The Quietest Tram in the East
Interspar was closing and the parking lot was bare. All the other customers had left. Though hardly any light got in through the grimy windows, I could tell it was a scorcher outside. Waves of heat rose from the pavement, where the hard-packed mud cracked and crinkled like badly chapped lips. I stepped out of the swinging wooden doors and glanced to my left. The coast was clear. I swaggered to the right—toward the homeward stage-tram line—my footsteps echoed on the hollow wooden sidewalks. A tumbleweed blew across the tarmac as I reached the midway point. It was a familiar stretch, but things seemed quieter than usual. I wanted to open my water bottle and stop for a drink. (It was full of slivovice. Domácí. Water’s for softies, and we’re a tough bunch out here on the frontier.) No time to look around: I could see the cloud of dust the tram was kicking up in the distance. It rose like the plume of a distant cooling tower and obscured the silhouette of the ruined mining towers on distant Špilberk plateau. A yellow pall—soot from the Zetor refinery across the dry riverbed—hung in the air
By now the setting sun cast long ochre shadows. The dark splotch cast by the tram had already reached the boarding platform even though the carriage itself was still in the distance. Silence commenced when my footsteps ceased at the platform. A dog barked in the distance. Some dust blew up in the parking lot and swooshed like a crash of thunder. I waited, exposed to the whimsies of the landscape, alone. Even if someone else had been there, we wouldn’t have looked at each other. We got rid of conversation along with the last water wells. (Neither were necessary. We have plenty of slivovice.)
The tracks began their singing, quietly at first and then rising to siren-like wailing, as the tram approached. By the time it reached the platform the rumble had grown deafening. This wasn’t any old route, it was the Number 4 Special and it’s not for wimps this one. A few weeks back the Special was attacked as it came through the pass at Úvoz. That’s the narrow pass between the suburbs and the town proper. It’s wild over there, so they pick the drivers for this route carefully. You can’t be afraid of knocking an old woman out of her seat by speeding uphill around sharp corners when being pursued by a crowd of rabid students. Just push the throttle to the dashboard and get the heck out of Škoda (as we say).
The doors creaked open. Silence returned. I peered inside the carriage. It was too dark to see much, but it was even quieter than usual. So quiet that you could have heard somebody’s cell phone ringing, probably with one of those stupid pop songs. They should outlaw softy ring tones like that; I’ve got mine set to the “Slivovice Barrel Polka.” I got in. Even if the tram had been hijacked and was full of bandits, I could fend off the riff-raff if necessary (we finally got plastic bottles so none of my purchases would be in danger of breaking). My eyes adjusted as I stood in doorway, and I saw my silhouette in the doorway reflected in a pack of dusty eyes. At first the eyes belonged to a large black lumps, but as my pupils contracted I saw that it was just a bunch of natives. Harmless.
Silence. There were a few open seats in the back. Was it worth the risk to walk past the crowd in the front and to sit down? No one stood in my way, but challenges can lurk in silence like this, or under the seats and in other dark spaces. I looked around, they looked back at me. Silence. I took a step. No response. The gravel on the floor scraped as I turned my heel. Then there was silence again. Gaining confidence, I took another step. Then another. I heard the voice of one advisor in the back of my head, “Forge ahead.” I decided to go for it and bounded for safety at the back of the tram. In one arcing leap I sailed over their heads, causing more of a disturbance on the Special than has been heard for some time, and reached sanctuary at the back. I adjusted my backpack straps and assessed the situation. At least for the moment, it seemed that I had secured my ride home. I wiped the sweat from my brow, took that long-awaited swig of slivovice, and smiled.
(Photo from that quintessential goulash western and musical, Lemonade Joe, or, The Horse Opera.)
Tagged: Czech, Brno, westerns