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The September sunsets were at their reddest the week the Professor decided to visit Ain Tadouirt, which is in the warm country. He came down out of the high, flat region in the evening by bus, with two small overnight bags full of maps, sun lotions and medicines. Ten years ago he had been in the village for three days; long enough, however, to establish a fairly firm friendship with a cafe keeper, who had written him several times during the first year after his visit, if never since. "Hassan Ramani," the Professor said over and over, as the bus bumped downward through ever warmer layers of air. Now facing the flaming sky in the west, and now facing the sharp mountains, the car followed the dusty trail down the canyons into air which began to smell of other things besides the endless ozone of the heights: orange blossoms, pepper, sun-baked excrement, burning olive oil, rotten fruit. He closed his eyes happily and lived for an instant in a purely olfactory world. The distant past returnedwhat part of it, he could not decide.
The chauffeur, whose seat the Professor shared, spoke to him without taking his eyes from the road. "Vous es geologue?
"A geologist? Ah, no! I'm alinguist."
"There are no languages here. Only dialects."
"Exactly. I'm making a survey of variations on Maghrebi."
The chauffeur was scornful. "Keep on going South," he said. "You'll find some languages you never heard of before."
As they drove through the town gate, the usual swarm of urchins rose up out of the dust and ran screaming beside the bus. The Professor folded his dark glasses, put them in his pocket; and as soon as the vehicle had come to a standstill he jumped out, pushing his way through the indignant boys who clutched at his luggage in vain, and walked quickly into the Grand Hotel Saharien. Out of its eight rooms there were two availableone facing the market and the other, a smaller and cheaper one, giving onto a tiny yard full of refuse and barrels, where two gazelles wandered about. He took the smaller room, and pouring the entire pitcher of water into the tin basin, began to wash the grit from his face and ears. The afterglow was nearly gone from the sky, and the pinkness in objects was disappearing, almost as he watched. He lit the carbide lamp and winced at its odor.
After dinner the Professor walked slowly through the streets to Hassan Ramani's cafe, whose back room hung hazardously out above the river. The entrance was very low, and he had to bend down slightly to get in. A man was tending the fire. There was one guest sipping tea. The qaouaji tried to make him take a seat at the other table in the front room, but the Professor walked airily ahead into the back room and sat down. The moon was shining through the reed latticework and there was not a sound outside but the occasional distant bark of a dog. He changed tables so he could see the river. It was dry, but there was a pool here and there that reflected the bright night sky. The qaouaji came in and wiped off the table.
"Does this cafe still belong to Hassan Ramani?" he asked him in the Maghrebi he had taken four years to learn.
The man replied in bad French: "He is deceased."
"Deceased?" repeated the Professor, without noticing the absurdity of the word. "Really? When?"
"I don't know," said the qaouaji. "One tea?"
"Yes. But I don't understand . . ."
The man was already out of the room, fanning the fire. The Professor sat still, feeling lonely, and arguing with himself that to do so was ridiculous. Soon the qaouaji. returned with the tea. He paid him and gave him an enormous tip, for which he received a grave bow.
"Tell me," he said, as the other started away. "Can one still get those little boxes made from camel udders?"
The man looked angry. "Sometimes the Reguibat bring in those things. We do not buy them here." Then insolently, in Arabic: "And why a camel-udder box?"
"Because I like them," retorted the Professor. And then because he was feeling a little exalted, he added, "I like them so much I want to make a collection of them, and I will pay you ten francs for every one you can get me."
"Khamstache," said the qaouaji, opening his left hand rapidly three times in succession.
"Not possible. But wait until later and come with me. You can give me what you like. And you will get camel-udder boxes if there are any."
He went out into the front room, leaving the Professor to drink his tea and listen to the growing chorus of dogs that barked and howled as the moon rose higher into the sky. A group of customers came into the front room and sat talking for an hour or so. When they had left, the qaouaji put out the fire and stood in the doorway putting on his burnoose. Come, he said.
Outside in the street there was very little movement. The booths were all closed and the only light came from the moon. An occasional pedestrian passed, and grunted a brief greeting to the qaouaji.
"Everyone knows you," said the Professor, to cut the silence between them.
"I wish everyone knew me," said the Professor, before he realized how infantile such a remark must sound.
"No one knows you," said his companion gruffly.
They had come to the other side of the town, on the promontory above the desert, and through a great rift in the wall the Professor saw the white endlessness, broken in the foreground by dark spots of oasis. They walked through the opening and followed a winding road between rocks, downward toward the nearest small forest of palms. The Professor thought: "He may cut my throat. But his cafe - he would surely be found out."
"Is it far?" he asked, casually.
"Are you tired?" countered the qaouaji.
"They are expecting me back at the Hotel Saharien," he lied.
"You can't be there and here," said the qaouaji.
The Professor laughed. He wondered if it sounded uneasy to the other.
"Have you owned Ramani's cafe long?"
I work there for a friend." The reply made the Professor more unhappy than he had imagined it would.
Excerpted from A Distant Episode by Paul Bowles Copyright © 2006 by Paul Bowles. Excerpted by permission.
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