Myers was travelling through France in a first-class rail car on his way to visit his son in Strasbourg, who was a student at the university there. He hadn’t seen the boy in eight years. There had been no phone calls between them during this time, not even a postcard since Myers and the boy’s mother had gone their separate ways – the boy staying with her. The final breakup was hastened along, Myers always believed, by the boy’s malign interference in their personal affairs.
The last time Myers had seen his son, the boy had lunged for him during a violent quarrel. Myers’ wife had been standing by the sideboard, dropping one china plate after the other on to the dining-room floor. Then she’d gone on to the cups. ‘That’s enough,’ Myers had said, and at that instant the boy charged him. Myers sidestepped and got him in a headlock while the boy wept and pummelled Myers on the back and kidneys. Myers had him, and while he had him he made the most of it. He slammed him into the wall and threatened to kill him. He meant it. ‘I gave you life,’ Myers remembered himself shouting, ‘and I can take it back!’
Thinking about that horrible scene now, Myers shook his head as if it had happened to someone else. And it had. He was simply not that same person. These days he lived alone and had little to do with anybody outside his work. At night he listened to classical music and read books on waterfowl decoys.
He lit a cigarette and continued to gaze out the train window, ignoring the man who sat in the seat next to the door and who slept with a hat pulled over his eyes. It was early in the morning and mist hung over the green fields that passed by outside. Now and then Myers saw a farmhouse and its outbuildings, everything surrounded by a wall. He thought this might be a good way to live – in an old house surrounded by a wall.
It was just past six o’clock. Myers hadn’t slept since he’d boarded the train in Milan at eleven the night before. When the train had left Milan, he’d considered himself lucky to have the compartment to himself. He kept the light on and looked at guide books. He read things he wished he’d read before he’d been to the place they were about. He discovered much that he should have seen and done. In a way, he was sorry to be finding out certain things about the country now, just as he was leaving Italy behind after his first and, no doubt, last visit. He put the guide books away in his suitcase, put the suitcase on the overhead rack, and took off his coat to drape over himself. He switched off the light and sat there in the darkened compartment with his eyes closed, hoping sleep would come.
After what seemed a long time, and just when he thought he was going to drop off, the train began to slow. It came to a stop at a little station outside Basel. There, a middle-aged man in a dark suit, and wearing a hat, entered the compartment. The man said something to Myers in a language Myers didn’t understand, and then the man put his leather bag up on to the rack. He sat down on the other side of the compartment and straightened his shoulders. Then he pulled his hat over his eyes. By the time the train was moving again, the man was asleep and snoring quietly. Myers envied him. In a few minutes, a Swiss official opened the door of the compartment and turned on the light. In English, and in some other language – German, Myers assumed – the official asked to see their passports. The man in the compartment with Myers pushed the hat back on his head, blinked his eyes, and reached into his coat pocket. The official studied the passport, looked at the man closely, and gave him back the document. Myers handed over his own passport. The official read the data, examined the photograph, and then looked at Myers before nodding and giving it back. He turned off the light as he went out. The man across from Myers pulled the hat over his eyes and put out his legs. Myers supposed he’d go right back to sleep, and once again he felt envy.
He stayed awake after that and began to think of the meeting with his son, which was now only a few hours away. How would he act when he saw the boy at the station? Should he embrace him? He felt uncomfortable with that prospect. Or should he merely offer his hand, smile as if these eight years had never occurred, and then pat the boy on the shoulder? Maybe the boy would say a few words – ‘I’m glad to see you. How was your trip?’ And Myers would say – something. He really didn’t know what he was going to say.
The French contrôleur walked by the compartment. He looked in on Myers and at the man sleeping across from Myers. This same contrôleur had already punched their tickets, so Myers turned his head and went back to looking out the window. More houses began to appear. But now there were no walls, and the houses were smaller and set closer together. Soon, Myers was sure, he’d see a French village. The haze was lifting. The train blew its whistle and sped past a crossing over which a barrier had been lowered. He saw a young woman with her hair pinned up and wearing a sweater, standing with her bicycle as she watched the cars whip past.
‘How’s your mother?’ he might say to the boy, after they had walked a little way from the station. ‘What do you hear from your mother?’ For a wild instant, it occurred to Myers she could be dead. But then he understood that it couldn’t be so, he’d have heard something – one way or the other, he’d have heard. He knew if he let himself go on thinking about these things, his heart could break. He closed the top button of his shirt and fixed his tie. He laid his coat across the seat next to him. He laced his shoes, got up, and stepped over the legs of the sleeping man. He let himself out of the compartment.
Myers had to put his hand against the windows along the corridor to steady himself as he moved towards the end of the car. He closed the door to the little toilet and locked it. Then he ran water and splashed his face. The train moved into a curve, still at the same high speed, and Myers had to hold on to the basin to keep his balance.
The boy’s letter had come to him a couple of months ago. The letter had been brief. He wrote that he’d been living in France and studying for the past year at the university in Strasbourg. There was no other information about what had possessed him to go to France, or what he’d been doing with himself during those years before France. Appropriately enough, Myers thought, no mention was made in the letter of the boy’s mother – not a clue to her condition or whereabouts. But, inexplicably, the boy had closed the letter with the word ‘Love’, and Myers had pondered this for a long while. Finally, he’d answered the letter. After some deliberation, Myers wrote to say he had been thinking for some time of making a little trip to Europe. Would the boy like to meet him at the station in Strasbourg? He signed, his letter, ‘Love, Dad’. He heard back from the boy and then he’d made his arrangements. It struck him there was really no one, besides his secretary and a few business associates, that he felt it was necessary to tell he was going away. He had accumulated six weeks of vacation at the engineering firm where he worked, and he decided he would take all of the time coming to him for this trip. He was glad he’d done this, even though he now had no intention of spending all that time in Europe.
He’d gone first to Rome. But after the first few hours walking around by himself on the streets, he was sorry he hadn’t arranged to be with a group. He was lonely. He went to Venice, a city he and his wife had always talked of visiting. But Venice was a disappointment. He saw a man with one arm eating fried squid, and there were grimy, water-stained buildings everywhere he looked. He took a train to Milan, where he checked into a four-star hotel and spent the night watching a soccer match on a Sony colour TV until the station went off the air. He got up the next morning and wandered around the city until it was time to go to the station. He’d planned the stopover in Strasbourg as the culmination to his trip. After a day or two, or three days – he’d see how it went – he would travel to Paris and fly home. He was tired of trying to make himself understood to strangers and would be glad to get back.
Someone tried the door to the toilet. Myers finished tucking in his shirt. He fastened his belt. Then he unlocked the door and, swaying with the movement of the train, walked back to his compartment. As he opened the door, he saw at once that his coat had been moved. It lay across a different seat than the one where he’d left it. He felt he had entered into a ludicrous but potentially serious situation. His heart began to race as he picked up the coat. He put his hand into the inside pocket and took out his passport. He carried his wallet in his hip pocket. So he still had his wallet and the passport. He went through the other coat pockets. What was missing was the gift he’d bought for the boy – an expensive Japanese wristwatch purchased at a shop in Rome. He had carried the watch in his inside coat pocket for safekeeping. Now it was gone.
‘Pardon,’ he said to the man who slumped in the seat, legs out, the hat over his eyes. ‘Pardon.’ The man pushed the hat back and opened his eyes. He pulled himself up and looked at Myers. His eyes were large. He might have been dreaming. But he might not.
Myers said, ‘Did you see somebody come in here?’
But it was clear the man didn’t know what Myers was saying. He continued to stare at him with what Myers took to be a look of total incomprehension. But maybe it was something else, Myers thought. Maybe the look masked slyness and deceit. Myers shook his coat to focus the man’s attention. Then he put his hand into the pocket and rummaged. He pulled the sleeve back and showed the man his own wristwatch. The man looked at Myers and then at Myers’ watch. He seemed mystified. Myers tapped the face of his watch. He put his other hand back into his coat pocket and made a gesture as if he were fishing for something. Myers pointed at the watch once more and waggled his fingers, hoping to signify the wristwatch taking flight through the door.
The man shrugged and shook his head.
‘God dammit,’ Myers said, in frustration. He put his coat on and went out into the corridor. He couldn’t stay in the compartment another minute. He was afraid he might strike the man. He looked up and down the corridor, as if hoping he could see and recognize the thief. But there was no one around. Maybe the man who shared his compartment hadn’t taken the watch. Maybe someone else, the person who tried the door to the toilet, had walked past the compartment, spotted the coat and the sleeping man, and had simply opened the door, gone through the pockets, closed the door, and gone away again.
Myers walked slowly to the end of the corridor, peering into the other compartments. It was not crowded in this first-class car, but there were one or two people in each compartment. Most of them were asleep, or seemed to be. Their eyes were closed, and their heads were thrown back against the seats. In one compartment a man about his own age sat by the window looking out at the countryside. When Myers stopped at the glass and looked in at him, the man turned and regarded him fiercely.
Myers crossed into the second-class car. The compartments in this car were crowded – sometimes five or six passengers in each, and the people, he could tell at a glance, were more desperate. Many of them were awake – it was too uncomfortable to sleep – and they turned their eyes on him as he passed. Foreigners, he thought. It was clear to him that if the man in his compartment hadn’t taken the watch, then the thief was from one of these compartments. But what could he do? It was hopeless. The watch was gone. It was in someone else’s pocket now. He couldn’t hope to make the contrôleur understand what had happened. And even if he could, then what? He made his way back to his own compartment. He looked in and saw that the man had stretched out again with his hat over his eyes.
Myers stepped over the man’s legs and sat down in his seat by the window. He felt dazed with anger. They were on the outskirts of the city now. Farms and grazing land had given way to industrial plants with unpronounceable names on the fronts of the buildings. The train began slowing. Myers could see automobiles on city streets, and others waiting in line at the crossings for the train to pass. He got up and took his suitcase down. He held it on his lap while he looked out the window at this hateful place.
It came to him that he didn’t want to see the boy, after all. He was shocked by this realization and for a moment felt diminished by the meanness of it. He shook his head. In a lifetime of foolish actions, this trip was possibly the most foolish thing he’d ever done. But the fact was, he really had no desire to see this boy whose behaviour had long ago isolated him from Myers’ affections. He suddenly, and with great clarity, recalled the boy’s face when he had lunged that time, and a wave of bitterness passed over Myers. This boy had devoured Myers’ youth, had turned the young girl he had courted and wed into a nervous, alcoholic woman whom the boy alternately pitied and bullied. Why on earth, Myers asked himself, would he come all this way to see someone he disliked? He didn’t want to shake the boy’s hand, the hand of his enemy, nor have to clap him on the shoulder and make small-talk. He didn’t want to have to ask him about his mother.