Jacob William Cox
She led him to the best seats, the ones at the large forward-facing windows on the second level. Behind them the other passengers settled in a mass shuffle of bodies and bags.
The driver backed off the curb and pulled out of the terminal. Out the windows the blue and red church, and the avenue where the hostel had been, and the storefronts that had started to become familiar to them, went by. Before very long they reached the outskirts of Salta. Soon afterward they were in the country, real country. A two lane slab unfurled ahead of them, winding around little hills and along the edges of dry gulches. As far as they could see in every direction was nothing, a dry red land cracked and lined like an old indian’s face, turning blood red with the sunset. The disk dipped behind a cloud bank; the sky erupted in flame; sunbeams knifed through the landscape and he agreed with her statement, of course. How could anyone disagree with that?
For a while she was quiet. In the long light they looked at the mountains, cut off at the tops by the perennial, mirthless wind. The wind sideswiped the bus, cracking in gusts against the windows, driven by the last push of a callous sun.
Then the best of the show was over. One by one in the twilight, and then in bunches with the night, the stars pierced through the firmament. They could see little of the landscape beyond the probing beams of the headlights, but there was still the wind. She spoke in a way meant to erase the silence but he listened to the wind. He listened and though he knew there was no sense to it, no predictable rhythm to its echoes, howls and snaps, he still listened. As if some message was therein contained.
She understood he was the quiet type. It was one of the things she liked about him, though he had a way of making her feel she wasn’t there. “I see why these seats were empty,” she ventured again, to say something, running her fingers idly against windows frosted by the cold air of the altiplano. “It’s getting cold already,” she added.
He thought about replying this time, but decided against it. He watched her doodle and then he leaned forward, too, and over everything drew something entirely juvenile. She called him dumb but laughed and lifted her left leg and draped it over and between his thighs. He did not resist it. She dug her arm underneath his and nuzzled her head against his chest and he listened to the wind. Above all she liked his chest, hearing the thumping rhythm of his strong heartbeat. It proved that he was there and listening, listening, she fell asleep.
A while later he fell asleep, too. And he came to in a dim room, a hotel room high above a cityscape he did not recognize. They were in the big orange sack, of course—the question now was how to get rid of them. They would stink soon, wouldn’t they, and he sat down to think before getting right up to pull the curtains over the windows—they might be looking in, after all! But the thick curtains did not dim the room. They had no texture, no feel of lace or linen, and for an instant he had the sensation of dreaming. But there was too little time to consider that, because out of the corner of his eye he saw something twitching in the orange bag. One of them was alive. How? No. He saw a snout poke through. A dog, impossibly. Then he saw it was his childhood dog, sliding out of the orange bag, something newly born, weak and slimed nose to tail in brown blood and entrails. It whimpered at him and he heard himself whisper, it’s gonna be all right, boy, it’s gonna be all right, boy, as he carried the puppy into the bathroom. He set his dog in the clawfoot tub and washed him and washed him, furiously, uselessly. While to his great surprise he found himself weeping. He did not remember starting. It was left behind, wasn’t it? The dog licked the tears from his face, either for the salt or out of sympathy, and the young man woke up.
It was freezing, he was shivering though the young girl lay across him as she had been, a strange sort of blanket. He breathed the cold air into his lungs and wiped his hand over the window and looked out, but there was nothing to see. The bus was dark and filled with the sounds of snoring. For a while he tried to categorize the dream. But he was exhausted still and he didn’t wake up again until the sun was climbing up in the east.
To the morning sky there was no brilliance. It was leaden, overcast, uninspiring. In the far distance over the windswept plain he saw hazy mountaintops. In the near distance there was little more than a low, shoddy town. It was La Quiaca. Concrete homes, unpainted, or stripped of paint by the wind, rose no higher than two stories. Nothing else around rose any higher than that. The young man saw no trees, no shrubbery, nothing noteworthy beyond a green roadsign stating the town’s name. Where the bus stopped, somewhere in the middle of La Quiaca, were hunched men arranged like in statue garden, their faces obscured in chullos pulled low over their brows and ears. Doing nothing, waiting for something undefined, chewing coca. But the dogs were active, prowling in packs of three or four, digging their noses in corners and through piles of garbage, ribs showing in gaunt frames.
The girl was still sleeping. He had never met anybody that could sleep like her, as deeply as her. If she stopped mid-sentence as they sat in bed it was because she had fallen asleep, and nothing short of an earthquake could rouse her. No, that wasn’t true. As he had packed his bag in Cordoba, making scarcely a sound, she had woken. She had woken with those dark accusatory eyes wide on him and said, “Where are you going?”
He fumbled, but managed to come up with a satisfactory lie. Something about putting his bag in order.
After all, he never wanted to hurt anybody. Or if he had to hurt somebody he didn’t want to be there while they were hurt. Now, looking at her sleep, he recalled looking at her then, thinking she was like nothing if not a porcelain vase. Something valuable he had become responsible for, but which had no use to him as he did not care for flowers. Something so fragile it would shatter if it ever fell.
Her story was a tragic one. Two weeks after being born her mother ran away without a word to anybody. The people that knew her said she had gone crazy, and perhaps that was the truth, or at least part of it. In any case that explanation was enough for her father. He knew you can’t fight the world. He wasn’t angry, and being abandoned didn’t make him jaded. And to his daughter he was a loving, doting father. Of his many gifts to her, the daughter he loved, the last part of his wife, who he still loved, the worst was his own death, which he presented to her on her eighteenth birthday. He was smiling, cutting the cake, when a catastrophic brain aneurysm ripped through him. Right there, in front of everybody. He died with a smile on his lips, smeared with birthday cake.
On that day she became an adult. Eighteen years of age. And owing to a rigorously well maintained life insurance policy, she was rich too, or at least well off. And she couldn’t help it, now she had escaped to South America: she was a great talker, especially after a drink or two. And she had been telling her story to more than a few of the gringos she met on her way north from Buenos Aires. The young man, in the short time he had known her, had often heard her lament, “If only people would get to know me for who I am.”
But she was always telling people, always talking, so nobody ever got the chance.
If you asked him, it was just a mistake that snowballed. Out all night he had returned to the hostel in the early morning, sun rising through the haze over the rooftops in Cordoba. The sun rising over a mad, unordered sprawl, the finished buildings like cigarette packs with a few cigarettes propped out, or so they appeared to him. The sun breathing into the new day and this new day was significant to him for a reason he could not comprehend (but which was alcohol and cocaine). So significant that, looking over the rooftops at the sky, he didn’t notice the 18 year old girl with a bottle of wine in her hand, sitting on the railing with her legs dangling. She had never had any fear of heights. Lately she had little fear of anything.
Turning, hearing something perhaps, she noticed him. And then he noticed her. He regarded a face filled with so much joy, supposedly because of his presence, that it nearly sent him back down the ladder to the courtyard. Instead he went over. That, he reasoned, was the mistake. He sat and let his legs dangle over the edge against hers while straight from the bottle they drank the Tempranillo. She shared her story with him. And when he rolled over in the afternoon with a head swollen from hangover, he saw she wasn’t nearly as pretty as he had imagined. He couldn’t find the significance again, either.
Now ten days later they were in La Quiaca, standing outside the bus waiting for the attendant to retrieve their bags from the compartment. The wind, ever present, made a piercing sound as it rattled through the poorly fitted windows of the homes around. It billowed through her hair but she hardly noticed, as people hardly noticed anything about her beyond her eyes. They had looked black against her blond hair the first time he saw them. But now he knew they were really the blue of deep water.
“Did you sleep, babe?”
“Not very well,” he said. His first words in twelve hours.
“You were cold?”
“Me too,” she said. “But you kept me warm.” She smiled. And he smiled in return but without the same vigor, though she was too naive to notice.
“Bolivia!” she added. “Aren’t you excited?”
He didn’t say anything. He was trying, and failing, to light a cigarette. A few yards away a dog yelped; somebody had kicked it in the ribs. A boy laughed and watched it slink away. The young man watched this and put the cigarette away and turned to look around the terminal, at the low homes falling apart, at the poor, potholed roads and statuesque residents. Besides the bright fabrics clothing the women the colors were uniformly dull. Only a few things had color, and he pondered this, wondering if he had woken, if this might instead be a continuation of the strange dream he could almost put his finger on. Then the girl pecked his cheek. Feeling the cold wind once more, he knew he was awake.
The border was a kilometer or two away. It was eight in the morning and the wind, mercifully, had slowed by the time they arrived at the border post. In the sharp sunlight it was beginning to grow warm. They took their place in line behind other gringos while many of the locals milled about, some clutching individual items, looking hopefully, but without real hope, for a buyer. Others paced unimpeded over the bridge which spanned a dry riverbed; the border. The gringos were kept waiting. A lot of this trip had been waiting, for buses, for hostel beds, for information, but then so had much of his life. Waiting for things to change. Waiting for them to get better, or even worse. But for all the hope very little ever changed and he thought that was why he had come down to South America, though it hadn’t changed anything.
When they were closer to the window, a uniformed man handed them forms to fill out. Name, date, passport number, country of origin, expected time in the country, et cetera. They filled them out together and then waited some more. Finally it was the young man’s turn. He stepped to the window. He said buen dia and the agent, kind-looking, said the same and asked for his documentos. He handed his passport to the man along with the form, a copy of his passport, his yellow fever vaccination, his itinerary leaving Bolivia, which he had written out on a piece of notebook paper, and a passport sized photo.
It was a hell of a process, and the agent looked at him, almost apologetically, before going through with it. The young man could feel the girl’s eyes on him, but he kept his own on the border agent, who was making notes and filling out the paperwork. Behind him a functionary fished through files without appearing to have an idea of what he was looking for.
After a while the agent looked up. “Everything is good. You have the reciprocity fee?”
The young man nodded and pulled out the crisp American dollars he had been saving for this purpose. One 100 bill, a 20, a 10 and a 5. The agent took them and, starting with the smallest, ran his fingers along all four edges of each bill. One by one he held them to the light. He was looking for perfection, for bills without the slightest flaw; and he was satisfied. The young man watched him place the bills, almost reverently, in a safe-box. He watched the visa placed into the passport. The stamp, which came down heavily, startled him slightly.
Then the passport was in his hands. It was nearly over.
He walked a few paces away from the window and stood, trying to feel the difference, or any difference in himself, in Bolivia. The girl smiled at him and stepped to the window. What followed was the same procedure. He studied her. She was smiling, very politely, hands folded atop the narrow counter below the window. He waited nervously. Before seeing miscomprehension make a tender parody of her features. Though he was a bit out of earshot, he knew what was being said.
She looked at the bill, so clearly confused, and then turned to look at him.
He crossed back into Argentina, pretending he was not the same man who had torn the edge of her hundred dollar bill. The morning before the bus ride out of Salta. While she showered. A gentle sabotage, a perfect exit stage left for his character.
With genuine sympathy he regarded her before moving to the window. Speaking in some of the cleanest Spanish he had ever managed, he feigned confusion. He pointed at the minuscule tear, saying it was nothing, no problem at all, but the agent only shook his head. I do not make the rules, he said. I am sorry, he said. The girl must return to town, where there is an ATM that dispenses dollars.
He turned around to see her imploring him, with those big eyes, to do something.
“I don’t have any dollars, love. But it’s not a big deal.” He looked around, at the bridge, at the landscape, at the line. “I’ll tell you what,” he said, as if just thinking of it now. “Leave your bag with me. Catch a cab and come right back.”
“Can’t you come with me?”
“I’ve got the visa already.”
“Can you ask him?”
He asked the border agent, in his halting Spanish, whether he might accompany the girl back to La Quiaca.
“Si, claro,” the man said, looking over the young man’s shoulder at the girl. “No pasa nada.”
The young man nodded and turned and led the girl a few steps away.
“He said I would have to pay the visa fee again.”
“That’s crazy! Why? This is so stupid!” She was nearly crying. “That’s not even a tear, that’s nothing…”
“It’s all right, it’s not a big deal. Leave your bag,” he said. “And hurry back.”
“Okay. Okay, you’re right.” She kissed him. Spontaneously. In a way that, to him, felt for the first time romantic. He didn’t recognize himself, lingering against lips chapped from wind and sun. But he told her to go, it will be all right, he said, holding her by the shoulders, it will be all right. And he watched her, delicate and forgettable, walk past the line of people to the road. He waited until he saw her step into a cab.
Then he picked up her bag and walked over to the policeman, who was leaning against the railing of the bridge, chewing coca.
“Buen dia. Do me a favor, sir?”
The policeman, much stouter than the young man, looked up at him.
“This bag, it belongs to a young gringa. Una rubia con grandes ojos negros. Will you give it to her, please?”
The policeman nodded, his air suggesting it was nothing. Then added, “But you are here—why not give it to her yourself? Is she not your novia?”
Again the young man pretended not to understand. He smiled his false smile which, ever since he had met this girl, seemed to be coming more and more naturally to him.
“Thank you,” he said, without really meaning it.
The policeman shrugged. And with nothing else to do, the policeman eyed the gringo walking over the bridge and into the tiny, nearly nameless village he had been born into thirty-two years ago. His mother would be there, preparing, already, everything for the day’s meal. He thought hungrily of the food and moved the wad of coca to the other side of his mouth. These gringos, he thought. Where are they going, what are they looking for. He watched the young man, miniscule in front of the red earth surrounding this small gasp of community, of human determination, step into a white van. That would be Antonio’s vehicle, the policeman thought. Antonio, who made the three-hour connection to Tupiza, the first Bolivian town the gringos ever stopped in. The policeman recollected the one time he had been there. It seemed to him much too large of a town. There were so many faces there. So many faces you went stretches worrying you might not see any you knew. No, he didn’t think he would ever go on to Tupiza.
Jacob William Cox was born in San Francisco and raised in Hawai’i. He travels as often as possible, and has visited wide swaths of Europe, Asia and South America. When he’s not on the road, he calls New York City home. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Anti-Heroin Chic, the Basil O’Flaherty, Atticus Review, Belleville Park Pages, and the Santa Clara Review.