The Businessmen from Romania or Bulgaria

Karl Harshbarger

Even though the train was barely beginning to slow down as it entered the outskirts of Cologne, Ackerman got out of his seat on the 9:31 from Hannover, lifted his suitcase from the rack above him, set it on the floor, extended the handle and pulled the suitcase down the aisle to the end of the car where he stood by the door.

He was making damn sure that he would be the first passenger off.

Because the 9:31 from Hannover hadn’t left Hannover at 9:31.  It had left about forty minutes later.  Which meant it was now arriving in Cologne about forty minutes later.  Which meant that there was a real chance that he might miss his connection to the 12:54 to the Frankfort airport.  And he absolutely had to make that connection to catch his flight back to the United States.

So, standing there at the door Ackerman repeated to himself details of his connection in Cologne:  His train was coming in on track 8.  The 12:54 left for the Frankfurt airport from track 2.  Which meant when he got into the station he would have to go down the platform stairs to the underground corridor and look for track 2.  And when he got up to track 2, assuming, of course, that the 12:54 was still there, he would get on the train no matter where he found himself and then maneuver his way up the cars to find his reserved seat - car 7, seat 11.

As the train continued to slow and the houses and buildings of Cologne grew more dense one or two people also stood up beside their seats and also pulled their suitcases from the rack.  Then more and more people stood up and pulled their suitcases down from the rack until as the train finally crossed the Rheine River the aisle was jam-packed with passengers and suitcases all the way up to where Ackerman stood.

Thank God, he thought, he had chosen to get up first.  Of course, - and he had to admit this to himself – he had been around for a while and knew a thing or two about how the world worked.

The daylight dimmed as the train entered the Cologne station and as it slowed to its final stop the green light on the door lit up.  Ackerman pushed the button and even before the door slid all the way open he slung his suitcase down, ran with it to the stairs, clattered down, looked left and right in the corridor, saw that track 2 was to his right, rushed over to those stairs, climbed them and, unbelievably, thank God, there was his 12:54 connection to the Frankfurt airport waiting.

In fact, really waiting.  The conductors, at least those near Ackerman, one older man and two younger women, all three in their blue uniforms, stood talking to each other as if they had all the time in the world.  Ackerman, seeing this, set his suitcase down, extended the handle, and proceeded to walk along the train pulling his suitcase behind looking for car 7.  He saw he was passing car 10 and then 9 and so he continued two more cars until he got to car 7.  It turned out a little knot of businessmen, four or five men, each carrying briefcases, were clustered around the door apparently undecided about the location of their seats.  That is, Ackerman guessed they were businessmen although the cut of their suits looked as if they had been bought 20 or 30 years ago.  So maybe they were from Eastern Europe, perhaps Romania or Bulgaria, and weren’t all that used to western ways.    

Of course, Ackerman could have simply pushed his way through this small group.  No problem.  But glancing down the train he saw that the three conductors were still talking to each other and since they didn’t seem to be in any hurry, he wasn’t going to be in any hurry either.

Although he couldn’t see why these businessmen were confused.  Their reservation numbers were printed right on their tickets, both the car number and the seats.  On the other hand, he had to remind himself:  people from Eastern Europe weren’t really used to western ways.

Suddenly he heard a whistle and saw that the older conductor had walked over to a yellow box at the middle of the platform and was inserting something in it.  The other two younger women conductors had stepped up into doors of their different cars and a woman’s recorded voice said over a loudspeaker in very clear German that the train on platform 2 was leaving and that the doors would close by themselves.

So no more time for waiting.

“Excuse me,” said Ackerman trying to push through the cluster of businessmen.

Except one the businessmen, actually a man with a wind-beaten face and a large mole, stepped up into car 7 ahead of Ackerman.  Not only ahead of Ackerman, but as soon as this man turned into the aisle of the car he set his suitcase down, extended his handle and, of all things, stopped.  Which also stopped Ackerman because both the man and the man’s suitcase were blocking the way down the aisle.

“Excuse me,” said Ackerman.  “I’m sorry, but I think my seat is ahead.”

At the same time the other businessmen were pushing in behind Ackerman.  But, amazingly, the man with the mole still didn’t move.

“If you don’t mind,” said Ackerman.  

Bu şekilde ya da bu şekilde,” the man with the mole asked one of the men behind Ackerman.

Bu şekilde,” said that man.

“Don’t you know where your seats are?” asked Ackerman.

“Excuse?” said the man with the mole.

“Jesus Christ!” said Ackerman attempting to push past the man.  Except now, unbelievably, this man at the same time started to push back against Ackerman, in fact trying to get past Ackerman in the direction he had originally come.

“Jesus fucking Christ!” said Ackerman almost falling on an already seated passenger.

Somehow the man with the mole managed to get himself and his suitcase past Ackerman, went down the aisle with the other businessmen and Ackerman saw them step out of the car at the door.

“I’m terribly sorry,” said Ackerman to the seated passenger he had almost fallen on.

“Oh, don’t give it a second thought,” said the man not only in English but with and English accent.  He was an older gentleman with well-combed, silver hair who was wearing an expensive-looking suit.

“One wonders . . . ,” said Ackerman looking down the now empty aisle.

“Yes, yes, oh, I do understand,” said the older gentleman.

“I mean, one really, really wonders,” said Ackerman.  “They were probably even on the wrong train.”

“Yes, no doubt,” said the older gentlemen.

“So,” said Ackerman, “I’ll just look for my seat.”

“By all means.” said the older gentleman.

In fact, Ackerman’s seat, seat 11 in car 7, was only one row behind the older gentleman, although across the aisle.

“I found it,” said Ackerman to the older gentleman.

“Oh, good,” said the older gentlemen.

A middle-aged lady wearing a white blouse and a tweed skirt in the seat just behind Ackerman’s smiled up at him.

“I hope my language just now didn’t offend you,” said Ackerman.

“Not at all,” said the woman.  She was clearly German but seemed to speak English well enough.

“My reservation, you see,” said Ackerman indicating his ticket.

“Very good,” said the lady.

Ackerman took hold of his suitcase and hoisted it up to the rack above the seats and inserted it among the other suitcases.

“Is there room?” said the lady.

“Oh, yes, no problem,” said Ackerman.

“I can move mine,” said the lady.

“Why?” said Ackerman sitting down.  Then he turned back to the lady. “I mean, it was no problem.”

“Very good,” said the lady.

“Because it was no problem at all,” said Ackerman.  

Ackerman looked out the window and already the train was beginning to ease forward.  The platform went by faster and faster and as the train emerged out into the daylight from the station there it was, the Cologne Dom, its medieval steeple reaching up to the sky.  Ackerman craned his neck to keep the Dom in sight as long as he could, but the downtown buildings began to block out his view.  The buildings went on for some time and then the train passed the backs of rows of houses before it emptied out into the country.  Fields of wheat and corn and alfalfa ran past the window.


This is what Ackerman decided as he sat in his seat, car 7, seat 11:  He decided that he could finally relax.  Really now relax.  Because everything was definite:  He had made the train connection, no problem.  No problem at all.  He was now on the fast train from Cologne to the Frankfurt airport.  At the Frankfurt Airport he would be in time to catch his flight home.

So, again, no problem.

Although, of course, there had been that unpleasant little incident with those businessman from Eastern Europe, Romania or Bulgaria or wherever.  Actually more than a bit unpleasant because he, Ackerman, had managed to lose his temper.  Hadn’t he said something like “Jesus fucking Christ.”  In fact, exactly that.

But, on the other hand, my God, the guy had it coming!  Clogging up the aisle like that!  Right in front of Ackerman.  And why?  How could these guys have not known where their seat was?  Everything was printed on the ticket.  As plain as day!  Probably they were even on the wrong train!


The thing to do was to forget all that, just put it out of his mind,.  Because everything was now okay, he had made his connection, he’d make his flight home, no problem, so perhaps really what he needed now was a nice, hot, steaming cup of coffee.  Yes.  He imagined himself, the cup in his hands, watching the fields pass by outside the train.

“Excuse me,” Ackerman said reaching forward and across the aisle and tapping the older gentleman on the shoulder.

“Yes,” smiled the older gentleman.

“I’m just wondering which way the restaurant car is.”

“The restaurant car?   Well, I’m not sure.  But I certainly think we can figure it out.”

The older gentleman looked to the front of the car and Ackerman followed his gaze and saw up on the bulkhead of the car not only a sign for the toilets with an arrow pointing straight ahead, but another sign for the restaurant car, also, with an arrow pointing straight ahead.

“I believe it’s that way,” said the older gentlemen.

“Oh, yes, certainly.  You’re right,” said Ackerman.  “You know, I think I’ll have a nice cup of coffee.”

“Yes, why not.”

“Would you like a cup?”

“Oh, no thank you.”


“Entirely sure.”

Ackerman stood up and in so doing must have involuntarily patted his pockets because somehow he was aware that something wasn’t there.

Now with his full attention he deliberately patted his rear pocket, the pocket where he always kept his wallet.

Always before, every time before, his hand had touched the bulk of his wallet.

But not this time.

Sometimes, well, not very often, hardly at all, he put the wallet in another pocket.

But patting the other pockets he didn’t feel anything, either.  That is, yes, his keys were in his right, front pocket.  His hand felt that.  And his iPhone was in the other front pocket.  Only, no, my God! no it wasn’t!  Jesus Christ!  The iPhone wasn’t there, either!

The floor!

Because, yes, very likely, as he’d sat down in this train seat his wallet had come out and his iPhone had come out because sometimes those things happen.  So if he’d just look on the floor he’d see his things down there.

Ackerman looked at his feet but didn’t see either the brown leather of his wallet or the shiny black of his iPhone.  Well, he wasn’t really looking.  To really look he had to get down on his hands and knees.  Because those two things had to be there!

So he got out sideways into the aisle, lowered himself down on his hands and knees and began to look all the way under the seat ahead of him.   But look as he might, he didn’t see anything.  That is, he didn’t see his wallet and his iPhone.

“May I inquire . . . ?” asked the older gentleman.

“Oh, it’s nothing,” said Ackerman.

 Ackerman continued to look and continued to see nothing.

“Well, you must be down there for some kind of reason,” said the older gentleman.

“Are you looking for your wallet?” asked the middle-aged woman in the seat just behind Ackerman.

Ackerman looked up at her.  “As a matter of fact, I am.”

“There’s a wallet in the toilet,” she said.

“What?” said Ackerman.

“I saw it there.”


“That way,” said the woman.

She pointed toward the front of the car.  Ackerman looked and saw the same sign on the bulkhead for the toilet with the arrow pointing ahead and the sign for the restaurant with the arrow pointing ahead.

“Oh, dear,” said the older gentleman from across the aisle.

“Maybe it’s yours,” said the middle-aged woman.

“Dear, oh, dear,” said the older gentleman.

Ackerman stood up and strode down the aisle until the seats gave way and the aisle narrowed.  There, right in front of him, he saw the door for the toilet.  He turned the handle, pushed the door open, saw the stainless steel commode and stainless steel sink and the stainless steel faucets.  And there, right in front of him, right beside the faucets, he also saw the brown leather of his wallet.

He reached for it and as soon as he picked it up knew by its lightness and thinness that they’d gotten everything.  All the money and all the credit cards, insurance cards, identity cards, everything.

Shit! he thought

Those businessmen hadn’t been businessmen at all!  From Bulgaria or Romania!  Clogging up the aisle!  Pushing in behind him!  Pretending they were looking for their seats!

He, Ackerman, was the idiot!

Ackerman closed the wallet and slipped it into his back pocket and stepped out of the toilet and the fields passing by the aisle window pulled at him.  First he saw  a field of yellow wheat, then a pasture with some cows in it, and then another field of yellow wheat.  A combine had already started moving along at the edge of the field splaying clouds of chaff as it cut.  He also saw two trucks waiting at the edge of the field.  Then, a village.  An ordinary village.  At the center of the village there was a church and a steeple. Ackerman pushed his hand around to his back pocket, felt the wallet, knew that it was definitely there, and kept the steeple in sight as long as he could until the fields closed in again.

Author Bio: 

Karl Harshbarger is an American writer (living in Germany) who has had over 90 publications of his stories in such magazines asThe Atlantic Monthly, Ploughshares, The Iowa Review, The Antioch Review, The New England Review and The Prairie Schooner. Two of his stories have been selected for the list of  “Distinguished Stories” in Best American Short Stories and thirteen of his stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize.