By Owen Clarke
The woman on the bus next to me was somewhere between the ages of fifteen and thirty-five. Her short, black hair was tied back in two barbarically tight braids. Multicolored string bracelets decorated her arms, which were peppered with curled, black hairs. She was reading a pink hardcover book. “How to Make People Like You…The Right Way” the cover said. She hadn’t made much progress. She and her boyfriend had been groping each other hungrily throughout the two-hour ride, twisting their bodies into pretzels together on the vinyl seat and nestling their faces into each other’s necks.
At one point, she turned away from her boyfriend’s tattooed neck and stared at me, her eyes large and black.
“Can you shut that window?” she said. “It’s blowing like…a lot of wind into my face.”
I slid the window shut. The woman smiled at me. She had thick, silver braces bracketing her teeth, which only enhanced her disconcertingly adolescent look.
We were on a bus from Merzouga, in the Sahara, back to Marrakech, where my flight to Amsterdam left the next morning.
The balding bus driver spat something in Arabic, then switched to English. “Food. Drink,” he muttered, gesturing ahead with his hands. “Stop thirty minute.”
One of the gas station/café combos which populate the rural roadsides of Morocco appeared through the dusty glass windows. Our driver jerked the bus over to the side of the road, stepped out, and began furiously inhaling cigarettes as the rest of us staggered into the sunlight. My ass was numb. I stood in the shade of an olive tree and rubbed it as inconspicuously as possible, watching Braces and her boyfriend skip off the bus, biting each other’s earlobes and giggling. Save for them, four wrinkled French women, and a bony, sour-faced Euro (Hungarian? Czech?) who hadn’t gotten off the bus, the other passengers were all Moroccan.
The buildings around the gas station were mostly husks, dried out and crumbling after years under the heat of the desert sun. They looked like sandcastles, as if they’d blow over under strong breeze. The air was stale and dry, the kind of air where a single breath could travel a thousand miles. Men in djellabas lingered on motorbikes outside the café, talking amongst themselves. A herd of goats bleated from across the road. Little Isuzu trucks motored by, stacked high with wooden pallets and goat skins and breads.
I wandered around the deserted buildings scattered near the gas station, trying to stretch my legs. As I came around behind the station and among a cluster of vacant mudbrick buildings, doorless and windowless, I heard a crash. A yelp followed. It wasn’t loud, but it was distinctly the sound of a fall. Curious, I rounded the corner around the building to my right. A cluster of kids stood around another, who was squatting on the ground, clutching his knee. His pant leg was torn and blood was seeping from the knee. The kid hissed for a minute, biting his fingers, then took his forearm and smeared the blood away. He got to his feet.
There were around seven of them, all boys. The oldest couldn’t have been more than ten or twelve, and most were younger. As is typical in a Muslim country, the kids were all wearing pants and long sleeved shirts, despite the desert heat. Wary of letting them notice me and disturbing whatever they had going on, I backed off to the shade of another building ten yards away, where I sat down with my back against a wall to watch. The boys gestured to each other, pointing at the mud brick wall behind them. It looked like the boy had been climbing the wall and had fallen. It was maybe eighteen feet tall, and made up the backside of a building about half the length of a semi-trailer. It was a flat face, but little notches and cracks had started to form in the crumbling clay, just small enough for a little hand to jam into. I noticed that the kids were all barefoot. Their sandals lay clustered under a bush nearby.
With the one kid still clutching his knee, another challenger pushed his fellows aside and slipped his hands into two vertical seams set about four feet up the wall. He was wearing dusty brown pants, a scuffed cotton shirt, and a cocky grin. He slipped his hands back out of the holds and turned briefly, and offering a bow to his friends. They jeered at him, but he waved them off and started up the wall.
"The kid was good. He scrunched his toes together into one mass, sticking it into indentations I couldn’t even see at the distance I watched from."
The kid was good. He scrunched his toes together into one mass, sticking it into indentations I couldn’t even see at the distance I watched from. He moved smoothly up the rock, flowing from tiny hold to tinier hold. He climbed the wall like a guy who’s cruised the same route at the gym a hundred times. He wasn’t worried about the moves. He was doing it for the style.
He was almost up the face when, for whatever reason, he decided to commit to a savage, hopeless dyno for the edge of the roof. He hadn’t appeared to be struggling. The holds above weren’t any worse than the holds below, as far as I could tell. Still, without a sound, the kid rocked back and sprung himself into the air, fingers outstretched for the lip of the roof. He was almost a foot off, and he came crashing down into a prickly bush jammed up against the base of the wall. The kid howled like a coyote. He’d fallen over twelve feet barefoot, but he jolted back up onto his feet as soon as he hit the bush. He paced, jerky-legged, around the base of the wall, wringing his hands and leering at his compatriots, who cackled and stamped their feet. Two more kids attempted the wall without half as much skill, falling off several feet before the first kid had dynoed. After the second kid fell off, one of the kids noticed me.
He nudged the boy sitting next to him, and pretty soon they were all staring at me.
I got up and walked over. “You guys climb, huh?”
They stared at me, silent.
“You guys like to climb?” I pointed to the wall. “Climb?”
I pantomimed reaching for a hold.
A few of the boys laughed.
Taking off the leather boots I was wearing, I stepped up to the wall. I felt a bit like a jerk, hijacking their project, but the boys didn’t seem to mind. I tried to start with the starter holds they were using, but my fingers could only fit to the first digit in the cracks. Sheepish, I looked around for better holds. There weren’t any, not really. The face was flat save for little cracks and seams that same size. Damn. I got low and crimped on the seams as best I could, rocking up to the next little indent, which was larger, with my right hand. I pulled a couple moves higher on fingernail crimps that must’ve been comfortable for the kids, smearing with my bare feet on the dusty face of the wall. I started rockin’ some Elvis legs before I was halfway up the wall. My arms were burning. It wasn’t one of those situations where I felt like I’d made a wrong move or done something out of sequence, either. I was just plain old pumped. Next thing I knew I was on my ass in the dirt.
Dazed, I sat on the ground for a minute, shell-shocked. I crawled to my feet. My right hip ached fearsomely, and my fingertips were raw, but I was okay. The kids clustered around me, grabbing at my clothes, laughing. They chattered in Arabic to each other, pointing at me. Suddenly I felt awkward, embarrassed to have gone all out and decked in front of a gang of kids.
“I gotta get to the bus,” I muttered, despite the fact that none of them understood a word of English.
I grabbed my boots and walked back around to the gas station.
"Standing outside the bus as the passengers filed back on, I felt a tugging on my shirt. It was the kid, the cocky one who’d dynoed."
Standing outside the bus as the passengers filed back on, I felt a tugging on my shirt. It was the kid, the cocky one who’d dynoed. He grinned at me sheepishly, wrapping his arms around my waist in a hug. I smiled.
What a nice kid, I thought.
I patted him on the back. He smiled again and skipped away, towards his friends, who I could see watching from behind one of the gas pumps.
When I filed onto the bus and took my seat, the sour-faced guy nudged me. “I’d check your pocket.” His accent was southern.
“You’re American?” I was surprised.
“Huh? Yeah. Dallas. But check your pocket. I think that kid just nicked your wallet.”
I patted my pants, frantic. He was right. I smeared my face into the glass window, scanning the gas station and the buildings. Several men loitered on their motorbikes. A truck was being unloaded. The kids were nowhere in sight.
I tried to run off the bus, but the driver blocked me. “We leave,” he said. “We leave. Yalla. Yalla yalla.”
I sat back down, cursing myself. The kids were probably long gone anyway. I was lucky that my cards and ID were inside my backpack. I’d only been carrying around twenty bucks cash in my wallet. Still, I felt like a fool. Braces and her boyfriend plopped down into the seat beside me, their arms wrapped around each other. I leaned away towards the window.
As we pulled away, through the dusty glass, I could see a small brown hand reach up over the top of the back wall of one of the buildings, not the one I’d tried to climb, but another, off to the side of the gas station. A lithe little body mantled and rolled itself over the wall. It was followed by two more, then another. The kids all stood on the roof, watching the bus pull out. I peered back at them, grinning in spite of myself, as the gas station and the café and the shittiest problem I’d ever climbed faded from sight under the setting sun.
Owen Clarke, 20, started climbing in rural Alabama at the age of 11.