At the start of Levrero’s novel The City his protagonist leaves the house to buy groceries and, lost in the rain, flags down a truck. The next two chapters carry him further and further away from his original intention. (The first two chapters are here.)
When I opened my eyes I realised that the sun had already risen. I observed my travelling companions. The woman slept, her head resting on the driver’s shoulder. She was young; without seeing her eyes I would not have ventured to guess her age, but she was certainly no older than thirty. Her hair was very black, and her body small and well-formed.
The driver was still impassive at the wheel, showing no sign of fatigue, his eyes fixed on the road, with an expression of serious concentration that was however not unpleasant. He had big protruding eyes, and leathery skin; his hair too was black, but shinier than that of the woman. I thought him no more than thirty-five; it’s possible that he was forty but didn’t look it, though, in truth, I never had much skill in guessing people’s age.
I made an exaggerated movement to show I was awake, trusting that, in the light of day, he would be more communicative. I took a comb out of my jacket pocket and combed my hair; then I rubbed my hands over my face, trying to clear my mind. But nothing changed the man’s attitude; he stayed impassive, faithful to the steering wheel and the road.
The woman woke a little later, when the sun shone on us directly, in our eyes. The landscape was unknown to me, although this was not a surprise. I’ve travelled little, and I rarely recognise the places through which I pass, perhaps because all landscapes look alike (or, now that I think about it, because when travelling I never pay attention to the details; I’m accustomed to keep my eyes close to the vehicle that’s transporting me, and watch the posts, the fences, the trees or the side of the highway, confused in rapid succession; I find this more interesting than observing the details, it allows me to think with greater freedom, or perhaps not to think at all).
The woman didn’t pay attention to me either. She restricted herself to smoothing her hair with her hands and to casting a quick glance my way, as if to confirm that I was still there. And then she dedicated herself to caressing the driver, and to speaking to him in a loving tone, referring mainly to his exhaustion – which the man did not exhibit – and to how terrible it was to have to travel so many hours behind the wheel.
I wanted to light a cigarette, but the packet had been soaked, and they were all spoiled. I made a ball with the packet, with an obvious movement, and I threw it out, in the hope that the driver would spare me some tobacco. He did not feel himself alluded to this time either, though I had seen him smoke a number of times. Resigned, I looked out the window.
After a while I cleared my throat and asked if we were close to arriving somewhere, and if there was a bus that went along the highway, that could take me to my destination. I realise that my questions were quite vague, but the silence my companions had maintained up to this moment did not permit me to be more exact. I was annoyed by the driver’s guffaw that was followed, with a certain delay, by a silly laugh from the woman.
“The gentleman wants to know if we’re close to arriving somewhere!” the man exclaimed, in a mocking tone, and continued laughing, without giving me an answer.
The woman commented that it would be interesting to know how they could tell me if a bus would take me to my destination, if they hadn’t the least idea of where I wanted to go.
This gave them a reason to continue talking among themselves, in a more pleasant tone, which even permitted them to smile once in a while. I still had no answer and did not have the courage to insist, because to repeat the question I would have had to be more aggressive, telling them that I didn’t know where I was, and if they didn’t know my destination, that was purely and exclusively due to their lack of courtesy, in not having seen fit to converse with me.
It’s not that I would have found it hard to be disagreeable, because I was already fed up; but the truth is that I felt comfortable in the truck – or at least safe – although I did not need it as much as I had the night before. On the other hand, walking along the highway would been good for loosening up and drying my body and clothes; but I was afraid of being stuck, without finding a way to return. So far we had not passed any other vehicle, nor the least sign of human activity.
And I have to confess that I was attracted to the woman; I’m not referring to her physical attractiveness, which was without doubt important, but rather her strange behaviour during the night, that strange duality with me.
At that moment she had eyes for no one but the driver, and her attitude towards me, between mocking and disdainful, seemed more authentic to me than her anger the night before, or her intention to awaken my desire.
Suddenly, without any prior warning, the driver stopped the vehicle and said:
“The journey ends here.”
Nothing in the landscape had changed. Nothing made one suppose that we’d arrived at our destination. I deducted then that the journey had ended for me only, and I prepared to get out. So it was, without doubt, because the motor kept running, and neither of them seemed to have any thought of descending. I took my shoes and socks, which I’d left on the floor of the cabin, along with my raincoat, I opened the door, and before jumping out, I said some word of thanks that immediately seemed ridiculous.
I slammed the door and stood beside the truck, waiting for it to depart. I began to smell a peculiar, unpleasant odour. At the same time I noticed that the jump had hurt my feet, and a sustained pain went climbing my legs, resenting the stretch after the cold and the immobility to which they’d been condemned for hours.
The door opened again and the woman got out hurriedly.
“There you have her!” the driver yelled at me, sticking his head out of the window on our side, throwing himself across the seat to do so. “If I was not performing a sensitive official mission, in which I am, for another thing, running behind thanks to you, and if the regulations did not expressly prohibit it, you can be sure you’d be in for a good beating.” He moved his thick brows, as if enjoying the idea. “But if I got out, you’d run and I’d lose a lot of time trying to catch you, although have no doubt that I would catch you, sooner or later. I think,” he added, with an evil smile, but sweetening, falsely, his tone, “that you will have your punishment anyway, and much worse than what I could give you. Meanwhile,” and he looked at me with deep, frightening eyes, protruding more than ever, “you can keep groping her, as much as you like. It’s fun, no?”
He let out a mirthless guffaw.
“Her flesh is firm, robust, flexible, just right for groping and pinching,” he continued. “And her legs! Her legs are covered in a fine, rough fuzz, that produces a special tickle in your hand.” His face had lost the hardness of the last hours and seemed almost kind while making the description, though his eyes stayed hard and cruel. He pressed his thick lips together, and twisted down the corners. “I’ve already lost enough time with you.” And above the noise of the motor, after releasing the brake, and as he began to pull away, he yelled, “Pigs!”
I stood rooted to the spot, confused and uncomfortable. I hadn’t had the chance to open my mouth to make the least defence; anyhow, even if I had, I wouldn’t have taken it, so as not to accuse the woman – which would have happened, inevitably, if I had explained myself –; neither would the driver have been obliged to believe me; on the contrary, most likely he would consider my explanation a cowardly attempt to shift the blame onto her, and this perhaps would have ignited his fury even further, to the point of making him forget that regulation and the delay he was running (according to him, through our fault, though I for my part did not make him lose more than five minutes, without counting all that he lost himself in saddling us with his stupid final discourse).
Watching the truck move away I discovered with surprise what its cargo was, and the origin of the smell that I’d noticed moments before; no more or less than an immense pile of rubbish, resulting no doubt from home collections, a mountain of material in decomposition.
I wondered the reason for such a long journey transporting that garbage, which could have been burned anywhere close to where it was collected; no utility that could be obtained from that rubbish – which was very doubtful, anyway – would have justified the transport costs.
Anyway the driver took his job very seriously, which made me think that it must have some importance; I thought the strictness of the regulations and times strange as well.
The truck was swallowed by a rise of the highway that hid it for good, after reaching the highest part; I was relieved that now I wouldn’t see it, although I was afraid that at any moment it would turn around and the man would try to take the revenge he had mentioned.
I expected her gaze to be lowered, expectant or fearful, but when I turned towards the woman I saw her eyes fixed on me, with a fiery expression of reproach.
She opened her lips to say something, but it seemed she thought better of it. Instead she set out walking at a quick, firm pace, in the same direction as the truck. I followed her, because I also meant to walk that way; I already knew what there was behind; nothing – just a monotonous, empty landscape –; ahead there was, at least, the hope of finding something different, though for as far as I could see there were only fenced, uncultivated fields.
The highway wasn’t bad; despite the recent rain there were not many potholes, and it was level and mostly clear of stones; I thought that a well-maintained highway, even if it were of dirt and gravel, had to lead somewhere of importance, and though so far it hadn’t happened, perhaps because it was so early, it was logical to expect some regular traffic.
I stopped to put my shoes on because the gravel kept hurting my feet and it was uncomfortable to carry my shoes and socks in my hand; they were wet, like all my clothing, and I had no reason to believe that I’d be able dry them in the near future.
The woman walked a few more steps and stopped also, to wait for me, but without turning her head towards me. I continued walking and she began again, at the same pace, without breaking the silence.
After a half hour of uniform march she decided to wait for me, and when I reached her side she took me by the arm and said:
It wasn’t just simple information. In her tone, apart from anger and reproach (accentuated by the hardness of her expression), there was something of a command – as if, apart from the material possibility, I had the obligation to feed her.
“Me too,” I responded, and kept my eyes fixed on hers, without looking away, to make her understand that I did not feel I was to blame for the situation.
We kept walking, with less enthusiasm. Not so much hunger but the consciousness of hunger weakened us; even more, the certainty that without some unforeseen intervention we would be in the same situation for a long time. (It’s wrong of me to speak in the plural; it’s likely that the woman’s feelings were quite different to mine. In any case, the concrete fact is that our pace slowed.)
In the end, after another long stretch of walking, she stopped again and told me:
“I don’t want to keep walking. You should carry me.”
I looked at her with incredulity.
“You should carry me. I don’t want to keep walking. I’m very tired, and anyway we’ll never get anywhere.”
“That’s ridiculous. Every road goes somewhere. And even if it were like you say, what use would it be to carry you? It would be better, then, to stay here, next to the highway. Why walk uselessly?”
I spoke quickly, and in anger. It mortified me to reason in such a basic manner, over something so stupid.
“And the truck driver?” I added. “Why did he take this highway, if it didn’t go anywhere? And us, why wouldn’t we arrive there?”
“Don’t talk to me about the driver,” she said, as if that were the only word I’d said. “I don’t want to hear any more talk of him.”
However she kept talking about him, at length; she explained that he was a rough, violent man, that many times he’d behaved in an abrupt manner, but that, in reality, he was good-hearted and highly valued by his superiors, because he fulfilled his obligations faithfully and was very hard-working, honourable and diligent. He also knew how to be tender, above all with his wife and children (although she didn’t make it clear if that woman was her), and with women and children in general. Only great anger, like that I had provoked with my childish, disloyal behaviour, could make him force her to get out of the truck like he did.
“If you know how to handle him, nicely,” she added, “it’s easy to get anything out of him; but he can’t stand that people behave in a dirty fashion with him. Right now the three of us could be travelling, comfortably and happily, like good colleagues, instead of having parted upset. And we’re the only ones losing; here we are, tired and hungry. And on top of everything you’re such an egotist that you don’t want to carry me, as would be your duty.”
I didn’t want to debate her lies; such insistence made doubt for a minute, but I went over my behaviour since getting in the truck, to convince myself at once of my absolute innocence; but it was obvious that she didn’t reason like a normal person, and I ended up agreeing to her whim without further conversation.
At the beginning I tried to carry her like a child, or a pile of wood – lying on my extended arms, her nape supported by my right arm, and her legs dangling from the left –; but that position tired me quickly, and I couldn’t take more than a few steps. When I staggered she started to laugh, and I left her on the ground; she didn’t get up immediately, but continued laughing, shouting once in a while that I wasn’t up to a woman, not even a woman as light as her (and the wordplay amused her), and perhaps I was incapable of carrying a child of six months in my arms.
Fed up, I left her on the ground and kept walking. Soon she stopped laughing and yelled at me not to leave her, but I paid her no attention, determined not to detain myself any longer. Then she rose and came running, at a speed that contradicted her protests of exhaustion, and by surprise, with a single bound, she clambered on my back, with her arms around my neck, putting her legs around my waist. In reality, this was the most comfortable manner to carry her; it annoyed me anyway, but I kept walking without trying to make her get down.
I observed her legs, which really were beautiful and that, as the truck driver had said, were covered with a fine down. I felt the temptation of stroking them, and I did, slowly. The hair did indeed produce a special tickle in the palm of the hand.
She shook her legs, kneeing me in the sides, while she insulted me and began one of her discourses: that everyone found it very amusing to grope and touch her legs, without thinking about the abuse they were committing against a poor defenceless woman, etcetera; but her words were contradicted by the laughter she let out every so often, and by her tone, cheerful, like a parody of her previous discourses. Fortunately she soon stopped hitting me, but from time to time she pinched my face and neck, or chewed my ears. To me they seemed signs of affection, although sometimes they hurt.