I probably would’ve missed ol’ River if he hadn’t spit on the floor.
It was a hot day in August; I was doing duty in some place I’d rather not been. The heavily weighted fly-strip in my un-air-conditioned office served as a metaphor for my life during those times. Both simply existed, a passive effort in an otherwise unforgiving world.
“Lost yer soul didn’t ya boy.” A wad of tobacco spit dripped off the edge of his paper cup.
I had only sat down at the bar for a bottle of horchata, something to clear my throat, and then I was going to meet the train, and probably my next assignment. “You spoke to me?”
He spit again into his cup. I was surprised at his English. “You lost yer soul that’s why yer here.”
I looked up at the bartender who only shrugged his shoulders. Either the bartender didn’t understand the philosophy or he couldn’t understand the English. “Do I know you?”
“You’ve always known me boy.”
His eyes were gray and tired, and the wrinkles beneath his stained ball cap seemed to extend down to his hands. Sure, like I should know this guy. “Oh, really.”
He coughed and spit again. “Let me tell ya how ya know me boy, they simply call me ol River, like that river out there, I just keep roll’n.”
“Well, Mr. River…”
“No mister to it, jest ol’River. Ah came here in fifty eight, like you, I was gonna make it work.”
I tried to smile at him. “Ol’ River, I am here on assignment, with a company.”
He laughed and coughed. “Assignment, ha, they sent you here to die. There’s no life here. Look around. Who’s gonna care about you here? No, boy, before long, you’ll sit here with me, jest watch’n the river roll.”
“Hmm, I don’t know about that.” I decided to indulge him; too hot to return to my office, my clothes hung on me like a dishrag, and the slow moving fan made my sweat feel a little cooler.
Ol’ River wiped his grizzled mouth. “Only, da truth, there’s no room for tales along this river.”
The horchata was bitter, but it didn’t matter. Hope they boiled the water. “Temporary here. You worked here too?”
He pulled on his ball cap. “Watch’d em’ load bananas for near fifteen years.” He spit again and missed the cup.
I thought for a moment. “Yeah, the company moved loading and processing down to Tegucigalpa. Why didn’t you go?”
“Too old, and I knew too much.” Ol River held up a beer glass to which the bartender ignored.
“So, you stayed here?”
Ol’ River let his glass slide down to the bar. “No place to go – you got some place?”
“Got a wife back East in the U.S.”
“Had a wife once – came here – she left.”
“That why you said I lost my soul?”
He shook his head. Thats when I noticed the scar. A deep white indention just below his skull line.
“Suppose. Here.” He reached in his back pocket; then tossed a worn New Testament on the bar. “Ever read that?”
I touched the warm soft leather covering. “Yeah, as a kid.”
“You didn’t read it, somebody read it to you.” He bit off an end of leaf and began chewing.
“I guess that’s right. Why?”
“I’m save’n yer soul boy. Read it.”
I pulled the book toward me.
“Now, never stop reading it, cause when you quit, the river catches you and you drown, right here in a burned out banana field.”
“Why don’t you read it?”
“Memorized, can’t see it no how. Shot in the head.” He coughed and pulled at the ball cap. “I'm just like the river, just roll’n along.”
I didn’t see ol’ River again until the day I hopped a train. He was standing on the siding as we slowly rolled by. I had the book in my backpack and scrambled to throw it back to him, but he turned and walked away.
The other day I found that Testament, and opened it for the first time. The old pages were frayed but held held hundreds of underlines. I began read and soon began to see ol’ River in my mind.
Someday I may return that steamy village. I think I will carry that Testament, find that same bar, and save the soul of some lost being – one waiting on a train.
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