Peace Corps Writers
The Book Locker (page 2)

The Book Locker

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     When my name was called I was told to go to phone booth five. “Numero cinco,” the woman said, and pointed to one of the booths. I stepped inside, pulled the door closed, and picked up the dull black phone and said hello. Twice. Then a third time. Vaguely, indistinctly, I heard a familiar voice. “Dad, is that you? Dad?” The humming and static overwhelmed me, and I began to yell into the phone. Finally, filled with frustration, cursing the phone line that traveled from that building across Colombia and ever northward, up the coast of Mexico, then baja, up to California and finally to my house. Hearing only a crackling hum, I yelled that I would call again. I hung up the phone and for a moment stood looking at the black box and the thin cord that was connected to the receiver and then left, trying not to look at the people on the benches, at the men who peered over their newspapers, or at the woman in the window who had called my name.
     
As I stepped out onto the street the midday heat enveloped me, the sounds and strangeness of it all a gauzy curtain. A woman stood holding the hand of her small son while he urinated into the gutter. Across the street several men were seated at an outdoor table, coffee cups and flasks of water at hand, their newspapers open, smoke rising from their cigars. They sat silently, barely taking notice of the incomprehensible drama that ebbed and flowed and swirled around me.

The bus arrived in San Antonio late in the afternoon. Jim, the Volunteer who was leaving Colombia shortly, had given me his address and directions to his flat over a cantina. I walked from the small bus station, an office with a dusty plate glass window and one scarred wooden desk, 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 square. To the left was the casa corral, a white, flat building, home of the local priest.
     
I stopped an old man and asked him in halting Spanish if he could tell me where the Cantina Azul was, the Blue Cantina. Smiling, his teeth the color of tobacco, a white rectangle of cloth folded over his shoulder, a long machete hooked on his belt, he nodded and said, “Si. Si, senor,” and pointed to a corner across the plaza. “Esta’ alla.” It’s there. On the corner. “La Cantina.”
     
I thanked him and with my bag in hand walked past the fountain, the sun low in the sky. What struck me was 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 stood looking at me, 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 abbreviated stoop.
     
I watched a nun, her habit startlingly white, leave the casa corral and walk up the steps into the church, her face obscured, her hands buried deep in the full sleeves of her robe. A black cross, tied to a knotted rope around her waist, swung back and forth. She never glanced in my direction. A man, leading a donkey, stopped at the edge of the plaza and waited, taking his hat off then putting it back on.

Months later, stationed in Cartagena, on the Caribbean, I would, one long afternoon, sit on an ellipse of beach under a cloudless blue sky and watch a black man come around the point leading a group of nuns, all in full habits. Their high voices reached me, lifted and carried by the soft breeze, their laughter captivating. In disbelief, I saw all of the nuns follow the black man into the ocean. Some turned slow pirouettes, their robes flowing around them, creating a nimbus of white and milky blue, the easy waves lifting and falling. I sat very still, under the leaning palm trees, the birds restless above, and told myself that I should never forget that moment. Never.

Standing on the landing I knocked on Jim’s door, hoping he was in, knowing he could be out in the all of it. I knocked again. I could hear music from the cantina below. The well of the stairs was redolent of fried food and stale beer. People laughed, their voices loud, then fell away into silence.

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