Stories the Magazines Didn't Want
The train moved, and she lost sight of both men.
That evening, in her hotel room, trying to explain the odd feeling she had had to her friend, Ellen said, “I was so far above it, there was nothing I could do to help that boy. That man.”
“Did you try to help?” asked Claire.
“What could I do?”
“Notify the conductor, I don’t know; you were there, I wasn’t.”
“There wasn’t a conductor—at least not one that I’d seen.” She had a vague memory now of a man collecting tickets. But she didn’t know where he had gone—or what her chance of finding him would have been had she stumbled through the cars (in which direction?), the typical hysterical European woman with a garish story. She could imagine the conductor’s placid face and perfect manners, the manners not really masking his dislike as he assured her, “I will report the incident once we’re in Jonestown, ma’am. What town shall I say the matter occurred in?”
She wouldn’t know what town. How could she?
“Well, it sounds as though you did everything you could,” said Claire.
“But I felt so helpless.”
“Yes, I’m sure you did.” The other woman’s voice was already impatient. There was dinner scheduled in little more than an hour, with a person from tourism, an assistant minister or whatever who would have an entourage. More names to remember. More charm to distribute in small packets, so she didn’t appear to be trying too hard. Claire said, “If you want to impress his lairdship, you had better shower. I have phone calls to make.”
Ellen thought the dinner was dreadful. Daniel Moye, the tourism deputy, had written novels ridiculing a previous government’s leader. He was stout and white-haired, with tribal scars on his brow. He wore a fine gray suit and a Guards tie. “I had expected to be offered a substantial position in our Cultural Office,” he said. “Tourists don’t come here to read my literary work. They come to visit mountain apes and perhaps see policemen shoot poachers. That’s considered a perfect outing. Tell me the truth: if we gave rifles to tourists, would they shoot the poachers for us? A Russian man offered my son money last dry season if something could be arranged. What do you think, Miss Henry? Mostly the men come from across the border. They’re so poor they will risk everything to obtain a young gorilla, even massacring all the adults in a tribe.”
“Did your son accept the money?” asked Ellen, barely audible.
“He certainly wouldn’t tell his father,” said Mr. Moye. “Would you care for more matoke?”
“No thank you.”
“I’ve never tasted really good matoke,” Mr. Moye said. “Sixty-nine years of feasting on matoke, and I’ve never thought it was done correctly. I was much less critical as an infant, of course. Matoke was matoke. Now I wonder if it’s not one of those things that’s simply hopeless.” Mr. Moye got a mischievous light in his eyes. He said, “Madame, have you ever tried long pig?”
Ellen shook her head, wondering if she had heard the term before. “No, I haven’t.”
“It’s an acquired taste, I’m told. Perhaps a couple of the kitchen help could tell us. In the ancien regime, it was a highlight of state occasions. Again, I’m told this. I was never invited.”
“Do you regret not being invited?” said Claire.
“Perhaps a man should try everything once.” Mr. Moye set down his fork. “If only to recognize the flavor.”
Emboldened by a sip of wine, Claire said, “Ellen saw a man stabbed this morning.”
“Sometimes the people drink too much beer, fight over women,” said Mr. Moye. One of the men in his entourage, who had been grinning through dinner, watched Ellen carefully.
“It was from the train, two men in a car junkyard,” Claire explained. “One of them stabbed the other. That’s it, dear, isn’t it?”
Ellen nodded silently. The memory made her ill.
“One of them was undoubtedly a guard,” said Mr. Moye. “People from the villages come to steal. The government has to protect its property. The question, of course, is whether the guard or the thief was stabbed. That is the key, isn’t it?” He was asking Ellen.
“I don’t know,” she managed to say.
“Certainly it is. It tells us whether justice was done. I will make inquiries. I know the place you speak of. You visited Albert Park this morning, yes?”
“The director invited her.”
“I’m sorry I wasn’t informed. Some of my people could have taken you by car, which is also an interesting trip. With a bit of building out, the facilities at the park could be comfortable for European visitors. I’m certain of it. Did you find any problems?”
“No. The director said he might be able to bring in lions.”
“That would be excellent,” said Mr. Moye.
“He was making fun of you,” Claire said, in the midst of packing, “talking about long pig, about knowing the taste. He was seeing if you think that way. You didn’t make a very good impression.”
“I didn’t know that’s what he was talking about.”
“Where have you been? You’ve probably earned yourself a place in his next novel, the Eurocentric virgin who believes the intellectual eats people. He’s a great satirist, and I must say you’re ideal material.”
Feeling brave, Ellen said, “It’s good that I’m ideal in some respect. Do you think they’ll bring lions into Albert Park, if visitors will come?”
“They might,” said Claire. “But the other thing might bring more people, if Mr. Moye can arrange it.”
The girl’s stare was empty. “Other thing?”
“Letting visitors shoot poachers,” Claire said. She watched her friend from the corner of her eye.
“You’re joking,” Ellen insisted.
“Yes, I’m joking,” said Claire.
They had an evening flight. The train took them past Albert Park. Ellen waited a long time for the car graveyard and in the dusk she saw it, acres of crushed metal, the silt of an entire continent for all she knew, protected by a single man with a knife.
We set up our household in a four-room finca of whitewashed walls a hundred yards from the ocean. We could hear the waves, especially at night, and we could smell the beach in the morning when turtle bones spotted the shore. Our tiny house lay at the outskirts of a village that had T-shirt shops and tavernas and a police outpost. There was no hotel, but several of the businesses rented rooms to backpackers who arrived on buses twice a week. The police issued permits for lodging to visitors for a small fee.
The head policeman was a solid bearded man with bloodshot eyes who spent most of the day at a table at the Europa. He drank espresso until about eleven in the morning, ouzo from then until dusk when he climbed the stairs to his rented room. The village tended to be lawless after dark. His only assistant was a young man named Edward who played dominoes for money. I lost a small amount one evening before understanding that Edward cheated. He said he was from an inland city that had been a provincial capital before the war. His father, a tractor importer, was waiting to be executed, but it had been two years since his trial and the government had not carried out the judgment. Edward had stopped writing to his father. Waiting for his legacy made him depressed.
As they both told stories, I thought Edward and Helen might get along. It never occurred to me that Mary would interest him more. She was ten years older than the young policeman, and that was perhaps the explanation. She probably seemed sophisticated.
Edward had the slyness you find among people who believe they can improve themselves. He came to the beach house for lunch every couple of days. He had dark curly hair that seemed rather thin given his youth. His forehead was narrow, as if it had been pinched by forceps. He had poor teeth and licorice breath, but some things seem not to matter. He listened to Helen’s graphic stories of being tortured with no sign of disbelieving them, and he sat outside the house as Mary painted several canvases of the same small area of beach. He didn’t pretend the paintings were any good. The water and sky were too blue, and she put in little scriptlike v’s that were supposed to be birds. Some mornings when Edward didn’t visit, Mary went into the village to shop.
Helen’s stories had a different effect on me. When she pointed to a scar along her ribs, I traced it with my index finger. She claimed she had not minded being disfigured. I took my cues from her, but we were careful not to embarrass Mary.
“When Edward inherits his father’s money,” my wife told me, “he will quit the police and buy a boat for smuggling.”
He might make a good smuggler, but his departure would be a loss to the police outpost. The senior man barely kept records. By making the rounds of small houses near the shore, where he chatted or ate lunch, Edward knew the district’s visitors. He told Helen he had met a couple of her old friends a year ago, cheated them at dominoes and then had run them off. “I’m sorry they won’t be back,” he said, after Helen informed him that one of the men had been arrested and she pantomimed his being hanged. Edward leaned over her intently, casting his own shade. “Please tell me. How long was it before the sentence was carried out?”
“Like a Hindu cremation,” Helen said, “the same afternoon.”
He waved his hand as if that were the way of the world: Innocuous smugglers hanged, a father lingering.
“I watched,” she said. “Piers got his hands around front and almost grabbed the rope while he called me names.”
“It’s not as if you enjoyed seeing your friend hang?”
“I hadn’t seen anything like it before,” Helen said.
I paid the landlord the next morning and stopped at the Europa on the way back to the beach. The senior policeman wasn’t at his table. The proprietor, who usually ignored foreigners, explained his absence. “Poor Garibaldi died in a whore’s arms.” He chuckled. “I think he was in her arms, heh? Suze is too sad to tell us.”
“Will Edward assume his duties?”
“We will see. I hope he takes over Garibaldi’s drinking. Otherwise I am ruined.” A hand rose, dismissing the seriousness of that outcome. “I will drink my own ouzo. Return to the army. I was a corporal in the last war.”
I told him I had been a lieutenant.
“I killed a lieutenant on our side. He was ambitious, a liability to the unit.”
“There are plenty of lieutenants to go around.” I said this not only to be agreeable. It was true.
“Would you care for an ouzo?”
I told him no, not before sundown, and went off on a tour of the other tavernas looking for Edward, who as it turned out was at the police outpost sorting bed licenses. He had a bottle of water on the desk, and a bowl of candy into which his hand kept dipping as if it had forgotten each foray. “I think there will be trouble. My commander sold licenses, then spent the money on women. Did you get a license for the finca?”
“I haven’t notified the people at our headquarters. A few days to make sense of things . . . then they can descend with auditors and what’s done will be on Garibaldi’s head. And what does he care?”
While Mary was on the beach, I twisted the shortwave dial and tried to get news of the war. Sitting cross-legged on my bed, Helen pretended not to be worried.
“The soldiers won’t get here before the weather changes,” she said. “A few weeks, don’t you think?”
I wanted to be more than a few weeks ahead of the vanguard. Everyone knows about drumhead justice. Besides, once the weather changed, and the marshes came back to life, it would be hard to reach the desert. I didn’t think our old sedan could travel muddy roads.
Seeing my concern, she folded up her skirt. She’d had too much experience with armies and police to be worried. As she gathered the fabric neatly at her waist, she said she doubted I had ever been an officer. “You screw me like a corporal,” she said.
Mary went into town shopping that evening. When she came back, she lit a lantern and crouched between us.
“I saw the big policeman’s body. They have him on ice at the Europa.” Her hair was a little wild, and there were bruises on her arms. “The proprietor charges two pesos to look. Edward paid for me. He told me he paid the whore to stick a knife in Garibaldi. You can see the wound.” She touched her chest.
“They had better get rid of the body,” I said. Then, though I was sleepy, I sat up. “Why did Edward want him killed?”
“Edward wants the bed revenue.”
I lay back down. “Edward is going to be disappointed. The army will be here in a few weeks. They’ll occupy all the beds.”
“Especially if the whore betrays him.”
“She’s a cousin.”
“We’ll see what that means.” I thought some more. “Personally, I would send her away before she talks.”
Around noon three days later, we found a small crowd gathered on the beach a few feet below the tide line. They were inspecting a body. It wasn’t recognizable as the police commander’s, and littoral scavengers had removed some of the evidence of a stab wound.
“A soldier,” a backpacker speculated.
Several people agreed. Military casualties had washed up before.
“Where is his uniform?” someone said.
“They rescue uniforms if it’s a sea burial,” a didactic voice responded. “Our forces don’t have enough uniforms that they can be wasted.” The speaker, a spindly older man with a short beard and ragged clothes, set about gathering driftwood to dispose of the corpse, since, he noted, no one could be certain the body wasn’t merely a fisherman’s. In the half mile of beach the onlookers were willing to explore, there wasn’t enough driftwood to make an adequate fire. No one volunteered petrol or kerosene. The older man arranged the wood over the corpse. Pieces of cement sacks were rolled under the arms. The paper burned brightly and the wood that was dry flared and crackled, but in the end there wasn’t enough fuel, the heat was above the body instead of below it, and Garibaldi’s rotund, cooked corpse lay dusted in ashes.
I left Helen and Mary and went back to the house and put a few of my clothes and books in the boot of the car.
When the women returned, they were both doubled-over at the absurdity of the antyesti. “They dragged him out to sea,” Mary said. “He’s lodged on a sand bar. He likes it here.” She stopped laughing. “I agree with him, but not on a sand bar.”
“You’ll like it less when the army arrives and they string Edward up.” I looked at her, wondering if it was possible to get a truthful answer. “Has he given you money?”
“Then you’ve probably nothing to worry about.”
That afternoon jet planes passed far overhead. One flew from the south, the other a few minutes later came from the west. I had no idea what they portended. The planes were very high up.
Mary was gone most of the next day. She said the young policeman needed help destroying bed licenses. This time when I listened to the radio there were different accounts of how far the military had advanced. One broadcast said the northern front had collapsed.
That evening Edward summoned me to the police outpost and laid out his thinking. “You seem like a nice enough fellow,” he said. “I will tell you what my investigation of Captain Garibaldi’s death has uncovered. First, I have found a witness who may testify that the Captain suspected you of being a deserter.” He held up a pinky finger, and I realized he intended to tick off his findings. “Second, it appears you’ve been traveling with a drug smuggler—this woman, what is her name, Helen? Third, the proprietor of the Europa saw you paying the prostitute whom we suspect of Garibaldi’s assassination. Unfortunately, she has vanished. But the circumstantial case against you appears strong.”
He had only three fingers in the air, but they were enough.
“We have about forty-eight hours before the Army arrives,” Edward said. “They’ll want to straighten things up quickly. I realize there may be another explanation for all this, but a harried major might not feel he has time to consider nuances.”
He opened his fingers to show he was being reasonable.
“It would be a shame if I were hanged,” I said.
Edward nodded. “I’m glad we agree. I see no need of arresting anyone before tomorrow.”
It was decent of him, and also practical.
He wasn’t clever enough to have worked it up on his own. In any case, when I got back to the finca, Mary’s belongings were gone, including the dreadful paintings, and of course so was she.
I loaded the car in a few minutes. At the last moment, Helen decided to come along. Despite her bravado, she didn’t like the talk of drug smuggling and hangings.
His daughter should have been along. “Come on, we’ll find some shells,” he’d tried, Chase responding that there weren’t any good shells only fish heads and turtle bones and she would be at the pool. Thirteen years old, she’d become obnoxious since she began growing tits. Maybe there would be a boy at the pool. Turning a boy’s head an inch counted for more than going for a walk with her father, which told him what he needed to know about their future. She’d been a great kid, and they’d had fun until the tits came along.
Chase. What kind of Jew names his daughter Chase? The answer was the kind who had married Blair, daughter of Rhoda, so now there were two generations of shiksa wannabes, Morris supporting both of them.
Most of the women he passed weren’t worth a look. Torsos too long, legs too short, eyes angry from knowing they’d lost the body- shape lottery. Whatever had happened to women who, passing you in swimsuits or even shorts, let their glances shy away so they could be properly inspected?
He could imagine his daughter thirty years on, forty years, thumping the sand with hard feet, mouth set, disappointed in someone, husband, kid, ancient diaper-clad parent. It was easy to picture her sixty pounds heavier, several decades more surly, head small, bottom wide, like a bowling pin daring the waves to knock her down.
He felt protective of the kid, so he couldn’t tell her what he saw ahead. She wasn’t smart enough to have thought that far, to the parent in a diaper.
Ten minutes, Morris gives up on the lighthouse, returns to the condo. They have a rental unit right across the grass from the enclosed pool, pretty quiet. Chase is on the screened-in sitting area of the apartment, drinking something (iced tea, he is pretty sure), a magazine with photographs of women who had to be celebrities open on the table. He glimpses a headline, “Hookups & Breakups,” and figures that is just great. No reason Chase should be reading teleological stuff on vacation.
“How was your walk?” she says.
He stops, wondering if he should tell her: Revelatory, your future is to become middle-aged.
He settles on “Not bad,” willing to let it go at that, but celebrity breakups have lost her attention for a moment, and she says, “Were there good shells?”
“There were a zillion of them along the rack line, all of them smashed. More like pulverized. Millions of them.”
“You got some sun.”
His neck is sore. He’s gotten a burn.
“Why didn’t you wear Mom’s sunscreen?” she says.
He had wanted some color to take back to Chicago. If he admitted that, she would respond with practiced teenage irony, “You sure succeeded.” So he says, “I guess I forgot.” And thinks: Maybe I’ll forget to go back to Chicago. It wasn’t like he would be abrogating a civic duty, depriving the city, leaving it wanting for people licensed to file lawsuits.
There had been old guys on the beach, bent forward like predatory lizards, all of them darker than Morris, most of them leaner, their strides practiced, hides leathery, all the ones he envied solitary. Maybe, forgetting to go back to Chicago, he would join their society. How many hours a day would he have to walk the beach to get that reptilian look? Grinding the habitations of extinct life under their soles, as unaware as gods, as likely as gods to laugh if he pointed out the sadness of the destruction.
He doubted any of the lizard men could tell him what he wanted to know. Morris had walked courthouse and office tower halls all his adult life, and what did he know? He knew a couple banks might fail before he got home. He knew all that was beside the point, as was the twenty thousand in his pocket. He had lost multiples of that in the last year.
“Where is your mother?” he asks.
“Damned if I know. She’s supposed to worry where I am.”
Yeah, this kid would tend their diapers.
He thinks it might improve his temper if he has one small thing to show for the morning, if not wreckage stolen from the beach, if not knowledge, then somebody doing what he wanted.
“The beach is still there, and the shells are all lousy,” Morris tells his daughter.
“Oh, Dad,” she complains.
He thinks about kicking the chair out from under her ass. At least one of them would have an epiphany today. Maybe sensing the danger, she says, “I’ll come along, but I’m not going to enjoy it.”
“You don’t have to enjoy it,” Morris says.
They did the “Barbara?” “Rob?” thing, tentative smiles, then he said, “Jesus, this is a surprise.” He let it go at that, didn’t go into what are the odds, because he knew the odds were pretty good that he might run into someone he had known, somewhere. It had happened before, with that lawyer he and Kate had used. But this was different. He hadn’t ever hoped, in the middle of the night, to see the lawyer again.“Please,” he said, “sit a few minutes. I don’t know how often I wondered what became of you.” So they sat at a table just outside, not far from the pool, and she told him what she had done, and none of it was remarkable. He wanted to talk about himself. He had been reasonably successful. His children were doing all right. Not the kind of outcomes they might have talked about when they were working on the newspaper in Philadelphia, but he wanted her to know that he had done all right—by which he had to mean, done all right without her. The affair hadn’t been spectacularly successful, or particularly painful in its end. Several phone calls not returned. Neither of them bothering to press the matter. A week without a meeting, then three. Some project distracted him, and a water-cooler flirtation. Then five months, and he had met his first wife, not sensing for a while that she would become “wife” or, for a few years longer, that “wife” might have an ordinal before it. He had picked up the habit of putting quotation marks around common words—“wife,” “abandonment,” “replevin”—from the bow-tied and suspendered divorce lawyer, and the habit lasted only as long as he knew the lawyer. The lawyer had crooked two fingertips around each side of a word as he talked. Eventually Rob asked him if subquotes needed only the index fingers. Now, talking about his reasonably successful life, he thought that just about every part of it needed finger quotes, and the lawyer wasn’t here to do it. “Are you glad you didn’t stay in journalism?” Barbara asked. “I have to be. Our friends who stayed are paupers, if they’ve got jobs. Remember Danny Glick? He writes for a shopper in Baltimore.” She would remember Danny. “Have you seen him?” “Not in a few years.” More like ten. Seeing the byline wasn’t seeing Danny, who in truth he didn’t want to see. But he said, “It’s good to see you,” and he almost meant it. “It’s good to see you, too.” “Are you staying here long?” “Just tonight.” She got up, picking up her food. “I promised my husband breakfast,” she said, and left. ~
Thirty years, he thought. Thirty-one to be precise. She had left the newspaper to marry someone who worked for a television outlet in Chicago. That hadn’t been part of the Plan, he was fairly sure, not the Plan they had drunk to that involved James Jones and Styron, who had written fat novels that they could scoff at and were living in Paris. Rob was sitting on a lawn chair near the swimming pool when the couple headed out for lunch. They were talking about a restaurant in town as they passed, and Barbara steered across the lawn and introduced them. The husband was trim and athletic, with a dark buzz-cut that had to be colored. Then they were gone, and Rob tilted the chair back and stared at the sun through his eyelids. ~ The husband wasn’t with her when she stopped the next time. “I’ve been trying to figure out that expression you’re wearing,” she said. “You look like you’re trying to figure something out. Is that it?” “Well, I’ve been counting. And I keep losing track.” She asked, “How high do you get?” “To where I am now.” He propped himself on one elbow. “Kids are both grown. Third wife’s spending time with her mother. And here I am.” Barbara looked around pointedly. “A nice place to be.” He settled onto his back. He wanted to tell her something without facing her. “I thought it would take longer, to get from where we were to where we are. Twenty-eight, thirty years—like that.” He didn’t snap his fingers. “I thought there would be more time for being happy. For sitting someplace like this in the sun.” “You sound—” There was polite concern in her voice. “Are you ill?” “No. Not as far as I know.” “Middle-aged crisis?” “I’m past middle age.” “Not really.” He closed his eyes again. “Yeah, really.” She said something like “hm” before levering herself up. “I’d better go shower. My husband wants to see the Joshua trees this afternoon.” ~ Four-thirty came. The sun was round on the other side of the pool. Rob thought about getting up. Five-thirty. Hummingbirds gone. A small chill in the air. Quarter of six, he could hear early diners getting into their cars. Barbara came at six-thirty exactly. He heard her voice, and her surprise. “What are you doing still out here?” “I’m comfortable.” Actually he was cold. “It’s getting dark.” “There’s another half-hour.” There was plenty of blue in the sky behind her head. “You could have dinner with us tonight. There’s a place down the road.” “I don’t think that’s a great idea.” Another “hm” that he remembered her well enough to translate into: “Probably not.” “I’ll talk to you later.” “All right.” She walked away and came back a minute later. “It’s cold, Rob. Are you making some sort of point lying there?” “It was a nice day.” “It was okay. The Joshua trees weren’t much.” “And I don’t want it to end.” “The weather will be good tomorrow.” “Suppose I forget to lie here again?” “Why would you forget?” “I might get distracted, go see the Joshua trees, take the funicular, have lunch in town, shop for tooth paste. I might not take another nap right here. If I get up, another thirty years will pass.” “That’s absurd. It won’t pass tomorrow.” “It will seem like it.” After she was gone, he waited a while—just to make the point he didn’t believe her sense of time—before he got up and went to his room.