Music: RHCP – Brendan’s Death Song
I tried to get settled on the 10-hour night train from Sophia, Bulgaria to Belgrade, Serbia. It was no easy feat as I was met with a single, stiff board for a bed in a cramped train car with little ventilation — so the temperature inside was easily in the nineties. My room was also conveniently placed next to the conductor’s cabin where all the cheery workers met after-hours to drink and play board games. Either way, with my ticket and Passport handed over to the conductor; I lay down, inserted some ear plugs, and stared at the ceiling, thoughts passing through my brain with the rhythmic rocking of the train along the old, beaten tracks. For some reason, my thoughts began to drift to an old friend of my dad and me known simply as ‘Marty’.
Martin A. McConnell, also known as ‘Marty’ to those who had the good fortune to meet him, had known my father since childhood. They had grown up together in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, and shared many of the common experiences of childhood: playing basketball, fishing, drinking beer, and of course, getting into trouble. As they aged, they would remain close friends, and that’s how I came to know the ginger-haired, always smiling, gentle guy everyone loved. He would be at our house every Sunday for Patriots football or whatever popular sporting event might be on TV. I always looked forward to Sunday afternoon for his company and also the opportunity to splurge on some Chinese food or buffalo wings for dinner. When he and my father were in the same room, they created a comedic duo unrivaled by few; my two friends Bradford and Plouf are the only challengers in the same arena. Every Sunday my father would say the same thing, “Have you called Marty yet?” At the time, I knew the number by heart, and I also knew his mother’s response to my inquiry, “Is Marty home?”
“Juuuuust a minute,” followed by his mother yelling for him like she had done probably since he was a child. But on October 5, 2010, his phone fell silent and Sundays will never be the same. Marty passed away at the young age of 59.
Back on the train to Serbia, I found it impossible to fall asleep. I started to ponder the existence of an afterlife, wondering if Marty was looking over me and what he would think of my travels. I know he would love to hear the stories; he always had an interesting quip or story to share. He loved to read non-fiction, particularly world history, and I’m sure he would have lived vicariously through me. My thoughts were rudely interrupted by a loud banging on the door. I opened it with caution, and I was met with the sight of three large Yugoslavian men bearing down on me. I smiled and said, “Passport?” thinking they wanted to see it again. The only response was a guttural, “No, problem.”
The Balkans aren’t known for their friendliness or ease of travel, and they neglected to tell me, when I bought the ticket, that it would only take me as far as the Bulgarian/Serbian border. Suddenly this man demanded 13 Euros, and I had the paltry sum of zero. I had been traveling in Turkey and Bulgaria before, so there was really no reason for me to have Euros on me. He either didn’t understand or didn’t care. I frantically searched my bags for Euros, but all I could come up with was Bulgarian money. I had only 26 Bulgarian Leva left, which equaled almost exactly 13 Euro. I gave him all my money and attempted to explain my situation. He just gave me a stern, “One minute,” and left me alone with my thoughts.
Panic slowly crept up on me. What would I do if I got dumped in the middle of Serbia at two in the morning? Where would I sleep? How would I get money? I had been traveling a few months, so I know I needed a back-up plan. This could get interesting really quickly. I sat down on my bed and examined all the possible scenarios. I was aware this could end very badly.
Minutes that seemed like hours passed, but then he returned to my door. He had a piece of paper with him — a ticket! “Is okay,” and a nod was all that was needed for me to relax. He handed me the ticket and closed the door without another word. I realized how lucky I was to have exactly 13 Euros in a different currency, and I just started to laugh. I looked up to the sky and shook my head, catastrophe avoided; I knew Marty was out there somewhere, watching over me, and having a laugh right along with me. I lay back down on my sweat-stained pillow and easily drifted off to sleep.