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Bus Ride
by Roy Kesey

 

"From Zagreb to Split there are no more trains." The stout woman behind the glass scribs out her cigarette in a square brass ashtray and runs a surprisingly long-fingered hand through her hair. "Because of the bombings." She takes a fresh pack from under the counter, tears it open, taps out a cigarette, lights it. "Only buses, and they must take the small roads." She blows a dull streamer of smoke toward the ceiling, and watches it hang. "From here to the sea is now a very long trip."

I look down at my hands. They are bright with sweat, and seem thicker and heavier than they should be. My pack is full of wool sweaters and thermal underwear, but the October weather Iíd expected is somewhere else, somewhere very far away: itís too hot to breathe outside the station, not much cooler here inside, and there are no more trains to Split.

"I see. Can you tell me where the bus station is?"

"Out the doors, to the right. Five kilometers."

I thank her, load myself like a burro--backpack in back, knapsack in front, guitar case in my left hand for now--and walk out the doors. I wait for a taxi or bus to pass by. None do. Finally I turn right and start walking. Heat fills the air like water. From up ahead comes the salt-stink of rotting fish.

I make it only three or four blocks before stopping in front of an outdoor market and pulling out a bandanna to wipe the sweat off my face and neck. Two children are sitting on the ground, drawing circles in the dust; behind them is a three-legged table where flies crawl over chunks of raw lamb. I tuck the bandanna away.

The children have stopped playing to look at me. I give them what feels like a smile, unzip the knapsackís outermost pocket, and dredge for the tin of lemon drops I bought in Lyon. I find it and get it open. The sugar that once coated the candy has melted into shimmering grease. I hold the lemon drops out. The children just stare.

My portfolio list calls for pictures of children in war-damage, but here there are no visible signs of war, and these two kids are not particularly photogenic. What can I use them to show? It is not clear, and there is a faint twisting deep in my stomach, not the familiar old ache but a foulness rising up into my throat. I fight it back down and the twisting subsides. I wonder where it came from, and whether it will come again.

An hour or so later Iím at the bus station, and there is no one at the ticket counter. At a kiosk in the lobby I exchange a hundred dollars for a thick stack of oddly colored bills, set my things on the floor beside a row of plastic chairs, and sit down. After a spate of empty staring I take the guitar out of its case, tune it and begin to play. The music drifts like smoke in the air until a string breaks, lashing me across the cheek. I put the guitar back in its case and check my face for blood, but my hand comes away clean.

A newspaper, its headlines obscured by boot-prints, is lying a few feet away on the floor. I know I wonít understand anything it says, and bend to pick it up anyway. On the back page are pictures of men I assume to be recent war-dead, teen-agers for the most part; one of them looks a little like I seem to remember looking at one time.

As I let the paper slip back to the floor I notice an old man walking toward me, rubbing his hands together. Ten feet away he stops to look at me, at the ground just in front of me, at the air halfway between us. His hands are still working, still cleaning. Abruptly the rubbing quiets, and he walks over to sit next to me. He strokes my backpack as if it were a small deer and shies away when he sees the guitar case.

I offer him a cigarette.

He takes it and asks, "Kako se zoveö?"

I hold out my lighter, thinking maybe thatís the answer. The old man lights his cigarette, hands the lighter back and asks his question again. I smile and shrug.

This angers him, and he stands and begins yelling the question, as if me knowing the answer would save him from something. I look around, but no one is paying us any attention, and finally I remember my phrase book. I open my knapsack, pull out my camera bag, set it on the cracked base of the seat beside me and start rooting through the rest of the detritus. I find the book and leaf through it as quickly as I can, but by the time I locate the question the old man has walked away.

"Roland," I call. "Ja se zovem Roland King."

He doesnít turn back around.

A taxi pulls up to the door and a short, thick-legged woman gets out and walks into the station. She looks improbably familiar, and after a moment I realize that she is the woman from the ticket booth at the train station. She stops to brush something invisible from the lapel of her blouse, and takes her place behind the counter.

I start reloading my knapsack, but something feels wrong. Things donít weigh as much as they should. I open my camera bag, paw through it, and at last I understand: my new Nikon is here but my back-up Pentax is not, and suddenly I can picture the missing camera taped up in bubble-wrap and moleskin, sitting on my kitchen table--Iíd wanted one last cup of coffee before leaving to catch my train.

I say several things to myself, none of them nice; I close the camera bag, stuff it in my knapsack, and weigh myself down for the trip to the counter.

"Hello again," I say.

The woman from the train station says nothing. She counts the money carefully, slides a one-way ticket to Split through the opening in the glass. I ask when the bus will be leaving.

ďČetiri,Ē says the woman. ďFour oíclock.Ē She looks at her watch. ďTwelve minutes more.Ē

The bus arrives and the driver takes his time lighting a cigar. He slings my pack into a baggage compartment, turns and reaches for my guitar. I hand him my ticket instead. He looks at it, shrugs, and hands it back.

I climb aboard, find my place, and set my guitar and knapsack in the seat beside me. Coming onto the bus now are soldiers in dusty fatigues, sunburned faces that maybe havenít ever been young. One looks at my guitar case in passing, and then he looks at me, and the difference between my guitar and his rifle is the distance between us.

The bus drags itself out of the station. The soldiers fill the air with cigarette smoke. For the next hour I alternate between mouthing random words from my phrasebook and searching out the window for things to photograph. The road curls and cuts, west and south, village after village. The heat seeps into my lungs, makes my chest heavy and slow. I slump in my seat. The noise of the engine is a low ache, a faraway gnashing of teeth.

#

There is a jolt and a shuffling, and I wake. The bus has stopped. The soldiers are standing, stretching, walking down the stairs and out into the furrowed sunlight. I pick up my knapsack and guitar and carry them off of the bus, and in front of me rest the remains of a building, a mound of brick and charred beams.

A few feet away is a plywood kiosk, its counter lined with wristwatches and soap, and behind the kiosk is an empty bench. I take a map from my knapsack, spread it out on the bench and kneel in front of it, light a cigarette and trace the highway down from Zagreb. Karlovac. Yes, I saw that on the bus schedule. We could very well be in Karlovac.

A shadow darkens my map, and I look up. Standing over me is a soldier, older and paler than the others, perhaps in his fifties. A thin scar splits his mottled face lengthwise, running from below his right eye down into his thick brown mustache, beginning again in his bottom lip, slipping down to the point of his chin.

He squats in front of the map as if it were a campfire and asks, "What is the gun?"

"What gun?"

The man points at my guitar case.

"Itís just a guitar," I say, and when itís clear that he doesnít believe me I open the case. The broken string springs out and the soldierís hand goes to his pistol. He grins, lifts the loose end and studies it.

"Broken," he says.

"Yes."

He takes the guitar out. "And heavy."

"Not really," I say, though of course it is, and getting heavier each time I have to lift it.

"What good is a guitar for a war?" he asks as he hands it back to me.

"Not very much, I guess."

The man thinks for a moment. "Perhaps none. Perhaps very much." The left half of his face smiles. "Perhaps at the next war we will all bring guitars and use them for clubs and kill each other this way." He laughs, and I wonder what the right response would be.

"Do you play?" I ask finally.

"Guitar? No. I was playing piano when I was very young, but never guitar. You are American?"

"Yes."

"Why are you here?"

I am now not quite sure. "Friends," I mumble, and make a friend-shaped gesture. "Vacation."

"For vacation you come to a war?"

I clear my throat. "What part of Croatia are you from?"

"I am from Germany."

I nod as if that explains everything and offer him a cigarette, feeling like the Johnny Appleseed of tobacco products. Johnny Cancer.

The man refuses almost angrily. "Why do you buy these cigarettes from stores? Foolish. It is better to make your own." From a breast pocket he pulls an envelope full of tobacco and a packet of rolling papers.

The bus-driver walks past us, still working his cigar. "We are going now," says the soldier. "I show you inside."

We all climb back into the bus. I put my guitar in the overhead rack and sit down with my knapsack in my lap. The German sits beside me, fills a paper with tobacco, and begins rolling it back and forth between his fingers.

"More than you need," he says. "Always more than you need, and press it tight but not too much tight." He licks the edge of the paper, rolls it closed and hands it to me. "Better than from the store."

I thank him and light it as he rolls another.

"The town where we just stopped, was that Karlovac?"

"No. That was what is left of Karlovac." He accepts a light and sits back, eyes closed.

I return to the window, my map tucked under one leg, checking it each time we come to a new village. Duga Resa, Gornji Zvečaj, Zdenac. Shattered roof tiles cover the ground like shale.

The manís eyes flutter back open. He turns to me and asks, "What do you do to live?"

"Iím a photographer."

"A photographer of what?"

I lean back against the window and look up at the shuddering ceiling, trying to figure out which of all possible answers would sound least ridiculous to a soldier.

"I used to take pictures of jewelry."

The German looks vaguely baffled, then nods sharply and smiles. "Like Eisenstaedt!"

"Kind of. Only smaller."

He laughs. "That is a good thing. Better than fighting. And now?"

I cough briefly. "Now Iím a war photographer."

The soldier stares at me without speaking; he doesnít believe me or doesnít approve, and Iím not sure which would be worse. I look out the window as the bus pulls to a stop beside a pair of houses whose roofs have been beaten into small scattered pieces. Ahead there is a single oak, its branches reaching into the road. There is no bus stop, no one waiting to board. It is not at all clear why we have stopped.

The bus edges forward and the oak scrapes against the side. When we stop again a low pair of branches is framing my view of the lobotomized houses. I can still feel the German staring at me, which may or may not explain what happens next: how often we must live up to our lies. I unzip my knapsack and the camera bag inside, pull out the Nikon and slide the window open. The houses look back at me blankly. I fiddle for a moment, f-stop and focus, and snap a quick couple of pictures.

"Why do you do this?" asks the German. "Why take photographs of broken things?"

"Itís my job." I slip the 50mm lens out of the camera and jam a telephoto into place.

"But you said this was your vacation."

I shrug, lean out the window, stretch to break off a twig that intrudes just into the picture frame, and suddenly the bus lurches forward and the tree is clawing at my face; as I haul myself back in, the camera strap catches on a branch and the Nikon is ripped from my hands.

The German is laughing so hard he canít keep his eyes open.

"Stop!" I shout, as much at him as at the driver. Both of them ignore me. We are well away from the tree now, picking up speed, and I stick my head back out the window. The camera is hanging from the treeís lowest branch, swaying like an empty birdfeeder.

I hunch back into the bus. The German is no longer laughing. "No one will stop the bus now," he says. "There are snipers here. Why do you think we go so fast?"

I want to punch him, but realize that if I do he will punch me back. I slump in my seat. "You donít understand," I say. "Son of a bitch."

The German takes out his packet of tobacco and rolls another pair of cigarettes.

"Iím sorry," he says as he hands me one. "But there are some things that it does not help to take pictures of."

He stares at me, trying to make sure I have understood. Then he lights both of our cigarettes and leans back. "Even if you get off at the next stop you must wait for a bus to bring you back here. That bus will not stop either, so you will have many miles of walking. The camera will be gone and the snipers will be waiting."

He closes his eyes, and I dab at the scratches on my face. I donít have anywhere near enough money to buy another camera. So much for photojournalism.

The Germanís eyes are still closed. His cigarette is almost gone, and ashes litter his uniform. Then the coal burns into his bottom lip and he wakes shouting, spitting the heat away. I back against my armrest. He presses his hand tightly to his mouth and looks at his fingers carefully, studying the spittle like tea leaves.

He laughs, holds out his hand for me to see. "Do you know what this pain is?" he asks.

I shake my head, shrinking slightly farther away, my shoulder blades pressed into the hot aluminum of the bus wall.

"This is paying for what you do not have. It doesnít matter if there is rain or if there is sun as now, pain doesnít go away. It is now that the men put vinegar in the sponge and lift it to you, and the pain doesnít go away."

I look around. The other soldiers are asleep or staring straight ahead.

"Do you understand?" asks the German.

"Not really."

"You will."

The road is steeper and narrower now, and the sun is gone. I watch the sky darken, think about my Nikon, put all the swear-words I know into a single sentence and repeat it like a mantra as I beat my head lightly against the seat in front of me. The German is silent, checking his burnt lip happily from time to time. I close my eyes, open them again, and the bus passes a pair of tanks, massive fists of metal under a web of camouflage netting.

The German sees them too. "No good," he says. "Too heavy for working in mountains." He yawns. "But they are what we have."

The hills fall suddenly back and there is the sea, alive and glowing. The sky is a slow confusion of color. I feel something lift out of my head. The bus follows the coast southeast, the bruised cliffs on one side and the graying sky on the other.

Outside of Senj the bus stops at an unlit cafe. "Come," says the German. "We will have a coffee." We follow the other soldiers out onto the terrace. The waiter comes, and the German orders for both of us.

After a silence I ask, "Why are you fighting in this war? If youíre not Croatian..."

The German picks up my lighter, holds it to the falling light like agate or quartz, rubs it as one would a talisman and hands it back to me. "I am a soldier for the Croats. I kill Serbs for them, and they pay me."

I take out a cigarette, the lighter trembling slightly. "Youíre a mercenary?"

"Yes. It is a good job when the money is good. Here it is not so good. In Angola they paid me four thousand dollars each month. American money."

"Angola?"

"With Savimbi. You must guess who I was fighting there."

"The government?"

"Of course, but who else?"

I have no idea, so I guess Namibians. They are the wrong answer.

"Cubans," he says. "Very good soldiers. Very smart. It was a good war."

"A good war."

"Yes."

"What, exactly..."

"When both sides are the same. Both have good weapons, good soldiers. The smartest man is who wins."

"Did you win? In Angola?" As the words leave my lips I become aware that I am speaking with a distinctly German accent.

The mercenary does not seem to notice. He looks away and smiles. "That war is not over, but it soon will be; the government has offered to stop fighting, and Savimbi will accept. I won four thousand dollars each month. And I am not dead."

"That is good." Now Iím speaking with his accent and his grammar as well. I squint at the dusk and try to remember how I usually talk. The waiter brings our coffee and the German pays.

"This is not a good war," he says.

"No?"

"No. The Serbs have all of the planes and boats, most of the artillery and trained soldiers. I have only rusted rifles, and my soldiers are children and old men. Some of them are good, but some are very stupid."

"Stupid."

"Yes. One time a boy, maybe fifteen, is with me, and I tell him I need the big gun from those dead men over there. He does not wait for me to tell him how to go. He just runs. Bullets are everywhere. He gets to the men and picks up the big gun. He cannot run fast with it, and I yell for him to wait. He runs back without waiting."

"So he made it?"

"Yes. But he did not bring the ammunition. I tell him we need the big bullets for the big gun, and to wait for my signal. He says he does not need to wait because he is very lucky. He runs again to the dead men, gets the bullets and runs back, all the time with the others shooting at him."

"Lucky kid."

"Not so lucky. He was killed the next week. Brave, yes, because he was young like you. But not so smart and not so lucky." The mercenary finishes his coffee. "In war, if you are stupid you will die, and if you are not stupid you will probably also die. That is the rule." He looks up at the sky, now nearly black. "It is time for the boat."

"What boat?"

"To the island Pag. You donít know? There is no road any more for this part. They bomb it from the mountains. Croatia builds it again and Serbs bomb it again. So we go to Pag."

#

The bus takes us down to a long cement slab where the ferry sits fat and heavy in the dark. We gather our things and walk to the edge of the water. The gangplank is clogged with other passengers; instead of waiting for it to clear the mercenary climbs over the side rail and hauls me up behind him.

"We will go to the front," he says. "Where the air is better." He steps over a coiled rope and walks toward the bow without waiting to see if I follow.

We find a spot along the bow as the ferry lurches away from the landing. There we stand, smoking his hand-rolled cigarettes, staring at the seam where Pag would be in daylight, and at the froth that curls off the bow like sheared and bloody wool. My head nods with the motion of the boat. Two questions twist around each other in my mind, but the grinding waver of the engine leaves no space for conversation.

Then Pag is simply there, a long low crease of land. Another bus is waiting, cocooned in its own blurred light. The ferry slows as we near the dock, the thickening wake sweeps past us, and for a moment it seems that the island is sliding away. The boat jolts against cement pilings. Lines are thrown to shadowed, thin-shirted men who squint against the noise. The mercenary and I file off the ferry, burrow into the bus and find our places.

"Whatís in your head when you kill someone?" My stomach snags as the question slips from my mouth, but itís out now, nothing to do but wait, and at least Iím speaking like myself again.

The mercenary shrugs. "At first you are sad and sick and angry. But you forget it was a man. What you are doing, it is only your job. The other soldier is something you must get past, like a river, so you kill him like building a bridge." He rolls another cigarette, the paper fluttering in his hands like a moth. "The war is a contest to see who can build their bridge fastest, and to the best place."

I nod, and wait what seems like long enough before asking my other question. "How did you end up as a mercenary? Is it just the money, or..."

The German lights his cigarette and slumps low in his seat. He looks out the window at the shifting blue-black plane of water. "You are going to Split?"

"Almost. A town called Marina, near Trogir."

He nods, resettles himself still lower in his seat. "It was a long time ago when the Russians came to Berlin. I was four years old. We heard the bombs falling every day, my mother and I, every day and every night. My father was already dead--he did not understand that no one will ever conquer Russia. The spaces are too big. The winter eats people there.

"I did not know anything of what was happening, of course. Hitler was just a man who told me through the radio that my destiny was coming." The mercenary pauses to shape the tip of his cigarette on the metal back of the seat in front of him, and watches the ashes fall. "So many years ago. I still do not know if my father was insane like Hitler, or if he was a coward too afraid to disobey orders, or if he thought destiny was coming. I still do not know anything."

He straightens slightly and looks up through the bars of the luggage rack at my guitar. "In our house, we had a piano. We had almost nothing to eat, no wood to burn, but we had a piano that my mother would not sell, and every day she would play the music she loved, and teach it to me, not as she knew it, but simple. She told me that one day I would be a famous piano player. I would go to Paris and Rome and London, I would play in the biggest symphony halls, and after I played the people would stand and clap and clap and clap. This made sense to me, because I was a child.

"In the last days of the war my mother was playing the music of Schumann, every day a different piece, and the bombs would fall, and she would sit me on the bench and put my hands where the music was. ĎPlay so beautifully the bombs will stop,í she said. Every day she said that, and I tried, and the bombs never stopped.

"On the last day, the bombs were falling all the time, and the walls of our house were trembling like old men. We had no more windows." The mercenary closes his eyes, searching for something in his memory. When his eyes come back open, he smiles.

"I was playing a song called ĎTräumerei.í Then there was a light and a sound and the house jumped and fell on itself." His smile disappears. "My mother had been with me before the sound, but now I was on the floor and the piano was in pieces on top of me and my mother was gone. I couldnít move my legs. I called and called, and my mother did not answer. I kept calling until I had no more voice, and I fell into something like sleeping.

"After this, there was another voice, and a round face, white like the meat of a potato. It was a Russian soldier. He talked to me, like a knife cutting through paper. He reached down and pulled the broken piano away. And he picked me up."

The mercenary drops his cigarette and grinds it beneath a boot-heel. "Do you see?" he asks. "I did not choose war." He scratches his forehead and runs a finger down the scar that splits his face. "War chose me."

The bridge connecting the southern end of Pag to the mainland is still more or less intact: there are flares burning around the wide hole that bombs have carved in its center, a jagged maw big enough to swallow us, but there is just enough room to one side for us to pass. We stop briefly at an unlit station in Zadar, the bus panting fumes as six soldiers debark, and resume our way along the water.

"Will you ever stop fighting?" I ask.

"Of course. I will fight only four years more."

"Why four?"

"That is when I will have enough money not to fight anymore."

"And what will you do then?"

The German seems suddenly very tired and very happy. "I will do nothing. I will just live." He closes his eyes.

I close my eyes as well.

#

There is the sense of something too close to my face, I wake, and the mercenary is leaning past me to look out the window. He stares at the gleaming black, stands and calls sharply to the driver.

When he sits back down he says to me, "We are at Marina--where you are leaving, yes?"

I nod and stand as the bus hunches and spits and pulls into a turnout. I take up my knapsack, pull my guitar from the overhead rack, and follow the driver down the stairs. He lifts my backpack from the baggage compartment. That is all. There is the inlet, and across the scintillant dark is the breakwater. Then the mercenary is calling to me, reaching out through the window.

"For you," he says.

I walk over and he hands me something that feels like a thin papery finger.

"Better than from the store. The coal is what keeps away the night. Not forever, but for long enough."

I thank him.

"And do not do stupid things!" he shouts.

I promise Iíll try not to, and the bus is pulling away.

The moon hangs fat and silver not far above the horizon. I dig a wristwatch out of my pocket and hold it up to the opaline light. 3:21 a.m. No one in Doraís family will be awake for another couple of hours.

Along the patient road that slides between the town and the water, and the houses cluster together like mourners. Through the empty cafe courtyards. Small boats sleep like dogs in the shallow cove. Past the square stone tower whose name I donít remember, or perhaps never knew, to the base of a driveway that crawls up the steep hill closing the town to the west--at the top of the driveway is Doraís house, brighter than the air around it. I stand for a moment. Then farther down the beach to where there are no houses. I set everything down, sit on a low stone wall, and watch the silence. There is no movement at all.

I remember my lost Nikon and repeat my angry mantra, but now the words feel hollow, out of place. I take off my clothes, heavy with dust and night-sweat. The air is still warm. I walk across the rough sand to the sea.

As my foot touches the surface there is a small burst of light. I pull back, and smile: it is the phosphorescent algae that seeps into the bay from time to time. I step into the water and glowing whirlpools swirl around my legs; when the water is deep enough, I dive, and the glow follows me, wreaths of light curling off of my arms, furling through my fingers. I swim across the inlet and back again, swim until the surface layer of dust, the hours of filth and exhaust and the past empty months rinse away and sift down through the dark to the bottom of the inlet.

I come back out of the water and smoke the Germanís cigarette as I wait for the air to dry me. I sort through my pack, find fresh clothes and slip them on. I sit down on the low wall and find a place to rest my head.

There is a slight noise behind me, a skittering of stone on stone; I lean forward and turn to look, holding my breath. Someone is coming down the driveway. The figure steps onto the beach, turns toward me, and moonlight washes across her face. It is Lea, Doraís younger sister.

She walks barefoot, a towel wrapped around her waist, a young swaying of lovely shadow. She stops when she sees me. "Ko je?" she calls.

"Bok, Lea. Roland je. Kako ti kupus?" It is all I remember to say.

She strains forward, then laughs. "So you came back." She walks over, kisses me and sits down. "Why didnít you write to tell us you were coming?"

"I didnít think there was time. I only got Ivaís letter a few weeks ago, and I figured that with the war..."

"It doesnít matter. How are you?"

"Clean, for once. And you?"

"You came by bus?"

"Yes."

"So you know how we are."

I light another cigarette and lay back. After a short quietness I ask, "Why are you up so early?"

"I couldnít sleep."

We sit together, watching the low hills. The water is still. After a long while, Iím not sure quite how long, Lea points to the east. I look at the tower, and across at the breakwater. Nothing has changed. Lea points slightly higher. Just above the farthest hill, the sky is growing light.

 

 

 

About the Author

 

Roy Kesey was born in northern California, and currently lives with his wife in Peru. Stories of his have recently been published in The Georgia Review, McSweeney's, Literal Latte, The Madison Review, Zoetrope ASE, and ByLine. He can be reached at rlkesey@lycos.com