“It’s all downhill from here, Frank.”
“I don’t mean your life,” said Johnny. “I mean the hill.”
“Sure,” Frank replied, looking away to the Swiss countryside as the train clip-clopped down the track. At its slow speed, everything was easily discerned: the green hills, the tiny houses, the blue, cloudless sky of Switzerland in summertime. Frank watched with a wary eye, confident this scene would soon lack its luster, dulled by the intimacy of the everyday.
But for now, it was spectacular.
He filed the sensation of spectacularity away inside his mind, so when the time came for it to disappear, he’d be ready.
“Really, Frank. I meant the hill. You’re nowhere near diving down that hill yet. What are you? Thirty? Thirty three?” Johnny asked.
“See? Young buck! You’ve got a whole lotta adventure ahead of you that’ll be sweeter than a ride on a Tokyo bullet train. And I should know. I’ve been on that thing twice.”
No matter what Johnny said, it was too late. The words were spoken and all Frank could think about was how at this exact moment, he would adventure no more; the decline had officially begun, pulling him ever-downward in a fury of unspectacular nine-to-five workweeks and steel-track railways.
From today onward, he’d wake to the buzz of his 7 a.m. alarm, dress in his gray khakis and button-down uniform, eat two and one half hardboiled eggs, walk the four blocks to the station and guide the Coffee Train from one small town to the next until the clock struck five and the coffee ran dry. Then he’d return home, unfreeze his dinner, set his alarm and fall asleep to the wind seething at his windowpane. The next morning, he’d start over again with that 7 a.m. buzz and the morning after that and after that …
The predictability of his new life as conductor of the Coffee Train was a harrowing thing indeed.
At least he had Johnny with him now, the retiring Coffee Train conductor who yesterday gave a begrudging tug to both ends of his up-curled mustache and agreed to show Frank how the Coffee Train ran.
“But only for one day,” Johnny had said. “I’m done here and I am not about to ride this trap any longer than I need to, yeah?”
“Of course,” Frank had replied and then smiled because he suspected Johnny’s gruff was a papery facade behind which years of nostalgia and sentimentality could be found.
“Good,” Johnny grunted. “Because I know you have experience as a contract skipper but the Coffee Train is the big leagues. Only the real riders are asked to saddle up this bronco. And you know why?”
“Responsibility. The amateurs can make her walk but the pros can make her fly. And sometimes you’ve got to fly down the tracks or else … ” Johnny paused to tap at the train window. “You let this whole city down. If you’re not on time, the coffee doesn’t arrive the way it should. Too cold. Too stale. Too dirty. It might sound like it’s not a big deal. Oh, a town without coffee? So what? But I’ve been there when the people don’t get their coffee and it’s anything but fun. That means no mistakes. No mess ups. And it also means you better listen to me tomorrow ‘cause after that it’s on you.”
Today, Frank was listening and had been the entire morning and afternoon, scribbling notes whenever Johnny said something that seemed important, which happened between long-winded stories about Coffee Train deliveries gone awry. Like last June 18th when a dark-roasted load was meant to go to a town called Yiloida but the roast was far lighter than expected and an angry baker from the town’s most popular café came after Johnny with a cake knife and a piping bag full of hot chocolate. Johnny’s narrow escape was described with a proud nod and a wink.
Frank didn’t even attempt to write down the stories and still had six pages full of scribbles about everything from track geometry to string-lining, half of which he hoped could be deciphered when he drove the train alone.
“Gremlinger is the trickiest station,” Johnny said. “And it’s the last.”
Frank wrote down: Gremlinger. Tricky. Last. “What makes it so hard?”
“Well, it’s at very bottom of the hill and it’s real small. I hope you’re good at braking because the third car on this train carries the kind of coffee they like in Gremlinger—medium roast, hint of sweet—and the car barely fits across the platform. Let me show you how we get ‘er lined up, okay?”
“Good, then let’s go!”
Without warning, the Coffee Train careened forward, not at its leisurely amble but at a fast clip down the hill toward what Frank guessed was the minuscule Gremlinger station. The Swiss vista that had once been so clear and miraculous suddenly became a furious blur of green and blue … then green-blue … then nothing because Frank had to close his eyes, unwilling to see what happened next. He could hear the Coffee Train bullishly charging onward, ever onward, and down, down, down the hill until Frank’s lips pulled away from his mouth and his longish hair whipped across the back of his neck.
“Johnny, are you sure we should be coming in this quick?” Frank yelled over the whine of the train.
“Yes! One time, yes! Don’t worry, I’m a pro. Just tell me: Doesn’t this make you feel alive?”
Maybe, Frank almost admitted but he also felt dead. Or at least hurtling toward a sudden and inevitable death by way of a Coffee Train and its ex-crazed-conductor.
Then, with stunning accuracy, the Coffee Train slowed to an obedient stop and Frank opened his eyes to find its third car lined up right next to the slab of protruding metal that was Gremlinger Station.
“That’s it,” Johnny said. “You can breathe. We’re at the last stop on the train. Once you get her here, there’s nowhere to go but up.”