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If I'll Return

by Gabriel Rogers


Ryan and Kalev and I sit on Ryan’s back porch in Jocoro drinking Regia beer in gold cans. We’re going over material for our upcoming gender equity workshops. We’ll spend a week with a few other Peace Corps Volunteers visiting schools in western El Salvador to discuss with teachers and students ways in which the learning environment promotes or discourages equitable gender attitudes. It’s overcast and hot. I’m having a hard time focusing. I just checked my email at an Internet café and learned that the day before yesterday my nephew was bitten by a copperhead in Virginia. He’s in the hospital with an IV.


On the TV Mauricio Funes celebrates his inauguration as El Salvador’s first leftist president. The journalist-turned-politician is bespectacled and cherubic. He wears an enormous sash in the blue-white-blue of the Salvadoran flag and holds his 18-month-old son Gabriel on his hip. The kid is in a collared shirt and tie. He sucks on a sky blue pacifier and waves at the crowd. Gabriel shares my name and was born around the time I arrived in the country, which may not be significant but feels significant in the way that coincidences do. I wonder what might be going through the mind of such a young kid in front of such a big crowd.


Neither the snakebite nor the TV is the main thing that’s distracting me. It’s what happened yesterday on my way here. My mind replays the scene from the bus, tracing it back beat by beat, probing it like a tongue probing a canker sore.


4.

The pickup reached the bottom of the mountain and emerged from the dim forest into the fields on the outskirts of Sociedad. It wasn’t as close to sundown as I’d thought. I sat perched on the tailgate, gripping it, still buzzing with adrenaline. I practically felt like I could see behind me.


This submarine has come up from the bottom of the ocean to kill us all,

she thought, but there’s nothing strange about that, it could happen

anytime. It has nothing to do with the war; it could happen to anyone

anywhere. Everybody thinks it’s happening because of the war. But that’s

not true. The war is just one of the things that could happen.


The Murakami passage had appeared in my mind after I got off the bus. Five sentences that described Nutmeg Akasaka’s thoughts as she stood at the rail of a transport ship evacuating civilians from Manchukuo and watched an American submarine rise from the sea. It had been months since I’d finished The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and yet those five sentences were suddenly present word-for-word in my mind as I stood up the road from the stalled-out bus. It was the first time I’d experienced such an instance of photographic recall. There seemed to be a reason these words came to me in that moment.


In Sociedad a pair of policemen gestured the pickup to stop. They’d somehow already heard about what happened. They asked a few questions and waved us on. It’s possible they didn’t have the gas to drive up to the bus and investigate.


We passed the town hall, the pupusería, tile-roofed houses behind concrete walls topped with broken glass, farm after farm. The pickup dropped me off at the pedestrian overpass in Jocoro before dark. Several other passengers from the bus stayed in the truck bed to continue on to San Miguel, terminus of the Ruta 327. I walked up the street toward Ryan’s house.

 

Somewhere on Funes’s mind as he waves at his inauguration crowd must be the murder of his older son Alejandro, who was born in the first year of the Salvadoran Civil War and would have turned 29 yesterday. Funes traveled to Paris just a few days ago to attend the trial of the killer, a man named Amor. Funes wept in an interview outside the courtroom, saying that he was not a man seeking vengeance, only the truth. The truth, though, seemed plain: Amor had been drunk and picked a fight with a group of students on the Pont des Arts. Alejandro was one of those students. Amor, for some reason, had an awl, and for some reason he ended up stabbing Alejandro in the head with it.

Perhaps by saying that all he sought was the truth, Funes was looking for a way to maintain distance from a brutal, incomprehensible truth that had already found him.


3.

My impulse once I got off the bus was to move uphill, to get some distance and look. My ears were ringing and I needed to pee badly. There was thick forest on both sides of the road. The land fell steeply to the left, rose steeply to the right. I walked up the road about fifty yards and peed in the ditch. Looking back down, I saw that the front of the bus had mashed into the bank on the uphill side of the road. I hadn’t even felt the impact. If it had gone around that curve and had been approaching the next one when it happened, the bus would’ve drifted off the edge.


There was no one in the woods above the bus, was there? I scanned. The high ground felt important.


Several cowboy-hatted men and a woman stood near the bi-fold front door of the bus conferring with the cobrador. The three teenage girls held each other near the rear door, crying. Not many passengers on the last bus of the day—perhaps that’s why the gang had targeted it. I wondered if my Wilderness First Responder certification made me the person with the highest medical training on the scene. I walked closer and overheard that the woman was a nurse.


... there’s nothing strange about that, it could happen anytime. It has nothing to do with the war; it could happen to anyone anywhere.


The sound of an engine emerged from the forest and a pickup appeared on its way down the mountain. It slowed as it approached the bus cockeyed on the side of the road, then stopped. The girls rushed to ask for a ride. Two or three others climbed with them into the pickup bed. I hopped onto the tailgate feeling light and strange and calm. Only the cobrador, a couple of the cowboy hats, and the nurse stayed. As the pickup pulled away I looked through the bifold doors of the bus. Seatbelt stretched tight, four dots of red on sky blue.


 

The Murakami passage evokes something about the linkage of events that’s hard to place. … there’s nothing strange about that, it could happen anytime. It has nothing to do with the war; it could happen to anyone anywhere. It’s something apart from coincidence. Coincidence is that Alejandro Funes was killed by a man named Amor on the Pont des Arts, a bridge weighed down by tens of thousands of padlocks symbolizing love. It’s not irony, either. Irony is that Mauricio Funes encouraged his son to study in Paris so he would be safer than if he stayed in the country with the highest murder rate in the world.

The American sub surfaces. As it breaks the water’s skin and appears before Nutmeg Akasaka, it also breaks the chain of causes that led it to appear. The war falls away. There is only the submarine, deck guns dripping in the sun, and Nutmeg beholding it. Nothing strange…it could happen to anyone anywhere.


I picture a submarine surfacing in the muddy courtyard behind Ryan’s house. It breaks the surface of the ground and rises into full view. It has come up out of the earth to kill us. The war is just one of the things that could happen.


There’s a magic in unhooking an event from what drives it to happen, taking it out of the frame of whether it’s likely or even possible, meeting it standalone as a thing that has occurred before your eyes.


2.

I slid down and propped my knees on the seatback in front of me. The bus passed the last houses of El Tablón and started the curves down the mountain toward Sociedad. It had been about half an hour since the driver stopped briefly at the house by the side of the road. I rested my head on the seat and let the forest sweep past my eyes. The bus slowed and all of the sudden there was a man standing by the driver with a black bandana across his face and a black shirt ripped wide open. When I noticed him there was enough time to know what he was about to do but not enough time to even realize that I knew it and with a large black revolver he shot the driver three times quickly, paused, and a fourth time very loud.


The gun was so loud in the bus I covered my ears. The cobrador was quick on the gunman from behind, leaping up the steps from the bifold doors where he must have hopped onto the road to let the man on like he did for all the passengers. The gunman was a sad reed, the cobrador a badger. The two wrestled for the gun coming down the aisle in desperate stumbles, four hands in convergence straining and whipping the gun’s muzzle around in a lot of different directions. I kept my hands clapped tight against my ears because it had been so unbearably loud and jammed myself down between the seats in a crouch where I recounted 1,2,3, pause, 4 and thought of the phrase “six-shooter” and thought about the cheap non-bullet-stopping material the seatback was made of and how incongruous it was that priority number one was keeping my hands on my ears as the muzzle swung through so many vectors of threat.


Just before the gunman and the cobrador reached my seat halfway down the bus the cobrador succeeded in wrenching the revolver from the gunman, who turned and became a fluttering black arrow that flew out the rear door of the bus and disappeared straight down the steep slope across the road. The cobrador followed, stood on the berm, pointed the gun down the slope and breathed.

 

Walking through the dry campo, a man from the village where I was living once told me about fighting on both sides in the civil war. After four years serving barefoot in the FMLN guerrilla army he deserted and went straight to a military base to volunteer for the government army because he knew they would issue him shoes. During every engagement in nine years, he told me, he aimed over the heads of the enemy because they were not his enemy.


The war ended 17 years ago but it has not fallen away. Funes represents the FMLN party. Many of his fellow party members, including his Vice President, fought as guerrilleros. His brother was a student protester and was one of 11,895 civilians killed by the military in the first year of the war. His son Alejandro was born within two months of that death. Gabriel was born within two months of Alejandro’s death. This may not be significant but it might feel significant to Mauricio Funes in the way that coincidences do.


I think my mind conjured the five Murakami sentences as a prompt to allow what had just happened on the bus to simply be something that had happened before me, something I had beheld, rather than to become a knot for fear to grow around. …it could happen to anyone anywhere. Deck guns dripping in the sun. Large black revolver firing. …one of the things that could happen. It’s not significant that I was there, it’s just that I was there.


After the bus driver was killed it would be about two hours, statistically speaking, before another person was killed somewhere in the country. Someone else was probably there to see it.


1.

The last 327 of the day pulled away from Corinto on time. The old Blue Bird diesel revved up the slope out of town past concrete block car repair shops, a pupusería, an internet café. Above the driver, where it probably used to read No eating or drinking or Stay in your seat, it now read Sólo Diós sabe si volveré—“only God knows if I’ll return.” I gazed out my window as the houses on the outskirts of town grew sparser. The sun was bright but low, casting long shadows across pastures. There were only a few people on the bus. Three teenage girls sat near the back bantering with each other.


The driver pulled over at one of the last houses on the plateau. He yanked the emergency brake knob with a blast of air, unbuckled his seatbelt, and hopped down the steps. He was about 25, my age. Chubby, handsome, wearing a sky blue polo shirt stretched over his belly. A young woman emerged shyly from the house and stood near him in the driveway. He asked her something. He seemed to be teasing her. She said something back and smiled, then quickly erased her smile and cast a shy hint of a glance at the bus. The corners of her mouth still tugged upwards. He whispered something to her, then turned and bounded back up the steps to his seat. Buckled his seatbelt and pressed the accelerator to finish his route.



 

Photo credit: Doug Van Gundy


Gabriel Rogers is a woodworker and essayist from West Virginia. He studied nonfiction writing in West Virginia Wesleyan's MFA program. His essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Still, The Waking, Kestrel, and Full Stop. He lives in Athens, Greece.

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