Friday, September 16, 2011

Chapter Six: Arriving


[Chapter Five can be found here.]

Lomé slid by the taxi’s window, so different from anything else he had ever seen that he could hardly track it, so far removed from the cities he had passed through in the United States.  Low buildings of cement contained small storefronts spilling goods onto the sidewalks—plastic buckets and rope, cheap clothing and shoes, tin pans and stirring spoons, kerosene refrigerators and lanterns, Chinese bicycles—and the side streets of sand provided glimpses, on the better ones, of tall compound walls topped with broken glass.  Palm trees spotted the horizons behind the walls.
People moved everywhere: He saw women in wrappers and bare feet carrying huge packages on their heads, and men of all sorts, some in sandals, holed pants and tee-shirts, others in business suits.  Children scurried, popping out behind vehicles, doors, and shreds.  The people, like the goods in the shops, spilled from the sidewalks and into the streets.  Most everyone was black, though little clusters of whites, probably tourists, occasionally shuffled through.
Bicycles, he saw, a few mopeds, and motorcycles.  Cars, mostly Japanese but with many French Peugeots among them, battered, often filled with more people than they had been built to carry, careened around the vans, each of these stuffed with passengers and generally sporting a young man hanging out the open side door as the vehicles darting to and from the curbs, picking people up and discharging them.  Trucks passed, most with open backs piled high with bags of, well, Paul couldn’t even guess with what.
Movement, movement, he saw, was everywhere around him.  And color, swirling from sand below to yellow above with a riot between.
Along with smells, he noticed.  Diesel fuel, sweets, food, coal, excrement, more.  All struggling to dominate and succeeding for a moment before being mixed into one. 
Paul breathed as shallowly as he could while he stared, fascinated.  Their taxi wove through what was clearly the downtown, ‘clearly’ from the few new multi-story buildings they were now passing, heading, El told him, toward a residential sector near the Ghana border.  “You’ll be able to see Ghana from where we’re going, but it would take you hours to get there.  The border can’t handle the traffic.”
After about twenty-minutes and of twisting and turning down streets sometimes paved but sandier and sandier, they pulled to a stop by a walled compound down a relievedly quiet side street.  A thin black man in a tan uniform at a gate smiled as they got out and he recognized El. He greeted him warmly and gently, as one might an invalid, as he opened a small door in the wall.  Paul tried to follow the conversation in French, but only  got part of it, and most of that by guess, surmising that the man was welcoming El back, and was asking about his trip.  He trailed after El to another door and then into a building where six rows of bunk beds, a couch, and a couple of easy chairs rested.
“I told the guardian that you were a PCV from Ghana.  Put your name up there,” he pointed to a chalkboard with numbers from one to twelve painted on it, names written beside a few, “so you will have a bed.”  Paul did as he was told, then dropped his pack onto the bed corresponding to the number next to his name.  El did the same, though he kept the bag with the videotape with him.
“Now,” El contemplated him as he paused then continued, his voice more animated than Paul had yet heard it, “I think what you need is a beer and something to eat.”
“Shouldn’t I try to…?”
“Just let it wait,” El interrupted, but gently.  “That would probably be for the best.”
Paul stood for a moment, hesitating, considering, and then nodded.  A drink, after all, might not be a bad idea—and he really didn’t need to appear too anxious.  Though he normally wasn’t much for alcohol, this, he reassured himself, wasn’t a normal time.  He let El lead him back out onto the street.  Still….
“Wait.”  He stopped, and El turned to look at him.  No matter what he tried, he soon wouldn’t be able to stand the thought of not checking, not even for the time it took to drink a beer.  “Didn’t you say that she might have left me a message here?  That people do that?”
“Yeah…. “
“Well, do you mind if we look, first?  Then we’ll get the beer?”
El shrugged.  “Might as well.  Follow me.”  He led Paul back into the building and around to a small room with a row of mailboxes and a bulletin board.
“It’ll be stuck on the board, if it’s here.  I’ll let you look for it yourself.  I’ve got to let the Director’s office know I’m back, anyway.”  He disappeared through a further doorway.
Paul looked over cautiously at the board, dreading what he might find but knowing there was likely something there for him.  He stepped over to inspect it more closely, staring at the rows of folded notes and dingy envelopes, each with a name scribbled on it.  First, he scanned them quickly, but saw nothing, feel relief—almost.  Then he began examining the board carefully, starting in the lower left-hand corner, looking at the name on each one of the folded notes, each envelope, working his way across the messages.
Finally, he found it, about one-third of the way through.  He recognized her handwriting before he saw that the letters formed his name.  He pulled it off the board and turned to the opposite wall, tearing the envelope open.
The note said she was sorry, but she had tried to contact him.  This, she was leaving on the chance that he would, in fact come, but she hoped he would never see it.  She didn’t want him to come, wished he had never wanted to.  There was someone else now, anyhow.  Then it said, again, that she was sorry, so sorry and, again, that she hoped he never got this note, that her letters arrived before he left or he came to his senses and changed his mind.
He stared at the small piece of paper, read it again, then slowly crumpled it and shoved it in his pocket.  He didn’t want it, but didn’t want it in the trash, either, for someone to find.  So a crumpled wad in his pocket it would stay for now.  He stared at the wall until El came back.  He said nothing when the other looked at him, questioning, merely followed him outside.
They headed straight back the way they had come in the taxi, walking at the side of the sandy street where they tire marks from their taxi were still visible.  Though he was in shock, a bit, from the note, Paul was getting his first chance to see Africa up close, so he tried his best to pay attention to what he was seeing.  But he was too tired and dazed, really, to do more than inventory: Cement walls, palm trees and metal gates.  Wood doors under Rothman signs with dark counters beyond.  A child or two, playing in the dirt. 
One, he noticed, was now singing at him:
Yovo, yovo bon soir.  Donnez-moi dix francs.”  The child laughed and darted away.
“What’s that mean?”  The surprise shook him from his trance.
“’Yovo’ is white person.  For some reason, kids think that, if they sing that song, we’ll give them money.”  El laughed.  “Come on.  I forget how odd this all must seem.”
The bar El was taking him to, he explained, was called the “Buzz Bar” by Peace Corps Volunteers because there was no service unless one pressed a buzzer located conspicuously on one wall.  A man would soon appear, someone who, on command, would bring large bottles of the local Biere du Benin.  The seats were low, with plastic-covered cushions.  They formed a rectangle around a square coffee table.  No one else was there, so El and Paul slouched down, El pushing the buzzer and ordering for them.
“So there was a note.”  El hadn’t mentioned it before, giving Paul time to compose himself, to decide how he wanted to react to it.  Now he decided to prompt him.
Paul hesitated and, just as he started to answer, it suddenly started to rain, hard, and fast, startling him.  He had to speak loudly to compete with the noise it made hitting the corrugated ceiling above them.
“There was.”
“Is she coming?”
“No.”
“I’m sorry.”
“Thanks.” 
“I know it sounds trite, but try not to dwell on it.  You are in Africa, after all.  Concentrate on that.  Oh, and by the way, you aren’t the only one who has come to visit a Peace Corps lover, only to be dumped.”
“That videotape you were carrying.  Are carrying.”  El had it next to him, still.  Paul looked it now, wanting to change the subject.  “Must be important?”
El didn’t answer right away, for the beer arrived and the waiter popped the caps.  And the rain still made conversation difficult.  Instead, El showed Paul that he should keep his bottle cap on the top of the bottle, to keep flies out.  Then he took a long drink and looked steadily at Paul, only a ghost of his much earlier smile remaining.  The rain eased up just a bit.
“You ask about the videotape, well.…”  He refilled his glass, drank it down, and refilled it once more.  “Did you hear about Joan Rodham?  Did that news reach you?”
Paul shook his head.  The rain continued to diminish, quickly becoming a soft drizzle.
“It was a couple of weeks ago, a month, actually.  Made the New York Times.  Thought you might have seen it.”
“No.”
“She was stationed close to me….  I don’t know….  Was my best friend.”  He took a breath, a sigh, really.  He looked down at his bottle of beer.  Though he had told this story dozens of times to perhaps a hundred people, it didn’t get any easier.  No matter how he said it, it came out horribly.  “She was murdered, beaten to death three weeks and five days ago.”
“Oh,” Paul replied, shame washing over him, his own cataclysm suddenly shrinking to its real insignificance.  He could think of nothing else to say.  “Oh.”
“I found the body.”  He took a long drink and smiled again, that wistful, longing smile.  “And the tape is of her.  An interview for a news show done last year.  Charles Kuralt.  It’s all I have left of her.”
“Oh,” Paul said again.  “Oh.”

[Chapter Seven can be found here.]

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