Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts
  • Home
  • About
  • Archive
  • Bio Notes
  • Bookshelf
  • Contents
  • Submit
Short Story
4347 words
SHJ Issue 1
Spring 2010


Walter Cummins

Deep into an endless mountain tunnel, the rail carriage lights flickered and died into total darkness. Marina could feel Ellis’s fingers rubbing her thigh, then when she would not react, slide up toward her crotch. Her first thought was to scream so loud the train would shake; instead she seized his pinky and bent it back till he gave out a yelp and hissed in her ear, “Bitch!”

When the lights came back, she thought the bearded man halfway down the carriage was looking at her as if he had seen it all. He may just have been staring out at nothing, but he definitely had been watching her at the station where the train route started as she stood off by herself, relieved to be apart from Ellis and the others. A duffle bag slung over his shoulder, the man had followed her eyes as she gazed up at the highest peaks, awed by their jagged enormity, with a sudden realization that she had to do something grand to prove she wasn’t as small as she felt at that moment. Perhaps the man knew that too.

Now Ellis pressed against her, pinching the flesh above her knee, trying to give her pain. He moved his mouth so close she could feel the spray of spit on her face. “Don’t you ever do that again!”

Marina laughed as if he had said something funny, and it came out hollow, not what she had hoped. The others didn’t seem to be noticing. They were really Ellis’ friends, with him when she met him in a Paris hostel while traveling at the end of the semester. Now she was bored with them, annoyed with herself for having sex with Ellis. She wanted to experience Europe, retrace the routes of the Romans on a map from her history course, and all they wanted to do was smoke the dope they bought in Amsterdam. She had done that with them just an hour ago, huddled around a table at an outdoor café near the station. No more, she told herself. She wouldn’t be like them.

Ellis was still gripping her leg. “You’re a real asshole.” She spoke just loudly enough for the others to hear.

“You didn’t say that in the hotel.”

“I was hoping you were someone else then,” she said. “A huge mistake.”

“You were lucky I let you pick me up.”

She snorted. “I could replace you in the snap of a finger.”

“Yeah, who with?”

“That man.” On impulse, she gestured toward the bearded man, but now he wasn’t looking in her direction; facing the window instead with his straw hat titled over his forehead, shading his eyes.

“Him! He’s an old guy.”

“At least he’s a man.” And now she knew she had to do something.

The train was out of the tunnel, moving through an Alpine valley squeezed beneath looming mountains. When Marina stood, she realized how much it was vibrating, tremors up her spine. She took a step and stumbled down the narrow aisle, flinging arms when the train lurched around a bend, thinking she might be a bit stoned too.

She dropped beside the man on the slat wood bench and patted his straw hat. “I like the look of you,” she said. “It’s probably the hat. I’ve always been a fool for a man in a hat.” She fluffed his beard with her knuckles, then leaned back and propped her leather boots on the duffle bag shoved under the bench in front. She could tell he was resisting the impulse to stroke the beard smooth, decided not to do it for him.

“It’s the age of Jesus,” she said, turning to him as if in the middle of a conversation.

“What is?”

“The city we’re going to. Its 2,000th birthday celebration starts tomorrow. I thought everybody knew that.” She spoke in a jagged staccato, assuming a voice that wasn’t hers.

“I didn’t.”

“Then you must be from outer space.” She pursed her lips and emitted a Twilight Zone do do do do. “Or maybe a hermit down from a cave in the glaciers.”

“Close,” he said. “To both guesses.”

Now just a few feet away, she saw that he was younger than he had looked from a distance, probably in his late thirties, his face soft, the cheeks sagging, flakes of grey in his beard. What struck her most were the sad brown eyes. She felt sorry for him without knowing why. “So what brings you to civilization?”

“Pot luck. I’ve been on trains for the past two weeks. Walk into a station and jump on the first coach I find. Sometimes I don’t know where I’m going till I get there.”

“Where do you live, when you’re not riding the rails?”


Marina brightened with real interest, as if she had sobered in an instant. “But you’re an American.”

“If I have to be anything.”

“Can’t you find a nowhere to call home?”

“Any nowhere is as good as any other.”

“You’re in Europe. This is supposed to be an adventure,” she told him, really meaning it. “You’re supposed to be having fun.”

“I’ve misplaced my instruction manual.”

He didn’t laugh, but she did and tapped the side of her head. “Mine’s in here, etched into my brain. I could give lessons.” She fixed her eyes on his, but he looked away, unwilling to meet her gaze. She knew what she had to do.

“Come to the city,” she urged. “Indulge in the festivities. Rejoin society. With me. I mean it.” She crossed a hand over her heart. “Try to be happy.”

“What about your friends?” He gestured toward the young people crowded onto facing benches at the front of the coach. She saw them as he must have — three men and two women dressed in shorts and hiking boots, all tanned and fit, following their exchange as if reading lips, Ellis openly sneering. “Won’t they miss you?”

She reached out and closed her hands around his wrists as if clamping steel cuffs.

He looked at her closely. “You’re serious, aren’t you? You don’t even know me.”

She gestured toward Ellis and the others. “But I know them.”

“I get it.” He shrugged. “All right. Why not?”

There was still time for her to tell him she’d only been kidding, just stand up and return to Ellis and the others for the rest of the trip to the city, before she went off by herself. But she saw the look on Ellis’ face, on all their faces, and didn’t want to be with them even that long.

“I should know your name,” she said.

“Leon. My name is Leon.”

She wondered if she should be someone else but couldn’t think what to tell him. “Call me Marina,” she said as if it wasn’t her.

Her phrasing seemed to puzzle him. “Is that really your name?”

“It is today.”

“And tomorrow?”

“We’ll see.”

She’d make this man a challenge. Just getting him to smile would be a victory. But she told herself there wouldn’t be any sex. She couldn’t even imagine wanting him that way.

Minutes later at a transfer station, Marina retrieved her backpack from a rack over the benches where the others sat, refusing to look at Ellis, just mouthing, “Goodbye.” When she rejoined Leon, she told him to move into the aisle before her, holding a strap of his duffle bag as if it were a leash. She’d done it — showed Ellis. On the platform she studied the yellow departures listing and saw that the next train to the city was already waiting. “Hurry,” she urged. “Let’s get seats.”

Leon pointed to the others now gathered around a horse-drawn cart on the cobblestones outside the station, stroking the animal’s flanks. “Aren’t they coming?” he asked her. She shrugged and motioned him to help with her backpack.

She spotted free spaces and he hoisted their baggage up to the luggage racks. Then they sat across from each other by a blurred window. Ellis turned from the horse to glare at them. She wondered if Leon could see he was furious.

“Am I an excuse?” he asked her.

“For what?”

Dumping a boyfriend.”


“Aren’t you traveling together?”

“This is my adventure. Now it’s ours.”

When the train began to move, Leon took off his hat and laid it on the seat beside him. “You picked the wrong person for excitement. I’m a very dull person.”

“I suspect you have a secret.” After she said it, she wondered if she were right.

“Nothing that would matter to you.”

“All secrets matter.”

He looked away from her. Through the haze of the window, Marina could see small white boats crossing a lake, sunlight dazzling on the water. During the rest of the trip Marina ignored the scenery and talked about the places she had visited, the stories richly detailed, practiced, the details exaggerated, skipping Ellis and the dope, wondering how he would react if she told him.

At the central station in the city, Leon stood beside her in the waiting area, the duffle bag slung over his shoulder. Large signs for the anniversary hung from steel beams high above them, the number 2000 in garish colors. “Now what?” he asked her. She had a suspicion that he wanted to walk away and find a train to somewhere else. But she wouldn’t let him. She didn’t want to be alone.

“We’ll get a taxi. Drop off our gear at the hotel.”

“What hotel?”

“One right in the middle of the historic district. I booked it months ago. How else would a person find a room for a 2000th birthday festival?”

Outside the station, she signaled a cab, a black Mercedes diesel, giving directions in classroom German, watching as the driver threw her backpack and his duffle bag into the trunk.

Sitting beside her on the leather seat, Leon shook his head.

“What’s the matter?”

“I feel helpless, being led around by someone half my age.”

“But I think you’re a man who needs a guide.”

He almost smiled. She saw a slight curve to his lips and wondered if she amused him, if he liked her, if he found her attractive. A few friends, girls, had told Marina she was, and each time she would go home to study herself in a mirror. She found herself tall and strapping, blue-eyed, fair-skinned; but something was off, perhaps hair the wrong shade of blonde, lips too thin, or eyes too close behind the rimless glasses. She wanted to know, at night in the hotel had almost asked Ellis. Perhaps she would bring herself to ask Leon.

The cab cut across a wide boulevard and took a route of side streets down into the old section of the city. As the vehicle crept through the crowds of people that spilled off the sidewalks, she caught glimpses of wooden stands and bright decorations — balloons, banners, draped bunting. The driver stopped in a small square amidst a tangle of alleyways and narrow lanes.

Marina tapped Leon’s knee. “We get out here.” She paid the driver, wondering if Leon would offer if she had given him the chance.

He slid off the seat after her and followed to a wooden door under a small hotel sign. The building seemed ancient, coated with yellow stucco, bricks exposed where chunks had broken loose from the foundation.

In the lobby Marina rang a bell on a dark counter top, and an elderly woman appeared from behind a thick curtain. “I have a reservation.” She unfolded a letter of confirmation, not speaking her name. Leon was watching closely as she signed the registration card, but she blocked it with her free hand.

He carried both her backpack and his duffle bag up the two flights of stairs, bumping them on the worn carpeting of the steps. “You’ll have to let me pay the hotel bill,” he said.

“I can afford it.”

“How do you know I can’t?”

“You’re my guest.”

When she unlocked the door and swung it open, he dropped the baggage on the floor and flexed his shoulders. The room was tiny, dull wallpaper covering buckled plaster, framed reproductions tacked at odd angles — cows standing on a hillside of wildflowers, snowcapped mountains behind. Marina hadn’t specified when she booked, but to her relief, she saw two narrow beds separated by a nightstand.

“The first thing I want is a shower.” She unstrapped a side pocket of her pack and took a plastic sack into the bathroom. She turned the handles full blast. As water splashed over her, she wondered what Leon would do if she came out wrapped in a towel. Step into the hallway? Keep staring out the window? But she appeared already dressed, in bright culottes, sandals, and a pink blouse with a frilly collar, her hair braided and swept atop her head, fixed with a silver barrette. “Let’s join the party,” she said.

“Let me shave and wash up a bit.”

“I left the bathroom a mess.” The mirror was steamed, the tiles damp, her tights and underwear draped over the shower curtain.

“I’ll survive.”

When Leon closed the door, Marina stood at the window looking down into the square, at the swarms of people going in and out of the small shops, lunching al fresco at metal tables, taxis and vans threading among them. Even though the window was closed, she could hear the life resounding from the nearby buildings, sudden surges of human voices, shouts, laughter, recorded music, slamming doors. It was good to be here.

When Leon was ready, Marina took charge of the room key, tossed it on the counter in the lobby. In the square, she tugged at his hand. “Follow me and I’ll show you where the city started.”

She led him up a steep cobblestone street, a narrow stepped sidewalk at one edge. But they climbed on the stones, Marina skipping ahead despite the steep incline, he sucking in deep breaths and plodding as if pain were twisting through his thighs. At the top they came into a small green park.

“Legend has it that the Romans founded the city on this very spot twenty centuries ago” she told him. “It’s the highest ground in the area, with a view that would spot any invaders miles away. Ideal for a fortress.” She gestured for him to follow her along the path to an edge of a bluff. They overlooked a river and the streets along the quay on the other side packed with people. A garble of music swelled into the air — Germanic oompah, Latin rhythms, rock and roll, opera.

“You must be a fan of the Romans.”

She nodded, imagining herself posed in a chariot, swinging a sword, slashing all foes. “I’ve been following their footsteps. Ireland, Britain, Gaul, Sicily. Trophies of conquering armies.”

Leon surprised her by jumping back off the grass onto a slate path.

“What’s wrong?”

“I could be standing on a burial mound, Roman skeletons under my feet. Soldiers far from home. Dead from the follies of mad emperors.”

Marina felt the emotion in his voice and realized it was the most he had said since she met him. “What could they do? They were in an army.”

“Run away. Just leave their swords behind.”

“Did you know the Romans tattooed soldiers to catch them if they deserted? Then they killed them.”

“Maybe it was worth taking the chance.”

Leon was being serious, his face grim, and she didn’t like it. So she snatched the straw hat off his head by the brim and ran across the park. For a second he stood flatfooted, then ran after her. She let him catch up to her, but when he came close, jumped onto a bench, holding the hat high above her head. He leaped from the ground and came inches from grabbing it, then climbed onto the bench beside her and seized her around the waist. She had been laughing, but he wasn’t. She quickly set the hat on his head and pulled away.

As Leon adjusted the hat, Marina ran from the park, down the hill, sandals slapping at the stones, moving away from him, winding through the crowds and turning into an alley that led toward the river. She stopped to look for Leon following her and saw no sign of him, wondering if she should be relieved. But there he was, standing in the middle of a wide bridge, a man bewildered.

She thought for a moment and decided to call his name, “Leon,” waving to him from the steps of a cathedral.

In the square behind the cathedral, a Brazilian samba band performed from a tier of wooden bleachers, dozens of players in bright red shirts and green silk sashes, barelegged female dancers with high-piled hair shaking gourds and castanets, plump, dark-skinned, throwing themselves into the rhythm. Marina started to dance too, on the sidewalk by herself, emulating the women, tossing her hair so hard the barrette flew loose. Leon knelt on the concrete to retrieve it as people paused to watch her.

“Dance with me.” She opened her arms and wondered if he would step toward her.

He looked down at his dark boots and tried to follow her steps, then stopped and shook his head. “I’m not nearly as good.”

“Why should that matter?” She fixed her hair with the barrette, then reached back and pulled him after her. “So much to see. So much to do.”

They walked for several hours, up and down hills, along the river, around a lake, through neighborhoods, Marina always finding something to be fascinated about — a doorway, flowers in the windows, the shape of a roof, an orange cat that purred and rubbed her legs. She spoke her excitement, curious to see if he would react beyond silent nods, frustrated that he didn’t.

When the sky began to darken, deep shadows falling on the streets ahead, she checked her watch. “Almost time for the ceremonies.”

Night seemed to be bringing out even more people, more noise, crowds spilling onto the side streets. Back along the water they couldn’t find another outdoor table and had to join the diners in a dim basement restaurant, the food lukewarm and bland. After a few bites, Leon just poked at it with his fork. Marina ordered brandy, swishing the thick amber in the snifter, inhaling deeply, sipping.

When an amplified voice resounded from the night outside, she gulped the drink. “It’s started. Let’s go.”

Leon insisted on paying, unrolling bills stuffed into his pocket, Marina urging him to hurry.

So many people packed the street outside the restaurant they couldn’t move for a view by the water, just stood pushed against a building. A voice blared from loudspeakers on tall white poles, announcing in a German so distorted by volume that she had to strain to understand.

“What’s he saying?” Leon asked.

“He’s reading a greeting from our President.”

A great blast shook the city, then burst after burst, an explosion of colors soaring across the night sky. Marina cried out, “Oh! Look!” stunned when Leon threw himself down onto the sidewalk, burying his face in his arms, huddling against the foundation of the building. She kneeled beside him and placed her hands on his back, could feel him quivering, his voice screaming “No” over and over. When people gathered around him, she told them to go away, that it was all right, even though she had no idea if it was.

When more explosions sounded, a rapid series of bursts, she thought to lean down and tell him, “It’s only fireworks.” But he wouldn’t open his eyes. The crowd in front of them gasped and applauded.

After several minutes, he pulled himself up into a sitting position and used his sleeve to wipe tears from his face. “Sorry,” he said. “I couldn’t help myself.”

Marina stared down at him. “What was that all about?”

“I thought I was still in the war.”

“What war?

“A war I hated. Nothing but bombs, blood, and bodies.” He grasped her hand and pressed it to her face.

She sat beside him. “I sensed it on the train. Something about you was terribly wrong.”

“So many broken children.” His body was shaking, his eyes blinking wildly.

Marina brought her other hand to his face, touched it softly. “It makes me sad. I shouldn’t be sad. Nobody should.”

“You would have been better off staying with your friends.”

She began to weep, taking her hands from him and covering her own eyes. “I didn’t want it to be this way.”

Marina didn’t know how long they sat on the sidewalk, dozens of people passing them by, not even looking. Then Leon was calm. “I’m all right now,” he told her. “We’d better go.”

When he helped her up, she began to push through the crowds, rude in her shoving, not caring that people cursed her. Leon took her arm, slowed her and led the way, she just staring down at the sidewalk, surprised when he stopped and she found herself in the square outside the hotel.

Inside, he asked for the room key and followed her up the twisting stairway. A few steps from the top, she tripped backwards. He reached out quickly to catch her, placed hands on her shoulders, and she slumped against him. When Leon unlocked the door, she flopped on one of the beds, kicking off her sandals and burying her face in the comforter.

Noise resounded from below, even with the windows closed, the latches pulled tight. The narrow streets were echo chambers, sounds amplified by the walls of the buildings. She heard shouts, laughter, people yelling back and forth, words in a dozen languages, some in English, a shrill woman: “Have you seen Freddy? Where’s Freddy?” She couldn’t tell whether the person was amused or hysterical.

When she looked, she saw Leon stretched out on the other bed, fully dressed, eyes wide open. “You shouldn’t have to be like this,” she told him. “Living nowhere. Go home.”

“You don’t understand. I can’t. I never can. I’m a deserter.”

She looked at him blankly, then grasped what he was telling her. “You ran away?”

“I was only in the reserves. Never meant to be a soldier.”

“Oh, god! Did they tattoo you?” she asked without thinking.

Leon touched a finger to his head. “My tattoo is in here.”

“Are they after you?” Marina began to pace about the small room, looking at the door as if agents were lurking in the hallway. “Do they still shoot deserters?”

“Rarely. Just prison. But I keep moving, never staying in one place.”

“How do you live? Support yourself?”

“Somebody wires me money.”

“Who?” she demanded.

She didn’t think he would answer. But finally he spoke. “My ex-wife. She thinks she owes me because she got to keep everything else. Even our children.”

“Your life sounds so horrible.” Her face twisted into a grimace.

The noise became a din, a marching band playing right outside the hotel — trumpets, trombones, tubas, what sounded like a thousand bass drums, feet pounding on the cobblestones. The tune was John Phillip Sousa, “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” Marina went to the window, looking down at what must have been a hundred marchers, half of them beating on huge drums, snaking through the alleys around the square but always coming back on the same tight route. An endless pounding vibrated through the night. The drum beats seemed inside her head.

“No! No! No!” She heard Leon screaming. He wrapped his jacket around his head, squeezed his hands down against his ears, kicking hard against the mattress.

Marina stretched out beside him, pressing her legs against his until they stilled, wrapping an arm around his waist, murmuring sounds, unsure if he could hear them with all the drumming. She pulled the pillow over her head to muffle the banging, thinking, Stop it! Stop it! Stop it! until she couldn’t think any more.

She lay with him all night, neither of them moving. Hours later, not sure how many, she heard only quiet from the square outside. A hard rain pounded the windows. The storm must have driven the marchers indoors.

She got up quickly to use the bathroom, wash her hands, and splash water on her face. When she came back into the room, Leon was huddled on the bed, the jacket still wrapped around his head. Marina stood over him and shuddered.

She opened her backpack and threw in the few items she had unpacked. Then she pulled back the door and slid the pack through to the hallway, floor boards creaking, her eyes fixed on Leon’s hidden face the whole time. She paused in the hallway with the door cracked just an inch, waiting for him to react. But he lay unmoving, a shape beneath a blanket. She shut the door behind her, slowly, until the lock clicked.

Downstairs in the tiny lobby, she gave the old woman her credit card and said her friend was still in bed. Outside the rain was heavy, a steady deluge, the streets empty, the revelers sleeping off the night before. Whatever festivities had been planned for this day would have to be cancelled.

She hoisted the backpack over her shoulder and cut through an alley to an open square. When Marina emerged from between the building walls, she discovered, all alone, untended, two camels tethered to a railing. She moved up to the animals, close enough to reach out and touch them, but they ignored her, staring out blankly, jaws moving, rainwater streaming down the sides of their thick tan coats.

Marina wondered how they came to be in this place, a city so far north. For an instant she had a fantasy that they had been abandoned by Roman legions 20 centuries ago, the tattooed soldiers all long vanished. The only person out in the downpour, she moved toward the central station, rain lashing her.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury