“1972 Bronze Medalist” by Ardin Lalui

She sits without moving. Her legs are numb. The child on her lap is nursing and the other passengers sleep. Outside the lamps of oncoming cars burn toward her like ocular meteoroids, a ceaseless stream of alien and primitive stemmata eager to get a peek at her. She stares at the lights as they flit by, unthinking, enrapt by the motion of the bus and the gentle breathing of her confederates. There is a calm in this place that is a lull in the pattern of her life. Outside it begins to snow and the pieces fall like the parings of some whittling deity at work above.

The bus struggles on the ascent. The grade to the pass is eight percent at places and she can feel the engine’s labor. It is as though the bus is a beast of flesh and bone, a heaving and straining dray made living by some mechanized and pagan anima. At each downshift the engine is quickened, its vital spirit exhaling pneumatically.

Eleven miles out of Silverton they cross into Ouray from San Juan County. They pass at the lowest point on the ridge between the Uncompahgre and Las Animas river basins. The road is cut into rock strewn red with oxidized iron and along the ridge in both directions Ponderosa Pines rise archly a hundred feet into the darkness. On the rockier slopes alligator and one-seeded junipers, multi-trunked and gnarled, comingle with Piñon. An old mining town once stood at this spot but left no trace. From here they begin a switchback descent into Ouray fourteen miles further north. She can now see into the long, narrow valley that corrals the town, at times less than half a mile wide.

They have not stopped since Albuquerque eight hours earlier and the driver pulls into a Phillips 66. She almost cries when she sees the red and white sign. Around them the mountainous mesa country rises balefully, immuring the old homestead, the gas pumps and store, and the wooden Timber Ridge Lodge. The bus stops to refuel and the doors yawn open.

‘Thirty minutes,’ the driver says and disembarks warily. He makes his way to the lodge and wordlessly the passengers get to their feet. They follow him in a trudging procession, postulant devotees behind a hieratic master. Her husband is among the first to submit to the call, leaving her alone with the child. She tries to rise but her legs buckle. She stretches them over the vacant seat to allow blood to recirculate and the sensation returns in an overpowering freshet, leaving her tingling and quivering from the waist down. When she can stand she places the infant on the seat and it begins to cry. She reaches to the compartment above and pulls down the red écarlatine given her by her grandmother, the full complement of her tawdry and unthanked for dowry.
‘This alone will keep you,’ she had been told.

She has never felt so far from the Pays d’en Haut. She folds the child into the blanket cooing ‘ma petite fille’. The crying stops and they make for the diner. At this altitude it is twenty degrees colder than when they set out. Far above the Sepentrio points to the lodestar in its ursine and doglike asterism marking the route ahead. She follows the footprints of the others through the snow and when she enters the restaurant flurries dash past as though she were stepping out of a boreal furnace.

The passengers have dispersed among the naugahyde and formica and read menus or stare vacantly. A counter faces her and behind it is the kitchen. A fry cook laughs. Her husband is sitting at a table to the right overlooking the gas station and if he sees her he makes no sign. He is smoking a cigarette and reading the local newspaper. She would have been more comfortable in a booth. She sits at the table and rearranges the blanket to cover both her and the child. He sifts through the paper, pulling out pages and throwing them on the table.
‘They’ve already pillaged the sports section.’
She nods and tidies the sheets, The Plaindealer, the Cortez gun show opening in the old Wal-Mart building on Friday. Fatigue pours from a chasm within her and will not be stemmed.
‘I doubt it had a sports page,’ she says.
‘What’s that?’
‘Nothing.’
He looks out across the station yard at the convenience store. ‘Always voting against me,’ he says.
A waiter comes with menus. The husband orders black coffee.
‘I’ll have the same,’ she says.
The waiter looks at them both, then at the child. ‘You like I can warm up some milk for that baby.’
The husband is lighting another cigarette. He waits till it catches and says, ‘how much that’ll add?’
The waiter hesitates. She watches him carefully. He weighs the question as one might assay an ore, the cupel of his mind distilling the various motives contained in the words, gauging their respective quantities. He carries an unpredicted warmth. There is less empathy in this world than is supposed and for those who have walked long alone it is not meet and finds no purchase.
‘I don’t got to ring it through,’ he says, ‘you could have had milk in the coffee the same.’
There is a pause.
‘Don’t worry about it,’ she says. ‘I’m nursing.’
He leaves and the husband’s face is an indictment. ‘Whatever I’d have said you’d have gone otherwise,’ he says.

She picks up the newspaper but does not read it. From the time the waiter leaves her table there is not a movement he makes without her knowing. He is clean-shaved and the trace of Barbasol reminds her of her father. He takes orders and passes them through a square window. He delivers four menus to another table of travelers and returns with the coffee.
‘Anything to eat?’
The husband does not look up. ‘I’ll have the classic, over medium, with bacon.’
‘I’m sorry, we don’t start breakfast for three more hours.’
He exhales quietly, stubs out his cigarette. ‘I suppose this is what you’d call dinnertime around here.’
‘If you want you can have something from the other side.’
He turns the menu over deliberately. ‘What’s good?’
‘The chili’s real good.’
He sighs. ‘Give me a cheeseburger, no ketchup, no lettuce, nothing. And no fries.’
‘And anything for you?’
She is looking at the baby, its nescience the closest thing to joy it is likely to know. ‘No thank you.’

The waiter writes the order and leaves them. He comes back with utensils and a napkin and leaves again. She reckons his features precisely and compares them now to those of her husband. The husband has aged since she has known him and she looks closely at the stubble on his chin, searching for gray. When she met him he’d been a runner, ‘a champion,’ he’d told her, ‘verified and catechized.’
He looks at her looking at him. ‘I got something on my mouth?’
‘No.’

He wipes his face with his sleeve. When they sent him to Munich he had felt unassailable. It was like he was beyond his father’s grasp. Whatever the old man had done his time was ended. Something in the flight from Dulles transformed him. In the trials he broke his personal record and was the fastest qualifying American. In his timed practices he was faster yet. He knew he could win. Not only did he feel he could outrun his ghosts, but for the first time in his life he felt he didn’t have any. At night he slept as he had not slept before, his prior incubus curiously evaded. When running he breathed more freely than ever he had in his mother’s house. On the morning of the race his coach called him into his bedroom, still in his bathrobe, and told him to break early, too early, and make pace for a teammate’s record attempt. It wasn’t his time. ‘Yes coach,’ he had said and did as bade.
‘They always push the chili.’
She nods. ‘Shame about the breakfast.’
‘And you know why that is, right? Get you ordering from the dinner menu’s three times as much.’
She nods again and looks out at the bus.
‘And they better hurry,’ he says.
‘They know what bus we came on,’ she says, instinctually aware that in such places existence is abridged, a detail such as the bus one is on sufficient to surmise a life. She takes a cigarette from the pack on the table.
‘That’s the last one wasn’t it?’
‘Is it ok?’
He looks out at the store. ‘I’ll go get some more I guess. Is that place open?’
‘Looks like.’

She watches out the window till he crosses the yard, then watches the waiter. He works fluidly among the tables accumulating tasks. She gets his attention. ‘Could I get a warm up?’
He refills both cups and touches her shoulder as he passes engendering in her some forgotten and tactile longing. She watches him walk behind the counter. He speaks to the fry cook and they look at her. She smiles back. The waiter is a few years older than her, maybe twenty-five, and Métis, Mestizo they say here. She can imagine him holding her child aloft, at full arms’ length, examining it and being pleased. She can imagine him making a joke in bed, making coffee in the morning and whistling, tuning the radio while he drives. There is still something sentient in her chest. There are men she knows she could love and she sees them in such places, working in cafes, packing groceries, cutting meat, or driving with one arm out the window. They pervade her consciousness. She is like some Phrygian king unable to touch the objects of her longing. She feels as though she has been bled by some cruel phlebotomist and the slow exsanguination has fatigued her heart and reduced its dimensions. She sips her coffee and touches the child’s face. She watches the waiter serve another diner.

The husband returns from the store and regains his seat. He has bought an unfamiliar brand and throws the pack on the table. She looks in his face and sees in it all men that have lived. To her he is the same as the others, with the like moral and corporal assets and equal elections to make. Thirty of forty years hence his life will be lived, and no one but him will be asked to account for it. She scratches her hand, which in recent months has been afflicted by some red and itching dyshidrosis. Limpid vesicles have grown around her wedding ring, a contact allergy to the meretricious metal. Each week the rash extends further from its source like a smeared and daubed fungus and at dawn and dusk it torments her. She has taken to wearing rubber gloves in sleep to avoid scratching but this only enlivens the spread. She removes the nickel from her finger and pushes it across the surface of the table.
He watches the ring come toward him. ‘What’s this now?’ he says.
‘Take it.’
He says nothing. His face is passive and detached but he is not as unmoved as he appears. He leans back and is quiet. It is as though he has been confirmed in some hermitic and secret pact, something he alone knew to be true. All his life has come to this point as inevitably as the moon its apogee or the planets their periapses. The nadir of a life is inherent in its first movement and could be foreseen with Keplerian and geodesic accuracy if one were inclined to make the calculation. The ring he gave returned, the life he was given lived.
‘If your heart’s not in it,’ she says, ‘just take it back.’
He remains silent, they both do, looking at the ring on the pale blue laminate like an apparition. The waiter returns and places the cheeseburger on the table and asks if they need more coffee. He says he does not. She says yes. She sips from her cup and watches him. He looks away.
‘I’m going outside for a smoke.’
She nods at the cheeseburger, or perhaps the ring. ‘What about that?’
‘I’ll be back in one minute,’ he says.
While he is gone she closes her eyes and pictures in her mind the diner and herself in it. As accurately as she can make it she imagines the spot where she now sits, the interior of the diner and the travelers that percolate in from the yard, ejected from vehicles in a perpetual cycle of days and nights. In her quiet image she is no longer a transient outsider passing through the place, disdained and anonymous, but a natural citizen belonging and cherished with a home and place here unquestioned and secure, recognized by habitual right and customary practice. She wants to be an autochthon, consanguineous and per stirpes, not only for her child but for herself. She sees in her mind the waiter and cook not as strangers but as bosom brothers intimate and dear. The place is to her a haven, an unwavering and pacific sanctum, and she imagines briefly that it is her home and she can remain there.
‘We’ll stay here,’ she says to the child quietly, ‘we’ll just stay here.’ The child’s eyes lock her own and who can say how long such a moment lasts?

When the door opens and the husband returns the respite granted her but for a moment is gone. She looks at him as he rubs the child’s head with the back of his fingers. Before she was here others sat in this place, in like need and distinguishable only to themselves. She is but the latest in a stream of visitors that will continue after she leaves in an unending progression of oblations, stayed in the end only by the extinction of the race entire and the resulting exhaustion in supply of objects worthy of this species of suffering. When they file back onto the bus, announced by the call of the driver and payment of their due tab at the counter, their departure is as unmarked as will be that later extinction of us all, effaced as easily as the chimerical images engraved, but for a moment, on the veneer of the minds of men and gods.

Biographical Note:
Ardin Lalui is a writer and motion graphics artist living in Canada. He has written two novels and his website, expo77.com, brings the opening pages of some of the world’s best books to life.

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2 Comments

  1. Eddie Hearne

     /  January 19, 2012

    As good as the first time I heard it…! Hope you’re getting close to writing the next great ‘Canadian’ novel Ardin

    Reply
  2. Plugging away Eddie! How about yourself? How’s the writing coming along?

    Reply

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