The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao
Lao Tsu, Tao Te Ching, sixth century B.C.E., translated by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English, 1972
The spirits indeed were willing for the wild night ride to last forever, but the flesh, as St Matthew pointed out, is weak. The Afghans apparently didn't notice, but the foreigners, flimsy as usual, at some point became convinced that forever had come and regrettably gone. Their bladders were full and their stomachs empty, and both were complaining loudly that this was the wrong way around. No one had reached the pitch of desperation required to interrupt the teamster at the wheel, whose wrath would intimidate an avalanche let alone a poor freak who thought he had to go, but it was close. The rush to the door when the bus finally pulled up proved it.
First things first: The men immediately crossed the street and irrigated the desert, while the women scurried behind a building to do the same. Stretching gently and wondering what to do next, Blackie and Whitey saw the driver heading off to the side of the house and were starting to follow when Zahir smote them across the shoulders and pointed at the front door, making eating motions with his other hand. A passing American saw them and got it immediately.
"Fat city, man, it's a truckstop," he explained. "The driver eats free for stopping here, natch. Probably gets free hash too."
The four of them ducked under the lintel and into a dimly-lit room with rough wooden benches and tables. A pair of paraffin lanterns vaguely illuminated the scene without troubling the brain with inessential details. A horde of turbaned men with stern visages was ripping into mutton kebabs and nan, the flat local bread, as though they hadn't eaten for days or, slightly more likely, they expected the mad driver to drag them away at any moment.
Zahir took over, sitting his charges firmly against the wall and calling for four specials, guv, and hop to it, we haven't got all night, what are you laughing at, even furriners gotta eat, anyway they're all right, you wanna make something of it?
"Fancy some tea, then?" ventured Blackie. "Chai?"
"Chai?" yelled Zahir, extremely loudly to make certain he was understood, and then to the patron's back, "Char chai." That worthy affected to ignore the order but reappeared instantly with dinner and rapidly with glasses of tea. It was probably as well that the light didn't allow for criticism of the dishwashing. Anyway, you can get amoebic dysentery from cups that look pristine. What's a little goat grease between friends.
Eat, eat, mimed Zahir extravagantly, and demonstrated the technique. He ripped a strip off the huge circle of nan, used it to grab a pellet of mutton and threw this miniature burger whole into his mouth, where he chomped it energetically to make room for the next. The Yank joined in with enthusiasm and the two Limeys imitated him, albeit a little slower.
"Hey, man, this is great," opined the American, feeding his face in a frenzy through a bushy brown beard. "I got so sick of greasy goat stew and I hate fucking omelets." He was tiny, maybe five-two and speed-freak skinny, with bottle glasses and baggy Levi's, but miraculously he had a voice and a stomach as big as all outdoors. "Say, boss, can I get another load of this?"
The innkeeper graciously accepted the compliment by inclining his head a millimeter and conjuring up the goods, seemingly out of thin air.
"You guys going straight through to Kabul?"
"We reckoned we'd stop off in Qandahar," replied Blackie. "We figured the overnight would be hell enough."
Zahir had ripped through his dinner and was sucking down tea through his sugar cube, staring at his new friends (whom, let's face it, he didn't know at all) and bantering lightly with his old ones (whom he'd met at the bus station). They were clearly amused by his tolerance of these ignorant strangers but that didn't faze him. His snappy ripostes may have been witticisms worthy of Oscar Wilde, to judge by the appreciative rumbles they elicited.
"Actually, it's better than I thought," continued Blackie, who was feeling slightly unnerved at being the object of such obvious, and seemingly ribald, speculation. Better to pursue a conversation, even with a stranger, than just to sit as a passive object of laughter.
"It's the Russian road," explained the Brooklyn professor.
"Foreign aid, right? Or do you just mean they hired Russian engineers?"
"Fuck no, they couldn't pay 'em to come here. They probably didn't even want 'em."
"You know the specs they built this road to?"
"Fifty tons dead axle weight."
"So?" Blackie was not an engineer.
"So it's built for tanks. Take a look at the map, man. The Soviets put in roads south from the border to Qandahar and to Kabul, so they could move in when they're ready, get to the oil in the Gulf. State Department's no fucking better, mind you. They saw what was going on, and blacktopped up from Quetta and Peshawar to Kabul and up from Iran to Herat. They figure if the Commies move south, they wanna move in and take them on up here. No sense in fighting in the oil fields. What's foreign aid for anyway?"
"What do the Afghanis think? I mean don't they have something to say about it?"
"Hey, man, they're getting roads free. Anyway they figure they can kick anyone's ass any time. Look what they did to you Brits."
"Right," agreed Blackie, with that perverse British pride in really humiliating defeats, like Dunkirk and the Black Hole of Calcutta. The psychologically inclined among them say that the people who built the empire on which the sun never set are so secure in their superiority (even long after dark) that they can accept the occasional disaster; most of the latter-day imperialists, however, don't actually understand that those were defeats. Hey, it's a coping mechanism. It works. "Carry on up the Khyber, lads."
Whitey chuckled appreciatively, which led Zahir to laugh in sympathy but drew a puzzled look from the transatlantic cousin, who was under the illusion that he spoke English.
"Khyber pass, arse," elucidated Blackie. "Rhyming slang."
"Far out, man," laughed the fellow from the former colony. "Good old Blighty, eh what, chaps." Sensing from an unhurried flash of Whitey's eyes that he might have trespassed onto sacred territory, he hurried to make amends. "The vernacular incorporates history, yeah? It's classic, man."
One of those, thought Whitey, pulling paraphernalia from his pocket, but Blackie was into it.
"'S'right," he agreed, tossing over a cigarette and then distributing them generally. In the interests of maintaining the current level of international amity, he did his best not to count the remainder once half a dozen of Zahir's buddies had gratefully accepted his sketchy hint of an offer. "You know what we call tea, dontcha?"
"Char, chai, it's all the same, man. Hindi or what, I dunno, but fuckin' right it's Asia, man. And it's working people, right, it's sailors and kids in the army, King's shilling and all that shit. They got picked up by the press gangs and they go to work and some of them come home and there you are."
"You know what they say about the psychic in the whorehouse?"
"The medium gives the massage."
Blackie looked away in severe distaste and Whitey concentrated on crumbling hash onto the bed of tobacco in his spreadeagled joint. Zahir looked on with interest and everyone else affected to ignore them all.
"Hey man," he continued unabashed, "Looks like a groovy little number, actually a groovy big production number." (Whitey nodded gravely as he hand-rolled the mixture to a meticulously uniform consistency; he was after all on display in front of an audience of presumed professionals.) "Sort of a first-act closer, as we say on the Great White Way." He double-rapped his signet ring smartly against his tea glass and raised his hand in ritual acknowledgment of the absent applause. "Rimshot. Hey man you know they're getting off in back, can't beat 'em with a stick, might as well join 'em."
"If the crew's flying, I wanna be on the plane," opined Blackie.
"Right on, brother."
"At least if we fall off the floor I won't be worrying about it."
"Damn straight." Somehow he didn't look like John Wayne, even when he thrust his bird's-nest beard way out from his tiny chest. "Pardon my French. I was in one of these back woods juke joints in Iran, couple of months back, been hanging out with the bus driver and he took me round back with the teamsters. Fuck me if they didn't get pipes of O on the house."
"Opium? In a transport caff?"
"No shit, man. They were outta their skulls. Didn't dare sleep all night, just holding that bus on the road. Sheer force of psychic energy. Rest of the passengers never knew how much they owed me. Hey, thanks, dude."
Whitey was getting the measure of the little guy. Hot and cold running entertainment in every room, all he lacked was an onoff switch. Circumstances conspired: freak hospitality, the sharing ethic, a hope for ever more outrageous riffs when the fuel tank got up to overload, the scientific urge to see if filling the face would dam the flow; really, there was no choice. He offered the unlit doobie, by now a smooth cylinder more than half a foot long any good Cuban revolutionary cigar-roller would have been proud of it and readied the matches.
The Yank wedged the joint expertly between the middle and ring fingers of his left hand, cupped that fist with his right and pressed them ceremoniously to his forehead.
"Bom Shankar!" he cried and presented the white touchpaper for ignition.
A proper respect for the moment, allied with temporary technical difficulties, kept the group in silence as the number circulated. It was little more than half consumed when the conductor leaned into the doorway, gibbering vigorously. The assembled company treated him with the respect he deserved they ignored him completely but by a remarkable coincidence they unanimously decided within a couple of minutes that the time had come to venture into the night air. Zahir told his new friends not to rush anything but as Blackie crushed the roach they picked up their skulls and tried to walk.
"Nice one, Squirrel," offered the American to Whitey, who looked taken aback.
"Spurs fan?" he asked derisively.
"Hey, I just got it from this Limey I was hanging around with. What's the deal? What's Spurs?"
"Buncha southern wankers."
"Football," clarified Blackie. "London team. They've got a poofta called Cyril playing left back."
"No offense, dudes. Tell me about it in Kabul, hey? Name's Skip, by the way."
"I'm Blackie. That's Whitey."
Mutual nods, shapeless backing and filling. Skip the Beard knew for sure, and the others accepted by instinct, that they might never see each other again, they might never learn anything important about each other, they might be left with nothing more (or less) than the memory of a meal in the middle of the night. Isolated in the dark of a smoky truckstop, there were emotional currents too tenuous to name, perhaps too dangerous to notice, or else too trivial to dignify with attention. Had Blackie found an intellectual mentor? Was Whitey jealous? Was Skipper nervous, was he attracted (by whom?), was he just a little dog with a big dog's mouth? Was he standing in the rain with a matchbox holding his emotional clothes or was he just another cross-cultural failure to communicate? Did any or all of them like each other or even care to consider it?
No matter, they each needed a name. Some places it's a shield, presented first like colors, to identify (one of the Hampshire Twistleden-ffiennes, or the Shropshire?) and to hide behind. Others, it's precious, a secret divulged only with intimacy, camouflaged like as not by some meaningless euphemism to be discarded as the stranger melts away and mutates towards friendship. Freak culture as ever was confused, between the value of directness, of unmediated emotion and pure action, and the habits of social ritual. Even the English could talk with a newly-met member of their peer group, yet at the end there was this lingering discomfort: They Hadn't Been Introduced.
But they had met. Whatever the words, they had moved through some kind of an encounter and it couldn't be complete without learning each other's handle. Who was that short, dark stranger?
Strange compromise: Introduced as they parted, they had met as allies, assumed to have more in common with each other than with all around them, and they left as something more or less. Propinquity had propinked and a pair of relationships had begun, or even ended. All cats are gray in the emotional dark, man.