Graves had been sick
for three days when, on the long straight highway between Mazar and Kunduz, a
dark blue truck coming toward them shed its rear wheel in a spray of
orange-yellow sparks. The wheel, as though excited by its sudden liberty,
bounced twice not very high and once very high and hit their windshield with a
damp crack. "Christ!" Donk called out from the backseat. The driver,
much too late, wrenched on the steering wheel, and they fishtailed and then spun
out into the dunes alongside the road. Against one of the higher sandbanks the
Corolla slammed to a dusty halt. Sand as soft and pale as flour poured into the
partially opened windows. The shattered but still intact windshield sagged like
netting. After a moment Donk touched his forehead, his eyebrow bristles as
tender as split stitches. Thin watery blood streaked down his fingers.
From the front passenger seat Graves asked if the other three men--Donk, Hassan, the driver--were all right. No one spoke. Graves sighed. "Glad to hear it." He gave his dune-pinned door two small impotent outward pushes, then spent the next few moments staring out the splintery windshield. The air-freshener canister that had been suckered to the windshield lay quietly frothing lilac-scented foam in Graves's lap. The spun-around Corolla now faced Kunduz, the city they had been trying to escape. "I'm glad I'm not a superstitious man," Graves said at last. The driver's hands were still gripped around the steering wheel.
Donk climbed out on the Corolla's open side, cupping his throbbing eye socket and leaning forward, watching his blood patter onto the sand in perfect red globules. He did not have the faintest idea what he had struck his head against until Hassan, wincing and rubbing his shoulder, muscled his way out of the car behind him. Hassan looked at Donk and shrug-smiled, his eyes rimmed with such a fine black line they looked as if they had been Maybellined. His solid belly filled the stretched sack of his maroon cardigan sweater, and his powder-blue shalwar khameez--the billowy national pants of Afghanistan, draped front and back with a flap of cloth that resembled an untied apron--were splattered with Donk's blood. The whole effect gave Hassan an emergency-room air. Donk did not return Hassan's smile. The night before, in Kunduz, after having a bite of Spam and stale Brie in the rented compound of an Agence France Presse correspondent, Donk and Graves found their hotel room had been robbed. Graves had lost many personal items, a few hundred dollars, and his laptop, while Donk had parted with virtually all of his photographic equipment, including an irreplaceably good wide-lens he had purchased in London on the way over. Hassan, charged with watching the room while they were out, claimed to have abandoned his sentry duties only once, for five minutes, to go the bathroom. He had been greatly depressed since the robbery. Donk was fairly certain Hassan had robbed them.
Donk fastened around his head the white scarf he had picked up in Kunduz's bazaar. Afghan men tended to wear their scarves atop their heads in vaguely muffin-shaped bundles or around their necks with aviator flair. Afghanistan's troublous Arab guests, on the other hand, were said to tie the scarves around their skulls with baldness--mimicking tightness, the hem just millimeters above their eyes while the scarf's tasseled remainder trailed down their spines. This was called terrorist style, and Donk adopted it now. It was the only way he could think to keep blood from his eyes. He also sort of liked how it looked.
"Hassan," Graves snapped, as he climbed out of the Corolla. It was an order, and Graves--a tall thin Brit with an illusionless, razor-burned face--had a voice seemingly engineered to give orders. He had thick brown hair and the ruined teeth of a man who had spent a large amount of time in the unfluoridated parts of the world. His hands were as filthy as the long sleeves of his white thermal underwear top, though his big fingernails seemed as white as shells. Graves made his way to the truck, twenty yards down the road and askew on its three remaining wheels. He glanced down at the tire, innocently at rest in the middle of the highway, that had shattered the Corolla's windshield. Donk noted that Graves looked as stately as was imaginable for a sick man wearing one of those silly war-reporter khaki vests and red Chuck Taylor All-Stars. Hassan rushed to catch up to him, as Graves had not waited.
Excerpted from God Lives in St. Petersburg by Tom Bissell, pages 3 to 12. From the short story titled 'Death Defier'. Copyright © 2005 by Tom Bissell. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
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