The Book Locker

Ticket in hand, I stood outside the station looking at the buses. They were massive, painted a riot of colors — red, yellow, orange, white, blue, fringe framing the front windows. On the dashboards were small, plastic Madonnas, head bowed, hands pressed together in prayer.

The bus ride to San Antonio, a small town in the Andes, would take the better part of the day and I didn't relish the ride.

Brassy music played loudly in the distance and I watched one bus pull away, filled to capacity, the brakes letting out a whoosh of air before rolling slowly down the street, the brake lights blinking brightly. A child, his face pressed against the back window, stared out at me with large, dark eyes.

Spotting a bus that said San Antonio, I boarded, giving up my ticket, and with my small duffle in hand walked to the back.

Dust seeped up through the worn floorboards and the smell of diesel gasoline and people and luggage and bags of food filled the air. One man held a white chicken that sat very still on his lap.

The buses of Colombia were infamous, the stuff of urban legend among Peace Corps volunteers, and their drivers, well, they were feared, not for their size — most were no larger than jockeys — but for their pedal-to-the-medal abandon. They were strutting matadors that dared the bulls, embraced blind curves, horns blaring, powered onto soft shoulders, deep ravines mere inches away, all the while talking absently with the jefe segundo whose sole job was to open and close the bifurcated door using a chrome handle.

Though I had been in-country several months, I still found myself thinking of home. Sometimes, in irrational moments, I worried that California, even America, would not be there when I returned. Or would be changed. Not as I had left it. How many times had I inventoried every large and small thing I had taken for granted, everything I loved and now missed beyond words. I even started to write things down on the last blank page of whatever paperback book I was reading. Some of the items were strangely shallow, of no consequence: I wanted a chocolate malt in a glass that was perspiring from the cold and left a ring of damp on the napkin, a malt so thick that the straw stood straight up and there was a small mound of whipped cream on top and the first wonderful sip would commit assault and battery on my taste buds and bring tears to my eyes.

Of course I missed refrigerators and televisions and my old Chevy with the blown-out upholstery and supermarkets and malls. And I missed the smell of damp city streets after a soft rain and the special nighttime glow from neon signs and sitting at a Formica counter, listening to the jukebox and ordering a burger and fries, and on a hot day walking to a drinking fountain and taking a long, cold drink without a moment's pause.

But then there was the heart-wrenching thought of walking into the living room and seeing my parents sitting there, as I had countless times before, my mom always on the sofa and my dad in his recliner and feeling inexplicably reassured and happy.

The day before leaving for San Antonio, wanting to hear their voices, I went to a public exchange to call. A sign over the entry said Telefono Publico, and it looked like a bus station with wide, unwashed windows and high, beveled glass doors. Inside was a large room, expansive, the floor dark-green linoleum and ticket windows where clerks sat behind ornate metal bars, writing down phone numbers and taking pesos for each call.

I waited my turn. The clerk was an older woman, with salt and pepper hair and a light mustache. She asked for my number. I told her, in my most careful Spanish, that I wanted to call the United States. "Los Estados Unidos," I said. "California." And I gave her the number, written on a slip of gray paper. She looked first at the paper and then at me. She had small gold loops in her ears and on her dark, demur dress was pinned a small, lace handkerchief. She opened a book and ran her forefinger down a row of names and prices. "Thirty pesos," she said. Her eyes told me that to pay such a great amount was to abandon all common sense.

I counted out the pesos.

"Bueno," she said, and told me that she would call my name and I was to go to booth 11. She gestured toward a wall of wooden booths, each with a number on top.

"Gracias," I said.

I sat on a long, slatted bench to wait, at first watching people come and go. Men sat waiting, reading newspapers, some smoking short cigars, and a woman with small children whispered admonishments to them and the children were restless.

I always carried a paperback, one of many given to me by a volunteer. I tried to read. It was a novel, "Cannery Row," and I was captivated by the characters and longed to be on the Monterey coast, the cool air redolent of salt water and drying seaweed.

I thought of the many lazy afternoons I had spent on the deck at Sam's restaurant in Tiburon, looking out at the Bay Bridge and Alcatraz and at the green water, sailboats in relief against the shoreline and massive tankers slipping under the Golden Gate, heading toward Oakland, their decks stacked high with containers.

My name was called and I glanced over at the woman who nodded, pointing toward booth 11. I stepped inside, pulled the door closed and picked up a black phone.

"Hello?" I said. "Hello?" Nothing. Only the hiss of the line. "Hello?" I heard a thin, distant voice say, "Hello." "Hello? Dad? Is that you?" Just a crackling hiss came in return. I felt suddenly angry, overwhelmed, and tired, tired of searching for every word in Spanish, tired of trying to get my shirts washed, tired of asking for directions, tired of ordering a meal and getting something else, tired of feeling off balance. The deep frustration brought tears to my eyes as I began yelling into the phone, "Dad? Can you hear me dad? Hello?" Nothing but a hum and broken by static.

I hung up the phone and stood there for a moment looking at the black box, at the dull plastic phone and thin cord, and then turned and pushing open the door I emerged from the booth. The room seemed unusually quiet and I glanced at the clerk who had helped me. She raised her hand, gesturing that I should return to her window, but I couldn't bear to hear her explanation or, I imagined, returning my pesos with a shake of her head. Gringos. How strange they are. I was certain that the small children stared at me in wonder and the men peered at me over the tops of their newspapers momentarily interested. I simply left, and walked out through the doors and into the midday heat, the sounds and strangeness of it all a gauzy curtain. Breathe, I told myself. Remember to breathe.

The bus arrived in San Antonio late in the afternoon. The kamikaze wheel jockey had not killed us. Though he tried. I had come to visit Jim, a volunteer who was leaving Colombia shortly. He had given me his address and directions to his flat over a cantina. There had been talk that I might replace him.

I walked from the abbreviated bus station and crossed a wide plaza of stone and grass, a waterless fountain in its center. The church, its square steeple topped with a cross, wide doors open to a dark interior, bordered the plaza. To the left was the casa corral, a white, flat building, home to the local priest.

I stopped an old man and asked him if he could please inform me where the Cantina Azul was, the Blue Cantina. Smiling, his teeth the color of dried tobacco, a white rectangle of cloth folded over his right shoulder, a long machete hooked on his belt, he nodded, saying, "Si. Si, señor," and he pointed to a corner across the plaza. "Está alla." It's there. "La Cantina." I thanked him and with my bag in hand I walked past the fountain, the sun low in the sky. I was struck by the quiet and the absence of people. A dog barked in the distance and two small boys ran across the plaza, kicking a ball. They slowed, then stopped in front of me, staring, squinting into the harsh light. The taller nudged the other and they ran on, pushing the ball in front of them. A woman stood in a doorway, folding a towel, and then reached down and picked up a watering can and went back inside. Small red flowers grew in a lone pot on the narrow stoop.

I watched a nun, her habit a startling white, leave the casa corral and walk up the steps of the church, her face obscured, her hands concealed in the full sleeves of her robe. She never glanced in my direction. An old man, leading a donkey, stopped as she passed, taking off his straw hat and holding it against his chest.

Standing on the landing I knocked on Jim's door, hoping he was in. I could hear music from the cantina below. The well of the stairs smelled of fried food and stale beer and cigarette smoke. People were laughing, their voices loud, then fell away into silence.

The door opened. "Hey, Jaime," I said, using his Spanish name.

"Hola, Cristobal," he said. "You made it. Nice bus ride, huh." It wasn't a question, but an understanding of what was involved.

"Quite a ride. Only passed on curves, never on straight-aways. Other than that, poco a poco," I said.

I looked around his flat — narrow bed pushed against one wall, a wooden table and two chairs, the bathroom with a sink, a spigot sticking out of a concrete wall for a shower, the water always cold.

His clothes hung on pegs on the wall. In one corner sat a Peace Corps book locker, filled with paperbacks, and books were stacked on the table, next to a writing pad and an empty bottle of beer with a candle pushed down in the opening. Electricity was iffy, he said.

Jim went into the bathroom and from the toilet tank took two beers, dripping water on the unfinished wooden floor. We sat until darkness filled the windows and the sounds of the cantina below grew louder, raspy music mingled with voices and laughter. He talked of his two years in San Antonio, of his friendship with the padre, of the many meals that they had shared across a table in the casa corral and of his long rides back country.

I told him of walking through downtown Bogotá not long ago with a fellow volunteer, Ted, who was newly arrived. He was frayed, distracted, and uncertain about his assignment and about remaining in Colombia. We stepped into the street and a car pulled in front of us, narrowly missing Ted, and stopped, waiting for the light to change. Ted stood there, looking at the dark sedan and the driver, then crawled up on the hood and slid over the other side. The driver was first astonished, then outraged. He jumped from the car and yelled a string of Spanish words not found in any dictionary, gesturing wildly. Ted just kept on walking down the street, his shoulders hunched. He never looked back.

Jim and I both laughed, for there was truth in that story that we both recognized. "Hell," said Jim, glancing at me across the table, "it isn't just the language. It's a completely different view of the world, us and the locals. Things look familiar, on the surface, and then we realize they're not. When I first arrived, I thought I had dropped off the edge of the world. The silence up here haunted me, especially at night. Good thing they gave me that book locker."

I looked over at the locker and Jim smiled then shook his head at the memory of it all. "For days and then weeks I sat down in the cantina, reading books, drinking too much beer, looking out the open door at the folks walking by, an occasional car. Life like I never could've imagined. At first I was terrified and damned lonely. But then things changed. I read less and began talking to the people, all these amazing people, met the padre, became friends with the local doctor who visits once a month, guy spends most of his time sewing up machete cuts. The campesinos come into town and drink too much beer and start disagreeing and out come the machetes."

Jim shook his head and looked away into the distance. "Don't worry. You'll get the hang of it. Just don't go home. More than a few in my group have. Some in yours will too. But stick. May take a year. But it's worth it. You won't believe how worth it. Help a few locals, do a little good. Take more than you can ever give back. You'll never be the same. Hell, I'm worried when I get home it'll be like reverse culture shock. Being back there, in the world, probably it'll make my head hurt. Maybe my heart."

The next day we said goodbye. I never saw him again. Strangely, he was from Texas. From a much larger town called San Antonio. I returned to Bogotá on the red and yellow bus, the passengers stoic as we careened around corners and down steep hills, the tires howling, the dry wind blowing through the windows.

I never returned to San Antonio. I did take with me a few books from Jim's book locker, books I read and reread, and I did stick it out in a coastal town called Cartagena and being there until the end made all the difference.

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