Monday, 4 July 2011

The Desert Road

The town was a shimmering mirage in the heat of the desert.

The car was old, so old that most of the paint had peeled away, and what was left was so faded and discoloured that it was dingy grey. The gearshift was stiff and had to be hauled back with real force, and changed gears with a grinding I could feel right through the floor and in the clutch pedals.

I’d been driving since before dawn, and now, at half past eleven in the morning, I was quite close to collapse.  The car had never heard of air-conditioning, and the inside was like an oven. The sky was cloudless and brassy in the heat of summer, and the glare off the long bonnet was painful. I’d been squinting over it for hours, and my arm was tired from hauling at the damned gearshift. The town gave me a chance to stop and rest a little.

I’d been running for a week now, and I didn’t know where I was going, or when I’d stop running.

I glanced at the rear-view mirror, an empty gesture since there had been almost no other traffic all morning. The road strung along behind, a dusty streak in the desert, with nothing else to break the monotony all the way to the distant, haze-shrouded horizon.

The first houses of the town slid by on either side of the highway. They were low, dust-coloured, without any attempt at decor, faded curtains hanging limply in the windows. A couple of stunted palm trees bent disconsolately between them, their fronds dun-coloured with dust.

It wasn’t much of a town, merely two straggling lines of buildings, one on each side of the highway. Many of them looked virtually abandoned. It must have been set up to serve the long-distance transport trade, and with the economic collapse the earnings from that had virtually dried up. I saw a shop window, almost bare of merchandise except some sad-looking packets of potato chips.

There was a petrol station, with a couple of vehicles standing before it, and two dusty and battered-looking pumps. I still had about a third of a tank full, and a couple of cans in the back, but I decided I’d fill up. There was no telling when the next chance would come. The desert was huge, and I didn’t really have any idea where I was going or how long I’d be on the road.

A man in a blue and orange uniform came out of the station building. He looked like a rat, with a narrow unshaven face, a receding chin, and prominent front teeth. He peered at me as though I’d come to beg for fuel.

“Fill up the tank,” I told him, and took out enough money to show him that I could pay my way. When I handed him the notes, he held them up to the light, checking for counterfeits.

“Have a good day,” I told him, trying to put as much sarcasm as I could in my voice. He didn’t even shrug or show in any way he’d heard me, only turned away back to the station building as I ground the heavy old vehicle into gear, deciding after all not to stay in the town any longer. If they were all this surly, I’d rather have my own company, even with the sunlight off the bonnet blistering the skin of my face.

I saw the two of them at the far end of the town, standing by the side of the highway. For a moment the heat stretched and twisted them so I couldn’t tell if they were young, old, fat, thin, or even if they were male or female. Then I was braking to a stop beside them. Why? I don’t know. It was the impulse of the moment.

“Are you two going my way?”

The boy was young, maybe twenty-two or three at most, with straggling hair and the beginnings of a beard. His stick-thin arms stuck out of the sleeveless T shirt he wore, and he looked scared, as though the world had kicked him so many times all he expected was another kick. The girl looked even younger, but was less thin, and clad in a denim jacket despite the heat. A tiny silver ring winked in her nose. They both carried small backpacks.

“Where are you going?” she asked.

“West.” I lifted a hand off the steering, pointing at the desert. “As far as I can go. I’ll drop you off along the way if you want.”

They glanced at each other, and the girl bent to me again. “We’ll come,” she said. She seemed to be the dominant one of the pair, and I wasn’t surprised that she slid in first into the back seat, the boy following more slowly and with some reluctance.

“Sorry about the heat,” I said. “There’s no air-conditioning, but you can roll down the windows. But of course there’s the dust.”

“Yes, it’s an old car, isn’t it,” she said incuriously, making no attempt to roll down the window on her side. I glanced at them in the rear-view mirror. The boy had leaned his head back against the seat, and closed his eyes. He looked exhausted and ill, the skin stretched tight over the bones of his skull.

“Is something wrong with your friend?” I asked, as the highway sped past beneath the ancient tyres.

She glanced at him. “He’s just tired. He’ll be all right.” Her jacket had fallen open slightly, and I could see that she wore a black T shirt underneath. She didn’t seem to feel the heat at all.

For a time I drove in silence. The highway was straight and flat, I didn’t have to change the dreadful gears, and we made good, steady speed.

“Where are you two going?” I asked at last.

“The same as you,” she said. “Out west, without a definite destination.”

That sounded a little strange to me. “Where are you from?”

“Down by the coast.” She didn’t name the city. “We’ve been working our way inland for a month now.”

 “How did you get to that town where I picked you up?”

“We’ve been riding buses when we could, hitching rides when possible. Someone dropped us at the town yesterday.” She paused. “When we saw you filling your tank, I told him that we ought to see if you could give us a ride.”

I glanced in the mirror again, at the boy. He appeared to have gone to sleep. A thread of saliva hung from the corner of his mouth. “He didn’t seem too enthusiastic.”

“No. He’s not that sure what he wants out of it. Not anymore.” She didn’t elaborate.

I was beginning to get thirsty. “Would either of you like something to drink?” I asked over my shoulder. “I’ve got some orange juice, but it’s pretty hot, of course.”

“No, you go ahead.” She reached out and wiped the saliva away from the boy’s mouth. I realised that I hadn’t asked their names, and she hadn’t asked mine. That was quite all right with me.

Without stopping, I bent to fumble the bottle of juice from the bag on the seat beside me, and put it to my mouth. The juice was flat, insipid, and very hot. It didn’t help my thirst at all.

“Is this really your car?” the girl asked suddenly. Her eyes stared into mine in the rear-view mirror.

“Yes, it is. Why do you ask?”

“Oh, nothing. It’s just that a guy like you...” she twirled her hand in the air, “...doesn’t seem to be the sort who’d drive something like this.”

“Times are hard these days,” I said sententiously. “I’m lucky to have a car at all.”

“Yeah, we had one. Or he did. It broke down, and we couldn’t afford to have it fixed. So we just left it.”

There seemed nothing to say to that, so we drove on. The sun was directly overhead now, and the yellow stony desert stretched out on either side as far as the eye could see. There wasn’t even a patch of dried scrub or a thorn tree anywhere.

“I need to pee,” she said.

“OK,” I agreed. “I do, too.” I parked the car by the side of the road and got out. She followed. The boy was still sleeping, his face yellow and covered with a sheen of sweat. I went off to one side of the highway, and she went to the other, the car a screen between us.

“It’s awful country, isn’t it?” she asked, when she came back.

“Depends on what you mean,” I said. “If you compare it to the crowds in the city, and the pollution, well, at least the air’s clean here and there’s room to stretch out.”

“You like this place, then?”

“Not particularly. But it has its own appeal.”

We got back into the car. Her boyfriend looked really ill now, and I mentioned it to her.

“He’ll be all right,” she said abruptly. “Don’t worry about him.”

I shrugged and turned the ignition in the lock. The car protested by grinding its gears ominously, but gave in finally. We drove on.

“Are you married?” the girl asked after a while.

“I used to be.”

“It didn’t work out, huh?”

“No, it didn’t.”

“ parents split up. I’m never marrying, I can tell you that. So, what work do you do?”

“I used to be an engineer. At the moment I’m nothing in particular.” I glanced at her. “What about you two?”

“We’re...we were students. Now, as you said, we’re nothing in particular.”

I almost asked her then what she was running away from. I might have, too, if I’d thought I’d get an answer.  And then maybe she’d ask me what I was running away from, so I kept my mouth firmly shut.

The evening was settling down on the desert when the boy awoke. He had been mumbling for a while, his head tossing on the seat back, and his eyes were bright with fever when he opened them and sat up. “Where are we?” he slurred. It was the first time I’d heard him speak.

“In the desert somewhere,” the girl told him. “How are you feeling?”

“I,’s...I think I’ll be all right.”

“You don’t look all right,” I observed, looking at him in the mirror. “You look far from all right, if you don’t mind me saying so.”

“Oh, but I do mind,” he said. His thin bearded face bent into an ugly scowl. “I mind very much.”

“Well, your health is your problem.” I was irritated, and turned back to the highway. In the far distance I saw the silhouette of a few buildings. It was probably another of the nameless towns like the one where I’d picked up those two. “Sorry I asked.”

I began to slow down as I approached the town, intending to stop and stretch my legs, and get something to eat. I hadn’t eaten all day, had drunk nothing except for the juice, and I was getting tired of these two. If they would decide to stop over there, that would be fine with me. I’d happily drive all night.

“Don’t stop,” the boy said softly in my ear.

“What?” I tried to turn my head to look at him, but felt a sharp edge at the side of my neck. From the corner of my eye I could just see the knife. It was a heavy affair, the blade serrated at the side.

“As my friend said,” the girl whispered in my other ear, “don’t stop.”

I drove through the town. It was even smaller than the last one, and a few lights gleamed dully in the windows. A couple of people in the street glanced incuriously at us.

“Is this a robbery?” I asked over my shoulder.

“Give me the knife,” the girl said. “You’re trembling too much.” There was a brief fumble in the back as the blade changed hands. “Of course it’s a robbery,” the girl told me, holding it up so I could see it. “You think we’d pass up this chance to have a car and money of our own?”

I didn’t say anything. The lights of the little town disappeared behind us.

“All right,” the girl said suddenly. “That’s far enough. Stop now.”
I drew to the side of the highway. “What do you intend to do?” I asked. “Kill me?”

“Kill you?” She seemed to be thinking about it. “Not unless you force us to. Get out of the car. Leave the key in the ignition.” I got out, and stood to the side. She slid out of the back seat and got behind the wheel. The knife was still in her hand, gleaming faintly in the very last of the evening’s light.

More slowly, the boy did the same thing on the other side, stumbling slightly against the side of the vehicle as he did so. “Your wallet,” he said.

“Yes,” the girl said. “Give me your wallet.”

I reached into my hip pocket and handed over my wallet. She snatched it from me and tossed it into the boy’s lap. He was fumbling around inside my bag, and the wallet fell to the floor. The girl hissed in annoyance.

“We’ll be off then,” she said, turning the engine on, and put the knife on the dashboard. “Thanks for the ride,” she shouted over the noise. “And thanks for the car.” The boy laughed, the laugh trailing off into a cough.

Standing by the side of the highway, I watched the car drive off into the night.

I wondered just how far they’d get. Not too far, if my reading of the boy’s health and of the car’s engine was accurate. Not that it really mattered, but the further they got, the happier I’d be.

I touched the pouch stitched into the lining of my shirt, which contained most of my money, and my identity papers. They’d got only the little cash I had in my wallet, and the fake ID I’d used to buy the car. Much good would it do them.

Turning away, I trudged back towards the town we’d passed through. I’d find a room for the night, and in the morning I’d look for some kind of transport back the way I’d come. By then, the two young crooks and the car would be far away, and not too much longer after that, they’d probably be broken down in the middle of nowhere, with only a little hot orange juice to drink.

I wondered briefly what they’d do then, and shrugged. It was none of my affair.

But I wondered what they’d do if they looked in the trunk of the car, and forced open the big leather suitcase they’d find there. I almost wished I could see their faces when they saw what was in it.

As for me – I’d go back to the city, and get back to my job, which wasn’t that of an engineer. Nobody would have missed me the week I’d been gone.

I didn’t have friends, and I’d always worked alone. Also, I was no longer married, as I’d told the girl.

It hadn’t worked out at all.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2011

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