Thursday, June 8, 2017

The Tram, by Rita Collins

The Tram

Two strangers meet on the Number 5 tram in the center of Brno.  Within six stops they discover that although they don’t have much in common, there are reasons to continue the conversation.

The Tram

            This is where it started.  On the Number 5 tram, the one that runs through the middle of the city to the western edge near the cemetery.  It actually started in the third row of seats on the left side toward the front. Nothing particular about the day would cause you to note it as anything special. Just the Number 5 tram that stopped nearVeviri Street and then went on past the red brick church and down the hill towards the bridge.  When I got on at Veviri, there was only that seat available near the front that I managed to fall into before the tram rumbled round the corner. 
            The man was in his late sixties with gray hair, cut by someone who wasn’t a barber.  Nondescript pants with subtle stains and a faded green jacket. One of those jackets that might have been designed for the military but which so many people wear, you suspect they are mass produced in China.  He was looking out the window and holding a boxed videocassette on his lap
            It always feels a bit awkward to look out the window on a tram if you are not sitting next to the window. Sitting on the aisle seat, I did not want to look past the man’s profile in case he felt I was studying him.  To my other side people were crowded in the aisle so looking to my right meant I would stare at someone’s crotch.  One has to look somewhere so I looked at the video in his hand.
            My initial surprise was that he was holding a videocassette.  We are in a time when most people watch DVDs.  So that he was holding a video with its box covered by gaudy colors caught my attention as the tram swung pass the church.  The second surprise was the title was in English. In fact the short synopsis on the video package was also in English.  My mind was sorting through this series of surprises and juggling the moral recognition that I judged this man to be a retired bricklayer or equivalent and now it would seem he watched films in English.
            I turned slightly to read the synopsis, as I was curious to see what the film was about.  One might assume from the graphics that it was action packed but I was trying to be cautious about rash judgments. When I leaned in a tad closer to read the small print, the man turned his head and looked directly at me.
            I nodded in what I hoped would appear to be a strong impersonation of someone not interested in anything other than which groceries to get for supper.  He nodded, said something in Czech and I was at an impasse. I could nod and turn away with a I-certainly-don’t-talk-to-strangers air. I could smile slightly and hold up my hands to indicate I was deaf.  Or I could explain I spoke English and didn’t really understand Czech.
            Already feeling abashed by my initial judgment and then the rather intrusive act of examining his video, I explained in fractured Czech that I spoke English. This turned out to be the correct choice as in about three seconds he smiled, shook hands with me, and explained in English that he had attended the University of Ohio in the late1960s.
            It was a brief as he was only there a few years having been sent by the government to learn something and then return.  I was trying to register this man in Ohio in the sixties and the confidence the government had that he would come back and then why he did.  He explained that Ohio was where John Glenn was from and of course, he knew I must know who John Glenn was.  He liked watching films in English to maintain his language skills because now that he was retired there really wasn’t anyone to speak with in English.  He was fortunate to have this opportunity to talk with me and by the way might he ask what I was doing in this city.
            I could feel the downward inclination of the hill.  I normally got off at the stop closest to the bridge but this seemed a conversation one might continue.  Being a curious person when I wasn’t making ill-based judgments, I stayed on the tram as I had a bit of extra time to talk with him. I explained I taught at the university and because my work was in the English department, I had been very lazy learning Czech.  He brushed aside my excuse saying Czech was a difficult language I shouldn’t bother with, and then politely asked why I was carrying a portable typewriter.
            It was not a surprise someone who watched videos in the age of DVDs would recognize a typewriter by its case.  I said I was a writer who used teaching to support my habit. I preferred the physicality of the typewriter to a computer when doing initial drafts.  He smiled knowingly although I was clueless as to what he might understand from all this. By now the tram had crossed the bridge and was passing toward the outer edge of the city. The man holding the video asked if I would like to get a coffee as there was a café near the next stop. We got off and walked half a block into a small nondescript café appropriately dim and smoke filled.
            The tables were designed with barely enough surface for two espresso cups on tiny saucers and an ashtray.  As one didn’t presume to use two tables in an establishment like this and yet hesitated to put anything down as the floor had been nether swept nor mopped in some time, we had the typewriter and the video balanced on the table which left a fraction of the space for our coffees.
            I certainly don’t want to give the impression I routinely go for coffee with strangers I meet on trams. Actually this was the first time. I was tempted to ask if he frequently invited strangers out but somehow sitting close over the table inhibited my curiosity.  Instead I asked him why he came back from Ohio.
            He pursed his lips slightly and with what I assumed was practiced nonchalance said he had family and returned to be with them, a wife and a young son.  I nodded as though this explained everything, which of course it didn’t.  Then with a gaze that appeared less practiced, he said if he had known how things would turn out, he might have remained in Ohio.
            As a seasoned teacher, I know to give someone space when they are about to say something new so I stirred my coffee.  His wife left him shortly after he returned from his time abroad.  He managed to stay in contact with his son who eventually grew up as sons do, married, took a job in some incomprehensible technology outside of Boston.  He raised his hands in a what can one do gesture and said, “So here I am an old man watching shoot ‘em up videos in English.”
            I nodded, stirring the coffee that was nearly gone. His story required a moment of silence at the very least. I gave it that and was about to inquire if he had actually met John Glenn when he tapped on the typewriter case and asked what I wrote.  While a teacher knows the best strategy is to give ample space to someone speaking, a writer knows to fill any expanse no matter how small with words.  With a practiced spiel, I rambled on about starting in college, winning a few insignificant competitions and now working on a debut novel that I hoped to get to a publisher or at the very least a literary agent by summer, October at the latest.
            In his previous work, which I still hadn’t determined, he must have learned to wait for the person to move from the cover of the tome to denser pages. After a pause, I mumbled that although quite gifted at carrying the typewriter back and forth from the university to my flat, I wasn’t able to get past the first few pages of the novel I envisioned writing. 
            He gave his appropriate moment of silence. The waiter walked by to see if we wanted to order another coffee, but didn’t linger long enough to encourage us to do so.  The silence might have felt awkward except we didn’t know each other well enough to be uncomfortable. Starting again with the pursed lips and a gaze that revealed nothing, he asked if we might meet occasionally for coffee as a way for him to use English.  I began to point out that with teaching and my writing there wasn’t time but realized we had discussed my unused typewriter so obviously there was time, if I wanted to use some for talking with him.
            He sensed my hesitation and casually, portrayed as an after thought, mentioned perhaps he could help get my writing going.  After all, all one needed was a decent story told in a compelling way.  We stood up, paying the waiter.  As we walked out the door, he nodded back towards the café.
“Same time next week?”


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