Some Fiction for Diversion

Dim changes approached. He rolled over to see: faint colors crawling slowly under the corrugated-zinc door. Little light came with them, dull, sliding grays reaching tentative, translucent fingers through outlined cracks. He imagined that they were seeking sneaky purchase for pulling themselves into the room. Furtive, their movement were, certainly. He watched through slitted, sleep-encrusted eyes while, cautious and silent, they explored new means of encroaching upon the cinderblock chamber where he had been sleeping.

“But it’s just a false dawn, not real day, not so soon.” He closed his eyes again as his cracked lips mouthed the words that soothed him. “Nothing dangerous here, not for awhile.” A pause and a sigh. “It shouldn’t be so bad, anyhow: merely one more start; another aching morning.” But then he groaned, thinking ahead. “Cool, yes it is, for now, but calling the scalding sun.” Another pause, and an expelled breath: these prefaced a mumbled attempt at irony: “Just another coming day here in the Sahel.”

He stretched, then, and pretended to relax, turning his head away from the door, trying to recover the quiet he’d felt before hearing his own words.

But the world, oblivious, wasn’t going to allow that.

Merciless and unyielding, it sent the sudden sharp whoosh of a military jet roaring low overhead, jerking his eyes wide, demolishing any sense of quiet in the coming African dawn and shooting a spike of pain, a missile into his forehead.

Enough. He looked up toward the ceiling; just now it was beginning to appear through the gloom. Admitting again, yes, that certainly had been enough, he also decided he really was awake. And yes, as he had known it would, his head now really did throb. Yet, as though mounting a silent protest, he took a deep breath and tried once more not to think about the world outside.

But another jet followed. Coming so close on the heels of the first, it probably insured that even the heavy sleepers were now awake, such a roar being rare in a place as quiet and remote as Mopti. He wondered if the jets would return and immediately hoped they wouldn’t.

As he slowly turned his head back toward the door, another sudden, shooting pain pierced his left temple. It brought him back down to ground and inside, to his little life, or what was left of it, there in the little room.

And it listed for him exactly, just exactly how much he’d drunk the night before.

Though his eyes stayed slitted, they were slightly more open now, but his body still hadn’t the willingness to move. So he once more focused on those faint grays now slowly yellowing as they began to reach his woven-reed mat. He listened as well, grasping the silence as an excuse not to move, to stay still until he heard signs of life in the bush-taxi yard outside the shack. No one there yet; no use of his being there.

Yet, soon, he discovered he was hoping, actually hoping to hear something, anything that might provide him an excuse to stop lying there. The physical demands of his body were forcing themselves into his consciousness. From many, many mornings in similar circumstances, he knew he needed an additional forcing of him, a push getting him up and going. Without it, he remained still, sighing, and mumbling to himself once more. “Despite this hangover, a new day has come and I have got to get going.” But, of course, he remained still.

Later, some little, long time later, once the yellow light had begun to turn bright, he heard a new sound, a low rumble coming from far outside, soon recognizable to him as the throb of a lonely, poorly-tuned Peugeot engine growing louder out of that faint, distant hum. It churned rubber tires into the still-silent yard outside, over the dusty laterite ground—then died with a cough, a sputter and a slight squeak of brakes.

A signal this was, he told himself—this it had to be—that life of the morning was in fact beginning, that he would not be rising only to wait, to attend the waiting that he knew, with a groan, could follow that. And probably would follow that. This, after all, was Africa, where waiting was the game of life. Though it was also, he knew, just what he needed, just then.

“Yet I might as well move now, anyhow.” He grunted, jerked himself onto an elbow—careful. His head sharply reminded him that it required something more like gentleness than that, and much more sympathy.

Looking about him, he catalogued the occupants, now just becoming visible, of his austere little room. The ancient boy-scout backpack he’d bought—a find!—in the Ouagadougou marketplace some years ago sat slopped against the cinderblocks next to a couple of large, green beer bottles, both empty. His cheap leather sandals lay at the end of his mat, placed as though he’d been tipped out of them into sleep. The pagna cloth he normally slept under rested in a wad next to the sandals. Some dust and a few cobwebs hung on the rough beams below the zinc roof; otherwise, the room, which he had never before seen in the light, was empty.

“At least it won’t take much time to pack.” Grimacing, he heaved himself upright and into the sandals. Bending over, sighing with the pain in his head as well as from the effort, he stuffed the pagna into the bag, rolled up the mat, and strapped it to the top. No need to change clothes, he’d decided. No matter what he wore, after a few hours in a bush taxi he would stink just as badly as now. He grabbed the pack, opened the door and stepped outside, leaving the beer bottles where they lay.

Squinting against the early light now making free about him, he saw that the vehicle he’d heard, a canvas-backed pick-up, had come to a rest amid a group of people gathered at the far side of the yard. Market women, wrapped in a riot of pagnas much more colorful than the one in his pack, were already handing parcels up to an apprentice standing on the rack above the canvas, high over the bed. A few meters from them, another woman had positioned a pushcart and was stoking the charcoal fire on it, heating a conical pot half filled with oil, preparing to cook the beignets she would soon be offering for sale. Further in the distance, a clanking of bottles announced the arrival of another cart, this one pushed by a young man and, the sound proclaimed, containing soft drinks and maybe even beer on ice. In Moslem Mali, the beer, if there at all, would be discretely placed beneath the soda.

A slight breeze, rising off the Niger River beyond the wall, began to push stray bits of paper across the yard, their movements distracting him. Even though his head hurt and his chapped lips cracked, he smiled, scanning the rest of the yard, eyes resting lightly on the browns, beiges, and tans that dominated the landscape before him.

As he continued to look around, over the wall to the flat tops of Mopti’s buildings by the river beyond the taxi gare, up to the bowl of dust that ended well above the horizon, just below the pale blue African sky straight above, he forced his mind to practical concerns. He tried, first, to remember what had happened the night before, to bring back the chain of events that had led him to sleep in the little room, not someplace he would normally choose, not even when completely drunk. He could recall that, after finding that his distance taxi to Bobo-Diallasso in Burkina Faso wouldn’t be leaving that day, he’d found a couple of Peace Corps Volunteers making the rounds of the few local bars and had joined them. That much he was sure of. The PCV’s had faded out at some point in the evening and he’d fallen in with a couple of—it seemed in retrospect—rather disreputable Malians. They’d gotten something to eat, then more to drink. And there things got hazy.

Something had happened after that, though, and he had a growing suspicion that it had been something he shouldn’t have been involved in. Or, at least, something embarrassing. He wished he could remember what it was.

Overhead, another small jet, likely a MiG from the Malian Air Force, moved high through the sky, well above the level of the two that had buzzed the town, heading east, Paul assumed, to patrol the disputed border with Burkina Faso. It provided a welcome distraction from his personal worries.

“What nonsense.” He squinted as he watched, muttering, again not aware that he was speaking out loud. “Two of the world’s poorest countries shaking their fists at each other. As if anyone cares. As if it could come to anything.” A pause. “All they are doing is messing up perfectly good lives…. ” As far as he had seen, the politics of West Africa were consistently squalid and corrupt; he hated the governments as much as he loved the people.

He shook his head, looked back down, and turned to walk around a long, cinderblock building on one side of the gare and toward the pit latrine behind it, again trying to figure out what had happened to him. A path of narrow boards kept his feet out of the muck and long habit kept him breathing through his mouth as he neared the facility. This latrine, he knew from a visit the day before, was a particularly bad one, full to within inches of the top, its maggots a clear, writhing presence, but it served its purpose if one didn’t look down or think about it. He didn’t.

A few minutes later, he had made his way back around the building, where he took a deep breath and expelled it sharply, clearing his nostrils. It must have been bad, whatever had happened the night before, he told himself, once again trying to dredge up his memories of the earlier hours. Otherwise he certainly wouldn’t have come back to the gare. Who ever heard of sleeping here?

But he had.

Strolling slowly out into the yard, shading his eyes against the brightening sun and edging towards the drinks cart, he wondered if—and hoped that—there would be beer in the cart, and asked himself what the possibility was that any of the bottles in it had been on ice long enough to chill. Not that it would matter: the main thing was to get some alcohol into his bloodstream, to stop his hangover and jolt his memory. He reached into his pocket for the 100-franc piece that would get him one of the large, green bottles he hoped were there and headed toward the cart.

The beer, when the youth handed it to him, did feel warm. Just happy to have it, he shrugged and walked away with it clutched by the neck and open. A quarter quickly drunk, downed in one long swig, he wandered around behind the loading pick-up, bottle now dangling from his left hand, looking for one of the kids who sell cigarettes en detail, one at a time. The boy he found didn’t have any Marlboros in his little box, so Paul picked up a couple of Rothmans, dropped a 25-franc piece in, and flicked the lighter hanging from a string to the side. He took a long drag and stepped to an empty bench shaded by a mud wall and sat down, ready, now, to wait again for the route taxi to Bobo-Diallasso, the one he already had a ticket for, to leave. “Or for noon, if that comes first.” He was still mumbling, and still unconscious of the volume of his words beneath his hangover. The cigarette vendor glanced over at him, incurious, and returned to his own thoughts. “And to work it through, about last night, to figure out what had happened, and to decide if there is something I should be worrying about. Something unusual, that is. A new worry.” He suddenly wanted to close his eyes, but knew he would fall asleep if he did, and he couldn’t afford to do so, not now that he was outside. He shook his head to clear it, the pain having receded as the beer diffused through him, and once more looked around.

The Bobo taxi, a Peugeot 504 station wagon, stood where it had the day before when he’d left it to start drinking, unchanged but for the feet of a sleeping apprentice now sticking out from under it. No passenger had arrived, nor had the owner, whose cubbyhole in the cinderblock building remained locked and barren.

Obviously, no one expected the border tensions that were delaying them to ease quickly enough for immediate departure. The frontier would open eventually, of course: it was only a matter of waiting. And, for those in a hurry, Paul knew, other means for getting south could be found. One alternative he was considering for himself, if it came to that, would actually solve another problem, one of a motorcycle stored where it oughtn’t be, though it would require a more difficult journey than he had been counting on, and a visit to a place he had said goodbye to. But he didn’t really feel energetic enough to think about that right then or to plan possible moves. “Later. If I have to.” After he’d solved his more immediate mystery and had some idea of where he stood.

He cursed the sound of another distant jet. Over the years, he’d learned to cherish West Africa and its peculiarly reserved peoples—always more careful and competent than they ever let on to the odd Europeans and Americans passing through their lives—with its vivid landscapes, sharp lines, and a deceptive lack of color contrast. Besides its poverty, the only problem with the region was, as far as he was concerned, its imports from the developed world. The guns, the governments, the money. And, maybe he should add, the beer.

As he sat, smoking and drinking a second beer, other sounds and fresh activity—and the inevitable red dust it all stirred up—began to fill the taxi yard. The apprentice under the Bobo taxi awoke, rolled up his mat, and stashed it beneath a seat. A steady progression of filthy pick-ups roared in, almost all of them once white, just a few of among them of brighter color, many now painted with sayings in French or Arabic, all pulling up to where new lines of market women were forming. The words on one of the trucks passing in front of him could have been the region’s motto, so appropriate were they to that morning—or to any morning in West Africa: “On Ne Sait Jamais,” “One Never Knows.”

Yeah, he thought, his muttering aloud having receded, that was certainly true of bush taxis, and at any time, too. Their tires were ever bald, the suspensions and shock absorbers (if they existed at all) shot. The spark plugs had been cleaned and re-used beyond all rational possibility, and the batteries were often cracked and empty. He watched as an optimistic mechanic’s assistant spread his boss’s tools under one of the trees at the yard’s edge. Someone knew, at least, that a few of these trucks would not be leaving as planned. Not until a little more jury-rigging allowed them to limp to their next stop.

Over behind the Bobo taxi, he realized, other activity of a sort had begun. The cubbyhole door had been unlocked; the taxi’s owner, the patron, had dragged out his little stool and had now sat down upon it; and two people were sitting in the Peugeot’s back seat. Tossing aside his empty, Paul walked over to the patron and asked if the border were opening and the taxi might actually leave.

The man shook his head. Pas de change.

No change.

As Paul walked back to his bench, he had a glimmer of what had happened the night before. It was hazy, but it disturbed him—embarrassing, though, not lethal. He stopped, looked around, and wondered again if he should be sitting around anyhow, waiting, in this, a country where the police were never friendly to strangers, especially to drunken fools. “Exposed,” he whispered, privately embarrassed, “out for anyone to see.”

If what little he remembered was accurate, he shouldn’t be in any real trouble, not even if a policeman who just happened to know about it should come across him, but staying here could be made rather uncomfortable. He could be made a laughingstock. He’d certainly been completely abashed—he could now remember that—by the time he’d stumbled back to the taxi gare late during the night, anxious to get out of town as soon as possible. Of course, everything had been closed down. By some means, however, he had managed to rent that barren room and secrete himself away, ashamed, for the few hours of night remaining.

Beyond that, he could remember nothing clearly. Not even exactly what had led to what he had done—just the looks he’d gotten, afterwards.

The day was now getting hotter and brighter, but a little bit of shade from the wall still surrounded his seat. Though he felt slightly (and irrationally, he told himself) frightened and certainly rather worried about leaving, he sat down and rummaged through his pack for the mystery novel he’d traded for at the Peace Corps maison de passage there in Mopti two days before. After flipping through to find his place, he closed it. Reading, he’d quickly realized, really wasn’t going to work. He glanced over at the Bobo taxi one more time. He lowered his eyes, then quickly looked up again, slightly surprised.

An unusual black man—unusual for Mali, certainly no African—was approaching the taxi’s patron. Paul stared at him, wondering how anyone so clearly monied and foreign had found his way here, to a place generally reserved for Africans and the dregs of foreign tourism, a place created by nothing so much as by poverty. “Now, that’s an unlikely character to find in a taxi gare.” His mumbling returned with his surprise.

Maybe fifty, dressed in sparkling new black running shoes, expensive black designer jeans, and a moss-green perfectly-fitted, stylish shirt buttoned to the neck, he carried a huge and brand-new orange backpack. His hair was precisely cut. His skin was lighter than most Malians, as were his eyes. If anything, he looked like he’d just stepped out of an upscale boutique in a California mall, somehow finding himself teleported to the edge of the Sahara desert and quite confused to be there. Curious, Paul put his book in his sack and leaned forward, to eavesdrop as the man started speaking to the patron.

“Excuse me.” The stranger spoke loudly enough for Paul to hear without trouble—and in English.

Oui?” The patron, though he probably spoke Arabic and three or four African languages in addition to French, did not speak English. He also did not look up.

As he watched, Paul saw that the stranger showed signs of strain, little streaks of stress marring his perfect complexion. He held out a handwritten ticket, his hand jerking rather nervously. “Will we be leaving soon? Will the border be open soon?” At least the man knew, Paul realized, that he was out of his element, and that he was in some sort of trouble. That’s always a good starting point in the middle of nowhere. But it didn’t make much sense. He watched on, now more curious. “Let’s see how the guy handles this.”

After a moment, the patron, who had pretended to be busy with the papers in front of him, looked up wearily at the newcomer. He sighed and scanned the yard until he finally spotted Paul. He waved him over.

S’il vous plait, dit l‘homme que…. Tell the man, please, that…. Tell him that we will leave when the border is open again. It’s as simple as that. The gendarmes would not let us past Severé right now. There’s probably a dozen taxis already waiting at the border, anyway.” The newcomer watched Paul in surprise and relief as he translated.

“You’re an American, aren’t you? I wouldn’t have guessed before you spoke,” he said, when Paul had finished, surprising Paul, who was expecting, instead, a thanks or a response to the patron’s comments.

“Why not?”

“Well, you look so….” The man hesitated, looked away, and quickly shut his mouth.

Paul suspected he knew what that was supposed to mean. “I am, though.” It was true; from this man’s point of view, he probably looked little like the normal American traveler. His clothes had been purchased used in African marketplaces; he wore locally-made leather sandals; he weighed about thirty pounds less than he had on arrival in West Africa some four years earlier; and his close-cropped hair and beard showed little interest in style. He was dark, too, thanks to his father’s Italian heritage, with features that could easily place his ancestry in Egypt or Lebanon, or in the Magreb, in Algeria, Tunisia, or Morocco. He’d been mistaken for a Berber and was occasionally flattered when told that he looked part Tuareg.

The stranger, perhaps only to make up for his small gaffe, extended his hand.

“My name is Sam Boudy.”

“Paul Cassamude.” He could easily forget the unintended slight, for he long since imagined to himself that he had moved beyond mere citizenship in his native land. His curiosity, anyway, was getting the better of him. “Tell me, why are you trying to get to Bobo by bush taxi? How did you get stuck here in the first place? I mean… you obviously are stuck, or you wouldn’t be trying this.”

Boudy swallowed hard as Paul watched, waiting for an answer. Clearly it had been a strain to keep his composure while talking to the patron, and he hadn’t calmed down all that much. He stifled a further look of frustration, trying to appear as collected as he had always imagined himself. “It seems the only way for leaving right now, and I’ve got to get out, to Abidjan as soon as I can.” He looked around him, appearing to Paul as though he were seeking an exit that he knew wasn’t going to be there—and very annoyed about it.

Paul sighed. It shouldn’t be too hard, though, to aid this guy. And he knew he would, in fact, assist him. All Sam would likely need, anyway, was reassurance, a little conversation in English, and instructions leading him to the right direction. They were headed the same way, anyhow, making it even easier. Paul could get Sam to Bobo, one way or another. Of that he was sure. At Bobo, Sam would disappear back into his own life. And Paul would be able to pride himself on his charity.

“There’s not much you can do right now but wait. Be patient. In the meantime, if you would like, maybe I can help you a bit, tell you about the place, at least explain some things to you, give you some suggestions. After all, I suspect I’ve been around here longer than you.” He motioned back towards his bench. “Let’s go over to the shade, where we can sit down and talk. Out of the sun.” Hell, if nothing else, helping this man would take his mind off his own stupid troubles; it was always nice to have someone to talk with, to distract oneself when one has been an idiot.

Sam briefly hesitated, but caught himself and moved quickly behind Paul, not wanting to appear reluctant. Paul, again, didn’t really mind. In fact, it amused him. Whatever the man thought of him, he told himself, didn’t matter. He really was almost as alien to Sam as the Africans around them; Sam knew too little about either to be judging anything. No matter: as there was no one else around he could talk to, he would follow.

As Sam did so, he still felt reluctance, wondering to himself about this skinny, filthy, wraith, this younger man walking in front of him. He knew he would take any help he could get right then and rationalized what he was doing by telling himself that, underneath it all, Paul wasn’t a bad-looking man. He might even be intelligent and able, after a fashion. At least he appeared to know something about Africa—could communicate with the people. And he spoke well in English, was certainly educated. Why, then, Sam wondered as he walked, had this guy Paul allowed himself to become such an obvious wreck? What had happened to him? What would lead someone, an American, to wander around Africa, nearly in rags?

Not that it mattered. Still, he wondered if there were others like this, or if Paul were some sort of anomaly. Nothing Sam had ever experienced had prepared him for anyone who had so clearly let himself go so unnecessarily (unless, he reminded himself, there were drugs involved), but he did need someone who could translate for him at least, someone who could help him get out of here, so decided to keep his doubts to himself, to see if Paul might, as he hoped, be able to point him to a way to get south.

For his part, as he reclaimed his seat, Paul looked back at Sam and wondered how in the hell this man had ended up alone in Mopti. It had never surprised Paul to find tourists wandering around lost in Africa, for this was an attractive area for traveling, though difficult. Some people he knew, ones who had spent years in Africa, looked down on tourists, as did many of those who saw themselves as ‘seasoned’ travelers. Paul, though, could still remember his own first experiences and how alien the continent had then seemed, and how grateful he’d been for the assistance people had given him. This guy, no matter how he had happened to get here, no matter how dumb he was in his expectations, had actually managed to make it on his own to the edge of the Sahara, and in the midst of an international border dispute, yet. He couldn’t be the complete fool he looked. He deserved a little respect, at least.

One of the things he had promised himself always to remember, Sam reminded himself as he shoved his bag under the bench next to Paul’s, was never to judge too quickly or too harshly. No, this was certainly not a man he would normally ever even talk with. But that didn’t mean that Paul lacked virtue or value—especially considering that he might be able to help Sam out, and was the first person in a day that Sam could actually talk to. Sam decided he would try to accept Paul as an equal, at least until he proved himself different. Not only could that be to his own advantage, but it was, Sam reminded himself, the ethical, honest route. He closed his eyes for just a moment of meditation, satisfied that he was doing the best he could, given the situation.

So, they sat there together on the bench. Paul looked over at Sam, who was sitting with his eyes closed, and considered just what, and how much, he should tell him, this man clearly so lost, so far from home, yet who probably had no idea what a dangerous situation he had gotten himself into. He didn’t want to scare him, after all, just help him, if he could, by getting him to Bobo and sending him on his way. Probably, though, the man would ignore anything he said. The taxi wouldn’t leave and he would end up stewing in Mopti for a week or so more, stuck until the crisis blew over. But that didn’t matter. That would be Sam’s problem, not Paul’s, for Paul was getting out, one way or another.

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