Apr/May 2006  •   Fiction

Hills Like Pink Elephants

by Bruce Stirling

Nothing had changed. The dry, rolling hills still framed the valley with the station nestled between two rail lines, one running south to Barcelona, the other north to Madrid. Nothing had changed at all. The thought made her smile. The waiter brought her bottled water.

She shielded her eyes from the late morning sun. The breeze felt good. She slipped her sunglasses on. At the end of the platform, a little girl in a new white dress carefully counted the telephone poles running along the rail lines.

The platform speaker crackled to life. The train from Barcelona was arriving. She sipped some water and tried to remember the Spanish he'd taught her, phrases he'd said would see her through. She couldn't remember any of them.

A tired train crawled out of the heat and came to a sighing stop. An older couple, dressed in their Sunday best, got off, the wife burdened with the baggage as the husband disappeared inside the cool, deep shadows of the bar.

She looked but didn't see him. She wasn't surprised. Punctuality had never been his strong suit. Still, she waited. He'd called out of the blue last month. He wanted to meet. For a drink. For old time's sake. She'd agreed. It was no trouble. She'd be there.

She checked her cell phone. The voice messages were piling up. The vice-president had questions about the acquisition. The CFO had questions about the stock split. She slipped her cell phone inside her purse, then watched the little girl.

The little girl looked up at the platform clock. The small hand jerked forward and disappeared behind the big hand pointing straight up. The little girl giggled, the sun at its zenith failing to dim her joy.

"Hi, Jig."

Nothing had changed. Sincerity dressed in uncertainty. He sat down, the beer in his hand already half gone.

The waiter came. He ordered another beer and an Anis del Toro for her. She smiled.

"You're looking well," he said, lighting a cigarette.

His suit and shoes were showing their age. So was his face. The lines ran deep. His hair, still uncombed, was streaked with gray.

"You work?" he asked.

"I do."

"For who?"

"For no one."

Her vagueness made him smile. That's what he saw in her so long ago, a lost girl drifting from moment to moment with him guiding her to the next bar where they sat and drank and pretended to be happy. How could they not have been? They were going to Madrid.

"What do you do?" she asked.

"Me?" He lighted a second cigarette off the first. "I'm a writer."

"Really? What do you write?"

"Short stories. Novels. Screenplays mostly."

"Have I seen any of your work?"

"No. Always the bridesmaid..."

He'd said the same thing back when he was a painter in Torremolinos. Once he'd made it big, they'd live in Paris and have an apartment in Manhattan. He'd promised to take her there. He'd promised a lot of things.

"Nice dress," he said, looking at her legs. "You never said what you did."

"I have my own company," she replied. "You might've heard of it. It's called Pink Elephant."

He straightened. "The search engine?"

She nodded as she watched the little girl.

"I use Pink Elephant all the time," he said. "It's huge. Really? That's your company?"

He still didn't trust her. After all these years.

The waiter brought her Anis del Toro. The platform speaker crackled to life. Passengers returned to the waiting train.

"It's leaving in two minutes," he said. "I'd like to stay. Really. But I got to meet someone in Madrid."

She smiled. Nothing had changed.

He finished his beer and found the courage to ask. "Did you ever go?"

"To Madrid?" she said.

"No, I mean..."

The little girl ran up and gave her a flower.

"Look," the little girl said, pointing at the hills. "They look like pink elephants."

"They do," she said. "They do."

He looked at the little girl, then at the hills. He saw no pink, just dry, barren waste. He drank the Anis down.

"This is a surprise," he said, staring at the empty glass.

The little girl ran down the platform and looked up at the platform clock. The big hand clicked forward to the five. She giggled and waved. He didn't wave back.

"Is she mine?" he asked.

"What do you care?" she said. "You're going to Madrid."

He butted his cigarette, glanced at the little girl, then said, "I got to go."

He picked up his suitcase strapped shut with a belt, the locks broken, the handle frayed.

He climbed onto the waiting train and sat looking at her from a window seat. He gave his ticket stub to the conductor, then turned back to the platform, but she was gone. In the parking lot, he watched as she and the little girl got in a black Benz, their faces lost behind tinted glass as they drove off.

The platform speaker crackled to life. The engine had broken down. He returned to the same table outside the bar. He ordered a beer and watched the sun set. It was pretty. Just like a painting. He'd have to come back and paint it one day.