I Was Just Looking

I Was Just Looking

Discreetly, Chad withdrew an expensive American cigarette from his top pocket. No one on the bus noticed. No one, he thought, paid much attention to him any longer. Sporting a Vandyke beard (a "zero" as the young Moroccans called it), wearing locally tailored jackets, together with the closely trimmed black hair and his dark complexion, he moved as one of them through the crowded medina, having mastered the accent and phrases that marked him as a northerner from the Riff mountains.

The barren red plains of the Chaouia outside Casablanca rolled past as the sun dropped below the horizon and smoldered, spreading a deep orange glow over the peaks of the High Atlas mountains. In less than five hours, Insh'allah, Allah willing, Chad would make Marrakech and be in Lisa's bed making love and sipping the bootleg Johnnie Walker.

The old man across the aisle, a shamali from the north, he figured, by the brown-and-white-striped djelleba and the yellow rizah wrapped tightly around the man's head, tapped out a thick line of dark-green snuff onto the back of his trembling hand. He lifted it to his nose and snorted loudly, wiping his nostrils carefully with a handkerchief and replacing the wooden snuff box inside one of the deep pockets of his gown. "B'saha, El Hadj, to your health, pilgrim," said Chad.

"And may Allah give you health as well, my son," came the polite reply.

As the bus chugged up through the steep and winding passes, Chad heard a child several seats behind him begin retching, then a loud splatter against the floor. The odor rose, and he bit hard into his cheek, willing away his own nausea. The air was thick with foul, acrid smoke from a dozen cheap tabac noire cigarettes, Casa Sports, one of the few luxuries afforded the impoverished classes of men. No matter what the temperature or circumstance, Moroccans in every part of the country refused to open taxi or bus windows, believing illness to be borne on swift winds. Chad opened his window anyway, taking deep breaths of the fresh air and then turning to explain to the veiled, older woman behind him that he was feeling ill. He knew it would make little sense, for anyone who was feeling ill would never stick their head out a bus window.

She nodded and remarked that it was a difficult road. A few moments later the woman's orange, henna-stained hand reached over his seat and closed the window. Shutting his eyes, Chad buried his face in his coat sleeves and nodded off.

He woke up as the bus slowed and pulled in at a rest stop. Alhemdoulah, thank God, he muttered, stepping into the cool mountain air. He walked about stretching, filling his lungs with clean, moist night air, and decided to try his luck with a bit of dinner. The nap had settled his stomach.

The severed heads of two sheep, eyes glaring dully, lay on the butcher's stand, lit by bright naked bulbs. The remaining parts and organs were neatly displayed for inspection. Two large testicles hung from a rusted iron hook. Chad heard the snap of bone under the butcher's cleaver and decided on soup.

The cramped stone building was crowded with travelers hunched over steaming bowls of soup and plates of grilled meat. Taking a seat, he called to the qahuwaji for an order of soup and coffee. A few moments later he was served. This is not harrira, he thought, dragging his spoon through the lumpy white fluid. He pushed it aside and sipped at the hot glass of frothy café au lait.

Scanning the room, he suddenly met with an intensely seductive gaze from a girl of no more than sixteen or seventeen. A slight smile flitted briefly across her face, and she quickly lowered her eyes. An exquisite beauty, he thought. Flawless, light-brown skin, deep-set green eyes, hollowed cheeks, and a mane of dark hair flowing from beneath a silver sequined scarf. Her scarlet djelleba was torn slightly at the hem. He gazed at the smooth, graceful curve of her calf, deliberately revealed, he was certain, for his eyes only.

She looked up again briefly and smiled. An older woman, her mother probably, gave the girl a stern glance as a man in faded military fatigues at their table turned around to glare at Chad. Chad avoided the soldier's stare and searched for his cigarettes.

For the next few minutes he smoked his way through the glass of sweet coffee and played a pleasant game of eye catching with the young Berber girl. It was a harmless sport he had grown fond of over the years, as it broke up the monotony of the often dull hours spent waiting for buses and taxis, sitting at sidewalk cafés, or wandering aimlessly through the winding streets to the old medinas.

The driver sounded his horn outside, and the restaurant began to empty. On the way out, he went around back to piss. He knew the bathroom would be filthy, but it would be at least another two hours before he reached Marrakech. Taking a deep breath, he pushed open the wooden door into a dim and stinking closet-sized room with two holes side by side in the sagging concrete floor. And holding his breath he relieved himself.

He was buckling his pants when the door swung open. A man stood in the doorway blocking his exit. Chad expelled a chest full of air, excused himself politely and tried to get by, but the broad-shouldered figure refused to move. The close stench of the tiny outhouse bit into Chad's sinuses and stung his throat. In the gloom he recognized, with a jolt of fear, the military fatigues just at the moment the soldier grabbed him by the neck, pushing him back against the wall and squeezing his throat.

"You were looking at her, I saw you. You were looking, weren't you?"

"I don't know what you're talking..." Chad's words were choked off.

The horn sounded just outside in short, impatient blasts. The stale reek of hot, alcoholic breath struck Chad's face as he struggled to speak. "Okay, okay!" he rasped, grabbing the man's arm. "I was just looking!"

"Rifi dog!"

The soldier's other arm raised up and Chad saw the silvery glint of the blade before it smashed into his face. In that moment between the shock and the pain, he heard the soldier's disembodied voice, quiet and gentle now. "You'll be more careful with the other eye. Yes, I think so."

Chad slumped to the bathroom floor and pressed his hands against his right eye, a wet smear spreading on his cheek. The horn ceased abruptly, as if someone had lifted the needle from a record, the deepening quiet marred only by the drone of an engine pulling away in the distance.