A man helped me out last night. He was small and dark-skinned, with short curly black hair and dark brown eyes. He wore black pants and a green sweater, with two white stripes running down each sleeve. I met him on my way home from work. His name was Rodrigo.
I’d taken one of the two buses I needed to get back from downtown, but since I didn’t have enough money for the second one, I had to walk from the dark park way up the hill. The cold was skin-cutting. I wasn’t supposed to leave for home as late as I was, but my boss kept us to finish a task. I hadn’t packed a sweater.
I walked into the park, stepping on dry pine needles until I reached the small brick building where the bathrooms were. A yellow light hung above the two rusty doors. I pulled on the men’s bathroom door, but it was locked. I heard shuffling behind the door, but no one spoke. I walked over and pulled on the other door, but it was locked too. I waited and a couple minutes later the men’s bathroom door opened, and a dirty-faced man with bags on his shoulders walked out into the darkness of the park and disappeared. I warmed my hands a moment in the dim-lit bathroom with hot sink water, then I walked back out into the cold.
As I walked I shook.
Coming back onto the sidewalk, I passed a doughnut shop, a parking lot, a convenience store, and a restaurant I often used to visit. Then I passed the town’s grocery store and beneath the highway overpass, until I was on the path that began where the houses did. The path on the right side of the street was made of dirt, mainly for all the horses, and the left was made of cement.
I walked on the dirt side. It was harder to walk on, rocky and uneven, but I walked on that side not only because I was used to it, but because there were weeping willow trees, and interesting smells to soak in, and gates horses came to and stuck their heads over, and other things. The left side didn’t have any of that.
I passed a chain-link fence, I remember now, that usually had a white, plastic sign zip tied to it. A bush stood behind the fence, and its leaves stuck through it and surrounded the sign. There was a message written in red, cursive letters: GOD PROMISES A SAFE LANDING, BUT NOT A CALM VOYAGE.
Last night the sign lay at the foot of the fence, face down in the dead grass and dirt. I picked it up and held it in my hands. There was a black bug slowly crawling across the words. When it crossed the word GOD, my face went numb. I threw the sign on the ground and kept walking, but turned after a few steps, grabbed it again, and leaned it up against the fence, face up.
On I went, and with each step my feet stung. I came to a part of the path that was dark, and once through the darkness, I passed a house with a BEWARE OF DOGS sign on the gate. Just as I read the sign, two pit bulls—one grey, one white—came rushing toward the black gate, stopping just before hitting their faces on it, barking and baring their teeth. They followed me to the end of the house and kept barking well after I had passed them.
Then I came to a feed and grain store that had been closed for a few months. It was a wooden place painted white with green trim. The paint was peeling all over, the windows were dusty, broken cars filled the lot, and pallets of odds and ends lined the inside of the fence. Behind the pallets stood hand-painted signs: GREAT DEALS, CHEAP TOOLS, EVERYTHING WORKS, they said.
Next to the closed store was a rocky, dirt hill where horses lived behind a chain-link fence. The horses were brown and black and white. Some were fully grown and some weren’t; some were at the top of the hill; some were in the middle; and some were on the floor, lying down. I watched them awhile, and just before I left a white horse stood up from the ground, its coat dirty, ribs showing, and walked over to the fence. The horse stopped, and with his brown eyes, stared straight into mine. Then he walked closer and laid his face into the fence, pushing it out. He did the same thing with the sides of his body and his backside. When he looked at me again there was a difference in his eyes. There was frustration and distress in them, madness even. The horse snapped his white tail, nickered, and ran away up the hill. I wanted to do something, wanted to free him somehow, but knew I couldn’t.
So I kept going, and it was at the next corner that I met the man. He was near a bus stop.
He was just a black shape at first, and before his skin, his hair, his clothes, I saw the whites of his eyes. I passed him by. I nodded. Then I heard a whistle, then another. I turned around.
He raised his arm and signaled me over. I walked over to him. He had a thick Spanish accent.
“The bus is coming,” he said, pointing back up the road.
“I know,” I said. “I don’t have the fare.”
“Is coming,” he said.
“I know,” I said, then with my hands showed that I had no money.
He took out his wallet and looked inside of it. He nodded his head and pointed at it.
“I have,” he said.
I shook my head.
“I’ll walk,” I said. “Thank you, though.”
I turned and started walking on. He whistled again. I turned. He waved me back.
“I pay,” he yelled. “Is OK.”
The bus was coming around the bend now, lighting up the road, the dirt path, the overhanging trees, and finally lighting upon the man. It stopped right in front of him. He whistled louder.
“Come on,” he said.
“Are you sure?” I asked.
“Jes,” he said. “Jes.”
The doors opened and he let me in first. The people on the bus all had tired faces. I stood up front, holding onto one of the silver bars. The man paid his fare and mine.
He walked up the aisle, losing his balance as the bus started. He grabbed onto the opposite bar. We shook hands and exchanged names. I looked at his eyes. They stuck out like the horse’s eyes. They had the same wetness, the same honesty, but they didn’t have the same feelings in them. Rodrigo’s eyes weren’t frustrated or distressed, though I could tell they were tired.
“Thank you,” I said.
Rodrigo nodded and looked out the window behind me.
“Too cold,” he said.
“It is,” I replied.
He then turned his head and looked out the front window. The middle of the road was lit by the bus’s headlights, and there weren’t many cars going in either direction.
“Where are you from?” I asked.
“Oh,” he said. “Far.”
He looked down at the floor as though suddenly saddened by something, but I couldn’t be sure. I didn’t ask. He looked back up at me, then squeezed the bar in his hand and looked out the front window again.
The bus stopped before long. The doors opened. I shook Rodrigo’s hand and thanked him once more.
“De nada,” he said.
I stepped out. The doors closed. From outside the bus, I saw him raise two fingers to his forehead, and I did the same. A few cars passed and dogs howled all through the black mountains. I listened to the sounds of their howls, looked both ways, and crossed the street.