Thursday, January 03, 2008

los olividados (a story by Dave McGregor)

I found myself at odds with an unsavory janitor in an unknown bus terminal. Later I would find out that the town was called los olividados' but at the time I had no idea. I had woken up when my bus stopped for a few minutes; I went looking for a bathroom. As I settled in at the urinal still half asleep and maybe a bit drunk, I didn't notice him working right next to me. Some of the old hand eye had deserted me at the moment of release and I had given him a bit of a splash. He was cleaning out under the sink and was probably pissed off to begin with, so an incoherent city boy putting out an imaginary fire on his arm was surely too much to bear. I was kicked off the bus and it looked like I might have to spend the night outside the terminal.

Surveying the main street of the town, I noticed a couple of small stores long closed and some kind of bar/hotel on the corner. It was inevitable that I would end up there at some point in the night, but I had a heavy feeling about it so I stayed out in the street for a while. Besides, that old janitor that I had bathed in my urine just moments earlier might be tying one on and telling the whole gang about it. I walked past a couple of the stores trying to get a feel for what sort of place I had landed in. The biggest one was called 'McGills', 'McGills what?' I asked myself.

It reminded me of a girl that I worked with at a general store couple of years previous. Her name was Clara and she was from Ohio - there is nothing in life stranger to me than coworkers. Whether I liked it or not, she decided to take it upon herself to have us get to know each other, which meant 'I'm going to talk about myself all of the time and you are going to be interested.' I may have been good at putting up an interested looking front or she was just really bad at reading people. Either way she talked my ear off all four months that I worked there. There was probably a girl like that working at McGills too.

The town seemed instantly strange but equally familiar all at once. The same worn out tired Main Street as a thousand other towns. At first glance it was difficult to tell which businesses were still operating and which had gone under. Retail takes on a strange survivalist mentality in these places. It made me feel tired just thinking about how every button or thread or chocolate bar they sell is important to their livelihood. The whole place seemed like it was very near to death and everybody was okay with it. But there was a faint whisper of something in this town. Maybe it had already happened maybe it was still going to. Or maybe it was nothing.

I had a long cold night ahead of me. Going back over to the bus terminal, I sat there under a bare light bulb on a bench that I'm sure had been painted at one time. There was a basketball sized swarm of what i assumed were mosquitoes buzzing around the light. 'Only a matter of time before they wander down' I thought to myself as I lit a cigarette. For that brief moment I was enjoying being the only one on the street. Thoughts of being in some old Paul Newman movie set in the Deep South went shooting through my imagination. If only Liz Taylor was here.

It was obvious that whatever fortification i had consumed for the trip was now wearing off. My eyes began to ache a little and I felt tired, but not tired enough to sleep. I leaned back on the bench and put my arm up on its back like I had it around someone.

Just then something on the ground caught my attention, it was a mouse. He hadn't noticed me yet and was just going about his business. He paused as he passed my still smoldering match, it must have looked more interesting from his vantage point. After a moment he lifted his head and I could see his nose sniffing at the smoke. That must have been a strange discovery for him out in the road in the middle of the night. For some reason I felt like crying just then, I'm not sure why, It was time to visit the bar.

Small town bars are always a wild card. Most of the time they are just small and depressing, full of tired nosey people. But sometimes they are a real nightmare. You get these alpha male types that feel the need to mark their territory. But they don't just take a leak on it like most animals, they do much worse things.

The inside of the bar looked much like the outside except with brown replacing the dull grey. There was some kind of theme to the place that involved chuck wagon wheels on the walls, saddles, lanterns, vlts and whitesnake playing in the background. I couldn't find the common thread.

I sat at the bar, though I didn't feel much like talking to the bartender, although I didn't feel like not talking either. He asked me what I wanted to have and I told him. He was a thin guy probably about 48 or 49 with a receding hair line that didn't stop him from growing a poneytail, looked like he had been there a while. There was an air about him that told me he was a good person, maybe not a great one though.

Thankfully there was no sign of my old friend the janitor. He was probably venting on a dirty sink somewhere, or maybe just driving really fast. The place was pretty near deserted. Just three ladies sitting at a table laughing and smoking, a couple of rig guys playing pool in the corner, two seniors dueling on the VLT's, and me.

The bartender, who I heard called Larry by one of the ladies, asked me what I was in town for. I told him that I was just there to meet the bus in the morning and trying to kill some time. Larry seemed to think that was alright. He had this funny way of nodding all the time while he was listening. Then when it was his turn to speak he would start to shake his head, kind of like 'i hear what you are saying but no, I've already got everything figured out.' Kind of funny at first, but it got to be less enjoyable as the conversation went on.

The bar seemed to lie still for long periods of time and then everybody would stir a little all at once. The whole place seemed to be like one big animal that was napping and would come close to waking then drift off back to sleep. I was thinking about what my ex-girlfriend might have thought of this place. I'm sure she would have either embraced it as being very genuine –trying to make it a learning experience - or condemned it as being the under belly of society and a bastion of ignorance. She was always on one end of some extreme. It drives a person crazy listening to that kind of bullshit all the time.

Larry asked me if I needed to be put up in the hotel for the night, and I told him that I did. He asked one of the vlt'ers to keep an eye on the bar and took me upstairs. It was a small musty hallway with an old wood floor and yellowish stained walls. As I entered the room it was more of the same. There was a small lopsided single bed and a little wooden desk by the window. I thanked Larry for setting me up and said goodnight. I opened the drawers of the desk; inside were a small phone book and a receipt that was too faded to read anymore. It was kind of ridiculous finding that phone book as i noticed there was no phone in the room. No TV either which suited me just fine.

I turned the light off almost immediately and sat by the window smoking for a while. It was good to make myself feel a little bit scarce - maybe that’s the best way to end any night. The room was close and very still; the noise coming from the bar was just barely audible. I was looking out at this little street and feeling like I was on the edge of civilization. Like there was a million miles of uncharted wilderness on every side of the town. It got me feeling sort of excited and uptight all at the same time. At times like that your mind just kind of takes off without you, this night I was enjoying the ride.

But the longer I sat there the more I started to get up tight. My mind wasn't relaxing anymore; stuff that I was pushing away was coming back to the front. I knew that the next day i would have to get up and probably have to pay for another ticket to get to a job that i didn't even want anymore. For a moment I thought that I might be just as happy working downstairs with old Larry for the next ten years - or cleaning out the bathrooms at the bus terminal. Maybe that’s how people ended up in los olividados, just as good as anywhere else, or maybe it seemed just slightly better. Maybe Larry had some girl that he found tolerable and thought, 'Why not? I could do worse.'

The night was starting to get to me. I knew I had to get to sleep soon or I wouldn't at all. I lay down on top of the covers and slowly drifted off. I think I dreamt about Larry running a supermarket and I was a bag boy there.
The next day I went down early and sorted out all the business with the bus people. I ended up buying a new ticket and having to promise that I would be good this time around. There were still about two hours before I had to be back there for the bus. I noticed a little cafe called 'the Cozy Korner Cafe' and decided to head over. There wasn't much going on there either. Just a few of the old timers that probably met up there every morning. The streets were still all but deserted. The odd pickup truck would rumble past and the driver would stare at me through the window.

I was trying to work out how long my trip would take but I wasn't making much headway. Why are hours always so hard to add up? Maybe I just didn't care enough about the final result. I was tired and in need of something to bring me back to life. The coffee seemed to be helping a bit; maybe the breakfast would put me over the edge. It's a lot to ask of a breakfast to change your whole mood.

As I sat there looking around out the window I noticed an old farmer sitting a couple of tables away from me. He was almost totally bald and looked like he had a tough time getting around and eating. His face was all washed out, looked like it was slowly melting off, and his eye sockets seemed to be way too big for the small brown eyes housed inside them. No sooner did I notice him than he started to stare at me. It seemed like he could tell that I was trying to figure him out and he called me on it. Those two eyes of his were trying to rip me apart, he didn't move an inch and he didn't blink either. There was this terrible indifference in his expression, watching me like he would watch a TV or a dog lying on his front porch. It was the same as the wind out in the street and the dull washed out overcast sky. It got me feeling all claustrophobic and antsy as hell. I couldn't wait to get out of there.


jon or angie said...

A good friend of mine wrote a story and asked me what I thought. I found it engaging, interesting, and well-written and I felt like it opened up a character and a world to me. It made me think and feel and I asked if I could share it on my blog and he graciously agreed to put it out there. I'm sure he wouldn't mind comments but if you have criticisms, be kind!

I suspect there is significance to the title. I don't know what it means but I googled it and got the impression it means something.

I just found myself totally absorbed in the setting and the person being described, both being fairly different than I'd hang out in or with generally. So the story really opens a window beautifully I think.

I suppose I could go on, but I'll have to read it again.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, this story is amazing. It is what I want all short stories to be.

-Matthew Wilkinson

Tony Tanti said...

Great story, very engaging. I really saw that mouse sniffing the smoke. I also wanted to buy a drink from Larry.