This is the first chapter of a novel I am writing, Hard As Kerosene. As I am going to publish it myself, I have decided to also present it here, chapter by chapter. This is the first:
Dim changes touched him. He rolled over to see faint hints of color crawling slowly under the corrugated zinc door. Little light came with them, just those dull, sliding almost-grays reaching tentative, translucent fingers through the newly outlined cracks. He imagined that they were seeking purchase for pulling themselves into the room. Furtive, he thought, that’s what their movements were. He watched through the slits of his sleep-encrusted eyes; they, cautious and silent, now explored even newer means for encroaching upon the cinderblock chamber where he had slept.
“But it’s just a false dawn, not real day, certainly not so soon.” He closed his eyes again as his cracked lips silently formed the soothing words. “Nothing dangerous here, not for a while.” A pause and a sigh. “It shouldn’t be so bad, anyhow: merely one more start; another aching morning.” But then he groaned, remembering some of the hundreds of others but also thinking ahead. “Cool, yes it is… for now, but calling the scalding sun.” Another pause and then an expelled breath prefaced a mumbled attempt at irony. “Just another coming day here in the Sahel.”
He stretched and pretended to himself that he could relax, turning his head away from the door once more, trying to recover the quiet he’d felt before the interruption of his own words.
But the world outside, oblivious to any desire, wasn’t going to allow it.
It sent, merciless and uncaring, the sudden, sharp and loud whoosh of a military jet roaring low over his head, jerking his eyes wide, demolishing any sense—ha!—of quiet he maybe could have established in the coming African dawn. It shot a new spike of pain into his forehead.
Enough. He looked up and toward the ceiling; just now its outline was beginning to appear through the gloom. He found he was repeating himself. Yes, that certainly had been enough. He decided that, given all the evidence, he really was awake. And, yes, as he had known it would, especially after that spike, his head really did throb. Yet again, even in the face of all that, as though carrying out a tiny, final protest, he took a deep breath and tried once more not to think about the world outside.
But no. That was not going to be possible. Another jet followed. Coming so close on the heels of the first and just as loud, it probably insured that even the heavy sleepers of the Mopti were now awake. Such a roar, after all, had to be rare in a place as quiet and remote as this sleepy Malian town just south of the Sahara and on the banks of the Niger River. He wondered if the jets would return and then found himself hoping they wouldn’t.
As he slowly, with resignation, turned his head back toward the door, another sudden, shooting pain pierced his left temple. It brought him back down to his little life, or what little was left of it, inside the little room.
And it listed for him quite graphically just how much he’d drunk the night before, throb for throb and drink for drink.
Though his eyes were widening open now, his body still hadn’t the willingness to move. So, he once more watched those faint grays, though now they were yellowing, as they began to reach his woven-reed mat. He listened as well, using the new barrier of outside silence as a further excuse not to move, not, at least, until he could hear signs of life in the bush-taxi yard beyond the door of the shack. No one there; no use of his being out there.
After a few minutes, it wasn’t enough to lie there, either. He was straining, he discovered, to hear something, anything that might provide him with an excuse to stop lying there. The needs of his body, also, were now forcing themselves into his consciousness but, after many, many mornings in similar circumstances, he knew that wouldn’t be enough, that he still needed some additional forcing of him, a push getting him up and going. So he remained where he was, sighed, and mumbled to himself once more. “Despite this hangover, a new day has come and I have got to get going.” But, of course, he remained flat on his back, on the mat.
Later, sometime later, once the yellow light that had replaced the gray 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. It steadily grew from that faint, distant hum. After a moment or two, loud and close now, it churned its rubber tires into the still-silent yard outside, over the dusty laterite that made up the ground—and then it died with a cough, a sputter and a slight squeak of brakes.
A signal this was, he told himself—and this it had to be—that life of the morning was in fact finally beginning, that he would not be rising only to wait, and to wait for that additional waiting that he knew, with a groan at the thought, could follow hard upon that. And that probably would. This, after all, was Africa, where waiting can be the game of a great part of life. But a signal was what he had needed to move him to join in.
“Yup. Might as well move now, anyhow.” He grunted, jerked himself onto an elbow—careful: his head sharply reminded him that it required something more akin to gentleness than sharp motion, and much more sympathy than it was likely to get—and surveyed the occupants, now just becoming really 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.” Not signs of much of a life either, he thought. Grimacing, he heaved himself upright and into the sandals. Bending over, sighing with the pain in his head and not just from the effort, he stuffed the pagna into the bag, rolled up the mat, and strapped it on the top. No need to change clothes, he decided. No matter what he wore, after a few hours in an African 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—it was now making free about him—he made out the vehicle he’d heard, a canvas-backed pick-up that had come to rest amid a growing group of people at the far side of the yard. Market women, wrapped in a riot of pagnas much more colorful than the one now 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 Muslim Mali, the beer, if there at all, would be discretely placed.
A slight breeze, rising off the Niger River visible just beyond the wall at the edge of the yard, began to push stray bits of paper across the yard, the movements distracting him but the air cooling him. Though his head hurt and his chapped lips cracked as they moved, he smiled, scanning the rest of the yard, eyes resting lightly on the browns, beiges, and tans, the pale colors that dominated the landscape before him.
He continued to look around, then over the wall to the right to the flat tops of Mopti’s buildings running down to the river beyond the taxi gare, and 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. It was not someplace he would normally choose, not even when completely drunk—he couldn’t have fallen that far. Yet all he could recall was that, after being told 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, but not a whole lot more. The PCV’s had faded out at some point in the evening and he’d fallen in with a couple of—or so it seemed they must have been, in retrospect—rather disreputable Malians. They’d gotten something to eat, he recalled then more to drink. And there things got even hazier.
Something had happened after that. He had a growing suspicion that it had been something dangerous. Or, at least, embarrassing. He wished he could remember what it was, but all he came up with was haze. Ah, to hell with it. He’d made a fool of himself often enough before. Whatever it was, it would fade.
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. It was heading east, Paul assumed, to patrol the disputed border with Burkina Faso. Its brief presence provided a welcome distraction.
“What nonsense.” He squinted up as the jet disappeared, muttering, not aware that he was speaking out loud—not that there was anyone around to hear or embarrass him. “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 as he brought his eyes back to earth. “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, over his years there, he had learned to love the people.
He shook his head, his body now forcing him to think of more practical matters, and turned to walk. He headed around a long, cinderblock building on one side of the gare and toward the pit latrine behind it, trying once more to figure out what had happened to him as he walked. A path of narrow boards kept his feet out of the muck and long habit kept him breathing through his mouth as the smells intensified with his approach. This latrine, he knew from a visit the day before, was particularly vile, 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, his bladder feeling relief even if his nose didn’t share in it, he made his way back around the building, taking a deep breath there and expelling 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 night. Otherwise he certainly wouldn’t have come back to the gare. Again, who ever heard of sleeping here?
But he had. Forget it, he told himself again, look forward, not behind.
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 were beer in the cart, and if whatever bottles were in it had been on ice long enough to take on a 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. Or, at least, some liquid. He reached into his pocket for the 100-franc piece that would get him one of the large, green bottles he hoped were there, or any other if not, and headed toward the cart.
The beer, when the youth handed it to him, did feel more warm than cold. Just happy to have it, he shrugged and walked away with his treasure. A quarter of it quickly drunk, downed in one long swig, he wandered around behind the loading pick-up, the bottle now dangling from his left hand. He was seeking 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 out 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 around to an empty bench shaded a bit by a mud wall and sat down, ready, now, to wait again for that taxi to Bobo-Diallasso to leave. “Or for noon, if that comes first.” He was still mumbling, still unconscious of the volume of his words beneath his hangover. The cigarette vendor glanced over at him, incurious, before returning to his own thoughts. “And to work it through, about last night, to figure out what had happened, and to decide if it were going to cause me any problems.” He suddenly wanted to close his eyes, but knew he would fall asleep if he did, and that he couldn’t afford to do that, not now that he was outside and vulnerable. He shook his head to clear it, perhaps to think about something else, and once more looked around.
The Bobo taxi, a once-white 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 underneath 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 the taxi’s immediate departure. The frontier would open eventually, of course: it was only a matter of waiting. The two countries couldn’t afford a closed border, let alone hostilities. And, for those in a hurry, Paul knew, other means for getting south could be found—people were certainly using them. There was one alternative he was considering for himself, if it came to that, one that would actually solve a small logistical problem he’d been ignoring. But it would require a more difficult journey than he had been counting on right now, and a visit to a place he had said goodbye to. He was tired, and he didn’t really feel energetic enough to contemplate more travel via piste, not goudron, right then. He craved paved roads; washboarded tracks, often disappearing into sand or washed down the sides of hills, these he’d seen too often. “Later. If I have to.” After he’d solved his more immediate mystery and had some idea where he stood. Or the border stayed shut. Then he would turn his mind back to routes of travel and means of crossing into the other country.
He cursed the sound of another distant jet.
As he sat, smoking and drinking a second beer, other noises and fresh activity—and the inevitable red dust—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, with just a few of brighter colors among them, most of them 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 contained words Paul remembered seeing soon after his arrival in Africa four years before, when he’d first experience a taxi gare and bush-taxi travel up from the coast in Togo: “On Ne Sait Jamais,” “One Never Knows.”
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 a mechanic’s assistant spread his boss’s tools under one of the twisted trees at the yard’s edge. His boss 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 soon noticed, other activity of a desultory 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 patiently 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. If this activity, if it could be called that, meant anything.
The man shook his head. Pas de 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 even so, waiting, in this, a country where the police were never friendly to strangers. He’d certainly made a public fool of himself. “Exposed,” he whispered, “out for anyone to see.”
Again, he told himself, if what little he remembered was accurate, he wouldn’t be in real trouble, if a policeman should happen upon him, but staying here could be rather uncomfortable for his self-image. He’d certainly been completely abashed—he could now remember that—when he’d stumbled back to the taxi gare late during the night, and had been anxious to get out of town as soon as possible. He remembered arriving there, desperate, drunk. Of course, everything had been closed down. By some means, stumbling around in the dark, he had managed to rent that barren room and secrete himself away for the remainder of the night.
Beyond that, he could remember nothing clearly. Not even exact details of what he had done—just the general idea and the looks he’d gotten, afterwards. They were enough. He started thinking about whether to head to Bandiagara. Better there than here.
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 frightened of discovery by someone who might happen to know what had occurred and was certainly rather worried about it, 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, however, he closed it. Reading really wasn’t going to work. He glanced up and over at the Bobo taxi one more time. He lowered his eyes again, then looked up again, surprised.
An unusual black man—unusual for Mali, certainly no African—was approaching the taxi’s patron. Paul stared at him, his own worries aside, wondering how anyone so clearly moneyed and foreign had found his way here. “Now, that’s an unlikely character to find in a taxi gare.” He was still thinking out loud.
Maybe fifty, dressed in sparkling new black running shoes, expensive black designer jeans, and a moss-green perfectly-fitted and stylish shirt buttoned to the neck, the new arrival carried a huge and brand-new orange backpack. His hair was precisely cut. His skin was lighter than most Malians, as were his eyes. 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 confused to be there. Curious, Paul slipped the book back into his pack 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 did not speak English, though he probably spoke Arabic and three or four African languages in addition to French. Also, he did not look up.
The stranger, Paul now saw, had signs of strain marring his perfect complexion. He shoved a hand into his pants pocket then nervously held out a handwritten ticket. “Will we be leaving soon? Will the border be open soon?” At least this man knew that he was out of his element, Paul saw, and that he was in some sort of trouble. That’s always a good starting point, and far beyond where a lot of tourists might have been. He watched on, much more curious. “Let’s see how the guy handles this.” This time, finally, his words were silent.
After an extended moment, the patron, who had pretended to be busy with the papers in front of him, raised his head and wearily stared at the newcomer. He sighed and looked about until he spotted Paul. He waved him over. Paul got up and walked slowly to the pair of men.
“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 simply a thanks.
“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. He was scruffy, to say the least. His clothes had been purchased used in African marketplaces; he wore locally-made leather sandals; he weighed about thirty pounds less than when he’d arrived in Lomé those years before; 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 by Africans who told him that he looked part Tuareg.
The stranger, perhaps realizing he’d made a small gaffe, extended his hand.
“My name is Sam Boudy.”
“Paul Cassamude.” He could forget the unintended slight. 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. Why aren’t you heading for Bamako, anyhow?”
Boudy swallowed hard, clearly it had been a strain to keep his composure—and continued to be. He held back on a further look of frustration, trying to appear as collected as he had, in fact, 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 as though seeking an exit that wasn’t there. “Going to Bamako isn’t going to help. I’ve a flight from Abidjan that can’t be changed, and there’s no way to get there except by land because of this damned conflict.”
“Slow down.” Paul raised a hand as he realized that Sam’s frustration was about to get the better of him. It was a neat problem facing Sam, but not insurmountable, not for someone like Paul, with experience of Africa. He did doubt that the guy would allow him to help him, however. Paul was just too disreputable, as Sam had already made clear. But they were headed in the same direction. Paul knew he could get Sam over the border along with him, if it came to that, if they couldn’t get through on the main route. Then, at Bobo, he would disappear back into his own life.
“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 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 troubles, stupid as they might be. And it was always nice to have someone to talk with. “We can probably get you out of here and on your way south… though, let me warn you, it may not be an easy trip.”
Sam briefly hesitated, but caught himself and moved quickly behind Paul, not wanting to appear reluctant. Paul didn’t really mind. Whatever the man thought of him, he told himself, it remained true that he really was almost as alien to Sam as were the Africans around them. But, as there was no one else around he could talk to, he would follow.
As Sam did so, he wondered about this skinny, filthy, wraith, this younger man walking in front of him. He could see that, underneath it all, Paul wasn’t really a bad-looking man. He might even be intelligent and able, after a fashion, Sam decided, wanting to put him in the best possible light. At least he appeared to know something about Africa—could communicate with the people. And he spoke well in English, was certainly educated. But why, then, Sam wondered as he walked, had this guy—what had he said his name was? 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?
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 but a drug addict or drunk who had so clearly let himself go unnecessarily, 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, in fact, 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 it was an attractive continent for adventurous traveling, though difficult. Some people he knew, ones who had, like him, spent years in Africa, looked down on tourists, as did many others passing through, people 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 to 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 at least a little respect, and probably more than a little help.
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. But he had done just that, here. 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 even be able to help Sam out. Lord, no one else seemed to even have the inclination, let alone any idea of what could be done. And Paul was the first person in over a day that Sam could actually talk to. Sam decided he would try to accept Paul as a potential ally and helper, 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 second of meditation, then opened them again, satisfied that he was doing the best he could, given the situation.
As they sat there together on the bench, Paul, for his part, looked over at Sam, considering just what, and how much, he should tell him, this man clearly so lost, so far from home, this man who probably had no idea what a dangerous situation he had gotten himself into. He didn’t want to scare him further than he likely already was, after all, just to help him if he could by getting him to Bobo and sending him on his way further south. Probably, Paul thought, the man would ignore anything he said. But he really could help him. The taxi wouldn’t leave and Sam would end up stewing in Mopti for a week or so more, stuck until the crisis blew over while Paul slipped across into Burkina Faso, to Ouahigouya and the motorcycle he should be collecting there anyway—the little logistical problem he’d been ignoring. But staying in Mopti would be Sam’s problem, not Paul’s.
[Chapter Two can be found here.]