He’s looking so very old and small, his body stooped in the big armchair. On the blanket covering his lap are black-and-white photographs gathered from his basement darkroom. Images in monochrome documenting moments, travels, and grandchildren playing in the yard. His large hands are having difficulty obeying the weak commands from his fading brain. Curved fingers lightly push the top photos aside to reveal the next image in the pile. His lips move; with great effort a murmur comes from deep within. A finger hovers, shaking, over this photo, taken so many years ago back in his bachelor days living in the City.
He’s a young man, tall, square shouldered, with thick black hair, standing on the elevated train platform. He bends to place his worn leather briefcase on the grated surface, leaning it upright against his leg. With his freed hand he fiddles with the stem of his wristwatch, although he wound it tight just before leaving the workshop. He looks down the length of the platform, counting one, two, three pillars. But he already knows he’s standing in the right spot. Car four of the 6:23 train will stop, as it always does, only a few feet in front of him.
Anton’s dark overcoat is worn in places, but it protects against Chicago’s fall chill. He brushes the sleeves and straightens the buttons, then glances at his wrist again. Rarely is his watch more than a minute off, and the same can be said for the train. Anton picks up his briefcase, ready to board.
6:23. The accuracy pleases Anton. His fellow commuters shuffle forward as the doors gasp open. Anton ducks to clear the opening and immediately finds what he’s looking for. Three girls, each one not far into her twenties, huddle with secrets and laughter about halfway down the car. The one with the wavy hair – the girl he’s had his eye on – is seated by herself behind the other two. By some miracle, the seat next to her is empty. But the train is filling up fast, so Anton needs to act decisively. Using his square frame to his advantage, he pushes past standing riders who’ve positioned themselves below the hanging straps.
The young lady shifts slightly when Anton takes the open seat, but she doesn’t look away. Instead she smiles at him and he lingers a moment on her bright blue eyes. Their bodies move in synchrony as the train jerks to life again. The girls in front of them turn to face forward, leaning their heads together, their conversation kept confidential by the clatter of the rails.
“I have seen you on this train before,” Anton is already calculating the minutes until the ride is over.
“Yes. I take this train every day. We work at the Marshall Fields.” Her voice is soft, with an accent that betrays her origins. He had noticed on previous commutes her delicate makeup, applied with the care of a young lady in the retail trade. And every day she seemed to be wearing a different fashionable dress. He even noticed her smart shoes, although it was inappropriate to linger too long on those delicate silk-stockinged ankles.
“You are from the old country?” he asks. His deep voice has an accent which people often find hard to place.
“Yes,” she says. “Deutschland. Germany. My sister and I, we are like orphans.” She gestures to the girl in front of her, and Anton can see the likeness.
“When did you come over?” Anton wants to know everything about her. There’s so little time.
“We came over after Vater died. Mutti, her soul had already gone to Gott. We left Weiden in the Autumn of neunzehnhundert…five und twenty. Papa had remarried, but his new wife didn’t need us after he was gone.”
“Yes. I came first, then Maly.” The sister turns slightly at the mention of her name, but doesn’t join the conversation. Instead, she opens her handbag as if to look for something.
“You are from Weiden? We are like neighbors. My home is Pilzn. It is now Czechoslovakia, but it was Bohemia when I was born.”
They sit quietly for a moment, listening to the clickity-clack. Anton watches the evening light flash on and off her porcelain face as the setting sun shines through gaps between buildings.
“May I ask your name?” He feels for the handle of his briefcase and protectively pulls it closer to his leg.
“My name is Marie.” Anton lets the roll of the R in her name wash over him.
“Marie.” He pronounces her name as if it had been given to him as a gift. “My name is Anton. Anton Kasak. I am an engineer, and here in America I will be an inventor.”
“Anton.” Marie seems to be pondering this bit of information. Then, to Anton’s surprise, she produces a tiny book from the pocket of her wool coat and pulls at the thin ribbon that’s laid down its middle. He can see her fine, practiced script covering half the page, but his German isn’t proficient enough to understand what’s written. Of course he knows, too, that it isn’t gentlemanly to read a lady’s diary. Marie turns to the next blank page and, with a stub of a pencil, begins writing: Anton.
“K-A-S-A-K,” says Anton helpfully.
“K-A-S-A-K.” She writes carefully, allowing the tail of the K to swoop and curl.
“You see,” he says, pointing to the letters on the page, “It’s spelled the same from either end.”
“Oh, I’ve never known a name such as this before,” she says. “I’d love to have a name that could do fantastic tricks like that.”
“May I?” Anton reaches into his breast pocket for the drafting pencil which he always carries.
“Ja, Bitte. Please.”
Carefully, so as not to smear the little diary page, he adds two dots – an umlaut – over the S and an accent mark on the following A. “Now it is complete,” he says. “This is how we wrote it in the old country.”
Marie touches the page, then lays the ribbon down the fold of the book and closes it delicately.
“Will I see you again on this train?” she asks. Anton is entranced with the V and Z sounds that slip into her sentences, like a bit of Germany floating above the Chicago streets.
“Yes. I think we take the same train every evening.” Anton turns away to look down the length of the car, fearing he has revealed too much of his interest in her.
She says simply, “I would like that.”
These four words give him renewed courage. He reaches down into his leather bag, her eyes tracking the movement of his arm. With his hand he feels around, touching the slide rule, the case of drafting instruments. He touches a leather strap and extracts what he’s looking for.
“It is my camera.” As he shows it to her, Maly and their friend turn to see. “I like to make photographs.”
“Oh, it is so lovely. Having such a thing is impossible for me to imagine.”
“I will take your picture.” He looks into her eyes. Now surely he’s been too forward. “I will bring it to you…I will give it to you next time we are on the train. I will save the photograph in my briefcase until perhaps we might meet each other again.”
Marie glances toward her sister, but Anton doesn’t have to wait long for a response, “That would be sehr schon, lovely. I would like that.”
Anton turns the knob to advance the film and peers through the tiny viewfinder of his Leica. He closes one eye and squints, turning the lens to focus.
“It will be just your face,” he says, as if to apologize. “I cannot move back further in this crowded train.” She holds a smile on her delicate pink lips and turns her head ever so slightly.
Anton waits for the right moment, when the train has slowed and is running smoothly. Then, just as a ray of evening light splashes across Marie’s cheek, he presses the shutter button. For a moment longer he stares through the viewfinder, thinking of later when her face will be revealed in the developing pan of the darkroom.
Anton puts his camera into his lap but continues watching Marie. The train is rocking them back and forth and their bodies sway in unison. Suddenly, her eyes widen and she looks past Anton. She grasps the handle of her purse and rises from the seat.
“I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry. This is my station. I must go.”
“We will meet again soon,” he says as he steps into the aisle to let her pass. The conductor is slowing the train and the brakes catch, forcing Marie forward. She grabs the sleeve of Anton’s coat and he reaches out to steady her. “I’ve got you,” he says.
Anton watches as Marie weaves down the aisle of the train car, squeezing past fellow passengers. Her sister and their friend are already on the platform. The doors sigh closed and the train immediately starts on its way. Anton pulls a folded handkerchief from his pocket and gently cleans the lens of his camera – the camera in which he has caught the girl of his imagination.
Marie watches Anton move the old black-and-white photos around on his lap. Sixty years together, four children, thirteen grandchildren. The vibrant young man she met in Chicago so many years ago is leaving her. Marie’s thoughts drift back to that day on the elevated train when the tall, good-looking Czech – the dark-haired man she’d had an eye on for weeks – finally introduced himself.
Her companions thought she was acting like a foolish schoolgirl, always wanting to sit in the same spot on the same train. If ever she had the chance to leave the store early, she would patiently sit at the corner cafe until it was time to board the 6:18. Her sister, Maly, chided her for ignoring the nice boys their uncle introduced to them. But then came that day he took the seat she had left open next to her. The day she wrote his name on a new page in her diary.
Just two days later, they met again. She tucked her diary away as soon as the train came to his stop. Marie didn’t want him to see the pages filled with her reflections on him. He presented the photograph he had taken of her, then told her about his new Chevrolet Coupe. Would she enjoy going for a ride with him? Yes. And so they made plans to take a long drive together.
Copyright Liz Behlke 2015