“Sombra” by William Lowell Blair

Image by Rachel Deboard / racheldeboard.com

A huge wall of windows looked out onto the thirteen planes, and scooting baggage cars, and the sideways rain. It’s not the way I remembered Dublin. In the airport lounge, all that happened sounded far away. I got the feeling like when I ride an empty train. I wished that my waiting wouldn’t end. A rich looking old man sat across from me reading the paper. He didn’t look like he needed to be anywhere. He looked like he’d done it all already. We were both drinking coffee. He made me want to be old and full of money.

Early in spring I had invited Jon to meet me in London, and now it felt like a bad idea. I didn’t want to drink, but even hearing Jon’s voice made me want to drink. We didn’t like each other anymore, but in two days he was going to meet me at the N 8 Hostel. I had been in contact with Marta by email. She ran an art collective down in Portugal. Jon and I planned to get there and write.

In the neighborhood of N 8 Hostel, I saw a family of four walking down the street crying together. Cops passed with sirens on. There was a park where an old man swept up garbage with a broom and pushcart. A dog was running back and forth around a group of brothers and sisters. A wasp struggled by. The garbage was blowing all over the place. From the hill, I saw that London isn’t tall. From the hill, it all looked like a disaster.

The hostel cost eight bucks for a bed. Guys played pool with their noses down and the lights down. The TV news reported that a prince was killed somewhere in the world. I waited around the park and the auto body shops for two days. Jon smelled like cigarettes when he arrived. We took one walk together around the neighborhood. We were both low on funds, and we couldn’t think of anything to do but leave. We got bus tickets to Paris and went down to the station three hours early. We waited in a joint that looked like a spare room. The garden channel was on the TV with the sound off. There was one other person in there, a woman, who talked to herself and put on makeup. She would put her pocket mirror away, then she would take it out again. The sound cut in on the gardening channel and a voice said that the Dubai Tower had caught fire again.

Jon and I made the bus. It rolled out of the city. On the coast, the bus loaded onto a cattle car, and we roared under the English Channel at 100 miles an hour. On the other side were waves of grass. Hay bales. Airplanes landing. Field half-plowed. White horse. Stout town. I thought, a house built well somewhere is remembered everywhere.

Memory is happiness if you know you’re good, but we didn’t know anything about being good. Jon and I couldn’t remember what we did last week. We couldn’t put two days together. We were so good at forgetting.

In Paris we stayed in the 13th Arrondissement. On the street, I saw kids playing with toy guns. Boys had black feet. A man chased a cat out from the alley. A mother and toddler son walked back and forth along the square. Old men and young men and their wives sat in a neon café. Lost hats were everywhere. It was supposed to be a bad part of town, but it wasn’t. A woman kept saying, “Be careful, be careful. Good wishes, good wishes.”

While Jon was napping, I headed alone towards the famous graveyard that held Jimi Hendrix. I walked by three old women. One of them said to the other, “Bonjour Michelle.” A woman smoked next to her fish. People walked in the market. Little boys spoke all different languages and followed their fathers. The sound of a man playing music was overwhelmed by the ush of boats passing by. Military personnel were patrolling with fat guns. A woman ate bread in a wedding dress. There were grandpas and great grandpas leading or following their great-grand families. And a one-eyed waiter smoked a cigarette. At night, Jon went out into the city and got blasted with a girl from Florida while I lay in bed.

My skin got hot when I thought about traveling further. I sweated fear. I thought about leaving Jon in the dust. I felt we were selected to die and this whole thing was a bad way to go. I had a dream that I screamed at an old man. I called him Mr. Fucking-nobody. In the morning, I woke Jon up. Jon shook. We took a train to the outskirts of town where we hitched a ride. Jon was backbiting me about travel. He thought I was trying to rip him off on the bus ticket from yesterday, so I said, “You think I’m not gonna pay you back? What the fuck. What the fuck? I’ve got money coming my way from my last weeks of work.” I said, “I didn’t come here to get laid and get wasted and run after girls. I hate that shit.” I said, “Don’t act like you came here to write.”

We took the ride from an ex-tennis player. He pointed at the back bumper of a semi and said, “C’est le derrière.” Then he pointed at the flowers on the side of the road. Then the sky and the clouds. White cows, and tractors. He said, “Those arches sitting on the horizon, they were supposed to be a monorail. It was built when I was a boy and then it was abandoned to sit out in the middle of nowhere.”

We got picked up again on the side of a blazing highway and let off near a deep forest. We walked by the interstate. A guy inside his semi waved his hands at us to tell us that we were morons to be on the side of this road. We acted hopeful, but we knew there was no ride. So, we walked back up the ramp and past the abandoned toll booth. We saw a sign for camping five kilometers away. That’s the direction we went. There were some houses that were nice next to old barns. Turrets of old wars. A dog barked. Trucks slowed down when they passed us, but they weren’t giving rides. We were lost in a way that I wanted to remember.

A man and his son gave us a few bananas and refilled our water bottles. The campsite was near the graveyard and the white cows. There was a little pool and a washhouse. We didn’t look around the property much. The sun was halfway down the sky. We just wanted something to eat. The manager pointed at things in his fridge and I said, “Yes please.” I said, “Oui.” And, “Oui, yes please.” He put together a plate of food and put us out on the benches. A loaf of bread, a whole cantaloupe, yogurt, beer. Then water. Dried meat and cheese. Then another beer. I could see a peep of the countryside, blue mist twilight.

Jon said, “I thought you were going to leave me behind back there in Paris.”

I said, “I wouldn’t do that.”

Jon said, “Cuz, you know, you told me to come here. You can’t abandon me.”

I had the tent and Jon had the sleeping bag. We shared them both. We had cold sweats and nightmares next to each other. Everything we owned was wrapped up around us in the dark. Tap tapping of the rain. Mist and rain and dark.

This girl and I, we looked at the moon, and we looked at the forest. We were in the middle of darkness. We were up close to each other so I could feel her breath, and we fell asleep.

In the morning, we paid something like fourteen euros, and the manager took us in his truck to a busy rotary where we got picked up by two old women. We didn’t do French, and they didn’t do English. They fed us fried dough and took us to the train station. I didn’t have the heart to hitch it this time anyway, nor the energy to care. We took a train to Bordeaux.

Passing Niversac, there was a graveyard, and on the other side was a tennis court and graffiti. We had to wait outside the station because the military had discovered a suspicious package. Then we took a twenty-four-hour bus ride to Lisbon. A boy sitting next to me listened to rap music as he fell asleep. I plucked facial hairs one at a time from my scraggly jaw. It was midnight. Jon was asleep. Everyone was asleep. I could see the black shadow of a mountain. We passed huge power lines. They looked like giant men walking in a line out into nowhere.

Marta picked us up in her tiny car and drove us on the long road back to the compound. Marta was a friend of a friend. I had been invited here in good faith. We ran out of things to talk about right away. The sun was setting, but I saw the lights of São Luís ahead of us. The compound had been built by Marta’s husband’s great-grandfather. Now, the husband was somewhere else. A big bunch of bio artists were celebrating. They had spent the summer splicing the genetics of fungus and flowers. It was mad science. When we showed up, they were getting ready to leave, and mutant seeds had been planted around the village. Their work was hung up in the barn and would be exhibited at the Festival.

I had implied that Jon and I were sleeping together because I thought they would care less about me bringing a spare as long as it was a lover. We didn’t keep the whole thing up though. We didn’t try to. The room we got was in the lover’s corner of the compound with one big bed. Adam and Kira were above us. Milos and Maya were up a flight of stairs around the corner.

It was a good room. There were spiderwebs all over. There were framed daguerreotypes of children. Plates hung on the walls. Old suits and dresses hung in the closet. There was a safe with nothing inside except rickety pieces of wood, a porcelain duck, several books, and a colored pencil. It was like the whole compound; it looked like it had hardly been saved from disappearing.

At the long table at dinner was Milos and his boys, Luka, and Yoshi. There was fifty-year-old Adam and his son, Blue, and Blue’s twenty-one-year-old girlfriend, Kira. There was Maya, and Minerva, and the guy who went to MIT. There were the two professors from Kansas City. There was Marta. There was Izzy, and there was also Maria Francesca, who looked like an Amazon woman and a wrestler. She laughed and scared Jon. She had jello masks cast from people’s faces. They were set up in the barn and covered in fungus. They were turning black.

Cats slinked on the walls of the compound and stars were out. And satellites. The street lamps made old western movie shadows. Lanterns were stuck in space, floating back and forth in the wind, green ghost lights glowing in the trees. Footsteps were painted down the street. Adam said that every place he ever went reminded him of upstate New York.

Jon and I had shown up to a celebration. All these people had done it, they had put their work in all through June and July. Now it was August, and we showed up for the wine and the grilled chicken and the dessert that Marta had brought from Lisbon. Earlier in the summer, twenty people were living at the compound. Now it was just us few. The Kansas City professors had left before I woke up the next day, and Maria Francesca was going back to Lisbon to see her family, leaving her masks swimming in water.

In the morning, the market square was a big blank. The sun made everything white. The old men were in the shade. The boys—Blue, Luka, and Yoshi—couldn’t play catch with the dogs in the middle of the day because the dogs would work themselves to death in the heat. The store and the bakery closed at 11 a.m. The only thing that stayed open was the café, with café Americano for forty cents and beer for sixty. Sandwiches for a $1.50. A young woman worked behind the counter. Her boyfriend would stop by on his dirt bike. He looked like a mad skeleton. Her younger sister, she was probably eleven, walked the drinks out to the old men. No wind. No clouds. The place was a torch. The earth felt bald against the sun. São Luís was a town built close to the ground. No sunscreen was sold in any store. Everyone hid from the sun.

I survived in the shade of the café trees. I wrote while the green coyote-looking dog nestled under cars. Jon napped. The whole town went to sleep. No birds chirped. The water in the fountain ceased to flow. The shutters were pulled on the bakery. I wished it could stay this hot and this quiet forever. Then the day would cool. Music would play on the street. The bikes moved again. When the sun was nearly gone, Penguins Restaurant would open. For five bucks at Penguins I could get a big fat Portuguese meal or a big fat pitcher of wine, or five gin and tonics with Bombay gin. They didn’t serve with lime, but limes grew on the trees outside. Then, the night forgot the day. Old women started to sweep up the square. A man walked down the street with a ladder on his shoulder. Cars drove by, barely missing people’s feet. Jon and I walked down to buy him cigarettes from the machine at Café Gabriel. Nothing seemed like a bad choice at night. A movie was put on in the courtyard. Old men, young kids, and mothers came to watch Mamma Mia with Portuguese subtitles. Old walls, bricks un-laid, weeds, burnt sand and rocks cooled off. When Dominic Cooper was singing his love song to Amanda Seyfried, little Yoshi said, “Why isn’t he killing her!” like an Army boy. A wild man. Half Serbian. Half American.

In the morning, the dogs sniffed out cheese and licked up ants. The boys waited to go to the beach all day. When they couldn’t go to the beach they drew and watched daytime TV, played with the dogs. They swore and they killed each other. At noon, I made a sandwich. I sat with the boys and we watched a huge black bug making laps around the living room.

Jon wrote one poem a day. Maya hung up painted cowhides in the barn. They seemed to sweat. At the café, old men said things to me in Portuguese. The green coyote dog lapped up water. It belonged to the whole town.

Four percolators worked up coffee. Four broken-down, blackened percolators. Milos made breakfast for all the boys. The boys had won half a dozen knives and lighters from the prize machine at Penguins. They ate breakfast with their knives. They wanted to go to the beach to start fires in the sand with old sticks. They wanted to go to the beach because there was the clubhouse with ice-cream sandwiches, and maybe because there were topless women. We drank our coffee. Then the artists disappeared into the barn. The boys and Jon beat the shit out of the keyboard set up on the coffee table, playing one cord over and over.

On the day of the Festival the shops had white paper hung up in their windows. A little boy rode his bike back and forth through the café. There was a garage full of beer and surrounded by children. The weather station said eighteen wildfires were raging in Portugal. We had a big lunch with all the artists. It was a soup with ribs and spines and fat fish pieces. Along with bread and vino, and homemade tortillas. Marta stood up and made a toast to all the artists who made work. At night, the white paper was taken off the windows to reveal installations. Minerva grabbed Jon and me to dance in her performance piece. We had to mime each other on the floor of the barn. We made a demon dance. Jon’s face turned crazy. My face felt like it pulled to all ends. After it was over we danced on the street. Then Jon and I got trashed. Time compressed and got all mixed up. We danced with these German girls, and we all walked to the old graveyard. The gate was chained up and the awning hung sideways. We jumped the stone wall to get in. Jon and that girl walked away and tried to screw somewhere in the dirt over the hill. This girl and I, we looked at the moon, and we looked at the forest. We were in the middle of darkness. We were up close to each other so I could feel her breath, and we fell asleep. The night had cooled, and she was so warm. She was like the body of the city. She felt like survival. Then she got a phone call. We walked into the middle of the street, and she hopped into a dirty station wagon and drove away from the moon.

Coins or broken glass clattered on the ground far away. Jon teetered out from the shadows covered in dust, and he told me it didn’t work. He said, “She was like, grabbing it and all that shit, but it just didn’t happen. It wasn’t going to happen, and I told her so.”

After the festival was over, there was graffiti on the white walls of São Luís. It read “Mwahahahahaha” on the ancient wall of a dead saloon. Minerva and Maria Francesca were gone, and so was the guy from MIT. Minerva had left behind a bottle of Mezcal, and Maria Francesca left behind the good coffee beans.

Adam and I played Monopoly with the boys on the big dinner table. I ate big hunks of meat and cheese with hot sauce. I made a cup of coffee. The boys teamed up against Adam, and then they teamed up against me. So, we both went bankrupt. The TV was playing a drama show, and the sun was beating down outside. It was a Holocaust movie afternoon.

We all went with the boys to pick wild blackberries. There were goats behind wire fences. We had hardly picked enough between all of us for a whole basket, because we kept feeding the goats. Blue had berry stained fingers and cheeks. Adam and Kira lagged behind. Jon and I were ahead.

We went out to dinner. Then we had a nice drink. Blue broke two wine bottles by accident. Milos gave the boys five dollars to go buy some scratch tickets from the bar, and when they lost, he said, “I want them to learn that this is no way to make money. When I was a young man, I once went on a streak and won all the money in a little casino. It was a little place and they could not pay me out, so instead I took everything from behind the bar, and I took a friend, and I went and drank for two months on the beach.”

When the sun started to set, we gathered up all the limes that we could find on the ground, and we grabbed a piece of wood, and we played Lime Baseball in the courtyard. None of us could figure out the rules. Then we had a home-run derby, and Yoshi won when he hit one over the fence into the next yard. Or maybe not; we couldn’t see a thing. We were just throwing limes around.

We sat outside and looked up at the stars. The big sky was a great black. A plane flew above. I waited for it go away, but it just kept blinking into nothing. All homes are like this. They’re like dreams, and when you leave they’re hard to remember.

That was the end for Adam and Kira and Blue. Blue had slept on the couch. His shirt covered in ketchup was washed and hung up to dry on the line. Now it was stiff, clean, and still stained with ketchup. Kira rolled her last joint of Portuguese weed and gave us a bag of leftovers. Adam had his button-down unbuttoned to the top of his bellybutton. Blue was sunburned on one side of his face, and his eye was red. They were gone at 10:25 a.m.

In a few days, Maria Francesca’s faces dried out and cracked open.

Milos took the boys, Jon, and me to the secret beach. To get to it we had to drive onto a farmer’s property, and climb down the sandy cliffs. The boys played swords with bamboo sticks. A boat off the shore was moving sand to the other beach. Luca pretended to cut off Yoshi’s head. A cow looked at us from the top of a cliff. The heat was killer. Good for cold water. The plants in the shade were all weatherbeaten. We rode the waves, but Jon was too skinny. He was afraid that he’d get sucked away out into the ocean. From the water, I saw him like a reed on the beach. We were alone except for a red naked man smoking a cigar.

There was a moment of stillness. One wave. Two waves. Another. Parted yellow cliffs. The boys got naked and ran around. Luka could do a handstand, and he taught Yoshi, Jon and me. The waves and the cliffs and all that out there. Beyond the boyhood it was calm.

Milos’ smile was also a frown. He packed the joint with Kira’s extra weed, and we got too high to drive. So, we stuck around. The old naked man smoked his cigar at the other end. A young couple came and lay down, along with a young naked family. The strong tide revealed rocks. I dug a hole and pooped in it. Down the beach in a cove a seagull had perched to die. One billion flies swarmed the shade. Cigarette butts and plastic. More nudity.

“You know how I know God doesn’t exist?” Milos said. “When I was a boy I was riding my bike home when it started to rain. It did not just rain. It started to come down, and thunder, and I could hear it coming closer. Then I could see it. When the lightning got very close, I prayed to god that I would not get hit. It got closer, and closer, and finally it came, and it struck the tree across from me. It split in half, but it wasn’t God that helped me. It was the tree.”

Soon the sun was setting behind the ocean. There was a thick atmosphere in front of the sun. It changed shape and it looked like it was melting. Then we went to the bumper cars and we drove them around.

At the compound, a big group of commune hippies were coming in to spend the night. It was three guys and two beautiful women. One was a dancer from New York who had been picked up in Amsterdam. The other was a Swedish girl who was picked up off a boat. They were tired. They were only at the compound for a day. They just needed to do laundry, and they needed to eat and sleep. I showed them their rooms and the clothes line. I showed them the percolators, and the living room with the fireplace. We opened up the barn, and with a flashlight I showed them Maria Francesca’s faces.

Jon and I went out to Penguins. We were celebrating, because we thought we had done some work. We split a Portuguese meal and several drinks. I told Jon I could imagine being supremely old in a house in São Luís but I couldn’t imagine being thirty. Sometimes it seemed all I understood was Jon, and the only thing Jon understood was me.

We drank until we were blasted. Then we went back to the compound where the girls and the guys had gone to sleep. Milos was still up. He seemed to never be able to sleep.

In the morning, we all had red faces. Milos made coffee.

He said, “The mist overhead last night—I’ve got a lamp, street lamp, outside my window. The mist flew by. Going, going. Normally, it’s foosh—it just sits there, but last night it moved like crazy.”

Milos walked us to the end of the gate. He got our information. He said that we could meet up with him if we ever went over to Germany. We left on the first misty day in São Luís.

Lisbon felt 20,000 years older than itself. The pipes drained into the dirt. Black shadows. Underpass. White dust, parks. Forest. A camp of tents down in the valley. The streets of a thousand cities had been thrown together. Ralph Towner played in a bar somewhere. All human things left alone turned back into rocks.

We met Maria Francesca for a drink. She took us to a jazz place, and then over to the park, and over by a statue of an old doctor. It was covered with pictures of people that needed to be saved. Kids were lounging on benches and playing with their dogs in the dark. The cafés closed. Only the corner stores were open, and the evening was making that switch to real night life. Clubs were starting to open up somewhere. Maria Francesca didn’t stay out late though. We drank 100 cl. beers and then we walked her to her parents’ house. Tomorrow was her dad’s birthday. Maria Francesca was different because she was now home.

In the morning, Jon and I caught a bus. We left the ocean. We left São Luís, Lisboa, and Portugal. Normally it’s hard to know when something is over, but this was easy. It was over. The pressure of the road was held by the story of the bus. It was headed for the middle of Spain. It would stop in Madrid and then go up to Paris. Jon fell asleep next to me. I was thinking about the boys and the beach. I wanted to find that feeling again, and I knew that it wasn’t back where I left it. It was someplace way in the future. Power lines led out of sight. Two great nuclear smoke stacks. Soon, we passed an abandoned town and a forest fire. The sky turned orange and dark. It was the color of the sun, but it ate up the sun. I thought it was going get us too, but the bus drove on.



William Lowell Blair grew up in Iowa and now lives in Paris. He would like to thank Marta de Menezes and Cultivamos Cultura for hosting him in Portugal.