Rich Meyers lives in the San Francisco, teaches English as a Second Language at SF City College, and has published two poetry chapbooks. He was active in Berkeley Civil Rights and Free Speech movements in the 60's and worked as a Peace Corps volunteer in India in 1968.
He has written the novels The Journey that Never was Made, Alms for Oblivion, Under Indian Skies, and A Maze for Infidels
and two books of poetry, The Journey's Loom and Striptease of the Soul.
His work is available from Gandarva Press, 3654 A, 24th Street, SF, CA. 94110.
NEW by Rich Meyers...
THE SHOES OF SAINT GREGORY
WE DON'T NEED NO STINKING BADGES
A SWEETENED MEMORY
YOU LOOK LIKE GOLD TO ME
VANISHINGS AT THE CAMEL MARKET
SO PROUDLY WE HAIL
THE LIGHT FANDANGO
THREE WRITES OF PASSAGE
THROUGH THE CRACKS
A WORLD MORE DANGEROUS
THE ISLAND OF DOPAMINE
WHERE HAVE ALL THE SPIRITS GONE
THE MUSEUM OF FOOLS
SHADOWS AND APPOINTMENTS
THE QUANTUM THEORY OF AUNT ROSE
THIS COULD BE THE BIG ONE
The Templed Air of Solitude
HOUSE OF THE NUMB
The Man Who Slept Through Heaven
THE DAWN FOR TYRANTS
A DESIRE TRANSLATED
KHAO SAN ROAD
AND SHOULD NOT I PITY NINEVAH?
DON'T NEED NO STINKING BADGES
Once on a Jewish holiday when most kids were in school, my brother and I were allowed to go to the movies. We waited for my father to drive us to the Apollo Theater where we would present our mother's hand-written letter to the ticket booth lady. It read: "Please permit my two sons to today's matinee (September 24) as they are excused from school for a Jewish holiday." She signed it and put it in an envelope and handed it to Harold, who was two years older than I. We were excited as our father's car pulled up and we beheld the radiant marquee: Humphrey Bogart double feature "Treasure of the Sierra Madre" and "Key Largo." After the second feature we were to go immediately to the front of the theater under the marquee, where father would be waiting. As our father walked us, holding our hands, to the ticket booth, we felt a nervous exhilaration, anticipating entering the empire of the dark.
Our father said, "Always stand up for what's right. It's your holiday so don't let these gentiles
try to get one over on you. You understand?"
Standing outside the ticket booth, Harold handed the lady mother's letter and bought two child's tickets for sixty cents each. We looked towards father's car and watched Dad light his cigar and drive away.
We entered the slanting sunlight entranceway and walked past the red velvet rope on its silver post into the artificial glow of the red lobby with its thick rug and glass-covered candy counter. The Apollo's light turned from a mysterious dusk of lobby into a sudden decisive darkening where the blue folds of the curtain, slowly parting, revealed the swift shining of a screen. The seats were mostly empty which made our presence in the dark both conspicuous and very exciting. A few adults in the back row turned around in their seats and looked quizzically at Harold and me. An old man walked down the sloping aisle and chose our row. He slipped past six chair-arms and pulled down a faded velvet seat, close to us. I leaned back impatiently, waiting for simulated nightfall, whispers of ushers, the beam of flashlight in the darkened aisle. The old man made a brief glance in our direction and then returned his eyes to the screen. A moment later he turned again and tilting his head towards Harold, asked,
"Shouldn't you boys be in school now?" The man's voice startled us and we hesitated while looking at one another in a puzzled way, waiting to see who would answer the question. Harold, older and more responsible, timidly replied, "It's a holiday today."
"What holiday is it today?"
"It's a Jewish holiday," Harold cautiously replied, pressing the back of his head against the fuzzy velvet seat.
"Are you two boys Jewish then?"
As the question was asked the lights went out totally and on the luminous screen the bright letters of Coming Attractions flickered. The letters flashed over the black and white images dancing on the screen. The old man's voice intruded upon a world bathed in the screen's glow. "What's the name of this holiday for the Jews?" I turned towards the man two seats away and saw his large hard black shoes caught in the cone of the flashlight beam in the darkened aisle. Harold looked at me and turned towards the man and whispered, "I don't remember its name. It's a high holiday. I forgot the name."
"You're Jewish and you forgot the name of your own holiday?"
"It begins with an R, but I forget."
Even in the dark I could almost see my brother blushing. We both felt a sense of awkwardness that was often followed by shame. We longed to escape this discomfort by submitting to the alluring powers of the dark.
Our dad should have made us remember the name of the holiday was the first thought that came to me. Our parents did not know much about the religion itself and never went to synagogue, but we were handed down a set of rules on how to stand up and be proud for being "what we were." Dad had modeled that message on a few occasions. Once we had been dropped off at the St. Anthony Public Swimming Pool. We undressed in the locker room and rushed to the chlorine depths of the outdoor pool. Maybe some of our clothes and things never made it into our metal cubicles that had no locks. When my brother Harold and I went to the front of the building upon leaving, we saw Dad frowning at his watch. His look of stern authority turned to anger when he realized we had left something important behind. It appeared we had lost the silver necklaces that Jewish parents bought for their kids. They were called mezuzahs and were embroidered with the Star of David. They had been stolen our father concluded and he would confront the gentile management of the pool to "get to the bottom of this." Dad raised his voice to the janitor, demanding to see the manager.
"Those are sacred things and expensive," he shouted, "this is a public pool. Don't think we Jews are fools. We want that jewelry given back." He ranted and raved while Harold and I stood embarrassed against the corridor wall. Our father's face was flush with defiant anger. His rage continued even after the janitor came out of the office with our mezuzahs and explained that we had left them sitting out on the locker room bench. The necklaces had been sitting safely in the lost and found box in the office. Our Dad grabbed our hands and walked out briskly, slamming the front door. His face remained red on the drive home and when he told Mom the story he shouted wild recriminations at St. Anthony's. "See how they try to insult us." Later he claimed: "I had to force the truth out of them."
I had fallen into a stupor, for a shuffling sound startled me. The old man stepped out of his seat and on to the upward sloping aisle. I felt relieved by the leaving of the man and slipped back into the comforting darkness, filled with the smell of the tattered red seat cushions, popcorn and soda-stained floor. The curtain fluttered and closed momentarily and then reopened, signaling the end of the previews and the beginning of the main feature. Humphrey Bogart was walking down a street in Mexico after the titles were shown. I leaned back contentedly and slouched down resting my head against the seat. Harold turned to me and said, "I'm glad he's gone. Hey, don't put your head on the seat. You know what Dad said. It's a good way to get an infection, ringworm or something."
"Shh, Harold. Watch the movie." I felt the urge to look behind me to see where the old man had gone. I was nervous and restrained turning around as if feeling I had been guilty of something. The theatre was empty in the rows ahead of us. The nearly deserted rows of seats deepened a growing sense of a forbidden experience that enveloped us. The feeling of being absorbed in a dark movie house while the majority, the gentiles, were in school, disclosed a slight danger in this clandestine violation of the usual. It was far too early to think about my father waiting for us outside the theatre yet I pictured him pacing back and forth, smoking his cigar and looking at his watch.
Down the sloping aisle came the tread of feet and I could see the stiff shoes approaching,
lit up by the single bulb at the end of our aisle. In that uncanny light I could see the outline of a suited man developing. The figure stopped at our aisle and leaned over the first seats and looked into our faces. A deep voice emerged which at first was difficult to hear separate from the voices on the screen. The man walked close to our chairs and his face was encircled by the aura of the throbbing glow of screen light as he bent over near us. "I'm the manager. Do you boys want to come with me?" I nervously looked at Harold whose face was invisible in the obscuring light from the dim image of Bogart and Tim Holt in the night gloom of a grungy flophouse. "Come on boys to my office," the voice continued. "We need to talk." I knew some reproach was about to happen, but I met it with an outward calm. Harold rose from his seat stealthily and budged me to follow. Seats brushed against my knees, a coin clinked but I didn't bother to pick it up. My foot kicked a popcorn box and a seat shot up with a thump. The aisle sloped down more sharply than I had remembered. I followed behind Harold and the tall man whose shoes shimmered in the light bulb blush of each row of seats. As I passed the arms of seats I felt a pulling at my calves, as if I were being pushed forward against my will. Wouldn't we be allowed to finish watching the movie? Looking ahead and up at Harold following behind the elevated head of the manager, a heaviness came over me. I could scarcely drag my feet. Outside after a while, my father would be waiting under the marquis with his arms folded, the stump of his cigar clutched in thick fingers. The screen was fading behind us and the music grew dim. Worry overshadowed the desire to watch the movie that I had waited years to see. I felt that something was slipping away, but my thoughts were murky and flickered out of reach.
At the top of the aisle I paused, cringing with disappointment toward the glint of sun peering through the front entrance door. The manager led us past the red velvet rope on its silver post. Suddenly we were back in the well-lit lobby with its red rug and glittering candy counter. The manager who we now saw was a gray-haired man in a suit, motioned for us to sit down in the armchairs just outside the door with the sign reading OFFICE. "Are you boys playing hooky?" the man asked leaning over our chairs. "What's this about some Jewish holiday? What school do you go to? Let's see the note you showed at the ticket booth." The manager glanced quizzically at the note that Harold took out of the envelope. The man shook his head skeptically and focusing on Harold said, "And you don't even know the name of the holiday? We'll have to look into this. Just sit here for awhile as I straighten this out."
"Can I go over and get a drink of water?" I asked. I went over to the water fountain and took a long swallow. At the darkening end of the corridor I saw a sign that said REST ROOMS, with a blue arrow pointing down. I was walking in that direction when I heard someone shouting at me. It was the manager of the theater. He walked towards me now accompanied by an usher. "Where are you going? To the rest room? The usher here will go with you. Come back soon and sit over there by the other one, your brother. He said your father's coming for you. We're calling your school and then we'll wait for your father to come and get you."
In the men's room the usher, an older teenager in uniform, stood, shuffling his flashlight from hand to hand as I slipped into the stall and listened to the usher's black shoes pacing the floor. I opened the door of the stall and walked up the stairs while the usher followed close behind. At the top of the stairs was the corridor, now empty except for Harold sitting in the armchair outside the office. I tiptoed towards my brother whose face had a discomfited expression in the dim light cast from the candy counter lit by a single bulb. The theater appeared to be still, almost deserted. I sat in the chair next to Harold and heard the manager fingering papers in the office. Ahead of me I could see the row of closed doors leading to the entranceway. Under the doors I could see an unsettling line of sunlight. I was anxious and composed, worried and calm.
After nodding off for some time, I suddenly saw our father coming through the entrance door, bursting through the glare of sunlight and striding swiftly up the carpeted slope. As he approached nearer I could see the stub of cigar poking through his fingers. His gruff and decisive
gait was briefly interrupted by the teenage usher who said something to father while pointing to a "No Smoking" sign. Father reached over the red velvet rope and pressed his cigar into one of those tall ashtrays with white sand. Father's face was angry as he shouted at Harold and me. "Why didn't you kids wait for me outside like I told you? When I tell you something I mean it. What am I talking to, the wall?" The manager, hearing the loud voice, came out of his office and began speaking to my father. I was so nervous that I couldn't hear a word spoken. I only saw my father's hands moving and the manager pacing in his large black shoes on the carpet. Then Dad came closer to us to deliver his admonishment. "Didn't you tell him that it was Rosh Hashanah today? It's New Year. You had a note. No school. Didn't you tell him? Look at you. They've got you looking like prisoners here. What is this, Auschwitz?" Father continued his rage, raising his voice and flapping his arms. After speaking a few muffled words, the manager went back into his office. Father grabbed our hands and pulled us roughly towards the exit. The young usher followed us furtively past the candy counter and along the red velvet ropes. Nearing the entranceway, he turned abruptly around and turned sternly, facing the cautious usher and shouted, "Where are their scarves. These boys came in here with scarves, expensive ones. Where are they? Go look. Don't you people have a damn lost and found. Go look!" The pale usher was stunned and winced as he turned sheepishly around and walked up the incline and into the manager's office.
Harold and I looked at each other in astonishment. What was father thinking? A flush of blood snuck up and reddened my face. Harold looked puzzled and uncomfortable. We could hear the voices of the manager and the usher
grumbling in the office. I didn't know what to do. I did not move and remained silent. Something should be said but I felt my will slipping away. The manager emerged from the office followed guiltily by the young usher. The two walked past the red velvet rope on the silver post and the manager lifted up the flap that led to the rear of the candy counter. The manager shuffled around searching behind the popcorn machine
while the usher pointed the flashlight on the floor and shone it upon the glossy candy wrappers and stains of sticky butter. The two of them could barely squeeze in the space behind the high popcorn machine where the candy lady was seated. The manager clumsily shook the yellow glass that turned the popcorn butter-yellow. He turned to the usher and raised his voice grumbling some irritable words. The blood again surged to my head, trickling down to a thumping in my face. I reached for my father's jacket sleeve and gave it a tug. "Dad," I said.
Father whispered, "Shhh", and gripped my hand and gave it a sharp squeeze.
Some complaining words flared up between the manager and the candy lady. He then ordered the women to stand outside the counter. The manager and usher continued their search, tossing around boxes and sweeping out debris from under the counter. A strange feeling crept over me. Something pleasant, a secretive enjoyment at watching their fumbling search, slipped into my awareness. Harold reached behind father's back and nudged me. I didn't respond and stood still and silent. Again I was prodded. I didn't move. "Dad," Harold blurted out. "There are no scarves, dad. We didn't bring our scarves." I could feel Father's body tighten up and he looked down at Harold and in a voice, surprising in its calm and warmth, quietly said, "That's for us to know. Not them. You understand?" Again father squeezed my hand, affectionately this time, and smiled. The manager staggered out from behind the candy counter and uttered some cantankerous sounds to the usher before disappearing into the office.
That subtle sensation of pleasure returned for a moment. The teenage usher awkwardly shuffled down the sloping carpet towards us. His words were low and muffled: "The manager says that if we find the scarves we will let you know. We have your telephone number."
"And who gave you that?" Father asked angrily.
"They gave it to Mr. Williams, the manager, I guess," said the usher cautiously. He looked not at my father, but away with embarrassment. "We'll call you he said and you can come pick them up."
"Pick them up?" father barked. "I'm a hard working man, not like him. Do you people think I have time to leave my job to come down here?"
The usher glanced away and nervously replied, "Then write down your address and we'll mail them to you."
"Address," father yelled. "We don't need to give you no damn address. No lousy address. Tell your Mr. Williams that you can't play us for fools. Come on, kids, let's go. Let's get out of here. Mom's waiting. We don't need the aggravation."
Grabbing our hands and pulling us along, father marched us to the crimson glow of the exit sign. In the car Father paused to light up a cigar.
"When we get home, tell Mom how I told off those goyim. I grew up with that kind in a tough neighborhood. My father wouldn't let me hide from them in the house. I had to go out and fight
or I wouldn't be allowed home, not even for dinner. I have half a mind to go back there and get my money back."
"Don't Dad," Harold pleaded. "We saw the movies! We got our money's worth." I looked at my brother in amazement. Harold cast a harsh glance at me and shook his head, urging that I cooperate in silence.
"We'll as long as you stood up for yourselves," father conceded.
"We did. They couldn't kick us out on a holiday," I answered quivering with honor.
"Good then. That's a good movie, that Bogart one about gold. What is it that bandit says, the Mexican guy with gold teeth? Funny! What the hell is it he says? What was it, Harold?"
"I went to the bathroom in the middle of it."
"What was it?" father asked me.
"He doesn't remember," Harold hastily answered. "He doesn't remember names or anything."
The car sped home past Jefferson Street and up the hill to Rosewood, the Jewish neighborhood.
SHOES OF SAINT GREGORY
We admired the saints, snuck into the church schoolyard and hid while our friends went into the confession boxes, and we led them later to the woods of Fairmount Park that were considered forbidden territory by the nuns.
Anna-Marie Kelly let me carve her initials into a tree. She wouldn't allow the heart and arrow to be drawn. My younger brother wanted to wrestle with Loretta Hines who was a tomboy and stood a foot taller than him. He was only eleven and crazy about girls. I was two years older than Robbie, and I was wild with desire for Anna-Marie. We followed the girls to church often and usually waited for them at Snyder's Drug and Soda Fountain on their way back. We never dared enter the church itself although we had more than once snuck a peek inside. We were the Jewish kids in a neighborhood of Catholics.
Anna-Marie made it very clear that she would not "go all the way" with a boy. Robbie and I didn't really know what that meant. The gentile boys said they knew, but we didn't believe them. I was crazy that summer to find out. Davey Ryan had a crush on Karen Farmer, but she was a reverent Catholic girl and nobody could get to first base with her. Karen was serious about her upcoming confirmation, and she was anxious about choosing the name of a patron saint. Butchy Mueller elected Anna-Marie his "patron saint of pussy." We hated that word and Robbie told Butchie never to talk that way around the girls. Robbie secretly told me later that he had offered Anna-Marie his entire collection of Phillies cards and ten spider man comic books for a peek at Anna Marie's breasts. She refused. Anna Marie without a doubt had the biggest tits in all of West Philadelphia. It was in the same conversation that Robbie told me how much he wanted to convert to being a Catholic. Being Jewish, he said, was boring. He loved the look of churches "with the altars and statues and all those stained-glass windows." The gentile guys get all the "nookie", he insisted. I tried to explain that conversion wasn't that easy. Although I didn't really know much about it, I told my younger brother that Judaism was a good religion and much older than Christianity. "They're different from us, Robbie. They don't like us. The nuns tell them that we killed Christ. They don't really want us. Someday maybe you'll find out."
Butchy Mueller's mom thought it would be all right for Robbie to go with the other kids to the St. Gregory Church Shoe Sale. Robbie followed the others down the dark carpeted aisle past the stained glass windows portraying the Stations of the Cross and through the corridor of statues. It led to the stone staircase that spiraled up to the social hall where the donated shoes were on sale to the public for less than half price. In the entrance to the hall stood a statue of the Virgin Mary. One of the Patton kids said, "She's the reason you can't get into Karen's pants. She's in love with the virgin." Mike Casey laughed, saying. "Two years now that I'm no virgin. What about you guys?" No one answered.
Butchy Mueller bowed slightly and said good evening to Sister Margaret. Robbie knew that name. The girls often talked about the nuns. Sister Margaret was the strict one who used the stick as punishment. He knew about Sister Alice who stuttered and Sister Elizabeth who gave hours of Latin for homework. He recognized Father Anthony. He was a stern priest but he had a sense of humor, Johnnie Grady said. Johnnie had been an altar boy studying with Fathers Anthony and O'Rourke. Robbie saw the priests talking to Sister Margaret. Among the shoes Robbie found the perfect ones, a pair of seven and a half Buster Brown's. When he took the pair over to the cashier, Sister Cecelia, she told Robbie to wait a minute. When Robbie told me what happened he said it was Sister Margaret who took the shoes away from him. He said it was Father Anthony who came over to him from across the hall and told him that the shoes were not for sale. When Robbie questioned the priest, it was the other one, the tall priest, Father O'Rourke, who answered, "This sale is for St. Gregory's parishioners, not for Jews. We're sorry, son, but who told you that you could come here?" Robbie cried when he told me, and in time he became interested in girls from another neighborhood, girls "more his kind." It was the summer that Robbie learned the difference. It was the summer he found out.
Many shopkeepers in Burra Bazaar wanted to avoid her. If the spice merchant spotted the woman in the distance he would lower the corrugated metal gate that closed the shop and would hide inside the stall until Jenny Balasanta, the loquacious Anglo-Indian woman had clearly passed. My God, they were difficult, those loud cheeky, half-breeds always yammering away, putting on airs. "My father was No.1 railroad engineer at Bangalore Cantonment," she'd always boast. My Uncle this __ my cousin that __ and my cousin's brother commissioner Inspector on the Express Line between Bombay and Trivandrum. These Anglo bastards, they were all the same, a deceiving lot of outcasts, leftovers from their whore mother's one night with some English lackey. That's what the spice merchant, Mr. Mukerjee, thought of Anglo-Indians. Their kind generally had such a poor portion of self-respect that he feared it would diminish his own respectability just to be seen with her. This Jenny creature would come to beg strange things from him. She'd come to his stall in her faded flower print dress and her oversized heeled shoes at the end of pale bony legs, her face powdered to appear whiter.
"Mr. Mukerjee, I saw your mother at Juhu Beach. She was looking grand. Such a sari, gold trimmed. It's a fine thing to have such money. My grandfather, bless his soul, started your mother in this business. This spice business was built on money Bunsi Balasanta gave her, did you know that? Oh poor me, yes not a loan, he gave her the money. Yes he did. Uncle Baba was that way, always with the handouts. Didn't you know? My father was at your wedding. A feast he said. He put a thousand rupee note in your pocket, wishing you a good life. Oh Papa, what a special prince of a man. Resting in peace now. And how many came to his funeral? Thousands! Mararajahs and movie stars, the best people, first class. He begged me to go into the movies but I had so many other things to do. So much to take care of."
"Miss Balasanta, please, I am a busy man. What can I do for you?"
"The same. I want your old spices. Old cloves, cardamom, whatever your sweet hands want to throw away, not chili or cayenne, but sweet kind, darling, tamarind, coriander, a little cumin, turmeric, old so the hotness is gone."
"I do not get my spices free, Miss Balasanta."
"Just old throw-away spices. My cousin 's brother spent too much rupees here in your store. A fortune he spent with you."
"Miss Balasanta, what do you do with these old spices? They're not good for cooking."
"No, for smelling, darling man. For the sweetness."
"Why not fresh spice like a regular person buys. Why always old spice? It's the money isn't it? You want to save money."
"On a beautiful day like this you want to insult me? My sweet Papa left me an inheritance. What his great father left him. We people have money. Never find a beggar named Balasanta. Never find my family begging!"
"Aacha. I will find you old spice __ free spice, as you wish, but this is the last time, I am telling you. Please, don't ask again."
"Mr. Mukerjee, don't disgrace my family's name like that, please. Someone has to care for their honor, yes for the family's sweet honor. Someone must take care. I look after my family's honor. Generations of our people built your railroads, operating the rails for India. Who remembers them? Someone has to. We have English blood in our veins. Isn't that a thing to be honored? We are not trash. Respect must be paid."
The spice merchant was stunned and annoyed. He did not like to have one of her kind talking to him that way. Her incessant talk made him nervous. Her insecurity, covered by a feeble haughtiness and exaggerations made him very nervous. He didn't want to talk to her any more. He reluctantly reached behind his shelf of spice jars, gathering the old spices into a banana leaf which he then wrapped up in rice paper and attached a rubber band. Mr. Mukerjee was anxious to be done with her.
To his surprise she offered him money, a few rupees that she pulled out of a tiny purse. She fumbled clumsily for the money. Mr. Mukerjee shook his head gesturing for her to just hold on to her money.
" No charge. Not important. Please, take it and go."
" Well, I thank you kindly. Bless you; my dear dead family thanks you.
We won't forget your service. Someone must take care of them. Father always said you were such a decent man."
The spice merchant turned away focusing his attention on a paying customer, hoping that might help him get a hold of his nerves. Miss Balasanta took her package and ambled out from her monologue and into the streets outside the market where she continued yapping away to herself. She carried the spices as if they were as precious as sacred offerings.
She walked the curving street passing the dome and minaret of the inner city mosque. She mumbled to herself, "These people, these Muslims are a minority, yet they have grave-yards for their departed." She grew tired at one point on her long walk and had to stop and rest just beside the Hanuman Temple. Mumbling on to herself, she said, "They let monkeys into this temple but not me. The way the Brahmin priests look at me. I have my family I belong to. I don't need their idolatry. My family had Jesus. And Hindus, what about their deceased? They are burned expensively, cremation ceremony and all. Not the Christian way, father always said."
At the north end of the city was the Railway Cantonment. A lane of small bungalows beyond the station stretched toward the modest lane of small houses that were provided for the families of the railway officials, many of whom were Anglo-Indians, respected and remembered only by their children and relatives, their own kind.
She had a set of keys she was proud to own and she fumbled with them coming up with the silver one that opened the front door. She turned the key after knocking and opened the door. Inside was her aunt busying about with a broom and a little spade. The floor that spread from two charpoys to the rear of the small cottage was not cement, not stone at all. The house she had entered had a floor of dirt. Jenny Balasanta took off her shoes and walked over to the area of earth mounds where her aunt was digging a hole with a spade. There were crosses on the four mounds. They had pictures at the front of them. Old photographs of her deceased father was attached to a cross. Rosary beads were coiled around the pictures. Next to that mound dedicated to her father was another bearing her mother's photo. The two other graves contained the bodies of her uncles, her mother and father's brothers.
"Auntie, what have you been doing? Are the holes dug? I have the spices."
The aunt hurried about on bent gnarled legs finishing the holes with her spade. Jenny, bent over the graves. She poured the old spices into a tall cup and poured the contents into the holes.
"Someone," Jenny said, " has to take care to sweeten the memory. It's only right and respectful, you know. Someone must attend to their honor."
LOOK LIKE GOLD TO ME
At the north end of Ackland Street in Melbourne looms a huge figure of a clown whose wide-open mouth is the entrance to the all but abandoned Luna Park, a tawdry amusement park, and a popular haunt for family outings sometime ago. Children had been amused or frightened of the giant clown. My Australian host's boys called it the "boogie swagman" or more amicably, "look at me mates, no worries." Lying on the grass under the old wooden roller coaster, a voice reached towards me, "My God, you're here too." It was Sweet William who like me had journeyed to Australia from America for the grand family reunion. All of us would gather in a few days on French Island, south of the city, an ecology farm reserved for the week's occasion. William had come from Austin, Texas; others had come from Rochester, New York, and Hawaii and England and France. Most of us were Northern Californians. Hosted in our spiritual families' Melbourne houses, we awaited the long anticipated train and ferry journey to the island. "You made it," William said. "It's magic, this family of ours. I saved, I prayed and imagined this, Australia, 2003. It's a party." He looked around him and gazing up at the Ferris wheel and palm trees, added, "It's a circus, an international circus."
For my birthday and as a gift to my spirit, I took this journey down under. On my way in Thailand I bought a T-shirt with a colorful image of Ganesh who I adored in the aspect of the destroyer of obstacles. The elephant god said to me, "No worries, mate." Here every Aussie said it, on the street, on the trams, after every thank you, at every encounter. Australia was a gift, the way travel often is, and once I accepted its expense and occasional ordeal , the world took me in. I glimpsed the details of this anomalous continent. It had a subdued inclusion, never an assimilation of ethnic variety; I glimpsed its Victorian yet rugged amalgam of suppression and vigor, its brusque casualness as well as its terrain of novel, unadulterated mystery. The incongruous and ordinary were swallowed together. My friends, all part of a divine movement, a family, inspired by our Bengali teacher, had all been born here and adapted with that uniquely terse and sardonic humor to the character of this young continent. Their lives grew up in this unusual environment and absorbed into it as though swallowed up by that snickering and gaping mouth of the clown at Luna Park.
The grass whispered under my body. The afternoon wind had brought those tenacious flies to my mouth and ears. The constant need to wave away those menacing, buzzing insects was a common gesture known locally as the Australian salute. The world slipped amusingly over the glassy rounds of my
eyeballs with images sparked in crystal spheres. Flowers were suns in fiery spots of sky strewn over the beach and park in St. Kilda. Birds, magpies and parrots, flickered like skipped stones across the vast inverted lake of heaven. An early moon hung low in the sky. Its shadows seemed on the wrong side, its shape, veiled in its waning, appeared reversed. Yet that seemed appropriate, I thought. At night I beheld entirely new galaxies. Orion's belt tumbled beneath the falling warrior as his head tipped down towards the bridge that spanned the harbor where ferries glided off in the night towards Tasmania. It made a kind of sense. After all I was at the very bottom of the planet, down under
I sat on a bench feeding some doves the remains of my curried steak-and-kidney pie when I caught sight of three dark and wild haired men. It was a shock suddenly seeing these swaggering and heavy-limbed men. They laughed while passing to one another bottles of hard liquor. The men walked past me. Not far behind them, walking in a stupor, weaving back and forth, were their women, squat, round, black limbs in shabby pants. One of them extended a plump and tattooed arm to me and said, "I am Pixie. This Doria Woolangu and sister Nori. We are aborigine. You don't see our kind here in Victoria, do you?"
"I am American," I said defensively.
"Ah, he is Yank, " Doria said to the others.
"Yank?" Pixie replied playfully, slapping Doria's wrist. "Well, I tell you, he looks like gold to me. Yes he does, like gold. We are meeting our family here from the bus from north. We are going back home. Westland Yakadangang.
You want some drink. Join us! Yank man?"
"No Thank you," I replied nervously. "I have an appointment. I must go meet some people."
"Family?" the one called Nori asked.
"Hesitating for a moment, I replied, "Yes, family."
"Family best. Always best!" Pixie asserted. Her eyebrows were arches of penciled black under a mane of dusty and tangled hair. Doria was thin with a mouthful of crooked teeth protruding from wide gums of smeared lipstick. Nori's face was cavernous and scarred. The three of them had huge bony heads, which made them appear misshapen, somewhat lion-like. I felt uneasy and timid in their presence and wanted to pull away. I saw the men, loud and drunk, stumbling back in our direction. They joined their women and staggering together spoke wildly in their language. Theirs were deep and untamed voices and I was uncertain whether it was quarreling I was observing in their excited and frenzied pitch. Pixie pulled on one's sleeve while the sisters rifled through the bundles the men had carried over their shoulders. Pixie turned to me and said, "Watch, Yank. We can show you something!"
I replied fretfully," I have no money. Honest. Really I don't"
"Nobody talking money. Come, drink with us. We can show you the dance, our family dance," The bundles they had carried were spread upon the grass and much wild talking back and forth went on. Pixie turned to me and said, "Don't you worry, mate, you watch this." The men talked among themselves with voices rising and falling, searching their bundles and pulling out things. Pixie and the sisters smiled at me while the men continued fumbling through their things. I was on edge with their every movement. I watched one of them pouring water from a bottle into several coconut shells which contained what looked like mud of different colors. The men smeared each other's faces with the ointment and the women rubbed it over their limbs. It all happened quickly. The shouting was muffled and slurred by the whiskey drinking that accompanied the swaying of bodies in the dance they performed. The dance was clumsy and brief. It was the oddest thing. The women clapped as the men swirled and circled before me on the grass. Above their arms tossing and their heads gyrating, I saw again in the now darkening sky that lopsided moon. The sight helped me avert my eyes from the dancing and the garrulous women. I was embarrassed and had no idea of what was possibly expected of me. Almost as soon as it began the dance ended and I paused and then looked with bewilderment at Pixie.
"Thank you but I must go. I'm late. Sorry, people are waiting. I must go."
"These people?" she asked. "Who these people?"
The words quickly came to me. "My family," I answered.
I ran off along Fitzroy Street in the lights of the cafes and past the tables of the outdoor restaurants. Smoke and lights slanted out of bars and voices crackled amid the sound of clinking glasses. My heart was pounding but I was hopeful of the relief that my escape from the aborigines would bring. I rushed away under the buildings of Victorian facades and wrought iron latticed balconies. Waiting for the light to change at the crosswalk at Grey Street, I looked behind me. In the distance. I could see them, crossing Ackland Street walking away from the clown at Luna Park. There was no doubt that they were following me. I cursed them. Worried and frustrated, I wandered what they wanted of me. I couldn't imagine. Did they think I owed them something? I hurried further towards the Espy Hotel and Pub. The traffic noise blared. It was just another street and I would arrive at my destination, the birthday party for Kalki. The entire Melbourne family would be there. Some were coming down from the country north of the city. Others were driving up from the southern coast. Much of the Australian family would be there.
Ahead of me I could see glimmering in the twilight the marquis of the The Espy, announcing music events for the night. "Kalki's 32nd Birthday" was happening on in a nightclub called The Fish Bowl. At the columns of the hotel, I looked back again and could see them still advancing, the men and their women. I thought I saw Pixie leading the group and waving her arms, perhaps shouting at me. I mounted the stairs and at the entrance of The Fish Bowl sat two young women at a table collecting an entrance fee. Next to the entrance was a long window that looked into the bar and dance floor.
"Five dollars, please," one said. I paid. "Do you want your hand stamped?'
"What did you say?" I asked. "Your hand. Do you want it stamped?
You know, so you can leave and come back. Not be charged again."
"Yes," I said distracted. I considered warning the women that I was being followed. By a pack of aborigines I would say. It all seemed too absurd to even mouth the words. I didn't hear their footfalls. I walked rapidly to merge in the anonymity of the crowd. There were two crowds, the drinkers at the bustling bar and the dancers swirling to pounding disco rhythm on the dance floor under the balloons and flashing lights. I saw but could not hear the voices of my friends. I was hugged and then abandoned in the roar of clamoring music. I ordered a brandy and drank it quickly. Behind me stretching the length of the dance floor was the window that from outside The Fish Bowl the activity inside could be viewed. There was no sign of Pixie and her group. I swallowed a second brandy
and turned my eyes to the dance floor. Some family dancers beckoned me forward to join them. The disco throbbing sound waned as the lights went on. There was a pause from the loudness. The streamers and balloons glided along the ceiling. There was the stir of anticipation. Then came the announcement. It was time for Kalki's performance.
As Kalki walked into the spotlight wearing her glittering costume, there came a prolonged roar and applause and laughter pierced occasionally by a scream. Kalki began her dance. Encircling her feet were nine hoops. As the music built, she maneuvered her ankles and calves to start the hoops twirling about her. Amazingly, the hoops spun wildly up her body, a few at waist level, others around her neck and several about her arms. The music increased its tempo and the performer gyrated wildly, adding the remaining hoops. Hands were clapping; arms were hugging me as the loving crowd cheered on the birthday girl. A kiss was planted on my cheek and when I turned to see who it was, I saw gazing from behind the window the faces of the aborigines. Through the murky light of the smoke-filled nightclub their faces looked diffident, almost furtive at first with their broad heads pressed against the glass. I was shocked at their sudden presence. The music grew louder, the applause increased. I could see a change come over their faces that now reflected the enjoyment of the celebration. Pixie's wide eyes and expansive nose pressed against the glass; her mouth was all teeth and smiling. I don't know if she saw me, but a few people caught glimpse of her and the others. Pointing at the window where the group was peering in was Pixie, raising her arm above her head showing the V-shaped peace sign. The others followed imitating her gesture. I felt awkward and bemused. A shiver of delight crept over me. Goosebumps and shivers of delight encircled me like Kalki's hoops, overcoming my reticence. Kalki was dissolving, it seemed, my entire unease and apprehension as she twirled and spun, ravishing the crowd in a momentum of rapture. Casting my eyes again at the pleased, even ecstatic faces of the strangers at the window, I saw a violet shift of light moving across the nightclub, across the ceiling of balloons and streamers and the shadowy dance floor. It was an arc of light that reached into the beam of my imagination where I saw the rose-colored premiere of a new picture. In it were ships landing with white men upon a new continent and embracing its indigenous people. The vision of harmony rushed past any images of dominance and land grabbing or rabbit-proof fences or genocide. It was a brief glimpse into a promising world of miracles and with eyes closed I languished in its spell. My eyes opened again to the last movements of Kalki's wondrous hoop dance. The colored rings began to unfurl from their dizzying circles around her body, from legs to hips to arms. The music stopped; the lights went on. Kalki bowed as the crowd roared with applause.
I walked through the swarm to the exit where the two women still sat at the table. Pixie and her group had already started down the stairs. They apparently had watched the dance from the window; they never entered. Pixie turned around and looked at me at the top of the stairs. "Yank," she yelled, mounting the stairs like a round, lumbering animal. I felt like a child in her robust presence, both amused and a little scared as though she was the giant clown at Luna Park. She smiled and reached for my hand; it disappeared in her dark fleshy paw. "You watch our family dance," she said contentedly, "Now we see yours. Family, best. Number one. We go home tonight. Peace to you, Yank. Family is peace. Yes." The men and the two sisters were descending the staircase staggering in a laughing swell of drunken revelry. Pixie continued to hold my hand. She looked at my hand and said, shaking her gourd-like head, "I want something from you. Then we go west. I want to have the tattoo on the hand like you." Pixie walked over to the table at the entrance to the crowded nightclub and held out her hand. The young women looked in confusion at one another. Hesitantly, the one with the stamp pressed the black ink symbol to Pixie's hand. "Good," Pixie shouted, descending the stairs and waving her stamped hand for her family below to see. "We go home now, Yank. Good! Peace to you, mate. No worries."
AT THE CAMEL MARKET
Early morning hours. A knock upon the door....I don't want to be a bother, but I really must talk to somebody. Were you still sleeping? I can bring up some mint tea if you and your friend would like....
.....Oh I see. Would a beer suit you guys better? I've gotten accustomed to mint tea, but I know we Americans prefer a beer now and then. If you change your minds I'd be happy to get some. I know a place in the Medina where they'll sell me some Spanish beer, Tecate and El Oso Negro. This merchant wraps them up in my djelaba I bring to him for that purpose. Just let me know when you want me to get some.....
.....No don't worry about the cost. I'm grateful to be able to talk to someone. It's been so difficult to sleep ever since this thing happened. I know I babbled on last night. I don't know if it made any sense. Thanks for bearing with me. I need someone to listen to my story. I don't know what to do, really I don't. When I saw that woman in the market wearing Angela's bracelets I freaked out. You can imagine.
....Yes I've spoken to the police. A number of times. First I filled out a form, missing person's report, gave full description of my two friends. But of course they were useless, the police. Two women missing? They were suspicious, looked me up and down. What was my relationship to them? That's all they were interested in. What was I doing traveling so far south with two women? Was it sex, was I having sex with them both? It came around to that, again and again. They didn't even take time to write down a description of the men involved. I must have told them ten times that the men were Moghrebi, not Berbers. "So you know the name of the Sahara people?" They said that over and over but didn't write down a damn thing, not a word of my description. I don't know whom to turn to, really I don't.
.....O.K. yes, thank you. I will calm down. I'll try. My nerves are in a knot. I can't help talking about it. Nothing but talking about it helps. It's the only way to keep my sanity. Believe me, I'm not on drugs or anything. Just fear. I used to do speed some months ago when I was here alone in Tangiers, but I wouldn't touch that shit again. After a while you talk yourself into a corner. I know people in the hotels who were so wired they stopped talking to one another and began writing notes back and forth to communicate. I never got to that point. Actually kief is what I prefer. It's for mental relaxation, more meditative. But I don't even do kief anymore. Not since all of this happened. See there I go again. I can't seem to stay focused.
....Yes I'll tell you how this started. Just interrupt me if I go too fast or stop making sense. I met Angela and Francine here in the Zoco Chico some time back. They were two schoolteachers from Boston. Angela and I kind of flashed on each other, but Francine tried in her way to keep us apart. Francine was tall. She liked me but knew how to keep everything at a distance. She thought I was crazy, imaginative. She called me "Nameless." We smoked kief together, went to Marrakech where I lived in a room next to theirs in a cheap hotel. We talked on through the nights. We learned to make majeung, hashish candy, from dates and ground nuts and pressed kief powder from the Riff Valley. We three were high much of the time, stoned every day. But not the day Francine came up with the idea to go south to the camel market at Goulamine. She had heard about the weekend just after Ramadan when the camels were sold or traded. It was supposed to be a spectacle when the buyers from the caravans came from all over Morocco to select, trade and barter for camels. The traders came from everywhere south beyond the Atlas Mountains, even from as far as the Sahara. We'd make the journey together. It was best, they thought, to have a man along. They were bored and I was lonely. We were companions.
....Dangerous? No, not that we knew of. We had no idea about the remote regions. We never looked at the tourist books. We knew how harsh and rude the Berbers could be,but we had heard about gentle people in the south, the blue people they were commonly called. And there were at least two villages that were entirely Jewish, yes Jewish Moroccans. We had heard nothing of the plundering Reguibat tribes and that there had been the war of the Sarrho, but I don't know what that was about. No, we had no thought of danger. In fact, Angela who was quite the businesswoman packed jewelry and some leather bags from Fez that she thought she could sell among the merchants at Goulamine. Angela was the fearless one and Francine, always detached, a real snob, went along for the adventure. It was Angela that turned me on to the lost travelers' check scam. She knew all kinds of things,; she knew the angles.
....Oh you haven't. You haven't heard about the travelers' checks. Well, I'll tell you about it in a moment, there's some risk, not much. Angela loved risks. My God, in Taroudant she talked us all into leaving a restaurant without paying. She was crazy that way. She had it figured out that when the bus beeped for the passengers, she'd wait until everyone had boarded and then we'd make a run for it. She walked into a circle of men playing music at a bus stop...what was the name....anyway she walked into this tent near where the bus rested and picked up a drum and, joining the group, all men, began drumming. Francine was always warning her, "This is Morocco. Don't get us in trouble here." I'd tell her, "If we got in trouble it would be my throat that got cut. I'm the man. Remember that. I'd pay for your mistakes."
...What's that? What mistakes did she make? Well not mistakes exactly. She pushed things to their limit. It was her nerve, she had incredible nerve, and it was her nature. Not really mistakes. She dominated circumstances, always. From the moment we arrived for the camel market in Goulamine, Angela took over. I had no power, and that made me fearful from the start. It was nighttime when we got there; the stars were all around, some shooting stars every few minutes, it seemed. A large tent was set up for the foreign visitors, but there were surprisingly few. A few French guys and the two German men who came on some kind of hunting trip with rifles in their jeep. But Francine and Angela were the only white women, you know what I mean, the only European females among all these Moroccans. We were charged ten durham to stay under the big tent including couscous and vegetables. All night you could hear the snorting and grumbling of the camels and in the morning we were surrounded at every turn by swarms of camels pacing in circles, turning about, craning their necks, lifting their rubbery lips over brown and yellow teeth. It didn't take Angela long to befriend some merchants. Francine followed.
These men, it was later revealed to me, were from the Moungari tribes that had come north from the Mali border, hundreds of miles along a caravan trail that began in Timbuktu. I felt instantly cut off from their conversation with my women and it wasn't long before I felt totally isolated. The second day I didn't lay eyes on either Angela or Francine and when nightfall came they did not return to join me in the foreigners' tent. In the early part of that night there was a kind of entertainment, an assembly of men in robes and jelabas playing music and telling stories. There was an Oud player, several other string instruments I didn't recognize and drums and tambourines. The stories were told in Berber, but a French Moroccan from Fez translated the stories first in French then English. I found all of the stories although magical and spellbinding somewhat spooky, even horrifying. A dark tribesmen, dressed in a blue robe and scarf, sang a song about the unholy winds of the Sahara that created quicksand in which nomads were known to slip down into. And falling into what became a well of time they would surface somewhere else completely. Some victims became invisible and others were transformed into animals or caught and trapped in the realm of the dying, a dark world said to be located near every oasis. The stories went on, each one more bizarre than the last. Truth is I couldn't pay much attention, as I was too concerned about the girls. What was keeping them, I wondered? What the hell were they up to?
When the Oud player began playing to introduce the next story, I slipped out of the foreigners' guest tent and walked out in the direction of the Moungari area in the Goulamine square, the place where I had last seen the girls talking to the men, camel traders or merchants, whatever they were. I didn't know exactly where to find them so I listened, eavesdropping on the talk from within the tents, hoping I might hear English and the voices of Angela and Francine. A good while after wandering around from tent to tent, I heard some faint sounds of English. It surprised me. I stopped after moving closer and listened. The voices were too hushed to be identified, but something told me I had found the right tent. I continued around the side of the tent to an opening of a seam for a better view. The voices seemed to stop, leaving silence. I saw a black cape I thought to be Angela's. Her back was to me and she was facing two men, perhaps the same two Moungari men. I eased around the legs of a few camels that had huge packs loaded onto them. I needed a better view. The beasts snarled and spit and tossed their heads, irritated. A voice in the tent reacted nervously to the camels' sounds. Clearly, I was certain it was the shrill voice of Francine. Afraid to be seen, I hid in the shadows of the camels that stretched out along the side of the tent. The voices resumed.
....Well I'll tell you what I heard. It shocked the hell out of me. What? No, it was the men's words I heard first. I grabbed a word here and there, thick accents, garbled words. Hard to take it all in but the word "diamonds" I heard clearly and "ten thousand American dollars", that too I heard distinctly. "Not dangerous" the deeper voice repeated. And again there was silence until I heard Francine again, although her voice was also muffled, and she seemed very agitated.
I listened intently and for a long time until I could not make out anything at all. Francine was upset, at last I heard Angela responding. Her voice was really faint. It sounded like they were arguing and the two men, the merchants or traders or whatever were interrupting the two girls, trying to calm them down, it seemed. It was Francine's voice I tuned into. She said clearly and nervously, "We can't take that kind of risk" and later on, more shrill and angrily, "We are not smugglers!" and later she called out Angela's name and said that they had better leave. Arguing continued. The men said something about passports and "arrangements" and continued to reassure the girls to carry out some plan. One man raised his voice in irritation. The other was trying to calm him. "Ten thousand dollars" I heard again. "Very simple". Suddenly a sharp pain lodged in my back. A camel had kicked me, struck a hoof into my back, just hard enough to take the wind out of me. I never felt anything quite like that before, I tell you.
....No, it didn't trample me or bite me. I felt no blood, just my back ribs caved in. No I couldn't! Thank God I couldn't cry out to give myself away. I stumbled off away from the tent trying to get my breath back. I couldn't talk at all. For a moment I walked in circles in a daze. Then quickly I leapt down and remained crouching among some rocks, reaching to touch the spot where I had been kicked. Before I could rise, a man was upon me, reaching out his hand to help me to my feet. He wore a dark burnoose and I understood his words to be Berber.
.....How did I know? I lived in Marrakech for months. I knew the sound of the language of those people. Well I stared up at him. He smiled and lifted me to my feet and mumbled "kief?" and then "hashish?" and then "come". I followed. I didn't want any dope. I just wanted to go somewhere safer, away from the camels and the hard earth and that damn conversation. The Berber smiled, showing his yellow teeth. He put his hand on my mouth and shook his head "No parlez-vous?" I shook my head responding in gesture that I couldn't speak at all. My voice suddenly disappeared. People came up from behind me; it seemed they were running about. It sounded that way and within a few moments a group led me into a clearing away from the tents and the camels. There was a lot of commotion in this place, people meandering or scurrying around. Berbers and some of those blue people and various other tribesmen. Now there were two men assisting me, an arm held by each. We approached a crowd that had gathered around several men, lying among a herd of sheep and goats. What was I doing here, I wondered? What would happen to the girls? Anyway before my eyes, these men, unrobed and half naked, were rolling in the dirt among the animals, shouting as they kicked up clouds of dust. What the hell was this? The men at my sides were laughing and shouting into the center where the men continued twirling and rocking back and forth under the hooves of the nervous sheep and bleating goats. Several men turned to me, smiling and laughing. One pushed me forward to enter the circle. I was really confused and scared. Another man pulled me back. Someone spoke English, "Watch!" There in front of me, a man who had been lying down among the animals stood up and before my eyes began making animal sounds, bleating like a goat. It was more than just imitating. I swear to you that man for a moment took on the visible form of a goat. The animal sounds came deep from within him while at the same time something, some force pushed its way into my chest, filled my lungs and my voice. I swear to God, I let out a goat's cry. Unmistakably, I was breathing a sound that grew into my chest, rising into my throat. Fucking unbelievable! I had gotten my voice back. Deep and loud, my voice returned to me saying: "Oh my God".
.....Honest. Well, I'm sorry if you don't believe me, but it's true. You stay in this country long enough and you'll see the magic that can happen here. O.K. yes, I'm getting back to the girls. I pulled away from this crowd after awhile. The men were laughing, some embracing me, very friendly. All of them seemed to know what had happened miraculously to me. They seemed to know about this trick or magic. These men were not shocked at all. It appeared that they were familiar with the technique by which these men who groveled among the animals gave me my goat voice and then my own voice returned. It was like a joke, an intricate strange joke was being played on or though me. I don't know which.
......O.K. I'm getting back to that story. I can see how skeptical you two are. Have a little understanding, compassion __ something, because I was really freaked out, at this point. Hey, I'm sorry. You're kind enough to listen to my crazy story. What the hell's the matter with me coming down on you at all. Man, I really appreciate this. You must be starving. Do you want to go into the Medina to eat, I'll pay. Money's not my problem. You sure. Really you want to hear the rest.... now. O.K.
So I go to seek out the foreigners in the tent. One of the German hunters is there, so I told him about the girls and what I had overheard. Well I might as well have been talking to the moon. He stared right through me, muttering, "None of my business." He spoke German to his friend who shook his head insisting that he had never seen my female friends. In fact that could be true, but it was their coldness and unconcern that amazed me. The Frenchman I later saw was more compassionate when I told him what I had experienced. However, he questioned how accurate my hearing had actually been. Because, he said, if I had heard exactly what I said, that it was still fragmentary and had to be put into some context. I understood his skepticism, but when I pushed further asking him to interpret the best he could what I had overheard, he surprisingly put it very simply. "It sounds like these men were trying to convince these women to smuggle diamonds." I was shocked to hear such definite words.
"Smuggle diamonds? Where to?" I asked.
"Anywhere," he said, "Central Africa, along some route to maybe Sudan or Egypt. There's a lot of that going on. Diamonds, money, drugs, of course. Women are considered less suspicious, less likely to be searched."
He explained to me that he had come to North Africa many times. There have been scams and secrets and 'arrangements', as they were called, going on in this part of the world for centuries. What was I to do, I pleaded
"I'll tell you what to do, my friend, and I mean this sincerely. Do not interfere. Do not! Tres dangerous. Your friends got themselves into this; it's their fault, their involvement. So if they don't want any part of this 'arrangement', then they can get out of it. Wait for them to return after they realize the risk."
Then I explained how one of them enjoyed risks and that the other just went along with her, although reluctantly. "Then I can only wish you luck," he said. "It's their fate. Westerners do not understand this part of the world, especially the Sahara. There's every kind of mischief here.... You can't imagine. Half these tribesmen were once bandits, thieves.... some still are. You wouldn't believe what happens here. Wander far enough into the Sahara and the law ends. There are caravans that attack others, warfare. This camel market here in Goulamine is the frontier; beyond here it's tres dangerous, 'no man's land'. Believe me beyond this place, south of here, anything can happen and does.... even white slave trade. Honest my friend it's true."
His knowledge, its danger and intimacy, scared the hell out of me. My sense of helplessness was the worst of it. What was I to do? Beside myself with worry, I ran after the Frenchman hoping he might suggest some action, but at the same time expecting that his words would increase my fear and deepen the darkness. "Please, monsieur," I pleaded. "What is there that I can do? What did you mean what you said about white slave trade. Did you mean white women?"
"I meant white European women sold among the tribes. I meant becoming part of the caravans. I meant sold as entertainment as sex slaves. There's no proof exactly, but this is not a country of facts or proof. I mean my friend, in all sincerity, that women, Western women, have just disappeared into the Sahara and into void of the tribal world."
I questioned him, tried arguing. It wasn't a rational and modern world we're talking about, he said. Women could easily make wrong choices; forget themselves and their roles. If they showed a weakness and lost the sense of who they were. Well they could disappear. He had known it to happen to a few women, one English girl who was foolish enough to be begging on the streets of Fez. Just disappeared. The Frenchman walked hurriedly ahead. I followed him. I had to know more about these things. When I reached out and touched him on his shoulder, he turned around and angrily shouted, "Stop your following me. Stop it at once, do you hear me!" And I insisted that he tell me more. At this point he raised his voice violently. "You have heard enough. Go away from here. Stop your sneaking, prying and following. Don't you have your own path, monsieur? Don't you know how to keep inside yourself? Follow your own path. I know your kind __ you depend on others' stories, their lives. Find your own! You are one of those Europeans. E'tanger passion. And you are 'quelle que chose de preoccupation' I tell you, young man, in all sincerity, find your own story, follow yourself."
...What did he mean? Well I'm not sure. It puzzled me then and it baffles me now. The French words? Oh something like that I am a stranger of passion or what it means is a passionate stranger. The other word. Something like a creature of preoccupation. Anyway it was like a curse, his words and his impatience. I felt identified and scrutinized without the benefit of knowing what he actually meant by it. I was struck motionless. Literally, I swear. I couldn't seem to move at all, and my leg, the one the camel had kicked, felt like it was sinking heavily into the sand. It was like I was succumbing to quicksand. My leg was getting shorter as it was swallowed up in a whirlpool of sand. The Frenchman was now some distance ahead of me. I continued to sink down helplessly. At last I cried out to him again and again. He turned around and saw my predicament and came running towards me and grabbing me tightly under my arms, pulled me up and away from the hole that was swallowing me. "This is serious" I remember he said that because it seemed funny at the time to be saying that. Of course it was serious, whatever it was that was happening. "Come with me, you foolish man. Come, you must be taken care of. You are a danger to yourself and possibly to others. Forget your lady friends for now. Come, we must go to see someone who can help you."
I just decided to shut up and follow this man and we walked past a camel herd and their auctioneers and past several tents and circles of musicians. We came to a little hovel covered by a corrugated roof. A tall Negro, a man with ebony skin, entwined in a robe and a blue mountain of a turban, met us at the thick wooden door. The Frenchman spoke a few words to him in an unfamiliar language and we were led inside to a room where an old man sat on a thick woven carpet. Around him on the walls draped with animal skins were a collection of baskets and gourds and several glistening swords and shields. I turned to the Frenchman to explain what was going on and he said that this man he had brought me to was Abban don Halal. He was known as faqih, a sage, a kind of wise man who could counsel people who had fallen under certain spells, people like myself who were in trouble. I was in trouble and that he would explain my problem to him. The Frenchman spoke the man's dialect, a Southern Atlas language, and he would translate to me the best he could what the fqih said. So that's what went on. The two of them talked back and forth. The fqih got up paced around on the carpet, listening to the Frenchman tell the story. The fqih folded his arms, released them, and threw them up in the air, gesticulating. I waited and waited, having no idea what was going to be told me. I was anxious, felt feverish. After some time the Frenchman pulled me towards him and sat me down on the carpet and I sat at the feet of the old seer and listened to the Frenchman translate the words.
The old man wanted me to describe to him the two ladies, their physical features and then to pronounce each name, Angela and Francine, first softly and then loudly, almost shouting their names.
...Well, it sounded silly to me as well, but I was in no position to argue. What then? Well the Frenchman translated some very weird ideas that came from the old man. How could I ever know if there was truth in them? But I was convinced that I was headed for great danger so I listened carefully. What the Frenchman told me was very much like the story the dark tribesman had told under the tent my first night in Goulamine. As in that story I had been caught up in an unholy Sahara wind that had tried to pull me into one of those gaping holes or fissures in time. I was still in danger, the old man told the Frenchman, and that at any moment I could still be swallowed up. I was at risk of falling into an earthquake, a fault in the sands of time. It was my "obsession", he said, that was to blame. At any instant my own mind and its driving fury to rescue the women could pull me hopelessly down into a whirlpool of dessert sand and I might just disappear. The Frenchman added vehemently. Oh he was angry. "Stop worrying about them disappearing when it is you who may disappear. Do you understand? Love your own life, leave this place, and go back to Marrakech. You have fallen way out of time with your self and you must escape the trap you have created."
...What? What did I say? I'll tell you what I said. I told the old man that those Moungari men were the dangerous ones and I described them again and again but I was told that they were not important. The Frenchman translated my words to the fqih and the old man laughed but the Frenchman had no patience and screamed at me. He said, what was it, what were his words, something like me being a victim of, let's see, a victim of my own preoccupation. And I got impatient myself and argued back at him, saying that it was he who warned me of European women falling into trouble and finally disappearing into tribal caravans. "Don't you remember?" I shouted at him. "The English girl you told me about disappearing. Don't you remember?" I further argued that he had told me of a white slave market and women sold as concubines. "Do you think I want that to happen to my girls!" I shouted. "They are helpless alone out here in this savage world of madmen."
The Frenchman raised his hands to quiet me down and turning to the sage said something. Again, the old man laughed and smiling at me said something over and over again. What did he say, I insisted. The Frenchman, calming down, turned to me with a kind of benign disinterest and said, "The fqih says that you are a child in this world, one who creates any and every excuse not to live his own life. You are the kind of being at the mercy of every wind that will take you down every hole in the desert."
The Frenchman looked at me, directly into my eyes and, then turning to the old man, took out some durham from his own pocket and gave it to the fqih. Then he turned towards me and taking my hand led me to the door and said, " Young man, foolish man, I say to you 'bon chance'. Live a good life, your own life. I say this with all sincerity." And that as they say was that. He walked off across the sand and disappeared.
… Yes, that was all he said. Except something else but it's not important. Well it was just a thing the old man had told him. How could the old man surmise that just from my description of the girls and by speaking out their names? I said "Angela" softly and then I shouted it. Then he had me say "Francine" in the same way. Right? Well, after meditating on my description and the pronouncing of their names, he concluded that the two had already departed Goulimine. He said they were gone, but how could he know that? Further his vision revealed that they were frightened and fled north and had actually left Morocco entirely. It's a trick; he was a fake just like his title, just trying to divert me from my search.
… No, I don't. I don't think it's possible. Leaving Morocco and not telling me? Not my girls! I mean as close as we had become? No way! I didn't think you guys would fall for that. Just abandon me? How could you believe that shit? They're here I tell you and they're in great danger. I saw that bracelet the Bedouin woman was wearing. It was Angela's. I saw the native woman wearing it in the marketplace. What? Really. That's absurd! You're sitting there telling me that Angela could have sold the bracelet to the native woman. Well, yes I did say Angela had brought jewelry to sell at the camel market. So what? That doesn't explain anything. Christ, whose side are you on anyway? I can't believe it! I'm all alone in this. Everyone wants to turn their backs on the truth. Even you! I thought I could trust you to listen and believe me. God damn it, I thought you understood. The Frenchman was right, I am a fool. I honestly, yes, genuinely thought you wanted to understand. You're no better than that faker, worse than the police! Damn it. Hey, wait a minute. Where are you going? You're leaving? Hold on; wait a goddamn minute, would you? I haven't even told you about the travelers' check scam yet. There's a lot you haven't heard. I'm not asking you to help me search for them. Just stay and listen to my side of the story. Can't you be kind enough to do that? Wait now, wait one fucking minute! Don't abandon me. Not now. I'm all-alone in this weird and horrible country! Wait! Hold on. I'm all-alone. Wait.
PROUDLY WE HAIL
He looks in the mirror at himself in uniform while imagining someplace in the nebulous future. A place in the mountains-he closes his eyes firmly to see the lake and feel the splendor of dawn- contains a cottage, calm and serene. He is a father of grown children. For a moment, his actual life dissolves, the one in which the world expects him to return to combat in Iraq, and he feels this preferred life slip over him like a soft robe. He sits at a long table near a roaring fire surrounded by friends and children,maybe they're his. He can't quite make out the man sitting across from him, but he thinks if he can hear his father's voice in his imaginings then it will become his father. "So glad to have you home with us, son," the voice says. "Mom and I were so worried about you getting killed over there. And for what, godammnit, for what!" He tries to wander back toward reality just close enough to discern the sound of his own voice but instead hears his brother's and feels Damon's hand in his. "You don't have to go back, Davey. This war is a lie, a fiction. There's always Canada." He hears the radio blaring, T.V. vibrating the news, the front door cracking open. He wants to stay seated at the table at the mountain cottage, but feels himself slipping back into the weight of his life. He hears his mother worrying about him, "The casualties, they say, are increasing. Everyone's proud of you, Davey. We've got to keep those terrorists from attacking us over here. Maybe it'll be over soon or maybe you'll be rotated back home soon," and he remembers the bloodstained, mangled bodies of Gary and Eddie after a mine exploded their jeep.
With his eyes peering at the uniform in the mirror, he turns to the clock and remembers that he has only two days left before reporting to the military airbase for the flight back to Baghdad. He sees a younger boy staring back at him from the mirror. The boy is a boy scout and he's waving an American flag and reciting from a patriotic credo. "Bless the republic, it's freedom and mercy, the generous hearts of the brave, its prayers for the foreign souls it must save from oppression…" He stands uncertain and faint before his reflection. He suffers the image of the innocent boy and he wants to kneel down and pray and he is ashamed that he never prayed before, never before he gazed at death in Iraq.
He began praying for the first time when he saw the streets of dead bodies, mostly women and children, civilian casualties after the bombings. He began to see praying without restraint as a testimony to the horror because what he saw needed witnessing. He began to view Jesus as his personal ally whose eyes saw and heart felt as his did the brutal killing of innocents. The world saw nothing of the devastation, knew nothing of the suffering. He came to believe in Jesus in the way he believed in a secret. Together they saw the murders, the bodies torn apart and scorched. Now he is entangled in the shameful secret. He turns to his brother Damon and tells him that he saw a bombed marketplace full of blood and severed limbs. "Damon, that was no accident. Our forces knew. It was covered up. Lies. I am part of it. Tell Mom and Dad someday that I hate myself."
Davey prays while his brother listens, "We must forgive them in their ignorance, Lord Jesus, for they have not your holy eyes to see the truth," and he whispers wiping a tear away. Damon isn't really paying attention. He's busy at the family liquor cabinet, preparing the drinks for the toast to the departing soldier. He is tearful just thinking about it. Damon calls the parents down from upstairs for the farewell drink. Father comes down and smiles and says, "We're sad, my boy, but we're so proud of you." Mother has tears as well and says, "I packed at least twenty pairs of socks. It seems that not even the 101st infantry can keep its socks matched." Davey takes his vodka and tonic in hand and excuses himself to go briefly to the bathroom. When he emerges the glasses are raised as it's time for the toast. Davey volunteers and toasts in the form of a prayer. All eyes are on him as he prays, "And be kind to us in our darkness and show us the way to love our neighbors as ourselves and remember that what we do to the least of yours we do to you. In your blessed name we pray." The family says amen and watches Davey as he lowers his head in solemn prayer. He staggers. Damon reaches out to his brother's shaking hand. He sees Davey let go of his glass, hears his mother gasp. When Davey collapses against the wall, Damon rushes forward to catch the falling body. Damon looks afraid. His brother's eyes are closing now and his hand is gripping something. Father shouts, asking what has happened. Davey slides slowly down the wall to the floor. His hand opens. "Sleeping pills! A whole bottle of them. My God, help us," Damon cries. As Davey fades away to another world, he comes upon a vision as if it were a landscape, the whole world sinking into a lake, the vast realm contained in the image of the cottage he is moving towards. "Are the others coming too? Gary and Eddie and the others?" he asks Damon who is bent over the fallen body, holding Davey's hand. He wants to tell Davey again that he doesn't have to go but realizes the folly of that statement. He holds Davey against his heart as if they were in eternal embrace. He wants to tell Davey that he is forgiven and that the war is a mistake that too will be forgiven. He rises up from the floor and looks at his parents in bewilderment and wants to follow his brother far away to the sunlight and peace of the mountain cottage.
For the fifth anniversary of their meeting Leo gave Melanie a photo album with a velvet cover, soft as feathers. She was sitting beside him, smoothing her fingers over the cover, when the doorbell rang and Leo's ex-girlfriend, Destiny walked in. They were drinking tequila and the ex-girlfriend pulled up a pillow on the floor and all three began looking through the pictures.
"It's all about you," Melanie said. "All the pictures are from your traveling days. I can't find more than a couple photos of us." Leo turned the pages excitedly and paused at one page, totally engaged.
"Oh, here it comes," Destiny said. "The burial scene. I've seen it a hundred times. Get used to it, Mel, you're just one in a series of ghosts. This is the hippie burial. Amy, his road sweetheart. She died in Delhi."
"It was Katmandu," Leo asserted. "It was the worst case of hepatitis."
"I didn't mean disrespect, Leo," Destiny offered. "It's time to get over it. You dwelled on that grief for the years we were together. You might spare Mel some of that."
"It doesn't bother me, really," Melanie said. "I just wish there were more pictures of us now."
Leo didn't turn the page and just rearranged the photo under the cellophane. "There's just a few details here I never saw before. It's Marcel raking the logs. I always thought he had carried Amy's corpse to the pyre."
"Does it matter?" Destiny asked. "Details? You went over them again and again. Mel, when I met Leo in London he was just back from India. He couldn't tie his shoes, Mel. Totally freaked out and then we came into some dope and we made a living. Those were wonderful days. London was exciting then."
"Leo must have had it together then," Melany said.
"He did," The ex-girlfriend added. "I pulled his life together. He was so sweet and lost. We did well until we were busted, twice, and then deported."
"Sure, we were happy," Leo claimed. "We had so many friends, didn't we?"
"Too many!' Destiny replied. "We were never alone. That was the problem. We were hidden from each other among the crowd and parties."
Leo glanced fixedly at the photo. He wanted to turn the page, for the others' sake, but he just couldn't. "Look, Destiny, come look. That's Daniel there. You remember Daniel in London. He's the one who talked me into the public cremation. I didn't want it that way. The embassy didn't want the expense of shipping her back home. Some of us decided to take care of it ourselves. I was against it."
Leo felt the compulsion of his mind to wander and experience again the time of Amy's cremation. Once the body was committed to flames, it didn't take long. After the mourning friends left, Leo stayed on watching Amy's bones crackle and bend in the warping heat. Realizing his preoccupation with that sordid memory, he thought of his tendency in life to rake over the burnt embers of the past. It was kind of the metaphor for his life.
"Leo, did you ever tell Melanie about East Africa? We were living at a campsite outside Nairobi. There was absolutely nothing to do but fuck all day. Excuse my French. The bad news was that the place was full of missionary campers and the children of these Christian fanatics would be sent over to our tent to preach the Gospel. We were big sinners and Leo with his 'unshorn' face and me, his 'concubine' -we were headed straight for hell. I got pregnant on that boat to Bombay. I did the whole rerun of India with Leo. I lost the child in my third month when we were in Rajasthan. There are some pictures of us in India together."
Melanie poured another glass of tequila and offered to do the same for the others. Leo felt a self-centeredness in his leafing through the photo album and pulled away from the pages of his obsession. He inhaled the smoke of the two women's cigarettes and sang along with Procul Harem on the tape deck. "We tripped a light fandango and did cartwheels 'cross the floor"
"Do you think anyone knows what 'the light fandango' means?" Leo asked. "It's a mystery."
"I always thought I did," Melanie answered.
"What is it then?" Leo repeated.
Well, it's like the dance of life, don't you think. It's the feeling of time dancing away with one's life. It's a feeling," Melanie said.
"It's not my feeling," Leo countered. "No, it's a mystery. The whole song's a mystery."
"That's the way you like it, Leo." Destiny said. "You're always comfortable being lost in a mystery. Anyway the music is stolen from classical Italian baroque. Albinoni or someone."
"Stolen?" Leo said. "That's a strong word. Borrowed is more like it. Stolen?"
"Yes, damn it, Leo," Destiny insisted.
"My, my, why so angry?" Leo asked. "Too much tequila! You never were a good drinker."
"Stolen, Leo," Destiny angrily repeated. "Stolen, just like Billy. Your own son was stolen from you."
"Come on!" Leo said. "He went to London with his Mom. He went to school there for a while."
"What are you talking about, Destiny," Melanie pleaded.
"You know what happened. She stole him."
"I don't see it that way," Melanie said. "Myra was a tough cookie, taking custody of Billy. She was possessive and all."
"She took him off to Europe," Destiny said. "Leo didn't see him for almost two years. You shouldn't have let that happen. Leo was fucked up over that. You don't know. I was with him. He brooded and was depressed. We went to India to get it behind us. His wife, that bitch Myra, ruined it for us. Leo, you didn't want the child I lost. You were too busy grieving your loss of Billy."
"Hey, Destiny. You're going too far with this," said Leo. "You're exaggerating. You don't know what I was feeling. Not really."
"Yes, I do. I know exactly what you were feeling. I read it. I read it in your diary. If you want to know anything about your boyfriend, Melanie, just read his diary."
The painful moment of his son Billy's departure for Europe came suddenly flooding his memory. The car pulled up to Leo's house in the drizzling rain. Inside was Myra's boyfriend who had been sent to fetch the eight-year old Billy. Leo gripped the boy's hand tightly in his own and tried to restrain his tears and conceal his devastation. Billy was nervous and confused and wanted the moment to end. The window of the car slid open and the boyfriend's voice said, "Come on, Billy. Mommy's waiting. You're going
to see London and Paris. Say goodbye to your sweet Dad now." The boy began to cry as he hugged his father. Slowly the fragile little hand slipped away from Leo's grip and the rain thickened. The car sped away and Leo watched
the rear lights fading out of sight. Turning towards his apartment on the third floor of the building, he slowly mounted the seventy-six stairs and opened the door where Destiny was waiting. She embraced him for what seemed an interminable time and he then broke away and went to the bedroom. He locked the door and walked over to his chest of drawers. Opening the top drawer, he found what he was looking for. Unraveling the white bindle, he emptied the white powder on a mirror, took a straw to his nose and snorted a huge line of cocaine.
"Leo, you're drifting," Destiny said. "Well, it doesn't matter. It's time for me to go home anyway. God, I got drunk. Didn't I? I hope I didn't get too offensive. I know how irritated I can get."
"No," Melanie answered. "We're all friends here. It's just life, you know, "the light fandango."
Destiny gathered herself up from the pillow on the floor and walked to the door and, smiling, left.
"Wow, that was intense." Melanie said. Leo walked over to his girlfriend and embraced her.
"What will you be writing about this day, Leo?"
Leo knelt down and picked up the photo album from the floor and craned around to look at his bookshelf. Outside the window it was drizzling in twilight. The lights of the city were blurring in the distance. Leo could smell the rain rising from the darkening streets.
"Tonight, you'll probably write that we've been together for five years, but 'my years with Destiny are the ones that I remember.' You may even write how wonderful I am."
"Melanie, that's not true. I'm not thinking about it."
"In a year you'll write, 'What was it I saw in Melanie? I wonder why she was so soft and accommodating. It's true she never quarreled and lacked a certain intensity'"
"Stop it. I won't write anything like that."
"Maybe, you will. In a few years you'll write, 'No wonder I have so few photos of her. She never does anything memorable. I can't imagine Melanie ever creating any drama in her life.'"
"No you can't," he said. "You can't imagine me writing that, nothing like that."
"Someday soon you'll write, 'She'll be coming home soon. Whatever will we talk about?'"
"Stop it," Leo said. "You see how intense you can become? Surprise! But it's no fun."
"Perhaps I'll start my own diary."
"It may say," she said. " 'I think he likes me ageing and the white streak of hair.' In four years I'll write 'I'll bring Billy here to live with us fulltime. In the winter all three of us will go to India together."
"It doesn't matter," he said.
"Which place do you want to go first. Nepal or India?"
"It's not necessary. It's too late."
"Which place first, Leo? Katmandu or Benares. You don't believe I'll go."
"I do," he said. "It doesn't matter."
"Leo, damn it. I want to go."
"Not in your heart of hearts, you don't"
"You're wrong. It's not too late. We can go."
"Please, Melanie, just be happy in the present moment. Please."
"I'm not afraid to go, Leo."
"Your breath smells like the flowers of India. Do you know that?" he said.
"Is that in your diary?"
"And your hair has a jasmine smell. It reminds me of Kashmir, if you want to know the truth."
WRITES OF PASSAGE
When my son comes upon me glancing at the picture of the two of us, tears trickling from my eyes down over the circles into my graying beard, he'll think twice about leaving home. In the last few years, he's made two journeys that I called "impulsive and vague" and I tried to stop him. Sometimes simply words- we never have enough time with each other and your childhood was taken from me ---my arms flailing from my sagging body. Once in Thailand
he wanted to travel off on his own, I held onto the money and told him it was too dangerous. He raged---you only love wanting to love me. Not me, not for myself. He flings his drunk and anguished body on the concrete hotel floor. Now he wants to get away to see a friend in the South. He'll get a job there. He's had years to find work here instead of depending on his mother. His face reddens and his voice rages against me-For once, dad, I want your blessing. I can't bear his condemnation and I walk away. My father walked away often and slammed a door behind him. You're lucky you don't get my strap-ending all argument.
My heart beating wildly I stop at a sidewalk bench after chasing my angry son through the dark Oakland streets. My legs feel numb and feet are swollen in pain, as though they belong to someone else. He disappears under a freeway underpass. I worry-It's too dangerous. What will his mother say when I arrive without him. So many summers I hitchhiked back home from California to see my parents in Philadelphia. My father was unrelenting in his disapproval-You can live here like other kids. We have schools and jobs here. You go wandering the country like some goddamn gypsy and you won't get another penny out of me. You hear me? At his mother's house I wait for the sound of my son opening the front door. I grow nervous. It is the same as my mother's kind of worry.
He'll open the door and run to embrace me. I'll hear his footsteps, the reassuring turning of the door latch.
He'll touch and comfort me the way Mom did when I was sick in bed running a fever. But it is a tenant in his mother's house that opens the door. Only my panic comes closer. A strident voice shouts out and echoes through the cavernous hallway. Where's our son? You're his father. How can you come back without him?
SAME OLD THING, DIFFERENT NOW
Your arms reach up and slip off your shirt, although they have never quite moved like this before. Always you know what places you want to reach for and grab, but you have watched your child slip down wet thighs and suck on breasts like these and your hands
held the newborn, and it surprises you to find your hands again in this position, you who like to hold offerings over the altar, but your hands take deeper hold as the earth of many years holds you firmer, driving earlier doubts out of your head except oddly your own mother saying "be kind to everybody" when you were twelve and had a fight with a boy in the neighborhood and also the sound, so riveting as the bone in your hand hitting bone and even more oddly the sound of the doctor slapping your baby into breathing---all this slapping, bone and flesh, even the love you feel for all contact running through you so quickly you understand now as your hand reaches down her thigh and the same old sensation stirring, slightly domesticated now, although you don't take the blue pills like others your age, and the thigh you kissed just moments ago was once in a diaper someone changed and before the woman beneath you gurgles and moans with pleasure, the image of your child looks at you first in bewilderment and then in embracing comprehension and the only thing between your hand and the child's face is your mind restless for some image, not clearly shaped, not yet born, the thing you call fulfillment.
He read longingly the letters from home. They took almost two weeks to arrive in the remote village in South India. The images ushered in a variety of feelings. The ones that were repetitive like his parent's letters were comforting in their familiar concerns, but the ones from a girlfriend and brothers, speaking of changes he was too far away to witness, took troublesome turns in his restless imagination, some fears and murkiness went directly into his dreams. The cook, Swami, hired for his Peace Corps
Group, interrupted these dreams when he awakened him out from his morning slumber under thick mosquito nets for breakfast. After the vegetables and chapattis, he would often talk to Swami in the mud hut kitchen. The content was vague and irrelevant, but that didn't matter. It took him into the realm of being cared for, a kind of mumbling and droning spell that his grandmother cast him in when he was very young. Sometimes Swami would work himself up into a devout lament followed by bursts of tears. That too was familiar. His grandmother would often grieve for family and friends dead or dying in "the old country." The sultry days surrendered to insect-loud nights as it does in tropical jungle and he had the strange thought that he had never been born. The thought appeared kindly and wrapped him in perhaps his earliest memory. He remembered summer nights in Philadelphia coming through the screen door of his house after the neighborhood games and sitting down to supper at the table, a fresh hot supper prepared by his mother's caring hands and grandma in the background whining like Swami. It was a perfect memory and it often floated into his mind when Swami cooked for him.
But after some time the perfection of the image faded and he began to understand with some anxiety what his girlfriend had written, filled with doubt, saying, "It's been a long time, too long. I'm beginning to forget what things together with you felt like." In the morning he sat down with Swami at breakfast and grumbled, "How did that lizard get in here? Chase it out!"
WORLD MORE DANGEROUS
Every Thursday night in the basement of the synagogue was his mother's Hadassah meeting.
The ladies from Sammy's neighborhood would meet for discussion, bingo and tea and honey cake. The money went for the buying of trees in Israel. Sammy waited until nine o'clock to walk a few city blocks to meet his mother at the front door of the synagogue.
"Did you win at bingo tonight, Mom?"
"I sure did, Sammy. Look, another figurine."
She held it up for her son to see. It was a small porcelain mantelpiece nick-knack. "This one's the fiddler. Pretty soon I'll have the whole set. It's the gypsy dancers."
"I got something too. The rabbi gave me a certificate. It's for my contribution he said."
"For planting a tree. That's wonderful, Sammy. For our new state," mother said.
"For Palestine, Mom."
"No, not for Palestine. That's the other side.
The trees are not for those people. It's Israel, the Jewish state."
His mother played bingo for the prizes and there was only one thing she wanted-a complete set of the figures that would sit upon the living room mantel. For some time now she had been a winner. The ushers stood on chairs by the doors and reached into tall wooden crates. All over the floor were straw and pieces of newspaper, mostly from the Hebrew press called the Forward. Whatever his mother was awarded she would trade in for a figurine at the end of the meeting. Contented with her prize, she was glowing as Sammy walked her home. She stared at the little fiddler as they passed under the street lamps. There was often a moon behind the trees. She'd talk about collecting all the pieces of the set. "I'm very lucky these days," she'd say, holding it at arm's length. "These pieces are precious and, like the trees we're planting in Israel, they will last us a long time, long after all these politics."
Time passed and his parents worried about the Korean War. Things were not clearly going so well in Israel either. Sammy and his mother watched the newsreels at the movies. There were prizes to win at the movies as well. On Saturday matinee there were the Our Gang Races, the comical antics of bicycle or roller skate races. After finishing, the theater awarded those in the audience bearing the ticket number
that matched the winner of the movie race. Sammy never missed a Saturday and won often,
but once and only once was the prize one of Mom's figurines. Meanwhile, the synagogue staff had a falling out with the manufacturers of that line of porcelain. His mom was a few pieces shy of the full set.
Sammy's relatives, uncles and aunts from the New York side of the family, were fervent and stern in their vision of cultivating and transforming the deserts of the emerging Jewish state. Uncle Dan and Ruben and Cousin Joe and wives and family all emigrated and worked on kibbutz's. Some years later Sammy went over in answer to numerous requests. "Come have a look for yourself, Sammy," a letter from Cousin Joe said. "Come see what we're doing here. It's a miracle. Come assess the situation."
Everywhere in Israel Sammy saw fences and barbed wire separating out the Palestinians. In the towns, the cities the buildup of the Israeli army was overwhelming. Constant raids and incessant searches of the native peoples' homes were what Sammy saw everyday. Counter attacks were waged with stones against Israeli tanks and artillery. "Do you see what we're up against, Sammy?" Uncle Dan grumbled. Everywhere Sammy saw broken pieces of crockery. Something compelled him to look among the debris of smashed porcelain and china. There was nothing rational in his search for figurines along the roads of shattered pieces.
Along a beach he found a figure vaguely reminiscent of what his mother had collected.
The sea had washed over the tiny broken limbs and he soon realized that the red shade of the object was formed from hardened blood.
Sammy came home for a visit and on Thursday night his mother asked him to walk her to the synagogue for her Hadassah meeting.
"What' s happened?' Sammy asked. "You always walked by yourself and I'd meet you afterwards."
"Well, things change," his mother replied. "The neighborhood's dangerous now. Your father usually walks me but now you're here."
The two walked under a clouded moon and they paused at Jefferson Street, a block from temple.
"Sammy, we're not going to temple. I don't go to Hadassah anymore."
"Not even for bingo?"
"That's been over a long time ago. Now, it's an investment meeting. Corporate stocks in Israeli companies. Sammy, don't tell Dad. He doesn't know I've quit. He drops me off here every Thursday and when he turns the corner I go to the movies. I'm ashamed of what we're doing to the Palestinians. Ashamed! I don't want to talk to Dad or anyone else. We're doing the same things the Germans did to us."
"And those nick knacks you collected?" Sammy asked." I didn't see them on the mantel."
"I gave them away to Mrs. Narafhat."
"The neighbor from Palestine?"
"Her son was killed in an army raid. It's a disgrace, Sammy. Don't tell anyone about this."
After the movie the green lights flooded the velvet curtain. It was warm inside, but outside it
was dark and cold. Walking home, somber and distressed after seeing "All Quiet on the Western Front", his mother put her arm around Sammy and said, "I guess this world's always been a dangerous place. Sometimes we're given a momentary glimmer of hope."
"So that was Lew Ayers playing the German soldier," Sammy acknowledged. "The First World War, right? Our side shot him dead as he was reaching out for the butterfly in the grass."
"He was just reaching out for that butterfly," Mother said. "That's all he wanted to do."
THROUGH THE CRACKS
When Lonnie, the Gower's boy, came home from Iraq, he hugged his parents, put on jeans and Vegas T-shirt, found his old drinking mug and went down to Haley's, the neighborhood bar. No one was there. He asked Joe Haley about the old gang. Larry and Ray were finishing law school upstate and the Gearson brothers had moved with their corporations overseas to manage foreign labor. "I think it was Taiwan or the Philippines," Joe said. "What you going to do, Lonnie? You must have saved some money from the service." Lonnie had a few beers and turned in his mug to the bartender. He went to the New Day Used Car dealer and bought an old Ford.
In the following two weeks he drove around town and hung out with his younger brother after school at Barton High. He wore his uniform for the girls but soon decided that they were all too young for him. Along with his brother he did some drugs in the bathroom at the Horizon's Disco, but the pills and weed gave him a terrible headache. On the last weekend of the month his car blew a gasket and a tire went flat. He gave the car to his brother and caught a bus to Nashville. The next day at the Grand Ole Opera, he bought a couple dozen pictures of his favorite blues and country western singers. B.B. King was too sick to appear that night but he waited around until Saturday for Johnny Cash. He took in a stand-up comic who told some jokes about the unfound weapons of mass destruction and did a whole routine on the senior Bush and Barbara and their village idiot son. He applauded afterwards but left the club feeling embarrassed. Sensibly, he had left his uniform back at his house in Ohio. He rented videos of some of the movies he had missed that year and lied in a hotel bed smoking and watching movies and occasionally looking at the job listings in the local newspaper. One of the comedies he enjoyed but the porno bored him. "Black Hawk Down" he found disappointing. He had a difficult time following the plot. Lonnie took a Greyhound to New York. The ride was long and slow and for maybe two hundred miles a black man next to him talked on endlessly about unemployment and his battle with diabetes. In the city Lonnie found a cheap hotel room a few blocks from Ground Zero of the devastated Twin Towers. He sent a postcard to his parents of B.B.King on which he scribbled "To Lonnie Gower, Love B.B.King." Then he sat with a deck of cards and stared out the window. He took out his wallet and looked at his appointment card with the prosthetics doctor next month at the V.A. Hospital in Dayton. Out the window the wind was stirring and somebody's hat was blowing away down the street. The hat disappeared behind a billboard. The one beer he drank made him sleepy. He removed his clothes, climbed into bed and began to massage the two toes that remained on his left foot.
ISLAND OF DOPAMINE
My father was a devoted, resolute, conscientious man. And according to friends and associates, he had those character traits since adolescence, even earlier in childhood. In my own recollection he was like other men except for one distinction. He was the most celebrated and controversial writer of his generation. My mother and I followed him in his career on reading tours that stretched across the eastern states. It was my mother not my father, however that ruled the house, whether in the kitchens of hotels or managing the details of his book signings and other public events. The summer that we were vacationing in the Bahamas something unusual happened. He began building a small boat.
He was serious about it. In time he became obsessed with the project, fitting and balancing the craft, its soft wood and angled frame. It was to be sturdy and durable enough to last several decades and only large enough for one person. My mother was perplexed by this intense distraction. Instead of returning to New York to fulfill his lectureship at Columbia University he insisted on staying on in the islands. He neglected to show up for literary engagements, one after another. My mother was plenty mad and carried on constantly, arguing and screaming. Was her husband becoming an eccentric recluse? My father ignored her. He didn't answer agents' letters and refused to respond to appear for his acceptance of the Pulitzer Prize in Boston. Our house in the Caribbean was only a half-mile from the dock where boats moored at the threshold of the intricate island archipelago.
I can never forget the day my father drove his boat down to the pier. In my dreams he cried saying farewell to me, but actually he showed no pleasure or other emotion. He threw a little clothing in a bag and gathered together a few notebooks, leaving behind his manuscript of his most recent and almost completed novel, and said good-bye to us. He took no provisions with him. It didn't matter that mother ranted and raved. She stood pale and tearful at the door and managed to wrench a few words out of the paralysis of her grief: "What will I tell everyone? How can I explain that you are just abandoning your family, your career, everything to float off to God knows where."
My father did not answer her. He looked mildly at me and gestured for me to follow him. I was afraid of my mother's disapproval, yet I was eager to obey. We drove together to the dock where he unloaded the boat and lowered it on the slide that placed it on the water. I was excited and emboldened enough to ask: "Father can I come with you in your boat?"
He just looked at me curiously and smiled and by a gesture, told me to go back. He began walking away and then paused for a moment and said: "Son, I don't expect you to understand what I am about to tell you. But if you listen and remember any part of it you might pass these words onto your mother. I no longer want to write, I live and die with my characters, but for myself I have no story. I only fulfill others' expectations. My life no longer has a plot. It's all become habit. My readers are simply addicted to my habits. I have nothing that drives me, no addictions of my own. If you can remember any of this, tell your mother that I must seek out solitude. I have studied these islands all around here and I know how to survive floating in my boat, island to island. What I can't explain, no one needs to know. Where I must go you cannot follow. I'll be gone some time, maybe a long time. Go back. Have somebody take the car back. My blessings, boy. And don't let anyone tell you how to live your life." I watched father get into the boat that cast a long shadow as he rowed away.
Father did not come back. There were occasional reports over the years of seamen who had seen him rowing and floating through the network of islands that eventually spread into the Caribbean. Travelers through the islands and natives living in the area told of a hermit that lived on a small island who came into their marketplace at the town port of Amalie to purchase goods every few months. Everyone was shocked. What happened to the country's leading novelist and where did he disappear? Time and Newsweek magazine ran articles speculating upon the mystery and comparing his vanishing to the case of B.Traven, a novelist of a few decades earlier who had disappeared, it was believed, into the remote hideaway of Mexico where he may have assumed a new identity. Whatever happened, he was never seen again. As the years passed and neighbors and friends and the entire literary community discussed the phenomenon, the feeling that he would never return became confirmed.
My mother was ashamed. She tried to conduct herself but whenever she was asked about any news of her husband, she lost her composure and her face fell into the look of tearful humiliation. The natural conclusion was that father had gone insane. Certain people imagined that he had succumbed to a religious vision and searched the islands on a quest for God or to become some kind of ascetic saint, or that he had contracted some incurable disease, maybe Alzheimers, and that he couldn't remember his way back home. I knew better, clearly remembering his last words to me. Those words remained my secret. I always imagined him maneuvering his boat through the islands, which he knew like the palm of his hand, maybe hiding in the twist and turns of the course in which other people got lost, There in his private labyrinth, which extended probably for hundreds of miles, with thick island jungles on all sides, he felt free and safe.
When mother and I moved back to our home in the Adirondacks of New York State, it wasn't long before bills and taxes came due. Mother had to sell the home. After paying the enormous mortgage owed and paying back the publisher's advances and the costs of breach of contracts, we were left with barely enough to move into a minimal apartment in the depressed neighborhood in East Orange, New Jersey. We even sold our furniture and a private collector bought some short stories, hand written, mother had found in father's old oak writing desk. Father's desk was the only piece of furniture; the only relic of the past, that mother did not sell. Mother remembered that father had kept a diary locked in the bottom right drawer of the oak writing desk. Maybe that was why mother held on to the desk.
Though his wife had never felt the slightest curiosity to read his diary, she knew that her husband had always hidden the key nearby. Moving the papers on the desk in order to dust it, she was suddenly seized with a temptation to open the drawer and see what it was that he didn't want her to know. When I came home from school mother asked me if father had ever mentioned anything about his diary. Of course, he hadn't. In fact I was sixteen before I ever read any of his novels. Finally as I read one after another I became engrossed in the characters and their conflicts, but I could never imagine my father as the their author.
"I think I left some papers in the bottom drawer of this desk," mother said. "Do you have any idea where the key might be."
"How could I, mother," I replied. "We've moved out of our mountain home over a year ago. How could we find a key now?"
"Well, the papers, his royalty agreements must still be in there and I'd like to take a look at them sometime." she said. "As for his diary I don't know exactly what to do with it."
"It's private and he didn't mean anyone to read it." I said.
"Did he say so?" mother asked.
"Then how do you know he didn't want anyone to read it?"
"I just know, that's all."
"Just asking," mother continued. "I was married to your father for forty three years and we had no secrets."
Which I took to mean that mother was very curious to know their contents. A few days later I noticed a slab of wood that had been torn loose from the drawer and a chisel and small hammer lay near it on the floor. Some time later I came home to find that mother whose eyes were red from tears had taken an axe and split open the drawer of father's desk that contained the diary. After mother calmed down, she began to tell me about the shock of reading the diary.
"Your Dad has broken my heart. He wasn't the person I thought he was. He lied, he kept secrets from me. He had desires, filthy secret desires. You should never hold him in respect, ever again. What he says in that horrible book is more hurtful than I would have believed possible. All those years together! How can I ever trust anyone again?"
"Not even me?" I said confused
"No, not you. He confided in you. You must have known this. No, least of all you."
We sat in silence for a while. And then she said, "I thought all those years he loved me."
"Of course he loved you. He often told you. I remember."
"What else do you remember that you are not telling me?"
"Nothing." I said. "Nothing that he didn't say to you."
"Then why did he say this?" She read from his diary which she clutched desperately in her hands. "From my life's warehouse I can only find one thing of value, my son's softness, his pilgrim soul. I weary of my wife's anger and her abandonment of faith."
"Mother, don't read any more. It's private."
"You know something I don't know," she shouted. "Listen to this, written not long before he left me, I mean, us 'it seems often all the world is habit. I am adrift on a boat with a cargo of compulsions. I cradle my desires for the warm rush, the lips of dark red orchid.' You see there was another woman. He goes on. 'Angelweb of nerves. His heart's grasp I mistook for revelation.' Maybe not a woman, maybe it was a man. "Seaswoon, gold gone dull, illusions only. Always wanting so much. Always hungry, not enough. The final storm of boredom's gates. Always wife, family return. Not even death can break the habit of life.' See how bored he was with us?"
"Mother, I don't see how you can say that. These words are not for you. We shouldn't read any of this. He probably wanted his diary to be disposed of unread."
"That's right, son. We could burn it. All its pages."
"No don't," I said. "Put it back. Maybe it will prove valuable in time."
"Valuable?" mother said. "Listen to this. This is September 12 just as we arrived on the Bahamas. "Most people have never heard of willing slaves. There's one that waits and lives inside of each of us, a spellbound martyr who enjoys the whips of Egypt and historically harsh kings.' Oh my God, I think he was, what do you call it, a sadist or a masochist."
"Stop it Mom. Please! We don't know what he meant."
"Be quiet and just listen. 'We bear and suffer, awaiting that tingling surge, relief. Our addiction that art in heaven, dopamine be thy name.' Do you see? He was insane as many people said. Listen 'I will build my boat and escape this ritualized terror of routine and these dark messengers of ambivalent moods. I will float to the island, reborn without shame. Dopamine is its name."
"Mother, put it back in the drawer. Leave it there forever."
"No," she argued. "It must be destroyed. Dopamine! All those years he was hiding his secrets from us. Now this filth must be hidden from the world. Just think if you someday have a child, the last thing in the world you'd want would be for that child to read this horrible stuff!"
"I'd tell him he could," I said.
"Could what?" she asked.
"Read them if he wanted to. I'd let him decide just as I think the world should decide what to do with this diary. It might be important in days to come that there was a world famous writer who wasn't altogether what he seemed to be"
"Who was in fact," mother said, pausing. "Who was, as the truth be known- Anyway your son would be born never knowing your father, so he would never be shocked and ashamed. I'm going to burn this awful thing. You stay where you are. I'll be back in a moment with matches and gasoline."
My mother, however, did not come rushing back. Years later publishers and literary critics came in possession of the diary. The pages were scrutinized and their interpretation shed a radically new light on the meaning and intentions contained in all my father's novels and stories. When my mother one day finally revealed to me why she hadn't returned that time to burn father's diary, she said: "I was afraid. I didn't want to be away from you for even the short time it would take me to go upstairs to get the matches. I stood at the top of the stairs just looking down at you. I was afraid. I was afraid that if I took my eyes off you, even for a second, that you would turn into something that you did not seem to be. You might have turned into a total stranger."
HAVE ALL THE SPIRITS GONE
We bring our spirits with us, ghost-breath shapes, lurking guides; we have come to watch the meteor showers, the hovering star dome with streaks of luminous arrows. They wait outside the planetarium, avoiding voices of rationality inside. See Orion riding the Lion! See Calliope burning her crown! Spirits make up their own stories. The Pied Piper rides into Avalon on a rat, wildly and fast, faster, rushing to invisibility. He will hide from all eyes as he grows up, like our own spirits who in the galaxy of time will appear infrequently, randomly, disguised as accidental and impending. They hide, especially
in public at parades or political rallies. They lose us, collaborating with our growing uncertainties and our craving to forget them. Where are our spirits, our old allies? Why do they drift, no maps, logic, perhaps growing taller. That's it. No wonder we can't find them. They have grown up, several feet higher, sprouting beards and breasts, trading the intimacy shared with children for the faithless webs organized by adults. We may make appointments and flirt with them, but we are secretly intimidated by their unexpected size. They tell us not to bother, aware as they are of our declining attention span. They will be there when we need them.
And occasionally they drive home with us on lonely highways or visit after a loved one's death. Sometimes they peek in through our eyes when we are searching our face in the mirror. They massage our shoulders and calm us when listening to Bach or tribal drums. They are embarrassed when we invite them along for sermons and sacred ceremonies, feeling something like a third wheel, but they give in, not wanting to loose all contact. We are known to call upon them when desperately helpless and lost in calamity, but then it's rarely directly. When we do, it's more like the frantic search for a mislaid object.
An old friend of mine who is very comfortable and conversant with his spirit guides told me that they tend to see us as distant and often wearing armor that's often far too big for our bodies, shrunken with age. In fact, so rigid and fabricated do we appear that the spirits see us as museum waxed figures or stuffed animals in a diorama. We are restless wanderers in a dark museum, the same curious halls we laughed in as children. Now, our spirits fade with boredom in those halls of information. When the guards begin to dim the lights and prepare to lock the doors, our spirits are the first to leave.
MUSEUM OF FOOLS
For a period of some weeks at night I would close my eyes and watch my own private parade of players marching through the gates of my memory. Processions of celebration came into view one after another. I watched the pageants, as they seemed to pass before the window of my life. Each night the curtain of my imagination opened to a variety of festivals. The images were familiar yet enhanced by the ability to experience them again, sometimes simultaneously. At one moment I would be dodging firecrackers in a Dewali revelry in Old Delhi or splashing water and being doused by Thai children for Sangram New Year in Chiang Mai. Time shifted all around for in the next moment I was in the Mummers Parade of my childhood strutting down Market Street in Philadelphia to the strings of "Oh, Them Golden Slippers." Festive flecks of light and exaggerated gestures and movements often floated in slow motion upon the stage of half-sleep. Colors and dancing shapes accompanied me up those ecstatic steps that led to my temple of dreams.
The dreams themselves were not always so simple or celebratory. In a certain recurrent dream I would find myself taking confused steps through the rooms of strange museums. At first I would walk into hallways of stuffed animals and replicas of battle scenes of some historical relevance. I felt that I was viewing mislaid moments of my predatory past re-enacted. In one version of this dream a sleuth was brought in from London's Baker Street Agency to unravel clues and in another researchers and curators of what I believed to be the Victoria and Albert Museum were busy arranging objects and collected pieces to be placed in their appropriate rooms. In the west wing were a series of rooms that contained an exhibition entitled "The Eastern Journey of Fools."
What this exhibit contained was not typical archeological findings or ancient relics. Placed here in the west wing was something quite different. The rooms contained what were called the archives of trances and diverse and sundry things that were labeled to be evidence of visions and psychoactive states. In a glass case were the sandals washed ashore after a Brazilian named Coffee Beans walked out into the Arabian Sea to drown. In a corridor was a long case displaying the smoking apparatus and famous syringes of early foreigner junkies living in Goa. Also under glass was the shaved-off hair of reveling seekers that had been collected and codified by the Society of Premature Bliss and Seizures.
Visitors to the museum walked the halls gazing at everything, yawning while reading the footnotes to the rare objects. Here hung a gold-framed portrait of Queen Mary, not of Scots but rather of hippie fame, whose mercy and money rescued hundreds of travelers from homelessness. Next stood two ornately dressed figures of Desiree, "The Dutch Bride of Wonder" and her Canadian beau, "The Bridegroom of New Frontiers." In another room, huge with chandeliers were portraits of travelers to India. A velvet cloth hung from the ceiling stating the collective title of the paintings, "The Legendary Adventurers from the Western Lands of Failed Identities."
The corridors began to empty; the museum was about to close. The viewers quickly took their last look at the sculptures of the avatars of the road: A bronze of French Bruno bellowing mantras from the bottom of the well and Eight-Finger Eddie, his mudras in marble, the pied piper guru preaching the freedom that was India. "Was it in the sixties?" the viewers pondered. "No, it was the early seventies," another visitor argued. The west wing of the Museum of Fools was closing. The exits were black with amnesia's beaded curtains. "I'm sure it was the sixties," someone said. Everyone forgot what was remembered yesterday. "Let's ask the curator," another voice said. Suddenly I was in the dream because all the eyes turned to me. "Are you the overseer, the archivist here?" I don't know but I must answer I tell myself upon awakening.
Jack was an innocent, and a good friend, but he was lost in India without a job. When the time of service ended in the Peace Corps, the three of us went to New Delhi to await our future. Russell and I saw the irony of our situation, Americans working for peace being sent home for probable conscription for the war in Vietnam. The humor went beyond Jack.
He lived in an inattentive state like a clumsy daydream, contented in distraction. No one laughed at him; he was full of good intentions, lumbering, not grown into his massive body, always caring, devoted to simplicity, ingenuous and trusting. Like his pure reveries, he had a flair for the maudlin.
Every moment in Delhi Jack fumbled with his beads. A beggar in Benares had given them to him after Jack had lavished rupees, many every day, on the cripple. The story he was told was that the artifact belonged to Krishna devotees. Jack quizzed everyone outside temples, even mosques, if they knew to whom the beads belonged. He cherished his beads as a protective object as he had once regarded a rabbit's foot. He polished them frequently with sandalwood paste as he said a prayer he had learned in his high school fraternity. He loved sleeping with his beads the way a baby sleeps with a security blanket. Most of all, they served as a talisman that he believed would keep him safe. They offered admission to a sacred place in his imagination, where all thoughts felt comforting and friendly.
Like many foreigners in India, we felt drawn to the possibility of magic, and Jack believed resolutely that the bead's power would carry us past all obstacles. He was convinced that they had saved his life when he had suffered with dengue fever in Madras. When the monsoon storms had almost washed our bungalow off a hill in the Nilgiris, Jack made a ritual out of moving the necklace of beads around the bungalow, draping them over each of our beds, tying a knot with coconut hair and palm leaves and touching the necklace to various areas of the threadbare shelter. He insisted that they had kept a cobra at bay he had encountered in the rice field he helped plant for a neighbor.
At the Parliament Building we were hoping against all probability to be given a visa renewal from the Deputy Chief secretary. We wanted fervently to remain in India as long as we could.
Facing the grave uncertainties that awaited us in America, we preferred to take our chances surviving in the subcontinent tropics of anonymity. We paced the bureaucratic floor with great anxiety. The man who could decide our fate with a rubber stamp didn't arrive in his office until almost closing time. The turbaned Sikh, Mr. Sanjay Singh, looked hurriedly at our passports
and finally said, shaking his head disapprovingly, "No chance, my good friends. Impossible! You have been too long in our country. Actually speaking, you could be deported. But I can do one thing. Come tomorrow and I'll arrange for a two week transit visa that will give you time to go overland to the Pakistan border."
Russell and I paced under our hotel fan, agitated and despondent. Jack was more peaceful. "The trouble may be that I haven't polished these beads in weeks. They'll be shining when we go in tomorrow. No worry, believe me."
Jack wanted to turn the two of us into believers. However, that day we were not in the mood. After buying the sandalwood paste from the man under the banyan tree, Jack went to pick up his mail at the Poste Restante at the American Express Office in Connaught Circle. There was just enough time before our appointment with Sanjay Singh. I'll never forget the strange look on Jack's face as he approached us with the letter in his hand. He was frantically fingering his beads. His draft board in San Diego was sending him to report for duty at a training base in Germany prior to going to Vietnam. Jack was younger than us and his number had come up. It was a tough break. Jack turned quiet for just a few moments, staring down at his letter, then after a time he smiled and comforted himself with his beads. "No problem," he said. "I'm still a lucky guy. The magic just doesn't disappear. Let's go see Mr. Singh."
Again the bureaucrat was late. After a servant had served us tea and cokes several times, Mr. Singh arrived. He seemed disconcerted and he was sweating. He yelled at the servant in Hindi and fumbled through a stack of papers on his desk. We studied nervously his every gesture, but Jack stared directly into his eyes while twirling the beads rapidly. Mr. Singh checked our passports impatiently. He was restless and cast his eyes repeatedly at Jack. And then abruptly, somewhat irritably, asked Jack, "What are you doing?"
"My beads," Jack answered. "Hindu beads.
From your Krishna."
Mr. Singh. flipped through the passport pages distractedly. Again he stared at Jack and again yelled at the servant. "It's late. It's closing time," he said. He reached for his rubber stamp and in one hurried motion he stamped all three.
We were outside the building, leaning against the columns of Parliament, before we conjured
up the courage to look at the decision. On the last page of our passports under the national icon in blue, our visas read: Good for one year.
Luis Romero, a mariachi for hire, had an air of old elegance. He sat with his guitar in the Plaza Garibaldi under a rain-soaked awning, drinking tequila, waiting for customers or passersby to pay to hear his music.
The square, renowned for its musicians, was all but deserted. The new music with its electric bands and discos had swallowed up the desire for his kind of traditional music. Across the table sat an ageing trumpet player wrapped in a bright bolero studded with silver buttons, his snug, weary face clownish, framed by a silk scarf and maroon sombrero. His eyes were desperately hopeful, glistening like fool's gold anxious for the money he once made in this Plaza of Mexico City.
Luis, eyebrows knitted, peered into the near distance. It was the exact pose as in an old painted photograph: El Mariachi as he was called was sitting in an outdoor café in Guadalajara with Julia and their child, Elena, in his arms. The child wore a wide brimmed hat, its curling ribbons floating on a cascade
of black hair. Clearly happy with Elena, guitar on his lap, he was searching across Tlaquepaque Plaza for something- for the glimpse of that moment to be held forever?
Luis was from the mountains of Michoacan. He had grown flowers and made a living selling them in the marketplace. Julia crafted the baskets that contained them. The baskets were made from dried grass and seeds and nuts from the forest near their cottage at the edge of Lake Patzcuaro. Out of the window Elena watched her father gather the flowers- vibrant roses, marigolds, daffodils and even orchids. Her mother sat inside in a slant of sunlight, weaving the dried fragments into baskets. As a young girl, Elena enjoyed searching for wild flowers. Mother had warned her about the packs of wild dogs that inhabited the woods, beasts that were vicious from their mistreatment by the townspeople. They will snarl and leap upon you and sink their teeth into your skin. But it was another kind of beast, a human one, who abducted Elena and sold her to the whorehouses of a northern border town. A boy herding goats and his grandfather reported to the police that they had heard a young girl's screams but by the time they reached the forest they saw a cloud of dust and a shiny black car. The retreating car opened up with automatics as it sped north on the grimy road. The police wanted a bribe before pursuing the case.
Luis pursued the search on his own. He traveled north and went town-by-town questioning and probing for his fourteen-year-old daughter. His wife had to go to the city to seek work. Luis wrote her letters, less frequent and optimistic as time stretched on. From the desert villages to the coastal towns he inquired about her. He had no reward to offer.
Luis survived by playing guitar and singing, sometimes in the bars of the plazas and sometimes in the markets. The older people enjoyed his music but usually his mariachi sound was drowned out by modern radio music and TV soap operas. The fervor for the old music was ebbing while the shouts from rural rodeos and saloon drunkenness increased, assaulting his ears. His search began to loose its hope to the taste of sour beer and smell of thick, dizzying smoke. It was the modern music that filled the nights of searching the brothels. He had always hated the thought of the border towns as it was suspected that his father was killed in Nogales before he could escape across the border to search for employment in the U.S.
Luis had learned to play and sing from his father, an old mariachi who was somewhat legendary for his improvised rhythms of the Michoacan style. The songs of his father had deeply inspired Luis and he believed fervently in their drama and meaning. Without their songs, men like his father, would have become deeps of silence among the ruins. The high-reaching notes and swirling, rapturous chords were achieved through generations of learning and passed down into families whose memory was the only record, a living archive. Like he imagined his father's last days, Luis had begun to feel abandoned and obsolete. Still his father's songs guided and then followed him in his search for Elena and it was in the outskirts of La Paz that a fisherman stopped him to say that he recognized the song. He had heard it from a musician who appeared in the plaza years ago. It was the song he loved and had often requested the mariachi sing and play. Luis explained his plight to the fisherman. The man knew certain people who knew the whereabouts of "stolen girls". A seaman who was friendly with the local police advised Luis to go to a neighborhood of Tijuana and show a picture around for merchants and bartenders to see. Offer some money. Mention the Mariscos Company and the name, Claudio Navarre. "Navarre is a name everyone fears."
It wasn't those names or the money, which led to finding Elena. It was his father's song that Luis sang and his daughter heard in the alleyways of the San Felippe district of Tijuana. With the help of the police Luis rescued his daughter from a brothel. It was on Easter Sunday.
Each year on Easter Sunday Elena was absorbed by the memory of her abduction and the experience of her year of horror in Tijuana. When she met with her on this day each year she would not permit any talk that might dredge up the details of that time she was lost to the world. Sudden flashes of captivity in Tijuana would cause tears to abruptly rush to her eyes. But then, she would come back to the present and her father and mother would rejoice in the spirit of resurrection as if life could begin again, healed and whole.
So the old trumpet player, buttoned up in his bolero and snug under the sombrero, looking out dismally into Plaza Garibaldi said to Luis, "The world has left the Mariachi jobless." And Luis paused for a moment before answering and then said with a slight smile, "It's an old story, my friend. Time wears out its plumes. But I lost a daughter once and now she is back once again and we'll be together someday."
"Where is this daughter?" the man with the clownish face asked.
"North, safe across the border," Luis placidly answered, as he looked out at the plaza awash in the January rain. "She has escaped and my songs with her.
There are all around me scalding glances and whispers of missed opportunities. Do you know what I mean? Here is this woman who I am asked to follow down a carpeted aisle. She's working at the funeral home. She asks me if I'm family and when I answer yes, she takes my arm and escorts me towards the coffin. I look over at her breasts filling out her blouse and I could see through it if I wanted to. I let go of her hand as we approach the few steps leading to the casket shrouded with flowers. The chapel is full of shoulders and heads of people I know. My aunt's face is like a clay sculpture lying on soft blue pillows with powder caked into the ravines of her wrinkles. She wouldn't mind the dark refuge of the grave. She had wanted to die and now she was keeping that appointment.
The shuffling of shoes behind me; a whisper slowly advances and the woman in the thin blouse touches my shoulder. Do I want a moment alone with my aunt? I do. I want a few minutes alone with my curiosity. No witnesses. I shudder at the somber stillness. I won't leave the world this way. Those who know me always say that I'll be late for my own funeral. That premonition seems so punctual at this moment.
Only one thing gets my attention. I focus on my aunt's ring, her wedding ring. She intends to wear it to her grave. It encircles her finger and I imagined the moment my uncle gave it to her. But there is another moment that clearly reached into my memory. It was a troublesome recollection. It was that time in Guatemala when some energy pried me from my hotel moments before the earthquake. That force that rescued me felt like a kind of thief in the darkness peering into my soul with a warning. I rushed, stumbling through streets of crumbled rocks. Under the debris of a mound of fallen matter was a half-buried body. What caught my eye was a pale hand protruding from the pile. On a finger of the hand was a ring, brass with a blue gem. I was frightened and wanted to run towards a bus. Something made me pause long enough to reach out and pull that ring off the extended hand. I shuddered at the thought of what I had just done. Why had I taken it, I wondered, while fleeing towards the town's center? I felt the thread of fate's thin body following me out of town.
I imagined scalding glances and the whispering of accusations behind me He stole his aunt's ring during the viewing. Uncle George said, "Off a dead woman? What the hell do you think your doing?"
"No. The ring was offered me," I said. "I didn't keep it. I hid it behind the hotel column in Guatemala City.
It wasn't my doing. It was reaching toward me." I turned around to face my accuser but there was no one there. Behind me were blank and motionless bodies among the pews.
My father had once told me about Aunt Dorothy's ring. Uncle Dan gave it to her when he returned home from Korea. He gave it to her as she was leaving on the train to spend the summer in the Midwest. He was afraid that she might meet another man far away from him and he seized the moment to propose marriage to her. He had survived the war, survived tuberculosis, and he married my aunt.
People may say that I intended to steal the ring off the hand in Guatemala. Some may even accuse me of contemplating stealing from my dead aunt. The truth lay buried in the shadows of my thoughts, the rubble of the past. When I now embrace these memories I see no determination on my part or any perceptible act of will. There is nothing traceable. The quake happened shortly after the young traveler, the Englishwoman had closed her door on me. I confess that I came on to her heavily. She refused. I slept. One moment I was in that dreary hotel and something woke me out of a slumber that floated like moonlight over plaza and the cathedral and the market. In the next moment there came a rumbling, a tremulous quake and a torrent of human cries. I ran through the streets in panic. I didn't take a moment to check on the woman. After all, she had refused my intentions. I ran into the streets and stopped running, only for a moment, to take that ring, to take something from the jaws of death. A shadow I imagined to be fate followed me out of town. From the bus I watched buildings below collapse in a thunderous faint. Mountains shuddered; the ancient earth buckled.
To be honest, I was never meant to be in Guatemala at all. It was only to give my wife a break from me. I left her in Mexico City. She wanted to be free of me to party with friends. On the winding road through Chiapas the bus skidded and almost plunged off a mountain. What good does it do to look for signs? I don't know what to make of all this. I have come to learn to live with what is not intended as a kind of contraband time that smuggles in its own events.
Who really knows about shadows and appointments in the dark city? Looking at my aunt, stiff and powdered, lying in her casket of blue pillows, I felt pulled to move closer towards her face. Her lips, would they part and words come forward? What would she say? This is death. Here's my ring. I shuddered at what I saw as pale and perishable in her corpse, the habit of mortality. I lingered with another aspect, part vision. The ring on her hand glistened and, like chance, it beckoned me. My mind combed the mystery into strands, mortality and imagination, braided for meaning. In the end only whispered possibility.
QUANTUM THEORY OF AUNT ROSE
It was in the salty air of Atlantic City, I watched my Aunt Rose spin away out of her seat on the Ferris wheel, revolve and fly off on an arc wave into oblivion. Momentum of sudden descent pressed her ample limbs against me, tossing me firmly to the side of our car. She screamed wildly as the earth dropped away and her gartered thighs flew over my head. It was embarrassing when the conductor of The Thunderbolt asked me what happened to the woman who had boarded the ride with me. I had no explanation. Centrifugal force was the only thing I could say. No one had seen her actual flight. Her laughter had been heard; her screaming as well, but she had become a blur, dotted dress and leather shoes and pink purse, gone. I remember her haze of a mouth muttering, "Oye, oye! God, what are you doing to me?" Her confused face flickered and multiplied and then flew away. Her lipstick lips were fluttering until dissolving before my eyes.
I pondered my aunt's disappearance as I walked along the boardwalk. She had vanished, perhaps into the sea like tide abducting with sand, waves washing away the last of her image. "Where's your aunt?" her husband, Uncle Ruby asked. "Gone!" I said. "Don't worry about it," my uncle said. "You're too young to worry. Anyway, it's none of your business." When I pressed on with my bafflement, Uncle Ruby told me to ask his brother Uncle Dan. "That man thinks he knows everything. Ask that know-it-all. He'll have an answer even if he doesn't know." Any moment I expected my aunt to reappear: behind the painted clown arch of the seashell ticket booth of Million Dollar Pier or riding upon the seahorse or mermaid figure on the whirling carousel or in the distorting mirrors of the Fun House. She never appeared.
"It's not centrifugal force," Uncle Dan argued.
It's beyond gravity. My theory goes even beyond electro-magnetic field. Your Aunt Rose is quantum.
Yep, quantum physics."
"Meaning what?" I asked.
"Exactly," Uncle Dan said. "What does Aunt Rose mean? She's gone. The concept of your aunt is vanishing from the receptors of your brain. Old generation. No use. Mentally, she is obsolete. The thought form that has been Aunt Rose has reached a speed that exceeds the ability of your eyes to apprehend and believe. Momentum. Inertia. Gravity.
Black holes. Quarks. It's very apparent that people disappear, and thoughts, and things. Beliefs and fictions and whole galaxies. So why not Aunt Rose?
Ideas and numbers and theories spin out beyond our reach. Pictures of constellations in what we think of as a fixed universe blur and become as faded as Rose's dyed hair. Thoughts are conceived with the desire to keep them unchanging. But they travel toward us at the speed of light. Everyone wants complacency, static laws when really everything is constantly at the point of vanishing."
Opening the door of my parents' condominium, I hoped that Aunt Rose would leap out and cry, "April fools" but it was late July and my aunt always slept through summer afternoons. My mother sat in her bathrobe and hairnet eating last years' matzoh and father wore pajamas. Imprinted on the back were the words: "Pool Champion of Lakewood, 1952." It was now 1997. Both parents were watching a quiz show on television. Maybe it was the TV's loudness or the fact that they never looked in my direction that led to the impression that they didn't see me. I didn't exist in their world.
"Mom, dad, did you hear me?" I said loudly. "Aunt Rose disappeared this morning. On the Ferris wheel. She flew off into space. Listen, I'm trying to tell you that Aunt Rose is gone. She just evaporated."
I watched my parents fussing about, complaining, quarreling, and breaking one another like the brittle matzoh in their shaking hands. "What are you talking?" Dad said. "Rose gone? Don't be crazy. She's making strudel for the holidays. How can she be gone? Look here, meschuggena son," Dad said, taking down a family photo album from the shelf and turning the pages and pointing. "You see? There's Aunt Rose. Satisfied? There she is at your Bar Mitzvah and here at Cousin Izzy's wedding in the Catskills."
"Dad, it's not about photos," I said. "This is a puzzle, a matter of quantum physics."
Mother rose from the sofa, straightened its plastic cover, and walked towards me, pointing her finger petulantly. "Puzzles? Hey, Mr.Smarty, you got answers? Go on T.V. Go on 'Jeopardy'. If you're an expert on the subject of my sister Rose then go on T.V. with your answers. Make us proud of you for a change. Puzzles!"
Dear Aunt Rose, I pondered, how lucky she is to have left this world, this dull sty of indiscriminate dust! My father and mother could never understand the dynamic event that was her disappearance. She had dissolved and probably her energy was already being rearranged. I walked away from my parents and their plastic covered sofa and throbbing T.V. and began walking the eight-mile boardwalk. The salt-sea air sizzled against the sun-dried wooden boards. The energy interacted and was absorbed. Was my Aunt Rose also an interaction now, a kind of transforming process? Perhaps she was still vaulting through space and hadn't gained enough velocity to fly beyond Steel Pier and the diving horses. Will she stupidly and simply collide with a plunging horse? That would be a nasty joke and God, who she invoked when she flew out of the Ferris wheel, had a better sense of humor than that. No, it was like Uncle Dan suggested. Aunt Rose was to become absorbed by the receptors of thought in an entirely new dimension. The details of her disappearance would never be known. She was neither matter nor consciousness, Uncle Dan later tried to explain, but mutually enfolding projections of a higher reality. She might never make strudel again or walk the boardwalk in Atlantic City. Like myself she was a phantom in a world that no longer could interact with her. A river could stop its flow if only a stream were there to receive it. Maybe my aunt had become that river. An ocean would never flow and laugh if clouds weren't there to kiss its tears. Maybe I have become that ocean. I'll ask my Uncle Dan.
COULD BE THE BIG ONE
You notice first a difference in your animal's behavior. The dog is walking nervously in circles and the cats are scratching the walls and hiding under the bed. The sunlight looks slightly stained but still golden through the dust hanging in the driveway, where the man who handed you the eviction notice has just pulled out a few moments ago. The sun is turning rusty along its rim spreading beneath tiers of sky until it begins to fade into the tree line. It is growing bleak now as if the sun was slipping off the edge of the world.
You turn off the garden hoses, wondering if the plants find you too concerned, perhaps indulgent. Then you are aware that the dog is whining while taking shelter beneath the porch. On the other hand the birds are gone, the blue jays and the robins; you don't hear a single bird song. You watch the telephone wires along the lane vibrating in the windless twilight. A few inches above one horizon a flock of Canadian geese are drawing a thin fluttering line across the sky. You are about to rake away some leaves when you have an ominous but palpable sense that the earth under your feet is taking on an electrical charge. It is not quite a steady trembling, but something like a deep throb of energy, a dynamo in the distance. You see a kind of fluctuation of light approaching from behind the hills. A pulsation is seizing you and then in a moment another and another. Again and more intensely you have the uncanny sense that everything inflates for a moment, and then shrinks. You mount the porch and open the screen door to the house, not hastening but not moving leisurely either. You reach for the telephone and punch in the number of your brother who lives in the town on the other side of the hills.
"Hello, Walter. It's Martin."
"I guessed that," Walter answers. "What's up?"
"I'm not sure. Something's about to happen," I tell my brother.
"Something? What do you mean?"
"Well, my animals are acting funny."
"What can I tell you? You have weird animals."
"Then there's an electrical charge."
"From the T.V. no doubt. I'm telling you that you watch too much of that crap. All it does is make you apprehensive. You're always anticipating disasters. War, political scandals, stock market, floods, famines fires."
"Walter, you forgot one thing"
"Earthquakes. There's one coming as we speak."
"Oh, Come on, Marty!"
"Well, Walter, we're due for one. It's time. Every ten or fifteen years we get a big one."
"Where did you here that?"
"I'm not saying it's the big one, Walter, but the wires are vibrating and the sky is trembling and the animals are hiding. Those are signs."
"No, Marty, you're just tripping. It's not a quake."
"Then what is it?"
"Anything! It's your fear or maybe your writer's block. You want change, that's all."
"Writer's block? Please, Walter don't mess with me. This is a strong premonition."
"Just fear, Marty. That's all."
"Of mortality. It's probably a premonition of failure."
"God, Walter, you really know how to hurt a guy."
"Hey, now it's nothing personal. We're writers, aren't we. I'm just going deep here, looking at the causes within. Writers are always glimpsing into the abyss, always expecting failure. Look at Faulkner! Do you know that he considered himself a failed poet? And Henry James wanted to be a playwright. Universities turn out bunches of critics who see themselves as failed writers."
"I never heard this stuff before, Walter.
But you're not listening to me. How are your cats acting?"
"Marty, the only quake is in your confidence. Failure is not such a bad thing. It's a kind of negotiable fact while success is a temporary illusion. But cheer up, you're never alone in failure."
"Well, there's a consolation," I answer impatiently. "I'm telling you something's up. My roof is shaking."
"Get it fixed. Pay your goddamn rent. Have you paid it yet?"
"Walter, its not about rent or failure."
"You know what T.S. Eliot said when it was observed to him that most critics were merely failed writers?"
"Listen, Walter, this isn't the time to tell literary anecdotes."
"He said, Marty boy, "But so are most writers'. And when you tell me that this isn't the appropriate time, do you know what I reply."
"Walt, the windows are shaking."
"I'll tell you what I reply 'You live in your time, I'll live in mine'. Get over it, brother, it's nothing more than television fever or writers block."
"Speak a little louder. You're fading," I say. "Don't you hear our connection failing?"
"Failure, that's right. It's only natural. It's the soul's cautious way of resisting.
"Resisting what, Walter. Speak louder."
"Resisting against hubris, bro. Failure balances overweening pride, arrogance, haughtiness. That's more my problem than yours. Your problem is fear and rent. Have you paid your rent?"
Rapidly, the tone of the phone is flickering and fading. "Walt, Walter, are you there? After the tone fading, the long pause, then a busy signal. You feel shut off, quite completely alone. Your heart begins to quiver in your chest. A noise outside. The dog begins howling. The neighbor's spaniel is yammering also and down my country lane, a symphony of howling dogs. Twenty yards away is the nearest neighbor, but you do not dare to risk the walk to their house. You try calling the Philips. No answer. There is aq busy signal.
Pacing the carpet, you take the phone over to the window. You peer out to the swaying trees. The sky is trembling in the west and along with it a beam in the house is creaking. You look at your phone list on the wall. First you call 911. Busy. Next, the Highway Patrol. Busy. The Fire Chief. Busy. You even try the mayor you just met Saturday at the town meeting. No sound at all. Then comes a recorded message, blunt and shaky with static, advising you that all the circuits are busy.
At the bottom of the phone list are the long distance numbers. Your son's number in Minnesota is in front of you, but you don't want to alarm him. The two of you were together in your city apartment for the San Francisco earthquake in the late 80's. Now that you are living north in Sonoma County, everyone thinks you are safer. After your son Billy's number comes his mother's in Indiana. Ex-wives, I think, never listen. Why would she now? I won't get through anyhow, so what the hell. I dial, nervously rehearsing what to say on the chance she answers. The tone of the phone sounds different and after a pause, a voice comes on.
"Hello," the voice begins. "Who is this?"
"It's Martin, Marty here."
"My god, it's been some time."
"Marsha, it's kind of urgent. I'm expecting an earthquake out here any moment."
"Is that a big deal? They happen all the time out there, don't they?"
"Not like this, Marsha. This could be the big one. It was bound to happen sometime."
"That's what they always say. Marty calm down! Have you been smoking weed or something? I know it's practically legal out there these days. I read about it. Shops where you buy it. For medicinal purposes, right? Medicinal, my ass. Hippies growing that crap and fake doctors writing prescriptions! Earthquake? Maybe that's not a bad idea. I'm sure glad I got Billy out of there. All of you are addicted out there, am I right? So you got a woman? No point in asking if you got a job. O.K., Marty, what's really going on with you?"
"Listen Marsha, do you remember
that life insurance policy I turned over to you some years back?"
"Turned over? Don't you think I was entitled to it? Who do you think supported your son all those years? Teeth fixed and his school loan I paid off. That money didn't just fall out of the sky you know."
"Wait a minute, Marsha. I helped out. I always did the best I could. But that's neither here or there. That life insurance, Marsha, had a clause in it.
Remember? It was called an act of God clause, meaning that if I died by an accident of nature, fire or flood, or an earthquake, the money could go to my offspring. Billy then could get the money. Understand? Get your lawyer to look into that because I think the big one's about to happen. Maybe tonight. Maybe tomorrow."
"Marty, as usual you want me to do all the work. Why don't you talk to your older brother, the big shot lawyer in New York?"
"Who Herman? He's totally out of the picture. Walter and I never hear from him. It's been years now. I don't even have his phone number. It's a miracle I got through to you. All the local lines are down. I'm telling you, Marsha, this is the real thing."
"Martin Hammond, you know what I think? I think you're tripping. Drunk or stoned, you're just tripping."
"Hey, the sky may be falling but my name is not Chicken Little. The big one's coming. I feel it in my bones."
"Well, that's what you get for living in California. So now you want my sympathy. What's that I hear. Are you sure you don't have a woman there?Never mind. Marty, it's too late for my pity. There's too much dust between us. An act of God? You always thought everything you did was some act of God. Why don't you go talk to your guru?"
"Stop it, Marsha. You know he died long ago."
"And your high and mighty parents?"
"They're gone too. You know that.
Just please look into Billy getting the money in case I get swallowed up or a tree falls on me. Why are you so bitter?"
"Well, Martin, I may be bitter but it's not me who the sky is falling on. Talk to your brother Herman in New York. Call me when it's time for you to apologize to me. Then we can talk."
You wait listening to the buzzing after Marsha hangs up. You look out the window again and now there is a faint flickering in the air. On the windowsill outside a few branches are beating against the glass. There is still electricity running to your T.V. You flip your remote to all the stations, the national news, the local news, and the weather channels. There's no mention of tremors and no reporting of an imminent earthquake. I feel the world shutting in around me. No help or voices to console me. Even T.V. broadcasting is abandoning me; no communication is left to corroborate my premonition. The dog and cats are clamoring at the door. I let them in. They are my only comfort. These breathing animal bodies come in to my lonely sanctuary to await some ultimate event with its final atmosphere.
You pet your animals and feed them.
Slowly surrendered and resolute in your isolation, you sit in the long velvet armchair, hoping to rest, to sleep just for awhile. The cats' fur is standing on end and they are unusually restless. My dog is more relaxed or maybe just resigned to inevitability. He sighs and licks my hand. I fall slowly into a brief sleep. It is interrupted by a short pulsing sound coming from my answering machine. This time the recording tells you that all operators are busy and that the first available party will answer your call. The service is going haywire, I conclude, The voice track ends and a swell of music begins. It is a grand orchestra, violins and pianos, playing a rendition of "The Party's Over." The music is trembling, scratching, wobbling, and vibrating as if in empathy with a world topsy-turvy, on the brink of upheaval. I am reconciled now with indifference after my weary voice surrenders any further will to have the universe listen. But still my heart is thumping. What is the tone, the message of this beating? Anger, it is my resentment I hear beating in my chest, shuttering against a deaf humanity. I am fatigued and overwhelmed and fall again into a sleep.
Again a sound erupts. It is my phone. This time it is ringing for me to answer. It rings once, twice, three times. I answer. The ringing startles the animals. I reach out and grab the receiver off its cradle. An indistinct voice
begins talking. It is an excited voice, rushed and urgent.
"Hello, is this Martin Hammond? This is your brother Herman in New York."
"Are the phones working again? They were useless all day yesterday."
"Can you hear me? It's a nightmare here. I had to talk to somebody. Martin."
"Yes, what time is it?" I ask dazed and sleepy.
"Never mind the time. The city is in flames. People are jumping out of buildings."
"What time is it?"
"It's eight A.M."
"New York time?"
"Of course, what's wrong with you?"
"What day is it?"
"The eleventh. September eleventh. God damn it. Listen. Haven't you seen T.V.? We've been bombed. America has been bombed. The World Trade Center. Gone. Devastated. We all could be killed out here.
It's like Pearl Harbor. Worse! Some fucking airplanes have crashed into the Twin Towers. Martin? They say it's the Arabs. They're going to kill us. All of us. Marty, this is Herman, your brother. Can't you hear me?"
"Is this really Herman? What do you want me to do?"
Again you have the absurd sense that everything, including this voice inflates and then shrinks. The voice continues screeching and whining.
"Marty, listen to me. We're dying here. Thousands and thousands."
The voice is like a recording. It erupts but I can't listen. On the other end, the urgent voice is shrill and piercing and edged with static.
"Marty. For Christ's sake. Turn on your T.V. I need to talk. I'm terrified."
The sound of the voice skips and shakes. It is like a needle on an old phonograph bumped from its record groove.
"Talk to me, Marty. Don't you care?"
You look out the window again. It is morning and the house is no longer shuddering. Daylight is growing brighter.
"Marty! Please. I tried Walter. No answer. Talk to me. I'm scared."
The voice skips again. I can't listen. I can't respond. It is a recorded voice, not a real voice, I hear. It tells me that I have lost connection and that all circuits are busy.
HOUSE OF THE NUMB
I'm having a difficult day. I can't seem to find my balance; I'm losing perspective. This is because I allowed the sentimentality of a movie to get to me. It was a Stanley Kubrick film, the scene where Barry Lyndon, an admirably ruthless and unfeeling scoundrel, is suddenly sobbing at his little son's deathbed. I was unguarded, taken by surprise. His films are famous for their coldness, sustaining such a dispassionate angle of vision. This scene is maudlin; the protagonist is defenseless against his worship of this boy. A grown man weeping his heart away. I turned the sappy movie off the T.V. Then I summoned up some cognitive denials. I had to purge my fear of fragility and weakness. The first step was to trash the foundation, so I told myself that I had seen this drivel before. Bonnie Blue Butler in "Gone with the Wind" falls from her pony and soon after dies, and Rhett and Scarlett weep their hearts away. It's plagiarism, stolen from Thackeray. Nothing worth saddening oneself over! You see, that's how I manage to protect against emotions. I mentally minimize the feeling, nullify it and soon I am restored to a sane and familiar level of numbness.
Sometimes, in my solitude, a temptation to socialize creeps in. It just happens. Some kind of herd or tribal instinct invades. It's not an emotional thing, thank God, so it's easy to manage. When I feel myself drawn down into an impulse to communicate, I begin to recite my affirmations, the ones that evoke resentments. I pray for the help needed to vent my anger. The homeless, ragged and pathetic, provide great opportunity. I grumble nasty retorts to myself like, "Spare change"? How about a kick in the ass or a spare herring slapped In your face?" You see I do have a sense of humor. It is a great resource, a power, in a sense, greater than myself. The other day I'm in a book store looking at Rimbaud's "A Season In Hell", when a woman comes up to me and says, "You like Rimbaud? Me too! Do you know where I might find that line of his, 'Only I have the key to the savage sideshow' ?" I browse her face, blue eyes and full lips. I recognize my lust, even before I open my mouth. I practice my denials, by thinking: "She's just playing me on. She sees that I'm too old for her." Then I vent internally: "Deceitful bitch, just like all the others." If necessary I'll rage: "I'll show you my key and when I'm done with you, even a sideshow wouldn't take pity on you. But I never speak these thoughts. Why should I reveal the precious secret of my wrath? No, rather I look inside myself and take a fearless moral inventory. I remind myself of the basic truths of my condition. I tell myself that I am alone in an empty universe, that I allow no human feelings to enter my sphere. Any reaching out to another will only recoil and hurt me in the end. Any compassion will come back to haunt me.
There was a woman in my life. Very devoted to me. She did everything for me. She found a flat for us on the south side. She supported me on the salary from her office job. She cooked and cleaned and kept the house orderly. She was pliant to my hard edges, and she was sensitive to my silence. At night she was open to my passion, learned to accommodate my fierce fantasies. She knew just how to mold to my cruel intimacies. She knew how to be quiet. Together we grew into an unspoken complacency. Like in our favorite Pink Floyd song from "The Wall", we had become "comfortably numb". I could do anything to her. Tie her up, let her loose into my nightmares. I taught her how to remove the blood from the veins of her feelings. She learned how to meditate on the stars to make them dim and darken. I became dependant upon her, but she wanted to look too deeply into my eyes. She wanted to become pregnant. That's when I knew we were finished. In those nine months, all I can remember is that her stomach was in the way when I climbed on top of her. Anyway, the child was born David Grunch.
I struggled to free myself of the situation. When the kid was about six months old, he got a bad case of Whooping Cough. I was kept awake all night, listening to that wheezing and rattling cough. I prayed for indifference and for the peacefulness of not caring. Instead the sound of steam pumping from the humidifier near his bed filled my ears. I was distracted beyond all discipline. I needed help. That’s when I began going to the meetings, turning my will over to the consciousness-raising and step-by-step program offered by the House of the Numb.
At first I felt discouraged and thought I couldn't go through with it. The discipline was so difficult. The meetings took place in comfortably dark, abandoned warehouses around the city. The members were incommunicative and anonymous, all addicts of various emotional attachments. They supported my silence, encouraging my anger to evolve into a desired sustained submissiveness to apathy. It was clear that my woman and that nuisance of a boy of mine were my burden and distraction. I had to get rid of them. The group was patient with me. I wanted my adherence to the principles to be absolute and perfect. I came to realize my defect; I was no saint. I made a list of the people who had harmed me and accepted my hatred towards them, always nurturing the hope that my venom would be transformed into the blessings of numbness.
I never revealed my name, Daryl Grunch. We would all introduce ourselves with "virtue" names. Mine was Rage. So at the opening of a meeting I would say, "My name is Rage and I'm an emotional being." Returning home from the meetings I was brimming with resolve until I saw the needy face of my woman and heard the irritating coughs of my boy Davie. I tried to withdraw, hold back, shut down but it was becoming impossible.
One morning it occurred to me what I had to do. The illumination came when I was reciting to myself the group's proverb, a cogent adage that has served me well.
"Grant me the power to despise the feelings I must change and to change the feelings I must hate and the wisdom to ignore the difference." I meditated on all this profundity, and it gave me the will to act. I unraveled from my inertia, told the wife a new day was born. I picked up little Davie out from his steamed-up bassinette and carried him eagerly in my arms straight to the doctor's office.
In the waiting room I filled out the registration: name, address, and health history. Davie Grunch, 6403 Apathe Ave., Wilmington, Delaware. I pulled down Davie's blankets, smiled at him while showing him pictures in the magazine until the nurse called us in. I handed Davie over to the nurse with the registration papers. She took him in to see Dr. Gandol. I smiled at Davie, and then the nurse. I buttoned my jacket, put on my ear muffs and walked out the front door and down the marble steps out on to Fordham Street. I ran for miles. That was the last I saw of the woman I had lived with for many years.
I left Wilmington and went out west. That was nineteen years ago this November, and I forgave myself immediately. One has to, really, if you're going to live a decently detached life
Davie is a different story. The image of him comes to haunt me from time to time. A somberness would come over me occasionally whenever I slipped from my careful disinterest and thought about him. Through the years I've managed to maintain my attitude of numbness to the world. I was faithful to the principles of the program of the House of the Numb. I avoided conversation, always rebuking those who tried to solicit sympathy or compassion. I've continued my practices and affirmations. I've been on the path. But only about Davie have I felt remiss. Those insidious moments of remorse would creep in when I thought of my abandoning him. Only those feelings for Davie, so inconvenient and humiliating, have caused me any problem. He was my flaw, my shame and, in these last few years, my nemesis and crucible of doubt.
About a year ago I awoke with tears in my eyes. I had been dreaming about Davie. I'll admit it. I wouldn't admit it to him. In the dream little Davie was coughing, somewhere in a deep forest. I wandered through the mists of wooded paths searching for him. I was lost in the dream. I tried to suppress the dream, but it continued rising in my troubled thoughts. I became lost in my life. I began attending meetings again. I needed the support of the groups that congregated at the House of the Numb. Except for the fact that I was much older than the others, everything about the program remained the same. The meditations on apathy were the same, and the affirmations and moral inventories contained language almost identical to that used so many years ago. The confessionals hadn't really changed either. Always they began with the customary introductions: "Hello, my name is so-and-so, and I am an emotional being." The group responded with, "Hi, so-and-so." After that the speaker would offer his or her testimonial describing the details, the sufferings after falling from the grace of disengagement and from the loss of the serenity of the insensible life. Over a period of time I gained recognition as an authority in the groups. It wasn't long before I became a sponsor, effective in teaching my own innovative method of cognitive denials. Those I was able to guide along the path benefited from my three basic steps. Helping them in their struggles to overcome an emotional entanglement, I would have them take the battle to the cerebral arena, where they learned to fight like gladiators with their analytical and rational weapons to defeat all vulnerability. "Minimize, nullify, and restore one's numbness." The three basic steps I had used throughout my disconnected life. For example, about my woman I'd say, "She was a fragile and susceptible loser. One, minimize. "She was all wrong, thinking we belonged together, destined for each other to stay together. See, she's gone forever. She was wrong." Step number two, nullify. "Always be invalidating!" Strive, I'd tell them, to reach that clean and cold, well-lighted place of numbness. Step three and goal, restored.
But then something strange happened. I had left all those feelings for the woman and the child behind me. Honest I did. I am a truthful man, for all my cleverness. Too truthful, maybe. I am ready to tell you, I wasn't prepared, and maybe that was the problem. For one drizzly night in Denver I was standing at the rear of a meeting, listening to confessionals when I heard a coughing sound. It came from a young man at the front of the hall. I could see him moving his mouth, his throat throbbing, though at first I couldn't hear what he was saying. I only heard the cough. I was feeling very odd. An impulse to turn away seized me, and, despite all the signals and warnings coming at me from the higher powers, I listened more intently. The young man who was rather pale and thin spoke, although his voice rattled and wheezed. Interrupted by the hoarse gratings of a cough, he said, "My name is David Grunch, and I am an emotional being. I have no virtue name."
For a moment I trembled. Blood rushed to my head. I felt dizzy. I thought I would faint. I stumbled against the seats in front of me. Someone turned around irritated and told me to be quiet. My giddy mind fumbled around for affirmations. There weren't any. I reached out to be rescued. I feebly whispered an attempt at a cognitive denial. I stammered on the first step, saying, "It's just a coincidence, an unholy mistake. It doesn't mean anything." At that point an older man turned around, shaking his head while chiding me, " Hey, be quiet! Let the kid reveal. You'll get your turn." My heart was beating fast. I felt undone. I responded to the man, whispering, too loudly, I suppose, "But that's my son. That's him up there!" Another person in the row of seats before me said, "So what! Shut your mouth, You know the rules."
I look around the hall. The members are listening attentively to my son's confessional. I can't seem to hear a word he's saying. I feel suddenly like an intruder, completely out of place. I bend forward to tune my ears to his voice. All I can hear is his coughing. "Davie," I say under my breath, beginning to hear myself as I really sound to the world. I stand on my toes for a better glimpse. Davie is leaving the front of the hall and walking down the aisle. My voice gets stuck, reaching out. The chords in my neck tighten, and then loosen up as a sound echoes through the hall. "Davie, wait, Davie, it's your father."
The young man, my boy, rushes down the aisle and out onto Dole Street. I walk after him hastily, forgetting myself, my equanimity, control, and all the silence and harmony a life of numbness has given me. Davie looks back momentarily and then, looking at me in a desperate and frantic way, turns running down an alley. I follow shouting, "Davie, it's your dad. Didn't she tell you? I abandoned you. Your cough. That's my fault." I can't run any longer. I am older and have to slow down. I see that he too is slowing and stops near a row of tents. I watch carefully, hoping he will now talk to me. He ducks his head down and disappears into one of the tents that line the wall of the alley. I furtively approach the ragged tent and whisper, "Davie?
Davie Grunch." There's no answer. Behind me a raspy voice asks, "Spare change, a quarter, mister?" I stand outside the tent, an improvised shelter for the homeless. Inside I hear muffled voices, coughing and groans, and I smell the rank mixture of alcohol and tobacco. The homeless, I think to myself, and my Davie is among them.
I cry out to the young man whose shadow I see tilted behind the torn fabric of the tent, "Davie, don't you have anything to say to me, your dad? Tell me something. Tell me you suffered and because of me. Don't you hate me, revile me? At least that. Don't you even care?" There is no answer. I stand there pleading in my solitude to an empty universe. My anger grows and I shout uncontrollably, "Davie, don't you care at all?" Not hearing a single word, I try to rise out of my desperate and confused feelings. I say to myself. He's just a homeless, wretched kid. Minimize. He's meaningless. He doesn't care for me and I don't care about him. Nullify. And as the harsh wind dries the moisture in my eyes, I begin to feel numb, so comfortably numb.
A DESIRE TRANSLATED
BY RICHARD MEYERS
Early one April morning, a year after his arrival in the Nilgiri Hills of southern India, James Hollands woke from a long, deep sleep with a fire in his heart for a village woman. As he descended the winding path dressed like the locals in a lunghi cloth and long white shirt, he knew that she would be among the crowd of passengers, arriving at the Coonoor bus station. If it was a quiet day for beggars, he might get a better glimpse of the woman's complete body. Sometimes she turned her face towards the dense green hills, divulging a lovely swirl of long black hair. On crowded days she struggled with her bundle and food wrapped in banana leaves to squeeze her way off of the packed bus. She always talked to the villagers in an animated way while walking in the muddy street, and nothing in her behavior ever suggested that she had the slightest hint of being watched.
Her skin was a smooth brown and the curves of her body slithered
under her bright sari with a rural kind of desirability. Not long ago Hollands had frequently glimpsed her eyes, almond-shaped and a liquid-black, when he would carefully watch her attending the garden at Sim's Park. The garden was an imitation English, an attraction of the hill station of Coonoor and a short walk from his bungalow where he stayed while working for an American construction project in collaboration with the Indian government. Holland's interest in the woman had to be a secret kept from his employers, the native villagers and the few English residents who had remained living guarded and sedentary lives in Coonoor long after the colonial departure. Only his work partner, Dennis Boyd, knew of James's sensual fascination for the woman and repeatedly warned James against any indiscretion. He had often expressed derision towards his friend's "futile obsession." He would say something like, "What could you be thinking, Jimmy? What could possibly come of this?" or, "She's a common native, poor, doesn't speak the language. Don't even know if she's married. Come on, wake up and get real."
Hollands was aware of the woman's distinct limp. He noticed the affliction when she would walk about the botanical garden at the park, planting and digging in the flower beds. Once she looked up towards him sitting on the hill, but he was never certain if she had caught his improper stare. It was rude of him, he was certain of that, and he averted his eyes. What compelled him to gaze at her for those moments that she walked lamely from the rose bed to the spot under the banyan tree where she gathered with other women workers to talk? He never actually stood close enough to glimpse the details of her appearance, but what general aspect of her form he beheld absolutely enthralled him. Her morning arrivals on the bus gave a more distant and crowded view. Never near enough to hear her speak, he could only see her mouth moving unclearly and he often wondered whether, like other poor, rural women he had seen, she was chewing beetle nut. In fact he knew utterly nothing about the woman. He only knew that the habit of studying her at a distance had become a kind of ceremony that nurtured his hours in a world that had grown more and more foreign and incoherent. Watching her, first at work in Sim's Park and now arriving in the mornings on the town center bus, was a secret practice that absorbed his entire being.
What did he expect to find in this woman? A certain gentle servility of temperament was a desirable quality he believed characteristic of Indian women, especially those of the poorer classes. Perhaps he might stay on in India, marry even, and own a house like the Tudor cottage up on Tiger Hill or build a bungalow above the tea plantation near Lamb's Rock. He wouldn't be the first Westerner to do it, to settle into an ex-patriot existence in a remote region of the subcontinent. Really, there wasn't much in his life calling him back to the States, not for a thirty-six year old man who had been away a number of years and had fallen out of step with the momentum of the western world. In fact, in Madras he had looked into the matter of what was involved, papers and procedures and legalities, regarding the possibility of marrying what was referred to as "a host country national." It wasn't really a complicated thing, not nearly as difficult as would be the courtship and social mechanics of crossing the dubious boundaries into this deprived woman's life. No doubt Boyd was right in calling the consideration absurd and reckless. But the rational wasn't a factor in his fantasies and the more impractical it all appeared, the more he was enticed by the idea. Once confiding in Boyd after a few drinks on the verandah, Hollands had said, "Here we are living at the rim of this country, just barely peeking in. Why not, if one finds an opening, go on, even if blindly, and just plunge in? Even if the water turns into quicksand." Although Hollands liked the sound of his own brash spontaneity, untypical of his reticent nature, he faltered at his own phrase, "if one finds an opening." Just how was that done, he wondered. There was no way that he saw of entering her existence, no way of approaching the woman as an equal, speaking Tamil or doing the things that her kind did. At this point, he was only dreaming from a distance; he watched her from the outside as merely a witness to the surface of things, an ineffective spy in the obscure mesh that was India.
Since the time, some five weeks ago, when he first noticed the woman arriving from Mettapalayam and the hot plains, James Hollands had observed her from the balcony at the Vishnu Hotel and Restaurant. Here he sat drinking a cup of chai listening to the radio playing Karnatak South Indian music while deep, disembodied voices called out, "Chai garam, garam chai." He preferred the Vishnu to the Sangam across the way with its loud, blaring Hindi movie music. Also, the waiter at the Vishnu was friendly, in fact, familiar enough to have whispered to James, "no husband," after some time of noticing the foreigner's attention towards her. The man's name was Ram, and he was the only local in Coonoor, as far as he knew, who had an intimation of his fixation with her. That he believed her to be unmarried was the only information Ram could offer the American.
After the bus arrived from the plains, he would remain seated on a wooden bench under the shade of a thatched awning, drinking his tea from a red clay cup, brimming with steaming liquid. It was a strange relief he felt, seeing the woman disappear from his sight as she walked up the hillside path towards her work at Sim's Park. The trance induced by watching her so intently was lifted, at least until the next morning when he would return again. The bus returning to the villages of the plains arrived at the same place in the early evening, but he had decided never to be there so as not to invite any notice of a conspicuous pattern. Once the woman was gone from his view, Ram might sit down with him and teach him how to put some Tamil words together into a sentence. Relaxing, he would inhale the soothing smoke of a beedie, sip, smoke, and stroll about town, observing the huddled pageantry of markets in their morning bustle.
Sounds and colors spilled out with prodigality, tipping into the benign confusion of the variety of the bazaars. Laid out on banana leaves and bamboo mats were the strange merchandise of the medicine man: snakebite cures, scorpion poison remedies, lizard oil and mongoose extract balms, dried frog legs and bird's feet. Next to the medicines came the bright-colored anatomy charts displaying symptoms and cures for cartoon-like figures in turbans and loincloths, garishly painted. For a moment Hollands's mind drifted to the sudden thought of a cure for the woman's crippled leg. Could this world of strange conceptions of the body ever allow her to submit to surgery and Western methods? Yes, Boyd warned him that Hollands and the woman lived in different worlds. That fact became more obvious with every strange occurrence he saw. A blind beggar, strumming a one string instrument, stretched out his hand. Hollands handed him a rupee. More beggars approached him, children in rags, an old woman shaking with palsy, a shrunken old man with a face like molten wax extended his wilted arm, no fingers on his stump of hand. Leprosy, his mind quivered. Swells of goats and pigs, bristle-back and snorting, rummaged for food along sewers and canals of Coonoor streets. What squalor, he thought, and how he would love to rescue this woman from the filth and hopelessness of an impoverished life. His eyes now turned to what had become a familiar sight. A group of mourners passed before his eyes. The hurrying procession, accompanied by the sounds of drums and cymbals and ragaswaram horn, was bearing a garlanded palanquin of a mummy-cloth corpse high in the air, joyously singing prayers and chants for the dead. Ecstatically, they jostled down the streets towards the pyre of flames prepared behind the temple.
Hollands wandered the town and later worked a few hours on the new hospital construction. After work he went back to his bungalow, and before falling asleep, he drifted off into fantasy. He imagined the woman as his wife preparing a meal for guests in their cottage on Tiger Hill. He pictured her as the decorous hostess to his admiring friends. After the guests were gone, he saw her on their bed with her long black hair languishing on the pillow and her ample breasts peeking above the sheet.
The day's memory of the mourners summoned an image of her death. These same friends comforted him with their condolences, whispering words of praise for his devotion to her. Someone said to another, "He was so kind and good to her. He saved her, gave her a life of grace and comfort." Another replied, "Yes, rescued the poor women from poverty." Restful and contented with these images, he fell asleep.
When the woman did not appear on the bus the following day,
Hollands didn't worry about it. He knew so little about her life that it seemed imprudent to try to reason out just why she was absent from the usual place. It occurred to him that morning that she had just needed one day's rest in Mettapalayam, but when he didn't see her anywhere in Coonoor in the two following days, he concluded that she had stayed on down in the plains. What would she be doing at this moment, he wondered, what would she do there? Then it came to him: perhaps she had not appeared because she had noticed him watching her. He was enamored with the thought that she was aware of his infatuation and was perhaps too shy to present herself. He was shy himself, but it was now clear to him that it was time to make contact with her. In Calcutta only months ago, he had resisted proposals of marriage to Bengali women, suggested by the women's male relatives, somebody's cousin's brother or other. These offers were easily dismissed in that these thinly-veiled grasping plots to gain American citizenship were embarrassingly obvious. But this woman was not like the forward and avaricious kind from the city. She was a guileless simple rural woman.
When a week passed not seeing her, he grew anxious and decided it was time to make inquiries. He would go and ask Ram at the Vishnu. When Hollands, with rupees in hand, looked up from the table to ask Ram about the missing woman, he was upset to see another waiter. "Chai, chai, garam chai?" the man asked. Ram never asked so aggressively. He was always polite.
"Where's Ram," Hollands asked as he peered over the tables, "in the kitchen?"
The young man shook his head in confusion. Hollands wanted to ask the question in Tamil, but he feared his pronunciation would be too imprecise. He tried anyway.
"Ramku yenna achi?"
The waiter did not react. Ordering a tea, he wondered whether Ram had been replaced. When the new waiter returned, Hollands was disappointed. The man poured the tea, not in the way Ram did by cooling the hot liquid by pouring it rapidly from one glass to another.
Hollands left the Vishnu and walked around the central town area plotting what he might ask anyone. "Pardon me," he might begin, "do you possibly know anything about the woman who… " He couldn't consider mentioning the limp. "…. the woman who each day takes the bus to Mettapalayam?" No, these questions were vague and absurd. A sense of folly was folding in upon him, when suddenly he felt a tap upon his back. He turned around, and there was Ram.
"Sir, you are looking for me? Today not working. I know what you want. Where is the lady? Yes? Someone is telling me she stays in Mettapalayam with her daughter."
"Daughter?" Hollands replied. "You didn't say anything about a daughter."
"That is correct. I only talked about a husband. I said she doesn't have. A daughter she has staying Mettapalayam. That is what I know. She is working sometime here in Coonoor and living and working sometime Mettapalayam."
Hollands had a difficult time explaining to Dennis Boyd his need to go to Mettapalayam. "Jimmy, I'm telling you, if you continue chasing after her and losing time on the job, the company will fire you. How long will you be gone ?"
"A couple of days," Hollands answered. "Maybe a week."
"A week?" Boyd repeated in amazement. "Don't push this thing with that woman."
"Losing the job would not be the end of the world," Hollands said. " With the money I've saved I could live in this country for a long time. She has a daughter, you know. The woman needs help."
"Word gets out to the wrong people," Boyd warned him. "and you might lose your visa."
It was with some anxiety on the following day that James Hollands boarded the crowded morning bus for Mettapalayam. The stifling heat filled the airless bus as it descended into the arid plains. The bus stop was in front of the small marketplace which contained a row of palm-thatched food stalls and the post office. Across the mud baked street from the market was the Ganesh Lodge and Restaurant. The passengers got off here and walked the rest of their way home. This was the downtown where the paved road ended; so also ended the outside world with which the town was connected to the Nilgiris by this back-and-forth rickety bus run by the Guratgi Hill Station Bus Company. On market days the shops and stalls were filled by tribal villagers out to buy and sell. It was among this crowd, passing through the few streets that formed the downtown that Hollands hoped, at some time, to be able to see the woman. It was destined to happen, he thought. The town was quite small. What he would do when he finally saw her was an uncertainty that confounded him as he sat down for chai at the Ganesh.
"Chai, chai, garam chai," a voice behind him shouted. For a moment he hoped it could be Ram. The waiter surprisingly spoke English and poured the tea into a porcelain cup placed on a saucer. "You are coming from Coonoor?" the middle-aged man said in a refined voice.
"Yes," Hollands answered. "It was a long and hot ride. I'm not used to the plains."
"Yes, this town is not cozy like the hill station towns, Ooty or Coonoor," the man commented. "But this is the real India. Not the story book one of cool and lovely landscapes. This is more real. Down here you can find what you are looking for."
It was a curious way the waiter had of speaking, and Hollands felt encouraged in the relative safety of this remote town to press on and inquire about the woman and her daughter. "You speak English well.To tell you the truth I am looking for something. No, really I'm looking for someone. I'm working at building that new hospital in Coonoor, and there's a woman here. She has a limp, you know, a bad leg. There's a chance the new surgery unit could operate to fix it for her. The doctors want to encourage people to be helped by Western type medicine. You understand? She's not real young, and she walks around with a bad leg."
"Does she have a little daughter" the waiter asked. "about ten years old?"
"Yes. Do you know her?"
"The girl comes in here everyday," the waiter said. "after school to buy sweets. She speaks the very best English. Just like me. The mother is very lovely looking, but she does not speak, maybe a word or two. She speaks Tamil only. The girl, Rumitra, she will come soon. She goes to English school, but it costs money. They are too poor. The little one tells me that she may have to quit this school and begin working in factory."
"But she's too young to work," Hollands objected. "Far too young!"
"Not in this country," the waiter said. "In Madras state most children begin working when they are only seven years old. I read this. Just wait. You can talk with her. Soon she's coming."
It was late afternoon as Hollands sat at the Ganesh hotel waiting to meet the woman's daughter. The trees in the town center grew darker as the earth lurched away from the scorching sun. Birds began clamoring as the high branches fluttered from their weight. The racket continued, intensifying every minute as the sky turned into a deep orange sunset. Under the lights and awnings, women in bright saris, their hair braided and scented, walked charmingly into the market and the shops. A group of school girls came strolling past the Ganesh, and, just as the waiter had predicted, a young little girl in blue and white school uniform entered the restaurant and searched dreamily at the shelves of sweets behind the desk.. Hollands nervously watched the young girl as the waiter walked over to her and whispered while pointing towards Hollands. The little one the waiter had called Rumitra walked in slow cautious steps toward Hollands' table.
"Hello," said Rumitra. "Mr. Subramanium said you wanted to talk."
"Is that his name?" Hollands asked.
"Yes. But he likes me to call him Mohan. That's his first name. What is yours, sir? My name is Rumitra." She was thin and fragilely built. He hoped it wasn't malnutrition. There was a simple particular elegance in the way she stood with her arms against her prim and dark blue school dress. A chain crucifix dangled about her neck, and her fingers, slight and copper color, toyed with it.
"My name is James," he said in a voice one uses for children.
"I met you before, sir. You're a friend of my mother's."
"No, that's impossible, never before this moment," Hollands said. "I see your cross. Are you Catholic?"
"Catholic, you mean like Christian. Oh no, sir. I am like Mama. We go to temple. I go to Christian school and they like me to wear this. Are you, how do you say, Catholic?"
"I was once," he said and found a wave of emotion stirring in him.
"Once?" she said puzzled. "No, you're tricking me. You can not be something 'once' and not be the same thing now."
"Why not?" he inquired with great curiosity.
"Because why?" he asked.
"I don't understand. Tell me, Rumitra."
"Because God makes you and loves you the same, for always. You can not change the love of God. You know! You're tricking."
"I'm sure God loves you.. Your mother knows where you are? I mean she does, doesn't she?"
"Mama is working?"
"What does Mama do?"
" I don't know. A service, I think. Giving things."
"Rumitra, I want very much to meet your mother."
"She is working now. She needs to work for long time. If she becomes rich then I can stay in school. She loves me and doesn't want me to work. I love school. I am the best in English. Teacher says."
"And your Daddy," he asked. "Papa. Where is he?"
"I don't know him, but I know he wants me to go to school."
Looking at her more attentively, he decided the truly engaging feature was not her full little mouth, but her eyes; they were coal black, piercing, older and enthralling and, because of their size, seemed to overwhelm her whole face.
"You are a very nice… a very special girl," he said in a fervent and tearful voice. "I want to meet your mother. I want to tell her what a wonderful and special daughter she has."
"Thank you, sir. I know where to find her. You wait here. I know you will be good to her. I will bring her here. I will tell her that you are such a kind man."
As though moving in a dream, he watched the little girl walk out of the Ganesh Lodge and Restaurant into the noise and twilight of the streets. The air had a fresh tangible quality to it. He took a deep breath and finished his tea. The tables in the Ganesh were empty; he was alone in the large room which was losing its shape in the growing darkness. Closing his eyes he felt an upward surge; soft images of contentment rose before his mind. he saw the delightful little girl holding his hand and leading him through the cedar groves along Tiger Hill towards the cottage where her mother stood on the high verandah beckoning them home for dinner. In another imagined scene woke Rumitra and him from their reveries of English books to come outside to watch a flight of wild monkeys, racing through the vine-hung trees above their cottage. Drifting off in contentment, he reached into his vest pocket and fumbled with his wallet full of rupee notes. Satisfied, he became aware of the ceiling fan, swirling and churning. The sound seemed to continue long into his musings, the sound of the whirling blades of a fan overhead. Then gradually the haziness of it blended into the clear murmur of a silk sari and this, delicately evident, was moving nearer, growing acutely until the room seemed to yield to a wave of whispers. Hollands shook and opened his eyes to a sharp, direct stare.
"Hello," said the woman. The figure of the woman loomed before him with an odd sense of unreality. He gazed fixed at the space where, a moment ago, the daughter had sat. Now the woman appeared with her falling black hair, bordering a powdered and brightly painted face. Again he heard, "Hello." The room was real. The fan was whirling above. The woman was vividly there, but it was not faithfully the woman he imagined. A small voice spoke, crossing over the threshold of his awareness. It was the little girl Rumitra's voice.
"That is one word she knows, 'hello'," the daughter whispered. "Sir, this is my mother." The woman smiled, not demurely as he imagined, but boldly. Surprised by the lack of shyness in her face, he looked closer, expecting to notice her teeth stained with beetle nut. Rumitra took Hollands' hand and placed it in her mother's hand. The woman gripped it firmly. "I will translate for the both of you," the little girl offered. "I do it all the time in my class." Holland's nervously mumbled that he was glad to finally meet the woman. Rumitra translated these words into Tamil for her mother. The woman again smiled at him, continuing her clasp of his hand. A silence fell momentarily over the three of them. The mother's strange smile annoyed him; it was disingenuous. The woman bent over and whispered in her daughters ear, Rumitra looked at Hollands with a genuine smile and translated, " my mother wants to know how much you want to pay for her service." Hollands was startled, and before he fully grasped the meaning of the question, the mother again whispered and the daughter altered the last words, "My mother means how much for what she has, you know, handicrafts. How much do you want to pay her?" The woman leaned forward, gazing intrepidly into Hollands' eyes, her head nodding assertively while her finger rushed in a tickling way the palm of his hand.
Shocked, he recoiled hastily and, rising abruptly from the table, noisily over- turned the stool and shouted, "Services? Handicrafts, you call it? In front of your precious little girl. My God, what kind of woman are you!" Scornfully and desperate for admonishing words, he yelled out, "You could cost me my job, you know!"
Stuttering on, he added, "And…I could…loose…my visa." The woman turned away, frightened. The little girl was shaking; tears poured down her cheeks. He stared stricken and confused at the mother and child.
Staggering out of Ganesh's and on to the crowded street, Hollands walked furiously towards the bus stop, hoping to catch the 7:30 back to Coonoor. His feet moved numbly as if they carried him grudgingly. He paused in the crowded street.
All intention to escape left him. A tide of darkness seemed to be sweeping the last moment and it's passion away from him. He did not want to watch it disappear.
His buttoned vest had come undone. He dropped his wallet in the dust. He stooped to pick it up and saw the thick swell of rupee notes inside. His body stopped walking and stiffened as the image of the daughter's face, worried and blameless, floated before him with tears spilling from her soft engaging eyes. He turned around and began walking back towards the Ganesh. The tide of darkness seemed to draw him back towards the place where, for a fervent and poignant moment, he felt deeply implicated in a family's misfortune. He turned away from an urge to grieve the loss of his own fantasy. Suddenly he longed to enter again and participate in their life. It was so much larger than his own. "Help, help!" he whispered to himself, but his voice was slight, barely a strand of sound..
The lights were dim in the Ganesh as he walked meekly to the mother and child, being comforted now by the waiter the girl had called Mohan. Hollands approached them reticently and reached for his wallet and laid the pile of rupees on the table. "For Ramitra's schooling," Hollands said, feeling a warm wave of kind completion rising in his blood. "For your precious daughter." Turning from the table he could hear the little girl translating for her mother into Tamil what had just occurred.
The Man Who Slept Through Heaven
The Man Who Slept Through Heaven
by Rich Meyers
“You have a complaint? You wanted to see me. Yes I own this hotel and restaurant. I speak English. You say this is not the food you ordered. You asked for the Ethiopian bread? Yes I know the spongy bread like the pancake. This is not a place for Ethiopian food. You are in Harar now. We are not Ethiopians or Eritrean. You will not understand the difference. It is more than language or food. We who live here understand. But you are European, am I right? This is not a bad town, not many foreigners come here. The hot winds do not blow in the afternoon. We have terrible winds so when they do cease blowing in the afternoon, we call that time the “Semayat”, ‘heaven’ in your language. “
The young Dutchman, Gerard, explained that he had been misinformed and so took the wrong bus from Addis Ababa for the Afhat Seman to see the Coptic Church mosaics. The only way now was to take a morning bus at the north end of town for Begemdir and Semun.
“So you were told in Addis Ababa about a morning bus. That is typical of those people __ to tell you only part. What they did not tell you is about the Nefas, the winds that bring on the fevers. They blow through this town in the mornings sometimes. This summer is their season. The bus does not come at all if there is a warning of the winds. Nobody can know until shortly after sunrise. At about 6 AM if horizon is without the blue clouds and if the flies have not come then probably it will be a safe and windless day. Then word will spread that the buses can come here to Harar. Yes I do. I do speak good English. I learned in London. Four years at a school in London. So in the summer here, the mornings are uncertain. The evenings, I mean, the late evenings the mosquitoes come up from the marshes at Dal Es Khardosi and it is impossible to be outside. They are everywhere and their bites go on itching for days. So the truth is that the only good time of day is the afternoon. The air is still and clear. No flies or mosquitoes. It’s the only peaceful time and so we call it the time of peace, a time for enjoying or for meditation, whatever you like. Semayat, the time of heaven. Yes, of course, I have a room for you. There is a fan. Turn it off if the winds come and close the shutters. Take the room for one night and we can see in the morning the chances of the Fenas. You are fortunate to have arrived so early in the morning. The rooms fill up by noon when people want to be settled before they go out for the Semayat to walk the streets and enjoy the calm. Here it is, the key, room one hundred and eight. We can talk money in the morning. Go rest, there are some hours before the Semayat. “
The Dutchman put his one bag in the room and walked out to the public square. The streets were empty and only a few people were shopping in the market. The men were tall and thin and wore their robes and the women were in white garments covered with blankets. It was surprising just how few people were generally visible on the streets in the town. Even the capitol Addis Ababa was it seemed a place without vitality, desolate, bereft of the business he had experienced in most other countries he had traveled. Gerard had been offered a cheap ticket in Cairo to fly to Ethiopia and he decided to visit some ruins and other sites he had read about. He wasn’t prepared for such poverty and barrenness.
After he had eaten in the market sitting by the edge of the town’s only fountain, he felt very sleepy. There was no sound but the olive trees rubbing together and the splashing of water into the fountain at the center of the market. It seemed like a town of stillness; just waiting. The heat and the bus ride had tired him out. He turned out of the market to the long empty street lined with one- story buildings of mud with corrugated tin roofs. The meal he had eaten lay heavily in his stomach, but he dared not complain about the food again. The town was not very friendly. It was just a stopover place on the way to see some archaeological ruins, particularly the mosaics, which at this sleepy point in the morning no longer had much importance to him. The town was not mentioned in the tour book and he made up his mind to accept the fact that he had lost a day of travel. Idleness, he was not a stranger to it. He had to wait out his time in a town in which there was nothing to see or do, no surprises at all. At the end of the street, probably the main street, he came to a marsh. He heard sounds that after awhile he identified as the voices of thousands of frogs. Perhaps, he thought, the frogs would eat the mosquitoes. The light now that he could see it upon the flat landscape, moved in a strange way; slightly up towards the clouds and down towards the horizon, and sideways as well, but never appearing to change its position. Did this peculiarity forecast the coming of the winds? No, the hotel owner he remembered had said that they would not come today.
In the next moment he turned onto another street on his way back to the hotel. In front of every building there were horrible foul heaps of garbage, festering piles of rancid matter, debris mixed with scraps of food. The air was heavy with the smells of rotten fruit and olive oil and sun-baked excrement. Gerard covered his face until the stench was left behind. He rounded the edge of town along a crumbling wall, and through a large rift in the wall he saw the blank endlessness of flatlands broken at certain spots by the warping of heat waves. Not losing recall of the location of the hotel, he explored another street that had a few palms and more heaps of garbage lying by the sides of houses. This street also had very little movement. An occasional robed man passed and mumbled a brief greeting. Nearby a man emerged from his mud house and shouted out something to Gerard. The man whose entire body was covered with blankets called him over to talk.
“I said Dasudayet but you would not understand. It is a dialect of Amharic. At a distance I thought you were Ethiopian. I’m sorry. I do not myself speak Amharic although I am able to. I am from up north and I speak a kind of Tigrinya. I called out to you hoping that you could do something for me. I could tell that you were not from here and probably you were a Christian and you would not be offended to be asked this favor. Please carry these containers of waste over to that pile across the street. Do you see it? Ah yes. You see I am a Moslem and cannot touch unclean things so close to prayer, the time of worship at the mosque. You understand, please. We are mostly all Moslems in this town but I lived among Christians years ago in Asman. Please, only a minute, please. The Dutchman bent down and picked up two buckets of garbage, not very heavy but putrid, and carried them across the street and deposited them into a larger mound of waste and returned to the man whose face peeked out smiling from under his garments and wrappings.
“You are very kind. What are you doing in this town so remote. Oh I see. So you are going to see the Coptic mosaics. Very interesting! You should also see the famous obelisk near Axum, which was the ancient capital. Then you catch the bus for Labbela tomorrow.
Gerard interjected that he would catch the morning bus if the Nefas didn’t blow through town tomorrow. He added, somewhat confused, that he had understood that the bus to take was the one that went to Gonder.
“And who was it that gave you this information? Ah yes, the hotel owner. I know him. He neglected to tell you that going a few miles further to Labbela would save you a few hours of walking. And the heat at the time you arrive will be terrible. ‘Nefas’, who taught you this word? Oh this same man. I am surprised that he being Eritrean used this word.
The Dutchman said that he understood the hotel owner to say that he was not Eritrean. The hotelkeeper, he said, had taught him another word and that was “ semayat”, in English meant heaven.
“Again he told you only half the truth. The full term for this time of peacefulness is Mengiste Semayat, meaning the government of the heavens. That is, how do you say, yes, literally what it means. These people are always omitting something, a word or a fact. Once I spoke to him on the subject of the Holy Koran and do you know that he omitted five prayers from his Ramadan services? And the rules of purity, he only acknowledges ten. You can’t talk to these people. Really you can’t. But I am keeping you. I thank you kindly for your service. You should go and rest before the Mengiste Semayat __ don’t forget the Megiste part. That is the principal that governs the degree of peacefulness. It is so much to explain and for you to understand. So my friend, ‘Enshala’ and know that I thank you and Allah thanks you and the scavengers thank you.
He waited for the man to stop speaking just as he had done with the hotel owner. It seemed pointless to do anything but just listen to these men. The man bowed and said “Salaam Allecum”. His words had ended. The sun began to be very hot. He covered his head with a scarf he had learned to carry in Africa against the late morning sun. Walking briskly towards his hotel he thought that heaven should be a cooler place and wondered what could possibly change the blazing sun into coolness and how would these putrid odors of garbage heaps be eliminated and perhaps transformed into what he imagined heaven would allow __ jasmine or lilac or roses? It would take a radical change, perhaps a miracle, to create such a contrast that could be thought of in such lofty and ethereal terms. Heaven, he thought, might be for him at this point a soft bed under the coolness of a ceiling fan in his hotel room. In this advancing heat he nearly dozed while walking the streets. He closed his eyes against the mounds of refuse outside the market gates, the heap of bones and inner organs that rotted in front of the butcher’s stall, the sun-baked rinds and blemished peels from tossed out fruit that were piled up against the market gate. In place of these foul sights his mind played over a landscape made of silken garments that veiled soft thighs and round breasts rising like sand dunes transcending the dreariness of the flatlands.
At the hotel Gerard got his key from the floor sweeper. The hotel owner was not in sight. He climbed the stairs drowsily. The sweeper called out to him in one of the Ethiopian languages: “Ibakih, sir” He smiled and pointing to the old clock above the hotel desk he said: “Fellagalio, hulet.” He raised two fingers in the air and again pointing to the clock drew a circle in the air twice. Then he said “Semayat.” Gerard understood him; it meant that in two hours it would be Semayat the time of day the inhabitants of Harar called Heaven. In his room the bed was not soft but it was, however, a bed and for an instant Gerard’s imagination succumbed to a half-defined feeling that he could sleep forever, or at least until the end of Ramadan next month. So when he awoke many hours later, stupefied as if lingering behind a curtain of wonder, which was precisely what he thought had happened. For an instant he imagined his sleep had covered a lifetime.
In the next instant he arose, his head clearer, now free of abstractions, to gaze directly at the fact of the sky. It was reddening into the glow of twilight. He had slept through heaven. Astonished, Gerard looked at the vanishing sun. A vague feeling of disappointment came over him, a sudden sadness as if he felt himself deprived of a phenomena, a prized and collective experience, shared by the townspeople that, now having missed, made him separate. The realization gave him an abrupt and frightened a sense of hurry. He rushed out of his room and down the hotel steps. He wanted to be outside under the sky to catch any last glimmer of that revered time of day about which there had been so much talk. The floor sweeper saw him rushing towards the door and shouted out in alarm a kind of warning, “No, No Sir.” And a woman who he had seen in the kitchen also warned him waving her arms saying: “No, don’t leave, not time to go.”
Gerard bolted through the front door and went out into the fading light and empty streets. He began retracing the route through town he had taken earlier in the day. He passed under several arches, turning onto a dirt street, and turning again he could see the gates of the market, and the foulness of air pierced his nostrils. A strange sound, high pitched, a kind of whimpering sound could be heard coming from the direction of the market. He continued walking. Again the sound, this time a rattle or was it a groan or grumbling? And now the noise came from the opposite direction down another street. The rancid odors increased, so he knew he was near the garbage heaps. The noise subsided and he resumed walking, amazed at the complete emptiness of the streets. Nobody stirred at all, doors of houses appeared to be bolted, shutters latched. The streets were completely silent until again he heard a strange sound. He could not recognize it at all. It certainly wasn’t the chorus of frogs he had heard earlier. It was much louder than the drone of insects. There was a pause and then as if the town had waited for him to get settled into walking slightly more comfortably, the winds returned with a succession of loud and shrill sounds, rhythmic, fluttering like laughter. Walking nervously onward he was able to make out at the very edge of the market’s darkness a shape, a hunch-backed hideous shape of a hyena. Its eyes glittered feverishly. Its enormous jaws were grinding into a heap of garbage, ravenous teeth and tongue, dripping saliva. Seeing Gerard, its ears went back; it whirled around to get a closer look. Gerard froze in panic at the sight and very slowly began walking backwards. Behind him came that high scream. Gerard lurched back, turned around and staggered at the sight of another hyena devouring refuse only some feet away from him. Its stiff erect nostrils were red with blood and its black heaving hide shone in the last glimmers of sun. Gerard eased away and then stood still, trembling violently. He kept his eyes on both hideous beasts that were so absorbed in eating that he could slip away down a side street. The wind had picked up in the half-dark, and ahead he could barely make out a distant movement. A cloud of mosquitoes, he thought, but at his feet hyena tracks were plain enough, dragging through the dusty and dirt clods of a narrow street. Just about to break into a run to the hotel, a shadow cut across in front of him. The movement he had seen was the dark hides of two more hyenas approaching towards him. Too frightened to move, he paused, puffing noisily, the blood pounding in his ears. Then he saw what was occurring. In every direction, on every street, bent over and growling, around the various garbage heaps were hyenas feeding themselves, grotesque packs of devouring hyenas. The red eyes of one of them looked into Gerard’s face; the creature’s eyes were calm and fearless and fierce. Gerard turned from side to side but could not decide how to escape the ugly animals. The dark hideous brotherhood hissed and growled among one another and seemed unconcerned with Gerard’s presence. His eyes were riveted in shock, as he watched the feasting mouths tear viciously at the garbage. The mouth of one opened and vomited a stream of putrefied meat and fluid. The red fearless eyes of another hyena still looked at him, unafraid, remote and detached. Then he heard their distant laughter and saw black blood spurting from the twisted iron-jawed mouth corners. Gerard felt a dizzying rise of blood. At any moment he might faint. Suddenly something struck him from behind and darkness covered him, and he struggled under what felt like layers, one after another, of cloth covering. Shaking, he felt his body rising off the ground. Under the swarm of covering he could feel sharp pressure __ somehow he was being carried, bouncing and twisting in confusion. Quite suddenly again it all changed and he was lying on something soft, and he saw that the unwinding cloth that had enveloped his body was blankets. His eyes opened more fully so that he saw two men standing above him over the bed he had been tossed upon. He recognized one of the two men. The man who had carried him away from the hyenas, carried him to safety was the man whose garbage he had carried.
“You remember me, “the familiar one said. “We met, you carried my garbage out earlier, same garbage those beasts are eating now. Don’t you remember what I said?”
Gerard, still shaking, his shock easing off, slowly stammered. “What? You never told me!”
He was quickly interrupted by the thickly built and forcefully spoken man, “I said that I thanked you and that Allah definitely thanked you.” Gerard’s nervousness turned to outrage and he furiously screamed, “No one told me about the hyenas. Nobody told me that the damn streets filled up with them.”
Again, the man interrupted, “And I said, remember, that the scavengers thank you. Harar is famous for our hyenas. The beasts are our garbage disposal. This is the only place in the entire world where this happens.”
“Hyenas.” Gerard shouted. “Those are deadly beasts. I could myself been eaten alive!”
“But you see you weren’t, we rescued you. Nobody goes in the streets when it becomes dark. Night is the time for the hyenas. Not for you my friend. Thank Allah the angels are among us to set things right.
Gerard’s anger grew apace with his bewilderment. He shouted: “You said nothing of hyenas. No warnings. You said the hotel owner omitted things, told only part. Look at you, what you omitted.”
“My friend. I have long heard words that come not from the heart, words written in desire to change destiny. These words are sermons. Fate cannot be avoided. The hyenas were your fate my friend. You slept all through Semayat. Right? That is what I am told. So you see your destiny, what a good story it is that is being told through you. Don’t you see? It is the story of the man who slept through heaven and woke up in time to get a glimpse of hell.”
AND SHOULD NOT I PITY NINEVAH?
by Rich Meyers
Mikel lay on the Persian carpet at his Uncle Aker’s house in Baltimore. He was wondering when his father would arrive from their home in Fresno, California when his Aunt Debraik came from the kitchen carrying a plate of steaming hot pastries.
“ Mikel, you are the youngest,” she said bending over the carpet to offer her nephew the first of the batch. “ So you begin the eating.”
“ Thank you, Auntie. When is Papa coming?”
“ Supposed he here now.” Aunt Debraik said with her thick accent. “Papa late. Ask Mama when. Eat the pastries.”
“ Deba, Deba,” Uncle Aker said reproachfully. “ Don’t call them ‘pastries’. This is our own Assyrian cooking. Not European. Don’t confuse the boy. Always explain the culture, Deba. And for Mikel’s Papa, tell him the truth. Daiyud is always late. I should know. I’m the brother.”
“ That isn’t so,” said Markla defending her husband. “My Daiyud is on time for things. I think maybe he catch another flight. Not today’s flight. I told him he should come on the plane with us. Daniel told him like a good son, ‘Papa, don’t worry for the pruning of the fruit. The men can finish.’ But, no my husband he wants to see everything is done right. That’s his way. You can not change the man’s nature. Just I say, let the man call. A telephone is not such a big thing to pick up. But Aker promise me, please. No fighting. Don’t upset Daiyud. He doesn’t like quarreling. Promise. Remember his heart condition. Please, Aker
Mikel’s father had promised him a trip to the park and museums and Mikel impatiently longed for the adventure. It was towards the end of March and the streets of Baltimore were steeped in snow. Mikel had never been to the East Coast before and he was amazed at the firm embrace of cold weather as he studied the novelty of snow. He saw the heaps of it shoveled along porch steps and the melting slush filling the gutters and women with their heads wrapped with scarves and their feet encased in fur-lined boots pick their way carefully over patches of melting ice. Mikel wondered if his father had brought boots and gloves along for the Baltimore winter.
“ A man should travel with his family,” Uncle Aker stated. “That’s all I’m saying. Especially these days. With this war and terrorist business going on, it’s better to travel together. We must be very careful. We don’t have blond hair and blue eyes, do we? And our last names are not Smith or Jones. No, not at all. I am Aker Hariri. You Markla and your husband and Daniel
and Mikel are Hariri. And you Debraik . Hariri is not a safe name these days. No, really, think about it. Didn’t you tell me, Markla, that your Daniel was harassed. They chased him, wanted to kill him. See, California’s
no paradise. I told your son to shave that beard. You don’t need to wear a turban or speak Arabic to be hated .People who look like us are suspect. They confuse us with the others. Americans never liked us anyway.”
“ Don’t talk like that, Aker,” Markla Hariri interrupted. “Not with the boy listening.”
“ Now you see, Markla, that is wrong,” Uncle Aker said. “Mikel should know the kind of world he’s living in. And where he’s from. His blood is Assyrian. We are ancient people. We built Babylon. Don’t think your people are from Iraq, Mikel. We belonged to that land long before Baghdad existed. Our capitol was Nineveh. Study your Bible, Mikel. Remember always, we are Christian. We don’t bow down to anyone but Jesus, Mikel. We don’t hijack planes and crash them into buildings and we don’t poison the mail.”
“ Aker, that’s enough,” Aunt Debraik said. “Not here gathering with the family.. We have to listen everyday the radio and T.V. the bad news. Not here. Your brother and Markla are in from California for the holiday. Let’s have peace.”
“ What am I, a war monger?” Uncle Aker asked rhetorically. “ Facts are facts. Where’s Daniel? With him I can converse. Not with silly women.”
“ Listen who he calls silly,” Markla said offended. “ No respect. No wonder he never married. Who would have him?”
“ Talk to me, Markla. I’m right here,” Uncle Aker replied. “I didn’t want a wife. What good is a wife when the world is ending. It’s the end. Read Revelations! The signs are here. Sunday is Easter and I don’t think Daiyud will arrive, even by Sunday. Doesn’t matter. There’ll be no resurrection. It’s two days he’s late, this brother of mine. Where’s Daniel?”
Aunt Debraik took Mikel by the hand across the carpet to the book shelf where she took down some of the family photo albums. Mikel stared at her bushy dark eye brows and trace of a mustache. She wanted the distraction from her brother-in-law’s talking and hoped that Mikel could get involved with perusing the pages of the family history in photos. She was familiar with Aker’s albums and there was a section she always avoided. The pages that featured Debraik with Leonard, her husband who had divorced her some years ago, brought back to her painful memories. Particularly painful was thinking about it at Easter time when the trouble between them had first begun. At an Easter gathering some years ago, Lenny had announced after an impassioned argument with Aker that he was leaving the Chaldean Catholic Church. The decision struck a blow to the family. Daiyud as usual was understanding but the third Hariri brother Sheved, a volatile orthodox Christian threatened to never again speak to the family members if they allowed Lenny ‘to disgrace their name’. He kept his word and no one except the younger brother Daiyud, exceptionally compassionate and caring, ever again spoke to him.
“ Mikel, look here,” Aunt Debraik said, pointing to various photographs. “This is a picture of your Papa and your Mama at their wedding. Papa wears a tuxedo and your mother is wearing a traditional dress. It is Jeseva’s house. That’s your grandfather, your Papa’s father. He died when you were just born. He never left the old country. Eleven children he had. But only six grew up. The others died. Typhoid and cholera. Your parents went back there to the old village to marry. Respect for Grandpa. I remember the old house. I was born there. Your Papa and me we come to America when I am twenty, Papa is eighteen. I remember Daddy pushing me on the swing under the fig tree . There is your Grandma. She was a big lady. There she is planting flowers. Beautiful garden we had. And there she is holding your baby Uncle Rephaim. He was born with only two fingers on one hand. I thought that he would find the missing ones when he came to heaven. He died like Grandma in the old country. We called our place Arbil in the Mosul province of northern Iraq.
Aunt Debraik’s head suddenly turned in the direction of the kitchen where Mikel’s older brother Daniel had just entered the house. Conversation stirred; the house seemed abruptly awakened to sudden news.
“It must be a mistake,” Markla said in a confused tone.
“Of course it’s a mistake,” Aker answered. “It’s a shameful mistake. After all, we are Americans. They can’t just lock a man up because his name’s suspicious. What else did he say, Daniel?”
Daniel, a tall and thin boy of sixteen, looked timidly at his excitable Uncle Acker. Daniel’s hair was streaked with snow and his gloves and boots were dripping puddles on the floor.
“ My God, Daniel, what happened?” Aunt Debraik asked.
“ Daiyud’s been arrested,” Aker said. “That’s what happened. My own brother they are thinking is a spy or something. A terrorist! In jail. Arrested at the airport. Two days ago. ‘Detained’ And only now they tell us.”
“ S-h-h-h,” Debraik whispered, “Keep your voice down. Don’t want the boy to hear.”
“ Oh my God, my dear Daiyud in jail,” Markla said, shuddering with tears dripping down her frightened face. “ We are good citizens. Why this?”
“ Uncle Sheved said this lawyer telephoned him because of the same last name. This lawyer he says they’re holding Papa on suspicion of a link to
the September 11 terrorist attacks. It’s called prevention of terror acts. Uncle says they can keep Papa in custody to see if he has ‘association’ with known Iraqi terrorists. Nothing we can do but wait. Uncle is coming over here to see us.”
“ Not in this house. Won’t set foot in this house,” Uncle Akers said.
“ This is not the time for a grudge,” Markla replied. “My Daiyud is captured in a jail. Because he is a man with such a good heart they want to pick on him. They don’t like his name. It’s an Assyrian name, an old respectable name. We are not Iraqi. We are Christians.”
“ The lawyer said there’s an Iraqi leader,” Daniel added. “ who has our last name. This man is part of a terrorist group. They think Papa is connected. Uncle says when they find out that he’s innocent, they will let him go.”
“Innocent?,” Markla said. “ That husband of mine is innocent just like a saint. Daiyud is a prince of a man and everyone knows it.”
“ Now look who’s talking loud,” Uncle Aker said. “ Mikel may be listening.”
“ Please, Deba,” Mama requested. “Take care of him. He doesn’t know about these things. Nobody should have to know what’s happening to this country. Bombings and war and poisoned letters and jail for just looking like those kind of people. Take him away, take Mikel, please. I have too much to think about. Uncle Sheved’s coming suddenly and Papa arrested. Oh, my God Daiyud doesn’t even have his pills, his heart medicine. I must go see him.”
Aunt Debraik returned to the living room where Mikel lay on the carpet looking at the photo albums. His little fingers turned the pages; he was so absorbed that it didn’t appear that he had heard a word of the adult talk. He pointed to a picture of a squat little man with a long twirled mustach
and asked his Aunt if that was him and when she asked who he had meant, the little one said, ‘Him, my uncle, you know Uncle Sheved’.
“ Yes, that’s him,” she said. “You’ve never saw him. You have his eyes. He is the darkest skin in the family. They say he got his temper from your Grandpa. When he got angry! I’ve heard stories. Here’s a picture of him riding a donkey, there in the old country. He loved that mule. Once he getting so angry and said the family had less sense then that mule. To make his point he brought that mule into the house to live. They should listen to the beast and learn something from another ass. Your Uncle Sheved! This is a cousin. She died from laughter they said. She was very sick and one night at the old house Grandma made a fish soup and it made everyone belch and belch more. This cousin couldn’t stop laughing until she fell off the chair and just stopped breathing. Her sister Esrima was a beauty. She washed her face with goat’s milk mixed with olive oil. She had nice skin. Two men almost killed themselves fighting over her. In the end she married a Kurd from the south so we could never speak to her again.”
The talk in the kitchen grew louder and more intense. The bell rang and Uncle Sheved entered the house for the first time in twenty years. Mikel remained unconcerned, glued to the photos. Aunt Debraik was nervous and found retreat in attending to Mikel. Words from the kitchen spun through the loom of old family interweave, strands of quarrel and conciliation wove their familiar measure in the enmeshed emotions. Mikel’s mother was crying while Uncle Aker shouted at Uncle Sheved and Daniel tried to comfort his mother through the harshness of it all. Suddenly all were quiet when Uncle Sheved raised his voice outshouting the others.
“ I am not here to argue,” he said. “We are in a crisis, aren’t we? A family crisis, a national crisis, the whole world is a crisis. Daiyud will be O.K. soon. It will take time to clear this up. I will go to the jail first thing tomorrow. The lawyer says only one family member is aloud. I am speaking about his case to this lawyer, so I must be the one to go. Anyway I am the oldest brother. Don’t worry, Markla, he will be fine. I’ll bring the medicine. We are a strong people, don’t forget. A proud and ancient race. We have been victims of more genocides than all the Jews and Armenians and everyone put together. More martyrs than all the Muslim tribes. We survive. America needs us. Why would they want to hurt our little Daiyud.”
“ You are still the bigshot, Sheved,” Uncle Aker said. “Always the one in charge.”
“ Uncle,” Daniel pleaded. “Tell the police that Papa is a loyal American. Not a communist. Not a terrorist. Tell them, Uncle. Papa volunteered to fight the Nazis, but his bad heart. They didn’t take him.”
“ That’s enough, Daniel,” his mother said. “ This is business for the adults. If you want be useful then take your little brother outside. He doesn’t have to hear this. Take him out to play. Go now, please.”
On their walk outside Mikel and his older brother were bundled up with fur-lined jackets and boots, gloves and scarves. Snow was everywhere. Daniel found it difficult to think of playing at such a critical time. The problems the world was steeped in now could not be ignored. Any game with Mikel would seem a careless distraction. No, his heart was too heavy and his mind too preoccupied for that innocence. His little brother grabbed Daniel’s hand and playfully pulled him into the park across from their uncle’s house. Daniel followed in gloom into the snow-laden sunlight.
“ Come on, Danny,” Mikel said. “ Let’s play. Don’t you love this snow. Why doesn’t California have any? Please, let’s play in the snow, please.”.
“ O.K., but I’m not in a playful mood. It’s not a good time for games.”
“ Yes, it is. It’s a very good time to play. We can play ‘the sky is falling’. Look up into the sky, Danny. Way up, Danny. See.”
“ What, Mikel. It’s not funny. It’s true that the sky is falling. Everything is falling apart.”
“ That’s just the earth that you’re talking about, Danny. The sky is bigger, much more. See the snow falling. That’s the sky and that’s where we come from. Papa and Mama and you and me. Look way up.”
Daniel turned his head upwards and gazed at the mist of snow. Flakes were falling in the bright sunlight, softly and steadily floating and turning and pausing. Mikel stretched his arms towards the vast whiteness above, his hands soundlessly meeting the snow that covered everything around him. The little child began laughing joyously. He couldn’t stop laughing.
“ Mikel, you’re too young to understand. Mama’s right. You’re a child. Do you know about Papa? Do you know that there’s a war going on?
Never mind. Don’t give up your childhood. Hold on to your imagination. God only knows mine is gone. I have no childhood. It’s gone forever. It crashed and exploded on September 11. Do you even know what I’m talking about, Mikel. Nothing will ever be the same for me again. I may have to go over there to fight and die in Afghanistan. What happened to my childhood?”
“ Don’t be silly. Americans don’t die in battle. America saves the world and it doesn’t hurt people like Papa. It’s all a mistake, Danny. We’re the strongest and kindest and the best country there ever was. Don’t you know? Mama and Uncle Aker are scared because they remember bad things from the old country. They weren’t free there. Here, everyone is free and equal. If you die for the U.S., you die for freedom. Isn’t that true Danny? Papa will go free tomorrow just like that man said.”
“ That man, Mikel, is your uncle. Uncle Sheved. He’s Papa’s older brother and Uncle Aker and Aunt Debraik are younger. He’s the oldest.”
“ I don’t remember him,” Mikel added.
“ That’s because you never saw him before. I met him for the first time on this trip. Papa talked about him. He wanted him to visit us in California but there had been fighting in the family. Uncle Sheved promised to never see a Hariri again. Mama whispered his address to me and said that I could go find him. She was worried about Papa and said the family should be together at this time, now that we were all gathered in Baltimore. I was nervous but I’m sure glad I went to him. That’s where the phone call came about Papa.”
“ Families fight just like countries,” Mikel said quizzically. “Isn’t that strange? Look Danny, the snow has stopped. I want more. I love the snow falling. Let’s build a snow man so we can later knock it down. We can destroy it like it was the enemy, Ossama bin Ladin .”
“ No, it’s time to go inside. It’s time to be with the family. Come on, Mikel. Mama’s making a big dinner. Maybe Uncle has spoken to Papa.”
Just inside the house was a room that was called the vestibule where gloves, snow boots, jackets and scarves were removed and allowed to dry. Voices filled the living room; the rumble of T.V. news bombings exploded in the distance. Uncle Sheved was pacing the carpeted floor and talking.
“ They say they don’t know where he is. The lawyer says that he’s been moved to another facility. So now I called the F.B.I. office and they say Daiyud is at immigration.”
“ For God’s sake, he’s not an immigrant,” Uncle Aker yelled. “He’s been a citizen for forty years.”
“Don’t you think I know that,” Sheved screamed back at his brother. “I went the same day before the same judge. Swearing with the Bible in my hand and the flag in my eyes. I was so proud. And Daiyud too. A citizen of this ‘great land’. The two of us crying away with such love and gratitude.”
“The point is he’s not there,” Markla said nervously trying to hold back her tears. “He’s not at the downtown jail. Lord Jesus, my husband is locked up and we don’t even know where to look to find him.”
“ And F.B.I. say he’s gone from there,” Debraik puzzled. “And immigration. What do they say?”
“Nothing!,” Sheved shouted irritably. “the immigration office is closed after five.”
“ Tomorrow is Saturday,” Markla said shuttering. “ You mean he will be locked up for the weekend. We can’t see him. The poor thing all alone. Nobody to see him!”
“ See him?,” Uncle Aker raised his voice. “They move him around like a prisoner or a slave or I don’t know what. See him? We don’t even know where he is being kept. What crime do they accuse him? No. Do they bring charges? No. Suspect. Only suspect. Is that democracy?”
“Democracy?” Sheved thundered. “it is a time of crisis. National crisis. Detainment on suspicion. No due process. No rights. Emergency rules. Did our people have rights when they sacked our houses, burned our churches? At a time like this there’s no desire for justice. Remember what the Turks did to us. The Persians and others.”
“Sheved,” Aker said sardonically. “So now you’re talking not only as a lawyer but as a historian too. Always teaching, always knowing everything. Just like always. Listen to him. After twenty years we don’t see him and he’s still the authority on everything. Look ladies, Sheved’s home!”
“That was the old country,” Debaik said. “This is Baltimore, America. Year 2001. You can’t arrest and torture a man for having an Iraqi sounding name. He’s a good Christian, a community leader.”
“ Deba, Deba,” Acker said. “Who said anything about torture?”
It snowed lightly through the weekend. Cars and footsteps moved soundlessly on the street, as if the action of living went on secretly behind a pale curtain of uncertainty. In the falling quiet there seemed no sky or earth, only a screen of snow lifting into the wind, frosting the window glass, chilling the rooms of Uncle Aker’s house, deadening the outside world of the hushed city. At all hours it was necessary to keep the heaters on. Fear and expectant attention hovered around the telephone. Mikel lost track of the days: Friday was no different from Saturday and on Easter Sunday after dinner when Daniel was to take Mikel to the movies, an important phone call came from the lawyer. Uncle Sheved took the call.
“Uncle,” Daniel cried out. “How’s Papa? Was that the lawyer?”
“ Daniel,” his mother hushed him. “Don’t mix in with the adults. Let us hear what Papa’s lawyer said.”
“ It’s not good news, Markla,” Sheved prepared her. “The lawyer can no longer work on the case. The interrogation, that’s what they call it, is being ‘transferred’ to another ‘division’.”
“ For God’s sake, speak English,” Akers insisted.
“It’s their language. Not mine. Now they suspect Daiyud of some kind of financing of terrorism. ‘Money laundering’. So he again has been moved somewhere else. I must go in tomorrow to meet with a Mr. Dernewitz.”
“ Ah, a Jew,” Aker blurted out. “ So. So. So what now?
“ What now? I don’t know. He says that there is a second man they brought in to custody’ This could be the one they’re looking for. I hope, I pray because if this other one, this Muslim man, that’s good that he’s Muslim, is the one they suspect more than Daiyud then our brother will be a free man. This is hopeful.”
“Oh Sheved.” Markla said breathlessly. “Can I go with you to see him, I mean Daiyud tomorrow?”
“ No, Markla,” Sheved said with his usual authority. “That’s impossible.”
“And why is that? Can you say who can go and who cannot?,” Aker hollered. “Are you the High Priest of the law. Do you have your personal Code of Hammurabi?”
“ Because they can’t find him. They’ve lost his file. They moved him from here to there and now they don’t know where the poor man was sent. Which detention center? They can’t identify him is what this Jew lawyer said. It is like they’re saying they cannot find the man unless he converts to their image of a terrorist. You understand? In the old, old days when we were dominated by Muslims, way back to Timurlane long ago, they said that if we did not convert we were to wear crosses weighing over five pounds around our necks to show that we were with Christ and that we were the resisters.”
“ This is no time for a history lesson, Sheved,” Aker remarked.
“ Stop fighting,” Markla shouted, her eyes aflame. “ This is a time to be together as a family. A time to pray for my husband. Be kind to each other. That’s what he would want from you. Kindness, prayers. Aker, this crisis has brought our Sheved back among us. Please, no more insults. Both of you.”
“ Let’s pray,” Aker said. “Let’s pray my brother comes back in one piece. The law is changed. They can stop our liberties. My brother has no rights.”
“ Our brother. Say ‘our brother’. You are correct. The U.S. of yesterday does not exist,” Sheved began explaining. “They vote, you know the Senate voted and passed an antiterrorism bill. You know that? 98 to one. Like in the Civil War and No.2 War. I read all the time about these things. They call it ‘expansion’. They call it ‘expansion of surveillance’. Soon they will vote the right to torture. I’m telling you torture will have court approval any day now.”
“For once I agree with my educated brother,” Aker said. “Nothing to stop them from using threats and pressure and maybe some truth serum. A ‘detainee’ that’s what he is. In the hands of interrogators. The law will choose to look the other way. Israel has been doing it for years. Just threaten to turn a suspect over to Israel and that person will talk very fast , you bet.”
“ Please, stop talking this way,” Daniel cried out. “I’m getting scared. They couldn’t hurt Papa. There’s such a thing as human rights abuse groups.
Anyway Papa’s innocent. They couldn’t force anything from a man like Papa. He is innocent.”
“ Now you have the boy scared,” Markla complained. “I hope the little one doesn’t hear these things. Look at him with those family albums.
God bless him. Let him grow up safe without shame or fear.”
“Tomorrow,” Sheved advised the others. “when the Jew lawyer calls, let me answer. I will do the talking. They could be recording what is said. Wire tapping and all this business. We must be very careful these days. Very!”
Continuing the prayers for the youngest of the generation, Aunt Debraik added: “May he not have to hide from who he is, this sweet one with his father’s sweetness in his blood. Never should he bow his head or hide from his roots in this America. Not like we the elders always apologizing to strangers for our foreign ways. And ridiculed.”
“ And why? Why do we apologise?,” Akers offered. “To fit into somebody’s lie. Why should our Mikel suffer like us. He doesn’t speak funny with the accent. He is almost white like the others born here. He won’t be harassed and ridiculed. He doesn’t have the map of Iraq all over his face.”
“Soon they will bomb Iraq too,” Sheved stated. “We can never see our homeland again. Remember only I talk on the phone.”
“ Never say ‘never’,” Markla reproved. “ Daniel and Mikel will see the beauty of where we came from. Now, please, let us take our prayers to bed. And leave this lamp on for Daiyud. Maybe he comes back in the night a free man. Daniel, Mikel, come on. It’s time to go to bed.”
Mikel rose up from the Persian carpet and followed his mother and Aunt Debraik and his two uncles as they mounted the staircase to the guestroom where they arranged blankets and pillows as they prepared for sleep. Uncle Sheved grumbled as Aker brought in a mattress from the closet for his reluctant brother. It was like in the old country, Markla Hariri commented with a warm note of sentimentality. Debraik added that it was like the old days when they slept, all of them, in that little room in Mama and Papa’s house. Laughingly Aker observed that there was something missing and that was Sheved’s beloved mule. The family, all of them , laughed together.
Awaking Monday morning Mikel felt a sudden upward surge in the mood in the house. After days of fear and distress the family’s emotions appeared to be resting or waiting. A curtain of calm was momentarily woven over all thought. It was in a trancelike state that Uncle Sheved answered the phone call from the new lawyer with the news that Daiyud was being ‘processed’ for release and that a family representative should meet with him to fill out the necessary papers.
“ So that’s it?,” Uncle Aker said. “He’s free. A man spends over a week in jail with who knows what kind of criminals, moved from one interrogation to another and no one can see him and suddenly he’s free to go. No explaining and no apology. Nothing. A man of good respect kept from his family. A man without his medicine or the company of family and children. No apology.”
“Be quiet, Aker. Doesn’t matter,” Markla said with tears of joy. “Nothing matters now that my Daiyud is coming back to us. Thank God!
Papa’s a free man, children. Boys, I want you should go to that bakery Uncle Aker showed you and buy a dozen of those pastries with prunes and a dozen of the cherry ones. Get dressed. Here’s money. Buy a dozen of anything looks good for Papa’s homecoming. We didn’t have a real Easter yesterday so we will celebrate today. Hurry, Sheved, hurry. Daiyud is waiting. Hurry! Sign the papers, whatever. Go get him out. Bring him here. Thank God.”
When Mikel and his brother opened the front door they fully expected to behold the imagined miracle of snowfall to reflect the great event of their father’s release. What they saw instead was pale sunlight on the roofs and dirt-tainted snow piled up at the edge of the sidewalk. Much of the snowmelt was now ice and slush. Small streams trickled into the furrows along the curbs and down into the drains at the street crossings. On their way to the bakery Mikel asked his brother if there would be pictures taken of Papa’s homecoming. Mikel was very excited. He expressed to Daniel his desire to begin his own family photo album. Would he be able to receive photos by mail in California taken by the Baltimore family? Daniel explained that there were problems with the mail these days. Poison had been turning up in letters and the country was on alert. He didn’t use the term ‘biochemical’. He didn’t want to trouble his little brother’s mind with terms like ‘weapons of mass destruction’ or ‘germ warfare’ that had filled him with apprehension. At last he would be able do discuss with father the things that he feared and all that was on his mind.
It was brighter in the house when the boys returned with the pastries. They left their snow clothing to drip in the vestibule and entered the living room where all awaited the return of Uncle Sheved with their freed father. Mama had just emerged from her bath wrapped in a dressing gown. She pulled out a stool from under the kitchen table and sat down in front of the hallway mirror and with a plastic brush began combing out her hair in long sweeping strokes. Mikel knew she was making herself pretty for Papa.
Uncle Aker was pacing back and forth on the kitchen linoleum. Under the lamp light that had been left on for Papa were the glossy pages of the photo album. The album was open to a halftone picture of a disaster scene, the San Francisco earthquake of ‘87’taken by Papa. Another of Papa standing on the far side of some rubble with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background. When Mikel asked Daniel who had taken the picture, his brother answered that it must have been a stranger. Mikel grabbed the photo album and called out for Aunt Debraik who came from the kitchen and taking Mikel’s hand sat him down on the carpet to look through the album.
It wasn’t until some time after Uncle Sheved’s return that his aunt who was so engaged in identifying the faces in the album began to realize that something was wrong. Sheved had come back alone. The adult voices grew louder and then shrill. Disturbing sounds were coming out of the kitchen. The words coming from his uncles were muffled and when Mama began screaming almost nothing spoken could clearly be understood.
“ Sheved ,” she screamed in a sound that was strange beyond the sound of a human voice.” No! No!” Then Uncle Aker hollered and cursed and Mama fell on the floor and more noise and shouting continued.
“It was his heart,” Uncle Sheved said shaking and stuttering. “The poor man’s heart gave out.”
Aunt Debraik rose up from the carpet and ran to the kitchen shrieking ‘Daiyud’ and ‘what happened?’. Daniel came staggering towards his little brother and folding his arms around Mikel, pulled him into the back room away from the kitchen.
In the kitchen stood Sheved, pale and weighed down, holding in his hand a shriveled document.
“It’s the release form for the body.” Sheved said, shaking with tears. “We must sign before he can be buried. A new ‘Detainee act’ releasing them of any responsibility. God, pity us. From cell to cell they moved him. In the dark. And then the interrogations. The pressure. The poor man’s heart could not take it.”
Aunt Debraik gasping to catch her breath reached out to Markla who was down on the kitchen floor pounding her fists against the cracking linoleum. “Daiyud, Papa, my baby,” she cried out into the vastness of the silent house. Uncle Aker bent down to help her to her feet. “Murderers, murderers,” he screamed again and again. “America, murderers, they always hated us.” Aker’s knees buckled and he fell hopelessly against the wall. He couldn’t believe the drops pouring out of his eyes. He hadn’t cried since a time in childhood in the old country. His older brother reached his arms towards him. Sheved was still shaking in the frenzy of disbelief.
“ Daniel, come!,” Uncle Sheved shouted hysterically. “Daniel, help us, help! Your father, poor Papa.”
A momentary lull came over the wailing in the kitchen. It was the kind of moment when the mind waits, as though for a revelation. Out from that brief force of calm and waiting came the voice of Mikel whose little heart was beating away against the impact of the horror and grief he could not yet absorb. He explained to his brother the history in the photos, struggling to keep the tears from falling.
“This is a picture of Mama and Papa at their wedding in the old country. And this man is Grandfather, Danny. He died when I was just born. There he is pushing Aunt Debraik on a swing under the fig tree. Are yoy listening, Danny? Papa’s parents had eleven children. Only six grew up. All of them wanted to come to America. Aunt Debraik was twenty when she came and Papa was eighteen…..”
THE DAWN FOR TYRANTS
by Richard Meyers
The village women were no longer free to loiter and bathe at the well. What had once been a social event, the gathering of unveiled women to chatter and sing and laugh while fetching water in the convivial privacy of an antique custom, was now outlawed by the new regime with its severe restrictions on old freedoms. For so many years the women would linger half the morning, standing in groups to gossip, washing themselves, scrubbing their pots, kneeling to slap bright colors of cloth on slabs of stone. Here their naked bodies were opened to the warm directness of the sun. Some bathed each other, singing as they lathered and poured cool well-water over soft brown shoulders and thighs. Others folded draperies and slipped their limbs into new brightly patterned garments. Some even permitted themselves the vanity of self decoration, applying makeup and eye shadow, languishing in attitudes of self-pleasing indolence.
The well had been the village women’s sanctuary. And while they were free to gather there in light-hearted abandon, it seemed as if the distant whine of gunfire, drone of aircraft, and all the noises of internal warfare leading up to the seizure of Kabul by an extremist militia, were simply sounds of persistent unrest forming a remote background for a social ritual that no one expected would ever be forbidden. Without the women’s laughter and play at the well, the spirit of the village would turn trifling and paltry. The muddy earth unspotted with the skins from fruits and the rocky path to their homes bare of flowers, the landscape would fall under a long, severe shadow. Notices began appearing suddenly in the villages, warnings that a new rule that would strip women of their visibility, voice and mobility must strictly be obeyed. The changes were cruel and unbearably abrupt. A deadline was set, only two weeks after Ramadan, that the policy would go into effect. After that time gatherings of women anywhere, most certainly at the well, would be subject to harsh and perhaps public punishment.
They were beautiful women who suddenly began to feel uncertain about themselves and so slowly practiced contracting that expansiveness of spirit. In fact, the meetings at the well grew tense, and the women began to quarrel. The confusion over what had caused the changes instantly divided the women along ethnic lines of loyalty. The Pashtuns blamed the Tajiks, each group accusing the other for the brutal gender restrictions that day by day seemed to be stripping women and girls of their basic human rights.
There was one among them one who had always been derided, scoffed for her awkwardness and mocked for her homeliness. She often lagged behind the others on the path. The scars on her face left from small pox offended the sight. She was Meera, scorned by those who called her “the ugly one” and when she pulled down to her waist the traditional long garment, her breasts were loose, flat, wrinkled flesh. Not only did she suffer the derision of the women, but she maintained a self-effacing, almost comic view of herself. She was a solitary person at the well and a figure of fun. She was proud, however, of one thing, her ability to read. So when she was asked to read aloud the recent imposed edicts from the new command, her voice became confident. She was aware but not really offended that she was being played with, when after each strict edict read, the women followed the decree with unanimously shouting in Farsi, “your fault, how cruel!” The game of the sardonic blaming of Meera for these dictates was not fully understood by her. However, she didn’t care so much; the attention paid her was so desired that it eclipsed the sting of what was now familiar disdain. So when she read that women were now banished from the work force, the women’s shouting appeared in her willful self-delusion as a shower of approbation. The pronouncements were adverse and incredible. The new regime was determined to thrust women of Afghanistan into a state of virtual house arrest. As Meera read further of the punishments that had already occurred for disobedience, the crowd of women hushed their shouting and the mood turned to one of fear and disbelief. A woman who had defied orders by running a home school for girls was killed in front of her family. Another woman was stoned to death for suspected adultery, and several accused of prostitution were publicly hung. The small crowd at the well was horrified at the stories. Two elderly women were brutally beaten at a nearby marketplace outside Kabul, one for wearing sandals that made a squeaking sound and the other because her ankle was showing from underneath her burqa.
A dark solemnity fell over the women. They were frightened and took refuge in one another. After all they were all Muslim women and part of a sisterhood. Being mere women, they couldn’t turn to any authority to help or protect them, no religious leader or mullah, no real courts of law, no primary role or equality in anything. They had only each other and in that defensive bonding, Meera was included. In their area under the rule of the Bhuleybhan, a fundamentalist Muslim group, they would all be victimized, following a strict code of behavior. All of them including foolish Meera would begin to close themselves in their homes of sun dried mud bricks with the windows painted black and tents made of goat hair. At all times they would be forced to wear the burqa completely shrouding the body, leaving only a small mesh-covered opening through which to see. None could leave their homes unless accompanied by a close male relative. For Meera this meant her husband.
She was the childless wife of Haimadi, a clumsy hulk of a man. He was not tall but wide. Set a-top that broad, muscular frame was a round bearded head, with drooping ears, which gave him an appearance of a lumbering bear. The expression of the face was always snarling, not so much a violent look as one of disgruntled tension and displeasure. He was often shaking with the intensity of those driven by inner agitation. His powerful mass could have intimidated others had he not been slow-witted and awkward. People sometimes said, “ He might be a man to fear whenever he finds the brain lost somewhere in that big body.”
His marriage to Meera, like everything else about him, was a clumsy business. He had been tricked into believing that this unfortunate looking woman from the South was the daughter of a wealthy opium grower. After the ceremony it was revealed that it had all been set up to deceive him into marrying an ugly and unwanted daughter. Her father was a ruthless man, an officer in the mujahideen who fled to Pakistan after the Soviet’s withdrawal. Haimadi blamed it on Meera whose defense was that she had been forbidden ever to speak out about it. If it had been punishment she feared, her husband did not spare her. He used his whip on her, grunting savagely as the lash cut deep into her flesh, his tongue thrust out between his teeth measuring the weight of the fierce blow.
Haimadi was an absolute master with the whip. Before the Russian invasion and the civil war later, he had been a tamer of horses used in the northern plains game called buzkashi. He handled horses with an agility that was both enthralling and terrifying. He handled wild horses that had been captured on the plains and turned over to him while still screaming and bucking, due to take their first taste of harness, and he would struggle for hours under an unrelenting sun with the sweat running off him, his eyes red with a depraved and solemn pleasure. Give him a bunch of stubborn and untamed horses and he would deftly wield his ten-foot lash circling in whirling patterns over their flanks; he loved feeding his pride on his skill like an inspired task master whose whip could whine and crackle and be heard across the long valley, all day and into the moonlit night, never allowing the sharp metal tipped lash to touch so much as a hair of their hides. These beasts which succumbed to his mastery were his beauties, the chastened select that were to run in the royal games in which dozens of horsemen try to grab a headless calf and carry it across a goal. Participants in the game came from all parts of the country, and many sought out Haimadi whose reputation for the best horses, well-tamed and unharmed by whiplash, had spread throughout the valleys and mountain regions. Rumors had traveled from Kandahar up to Mazar-e-Sharif that the horse tamer’s unique skill was inherited by Mongol ancestors dating perhaps as far back as Marco Polo. When examined, Haimadi’s horses might have appeared weary, driven to staggering point, but there was never a mark on them.
“That big tamer is far better with his horses than he is with people.”
This phrase summarized the attitude those who knew him had about him. His awkwardness with people was renowned in his village outside Kabul. In particular was well-known his mistreatment of his wife based on his embarrassment over her hideousness. No others but the women at the well had ever seen Meera unveiled, but word had gotten out that she was a repulsive sight. It was concluded that this must be the reason for his cruelty towards her. Stories were told of how he was childless because he could never bear being close enough to her for breeding. Once at a drunken gathering he was teased by an offer of considerable money if he would unveil to the male guests his wife so all could finally see what all the talk had been about. He refused and turned into a raging madman tearing his own house apart and landing some guests in the hospital with bruised bones and ribs.
The situation grew worse in the time after the Soviets retreat when rival factions fought and Haimadi lost his position as horse tamer. The country was so unstable that the interim governments outlawed all gatherings for entertainment including the ancient game of buzkashi. The clumsy man who could neither read nor write fell on hard times. He was too lumbering for manual work, too unsubtle to be any good at hunting. All he had known were horses and the whip. Unskilled and jobless, he had to rely on Meera for money. She taught the children in her village to read, charging their parents a meager sum. She went house to house to gather laundry to be done at the well. Her husband hated being dependent on his unattractive wife and suspected that he was the brunt of gossip and jokes from the women. He knew only too well how Meera had been the object of their ridicule. Once the baker’s wife was cajoled into presenting Meera with some “cherry cakes for the husband” tied up in a scarf. When she opened the gift in front of her husband, the scarf contained a bunch of goat turds. Once the pranksters knew she was easy to fool, the women all tried their trickery on her. More and more the man and wife became the focus of derision.
For Haimadi things were unbearable, and he went to seek the advice of a mullah. The advice given him was: “Take out your whip! Walk the streets of Kabul, show your skill in public until either the government or the muhajideen rebels buy your service.” And that’s what he did until one day he was brought before a Council of Ministers of the Bhuleyban, the conservative Islamic group that now had taken control of most of the country. So it was for this Bhuleyban that Hamaidi begged to work and swore devotion and loyalty. “We will use your whip in public to demand obedience. You will brandish it for Allah’s sake against the resistance of the infidels.” This was the faction turned rulers that the women now feared. It was the Bhuleyban that in less than a week would begin enforcing their harsh will on the women. And it was Meera’s husband, the foolish brute Haimadi who would come as their messenger to the well to ensure the execution of the new rules.
The day the military man named Nasar din Lahl appeared at the well with his servant Hamaidi the women were relaxing after carrying to their homes cisterns of water balanced on head-rings woven of grass and mud. Aware of the brevity of time until the deadline, they abandoned their worry for perhaps their last immersion in frolic and had run about splashing one another wildly. Their laughter halted at the sight of the two men, and recognizing Meerea’s husband, several women could not desist from snickering. Nasar din Lahl, hearing their impudent sounds, warned the women of the harshness to come and that wet clothing exposing the shape of the body beneath would not be tolerated.
Reporting to the Bhuleyban headquarters what had taken place at the well, Minister Iqbal insisted that Nasar be stricter with “these insolent women.” Let them taste the sting of the lash, Iqbal ordered, telling Haimadi not to spare them pain, not at all. The minister was fond of proverbs and so said to the two men: “ Where there is discipline you’ll find social order. A pet lamb makes a cross ram, you know.” When Nasar explained that in one week women would be free only to learn the lesson of obedience, Iqbal agreed saying, “ Blessing in action. Women are made from God’s inferior cloth. As you know, poor iron won’t make a sharp sword.” The minister turned to Haimadi and in a mocking tone of rebuke said, “I have heard whisperings about you. My soldiers laugh at you, calling you a fool. Yet I have chosen you to serve and should you fail, you will spend the long days of your life as a fool. Not a single mosque will have you. But serve me well and I will reward you. That whip of yours today will become a gun tomorrow. And the others will cease to mock and instead will fear you, and your hand of obedience will become a martyr’s hand that picks the ripe grapes of paradise. You are not a fool and those who shame you because of the stories of your unsightly wife--yes, I have heard them speak of her--will be punished with envy when you come to lie in the Garden hereafter with the comely virgins and endless nymphs. Serve me well and you will marry again, this time to a beauty in Paradise.”
It was a gray morning at the well and the air was like smoke. The women came on the day before Ramadan, the last day permitted for women to gather and be seen unaccompanied. A long way off Meera saw the figure with a red turban coming near and she said quietly to herself, “It’s him. It is Haimadi.” And a slow surge of color burned up over her face; all at once she felt fierce and shameful embarrassment for the meanness, the grousing , ungainly nature of her husband. It seemed cruelly ironic now that she had become accepted by the women to have to be associated in their minds with this ogre. She knew nothing of their husbands, but they laughed at hers. And now that he had been so proudly appointed as monitor to police them, they despised him. There was a curious sense of accountability in her; what was it? An apprehension, of a need to apologize and to caution them. She alerted them of his nearness. The women scattered into the bushes to put on their burqas.
When the husband arrived, Nasar was with him. Haimadi strutted around, leaning authoritatively into the waiting crowd with an unsure gesture of the hand that held the whip. A thrust of his arm sent a sharp snap of the long, thin wooden whip sizzling into the air. Brazenly he struck a pose, holding the position he had proudly disciplined himself into at the Bhuleyban Headquarters, head hunched a bit, hands restless and curled for action. But now he stood uncertain, pinned by the blur of faces looking out at him from behind meshed coverings. His red turban appeared lopsided and his pajamas ballooned out sloppily in the wind. When Nasar spoke to him, he responded with a stuttering, “Yes-s-s, sir. Azz you wish.” At this awkwardness one woman snickered. A chord of hysteria was struck and they began to laugh. Meera joined them cackling.
“ But what have I said? Why are you laughing at me? Why ?”
Meera felt suddenly high spirited, lifted with a pleasant sense of diversion at the unexpected twist in the women’s reaction. For a brief moment a memory of frivolity stirred among the tense, uncertain crowd. Nasar ordered them to be quiet. A silence spread among the women, alert. A woman the others knew for her boldness, cautiously spoke, “Tomorrow is Ramadan, and we are given until the day after to gather here. Let us enjoy our last moments here peacefully, please.” The brave woman was level with the two men, passing them, walking on beyond them. Meera saw her husband’s red eyes and sensed imminent danger. She had seen often his knotted nerves uncoil in violence. She could smell the strong odor of old sweat burning at his nostrils. Haimadi stammered with anger at this woman’s effrontery, and yelling, he walked after her and raised his ten-foot lash circling above her back. Meera felt a wave of terror sweep over her. This poor woman, one of her sisters, was about to taste her husband’s cruelty. She felt guilty and was quick to act, running and wedging herself between the two. She tried to scream and the horror of dreams came true and nothing could come out. In a foolish fury she reached crazily for his whip. The other women ran off. Meera could hear him draw a deep, hoarse breath and he grabbed out at her. Now she fought with him and she trembled with strength as they struggled. The smell of him choked her. Her teeth chattered and sweat poured from her face under the heat of her covering. Wildly she battered him with her head, broke away, but he snatched at the flowing edge of her burqa and jerked her back. Her face swung up and she saw the waves of a gray sky and firmly in his grip, her eyes leveled and she saw the shapes of the women scattering away towards the village. Then Haimadi used his rope to tie her up. She felt the sharp tightening of the rope around her shoulders as he secured the knots in the expert way he had applied to his wild horses once they were ready for harness. He stood dead still in front of her and she stood dead still. Meera was so plunged into grave humiliation that all desire to speak or think went out of her as a room sinks into darkness after the failure of power, and she found herself whimpering like an animal or an idiot. Submission had her by the arms, the waist, the throat; it wasn’t the fear of her husband but the fear that accompanies severe shame.
It was absolute shame that covered her as she was hauled through the streets to the Headquarters. It was disgrace she felt when she was turned over to the soldiers who marched her in front of the eyes of the public at the football stadium. The massive arena had a small number of spectators as it was no longer a place for games but had come to be used by the new regime for military exercise and the occasional demonstration of punishment. Meera was taken off to the side where she was tied to a post near the tables set up for various officials. Her heart thumped loudly and stiffly. If the earth had opened up in fire at her feet, if the wild beast in stories of hell had opened its terrible mouth to receive her, she could not have been reduced to less than she was now.
They were different feelings, however almost as bewildering, that Hamaidi experienced when he arrived at the headquarters now set up inside the walls of the stadium. When he entered the makeshift room, Nasar was telling the Magistrate of the encounter at the well. The magistrate looked up smiling at Hamaidi and said, “You are wise to have listened to my advice. I instruct, you listen! Very good, my man of the whip. You look confused. That will change. When man is perplexed, God is beneficent. But you are not a thinker. You will soon have a gun and the Archangel Gabriel will talk to you through your weapon. There is no need for your thinking. Obedience, that is the only valuable thought. Be merciful only to the obedient!” The Minister of the Council was entertained by Haimadi’s presence, and he laughed and twirled his long beard and then yawned saying amusedly, “ Is that wife of yours proud of you now? No matter, heaven is full of divorce courts. Nasar, take this man and his whip into the arena. Let this falcon feel his feathers.”
Haimadi was proud as he walked along with Nasar down the hall. Some soldiers stood around, some who were in the habit of mocking Haimadi, and made random and acerbic remarks in loud taunting voices. One who had known him when he was a horse tamer poked him as he passed by and said, “A donkey from Afghazi says he wants to fuck your wife.” And another snickered, adding, “ But only if you agree to raise the child as your beloved half-ass.” Haimadi walked on, straining to contain his anger. He gripped his whip so firmly that his hand grew numb. Nasar advised self control and cautioned him. Haimadi, confused and goaded, asked, “Why is it me they insult? What did I say, what did I do? This disrespect and all the laughter, is it Allah’s will?”
“ Ignore them, my friend. They are the fools, not you. Something more important has come to my attention. Some of the women from the well came to Headquarters claiming and swearing that the woman you captured, well, they say it’s your wife. You have brought your own wife to this field of punishment. You must tell the Minister before the worst thing happens.”
“What? Do you think I’m a fool not to know my own wife?” Haimadi raised his voice protesting. “Are you like the others who are always trying to trick me?”
“Don’t be snappy with me! I’m your officer. I am just telling you what these women are saying. If you want to do something to help her, then that is what you and only you can do. I’ve told no one else.”
The two men emerged into the stadium that was cast over by dark ominous clouds. Rain was expected so that if there were to be any public punishments that day, they would have to be enacted soon before any possible downpour. Nasar explained that Haimadi should just watch and not participate unless it was suggested by an officer. The men walked to the table set up as the department for Registry and Complaint. The men at the table were old and bearded and busy discussing certain points laid out in the Koran. Behind them stood young boys with machine guns in their hands. The dust was swirling in the arena, circling wildly, especially when the trucks rolled past carrying exuberant men shooting their rifles in the air. The atmosphere combined the tenseness of officialdom with the aggressive revelry of arrogant and feeble victory. The officer fumbled through his papers when Nasar inquired about the list of the day’s executions. They were basically disinterested but said that the punishments would increase after Ramadan. Today’s demonstrations would have to be rushed before the rains came. And about this woman Nasar asked about, she wasn’t condemned yet, but the fact that she had been tied to the arena pole means it must be a very serious crime. “Out here in the arena, anyone is free to do what they want with this woman.” A man behind the table added speaking to Haimadi , “You have the whip. Time to test it on this infidel flesh. Soon you will anyway, why not today?”
Haimadi, still burning from the insults, turned towards the woman tied to the post. Nasar tried to restrain him shouting, “For God’s sake, don’t. Be merciful, that woman is your wife. Let her be.”
After Nasar had shouted his plea, a flurry of attention stirred among those who had heard. Haimadi slowly approached the captive woman, paced back and forth in front of her, bent close sniffing near the net of her burqa. Protest and despair tingled through Meera’s veins as though she had swallowed a fiery drink. She threshed about within herself for an escape, but there was no way out of this prison walled by her veiling garments and guarded by the tyranny of the times. He raised his whip and thrashed her violently. A crowd had gathered behind him and the banter began, those familiar voices of derision: “ Unveil this woman and show us your famous hag.” Haimadi could not bear the ridicule and answered with the fury of more fierce blows.
“You cannot trick me,” Haimadi shouted. “ I am not your fool. The Minister knows who I am.”
A voice from the crowd shouted back, “ Take off her burqa. Save her, show us the ugly one, show us your shame.” Haimadi had no control left and turned his violence towards the crowd. Nasar moved hesitantly towards him, fearing the foolish man’s rage might turn on him. Nasar sunk to his knees prostrate before the lumbering madman begging him to unveil her to see the truth. Nasar had bent down in a position that allowed Haimadi to reach out and grab the pistol out of its holster. He dropped his whip and brandished the gun in his hand. He waved it haughtily before the crowd. Fevered with this sudden authority that the gun gave him, he turned the weapon against the woman’s head. His face was next to hers; they were never closer. Even from under the covering, her eyes pierced his with anguish, and she summoned her frail voice to beg him, “It’s me, Meera. It’s me. For Allah’s sake, I’m your wife.” Haimadi saw in his ravaged mind a caravan of images that carried before him the weight of a lifetime of shame and disappointment. He looked up to the pitiless sky and unflinchingly pulled the trigger putting a bullet through his wife’s head.
KHAO SAN ROAD
By RICHARD MEYERS
Even through the murky haze along the Chao Prayer River the gold spires of the Buddhist temples glistened in the distance. The air was heavy, but towards evening the January breeze blew a coolness like a benediction through the chedis of Wat Pho Temple and into the congested streets of Bangkok. Roland Mathews carried in his shoulder-bag the new photos, the ones of Burma and Malaysia, as he leapt from the ferry onto the pier at the Belanphu landing. He was excited, anticipating the admiration the other travelers might express at seeing these latest additions to his photograph collection. Precious cargo! It would be satisfying to place them in a new album. So when he arrived at his little cupboard of a room at the Sawadhee Hotel, he would take them out and place them in sequence of the time they were taken, matching them to their proper locations. Mandalay and then Rangoon and then back to Kuala Lumpur. He loved placing them on the sticky white pages, then folding the thin crinkling cellophane carefully over them. "Oh, what beauties these are," he said after locking the door and sitting on the bed half the size of the room to enjoy the memory the photos represented. But this one, he thought, belongs with the Padang temples, and you go over here, and you are too blurred to be included. And you, rascal, are either from the Irawaddy Wildlife Sanctuary in Burma or the one in Southern Malaysia. Little brat! This rogue photo. He really did feel this way about them. They were his companions, and like children sometimes they misbehaved and did not know their place. This one could use some kind of tape, he thought. Perhaps someone down the hall in one of these rooms would have some. When he opened the door, he heard the wild voices of foreigners, young Europeans, busy at partying. The sound of blaring music throbbing with that incessant rap beat echoed through the halls. Never mind, he’d think about that later. He shut the door and re-entered the tiny room. He turned off his ceiling fan. The sounds from the other rooms grew louder. Somewhere he could hear the muffled moans--no, not moans, really--but sighs and panting of a couple breathing hard, building passion, making love. He turned the fan back on again. Roland Matthews, a seasoned traveler, was no longer a young man.
The shops, restaurants, travel agencies were crowded as usual along Khao San Road, a long street of continual throbbing business, the backpackers’ mecca of hotels and shops and discos. The drinking and partying never seemed to pause on this garrulous and wild street. The boisterous and frenzied atmosphere really had no season; the stream of tourists and budget travelers thronged the streets all year, and every nationality came to mingle, drink, dance and carry on before the next leg of their travel. The area also served as the center for cheap travel agents competing for the cheapest land and air tickets, their prices displayed on boards with photos of destinations and affordable lodgings.
It was at Charlie’s Charters and Cheap Excursions that Roland overheard the young girl inquiring about bus travel to Cambodia and Vietnam. Roland prided himself on having all the best and current information. He listened as the young dark-eyed and curly-haired woman whose passport read Israeli was being offered outdated and inadequate specifics by the agent. Roland decided to intervene and came to the young woman's rescue. "Listen, you can get a visa at Sien Riep airport upon arrival. Not necessary in advance, but Viet Nam's another story. It's ninety dollars, U.S. dollars, for one month. Seventy from the Embassy here in Bangkok and another ten if you want these agents to rush it through. Two photos are required. But I should warn you that it's Tet New Years in Viet Nam, and the hotels are packed and the rails impossible. In fact, you can't sleep on the trains out of Ho Chi Minh City, and you can't count on reservations. The best thing to do..."
The dark young woman interrupted and responded saying, "Could we get a juice or something so I could talk with you more quietly? I want to talk with you.”
The two of them left Charlie's and walked across the teeming street to Kumar's Tandoori Restaurant. Roland asked her if she would like to order Indian food and that he could recommend several items from the menu. She declined saying that she was very thirsty. Roland suggested a cool mango lassi, and when it arrived, she sipped slowly. He felt confident offering travel suggestions, calling upon his considerable knowledge of detailed information. "My God," she said, impressed, "they don't even tell you about these choices in the Lonely Planet Guidebook."
"Everyone trusts the Lonely Planet as if it were the Bible, but you know....what is your name, Devorah? a beautiful name. The Lonely Planet gets its commission from hotels and restaurants. It's all, you know, worked out...you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours." Roland pointed to his maps, flapping his arms, gesticulating with excitement as Devorah patiently listened, drinking in his words with their wealth of suggestions. And it wasn't long before she began pouring over his photo albums he had brought along on his walk down Khao San Road. Now he showed her his special photos from Cambodia, where she intended to travel. One page after another contained carefully positioned and curiously angled shots of Angkor Watt temples. She saw impressive towers and Hindu sculptures and embroidered walls and the columns of Phra Nan that seemed to be swallowed up by the coiling arms of banyan trees and jungles. “Very few people have seen these photos,” he confided in her.
"You've been everywhere," she remarked with admiration.
He replied imperiously, "Just about...you see this one... wait a minute, it's in this one,...that's me with the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala.”
"And what about this one?" she inquired.
"Oh that's my baby, that's a beauty... that's the princess of Sikhim. She's now dead. An American like me. She lived as the monarch's wife, helped him rule over the mountain kingdom. Her name was Hope."
The two of them sat together engaged in ardent and steady conversation until sunset when the birds descended on the awnings and tin roofs that fragilely sheltered the merchant stalls and endless shops. Many didn't close until very late, at which time the food vendors came out with their charcoaled meats, juices, pancakes, curries and assorted fruits. "Have you seen the roasted insects?" he asked her, certain that she'd be shocked and curious. "Insects,” he repeated, "it's true, really. Some Thais eat beetles, larvae, winged creatures, even cockroaches, some of them with their tiny legs tied up in thread as though they were a delicacy. There's sometimes a wagon stall of them at the end of this road."
Roland would happily show them to her tomorrow evening. Devorah had an appointment now but promised to rejoin him the next evening at this time and at the same place. "It's been incredible talking to you," she said demurely. As she turned her imposing face, high cheek-bones and alive skin, he noticed for the first time her pleasant gold nose-stud. Her ears had an arch of sparkling studs and one arm was colorfully tattooed above the elbow.
As they parted, Roland pointed to the shopkeepers rolling up their awnings and attendants sweeping off the sidewalks. He hesitated saying it but at last couldn't resist, "Just like in Dylan's song," he blurted out. She stood mute. "You know, ‘Desolation Row,’" he said. She didn't comprehend. The two shook hands. “Until tomorrow.”
Roland remained seated at the restaurant. He enjoyed watching people. Over the years he had become quite skilled, an expert one might say, he thought, at tuning into people's conversation. There was an acquired way of listening as though one didn't listen, at sitting among other people's words and entering their lives while they never suspected that anyone at such a distance could eavesdrop.
That's what he was doing as he glanced sideways at the older German couple. They were typically complaining about the food. And the woman went on all the time about how she ought to take the stomach medicine; she knew that she shouldn't have listened to him and stopped the anti-bacterial pills; she knew she needed them, but he had insisted upon building a natural immunity, taking yogurt only when necessary. And he'd been so patient, he said, with her complaining. And for her fear of sunstroke he had suggested everything, even broad brimmed hats that covered the head completely. No, those kind of hats would never do. “They'll make me look so stupid!” Roland wished they had spoken German so he needn't listen. Unlike his new young friend Devorah, this woman was boring and had nothing of value to say.
Roland decided it was too early to return to the solitude of his room. He got up, paid the bill, and began walking into the stream of travelers; there was a constant turnover, all engaged in the frenzy of the brief ghostly passing show of Khao San Road. Two young girls in spare dress passed by, and he turned to glance as two men, beers in their hands, met them, and they laughed and paired and went off together arm-in-arm. The tables outside the most popular restaurants were straddled by loud groups, Europeans and Middle Easterners and Australians. Two Africans wearing their ancestral clothes sat alone, talking, staring out into the throng of passing bodies. On the opposite side of the street at the busy bars, video movies were projected on large screens around the clock. The constant beat of loud speakers pulsed out music that overwhelmed the movie sound. The most compelling action was simply the movement on the street, the kinetic diversity of travelers that stirred the watchers to gaze at each other from the tables on one side of the road towards people seated at the bars and restaurants on the opposite side of the road.
Oh, how fascinated the travelers were! How mesmerized they appeared, watching it all. It was like an endless play or masquerade, a raucous and feverish play that really had no plot. It was all just partying and watching others party. It wasn't difficult to imagine the movement on the road as so many actors in a debauched play with the sky behind painted as a prop of fabricated scenery. Some of the scenes he observed irritated him. After so many years inundated by hedonistic backpackers, the travel scene had become a stage and the waves of varied scene seekers were merely actors caught in some illusory performance. My God, he had been to Goa, India, as a kind of pioneer when only eighteen. Westerners had staked out their lives on virgin beaches in the then undiscovered scene. Roland thought he would tell Devora that fact tomorrow. “Most of us originals were not seeking escape and vain pleasure,” he said to himself. The quality of purposeful living at that time, he felt, was captured in his photos, especially the early ones of India and Nepal before the invasion of the aimless masses.
Roland rehearsed in his mind how he might guide Devorah away from the superficial, away from the platitudes of Thailand, the Land of Smiles. He would point her north. Perhaps the two might travel together. They'd go to Chiang Mai with its secret markets and life he knew so well. She probably wasn't interested in the Andaman Islands near those golden sands of Phuket, nor would she be trapped in those magical charms of the hill tribes of the North. Devorah could transcend, he thought, the rapturous cant and all of that fairy-tale kingdom hype.
The way back to his hotel curved through narrow streets of honking taxis and tuk-tuks. Mopeds raced brazenly in all directions. Two years ago it was possible to take the quiet route that led through the Buddhist compound, cutting out the loud traffic noise, leaving only the sounds of prayers and chanting from the temple halls, the echo of deep resonant sounds laced with the vibrating shimmer of bells and gongs. That route, however, was forbidden now due to the intrusion of increasing numbers of travelers. The nearer he approached the hotel, the more clearly unequal Roland felt to the sight of his airless, ugly sleeping chamber, the thin torn hallway of stained walls and the old tattered bathrooms. He wearied of the constant bustle of the young Thai girls managing the hotel, taking in the money and handing out the door keys and the lodgers who rented day after day. They were a myriad mixture of internationals engaged in the unrelenting clamor of idle talking. Yes, they appeared lively, engaged, he thought, although what they were engaged about he didn't know.
Ascending the stairs, he paused at the first landing to look down on the lobby of travelers, scampering from the bar to lounge chairs, drinking and playing. Sometimes a phrase went threading through Roland's mind; now it was the "the mackerel-crowded sea." And a moment later approaching the door to his room and hearing again the lascivious sounds of mounting passions somewhere down the hall, another phrase from Yeats surfaced from some subconscious lair, "That is no country for old men." Funny how that would happen! Sudden words were like bursts from his photo album images, leaping up before his mind's eye.
Inside his room, he flipped through a few albums, pondering which ones he would show Devorah the next day. Maybe it should be the series of photos of North Africa and the Bedouin tribes, or would the wildlife of Madagascar be better? One page of an album had torn cellophane and several loose photos. On closer look, the pictures, misplaced, were of his family vacationing in Mexico. Now how did they get in here, he wondered, looking at his ex-wife in a beach chair and his son, just two years old then, wearing a little red sombrero.
Well, he thought, he had done well by them. She had the house now and they managed to stay friends through the years. His son wrote to him a couple of times a year and seemed to enjoy married life and a decent paying job in North Carolina. No matter! Never mind! He had chosen his way of life abroad, and he made it clear that if they ever really wanted to, they could meet up somewhere. Funny, he repeated to himself, how did those photos get there? It was as though his photos had an elusive will, a mysterious life of their own.
The next morning he woke up feeling excited. From the balcony at the rear of the hotel, bright slats of sunlight slanting through fan-leaves of palms shed a fanciful light on his day's hopes. The morning air was not heavy but rather mild, promising a clear and cooler winter day; a sweep of soft clouds crumbled against an unusually blue sky, and across rooftops he could see the river and smoke swirling from tugboats’ stacks and the small waves the rudders of the long-tail boats made in the warm wind. Wise, he thought, very wise of her to come to Thailand in the cool winter months.
After writing an entry in his journal, Roland went to the nearest market, searching under the awning spread alley for his favorite fruits: Rambutan and leechie and starfruit. There were hours dangling before him that needed to be filled before meeting Devorah at the Indian restaurant. Running into the frenetic fanfare of Khao San Road, Roland felt impulsive. He decided to buy a shirt, an embroidered Nepali style silk garment he had been admiring. Impressed with his own decisiveness and the dignified look the new shirt gave him, he felt frivolous enough to indulge himself in receiving a full hour massage. The rich suffusion of a relaxation that the massage offered was the gift he gave himself on this day of gentle anticipation. There was plenty of time left, and when the hour came to an abrupt end, the smiling Thai girl asked him if he would like more time. She smiled persuasively. He said yes and another young Thai girl began working on his feet while the first continued rubbing his chest with oil and kneading his arms and neck in broad and languid strokes. Roland looked into the eyes of the young Thai girl hovering above him. She smiled. He could hear her breathing. The sound twirled up into the leisurely whirling cooling fans calmly; the massage parlor itself seemed to be resting. The younger girls working on his feet, rubbing and softly combing out tension, also smiled at him. He was saturated with repose. The afternoon breeze was like a faint breath, a soft shadowy moth of a sound; he dozed gently off in this silent world.
Roland awoke for a moment. A blur of afternoon light seared his eyeballs when he tried to unseal his lids. Outside the open-air parlor the many forms on Khao San Road continued passing by. A red scarf, like the one he thought Devorah had been wearing, caught his eye, and in the long sharpened streak of light that teased his eyelids open momentarily he saw the figure of a young woman briskly walking past. She seemed in a hurry, slightly agitated. No, that wasn't her, that wasn't his Devorah. His eyes closed again, and although he tugged at the leash of his stupor, sleep softly overcame him.
He awakened slowly, yawning and grumbling, alternated with brief relapses into sleep mixed with visions and clamor. His half-awake eyes swam around the room. The massage girls had left him for another client. Then he came awake with a sudden jolt, sitting up and staring at his watch. My God, it was late. The sun had sunk and leveled off. Roland's exaltation had also burned off. It was late and there wasn't enough time for him to return to his hotel to pick up any photo albums. "What happened?" he asked grumbling.
"Sleeping, sir,” the Thai women answered laughingly. “You snore loud...very loud.” Agitated, Roland stood up, put on his sandals, paid the older woman at the front desk, and set out walking on the Road. His heart began beating. He walked hurriedly through the crowds, craving only to sleep. No photos. He was so drowsy he could hardly guide his feet. His plan was upset. There was barely an ember of excitement left in him. He was tired as he walked on, getting near the restaurant, their place of rendezvous. His breathing was distressed. He gazed towards the area ahead where he expected to see her. Somewhat short of that distance he did actually spot a red scarf. He squinted his eyes, staring carefully. Yes, it was she, it was Devorah. She did have a red scarf after all. She was standing in the road near a food wagon. Devorah was not alone; there was a young man with her, tall with long blond hair. Roland approached stealthily the general area where the two of them, an agitated couple, were quarreling. Hiding from their view posed no problem on a street as crowded as Khao San Road. Roland positioned himself about twenty feet away, under an awning of a clothing shop. The two were angry. He prepared to listen.
"No, you won't," said the young woman, "not until you pay me back."
"You can wait, bitch," the young brazen man said, "you can wait, just like I waited for you half the day yesterday."
"You're angry at that? Why? Because I was talking to that harmless old man over there yesterday?" asked Devorah. "He was just trying to help me with information. For our trip to Cambodia."
"Help you?" the young man shouted. "Do you need that kind of help? I watched you. He was old enough to be your father. What the hell did he want from you?"
"Nothing." she replied.
"Well, you must have been with him for hours.”
"You didn't tell me you were going to wait for me," she defended herself.
"Piss off!" he said. He sounded English or Australian.
"Come on," she said, "get over it, let's go back to the hotel."
"I don't get it." he replied. "What could be so engaging, talking till dark with an old fellow like that..."
On his way back to the Sawadhee Hotel, Roland usually got a slice of pineapple from the fruit vendor. The bright colored fruit, pineapple, papaya and mango sat upon a mound of ice in the glass-encased wagon. He had bought from this particular vendor almost every day and around about this time. That's why Roland became so annoyed that the frail sleepy man had chosen, for some reason, obliviously of course, to sprinkle the pineapple with cayenne. It made a difference. In fact, it ruined it. Never mind! He let it pass and went quickly on, giving the pineapple slice to a beggar passing by.
Roland waited, it seemed for a long time, for his key from the busy young Thai girl attendant. He climbed the stairs, went into his dark stuffy room and sat down on the creaky bed. He sat there just staring at the wall. The photo album he had intended to show that day was on the bed. He opened the album cover impatiently, looked with restlessness at the pages. Before him were his photos, familiar scenes and faces and when he got stuck just staring blankly into the album, he thought for just a moment he heard something whispering, "Never mind. Move on. Turn the page.”