Eventually we were picked up by a truck. It was big and heavy, and as the engine revved and roared, our speed increased going downhill. The heater was on inside the cab. It felt stifling and I took off my jacket.
“Long day?” the policeman asked the trucker who looked tired and seemed to be barely keeping his eyes open.
“No,” the truck driver mumbled.
We sat on black vinyl seats as tall as bar stools, the dashboard was gray and black plastic, below a windshield tall and wide like a movie screen. Through it we could admire the broad valley we were driving through. To the left were two threatening mountain peaks, and where the trees ended, and the sheer rock began, clouds billowed over steep precipices covered in premature snow.
“It’s gorgeous here,” I said.
“It is,” agreed the policeman.
He had small green eyes and his face was red from the heat. He had unbuttoned his heavy overcoat and perspiration shone on his forehead and around his neck. The top button of his uniform jacket was pressing against his throat.
“Take off your overcoat,” I suggested. “It’s warm in here.”
“That’s OK,” he said smiling awkwardly. “It’s not that hot. Besides, if I take my coat, where would I put it?” Oddly he kept it on for the rest of trip, despite it getting progressively hotter inside the cab. Finally, the truck driver cracked the window open for some fresh air.
We rode in silence for a while. On our left side ran the river. The muddy water splashed over rocks forming a thin sludge with brownish bubbles. Small sandy islands were visible in spots, covered by branches and tree stumps carried by the water. The highway cut through a patch of forest. Red leaves, still clinging to the almost barren branches touched the sides of the truck.
“It’s beautiful here,” I said for a second time.
“I know this area,” said the policeman.
“Are you from around here?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “I live in Slatina.” That was about 30 miles south of Râmnicul Vâlcea. “But I was born here, and I come to this area a lot,” he continued. “And I served here during the war, and I was responsible for this entire valley shortly after I joined the police force.”
I shrugged. Somehow, I didn’t think that policemen could serve in the army.
“Why did you move?”
“I was reassigned,” he said, and looked out the window.
His voice was soft with nostalgia and I understood it was better not to press the point. A higher will had overridden his plans and had forced him to relocate.
As we turned following the river, the valley became narrow, and the road cut through rock. The visibility through that wide windshield was good and I felt safe even though maneuvering the switchbacks was challenging with our big truck. The driver was puffing on a short cigarette. Leaning with his thick torso over the wheel, he seemed to be steering with his entire body. I remembered a short story I had read a long time ago about a young trucker who talked about the joy of hugging the wheel. I understood now that this was no exaggeration, that through him firmly gripping the wheel, the man becomes one with the truck and the road he is driving on.
I looked at the driver’s arms and hands. The arms were short and strong, and the fingernails were dirty. He seemed fully in control yet charged with some sort of inner tension. I don’t think I was wrong in noting that at that moment his hands looked distinguished.
“Would you move back here?” I asked the policeman.
“Move back?” he repeated uneasily. “I have two daughters in high school. The older one will be graduating next year. Do you think I’m a Gypsy, here today, gone tomorrow?”
“I didn’t mean it that way,” I said. “I just thought that you loved this place.”
“Sure, I love it. There are many things people love. I should have stayed here, but I couldn’t. Now I have a small house with a backyard, and I’m trying to save a little for my girls’ dowry.”
I looked at him with a new understanding. The top button of his coat was still tightly buttoned, and his face was redder than before.
When we got to Călimănești it started to rain. Small autumn droplets splashed the windshield and the road shone like the wet skin of a snake. On the sidewalk a few pedestrians opened their umbrellas. Traffic grew heavier and the driver slowed down. The Olt River and the mountains were now behind us and ahead of us were the hills, getting flatter and forming a wide saddle.
“There,” the driver said pointing with his strong hand. “At the base of those hills lays your destination.”
I felt regretful that the time to get off will come soon. At Râmnicul Vâlcea’s edge, the highway split, one arm going around the city and joining the traffic to Bucharest, the other into downtown. The driver stopped.
“Thank you,” said the policeman and got off quickly.
I gave the driver some cash. I had thought of this moment throughout the journey, concerned about doing this in the presence of the policeman, but now I had no hesitation.
“Be safe,” I said to him, while he looked straight ahead, his hands on the wheel.
“You too,” he answered.
The policeman waited in the road. “How much did you give him?” he asked me.
I told him.
He repeated the number in a soft voice, and we started walking together in the direction of town. In between the trees across a field, one could see the first homes a short distance away, and an overpass across the highway.
“Are you in a hurry?” I asked.
He walked with some difficulty, perhaps encumbered by his long and heavy overcoat.
“How could I not be? My girls are waiting for me, and my wife, also.” As he said this, his smile grew wider, and a sparkle danced in his green eyes. “It’s bad enough I won’t make it home until evening. I want to stop somewhere and buy them a few small presents.”
“How will you get home?” I asked. “By hitchhiking?”
“Yes,” he said. “Let’s be honest. For us, it’s convenient.”
That much was true, why not admit it?
“If you’re in a hurry, perhaps we should catch the bus to downtown,” I suggested.
“Good idea,” he said. “But first let’s go pee. Here, because in town, I’m afraid it will be impossible.”
I admit I was taken aback. I don’t think many people have enjoyed the offer of relieving themselves on the side of the road with a policeman. And I appreciated he did it in such a simple and direct way. We walked across the field until we reached a copse of trees. He hid behind one tree trunk and I behind another. With the corner of my eye I saw him unbutton his heavy overcoat and unzip his pants. Ten minutes later we shook hands and parted ways. As I watched him leave burdened by his blue overcoat, I felt lonely, and I smiled at my apprehension of people in uniform.
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