Platzkart

“The Slavs!  Of course!  Though he hated to paint them as the perennial villains, they rarely managed to prove his instincts wrong…”

Osiris Flint and the Subatomic Parabole

Max could hear the man’s heavy breathing through the door.  The door was locked, but it was flimsy looking and Max doubted if the lock would hold under any force.  The window was open in the bathroom, and the icy January air poured in as the train clacked toward its destination.  Max shivered in his undershirt and jeans, wishing that he had had time to grab his jacket.  Or shoes.  The floor of the bathroom sloshed with several inches of murky water and it had quickly inundated Max’s wool socks.  It smelled of piss, shit, and cold air.

And vomit.

The combination of nerves and the odor of excrement had forced up the contents of Max’s stomach (which hadn’t been much more than vodka and crackers, and yet the vomit was red, staining his white shirt like cherry Kool Aid or thin blood).  And so he stood, loathe to sit on the lidless, metal toilet that was rimed with a suspiciously dark substance.  His body shivered from the cold, but it shook from the fear.  Despite the temperature, beads of sweat stood on his forehead and his hands squeezed each other clammily.

The man mumbled on the other side of the door.  It was a low voice; a string of incomprehensible gibberish punctuated, occasionally, by the words my friend.  But the man on the other side of the door was not his friend.

*****

Max was out of money.  Or, rather, his parents had cut him off with an email that said no more than “Fun’s over.  You flight home leaves from Krakow in two days.  We’ll see you at Dulles.”  His time in Europe had officially come to an end.  And so he was boarding a train in Kyiv with the only ticket that he could afford: third class or Platzkart (which sounded to him like a very proletariat word).  His Fodor’s had promised him that Platzkart was a communal and boozy affair, the only true way to travel.  All Max knew was that he didn’t speak a word of Russian or Ukrainian, he couldn’t hold his liquor, and his iPod had only two hours of life left.

The train station was a giant affair of steel girders and concrete platforms.  Its enormity was suffocating, as though the whole thing could come collapsing down on top of you at any minute.  The grimy trains, painted blue and yellow, hissed and sulked as they pulled up to and away from their platforms.  Music that reminded Max of parades or victory fanfare brayed loudly out of speakers mounted on cement light posts.  Old men or women slouched their way up and down the platforms, most of them lost under winter clothes as heavy as the large, nylon bags they carried (some bags were so heavy that the weight was shared between two people).

The cold, night wind was blowing snow in handfuls; the flakes fell in heavy bunches and clumps, landing on stocking caps and coats, or clinging to eyelashes and staying as though they were artificial–like flakes made of soap or potatoes.  The snow danced in the champagne hue of the train station lights before falling to accumulate on the platform, covering up the previous carpet of smoldering cigarette butts, Snickers wrappers, sunflower seed hulls, and broken glass.  Max stood in the short line to board his train car.  Under his layers of neoprene, down, and wool, he was still cold, and he stamped his feet (slowly disappearing in the blanket of snow) to warm himself.

“It could be raining, right?” to no one in particular.

The line advanced towards the train, each passenger presenting their ticket to the car’s steward before hefting their bags, and themselves, on board.  Then it was Max’s turn.  He handed the yellow paper ticket to the steward and smiled, “It seems like it’s always snowing in the Ukraine, huh?”

The steward was a seedy looking young man who, despite his train uniform, did not instill trust in Max.  There were large, bruise-colored rings below his eyes and there was a fresh scab on his left temple.  The man needed a shave, and when he opened his mouth to sneer at Max’s ticket, several gold teeth glinted with reflected light.  He held a flashlight in his left hand that he used to scrutinize the ticket in his right.  “Passport.”  The steward held out his right hand.  Max tried to grab the ticket back, but the steward did not let go, “Passport.  Puzhalsta.”

Max forced a grin, “Um, right.  Ok.  Sorry.  I don’t really speak any Ukrainian.”  He dug his passport out of an inner pocket in his jacket and handed it to the steward.  “You don’t speak English do you?  Because I was wondering if––”

“Nyet.  Ahnglieesky nyet,” the steward took Max’s passport and examined it next to the ticket.  Then he closed the ticket inside of the passport and handed it back.  Max nodded, slipped the passport into the back pocket of his pants, and climbed onboard the train.

It was cold outside.  But it was stifling inside the train car.  To make matters worse, the air in the car was sultry with the smells of feet, stale sweat, armpit, and fart.  There was a lingering aroma of fish and a tang of alcohol.  Max retched and swallowed a mouthful of bile as he was buffeted by the noxious odors.  “Fuck you, Fodor’s.  Communal and boozy?  My high school locker room smelled better than this,” again to no one in particular.  Breathing through his mouth, Max began to look for his bunk.

The aisle of the train car was a carpeted walkway on the right side.  The car was partitioned into “cabins”; only the “cabins” in Platzkart had no doors and were simply divided by thin walls.  Each “cabin” had six bunks (six-foot benches that doubled as beds): two sets of upper and lower bunks faced each other on either side of a small metal table, and one more set of upper and lower bunks were perpendicular to the table, against the right wall on the other side of the carpeted aisle.  At either end of the train car was a bathroom with a toilet and sink.  The steward’s cabin was near the bathroom at the end of the train where everyone entered.  Max’s bunk was at the opposite end, two cabins from the bathroom.

He looked at the faces of his fellow passengers as he trudged towards his bunk.  Everyone had sullen expressions and they stared at Max suspiciously.  Three middle-aged men were seated in the cabin before his own. The men were playing a game of cards.  Their voices were loud and they yelled and laughed at each other as the cards were slapped on the table, which jostled the bread, sausage, and bottles of beer that were lined up at the table’s end.  The men were clad similarly in white t-shirts tucked into black athletic pants.  All three of the men turned to look at Max.  He suddenly felt out of place in his wool trousers and bright red coat.  He half-smiled and flicked a wave at the men.  All but the man nearest him looked away.

The man continued to stare.  He was very skinny, but not frail.  His black hair was cut short and dove into a sharp widow’s peak across his brow.  His dark eyes looked Max up and down while his fastidiously shaven jaw worked something within his mouth.  The man’s large hands were red and chapped and there was a small, blue tattoo on the webbing of his left hand.

“Hello,” said Max, and he regretted the words as soon as they left his mouth.  This man did not speak English and he certainly didn’t care to talk to some bushy haired kid.

“Nu,” the man said in a low voice.  He nodded once and then returned his attention to the card game.

Max continued to his bunk.  He had been assigned the lower bunk facing the table (his back was to the men playing cards) and since none of the others in his cabin had arrived, he did not feel bad about sprawling out on the red vinyl bench.  His body felt slimy with sweat. He peeled off his jacket and sweater and took off his shoes.  He tried to open the window on the wall above the table, but it was bolted shut.  “Of course.”  Max pulled a book out of his bag, propped the bag between his back and the wall, and began to read.  He was so wrapped up in the adventures of Osiris Flint, that he did not notice the two people standing over him until one of them spoke.

“Te vzhe tam?  Che na verkhu?” It was a quiet man’s voice.  Max looked up from his book and surveyed his new cabin mates.  One of them, the one who had asked the question, was an old man.  White hair wisped around his large ears, but nowhere else on his shiny head.  His ears, nose, chin, and jowls had long since ceded to gravity.  The small spectacles that perched precariously on the bridge of his red nose magnified his weepy and bloodshot eyes.  Under a dark green suit coat he wore an old brown sweater over a shirt and tie.  There was a small button with the image of Lenin on the left lapel of his suit coat.  He gazed at Max with interest and repeated his question.

The old man’s traveling partner, a girl, smiled at Max and said, “My grandfather he ask if you are there or on upper seat.”

Max let out a long sigh and smiled, “English!  You speak English!  Finally.  Yes, this is my seat.  But if there’s a problem, I can move.”

The girl laughed nervously, “Is not problem.  I believe you.  My grandfather he is worry more about where to lay his things.”  Max guessed that the girl was about his age.  Her severe cheekbones were framed by hair that was not originally blond.  She wore a blue turtleneck sweater underneath a puffy silver jacket.  Her blue jeans were skintight and had stitches zigzagging up and down the denim.  Max guessed that they were knockoffs.  Her smile was warm, but nervous, and she would not hold eye contact with Max.

“Tell your grandfather that he can put his stuff wherever.”

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