The following is a post from the work, The Centro, which is being written during the Nanowrimo November event. The goal of the event is to try and write a book in a month. The following post is not a final copy of the book, but a live blog of a work in progress that will need editing before final release. Enjoy!
Pavement, fumes, and people formed the mortar between the cracks of the city and The Centro was its lifeblood. Miguel was The Centro or more that the Centro had become him. The morning moved in and Miguel rose to meet the day like he had for nearly a quarter of a century. His small stone room was spartan. The only furniture was a small bed with aged linens and desk covered in papers and pictures. Miguel’s stretched his toes and moved them in a choreographed dance familiar to elite formula one drivers and a rural transport.
He slowly dressed in the small chair that protested every movement. His socks, black; Pants, freshly pressed; and the white shirt starched to a firm crisp. A uniform he wore with great pride. The small yellow lamp weakly lit the desk. Buried beneath small sketches of a church and coupons were the retirement papers and pension settlement. Years of toiling and service had been reduced to a buyout, generous, but nonetheless not what he had signed up for. The dream of a seaside retirement in a small apartment, watching waves crash and children scream on the southern Andalucía coast were lost. There was still a chance, but the pension he had planned for was not enough and the building anxiety of this day was more than he wanted.
His knees cracked as he reached for his jacket, keys, and leather driving gloves. The wooden door to his room was older than his dead grandfather but still as strong as a young waiter working the hill town cafes. The hinge cried out as he stepped into the small stone room where there was an old couch covered in thick blankets, a colorful Moroccan rug, and a table with cracked glass. He nearly missed the waif-like creature buried under a down blanket.
“Momma,” he spoke. She waved him off as he sat on the edge. Her arms gave away her age, the skin hanging like used dresses on curtains. But her face was still young, rubbed twice daily with hand-pressed olive oil. “Why are you out here? You must back to bed.”
“If I wanted to sleep on a stone I would go outside,” she cracked.
“I can get you more blankets if you need them.” He ran his hands through her hair, a small clump releasing into his fingertips. He pulled back the blanket and examined her line. The tape was still holding. “How are you feeling?”
“Well, it’s early so you should go back to sleep. Do you want me to carry you back to bed?”
“Yes,” she said softly. Miguel ran his arms beneath and felt her hips. He lifted as she wrapped her arms around his neck, resting her head on his shoulder. “I’ll feel better later tonight. I’m just tired now.”
“Don’t feel sorry. Do you want me to make you something?”
“Warm water. My throat is dry.”
“Anything to eat?”
“I’ll make you toast so you have something when you wake up.”
Miguel folded the blankets and placed the frail woman down onto the bed. He brought down a fresh cover and tucked the woman in. Next to her nightstand was a coffee cup that he grabbed when he left the room.
The kitchen was sparse, a single counter with two burners and a small sink. Dishes were stacked in a drying rack and spices and oils lined the small window sill. Outside he could see the bus parked against the wall. The street lighting reflected off the white exterior and gave him enough light to work in the kitchen. He placed a fresh cup of water into the small microwave and dropped two pieces of bread into the toaster. He waited, listening to the rhythmic ticking of the clock before it released a small chime telling him it was the bottom of the hour. After buttering the toast, he brought the warm cup of steaming water and toast into the small bedroom. She had fallen asleep again and he set the items on the small stand.
Miguel rubbed her shoulder and touched his face, pinching his eyes between his fingers. He whispered a small prayer, “Protect her.”
On the nightstand was a copy of the tourism guide to the Canary Islands. He smiled and thought of the white endless beaches with Europeans sipping watered down drinks and shopping for trinkets to bring home.
Miguel rose and left the house. It was still dark this early in the morning. The air was chilled and the sun had yet to come up over the horizon. The alleyway between the buildings was less than twelve feet wide, and the white walls were bright under the orange street lighting. The apartments were all two and three stories high, with iron balconies decorated with potted plants and drying clothes. His shoes clicked and echoed and he reached for the driver-side door.
The Centro van could seat ten comfortably with six standing but often could exceed twenty on busy summer weekends, where locals and tourists mix. The roof was extended and could accommodate most, but sacrificed the view of the hill town. The Centro was one bus of many that served the local area. Shuttling people up and down the hill and in and out of the city. Larger busses would navigate the traditional roads bring people into the city, but only his drove the small and winding roads of the hill town community. To navigate the medieval dimensions required concentration, experience, and a bit of luck to avoid smashing into the stone buildings.
Miguel slumped into the seat and pressed the switch for the tablet. The system came to life, a warm blue light covered Miguel’s face. He checked the till and counted the remaining money from the night before. He noted the total in a notebook and dropped it in the door. A tiny printer kicked out a system diagnostic test that Miguel read and tossed into the wastebasket.
Miguel’s eyes narrowed as he focused on the blind curve ahead. He could see the coach turning and his hands moving silently around the wheel. Like a quick flash, he visualized the three-kilometer route, weaving through the hill down and down into the main square. He had spent years behind this wheel traveling the route. Miguel pulled out the leather gloves and squeezed his hands in. A rush of excitement flooded through him, as if he had swapped masks. His heart raced gripping the wheel and turning his wrists over. He was a racer, in a driver’s body. Images of De Villota danced through his mind. His mouth bent up and he turned the bus over. The small four-cylinder engine rumbled beneath him. He popped the clutch and the bus pulled away.
Miguel had lived in the town of Arcos De La Frontera all his life. He had been born to a family of five in a small apartment off Calle Boliches just down the road from San Pedro’s church where he had been baptized as a child. The town was just south of Seville and its history stretched back to the wars with the Moors in medieval Spain. The town was filled with shops and a school. Games of football were played in the streets, periodically broken by a meandering tourist in a tiny rental car. Miguel spent late afternoons looking at the orange and rose sunsets imagining himself as a knight or infantryman centuries before.
The Guadalete river formed a horseshoe turn just below the high cliff. The houses and apartments sat perched over a hundred meters above on the top of a sheer face of white rock. The narrow buildings were painted white to provide cool alleys to walk during the blazing summer days.
A single narrow road carved its way through the narrow town along the ridge that formed the hill. Every inch of land was covered by white stone buildings or asphalt road and only potted plants hung from balconies and old lamp posts, giving too little green in a bleached world. It was a one-way road that snaked through homes, shops, and vacation inns. This was The Centro, this was Miguel’s route. The drive was narrow, technical, and required a demented focus to avoid fear-less locals and absent-minded tourists. It costs a euro to ride the three-kilometer loop, starting at the plaza center in the modern section of Arcos and finishing on the top of the hill town near the church of San Agustin.
Miguel downshifted as he rounded the turn, pressing the clutch deep and revving the small engine.
It was still early in the morning as he emerged from the quiet hill roads that opened into the plaza and downtown squares. The streets were empty except for pairs of elderly couples out for their morning walks. They would wave as he passed, his white bus with red Centro lettering emblazoned on the side. With one hand, he finished his coffee and turned the bus into the city station. City charter buses lined the stalls and a small contingent of drivers stood huddled in the corner smoking underneath a propane heater.
Miguel pulled alongside the men and opened the small window, “Good morning whale riders.”
The older of the drivers walked up to the window, “Miguel on behalf of the crew, we will miss your ugly face.” The old man laughed and tapped on the door.
“This face pays well.”
Miguel pulled away and parked in front of the city gas station. He stepped out of the bus and flipped up his collars. It was cold and let out a long breath. The Centro bus was the only one in the fleet to take regular fuel, the rest were diesel. It was an initiative to be eco-friendly within the city limits. He didn’t buy it. They were louder and cost more to maintain. The maintenance staff loved the new coaches, as they boosted their hours and overtime.
The bus was full and Miguel placed the gas pump back into the smallholder. He walked around the bus to examine the outside. He had kicked the tires on this very bus for over nine years and eight on the previous bus. There was something about the transport that he loved. She was thin but tall, exactly how Miguel loved his women. He pulled out a small rag and rubbed the headlamps clean.
Miguel heard Ines’s boots closing in behind him. The man was short and rotund and mimicked a human football. He was balding, but fighting the inevitability through a poor combover. He held two coffees in his hand and a clipboard tucked under his arm.
“Good morning Miguel. How does she look?”
“As good as always.” Miguel took the styrofoam cup from the section manager’s hand. “It’s cold.”
“It will warm by the time sun rises.” Ines swallowed hard as if he were holding something back. “Did you get your paperwork?”
“I did, last week.”
“You can check out tonight if want, or if you want you can do it any day this week.”
Ines reached into his pocket and pulled out a small metal flask. He dribbled the brown liquid into the cup and then offered to Miguel who waved him off.
“I appreciate it. How’s Felicia?”
The round man shifted, “She beautiful and every man in her school wants to date her. So my life sucks right now.”
Miguel smiled, “I’ve got it easy then.”
“How is Rose?”
“Found her on the couch this morning. She said she couldn’t sleep. I wouldn’t doubt it.”
“You’ll have more time now.”
“I spend my days with you paying me to drive in circles, it’s going to be hard staying put.”
“Don’t come crawling back here asking me for a job. I’ll stick you on one of the large whales.” Ines looked up at the group of drivers laughing. “I don’t think you would work with them.”
“If those are my options then I’ll take the cliff walk.”
“Into the river for a splash…”
“And off to the Mediterranean for a swim.” Miguel tapped Ines to move and he opened the door sliding into the driver’s seat. His feet moved and his hand played the shifter.
“Off to pick him up?”
“Life’s a mess without ritual.” He pressed in the clutch and the engine roared to life.
Miguel pulled out of the station and the men watched him process like royalty through the courtyard and disappear around the corner. Ines paused for a moment still remembering Miguel. He broke and yelled at the men to inspect their busses and get moving on the day.
Miguel circled the roundabout and flipped a small switch over his head. The lighted signs turned on with the word, Centro, beaming in red. It was nearly six in the morning and he was about to start his day. He turned up the main road and shifted.
The engine pulled hard as he climbed.
He passed a small shop, its doors still closed and the metal grating pulled over the window.
He rounded the corner and hit a flat stretch before releasing the gas and gliding to a stop at an alcove.
A man dressed in black stepped out, the white band on his collar giving away his profession. The double doors opened and he stepped into the Centro. He pushed out a coin and Miguel tapped the screen. Five cents rolled out of the change dispenser and a small receipt printed. Miguel’s hands moved quickly, dropping the euro into the small drawer and collecting the change and receipt. Father Lopez waved him off and Miguel tossed the change into a small bin next to the steering wheel and he tossed the receipt into the trash.
“Good morning father.”
“Miguel. How are you?”
“I’ll pray for her at mass today.”
“Thank you, father. I’ll mention it to her.”
Father Lopez pushed out a loaf of bread, “Baked fresh.”
“Thank you, father.” Miguel took the bread and placed it into the door storage. “Church drop off?
“Absolutely.” Father settled into the passenger seat next to Miguel and took out a cigarette. He rolled the window down and lit the end. “How does it feel? You’re last day.”
“The day feels like every other. Ask me tomorrow when I’m trying to figure out what to do with myself.”
“Come to the church and attend.”
“You could volunteer with the reconstruction. We need more hands there. We’re lucky. We have a silent benefactor that keeps the project alive.”
“You are blessed then.”
The old priest leaned back, blowing out a long stream of smoke, “We all are.”
Third. Shift. Forth. Glide.
The bus rounded the corner and slowed. He took the sharp left past the cafe and Inn before accelerating down the hill and under the second floor spanning walkway. The road drifted to the right before opening into a small elevated courtyard.
Miguel’s hand squeezed the wheel and the bus slowed to a stop. Father Lopez touched Miguel on the shoulder and left. He moved quickly and rob sailed up behind him. He pulled on a large wooden door and disappeared into the old church.
First. Shift. Second.
The clock hit six in the morning and the early light turned the sky blue.
The fares had been light that morning and Miguel had passed his break parked in a dead-end alley and enjoying a slow smoke. The bus radio played the scores from the day before and he slumped deep into his seat. He had less than ten hours left with his final shift. It seemed like an eternity, but he knew the time would melt away when the route filled, dotted with absent-minded tourists and meaningless negotiations with locals he should know by name. His hands moved over the small tablet and he printed out a tally receipt. He counted the fare register and moved half of the euros into the small lockbox below his seat. He updated the system and leaned over the steering wheel. One more day, he thought.
He flipped the radio off as two sets of heels clicked down the main road. Two old women passed and stopped in the street. Miguel could see them discussing among themselves and staring at the rear of the Centro. They wore white scarves over their heads and matching green dresses with black shawls. The fatter of the two women broke away and slipped along the walls to the bus doors. Her face said this wasn’t going to be a good interaction. Miguel opened the doors, “Good morning, can I help you?”
The fat woman snarled gripping her large knitted purse close to her chest, “You can help me by driving the route. And furthermore, you’re late. The bus should have been at our stop five minutes ago, but now I’m walking down the road because you’re here in this alley doing God knows what.”
“Valeria, I was on my break and I was doing some paperwork for the office.”
“My knees can’t make that trip down the hill, let alone the way up. I have things to do and I don’t have time to waste. And how do you know my name? Do I know you?”
Before Miguel could answer, her friend slid up behind her and touched her shoulder. “Valeria, don’t treat him like that.” She looked up and smiled at his reflection in the mirror, “Good morning Miguel, how is your morning?”
“As good as any other, Jimena. And yours?”
“Taking this one out for a walk.”
“I am not your dog,” quipped Valeria.
“Miguel are you still on your break?”
“No, I’m just getting ready to head back out.”
The fat woman stepped on to the bus and it shifted slightly with her weight. She handed him the euro coin and waved off the change. Jimena dipper her head and did the same before sliding into the bench seat behind Miguel.
“Who is that man? Do I know him?”
“It’s Miguel, you’ve known him all your life.”
“What did we date once?”
“No, he drives the Centro.”
“Like hell he does.” She lifted her head, “Are we going to go or wait for you to finish your smoke. Don’t expect me to ride this bus if you’re smoking the whole way. This isn’t the eighties again. I don’t have to sit through a cloud of smoke.”
“Yes ma’am,” Miguel said flicking the cigarette against the wall and sending a small shower of sparks down to the ground. The bus started.
Shift. Reverse. Shift. First. Shift. Second.
My last day, thought Miguel. Maybe that wouldn’t be a bad thing. I could enjoy a smoke in peace.
His free hand dropped the woman’s change into the cup and he turned the wheel, gliding the bus dangerously close to the stone wall before straightening out and accelerating down the road. The cool breeze pressed in through the open window. Ahead a small group of children danced in the road and he slowed the bus as they quickly dove into a small alcove allowing the bus to pass by. Miguel gave a short wave and accelerated again.
“What are you doing today, Jimena?” Miguel called back.
“To the market for croquettes and chicken. We’re going to have a quiet night tonight.” She looked down at Valeria. “Miguel, I’m certain you’ve already punched your lottery tickets for this year, but could I persuade you to support the woman’s group? We’re trying to renovate the open space off Montero. There’s some foundation work that the money will go to. I know you’re mother used to be part of the group and I’m sure she would love to see you support the effort? Your chance to win El Gordo.
Miguel smiled, “El Gordo? I’ve purchased tickets through the church this year. I’ve gotten shares to help them with the stained glass. You know I’ve never even won a partial piece. If I did I wouldn’t be driving the bus.”
“Oh Miguel, I can feel it this is our year, your luck is changing. Maybe something to help you with your retirement? I know it’s coming up.”
Miguel smiled, it’s today old lady.
“He doesn’t want one,” cracked Valeria.
“Shush,” Jimena said smacking the old woman on the shoulder. She reached into her purse and pulled out a ticket book. “This is just the thing you need.”
“How much?” Miguel said looking through the rear window.
Miguel winced, “Twenty euros? You know I drive this bus for a living, right?
“I said in the meeting they were too much,” Valeria said receiving another smack from her friend.
“This is a special ticket only available for our friends. You get four for the price of three. Think of it you get four shares.”
Miguel waved his hand, “That’s too much for me.”
“Consider it. Maybe you and your mother can go in together?”
That was the second time she had mentioned his mother and it wasn’t by accident. She knew the woman had been suffering for years, but the ticket vultures would stop at nothing to reach their goals. Miguel answered calmly, “I will ask her.”
Valeria turned to Jimena, “What’s wrong with her?”
“You don’t remember? She’s been ill.”
“We’re all getting old,” she said.
Third. Shift. Second. Shift. Neutral. Slowing.
The bus doors opened and a middle-aged man stepped into the bus. His white hair poked out of the small fiddler’s cap and he wore green corduroy jeans. Under his arm was a binder and a pen stuck in his jacket breast pocket. He carried a translation of The Sun Also Rises in his free hand. He smiled at Miguel and moved in close.
“How much to ride?”
“One euro for the loop,” Miguel answered.
“How much to ride all day?”
Miguel paused for a moment, “Thirty euro and you sit in the back corner.”
The old man smiled, pulling out his billfold and paying Miguel.
“Good morning ladies, it’s a beautiful day isn’t it.”
Jimena smiled at the man, while Valeria focused out the window, “It would be beautiful if we could somehow get to the market today.”
Miguel unbuckled his seat and pulled on the emergency brake. Valeria was in shock as he kneeled to Jimena. “I thought about it, I’d like one ticket.” He looked at Valeria, “Could I get a receipt for that?”
“Yes, that’s fantastic. That will take me a moment.”
“No stress we have all day.”
Jimena worked quickly and passed Miguel his copy of the tickets. Miguel dropped the ten euros into the cup and started the bus down the road towards the church rising in the distance. He gazed into the mirror to see the man settle in the back row. He wrote quickly in his notebook, periodically looking up at the women and laughing to himself.
“I told you he’d buy one,” Jimena said to Valeria.
“Eh, it was a pity buy.”
“Money is money.”
The route up the hill passed through closed cafes with chairs stacked high against the bleached walls. Small delivery trucks unloaded and stacked crates of water, beers, and sodas outside the entrances. Interspersed among the pedestrians were young waiters dressed in black pants and heavy starched shirts, their aprons dangling over their shoulders and fingers flicking the butts of their cigarettes.
The road widened and Miguel leaned out of the window slowing the bus in front of a familiar friend, “Too slow Daniel! You’ll never make it to the top.”
“I’m following you’re lead!” He quipped back.
Miguel accelerated and wove the bus through a narrow stretch feathering the gas around the turn, his eyes focused on the mirror to ensure he cleared the wall’s edge. Another turn and he accelerated past the entrance to an Inn. A young woman carried a sandwich board with a large finger pointed towards the entrance down the alleyway. She waved to Miguel and he answered the call with a short pulse of the horn.
The bus continued up Calle Torres and rounded the end of the loop. Two shadows moved under the route sign. Miguel slowed the bus.
Third. Shift. Second. Shift. Neutral.
He came to a stop at the corner, two old men stood on the corner, their arms moving and gyrating with their discussion. Both men wore old tweed jackets and matching top hats. The older of the two walked with a polished wooden cane. Miguel pressed the lever and the sliding door moved back. A fresh burst of new smells filled the bus from the marketplace across the street, sweets baked goods and sour aging vinegars reminded Miguel of home.
“…no I don’t know where she gets that idea, but it’s not happening that way,” Said Angel as he stepped onto the bus. He reached back to grab the hand of Luis as he tucked his cane. Angel pulled two euro coins out of his pocket and waved off the receipt. His face went white when he turned to see the two women with venom in their eyes. All four froze like a painting in the center of the bus. Miguel’s eyes went from one couple to the next.
“Wolves, on our bus,” Luis said gripping his cane hard and lifting the handle as if he were ready to strike.
“Just like always, you think everything is yours,” Snarled Jimena. “What are you thinking, Luis? Put the cane down or I’ll take it from you.”
“Oh, you’ll give me no choice is that,” Luis said moving towards Jimena. Angel raised his arm and held back his life-long friend.
“I’m not riding with these two ever. They’ll sit here and talk about their pious woman’s group, going on about tickets, eh? Miguel, eh? Did they swindle you out of your money? Thieving wolves.”
“…I bought a ticket…”
“See! Thieves. No good thieves!” Luis said holding out the crook of his cane towards Jimena. Her eyes were burning red and she looked like she was ready to jump the old man and by her size she knew she would be successful.
“Just like you two. Out for a walk and then you want to accost women on the bus.”
“Ha!” Snorted Angel. “That’s right two innocent sisters you are. I wouldn’t doubt it, what’s in your purses? Wallets of the men you’ve robbed?”
“I’m not going to sit here and have you two accusing us of stealing.”
“It wouldn’t be the first time. Maybe this time they’ll take you away,” said Luis.
“If you’re going to be riding the bus then we won’t.” Jimena stood and lifted her nose to the men. The two men parted to allow the woman to step off the bus. She clutched her purse close to her chest. “We can shop here today. Come on Val!”
Angel turned back his voice rumbling under his breath, “Val…”
Valeria had been silent during the exchange but as she rose both men took another step away. Angel was nearly falling into the change station and Luis tumbled into a bench seat.
“Lady’s please don’t leave, we can have them sit in the back!” Miguel cried to the woman. They were already around the bus and making a quick path to the open market.
“Her perfume, it’s everywhere in here. I can smell it.” Luis lifted his nose and sniffed, his face twisted and he winced. “I can’t…I can’t sit here. Just the thought is making me sick.”
“Let’s go. I’ll make us some coffee on the terrace.” Angel stepped off the bus and helped Luis down.
Miguel stepped through the open doors and called out, “Do you want your Euros back?”
Angel waved Miguel off as they scurried into the alleyway entrance just below the hanging sign for their furniture shop. As quickly as the commotion started the bus and the street were now silent. Miguel carried a confused look and his face and she shook his head as he shut the door. The man in the fiddler’s hat was as shocked as Miguel.
“They know each other?”
“Unfortunately,” Miguel said rubbing his forehead. He motioned to the bench row, “Sisters these two. Those guys have known each other side before Franco. Two sides of the conflict, they’ve hated each other as long as I could remember. I can still hear their first argument. It was my first week of driving the route and it dragged out into the street. They were younger then. Normally they will sit on opposite sides, but who knows.”
“That’s as good of a guess as any. Makes sense. I couldn’t imagine another reason they would hate each other this long.” The man looked down to his notebook and wrote quickly with the pen. “What are you working on?”
“My book. Just watching people to get ideas.”
Miguel laughed and slipped into his chair. He turned back, “After that what would be the line to start the chapter?”
The man looked up and thought before pointing his pen at Miguel, “Like waves, their love and anger broke over the street.” He paused, “I can work on it.”
“That sounds like a good start.”
Shift. First. Shift. Second.
Thanks for reading. Stay tuned for more.