Hit and Run – 5

Then Lou’s stories simply dried up. Margaret realized she’d need to prompt him to tell her more about his dead twin. Margaret tried to just enjoy Lou, sans shadow, but whatever they discussed would compel her to ask him about the lost brother. At first she was tentative, afraid to raise unhappy memories. But Lou welcomed her questions. Margaret merely had to pose a new query and Lou gladly launched into a lengthy story.

He warmed again to the topic of his dead twin. His confidences became more intimate and rambling, the conversations shifting like sand before Margaret could ask anything further. Joey’s dim, elusive form shimmered renewed with the next conversations.

“How did Joey deal with always being sick?” she asked.

Joe didn’t deal with it. He never adjusted to his death sentence. When he became a teenager, he began to fight back. After enduring a childhood dictated by pills and shots and special foods and what he could and couldn’t do, Lou’s brother went on both a mind improvement and body building kick. It was amazing.

Joey spent his time in the library leafing through every magazine in the school racks. Being weak meant he perused anything to be found in print. The other kids basically left him alone; even the bullies went out of their way to avoid him. Joey was a pariah because kids are even more superstitious than adults. His peers looked at him and were scared just being near someone so sick might make it catching.

His fragilities didn’t stop him from attempting to do what he wanted. Joey was the 90-pound weakling, desiring to recreate himself. Or Arnold Schwarzenegger, wanting to build a perfect body from scratch. Joey never did steroids, though. He was on so many delicately calibrated medications that when Joey got healthy for a short while, a magic period of hope, he refused everything except aspirin.

“Remember the Bazooka Joe bubble gum wrappers?” Lou said. One of them advertised a booklet Joey could send away for, ‘How to transform yourself from a 90 pound weakling into a muscle mass.’ Okay, the booklet was a joke, and Joey recognized the joke immediately, but that booklet was merely the start. He started following more serious bodybuilding manuals. He got hold of an old Air Force exercise booklet, which began with 5 girlie push ups a day, working up to 50-75 real push ups, the ones complete with clapping hands between each push up as you lift off the floor. Joey didn’t actually get that good at them. But, he changed his body. If his limbs still twisted, he managed to gain a significant amount of control over his motor functions. Once he felt as if he had his physical body slightly more in his power, Joey turned next to improving his material environment.

Joey sat in the school library for hours. He hid there during recess and lunch periods, but the sounds of everyone out on the playground came through the open windows. Hearing the sound of other children shrieking was bad, and as Joey listened he tried to imagine it came from children somewhere far away. When he did see them the distance apparent between what they could do and what he could not was too terrible. He would perch at the dark wood of the windowsill, holding himself upright and steady with one hand as he watched. Children in groups skipped ropes, chased balls, played tag. The teacher with recess duty wore a light jacket and an expression of endless weary patience. He or she sometimes called out across the tarmac, “Hey! That’s enough of that, Loreen!”

Unseen and unimportant, from the high window Joey observed when the teacher rushed to the aid of a fallen child or broke up a playground fight. He hated it. Watching reminded him that no one would ever need to run to prevent him from doing something he shouldn’t; watching only reminded him that he couldn’t run.

Joey moved to a table where he could sit with his back to the windows. Determinedly Joey closed his ears to the cries of his peers playing outside the walls and forever beyond his ken.

Eventually Joey made his way through all of the school magazines. He began to take the bus to the public library. After school Joey sat among the adult publications where he felt less excluded. Around him sat members of his home city’s increasing homeless population, noisily turning pages and keeping a careful eye on their oversized bags of belongings. There were a few students, or grown ups coming in to claim the copies of recent novels they had put on hold, and every so often a class of younger children arrived for reading hour. Otherwise though, Joey could feel like he was simply another library user, ageless and without handicaps.

At the school library Joey had pored over National Geographic Kids, Odyssey, Ranger Rick, Highlights for Children, and Boys’ Life. He took that same determination and perused the magazines he imagined his mother and father would each read if their time hadn’t been taken up with his care. This was when he discovered adult magazines with their endless advertisements for write-in contests, coupons to win prizes, and teasers to learn more about great deals. Joey flipped pages hunting for things to win, things to present to his parents. Joey wanted, Lou said thoughtfully, to present them with distractions from the nonrefundable item they’d brought home from the hospital: their youngest son and his damaged body.

NOTES: ©Jadi Campbell 2012. “Hit and Run” is the first chapter of my book Broken In: A Novel in Stories.  This story will run all month. Broken In and my other novels are available at Amazon as paperbacks and eBooks.

Click here for my author page to purchase my books.

 

Hit and Run – 4

Lou became a different person when he talked about his dead brother. Each time he mentioned Joey’s name Lou’s own plain, pleasant face would animate. It was as if a locked cabinet door suddenly swung open, each time letting out bright treasures long stacked up and locked away for safekeeping.

Margaret learned not to interrupt the flow of memories; when she asked too many questions the stories might derail. Plus Lou tossed out medical terms that meant nothing to her. She had no idea he knew so much about medicine and genetic diseases.

She preferred the details about what his days with Joey had been like. “We’d sit on an old couch in the rec room and watch TV,” Lou recalled, and it took shape as he spoke. It was yellow and brown plaid and really ugly. Mrs. Bocci had covered it with a clashing afghan, luckily out of sight down in the remodeled cellar. Lou and Joey watched television down there in the darkened room, drinking cokes and eating candy bars. Or Lou did; Joey had to avoid sugar as his parents and medical team tried successive diet regimes to control his myriad conditions.

Lou and Joey were exactly the same height, and they had the same features. The boys were monozygotic, what they call identical twins. They were truly identical. Only 8% of twins are monozygotic, and double births like Lou and Joey make up only 3 in every 1,000 deliveries worldwide, regardless of race. The chances of a fertilization ending in monozygotic twins are the same, for every population everywhere, all around the world.

Lou’s voice took on a slightly lecturing tone as he recited each fact about Joey and his life. Margaret ate them up. The more facts he imparted the smarter she became, both about the topic of twins and about her boyfriend. With fraternal twins, Lou told her, the most frequent occurrence is brother/sister births. In identical or monozygotic twins, brother/brother births are the rarest births of all.

When the boys were out together in public it was more than obvious something was wrong. Clearly Joe was confined to a wheelchair or needed to use a cane to walk. If the viewer didn’t see the handicaps, though, Joey and Lou were identical. Without the cane or braces in plain sight, it was only when Joey coughed that someone could identify which twin was which.

As they aged they would likely become more alike, with the same IQ and personality. How twins are brought up, whether in the same house or separated at birth – that factor makes surprisingly little difference. Of course, the fact that Joey was born with congenital defects complicated the math equation for the prediction. But the boys loved being twins; it was cool. Because of his brother, because of Joey, Lou was automatically special. While Joey was still alive, Lou stopped wanting to be an astronaut. For a time he wanted to go into genetic research.

Margaret went home each evening to sleep that was attended by strange dreams. Cells replicated in her dreams, forming up on the left into a perfectly regular human shape. On the opposite side, a tragically beautiful über-human took form. The gestalt was unquestionably male. But then the contour of the image blurred and curled at the edges, unable to hold his ideal form.

She woke up thinking about Lou and his frail, pale double.

Margaret began looking at Lou with different eyes. He simply wasn’t the same person as before. Lou hadn’t changed, of course, but his past and the absent twinned half that had been tragically cut down by illness, the part of him inexorably gone was the part Margaret found mysterious. The lost duplicate cells were of endless fascination for her.

In the hours between dates with Lou, Margaret daydreamed about her lover. How many other seemingly ordinary men and women might there be in the world, persons who seemed so common on the outside, all of them with their secrets and old tragedies. How many people had strange cloned or parallel universe doubles, tragically vanished and never to be retrieved? Maybe, she mused, maybe we all have doubles we sense on some strange level, and we mourn them without ever realizing it. When we talk about the search to find your soul mate, maybe what we really mean is your other half, the part you lost in some earlier life. And when you meet again in the current incarnation, you come together to be whole without even recognizing it’s happened. It’s just your missing twin, whom you’ve refound.

She scoffed at herself for such fanciful notions, but Margaret was a little bit envious of her boyfriend’s past history. Strangely, his incompleteness made him whole. Lou wasn’t a decent guy with a good if boring career. He was somehow so much more than the sum of his parts, both those existing and the ones that had vanished. Or maybe especially those parts that were dead. Not only did Margaret observe Lou with new eyes; she really saw him for the first time. Margaret began to fall in love.

Margaret started to observe everyone around her in terms of what didn’t show. For the first time in her working life she paid attention to office gossip. She filled in the blanks of inferences, the hushed stories of office affairs and scandals. A sales representative reported his company car had been stolen, and Margaret listened avidly to the delighted gossips whispering the Chrysler had last been seen parked a few blocks from the train station… back by bars that advertised pole dancing. More ominously, the car was reported as found on a corner reputedly trafficked by transvestites.

When a man in the neighboring business office was fired, Margaret listened just as avidly as the same delighted gossips repeated the rumor he’d been caught with his hand in the pocket of someone’s jacket in the coat closet. Weirdly, the story was that he only wanted the ring the person’s keys were on and hadn’t intended to steal the keys at all.

She wasn’t developing an appetite for gossip. In a strange way, it was the opposite of gossip: what Margaret experienced was a genuine curiosity about other people and the sides of their lives that weren’t apparent. She was learning to care about the quiet inner lives of the people she sat beside in the office or passed on the streets every day.

Margaret paid more attention to her sisters, too. On the next walk around Scupper Lake, she really listened as Lila alluded to an argument with Margaret’s brother-in-law Claude. “We always end up in the same disagreement, his needs versus mine, and where it’s all going.”

Ginny rushed to comfort Lila. “You have to make a decision at some point,” she said gently. “This has been going on forever.”

Margaret stopped dead in the middle of the lake path. She grabbed Lila and hugged her sister close despite the weights. “I am so, so sorry! I’m so caught up in my own trips that I just always assume you and Claude have to be doing fine! I haven’t been a very good listener.” Ashamed, Margaret realized she did all the talking. Their walks around the lake had turned into opportunities she used to muse about Joey, ever since she’d finally told her sisters about him.

But her sisters had noticed that she was paying more attention to their lives, too. “We’re mostly doing just fine,” they reassured her. “So, tell us the latest on Joey!”

NOTES: ©Jadi Campbell 2012. “Hit and Run” is the first chapter of my book Broken In: A Novel in Stories.  This story will run all month. Broken In and my other novels are available at Amazon as paperbacks and eBooks.

Click here for my author page to purchase my books.

 

Hit and Run – 3

Margaret looked at Lou and tried to imagine an identical twin. Lou was solid: 5’10” with dark hair on a high forehead. Perhaps the openness of his face was from skin’s slow advance under a receding hairline; Margaret wasn’t sure. His best features were his biceps, unfortunately hidden most of the time beneath the white shirts he always wore to the office. Each time she saw his bare torso she was surprised anew.

Lou kissed well and he was an intelligent lover. The sex was good, the rhythms of possibly being a couple comfortable. They were reasonably well matched.

Their relationship had hit the point where she knew everything obvious about the man. Margaret knew the cliché: You don’t really know someone until you’ve been a dedicated couple for years and gone through life’s trials together. Blah, blah, blah. But after the first few months Margaret wondered if he were clever enough to hold her interest when they had their clothes on. The afternoon Lou confided in her that he had a dead brother in his past, and a twin at that, Margaret’s flagging interests revived.

Margaret tried to express this to her sisters when they met to walk around Scupper Lake. It was an easy route, and once they were under way they would talk, gossiping and trading stories. Lila had established the walks around the lake after she quit her gym. “Too much picking up going on there,” was all she’d said. Lila was really determined this time to lose the extra thirty pounds. If her sisters began going with her out of sororal solidarity, all three of them had come to look forward to getting together twice a week.

“You guys, Lou was getting a little boring.” Margaret unconsciously sped up with the admission. Her stride was the longest of the three of them, and her slower sisters had to walk faster.

“Slow down,” they commanded. “Are you dropping him?”

“I don’t know.” Margaret slowed down a little, her face with its pointy features closed as she thought about how to explain it. “There’s something about the process of getting to know another person that’s depressing. It’s always the same. You meet at a party or in a disco, or get introduced by friends.”

“That’s just normal. How else would you meet?” Lila asked.

Margaret went on undeterred. “Here’s the experience you go through. First,” she said, “you eye the packaging. Height, check. Weight, check. Body mass proportional to the first two items, check. Reasonable intelligence? Does your date make the effort to appear witty and ease with you and the others sitting at the table? Check, check, and check.

“A potential lover needs to register on the all-important eroto-barometer. If your arm hairs don’t tingle ever so slightly as he or she brushes by, hopefully just ever so slightly closer than is absolutely necessary, forget it.

“So there you are, in potential relationship territory. Taking it slow or plunging ahead. In either case you keep that mental shopping list close to your chest by your heart, surveying the items. Every so often you tick another off the list. A couple months into this your knowledge of the other person moves beyond the superficial attributes without which you don’t even consider someone as a partner, and you reach the Dead Zone.

“That’s when the hook enters the picture. A big hook, you know, like the one in old comedy routines? It reaches across the stage and drags off your luckless swain as the curtain drops on the relationship. Or, the hook lands in you. The hook gets in under your skin, tugging you in closer. Something’s become so intriguing or comfortable – or both – that you stick around to see what other tricks this magician’s hiding up his sleeves, what new rabbit she might pull next out of that big top hat.”

Margaret realized her sisters were staring.

“My God, are you blushing?” asked Ginny. Margaret had actually turned red, nonplussed by her own eloquence.

“Didn’t you say he’s a good lover? Is he good in bed? If he’s boring and bad in bed, dump him!” Lila carried hand weights and they swung rhythmically from side to side with her comment; her sisters kept a measured distance away from her arms.

“Keep him as a boy toy.” Ginny, the youngest sister, the peacemaker, was more diplomatic.

“Well,” Margaret qualified, “Lou is starting to talk about his family. And man, is he ever full of surprises!”

“Like what?” her sisters exclaimed at the exact same time.

Lila added, “I thought you knew everything already.”

Ginny added, “Two sisters, both a lot older, one in Washington State and the other up in Maine? And his parents live in a Sun City condo in Arizona, right?”

Lila stared at Ginny as the three walked on. “How can you remember all that?” she asked. “Do you go home afterward from these walks and write everything down?”

“You said you feel like you guys make a nice looking couple, brunette and blond, yin and yang, right?” Ginny persisted, ignoring Lila. “Did he say something to change things?”

“He was yin and yang with someone else first,” Margaret started to say, and abruptly she stopped. She wanted to keep Lou’s deceased twin a secret for herself just a little longer. “Ask me later,” Margaret stalled. “I don’t know yet if it’s worth reporting back.”

Margaret’s sisters observed her with looks that meant, We know you’re holding out on us. Lila laughed and Ginny said, “Sure, Sis. Just keep us posted when you’re ready to talk about it!”

NOTES: ©Jadi Campbell 2012. “Hit and Run” is the first chapter of my book Broken In: A Novel in Stories.  This story will run all month. Broken In and my other novels are available at Amazon as paperbacks and eBooks.

Click here for my author page to purchase my books.

 

Hit and Run – 2

A few nights later she sat on the nubby brown couch at Lou’s apartment. They had eaten a mediocre pizza and watched a movie to match, set in a future containing a wooden Keanu Reeves. Margaret slid the DVD back into its case and yawned.

“You know, Joe loved science fiction.”

At the sound of the twin’s name Margaret suddenly resembled a house pet, a cat or dog with ears perking up. Lou hadn’t mentioned him again since that Saturday afternoon in the coffee shop, and she’d been trying to think of a way to reintroduce the subject.

“Is that how you ended up watching so much Star Trek?”

Lou nodded and crammed the last piece of pizza into his mouth. She held her breath and waited. Then, in a posthumous portrait of words as his surviving brother spoke, Joey began to take form.

Sickly children either become television addicts or they are voracious readers; Joey was both. Joey read the Dune series over and over and over, loving the complex mythology and the idea of using will power to rule others, and oneself. His favorite quote was how fear is the little death. Despite his fragility, Joey’s whole existence was a total lack of fear of death.

He hated his disabilities, and avoided mirrors. But he loved anything to do with Star Trek. What he found so inspiring was the idea of a future society where beings with all sorts of handicaps or differences still had their places and their strengths.

When the boys were still little, Joey became a connoisseur of serial television. The amount of time Joey could go out and play was limited. Sometimes Lou watched old series on television with him during the afternoons. Outer Limits, The Twilight Zone, Star Trek and Lost in Space were their particular favorites. Margaret had been a closet fan of most of those shows all her life. Hearing how Joey cajoled his twin Lou into watching the shows, and then turned him into a follower of them, was fun.

One afternoon, Lou told her, the television show credits had begun rolling down the screen. In the green glow of the darkened cellar room Joey looked over to where his brother slouched and methodically cracked peanut shells.

“Sometimes I get this feeling,” Joey said quietly.

“What’s that?” his brother mumbled, his mouth full of peanuts.

“Like I have a hit and run life.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“A couple different things.” Joey kept looking at Lou until he was convinced he had his brother’s full attention. “I get born into this cool world, but I can’t run, or play ball, or even walk right. My life is a hit and run accident. First the accident happened (my birth) and afterwards life left me behind at the scene of the crash to deal with it.

“Or maybe the whole point of it is, it’s like I was always meant to deal with it. That I have to get up and run, even after being hit. Make the best of things.”

Lou swallowed the last of the nuts. “Maybe there’s a third option,” he objected. “Do you ever stop to think that maybe it’s the same for everyone? All of us live in a random universe, where every day totally random stuff happens. Good or bad, it’s always a surprise.” Lou sat up and leaned over the messy, scarred table to emphasize his words. “Maybe,” he went on slowly as he thought it through, “maybe it can be positive. Good stuff happening. Hits like hit songs or movies, runs like home runs and a player’s lucky streak.”

“Maybe,” Joey said. “But not for most of us. And not me, that’s for sure. My hit and run life is the version that occurred on the back road in the middle of the night. The next morning there I was, lying by the side of the road.

“But I know what you’re saying.” Generously Joey added, “I guess I’ve been trying ever since to turn it into the hit and run version you mean.”

NOTES: ©Jadi Campbell 2012. “Hit and Run” is the first chapter of my book Broken In: A Novel in Stories.  This story will run all month. Broken In and my other novels are available at Amazon as paperbacks and eBooks.

Click here for my author page to purchase my books.

 

Hit and Run – 1

It was almost a year before Lou mentioned his brother. “You already know all the details about me, Margaret,” he repeated flatly. “The most unusual thing about me is that in Italian my last name means lawn bowling.”

Margaret composed a mental grocery list as she listened. In Italian… Italian food. Ground meat, ricotta cheese, maybe lasagna?

“Now, my twin, he was extraordinary.”

With that comment her attention snapped back. “What did you say? I didn’t know you had a brother! I thought you just had two sisters who were a lot older. And I sure didn’t know about a twin. How come you never told me you have a twin?” Margaret stared at him, astonished.

“Had,” Lou corrected her, and shrugged. “Had. What is there to say? His name was Joe. Joey. He lived, he died. He’s gone, I’m here. Although I wonder sometimes what it would have been like the other way around.”

Margaret felt she was viewing something she took for granted for the thousandth time, an inanimate object, and it suddenly winked at her. “What’s that supposed to mean, the other way around? What was he like?” she prompted, intensely curious.

Lou looked away into the distance for a minute before he eyed her sideways, considering whether or not to talk about his brother. Finally he came out with, “Joe was great. He was born 25 minutes after me, but that was the only time I did anything ahead of him. We were yin and yang.”

They sat with their coffees in the café as Margaret waited for him to go on.

“My twin, who died,” Lou said with difficulty, “was a great guy. Much more fun than I was. Am.” Lou sat on a straight-backed café chair with his left leg crossed over the right, his foot tapping up and down ever so slightly. “We were what they call change of life babies. By the time we came along, both my sisters were almost out of the house already. I remember them taking care of me when I was a really little boy. They helped my parents a lot, to prepare them for the time after both my sisters left to go lead adult lives.
“But my brother,” Lou went on slowly, “Joey almost didn’t get born.”

He stopped talking and Margaret knew he was revisiting old pain, hesitant to open up a new aspect of himself (his brother, she amended as she waited) to review. Margaret carefully nodded to show she was listening and wanted to hear more.

Finally Lou went on. “I was born first, an easy delivery, but Joe was turned sideways or something.”

“He was a breach birth?”

Lou was annoyed at the interruption. “Breach. Right. Whatever. I was only 25 minutes old, so I don’t remember the details. Anyway, they had to do a Caesarean on my mother.”

“Don’t hospitals automatically do those for multiple births?” Margaret kept interrupting the flow of Lou’s story, but she couldn’t help herself.

“Damn it, Jim, I’m an office manager, not a doctor!” Lou grinned.

“Sorry,” she said contritely. “I promise, no more interruptions. Tell me about Joe!”

Joey was the youngest Bocci child by 25 minutes. He had a difficult birth but was an easy child. Joey was sweet natured from the moment he entered the world. Lou was a normal boy, engaging in activities such as Little League or pick up kickball games in the park. Lou liked stories about astronauts and wanted to be one when he grew up. Joey, though, was fragile.

For the most part, their parents left Lou on his own. He had friends and did passably well in school. They didn’t need to worry about him, and that meant they could concentrate on Joey.

Joey spent much of his own childhood at doctors’ offices or in the children’s ward at the hospital. It was impossible to pinpoint what was wrong with Joey’s body. Each new medical team identified new problems; each specialty branch of medicine claimed a piece of the little boy. Congenital disorders, the original hospital report stated.

“Congenital disorders. What a term!” Lou stood up. It was the signal it was time to go, and disappointed, Margaret trailed him to the front door of the coffee house.

NOTES: ©Jadi Campbell 2012. “Hit and Run” is the first chapter of my book Broken In: A Novel in Stories.  This story will run all month. Broken In and my other novels are available at Amazon as paperbacks and eBooks.

Click here for my author page to purchase my books.

Death On A Wet Road Between Towns Without Names

Gabe was grateful that in all the years of his travels, no one had ever thought to inquire, “What’s the worst experience you ever had traveling? What’s the worst thing you ever witnessed?” The day he spent being witness outside of Krakow, Poland in the Auschwitz concentration camp was a terrible experience he never wanted to repeat. The atrocities humans committed against one another was beyond comprehension. And it wasn’t ancient history. It had happened in his parents’ lifetimes.

He could never understand the racism that had been involved. What could there possibly be in an identity or religion that would make someone want to wipe out an entire people? It was inconceivable to him, and he sent up a fervent thank you to whatever gods might be listening that this was so. No! There were some things he didn’t ever want to understand. Auschwitz broke his heart. Gabe cried his first adult tears sitting on a cold bench in front of an execution wall.

Sometimes for his month of travel he headed to the heat. He always had a loose theme to the four weeks, and one year it was ancient lost cultures. Mexico96_107He traveled through a region where jungle archaeologists were reclaiming entire cities from the undergrowth.

DS1_1297Gabe got up early and caught the local bus. He spent happy hours at the site, with satisfaction doing what he’d come to call connecting some of the dots. If the world were a large puzzle, a Pointillism painting, Gabe’s slow explorations gave him more of the pieces to the puzzle, more and more of the dots in which a picture was slowly emerging.

That day he made further connections in terms of ancient civilization, art history, and cultural contexts. Gabe was overly pleased with himself. He decided not to wait for the next bus to rumble past the ruins. DS1_1310Mexico96_119Ignoring the rain clouds threatening the skies, he began the long walk back to his hotel in town.

Twenty minutes later Gabe knew he’d miscalculated badly. The rain clouds blew lower and closer in no time. At the halfway point, the storm broke. Gabe would get soaked if he kept on the road and equally as drenched if he tried to turn back to the bus shelter at the entrance road to the ruins. He pulled his rain jacket (a marvel that rolled up upon itself into a small ball with a carrying band) out of his little daypack and went on trudging, shaking his head at his own foolish optimism.

Potholes filled first, creating wet craters. Gabe got closer to town and the traffic increased, the wheels of old cars and carts churning the rest of the street into ruts. In less than ten minutes the single dirt road turned to roiling mud. It rained even harder, hard drops that fell in steady, monotonous sheets. Gabe moved over closer to the shoulder away from the biggest vehicles. He had to share the edge of the muddy street with other people on foot, vendors pushing carts covered with folds of plastic cloths or sheets of cardboard, and bicycles and motorbikes.

The rest of the traffic converged in the center of the street, trying to find spots that hadn’t yet vanished into a river of wet earth. A motorbike with a family on the back passed Gabe. The father drove slowly, trying to keep the bike from tilting over into the stream. His wife sat behind him with her arms around and underneath the clear plastic rain poncho her husband wore; a small boy perched, balanced in the seat behind her. He was wedged between the woman and the sacks of potatoes and peppers lashed to the rear of the motorbike.

There was a blare of arguing horns and out of the storm a jeep appeared. Sheets of rain obscured the view. The jeep driver headed alarmingly fast down the direct center of the road, his horn louder as the jeep got closer. When it was near enough people could see it was a government vehicle, and everyone moved over to the sides of the road to let it by.

Before anyone could grasp the danger the jeep was upon them. The driver kept one hand pressed on the horn as people scrambled in the mud. Gabe watched in horror as the motorbike with the family hit a pothole. The father put out a frantic foot trying to brake, but it was too late. The motorbike went over on its side. His body disappeared under water and the jeep ran over his leg.

People screamed for the jeep to stop but it never even slowed down; the driver now had both hands jammed on the horn and his foot on the gas pedal. He continued determinedly on down through the river of mud. Gabe could reach out and touch the bumper as it rushed by, it was so close.

The jeep was swallowed up in the sheets of rain and only the victims and witnesses remained. The jeep hadn’t carried any license plates and even if he had seen one Gabe was kilometers away from a police station. Who was he going to report to? All he could do was try to help the man who’d been run over. At least it had only been his booted foot, and that had been down in the pothole; maybe the man wasn’t hurt too badly.

Gabe turned back to the sodden street as rain rushed down his face and over his rain slicker. Through the damp he saw the fallen figures. The blare of the jeep horn faded, and a human voice’s wail began to compete with the sound of the waters crashing from the opened skies. Other voices joined the first one.

The traffic swerved around the center where people had gathered in a loose circle. Gabe moved closer and the driver dragged himself away from the fallen motorcycle. The man was limping, but he was up on his feet.

The motorcycle was already half buried by mud washing up over and against the frame in fast moving spurts; the bags lashed to the back of the bike had broken open. Lumps that had to be potatoes lay in the stream, some of them slowly rolling away in the force of the moving rainwater.

But the pair ignored the tubers and didn’t try to gather them back up. They huddled over another one of the sacks in the road as they wailed. Gabe tried futilely to push the water from his eyes. He shook his head to clear it, and then he saw the injured man and his wife were sitting in the mud as they held the body of their son. He lay like a broken toy, like a rag doll, small limp limbs dangling from his parents’ cradling hands.

The circle of people standing around them gently lifted the couple and half carried, half walked them over to the useless safety of the field at the side of the road. Gabe bodily lifted the damaged motorbike and carried it out of the street. Determinedly everyone moved back in the river that had been a road and collected potatoes. They ignored the blares of cars trying to navigate around them. They picked up the last of potatoes and the burst sack and returned them to the hapless parents.

Gabe thought, Where’s the nearest hospital? His next thought was the sad realization that a local hospital was probably located next to the nearest police station: a hundred kilometers away in the next city. A clinic, he thought desperately. But the country had no money for health services, and only Bread for the World and Doctors without Borders had any kind of a presence in the region. Gabe couldn’t speak any of the local languages and he had no training in anything more than the most rudimentary medicine.

Despairing, knowing there was nothing more he could do to help, Gabe resumed the harder trudge back towards the center.

Alone back in his hotel room, he drank to get blind drunk. Whether his eyes were opened or closed he saw the broken doll body of the undernourished child, the grief on the faces of the child’s parents. Worst of all was realizing his own helplessness to do anything whatsoever. There was nothing he could have done that afternoon to change the outcome and nothing he could do now. Gabe cried, for the first time since the visit to Auschwitz years earlier. They were bitter tears that refused to stop coming. Gabe was as unable to halt them as he was to halt the rains still falling outside of his room in the shabby hotel.

No one ever asked him, What’s the worst thing you’ve ever seen traveling? Gabe knew it was the rainy day, the motorbike with a family riding on the back. What’s the worst thing you’ve ever seen traveling? If asked he wouldn’t have answered, because he carried the pain of that memory too close to his heart. It stayed alive and refused to fade. The worst thing he ever witnessed remained dangerously in real time, on a wet road between towns without names. It created a place of secret despair and awareness that the world was not a place of entirely benevolent forces.

It became his most closely held secret. Despite the sad knowledge, or perhaps because of it, Gabe determined to live as if the opposite might be true. That experience was seminal, one that defined who he was as a human being, in the inner place where his heart really beat.DS1_1367

– from my short story “Waiting” in Broken In: A Novel in Stories. Available online at amazon.com, amazon.de, and amazon in countries everywhere.

Go to my earlier post 2,000,000 Wrinkle-lipped Bats for more of Gabe’s travels.

(All photogaphs can be enlarged by simply clicking on the image.)

More pictures from our trips to Mexico and Cambodia, and of Uwe’s photography, may be viewed at viewpics.de.