Thursday, December 08, 2011

Chapter Thirty-Five: Advancing

 Chapter Thirty-Four can be found here.

The train pulled slowly into the station just after seven, almost exactly at dusk, hours late, but no more than expected, given the attitudes of the others on the platform.  Stiff, still, from the ride the day before as well as from sitting on the hard benches in the station for several hours, Paul and Sam picked up their packs and headed onto the platform’s edge, looking for the car corresponding to their tickets. 
Paul had bought them a small compartment, for they would be traveling through the night and he didn’t think either of them wanted to sit upright in a coach car for all that time.  After the day before, he assumed that both of them wanted a little more comfort than that. 
The compartment wasn’t much, and would hold two more, should the train fill, and it was filthy.  Paul couldn’t help but noticing that Sam, once again, was a little put off by it.  But he had gotten used to him, at least a little bit, so didn’t say anything when Sam grabbed some paper off the toilet-paper roll Paul had had the foresight to buy and bring along and started wiping down the surfaces of the room.  Also in keeping with their past, Paul, without a word to Sam and as soon as the train started pulling out of the station, walked up to the bar car and brought back a couple of bottles of beer.  As an afterthought, suddenly feeling that he might have been rude, he had purchased a bottle of soda for Sam. 
After he had finished about half of his first bottle, Paul wanted to talk some more.  He had a feeling that Sam, though grateful to him, really had little respect for him, somehow.  That, protestations aside, he knew at some level how much Paul had put him in danger.  Foolishly.  Now, he urgently wanted to show him that he wasn’t just a nice fool, and that when he had talked about how little he had done, he wasn’t really telling the whole story.
“Before you came, Sam, did you do any reading about development?  About Americans in Africa?  Or about the history of Africa?”
“No.”  Sam, for his part, was tiring of Paul, and a little embarrassed by his emotional outburst earlier.  And Paul was right: he did, in fact, see him as worthy of little respect, even given what he had done for him.  Right then, on the last leg of their journey together and when, for the first time in days, he really was no longer dependent upon him, he didn’t want to listen to him, especially as Paul was starting to get a little drunk again.  So, he tried to deflect Paul’s overtures, though gently.  He had slept well the night before, but he was still exhausted from the chaos of the last few days and the emotional upheaval of the morning.  He now knew that he could make it to Abidjan and safety, and really wanted to be alone.  The more he thought of it, the more he felt that he was no longer obliged to listen to Paul.
“It’s interesting, and tragic.”  Paul though, now that he had started, wasn’t going to be deterred.  So Sam listened, not really paying attention, as Sam rambled, talking about development in the third world, about African cultures, about anything that came into his mind and, in his view, made him look like something more than an idiot.  Sam owed him something, after all, so he thought, even while realizing the thought was stupid, so could damned well be an audience, at least. 
“Those of us who are here now, from the West, I mean, who want to work with the Africans on developing Africa, can do our best by doing close to nothing at all.  We need to let the Africans do things for themselves.  They can, you know, they surely can.”
“Then why are you here?”  Sam had been trying to doze, by this point.  His eyes had been closed, but he couldn’t resist the question.
“Because I love it here, because the people here do help each other.  Well, sometimes, and if the other is from their ethnic group.  Otherwise, not as much.  There’s harshness here, and beauty… “
As he listened halfheartedly, Sam began to think back on his first impression of Paul.  It certainly hadn’t been a good one, he remembered, and it had gone up and down, since.  Now, though he felt grateful to Paul, he realized that his earliest impression of Sam was probably his most accurate: the man, for all his ability to negotiate this strange land, for all he had learned during his years in Africa, had created a disaster within himself.  He was alcoholic and alone, running from himself in a land not his own.  Thinking that, Sam wanted to pull away, but he had nowhere to go.  Not wanting to insult Paul, he listened and said as little as possible as Paul continued to ramble.  He was feeling sadder, perhaps, than he had in a long, long time, and was wishing he could make himself more remote.
“There’s also a closeness with the land, here, a seeing of things as they really are… ”
Sam sighed, low so Paul wouldn’t hear.  That was a good one, ‘seeing things as they really are.’  This man, this guide who had helped him, who really did know something about this area of the world, saw so little, so little of himself.  How could he think he could possibly see anything else clearly?
Did he have any idea of what he was?  Of what he had become?  Sam wondered.  He doubted it.  Paul probably imagined himself, when he was feeling positive, as a romantic character, someone free in an alien world, knowledgeable of it, but not part of his.  An outsider, but one with real understanding of the inside.
But the inside of himself?  Sam suspected Paul hadn’t looked there for a long time and wondered if he even could.
“There’s something I’ve been meaning to ask you,” Sam said, breaking a period of silence.  “The other day, when we met…”
“I was pretty frantic, ready to take anything that would get me out of there.”  He hesitated.  “But you, you didn’t have to hurry.”
“Well, you were anxious to get out of there too.  I’ve been wondering why.”
Paul didn’t answer, but stared out the window at the darkened sky.
Their train swayed continually toward the south, through the border to Côte d’Ivoire, stopping where crowds of women and young men with trays of oranges or peanuts on their heads, or selling bags of chilled water for a couple of francs, surrounded it.  At each station, Paul would lean out the window, talk and negotiate, and come back with fruit or sweets or nuts.  He always offered to share what he had bought with Sam, but Sam shook his head each time, now wanting to share as little as possible with Paul, as though his disease, somehow, would rub off.  Now, also, wanting to keep his stomach free of the various diseases he had heard about, especially since he was so near flying home.
The two men continued to talk between stops, or Paul did, mostly, though he never did answer Sam’s one question.  Sam closed his eyes again and pretended to sleep, but Paul, now having made two or three more trips to the bar car, didn’t seem to notice.  He talked on, his words slurring more and more, making less and less sense. 
At times, now dead tired, Sam wanted to open his eyes and yell at him, to tell him to shut up and stop trying to convince someone else of what he could not convince himself.  But he restrained himself.  There was nothing he could do for Paul.  That would have to come from Paul himself.  All he could do was get away from him as quickly as possible and keep his feelings as grateful as possible.  So, he kept his eyes shut and tried to urge the train on to Abidjan.  He wondered if Paul really realized, as he did, that something in their relationship had changed.  Although that could be why he was talking so much.  As the night wore on Sam grew more and more tired, more distant, more and more looking forward to Abidjan, that nice hotel where he expected to stay, and an easy flight home.  He would be glad, so glad, when he reached the hotel.  He had learned enough about Africa, however, to only hope he still had a reservation.

Chapter Thirty-Six can be found here.

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