Chapter Thirty-Three: Talking
Chapter Thirty-Two can be found here.
War or not the train would leave for Abidjan sometime in the late afternoon. Or so they were informed once they arrived at the station. At least, it would leave Ouagadougou at two. That much was certain, the agent assured them, but he refused to give a firm time of arrival. When pressed, all he would do is point to the schedule. But that, as Paul explained to Sam, was to be expected. Though they had tickets in hand with a time stamped on them, one couldn’t really be as sure about what time the train would get to Bobo, let alone leave. Paul handed one of the tickets to Sam and led him back outside.
It was a clear day, and quiet. No dust in the air, nothing overhead but blue. Across the plaza trucks, busses, cars, and motos whizzed by, but the sound was far away. As they stood there, outside the train station, itself a low, long building facing that wide, empty plaza, Sam, who had been staring at the ticket, his face grave, suddenly turned to Paul, facing him squarely.
“Look, Paul, I have to say this, but it isn’t easy. I understand quite well what you’ve done for me these last days. They haven’t been easy, and I’ve had a lot of second thoughts, but you got us here. Thank you Paul, thank you.” Tears were in his eyes, Paul noticed, and upon his cheeks. He wanted to turn away; anything but this. Besides, he really felt that Sam should be angry with him, not thankful. All he had done was put the man in danger unnecessarily and through his own arrogance. He winced at Sam’s words and tears, not wanting to listen, but unable to turn away, there in the middle of that open plaza. “I really didn’t know what would happen…. That waiting in Mopti, I could hardly have stood another day of it, and I didn’t know if I would ever get out. Then, I thought I was going to die yesterday, though I had been scared I might in Mopti, too. Without you, I don’t know what would have happened to me. Thank you.” The man stared at him, pain in his expression and confusion, for he could clearly see Paul’s aversion. Even so, for a moment, Paul thought he was going to hug him, right there in the middle of the plaza.
“That’s OK.” Paul still didn’t know how to react to this, so different from his own take on what had gone on, these past few days. He hadn’t helped that much, he had decided, and had led Sam into even greater trouble than he had been in before, no matter how Sam might see it. He knew that part of what Sam said was true, they hadcome close to being killed… or so they had thought. And that weighed on him. No one should thank him for that. He was extremely embarrassed by the memory of his own arrogance in Mopti and was only happy that matters hadn’t ended up worse. “But you would have survived without me. I did no more than anyone should, perhaps trying to do too much.”
“No, Paul, most people wouldn’t. Most people let others go on their own way. They rarely take the sort or responsibility I now know you took for me.”
Now he knew, Paul though, what all the silence that morning had been about. He had thought Sam was finally recognizing the needless danger Paul had put him through. But he couldn’t let this go on. “Look, let’s get our bags and come back here and eat. There’s a nice restaurant with air conditioning close. We’ll go there.”
“You didn’t really have to do what you did, to take me. I must have made things difficult.” Sam persisted. He really seemed to want to offer some sort of recognition, but Paul adamantly didn’t feel he could accept it, so shook it off.
“Not really. Come on. Let’s go.”
Sam looked at him, a little confused, but followed quietly when Paul started to walk back to the hotel.
A little later, they made their way to the restaurant Paul had mentioned, carrying their bags. The heat of the day now lay on the town. The restaurant’s air-conditioning chilled the sweat on their shirts, shivering both of them as they entered. This was, Paul realized, the first western-style restaurant they had been in since they had met. Ever since Mopti, Paul had been worried that Sam hadn’t been eating much. Now, he hoped that the familiar-style surroundings would bring his appetite back.
It did. Though he couldn’t read the menu for himself—it was in French—Sam ordered a full meal and attacked each plate as it came, finishing off everything, even ordering more. Paul ate, too, but much less. He’d ordered a beer, of course, with his meal, while Sam made do with bottled water.
“Look, I wish I could make you understand what I mean, why what you did is so important.” Sam had finished his meal and had even managed to order a cup of coffee on his own. “Not everyone would be willing to take on the welfare of another so easily.”
“I think I do understand, but it’s just the sort of responsibility one has to accept. My problem is that I placed you in more danger instead of getting you out of it. What also makes me feel guilty is that I did for you what I probably would not have done for any random other person.”
“But there were no other stranded strangers there, just me.”
“I know that, but you’re an American, like me. Would I have helped you, were you French? Or African? I don’t know.”
“The point is, you did help.”
“I suppose you are right, in a way, but you’ve made me think of something else. Of something a friend of mine, a Fulbright scholar named Eric, once told me.”
“And what was that?”
“His house in Ouaga was always open to Americans passing through. At first, his cook, who had always worked for French families, resented these visitors. Suddenly, his attitude changed, and he was more open toward them. Eric asked him why. ‘I didn’t understand,’ the cook told him, ‘that these people are like your family. Like family, you have to take care of them.’
“What bothers me is that I have been treating you like family, in that cook’s sense, but ignoring everyone else—as I ignored your own best interest, really—but I know you disagree, so we won’t get into that. Anyway, did I worry about the Sawadogos in Ouahigouya? They were in danger as much as we. But, no, I concerned myself with getting you out of town, maybe even using that to mask my own fear, wanting to flee myself.”
“But you can’t help everyone in the world. You have to merely do what you can. And I suspect there was nothing you could do for them, anyhow.”
“What can I do, though? I have been living, for four years, in a land of death and tragedy, thinking only of myself and occasionally of others the Africans consider my ‘family.’ My main preoccupation has been this.” He drank from his glass of beer. Since Sam’s tears earlier, Paul was finding it much easier to tell him things that he rarely had ever mentioned to anyone. Certainly not since his time with El, four years earlier.
“I’ve noticed that.” Sam seemed about to say something more, but sipped his coffee instead and looked out the window.
They stayed in the restaurant through much of the early afternoon, real conversation diminishing, chatting only occasionally and about nothing, basically. Paul drank pretty steadily. Sam mostly stared at the life of Bobo going by outside the window of the restaurant.
Each, of course, spent much of the time wondering about the other. Neither felt like pursuing their earlier conversation. Each felt they had overstepped boundaries; each needed to pull back a bit.
Eventually, they headed back into the station to await the train, that late train.
Chapter Thirty-Four can be found here.