We picked them up around noon, on a road so hot the asphalt glistened like spilled oil. All three of them rolled up their sleeves and legs of their trousers and squinted into the blasting sun from which we came droning, in a Skoda. I couldn’t tell by their uniforms which of the three armies they belonged to, but the driver and his wife must have known—both of them were older than me and they looked sensible enough not to give a lift to a wrong person.
The soldiers didn’t show too much enthusiasm when we pulled up in front of them. The driver’s wife briskly rolled down the window.
‘Where to?’ she yelled to overcome the engine’s clatter.
They mentioned the capital and then one by one picked up their huge tuber-like backpacks that were lying in the dust. I moved to the backseat’s far end to make room for them.
They were about the same height and they wore the same uniforms. The only thing separating them was the shade of their camouflage colors. The one with the darkest uniform sat next to me, the other two squeezed in next to him. The driver’s wife rolled the window half way up to stop the wind from blowing into her face. We moved on.
It was hot in the car, and the soldiers, aware that they stink, talked about having no showers in the place they had come from. They had peasant accents. The driver’s wife wanted to know how long they were in the field, which made the two of them on the other end of the seat start babbling. Only the guy next to me kept quiet. Here and there he’d add something to what his comrades had said. His voice had a nice tone to it. I glanced at him from the side: he was handsome. Even the bags under his eyes fitted him nicely: a suffering male, so suitable to become a hero of one’s sexual fantasy. Our hands were sticky, lying in our laps: when I moved, on my forearm there was a long wet stain of our common sweat.
The four of us in the backseat were squeezed together like dates in a shallow Styrofoam box.
‘And where are you going?’ one of the soldiers asked.
Again I listened as the couple answered the same question I had asked a little while ago. The driver and his wife were travelling to the capital to see the driver’s mother whose leg was being eaten by gangrene all the way to her tight. Something bit her and following some medicine man’s wrong advice she treated the swelling with an ointment made of chopped garlic, nettles and honey. And all she needed was a Band Aid.
‘They’re going to amputate her leg,’ the driver said and, as the news began on the radio, changed the station.
‘You have enough room? We don’t want you to fall out,’ my soldier said in a thick accent and I smiled. He took this as a sign to go ahead and push his arm behind my back and hug me around the waist. Slowly he wiggled his shivering hand against my naked ribs under the shirt all the way up to my breast on which he, hesitating for only a moment, placed his palm—gently as if it were a pudding with a bean of coffee on top. I didn’t have time to say no, I didn’t even want to—the pleasure his hand caused almost shocked me. I observed my fellow passenger, with a questioning eye, but he just looked straight ahead, across the driver’s shoulder, at the road meandering through a canyon. He seemed as if that thing with his hand and my breast was none of his business.
The other two described the life in the field to the driver’s wife, talked about the night watch in the mountains, the bears and deer in the forest, while I looked through the window, at the tree tops wild with summer, at the pastures as green as the uniform of this man who hugged me. I adjusted myself in his embrace and let the smile quiver in the corners of my mouth. My nipple was hard, pressing against the palm that covered it. Then the driver turned up the volume, some dance cover of a traditional folk song was playing on the radio; he knew the words by heart. He sang and happily avoided shell-holes in the road.
We came across a small town, really small: from the distance it looked like a handful of crushed paper scattered all over a lawn. As we came closer, we saw half-demolished buildings. On one of them, just by the road, there was a sign ‘Ćevapi’. That’s where we stopped to rest. The driver parked the Skoda on a piece of dusty ground. The soldier pulled his hand from under my shirt and left a warm, moist seal of his palm on my skin. We got out and stretched as we walked toward the porch on which a parasol bearing the logo of a beer factory that had run out of business before the war hung over a couple of white plastic tables. We sat at one of them.
On the other side of the road there was a one-storey house with its side knocked off; there was nothing to block the view of its interior, of what remained of it: a sink in one corner, a burned down couch in another, and piles of plaster and brick all over the place.
‘They’re not going to rebuild this one. It’s gonna be turned into a war memorial,’ said the waitress emerging from the dark womb of the dive with a kitchen towel in her hand. She leaned over the table and started wiping it roughly. Her fat upper arms shook. She was huge. Then she stood up and wiped her forehead, as if cleaning the table had worn her out.
‘What’ll it be? Ćevapi for all?’ she sighed and after all of us said yes and then ordered our drinks, she nodded and wobbled back toward the door.
‘What a whale’s ass,’ the driver’s wife whispered provoking malicious grins on the soldiers’ faces. ‘Like Titanic.’
Earlier, when we were driving, our communication was broken and filled with long periods of silence; no one managed to keep the topic alive for long. The soldiers, out of gratitude because they saved them from hitchhiker’s hell on the hot road, tried the most. Now, with this fat woman, they finally got it going; her excessive blubber now inspired jokes on account of obesity, and they were really good at telling them, with their thick, hick accents. The driver’s wife kept wiping the tears that her shrieking laughter brought to her eyes.
‘You could show movies on that ass, it’s as big as a movie screen,’ said the young soldier with thick, black bangs that looked as if someone had glued a fake moustache on his forehead, while the rest of his head was completely shaved.
‘When she goes to the zoo, elephants throw peanuts at her,’ the first one kept on going.
The driver’s wife held her stomach and the soldiers kept on tickling her with their words.
‘And when she shows up in front of the school in a yellow raincoat, the kids think she’s a school bus!’
My soldier laughed too. When the driver got up to go to the restroom, he moved closer to me so that the driver could walk out, and after that he didn’t go back to his old place. He pressed his leg against mine.
On the other side of the table, the young soldier with bangs on his forehead enjoyed the jokes he was telling.
‘She’s so fat she wears one watch on each of her arms…’
Suddenly he stopped, as if he couldn’t think of the rest of the sentence. The driver’s wife had already widened her mouth into a smile, but the soldier froze in his chair and, his lips closed tight, stared at something above our heads. He looked truly terrified, shocked.
We all looked at the door.
‘…she wears a watch on each of her arms because—what? Finish the sentence!’ a man with a rifle in his hands said with horrifying calm. He stood there in the doorframe, aiming at the soldier who looked as if a tarantula was climbing up his leg.
‘C’mon, c’mon, let us hear the rest of the joke…’ There was no sign of compromise in this man’s movements, no sign of indecision in his eyes.
The soldier opened his mouth, but nothing came out of it. Sweat ran down his limp bangs and continued down his forehead. The barrel we all looked at sucked the whole world in, all of the sounds and colors. All that remained was the heat. With his mouth open the soldier looked idiotically dull. The fat waitress’ husband and most likely the owner of the place walked toward us in slow, firm steps. ‘You hear me! Why does my wife need to have a watch on each of her arms? C’mon, tell your friends,’ he boomed in a voice from which patience was slowly disappearing.
‘Okay,’ muttered the soldier. His Adam’s apple went up, then down. ‘She needs to wear a watch on both of her arms because she stretches over two time zones.’
The man with the rifle stared at the root of the parasol from which thick wires branched out stretching the canvas above our heads. The driver’s wife started squealing quietly. The rest of us were scared and silent. The thought that the six of us could continue our journey in the rattling Skoda of a married couple who liked hitchhikers all but disappeared. I remembered my mother.
The man with the rifle just stood there.
I took the soldier next to me by the hand; his palm was cold and moist. I intertwined my fingers with his and pressed them gently. The gesture was inappropriate, even somewhat shameful, at this moment that could be our last. From the armed man’s dark gaze, from the way he caressed the trigger, it seemed he would really going to shoot.
Down on the road a truck rattled and slowed down before the restaurant. The man lowered his gun. He shielded his face from the sun and squinted at the wreck that spat black smoke out of its exhaust. The wreck’s driver, a giant with thick hair slicked down to the back of his head turned off the engine and got out of the cab lightly holding a cigarette between his teeth. He raised his arm high in greeting, revealing a large circle of sweat on a stretched out undershirt and the headed toward the half-demolished house across the way.
For a while the owner watched him and then just headed to the door. I let the soldier’s hand go.
‘No ćevapi for you,’ he said, not looking at us.
He walked into the dive and closed the door behind him.
Later, in the Skoda, no one said anything for a long time. Most likely life-or-death situations have such effect on people; the closeness of death makes you feel all alone. I thought about it and watched soft curves of the hills and rare cars that passed by us. My soldier kept his eyes peeled forward.
When we passed a huge roundabout at the entrance into the city, I asked the driver to stop. That was where our ways parted.
‘Well, thank you for giving me a lift. Good luck with your mother,’ I said, pulling my backpack from the trunk. The driver looked at me in confusion so I added, ‘I hope she’ll recover quickly.’
‘Ah, that,’ he remembered the amputation.
‘Take care, kiddo,’ said my soldier leaning through the window.
He seemed somehow sad and shy. Or I just wanted him to be so.
I walked to the first intersection, feeling more and more hungry with every step I made. I bought a burek in a pastry shop and ate it immediately. Then I crossed the street, stopped at the pull-off and stuck my thumb out again, thinking all the while about that half-demolished house, those piles of plaster and bricks, and my soldier. I thought about the moment when under that parasol he lifted his sleeve high and I saw a sharp line separating pale part of his arm from the tanned one, almost burned from the sun.
Translated from the Croatian by Tomislav Kuzmanović
© Copyright 2011 Maja Hrgović