ToledoDouglas W. Milliken
The bus broke down somewhere between where I was leaving and where I was going, so rather than waiting with everyone else at the edge of the road, anticipating help that might not ever come while the bus driver addressed us all earnestly in a speech I could not begin to understand, I elected to start off walking on my own. It was hot and bright yellow out, some blooming weed along the roadside stirring its pollen up through the still air. My white jacket felt heavy but my suitcase felt light. After a mile or so, a pickup truck pulled alongside me, a man and woman and child riding inside the cab with the bed loaded high in lumpy burlap sacks. The man didn’t speak English but I got the gist. I tossed on my suitcase and climbed onto the loaded bed, lay on my back across the uneven landscape of whatever was inside the burlap sacks and stared up at the total absence of clouds while the cool wind and dust tickled my cheeks. It felt like we kept straight on the road for a long time but we could just as easily have turned and turned again and I would never have known, laying there like that with nothing to see but sky and more sky. After a while, the farmer stopped in the stone-cobbled square of some town, and as soon as we stopped, I immediately began sweating again. All the buildings were arranged in a rough circle around a statue at its middle, but I could not make out what the statue was supposed to be, and all the buildings were painted bright oranges or blues or clean, bright whites, but only as high up as a man could easily reach on a ladder. I climbed down off the bed full of burlap and thanked the driver and he was gone. He could have been going somewhere else in town or maybe he was just passing through. I had no idea where I was.
The town looked like every other place I’d seen down here, only smaller. I took off my white jacket and clapped out the dust and put it back on, then found a bar that I somehow understood had a few rooms to rent upstairs. I went inside and approached the bartender and though I don’t speak the language, “telephone” translates the same around the world. He pulled a black rotary phone from under the bar and I called you and told you about the bus and hitching a ride to this town I couldn’t name. I tried to describe it but it sounded like anywhere. It sounded like Toledo. You laughed and said you weren’t surprised about the bus. You said you thought you knew where I was. You told me: sit tight, have a drink, get a room and take a nap, and by nightfall you would be there. I thanked you and apologized and hung up the phone. Then I followed your directions to a T. I wanted an anise drink but couldn’t think how to ask for it, so I did the easy thing and ordered a bottle of beer and took it outside to one of the tables beneath the front awning. I sat down and held my suitcase between my feet like a tourist. The awning was white, orange, and blue, like all the buildings surrounding the square. Almost no one was out on the street. Two laughing boys who looked like brothers were glistening with sweat and taking turns trying out tricks on a bicycle. Now and then a truck rolled through the square stirring up dust, and I stared hard at each one, hoping foolishly it was you. I puzzled over the statue. It looked like it had once been shaped like a man but had eroded into anonymity over the years. But maybe it was only on its way to becoming a man-shape. Maybe it wasn’t there yet. At some point, I noticed a woman with long dark hair and a blue skirt standing beside a stack of crates outside what I took to be a church. She looked skinny but had nice hips. At first I thought she was watching the boys with their bicycle. Then I realized she was watching me. She looked like a woman I had seen earlier on the bus. She must have hitched a ride here like me. She’d been traveling with a wooden box in her lap and in the box had been a chicken. Now the box was gone. I wondered what happened to the chicken. I raised my left hand from where it lay on the table and gave her a lazy wave, but she turned her back on me and walked off. So maybe she wasn’t who I thought.
The heat made everything look yellow. I was sleepy from the beer, so made up my mind to negotiate a room with the bartender, but just as I was getting up to do this a crowd of people filled the square carrying long lengths of colored ribbon and paper lanterns on strings. I couldn’t tell where the people were coming from. I didn’t care. The bartender was a dark man in a white shirt and he said some things I couldn’t understand. Which was fine. I often prefer not knowing what I’m being told. I wasn’t sure if I had enough to pay for the room. I assumed, once you arrived, you could help me cover the cost. The bartender made some gestures with his hands and I nodded and said sure. Then he led me upstairs to a small room of white plaster with a bed and a bureau and a small electric fan with no grill to protect the blades. When I looked out the window, already the people had strung the ribbons and lanterns everywhere. The lights crisscrossed in the air above the square, forming some kind of star with the statue at its center. They were going to have a party. The bartender left and I sat on the edge of the bed and toed off my shoes and lay down without taking off my jacket, and first I dreamed that I was back on the bus and then I dreamed I was home on my porch, watching two dogs fighting in the driveway, and then I dreamed I was in my room above the bar and the girl in the blue skirt was sneaking quietly in. She lay herself down softly on the bed beside me and spread out her hand on my belly. Then she moved her hand inside my pants. Outside, a band was making festive music rise up through my window. I could smell the girl’s perfume and smell her sweat all mingling with the scent of road dust, and for a moment I knew this wasn’t a dream but then decided it was. Her hand moved more confidently in my pants. It felt fine, and then felt better. The snarl of the dogs was like a tailpipe grinding over pavement. The crowd outside cheered all at once, then laughed and clapped their hands. The girl licked her hand and wiped it on the bedspread. She reached inside my jacket to the pocket above my heart. The dogs bared their teeth and pressed their mouths together. Her hand came out holding my wallet. I wondered who would win. The bus bucked over the rutted road. The trumpets all blatted in triumph. I slept.
It was dusk when I woke again. For a while, I lay with a blankness in my head where I didn’t know who I was or what I was doing or even how I’d found this room glowing softly with the festival lights moving through the window. Then, gradually, I remembered. I sat up and ground the heels of my hands into the sockets of my eyes. I let out a long beer-sour groan. I didn’t bother checking for my wallet. I got up and stood by the window for a while, watching the people moving through the square, and the buildings were glowing bright with color below the web of lanterns, but above they were drab stone and mortar, dissolving dully into the night’s black. I stared and still could not make out what the statue at the center was supposed to be. But I got the feeling, like a bass note droning through my bones, that it could make me out just fine. I put on my shoes and carried my suitcase downstairs and took up at a different table beneath the awning. I set my head in hands. There were still lots of people in the square, celebrating something but I couldn’t know what. Every voice I heard was speaking a language I didn’t know. My eyes and mouth felt thick and woolly and my crotch felt gummy and slick. It wasn’t a comfortable feeling. I was sitting outside a bar where I still owed money with come drying to my leg, staring at all the faces passing in this village in a country such a long way from home, and none of these people were the woman in the blue skirt and none of the people were you. I understood all of this, and hated it. The bartender came outside and tapped me on the shoulder just as far off past the hills, a peal of thunder came rolling in, and I knew you weren’t coming tonight. I was on my own. Which struck me as a polite way of saying fucked. I was fucked. I turned to regard the bartender and whatever he had to tell me beneath the colored stripes of the awning and waited to not understand.
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