Goodbye to the Small Man

Melanie Nead

Listen to
Download the audio

Of the bus ride south there’s not much to say except that it was long and very beautiful and they did not sit together. The bus was wood-paneled inside with many windows, and the young couple were the only passengers. They’d been traveling together for twelve days. It was odd, to be the only passengers: the buses had always been so crowded. They each took a window seat on opposite sides of the bus and let their thoughts lift and glide over the far, mysterious thing which was the jungle. Occasionally, Charlotte looked away from the window to watch the driver in the rearview mirror, his face like a screwed-up ball of paper. Like someone had taken a larger face and twisted it up by the nose.

Outside, the jungle went on and on, clouds snagged all over its thick top. Later she would recall the bus ride as the best part of their trip: sitting almost alone beside the windows, the warmth that held them together across the aisle. Not speaking. Let us have this peace.

After four hours they picked up more passengers in a dusty seaside village, nothing but a few blown-out looking buildings and a dog that lifted its head ambivalently to watch them go. The young couple changed seats to be together. Then two more hours, and finally the bus pulled into a mud-veined town, and—with a heave—expired. After the hours of dreamlike peace it was strange to be in the depot: the sharp grind of gears and the smell of cigarettes and mud. Some other and more fecund smell of blood or excrement set the nerves humming. Everywhere, mud and noise. Occasional cars sent up sheaves of brown water in the rain-soaked streets. On the corners, fruit vendors stood behind their carts heaped with bruise-spotted fruit.

“Oh, look,” the young woman said, pointing at one of the fruit vendors—a small gray monkey sat hunched on his shoulder, turning something over in its tiny hands. She thought of buying a banana, but Liam grimaced disapprovingly whenever she mentioned buying fruit. “I think it’s fine as long as you peel it,” Charlotte kept saying, but his suspicion troubled her. Only once she’d eaten some: their second afternoon in the capital she walked back to the hotel for her wallet while Liam waited at the restaurant. On the way she bought a crepe with whipped cream and strawberries from a cart and ate the whole thing, looking into shop windows, watching unfamiliar birds heckle for crumbs in the street, marveling: here they were in another country. A whole different country. Even the birds were different.

Now a thick-chested man unloaded bags onto the sidewalk.

“Those are ours, those are ours!” Liam cried. The man paused to look at him and heaved a suitcase onto the sidewalk.

“It’s fine,” Charlotte said. “I think they just put them all on the curb.”

“God,” Liam said. “The end of that bus ride was hell. There they go.”

There went the family who’d sat behind them. For the last two hours of the trip the toddler had kicked Liam’s seat relentlessly.

“She looks cute,” Liam said, “but she’s a demon. A tiny demon.”

Charlotte turned the bracelet around on her wrist. Liam had bought it for her in the capital from a crowded tourist shop where they’d dodged in out of the sun and the rank street smell. It was pewter with a funny charm, a grinning skull with the words GO USA above it.

“Look,” Liam said when he gave it to her, “now you won’t forget where we’re from.”

“Amazing,” Charlotte had said. It cracked her up every time, to look at the charm.

 

A man stepped up onto the curb in front of them. He was short and very round in the middle, his stomach a burgundy bulge over tight jeans. He came to a point on the bottom in fancy silver-tooled cowboy boots with long toes. His hair was slicked to one side.

“Hello, hello,” he said. “You need taxi?”

“We’re trying,” Charlotte explained, “to make it to a bay.” She and Liam looked at each other; neither of them could remember what it was called. The Australians they’d met by the beach told them about it.

“I wish we’d written it down,” Liam said.

Una bahía,” Charlotte said. “Cerca de aquí. Escuchemos que es muy bonita.”

Liam had the disquieting feeling that this man with his dark slick hair, vulpine eyes and pockmarked cheeks, would try to swindle them. He was talking about a hotel, the hotel where they should stay—his cousin owned it. “Very beautiful,” the man said. He would drive them to the water taxi, and they would take the water taxi to his cousin’s place.

“Um,” Liam said. “Ask him how much it is.”

“It’s thirty dollars American,” the man said, “includes meals. Three meals.” He held up three fingers.

“That sounds great,” Charlotte said, smiling.

“OK. I guess we can go look at it,” Liam said. “But if we don’t like it we can take the water taxi back, right?”

“Oh yeah, yeah,” the man replied, nodding. “No problem. You don’t like it you take the water taxi back.”

“The thing is,” Liam said quietly in the backseat of the taxi, “there’s just no way to know if this is legitimate or not.”

“Well, what do you want to do? Jump out of the car?”

Liam clenched his teeth and looked out the window. He felt: it’s like you’re floating in a river not knowing where to swim nor what lies on the shore and these dark-eyed strangers came saying Here, here, come aboard, and then demand something. It’s the language barrier, Charlotte said. But Liam knew that in this country people eyed him sideways and dismissed him. He felt uncouth, American, very pale.

Charlotte leaned forward between the front seats and spoke to the driver in Spanish. The driver’s name was Manuel and he’d grown up thirty miles away, in a very small town. “You don’t even notice if you pass through, eh?” He laughed and made a little noise like passing something quickly: “Pew,” he said, gesturing with his hand. He paused, then, “You guys are gonna love my cousin’s place. It’s so beautiful. I go there all the time. Sometimes I help my cousin out, I drive the water taxi.”

“The cousin whose hotel we’re going to?” Charlotte asked.

“No, another cousin. Otro primo. Many cousins. Big family.” He smiled at Liam in the rearview mirror and said in a loud voice, “Is very nice place, very nice, you like it, is near parque nacional. Eh? Nac-i-o-nal Park, you know?” He smiled again, holding Liam’s eyes. “I like to speak English with you guys, to practice.”

Charlotte laughed. The windows were down and her hair whipped around her head. It felt good. It had rained almost all the time they’d been in the country but it was always hot, every moment, and thick. As though the rain dissipated into the atmosphere. You couldn’t get a deep breath. Still—Charlotte felt a little ache—how much she liked it: every day since they’d arrived her eyes were overfull; she couldn’t take enough of it in, all this newness. A new feeling like a living thing beat its wings in her chest, rising. Everywhere things were happening all the time, people doing all the normal things but it was all a little different.

Now as she watched the town reeling by from the car she remembered the bus ride, the feeling of it. She turned the feeling over with a little thrill. It had all been so beautiful: men leading burros on the road stepped onto the shoulder to allow the bus to pass, only sometimes looking up to follow the bus with dark secret eyes. Alone, alone by the window, the feeling that they were being transported somewhere else entirely. The roadsides swarming with an orgy of growth, the roofs of the little sodas heaped over with vines and occasional monkeys sitting on the rooftops in the sun poring over fruit with their quick hands, their inquisitive calm old man’s faces impervious to the bus as it wheezed by. Ever higher, ascending hills thick with an absolute jungle, and below and on forever the canopy of trees a ceaseless fabric dyed by the dip and fall of the sun which broke through the clouds in great shawls of light, big tumbled tropical clouds mounting up in force for a downpour somewhere else, very white on their tops and shining boldly in the sun that streamed down through them to touch the leaves and soil like its own kind of warm gold rain. And the heat everywhere, in the rain and in the sun, as though democratically it did not exert preference but made sweat equally for all. Now and then strange brilliant birds flew low and fast, even with the windows of the bus, flames of scarlet and emerald.

 

“Here we are,” the driver said, pulling alongside a low pink building on the river. They could see it beneath the bridge: the wide, turbid river. On either side the jungle hung reaching, always reaching with its vines. Along the road the foliage was gray with mud from passing cars.

The driver picked up Charlotte’s luggage with a bow, making her laugh. He was enjoying himself, acting chivalrous as Charlotte, walking beside him, rested her hand on his arm. Liam walked behind carrying his own suitcase.

Could they leave their bags while they waited for the water taxi? Yes, this small man, the driver’s cousin, would watch them. He told them this indifferently through very thick glasses. To him they’d paid the fare for the water taxi and to him they entrusted their luggage. Traveling is full of little dramas, Liam thought. Everything rises to a crisis. As Liam watched Charlotte talking to the men he had the sensation that his back was ballooning out, terribly oversize. Bloating until he swelled to touch the ceiling of the room, full of apologies: I’m sorry, I’m sorry.

“Do you want to walk through the park while we wait?”

This was Charlotte, looking at him with her bright eyes. At the moment he hated her: Isn’t this all the greatest adventure? her eyes said. To punish her, Liam stared out the windows at the muddy swift river before he answered. He tightened his green and black scarf.

Why are you wearing that scarf?” Charlotte asked. “It’s roasting. You should leave it with the bags.”

“I get cold,” Liam said coldly.

Charlotte shrugged. “He’s cold,” she said in Spanish to the small man and the driver. They laughed. Liam wished he could will himself not to sweat.

In the street Charlotte slipped her arm through his. “Let’s stop,” she said. “Let’s be friends again. Look where we are!” She made a wide gesture across the panorama of thick-treed hills, and the little buildings of the town rising up the hillside in quaint spots of color, vivid amidst the green. Thatched roofs and porches. Everywhere else, jungle.

Ahead of them rose a loom of trees: the park. They stepped within and caught their breath. Here was a strange and searching silence, drawn up to itself in folds of stillness. Moss-choked marble benches at odd angles between the roots of trees. Above the great gray trunks the tangled, canopied branches, very dark green and glowing softly with orange fruit—“Starfruit,” Charlotte breathed, “Oh, they do look like stars.” Dark and strange between the huge-trunked trees, and the starfruit glowing above.

“I saw you put your hand on that man’s arm,” Liam heard himself say. As soon as he said it he wished he could take it back.

“So?” Charlotte asked, looking in his face.

“Never mind.” Liam felt shame burn through him. Weak, mean.

Charlotte sighed and withdrew her arm. They walked in silence and could hear the workings of each other’s thoughts but did not refer to them again.

Liam looked at the path and watched his feet fall, one after the other. Everything was wrong. He thought of the beach, how it had been at the beach. In the town on the coast where they’d spent three days he lay on the sand watching Charlotte rise and break again and again through the restless, translucent waves, splintering the light into a thousand thousand pieces as she rose with her beautiful clean pale body of which she was so shy. The sun burning out everything. Burning images into the eyes. In her dark swimsuit, sleek as an animal, rising. Water clear as shattered glass when the waves broke. In his chest he’d felt something blooming like his own fierce flower: was that, then, love? It seemed like weeks ago but it was only—what? Last Tuesday? Experience rushed in on you when you traveled. You lost all sense of scale. At home time was orderly. How could the days shove past you like this?

“What are you thinking about?” Charlotte asked.

“Lying on the beach.”

“That was so nice.”

 

When they emerged from the park the sun was out, burning as though it sat on the edges of their skin. On either side of the street buildings withdrew to escape the heat of the exposed pavement. Liam pulled off his scarf and wore it around his waist like a belt. Balconies bloomed hotly with red and pink flowers and, intermittently, tiny green parrots screeched from pendent cages. Liam and Charlotte stopped on a bridge. Beneath them the river rose full as a fist. Masculine in its turbidity, its rapid insensible motion. They leaned over the damp rail and listened to the thick-throated rush of it, chortling around the mossy legs of the bridge. Birds swooped in neat colorful lines to land beneath it and from deep in the jungle came a high strange cackle. On the riverbank lay the moss-furred bones of something—a dog?—and out of its ribcage a plant bloomed bloody red like a transmutation of the animal’s heart.

“Sometimes,” Charlotte said slowly, “When I look at you I think: someday we’ll be strangers to each other.”

Liam’s eyes burned. “Why would you say that?”

Charlotte stared down at the rush of brown water, thinking, I’m not in myself, I’m somewhere else. Thinking, right now I can see all these leaves, each one, innumerable, and someday I won’t remember them at all. Just a blur of green. You lose all the details. We might as well have never been here at all, a footprint in the mud . . . she shook her head and looked at Liam. His forehead was sunburned just below the hairline, his face closed and angry. He twisted the end of his scarf around one finger. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I don’t know what I’m saying. I didn’t mean it. The heat makes me feel so weird.” She hugged him but he was stiff and she dropped her arms. “I don’t know,” she said again. “Things have been so off today.”

 

The small man led them to the water taxi. It was a long motorboat, heavy with fruit boxes and tied to a floating dock. A family sat in the boat surrounded by fruit and luggage. They were young and short and round and dark-haired and the mother held an infant bundled very tightly to her chest. A little girl with long braids sat next to her father, holding his hand. The small man held Charlotte’s hand while she stepped in. His hands were thin, strong, rough with callous.

Lo siento, lo siento,” Charlotte said when the family made room for her. The little girl smiled at Charlotte and hid her face in her hands. The driver revved the motor. He wore a tank top and a baseball hat and whistled a pop song. He shouted something to the small man, who lifted the water-heavy rope and tossed it into the prow. Then they were off, wheeling heavily into the massed center of the river. It had all gone so quickly.

Charlotte looked back at the dock, receding already behind them. On it the small man waved his hand back and forth, back and forth, like a metronome. She watched him diminish amidst the shine of the river, the flanked dense uneasy jungle. Just before he disappeared she thought too to raise her hand. The river turned sharply and he was gone. All around them the muddy swirling water full of tiny whirlpools and eddies and great smooth swales where the current laid the water flat as though spread smooth by some hand. Trees on the banks dropped their branches so low that leaves grazed the water. All at once the driver cut the motor to an idle and turned the boat to face the bank.

“Snake,” he said, pointing at the hanging branches some twenty feet away. “Serpiente.”

Charlotte and Liam stared at the foliage, shading their eyes with their hands, but they couldn’t see it. Only the unbroken mass of green, the jungle, dipping its fingers to graze the muddy water.

“I don’t see anything, do you?” Liam asked.

Charlotte squinted. “No, I don’t,” she said. “Not a thing.”

Back to top ↑

Sign up for Our Email Newsletter