The Train

Train compartment,Copyright habrda / 123RF Stock Photo

Life, love, and death on a trip from Amsterdam to Paris.

The train picked up speed as it left the station in a little town not far from Amsterdam. We passed so close to a row of houses I felt I could touch them, all neat, all the same. Lace curtains hung in each window, and a dusting of the recent snow still held on the roofs.

The sun’s rays sparkled on the window, refracting light into the cabin of the train. It was cold. I pulled my coat from the seat next to me onto my lap to stop the draft on my legs. My gothic architecture book lay open to the chapter on St. Denis. Reading in French seemed more difficult than usual, and I found myself going over the same paragraph again.

When the cabin door opened with a jarring SNAP, I gave a rabbit-like start as a man stepped into the compartment. He heaved his bag onto the overhead rack, sat down just opposite me, and opened a newspaper, De Telegraaf. He was a good-looking man, not really handsome, but his face was strong and intelligent. Very fit. I returned to St. Denis and read the same paragraph for the fourth time. 

After continuing in this manner for thirty minutes or so, the man folded his paper, set it on the seat next to him, and stared out of the window. Then he turned his gaze from the window and began studying me.

“Goedmorgen,” then looking at my book, “ou peut-être, bonjour?”

“Bonjour.”

“D’où venez-vous?”

“La Nouvelle Orleans.”

“Ah, New Orleans. Then you are American . . .  sorry,” he said.

I thought for a second of asking whether he was sorry that I was American, then thought better of it.

“That’s okay. I’m glad it’s not immediately obvious.”

“No, you are not obvious. You could be Dutch, but appear more French. I wasn’t sure. We don’t get many Americans in November.”

Dutch field in the snow. Copyright: rmorijn', 123RF Stock Photo
Dutch field in the snow. Copyright: rmorijn, 123RF Stock Photo

We were rocking along at a fairly high speed. I looked out of the window for awhile, watching the passing fields, all snowy white. I thought of Martijn’s mother, snug in her old farmhouse, and smiled. I turned back to my work, but had not gone many pages when I realized the man was staring at me. I raised my head, stared back and him, and waited.

“You are going to Paris?”

“Yes, I study there.”

“What brought you to Amsterdam?”

After a brief pause, I answered him. “I am engaged to a man who lives in Hoorn, and I came to meet his family.”

“Ah . . .  So you will move to the Netherlands? Or will the two of you live in the United States?”

“We plan to live in the Netherlands.”

“By the way, I am Piet Maas.”

“Sarah Stewart.” I took the hand he offered. “Good to meet you.”

I glanced down at my book, at the abbey church, then back at Piet. “What takes you to Paris? Business?”

“I am only traveling through Paris headed to Marseilles. And it is neither business nor pleasure.”

I raised an eyebrow.

He laughed and tilted his head back against the headrest, looking up at the luggage rack. “At home, everyone thinks I have lost my mind. I had an important position at a respected bank in Amsterdam. My apartment was large — perfect location. The kind people in the city wait years to get. I’ve been dating someone for almost two years.” 

Amsterdam on a winter morning. Copyright: dennisvdwater, at 123RF Stock Photo.
Amsterdam on a winter morning. Copyright: dennisvdwater, at 123RF Stock Photo.

“One night I was walking home with the thousands of other people who work in the city. It was dark and it was cold. And suddenly, I thought — I am not going to live this life anymore.” Piet looked at me.

“Thea, that’s my girlfriend, gave me a lovely party a week later for my forty-second birthday. While everyone was toasting me, I announced my plans, that I was giving myself the present I had always wanted. In three weeks I would quit my job, leave Amsterdam, and go see the world.”

“When I finished, the room was very quiet. It was my boss who finally spoke.”

“Well, Piet,” he said, “if you want to take a trip, you certainly deserve a vacation. Take extra time — have eight weeks — travel — my birthday present to you. I’ll just take that expensive watch back to the store.”

“Everyone laughed at his little joke, but then I said, “No, you don’t understand. I am leaving, and I am not coming back. I will be handing in my resignation tomorrow. I ship out of Marseille on a cargo boat in three weeks.”

“Absolute silence. Then Thea burst into tears, and the guests all gave excuses for leaving early . . . . “

“All night I tried to explain how I felt to Thea, but it was no good. I know I should have told her privately. Telling her with the others was a coward’s way out. But I wanted no one trying to talk me out of it. It was poorly done, though, and I feel guilty over it.”

I turned to the window. The passing scenery became an indistinct blur, and the hair along the back of my neck prickled.

“Tell me, you are quiet. What do you think? That I have lost my mind?”

I looked at him for a long time. “Hardly. But I am wondering why you should care what a complete stranger thinks.”

“I don’t really . . . but — the last weeks have been so full of logistics. Now I am started, and I have some quiet. And there you are, across from me, watching me.”

“It’s a bad habit of mine, watching people.”

“Yes, same — for me as well. So, for the hell of it, what DO you think?”

“That I am amazed you did it. Think about it, yes . . . .  Do it though? And hopping a tramp steamer — it sounds like a movie script — it reminds me of a story an old journalist once told me. The closest I’ll come to anything like it will be marrying Martijn and leaving the USA behind.”

Piet watched me quietly. We continued contemplating one another until I began feeling uncomfortable. Then he spoke.

“Being married in the Netherlands will not be much different than being married in the United States. You will live in a foreign country and learn a new language, and for awhile, this will be an adventure. The newness will wear off though . . . and one morning, you will wake up and realize that you exchanged one mundane reality for another.”

I thought of the neat, tree lined fields outside of Amsterdam, and Martijn’s orderly approach to his work, indeed to everything he did.

Typical tree-lined fields and canals in the Netherlands. Copyright: rmorijn with 123RF Stock Photo.
Fields and canals in the Netherlands. Copyright: rmorijn with 123RF Stock Photo.

“Perhaps. I suppose I will find out.  — Why don’t you tell me about the ship you are sailing with?”

He frowned, but acquiesced. So the conversation changed course and we passed several hours swapping views on various subjects. The bright sun and snow of the morning gave way to gray winter fields and an overcast afternoon.

Parallel tracks. Copyright: Garry518, 123RF Stock Photo
Parallel tracks. Copyright: Garry518, 123RF Stock Photo

We left Mons, Belgium, and had crossed into France when the train came slowly to a stop. We walked several cars down to get coffee and sweet biscuits which we consumed while continuing to talk. Finally, after almost an hour, the train began to back up, all the way to Mons. There it switched to tracks that paralleled the original set, and moved at a snail’s pace towards Paris.

“Must be a problem on the track up ahead, ” said Piet.

As the train approached the spot where we had been delayed, we stood up to look for the cause. At this point the ground rose abruptly up from the two sets of tracks. It had the effect of a very wide tunnel without a top. Several pedestrian walkways crossed above it.

We had gone a little way past where our cabin had sat for an hour, when the tracks turned crimson. The stone chips of the railway bed were soaked red. As the blood dried, it darkened, so there was a variation from brilliant red to a dull reddish-brown. Then came a leg, severed from its body. The leg wore khaki trousers. The thigh had been shredded as the train tore it from the hip. The torso followed, but it was somewhat obscured by three railroad workers and two officers discussing what was to be done with the mess. A blue workman’s cap lay next to the tracks, shivering slightly in the breeze.

I stood staring, when suddenly I was jerked back and the window shade snapped down. I had not seen Piet moving, and I felt jolted and bewildered.

It is not a thing to look at.”

I stared at the shade, but saw the mutilated thigh. Piet took my shoulders. “Are you alright?”

I nodded. He pulled me to his chest, and for a moment I relaxed and hid my face against his shirt. As I came back to myself, I tried stepping back. Piet looked down at me for a moment, then let go.

“Sometimes this happens . . . I should have suspected. I could have prevented you from seeing that.” Then more quietly, “please forgive me.”

“I, I’ve never — well, I mean . . . never. I mean, I’ve seen corpses in the dissecting room at Tulane medical school. But it wasn’t like this.”

 “It is the blood. So much blood . . .”

“Poor bastard,” he continued. “There are often suicides like this. Frequently in Paris someone jumps in front of the Metro. The engineer cannot stop in time. He sees it all. And he cannot stop it. For the person who jumps, it is all over. It is for the engineer I feel sorry.”

For awhile neither of us said anything. Finally, I said, “I wonder why he did it?”

Piet watched the gray fields. “Because it was easier than going on.”

I looked at him. “But you were unhappy — you felt trapped. You didn’t jump under a train, though — “

“Ah, well. But in the moment when he had no hope left, he couldn’t see a way forward. You are so young . . . . maybe it is something that it takes more life to understand. You see, it is always out there; it is always a possible answer.”

I picked at a loose thread on my cuff and thought I didn’t want to hear anymore of this. The grey afternoon dimmed into twilight and the train sped on towards Paris. As it grew dark, we left the lights off in our compartment. Traffic signals and train stations in passing towns lit our room now and again. We alternately looked outside and at one another, but neither of us spoke.

We reached the edge of Paris, and the train soon pulled into the Gare du Nord. Piet flipped on the lights, and I rose to pull down my bag.

“Let me help you with that.”

“Thanks, but I can handle it.”

He shrugged.

When we moved out of the cabin and down the passage to exit the car, Piet preceded me down the steps, then turned and took my bag from me. I stepped down off of the train and stood in front of him as people hurried around us down the long platform. The old iron roof supports rose high over our heads, the riveted beams full of pigeons gone to roost. Loud speakers blared information concerning departures.

I looked up at Piet. “Well,” I said, “I think . . .”

Piet took my arms, pulled me close and kissed me once, then after looking at me for a long time, again, even deeper and more passionately. The noise and the people disappeared, and the two of us stood alone on the concrete slab.

He pulled back and I stood looking at him, breathless.

“Don’t marry him.”

Piet picked up his bag and walked away, disappearing into the stream of humanity.

Gare du Nord in Paris.
Gare du Nord in Paris.

This is a true story; only the names and other minor facts have been changed. This train from Amsterdam traveled to Paris in late November of 1985. I never saw “Piet” again . . .  Seven months later, I called off my engagement.

 

By Ann Fisher. Copyright 1989 and 2016. All rights reserved.


Ann in Castolon in Big Bend National Park. Photograph, Jim Stevens

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To Miss New Orleans

Jackson Square in the Fog by Ann Fisher

The city winds in and out of my consciousness, a strong part of who I am.

I know the map of the French Quarter like the palm of my hand. I should. A master taught me.

Clint Bolton seduced me when I was fourteen. No, not in that way. But I did fall in love with him, and along with him, his New Orleans.

Pendennis Club insignia
The Pendennis Club was one of the businessmen’s clubs of New Orleans.

I met Clint Bolton at the Pendennis Club in New Orleans in August of 1979. My father belonged to Pendennis, and my parents had dragged me to a cocktail party there.

Yes, I said cocktail party. I was fourteen, it was New Orleans, and yes, I was drinking. Not a whole lot, mind you, but yes. Bored out of my mind, I expressed my desire to leave to my mother, and I said, “There is only one interesting man in the whole place — and he’s sitting over there.” I pointed to an old man sitting in a wheelchair having a dramatic conversation with the people gathered around him.

She said, “Fine. Since we are so dull, please,  — GO talk to him.”

Clint Bolton, journalist from New Orleans
Clint Bolton, a journalist who lived the final part of his life in the French Quarter in New Orleans

My eyes narrowed. At this point in my life, I was exceedingly shy around people I didn’t know. Going up to a group of strange people, well, I’d rather die. But I knew a dare when I heard one.

I was shaking like a leaf when I approached the group of men. Clint saw me, held up his hand to stop the conversation. I think I stammered something about not wanting to interrupt.

“My dear, there is nothing more important than listening to a beautiful young woman.”

I got myself together, and simply said what I had to my mother — that I thought he was the most interesting man in the room. And then I introduced myself.

Clint took my hand, drew me to the seat next to him — shooing away the other old gentleman who had been there.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

When my parents were ready to leave, I was with Clint and his group deep in conversation. His wife Pat had joined us, and we had concocted plans. Pat and Clint lived on Decatur Street in the French Quarter, and they invited me to their home the next day. Clint and I were going to go for a walk in the Quarter. Pat had miserably bad arthritis, and since Clint had lost his leg a couple of years earlier, he couldn’t make the rounds very easily.

The following day, my mother took me down to 1231 Decatur Street. Pat invited her to come up for a drink some hours later, when she was due to come back for me.

I followed Pat up the stairs, got the “tour,” and met several of the half-dozen cats. The Bolton’s apartment consisted of three large, high ceilinged rooms.

The pocket doors between the rooms were never closed, so it was this wonderful, airy space. The living room had two floor-to-ceiling windows that one could walk through out onto the balcony over Decatur. Clint and Pat’s bedroom was in the middle, and the kitchen and dining space were at the very back. The door into the kitchen led out of the apartment to the stair landing. Clint did also have an office in the servant’s quarters in the back.

After a quick consultation, Clint decided we should make a sortie down Royal Street, stopping along the way to see a photographer friend of his.

Clint rolled towards the stair landing, locked the wheels, stood on his one leg and lowered himself onto the first step.

“Some fine lady friends of Pat’s met us out for lunch not too long after my amputation. One of them inquired about how I was getting up and down the stairs, since they knew the apartment was on the second floor.”

“On my ass, ladies, on my ass.”

In a high pitched voice, he squealed, “Oh! Oh! Mr. Bolton!”

He gave me a wickedly happy smile.

St Ann street Ann Fisher
In 1979, none of the sidewalks in New Orleans were wheelchair friendly. Clint and I learned to use the street lamps to navigate bad curbs.

That first day was more about me learning to maneuver that damned wheel chair about and down curbs all over. I weighed 105 pounds dripping wet. So did Clint. Add the weight of the wheelchair — I am telling you, this was challenging. Not the flat rolling, but the dang-blasted curbs and often low, uneven pavement right before them. So we got it figured out that afternoon. Every now and again, we would hit a particularly bad curb, so Clint would grab onto a light post, stand on his one leg, and I’d get the wheelchair up, and he would whump down in the seat again, and off we would go.

We made it back to 1231 Decatur just as my Mom rounded the corner, so we got the gate to the building opened and all went back to the steps.

Clint and I retold the “on my ass” bit, but this time, I did the high squeal,“Oh! Oh! Mr. Bolton!” And we laughed our way up the stairs, one back-ass-ward step at a time.

Pat opened the door, Clint rolled in, and said, “Pat, my darling, I do believe it is time to open that bottle of champagne.”

Ella Fitzgerald sings the Cole Porter song book
Two with one blow! Clint Bolton took on my musical education. And he took it very seriously.

While Pat darling was fetching glasses and champagne, Clint took me into the living room and began digging in his album collection while I looked around. Black and white photographs of jazz musicians, a faded watercolor of what looked like Thailand, picture of Clint in New York City circa the 1930’s, African masks and statues. He handed an album to me.

“Like Ella Fitzgerald?”

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t know Ella Fitzgerald??!!”

“What about Cole Porter?”

“Cole Porter . . . ?”

“You’ve heard of Miles Davis? NO?”

“Well, we have to fix this RIGHT NOW, I say. RIGHT NOW.”

When Mom and Pat came into the room with the champagne, glasses and little nibblies, Ella was singing. My mother and Pat both took off their shoes — both of them had arthritis — and they were discussing issues with that.

What is this thing called love? Cole Porter -- this will link you to Ella singing it.
What is this thing called love? Cole Porter — this will link you to Ella singing it.

I suppose I am lucky that Clint didn’t give my mother a “what the hell are you teaching her” lecture about my abysmal knowledge of jazz, Gershwin, Porter, and all things holy in the American canon according to Clint Bolton.

She was probably only saved by the fact that she and my father had taken me to Al Hirt’s club.

Clint popped the champagne, and as he poured the glasses, some spilled into my mother’s shoe.

Clint immediately raised her shoe, drank the sip of champagne from it, and proclaimed, “it is the beginning of a beautiful friendship!”

And so my relationship with the Boltons was launched.

A few days later, the mail brought me a letter that Clint had written for me. And I began spending full weekends in the quarter.

Letter from Clint Bolton 1979 to Ann Fisher
Here is the letter from Clint.  The whole text of the letter is in my post, “Once Upon a Time.”

My intuition that day at the Pendennis Club was dead on . . . Clint was fascinating. As a high school student in New Jersey, he’d done summer stock acting, where he got to know Humphrey Bogart fairly well. His path crossed Bogie’s several times later in New York before Bogart made the transition to film. Clint was orphaned when he was in high school, and his aunt and uncle sent him to Princeton for college. It was not to Clint’s liking, so he ran away from college, got a job on a tramp steamer and went to India.

In India, he turned to journalism, because with his prep school background, writing was something he did well. He learned fast and managed to get on with the Associated Press. While he was there, he interviewed Gandhi on one of his hunger strikes in the 1920’s. During World War II, he served with the Coast Guard in the Pacific.

Al Hirt's Club on Bourbon Street, around 1977.
Al Hirt’s Club on Bourbon Street, around 1977.

Clint took me all over the quarter. He knew everyone. I met Al Hirt and his clarinetist Pee Wee Spitelera several times. And then there was the evening Clint took me to meet the mafia capo. I learned life lessons from Clint, two favorites being “how to drink any man under the table” and “how to break a glass on the edge of a bar.”

So much of my musical taste comes from long evenings on Decatur. Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Ella Fitzgerald. Tony Bennett. Gershwin.

And mostly, I learned . . . be sure to grab life up in your arms, hold it close. Don’t be afraid to meet new people.  LIVE.  See the world. Have adventures. Make love. Watch the sun creep down the wall in a piazza, while you sit in the shade and sip a cocktail. Listen to good music. Then write about all of it.

He was with me such a short time. On New Year’s Eve of 1979, Clint Bolton had a massive coronary. He lived. I saw him several times at Touro hospital. In April when he returned home, I was at 1231 Decatur as soon as I could get there. Pat unlocked the gate and I dashed up the stairs, too impatient to wait for her arthritic feet and knees.

Clint was sitting on the sofa, and when I came up to him, my heart nearly stopped. He was almost not there, he was so emaciated. I picked him up in my arms, and sat down with him on my lap. And we both wept. We said our I love yous and our goodbyes.

Waldren "Frog" Joseph gave Clint a jazz send-off.
Waldren “Frog” Joseph gave Clint a jazz send-off.

Three days later, he was gone. Waldren “Frog” Joseph volunteered to do a jazz funeral for Clint — doesn’t happen very often for white folks. I can remember sitting  with the jazz musicians in the Bolton living room and eating after the funeral. I thought I was going to be sick. His absence in the room that was so much his was more than I could handle.

To you, Clint Bolton, my undying love. You have been one of the most important people in my life. Until we meet again as shades when I pass over.

On my last trip to New Orleans, just a few days ago now, the Mississippi River cloaked the French Quarter in fog.

Just after dawn, I wandered. Clint was with me, working, looking.

Down Decatur I could almost hear Ella’s silken voice.

This is a link to the entire Ella Fitzgerald album, Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Song Book. Oh, what a voice.

Clint

Tilting back in his chair

Ashes flew from his cigarette,

And the old man painted his scene.

Chin resting on her knees,

The girl sat

All rapt attention.

Armed with scotch and the love of his stories,

He wove threads of truth and fantasy.

Wreathed in blue smoke, the evening wore on.

A tired mule clopped past.

Stretched out on the balcony, the girl lay stroking a cat,

Dreaming.

Full text of the letter that Clint Bolton sent me in August of 1979: Once Upon a Time.

Clint’s article from 1979 called Mardi Gras Memories, which you will find transcribed here.

Clint Bolton, journalist from New Orleans
Clint Bolton — one of the great loves of my life.
St. Louis Cathedral in the morning fog. Photograph by Ann Fisher
St. Louis Cathedral in the morning fog. Photograph by Ann Fisher.

Ann in Castolon in Big Bend National Park. Photograph, Jim Stevens

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Copyright 2016 Ann Cavitt Fisher

Ann Fisher