©2021 Michael Raven
Click-clack The railroad track On the way to London
I don’t know where the bit of doggerel came from. It seemed like nonsense that my mind had created for itself, but maybe I’d heard a song or a poem, something like it years ago… But it was just as likely to have arisen out of my head while riding the train into Baltimore. Gods knew I had heard enough of the sound on my trip from Seattle cross-country to the opposite end — some sixty-five hours of travel or something, I forget now that time has lost any real meaning. But it was a constant noise that had been drummed into my head the whole length of the trip, although I’m sure everyone and their brother would swear to me that it must have all been in my head.
Maybe it was just in my head, that clicking and clacking.
I’m sure a professional would have diagnosed me with ADHD or autism if I’d been born twenty years later — it seems to be all the rage these days to put people into perfectly defined boxes that call for certain kinds of therapies and prescription medications and all that shit. I don’t know, but the last thing my old man would have allowed is for someone to give me an “cop out” as he would have described such things. He would have decided I needed to spend more time out at the ranch his uncle owned in Montana and castrate cattle on branding day or something like that, rather than throw money at the problem. His attitude was that there wasn’t much that couldn’t be solved with some good ol’ fashioned hard labor. If cattle wasn’t on the table as an option, he’d have found something else to get me good and tired, and probably involve muscle building while I was at it. He didn’t have time for things like ADHD. To him, it was all hand waving and quackery.
But I do have a tendency to latch onto certain things that I encounter in my life and, in this particular case, I started to notice the subtle click-clacking of the train right around Glacier, about the time we crossed the Continental Divide and started winding the long path back to someplace closer to sea level. My ears popped a bit with the descent, and that’s when it started to loudly announce it’s presence: click clack click clack click clack —
I put a finger in my ear at the time and wiggled it around, but the sound wouldn’t go away and it stayed with me for the remainder of the journey. click clack click clack click —
My mind like to take those kinds of things and make them into something a little less obtrusive and so, failing to recall a real way of normalizing the sound of the tracks, my mind likely created such dreck to cope. Not that it was a song to win any awards, but you know how it is with earworms, especially when you don’t want them to earworm at all.
Click-clack The railroad track On the way to London
The train began to slow down as we came around the bend and I felt my heart begin to race. Part of it was the anxiety of meeting someone for the first time in a place where, should things end up crosswise, I’d be on my own for the whole week, doing a bunch of things I didn’t want do, without the person I had mostly based my decision as to destination for. No support network at all if it went south and no idea of what to do about things if it all went to hell.
The other part was the sneaking suspicion that, in all my nervousness, instead of saying anything sensible to Mac like:
“Hello! You must be Mac. I’m so very glad to have met you in the flesh for the first time.”
…that I would instead start the conversation off with that stupid ditty that had gotten firmly wedged between the folds of that fatty thing called my brain and that then the utterance would be those words I had found myself repeating almost constantly since Chicago. And, like a nightmare I couldn’t wake up from, I’d repeat the mantra over and over until she cocked her head to the side to evaluate me from a different angle before she ended up chuffling or chortling or whatever noise of derision the effect might elicit before turning on a hard heeled boot and walking with purpose as fast as she could away from where I stood, my idiot mouth rambling “click clack, the railroad track…” as I stood in place, unable to do much more than reach out a hand and try to pull her back. It would have been too late, of course, because that is the way it is with such nightmares, and I would find myself stranded for a week in Baltimore without even a clue as to which sites might be worth visiting, let alone where to stay. Mac had told me she had gotten two adjoining rooms at a hotel for us, but had yet to share which hotel that might be, or even where.
As far as I knew — I’d be sleeping on a park bench with a newspaper as my blanket and one of the local squirrels attempting to rummage around in my carryon for a long forgotten candy bar near the bottom.
I probably should not have worried too much about it. Mac had assured me time and time again that there was not going to be anything resembling the episode I just described, but I couldn’t help but worry about all of that. Sure, we had hit it off amazingly well online, but… online messaging, video calls and regular old mobile phone calls were not quite the same as interacting with someone ono-on-one in person. What if the smell of garlic from the previous evening’s alfredo sauce still lingered? I had brushed my teeth at least a hundred times, it seemed since it was announced over the PA that we were less than three hours outside of Baltimore. I checked my breath again by putting a hand over my mouth and breathing outward. It smelled like mint, but I asked if I could be absolutely certain there was no hint of garlic behind the mint?
I looked around. The other passengers were all preoccupied with putting their belongings away and getting read to disembark from the train, so I risked lifting my arms to make sure that the deodorant had not failed yet, although I had put it on less than an hour before. I think one of the nearby kids caught me, because the little shit smirked when I looked up, like he had some major secret to tell a young woman meeting a certain guy at Baltimore Penn Station after we arrived. I was mortified and convinced he was going to race toward the most beautiful woman in the station to inform her I had a bad case of BO. Horrified, I think, best described my reaction, and it must have shown, because the turd’s smirk grew broader at my obvious distress.
If you haven’t guessed, I am not good at this kind of thing. Meeting people petrifies me. Meeting beautiful women I met in a chatroom who seem to be confident as hell? Forget it. Until then I was absolutely convinced that people don’t meet real people online. Hell, I had given up on finding someone I could shoot the shit with no matter the mask they wore in cyberspace, let alone someone I found to be excitingly attractive. For all practical purposes, I had up to that point considered such things to be absurdities — like falling in love with a serial killer forever trapped in solitary confinement in prison. It was a pipe dream, something where nothing positive was apt to happen if I followed through with it. I had read all the cat-fishing stories in the news, all those kinds of scams that always needed someone to be willfully stupid and ignore the obvious signs about how something was just not quite right.
And yet… there I was.
The brakes on the train groaned as we pulled into the station, grey-painted girders supported by brick-painted metal pillars, the sun shining through the the leaded glass windows overhead. The sounds of brakes was another thing I had to get used to, as the train stopped frequently along my route. Brakes on trains are a tortured sound, no matter how new or old, and I often wondered if the rails themselves were threatening to curl up and peel back in spirals behind the last passenger car every time we came to a stop in one station or another. Thankfully, my poor mind hadn’t come up with a ditty to go along with that sound… yet.
When we came to a final stop, I was glad for my decision to travel only as a minimalist, with a solitary carry-on for my luggage, as it gave me an opportunity to step right into the aisle between the seats ahead of that obnoxious young man who I was certain was going to make it to Mac before I could and tell her some manufactured horror stories about me in addition to the armpit sniffing that was less clandestine than I had intended. He stuck his tongue out at me as I looked back and was grateful to see his mother start to pile a number of items into his arms to carry off the train; some luggage to slow him down. I resisted the urge to mirror his tongue wagging, however brief I might have made such a gesture, on the off chance that he might free himself of his burdens once he saw who I was meeting and tattle on me. I know, this whole fantasy about the boy was likely pure paranoia on my part, but I couldn’t help but think he had some secret vendetta against me for reasons unfathomable to anyone who didn’t have the mind of an eleven year-old mischief-maker.
I stepped out onto the concrete painted with bright yellow stripes that bordered the dangerous places to walk if a train was moving in the vicinity and looked around, half-expecting to see Mac standing in a little black dress between two of the fire-brick columns looking absently off into the distance, as if she had yet to notice the train’s arrival. Pure fantasy, that image, and I knew it. They don’t let non-passengers down to the tracks these days, not after 9-11. But, like my little click clack rhyme, it was fixed in my head as how I would see her the first time, and the image seemed like the ghost of a memory from long ago, from back when people did those kinds of things still.
Although I knew the constructed vision was unlikely, nigh impossible, I was still disappointed that she was nowhere to be seen. Then the anxiety returned and I found myself dreading the long climb up the stairs to the station’s proper entrance. What if I crested that final step and I couldn’t see anyone who looked like her? What if I was actually dreaming and that, by topping that last step, I would find myself in my unhappy bedroom back in Seattle’s Capital Hill neighborhood?
Then, the thought of my nemesis from the train ride jolted me from such thoughts. I figured if Mac was there, exactly as we had planned, the last thing I wanted to have happen was that other nightmare that had started to plague me within the past twenty minutes of my life. So I picked up my pace and started to climb the stairs by two, hoping to put yet more distance between the boy and myself before he even emerged from the train.
Flushed with the quick ascent, I surfaced from the depths of the rail yard and into the station itself. the archways were an ivory white with and grey polished flecked stone floors, which neoclassic roman columns and the upper tier lined with black wrought iron rails. Stained glass domes let the natural light in, with harsh LED lights filling in the shadows where the sunlight didn’t reach.
I looked at the faces waiting for other travelers disembarking from my train, scanning all that had the dark hair Mac wore in her pictures and growing more frantic as none of the faces matched the pictures I had gotten from her during our many late-night conversations. I finished scanning the crowd and even watched as the preteen walked up behind me and, upon seeing his grandfather in the crowd, dropped all of the carry-on luggage his mother had piled up him to the floor.
“Granddad!” he shouted as he ran to the older gentleman at the far side of the station, any designs he might have had for my destruction forgotten upon seeing the man.
“Scott!” his mother shouted as the boy leapt into the man’s arms, whether in chastisement for dropping their belongings with so little ceremony, or because her father staggered behind the weight of the boy, I couldn’t be sure.
I scanned the faces again and still didn’t see anyone who matched the pictures. I’d called Mac a few hours ago as the train closed in on Baltimore, to confirm our meeting place and time, so she couldn’t have forgotten about me… Or could she?
I wandered past the barriers and the grandfather telling the holy little terror to go back and help his mother, past the people celebrating reunions with loved ones and to one of the lone wooden benches along the wall. I was still scanning the crowd for Mac’s face, the creeping suspicion growing that I had been stood up after all and that I ‘d have to navigate the city on my own. I thought about calling her, but — well, if she wasn’t here like we’d planned, maybe she didn’t really want to talk.
I stared at my phone, debating what I should do.
I thought I heard someone say my name.
There it was again, so I looked in the direction of the voice.
There she stood. Mac was not five strides from me. “Yeah… I’m Logan. Mac?” I asked, standing up, not quite believing she was there, so close.
“Are you expecting someone besides me to come pick you up. I know I’m a couple of minutes late, but Jesus — you could keep an eye out, y’know. It’s kind of hard to see your face when you’re staring at the floor.”
She put a hand on one hip and leaned into it. “Are you just going to sit there and say my name like an idiot? Or should we get outta here and get to know each other a little better?”
“C’mon,” she said, pointing her head towards the doors. “I’m double parked and I sure as shit don’t want another ticket. Let’s get outta here.”
I got up dumbly, a bit in shock, let her take my hand and lead me out of the station, the air in her wake smelling like sugar cookies — just as she said it would.
As we walked out into the smell of sewers and exhaust, I decided she wouldn’t have to try very hard to convince me to forget about my trip back home, if she had half a mind to try to make me stay. If someone had bothered to ask, I would not have been able to tell them why. I had fallen into the depths of spell and already, a mere week in Baltimore seemed like far too little time to spend with Mac.
Little did I know what was to come.