- From The Alaska Quarterly Review
- Reprinted in What Can You Do: Personal Essays and Travel Writing
What Can You Do
by Edward Hower
Shoulders hunched, I burned a hole in the floor with my stare and tried to hide in it. But a familiar shape was drifting my way, a hot air balloon in a purple cable-knit sweater. The man's massive height, his roiling confusion of black curls, his loafers squashed down at the heels but so brightly polished that even the tassels looked enthusiastic–this was Ollie O'Flanagan. We'd met a year earlier when I'd returned to Ithaca to take a high school teaching job that hadn't been renewed.
"Hey, you're looking great, pal!" he lied. I hadn't shaved in a week and badly needed a haircut.
"Thanks, Ollie." I shook his huge mitt. "You do, too." His face was puffy, with deep lines around his eyes. We didn't ask each other why we were standing here–house rules at Unemployment Compensation offices. Ollie just shrugged, a gesture I remembered well: his head bonking over to one side, his palms up–as if to say: This is life, what can you do?
After we'd collected our checks, we skidded on snowy sidewalks to a nearby diner. Ollie ordered coffees and a big plate of doughnuts. "Still writing books, are you?" he asked, chewing.
"Not… lately." My first novel had turned out to be a letter in a bottle floated out on the tide in a vain search of readers, my agent had dumped me, and I hadn't finished another project in a very long time.
"Well, then, you could come in on this new business of mine." He beamed and tossed a card onto the table. Under his name I read, REGIONAL MANAGER: ALL-AMERICAN MEAT & POULTRY, INC. On top was a smiling cartoon turkey, the company logo. Ollie showed me a printed ice list for cuts of meat a customer could buy frozen, a six-months supply at a time. "We help clients sign up for a major credit card, for the payments. It's a breeze!" His hand made a soothing wave in the air. "Just now, I'm expanding the sales force. I figure you could ace a job like this."
"Me? Come on–I've never been in any kind of business!" At Cornell, the university at the top of the hill I now sat at the bottom of, I'd majored in English.
"Just think it over—" Ollie reached across the table and gave my shoulder a squeeze.
I spent the next three weeks trying to keep from thinking over Ollie's offer. All day, grayish snow piled on my apartment window sills, trying to seal me in. I scribbled late into the nights, filled my waste basket with wadded-up paper. Finally I read my bank book. It had the most appalling plot I'd ever seen.
The All-American Meat & Poultry company's sign was on a road in corn-stubbled country where farmhouses leaned precariously against the frozen sky. Once the sign had announced the titles of drive-in movies, and the screen still stood high on a snow-dusted field, a blank billboard. Rows of rusted speaker-poles stood like an orchard of denuded dwarf trees. The popcorn stand had been replaced by a low cinderblock building. In Ollie's office, a semi-circle of folding chairs waited around his desk.
"Take a look at this beauty! It just came today." He pointed to a black-dialed steel safe set like an altar against the wall. It squatted waist-high on four sturdy legs, the door locked tight.
I tapped the top with my knuckles. "Solid," I said.
"For sure." Ollie stood up and lumbered toward the door. "Come on, I'll show you your office."
It was one of six cinderblock cubes furnished with metal desks and chairs he'd picked up at an auction for a terrific price. Through the window, Ollie pointed to the storage building. Its lockers would fill up as soon as the sales force began bringing in orders.
"Where is everybody?" I asked. It was very quiet out here.
"The fellows I interviewed, well, they haven't called back yet. So just for now, it's you and me–straight commission." Ollie handed me a some brochures with photos of steaks, chops, chickens and of course, golden roast turkeys. "Start with questions." He pointed to the phone on my desk. "It's a survey. You ask, ‘Do you like steak? Would you like to save money?' Get them answering ‘yes' over and over, so when you ask them if they'd like to set up an appointment, ‘yes' is the first word that jumps into their mind."
Learning the pitch was easy. I dialed Mrs. Aadling, the first name in the directory, picturing a plump Scandinavian housewife with a long, blonde braid. "I got a load in the dryer," she said. Clunk, bzzzzzzzzzz: the lady vanished. I dialed the next name, Aalvag, and a man said he had a cousin who'd lost his shirt with a wholesale food outfit in Arizona. A few people told me to go fuck myself before hanging up. Clunk! Clunk! Bzzz! Dial tones swarmed, hornets scraping my eardrums raw with their wings. Then, startlingly, a man said he'd be willing to "hear me out" at his house, but for "not a millisecond" longer than fifteen minutes. Smiling, I leaned back in my chair, holding the phone as if I were shaking a maraca in a dance band.
I figured that only professors used words like "millisecond." Damn–suppose he'd taught me years ago and now asked me why someone with my education was selling frozen meat? To his house I wore ironed slacks and a sports jacket no one could tell came from a thrift shop. My rusted car, which looked as if it had a bad case of eczema, stayed parked well out of sight as I walked up the man's drive with my Get-Acquainted Special Gift package of bacon. He really was a professor, but fortunately I'd never taken his courses. In his Danish modern living room, he tried for two hours to prove my deals were phony, and when he couldn't, left my contract unsigned and showed me out, chuckling. "Well, a pleasure meeting you."
"The pleasure was all yours," I said, and stepped off his doorstep into the slush.
That week, though, I closed two deals. I was on the team, which had expanded; Ollie hired three more "associates," as he called us. "Smart-dressing quality guys–like you!" He gave my forearm a squeeze.
My clients weren't dissatisfied with the meat they'd already been buying, so I needed to convince them that their whole lives would improve significantly if they signed up with AAMP Inc. A Chilean graduate student liked my price lists he could check off without having to stumble over English words at the supermarket. An elderly piano teacher loved having food delivered to her home in treacherous winter weather. On my appointments, when I saw sports equipment in a house, I talked about hockey games I'd made a point of reading about in the morning paper. I studied the TV schedule, too, though I didn't own a set, so I could ask people with big-screen consoles how they'd liked a show the night before. It was fun playing new characters in different scenarios.
The new salesmen liked sitting around the office talking and munching sugar doughnuts. "I guess I ought to boot these fellows out on the road," Ollie said. "But Charlie's just lost custody of both his kids. And Bob's wife's had to go back for more chemo." He sighed. "You got to give the sales force some encouragement. Isn't that what we all need?"
It was what a new guy called Lester needed, Ollie told me one day. Lester was a spade-faced man in a pale green sports jacket with matching socks. He'd worked in truck sales, but not for a few years. "I need you to show him the ropes," Ollie said. "You're my number one closer."
"I didn't know that!" And after only a month I was being trusted to train a new man. I said I'd do it.
On the evening Lester and I were to go out on an appointment together, he rattled up to the office in an old car finned like an overweight space ship. Stepping out, Lester combed back his hair into a duck-tail the way kids in an early rock-‘n'-roll movies did. Close up, though, he looked about forty-five, with pitted skin. My car's dashboard lights turned his jacket the tint of pond algae. As we rode along, his lips moved silently as if he were having an argument with himself that he wasn't winning.
"What was it like selling trucks?" I asked finally.
"Who told you I sold trucks?" His eyes darted sideways at me. "It was truck accessories."
I said I didn't know what "truck accessories" were. For twenty minutes, he told me. They were the big rubber mud guards embossed with silhouettes of kneeling naked girls that swung behind the back tires of eighteen wheelers. They were the orange flame decals on the sides of the cabs. They were those funny bumper stickers that said, If you don't like my driving, dial 1-800-FUCK YOU. (Lester said "F-blank-blank-blank you.") "That's what truck accessories are, man."
We rode on in silence. The marbled sky stained iced-over fields a purplish red. Then they vanished as the sun burrowed behind a long stand of pines.
"Nothing but wide open spaces and hillbillies out here." Lester shivered, rubbing his forearms. "It's freaky–no sounds, nothing. One of these hillbillies could run you through with a pitchfork and nobody'd ever know. But I'll be okay." He patted the side of his sports jacket.
I glanced at him. "What've you got there?"
He pulled aside the jacket and slipped a pistol from the waistband of his slacks.
"Holy shit!" I skidded onto the shoulder, just missing some posts. The gun barrel poked out of Lester's hand like a ferret's nose. "Listen, you can't bring that inside with us!"
"Just protection, man. I never hurt nobody. I'm a good citizen, word is bond." He slipped the pistol into his pants again. "We almost there yet?"
We were. Silhouettes of trailers appeared up ahead: Meadowlands Court. I pulled over onto the frozen grass, sweat beading the back of my neck. "You leave that thing in the car, or we don't go in," I said. "When I tell Ollie tomorrow why we didn't keep this appointment, you're out of a job. You want that?"
Lester sat straight, his leg jiggling. Up ahead, the headlight beams glittered on slivers of ice along a wire fence. "All right, all right." In a movement too fast for me to see clearly, one of his hands yanked opened the glove compartment, the other hand dove in and out of it. He slammed it shut. "Let's go!"
In the trailer park, shutters clanked against metal sidings, protesting the biting wind. I rang the buzzer at #9, and the customer, Mrs. Everett–I was into the E's by now–opened the door. A wave of heated air and cinnamon scent rushed at me. The woman wore a house coat over blue jeans. Her heavy glasses seemed to make her lean forward. I introduced myself but she didn't step back to let me in.
"My husband's asleep. I can't sign no papers without his say-so."
"That's okay, Mrs. Everett." It wasn't, really, but I wanted to get inside "Would you mind if I brought along my associate, Mr., uh, Lester?"
Lester stood at attention, the padded shoulders of his sports jacket making him look like a green action-figure toy. "I'm glad to make your acquaintance, ma'am," he said, and stuck out his hand.
A smile crossed Mrs. Everett's face. She shook Lester's hand and let us in. Two teenage girls were draped over an armchair staring at a huge television screen where kids in gold outfits were tormenting screams out of electric guitars. I knew I wasn't going to sell a single pork chop–Ollie had warned me about this–if I couldn't get that TV turned down. Mrs. Everett brought us to a small, worn couch next to the set. Lester and I squeezed in. I felt his leg jiggling beside me.
"You boys like some coffee?" Mrs. Everett asked.
"Thank you, that'd be great," I said.
"Yeah, me, too." Lester glanced around the room without moving his head.
One of the girls squinted up at her mother. "Who're these dudes?"
"Salesmen," Mrs. Everett said.
"They come to the wrong place," the other girl said. "We're broke."
"You're rude, is what you are," their mother said. "Now move your butts on out of here and get your homework done!"
With surprisingly little argument, the kids disappeared down a corridor beside the kitchen area. Lester jumped up and sat down hard in the vacated chair. A deer-shaped china lamp rocked on the end table beside him. Mrs. Everett brought in two steaming mugs of coffee for us. I told her I was having some trouble with my hearing, and she silenced the set. She liked the frozen meat deal but had questions. I'd learned that the quickest way to ruin a customer's confidence in me was to say, "I don't know." So if she asked something I didn't have an answer for—"Where do the turkeys come from?"—I reassured her with a creative answer—"A big farm up near Syracuse. Beautiful country up there for raising poultry."
Mrs. Everett was especially eager to hear about the Master Card I would help her apply for. "Sometimes at stores," she said, "when the clerks ask if it'll be charge or cash? They look down their long noses at us when we pull out cash."
"It ain't right, people doing you that way." Lester suddenly leaned forward in his chair.
I could see she was startled, but she nodded. "That's true, mister."
I said, "Lester, let me tell Mrs. Everett about how we back up card applications for our customers."
"Heck, you don't got to get snooty with me—" Lester leaned back in the chair. His elbow struck the spotted Bambi lamp. Its face looked shocked as it toppled backwards off the table, smashing to the floor. "I'm sorry!" he fell to his knees, gathering up the pieces of china. His face was contorted into a grimace, the points of the sideburns sucked into his cheeks. When Mrs. Everett brought a dustpan and broom, he tried to push some dollar bills into her hand.
She backed away. "For Heaven's sake–don't worry!"
I heard a deep laugh from the kitchen. "That was th'ugliest damn lamp we ever had!"
We all turned. A mountain of a man in bib overalls stood there. Lester slapped his hand to his side. Suddenly I knew that he hadn't left his pistol in the glove compartment of my car.
"How do you do, Mr. Everett?" I stepped between Lester and the husband, my hand out. "I'm Edward, from All-American Meat and Poultry. Your wife probably told you we'd be dropping by—"
"She didn't tell me nothing!" Mr. Everett shook my hand, his flesh hard against mine. "We don't need to buy whatever it is you got."
His family was suddenly shouting about credit cards. Without them, Mrs. Everett insisted, they'd have to keep buying things at garage sales. The stuff was dusty. There'd been bugs in a mattress they'd had to spray a dozen times. The two kids chimed in: if the family had a credit card like everybody else in the whole country, they could go into K-Mart, they could pick out a nice living room set. And a TV that got more than two channels. Finally Mr. Everett sank onto the couch with his hands over his ears. His wife dropped the contract into his lap.
"You better sign this, Randy," she said, "if you ever want any of that cake I just made."
Suddenly everything smelled like cinnamon. Randy turned to me. "Where do I put the signature?"
On the ride back, Lester sat rigid. "You're just mad because of the gun," he said finally. "Okay, so I didn't leave it in the car."
"So who doesn't? Turkeys in Syracuse, beautiful poultry country?" He waved his hand in front of his face as if he'd just smelled a fart.
"If you can't tell the difference between lying and creative..." Never mind–I was sure Ollie would fire Lester as soon as I told him what had happened, so there was no point in arguing with this jerk. We passed a school where kids were playing basketball in a flood-lit playground. Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted Lester slipping the pistol from his waist band.
"I'll let you in on something," he said as he cranked down the window. "It ain't even loaded. Look here—" He sighted along the top of the gun barrel at the kids on the court.
"Hey!--" I rammed my foot down hard on the accelerator.
Click!—click!—click! went the gun. "I told you." Lester sat back in the seat, smiling.
"Will you put that fucking thing away!" I pictured the kids screaming to their coach about the man in the car with a pistol–a description of my car going out on police radios–roadblocks, flashing red lights ahead…. I swerved down a side street; the tires screeched against the asphalt.
"Slow down, man–you don't want to get a ticket!" Lester said. "And watch your language, will you?"
When I phoned Ollie he said he'd have a serious talk with Lester. "Ollie, you're not going to keep him on, are you?" I asked. I wanted to tell him: If you keep Lester, I go. But I didn't have anywhere to go.
"Trust me, pal, I'll take care of things. But hey—" Ollie's voice had that familiar happy boom again. "Congratulations–what a terrific closing!"
The next afternoon, the usual gang of salesmen–minus Lester–were eating Ollie's doughnuts and filling his office with guffaws and cigarette smoke. I went straight to my cinderblock cube to make calls. Then I heard the word "Everett" from Ollie's office. "N.G.--again?" he said into the phone.
I rang him to ask what this meant. He came over and stood in my doorway, his belly sagging in the purple sweater. "N.G., they're the hardest letters in the alphabet a salesman can hear," he said. "They mean No Good–the client's got a bad credit rating."
"So if the Everetts don't qualify for the credit card, the meat sale's cancelled?" I asked.
Ollie sighed. "I haven't wanted to tell you these things when you were just starting out."
"So this isn't the first time one of my sales didn't go through?" He shook his head slowly. He had dark bags under his eyes today. "But you've been paying me my commissions," I said.
"Got to keep up sales force morale."
I slouched farther down in my chair. Six of the eleven closings I'd made, Ollie confessed, had come back N.G. This was happening to the other fellows, too. Something had to be done.
I phoned Mrs. Everett to tell her that she didn't qualify for a credit card, apologizing over and over again. In a flat voice she told me not to worry, it wasn't the first time. I started to thank her again for her coffee and cake, but she'd soundlessly put down the receiver.
Only one of the next six families I signed up in Meadowlands Court came back N.G. Ollie peeled off bills for my commission. "Big changes coming up around here!" he said, his cheeks puffing out in a smile.
He called a "Sales Motivation Meeting" in his office. I was surprised to see Lester there. None of the associates looked any more like winners than he did. Many were overweight–not mountainous and jolly like Ollie, but squashy-faced, with close-set eyes like marbles pushed into dough. There were shiny suits and stained neckties, vein-mapped boozers' noses and comb-overs. Ollie was talking to a new man who had the office next to his; I saw framed photos on the desk. He was the smallest person in the room. Also the best dressed: a three piece maroon suit, off-white tie with white shirt, and half-boots with pointy toes. He stepped into the center of the semi-circle of chairs. All conversations stopped.
"Hello, men," he said, "I'm Jefferson Allen Farly–Jeff, to you–and I'm your new sales manager. From now on, I'm the one who keeps track of your work." He pointed a short, varnished stick at a white board where Sales Associates of the Month was written in blue marker. "I'm also the man who pays your commissions and..." He paused. "…writes your salary checks."
The salesmen all smiled. We must be doing great if we offered salaries now, someone whispered.
Slipping his pointer under his arm like a swagger stick, he lit a thin cigar. "From now on, you're going to be earning like you never did before!" He passed around a new list of meat prices.
I could see that all our products now cost significantly more. Nobody else seemed to notice. "These prices are going to make selling a lot harder," I said.
"I doubt it, Edward. They're still below what a lot of supermarkets charge." Hearing Jeff speak my name made me grit my teeth. I glanced at Ollie in the doorway. He was watching Jeff and nodding.
The sales manager had a surprisingly deep voice for his size; it sounded as if it came out of an expensive speaker system. He knew, he said, what a pain in the ass it was making cold calls to set up appointments. So from now on, those calls here were history. "We're too professional an outfit for that Mickey-Mouse shit–right?" The salesman burst into clapping. Jeff said he'd hired a firm of "solid professionals" to make calls for us. We'd pay a small amount–to be determined–out of our salaries for them. "Each time a call leads to a sale, the call's a freebie for you. But let's be up front. Anyone who don't like the new arrangements, he's free to drive away right now!" Jeff shoved the office door open wide. Cold air rushed in. No one moved.
He shut the door shut and used both palms to smooth down his hair; the sides had been blow-dried and looked like bantam rooster wings. His voice lost its edginess; he was our friend now. He knew how hard our jobs could be, he said, but how rewarding, too–once we learned to really believe in ourselves. He moved around the desk and sat in Ollie's chair. The springs gave off a rippling chord.
"I'm thirty-four years old," he said. "And I been selling since I was seventeen. Now I'm earning a good living for me and my family. I got three kids, and they'll never want for nothing the way I did coming up–never! You know how I know that?" He rocked forward. "It's because I believe...in my ability...to understand what people need!" He paused. "And you know what people need more than anything?"
Jeff tried to let a silence hang, but Lester jumped in. "Prime ribs!" he said, grinning.
"Hell, yes–but more than that. Something much bigger." Jeff stared at Lester, who seemed to be holding his breath. "Hope, my friend!"
The men nodded.
"How many of you've spent time in New York City?" Jeff asked. Everyone but me looked as if he'd asked if they'd visited Saturn. "Well, I'm telling you, there's no place that's harder to sell in than New York City!"
He took out an ironed handkerchief and wiped his forehead. "Okay, here's a story, men. I was twenty years old, and the territory assigned me was called Spanish Harlem. As you can picture, there weren't a lot of people on those streets that looked like me." He touched his white cheek. "But I banged on doors all along those dark and dingy tenement hallways. I stuck my feet in those doors—" He pushed out one of his boots—"and by God, I got orders. Week after week! Now how did I manage that?" Jeff focused on the red ember at the end of his cigar. "Okay, I'll tell you. I remember one day a lady called Mrs. Rodriguez opened her door a crack. Behind her I could see a bunch of other Puerto Ricans sitting on a long couch. I kept looking until I saw the right person–the one I wanted to sell. Her name was Maria. Eighteen years old. She had long black hair and big eyes and a smooth, sweet face. I had something very special for Maria, and I was determined she was going to have it!" Jeff pressed his lips together and nodded.
"I was representing a school that trained air hostesses," he went on. "That outfit guaranteed its graduates interviews with the best airlines in the United States of America. When I said that to all those Rodriguezes, I saw Maria's face light up like a sunrise. But her mama kept telling me, ‘We got no money, mister!'" Jeff smiled. "Did I let that stop me? Hell, no! My pitch rolled on. It spun round and round. I'm telling you, men, it was like a carousel glittering with colored lights and singing like a calliope. But my song wasn't about spinning, it was about flying. It told Maria and her Mama all about the amazing future the girl would have high up above the clouds!
"'Maria, can you picture one of those big planes taking off?' I asked her. ‘And can you picture the women in charge of the passengers on that plane, those women in their dignified blue uniforms with the silver wings right there on the lapels?'" Jeff squeezed his own lapel between his thumb and forefinger. "'Now, Maria, those women are going places–important places! San Juan, Caracas, Buenos Aires!'" I could already see the bright lights of the cities shining in her eyes. ‘That's you, Maria–flying off in that sleek silver plane into the sky-blue heavens!'" Every man in the room watched Jeff's hand swoop up, up, up.
"'But mister, we got no money!' Mama said. I just smiled at her and kept talking about that training course–learning to help mothers change their little babies, even learning how save a passenger's life if one of them got a heart attack. ‘Do you think you could save a person's life, Maria? Do you think you could wear that uniform?'" Maria gripped the school brochure tight. Everyone crowded around her to look at the pictures of proud women in their beautiful blue skirts and blazers.
"I gave them all a brochure–grand-dad in his undershirt and granny in her black dress and even the kids. I'm telling you, I smelled the excitement in that room! I knew I had what that family needed to get out of that dingy tenement! I had hope for them! And Maria had hope, now, too. She was that family's hope! She was going to fly them to a whole new life!" Jeff whacked his fist into his palm. "And men, hope is the most powerful thing in the world you are selling. Once people glimpse it, they have to have it!"
He took a deep breath. "Well, you know what happened? Mama and grand-dad and granny and all those Rodriguezes shoved their couch away from the wall. And right behind it…." Jeff squinted sideways, and the salesmen did, too. "…hidden in that bare plaster wall–was a hole! Mama reached in… and out came a nylon stocking that was stuffed with money! There were twenties and fifties and even hundreds. Maria gazed up at me and said, ‘That's Mama's whole life savings, mister.' I looked her straight in the eye, and you know what I told her?" The corners of Jeff's mouth rose. "'You're worth every cent, honey!'"
Soon the phoning service in Omaha, Nebraska, started setting up appointments for me, but I still didn't know how much I was paying for them. When I went to the office, Ollie was often out and Jeff was busy interviewing new salesmen. Once, I looked through the window and saw him siting beside an elfin blonde child–his daughter, I assumed. She wore a neat jacket and vest, like his, with a plaid skirt and patent leather shoes. He held her hand steady as she reached out to deal him a card from a deck on his desk.
I hit a string of No-Sales. At my appointments, people were stubborn, distrustful, rude. On the first of the month, no paycheck was in my drawer. When I phoned Ollie's house, his wife, Fiona, said he'd delegated the book-keeping part of the job to Jeff. Ollie was out on appointments just now.
"What's going on?" I asked. "He's supposed to be running the place."
"Oh, you know how he loves selling!" Fiona laughed.
On my next trip to the office I found it empty. On the Associates of the Month wall-board, the thirteen salesmen's names were written in grease pencil, eight more since Jeff had become sales manager. #1 was awarded a rib roast bonus, #2 a pork roast, and #3–me–a frozen chicken. A damned chicken! I remember all the times Ollie had cooked me big steaks. Now I had to compete for these bonuses? What bothered me more, though I didn't want to admit it, was that I'd slipped to #3. Lester was #13. Lester? I phoned Ollie's house again. Fiona said he was laid up with a migraine. As soon as he was better, he'd be in touch, for sure.
Two days later, I found a check and a statement in my drawer. I'd been charged $25 each for eleven appointments, only two of which I'd closed on. This meant nine calls were deducted from my monthly salary, bringing it down to $12.28. Through a window in Jeff's office door I saw him sitting back in a black leather chair. I knocked hard and pushed open his door. He scrambled to his feet.
"You don't walk into my office like that, Edward," he said, quickly hanging up his phone.
"I don't like the way you did my check, Jeff. The $25 you charged me per appointment call."
"I didn't charge you. The company we use charges everybody."
"I don't want to use that company's set-ups. I'll make my own."
"Not any more. It's our policy now–the sales force is out selling, not hanging around the office making phone calls and eating doughnuts." He narrowed his eyes at me, as if spotting crumbs on my jacket. "Changes have to be made if an outfit's going to keep operating. You went to college, you ought to know that." Jeff picked up the phone. "You got an appointment in twenty minutes. Good luck with it, Edward."
I didn't like that he knew my schedule, but I did have to leave. Turning on my heels, I headed for the parking lot. I called Ollie's house again later. Fiona told me he was down with another migraine, his fourth that month, but he'd be going into the office very soon. When I drove in the next day, only Lester's weird vehicle and Jeff's Cadillac were in the lot. From my front seat I saw Lester step outside and slam the office door. His face was drained, his teeth clenched hard. I noticed his bare arms in his short-sleeved shirt; they were tattooed with filigreed, homemade crosses, the kind that men in prison take months to make. He walked over to my car.
"I worked my tail off for this outfit! Ollie'd never of canned me!" Lester heaved a sigh. "Hey listen, man, I want to thank you for not saying nothing to Ollie about, you know, the pistol." He leaned forward to talk softly through my window. "I ain't supposed to even own one."
Shit! After what I'd told Ollie about the gun, he'd not only kept the guy on, but had never even spoken to him about it! "That's okay, Lester," I managed to say. "But why don't you ditch the pistol now?"
"Because what if I need it?"
I couldn't answer that.
He squared his shoulders. "I'll tell you something, maybe help you out, too," he said. "You remember the story Jeff told–about selling that training course to the Puerto Rican girl?"
Something like a toad jumped in my chest. "It wasn't true?"
"Jeff made the sale to her, all right. But one time when Ollie wasn't around, I heard Jeff telling the guys–that stewardess school never got a single interview with an airlines for its girls, including Maria."
I dropped my forehead hard against the steering wheel.
"I told Jeff I didn't think much of this. He says to me, ‘But the point is, you got to believe in yourself–even if what you're selling don't even exist! You'll never be a salesman if you can't understand that.'" Lester shook his head. "I guess he could tell I couldn't understand it. ‘Cause here I am–outa work again." He reached out his hand. "Well, anyway–good luck, man."
"Lester, same to you." I reached up and shook his hand.
He got into his huge vehicle. It careened off toward the big movie screen, tires skidding. The bumper mowed down half a dozen rusted speaker-poles with loud clangs that made me grin. Then Lester peeled off toward the road.
On the phone, Fiona told me that Ollie had gone to bed right after dinner. He'd be in the office first thing tomorrow. In my apartment, I scribbled away all night taking notes for sketches of Ollie, Jeff, Lester, Mrs. Everett. This was the best work I'd done in a very long time. One person was still missing, though. I wanted to keep writing my way toward him, but as light flooded my window, I sensed I still didn't have what I needed to make him appear on paper. Finally I put down my pen and drove to the office as fast as my clattering car would go.
Snow was melting all along the fields, leaving stripes of damp earth beside the road. In the strange quiet I heard a sound I'd almost forgotten existed–the chittering of birds. Several were perched like spectators on the remaining speaker-poles. Ollie's Camaro was parked at a strange angle. I stared at a boxy police cruiser beyond it.
Ollie slumped at his desk when I walked in. Then he dropped his head into his hands. Two state troopers in gray uniforms faced him in folding chairs munching doughnuts, wide-brimmed hats resting on their knees. At first, Ollie's office looked the same as always. Then I saw the bright new safe. Its door gaped open.
"Ollie?" I asked. "Did Jeff….?"
"He took it all." Ollie's fingers slid away from his eyes. They were shiny wet. "The funny thing is, I don't know how much was in the safe. I keep telling these fellows"—He nodded at the troopers "--I hadn't been keeping real good track of the books. I know we had a lot of checks from the credit card company to pay for meat the new customers ordered."
"Farly cashed all the checks this morning, in Syracuse," one of the policemen said. ("Beautiful poultry country," I recalled.) "You'd signed a form authorizing him to do that, Mr. O'Flanagan."
"I guess I did." Ollie nodded slowly. His purple sweater stretched up his belly.
"Doesn't Master Card know what they sent us?" I wanted to smash his desk-top to get his attention.
"They said they're missing about $11,000, so far." Ollie's voice was wobbly. "We'd been doing terrific sales since Jeff came on." He shut his eyes tight. "Oh, Jesus–none of my men are going to get paid, now! You, either, Edward. I'm so damn sorry!"
A groan caught in my throat. It was his face I felt like smashing, but the way his eyelids were quivering made me shove my fists deep into my pockets. "I've got a little money saved," I said.
"The people you sold to won't get their food orders," he said. "The company still owns most of them, what we haven't got stored in our lockers--"
"Aw, shit!" I slumped down in a chair. "Can't we make it up to them–after future sales?"
"Our franchise's credit's N.G., big time." Ollie sighed. "That's why I hired Jeff. He was sort of a specialist in rescuing businesses."
"I bet he was."
"This wasn't Farley's first job," one of the troopers said. "We pulled up his record."
"Oh, God!" Ollie dug his fingers into his scalp, his black curls writhing.
"Never mind," I said. "Try and take it easy now."
I answered the troopers' questions, then got my things from my office. Outside the window, the huge blank screen stared back at me from the hillside. I could see tufts of grass poking up around the base.
The police cruiser drove off. Ollie climbed slowly into his Camaro. I walked over to the driver's side and gave his shoulder a squeeze. He turned to stare up at me.
"I got to tell Fiona." His voice croaked with fatigue. "I guess she won't be too surprised. I've been awful tense lately. It's been hard on her."
"She told me about your headaches."
"I had some bad ones. Throwing up, flashing lights. But you know what?" He rested his palm down carefully on top of his curls. "The migraine–it's completely gone!"
"Maybe its name was Jeff."
"Hey, that could be!" He smiled. "I think I'll get Fiona some flowers." He started the engine with a roar. "We'll stay in touch, pal. For sure."
"For sure, Ollie."
And then–I don't know how he managed it, squashed as tight as he was into the seat–he gave me one of his great shrugs: head bonked to one side, both palms rising into the air.
As I listened to the Camaro's engine fade, the fresh smell of damp earth blew in across the fields. I backed my car around the storage building. On the meat lockers' shelves were frozen paper-wrapped packages of beef and pork loins. They banged like rocks as I tossed them into my trunk, knocking rust-flakes loose. I filled most of my front seat with turkeys, leaving just enough room for me behind the wheel.
At Meadowlands Court, I stacked meat and poultry on my customers' doorsteps. What I left would last the families a few weeks. After their full orders failed to appear and nobody answered their phone calls to the office, they'd probably forget the whole deal.
I never did. I still remember the feel of thawing paper in my fingers as I piled up the parcels.
- From Pleiades
- Reprinted in What Can You Do: Personal Essays and Travel Writing
by Edward Hower
"Dear Sponsored Parent, I am well and happy," an eleven-year-old girl named Ananda wrote me from the slums of Mumbai, India. I am enjoying at school. I like to play volleyball and sewing. I hope your family is having good health.
I’d been sponsoring Ananda for several years through an agency that connects people in Western countries to kids in developing ones, writing letters and sending annual checks to pay her school expenses. Now I was in India, myself, teaching at a university in Jaipur, and was about to meet Ananda for the first time. Arriving in Mumbai, I began to wonder how on earth I’d ever connect with this child, a Dalit or member of the "Untouchable" caste, who was growing up in extreme poverty. The agency had asked me to send her photos of my children and also of my home, a modest one by the standards of Ithaca, New York, but a palace compared to India’s slum dwellings. Wouldn’t Ananda be uneasy, too, perhaps even resentful when I showed up in person—a rich foreigner she might feel she had to be thankful to all afternoon?
Mrs. Iqbal, her social worker, and I started up a steep, winding footpath through one of the city’s vast, suburban shantytowns. In the 100-degree heat, the air seemed to hum faintly around us. From narrow lanes that wove between the shacks, crowds rushed out to stare at us. Everyone was lean and sinewy except some of the small children whose swollen bellies were signs of kwashiorkor, a disease brought on by malnutrition. A soupy sewage ditch gave off a stench that made me gag. Greenish bulges bubbled up along its surface like the snouts of excremental bullfrogs.
At the top of the hill I probably looked as bedraggled as I felt, and Mrs. Iqbal was staggering in the heat. A woman took her by the hand and led us to a tea-stall, a patch of open dirt where, incongruously, two red beach umbrellas had been set up. There we sat on metal stools to drink little glasses of sweet milk tea that no one would let us pay for. All around me were more and more hills covered with shanties, their roofs forming patch-work quilts of tar-paper and rusted metal sheeting. Across a wide valley, I saw tiny figures standing on roofs, arranging the stones that held them down, or spreading out wet laundry that must have just been washed in the murky streams visible among the huts.
On the slope below, adults and children dragging huge canvas sacks swarmed over a mountain of garbage. They were sifting through tons of plastic and rags, glass and metal, searching for anything they could sell to recycling plants. The mountain smoldered; tall plumes of smoke fed into a grimy haze that made my eyes sting. On one side of the dump I saw a settlement of huts, prime real estate where families got the first pickings when trucks deposited their loads of valuable pestilence.
More and more people crowded around the patches of shade where Mrs. Iqbal and I sat, quietly watching our every movement. I supposed it wasn’t often they got to see a plump lady nicely dressed in a sky-blue salwaar kameez and a pale-skinned foreigner wearing a wide-brimmed, canvas hat. Now I was seeing them close-up, too: a man with a polio-withered leg, a woman whose face was gruesomely pitted by smallpox, a baby with ribs showing through the taut skin of a concave chest. Polio and smallpox were on the verge of being eradicated worldwide, but too late for these people standing a few feet from me. I had an impulse to turn away from them, but they didn’t look ashamed of anything, so why shouldn’t I return their gaze, at least communicating that I knew they existed? I did look back, and gradually they seemed less alien, more like people I saw every day in Jaipur.
Still, the hush that surrounded me was beginning to feel tense, as if my intrusion had created an unnatural silence. Then a little boy of perhaps ten sat cross-legged on the ground at Mrs. Iqbal’s feet and pulled a small bamboo flute from under his shirt. Staring up at her, he raised it sideways to his lips. As his fingers moved over the openings, lovely high tones rose and fell through the air. The notes danced, they looped and scampered around us. How did a kid so young know how to make all these miraculous sounds? When he put down his flute, people were smiling. Mrs. Iqbal began to clap, and everyone joined in the applause.
The musician ran ahead of us as we started down the slope. From the valley below I heard a powerful murmur—the voices of almost a million crowded, busy people. Now I felt the sound, like a warm wind rising against my face in waves. And I was aware that though appalling distress was here, it wasn’t the entire story of the slum; a powerful energy was also being given off by the people who struggled hard to survive here, living ordinary daily lives, purposefully and bravely.
A few parched scrub trees began to appear beside the path, which widened enough for the occasional bullock-cart and pony-trap to pass. I smelled charcoal smoke and the tang of spices sizzling in pans. A woman sat in a doorway shelling beans; further on, a boy milked a bleating goat tethered to a stake. Wires ran every which way from what looked like confused octopi nailed to poles outside house roofs; some homes in this area were evidently electrified. Many of the houses had cement bases with upper sections of woven matting; few of them were much higher than my head.
On one hand-painted door-sign, I recognized an address—C1245—that I’d written on so many envelopes I’d mailed to India. It was the house of Ananda, whose blue aerogrammes with the foreign stamps had arrived at my own house in America. Having walked across her neighborhood, I realized that her brief letters hadn’t given me the faintest idea of what she was really like. And what had my cheerful communications told her about me? Almost nothing, I thought—except how little we had in common.
A stocky girl stood in the doorway, grimacing in my direction. As I approached, she straightened her back as if defending her ground. Her skin was so dark that her yellow dress appeared luminous as a paper lantern in the shadows. A shaft of sunlight caught a sprig of purple jasmine in her tied-back hair. She looked rougher than the girl in the photo the agency had mailed me. Her eyes were still huge and dark, but she didn’t gaze fetchingly; she checked me out as I were an approaching storm.
I pressed my palms together. "Namasté, Ananda! I’m happy to meet you, finally," I said. Mrs. Iqbal translated.
"Namasté," Ananda replied in a faint, scratchy voice, and stared down at her slippered feet.
When Mrs. Iqbal rested her hand on her shoulder, Ananda appeared startled but obviously delighted "I’ve been here before. She knows me," the social worker said to me. Then a puffy-faced woman in a stained cotton sari stepped into view: Ananda’s mother. Mrs. Iqbal spoke to her in Hindi and introduced her to me. The ghost of a bruise discolored the skin below one of her eyes. "I asked her how she got that shiner," Mrs. Iqbal told me. "She said her husband got drunk and beat her. Ananda, too."
Now I noticed a purplish mark along the girl’s jaw. I’d seen kids with uglier scars, but that didn’t make Ananda’s any easier to look at. Her frown twitched; she ducked inside. Stooping, I entered the first of the house’s two rooms, leaving my shoes just inside the door. Ananda’s mother was barefoot, the tops of her feet pinkish brown, the bottoms black with dirt. This room was a kitchen area, with a smoking stove in the corner. The back room was more spacious, though still smaller than my bedroom in Jaipur. Three charpoys—Indian rope-strung beds—leaned against one wall. On a shelf were some calendar prints of Hindu deities, and a small plastic radio. Ananda immediately switched it on for us, making the air bounce with staticky film music. Clothes hung on nails. Ananda took down a gray blouse and blue skirt on a hanger and held them out for me to admire: her school uniform.
"They’re very nice," I told her. "Are they new?"
"She says they are," Mrs. Iqbal translated her reply. She took the clothes from Ananda and fingered the material. "Good. I wondered if her mother might use the agency’s money to buy hooch. But she seems to be managing the household well enough—insha’Allah [May it be God’s will]." Ananda pointed to little leather sandals in the corner. Their shiny straps were buckled in twin arcs, as if an invisible schoolgirl were standing in them. I admired them, too, nodding my head from side to side, Indian fashion. Her face flushed. She pointed to two chairs set up near a wall.
"You could try your English!" Mrs. Iqbal said to her, in English. "You’re learning in school."
Ananda took a deep breath, then whispered "S-sit."
Mrs. Iqbal cocked her head, one hand cupped behind her ear.
"Sit!" Ananda let out a harsh, loud command. Suddenly she was transformed from the sweet urchin to a street-wise toughie, and I could picture her holding her own in kids’ neighborhood brawls, even defending herself against a drunken father. I sat. She spoke in Hindi to Mrs. Iqbal.
"She wants to know about Christmas in America. She saw a program about it on the agency center’s TV," Mrs. Iqbal said.
I skipped the complicated religious aspect of the holiday and told her about family dinners, gift-giving, and Santa Claus. He was a fat man who wore a red suit and rode over the rooftops in a….what? This girl had never seen snow or a sleigh. "…on a palanquin," I said, knowing they were familiar to Indian children through folk-tales; gods often rode in them across the heavens. When I mentioned the reindeer that pulled the palanquin, she gave me a puzzled look. "Like, um, thin bullocks," I said, "with horns that have…many fingers." I made antlers out of both hands on top of my head, fingers extended. Ananda giggled, pressing her knuckles to her lips. Then, hearing her mother shout from the kitchen, she said, "Chai." Taking a big breath, she tried it in English. "Tea! Tea…is cooking. Is coming soon."
"Good!" Mrs. Iqbal smiled at her.
Ananda walked to the shelf to take down something wrapped in immaculate white cloth. Returning to my chair, she carefully uncovered it a flap at a time, revealing a polished wooden box full of the photos I’d been sending her for years. She stood beside me, watching my face as I turned over each picture. The first one was one of my wife and me standing in our yard with our red-shingled house in the background. It was strange to sit in this scorching little hut in India, smelling the scent of palm-matting walls, hearing roosters crowing in the lane outside, and seeing my green American lawn with patches of left-over snow visible beneath a pine tree.
I looked at a picture of my kids, aged eleven and fifteen. My daughter grinned as she reached up behind her big brother’s back to make rabbit-ears with her fingers; my son was trying to assume a hard expression but a smile was showing in his eyes.
"Dan." I pointed to my son, "and…." I pointed to my daughter, "Lana."
Ananda whispered the names.
Also in the box were postcards I’d sent. One showed my college, another a waterfall in Ithaca, another a farmer’s market there which wasn’t all that different from many Indian ones. Ananda leaned over, rapt, as she studied the pictures with me.
After we’d had our tea, Mrs. Iqbal asked Ananda to show us her school. In the lane, my hat attracted stares from the local children. I was glad the words "Cricket India" were stitched on the crown. Then I remembered that very few if any of Ananda’s neighbors could read English, or any other language. By paying for Ananda’s schooling, I was setting her apart from the people she’d grown up with. If she finished high school, she’d be so much more skilled than anyone in this neighborhood that she’d find it difficult, perhaps impossible, to keep living here. Was I helping to make her an alien in her own community? I asked Mrs. Iqbal.
"I know what you mean, but the nation can’t develop if the poorest people can’t move up," she said. "They ought to be able to get education, to have indoor toilets and scooters and radios if they want them!"
"Nowadays they must see other people owning them every day. It has to make them furious."
"Yes, but you don’t notice the anger. Until one day, it erupts in violent street demonstrations, food riots…." Mrs. Iqbal glanced around. "So we try to make things better one family at a time."
Ananda was making little scuffs in the dusty road as she walked along with us in her bright green cloth slippers—probably brought new for my visit. I pictured her sitting at a roadside shoe stall, proudly trying on pair after pair as other kids watched enviously.
I began to hear a roar of voices up ahead, then saw its source: Ananda’s five-story brick school rising above acres of metal rooftops. The racket kept increasing as if we were approaching a vast factory with all its machines whirring at a frantic speed. Inside the school gate, we had to shout at each other to be heard. Ananda glanced at me and gazed up proudly.
Most of the hallways had been converted to classroom areas. Crowds of small children sat on the floors, leaned over little exercise books, and colored in the outlines of purple mimeographed pictures. The teachers, all young women, shouted through the din; somehow the pupils heard their questions and screamed back high-pitched responses in unison. Walking carefully so as not to step on some child’s fingers, I entered a classroom where kids sat crammed two to a desk. Laughing nervously, they stole looks at me, and at Ananda who appeared both pleased and anxious to be seen with two formidable-looking strangers.
Bright red cut-outs of flowers were taped to walls. On the chalk board were squiggly rows of sentences in Hindi, which the students read aloud in unison as the teacher tapped each word with her pointer stick. I realized my face was clenched as if against a hard spray: the perpetual din. It came from this room, the halls outside, four more floors of rooms above me, and a brick courtyard—which also was packed with children sitting in neat rows, writing and screaming. Each teacher I passed seemed to have control of her class, though, and the children looked happy to be squashed in together. And why wouldn’t they be? So many kids their age couldn’t go to school at all. Some were out scavenging garbage, or picking up bits of coal from along dangerous railroad tracks. Others were squatting on factory floors earning fifty cents a day as they wore out their eyes tying tiny knots in carpets that would sell for thousands of dollars abroad. These schoolboys and girls, in their scrubbed uniforms and neatly oiled hair, were the elite of the neighborhood. One day, they might go to work in offices, wearing clean clothes to sit at desks and use typewriters or even computers. I could see why Ananda was smiling.
I spoke with one of the room’s two teachers, Miss Murthy, a slim woman in a pink sari and tortoise-shell spectacles. She told Mrs. Iqbal and me that two classes of about forty students like Ananda occupied each room and hallway. I asked her how many pupils were in the school.
She smiled wearily. "I am estimating…fifty thousand."
"Fifty thousand?" I stared at her.
"Oh--no, no!" She laughed. "There are two shifts, you see! We are having only twenty-five thousand in each shift."
Oh. Only twenty-five thousand little kids in the school building at one time. Ananda had already been to the morning shift, from seven-thirty until one. Most teachers, mercifully, worked just one shift a day. Miss Murthy squatted down to compliment a boy on how well he was coloring in the stripes (orange and green) of a tiger—an animal he’d be very unlikely to ever see, though tigers attracted masses of foreign tourists to Indian game parks. Miss Murthy asked Ananda if one day she might like to be a teacher. The girl nodded emphatically; she seemed to have already made up her mind.
Back at Ananda’s house, her mother stepped outside, agitated about something. From her mouth spilled a jumble of Hindi words with a high-pitched, ragged edge to them. Mrs. Iqbal spoke to her, sounding angry. Ananda looked stricken with embarrassment. Mrs. Iqbal shook her finger—a gesture not taken lightly in India—and suddenly Ananda’s mother collapsed to her knees in sobs. For a moment, Mrs. Iqbal watched her, frowning. Then she helped her up and, using the edge of her head scarf, wiped the tears from the woman’s cheeks.
When Ananda’s mother had gone indoors, I asked Mrs. Iqbal what had happened. "The mother wanted to know if the family would still get agency money if she married Ananda off now. Ananda has just been asked for by a ‘good man.’ He is a forty-year old bullock-cart driver, a drinking companion of the husband. He is pressuring Ananda’s mother about this—" Here Mrs. Iqbal raised her fist to demonstrate the nature of the pressure. "But I told her absolutely not!"
"Good." I hated the thought of eleven-year-old Ananda, with her huge eyes and shy smiles, being forced to marry a middle-aged man and never seeing her school again.
"I said, ‘Don’t you dare take that child out of her classes!’" Mrs. Iqbal continued. "’This man with me has come all the way from America to see that Ananda finishes her schooling! If I hear that she’s married, then you and all your family will be taken off our rolls forever!’"
"It looked like you got your message across," I said.
Mrs. Iqbal sighed. "I wanted to be hard on her, but perhaps I went too far. She has a difficult life." She glanced toward the house. "Insha’Allah, you’ll be able to keep helping Ananda get an education!"
Would Allah be better at protecting a young Hindu girl in Mumbai than a lapsed Christian from upstate New York? I hoped so.
Mrs. Iqbal took Ananda’s mother into the kitchen to talk with her privately. I was left alone with the girl in the other room. Silence. We stared at each other, me sitting awkwardly on a hard chair and she standing, shifting her weight from one foot to another. The cramped space was baking hot; my shirt was soaked with sweat and my mind was incapable of producing anything to say. I stood and beckoned Ananda to come outside with me. I had no idea what I’d do there, but at least we’d have more room to breathe.
The lane was just a short expanse of dirt where I could see the scratch-marks made by home-made twig-brooms. The air, as always, hummed with collective voices: a baby crying down the street, men laughing over a card game, a woman singing Hindi devotional songs somewhere. I glanced down at Ananda, who had finally stopped standing straight as a toy soldier and was slouching as she scratched an ankle with her fingernails.
"You got…pet in Amrika?" she asked in her small, hoarse voice.
"I don’t," I said, and immediately wished I’d spoken more agreeably. "My daughter has a cat, though." I think she understood; she seemed to blink the information in with her eyes. "Do you have pets?" I asked her.
"Can I see them?"
"Yes! Show you…." She walked—strode, really—up the lane, gesturing for me to join her. We stopped at a shed where a dovecote was set on the low roof. Inside the rusted tin cage, I heard the cooing of birds. Ananda unlatched a wire, reached deep inside, and pulled out a silver-gray dove.
She passed it to me to hold. I took the bird carefully, my hand cupped beneath it. One of its eyes was round and sleepy-looking, partially scabbed over; I saw a raw patch where some tail feathers were missing. The body gradually relaxed in my palm. The dove reverberated with a purring sound. I could feel the throb of its heart inside the warmth.
"I like it." I smiled.
She explained slowly, with pauses for eye-rollings at her impatience with her English, that she had six birds; they flew around the neighborhood but they always came back to her at night. She’d once owned eight, but one had been killed by a hawk, another by a stone from a boy’s sling-shot. I handed the dove back to her. She pressed it gently against her cheek. I had a feeling this was a girl who didn’t get much cuddling, herself.
"What’s this bird’s name?" I asked her.
She shrugged. Then she stared up into my face. "Name…Lana," she said. "All right?"
"All right—yes!" I said that I’d write to my daughter and tell her about the dove. "She’ll be very happy about this. Thank you!"
Ananda’s expression changed; her lips relaxed into a smile. She held the bird expertly, smoothing down its feathers with her thumbs. I was glad to see that she didn’t look camera-sweet any longer, but like a pretty, sweaty-faced kid who was growing up fast in a tough place and loved her scruffy doves. I held the cage door open for her. Carefully she placed the bird in its dovecote, and we walked together back to her house.
- From Epoch
by Edward Hower
"Where are you going?" I reached for Adele as she slipped past me out the door. I remember the warmth of her shoulder, her soft cotton blouse against my fingers.
"Up there–" She hurried across the flagstones to the edge of the road. "If something's going on, I don't want to miss out on it forever!" We'd heard rumors that local dancers in goat-skin costumes would be performing near some ruins on the mountaintop later in the week, but we had to leave on the next day's ferry. "People could be rehearsing right now," she said. "I heard music–bouzoukis, flutes, drums–"
I shook my head. The road to the top was steep; it had buckled in a recent earthquake and cobblestones were still jutting from its uneven surface. I sensed–dreaded–that, to her, they were gleaming in the sun like gold ingots. She'd told me that the road reminded her of a winding path to a palace–she'd read about one in a book of Greek myths we'd once owned.
"I'll go without you," she said.
If I didn't join her, I knew, she'd eventually walk back across the terrace and into our guest house, forlorn and defeated. Could I stand that? I looked up. She was pressing her palm to her chest. Now I did move over the flagstones.
"Adele, are you all right?"
She flung her hand down. "Will you ever stop asking me that?"
"Do you really want me to?"
She moved her lips but didn't answer. A bead of sweat ran down into my eye, making her appear blurry, incandescent in the glare. Her arms rose into the air at her sides. She stood on tiptoe and whirled around once, and her skirt billowed, giving off a whisper in the sudden quiet around her. Many years before, we'd loved to go folk dancing together.
She came to rest, smiling up into my face. "I'm fine!"
What could I do? "All right. But we'll stop and rest a lot. We'll go slow."
She took my arm. "I don't want to be holding you back."
I'd heard her say this so often that the line could have been part of a running gag, though it wasn't any longer. "You don't hold me back–just the opposite," I said, as always.
I pressed her hand lightly to my side. She held on, lightly. Treading along in her flimsy canvas shoes, she kept her head bent to study the road's bumpy surface. I described the scenery to her as we climbed: a platoon of potted geraniums guarding a terrace, serene white sheep munching on a shaggy field, glimpses of the sea's shimmer below. Behind us down the slope, the village's little whitewashed houses glowed like sugar cubes some god had poured over the mountainside where they'd gotten stuck in the crags and ledges high above the sea.
We stopped to rest in the shade of a house with a round-eyed owl painted on its side wall. On this island of Skyros, owls were considered good luck. I didn't draw Adele's attention to this one, though; during our year in India, we'd often been told that these birds, with their strange nocturnal cries, were harbingers of doom.
Adele was breathing normally again, and we climbed on. To either side of the road, low stone walls formed a winding sluiceway. The scent of flowering bougainvillea flowed down past us. I heard a murmur of invisible bees. To the west, violet streaks fanned across the sky; in the slanting light, the houses' shadows were soft carpets rolled out across the road ahead.
"I smell the salt water even from here. Do you?" Adele said when we paused again.
I hadn't, but now I could. "Oh, yes."
"I love the way the sea dissolves into sky out on the horizon."
"There's hardly any horizon at all."
The Aegean was quiet and translucent and serene; oval patches of pale green were suspended in it like underwater clouds. At the harbor's opening, though, a long silver wave was gliding, gliding toward the shore. In a heavy surge it thrashed against a cliffside, foam splintering in the air. Adele saw it, too. She turned to look back down at the village.
"All those fishing boats! D'you see how they nuzzle their noses against the docks?"
We'd been seeing them there for weeks, but everything looked different today. I pointed to a little school below us that wore a round tile beanie on its roof. Flocks of children in grey uniforms scurried back and forth in its courtyard. "They run like the seagulls we saw on the beach," I said. "Squawking and squawking."
"Those kids sound as if they're laughing." She leaned over to hear. "I wonder if people have a way of laughing in Greek. Or crying." She glanced at me. "Maybe lamenting. Like Orpheus, after Eurydice took a dive. Like you with your doleful songs." I'd brought my guitar with me to Skyros; she was trying to lighten my mood; I felt a rusty blade turning in my gut.
"D'you really want to keep going?" I asked. "You're sweating like mad."
"So are you!" she said.
"Take my arm, then, will you?" I stood still until she had a good grip.
Adele's gait was wobbly. Once, in our hometown, we'd seen sturdy walking shoes in a store window, and I suggested that she get a pair for the trip to Greece. "They're ugly. Like SUVs for feet," she said, and walked away.
We'd finished the bottle of water in my rucksack, so we stopped at a vine-covered trellis with tables set out on the street, a RISTORANTE, according to its sign. Adele rested both hands on the back of a chair and took long, slow breaths.
A fat man with an operatic mustache and cummerbund rushed out to greet us. "Inglese? Français? Well-come!" The island was trying to expand its small tourist trade but the only foreigners we'd seen were the American students at the summer school where we'd been teaching. "Please–you sit here!" the man urged us, gesturing toward a table.
I didn't feel dressed for a restaurant, in my dusty boots, jeans, and sweat-stained shirt, and I sensed that if we sat, the black vinyl chairs could stick to us, holding us down when we tried to leave. The man thrust out a bottle of ouzo, a liqueur we'd grown fond of in the evenings. During a hot day, though, it would sink us into a torpor.
With an awkward flourish, he conjured a laminated placard from behind his back and handed it to Adele. "Madame–look!"
She frowned hard at the black letters. The placard slipped from her fingers.
It skidded along the stones. MENU. I picked it up and handed it back to the man.
When the restaurant was behind us, Adele said, "I hope I wasn't rude to him."
"You weren't. I didn't want to stay, either. There's only so much left of the afternoon."
"I know." Her face was taut, the lines beside her eyes deepening. I was squinting, too. We were in a terra incognita, farther from the village than we'd ever been before.
"We'll be up and back in no time," I said.
"I don't want ‘no time.' I just want what's left of it."
When we'd first gotten together, she liked me to sing a country song called "Please Don't Tell Me How the Story Ends." Back then, she believed that she'd better enjoy herself with me while she could, because soon I might leave her for a woman younger than her, my own age. I knew I never would, and when we married years later, our story seemed to have no end in sight.
We paused before a crumbling stone archway over the road, perhaps a monument to some forgotten Greek deity. In its shade, I bought some oranges from an old woman who sold them out of a frayed burlap sack. Sitting with Adele on a wall, I cut the fruits into segments with my jackknife and handed some to her; we sucked on them eagerly. A group of teenaged girls in identical blue school frocks looked us over. It was Adele they were curious about: her glowing red blouse, and her hair, wheat-brown in the arch's shade, now a yellow blaze in the sunlight.
She pointed at crevices in the archway's façade where blossoms were overflowing. "Maybe people planted seeds there long ago."
"And the wind did, too," I said. Little silken trumpets dangled high over our heads, attracting bees. Leaves hung out of the stone like green tongues lapping up sunlight.
"A vertical garden," she said. "Look–even that tiny sideways tree poking out!"
I wrapped my arm around her waist. Leaning against me to gaze at the arch, she slowly lifted her chin. I remember the soft, pale curve of her throat. Usually, it was in shadow. I felt as if I'd never really seen it before.
Farther along the road, Adele rested on a wide bench, and I wandered a few yards away to look out at the sea. A minute later, I turned, then stopped, facing the bench. I didn't want to disturb the tableau: Adele seated in the middle of a row of six black-haired, blue-uniformed schoolgirls. They didn't appear to want anything more than to share the space with her. She was beaming. Like me, she had only sons, now grown, from a first marriage; she'd always hoped for daughters. She looked as if she wanted to reach out and gather all the girls into a bouquet.
Suddenly they began fidgeting, their faces clenched as if to ward off the evil eye.
Before I spotted the old woman, I smelled her: a sharp, rank odor. She was enveloped in dusty black cloth, her long skirts covering her feet. She shuffled to a halt before Adele. She stared hard into her eyes. Now I recognized the orange-seller by the frayed sack she'd dragged behind her. Before, she'd been merely a hand reaching out of a dark bulky cloud to receive our coins.
Adele spoke to me in a hushed voice. "She looks so tired, in this heat."
"You could all make room for her to sit down."
"That's what I was thinking." Adele shifted sideways and motioned for the girl beside her to move, too. The woman dropped into the space and stooped over as if burrowing into her own chest.
Adele gave the girls a high-eyebrowed questioning expression. I heard a whisper: "Mágissa!" Several hands covered faces.
One girl translated: "Witch."
Adele shook her head. "Oh, no!"
The woman dug her chin tighter against her chest. In India, we'd been told that village witches wore long heavy skirts like hers to hide their backwards-pointing feet, sure signs of their secret identities. I hadn't believed this tale then; I wasn't going to now. Stepping closer to the bench, I cupped my hands to mime drinking. A girl streaked off down a roadside path.
We all waited, breathing almost in unison. Finally, the girl who'd left returned, holding two tall glasses filled to the brim.
Adele stood. "Let me." She took them both and leaned over to press one into the woman's cracked fingers. The woman sat up, staring incredulously at it. Then she gulped down the water.
"You, Missus!" A girl pointed to the other glass Adele was holding.
She took some gulps and handed the glass to me to drink from.
We walked on. The sun's heat dimmed as it sank toward the sea. Spotting an old cane chair, Adele sat again, and I stood beside her, one hand on her back. She felt damp, warm.
"The strange way that woman looked at me…." Adele's shoulders twitched, something between a sigh and a shudder. "It was as if she recognized me. And she wanted me to know she did."
"There but for the grace of money–good doctors, decent food, nice clothes–go I." She pulled her compact from her bag, stared down at her face in the little round mirror.
I saw it over her shoulder. There was no way to tell how much time went by before clack! the compact shut in her hand. I started–as if she'd fallen out of sight through the round glass.
"What?" She turned her face up to me. "What did you see?" The crinkles around her eyes were vivid; the pupils were the same sparkly sapphire as always.
"I don't know," I said. "But I like seeing you as you are now."
"I know you mean it." She reached up and touched my cheek. "I'm very lucky."
I nodded. "So am I."
"We'll see," she said.
Music rose from beyond the roadside wall: blaring saxophones, a throbbing electric bass. We weren't even at the end of the road, but Adele was leaning heavily against the wall. I looked down an incline into a yard where the music came from. A small, whitewashed house, some cats snoozing on a terrace–and there was the oracle: a black plastic boom-box squatting beside a potted geranium, its big owl-eyed speakers tilted up.
Men and women stood around talking, laughing, hoisting bottles of beer and orange soda.
Three men in dusty baseball caps made a space to dance, arms out at their sides like wings. They gripped each other's shoulders in a line, shuffled their feet in unison. The women clapped in time to the music. Children crowded around a table full of food dishes with a big pink cake in the middle.
"It's just a birthday party." Adele sighed. "Probably this music's all I heard before."
"It's sort of folkloric, at least." I pointed to a man plucking a round-bellied oud, an Anatolian stringed instrument. I'd once tried to play one; finding notes with no frets on the neck to guide my fingertips was strange. I had the same feeling now about the road ahead.
Children waved at us from their terrace. Adele's gaze was wistful as she waved back. Above the house's roof, the twilight had taken on a haze like finely powdered bronze.
"I'm tired." She stared up the road. "I guess we don't really need to climb all the way to the top, do we?"
I turned toward it, too. "Maybe we'll find that out when we get up there." Inside me: the rusty blade turning? No, something else shifting.
"Why do you want to go, all of a sudden?" She leaned in close.
I rested my palm over the left side of her chest. The beat was stronger than before. "I don't want you to be disappointed," I said, and added, "Also, I'm curious."
"Good! I love that look on your face." Her smile came back. "I'll remember it."
The road wove past leafless trees whose branches cast shadows like the rungs of crooked ladders lying on the ground. Up ahead we heard a rattling sound. Its source appeared: a trunk-sized handcart covered by a glass dome. It seemed to be tugging a man and woman after it as it bumped down the incline like a runaway donkey. The woman's frizzed white hair spilled from beneath her head scarf. The man's sparse whiskers hid none of the creases in his face, though he looked strong and lively.
Spotting us, the couple pulled to a halt. "Baklava!" The woman's voice was whispery, as if the word were a secret she was revealing. I smelled honey.
Adele leaned over the bulging glass. The man lifted the dome. The woman put a dripping baklava slice on some wax paper onto Adele's palm. She bit off a corner. A small gasp escaped as she ran her tongue around her lips. "It's spectacular!" She held the slice up for me to take a bite. The baklava was still warm from a day of sunlight under glass: a rush of sweetness, a tiny avalanche of crumbled nuts against my tongue.
Standing beside the couple, we slowly licked honey from our lips as if we had all day and night. Somehow, I had a slice of baklava on my palm, too. Chewing drowsily, I ran my free hand over the top of the cart; the smooth wood felt like often-polished old furniture. The sound of faraway party music faded. Adele and I, aware of the silence at the same moment, brushed the crumbs off our clothes and glanced around.
I heard the creak of the cart's wheels down the road. The man and woman had left–and we hadn't paid for the baklava! I rushed after them, stumbling over loose rocks. But the couple had vanished into the landscape. Flushed, breathing hard, I climbed back to Adele.
"What happened?" She held my arm to steady me.
"They're gone!" I shook my head, trying to clear it. "I wonder if they were really here at all."
"Me, too," she said. "But I can still taste the honey."
Up ahead I saw patches of sky through the trees: we were nearing the top. We passed some scarlet bougainvillea hedges so dazzling they looked floodlit, as if untouched by the approaching sunset. Then Adele halted, head down, leaning against a heavy post beside the road. I stayed close to her, listening to her breathing. How long was it since our last rest on the roadside? All the years Adele and I had been together felt condensed into this one afternoon.
Something caught my eye: a squat, tiled-roofed stone house. And beside it: some Cypress trees, slim greyed silhouettes that looked as if they'd been there forever.
"What?" Adele asked, turning from me to look at them.
"That couple with the baklava," I said. "Baucis and Philemon."
Many years earlier, we'd decided this was our favorite Greek myth. As we'd lain in bed one morning, Adele retold the story: two gods in disguise stop at a cottage to ask the elderly couple there, Baucis and Philemon, if they can rest a while. The couple invite them in to have some bread and wine. Strangely, no matter how much wine the wife pours, the pitcher is always full. Eventually the travelers reveal their true identities, and ask the couple: What reward do you wish in return for your hospitality? They answer together: we want to die at the very same moment. The visitors agree to this, and later, when they leave, the cottage is empty. But two tall Cypress trees stand side by side near the door.
Lying close to Adele, I'd whispered, "Let's us go together like that."
"In our sleep!"
"Just after making love!"
We'd laughed as we burrowed under the sheet. I don't recall it being nervous laughter, but it must have been, a little, even then.
In silence, we climbed the last of the road. It faded under our feet as the ground leveled off. The summit was a sandy, open space with a few scrub bushes–room enough for dancing. But no one was here. Just us. I couldn't tell how Adele was taking all this vacant silence. Slanting sunbeams cheerfully saturated her light brown hair, heartlessly illuminated its white roots. At her feet I spotted a little pottery shard half-buried in the sand. I unearthed it: part of a vase, with a blue ceramic pattern like ones we'd seen on vases at the kiln in the village. I brushed it off and handed it to her.
She tucked it carefully into her bag. "Thank you, darling."
We walked close to the edge of the summit. All down the mountainside, lights glowed in house windows; little terraces were lit as if by flares. Gulls soared and glided on shafts of air. We followed them with our eyes as we wandered around, the sand crunching beneath our feet.
Behind some bushes was a shed-sized building that smelled of old dust. On the outside, only a few faded patches of whitewash remained; wind and rain had stripped the walls down to the hard clay. When we stepped through the open doorway, I saw that the roof had partially fallen in; weathered beams protruded overhead, making an awkward frame for the sky. Still, the place offered shelter, a brief reprieve. Strangely, the floor was clean, free of debris; a broom had recently etched miniature furrows and whorls in the packed dirt.
"Well, it's a Greek ruin," I said.
"Maybe a dozen years old," Adele said. Then she suddenly pressed sideways against me and pointed into a corner. "Look!"
Nearly hidden in shadows was a large wooden box with no top. We stepped closer. In it were white canvas garments; some were covered with goat skins, furry and earth-colored.
"Costumes!" Adele whispered, "Someone's stored them here."
"The dancers!" I took her hand. Smiling, she squeezed back.
Walking toward the light of the doorway, we both heard it at the same time: a bulbous, papery hive, very much alive in a window frame--bees audibly scrambling around inside its hidden maze of tunnels. Backlit by the reddening sun, the hive filled the hut with a perpetual murmur–another oracle. After a while, the sounds became friendly, soothing, remarkably musical. It was peaceful standing there with Adele, listening to the bees reverberate.
I smiled. "To them, this place is a palace."
We moved outdoors again. "You know, I forgot all about palaces a while ago," she said.
"When we started making those stops?"
"Yes. I was so happy on the road that it didn't matter what was at the end of it." She looked amazed, and for an instant she was the same age as when we'd first met. "Still, I'm glad you got me to keep climbing. I wouldn't have come here without you." She pressed her cheek against my chest. I stroked the side of her neck. Her soft hair brushed the back of my hand.
Streaked clouds gradually caught fire at their edges as the sun dipped behind them. A strangely lit panorama: on one side of the earth, the sea still shimmered bright and the white cube houses glowed on the slope; on the other side, darkness covered the mountainside in deep shadow. We were standing somewhere in between.
"Years ago," she said, "I didn't dare expect that anything like this could happen."
"If we never get anything more in our lives than today…."
I held her close, loving the fit of her body against mine. After some time, I looked up and the sky was just above my head, a dome of stretched velvet soaking up dark crimson tints as the sun roosted on the horizon. Already some faint stars appeared in the fabric; a few of them had fallen into the sea where they bobbed like tiny buoys on the swells. The water glowed wine-red. Adele's hair was scented like the sea.
She stood on tiptoe, her face level with mine. "I can see your eyes. Are you all right?"
"Promise me you will be!"
I said: "I will."
And now–somehow–I have to keep my promise without her.
We must have been aware that we were staying past a safe time to climb down the mountain in diminishing light; we never wanted to leave. Finally, we had to search for the road down. The way seemed much steeper than before. I went first, gripping Adele's hand as she crept behind me. I remember that once she almost fell; I grabbed her waist, swung her upright, and heard no cry of alarm, only a ripple of laughter. I was no Orphic bard, about to let sylphish Eurydice slip from my fingers that night; I gripped Adele's hand and looked back constantly, digging my boot heels into the earth as she came huffing down beside me.
Around a bend, a row of lights appeared like the glinting eyes of dark nocturnal birds perched on an invisible wire. We spotted white tablecloths, people holding glasses that glittered as if they contained tiny flames. The restauranteur with the operatic mustache waved us on with circular arm movements. Adele and I sat side by side at a table with a view of the harbor. Before dinner, we sipped ouzo and watched lighted boats float on the horizon. They could have been hovering in a deep night sky.
- From Voices in the Water: Collected Stories
by Edward Hower
Was it a mirage, that bank? It floated before him on waves of heat, a low rectangular building whose walls were the same lonely color as the African desert behind it. Pulling his check from his briefcase, the anthropologist Alain Mercier hurried across the village square toward its open door. Some French Legionnaires watched him from the steps of their barracks. In the shadow of an ancient mud-brick mosque, old men in tattered djelebias followed him with their eyes as he vanished into the building.
Inside, he took a deep breath of delicious shade. On the wall, gecko lizards darted across a framed photograph of the premiere of France. The bank was amazingly cool. He thought he noticed the scent of fresh rain--though no rain had fallen here for several weeks.
He blinked. Behind the counter, in a pool of light where incandescent dust motes swirled down from the window, sat the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.
He was a heavy, shy young man, smooth-faced and blue-eyed, and though he had come to this region a year ago to learn about its people, he was still without much personal experience of beautiful women. Setting down his briefcase, he strode up to the bare counter and thrust his check toward the teller.
She had just begun painting her nails with a tiny brush, and appeared to take no notice of him. He watched her moving fingers, feeling the sweat run beneath his stiff khaki shirt. She inspected the red nail of her right forefinger, then replaced the brush in its little bottle. Her eyes were black pearls. Her face shone a deep, dark mahogany, the color of the spirit masks he had seen dancers wear.
Suddenly she smiled up at him. "Welcome," she said in Bambara.
The check fluttered out of his fingers. He trapped it against the counter. "Thank you. I only wish…." He was trying to speak in her language. "…make paper here become cash."
Her gaze was a soft breeze against his face. "You may sign the check, then," she said, and arched her fingers, palm up, toward an antique pen and inkwell.
As he wrote his name, he couldn't get a good grip on the pen; his signature looked not his own. He put the check down and stepped back, digging his fingers into his thick, brown hair.
"You have come far, monsieur," she said. Her white teeth sparkled like cowrie shells. She did not even glance at the check.
"Far. Yes." And suddenly he realized how very tired he was. "I have so many places to go, things to do--
"He waved his hand toward the north, though now, indoors, he could no longer be sure of his sense of direction. He tried to picture the track that wound like an ancient river bed across the Sahara to Tomboktou, his destination.
"You can rest here." She picked up her nail brush again.
He sat on the bench against the wall, facing her across a space of only a few meters. For something to do while he waited, he made a mental field map of the bank: two rooms--this one, and, behind the counter, a deeper room divided into empty wire teller's cages that might have gone on forever into the shadowy darkness. He was evidently the bank's only customer. Opening his briefcase, he tried to read his papers.
Each time the woman moved even a little, he was distracted as if splashes of color were dancing in his peripheral vision. The robe that flowed around her slim body was an aqueous blue; the shapes of her small pointed breasts tilted down like fish watching her hands at work. Her cheeks were so smooth that he was sure he knew how they would feel against his palm, though he had never touched anything as cool and soft in his life.
His check was now resting on a French instruction book he hadn't noticed before. Removing his pocket watch, he leaned forward. "Madame, is problem about check?"
Her nail brush stopped in mid-air. "I am not 'madame’,"she said. Practicing her French, he supposed; it was nearly as bad as his Bambara. "Myself: 'mademoiselle.'--not married." She pointed to her ears whose bare lobes peeked out from beneath her kerchief, and he recalled that in this region, when a woman married, she was given enormous gold earrings to wear--the couple's savings account, never to be sold except in dire emergencies.
"Ah." He nodded. "And the check?"
"Only the cashier can encash it." Her eyes flicked nervously down to the far end of the counter where a skeletal cage stood, its circular steel mouth waiting. "But first, the clerk must approve it."
He opened the watch in his hand. It seemed to have stopped. "And when do you think the clerk might come?"
The woman applied her brush to another nail. His question floated on the dust motes between them until it became a memory.
Turning toward the door, he watched a boy slowly leading a camel along the dirt path that led away from the square. Then, in what seemed seconds but surely must have been longer, the two figures reappeared as dots on the horizon. A gust of sand obliterated everything from his view. He raised his hands to shield his eyes, but neither the sand nor the heat blew into the bank.
"Monsieur Mercier, would you like coffee?" Her voice resonated like the sound of a kora, an African harp.
He was thirsty, and also strangely hungry. "You're very kind."
“Not kind. It's good to have company. One is too much alone--you understand?"
He stared at her. Now that he was no longer in constant motion--conducting interviews, taking notes--he did understand. "Yes," he said.
She smiled back. When she rose from her stool, her green cotton dress rippled down her body all the way to her ankles. First she brought him a bowl of cool water for washing, then a cup of coffee. He watched her stir it, her hand circling slowly above the steaming cup. He could not have said how long he'd stood gazing into the little whirlpool of dark liquid. Then the spoon was gone; the surface of the coffee was still. He drank it down. It was both bitter and saturated with a perfumed sweetness.
When he finally raised his face, he saw that three fingernails of her right hand were now a gleaming crimson. "Pardon me for mentioning it, Mademoiselle Touré," he said, "but I'd like to know about the check."
Her lower lip pouted out. She put down her brush. "The clerk who must approve the check, he has gone to the market to buy medicines for his aunt. She has taken sick."
"Ah. I'm sorry to hear it." He returned to the bench with his cup. It was full again. As he took a sip from it, he noticed that the hunger he had felt before was gone, replaced by a new, pleasanter kind of expectancy. He began to organize his fieldwork into chapters. It was fortunate that he had brought all his data with him. The cycles of birth and death, the sensuous rituals of courtship and marriage he had observed--all were coming to life for him now.
When he looked up again, someone had moved his check to another desk. It had acquired a thin layer of dust.
"Mademoiselle Touré, did the clerk come back?" he asked.
"He was here briefly. It's very sad--he had to go to his aunt's funeral." She fingered the shiny metal cross at her neck. Her plump, round bosom heaved. "If you must know, Alain, he approved the check before he left. Now the deputy assistant manager must sign it."
"Does the deputy assistant manager also have trouble in his family?"
"No, no. It's a joyous day for him." Her French was remarkably good. "Today his son is to marry the girl he's been courting."
"The boy's very fortunate," Alain said. Sitting back in his chair, he lost himself in his work again.
"What are those papers you're always writing?" she asked.
"As a matter of fact, Fanta," he said, "this chapter's on courtship customs."
Smoothing her short, pink skirt over her lap, she flashed him a sideways look that made his cheeks flush. "You've done your research well, haven't you?"
"I've been inspired recently." He grinned.
Humming, she lifted the hinged flap in the counter and set down a plate of rice and fried plantain before him. Like all her dishes, it was delicious, yet not fattening; he ran his hand down his freshly laundered cotton shirt, feeling the flatness of his belly.
"I like to read these." Fanta pointed with her nail brush to the newspapers on the counter. "Will you be getting more of them?"
Alain could not recall where they had come from. Perhaps one of the French legionnaires had given them to him. But now the only soldiers he saw outside were Africans in baggy uniforms.
"I'll try to order some in the mail," he said. "By the way, have you heard from the deputy assistant manager?"
"Yes, he's gone on leave. His son's wife has given birth to a little boy." The wistful expression on her face made Alain glance away. "Before he left, though, he passed the check on to the assistant manager."
"And where is he?"
She planted her hands on her hips. "Why are you so impatient?"
"You've got to understand, I have plans--so many things to do!"
"Of course." She rolled her eyes.
He turned away from her. He could see that his check had been moved from the desk to her left to a desk directly behind her. It seemed to be making its way in a semi-circle; the last stop would be the cashier's cage beside the door where the sun's glare was burning a yellow stripe in the floor. He watched a man drive a tractor across the square toward a petrol pump that wobbled like a flame in the heat. Inside the bank, though, the air was still cool. Several geckos darted on the wall around the framed picture of the republic's new president, a distinguished-looking black man in a grey suit and tie.
Alain returned to his work, steadily filling his thick pads of paper. He wrote "Volume Two" at the top of the page. What had happened to Volume One? He recalled that Fanta had proofread it and mailed it off.
"The society in Paris was very complimentary," she said. Her heavy earrings swung beside her neck like golden conch shells.
"The work went better than I could have imagined," Alain said. "It's a shame we won't be paid more for publication."
"We've enough to get along."
"But for how long?"
She smiled. "Long enough."
"I hope you're right," he said. For a while, he wrote steadily and she worked on her nails. Then, thinking that he heard some movement from the far end of the room, he looked up from his papers. His wife turned back toward him on her stool. Her forehead was clenched as if she had just been shouting at someone in the shadowy space behind her.
"Was that the assistant manager?" Alain asked.
"Yes. But he has gone." Her face was still clouded over. "He left the check for the manager."
"The manager…." Alain gazed out the door. Women were setting up vegetable stalls against the barracks wall across the newly tarmacked square. He heard an amplified call to prayer from the new mosque whose gleaming white minaret rose above the busy streets of the city.
"You still ask about that check." She moved her mirror to inspect her hair, which she had braided in elegant cornrows. "Aren't you content with me, Alain?"
"Of course!" he said, and was glad to see her pouting expression fade. "We mustn't fight, dear," he added.
"Especially not now." She rested her hand on her belly.
He walked to the doorway, holding his fingers out to catch some drops of water. The rains had been especially good, and the garden was thriving. The bright red flowers Fanta had planted just outside glistened with moisture. Smiling, Alain watched her pick up her brush; she had completed all the nails of her right hand and was now starting on the left one. He returned to his work, and became so absorbed in it that he did not glance up until he heard a small cry from behind the counter.
Lifting the baby in her arms, Fanta unbuttoned her blouse to free a heavy brown breast. The child began to suckle. "How I'll miss this when he begins to eat porridge," she said.
"We can't put it off much longer," Alain said, smiling.
"Horny goat!" She laughed.
Local custom forbade a man from approaching his wife for several years while her infant was nursing. Alain's joy at returning to her, however, was gradually diminished by worry: how would they afford school fees for little Benôit-Sekú? Fanta's gold savings would not support them forever. He squinted into the murky space behind her, and saw that his check had been moved to another desk.
"It's turned yellow at the edges," he said.
The lines deepened in Fanta's forehead. "The manager said he'll try to get approval for encashment when he goes to the capital," she said, her voice flat. She was speaking Bambara again; it was not safe to speak French in the republic now. "But the roads are so dangerous these days!" She glanced up at the photo of the scowling general on the wall. Geckos no longer played around its frame.
Alain unfolded the newspaper on his desk. "The garrison from Tomboktou has been called in," he said in her language. He was fluent in it now.
"Sekú's school will be closed. Next they'll be drafting him into the army."
"No, he was talking of joining the rebels, don't you remember?"
"Let's hope so." For luck, she touched the tiny leather bag of Koranic verses that rested on her round bosom. Its cord was all but invisible in the folds of her flesh.
The sand blew past the doorway and drifted toward the barracks. An old man led a camel past a charred petrol pump. Bricks from the bombed-out shops still littered the square, but all was quiet now. Alain wrote slowly. After a while, he dozed, his head on his stack of papers, his fingers resting in his thinning grey hair.
He saw or dreamed that he saw a bony figure move into the cashier's cage as if stepping out of a dark haze of cobwebs. Waking suddenly, Alain was sure he heard footsteps--and paper being rustled, rustled…. But as before, the wire cage was empty. He leaned forward, the cords in his neck stretching beneath his beard.
"Fanta, was that the manager?"
Her nail brush stopped in mid-air.
"It was him, wasn't it?" he asked.
"Yes." She shifted her wide hips on her stool. "But Alain, there was mail today. Sekú-Ali's commission has come through. He'll have a big salary now!"
"I wonder if he'll help us."
"Of course he will. He's a good boy. Don't you remember how he used to work with us in the garden?"
"I remember that year we tried planting yams…."
"That was your idea,” she said.
"The boy kept asking for them."
"Yes, and you rescued two and watered them every day."
"There were at least half a dozen."
She laughed. "All right, three. One for each of us."
"At any rate, there were enough," he said.
"It's true." She touched his arm. "There were."
"But this year," His gazed out the door at the expanse of sand and the fiery sky above it. "The drought…."
"It's never been so dry." She shook her head slowly, and her stretched empty earlobes swung against her neck. How worried she must be, he thought, more than she shows. He rose, his joints creaking, and lay his hand over hers.
"Careful--my nails!" She waved her fingers in the air to dry them. The sleeves of her long black burqa shook along the sagging flesh of her arm. Four nails of her left hand were now bright red.
He paced across the room and stopped before the doorway. Outside, a caravan made its way along the highway. Tombstone-sized slabs of salt were strapped to the camels' humps. He sniffed the air, searching for a remembered scent.
When he returned to the counter, Fanta was tearing open another envelope. "It's from the Ministry of Defense!"
"Yes! He's going to mail a money order, just as he promised!"
Alain held up the letter, squinting through his spectacles. The floor seemed to tilt and right itself beneath his feet. From the frame on the wall, the young president smiled down on them.
"We can forget about cashing the check now!" Alain said. In fact, he had not thought of it in a very long time, and did so now with reluctance, even dread. "Can't we, Fanta?" he asked.
She had twisted around to face the darkness behind the cashier's cage. Now she turned slowly back to him. Tiny white corkscrews stood up in the brushed mat of her hair. "Ah, if only we could!" she said.
He pressed his knuckles against his lips.
"The manager has given the cashier the key to the cash drawer," she said, her eyes cast down at her fingertips. "The cashier be here soon."
"But…can't we delay him a little longer?"
She shut her eyes tight.
Frowning, Alain took out his watch. But of course it was still stopped. What good would it have done to look at it anyway? He flung the watch to the floor. It skidded past the cashier's cage and cracked against the frame of the blazing doorway.
"You mustn't tire yourself like that," Fanta said.
"The cashier can tear up the damned check--" A gust of hot wind choked off his voice.
She began to paint the last nail of her left hand.
"Wait!" He wanted to protest that he needed time to finish his book, but he saw that the briefcase beside his desk was not only empty but full of cobwebs. Hot sand was blowing through the door, swirling all over the room. It felt gritty between his teeth, burned his eyes. What had happened to all his plans? They blurred like a mirage on the horizon behind him. "Strange--that I could have thought them so important," he said.
"Thought what?" she asked.
"The things I was going to do."
"Ah." Her eyes danced. "Those."
"But I remember other things…." He smiled. "Plantains, yams."
She screwed the cap on the little bottle. Every nail was bright crimson. But now her cheeks were damp with tears. She brushed them away. "You know,” she said softly, “It's time,"
He sighed, his skinny arms dangling from the sleeves of his tattered djelebia.
"Will you help me, Alain?" she asked.
He straightened his back. How dazzling her smile is, he thought, her teeth still white as cowrie shells. "Of course, Fanta," he said.
He lifted the hinged flap in the counter for her. She took his hand as she stepped through. Side by side, they moved across the floor toward the cashier's cage. The glare of the sun had turned it to molten wire. They felt, rather than saw, the movements of the figure inside. Shuddering, they heard the rustling of paper, and held each other's gaze.
The bank went silent. For a long moment the sand stopped blowing. Then the breeze came up again, and it was cool, and smelled to them like rain.