Switchback, 1994

The Dead Can Still Dance

 

A Public Security Bureau officer banged on the bus doors and pulled himself inside. He looked down the aisle, past the sacks of vegetables, at the stack of bricks. The driver knew the PSB had him. The bus was grossly overweight. Through the windscreen, the passengers in the front rows saw three trucks, a minivan, and another bus parked in the crook of the next switchback. They’d been creeping through the mountains since midday and it was getting dark. Even if their driver had his papers in order, and enough for a bribe, it wasn’t likely he’d be able to get the battered green school bus moving again. They’d barely been moving as it was. The engine had cooked itself miles ago. It gave off raw grinding yowls when forced into a lower gear. It yowled when they climbed. It yowled on the short level stretches. Its shocks had been cut from granite.

Only on the downhills did they make any speed, and then the driver didn’t so much steer as ride the thing like a brakeless train, flying around corners, the doors flapping open, blasts of icy wind washing through the cabin, tires making that horrible ripping sound on the pavement that it seems can only be followed by the dead silence of their complete detachment from the road. In the mountains, everyone drove like this, all over the road, drunk on the freedom of locomotion, but there was an element of pragmatism to their fear of low speeds. In a head-on collision, speed gave you a survival advantage, your momentum propelling you, like a plow parting sod, through a slower, ascending party. The hulks of buses driven by the slow and unlucky lay in nests of shredded trees down in the valley.

Their only hope of getting through the mountains was to maintain momentum. Now they were stopped cold on an incline. In the middle of the bus, a chest-high stack of mud bricks blocked the aisle, the handiwork of a peasant who had, one armload at a time, carried aboard five hundred pounds worth, while her husband dutifully stacked them. It had taken forever because, as it turned out, half the passengers were experts on brick stacking, and the husband had to stop every five seconds to defend his methods. At first, he’d just muttered and waved off their commentary, but after ten minutes, he was openly engaged in shouting matches with at least three different farmers; another faction was shouting at the first to leave him alone so he could finish, and yet another was shouting at everyone else to shut up. The job eventually got done, and it was then that the driver, in a blue parka and green track pants, rose from his seat where, feet up on the dash, he’d been smoking dreamily for the duration of the episode. He sidled back to the brick stacker and said, “You can’t put these here. They’ll throw off the vehicle’s center of gravity. Move them back there.” He waved his cigarette at a spot five feet aft.

 

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