Extract from Walking
With Time: Chapter 7 – North Carolina.
“I was close to a small town called Maco. From here Rte. 87 winds its
way through the backwoods for 10 miles down to Highway 17. I’d been too
tired and down-at-heart to eat anything the previous night - it took me
a while to find that suitable spot in the woods - so I breakfasted on my
remaining nuts, Snickers, and dried fruit. I hadn’t bothered to stock up
with food at the Wilmington K-Mart, thinking then that there was board
and lodge awaiting me in Delco. So I was keen to find a store of any description.
It appeared soon enough, the Maco Mini Mart.
There was a large, old Cadillac parked outside, with a young boy hanging around by the passenger door. He was a dark-skinned boy, no more than twelve, and I’d have pegged him as a Mediterranean of some persuasion, had we not been in the backwoods of North Carolina. His expression was sad, as if his Christmas had been cancelled, just like mine. He fidgeted nervously as he watched me offload my backpack outside the store. I smiled and greeted him, but there was no response. Then, as I was securing Ulises’ leash to my backpack, he spoke, and when I turned round, I saw that he was talking to someone in the car. But there was no one there.
The store offered very little in the way of food. Its largest section of anything, placed strategically close to the entrance, was a collection of pornographic videos. I glanced at these for a moment - they looked highly promising for those so taken - then picked up some bread and cheese and a few chocolate bars, and took them to the counter, where I was met by the sad eyes of the young boy. He had few words and he spoke with a heavy accent. On the wall above and behind him were several posters and official documents in Arabic script, one with a sentence in English identifying his family as Palestinian.
“What’s your name, son?”
“And where are you from?”
“Who were you talking to outside?”
“He’s in the car?”
“Well, you have a nice Christmas, Sharif.” And it dawned on me immediately that with a name like Sharif he probably wouldn’t be celebrating Christmas.
I sat down against my backpack, taking the opportunity to feed Ulises, who for some reason had refused to eat his breakfast. I fed him twice a day, usually carrying enough dry food for four days, and I made him stick to this schedule as much as possible. The young boy was back outside, shuffling sorrowfully by the car. Again there were words with someone inside. But there was no one there! I stood up and, without making it too obvious what I was up to, I walked a few feet towards the car. There was a voice, no question, a small, husky voice coming from beneath the wheel. But whatever owned that voice was hidden deep below the driver’s seat. I sat down again with Ulises. The boy looked at me.
“Would your dog reach here?” he asked.
I knew it was a question from his tone, but I had to ask him to repeat it.
“Would my dog reach there?” I paraphrased his question, implying the need for further assistance in order to give him any meaningful answer.
“Yes.” he said. “Because I am not allowed to go near dogs and I am frightened that your dog may come here and harm me.”
“Ahhh, I see, said the blind man. Would my dog be able to reach you - over there - if he strained on his leash? Is that your question?”
“No, Sharif, my lad. Given the length of his leash and its current connection to my backpack, no, he would not reach there. Not even if he wanted to, which, as you can see from his current preoccupation with food, is the last thing on his mind.”
Sharif communicated this, in Arabic, to his invisible father. The small, husky voice made response, soliciting a nodding of the head from the son.
“Please, will you go now.” He said to me in his dry voice, his words devoid of any emotion.
Now I was angry. It took all my self composure to hold back from going to the open, driver’s-side window, dragging out whatever twisted shape lay beneath the seat, and beating it to a bloody pulp. But my heart bled for poor Sharif. He was a mere mouthpiece, burdened by his stiff, but competent command of English. And what life must he lead? Here, among strange people - friendly to me, of course, we share a heritage from over 400 years past - but surely hostile to him and his kind. And what a future, amid overpriced cheese and chocolate bars and pornographic videos! So I said nothing. No gesture I might have made by way of indignation, or compassion, could have had the slightest benefit for young Sharif. I hoisted my pack, went a little closer to look at what lay beneath the driver’s seat... but there was nothing there.
A few miles down the road, I received a warmer welcome from one with whom I share an ancient heritage, though you’d be hard pressed to find anything on the surface that connects me and Bobby Watson. Bobby called me over to sit on his porch for a while, brought out a cup of coffee, a bag of tangerines for the road, and enough dry dog food to last Ulises through till the New Year. It was only when he came back from his kitchen and sat down beside me that I noticed he had no legs. They’d been cut off at the knee. He tapped out a tune on his aluminum lower limbs. I mentioned the strange encounter at the Mini Mart. Bobby shook his head with obvious displeasure.
“I - ray-nyuns!”
There seemed no point in correcting him or in saying anything about the huge differences between the various peoples of the Middle East. They were foreign, they were swarthy, they were aloof, and they charged high prices. That was enough.
He listened to my story with great relish. And there was nothing foreign to him about Ingram, Twide, and Browne. He could picture them in his mind as though they were walking down his road, which they might well have done, 432 years before.
“We gotta story of our own that brings folks from all over. Had some fella from Noo Yowark here just the other day. Ever hear about John Baldwin?” I hadn’t. “He was a railroad worker, up thar in Maco, just north ‘o where you turned offa 74. Couple year back, he gone and got himself killed. Slipped between the cars of a freight train and got himself de-cap ‘o tay-tud. Well, weren’t too long afore some folks said they’d seen a headless ghost wanderin’ down the railroad tracks. Ain’t seen it maself. But enough folks say they have.”
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