast his roving eye in my direction. We hang up and I sit and wait an hour for the next train.

I decide I must be the victim of the German version of “Candid Camera,” an awful show called “Verstehen Sie Spass?”—the English translation of which is “Do You Understand Fun?”

The answer is no. I do not understand Spass, at least not the German kind.

Out of boredom I fall into a Zen-like state that’s one stifled yawn short of unconscious. I wish I had another Brötchen. Why oh why am I always so hungry? A man with a shaved head sits down next to me. He wears a ribbed sleeveless undershirt—we used to call them muscle shirts back in the day: now they’re called wife beaters. Tattoos cover the man’s burly arms. Sadly, one of his arms stops at the elbow. Little fingers stick out of the elbow joint. The little fingers are also tattooed.  I try not to stare, but I’m fascinated. There are skulls on each of the little fingers, and right above the stump is a heart with an inscription that reads: Forever Christina.

Three Christinas in one day. Really, it’s almost too much.

With his other (full-length) arm the man removes a packet of American Mac ‘n Cheese casserole mix from his jeans pocket. Grasping the packet with his teeny tiny tattooed elbow fingers, he begins to study the instructions. There are little American flags on the package, and a photo of a delicious looking bowl of Mac ‘n Cheese on the cover. I have nothing with me to read, so I’m grateful to look over his elbow and read along with him.

This is what happens to women who end up in Holweide. It seems a fitting punishment for my gullibility.

Finally the train arrives. I nod a silent goodbye to the muscle man (he is still memorizing the Mac ‘n Cheese packet), take the train back to the main station, and begin waiting again. Twenty minutes later, the train to my village arrives. The engineer drives right past me, the breaks do not squeal, and the doors open efficiently. There are no seats available—the car is packed with boisterous young people, returning home from Games.com, a trade show that features the latest ways to waste time and have fun shooting virtual bad guys. I have wasted a lot of time today myself, but I didn’t have any fun and I certainly didn’t shoot anyone, although at specific points in today’s voyage I might have been tempted. My feet hurt, my back aches, and I just want to sit on my living-room sofa and eat a bowl of Mac ‘n Cheese.  But I don’t eat cheese anymore, so it would be Mac ‘n Mac.

“Excuse me, Madame,” says a teenage girl in a tight black mini-skirt—exactly the kind of thing I would have worn at her age. She radiates confidence and youthful energy. “Would you like to sit down?” She jumps up and fluffs her hair. “I’ve been sitting all day, and you look like you could use a seat.”

“Thank you,” I say, in my best Great Aunt Edna voice. “Thank you.”

I sit back and settle in. I’m exhausted. In the course of two hours I have lost and regained three decades. I have traveled back and traveled forth, on the rails and in my mind. Now, thank goodness, I’m traveling home.

***

Robin Meloy Goldsby is the author of Piano Girl; Rhythm; and Waltz of the Asparagus People.

  • Holli Ross

    Darling Robin! Just the kind of break I needed with a good cup of French Roast. You say out loud what the rest of us are thinking! Thanks for that and the smile. Hugs!

    • Robin Meloy Goldsby

      Thanks, Holli! Have some carbs with that coffee. And watch out for guys named Axel. They love women who look like you. BTW, love those new photos of you, my gorgeous friend! xoxo

  • Felice

    Love this piece. So great. And you know what, I had an Aunt Edna! And let me tell you Robin, you’re no Aunt Edna. xo

    • Robin Meloy Goldsby

      Thanks, Felice! REALLY??? You had an Aunt Edna? Love that. xo

      • Felice

        I did. And she was a hoarder to boot!

  • Randy Rawsthorne Snakelady

    Loved it! You’re so talented Robin.
    Love you..randy

    • Robin Meloy Goldsby

      Thanks, Randita! You need to put Mac ‘n Mac on the menu at the café. Love you!

  • Janet Davis

    Very funny my dear. You should have known. Guys like Axel don’t get to make the Overath run. That’s reserved for Jens and Andreas….hot Germans. Stick with them. 🙂 Thanks for a great laugh!

    • Robin Meloy Goldsby

      Ha! You’re right. Guys with names like Jens and Andreas would never dream of doing that tongue thing, at least not in public. xoxo

  • Sharon Reamer

    Laugh-out-loud funny, you almost generated a middle-aged pisshap here. My only advice – do not ever go into the cockpit. Thanks for that.

    • Robin Meloy Goldsby

      Thanks, Sharon! Always a good sign when you’re the first to comment. I promise, from now on I will avoid the cockpit. I’ll go public with this in the morning. Let’s hope for the best.