Joanne and I biked to Ana’s house the morning of the picnic with the mental patients. Then Ana drove us to an open stretch of beach a few miles down the coast. It was maybe eleven in the morning.
A dry riverbed cut through the hills by this beach. It passed under a bridge on the coastal road and fanned out and vanished in the open ground by the shoreline.
The sky and the sea were shades of a saturated, trembling deep blue. The beach was empty. There was a dense blue band on the sea where the sky and water met. The exact horizon line was invisible. Fishing boats from down the coast emerged from the band sometimes, or sailed into it.
We walked on the beach. The waves were pretty small. They crashed and drained easily on the pebbly shoreline.
Soon two steel-bodied charter buses appeared on the coastal road south of us. They slowed and crossed the bridge over the dry riverbed. They turned on a wide dirt track, part of the dry riverbed really, and drove towards us.
Ana was parked on a wide apron of rocky compacted soil a hundred feet back from the waterline. The first bus left the dirt track and stopped by her car. The second bus followed. The morning sun glittered on the steel skins of the buses. Their motors shut down, and stillness and quiet returned to the beach.
The door on the first bus slammed open and its driver dismounted. He stooped and grasped a handle in the side of the bus and levered open a long, slot-shaped luggage compartment. Passengers emerged and lined up behind the driver to retrieve their possessions.
The second driver cranked open his luggage bin and dragged out folding tables and chairs, large plastic food containers, some bundles of steel tubing wrapped in canvas covers. He tossed everything on the ground - a short heavy-set man from the first bus called out and cautioned him to be careful.
Ana walked over and spoke to the heavy-set man — his face lit up when he saw her, and he shook hands with her animatedly. She pointed to us, and he smiled and waved.
Without seeing the passengers, by observing their shabby, homely parcels only: tattered plastic shopping bags, old duffel bags, cloth bundles criss-crossed with string, and sloppy sagging towel rolls, anyone might wonder what sort of charter this was. The patients waited for their bundles, and grasped them eagerly, and trundled to the water line to change to bathing suits.
A man with a compact, almost athletic body and a shaved head and glittery active brown eyes scooped a hole in the sand and squatted and had a bowel movement. He wiped himself with his hand, covered his hole, and patted it. A handsome woman in a black dress took him to the surf and helped him wash his hands.
The first bus driver slammed his cargo door and hopped in his vehicle and started the motor. He reversed gears to move off the apron, but the bus back wheels broke through the crust of rocky ground. He accelerated and the wheels spun and the rear end squatted in the dirt. The driver jumped out and the other driver walked over. The two men began to argue.
Ana introduced us to the heavy-set guy, Doctor Santos, the assistant director from the mental hospital. I helped the orderlies unfold tables and chairs. We put together two frameworks with the steel tubing and we flung canvas covers over them to make awnings. The orderlies and nurses arranged tables and chairs in the shaded space. An orderly hammered plastic pegs in the sand and ran lines to the frameworks to secure them against the wind. Nurses brought over food and drinks from the buses and set out plastic plates and cups on the tables.
The second driver turned his bus around efficiently and ran a tow chain to the rear of the first stalled bus. When the buses were connected the second driver threw his vehicle in gear and revved the motor. The first bus lurched and began to move. Then the rear wheels of the second bus similarly broke through the rock crust and spun and sank to the axle in sand and dirt. Both drivers jumped from their vehicles. Dr. Santos walked over and gestured to one driver and then the other. All three men began to argue.
An hour later, the buses were still stuck, but everyone, even the drivers, was relaxed and having fun. Ana and Joanne were walking by the water. Some of the patients were under the awnings and some were in the water. The drivers, plates of food in their laps, sat cross-legged beside a pile of rocks they’d gathered at the back of one of the buses. Dr. Santos walked over to talk to them and check on the rocks. He took a good look at the stuck wheels on both buses.
He had introduced me already to all the nurses and orderlies, but I didn’t try to remember their names. A patient handed me a piece of bread and some cheese, which I ate. I sat in a chair and drank a glass of water.
The patients in the surf whooped and hopped on tiptoes as the waves rolled past them. They called to each other and splashed each other carefully and gaily. No patient was more than knee deep in the water. A stoop-shouldered friendly old man walked the water line. He was picking up shell bits and minute pebbles between the thumb and forefinger of his right hand, and piling the pieces precisely in his left hand, which he held cupped against his ribcage. The surf washed his ankles. His lips were moving rapidly.
Almeria province is only eighty or ninety miles from north Africa. Almeria is under the influence of the Mediterranean, and also the Sahara - the sky is deep blue, with yellow in it, from the sand of the Sahara.
It was hot at the beach, but the air was dry. It was comfortable in the shade under the awnings. The canvas awnings thumped in the breeze, like children’s footsteps on a carpeted stairway. The tie-down lines chinked on the metal frame poles.
A few patients smoothed their towels flat in the sand by the awnings and lay on their backs to sun themselves. Joanne and Ana came up from the beach and talked with the staff. Joanne glanced around and found me and waved. The bald guy with the glittery eyes, the shitter in the sand, was by the water. He was hiking backwards and dragging his heel in the wet sand and making a thin trough. He stopped every few seconds to walk over the trough and cover it up.
While I was watching he suddenly scampered in the water amidst the other patients. With a happy, fixed grin on his face he started splashing, as fast as he could. He was generating his own one-person storm cell – disturbance and concern spread in a ring though the patients near him. Dr. Santos walked down to the water and warned him and pointed to the buses.
There was a beach bar a few miles up the road in the direction of Ana’s house. Joanne and I used to ride there on bicycles. I was hoping we could leave soon and go have a coffee. That bar had a great verandah, and I was thinking we could stay for lunch after we had coffee.
A family in a small car drove down the dirt track and stopped by the stalled buses. Ana and Dr. Santos walked over to talk to them.
After the car left, Dr. Santos spoke to the bus drivers. He and Ana came back to the awning.
“They are on the way to Vera,” Dr. Santos told Joanne. That was the kind of thing both of us could understand in Spanish, but he spoke in English. “The man works at a construction company. They have a large dump truck that can easily pull the buses to the road.”
“Do you want me to drive to Vera and make sure about it?” I asked.
“I don’t think so,” he said. “The patients will finish eating, and they’ll swim and rest. If the truck hasn’t come, we may do something.” He chewed the inside of his cheek a little. “Possibly the drivers will make progress,” he said. “We have some time before we return to the hospital.” He walked over to a table and pretended to check on the food.
A patient under the awning, the handsome woman with the black dress, put her plate away and walked over to the buses. She was wearing a bathing suit now instead of the dress. She was wearing street shoes, and she had a handbag slung on her shoulder. She examined the tires of both buses carefully. She walked back to the awnings to talk to the nurses.
The nurses said kind things to her, I don’t know what, and pointed to the beach – it seemed they were telling her to try swimming – but she pointed to the buses again and kept talking. Eventually she gave up and sat in a chair with her handbag in her lap. She glanced back and forth fretfully between the nurses and the buses.
I stood up and invited her for a walk on the beach. She slipped her arm in my arm and we walked to the edge of the water. There she turned us around, and we walked back to the awning. At the awning we turned again and walked to the beach. We were establishing a path. I convinced her to change orientation along the beach, parallel to the water.
She was fifty, I guess. I don’t think I learned her name, I just thought of her as the handsome woman. She had dark, gray-streaked hair brushed back neatly in wings from her face. She spoke politely, rapidly, in a dialect I think, anyway I didn’t understand her. In the stream of words I picked up ‘father’ and brother’ over and over. She made eye contact with me sometimes to make certain I was paying attention. From years of treatments at the hospital the irises of her eyes were turned to slush. We walked along the water and I relaxed and listened to her. I didn’t try to understand anything. She looked at me – cautious, appealing glances… my father and my brother, I picked that up, over and over again. I guess forty-five minutes passed, maybe less. I noticed Dr. Santos gesturing to us.
We walked to the awnings. One of the nurses gave the handsome woman something to drink and a little food. I sat in a chair next to Dr. Santos and Ana.
“You do well with the patients,” he said. “You understand her?”
“She talks about when she was a kid,” I said. “Something about her father and brother.”
“Yes,” said Dr. Santos. “And these buses worry her. She’s lived at the hospital more than thirty years. It’s home to her. She wants to be sure to get back.”
“Dr. Santos just mentioned the ceremony,” said Ana. “We’re thinking of having it now.”
“It’s hardly a ceremony,” he said apologetically. He riffed awhile in Spanish to Ana.
She was married to one of the doctors at the hospital. Her husband did the heavy lifting to make the beach outing possible. But he was having health problems, and he couldn’t make the actual trip.
At first they were going to use the beach by Ana’s house. But they decided on the spot by the riverbed, which was a more open area, with easier access for the charter buses.
Ana nodded graciously when Dr. Santos was finally through talking.
“Let’s go to the water then,” he said. The nurses gently shooed the patients from the awnings. Dr. Santos picked up a covered wicker basket and slung it awkwardly on his arm.
The patients on towels by the awnings sat up and rubbed their eyes. Orderlies and nurses helped them to their feet. Everyone gathered by the water in a compact group. The two bus drivers wandered down to see what was happening. Dr. Santos took the cover off his wicker basket - inside were handfuls of fresh cut flowers.
“Look everyone,” he said kindly. “Our friend Dr. Bandres couldn’t be with us, but his hard work made this trip possible.”
The board of directors at the hospital had been against any day trips for the long-term patients, I have no idea why. Ana’s husband wore them down.
“Why doesn’t everyone take a flower or two from this basket, for a remembrance, and toss it into the sea? When you do it, say thank you to Dr. Bandres for making the hospital a nicer place.”
Each patient plucked a flower from the basket. A few took more than one. The bald guy with the energy took four or five and arranged them in his fist in a crumpled bouquet. A heavy-set lady with a nice face took two flowers, and smelled them, and brushed her lips back and forth gently on the petals of the flower heads. She looked up at everyone, and her eyebrows fluttered.
About half the patients tossed their flowers in the sea, and the other half kept theirs, and carried them, or wore them for decoration, or wadded them carefully and stored them away in a pocket. Dr. Santos walked Ana back to the awning.
The handsome woman was carrying her handbag and a flower. She appeared next to me and took my arm. We began walking on the beach again. I was thinking that the ceremony was over now, and we could leave – but there were the buses, stuck in the sand. That was a hassle. I was ready for a coffee. The handsome woman was retelling her story. We went back and forth beside the beach for a while.
Then there was a rumbling sound up on the dirt track – sure enough the dump truck from Vera showed up. All the patients stopped and watched it.
“OK!” I told the handsome woman. I nodded and started for the awnings, but she pulled us in the direction of the buses.
Ana and Joanne were under the awning. They walked over to
the buses too. Most of the patients came over. The big dump truck
turned around carefully in the dirt track. When the driver got out,
Dr. Santos shook his hand and clapped him on the back.
The driver put on gloves and grabbed a thick tow chain from
the back of the dump truck. He wrapped it round the front axle of the
second bus, climbed in his cab, and easily yanked the second bus to
firm ground. All the patients clapped and cheered. Dr. Santos was
grinning and clapping too.
The bus drivers fixed the chain to the first bus - the dump
truck dragged it to firm ground as well. All the patients cheered
The orderlies began breaking down the awnings. I helped with that. The nurses combed the beach for patients’ stray towels and belongings. The beach around the awnings was returning fast to its normal sandy emptiness.
I helped the orderlies load the equipment into the buses. The patients lined up and started boarding, and the drivers started their motors.
Dr. Santos shook hands with Joanne and said he was glad she came to the picnic. He said goodbye to Ana, and gave her a big hug, and said some more stuff about her husband.
He turned to me and hugged me as well. “Thank you for helping,” he said.
Ana looked at me and grinned. She was stressed a lot when we knew her, because her husband was sick, but you could see she was a nice person. Sometimes she made a little joke, and her eyebrows made this sweet hopeful curve over her eyes, and it was very appealing.
The patients watched us from the windows of the buses. Dr. Santos climbed on the first bus, and the door closed behind him. We waved goodbye to all the patients. The buses followed the dump truck on the track to the coastal road. The truck turned toward Vera, and the buses drove away south in the direction of the hospital.
“Right, coffee! I said.
“Coffee!” said Joanne. She liked the bar on the beach too. The house we were renting had a low flat roof, and we used to climb on it early in the mornings, and have coffee, and watch the sunrise. We were inland, but from the roof of the house the sea was visible.
After that we would climb down and make breakfast in the kitchen, and then bicycle to the beach bar for another coffee. We had a great time on that trip.
“The dump truck added excitement to the outing,” said Ana.
“The gal with the handbag was so worried about those fucking buses,” I said.
“I saw you walk with her,” said Ana. “It was nice of you.”
“I didn’t mind.”
“What did you talk about?” said Joanne.
“She did the talking,” I said.
“Did you understand?” said Ana. “The nurses told me about her.”
“It was about her family I guess,” I said.
“They come from a village in the Alpujarras. When she was fourteen, her father found her in bed with her older brother. So he beat her brother, but her brother fought back. The father was killed.”
We got in Ana’s car. I liked Ana, but she was Joanne’s friend more than mine. They related to each other. They both had analytical minds. They both had good mental discipline, in a low-key way. Ana was a translator of technical literature, French to Spanish and English to Spanish. She graduated from I think Bedford College in London. She worked in Paris before she married. Joanne majored in biology in college. She went to med school after we took this trip, and she did very well with that.
“Her brother went to prison,” said Ana. “They sent her to the mental hospital.”
“Where’s the brother now?” said Joanne.
“I don’t know,” said Ana.
“Were they lovers, or was he assaulting her?” said Joanne.
“I don’t know,” said Ana.
We drove to the beach bar for a coffee. It was set off in another sort of isolated place a couple of miles from Ana’s house. There were long stretches of beach on the Almeria coast in those days with no development at all.
We did stay at the bar afterwards for lunch. Then Joanne and I picked up our bikes at Ana’s place. We rode back to the house we were renting.
Joanne had a great memory – and we were together almost ten years after our trip - and I never thought to ask her about that day.
She did stay in touch with Ana after we got back to the States. Ana even visited eventually, but it was after we broke up, so I didn’t see her.
We used to get postcards sometimes, and we sent her a package once, some books and a sweater I think. Staying in touch is different now with the web and online stuff. If I saw her picture that would bring back memories. But Ana blurs now with other people from that trip, other lives – the way time blurs our own lives, when we sort things in memory.
Harvey Sutlive lives outside Athens, GA. He is working on a novel about avoiding bad luck. His stories of Marais have appeared frequently in Offcourse.