WHAT HAPPENS TO time spent in the waiting rooms of your life? There must be some learned equation to explain cosmic forces that bend time spent waiting, like refractions through a dirty prism. Windows of this Germany train station are opaque with coal dust from old-fashioned steam locomotives. The loudspeaker mutters unintelligible German; a sinister, guttural sound like something from a war movie about Nazis.
One man waiting on the hard wooden seats picks his nose. A fat woman near him reads a funny paper. It always seems to be raining in Germany. Those foot-long black umbrellas that snap to full-size like a Nazi paratrooper’s switchblade are a fixture; peeping out of coat pockets or tucked into inevitable schnitzel bags, a kind of briefcase in which blue-collar workers carry their lunch to pretend they work in a biro.
The waiting people have the resigned look of veteran travelers who have seen it all and don’t care to see it again. Only a young blonde woman seems to vibrate with impatient anticipation of some unknown destiny. A smattering of young lovers are lost in each other, not spiritually present in the drab chilly room.
Those whose mission in life is to suspiciously observe humanity’s ebb and flow all stand out on the echoing concourse between the passengers and the trains. Their dark raincoats are damp and their blank faces show calm certainty somebody here is up to something illegal or immoral, No seats out there; that kind of observer doesn’t sit anyway, not German ones. Veteran travelers, like infantrymen, sit every chance they get because they don’t know when they will get another.
A gray-haired old woman in a dirty raincoat suddenly sits erect and begins to speak loudly to the thin air in front of her. Faces turn toward her, shocked, angry; as if someone dropped a tin tray of noisy dishes in the cathedral of their private thoughts. She ignores their reaction. She acts drunk, speaking in a loud sing-song cadence as if quoting something, or at least fashioning well-rounded phrases. A few passengers listen briefly and laugh uneasily. Most shrink in upon themselves even more and pretend she isn’t there and that the waiting silence has not been violated.
She has an interesting, much-traveled face. Her incomprehensible words are colored with evident emotion and irony. It is a lonely and almost physical ache to know what she is saying. It could be something deathless that should not be lost. She climbs out of her seat and goes over to shake a traveler by his shoulder to impress a significant point, waving a finger in his startled face. He forces a smile and murmurs something under his breath. She stands over him and listens, combing her matted hair with exaggerated gestures of the fingers of both hands. Then she coughs, looks away, and begins to sing softly in a voice that sounds infinitely sad.
The loudspeaker mutters over her. Its summons reduces the crowd by a dozen or so, moving quickly as if glad to escape this waiting-room apparition. Her shoulders slump. She returns to her seat, and silence. Somewhere out in the raining night the whistle of a departing steam engine hoots forlornly. No one else speaks.