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EXPATRIATION By SAM WORLAND-ESQUITH A THESIS PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE SCHOOL OF THE UNIVERSITY OF FLOR IDA IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE DEGREE OF MASTER OF FINE ARTS UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA 2005
Copyright 2005 by Sam Worland-Esquith
Dedicated to Steve, Chris, and Sunny, who have always been there for me. And to the people of the Bafing. Ilu ni sege
iv ACKNOWLEDGMENTS I wish to thank Colonel Padgett Powell, who has tried to teach me to write good sentences and to watch the ball as soon as it leaves the pitchers hand. I would also like to thank the rest of the UF creative-writing faculty, especially Jill Ciment, David Leavitt, and Mary Robison. Thanks, too, to my fr iends and colleagues who have provided me with so much help and encouragement. And I owe everything to my family.
v TABLE OF CONTENTS Page ACKNOWLEDGMENTS.................................................................................................iv ABSTRACT....................................................................................................................... vi BORIS IS CALLING...........................................................................................................1 THE LIT BITCH................................................................................................................18 MY FATHER VERSUS WOODY ALLEN......................................................................41 THE MEANING OF MY DAUGHTER...........................................................................61 ACCIDENTS.....................................................................................................................6 3 VICE PRESIDENT IN CHAR GE OF SOLITUDE, EAST SIDE NIGHTCRAWLERS..65 HAND WASHING............................................................................................................67 EXPATRIATION..............................................................................................................91 ARBITRAGE...................................................................................................................116 BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH...........................................................................................136
vi Abstract of Thesis Presen ted to the Graduate School of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of Master of Fine Arts EXPATRIATION By Sam Worland-Esquith May 2005 Chair: Padgett Powell Major Department: English This thesis is comprised of nine short storie s. The first six are set in America. The last three are set in Mali, West Africa. The primary interests of the collection are identity, love, family, and the complexities of development, both global and personal. It tries to bring something new to our id eas about prison, phone sex, adoption, jogging, female genital mutilation, the world economy, an d volunteerism. It tries to have a sense of humor, too.
1 BORIS IS CALLING Encumbered with an easy chair, Boris cr abwalks across the threshold of his fiance Victorias apartment. His chin is pressed in to a cushion and he br eathes heavily through his nostrils. He has proposed to her and now hes moving in. Victoria stands against the wall. We ll go out on Fridays, she tells him. He sets the chair down between two couche s, careful not to let the feet drag. Sure, he says. Victoria has covered some of her furniture with old striped sheets. With his chair and two lamps, the room is alre ady overcrowded. Armrests, lampshades, and table corners are all uncomfo rtably close to touching. Victoria crosses her arms. To get away from your furniture, she jokes. But it comes out flat; she means it, at least a little. Boris maneuvers through the cl utter toward her. When he reaches her, he strokes her shoulder and can feel the tension caused by making room for his things in her space. She is short and slight, her body and face a se vere but pretty arrangement of angles. Makeup extends from the corners of her eyes and she wears her dark hair pulled back. He feels the muscles of her shoulder relax under his touch. This is the thing her body does that he likes best. Fridays will be just us, he says. She smiles with her lips closed. One crooked canine has pushed everything else out of line and Victoria is saving up for invisi ble braces. They will attach to the backs of her teeth and no one will know that theyre there.
2 I dont mean to be . Her voice trails o ff. They stand awkwardly and regard her lingering unease. Am I being brutal? she asks. No. Its just furniture, she says. He nods. Is that everything? No, he admits apologetically. Theres more. He proposed to her in a movi e-theater parking lot. Hed been refinishing antiques, but then his boss retired, so he was just starting a low-paying j ob with a refinishing company. Hed been dating Victoria for six months. She didnt make that much as a salon receptionist, but her place was large and had a dishwasher. Theyd just watched a matinee, a crime dr ama with a flurry of agony and death at the end. As they walked thr ough the dark he took her hand. Next time well see what I want to see, Victoria said. You didnt like it? It was fine. But well just remember its my turn. I heard you mumbling, all excited, Boris sa id. You liked it as much as I did. The part where the guys begging for his life ? Hes got dirt and blood on his face? But it was your choice. So Ill choose next time. They got to his car and he rel eased her hand as they diverged. We can choose together, he said across the roof. It doesnt work that way, Boris. Then nobody gets what they want.
3 But we just . He trailed off. She was stubborn. He turned the key in the lock and the doors clicked. She sunk out of sight and he stood under the bug-shrouded fluorescent light. He was in love with her and deeply disappointed that they didnt get along better. He walked around and knocked on her window and she rolled it halfway down. He put his hands on his knees. We sh ould live together, he said. She didnt smile. Only if were engaged. Sh e said this as if shed explained it to him before. For your mom? Her mother was twicedivorced and lived in a trailer that smelled of parakeets and cigarettes. No. Jeez. Because Im not going to live with somebody just for fun. Oh. Do I have to set a date? No. Just set a year. She was four y ears older than he. He was twenty-one. When I turn twenty-six. She looked through the windshield and rolled up the window with a series of jerks. He sighed and his breath bloomed on the glass. He tapped his key against the window while she ignored him. He tapped his name in Morse Code and then Victoria and then Hello. Rex, the old white-haired carpenter hed worked for, had taught him Morse Code on slow days at the workshop. Hed taught him to tie some knots, too, and how to recognize different kinds of wood by look and smell. Rex did the carving, Boris refinished the pieces that we re brought in. But when Rex retired and closed the workshop Boris couldnt afford the equipment and tools. The pace of his money-saving was glacial.
4 When I turn twenty-three, he said through the glass. She looked over and rolled the window dow n. She didnt smile and the light shone harshly on them, but she was looking right into his eyes and she held her gaze there. Then yes, she said. Boris comes and goes in the houses of st rangers with a floor sander, cans of varnish, sandpaper gloves, dust masks, knee pads The residents leave for the day and in their absence he makes their living quarters more livable. He sands down the floors or wainscoting or sills, then st ains and polishes them. The y ears of wear disappear. Boris pushes the sander around mindlessly. He misse s the smell of Rexs cigars in the little workshop, the old mans shock of white hair and his big sagging ears. He misses holding pieces of wood in his hands, transforming them. A dresser can be made new by a good refinisher, almost unrecognizable to its owner, but hes afraid to do that to someones home. He sands lightly and cons cientiously matches the old stain. He returns to their apartment and cant sh ake the carefulness. He sits silently waiting for Victoria to return, keeps to his own chair. Thei r possessions coexist haphazardly, spaced as best they could manage. He gets out some newspaper and his knife and works on some chess pieces he st arted at Rexs works hop. He doesnt start dinner until she arrives. Once she returns he laughs with her about the customers shes had to put up with, the exploits of her coworkers, the dumb things people say on the phone. Because of his atten tiveness she cant see how he is when hes alone.
5 As she wished, that Friday after he moves in Boris and Victoria go out to dinner. They go to a restaurant within walking dist ance of their apartment. There are traffic lights and old newspaper clippings on the walls and televisions bolted to the ceiling. The benches of their booth are uncomfor tably far from the table. Boris and Victoria hunch over their menus. They orde r and then she asks him about the new job. Its nice to be by myself, he says bla ndly. He knows hes inverting what he hates about the job because its all he has to say about it. He misses Rex. His tasks are as mindless as lawn mowing. Nobody around to bother me. No clients, no boss. My cowboy of the hardwood, she says, a nd they laugh. He touches her knuckles as she sips through her straw. I wish it was qui eter at work, she says. Its just people all the time, calling, showing up without an appointment. They talk about their jobs and about th e food. Boris is anxious to get home and make love. They get dessert to go, a m ound of chocolate cake and whipped cream, and he thinks they might microwave it and take it to bed with them, do something kinky. But back home she puts the cake in the fri dge and hes embarrassed to mention it. They get into bed and move toward each ot her under the sheets but the convergence of their bodies is tentative. Th ey are nervous about their new life together, the routine theyre attempting to establish. Did you have a good time tonight? she asks. She keeps her lips closed over her teeth. Yes. Do you like spending Friday evening with me?
6 The question is pouting and playful, asking if he will continue this routine shes devised, and hes happy to, but he cant shak e the feeling that a playful response, the right way for Victorias fianc to answer, is beyond him. Yes, he says, and slides closer so there is no space for words. They touch as if afraid to disturb some invisible bala nce of desire and compatibility. Boris thinks of a tuxedoed man he once saw perform a blindfolded platespinning trick, the plates constantly th reatening to wobble off center and crash. His body is eager to be done w ith the anxiety and he is immediately on the verge of climax; she is never within hailing distance. He finishes and they lie speechless for a few minutes. They take turns show ering. He holds the curtain as ide for her to exit and then steps in: they are as polite as strangers passing each othe r at the door of an elevator. For two months this is their sex life. They stop making love any other day of the week but continue their Friday routine. Th e unfulfilling sex seems a basic component of their cohabitation, like cooking together or a lternating who has to clean the bathroom. And then one Friday after returning home fr om dinner, as they get into bed, they hear a racket through the wall. Boris recognizes the voice. It is their neighbor Mel, a paunchy limo driver. They dont know each other well but always exchange greetings in the hallway. Oh baby, its so good! Mel hollers. Bam! Bam! Bam! Pow! Oh my god, Victoria whispers. She looks wide-eyed at Boris. Boris looks at the wall and scrunches his h eavy eyebrows together. He thinks at first that Mel is in th ere with someone. But then after a long pause Mel says, Its so big,
7 baby. Its so large and rigid, honey. Can you imagine it? Can you see it? He hums happily at her response. What shape are you ? he asks. You got some hips? Yeah, I prefer you like that, just like th at . I got you right here, in my room. No, right here, on my recliner. He positions her with her f ace between the cushions of the chair and then breaks into fantastical onomatopoeia Oom! he yells. Bwah! Disgusting, Victoria says in an accusing tone. She shakes her head. Im taking a shower. Boris lies in bed and Mel fi nishes in a few minutes with a squeal and a thump that could be a chair falling over. He sighs w ith contentment and then Boris hears him pad out of the room. Boris feels a masculine kins hip with Mel and his pr imal noises. Mel has proved the animalism of maleness. It occurs to Boris that this ex cuses his providing his fiance so little pleasure. At the same time, he is proud to have a real woman with him. I am not as lonely as that guy, he thinks. Bu t as he dozes off without his normal, minimal Friday satisfaction, he wonders if he really is better off than Mel, with his shameless desire and its vociferous fulfillment. Mels phone sex continues to interrupt their Fr iday routine. They begin to eat more copiously at the restaurant. They sit and order several desse rts, coffee, liquor. The bills are beyond their means, and they start going to a buffet. They linger for hours nibbling fried shrimp and drinking soda. They gain we ight. Boris likes to see that Victoria is biggerher breasts and hips are rounder, a dainty bulge has developed below her navelbut he feels repulsed by the droop of his own body. Theyve stopped having sex altogether.
8 Finally, one night while they sit in bed and listen to what sounds like Mel hopping up and down and yelling, Bump! Bump! Bu mp! Victoria tells Boris she has had enough. I cant deal with this, she says. Her ey es are wet. She smoothes his nightshirt, the most tender touch shes extended in weeks. You have to go talk to him. Boris nods. She is not overstating. He a nd his unnecessary furniture will end up in a cheap studio on the other side of town. Ill go over there tomorrow, he promises. God Jesus Christ Mary God, Mel says, ch asing Victoria from her own bedroom. Yes yes yes yes! The next evening while Victoria microwav es dinner Boris goes down the hall. Hes spent the day thinking of how to word his request. His demand. He will use the term buddy, either collegially or menacingly. He recites it one more time, decides to scrap it, and knocks on Mels door. Mel answers wearing a suit, his hair wet and uncombed, sticking out over his ears. He ushers Boris in with a smile. Getting ready for work, Mel says. You want a root beer? He retrieves two cans from the refrigerator while Boris l ooks around. Unframed posters hang over a flowered couch. The hardwood flooring co uld stand some buffing. Through a door he sees a bed with rumpled black sheets. Mel returns and they stand in the living room and drink their sodas. How do you like the place? Boris asks. Not bad. Been here a year now. Its nice. You like the building?
9 I like it. Good. Walls are kind of thin, though, Boris says He walks awkwardly across the room with his fist extended. It seems to take mi nutes. He raps on the wall and it thuds solidly under his knuckles. I guess, Mel says. Boris swigs from his root beer. You ever hear through the walls? he asks. Hear whats going on in the other units? Mel picks his chauffeurs cap off the table and places it on his head. Boris feels sweat on his upper lip. Hes afraid to return to his apartment unsuccessful. He finishes his root beer. Sometimes we can hear you, he says. I dont know what that means, Mel says. He rubs his belly. Got a pick-up at six-thirty downtown. Mel bides his time, straightening his hat a nd squeezing his soda can. Boris is becoming irritated. Oh, Mel finally says. The old glory hole. Mels candor is disarming. Boris has th e unpleasant sensation that hes being intrusive and fussy. You could turn on some music, maybe, he offers. Something light and pleasant, that late in the evening. What stations do you like? Mel puts the can on the table. Im kind of between girlfriends, he explains. Its probably some big black chick. You know that? Thats who it is, usually, they can do different voices. They prete nd to be whatever you want But hey, you know, Im down with it. Would that kind of thing bother you?
10 Bother me? The black thing? No. I mean, no. Whatever. Thats not Theres something kind of cool about be ing able to fool people like that, you know? That intrigues me. Peopl e find all kinds of ways, huh? Well, Boris says, thats all I needed to discuss. Just turn on the radio, okay? Okay, man, Mel says. I got it. We a ll got to live togeth er. I can be a good neighbor. My pleasure. He extends his right hand. Boris eyes it for a moment. The can, Mel says. Oh, right. Boris hands him the empty can of root beer and re treats to the woman and the home he has defended. On Monday a lawyer in a suit lets Boris in to his home and leaves. Boris lugs the floor sander upstairs and follows the mach ine around emptied rooms. The sanders vibrations pull him along as he thinks of Mels easy manner, his unembarrassed smile. Boris and Victoria are dishonest people, he r ealizes. Maybe most people are. They hide things. Even lying beside each other in bed, promised to each other. He imagines lifting their mattress and finding beneath it two separa te piles of paper sc rapson his side and on her side, unread notes detai ling the intimacies theyve never communicated. Piles that dont touch each other, that are neither read nor discarded, that are rumpled under the shifting of his and Victorias bodies. The edge of the sander clunks against the baseboard and Boris switches it off. He checks his watch. Hes already been here for hours. The floors look fine, they dont need the work. Boris de cides to take a break.
11 While urinating Boris looks around the ba throom. A cordless phone rests on the counter. He considers the consequences and some seven-letter word combinations: h-o-tl-o-v-e, w-e-t-l-o-v-e, b-i-tc-h-e-s. He flushes and doublechecks the lock. He dials onenine-seven-six-s-e-x-t-a-l-k. Her voice is deeper than he expected, lik e an old-fashioned movie star, slow and sexy and casual, and he imagines her raising her eyebrows elegantly. She speaks to him so politely that he offers his real name. Boris, she intones carefully. How interesting. Where are you from? Chicago. Are you married, Boris? No. Engaged. Lucky for you, she says. That must be nice. Me, Im all alone. What should I call you? he asks. You should call me Clarissa. Okay, Clarissa. Boris, she says, do you like hot tubs? They are in bathing suits sipping wine a nd running hands over each others bodies. She asks about his job and they talk about being lonely. Then shes sliding closer to him in the tub. He marvels that she is nothi ng that she says she is. Hes filled with admiration for her craftsmanship. Youre so good, he says. He is taken, too, with the sound of explicit words, over the phone and in this strangers bathroom, in his own voice. You like the beach? Clarissa asks. Sure.
12 You been to the beach? Ive been to Panama City. Whats it like? She leads him along; they climb out of the tub and are suddenly on a deserted beach. Anything is possible, nothing is fixed, and something inside him opens up. Outside a car honks and he looks out the window at the midday sunlight, a man in glasses driving a car, a sprinkler. She moans his name and compliments him and he says that hes coming, though hes just leaning agai nst the bathroom counter half-erect inside his coveralls. He sighs and thanks her. I hope you have a good day, Clarissa, he says. You have a good day, too, Boris. Call back soon. He doesnt call Clarissa back, but each day that week Boris finds a phone in the houses where he works. He finds new numb ers, new voiceswomen willing to pretend to be lonely, all of them sultry and eager and open. One sounds so sugary he thinks it might be a man in falsetto. Some are better than others, some can keep him on the line for an hour. He takes Eve out for a fancy di nner and they sneak into the mens room and climb onto the counter. He meets Delilah in a hotel lobby and they order room service from his canopy bed. Whose fantasies are thes e? Not his. They are public fantasies, Boris thinks, available wherever two lives c onnect, as long as it is over great apparent distances. The women always pause to ask about the m undane details of his life. It excites him to tell them true things about himself insi de someone elses house, to admit that hes
13 getting fat, that hes lost hi s taste for sex with Victoria, th at he wants to blindfold them and tie their wrists to the bedposts. Theyre more than understanding. They make every effort to convince him that theyre turned on by these things. That theyre stimulated by the thrill of disclosure. They purr at each successive degree of openness. They bend over backwards for him; he is always exci ting and always right to be excited. Boris stops hiding in his clie nts bathrooms and wanders the kitchens, living rooms, bedrooms, closets. He avoids the sterile space s that have been cleared of furniture for his work. He touches these peoples things the clothes and curtains and food and photographs theyve filled their lives withthere is no end to them. He and the women tour these homes. They ask questions of each other, explore each others stories of jobs, families, body parts, desires. These st range dim rooms abound with discoveries. On Friday Boris and Victoria return ove rstuffed from the buffet. Music jangles through the bedroom the wall. Victoria sits on the edge of their bed and presses an ear to the plaster. I think I can hear him, she says. Yeah, I can still hear him in there. But even when he stands beside her Bori s hears nothing but the music. Victoria sits like that for ten full minutes, groaning and switching ears when her shoulder grows stiff. Eventually Boris gets up and shower s and changes. He lies down and Victorias still at the foot of the bed, the light still on. He closes his eyes saddened by the feeling that he has left her behind somewhere. Th ere are ten thousand thi ngs he would do for her that she will never ask for. Again he imagin es the scraps of pape r under the mattress, the two flattened piles like shadow s of their bodies. Old rece ipts and grocery lists and
14 envelopes impulsively scrawled with the thi ngs they long for and then hide. He can almost hear the paper crinkling as on the su rface of their bed he tries to make himself comfortable. But he looks up once more a nd Victoria still has her ear to the wall. The next week is the same. At work Bo ris feels light, reliev ed. He talks and listens. He dreads going home. He earns so me overtime pay. When the work is done he sits in the company van a nd sands his chess pieces. On Friday he works in the suburban ho me of a flower arranger named Agnes Butler. Mrs. Butler blinks repeatedly as she enumerates Boriss tasks, already covered in detail by the work order in his back pocket. She grips her tiny purse as if poised to leave and tells him, We need the floors flawless. The sashes too. We were told it has a substantial impact on the resale value of the property. She seems to want his input on this, but Boris just nods as she blinks at him. The work has ceased to matter to him. Hes a discoverer now, like Magellan, De Sot o. Amerigo Vespucci. Hes given himself tonot a higher task, but a deeper one, he thinks. His job digs. It delves. Finally, she leaves to go shopping. Soon Boris is on the phone in an upstairs bedroom fingering a balled pair of socks left on a rocking chair. Juliet is taking off her lacy underwear without removing her skirt. Boris hears a click on the line but Juliet continues. I feel so much better, she says. That thong was just getting in way. Boris says nothing, as if silence might get him out of this. What do you want to put in me? Juliet asks. Where do you want to put it?
15 He doesnt answer. But after a few sec onds he feels guilty for leaving Juliet hanging like that. He makes a muted noise that sounds like I dont know. What do you want to fill me up with? Juliet asks. That does it. Mrs. Butler gives a little yelp into the phone. The nerve! she squeals. This filth on my own telephone! Young man! You said you were eighteen, Juliet says in a stern Southern accent. Thats a legally binding verbal agreement. Some whore and her whoretalk! Mrs. Butler huffs. No need to call names, replies Julie t. You dont know me. Nobody getting hurt here. Nothing unnatural. Boris hangs up. He gets his tools together and pulls his cap low over his eyes and goes downstairs. Mrs. Butler stands in the doorway of her kitchen with her arms crossed, unblinking. She frowns as if holding back tears. Pologize, Boris says without stopping. He goes out and gets into the van. He dr ives out of the subdivision and down the suburban strip. His chess pieces roll around on the seat beside him. In front of a locksmiths shop he stops and goes to a pay phone He considers calling his boss to make up a story and quit but figures Mrs. Butler has beaten him to it. For a minute he stands gripping the receiver. He has onl y a handful of change. There is no one else to call. He calls Victorias salon. She answers in a voice so assured and smoot h that hes uncertain that its her. A lovely and professional voice. This is how she spends her days. He pictures her, how she
16 sometimes cups the phone with both hands as if nuzzling a kitten, her lips slightly parted as she listens. Hi, he says. Boris? How are you? You never call me during the day, sh e says. Where are you working? But hes not working anywhere. Hes not locked up in any of those houses. He can make his home wherever he likes. On the phone with her, at this distance, they might reinvent themselves however they see fit. They might live anywhere. They might tell each other any stories they wish. He hears a sound that might be a chair scraping across the floor. Is everything okay? she asks. Everythings fine, he says. I just wanted to hear your voice. The way she says Oh, he can hear that shes smiling. Shes forgotten to hide her crooked teeth. He didnt know he could hear her smile. He doesnt want to be on the phone with her. He wants to see her. Can you get off? he asks. Now? Yes. And come home. She pauses. He can hear her glancing ar ound. He can hear her considering things. In the space of silence somethi ng inside him lurches desperately. Yes, she whispers.
17 Hes the only person in the world who can h ear this word. Its never been spoken quite like this, never quite meant this much. Its never been so good.
18 THE LIT BITCH When Norman was put in the cell at Jack son State Penitentiary, the guard, Officer Barnhill, told him, Thats Seor Chavez. A small Latino man with a mustache was sitting on the bottom bunk sealing an envelope. That was it for introductions. The door shut behind Norman. Seor Chavez placed the envelope on his be d. He stood and stepped forward. Somehow, he now had a plunger in his hand. Wow, Norman said. Seor Chavez jabbed the handle into Norman s gut. Norman was forty-one years old, thin and out of shape. His flimsy abdomin al muscles failed to protect his organs and the end of the plunger drove a shock of pain deep into him. He fell into a self-protective position. The balloon of fear that had taken shape during his senten cing the day before, and which Norman had carried inside him fr om the county jail to the penitentiary, swelled and hardened. But he didnt panic. Hed been beaten up before. In high school Jerry Bennaway would pound on him after lunch. The plunger was much lighter than Jerrys porcine fists, though more skillfully applied. Seor Chavez continued to whack Norman with the plunger handlein his ribs, against his temple, in the soft flesh of his ar mpits. Norman reached out to grab the leg of the bunk bed as if it might lend him some stab ility, received a blow to the wrist, and covered himself again. He sa w from the crook of his elbow that Seor Chavez had two
19 unlit santos and a tall pile of cheap stationery under his bed. The corner of his mouth was bleeding. Eventually, Seor Chavez sat back down a nd the plunger disappeared back to its hiding place. He addressed his lett er and put it under his pillow. Norman was doing five years for first-degr ee attempted murder. Hed beaten an eighteen-year-old driving-range attendant w ith a golf club. It was nothing like what Seor Chavez had done to him with the plunge r, though. It involved a lot of wasted energy, some unnecessary damage to the driver According to the authorities, Norman had followed his last ball out onto the driving range. His dr ives were dribbling twenty yards at a shot. Going on lithium had comp romised his coordination along with his ability to read and write. Maybe it had also had an effect on his temper, or at least on his moral judgment. The boy caught up to him as Norman was marveling at the size of the yellow two-hundred-yard marker, as big as a car door. Norman swung around and the boy went down in a heap on top of an anthill. The news had gotten around the Jackson Pen, and Norman now heard all sorts of golf-related taunts. Out in the yard some one yelled, You in the sand trap now, boy! Fore! they called to him in the cafeteria. In the shower a large man slapped his ass and said, Mind if I play through? He asked if Norman wanted to see his Big Bertha. But it was good-natured stuff. The clever oddity of it pleased Norman's literary mind. Hed published two novels successfully, th e last one (narrated by a teenager with Kleinfelters syndrome) to mu ted acclaim, and once his ex-wife Gretchen had bailed him out after the arrest and his head had cleared he'd decided he had hit a gold mine. He
20 wanted to renegotiate the contr act with his publisher. Even after hed told Gretchen that her remarriage was the reason hed had to sw itch medications in the first place, she agreed to call his publisher. His editor sa id they were intrigued by what he might produce in prison. He didnt feel sorry for the boy hed knoc ked around. The kid had just received a good hard shake at the hand of bad luck. His name was Manny Green and he lived with his mother in Brighton and surely hed le arned a lot more from the experience than Norman had. Norman had only proved himself to be a violent felon and a badly behaved ex-husband. Hed always been unlikable and hard on others. But he could write better than all but a handful of pe ople in the world; he found words where others found only vague and inexpressible ideas. If the world wanted him to interpret this human life, they would have to put up with him, as they alwa ys had. They were lucky he was in prison. His confinement would open fresh knotholes onto worldly experience. Hed yet to write anything down, but his insights were sticking firmly in his head: Every activity and every topic of discussion they indulg ed inweightlifting, eating, rape, guilt and innocence, criminal strategythey tried to infuse with defiant, robust life. But this world was too well devised; even their rear-corri dor whispers had been foreseen. Prison was timeless; everything had been said, every pl an attempted, and they kept talking only because in the silence they could hear their own psychic deadness. Aside from the uric smell of his mattress, Normans only real problem during his first weeks at Jackson was with Seor Chavez. At least once a day Norman got the plunger. He had a small corridor of permitte d space between his upper bunk and the door and one between his bunk and the toilet. If he strayed from those paths, he got the
21 plunger. If he tried to leave first when the door opened, he got the plunger. If he lingered too long at the toilet or took too long climbi ng up into his bunk, he got the plunger. He hated shitting in front of some one else; after a week he c ouldnt help himself and he fouled the cell with such a stench that Se or Chavez laid into him extra hard. When Norman woke up he was being prodded with the toe of Officer Barnhills boot and told to line up for dinner. Seor Chavez spoke only at night. He ha d a high, cigarette-scratched voice and as they lay awake he spoke up at Norman in a menacing whisper. For no reason that Norman knew, Seor Chavez called him Mr. Joe. He told Norman about crime, punishment, imprisonment, and weakness. You inside now, Mr. Joe, Seor Chavez told him. You going to pay. You inside, and what you owe going to get collecte d, one way or another. Things you done been noted, Mr. Joe. Jesus knows you and you getting your punishment. Norman sighed and rolled over. It aint getting fucked with the toilet stick, Mr. Joe. It aint no number of years. Its inside that number. It s the things you do inside that you wouldnt do on the outside. Your values you aint got no more. Your mistakes going to change you, whatever you did. What you love you going to lose. Thats your punishment, Mr. Joe. Your failure going to touch you. You going to get fucked with your own weakness. Seor Chavez whistled. One long, swelli ng note filled the cell, filled the cellblock. And then, with the gentle touch of tongue to teeth, Seor Chavez snuffed the sound out.
22 Norman had been at Jackson for ten da ys when Freddy Kerr approached him. Norman was eating lunch by himself, at an empty end of a table nearest the cooks. He was picking the bits of meat out of his f ood and eating those first in case he didnt get to finish. Im like a dog, he thought. This is how a dog eats, picking out the meat just in case. Norman knew Freddy Kerr by the fearfully de ferential looks he elicited from the rest of the inmate population. Hed also overh eard that Freddy was the head of the Aryan Brotherhood at Jackson. When Freddy sat down across from him, Norman wondered if he looked at that moment as Jewish as he s uddenly felt. He pulled his tray off the table and put it on the bench beside so it would be harder for Freddy Kerr to get to, harder to use as a weapon. Freddy grunted and told him to put his tr ay back on the table. Youre okay, man, he said. Nobodys disturbing your shit. Freddy wasnt particularly large, but he was muscular. He wo re wire-rim glasses and his bald head was crowned with a large black swastika tattoo. The right side of his neck said FATE and the left side said FIRE. More conspicuously, he wore a leather vest under his open prison shirt. It seemed that he was the only prisoner permitted to wear non-regulation clothing. Norman le ft his tray where it was. Like Norman Mailer, Freddy said. What? Like Norman Mailer. Norman Hirsch, Norman Mailer. Youre both writers. Yes, I suppose so. He didnt know how Freddy knew that about him. And both golfers.
23 Really? Norman asked. Freddys voice had a pleasant, easy-going tone, and his eyes were expressive and gave a likeable impression to his whole face. He had charm, something none of Normans weary, pensive characters had ever possessed. Charm was clich and didnt lend itself to conflict. But Freddy smiled and looked a person in the eye. Norman put his tray back on the table. Im joking, man. Norman Mailers dead. Geez. Freddy slapped his palm against the table and laughed. Oh. Norman had served on a panel on creative nonfiction at Columbia with Norman Mailer three months before but he wa snt going to contradict Freddy Kerr. He began to eat. He didnt want any problems with the white supremacists. So, what are you working on? Freddy asked him. Working on? Freddy leaned in close. Projects, man. Works in project and stuff. Works in progress? Norman was trying to look at Freddy and eat at the same time, and some runny corn dripped down his chin. Freddy leaned back and crossed his arms. No, he said. Dont pay attention to me. You need to concentrate. You need your space. He stood up and put a hand on the table. Get some fresh ai r this afternoon, he said. As the inmates were herded back to their cells, Officer Barnhill stopped Norman and led him out to the yard. Norman thought for a moment he was being led to his execution, but there was no one out there. Barn hill gave him a cigarette, lit it, and left him without explanation. Th ere was a slight breeze and Norman found a spot against the
24 wall that got a little sun. He didnt know what he was doing out there, but it was beautiful to be out by himself. He sat and smoked. He hadnt smoked a cigarette in twenty years. He could have been an unde rgrad between classes, relaxing in the quad, except for the guard tower. Gretchen had left a tiny black glove made of stretchy fabric in his suitcase when she left. Norman carried it pinned inside hi s coveralls. He pulled it out now and slipped his left hand into it. It didnt smell li ke her, but it was ti ght and warm and he remembered her wearing that pair one Oc tober when theyd wandered through a brown field of Halloween pumpkins a nd hay bales. He dozed off. When Barnhill took him back to his cell, it was empty. Seor Chavez and his santos and stationery were gone. Normans sheet and pillow had been moved to the bottom bunk. In the center of the room the plunger stood upright. The top half of the handle was absent, the end splintered. Quic kly, touching it as br iefly as possible, Norman set it beside his toilet. He rinsed his hand in the sink. He prevented himself from thinking about Seor Chavez and his removal. He laid Gretchens glove on his bed a nd smoothed it. He touched hi s fingers to all three walls and to the bars. He sat on his bed and crossed his legs at the knees. He crossed his arms. He possessed some kind of capital in Jack son. He was not to be fucked with. Freddy Kerr and Norman had dinner together. Two large men sat on either side of Freddy. Norman sat across from them. The table was otherwise empty. They ate for a few minutes in silence. You like the new accommodations? Freddy asked.
25 I appreciate that, Norman said. My former roommate and I were at variance. At variance. Yeah. I like that. Freddy smiled and ate a spoonful of chicken pot pie. Want to write my autobiography? Norman took a drink of water and eyed Freddy over the rim of his cup. Since hed made it through his first night at Jacks on hed felt well controlled. Not calm, but like he had a bead on things. He didnt complain to himself, he didnt think about how long hed be in prison, he didnt let himself regret. Now, though, he could suddenly feel the enclosure of the prison around him, the ti ny world separated from the real world by a four-hundred-yard radius of cleared land. Youll get credit, Freddy sa id. With Norman Hirsch, as told to Norman Hirsch, however you want to do it. Norman put his cup down. He nodded absent ly. Freddy was more than just this odd, affable character. He was a hateful ch aracter, too, though it wa s obscured. There was a degree of hate in himand culpability for the way the world as it now existed that Norman struggled even to imagine. He wasnt revolted, though. It was a blurred and fascinating spectacle, like the light you saw from the bottom of a pool It was the same fascination that Freddy seemed to have with him. I wouldnt ask you if I didn t like your stuff, Freddy sa id. They just got your second book in. I havent read that one, but I read the first one and its good. You didnt find it pedantic? Norman asked. No way, man. Youre a smart guy. I like where the guy sleeps with his niece. To be honest, Ive become less than fond of that book, Norman said. I detest that book.
26 Freddy leaned his head back and laughed. He took his glasses off and wiped them with his leather vest and ke pt laughing to himself. T hats funny, man. Ill see you tomorrow morning in the library. He put hi s glasses back on. Hed stopped laughing. The big man to Freddys right reached a hand over and picked up Normans tray and held it up to him. Norman stood, took it, and walked away. The library was a small room with a do zen metal bookcases and two tables. No one else was there. Again they sat opposite each other. Freddy slid a notebook and pen across the ta ble. Sorry I couldnt get a tape recorder, he said. One of those little ones the journalists use. My girl kind of misunderstood and bought a walkman. Whats one to do, you know? Philosophically speaking. Thats okay, Norman said. He hadnt sl ept well. He didnt feel consciously nervous about working with Freddy, but his bod y was functioning strangely; hed lost his appetite, he was tired, hed stayed up seei ng faces in the stains on the underside of the vacant mattress above him. He didnt want to write what someone else told him to write. I may be getting sick, he murmured. So, Freddy said, where do you want to start? Norman wiped his forehead and coughed to in dicate his illness. He let his eyelids droop. Do you remember your mother? he asked. Maybe we should start with the first time I did time, Freddy offered. The guys I was riding with were knocki ng over this commune out in the woods up near Alpena. They were supposed to have a lockbox where the head guy was keeping his followers
27 belongings . You should be writing this down, man . So we busted in there and tore shit up. I was pretty headstrong in those days, I was about fifteen. So I was way in there, pushing those hippies around and looking for th e safe. But one of the hippies, man, he was infiltrating this group, he was a cop, and so he called it in and me and a couple guys got nailed. That was real disappointing to me, you know, my friends skipping out on me. But I was underage and so they put me in a home. Norman jotted some notes: Age 15. Robbed commune. By his account, betrayed by those he trusted. Arrested. Freddy watched him. Thats it? he as ked. Youre not going to write more than that? Ill just put down the gist, Norman explained. I can expand on it later. Freddy nodded and rubbed his chin. Good, ma n. I like that. The literature is your side of it. Ill just give you the facts. Exactly. Why dont you give me some more background? Well, I can tell you about the juvenile hall. The crazy pervert motherfuckers they had in there, man. This one kid, he was only about twelve, they had to strap his arms to the bed at night so he wouldnt rub himself raw. What about your family? Yeah, that shits not that interesting. We can skip over that pretty quick, I think. Norman was unsure of his privileges He rais ed his eyebrows as if to ask if he was allowed to press Freddy. With his eyes Norman tried to communicate that the book
28 depended on developing Freddy in a well-r ounded manner. A man with a history. Criminality couldnt exist in a vacuum. The readers sympathy was everything. Not interesting, Freddy said. Norman met with his lawyer that after noon. Lester had been Normans literary agent and friend, then his divorce lawyer, then had defended him against the state on the attempted murder count. Lester grasped Normans arm and looked into his eyes. How are you? Not so bad. I found some freelance work. Uh huh. What happened to your beard? Di d they make you cut off? Did they cut it off you? I shaved it. It made me look old and feeble. Oh. Lester released him and they sat down on opposite sides of the metal table. I think its working, Le ster said. You look younger. Any news on the appeal? Nothing yet. Oh. They sat staring at each other for a moment. You didnt even bring a briefcase? I didnt have any paperwor k for you. Lester shrugged. Youre not very good at this, are you? Look, you wanted me to represent you, Lest er said. I told you, I hadnt been involved in a criminal case in thirty years.
29 Well, I was in a peculiar place when I was choosing my counsel. Lester offered Norman half a pi ece of gum. They sat chewing. Im writing a biography, Norman said. Really? They have a good library? Well, its more like Im ghostwriting an autobiography. Have you heard of Freddy Kerr? I think so. The judge mentioned him when he was delivering your sentence, trying to scare you. The neo-Nazi? Yeah, thats him. I dont remember th e judge saying anything. I suppose I was in something of a trance . In any case, Im working with him. I wont tell your mother. Thanks. Do you need me to work up a contract? Lester asked. He took a pen from his breast pocket. Its kind of an informal deal. In-kind benefits. I could still write something up. Thats all right. We probab ly dont want a paper trail. Right. Lester looked at his lap disappointedly. Hey, Norman said, have you talked to Probation? Oh, yeah. Lester brightened. Ive b een over there a couple times. You could be out even sooner than we thought. They sa id to keep your head down, whatever that means, and you could be out in fifteen months. Nice work.
30 Thanks. Have you heard from Gretchen? Not lately. You think shes doing okay? I dont know, Norman. Really? Or are you just saying that? I mean, Im sure shes doing fine. Yeah. Norman crossed his arms. Gret chen had long ago decided that he took her for granted. He wasnt taking her for gran ted now. He wanted to sit on the edge of their bed and watch her try on dresses in front of a full-le ngth mirror. He wanted to watch her walk down some stairs with her hair cut short. He wanted to slip her earrings out as she held her head very still and closed her eyes. Im sure shes fine, he said. Freddy and Norman met every morning. Norman became accustomed to it. He no longer felt sick. He didnt ha ve to deal with Seor Chavez. He was getting plenty of sleep. No one bothered him in the shower or in the yard. Considering the conditions, he had a good start on the book. Theyd begin the interviews with some prison chatter. Freddy would complain about a guard or an uncooperative inmate who was disrupting the order of things, or hed tell a story about whod gotten shivved the day before or five years ago. He was always having women come visit him and he would describe the clothes theyd worn, their perfume and jewelry. Norman soaked up the me ticulous description of their bright tube tops, dangling earrings, and painted nails. Their fashion sense sounded garish and
31 unimaginative, but Norman missed that half of the human races contribution to the physical texture of the outside world. He mi ssed the sex, but almost as much he missed the pageantry. Freddy would tell more of his storyr obbing liquor stores, using stray dogs for target practice, gangbanging girls at backwoods bonfiresand Norman would, as he noted it all, realize that Freddy hadnt been a unique criminal. In prison Freddy was a big shot, but he hadnt done anything too spectacular on the outside. Have you been convicted of all these crimes youre telling me about? Norman finally asked him, after three weeks. Are you incriminating yourself? Ill deny it all, Freddy assured him. T hey cant prove shit. Ill say I made it up. Or Ill say you made it up to sell books. He looked at Norman and must have seen the disappointment in his face. No, hey, he said, thats not going to happen. Dont worry, Norman. Theyll never ask. Theyve got enough shit on me. He smiled encouragingly. Those Neanderthals dont read good stuff like yours anyway. Thanks, Freddy. Its true, man. Norman was touched. He wanted to reciprocate with a compliment or a confession. Freddy, he sa id, Im Jewish, you know. Jewish. Yeah, I know. Well, its not really in line with your political beliefs. Freddy rubbed his goatee and hummed in ag reement. Well, Alex Haley wrote Malcolm Xs autobiography. Alex Haley didn t agree with everythi ng Malcolm X said. No, Id guess not.
32 Malcolm X didnt include white folks lik e Alex Haley in his master plan. Freddy, Alex Haley is black. Really? Alex Haley? He wrote Roots . I didnt know that. Do you like his writing? A black guy named Alex? Really? Well, yes. Shit, Freddy said. Youd think hed go by Al. Well, anyways, dont worry about the Jewish thing. Does it bother you? My past history with th at sort of thing, I mean . You must have some assumptions about me, right? Norman shrugged. I just dont want anything to come between us, you know? I know. Norman looked at Freddy a nd Freddy smiled. It was the smile of someone who wanted to be liked. Norman sa w that and held onto the unexplored disgust and pity he had for Freddys hatred and politic al ignorance. He didn t fear that part of Freddy. That part of Freddy had become pr oof that Norman could do anything, that he was a survivor. When that was proved, then things would work out just right. Then he would have his way with the world. Hed write whatever he wanted to write. His prison opus. His own autobiography. A diamond salvaged from the slime. They held a reading of the first chapter in the exercise yard. Freddy had one of his boys, Big Jeff, stand on a weight bench and read Normans handwritten pages.
33 Freddy had made it clear that Norman shouldn t have to read his own stuffthat was work for some flunky with a low voice. Freddy and Norman stood on either side of him. Norman held his hands behind his back, an authoritative stance. All the white s attended. The other men stayed at the far end of the yard and didnt disturb them. There was no sitting allowed, so the inmates stood patiently while Big Jeff rumbled haltingly through forty-six pages. It took an hour and a half. No one complained. The gravel creaked with shif ting feet, but no one spoke. The narrative followed Freddy from the present back to his fi rst job and his first time inside. The prose was fluid and the metaphors punchy, but the narrat or felt a little distant. Norman was more nervous than if hed been up on the bench reading it himself. He tried not to roll his eyes at the mispronunciations. He clench ed and relaxed his hands behind his back. The applause was serious and honest. A few men called out Freddys name. They yelled Heil! and Ja Wohl! and Power! Freddy stuc k out his jaw and gave a hand signal that Norman didnt recognize. The men cheered again. They know, he told Norman. Bestseller stuff. He clapped him on the shoulder. Norman looked out into the crowd of me n and received a few respectful nods. For the second time in his life, he had become established It was as e xhilarating as the first, as seeing his first book reviewed in the Times Im a person here, he realized, a personage. Ive developed a prisonality He laughed at that. That was good. He would save it for the memoir he d write after Freddys book.
34 Lester brought his briefcase on his second visit. It was the week of the first reading and Norman was still flush with victory. The reading had given him perspective. Lite rary success, hed determined, was both diminished and deepened on the inside. He was dealing with the semiliterate, but this was more than a book. It was his reputationnot as a writer, but as a prisoner. Write or die in the communal shower with a towel tie d over his head. Without writing, he was vulnerable. With it, he was a big man. This wasnt the writers life as it existed on the outside; he couldnt, if he ran low on crea tive energy, just stop wr iting and disappear off to some small-college job. You look good, Lester sai d. You look better. I suppose Ive accustomed myself to it, Norman said. That was quick. Theres a system to life in here, Norman said. Just like anywhere. Its abnormal sociology. Lester pulled a brown bag from his brie fcase and placed it on the table. I brought you some food from the commissary, he said. Smoked sausage, hard cheese stuff that will keep. Or you can trade it for something, I guess. Thanks, Les. Norman pulled the ba g across the table to indicate his appreciation. They said I couldnt bring in any alcohol, Lester said. Have you talked to Gretchen? No. Shes still not ready to come see you, Norman. Is it the husband?
35 Pat? No, he wouldnt tell her what to do. You call him Pat? Isnt that rather informal. Norman, are you still working with Freddy Kerr? Pat. Norman sneered. That little shit wouldnt last a day on the inside. Norman. I checked on Freddy Kerr. You re really running with the big dogs. You know hes a dangerous guy, right? Norman shrugged. No more than most of the people in here. Hes done a lot of robberies. Hes in on assault and ba ttery and some wea pons trafficking. Lester chewed at the corner of his mouth. What? Norman asked. Norman, you probably know this, since you re writing his autobiography. Hes in on four counts of first-degree murder and two counts of vehicular homicide. Norman could feel his face go still. The information swirled in his head without settling; he couldnt get a good look at it. He was supposed to be making some connection, deducing some consequence. So meone was taking something from him. Specifically, he was being lied to, and he c ouldnt see why. Hed been nave, but he didnt know what it might cost hi m. He blinked at Lester. Look, Lester said, maybe its worth it to associate with this guy. Maybe its keeping you safe. I wont even mention the anti-Semitic stuff. But hes not just a crook. Right, Norman said. I thought youd know this, Lester e xplained. From working on the book. I guess well get to it, Norman said.
36 But they didnt get to it. They met ev ery morning and Freddy continued to tell him about robberies gone bad and conspirators turning on him. They robbed liquor stores and vandalized the suburbs. They slept out in the woods and took brain-numbing drugs. They burned down abandoned buildings. But when people died, Freddy never had the gun in his hand. Norman was in line for lunch when two men started shoving each other beside one of the cafeteria tables. Their trays clatte red to the floor and the place went silent. They struggled and the men closed in, but the fistfight was a diversi on and at the edge of the circle of inmates Norman saw a flash of steel. Someone crumpled to the ground. A scuffle broke out; more weapons were pulle d from the mens coveralls. Suddenly the room was a chaos of men punching and hacki ng at each other. Norman looked down and saw that his tray had tipped forward in his hands. His lunch lay facedown on his shoes. As he moved his feet away from the mess, a hand grabbed his arm. Barnhill towed Norman along the wall. He unlocked a heavy door and they stepped out into the yard. There, Barnhill said. He crosse d his arms and looked down at Norman. Norman was still holding his empty tray. He leaned it against the wall of the prison. Thanks, he said. Just doing what we need to do, Barnhill said. Shouldnt you . Barnhill took a pack of cigarettes fr om the breast pocket of his uniform and handed one to Norman. They lit up.
37 The guard put a hand on his hip and relaxed his posture. Officer Barnhill, Norman said, youre one of the good ones. Thanks, Hirsch. Have you known Freddy Kerr a long time? Oh, sure. Four years by now, I bet. Yeah, four years. Would you let me interview you sometime? It could be anonymous. Oh, I dont know, Barnhill said. Probably against procedure. He laughed. Well, Norman said, Im sure it would be a big help. Barnhill took a thoughtful pull on his ciga rette. Ill tell you one thing I do know, he said. He might not be around as long as we thought. Hes talked to the Feds. Theres paperwork in the system to get his sentence commuted. What? Norman asked. Hows he going to do that? His stomach was going queasy from the cigarette. Barnhill looked at him like he should know the answer. Hell turn States, he said. He can turn on people all over the pla ce. Brotherhood guys. The Feds will review his case. He could get out and into Federal protection. The cigarette dropped from Normans fingers He couldnt move his leg to stamp it out, so he just stood and wa tched it burn in the gravel. His stomach churned and he thought for a moment he might have to sit dow n. Barnhill was saying something to him. He looked across the yard toward the fence. He was revising Freddy Kerrs record. He was expurgating the masterminding and the murder. And he would be left in here to fend for himself, or be passed on to the next opportu nistic criminal. He was being used like some kind of chump. He was somebodys bitch.
38 They met again the next morning. They sat and looked at each other. Norman laid his pad and pen on the table. Freddys f ace was still. Norman had decided the night before that they understood each other we ll enough that Freddy would understand. He couldnt stand the thought that he was being used so completely. He needed to feel some control over it, even if that just meant appl ying the brakes temporar ily. He needed to assert himself, if only for a week, a few da ys, even one day. Hed decided it was worth the risk. Freddy, Norman said, Ive got something to say. I think I need a brief reprieve from our project. Ive got things to work outabout my ex-wife, the kid I beat upand writing is the only way thats going to happen. I need some time man. Freddy sighed. You need some time, he said. Norman, he said, Im going to explain something to you. Okay, man ? Okay. He looked hard at Norman. His eyebrows came together over the bridge of his nose. Norman, he said, this isnt a fucking vacation. You are on the inside You are in my house and you will write my story. You could have written your story when you were on the outside. But you didnt. And now youre doing your time. Thats your punishment. Norman swallowed. He nodded. Hed f ound happiness so recently, his perfect prisonality. Because this is the lightest load in this whole joint. Dont cross me, man. I will toss you downtown. I will have you in jigaboo central by tomorrow. They know you.
39 They will use you as toilet paper. They will use you as a a whats that thing called, its like a scratchy sponge, pe ople use it in the shower? A loofah? They will use you as a loofah. Dont forg et, man. Youve cast your lot with us for the next three to five. Freddy, Norman said. He didnt think. He spoke from a deep well of fear, fear of the things he had seen and of the time he still had to serve. Im afraid I cant do this. I cant write this stuff for you. It compromises my I have my career to think about. Freddy rolled his eyes. You write lies a ll the time, man! Thats what you do! Thats all it is. Its just going to be more useful than anything you wrote before. Its going to actually do something. And then what, Freddy? Im in here by myself. Fuck. Freddy placed a hand over his heart. Ill look out for you, man. You know that. Youre in. Youre with us. He put his hand back on the table. Just dont cross me. Norman looked at the smooth tablet op. He didnt want his writing to do something; the idea repelled him, and before he could consider what he was doing, he said, You dont understand. Dont you see how vulgar that is? Are you too . His pen rolled off the table and clattered on the floor. Okay? Freddy asked. Now pick up your pen. There was a moments pause and then Freddys voice cut through the space between them like a blow. PICK UP YOUR FUCKING Freddy caught himself. He took a breath and ran his hands in a small, calm circle on the table. His head tipped tenderly to the side. FATE folded over on itself and FIRE stretched luxuriantly. He said, Your pen is on the floor.
40 Norman put his hands in his lap. The s ound of Freddys voice reverberated inside him. He reached for the pen but it was beyond the extension of his arm. He pushed back in his chair and lowered hims elf down onto one knee. His fingertips touched the pen and it rolled away from him along the floor. There you are, Freddy said. Norman gripped the pen and looked up. A groove in the edge of the table exposed layers of Formica, glue, and part icle board, like the edge of a book warped by years of thumbing. Beyond the table, Freddy looked down at him without expression. He could feel a great space open up inside his body, the depression of some giant finger into a ball of clay. Hollowed out like that, he didnt know if he could rise. But he knew that the empty parts of him would eventual ly stand, pen in hand, and submit themselves to their task. He knew, in that final mome nt as he kneeled, that something he thought could never be taken from him was loose from his grip. Anything could be taken from him. And he knew that when he stood agai n, he would never remember that he had once believed that there were things that were his unconditionally. His empty hand spread out on the tile floor, his fingers flexing as if he might find a way to hold onto it.
41 MY FATHER VERSUS WOODY ALLEN My father, Morris, was a Jewish gu y from the Bronx and hed loved Woody Allen. I remember my mother sending me to bed against his protestations when she deemed a rented video too mature. Its just anatomy! my father would complain. Eli hears these words every day. Then he went back to his movie. Eventually I was old enough to sit and enjoy the bawdiness with him, but that didnt la st long. When I was sixteen and we lived in Conn ecticut, when my parents were still together, Woody started dating Mia Farrows adopted daughter, Soon Yi. This isnt tabloid stuff, Helen, my father told my mother over di nner. This is in the Times Its pathological. How is this legal? My adopted sister, Immy, and Morris had ha d a big fight that week. Shed claimed that we all hated her and then doused the couc h with merlot. Now Immy kept her eyes on her plate. Her Korean name was Soon Yi too, though my parents had made that her middle name and given her my maternal grandmothers name, Imogene. Im writing that nebbish a letter, my father proclaimed. Immy slid lower in her seat. She was el even then and up for any screaming match with himabout school tardiness, the to rn jeans and hoop earrings she wore, her bedtimebut she sat there quietly, her eyes go ing glassy as if she might cry. Can you drop it? she finally said. None of us said anything. She never want ed to drop it. But now she wasnt angry, just embarrassed. And I r ealized that his bluster was a symptom of his own
42 embarrassment. Woody Allen had proved her right; hed proved that Morris and Immy were just two people living in the same house. My mother and I sat there looking at each other because we didnt want to look at either of them. After another moment of silence, my father said, That pervert s going to hear from me. Immy didnt look up. Have you heard from your sister? my father asked me. He turned away and looked out the window at the snow melting as it touche d down on West End Avenue. His hair had grown long and rested on his collar. Shell be here in an hour or two, I said. Oh. Well, Ill go ahead and give you the tour now. He faced me again and put his hands in his pockets. This is the livi ng room, he said. Two plush chairs and a settee with mahogany armrests surrounded a low coffee table. Its very antique, I said. His new apartment was furnished with brass lamps and green-matted pictures of ducks. The wallpaper was dark red with a fussy floral print. A wreath hung over the door. He shrugged. I had a guy come in a nd do the decorating. Perhaps it got away from me. My sister and I were spendi ng the three days before Christmas with our father. He hadnt lived with us in five years, and I hadnt seen him since the summer, and he was behaving too formally. I backed into the di ning area. You have anything to drink? I asked.
43 In the fridge, he said. Theres f ood, too. The housekeeper cooks when she comes in on Mondays. The narrow kitchen was modern, the counter s slick metal, a cutting board built in. All the appliances and furn iture in there are new, he called through the doorway. I can see that. I poure d myself a glass of wine. Hows school, Eli? he called. I came back out to the living room. Youve been there, I said. Its probably about the same. I dont know, he said. I havent visited in a while. I sipped my wine and inspected his bookshe lf. I recognized th e creases along the spines of some of his paperbacks. If you ve got time in the spring, I said, maybe you can come up to Boston for a weekend. Bu t I wouldnt be there; Id been suspended from school for the spring semester for a second academic misstep. The letter from the dean was on its way to my mother in Conn ecticut, temporarily bur ied under sacks of holiday greeting cards at the post office. You look good, my father said. He jingled the change in his pocket. Though its a little cold for sandals, isnt it, bud? I took a cab from the station. I was outside for ten minutes. Oh. He ran a palm over his widows peak. Do you want to see the study? We went down the hallway to a small room with a desk and an office chair with the tag still dangling from the arm. A picture of his class at Mount Sinai hung on the wall. Check this out, he said. He opened a ti ny laptop computer and a keyboard unfolded. He pointed out his wireless transmitter and the gadget he downloaded his daily schedule
44 onto. Hold on, he said with forced enthusiasm This is cool. He strode back up the hallway. I lifted from the desk a framed a photo from our St. Croix trip in July. Both of my parents insisted on the importance of our family unit and neither had met anyone new since their divorce four years before, so the four of us still vacationed together, despite the undeniable tensions. In the photo Immy stood between my father and me, small and dark between our tall, pale figures. Shed tr ied to refuse to be photographed and her eyes looked off to the right. My mother had taken the picture. Then my father had taken the camera and we shuffled into position, me in the middle. She looked away again. You ruined it, he said. She said nothing, just stalked around the pool toward her cabana. You cant act like a member of the family? he yelled. That did it. On her way by, she pulled his towel from the chair hed draped it over and tossed it in the pool. For the rest of the week she ordered room service and listened to music. Jazz began to play from a speaker hidden in the wall. I reached over and turned it down. My father walked back in. Ive got the whole place wired up so you can play a disc in the living room and hear it anywhere. Not just a disc. I bought a turntable, too. Wow, those things arent cheap anymore. He looked at the picture in my hand. That was the last time we saw each other. Have you worked on your tennis game? No. He scratched his chin, deflated after the zea l of his tour. It had been years since hed had to host me. We were more rela xed on the neutral ground of a tropical resort, relating our admiration for the staff and for the quietude.
45 Wheres the bedroom? I asked. He pointed to a closed door off the hallway. Its just the one? Yes. Theres the couch and an inflat able mattress for you and your sister. I didnt want to go back to Connecticut for the spring. Id come to ask my father if I could live with him until the fall. If I was going to waste eight months of my youth, I wanted to waste it in Manhattan. Should we go sit? he asked. We returned to the living room. He settle d into a chair and sl ung one leg over the other. The music buzzed from the corner. The nervous overture seemed to have ended. I went to the window. Snow had sett led on the front-door awning. The black shape of the doormans cap and overcoat move d out to the curb. He waved and the muffled squeal of his whistle echoed up the avenue. A cab approached and the doorman ushered a woman in a yellow hat out from under the awning and into the taxi. It glided offit seemed to have hardly paused at alland I felt the pining emptiness of an outsider looking in on New York, at the e fficient system of numbered avenues, undemarcated neighborhoods, flattened syllable s, iron and concrete landmarks. The voice and vocabulary of the city were my fathers secret, so mething that we, my mother and her Connecticut children, could observe in him but never share. He sounded like the city; the lox he went out and bought on S unday mornings smelled of it; his wire-rim glasses and mustache embodied its refinement and its immigrant grit. When he moved back to the city, I knew he ha d chosen his home over his family. I like your apartment, Morris.
46 I think this is the one, he said. A permanent place. Bouncing around the last few years was beginning to wear on me. It took its toll on my practice, too. I dipped a finger into my wine and glided it along the rim of my gl ass, too slowly to make it sing. So, how did the semester end? he asked. Fine. I did what I had to do. My father opened his mouth and then clos ed it. He knew Id been in trouble the year before for grades. And he knew that my mother would notify him if anything was going wrong. Because I was an intelligent bu t often absent student, my high school had threatened expulsion. After failing a course during my first semester at college, Id gotten off with a warning. A charge for unde rage drinking had been cleared from my record by paying fines and doing community serv ice. It had all now been surpassed, and I knew that might mean that my father would finally throw up his hands. I was the only thing that kept him tied to any of us. This would send him away for good. He looked down and smoothed his dress shirt an d khakis. It occurred to me that Id been tense since Id arrived and that my ne rvousness was the source of his discomfort. I wanted to play the cynical, carefree son, but I was unaccustomed to hiding things from him and unaccustomed to needing anything from him. I watched him fidget in his own apartment and felt disgusted with myself. The meeting with the dean two days earlier had left me cold enough that I was still numb, unable to feel ashamed or to plan ah ead. Now it was coming clear, in the airless warmth of family, that I would have to both ask forgiveness and ask to be taken in. My
47 stomach twisted with the thought. I slid my finger faster along th e crystal glass and it hummed. Hows Immy getting here? he asked. Shes taking the train from Connecticut. Does she know how to do that? Shes fifteen, Morris. He shrugged. Shes not a city girl, he explained. Immy and my father had fought since wed adopted her as a thirteen-month-old. That night in Newark she wa s carried off the plane by an American woman who handed her, as she cried her few, doomed words of Ko rean, to my mother. Immys grip tightened on the shoulders of my mothers blouse. When my father extended his hands, she recoiled, pressing herself against my mother Something about himthe depth of his voice, his broad hands, his aftershavefelt wr ong to her, for reasons wed never know. She had a history with men that we couldnt know. I laid the toy duck Id brought in the crook of her arm and stepped back. As, over the years, things worsened between th em, he would say, after shed left the table or decided to stay home from a trip to the park with him and me, She never took to me, right from the beginning. It was supposed to sound casual, but I knew how it bothered him and loved that he would open up to me in such an adult way. Im sure he wouldve preferred, if hed had to choose, that I align myself with her instead of with him. But I couldnt help feeling that, because he seemed to have confided in me that he was afraid of her and because I looked and spoke like a smaller version of him, I owed it to my father to sympathize with him.
48 Shed aggravate the situation by telling him how little she wa nted to be with us. It was the one thing that drove him to distr actionI remember the mortification of his yelling at her in front of strangers at a s hoe store, at a gas station, in the echoes of Carlsbad Cavernsbut maybe in her mind it was the only way to earn his attention. With me, as long as I didnt try to tell her how she could make things easier for herself, she was kind and thoughtful beyond her years, but with the sadness of a girl who thought I could never really be on her side. My mother was on her side. She had no more blood in common with Morris than Immy did. At ten Immy ran away to a friends house and my mother let her stay there for several days The divorce, because of the frequency of these blowups and because my demanding and sensitive mother could no longer coexist with his daily anxiety, had come as a relief to everyone. He didnt i nvite me to move to the city with him. It would have split the four of us up pe rmanently; as it was, we were still together, just without him. The pager on the table rattled. My father stood and checked it, clicked it off, and took the cordless phone from its cr adle. Its the office, he sa id. Ill be right back. He went down the hallway. I finished my wine and set the glass on the coffee table. I licked my finger, wiped it on my corduroys, and stepped over to the ente rtainment center. Sliding open the doors, I found a box for Annie Hall re sting atop the television. My father returned. Ive got a pregnant woman with a fever, he said. Ive got to go meet with her. He t ook his coat from the closet. Youre watching Annie Hall? I asked.
49 He stopped and looked over with his hand on the closet door. He was perfectly still, as if he hadnt been su re if I remembered his histor y with Woody Allen. I figured it had been long enough, he said. Its over. Theyre married. Morris I said. I wanted to ask hi m about staying with him before Immy arrived. She liked to say that Morris w ould do anything for me. She didnt hide her jealousy. I would have been embarrassed to prove her right and afraid to prove her wrong. Yeah? But I looked at the box in my hand and th e question dropped away. I glanced out the window. Be careful, I said. Looks like its getting worse out there. He draped a scarf over his neck and looked at me. This is so typical, right? You guys have three days here and as soon as we sit down to talk I get called away. We can handle it. Youre coming back. He grimaced and sighed. You know Im sorry, he said. I went to the kitchen and poured myself mo re wine and brought the bottle into the living room. I clicked off the stereo and was perusing the bookshelf again when Immy knocked. Shed brought only a backpack, held in front of her by a strap. Her hair was lighter and cut to her jawline and she wore s horts and a denim jacket. She seemed shorter than when Id seen her at my mothers for Th anksgiving. Her legs were thicker. Muscles bunched above her kneecaps. I held my wineglass aloft and hugged her with one arm. A rent you cold? I asked.
50 She lugged the bag in and dropped it by the door. Wheres Dad? She glanced around and went into the kitchen. He got paged. I went to the living room and sat down. The refrigerator clinked open. Are these leftovers for us? Eat them. But she came out empty-handed and stood in the living room. What a weird place, she said. It looks like old people live here. He bought some electronic gadgets. He was really excited to s how them to me. Yeah, Im sure he was. Youre not eating? She ran a hand through her hair. Im on a diet. Im weight-training with the soccer team. Thats why my legs are so manly. What did you do to your hair? I got a haircut. And a dye job. Highlights. It looks blond to me. She sighed at me. I knew my contrarine ss reminded her of our father. Youre both such critics, my mother once told me, a nd shes very sensitive. Dont let her act fool you. Immy kicked off her shoes in the middle of the living room and padded in her socks toward the kitchen. Will you tell him if I have some wine? Do you drink now?
51 She came back with a glass and poured from the bottle on the table. My friends do. She sat on the edge of a chair. Oh yeah? Boarding school is weird, Eli. You never ha d to do it. Its totally different from Westport. Theres nothing to do. So me of these kids, their relatives mail them liquor. Yeah, I said. I guess I dont know. I know girls who do coke in the bathroom. Okay, okay, I got it. I was telling a story, she said. Jesus. Sorry. How were your exams? I got all Fs, Dad. Hilarious. She took a deep gulp of wine. You want me to warm up those leftovers? I asked. Whatever. But she set the table while I microwaved so me chicken and green beans. We sat at the dining-room table and she was more talkat ive than shed been at Thanksgiving or in St. Croix. She told me how well she thought shed done on each of her exams. She chattered and smirked. Twice she mentioned her cab ride from the train station; she liked being in the city, too. It got dark outside. I opened another bottle of wine. Your face is red, I said. She put a palm to her cheek. Her skin was flushed from her forehead to her neck. It does that, she said. Does it look stupid?
52 Whos looking? I shrugged. Its not that noticeable. Should you stop drinking? Itll go away. Its geneti c. I lack an enzyme. Yeah, Ive heard of that. Its pretty common. A billion Asians cant be wrong. I laughed. She could be a good sport. Pointing out her background was always easy, it beat anyone else to the punch. I th ink she enjoyed showing me that she didnt care that she was different from us. She slid her glass toward me and I filled it She let her hair fall over her face. We sat in silence. Does he have your ce ll number? she asked. No. Mine either. I guess hell just come back when hes done. Theres a phone here. Oh yeah. I forget about that. I watched her finish her food and pushed a few beans around my plate. Immy had always been good with other peoples probl ems, even if she blew her own out of proportion, made them worse by turning them in to conflicts with everyone around her. Shed been a good listener even as a child, qu iet and sympathetic with her friends, our mother, and me. Shed never teased me for my acne or dreadful posture. Shed listened to me whimper over the inattent ions of pretty girls. I to ld myself that she wouldnt begrudge me our fathers favor if she knew how badly I needed it. Im taking a semester off, I said.
53 Like, now ? Yeah. What for? Academic suspension. She looked at me with her small straight eyes and asked in a measured tone, What happened? I ticked a fingernail against my winegl ass. Too much partying, I guess. Not enough studying. Oy, she said. That stinks. You dont get a second chance? This was my second chance. Ill go back in the fall. They keep giving me chances. What are you going to do until then? I dont know. Go live with Helen, maybe. You could live here, she said. In the city. If he lets me. He would let you. Theres no space, I said. Hed make space. Come on. Its Dad. Hed do anything for you. I dont know, I said. Maybe not anymore. Hes got this new place. Were all spread out already. I dont know. I got up and stacked our plates and silverware and carried them into the kitchen. They rattled as I dropped them into the sink How are you feeling? I called through the doorway. Im fine. Dont worry.
54 As I came out Immy took off her denim jacket and laid it over the b ack of her chair. The sleeves of her tee shirt we re rolled up onto her shoulder. The skin of her arms was pink. She took her glass and went into the livi ng room and sat on the settee with her feet pulled up under her. Does he have cable? I followed her into the living room and lowe red the blinds halfway. The whole city was out there. Woody Allen was out there so mewhere, sitting on a stool in an elegant loft, playing the clarinet along to a Dixieland record. You think hell let me stay here? I asked. Probably not for the whole time. But maybe I could find someplace to wo rk. Something not too boring. Im sure you could work somewhere, sh e said. Youve got the Ivy League thing. And hell help you. I sat on the corner of the coffee table. Why do I keep screwing up? I asked. Youve got nothing to worry about, Eli. The look on her face was heartbreaking. I kept screwing up because I could get away with it. I appreciate your saying that. She smiled wryly and mouthed the word yeah. She was five years younger than I; she always helped mecleaning up an illic it party at my mothers, lying for me when Id broken curfewwith some resentment and some pride. I was i rresponsible and easily tempted by this sisterly love, offered desper ately. But I hadnt been a good brother. I hadnt looked out for her. I hadnt told her that my father didnt hate her, that he was just afraid of her. I could tell. He spoke about he r so carefully, with such distrust of himself. And no one was more like him than I was.
55 I dont think you . I shif ted on the table and searched for words in the wallpaper. There are things I feel like I should have ta lked to you about by now. But I havent. Or that we should talk about more openly. Does that make sense? She rolled her eyes, but hesitantly. What? Being adopted? Not looking like you guys? I tipped my head to the side and sc ratched my earlobe. Yeah, sure. Well? So what do you want to say? Want to have said. What? Her voice was breathy and exas perated. I was making her anxious. Never mind. I leaned my elbows on my knees and looked at the rug. There were just brotherly things I couldnt do. I felt like I couldnt do. I glanced up. What things? I dont know, I said. Weve never really talked about Morris and Helen. Weve never had a physical, like, comfort level. I never pushed you around. I didnt let you know I was there. Dont worry about it, Eli. I didnt come here to say that. I just . We can talk about it. Theyre our parents. I didnt want to come here at all, she sa id. Dads so bad with that stuff. I know everybodys trying to make it okay. I know they try to treat us the same. But that gets me even madder, and then I piss him off. Yeah, I said. Since the di vorce, they hadnt seen each other without an argument erupting. He demanded a commitment to the family that, when she saw how proudly he
56 spoke to me, she couldnt make. I chewed at my thumbnail. You could never disappoint him, I said. No, I guess not. She finished her wine. Im not angry about how much he likes you, she said. I imagined she was thinki ng of the games of basketball Morris and I played in the driveway or of how he would help me rake leaves when he got home, though it was my chore. Shed taken her feet off the settee and crossed her legs. She held the empty wineglass by the stem. Under the reading la mp, I could see that her makeup was applied subtly enough that I hadnt noticed it. As a child shed had adorab ly round cheeks; now her cheekbones were high and sharp. Do you remember the Woody Allen thing? I asked her. When he couldnt stop talking about it? Of course I remember it. You know I remember it. You all acted so weird. It was as if Id done something wrong. I placed my glass on the tabl e and stood. Hold on, I to ld her. In his study, I rummaged through the lower drawers of his filing cabinet until I f ound his old letters. Hed always kept photocopies of all his co rrespondence. Along with the letters to Woody Allen that hed mentioned to me while he helped me with some homework, the file held letters to his lawyer, to my mother to his malpractice-insurance company, to old landlords. I took three of hi s letters to Woody Allen and we nt out to the living room. She laid the letters in her lap and began r eading. Her face was still and unflinching. When she finished reading the firs t one she set it on the coffee table. I took it and sat in a chair. The lett erhead was from his practice in Midtown. Dear Mr. Allen, hed written, I am a longtime fan, a fellow New Yorker, a fellow Jew, and, I
57 once believed, something of a kindred soul. But the recent news of your relationship with a young woman who is for all intents and purposes your daughter (being a father, I know enough to trust the womans mother in this judgment) has outraged the entire city. You helped raise this child. She may not look like you, she may not have your blood in her, but there is something fundamentally wrong in y our behavior. This is a tragedy youre writing. As the adoptive father of a Korean girl I can assure you that your actions will have complex and unforeseen consequences on fa milies like mine. I am not a nut; Im a respected man in this city. And Im not hiding from you. If I see you on the street Ill say all this to your face . I looked up. Immy had finished the other two letters. Shed always been a fast reader. Her eyebrows and the corners of her mouth were pinched downward and the tip of her tongue jutted between her lips. So did he ever run into him? she asked. No. I dont think so. He sounds kind of insane. It was a weird time for him. I flipped th e letter onto the coffee table. It was a while ago. He seems over it. We were fighting a lot, she said. But its so weird. Telling some guy how to live his life. He loved Woody Allen. Woody Allen let him down. Do you see that? He made the relationship between you and him seem invalid. She rolled her eyes. Well, fighting with me all the time kind of did that, too.
58 Yeah. I didnt have an excuse for him. He and I were so similar in her eyes, I couldnt have an excuse for him. Did he tell you about this stu ff? she asked. The letters? No, not really. I just kind of knew it was going on. Id hear him talking about it. You didnt tell me? You were pretty little, Im. You wouldnt have understood. I dont think I even get it now , she said. But thats not the point, Eli. Youre not supposed to know about that stuff when I dont. Its not about you. Sure I am. Thats how it works. Im the older brother. No, she said. Thats not normal. Its just one more thing I wasnt in on. I couldnt help smiling. Normal? Whats that? Theres no such thing. I was old enough to know what was happening. Thats all. She sighed and laid her head against th e mahogany headrest. She was drunk. Her mouth was slightly open and her eyes moved l azily. Well, she said, what else do you know? I dont know. Why didnt they just have another kid of their own? They couldnt. Oh. She closed and opened her eyes. I guess I knew that. I just didnt want to ask. I wanted to know but I didnt want to know. Does that make sense? It wasnt because I was so mad about being different from you guys. I didnt ask because I didnt want to be different at all.
59 We stayed like that without moving. A few times I looked over and thought that Immy was asleep, but then she would glan ce around without moving her head. The wind outside picked up. Snowflakes swirled agai nst the window panes, and the glass shook noisily. Around half past midnight his key clicked in the lock and my father entered the front hall. He brushed snow from his hair, tossed his keys and scarf on the dining table, and hung his jacket in the closet. He came in without noticing the letters on th e coffee table. He ran his fingers along the armrest beside Immys head and looked at her blond hair. Hey, hon, he said. You must be tired. She opened her eyes but didnt stir. The color in her face had cooled. He looked out the window. He sat in the chair opposite me and I saw then the darkness around his eyes and the slack set of his face. His jaw was gray with st ubble. He looked at his knees. Sorry, he said. I know its late. I was really hoping to be home for dinner with you guys. This woman collapsed in the waiting room. I rode with them to the hospital. What happened? Immy asked. He looked up, startled. Then his eyes drifte d from her and moved over the far wall. It didnt go well, he said. He nodded. He slid forward off the chair and thudded onto the rug. He sat with his forearms balanced on his knees, his head bowed. Long one, he said into the space between his shoes. Long night. Tough time of year for this. He looked toward the window as if to check that he had the season right and then looked back down. His hands hung in the air, br oader than mine, mo re thickly veined.
60 We sat like that, my father on the floor, Immy with her head on the armrest, and I sunk into my chair. I wanted to get up a nd put the letters away, lower the blinds. I wanted to pick my father up off the rug and set him in his chair. My sister stretched out on the settee. Sh e reached her arm out and took my fathers hand between her thumb and forefinger. She ran her thumb slowly over his knuckle. I imagined that she was telling him that she knew he d tried to protect he r as best he could. Id never felt family pride quite like I felt it then, as if it could be shelter against the prospect of loneliness. He looked up and smiled weakly at her. You must be tired, he said again. She looked at me and then back at him. There was a steady look in her eyenow that she knew that hed stuck up for them in some small way, that hed insisted he was her father, and now that shed thanked him something beautiful and proud. Dad, she said, Eli needs your help right now. Can he ask you something? Can you do something for us?
61 THE MEANING OF MY DAUGHTER Holly whines all day. I mean that literal ly; in the evenings and on the weekends, I am with her every minute. She has tubers on her brain and liver and kidneys. They look like potatoes, I guess, and so they call th ese gray, spontaneous things tubers. My daughter cant do the first things for herself. She is incapacitated. She could seize up and die in any twenty-minute span of the day or night. Were I not her mother, the sadness would sink me. But I am, so it does something else entirely. We sit in our little house back by the cree k, on the blue carpet of the front room. She whines while I try to distract her with toys, food, television. Television works best; a man in a felt dinosaur suit mesmerizes us. We watch the video with pauses only to rewind. Our mouths hang open. Its the one thing we do together. But still she doesnt stop the desperate shrill noise, rising and fa lling and rising again from the back of her mouth. I work ineffectually at naming the sound, the whining. Its lik e a train braking, a hound with a wounded leg, steam hissing into a radiator. Primeval door hinges, maybe, or green wood on a fire. A slippi ng fan belt. A circular saw. Then I try to name its source. It is a deep sadness, or a struggling animal. It is my own unexpressed wail. It is the sound of the st ruggle of this little lif e, Barrys and mine. It is the imperfection of our union, echoi ng from Hollys con ception through all her waking moments. It is bad DNA screwing together, threads st ripping. My thoughts trample over my life, spear and split it. My daughter whines at the television while beside her I perform autopsy.
62 My mother comes from Tucson for Hollys bi rthday. After five days, I am able to leave Holly there with her while Barry is at work. I go to the gro cery and return with bags of heavy metal cans. I batter the door a nd work the lock open. I step into the house and for a moment I think that a window is ope n, Im feeling a draft, but its the silence touching me. They are on the floor where I left them. My mother with he r creased face and titanic bifocals is reading fr om the paperback Ive left on the nightstand. Holly watches her grandmothers lips. Vacantly, of course. Her mouth is open and I can see the flat plane of her tongue, can hear only the rhythmic breaths pa ssing over it. Around me, cans thud and roll. Oh, my mother says. I didnt know how to rewind the thing. Then she reenters the book. I will read every page in the library. The words of exceptional people will come back again and again, freshly ordered. We will search them out and know them all. Dickens, Plato, Betty Crocker. Daniel Webster. The Guinness Book. Yesterdays crossword solution. Secondhand Mad Libs. Skywriting. Words. My daughter is noddi ng at something, at nothing.
63 ACCIDENTS At night, Leah and I were the only white kids for miles. We were living in a cheap renovated loft in an old auto-parts factory in the middle of Detroit, thirty minutes from the nearest real grocery store. The parki ng lot had a fifteen-foot fence and wed find prostitutes sleeping in the foyer. We were insi de together all that first winter after wed graduated. We planned to get engaged in the spring. The apartment had hardwood floors and could have used about a dozen throw rugs. Leah would get home late and wed huddle in bed with the heat down and get high. Wed strip down and put the comforters over us like a tunnel and laugh until we ran out of real air. Then shed fa ll asleep and it was my job to hop out and turn off the lights, check that the stove was off, plug the smoke alarm back in. But sometimes I imagined that the floor was cold like dry ice, that my heels would burn and harden, and I sat there on the edge of the bed with my toes in my hands. I watched her breathe and I counted my responsibilities on one foot. Then in February Leah went to Indiana for a family reunion. On my way back from the bus station, I darted in front of a truck on 275. Just a bu mp from behind and my Tercel hit the off-ramp guardrail. I sat against the trunk of the ca r while people in uniform talked to me. They said to wait before settling with the insu rance people. They said I mi ght have injuries I couldnt feel yet.
64 When I got back to the apartment I sa t on the couch and called the number Leah had left. I listened to the phone ring for a full minute. When I took it away from my cheek, my hands had stopped shaking for the first time since the truck. I got into bed with my shoes on and rolled a joint because I fe lt like I should. But I didnt really smoke, I just lay there with my hand in the asht ray and knew that I wouldnt call her again. She only found out about the accident from my mother a few weeks later. By that time I'd already boxed up my shorts and sanda ls on the floor of the closet and bought myself a fresh bar of soap and a full tube of toothpaste. You didnt need me to know what happened to you, she said. No, I said. I didnt. But that was a lie. There was a full minute there when I did need her. And Im sure if she hadnt been out with her cous ins buying fireworks and sheet music for the piano, if shed answered the phone, it would ve been enough. I woul dve told her how close Id come to dying and right there we would have been sealed together in our helpless relief, thankful to have lost nothing.
65 VICE PRESIDENT IN CHARGE OF SO LITUDE, EASTSIDE NIGHTCRAWLERS Jason Wilkeys older brother, Clyde, only goes out at night. Hes fat enough that people would stare, I guess, so he gets his exercise when no ones around to tell him to go on a diet or get a job or to embrace himself and stop being so shy. He walks by my house every night. I see his lumpy outline going back and forth up the street, staying out of the light of the streetlamps. It s like hes tacking against the wind, even though theres no wind. My rooms up on the second floor but from the window I can hear him huffing through his mouth. He doesnt tie his shoes, maybe because his feet are too fat, and the soles make this sound, sh-shup sh-shup scraping and flopping on the asphalt. I watch him. I want to go out there. Id like to tell him, Clyde, youre lucky youre not in school anymore. I cant go out at night like you. My mom wouldnt have it. Where are you going at this hour? shed ask me. You sit around all day doing nothing with yourself and you want to go out now ? She talks to me without looking up from her TV. She cant see me with that light in her face, she just figures Im there and Ill listen to her no matter what she tells me. Clyde, Id say if I could get out there a nd walk along beside him, Clyde, look at this scabby pink skin. And do you think I want my hair to stic k up in the back like this? Man, Id say and shake my head, you think I ha vent tried everything ? I wish I could go out at midnight every night and walk only in th e dark parts of the st reet. Youre a lucky guy.
66 I see how Clyde gets home, too. The walk ing is just a warm-up. About twenty minutes after he passes my house, he comes running back down the street. I hear him coming, and then see him in his purple track suit When he runs he takes the most direct route, straight through the lights. And I can hear him for a while after hes gone, shshup-sh-shup-sh-shup the scraping and flopping faster than before, like its the sound of his heart working hard, deep inside him, carrying him straight home.
67 HAND WASHING Hawa Sissoko stepped down from the cab of the truck, careful to hold up the hem of her dress, then lifted her daughter Aissata dow n and patted the dirt off her. Theyd left Bamako, the capital, for Manantali early that morning, and the road after the midway stop at Kita had been slow and bumpy, the air dry and red with dust. Hawa had kept one end of her head-wrap cupped over her nose and mouth for the seven-hour trip, and had given Aissata a handkerchief with which to do the same. Stand here, the driver told her, moti oning toward the front of the truck. He wore a tattered cap and buttonless vest. You know this place? Is your husband here? During the ride, hed expressed amusement th at a Maninga woman a nd her five-year-old child might live in the capita l and wear such fine clothes. Because the hot season was beginning, and maybe to make a point, hed insisted on keeping th e windows down. But shed paid extra to have the tw o of them sit in the cab, not in back on top of the baggage and large sacks of grain, and now that theyd arrived, he seemed to want to ingratiate himself. I grew up here, Hawa told him. B ut Ive been away a long time. Eleven years. My husband is back in Bamako, but my family is here. She felt a tiny pleasure at mentioning that she had left her husband be hind, even if it was temporary. Two weeks before, Adama had gotten a promotion. After that he had given her money every day before he left for work, standing at the door and calling her out from the kitchen and presenting it to her with one hand on the doorknob, then smiling and going off. After a
68 week of this, he told her one night after dinne r that he wanted her to go back to Manantali to stay with her family for a month. It wa snt until the next morning, as he handed her two large bills and let the door fall closed be hind him, that she realized where his new money would go, that in her absence he would find and pay for a second wife. They waited for the passengers who had sa t in the sun grippi ng the sides of the truck bed to climb down so the truck ow ners men could unload. Hawa squeezed Aissatas hand and surveyed the Manantali mark etplace. The thatched stalls were more plentiful than when she had last been home. More cinderblock shops lined the open area where the nomadic Fulani herders sold thei r livestock and the Maninga women from the outlying villages sold firewood and charcoal. When Hawa left, Manantali had been a small village; now, with the dam, it was some kind of town. Aissata pulled at her mothers dress. Mama, she whined, Im thirsty. Hawa sighed and waved over a boy with a water bucket and bought a cupful. She helped Aissata drink and the n, after wiping the lip with he r thumb, rinsed the grit from between her teeth, spit, and drank the rest. The water was cold, much better than the water she remembered drinking here wh en she was young. Of course, when the Europeans completed the dam they must have built pumps to bring up clean water cleaner, she guessed, than even the water th ey drank in Bamako, in her and Adamas house with an indoor bathroom and kitchen wi th a faucet. Coming down into the river valley, looking down on it as the trucks brakes squealed, the dam had surprised her with its size and beauty, the great lin e of white concrete and rock holding back a new lake that stretched to the horizon. The wa ter pushed all the way to the red cliffs, and it was hard to
69 imagine the villages that had once stood th ere, the mud huts and worn paths now melted, inhabited by bottom-feeding fish. She ga ve the boy his cup and a two-dorom coin. Voil, the driver said as he dropped her luggage beside her. He bowed and chuckled to himself and went back to his work. Several pushcart boys, seeing the intricate embroidery along the collar and sleeves and hem of her dress, approach ed and offered their services Hawa said nothing, leaned down and brushed the dust from the folds of her bags. An older boy leaned the base of his two-wheeled cart against th e ground and loaded her bags into it. His head had not been shaved in several weeks and there were bits of straw in his hair. He took up the handle and stood ready to follow them. Hawa took Aissata by the hand and walked to ward the stalls. Women and girls in tee shirts sat on overturned plastic buckets behind tables piled with potatoes, onions, dried fish, cassava, mangoes, beans, eggs, tea leaves, salt, millet, kola nuts, lettuce, manioc, cucumbers, hot peppers, hibiscus, turmeric, basil leaves sugar, rice, bell peppers, curry powder, garlic. Betw een the beating sun and the hard, hot ground, Hawa sweated under the heavy waxed cloth of her robe. She had grown solid and str ong in the city, and some of the women called to her from their st alls: Hey, big rich woman, come look! Very big mangoes! Tomatoes and lettuce! She looked over but di dnt recognize any of the faces. She pulled Aissata closer a nd walked toward Dibafings old stall. Hawa recognized the old iron balance on the table before she recognized Dibafingher friend had grown thinner and her face had wrinkled. Her collarbones were distinct against her sk in. A baby was secured to her back with a cloth. Dibafing stood up
70 and they held each others hand over the table and exchanged the greetings of friends who havent seen each other for many years. Hawa, my god! Dibafing sai d. Its been so long. How long are you here for? Hawa had gone to grammar school with Dibafing. After that, Hawa had left for the regional capital to attend high school, returning only for ho lidays. Eleven years ago she had moved in with her brother in Ba mako and had not been back since. My husband thought I should come and visi t, Hawa said. Ill be here for a month. You look well. Is this your daughter? Dibafing asked, reaching down and touching Aissatas cheek. Aissata pulled away. Yes. Her names Aissata. Oh, how many do you have? Shes my only child. Ah, Di, you look well! How many children do you have? Dibafing turned to show off the baby, who slept with his eyes squeezed tight, only his head visible above the cl oth. This ones named Balla. I have three sons and two daughters. Youve only got one kid? Your husband must be very rich, and youre big and strong. You could have lots of children! Why only one? Maybe soon well have another, Hawa replied. Village talk rarely went beyond family and farming. Shed already decided to say what was expected of her, to erect a temporary wall to close off the new part of he r. The villagers needed hands to till the fields; for her and Adama, one child wa s enough. Adama was a bureaucrat for the government and they needed money for new clot hes, to keep the car running, to pay for a good school for Aissata. Hed seemed to be in agreement on this, though now he was out
71 looking for a way to produce more children. Th e things hed professed to believe were dissolving in the reality of his actions. Di, I want to buy food as a gift for my family. What do you have thats fresh? Dibafing sold her some mangoes and cassava and a large bag of millet. Hawas purse was full and she did not haggle over the prices. She was happy to spend his money on her family. The boy loaded the food into the pushcart and Hawa said she would be back the next day. They proceeded out of the marketplace a nd through the town. There were more huts, more shops, more tailors and carpenters and blacksmiths and bicycle repairmen than she remembered, and more bars. Many of the houses were cinderblock, though most families still had at least one mud hut, for cooking. They had fenced in their concessions with scrap metal, shiny wire that looked lik e it had been stolen from the dam project, sheets of plastic with strange language prin ted on them, pieces of the wooden spools on which she guessed the power lines had been tr ansported. Dogs trotte d after them sniffing at the bags of food and Aissata pi cked up a stick and hissed at them. At the far end of the village they came to the dozen huts of Hawas familys concession. The huts faced in at each othe r around a shady expanse where the family cooked, ate, and talked. It was empty except for two goats tied to a tree and some cats lying in the shade. The boy unloaded the pushcart. Oh, he said dully, as if he hadnt been paying attention to their course through the village, youre in the chie fs family. She saw then that he was probably a little slow. Yes, Hawa told him, handing him a coin. Im his daughter.
72 He has eighty head of cattle. All of his sons work in the office of the dam company. Thats true, she said. You should live here in Manantali, he to ld her. Hes a powerful man. His front teeth were painfully crooked an d showed between his closed lips. My husbands a powerful man, too, Hawa said, in Bamako. Oh, the boy said reverently, just as th ey had all said when Hawa lived here, Bamako. She handed him another coin and the boy took up his cart and left. Hawa drew water from a clay ewer beside the big tree, sat on a bench, and washed Aissatas face, hands, and feet as the girl complained. Hawa pinched dirt from her daughters braids until Aissata shrieked and wriggled free. The voyage had been long and rough; Hawa sighed and rinsed her own f ace and rested her head in her hands. She knew her family would make f un of her city manners, whether they were real or imaginedher pronunciation, her taste in food, her weak arms. But she would have no problem sharing a bed with Aissata, eating from a common bowl with all the women, helping harvest the last of th e peanut cropfor just a month, these things would be a nice change from the daily bustle of Bamako. Ma ybe Aissata would learn to appreciate her home in the city, too; five y ears was not too old for that. She would learn to respect her elders and the Maninga farming life. Aissata poked one of the cats and it sneer ed at her and bounded under the granary. That cat will scratch you Hawa began, but just then the women came into the concession from the fields, their short-handled hoes hung over their shoulders, emptied lunch bowls atop their heads.
73 They saw Hawa and put down their loads a nd gathered around to greet her. Her younger half-sisters were there, and her brot hers wives and daughter s and sons, children hanging onto the womens skirts or slung on thei r backs. The women, some of whom she had never seen before, clasped her hands. A few cried. They complimented her fine clothes and joked that her hands were soft lik e a white persons or a herders and squatted to get a good look at Aissata and touched the top of th e girls head. Hawas fathers four wives were there, including his childless eldest wife, NBakuru, and Hawas mother, Jonkunda. The boys took the baggage inside and cam e out with chairs and stools. The women sat. They talked about how long Ha wa had been gone, how Aissata had never been to Manantali before, and how the harv est was going. The olde r girls brought out the knives and the vegetables and Hawa presen ted NBakuru with the food she had bought. She went inside and returned with gifts of cloth and tea and candies for her fathers wives, for which they asked God to repay her. They all prepared dinner as they chatted, chopping and pounding and getting a fire going in the cooking hut and Hawa gave one of the girls money to go to the market to buy meat She returned with five pigeons and they plucked them, cleaned them, and put them into the big wooden mortar and pounded them whole, then rolled the meat into balls to be fried. As the sun reached the pointed roofs of th e huts, Hawa told them about her house, and about her husband, and their car, and they marveled at how good it all was, thanks be to God. Her half-sisters pr essed her on how many dresse s she had and about all the things one could buy at the markets of Bama ko. The old wives stayed quiet. Hawas birthmother, small and shy, her elbows padded with dirt, sharpened a knife on a
74 whetstone and chopped onions and didnt look at Hawa. Sitting with her legs straight in front of her on a woven mat, NBakuru shel led peanuts in her gnarled, calloused hands and kept her good eye on Hawa, her other eye half-closed, blankly askew. Aissata, playing with the smaller chil dren, pushed a smaller boy down and he began to wail. Hawa yelled at her but Ai ssata flapped her arm against her side in defiance and ran to the other end of the c oncession. The other women clicked their tongues disapprovingly. You didn t carry that child on your back, one of the girls guessed. She wont mind you now. Isnt that right? Hawa shrugged. They had their explanatio ns for everything, yet they were still here uprooting one peanut plan t at a time, bent over with their short-handled hoes. Carrying a child on your back, the cloth ties around the tops of your breasts and drags them down. These women dont have to worry about it, they even go shirtless in the fields, they dont mind that their breasts hang flat. For a woman in the city, especially one with a Maninga accent, you had to wear a brassiere. You couldnt have that worndown shape of a village womanwho would take you seriously? Of course, they were content to be one in a mans sequence of wive s, they expected no more than that. So what did any of it matter, if you were worth so little to even your husband? Her brothers and half-broth ers returned from the dam. Hawa stood and greeted them as they entered the concession in their blue security-guard uniforms. As a sign of respect and to curry local favor, the European s had employed her fathers sons when the dam was finished. They had also construc ted a water pump right outside the concession and installed beside it the only light other than the one in the marketplace. Her eldest brother had done well in school and become a policeman in Bamako, but the others were
75 here and their families filled the huts. Their jo bs insured that the chiefs family remained the wealthiest in town, even after all the merchants had arrived and the town had grown. The sun went down and the men took buckets of water into the thatched bathing areas and rinsed off and returned shirtle ss. The women split the boiled millet amongst the large plastic bowls and ladl ed on peanut sauce. The children sat around a bowl, the men around another. The young and old women sat eating in two se parate groups and laid aside one small bowl for the chief. Hawa brought Aissata over to eat with her and the mothers, and kept an eye up to watch for her father. She was just licking her fingers clean when she spotted him totter in. His broad shoulders sloped now as if unde r the weight of two heavy sacks, tipping him forward so that he walked heavily. No one else looked up. She brought him his bowl and he greeted her warmly, his breath sm elling of beer. He gazed at her in a pleased way, his eyes old and dim. At her bi rth he had taken the modern step of giving her a Muslim name instead of a Maninga name and when she had done well in school he had paid to continue her edu cation. He dropped into a chair and she brought him a cup of water with which to wash his hands. He bega n to eat rapidly. Hawa wandered back to where the women now sat chatting, the bowls piled and left for the girls to wash. They started a fire while the men br ought out the televisi on and watched the evening news. The old women sighed with fa tigue and talked. J onkunda said in a small voice that she was very glad Hawa was bac k. They talked about people who had left Manantali and people who had come from fa r away, children who returned often or rarely. NBakuru, cracking pea nuts against her palm, said th at many of the men from her village up the road, Koundian, now lived in Mana ntali, and that there was no one to plant
76 and harvest. The other wives hummed in ag reement. These women were daughters of the chiefs of smaller villages. Manantali had grown, but they stil l didnt know anything more than village life and its slight di sturbance by the white mens machine. These young people in this town are sh ameless now, NBakuru said. They see the shamelessness of the white men and th e black workers and th ey dont wait to be married. They dont think of the disgrace. She spoke of a young niece of hers who had come to Manantali to stay with them and ha d become pregnant. The shame, when my brother had entrusted her to me! she exclai med. To send her back from my household in that condition. Before, this would not have happened. A girl would know better. The other wives mumbled their consensus and sighed. They shelled handfuls of peanuts and collected them in their skirts. Im going back to Koundian soon, NBakur u said. The little girls are doing the hand washing. My brothers grandchildre n are of age. They ll become women. Theyll be suitable for marriage. She didnt look over, but Hawa could feel that the women were all tensely waiting for her to say something. This wasnt a topic that the women of the household would normally raise, because it was something s ecret and magical, and because its importance wasnt up for debate. But NBakuru and the re st of them knew that some wealthy people in the city neglected the circumcision of their daughtersthe hand washing, as the euphemism went. Men educated in Europe came on the radio and cal led it brutality and whites put out brochures and erected billboards. Strict Muslims like Adama said it wasnt in the Koran. What had the women to ld her when they handed Hawa over to the numumuso ? That they would make her a woman and give her a proof of purity to last her
77 until the night of her wedding. The pain of th e knife and the stitching came back to her, her muffled yelps when she squatted over a pit toilet and bit into the skin of her knuckles. Its ugliness was all she remembered. Ther e was nothing else, though they told her to appreciate the sense of ritual. To her it resonated only as punishment. Unmarked, Aissata would find a more modern, wealthier husband. NBakuru peered at her with one eye. Have you changed your mind about this? she asked. Even though your mother did you the blessing? She allowed you to find a good husband and live well. Without it, you wouldnt have even warranted a brideprice. Adama was a good, stern Muslim, not given to tribal nostalgia. Six years before, after he had come to Manantali without Hawa to make a gift of kola nuts and to pay for her in cows and money, he had returned to Bamako expressing disdain for the villagers backwardness, as well as the dam workers hedonism. Together he and Hawa lived modern urban lives; they lived well and honestly. Mother, Hawa said, my husband wouldnt approve anyway. Bamako is even worse than Manantali, NBakuru said, though she had never been beyond Kita. These people in the cities! They think they re white because they drive cars and do not eat with their hands. They thi nk that if they live by white laws theyll have as much money as the whites have. They think that without the hand washing their daughters will be like the daughters of white men. They think theyll marry white men. The old woman spoke to Hawa directly. Youre the first wife of a powerful man, she said. But youre young for your years. Pray for wisdom.
78 Anger rose inside her, but Hawa reme mbered herself. Without looking up she called a boy over and gave him money for tea and sugar. He returned and they brewed it on the edge of the fire and the wives talked about the harvest. Hawa soon grew weary of Manantali. She spent the mornings at the market shopping and visiting Dibafing and other childho od friends, then returned to cook lunch and bring it out to the fields where the women and childre n would eat squatting under a neem tree. She would help with the farmi ng for a while, then go to the concession to prepare dinner. Always, Aissa ta was dragged along, her di sobedience a constant worry and chore. With the money Adama had give n her Hawa bought vegetables and big fish from the reservoir. She found a spice-seller whose wares were trucked in from the capital and used exotic flavors that she had l earned to cook with in Bamako. The women, though, never paused from their hungry mouthfuls to comment. She missed talking with her Bamako frie nds, missed the gossip of the women in her apartment building and at her hairdres sers. She missed Adama too, his precise Bamana diction and the French words he use d, his stylish and pious proclamations. She missed going out to restaurants with him, Aissata left with the neighbors. She tried not to think of him in Bamako without her. Perh aps he was not even there. Fatima the housekeeper could look after the ap artment while he went off to another village to present some teenage girls father with kola nuts and cattle. Hawa had been in Manantali for two week s when, tired late one morning from the heat, she walked into a little restaurant o ff the marketplace and ordered bags of frozen
79 hibiscus tea for herself and Aissata. They sat at a plas tic table under a veranda; three white men sat at the next table eating rice wi th fish and drinking beer. The proprietress came out and joked with the men in French, and when she was done, Hawa called to her. Jeneba! Jeneba remembered herthey had gone to high school together in the regional capitaland greeted her warmly. They caught up; Jeneba explaine d that she and her husband had moved to Manantali after the da m was started and opened the restaurant. They joked about people they had known in sc hool, and then Jeneba introduced her to the white men. They were French except for a ma n with thin reddish hair and freckles across his forehead, a German named Henrik. His French was easy to follow and Hawa moved her chair to be closer to him. He said he worked for the nature preserve downriver, up on the cliffs. Manantali must be very different for you, he said. A town of strangers. My familys still here. Do you know the chief? Oh, the chief. Yes, I know him. Hes done well. Maybe too well, she said. Henrik laughed and looked at her in the way that white men did when you told jokes in which they recognized their own malicious humor. It was sly and hungry, a look they must have learned from the movi es. She gazed out at the market. Do you miss Bamako? he asked. I miss my friends. And your husband?
80 Hawa finished her frozen tea. Of c ourse. She called Aissata in from the courtyard. She said goodbye to Henrik. As they left Jeneba told her to come back in the evening some night, that there were plenty of people and lively conversation, and Hawa said she would. The next night, after dinner had been fi nished, Hawa said she was going to visit a friend and left Aissata with the family. Th ree tables were full of white men and a few Senegalese. Jeneba was j oking with the men, patting them on the back and drinking a beer, and she put Hawa in a seat at one of the tables with them. They offered her beer but she refused. They bought her bottles of soda. They all knew Bamakothe nice restaurants, the dance clubsand were interest ed to hear of new places, so she told them of the clubs where she and Adama went to he ar Afro-pop music and to dance. She asked about Europe, if things she had seen on televi sion were truethe sizes of the stores, the prices of taxi rides. Henrik sat across fr om her, and when the Frenchmen exaggerated he quietly corrected them for her. As the men got drunker they talked more loudly, and joked about the whores in Bamako. They touched her shoulders and she enjoyed the attention. They bought whiskey and urged her again to drink their alcoholeven Henrik now, his eyes veined and smalland she turn ed them down and looked away, backed her chair from the table so the mens hands werent close enough to touch her. Eventually the men paid and piled into th eir pickup trucks and sped off. Henrik shook her hand. It was a pleasure, he sai d. She smiled, and he didnt let go of her hand, and she realized that he didnt care that she was marri ed. He cared only that she was here without her husband. The thought terrifi ed her; it opened something up in her,
81 the idea that she could somehow hurt Adama. She didnt know what would hurt him. The question of what had the power to hurt him had never occurred to her before. It seemed wondrous to have discovered the idea even if she would never do anything. She noticed her hand was still wrapped in He nriks and, flustered, bid him goodnight. Then Hawa was there with only Jeneba. The two of them drank tea and talked about being married. They giggled at the s ound of Jenebas husband sn oring in the back. They whispered about how the white men se emed nice but did not understand Africa. Jeneba said they all had girl friends who slept with them in their new houses in the damcompany compound, girls from the village who did their washing and cleaning and cooking and lived off the mens money until the men left them to return to Europe. It was all very sad and disgraceful, and made Hawa glad shed found a good, honest Muslim. Adama warned me about this place, she said. That its different from in my childhood, but the same. The villagers are sti ll ignorant, and now the whites are here to take advantage of them. Then why did he let you co me back? Jeneba asked. It was his idea, Hawa said. She looked out onto the empty marketplace and its one bright lamp clouded with bugs. He has money now for a second wife. Her friend nodded and said nothing; a ny rich and devout man would want a second wife, to follow the example of the Prophet. Jeneba said, Ah, listen to this old man snore! and slapped her thigh. They ta lked more, then Hawa excused herself and walked home.
82 When she returned to her familys concession, everyone ha d gone to sleep. Aissata was not in their bed; Hawa figured she must be with Jonkunda or one of the halfsisters. She fell asleep quickly. Hawa awoke from a long, dreamless sleep and sensed immediately that she had slept late. The concession was quiet. She cam e out of the hut and saw that the men were already gone to the dam, and the women and child ren had left for the fields. One girl had stayed behind. She presented Hawa with a bowl of porridge saved from breakfast. Hawa, she said. The suns already up. I was really tired, Hawa told her. Wheres Aissata? The old wives took her to the fields today, the girl said. They made their lunch before they left, so you dont have to ma ke any food. Theyll be back before dinnertime. Hawa ate her breakfast then went to th e market to shop. She was late and the food left at the womens stalls was meager She greeted Dibafing and bought a bag of vegetables, then decided to go to the restaurant for lunch. Jeneba too looked tired, and the bowl of rice and okra sauce Hawa ordered was slow in coming from the kitchen. Hawa as ked after the white men who had been there for lunch the other day, but Jeneba said th at their lunch hour had ended and they had returned to the dam. Hawa ate in silence. She stopped at the hair braiders shop and had her hair undone and then re-braided. In Ba mako she loved to talk to the women who did her hair, but today she was not in the mood and they didnt ch at. She bought some fabric from a merchant next door and wa lked back toward the concession.
83 At the edge of the market Henrik pull ed up beside her and leaned out of the window of his white pickup truck. When he took off his sunglasses the skin around his eyes was pale on his sunburned face. Madame hello! Hello, Henrik. Will we see you at Jenebas tonight? I dont know. He sat there for a moment as if shed sa id something perplexing, then lowered his sunglasses and ran a hand over his bristly h ead. They said goodbye and he drove off, dust from his tires rising and then sinking slowly through the still air. In the late afternoon the women and childre n came back a few at a time. It was getting dark before Hawa realized that they had returned without Aissata. Hawa went across the concession to where her mother wa s cubing raw beef on a stone. Have you seen Aissata? she asked. She was with NBakuru, her mother told her. A truck came by and NBakuru stopped them to ask if they could drop her off in Koundian. She wanted to see her brothers. NBakuru took Aissata to show her the old village. Oh no. Something heavy sunk through Hawa Her legs wobbled. She gathered the cloth of her robe in two fists. You let her take my daughter? she demanded. Her mouth was dry and when she breathed it filled with the metallic smell of meat. You didnt think she should be with her own moth er? No one told me this until now?
84 I thought someone had told you, J onkunda explained. NBakuru is my husbands first wife. This is her household I liv e in. The children are hers. What could I say? Shes my only daughter! Hawa exclaimed. What if something happens to her? Shes with her grandmother, Jonkunda said. God willing, nothing bad can happen to her. Theyll be back in two days. No. You know whats happening, mother Im going to find them. Hawa walked toward the hut wher e her things were stored. Its too late, Jonkunda said behind her. There arent any trucks at night on that road. And its too far to walk. You can go tomorrow. Hawa sat heavily on a bench and began to cry. Jonkunda took a seat beside her and held her hands and told her not to worry, that Aissata would be fine. They sat there until Hawa tired from weeping. After a sile nt moment, her mother guided her to the cooking hut and had her help prepare dinner. As she stirred a pot of millet Hawa kept her fear at arms length, not letting herself think about the possibility of circ umcision. She ate with no appetite and afterwards sat up staring at the fire. She had forgotten to rinse her hand at the end of the meal and it hung crusted with dried food at her side. She could hear some of the sisters whispering that she had spoiled this daughter, that she would do better to trust her family to help raise this child a nd not question themespecially her fathers first wife! Hawa ignored them and went to her bed, but she couldnt sleep. The bamboo slats creaked as she rolled over and chewed at her lip, and she was up before the sun.
85 Carrying her leather pocketbook, st ill wearing the previous day s clothes, she walked the narrow footpath across the fields of stubby peanut plants out to the ri ver. There she paid for a pirogue ride to the other bank, then walked out to the road to Koundian. She squatted by the side of the red dirt road and waited and soon the sun came up over the eastern cliff. She had been there for an hour when a pickup truck appeared around a corner, dust billowing behind it. She waved it down and opened the door. Henrik was at the wheel smiling at her, a stack of papers on the seat beside him. She hesitated. Madame! he said, making room for her. Y ou need a ride? Please, get in. She needed to get to Koundian. Hawa climbed up into the cab and sat and thanked him. She looked out the windshield. Where are you headed? she asked. He had seen her in the same clothes the day befo re. She hadnt bathed the nights sweat off herself. To the preserve, to check on the park rangers that we finance. And you? To my mothers village, she said. My daughter is there. Hearing her tone of voice he wa s silent and they started off. The road followed the base of the cli ff, bumping up and down hills lined with bamboo thickets and date palms. They came to a flat clearing of huts and corrals, one great tree in the center, a nd Hawa asked Henrik to stop. She thanked him again as she shut the door. Through the open window he asked if she would like him to wait, if she needed a ride back to Manantali, but she shook her head.
86 Her hands shaking slightly, she walked in to the village. She found a path and followed it toward the big tree. A boy turned onto the path, and she asked him, Do you know NBakuru Soucko, sister of the village chief? Yes, the old one-eyed woman. She came here yesterday. Take me to her. The boy walked a step ahead of her to the big concession by the tree and went into a hut while Hawa stood in the sun. Soon, NBakuru and the boy emerged. Hawa, she said, her good eye pointed at her, youve come. Please sit down. She told the boy to get a cup of water. Hawa refused the invitation to sit, but she was very thirsty and took the cup of water. It was gray with sediment; she sippe d at it, then tossed the rest on the ground. Eldest mother, she said, where is my daughter? She is in the hut with the numumuso with the other girls of age. Hawa dropped the cup and pressed her ha nds against herself and began to cry, thinking of the tarnished iron utensils of the v illage blacksmiths. She took NBakuru by the arm. Please, she yelled, dont let this happen to her! NBa kurus eyes rested on her. Hawa fell to her knees in the dust a nd cried more violently. Her brain and mouth shuddered and words slipped from her control. She thought of the shame of the mark, and the world in which Aissata would grow up, how she should never have come back to the bush, and of the da rk, smoky hut of the numumuso Her body sagged as she cried, until her shoulder touched the ground. She shook in the dust. Red dust stuck to her dress, her wet face, and her hands. She looked up and saw Henrik walk into the
87 concession. He didnt acknowle dge NBakuru and walked over to Hawa and began to kneel, several buttons of his shirt un done, but she quickly got to her feet. Whats wrong? he asked her in French. Are you hurt? He looked back and forth between the women. I came to find you. . . NBakuru threw her hands in the air. S o, she said in Maninga, you bring a white man into our family affairs? You think this will get you what you want? You know no shame, do you! Hawa tried to wipe her face clean with the sleeve of her dress. Mother! she said. I dont know why hes here! I want my daughter back. Where is she? Henrik squinted at them as they spoke to each other in Maninga. Hawa, he said in French, Whats going on? I heard you cryi ng . Did you fall? What is it? Whats happening? Ah, you dont know him! NBakuru crie d. I heard him call you by your name. She looked hard at He nrik, turned her head so her good eye was closer to him. This is not for you, she told him in broke n French. This is not for you. Then NBakuru looked at Hawa and poi nted a crooked finger at her. Of course Ive left your daughter how you want her. Hawa stared at her. You re just trying to keep me from stopping it, she said, putting the fingertips of one hand against her cheek. People will insult our family because of what Ive done for you, NBakuru replied. Ive pleaded with the numumuso to take Aissata with the other girls, but not touch her with the sacred knife. Im your fath ers oldest wife. I wouldnt tell you a lie.
88 Hawas fear receded slightly. I dont believe you, she said, coughing through her tears. Henrik looked at Hawa a nd crossed his arms. His alarm seemed to have given way to mere confusion. Listen to me, NBakuru said. Now your daughter will know shes uninitiatedthe other girls have been blessed, but not her. Shell be too ashamed to be intimate with men before shes married because she hasnt lost the male part of her. But her husband wont know until their wedding night a nd hell be too ashamed to reject her. Hell be ashamed to have married her when she wasnt ready to marry. NBakuru looked into Hawas eyes, sure of these things. Hawa knew these to be the rationalizati ons of an old, desperate woman, one who did not know the world. She knew better than to think that a man could be ashamed by a mistake that was not his own. For her, she realized, there wa s no consequence beyond her daughters painshe thought only of the po ssibility that NBakuru was not telling the truth, or that the numumuso might not heed her wishes. I have to see her, Hawa said, and wiped dust from her eyes. Take me to her so I can be sure. She looked over at Henrik, at his serious expressi on as he stood in the sun, and for a moment couldnt remember how he had gotten there. Everythings fine, she assured him in French, but didnt smile. Ill take you home, he said. Theyre coming from the hut right now, NBakuru said, pointing toward a small hut at the far edge of the concession. Y oull see. Your daughter will be smiling.
89 An old woman in a white dress came from the hut, a leather sack in her hand. Behind her followed a line of small barefoot gi rls in white robes, eyes cast down. Six of them came out, and then Aissata came to the doorway, also dressed in white, also barefoot. She blinked and shook her head as he r eyes adjusted to the sunlight. Then, as her vision cleared, she caught sigh t of her mother and grandmother. She jumped from the doorway and ran toward them. Her mother squatted and lifted her up and held her against her breast. Aissata l ooked at the white man and then at her mothers tear-streaked face and a look of alarm came over the child s features and her eyes grew wet. How are you? Hawa asked her. She ra n her hands over the childs head, down her back. How are you? It was very smoky, Aissata said, her voice weak. I couldnt see. I couldnt breathe. My head hurts. Come along, then, Hawa said. She hefted her daughter onto her back and held her up by the thighs. Henrik said he could go out and check on the rangers another day. They wont be doing their job tomorrow, either, he expl ained. NBakuru refused to look at him. She clambered up into the bed of the truck before anyone could help her. Aissata fell asleep against the door of the cab as they headed back toward Manantali. Hawa, Henrik said, what happened? A family dispute. My mother took Aissata without telling me. Henrik nodded and adjusted his sunglasses.
90 They bumped over the dirt road, palm fronds brushing the door of the pickup. He reached over and put a hand lightly on Hawas leg, his face not moving. She looked out the side window. In the distance the dam towered over the town. She thought of Adama not being in their house; when she could not imagine hi m somewhere he was nowhere at all. And now she too was nowherenot with her husband a nd not with this pale man beside her. She wasnt with her family, her drunken fath er or his harsh, hardened women like the one in the back of the truck glar ing through one eye into the pa ssing bush. They all wanted things from her, wanted to claim her, wanted to fit her into ideas that had nothing to do with her. Hawas clothes were filthy, he r braids coming undone along her hairline. She wanted to rinse herself clean and to wash the smell of sm oke from her daughters fresh skin. She owed nothing to anyone except to do that for her daughter. The dam wall loomed closer and higher and as Hawa looked up at it, it seemed that she was sinking beneath it. She stood at the bottom of a new la ke, the air and people turned to water and fishes. She was alone th ere with Aissata; they didnt need to breathe and they didnt feel the dark chill of the s eawater. Everything that had been pressed upon themthe fear of the ancient and mysterious world, the shame of their bodies, the sense of their inconsequen ce within the workings of some great mechanismwas rising off them in the cool water like dirt from soiled hands. She wiped drool from Aissatas open lips with a dusty thumb. She knew Henriks hand was still on her. It was nothing. It wa s as impermanent as the touch of a breeze.
91 EXPATRIATION I never expected Mary Jean to bike all the way out to my village, but there she was, coasting to a stop when I looked up from my book. I went into my hut to get he r a chair. I straightened my unwashed hair with my hand. As I came out she emptied her water bot tle and I took it and re filled it from my cannery. Her face was flushed and whorls of blond hair lay glued to her forehead. You didnt wear a hat, I sa id as I handed the bottle back. She had worked in a dermatologists office in Tarboro, Nort h Carolina. She knew about melanoma. She sat under the straw veranda without sa ying anything. Id known her for six months but I still didnt know how to talk to her. Id come straight from college to Africa to be a volunteer. Mary Jean was a careless type of older woman Id never met before. She swore and gulped her beer and didnt pretend to love li ving in Mali. She was broadshouldered and voluptuous, marked up with frec kles and red dust, worn to a beautiful toughness. I was withered by the heat and ins ubstantial diet; I was weathering Africa like well-deserved punishment. She removed her sunglasses and hooked them onto her tank top between her breasts. She smoothed her sweaty eyebrows with a fingertip. Im going home, she said. To Dialakoto? You just got here. Mary Jeans village was across the river from Manantali, near the dam. Th e people there lived in the shadow of progress. They were
92 farmers like everyone else, but because of their daily reminder of the worlds disproportion, they expected more from us th an the others did. They wanted handouts. No, Alan. She sighed and leveled her gaze at me. Except for her light blue eyes and pale complexion, her face was like those of the local Malink women: sharp cheekbones, full nose and lips, small ears se t high and flat against her skull. I often exasperated heror di sappointed her, I could neve r tell. She didnt believe I was as idealistic as I claimed. She thought we all had other, real reasons for coming to Africa. I swallowed a mouthful of bleached water a nd looked back at her blankly. I wanted her to stay, but I couldnt think of a reason to tell her. I cros sed my legs as I tugged at the baggy pants the village tailor had made me, a colorful cloth sack with holes and a drawstring. Why would you leave? I asked. Id survived half of the two-year term of service and leaving had never been an option. I didnt know anything except my mothers house and school and that mud hut My own work had consisted of a few meetings about cleaning up the marketplace and fixing some broken hand pumps. Once Id told the chief that the vill age would have to raise the money to pay for it, hed deemed it too expensive. This is something we wa nt very much, hed said. You have explained it to us very well. If you can help us, we would appreciate it. I hadnt spoken to him in months. Im not getting anything done here, Mary Jean said. I tr ied the fruit-drying project, it didnt work. Neither did teaching th em about soybeans. I mean, fuck it, Alan. They want jobs at the dam. They dont ca re about the protein in soybeans. Theyve never taken me seriously.
93 Her Malink was still poor. And she was a woman. On Thursdays we would stroll through the market and the men would eye her ass and chest and shake my hand in a twofisted grip as if greeting a di gnitary. Is this your wife? th ey would ask me. Yes, she would interject, to asse rt herself and to ward off any mo re questions. It was exhilarating to know she needed me there. Dont look so proud of yourself, she would say as we walked on. She sipped her water and looked off distract edly at the line of red stone cliffs. I wanted my belief in our work to be e nough for the both of us. I felt a heaviness beneath my sternum and put a hand to my chest. Theres plenty of time to do a lot of good work here, I said. Something sustainable. You could teach in a school like they talked about in training. If I wanted to be around kids, I would have stayed home and had some of my own. But that wasnt quite true. Mary Jean had told me about it once. Shed been dating a married man whod dragged his feet after pr omising to leave his wife and daughter for her. She threatened to go to Africa. Then she really did it. Sh e was still corresponding with him. Youre going back to Greg? I asked. Did I tell you about that? No, I said. Well, yes. At the bar. Oh. Did he leave his wife? No. Not yet.
94 Will it help to go back? She sighed again and her voice quavere d. I hate feeling useless. It was a long ride out to my village. Shed really wanted to talk to me. I know what you could do, I said. Sta rt up that chicken-raising project the villagers were intere sted in. Have them construct a coop. Get some money for the feeders and chickens and all that. Maybe. She stuck out her lower lip. The villagers can sell the eggs. She looked up hopefully. We could sell them to the dam workers in Manantali, she said. Get somebody to take them door-to-door by bike. Oh, sure, I said. Theyll buy from you. The Europeans and South Africans who worked on the dam had modern houses in their compound in Manantali. Their maids were home all day enjoying the air conditioning, mesmerized by soap operas and circus performers on French satellite TV. Mary Jean drank with these dam guys at the bar; they were middle-aged, with mustaches and collared shirts, pagers squeezed against their potbellies, and th ey loved her brashness and appetite She matched them beer-forbeer, peeled and ate mangoes with her hands, la ughed at their come-ons, cursed them out when they left to get back to their maids. They would put some money toward eggs as a favor to Mary Jean. She could help her village rs get their hands into the dam-money pot. I suddenly regretted mentioning it. Maybe Ill do that, she said. It so unds like it could work. She reached over and rumpled my hair. Thanks for the pep talk, Alan. I jerked my head away.
95 Hey, she said, dont get testy. Im ta king your advice. One more try. Maybe well save the world together. She laughed at her own joke. I stopped by Dialakoto two weeks later. I was on my way to Manatali to pick up the monthly care package from my mother. I biked into the village from the main roa d. Mary Jean and a handful of shirtless men were outside her hut nailing wire mesh to a wooden frame. A low wall of mud bricks dried in the sun. Mary Jean and an African man were laying a sheet-metal roof over the wall and securing it with rocks. Sh e wore sunglasses and her pants were rolled up inappropriately high, above her knees. Her calves flexed as she leaned forward onto her bare toes as she adjusted the roof. You and your work, I said in Malink. You and your travels, the Malians replied. Mary Jean slid a rock into place. She and the man had been laughing about something. Hi, Alan, she said in Englis h. She slipped her sandals on and dusted off her hands on her gray tank top. The darken ed skin of her bared shoulders shone with perspiration. Youre following through w ith the project, I said. Yeah. Weve got chickens, and well be done with this today, we just need some feeders. I got some project money and these guys were willing to help out. She didnt mention that it had been my idea. The man came over and offered me his for earm because his hands were dirty. His beard was scruffy and he was missing a toot h. Mary Jean introduced him as Famory.
96 She explained to him that we worked together and that I lived in Koundian. Her Malink was choppy but he followed it. He asked after relatives of his who lived in my village, and I said they greeted him. Ive been in Mali for a year, I told him in French. Yes, he said. Dont those pants make it difficult to ride a bicycle? He laughed and slapped my shoulder. He told me how he and Mary Jean had gone to the regional capital and bought twenty big coop-raised hens and a rooster wi th spurs as long as his index finger. Tubab chickens, he called them. White-people chickens He had them in a box in his hut. He offered to show them to me, but I told him no thanks. Did you pay for his transportation cost s? I asked Mary Jean in English. What, his ticket? Yeah, I paid with my own money. He said hell pay me back. It was a thousand francs, Alan. And he knew wh ere to get the chickens. She peeked at Famory, uncomfortable talking about him while he stood there. She shook her head at me. Im just trying to make sure this happens, okay? We needed to get it off the ground. I took out my water bottle and sipped from it. Shed paid a dollar-fifty for his ticket. Still, according to the country bureau, sustainable development meant no freebies. No cadeaux Though these people lived on food they grew themselves, we had to teach them self-sufficiency. I was idealistic, and Id never been tempted to give things away. The rules made sense to me. Whats that? I asked brightly, pointi ng to the men hammering at the wooden frame.
97 The run, she said. The outdoor area. Why do you need that? I asked. Cant you just let them out to run around and then put them back in? They have to be cooped up, she told me. She was still irritated. Otherwise the rooster fucks them all and we get fertilized e ggs with little bloody embryos in them. We want pure eggs. No debris. No contamination. Oh. Famory smiled at us patiently a nd Mary Jean crossed her arms. Id gotten her to stay but stil l hadnt made any progress. I couldnt help wanting to follow the rules or not knowing about the chic kens. I stood there bruised. Id hoped she would be more thankful about recommending the chicken project to her. We just looked at each other. I backed my bike toward the pa th. Well, I should get going, I said. Ill bring your mail if you have any. Okay. She nodded and watche d me through her sunglasses. I wheeled the bicycle around and rode off. At the post office I picked up the mail and strapped it to my bike. I rode through town to a house by the river the few volunteers in the area shared, an old concrete hut with electricity and running water. It was locked and I let myself in. I sat on the couch. My mother had sent me five glossy magazines, a box of cookies, and a photograph of her and two ot her divorces in Bermuda. She stood in a swimsuit beside a table shaded by an umbr ella, a towel around her waist, holding a cocktail and squinting into the sun. Wed spent a long, intimate m onth back in her condo in Scarsdale before I went overseas. My moth er had believed I would return from school
98 to save her from her loneliness, but she was wrong. I was there to leave. I stood in her kitchen and showed her my ticket to Africa, the departure date printed in a small box in the corner. She handed it back without a word. Our days were stewed in he r bitterness toward my father and his new wife. She woke up late and sent me on errands and by the time I returned she would be drinking and mumbling over old pictures of us. She didn t hesitate to compare my leaving to his. Between long wounded sighs she joked that he r cooking would convince me to stay. She burnt elaborate mid-afternoon meals of fish and foreign vegetables in membranous cream sauce. She eyed me as I ate. She said she would have to mail me things in Africa to keep from worrying that she didnt car e enough for her only child. I to ld her to drop the act. I was going to go do something important. Her note was the usual harangue about wan ting me to come home. At the bottom shed written in an uneven script that my father was having his vasectomy reversed. Remember how I used to tell you he didnt want you to have a little brother? she wrote. Did you ever believe me? But Id always only allowed myself partial, guarded belief in what she said. In her hands, the facts of our lives were like faces pinched and squeezed to smile or grimace or bare teeth. I hadnt trusted her then and I didnt trust her now, even if everything shed said was true. I put the letter aside and pulled the box of cookies into my lap. It smelled like my mothers pantry. I sat in the cool gloom of the house and devoured the cookies quietly, dissolving each one into suga ry paste with a mouthful of water. When the box was empty I tipped it up and swallowed the loose crumbs.
99 I picked up my mothers lett er again. Actually, I d ecided, she sounded cheerful. She was always sentimental about our month t ogether, always painted it idyllically. For some reason that didnt upset me; I liked to read about how happy we were. I couldnt quit and go back, and Africa never let up. Afri ca never gave me a moment to really determine where I was. In this turbulen t confusion, her false memories buoyed me. Remind me again of why you re over there, she prodded me. Like Mary Jean, she didnt believe I could be driven so far by ideal ism, or if I had bee n, that it was a foolish misunderstanding. She thought I was trying to enact some imaginative fancy, like Id dreamt of flying and after awaking had gone out and jumped off the roof. I dont know why Im over here, Mom, I wh ispered. To get away from you. It rang true. My mother was insufferable and Id come to Africa to get away from her. Now that purpose felt childish and I waited su llenly for some new purpose like a devotee awaiting grace. I put the letter down. I took the other envelope from the table a nd held it close to my face. Greg had written Mary Jean. His handwriting was sma ll and faint, the impression of the pen tip visible in the waxy paper. Her name, the to wn, the country. No numbers. I ran my fingertips and then my dry lips over the envelope smelled it, but it was flat and blank as a silhouette. She was drinking tea with Famory under her veranda. Her hair was tied back with a bandana and she sat with her legs were cros sed under her skirt. I greeted them and he asked me to sit and have some tea. I declin ed and stood with my loose pants draped over the frame of the bike. Famory emptied the gla ss, refilled it, and ha nded it to Mary Jean.
100 Youre not worried about TB? I asked. She shrugged and drank it, then licked her lips and dried them on the shoulder of her shirt. She smiled at Famory as if apologizing for me. You got a letter, I said. She looked up at me. Her forehead was smudged with dirt. Blue eyes and red mud. She reached over and t ook the letter from my hand. Its from Greg, I said. She looked down at it. Did I tell you about that? Yes. At the bar. I told you that before. Yeah, she said casually. She put the e nvelope on the bench beside her without opening it. A letter from America? Famory guessed. Thats good. To the villagers any demonstration of a world larger than the village, any trip to the city or staticky phone call, any distant wor d, was an unequivocal good. They listened for hours to radio broadcasts in languages they di dnt understand. Id sought a dark isolated corner of the world and found myself surrounde d by people who valued even the emptiest ritual of connectedness. No wonder Ive found only unhappiness here, I thought. Solitude is a sin to these people. Dont judg e me because I came here to get away from people, I thought as I looked at Famor y, I thought it would work. But he was busy measuring more water into the teapot. And in my solitude, the importance of th e people in my life had grown out of control. I felt my unfulfilled l ove more strongly than ever. It seemed that my feelings for
101 Mary Jean and for my mother might squeeze me right out of my own life, that I might disappear. Im going back to village, I said. Greet the people there for us, Mary J ean told me, and waved at me as if conferring the message on me bodi ly, or maybe shooing me away. They will hear it, I said out of habit. The villagers would ask after the people Id seen, and I would say the words for them. I returned to Mananta li three weeks later. I got to the post office in the morning. The postmaster had no mail for us and I coasted down to the volunteer house. I stood under the showerhead at the voluntee r house and rinsed the red dust and the heat of the village sun from my skin. I need ed to savor some soft poolside sun, purge the foreign words and formal handshakes and sme ll of livestock. Mary Jean had convinced one of the dam bosses to let us use the pool in the dam-company compound. They might have thought theyd get to see her there in a bathing suit, but she only went around midday, when they were busy inside the dam. I put on a bathing suit and tee shirt and walked up to the compound. At the empty wood-paneled bar I bought a beer and borrowed a French news magazine. I could see her though a window sunning on a white plastic pool chai r. The straps of her bikini top hung loose from her shoulders. She had empty bo ttles on her left, full ones on her right. I finished my beer and got anot her and went out to the pool. I dragged a chair across the deck and sat beside her. Hey, Alan, she said. Hello. I didnt know you were in town.
102 Well, Im in town. She reached for a beer. So, I said, trying to tell through her s unglasses if her eyes were open, whats been going on? How are the chickens? She took a drink. Oh, the fucking chickens. Everything in this country is so damn tiring. She rested her beer bottle on her bare stomach and looked at the still surface of the water. That letter from Greg wa snt good, she said. T he one you brought out to Dialakoto? He moved back in w ith his wife. For the kids sake. I mean, fine. But it just feels like, I dont know, its hard to say if maybe Im messing that up by being here. I read the letter and had to get out of my v illage for a while. I stayed at the volunteer house for a few days. I come here during th e day and go out to the bars with the dam guys at night. Are you leaving? I asked. I dont think so. Are you dating someone? She shrugged. She lifted the bottle and it left a circle of water on her skin. Isnt he married? I asked. Doesnt this seem Well, yeah, hes married, Alan. How do you He doesnt even have all of his teeth! She laughed. Alan! No. You mean Famory? No. Jesus. She shook her head and chuckled. No. You know Marcel? Ma rcel was a Frenchman, one of the bosses, a pear-shaped guy Id met a few times at the bar. Im staying at his place in the
103 compound. He has lots of extra space. A nd air conditioning. And hes got a nice bar and a bunch of pirated movies from Hong Kong. Oh, I said. Thats nice. I drank from my beer. She needed someone to take care of her. Of course that wouldn t be me. What about the chickens? I know, she said. Last week I started to feel guilty about bailing on the project. I told Marcel I was going back to Dialakoto to finish it up. The guys and I still needed to make feeding troughs and perches. Of course Marcel wanted me to stay here. He engineers billion-dollar hydroelectric dams. He wasnt sold on the importance of the chicken coop. So I took off while he was at wo rk. I mean, shit, I left a note saying Id be back in a week. She waggled her head as she spoke, relaxe d and forthright. The creamy smell of sunscreen came off her. When I got to village they were happy to see me. The guys were excited. We were sitting around talking about what we need ed to do when Marcel pulls up in his bigass truck. A couple of Senegalese welders who work for him had made the troughs and perches. They put them in the coops. He was a big fucking hero, everybody thanking him and shaking his hand. Well, I said, thats just bad policy. Mary Jean laughed and snorted. Well, it wasnt fucking development, Al. He came to strut around and give his boys orde rs and take me back to Manantali. I mean, you cant just hand stuff out, I said. Its not sustainable. She settled into the chair, her eyes hidden. What can I do? she asked. I cant just take it all back.
104 I guess not, I admitted. She thought we were all here for reasons other than altruism, so it didnt make any di fference whom she was in bed with. She looked at me and then up at the clear s ky. Did you come out to get some sun? You should take your shirt off if you dont want a farmers tan. Oh, I said. No thanks. I tapped th e mouth of the bottle against my teeth. I didnt need to take my shirt off in front of he r, even if it would have impressed her, which it wouldnt have. Shed settled for someone here and it hadnt been me. So did you come back here with Marcel? Mary Jean put the bottle down and leaned he r head back as if preparing to nap. They got their chickens, right? She drifted off to sleep. I drank a few more beers and flipped thr ough the magazine. In the early afternoon I collected our empties and Mary Jean awoke Alan, she said groggily, Marcel and I are going to the bar in town tonight. Well stop by the house and pick you up. I looked at her laying there in the sun, oiled and strong. I didnt know why shed invited me. So I agreed and left. That afternoon in the volunteer house I sat on the couch drunk and composed a letter to my mother in my head. I told her Id come to Africa to get aw ay from her. I told her Id lost my idealism, that she was finally right, and that I still wasnt coming home. I told her I was lovesick for a woman who loved married men. I told her she needed to get over my father because he was married, too. There was always some man more desirable
105 than me, someone unattainable. Why didnt th ese women want what they could have? Why was I never enough? I picked up a book from the table: Travels in West Africa by a nineteenth-century English colonist. On the cover tribal caricat ures danced in a jungl e clearing. I opened it to the middle. We found these local people to be strong, proud savages, the Englishman wrote, handsomely decorated, keen to aid us but also keen to gain from us any possible favor or benefit. I lay back on the couch and rested th e book on my chest. The Africans would probably say the same about the whites, I though t. Strangers always seem prideful and beautiful, eager to give and to get. P.S., I told my mother, Ive figured out th e purpose of my coming here. It was a world of strangers. Th at was all Id wanted. I sat outside as the sky went dark and the creatures in the tall grass began clicking and singing to each other. Marcel and Mary Jean pulled up in his truck. I went out through the gate and shook hands with Marc el through the window. I greeted him in French. I couldnt help wanting him to like me. Ah, he said in English, youre wearing those silly pants. Do the black girls like them? I just smiled and he told me to get in the back of the truck. I sat on the wheel well and watched them through the glass. They didnt talk to each other. The bar had an open courtyard where the wh ite bosses and their top guys sat. We found an empty table. The expats called to Marcel and he winked at them. Teenage boys
106 selling cigarettes and prostitutes copping soda s moved around. The other Malians danced inside. Marcel ordered drinks for us and lit a cigare tte. He settled his belly in his lap and smoothed his widows peak. His polo shirt wa s embroidered with hi s title and his jeans were loaded with beepers and tape measures and electronic instrument s. He didnt look at Mary Jean. You like this? he asked me unclipping a plastic device fr om his belt. It is a thermo-meter. He pointed it at a bottle of b eer on the table next to ours and a small red dot gleamed on the glass. He showed me the temperature reading on a small screen on the thermometer. You see? He put the light on the waitresss rump and pulled the trigger. He laughed and handed me the machin e. It was a malicious laugh, like he was laughing at usat me and Mary Je an and all the Malians there. I took the reading of the pa lm of my hand and nodded at him. How are things going? I asked in French. H ows it going at the dam? Its not producing any electricity yet, right? Mary Jean looked away. Marcel laughed. How is your work? he asked in English. You too, are you raising chickens? Or helping them to fa rm with the little hoes in their hands? Your English is very good, I told him. My mother taught English in France. John and Ihe meant Mary Jeanwe agreed to speak French the one day and Englis h the other day. But this does not happen very much. She narrowed her eyes at him and drank her beer.
107 Marcel smiled at me and slapped his leg. I should do you young Americans a favor, he said. I should br eak this dam for you. One crack it will all break. The lake is seventy miles long. If the dam falls down, th at water will clean out this whole valley. Villages, people, animals, gone. Everyone can start over. Then you could do your development from nothing and maybe it would work. He chuckled. Monsieur! Famory smiled down at us and greeted us in Malink. Mary Jean and I returned his greeting. Marcel waved his ha nd. Mary Jean put her beer behind her chair and tugged her skirt lower on her le gs and invited Famory to sit. He thanked her and remained standing. He addressed himself to Marcel, who listened and looked off across the bar. Famo ry pulled a letter signed by the chief of Dialakoto from his pocket. The corn harves t had been poor, he explained, and there was no food for the chickens. Normally, he e xplained, we let them out to find their own food. He moved his hands to show how they wandered. But to raise tubab chickens, we keep the hens and roosters separate. We hold the females in the coop and feed them. He held the letter out over th e table. Marcel blew a stream of smoke from his nostrils into his mouth then put out his cigarette and crossed his arms. No, he said. I didnt come help you so you would come to me for everything, every time you need ed money. He raised his voice. Save your money. Dont spend it on cigarettes a nd new clothes. Tell the people in your village this. Work hard. You can pay for a small thing like this yourselves. I cannot do this for you.
108 Yes, Famory said. Yes. Thank you. He looked at th e letter like he was surprised it was still in his hand. He excuse d himself, said he had to get back to the village, and left. Fuck, Marcel said. He ordered more beer s. He pointed at Mary Jean and at the gate through which Famory had just passed. You see this? he said. Who is happy now? Who? No one. She looked him in the eye and took her dri nk back out from behind her chair. I watched how she didnt back down from him, her eyes a little squinted at his rudeness. She was tough enough to know she hated him but not tough enough to get out of his house. We had a few more rounds. They didn t speak to each other and we watched soccer on a small television set on the bar a nd got drunk. I asked Marcel about Paris. Go see it, he said in English. Its Paris. There is no comparison to it. What can I explain to you if you havent been there? Eventually we went home. My tailbone thumped against the bed of the truck as Marcel swerved down the road. I held the thermometer in both hands and the red dot danced along the surface of hut s and trees. It lingered in th e dust of the trucks wake, unable to find any measure there. I turned the laser on the cab of the truck and backs of its passengers heads. The dot shook in time with the rutted road. I pulled the trigger and meaningless numbers blinked at me. Mary Jean and Marcel didnt feel a thing.
109 Marcel took us out past the compound to the volunteer hous e. I tumbled out of the truck bed and walked around to Mary Jeans window. She looked at me through her sunglasses. I handed her the thermometer. Khana takha a bata , I said. Dont go home with him. Alan, she said. Ilu te batuke. I kha tu jan. You dont even talk to him. Stay here. Youre a kid, she said in English. You dont get it. I dropped the Malink and fell back into Engl ish. You used to be tough, I said. Feisty. What are you doing? Its comfortable, Alan. I need it right now. She sighed. I yahe n kha mun ke ? What do you want me to do? N yi deme siselu he. An ya ke nyokhon he. Ill help you with the chickens. Well do it together. She pushed her sunglasses up on her head and smiled wanly. Marcel cleared his throat and put the truck in gear. It lurche d and I stepped back. They disappeared up the track. I got the combination lock on the door open and went inside I turned all the lights on. Insects swarmed in from the darkne ss and beat against the window screens. I got my bottle of rum from the cabinet. After a little of that, sitting on the couch with my feet up, I got to feeling lively a nd serious. Mary Jean was making the same mistake I was making: settling for something eas y, letting the important things slip away. I decided to go find her and bring her back to the volunteer house. I locked up the windows and the door and walked up toward the dam-company compound.
110 The flimsy gray ranch-style houses we re identical, down to the bars on the windows. I walked through the compound until I saw Marcels truck in a driveway. I stepped lightly over the gr avel of the front yard a nd stood by a window. I could hear them inside. Why do you have these pictures taped to th e wall? she asked him. I could see her standing examining a series of photographs on an otherwise blank white wall. Why dont you frame them? Why would I put frames on them? he asked. He came into the room with a glass in his hand and stood behind her. Here? Th ere is no one who is looking at them. This is not my real house. She turned around. Why did you send Famory away like that? Youre so rude. I should buy food for their chickens? Absurd. Youre absurd, she said. You bring your big metal feeding troughs and perches and put them in there and you wont even buy food. That doesnt make sense. Oh, oh, he said, anger mudd ling the flow of his English. So now you want that I give more? Before you said, No, dont give them, it is not right. Well, John, you have changed your music now, eh? Me, I do not like to be bothered when I am out at the bar, okay? After I have worked all the day so these people here will have current! I have finished the giving. He sat down at the table. She went qui ckly to the couch and started abusing a remote control. She pouted and narrowed her eyes. She looked younger than Id ever seen her. I held onto the bars of the window to steady myself.
111 You know what, Marcel? she said. Forge t it, then. Forget helping me. Just fucking forget it. And forget this ugly house and your cleaning woman who wont look me in the eye and your pictures of your wife ta ped to the wall. Forget it. I can do better than this. Hell, I can do bette r than this out in village. Mary Jean looked up and saw me. She showed no surprise, just shook her head with fatigue and exasperation. She came to the window and opened it and looked at me through the bars. Ah, Christ, she said. Its just Alan, she said into the house. She turned back to me. Go home, Alan. I heard you, I said. Come with me. Well go back together Ill help you. Alan, she said, dont be ridiculous. You are letting the insects to the ho use! Marcel yelled from inside. Shut up, you fucking frog! I yelled back. A door slammed. Mary Jean laughed. I had the terrifying, ma gnificent feeling that she was seeing me perfectly clearly. Seeing me for the desperat e weakling I was. She touched the bars with her fingertips. Its okay, Al, she said. Ill be by early tomorrow. You can help me with my work. I didnt say anything. The light behind her obscured the features of her face. She said good night and closed the window and the shape of her head disappeared from sight. I sat heavily on the gravel, then lay back a nd ran my fingers thr ough it. I could feel each stone impress the skin of my back and legs and arms and the back of my skull. It was cool and sharp, just enough to keep me awake, and I lay there until the bugs found me and swarmed my face. I got up and walked home. In bed, for the few minutes before I dozed, I could still feel the impr int and the coolness of the gravel.
112 I was up early sitting out in the yard pump ing up the tires on my bicycle, my head heavy and rough, when Marcel and Mary Jean pulled up in the truck. Im going back to village, she said to me through the window. You want a ride? Marcel smoked and watched me in the rearview mirror as I loaded the bike into the back of the truck and climbed in. I avoide d his eyes. He drove slowly, his cigarette dangling out the window, and they didnt speak to each other. I wondered if she was going back to Dialakoto for good. We drove past the compound and across the bridge. Water thundered through gates of the dam, roiling white and then calming and flowing beneath us. On the other side of the river we turned up the dirt road that wound north along the cliffs. Marcel pulled off onto the narrow track that led up to Mary Jeans house. Short cornstalks bent under the bumper. We got out and several villagers came ove r from the neighboring huts, women with babies strapped to their back, chattering childr en. They greeted us and Mary Jean replied and waved. She went to the door of her hut a nd unlocked it. I leaned my bike against a tree and stood in the shade. Famory appeared and walked straight up to Marcel. Ah, monsieur! he said and shook his hand. No, Marcel told him. Mary Jean hurried over. Famory, she sa id in Malink, Im back. Well get food for the chickens now.
113 Thats good! Famory said. But they re already finding food for themselves. Weve given two to each family who put in money. Theyre out and running with the other chickens. He smiled at her and point ed to a large white chicken. It scampered under a granary, pursued by a scrawn y brown rooster. You see? Famory, she said, there wont be any eggs. No, he conceded. No, no eggs to sell in Manantali. But they are good, big chickens. But if they have to scrounge for food, she said, and theyre mixing with the little village roosters . She put a hand to the side of her face. It would all come to nothing. A few families would have a few good meals and then things would be right back to norm al: undernourished poultry scurrying around, the gene pool diluted and weak all over again. It was like fighting the tide. Mary Jean sat heavily on a bench and put her head in her hands. We could do better than this, she said. She c overed her eyes with her fingers. No one said anything for a few minutes. Most of the village rs wandered off. Famory asked Marcel for a cigarette and th ey stood smoking, looking at her and then looking off at the cliffs. I stayed in the sh ade of the tree. I knew she was deciding to leave. She got up and told Marcel in English that she wanted to go back to Manantali. Her eyes were dark and puffy. Her forehead was smudged with red dust. She went into the hut. In a few minutes she came out with a bag over her arm and a few books and put them into the truck. Marcel got be hind the wheel and started the engine. Mary Jean handed me the key to the hut. Well, she said, it didnt work, Alan.
114 What didnt work? All of it. The project. Being so tough and coming here. The chickens were just one thing too many. You never know. Sometimes you know. Write me and tell me if it works for you. But I need to get home and take care of my life. She hugged me and touched the back of my head. I was surprised that she was shorte r than me, that her head just touched my collarbone. She said goodbye to Famory and got in the truck. Alan, she said, do you want a ride back to Manantali? I walked out of the shade into the sun. No, thanks, I said. Ill stay here. She smiled at me and they drove away. Famory looked over at me. She left, I told him in Malink. Yes, he said. She left. To go be w ith the big boss in Manantali. Hes an important man. No, I said, shes going home to her family in America. Oh. When will she come back? We could hear the truck pull o ff the track out onto the road. Famory, I said, if we catch all the tubab chickens and put them back in the coop, and I help you, can we get enough food for them? I dont know, he said. But we could try. Yes.
115 A gaggle of boys in tattered shorts sti ll stood watching us. Famory called them over and explained what we were to do. They lined up and shook my hand like little men. Famory and the boys and I chased the twenty frantic chickens and their rooster under benches, through thickets of brush, in a nd out of huts and granaries. Those birds were fast, but we were cunning and tireless. We ran, knees bent, fingers splayed low to the ground. We cornered them, cut off their escape routes, called and pointed to each other. We laughed at our missteps and cheer ed our victories. Under the hot sun we assembled and charged, voices raised. Feathers stuck to our arms and faces and settled in our hair. Grit settled in our mouths and eyes. It took us all day. By the time we finish ed it was dark, and th e village was alive with cooking fires and voices.
116 ARBITRAGE Gerard gave the girl what he owed her and, when she didnt get up, left her in the darkness of the hut and came out into the cour tyard. He shaded his eyes and blinked in the sunlight. His sunburned scalp tingled wh ere his hair was thi nning in front. Four children sat on a reed mat sawing the heads off some perch with dull knives. He watched their little hands caked with dirt and blood. The girl had made him feel much better. Not all the way better, but the simple physical vigor had given him his confidence b ack. Africa was raw and pure. To him, Africa was true, truer than France had ever b een. He didnt even smell the fish. He hadnt thought about Catherine in half an hour. He wanted to look at the car again. A beer, he told the children. He wa lked across the courtyard and through the empty restaurant and out to the front veranda. He sat in a plastic chair and lit a cigarette. The dusty black BMW stood in the harsh sun. Hed taken the top down. The car had fared well on the road down from France. The shocks still felt strong and the engine was taking well to the tainted fuel. The b ackseat overflowed with spare parts. The engineers had done a good job remodeling the M3 ; on straight-aways the engine surged hungrily. It had even run well in the desert, once hed lo wered the tire pressurehed only had to lay down the ladders for traction for one twenty-mile stretch. He licked perspiration from his lips. He hadnt shaved or bathed since leaving Nouakchott a week before. This wasnt a symptom of depression; he was following the advice of a book hed read years before about a Mexican priest on the run who
117 considered a good sweat a better cleansing than any bath. It flus hed out each of the bodys thousand pores. A body took care of itself. Hed lived in Africa for five years, thr ee there in Manantali. Then hed gone home to France when his mother died. A frie nd there offered to let him run his garage. But it had been hard to stay, though the da m company in Manantali had continuously disrespected him, calling him in at all hour s and never raising his salary. He loved relishing what others feared or distruste dthe heat, the danger of desperate populations, the bacterial invasion, the women. Gerard loved African women. Their seri ousness gave way to such feminine acquiescence. Not submissiveness: their eyes were still hard, and th ey would still laugh when he kissed their lips. But the way th ey unwrapped their skirts and lay back and grunted, dry and unfeeling as the red-rock road s, the way they spoke afterward of their children and of pulling water and collecting firewood, it was clear that, even though he paid, to do this for him was feminine duty. To gether he and they were acting out a vital ritual, something timeless. Here he was a man and he was understood. For that, and for the possibility of making some money, the heat and the dust and the stink of fish were well worth it. Throughout his earlier year s in Manantali hed been single, and appreciated by the local prostitutes as a st eady source of income; hed known on the way here that hed fall back into thatthat hed be comforted by it, if he was going to be honest with himselfas soon as he arrived, no matter how recently he and Catherine had been together. He didnt miss her, exactlyhe felt too good for that. He thought of her in the heavy old-fashioned dress shed been wearing when he saw her in the dining room of his
118 mothers apartment in Lyon. Theyd known each other in grade school and shed shown up at his mothers wakehad even attended the funeral hed missed. Hed survived Africa and shed survived the love of a desp erate, lachrymose alcoholic. Her hair was dark and her skin palea photo negative of th e white women who lived in Africa. They saw each other every day. She appreciated hi s stoic way of getting drunk with her in front of a TV or in the back room of the garage. They were both wearier than they deserved, at thirty-five, and fell in together with all th e ceremony of an afternoon nap. Where was his beer? He turned an d Jeneba was coming through the doorway with it. Gerard! How are you? How is France? He smiled and shook her hand. She sat and opened the bottle for him. Youve fixed up the re staurant, he said. She looked him over. Hed come to her restaurant every day when he lived in Manantali, when hed worked for the dam comp any, maintaining their fleet of trucks. He knew he was in rougher shape now, rail thin. He hadnt realized the road to Bamako would take him through Manantali until that morn ing, when it diverged from the railroad. He was immediately filled with nostalgia for the comfort of life there, the simple life of the village that had grown up around the basic expatriate outpost. The company had put in the dam, a cluster of elec trified huts for workers, and a fenced compound of ranch houses for the bosses. The spaces between th ese three elementsthey didnt want them too closehad filled with mud huts, shops a marketplace, bars, restaurants, whorehouses, bicycle repairmen, auto-parts de alers, carpenters, and blacksmiths. He needed nothing here; the essentials were within always reach. He believed that everyone
119 had a place in the world where he was self -sufficient, a place he had discovered for himself, or a place where he felt the possibili ty of discovering himself. The opposite of home. Home was the place where need and dependence lay like a web over everything. We bought the hairdressers ne xt door, Jeneba said. Ah, he said. Jeneba looked larger than he remembered, more voluminous in her loose, bright robe and head-wrap. Her face was pleasant and round. Her broad smile gave her eyes a clever look. She was thriving in this bastard town, half village and half foreign-business venture. Her husband Ouma r, that big drunk, had nothing to do with their success. Gerard pa tted her arm. You brai d hair now? he asked. We have girls who do it. She looked at him seriously and he withdrew his hand. The girls work for you? he asked. We rent them rooms. I met one of them, he said. I know. Her French is very poor. Where is she from? Shes Nigerian, Jeneba said. Dont you Europeans speak English? He laughed. Ive missed you. Really? I was very happy here, he said. A fricans dont understand. Every time, by plane or car or however, Im th ankful to get back here. Will you stay long?
120 He shrugged and drank from his beer. It felt so good to be backso liberating that it seemed a shame to think about the dura tion of his stay. Eventually he would have to move on and sell the car, but for now he was far from Lyon, from the clanging of metal tools and the nasty hiss of the compresso r. In Lyon hed been forever dependent: on his customers paying and being happy enough to return, on the next customer arriving, on the slapdash team of men he worked w ith. Hed been dependent on Catherines moods being sunny if he wanted sex or ev en civil conversation. And hed been incessantly depended upon: he could feel lik e a heavy hand on his arm the dependence of his ignorant customers (always di strustful, always ready to see him ripping them off), the dependence of his penniless friends and cousin s, and of course Catherines needy love more than a hand; a body sleeping seductively ac ross his lap while he sat thinking of past freedom. Jeneba sighed and looked stra ight at him. Gerard, sh e said, Patiences child is very sick. Who? The girl. Her child is sick. Yes, she told me. I wasnt sure if I could believe her. You understand. Its true. Im sorry about that, he said. She said you didnt pay. She lied to you. The girls get a thousand francs. Thats the price.
121 Well, I offered five hundred and she accepted. In Africa, everything is negotiable, right? One big marketplace. The problem was the Westerners who came and didnt follow the rules. They paid what th ey could afford instead of what things were worth. It skewed everything. The whites e nded up paying more and the venders stocked only enough bottles of soda or batteries or ba gs of rice to sell to the whites at a large profit. They had nothing left over for the other Africans. Gerard, her daughter is sick. He drank the rest of his beer while she waited for a final word. Im not just being stingy, he told her. Im broke. I drove through Gibraltar with a convoy. We had five cars to sell in Niger then we were going to fly back to France. Its not so easy now that we cant go through Algeria. We got se parated. Now Im on my own. I have to sell the car Im driving so I can get back. Separated? They got lost? In Mauritania. The desert. He pictur ed Catherine and Albe rt sitting on a sand dune, their backs against the door of the Mercedes. Maybe theyd held hands. Or had it been too hot even for that? Theyd been in Morocco when hed firs t noticed what was going on. They were staying in Marrakech for a few days and he was getting paralyzed with drink every evening. She thought hed passed out but he heard her leave th eir hotel room and managed to rouse himself and follow her. He watched them from a rooftop and didnt even swat away the urchin who came and wa tched with him. Hed attributed her detachment to the excitement of the trip. Sh ed lied to him about needing him as much as he needed her and this unearthed a rage in him, hot and still, that he hadnt known before.
122 Some hard, animal chunk of his brain knew he shouldnt make a scene, that there would be a better opportunity to exact justice. Wh en they hit the Sahara he convinced the group to put most of the spare parts into the BMW with him. He loaded up extra water and fuel while they ate dinner around the fire and drove off as they slept. He got to Nouakchott by dawn and then diverged from the planned ro ute. He guessed they would stop there or else go straight to Dakar and leave the contin ent to him. The atte ntion to planning, to traveling efficiently and safely alone, distracted him from re gret. He could sell the parts and the M3 in Bamako and fly home and forget about the car and about Catherine, about the sound of her voice mingling in hi s mind with the echoing call of the muezzin Those memories were already worn out, beyond usel essfinally ready, by African standards, for the torch. And now he found himself in Mana ntali, familiar after a ll the years. It was as if nothing had changed. He concentrated a nd could feel himself almost as free as he had felt the first time hed arrived. You couldnt spare the girl five hu ndred more francs? Jeneba asked. What? No. If she would do it for less, one thousand is unfair. I know how it is here. You do? Yes. I love Africa. Jeneba nodded. I suppose you do. She broke a piece of straw from the thatch fence and picked her teeth w ith it. Wheres your car? He pointed over the low wall that separated the restaurant from the street. It was a beautiful vehicle. The spare parts glinted from the back seat. Theres no roof, Jeneba said.
123 Its folded down right now. She clicked her tongue in understanding. B ut your spare parts arent locked up, she said. They could be stolen. People here are trustwort hy, he said. Hed once s een a captured thief in Bamako. Theyd trussed the man up, beaten him with sticks, and then given him to a band of children. The children dragged him down the street and rolled him into a sewer. Wounds gaped open down his back and legs. He looked up at Gerard, his bloody eyes casting desperately around, an anim al fallen into a hole. That s the system, Gerard knew, in a place where livestock are unfenced a nd walls are mud. That s deterrence: the harshest punishment for the easiest crime. Europeans wanted so badly to change this place, to fix it. There was nothing to fix. There are bad people around, Jeneba said. He brushed that away. He laughed for no reason. He adjusted himself and felt the satisfying prickle of his skin. He ha dnt come back to Africa for the money, though the profit on the car would be substantial. He was importa nt here, potent, like a tanker moving in a harbor crowded with dinghies. She was studying his face. What? he asked. You need to sell this car? Yes. Would you sell it here? she asked. I know someone. Hell give you more for it than you would get in Bamako. Hes very rich. Hed like this car with no roof. I told you, he sai d, it has a roof.
124 What are you asking? What will he pay? I dont know, she said. Ten million? A lot. That had to be an underestimate, but if the buyer had that kind of money, it was doable. With that money Gerard could stay on in Manantali for months. Theyd bought the cars cheap, fixed them up, and brought them all the way down to take advantage of the minimal supply down there. Arbitrage. There were people who could afford good European cars, important men whod put themse lves in position to have all the things they saw on television. Africa was the greatest concentration of natural resources in the world. There were men with plenty to spend. Hed thought hed have to go to the city to find a buyer, but he preferred to stay in Manantali to sell the M3. He knew people here. It reduced the risk of trickery. As in any small place, reputation was everything. This mans rich? Gerard asked. Youre sure he has the money? Hes very rich, Jeneba said. Just co me back tonight. Then you can make your money and pay Patience what you owe her. He sighed. Some people couldnt see th e big picture, they were always scrounging. He would have liked to help the gi rl, but he thought it be tter to stick to his principles. In Africa, he said, a deal is a deal. Fair is fair. She nodded. She turned without saying a nything and went back to the kitchen. Gerard drove up to the paved road and to the bar where he was renting a room. He gave a boy in the parking lot a coin to wa sh the convertible. U nder the veranda he ate
125 half a chicken and drank a few beers while a w hore in spandex swallowed soda as fast as he could pay for it. In his square concrete-block room he washed up at the sink and tucked in his black tee shirt. He was too drunk to shave. He would grow a beard. Catherine had always wanted him to stay clean-shaven. Your face shows your true age, shed told him as they lay in the backseat of a Land R over with a broken axle. She ran the backs of her fingers against his stubbly chin. Thats how I knew, as soon as I saw you again, that I wanted you. I knew, that moment we passed each other in the door of that horrid shoe store, that youd changed. It didnt matter into what. People who know change know each other. And she kept changing, as he settle d into the easy rhythm of their quiet life. It had been her idea to invest in the cars and go down to Africa with them, and he couldnt, after all his talk, dec line. The road and the ferry at Gibraltar excited her, and he could see that she was changing unpredictabl y, like windy weather. Within a week she would decide that fucking some Parisian with driving gloves was a closer thing to love than what they had. He slicked his hair back with water. He knew that he looked impressive to an African. His value, like th e cars, was elevated. Making money was a game of calculating where the deal was and dragging one self there, despite the inertia and the distractions. It was dark when he returned to the mark etplace. He parked the car at a dramatic angle under a light at the edge of the soccer fi eld and pulled a Bill of Sale from the glove box.
126 Jeneba greeted him in the doorway of th e restaurant with her husband, Oumar. He and Gerard were reintroduced. It was clea r to Gerard that Oumar was here to fulfill the male role of arbitrator or witness. Hi s presence at the restaurant, too, had always seemed unnecessary to its operation. This time youve come as a salesman, Oumar said. He smiled as if hed told a fresh joke. Jeneba went out the back and returned with the buyer. When Gerard stood, his head reached the mans shoulder. His name was Mohammed NDiay e, a Senegalese, and he wore a long purple robe with white em broidery, a small round cap, and wire-rimmed glasses. His head was shaved clean and gray hairs curled around th e edges of his mouth and protruded from his eyebrows. His jo wls were heavy and creased and his belly pushed against the front of his robe. He looked rich enough. A wealthy foreign commerant who wanted a real European car. A serious man, as the Africans said. The men shook hands and sat. Jeneba ha d left and Oumar sat in the corner. Gerard knew enough to ask how the buyers fam ily was doing, and NDiaye returned the compliment. Youre looking for a car, Gerard said. I assume you can give me a better pri ce than I will find in Dakar, NDiaye replied. He cleared his throat and sp at. He mumbled something in Arabic. They went out and looked at the convertibl e. Insects swarmed above their heads. Gerard ran his hand along the curved backsi de of the side mirror. He would buy a motorcycle to get around town, some lightwei ght dirt bike. He could rent a house in Manantali and when the money ran out hed fl y out from Bamako. That might be years.
127 NDiaye laid a hand on the leather upholster y. I like this car with no roof, he said. Ive seen Stphain McQueen drive this car. Gerard laughed and handed him the keys. They got in and NDiaye floored it across the dirt soccer field, red dust crunchi ng beneath the tires. He ground from one gear to the next. The spare parts rattled in the back seat. A group of boys with pushcarts scampered out of the way and whooped. A ch icken leapt into the air. NDiaye swung the car around without slowing and the tires ru mbled over a pile of firewood. They tore back across the field and stopped in front of the restaurant. Gerard caught his breath and removed his hands from the dashboard. What do you think? he asked. He needed money, but it was hard to remember that when he could sense a bout of serious negotiation coming on. He loved haggling prices because he loved the idea that prices were never set, that value depended on ones skill at dealing with people, judging how much they need ed and how much you needed. He never needed as much as the other person. He always came out on top. Whats the price? NDiaye asked. Twenty million. NDiaye pulled on his bottom lip. I will give you ten. So NDiaye knew the market value. They would split the difference. He must have shopped around in Dakar. Do you have the cash now? Gerard asked. Yes. Gerard paused for effect. Eighteen. I will give you twelve. I dont want the spare parts. Twelve for just the car. Some of the parts are for th is car. Youll need them.
128 I wont need them. I can buy parts later. He stepped out of the car. Twelve. Sixteen. NDiaye rolled his eyes. Four teen. He closed the door. Gerard got out and came around to the drivers side. Fifteen. He extended his hand and NDiaye squeezed it. A draw. When they went into the restaurant, Ouma r was gone from his seat in the corner. They sat at a table and Gerard filled in the Bill of Sale. Gerard signed it and then NDiaye signed it in Arabic, a series of waves and dots flow ing right to left. I want to sell those parts, Gerard said. Can I meet you here tomorrow morning? Ill bring the money at ten. Empty the car before then. NDiaye headed for the back door. Where are you staying? Gerard asked. With family. Do you want a ride? No. Ill enjoy the walk. NDiaye left and Jeneba came in from the courtyard. Youre sure he can pay? Gerard asked her. Hes very rich. Hell pay. Gerard sighed and scratched his chest. Im going to celebrate, he said. Will you go see Patience? Jeneba asked. Patience? No. She should learn not to co mplain. There are gi rls up at the bar. He stood and put the Bill of Sale in his pocket.
129 I thought you had no money. Im a millionaire now. I think theyll extend me some credit. He laughed. Jeneba shrugged. If th ey trust you, she said. Gerard wobbled out of his room to the shower. There are no hangovers like African hangovers, he thought. Its hot and dr y, youre always a little sick, and the liquor is cheap and dirty. Why was he here? Beca use Catherine had wanted to come to Africa and because hed become dependent on her. She hadnt got addicted to him that way hed got addicted to her. To his mind, that explained the resentment necessary to abandon them in the desert. It was bioc hemical, like a stroke. Anyway, it was done. In the shower he coughed up some brown li quid. He felt better and rinsed his mouth out. He would get his money and slow down for a while, take it easy. Rent one of the empty houses up at the dam-company comp ound and get a large-bottomed little maid. Buy a television with a satellite. Out at the hotel bar he drank some tea. The bartender totaled his bill. Gerard promised to be back later and pay up. He had no cash left. It was eight. He drove down to the market to see the spare-parts dealers. The M3 rumbled in the mild morning air, well behave d on their last day. He parked by Lassina Kants old metal shipping container beside the soccer field. Lassina had painted his name, the words Pices Dtaches and a lopsided gearwheel on the side of the container. Lassina greeted him warmly and then pawed through the parts in the backseat. He picked out the ones he wanted and laid them across the truckhoses, belts, a muffler, transmission components. It was fewer than half the parts. Thats all? Gerard asked.
130 I dont need any more. Lassina was bett er dressed then the last time Gerard had seen him. He wore a short-sl eeve jacket and matching slacks. What will you give me? Twenty thousand. Gerard looked at him expecting a smile and a slap on the arm. He tasted the residue of old whisky in the back of his throat and his body went weak for a moment. Lassina nodded to assert that he meant what hed said. Thats not even a starting price, Gerard protested. No. Thats the final price. I know you tubabs dont like to haggle. This is worth twenty times that. Lassina waved his hand. Go find someone w ho will give more, he said. These parts arent useful here. Ill have to pay the blac ksmith to modify them. He wouldnt need the money once he sold the car, but the pr inciple mattered to him. He was getting cheated. Lassina, he said, you cant do this. We both see what this is. We both see it plain. He steppe d toward the car and Lassina sighed and, to Gerards surprise, went b ack inside the container. Gerard tossed the parts back in the ca r. He drove around to three more parts dealers. Their prices were all just as lo w. He argued with them over a few thousand francs at a time. His head was still fuzzy a nd he lost track of what theyd offered. He returned to Lassinas rattled with anger and sold him what was left. You people knew about this, he said as Lassina counted out the bills on the hood. You heard I needed to unload these parts.
131 How can you say that? Lassina asked. He glanced up. Weve negotiated. This is the price weve come to. Weve agreed. Gerard took the money from his hand. I wont complain, he said. He pumped the muscles of his jaw. NDiaye or Jeneba had told someone and theyd all been tipped off. But it wouldnt matter in the long run. He didnt have time for principle. He drove back to the restaurant with the car emptied. It was already hot out. He came in and sat and Jeneba brought him co ffee and a scrap of bread. It was ten. Wheres the buyer? he asked. I dont know. Is he late? Nothing on the entire continent could ha ppen on time. Every man with a real income had a digital Taiwanese watch and would proudly report the time to the minute when asked, but nothing could happen on time. Y es, hes late, Gerard said. Did you tell people I needed to sell those spare parts? I didnt tell anyone. Maybe Mohammed told them. That son of a bitch. Well, I got almo st nothing for them. Where is he? She shrugged. Hell come. Gerard sipped his coffee. The yeasty sm ell of the bread turned his stomach and he pushed it to the other side of the table. He put his head on his arms and felt sweat drip from his chin. He dozed. Half an hour later he stood and went into the kitchen. Jeneba looked up from a pot of boiling m illet. Ill take you to the place where hes staying, she said. M aybe hes still asleep.
132 They went out the back into the courty ard. Patience sat on an overturned bucket shucking corn while a child wearing only a belt of beads stood with a hand on her knee. She looked at him blankly through two dark circles of makeup. Oh, your money, he muttered disdainfully. Here. He handed her a soiled bill from the pocketful he now carried. Hed trie d to stick to his prin ciples, but hed gotten sentimental. Id been fair with you, but there you go. Were all happy now. She said nothing. Jeneba didnt seem to notice what hed done. She led him out the back gate and they walked a path between the white c oncrete huts built for the men who had constructed the dam. A channel of filthy wa ter ran down the center of the path and they walked on one side of it and then on the othe r. Huts with their roofs collapsed now penned livestock. Girls with buckets gathered around a sturdy communal wash sink. Gerard and Jeneba entered an empty courtyard. She called out in Bambara and a female voi ce came from inside one of the three huts. They waited in the sun and Gerard felt his vision narrow and lose focus. Where is he? he asked. I dont know, Jeneba said. This is where he was staying? You said hes rich. He signed the contract. This is no place for He has friends here. Family. A woman came out of the hut. She was ol d, her fingers gray with wear, and she shaded her head with a piece of cloth. Jene ba talked with her. Two more women came
133 out, one with a baby strapped to her back. Th ey spoke sharply and gestured at Gerard. They raised their hands in de monstrations of ignorance. Hey! he yelled. Where is he? Wh ere is Mohammed NDiaye? Tell him to come out! The women backed away from him. Jeneba! Tell them hes signed a contract! He pulled the Bill of Sale from his pocket and snapped it in the air. Tell them this is a legal matter! He will go to jail! They watched him and then spoke amongst themselves. Theyre asking if he has your car, Jeneba explained. No. Not yet. But he signed a contract. They say hes gone. Late last night. Th ey say he had his own car and hes gone. This old woman is his brothers wife. Well, ask her where I can find him. She doesnt know. Her husband died y ears ago. Theyre saying NDiaye didnt steal anything. They say that you re right, what he did was bad. But the parts I sold . We had a deal. His skin was so hot; he was sweating, but not enough. His stomach turned over. People were wandering into the courtyard, drawn by the commotion. Oumar stepped forward. Gerard, he sai d. He showed his gap-toothed smile. Whats the problem? Your wife tricked me! Thats the problem! No . Let me see the contract.
134 The sweaty pattern of his own fingers la y on the paper. Gerard handed it to Oumar. Oumar looked it over and laughed, turning his large head back and forth. This is his signature? he asked. Gerard. You didnt read this before? What is this name? Stay-fan Ma-kween ? He handed the paper back a nd shrugged pityingly. Why would he want a car with no roof? In Africa? Gerard threw the contract in the dirt. It has a roof! Fuck! I ve got nothing left! I owe more money at the bar than Ive got! I dont even have money for gas to Bamako! Sell your car to someone else, Oumar said. You know no one here would buy it! Gerard said. He turned to Jeneba. You knew about this. His breath came hard and fast. Oumar tilted his head and raised a finger in warning. We had nothing to do with this, he said. Gerard stepped back. The sun was right on top of him; he could feel it through his scalp, his skull. He looked at Oumar, at Jeneba, turned once all the way around and saw the black faces watching him, the women in bright cloth and the clusters of ragged children. Patience was there, at the open ga te, her child on her hip, her face now rinsed clean. These people whod been asking him for things since hed arri ved. They needed and needed, and took what he wouldnt offer. Their eyes followed him. They were all in on it. They had known he could be taken advantage of. They had known they c ould get his spare parts for cheap, could see him humiliated.
135 But he looked again, as he knees bent unde r him, and he saw that their hands hung slack at their sides. They were as mystified as he was. He thought that he saw NDiayes face in the crowd, but it was someone else. Jenebas arms stretched toward him as he fell. His legs entangled and he passed between her arms. His palms struck the gr ound and split open and he felt the jagged grains of sand in them. He lay like that a nd didnt look up. He kne w that as soon as he looked up he would be stranded. Stranded in Af rica, broke and dirty. He would need to be saved. Someone would take pity on him, take the car off his hands for almost nothing.
136 BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH Sam Worland-Esquith is a native of East Lansing, Michigan. He served in the Peace Corps in Mali from 2000 to 2002. His fiction has appeared in Elysian Fields Quarterly