|September 2011 Fiction Anthology | Contents | Authors | echapbook.com | Getting in the Car by T.M. De Vos|
They had been on the island for a week in a tiny room that smelled of cedar, with a window that rattled when the other guests walked past. The roads turned to mud when it rained and cows wallowed in the deep tire tracks. There was a big escarpment half a mile down where they played cards and a cluster of dusty stores in the other direction where they went to sound out the jagged letters on snacks. Sometimes the shopkeepers turned away from them; even here it was better to lose the sale than listen to someone talk.
The lake was cold, too cold to swim in. He talked her into a fishing trip, where they trolled for harius—sinuous, shimmering graylings that swarmed in the boat’s bottom. The earlier catches floated after awhile, showing white bellies, their pinhole cloacas. The live ones kept below the waterline, burrowing beneath their dead.
They’d stopped to catch grasshoppers for bait: strange, red-tipped ones that buzzed like cicadas. She cornered a brilliant green one the size of a mouse. It breathed patiently as she pointed. He didn’t want to touch it either, and they kept their eyes on it as they backed away. The captured ones whirred in their bottles, mouthing the dead stems.
The fisherman baited their hooks and cast for them. You could see the bait sink, the grasshoppers swelling like puffed rice in the clear water. She caught the first harius. The fisherman snatched it from her hook and painted her cheeks with the tail, twice on each side: Baikal tradition. She shrieked gamely. The fish slapped around laughably in the thin ether.
They stopped for lunch on a tiny beach, all rocks. The fisherman built a fire and chopped the fish for their soup while his little son shored the boat. The harius still had their scales, fins grey now, the rainbow boiled off. She drank only the broth and gave him the meat, grey and felty as a sweatshirt cuff.
She was getting cranky, tiring of the chatter in Russian and wanting the fish smell off her face. It was hard for her to tune people out; she hated to be trapped in a car—or on a boat—without any say in when they stopped. He usually tried not to take her out on trips like that. Her fatigue of other people came on suddenly and sharply, and the frantic look she got when she’d reached her limit made it impossible for him to enjoy himself.
She was always happy to let him go off by himself. He’d rented a bike from the hostel and traveled the perimeter of the island and taken a walk through every arrondissement in Paris while she stayed behind. When he returned from the strenuous, sunny activities, he was always gladder to hear that she had sat outside or gone sightseeing than spent her time in the room, reading. He knew she lied to him sometimes, having himself passed through the areas she had claimed to occupy. He never called her on it. It was a kind of loyalty towards him: she knew he would never fully understand how happy she was in her own custody.
It was different, traveling with a woman—one he had brought with him rather than picked up. He was responsible for bringing her back, making sure she was safe even when he felt like being alone. She would move in with him when they got home; her things were already in storage, her old bed slept in by a subletter.
He knew it was his job, the way it had been to watch over his sister: walking her to school when she was younger and paying a visit to the ex who didn’t get the message. He was fit, not bulky, but tough: he didn’t need much sleep, and he was as quick as he was muscular. There was much on his side, he figured, even in a strange country.
They were sick after the fishing trip, so violently ill even he thought they might not make it. There was no plumbing on the island: the bathrooms were unlit cabinets with a hole in the floor. All night they passed each other on trips to the outhouse or to the stairs, where they vomited into the weeds. Any water he took, he brought up twice.
By morning they were both exhausted, with nothing left in their bodies to expel. He ventured out in the afternoon for real Coke. By evening they could eat a little rice and even bought their minibus tickets back to Irkutsk from the little turistic dome on the corner.
They were slow to wake and grungy the next afternoon, figuring they’d shower in Irkutsk. She ran ahead to the square of dry mud where the buses parked and boarded while he threw all the supplies into the backpack. Someone else tried to push into the seat she’d saved, but she kept covering it, saying, “droogoi…” and making gestures back at the cabin. He raced over, tottering under the weight of the pack, just as the driver was about to make her cede it to a kid with a rat tail.
He had just been off his guard for a minute. Just a minute. He’d fallen asleep on the way and awoke at the rest stop groggy, still tasting the seasoning from the potato chips they’d shared. “Shashlik,” she’d sounded out, picking through her coins.
At the two low-walled, roofless buildings, she took the packet of tissues and disappeared into the line of women. He passed through the men’s side quickly and headed past the store into the open—what was it? Taiga? Tundra? What did you call the empty grasslands in summer? He could see the minibus, still parked, its doors open.
It was nice to be alone for a moment. He was tired just then of having to protect her, to guard that warm furrow, rolled tight as an elephant’s ear inside her skirt. He took some time out in the open field, taking note of the insects and the sounds they made, the stripes on their legs. He would tell her about them when they were on the road again.
After a few more minutes, he made himself turn back. The other passengers were pecking at little packets of chips and stuffed breads that flies kept landing on. She wasn’t in the cluster. He peeked inside the door, expecting to see her reclined with her eyes closed, or reading. She wasn’t there. Neither was the driver or his sidekick.
He rushed over to the space between the low buildings where the sidekick was pacing and smoking. He tried to pass him to the rear of the men’s building to see what he was guarding, and found himself in a shoving match. There was a muffled sound. He called her name roughly, still bouncing the other man off him.
The driver emerged, jogging up to his friend. Together, they managed to pin him to the wall, shouting in rough-accented, beery Russian before throwing him hard against it one last time. The driver picked up the can of Siberian-label sitting on the ground and they shook themselves out, walking slowly towards the clump of passengers. The others hadn’t seemed to notice the scuffle.
He rounded the corner to see her squatting on the dirt slope, skirt gathered in her first. A sound like a bucket being emptied erupted beneath her. He turned, instinctively; they had always agreed about a closed-door policy for the bathroom. When they’d visited each other at home, they turned on the faucet to drown out the sounds.
When the sound fizzled, he turned back to her. She was still crouched, staring out at the vacant land. He ran over and knelt next to her. Her legs were open and he could smell her in the heat, incubated and bacterial as a dog’s yawn.
He rushed the driver again. The other passengers, not knowing or not caring, held him back while the driver pawed the ground and yelled. She stood next to the men who were holding his arms, her eyes on the ground. The driver finally went back around and started up the minibus, sliding his beer can into the cupholder with a click.
The sidekick got close and said something roughly, ending with “Okay!” He let go and backed warily toward the passenger door. A man with a little English translated: “You no make problem, we can go.”
“I’m not getting in there,” she said, throat full of gravel.
He paused. Other buses would stop, maybe tomorrow morning. This one had been the last to leave today. He tried to think logically through the paralyzing duel of adrenaline and shaken-off sleep: they had used most of their cash, there was no ATM here. The next minibus and the next were likely to be full, given the crowds coming off the ferry. He thought of the turned backs of shopkeepers, receptionists, clerks, when the two of them had appeared at the counter with their overpronounced brivet and pazhalsta. He would not be able, even with the phrasebook, to explain what had happened.
The minibus began to move, its door flapping like a broken wing. His passport and hers were inside, along with their bankcards, their guidebooks, their clothes.
He took a running jump inside, falling sideways across their seats.
The van stopped, knocking him onto the floor. He looked out at her.
“Come on,” he said, using his surest voice, the one that would make her follow.
He tried to explain in a hoarse whisper: they would have been stuck in the middle of nowhere, irretrievable by their families or their country. Marooned at the rest stop, they would have been even more vulnerable to the mercies of the inhospitable Siberians. This way, there was at least a chance of reporting the driver to the police, if they could attract an officer when they arrived in Irkutsk.
Frustrated, he jerked his leg and gave the back of the driver’s seat a sharp jab with his knee. The sidekick turned around and gave him a look.
“Oops,” he said, sarcastically.
As they pulled into the station in Irkutsk, he scanned the area for a police car, anyone in a uniform. She jumped out of her seat, bag across her chest, and stalked across the street past the gingerbread houses with the Decembrist plaques, their windows so low they knelt onto the walk. The driver and his sidekick had disappeared behind the station, leaving the luggage to the passengers to sort out. He thought about dropping a match into the gas tank or messing with the ignition. He worked his book of matches from his pocket and weighed them between his fingers. No, he reasoned, there were too many people: he’d get caught or someone innocent would get hurt. He yanked the straps of the backpack and began his encumbered stride after her.
They slept in a hostel that night in a room with eight others. He curled around her in the bottom bunk as she forced headphones deep inside her ears, the music leaking out. She had always hated the sounds of other people’s sleeping, even his.
It was impossible to tell where the water on her face was coming from. When he reached for the wet mesa of her cheek, she jumped a little and swallowed, but lay inert.
Irkutsk was their first step on their way back across that massive continent, whose landscape they had watched from the train windows as it scrolled past flammable villages and flinty rock. They had shared fresh raspberries and bowls of spicy noodles, balancing them carefully on their way back from the samovar. They had been yelled at by the provodnitsa for offenses they could only guessed at and spent the five-hour customs check at Naushki playing cards on the porch of the post office, next to a cow. Anything they might have laughed at was behind them now.
It felt wrong to look at the pictures he had taken of the two superficial, uncomprehending people who had posed by the locomotive at a station stop and under the Candyland turrets of Saint Basil’s. He deleted the ones with either of them in the frame and kept only the ones of landscapes or buildings. He could undo that much.
They needed each other, in some sore, silent way, like veterans who needed to be around others who had been there. He brought her takeout or chocolate or some perishable thing she could outlive, like a flower.
Sometimes he held her. He didn’t know if she would ever be able to do more than that, or with him. He deferred to her in everything, down to her need to pretend it was only he who needed the contact. Sometimes she needed to turn him away. He let her.
He tried, even in his fantasies, not to force himself on the imaginary girls—even to guide them closer. They had to come to him, in their cutaway clothes and impossible heels, like rickety does. He never let himself reach for them until he was sure.
|© 2011, T.M. De Vos|