Won't You Stay, Please?
The flight to Burundi had been exhausting, three days in total, and when the pinched little man raised an inquiring finger, Neil leaned against the luggage on his cart and closed his eyes. The man wouldn't disappear. It was the professor--he pulled out his card and held it to his lips--but in some ocean-scented region of his brain Neil held out hope that from around the corner some Nelson Mandela look-alike might emerge, someone with a dazzling I-forgive-you-everything smile, and with a bear hug announce himself to be the charming correspondent. All around the terminal, people were laughing and throwing their arms around each other, and students in tight shirts shouted greetings into their parents' ears. Outside, beyond the huge glass panes, couples walked hand in hand across the gravel to their cars, and a woman in a bright sarong jangled her bracelets at a boy, who grabbed her wrists and pressed them to his cheeks. There was a kind of whoosh in the air, a joyous crackle, but around the professor the sound all but disappeared, as though someone had placed a jar over him. When Neil at last stuck out his hand to shake, he had to fight the urge to say what he had been thinking ever since boarding the flight back in Los Angeles: I have been deserted.
"You are the guest linguist?" the professor asked. He sounded bored, and his eyes drifted to Neil's trolley cart. His handshake, Neil thought, was fishy and damp, even less appealing than what he had heard was typical of Africans. "You are not ill, I hope," said the professor. Neil frowned. "Your expression," his host explained. "You looked like you had just eaten something disagreeable."
"Oh no, no, no," Neil said, waving off the suggestion. He made reference to jet lag, then to the tag team of humidity and sun. Who knew? he said: travel was a funny thing, wasn't it? The professor raised his eyebrows--whether the gesture was universal or borrowed from some movie, Neil wasn't sure--and then began speaking in French. He was of the opinion that Neil had packed too many bags. One could buy clothes in Burundi, he said. One could even purchase luggage.
Neil laughed in what he hoped was a disarming manner. Of course, he said, he had nothing against the Burundi luggage industry ... but the professor didn't seem to be listening. His host shooed away some men in dirty orange overalls, one of whom had already laid claim to Neil's biggest suitcase, then abruptly grabbed two of Neil's bags for himself and started toward the exit. "Sorry, sorry," Neil called out, and the professor stopped in his tracks. "Foreigners are expected to spread the wealth," Neil said, motioning to the men in orange. "Give big tips and all that." An Africa scholar back in Los Angeles had told him as much. Over wine, the man had grinned slyly and said, "We all suckle from the same teat." He paused a long time, savoring his earthiness. "But if you've got a bigger mouthful, share it," he continued. "Noblesse oblige, my friend. We're all brothers and so on."
The professor remained frozen a moment, then let the suitcases drop. "I am not with you," he said in English. "You are with me." And with that he picked the suitcases back up and continued out the door. Neil followed. What the professor said sounded like a rebuke, but apparently there was to be no standing around to discuss it. Neil's shoulder bag kept slipping, and he quickly fell behind. He hadn't slept for days, and during the layover in Nairobi he had spent an exhausting hour searching for the long-distance phones, tracing and retracing his steps, only to discover he had been given the wrong number to the hospital. Not that there was anything he could do now. He was half a world away, passing through a glass door smudged with fingerprints and into the glare and smoking gravel of a foreign parking lot.
People were already pulling away, blaring their horns, then veering sharply onto a ribbon of blacktop walled on both sides by plantain trees and jungly undergrowth. So this was the heart of Africa. Gibbons ate their own young here, and tilapia fish grew to the size of leopards; Hutu boys high on contact cement murdered busloads of Tutsis, and then Tutsi soldiers razed entire Hutu villages; witch doctors combed the elephant grass in search of fingernails and molars. And still, Neil marveled, still everyone followed the soccer rankings and blathered away on their cell phones and drank too much over the holidays. Ostriches, as far as the eye could see. Where was the sense of emergency, the busy arms yanking perversion from its hole?
Neil had a million questions for his host. But mostly he wanted to scream at the professor's back. Hey prof, he imagined shouting: how about you learn some manners?
Five days before boarding at LAX, Neil had disconnected his answering machine. He let the phone ring and ring. I'm gone, he said to the receiver. Like smoke in the wind. Poof. With all that needed attending to--the endless packing, the flight schedule changes, the storage-unit hassles--his sleep had been disturbed, and there was no time for correcting proofs or loading up on Swiss chard at the farmer's market or even for jogging through the park. It was time to disappear.
But the calls kept coming, and when Neil finally answered there was only static and then a sharp intake of breath. "Neil?" he heard. "Is this Neil?" It was an unfamiliar and dismal woman's voice. He didn't at first understand what she was saying. She told him he had to fly up to Tacoma. She told him his father was dying. "Your father, Ray," she said, as if he might not recall the name. For what seemed like an eternity, Neil heard evidence that the end for his father was at hand. "Neil," the woman's voice said, "he's so far gone they can't even operate." Ray's weight had brought on diabetes, and then everything failed all at once. He had crusty infections below the knee ("Picture an elephant leg," she said, "then picture it crispy"), a liver stewing in its juices, a droopy and waterlogged pair of lungs, blood clots like little beaver dams in this artery and that. She ran down a long list of depressing evacuations and abandonments. It was only a matter of days, if not hours.
The woman's tone seemed inappropriately aggressive, and Neil remained silent a long time. "Who did you say you were again?" he finally asked. The voice belonged to Jenny, his younger brother's girlfriend, or so Neil recalled from an old Christmas postcard. Or maybe she was his wife now.
"Can I talk to Pig?" Neil said into the phone. He quickly corrected himself. "Sorry. I don't know where that came from. Can I talk to Peter, please?" Growing up, he had called his brother Pig and his father Hog. They were names you could say and not alarm yourself, cartoon words, not like the doctors' terrifying morbidly obese or the schoolyard taunt feeders, which gave him nightmares. There was, as well, a quality to the terms used by others that suggested to him even then, as a young boy, the existence of something underneath all the blubber even more grotesque than the blubber itself. All the words except the cartoon words seemed to contain further accusations of personal failings too hazy to be defined with adult words. Ray was, in fact, crazy as a June bug--that had been clear for years--and Peter had followed in his footsteps. They wore their fat like arctic suits, like something purchased, and you got the feeling they kept them on as a kind of insurance, protecting their dodgy, laboring hearts from whatever awaited outside the door.
"Peter's not here now," Jenny said. There was a pause, and then she spoke again: "He's making arrangements. That's why I'm calling."
Of course, Neil thought, of course she would say Peter wasn't there. And of course Peter wasn't the one making the phone call. He had left the task to this woman, this Jenny. Neil shook his head. He pictured his brother sitting across the table from Jenny, grimly waving off her offer of the phone, perhaps stuffing a hoagie or an Eskimo Pie into his mouth as he listened.
Neil agreed to everything Jenny asked of him. He could stay in Tacoma for just a few days, he told her. Yes, he could spell them on the deathwatch. But then he had to leave for Central Africa. He had a research position lined up there, and the gears were already in motion. Did she know he had a Ph.D.? That he was thirty-four? Yes, yes, two years older than Peter. Correct, single again. Correct, two marriages already. Bump and go, yes, if that's how she wanted to phrase it. But did she know he'd had a book proposal accepted? Did she know he was going to spend a year doing field research?
Nothing he said seemed to catch her by surprise. So Peter had been keeping tabs, checking him out on the Internet. At least his brother had shown some initiative. The ironic thing was that the opposite was not required. Ray and Peter had for decades remained true to type, and phone calls or visits or chatty letters produced no more information than settling into his chair and conjuring them up. They were like movie characters, images impervious to time and circumstance, replaying the same scenes over and over. Their milieu was the trough, he once said, and surprise or variation had long ago been struck from the menu. He had said that to Karen, his second wife, when she asked, her voice sharp with exasperation, "Can't you tell me one thing about your father or brother?" His answer had come across as both thoughtful and cruel, and though he told her cruelty gave him no pleasure, he also noted that honesty was sometimes a brutal mistress.
But privately, he acknowledged he was not being honest. If he were, he would have had to let her know he'd seen them only rarely since he was twelve and that, even then, the occasions lasted only an hour or two. There was shame in that, and, besides, the answer he gave his wife was what she needed. Society was a scold--it criticized but never praised--and for Karen, who phoned her mother twice a week, the fact that he had given her something smart-sounding to share was a godsend.
His preference, one he had devoted much time to establishing, was to view his childhood with his father and brother as an exchange-student type of affair. Hello Mister and Junior, I am friendly youth person. Sometimes, stoned or woozy drunk after linguistics parties, he could still bring himself to tears with what he could not help but think of as a modern-day Dickens tale. When he was just a toddler, his mother, Margo, died giving birth to his brother. Outside of a short summer stay with Ray and Peter, at twelve, he had been raised by Aunt Beth, who was already an old woman with tissuey skin when she took him to live with her up in Bellingham.
But Peter stayed with Ray, and together they grew astoundingly fat. Just like Ray, Peter took to wearing suspenders. He developed the same meaty odor, and when Ray lost interest in wearing shoes, he followed suit. Ray made a mess of pronouncing words like similarly and Loyola ("It's not a tongue for talking," he once said, without irony), and so did Peter. They despised doctors, and neither wanted workmen in the apartment--embarrassment, Neil supposed--so the chair legs cracked one by one, the light switches stopped working, and the pantry door began to sag and wore a groove into the wood flooring. Even when Peter finally moved out, well into his twenties, the move only went as far as down the street. Every once in a while Neil sent them each a holiday card. Every once in a while he got one in return, signed by them both.
The next morning Neil flew up to Tacoma. The arrangement was that he would stay with Peter and Jenny in their apartment. "Hope the accommodations are to your liking," Jenny had said before hanging up. On the plane, Neil mulled over her statement. He wasn't certain she intended the comment to imply something about him, but he had noted a certain sass in her tone. Most likely, their apartment was slovenly, even sordid. When the in-flight breakfast arrived, he could not eat the eggs. He told the flight attendant they smelled moldy.
They drove in silence for several miles--Bujumbura was another thirty minutes away--before the professor turned to Neil and asked about his research project. Neil wagged his head. As head of linguistics, the professor had signed off on his visiting scholar status, though he wasn't the primary sponsor. Still, they had written each other a couple of times, and the professor had spoken glowingly about the linguistics and language instructors in his department, what he called Neil's new African family. So no one had told the head of linguistics a thing about him. That went a long way in explaining the disconnect, exposing the charm of the professor's letters as fraud, as simple careerism masquerading as warmth. The African mask, Neil supposed. Say one thing, do another, as long as you don't get sullied.
And, besides, there were plenty of other things Neil would have preferred to talk about right now. That woman carrying the clay cistern: was her head shaved because she had lice? How come no one cut the vegetation back around the highway? And Herr Doctor Professor, yes you, my devious little friend, is there blood on your hands? Are you Hutu, as your height suggests; or are you Tutsi, as your position suggests? What were you doing during the massacres of 1972? How about in '88 or '93? The thrill Neil had experienced months ago, reading the accounts, felt much different now. Even the interior of the car seemed off-kilter. The professor was one of the elite, for God's sake, educated in modern ways, but the upholstery smelled of sweat and dirt, and the ashtray overflowed with beer caps. The back seats were no better. He had apparently used them recently as a dumping ground for folders, most torn or smudged, and mangled exam booklets.
"No one told you about my project?" Neil asked.
The professor stared at him blankly. Then they rounded a curve, and jagged spaces in the high wall of vegetation suddenly flooded with sunlight. For a moment, the road and the jungle turned white as chalk, and the brightness knifing through the trees mottled the professor's face. Even in the glare Neil saw the professor curl his lips, as if tasting something bitter. The professor brought up his hand as a visor, and then muttered something ugly-sounding under his breath. His forehead puckered with angry lines. It was as though the professor now thought himself invisible--as though, all along, the professor had been waiting for klieg lights to blind any witnesses. The moment passed. A driver going the other way tapped his horn, and the professor's expression immediately dropped away. But it was enough: the man had been time traveling, Neil realized, projecting himself back, just for a second, into a scene of ugliness and shock.
So Neil began talking. There was a calming and pleasing quality to research talk, a pattern of thesis and support that suggested all was right with the world: Good morning, ladies and gentlemen, there are no lions on the veranda today, none at all. Let us rejoice. Neil told the professor he was a bit embarrassed to opine about Burundi to a Burundian, especially such a respected and knowledgeable one, but as the professor knew, his beautiful country, unlike neighboring Rwanda, had never employed specialists to remember and relate the goings-on of the royal court. As a result, and as the professor was also aware, Burundi's history was subject to more, should he say, uncertainty than was Rwanda's. And that, he added, was true even in the harsh light of the recent Rwandan genocide.
"You are saying," said the professor, "that we are ignorant of our actual history, n'est-ce pas? That we sometimes use that to--" he paused, searching for the word--"avoid responsibility?"
Oh no, Neil replied, shaking his head, though that was in fact what he meant. That was in fact the supposition driving his project. But the professor had spoken so forcefully, so unexpectedly, that Neil worried his host was trying to pick a fight.
"Would you tell me please what you are here to examine," the professor said, staring straight ahead. It didn't sound like a question.
All he was going to do, Neil told him, speaking evenly, was examine the morphemes in the local Kirundi language used to signify past events. There were of course two such morphemes, Neil said, holding up two fingers. One marked the distant past; the other, the near or very recent past. By examining those morphemes, Neil said, one might find objective data, one way or the other, that Burundians do or do not ... but he could not find an acceptable way to frame what he wanted to say next. He turned over his palms, a gesture of searching, and looked at a passing truck for inspiration.
The professor spoke: "That we talk about what we did yesterday as if it had already disappeared into history? In regard to certain actions, of course. Yes? And that doing this is equivalent to saying, 'Oh well, nothing can be done'?" He took one hand off the steering wheel and wagged his forefinger in the air. "Even when wrongs can be righted. Even when certain people should be held accountable. Is this what you wish to say?"
Neil exhaled loudly. "Well, no," he said. "That isn't my assumption at all. No. The evidence might very well support the opposite conclusion. But of course the questions have been raised by others."
"Others," the professor said, nodding. "Muzungus. You foreigners. There is a saying here. 'The muzungu who mocks your clothes sits naked behind his desk.' Do you understand?"
"I get the drift," Neil replied. He placed his hands on the dashboard and turned to his companion. "But I want you to know I'm not that sort of person."
The professor flashed Neil a grim little smile. "We know so much about muzungus," he said. "What do you know about us?"
He spoke with what sounded like pride, but also, Neil thought, with more than a hint of narrow righteousness. Surely the professor understood the geopolitical reasons why Burundians might, out of necessity and self-interest, know more about, say, America than Americans knew about a basket case like Burundi. Outside of peanut butter and beer, the country lacked for everything. There was even that Eddie Izzard routine about having coffee with the President of Burundi. It worked as comedy because geopolitically speaking, there was little difference between the President of Burundi and the King of the Rabbits.
But one could not say such things out loud, not here, and certainly not to this sour African in the driver's seat. Neil found himself waving his hand at the blue mountains in the distance, as if overcome by their beauty. Anything to change the topic. What a tragedy, Neil thought, to be blind to your own circumstances. An amendment occurred to him. Might it be an even greater tragedy to be fully aware? Knowledge like that could eat you up from the insides.
At Sea-Tac, Neil looked around the baggage claim for Peter and Jenny. He felt clammy and cold, and waiting at the baggage carousel he suddenly doubled over, clutching his stomach. "What the hell?" he whispered, but the pain was so sharp and surprising--how could this be happening? he wondered. This?--that he at first did not see the woman--Jenny, he realized--waving at him from a row of chairs by the windows. Next to her was Peter. His brother's plump and delicate hands were draped across his stomach; he appeared to be dozing. His dark hair was longer than Neil remembered, and the more he allowed his gaze to roam over his brother's body, the more Peter's features seemed to grow flaccid and indistinct, as if receding into his girth.
Jenny walked over. "Good to finally meet you," she said. "I'm just sorry it took this to get us all together." She, too, was squat and heavy, though, Neil was careful to note, not beyond the pale. Maybe fifty pounds over. Put her on an exercise regime, he thought, and she could drop twenty in a month. She wasn't pretty, but he hadn't expected her to be. She wore a brown poncho and black stretch pants--if she thought her outfit hid the pounds, she was mistaken--and her hair was tied back, severely, into a ponytail. She hugged him, and then they made their way to the row of chairs.
"Hey," Peter said. He righted himself, all six feet of him, bracing his bulk against the chair. He was breathing noisily through his mouth, and his teeth were still bad, like dull little stumps. Some kind of pimply growth pocked his neck, and under the fluorescent light his skin looked glistening and plastic. His limbs were hairless. Only his eyes, Neil recalled, seemed unaffected. They were still agile and bright, as if transplanted from some alien species. Odd. It was as if they could look right through you, when in fact they registered little that didn't come on a plate.
The sharp pain returned, and Neil pressed his hand to his side and grimaced. "You hurtin' there?" Peter said, pointing.
"Just a side stitch," said Neil. "I don't know. It just came on."
"That's not like dad's side stitches, is it?" Peter slurred the words. His flesh, Neil recalled, constricted his windpipe and made his speech sloppy and spittle-filled.
"Whoa," Neil said. He held up his hands in protest. "Don't start, okay?" His voice was sharper than he had intended.
Jenny watched the exchange. "Well, that's not quite what I imagined for a greeting," she said. She looked first at Peter, and then at Neil. "Is there something going on?"
It was an awkward moment, and Neil looked to Peter to see if he'd say anything. But his brother was shaking his head. Then Neil turned to collect his luggage, and when he rejoined them the subject had already changed. Jenny was wiping at something on Peter's shirt. At the automatic door Peter waved his arms in front of him like a magician. "Open says-a-me," he said, fluttering his fingers, and when the door slid open, he laughed.
He had always loved infantile word play. When they were teenagers, cousin Jim and his bride Kay had invited the whole extended family to the wedding reception. Neil hadn't seen Peter for a long time, but all Peter wanted to do was go up to people and say, "If you see Kay, tell her not now." No one got the joke, but Peter found it hilarious. "You're supposed to be the smart one," he said to Neil. "If. You. See. Kay. F-U-C-K?" Peter had never learned how to plug his heart, how to make himself presentable, so everyone treated him as if he were a child. "Do you always have to be so embarrassing?" Neil snapped, noticing the bridesmaids' table frowning in their direction. "Can't you grow up? Just for a minute?" Peter flipped him off. They probably would have gotten into a fistfight if Jim hadn't whistled and given them both a nasty look.
On the freeway, Neil sat silent in the back seat of what Peter called their clunkmobile. It was hard to act cheery. The late afternoon sky was pale blue and washed out, faintly pink near the horizon and completely uninspired. It cast the distant firs in a purple hue, and even with the windows rolled up the long grass along the shoulder filled the car with a dusty, basement smell.
"So you're teaching what?" asked Jenny. "Linguistics, right?" She spoke at the rearview mirror.
"Your job secure?" Peter added.
Neil shifted in his seat. "Yes to the subject matter," he said. "No to job security. I'm not tenure track."
"A gypsy scholar," said Jenny. "All branches, no roots."
Peter spoke. "Up and out every few years, huh?"
Neil's surprise must have been evident in the rearview mirror. Jenny said, "Did you think we were going to ask what that ten-year thing is? I know what tenure is."
"Sorry," Neil said. "Of course you do."
"I went on after high school," Jenny said. "l was just a few credits short of a BA."
"That's great," said Neil. He slapped the back of her seat in a show of enthusiasm.
But she apparently wasn't ready to acknowledge his gesture. "Tenure," she said. "Let's see. Peter has tenure with his father. I have tenure with Peter."
Neil looked at the rearview mirror to examine Jenny's expression. Her statement seemed unwarranted. He mulled over blurting out something disarming--"I'm innocent of all charges! Case dismissed!"--but the moment seemed to have passed. They'd show him the house, Jenny said, and then go in the evening to the hospital. Jenny focused on the road ahead. Then Peter turned the radio to some oldies station, and it was too noisy to talk anymore.
The closer they got to Bujumbura, the more the giant fronds of the plantain trees gave way to scrub and stretches of cracked red clay. The jungle surrounding the narrow highway, Nell realized, had cast everything in shadow until now. It had been like driving in a tunnel and then suddenly emerging into a wide and sky-lit world. Even the air smelled fresher. Small groups of people, walking single file, now began to appear along the roadside, and in the distance, smoke from cooking fires rose in frayed lines from the city. Now eighteen-wheelers and minivans dotted the road, and scores of frowning men on bicycles seemed to appear out of nowhere, bearing enormous loads of plantains. Despite the traffic, some children were squatting along the roadside, filling plastic buckets with rocks and dirt.
The change of scenery brightened Neil's mood. Even the professor seemed affected. He looked slyly at Neil. "You are hungry?" he asked. Neil said he was. "Good," the professor said, nodding. "There will be many vendors along the road soon."
Up ahead was a slow-moving pickup truck. It took Neil a moment to figure out its cargo, but when he made out the automatic weapons, he knew: two rows of soldiers wearing camouflage and red berets. Tutsi, Neil guessed, judging by their height. They all looked over six feet tall. The truck was taking its time, and as they approached, Neil wondered when the professor was going to slow down. He had been driving at breakneck speed, and for the past few miles he had honked his horn repeatedly at bicyclists. What would happen, Neil wondered, if they got into an accident with the truck? What if, as he suspected, the professor was Hutu?
Neil recalled his conversation with the Africa scholar back in Los Angeles. They had polished off their second bottle before the scholar glanced at his watch and announced he was instituting brass-tacks time. The Hutu-Tutsi conflict, he said, was nearly incomprehensible to outsiders. The two groups shared a common language, religion, culture--nearly everything. Sure, he said, in the bad old days the Belgians documented coarse physical differences--Tutsis were tall and thin, Hutus were short and stocky--but those distinctions were not as dramatic as muzungus wanted to believe, and after generations of intermarriage, everyone pretty much looked alike, anyway. The thing was, we wanted gross differences. We liked our bloodletting crystal clear. That way, he said, the conflict would make muzungu-sense, and, sorry, but that was the sense that counted, now wasn't it?
"It's a strong impulse," the scholar said. "Let me give you an example. Do you know what Americans in Burundi call Hutus and Tutsis? I mean, when they don't want them to understand?" He grinned. "Hamburgers and hotdogs. As in, 'I hear the hotdogs are mad at the hamburgers again.' But in reality it's like saying siblings are only a set of differences." He waved his hand around, as if in apology. "Sorry, but only metaphor seems to clarify this. Truth is, you're never sure if you're talking to a Hutu or a Tutsi, or even what one is anymore."
Neil looked at him quizzically. "But there are differences."
"Jesus," the scholar said. He swished the wine around in his glass. "You and I, we're different. But we're not killing each other, are we?" He leaned forward. "Every jackass and his jackass thinks he's got this stuff figured out." He shook his head. "Think of it like Cain and Abel. We know the story, but not the actual history. So now every muzungu with an ax to grind is pushing his own read."
A minivan, its horn wailing, came into view around the corner, headed right toward them. At the same time, the professor pulled into the oncoming lane, passing the pickup. There didn't seem to be enough room. No one slowed down or sped up. No one's expression changed--not the professor's, not the soldiers in the pickup, not the driver of the oncoming van.
Neil turned quickly to the professor. All he could hear was the wail of the van's horn. He saw the driver's eyes: droopy-lidded and calm. In the passenger's seat, and in the back, he made out piles of dead chickens, strung together with wire. They were stacked to the roof. Someone had ripped off their feathers.
Neil lunged at the steering wheel, and his fingers grazed the professor's hand. They struggled briefly, Neil pulling one way, the professor the other. "Do not," the professor shouted. "Do not." Then somehow everything was fine: their car veered back into its lane, now in front of the pickup, and the wailing van sped by without incident.
Neil put his hand to his heart and spoke quickly. "Not my car," he said. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have done that. Oh, God." He heard the fear linger in his voice. "I thought we were going to die."
The professor turned to Neil and clucked. "We are two in this car," he said, speaking sharply. He stared at Neil a long time. "It is not you alone." Then he did something surprising. He reached over and patted Neil on the shoulder.
Peter and Jenny's apartment building was in a weedy cul de sac. In the parking lot, some shaved-head kid tinkered under the hood of a junker. There were broken empties next to the Dumpster, and a gnawed Big Wheels lay overturned on a pile of weathered plywood.
"Homely sweet home," said Peter. "The neighbors are pretty quiet. You can catch a bus down that way." He pointed a stubby finger at a stand of evergreens behind the building. Cars whizzed by on the other side.
The window air conditioner had been left on, so when they entered, whatever cleanser Peter and Jenny had used had turned disagreeably sweet. Neil stood at the doorway. To his left was a photo display, mounted in expensive-looking frames, the kind of thing shopping malls advertised: Peter and Jenny in model poses, backlit, smiling and bovine in front of a dreamlike palette of dark colors. The portraits were ludicrous. But Peter had always been slow to understand that his presence sometimes set people to tittering. He had never learned how to ingratiate himself into a world of complex sensibilities.
They showed Neil around. The counters had been cleaned, but Neil noted what must have been invisible to them: crusted, pebbly bits of food on the cabinets; foggy discolorations in the corners; a stiff patina of burned meals on the stovetop. In the hallway, a washing machine had been shoved against the wall--"there's no laundry room," Peter said, noting Neil's expression--so to get to the bathroom, one would have to squeeze past the washer. The carpet had been recently vacuumed--Neil could see the dark, crisscrossing lines--but there was no way to cover up the generations of spills; they bloomed on top of each other, their outlines distinct as strata, as on a cartographer's map.
Jenny offered to show Neil the bathroom, and as he followed her in, he caught her surreptitiously wiping at something on the sink. The room smelled strongly of disinfectant, but Neil could not help but notice the black hairs wrapped around the shower faucet. The mirror over the sink was spotted with flecks of toothpaste. Jenny told him he had free run of the bathroom, though Peter went to the car wash at nine every morning. "I mean shower," she said quickly, catching Neil's eye. "I just call it the car wash. He takes his shower at nine." She seemed embarrassed.
"Don't sweat it," he said. "Now if you call it a truck wash you might get a call from the word police."
"Peter," Jenny called out. "How about showing your brother your office?" She turned and placed a hand on her husband's arm. "I'll get some coffee going." Peter mumbled something about his labors never ceasing, and then led Neil to the bedroom and made reference to what he called, mysteriously, his inventory clearinghouse website. Inside, on the other side of a giant four-poster bed, was an ancient computer and some office supplies--"the storefront," Peter said, somberly--all crammed onto a card table. Nearby was a black leather office chair, missing one arm. All Peter would reveal was that he and Jenny bought figurines and gag gifts wholesale from a catalog and then sold them online. He began shrugging even before he finished.
Neil nodded toward the far corner of the room, where four columns of small, sealed boxes nearly grazed the ceiling. The packaging tape had not yet been removed. "Inventory?" he asked.
Peter looked at the boxes. "Business comes and goes."
"Like the tide, huh?"
"Okay," Peter said, his eyes drifting toward the computer.
"You think the tide's coming in again pretty soon?"
Peter closed his eyes and rocked back and forth for a moment. "Okay," he mumbled. He seemed irritated. "Okay, I'll see you later," he said. "Okay? I gotta track some orders." And with that, he sidestepped some computer cables and settled noisily into the leather chair. So that was it. Tour over. The computer whirred to life, and Neil turned on his heels and left the room.
Later, sitting in the living room, Jenny apologized for her husband's absence. He'd be out soon, she said, handing Neil a cup of decaf. Then she leaned forward. She said she didn't know what the deal was between them, but she wished they'd call a truce.
"Like I said before, nothing's going on," Neil replied.
Oh, but there was, she said.
Neil took a long sip from his cup. Was she maybe, he asked, taking the concept of displacement too far? She folded her arms and waited. It was a linguistic term, he said. It referred to one of the things that marked us as human: the ability to talk about things that weren't present.
"Please don't," she said, closing her eyes.
Don't what? he asked her.
And again: don't what?
She said if he wanted to be an ass then maybe he better figure out where his own asshole was first. Then she said she was sorry. These past few weeks, she said, had been crazy. They had to deal with everything at the hospital, every single day, and it wasn't pleasant. She was just trying to support her husband, that was all. They were family. "You, too," she said, catching Neil's eye: "you're family here, too, you know." She paused. He knew his brother and father were close, right? He knew how that felt? It killed her, she said, to see her husband in such turmoil.
"Peter can't let go," she said suddenly. "He can't say 'bye-bye' like you."
Neil set down his coffee. "I'm sorry. I really am. But that 'like you' sounds a little presumptuous, doesn't it?"
A hissing sound escaped her lips. "Could you stop being superior for just a moment?" she said. She looked at him hard. "You bad-mouth everyone and act like you're the choir boy. Why don't you try turning the evil eye back on yourself?"
"I just want to point out that I came here," he said. "I didn't have to."
"How far gone would you have to be not to?" she said. Then she looked at the floor. Her voice became loud with emotion: "Peter just thinks you cut everyone down and then you cut them out."
"I'm not like that," Neil said quickly. But even as he rose, smiling now, and took one of her hands into his own, demonstrating, she raised her other hand and made snipping motions with her fingers. He took that hand in his own, too, and he felt her fingers thump against his palm. No more, he said. Come on. But she kept on snipping until he released her.
Just a few more miles, the professor said, and they'd be in Bujumbura. The highway was curvy and mostly downhill, yet the professor continued to drive wildly, swerving around bicyclists, sometimes feathering the accelerator around bends. Was that normal, Neil wondered, even for Burundi? It seemed more likely that his host was still harboring some kind of grudge. Two steps forward, one step back. They had, he thought, ever since he attempted to grab the wheel, reached an unspoken accord of civility. Yet there was a bullying aspect to this part of the journey, like a kidnapping with thank-yous. It was as if the professor were saying For every kindness, a price. Couldn't they just arrive?
The professor was only part of his impatience. The landscape they were now hurtling through, the same one that just miles back had filled Neil with reassurance, had been growing steadily richer and more insistent, as in a hallucination, as though the entire country had moved itself here, all at once. Along both sides of the highway stood entire lean-to cities, centers of commerce and hubbub, and even with the car's windows rolled up, Neil swore he heard shouting and music. The women wore gaily colored headscarves. Lines of children sat side by side on planks laid over beer crates, like miniature paratroopers waiting to jump. Vendors squatted behind neat mounds of grains and vegetables, and next to them, in straight-back chairs, old men in skullcaps were inhaling long drags off their cigarettes. Naked infants waddled around everywhere, circled by large, skulking dogs. To the right, the cleared ground slowly gave way to a sloping hillside; to the left, behind everyone, a long, dark outcropping of solid rock--a mountainside, Neil realized, a solid wall--closed in on the crowd, with each passing mile cordoning off more of the lean-to city, squeezing the inhabitants on that side even closer to the traffic speeding by.
There was a time, years ago, when Neil might have encouraged the sensation of encroachment. He had once toyed with joining the Peace Corps. After talking with a recruiter, he had sat through an orientation film in the college auditorium. There, he watched clips of smiling volunteers sitting cross-legged on mats, eating goopy concoctions with their fingers. They were surrounded by a mob of watchful, alien people. Neil couldn't get the mob out of his head. There was no room to breathe, no room to move. They put their hands all over the volunteers. They touched their hair, their limbs, their possessions. Those people, the recruiter said, pointing at the screen--no matter where you go, you'll feel their breath on the back of your neck. People who don't look like you or speak like you or think like you. People who will always be there, even when you don't see them. Always.
It was too much. Didn't one always want access to an escape route? Just in case? Who of their own volition would choose a life over which you had so little control? That was the nature of the beast, Neil thought: one always wanted a secret path to some meadow, some nearby open field, some level plot of land you could walk through alone, slow as you please, and not have to return. There was nothing cowardly about wanting that. One didn't wish to become ensnared in impossible situations. One needed to know how to leave.
The professor let out a huge yawn--"I have not been sleeping well," he said--and reminded Neil of his declaration of hunger a few miles back. Oh, that was quite okay, Neil told him: he could wait until they reached the city. But the professor tut-tutted him. His new African family, he told Neil, many of whom had traveled widely, would not hear of their newest member arriving hungry. He smiled. A host had responsibilities, he said. A promise was a promise, and he had promised his guest sustenance.
"Here," the professor said, rounding a bend. Neil saw two boys next to a waterfall. He straightened in his seat while the professor pulled over and braked to a stop. The outcropping had closed the distance to the highway, sealing off the crowds of people and all the noise. There was room for the professor's car, and then the space narrowed, heaving only enough room between the rock face and the road for the two boys, selling what looked like vegetables and fruit stacked atop a wooden table. But what made Neil straighten was the waterfall: the outcropping was perhaps a hundred feet high, and over its jagged top flowed clear water in a narrow stream, splashing against imperfections in the rock face, all the way to the ground, where it flowed into a rough gully next to the boys, along the highway's edge.
"That's some tight quarters," Neil said. From his seat, he nodded at one of the boys, who took some red vegetables in both hands and sloshed a few steps through the muddy rivulet until he stood directly behind the waterfall. There was just enough space for him--a pocket between rock and water--and the boy, conscious now of his audience, smiled brightly. He stuck his vegetables, one by one, into the cold water pouring down in front of his face. The sight was mesmerizing: the water was like an envelope, and each time the boy stuck a vegetable into the envelope, an explosion took place, refracting the light, ever so slightly turning parts of the rock face first purple, then green, then shades of red.
Grunting, the professor got out and in what Neil assumed was Kirundi, the local language, he greeted the boy behind the water. The boy emerged. The two talked with some animation, and for a moment the professor held the boy's hands in his own. Then the professor turned and switched to French. The boy was one of his nephews, he said. Julien. He was twelve, the professor noted, and shy around muzungus. The boy regarded Neil coolly.
The professor smiled at Neil. "It is beautiful here, yes?"
Neil agreed. The area was cramped, but spectacular: off to the right, on the other side of the highway, the land had given way, dropping sharply into what Neil now understood to be a terraced tea-plantation field. Below that, a green and tangled valley spread for miles, leading to the outskirts of Bujumbura. There was no traffic noise. There was only the water falling from the top of the rock.
The professor called out for a couple of pineapple skewers, and the other boy--he looked a bit younger than Julien--enthusiastically speared chunks of pineapple with wooden skewers. Neil stepped out of the car and took one, smiling now at the professor, who stuck a skewer into his mouth and held fast to the fruit with his teeth. The action seemed to please him. He smiled back at Neil, and then looked at Julien, who had once again gone behind the water, which also seemed to please him. The professor began to move his lips, whispering, and his careful posture--he had clasped his hands together and held them in front of him--reminded Neil of a man in prayer.
"You come here often?" Neil asked, brightly.
"Just this past week," the professor said. "Not before." His posture quickly changed, and he reached into his pocket and pulled out some crumpled Burundi francs, which he waved at the boy behind the table.
"What happened last week?" Neil asked.
But the professor only shrugged and then made a show of handing money over to the boy. He told Neil the boy and his nephew were friends. "My nephew does not need to work," he said, as if anticipating an objection. "He lives with me now. But he wants to be with his friend." He motioned toward the boy he had just paid and then began moving his lips again.
"Ah," Neil said. The conversation had taken an awkward turn somewhere, and he did not know how to correct it. "A busy recent past," he said. But the professor ignored him.
Before they drove to see Ray, Neil unpacked his toiletries in the bathroom. He had left the door open--a friendly gesture, he concluded, completely transparent--and out the corner of his eye he saw Peter stumble out of the bedroom-office and walk down the hallway, over to Jenny. Peter was moaning. He bent over in front of her and placed his hands on his knees. Jenny rubbed his back. "Is your gut cramping again?" Neil heard her ask. Peter nuzzled his wife's breasts with his head. "Why are you getting all these stomach pains now? Is it gas?"
So Peter had never told her.
Neil let his fingers linger on the knob. The long hallway, the dray-animal intimacies, the stomach pains: it was all familiar. Like running across a damning photo at the bottom of a shoebox.
Jenny caught Neil staring then, and something about the way she touched her husband must have made Peter aware he was being watched. He jerked his head around. Neil saw panic cross his brother's face, so he nodded curtly at his hosts and closed the door.
Hadn't Kafka written somewhere that family life required the repression of disgust? Neil, brushing his teeth now for the second time, unsure when to emerge again--he could not hear anything outside the door--was fairly certain he had. But the idea belonged to a different place and time. It was the product of a faded, genteel European poverty, a domesticated life played out in a cramped urban apartment, person after person powerless before the thin walls and rattling, uneven doors, never free of the endless belching and masturbating and tedious, pitying conversations. Would the idea have taken root without the constant, echoing plop and splash of a rusting, pull-chain toilet? Without the thick wool coats always drying over the sill? Without all those bodies leaking their smelly fluids, day after day, onto the furniture and linen?
So no, not disgust.
What then, Neil?
What did you call it when you felt relief because you couldn't hear your brother's voice?
He frowned into the mirror. He threw up his hands and shook his head. What could one do in a cold-war masquerade, after decades of a solemn and silent dance? Open your mouth now, walk straight toward your brother, and you'd stumble around in the dark, a fool in a land of checkpoints and legalities and sand.
There were consequences, of course. No teller, no history. Only invention and blame. But that summer, way back when he was twelve, way back when Aunt Beth dropped him off for a summer stay in Tacoma, that was when someone should have spoken. Not now. It was too late.
So at the sink, still thoughtfully brushing, he reassured himself that when he opened the door there would be no clumsy and impossible conversation. There would be no mawkish indulgence, no false embraces. Yet other, troubling thoughts accompanied that certainty. They emerged alien and Sphinx-like, unrecognizable, and he paused in his brushing to contemplate the image in his head, a picture of silence itself as a seed. Silence had a shape, and it was secretive and busy, taking root as you slept, growing while appearing not to grow, year after year, until one morning you awoke and found something ungiving and hard towering over your house, your lover, your dreams. Was that what Peter and Ray saw? Did they sleep in its shade and eat and eat and eat of its gnarled and knuckly fruit?
Aunt Beth had insisted he never blame Peter for their mother's death and never blame Ray for his inadequacies. Margo had died giving birth, and Ray had been unable to cope. Beyond that, no one had any right to make claims. But just a few weeks after Margo's death, Aunt Beth did stake a claim. She offered to take both him and Peter to live with her up in Bellingham. She had a nice house and lots of money. There was no way, she said, that Ray could raise two young boys by himself. He wasn't able, not in any sense, and he knew it. So he went to live with her, with Ray's blessings.
But his youngest, Ray said: Peter was his link to Margo, and he couldn't let that go. He was like that, Aunt Beth said. From the beginning, ever since she had known him, Ray had been unusually--that was the word she used, unusually--close to his wife. Your father, she told Neil, was his own worst enemy. Then she raised her eyebrows. "All roads don't lead to Rome," she said. "Some just go in a circle. Okay?"
But that summer Aunt Beth thought a visit down to Tacoma might do Neil some good. He hadn't seen his father and brother all year. Ray, she informed him, claimed to be housebound now; and whenever he called her long-distance, which was infrequent, he seemed even to Neil distracted and vague, and his chats were never more than how-do-you-do.
His first night back in Tacoma, Neil could not get over how much weight his father and brother had put on. Peter told him that Ray now positioned a stool by the refrigerator, and from every room in the house, you could see him reach into the trays and pull things into his mouth. Peter had always been heavy for his age, mocked by playmates, but Neil could tell the sight bothered him. Why else would he not joke around about it? Of all the things to say, why would he have said that?
Neil saw for himself his father's stool in the corner of the kitchen. He heard the effort behind his father's breathing, the noticeable new limp to his walk. He saw, too, his first week, that Ray would without warning sometimes double over, moaning and grabbing at his shirt. Sympathy pains, Ray called them. They got so bad, an ambulance had come for him once, and a nurse pressed cold compresses to his sides and stomach. A doctor gave him some pills, but they didn't do anything except cloud his head. Ever since their mother died, Peter said, the sympathy pains had been growing worse.
"Sympathy pains," Neil said. "That's where the guy feels bad, right? His wife's pregnant?"
Yeah, smart guy, Peter told him. Yeah.
So what the fuck?
He'd see, Peter said. Maybe.
Peter seemed to get angry then, and he shoved Neil hard. Neil shoved him back, and Peter lost his balance and hurt his wrist on the counter.
Later, Ray led Neil and Peter from their morning TV into the living room. He let them know that one day they, too, would be felled by genetics. "Let's say I'm dying," he said. "You two will feel it. Just like I felt it. Just like your mother felt it." He lifted Peter's shirt. Then he lifted Neil's. The pain, he said, would probably begin right there, under the right breast pocket, then work its way down. He put a hand to both their stomachs. Count on it, he said. Blood was blood, and there was no getting around it.
So when Neil saw Ray clutch his gut the following week and fall to the floor, he was not surprised. He had been prepared. It was happening now, Peter told him, dragging the coffee table out of the way. Then Ray opened and closed his eyes. He stretched out on his back; he upturned an ashtray, and the ashes coated the carpet.
"Oh, dear God," Ray moaned. A sound like a revving engine came from some place deep inside him.
"Are you okay?" Neil asked, bending down. "Are you all right?"
"Dear God," Ray said. His mouth opened. He clutched his stomach hard. "The baby's coming."
Neil straightened. He looked to Peter, who immediately turned and ran toward the bathroom. His father, sweating now, rolled one way, then the other, and ash stuck to the hairs on his arms. "What?" Neil said, putting his hands to his ears. "What's happening?" But there was only his father writhing on the carpet, his shirt unfurling around his stomach, and the sound of Peter opening and shutting the medicine cabinet.
"What? What?" Neil said when his brother returned. Peter waved around a pink bottle of Pepto-Bismol in his hand, and Ray grabbed the bottle and drank from it deeply, then reached up and pulled Peter down to his knees. "It's time," he said to Peter. Then, to Neil: "Doctor. It's time."
Peter's expression didn't change. He dropped to his knees and curled into a fetal position, in front of his father's bulging stomach, the carpet tickling his ear, and started mewling like a baby. Neil understood: Peter's own birth was being enacted. It was like a play. His father was his mother, dying on the delivery table; Peter was himself, a ten-pound, four-ounce, angel of death, or that was how it seemed to him, that was the only thing that made sense. "Kick," Ray barked at Peter. "Kick and scream."
Peter thumped his feet on the floor and his yells came out muted and polite. Ray closed his eyes, and Peter did, too, and they stayed like that, locked together, their bellies rising and falling until Peter scraped his head against Ray's shirt buttons and bawled in a higher pitch, screeches his tiny assassin's mouth must have made when he was born. Oh God, oh God, oh God, Ray shouted. He drew Peter close, draping his immense hand around Peter's ribs and squeezing hard as he could, squeezing and yelling until Neil sat down on the couch and picked up a magazine.
Holding the shower rod now, Neil was conscious of moving his lips. He pictured the scene clearly. Yes, it had happened exactly like that. That was what Ray and Peter did. Years later, Neil recalled, he heard Aunt Beth speaking sternly into the phone to his father. His youngest had a bruised ribcage, she said into the receiver. She had heard. She kept tabs. Why? she demanded. What was going on? Peter had gone to school and a nurse had asked the same thing, but standing there at the base of the stairs, listening, Neil recalled his brother's calm demeanor that afternoon, his practiced movements, and his father's precise choreography and the way, afterward, they both simply brushed away the cigarette ash and walked into the kitchen for sodas. How would I know? he imagined saying to some inquisitor, though Aunt Beth didn't ask. I don't live there. They live there. Ask them.
And it was true, he didn't know what was happening. He had seen something once, that was all, something like a living-room play, and then his father and brother had struggled to their feet and acted like he wasn't even there. They drank 7-Up, he remembered, and when Ray offered him a bottle, he took it without a word. That same evening, Peter walked into Neil's room. He had filled a battered measuring cup with some kind of alcohol. He sat on Neil's bed, and they traded swigs. They said hateful things to each other. Mister I'm So Special, Peter called him. Fat fuck, Neil replied.
Little Lord Fauntleroy.
No one wants you here, bitch. You're trash.
What did you say?
You heard me.
They let the words hang in the air awhile, let the words lick their ears, and they sat on Neil's bed and drank from the cup and let the words drift like smoke until the moonlight came through the window just right and they could see the light trying to take shape.
"This is you in here," Peter said, his voice a snarl. He plucked at the air and closed his fist, and his fist shook as if something were trying to escape. "No, this is you," Neil hissed, and he grabbed something invisible in the air and closed his fist around it. He squeezed so hard his fingers turned white. "Gonna fuck you up now," Neil said.
Peter then grabbed a pillow and shook it until the pillow fell out and he was holding only the pillowcase. "Gonna fuck you up," Peter said, but even though it was just a game, just blowing off steam, Neil swore he could feel something between his fingers, something soft and alive. Peter said he felt it, too, and then they yelled a little, surprised, and they both closed their fists and grabbed the pillowcase, grabbed it hard, and shoved what they pretended was in their hands into the pillowcase, and when all they could hear was the freeway outside they jammed their arms all the way to the bottom of the pillowcase, bone and nail, and they felt a hot, soft thing squirming inside, only when they looked all they saw was their hands and fingers in a jumble, all slick and blotchy.
Aunt Beth came the next day. She stood at the doorway, clutching her purse tightly. Surprise, she said. She had something to discuss with their father, she said, and told them to go outside and play. When they returned, Ray and Aunt Beth were sitting on opposite sides of the couch. Aunt Beth told Neil that a few days were enough: he was coming home with her today. Then she turned to Peter. Who, she asked him, would he like to live with? Would he like to join his brother and live with her? Up in Bellingham there was lots of room for a boy to play, and a really good school, and all sorts of advantages--then she stopped talking. Ray cleared his throat. It was Peter's choice, he said, and his choice alone. Whatever his son decided, he would be loved. They were family, he said, and no bond was stronger than that.
Peter started to cry. There was lots of cooing and hugging. Later in the afternoon, when Neil got in the car with Aunt Beth, he turned around and saw Peter watching them through the window, crying all over again.
"How was it?" Aunt Beth asked.
He looked at her. "They got really fat. They're weird."
"Well, they are."
"That's no way to talk about family," she said.
So he didn't. He thanked her in his head for what she had just told him.
And now when Neil emerged for the second time that day from behind the bathroom door, he saw Peter and Jenny watching TV, the sound low and muted. "Hospital duty," said Jenny, looking up. Peter struggled to his feet. "You ready?" Peter said. His voice was bland and bored. He picked up his jacket, draped over the arm of the couch, and no one said another word until they were on the road.
The professor closed his eyes and chewed his pineapple slowly, in small bites, and then walked calmly to the waterfall, where his nephew Julien was squatting, washing and rewashing some produce. He said a few incomprehensible words to the boy, and Julien again stepped behind the water and stood up straight, a green bell pepper in his hand. The professor stuck out his hand. Slowly, with great precision, he stuck his forefinger into the water. Julien smiled. It seemed to be a game, Julien edging his face as close to the water's surface as possible, the professor sticking his erect finger into the water, stopping just inches from his nephew's face.
"You know I don't actually speak Kirundi, right?" Neil asked suddenly.
The professor withdrew his hand. "Bien sur," he said, sharply. "Of course. Speaking a language is not necessary for studying the language. Of course I know this."
"I meant no offense," Neil said. "This is all so new, that's all. But before I meet my new African family, I was hoping to get a leg up. How do you say 'they're dead' in Kirundi? In the distant past? Is there a morpheme change between that and 'they're dead' in the recent past?"
The professor turned his head sideways and looked at Neil out of the corner of his eye. "Why do you wish to know this particular phrase?"
"What is it you are curious about?"
"I'm just asking a question," Neil said.
The professor pursed his lips and stared at Neil a long time. He was frowning. Then he snorted--a refusal, Neil thought, a hostile act--and locked his teeth onto another chunk of pineapple.
Neil had read accounts of genocidal butchers neither accepting nor rejecting the charges leveled against them. They lived in a purgatory of evasions and half-truths, too mired in justification to come clean, too guilty to deny what had taken place. Had he just witnessed such an event? It was possible. Every step seemed a potential minefield. When, Neil wondered, had even the smallest encounters become so fraught with anxiety? Years ago, he'd experienced moments of pure animal joy, feelings so powerful he'd find himself on the verge on tears: the ecstasy of laughing, the feel of a girl's hand in his, the way she'd flip her hair just so. There was no headlong rush into significance, nothing you couldn't take back. Nothing had to connect with anything else. Had even asking questions now become impossible?
He stared back at the professor. They both stuck skewers into their mouths and pulled off pieces of fruit. The professor's expression, Neil thought, was contemptuous. Briefly, wildly, he imagined the professor fashioning a knife out of his skewer.
But Julien's companion then approached the professor and began an insistent, nagging monologue in Kirundi. Extraordinary. Since when did African children speak at length to professors? Something was going on. The boy's words sounded whiny, and he diverted his gaze to some distant point. Then there was his timid stance--head bowed, shoulders hunched. Still he talked, and when Neil's eyes fell on the francs sticking out of the boy's shirt pocket, he found himself suspecting the professor of not paying enough for the skewers. It had taken his host awhile even to offer payment. Was he taking advantage, perhaps, claiming family privilege, cheating this poor boy, bizarrely, out of what he was due? Could he be that depraved? The professor was growing animated now, pressing a hand to his head, then throwing his arms out dramatically. The boy looked at the ground, as if chastised.
Hey, Neil imagined saying. Hey you. Bullyboy. He tossed his skewer aside and took a resolute step forward. This unpleasant man, with all his rudeness and presumption: if push came to shove, if the boy cried out for assistance, he'd protect him. He'd shield him from the professor and take out American dollars and give him a fistful, and when the boy was safe he'd wheel around and make the professor sorry. What a coward the man was, what a son of a bitch. How could you turn on the powerless like that? How could you live with yourself?
But the professor and the boy then switched to French, and the gibberish Neil was hearing--their common tongue seemed a series of nonsense syllables, a make-believe language--gave way to familiar, open vowels, and the lolling words fell into line and calmed him.
"My mother," the boy said, gravely, "she sends her sympathies to you."
"She says to tell you," the boy continued, "your father and sister were loved. We are sorry to hear of their passing."
The professor nodded. "Merci beaucoup," he said, and then his voice broke and all he could do was repeat himself. "Merci beaucoup. Merci beaucoup."
It seemed to Neil then that the professor's face was about to collapse. The professor stumbled a bit, and then righted himself and directed his gaze once again toward Julien, still standing behind the waterfall. He approached the water slowly, and Julien smiled. The professor stuck out his arm and allowed his fingers to once again break the water's surface tension. He stuck his entire hand into the water, his fingers taut and straight, as though trying to touch the face leaning against the rock. He stood there a long time, his arm sticking straight out, allowing his fingers to move up and down. His nephew didn't move. The professor turned distractedly toward Neil, but he wasn't really looking at him. He was lost, Neil understood, in his own thoughts. He moved his hand through the curtain of water, his fingers inches from his nephew's face, hovering. He didn't care anymore that a muzungu was watching.
But Neil turned his head anyway. He stared past the road, down into the tea terraces and beyond, into the wide, deep valley, and he felt his body clench and twist, and his hand went to his side, probing, feeling for what Peter had spoken of back at SeaTac. He had to make sure. Nothing. No sympathy pains. It was the professor's grief pulling at him, grief so public and absolute it seemed to ride the air and settle onto his skin. That was what nearly felled him, what nearly dropped him to his knees, and now with his back to the sheer rock wall, in full view of any passersby, he put his hands to his knees and breathed deeply, rapidly, so when he stood again his face would be still and calm as a summer waterway.
On the drive to the hospital, Neil understood Jenny's conversation as manipulation. She was driving, and from his position in the back seat, Neil had a hard time hearing over the roar of the engine. But he heard enough. After this was over, she kept saying to Peter, they could do such and such. After this was all over, they could go to this place and that place and drive around and clear their heads. Once they got onto the freeway, she started telling Peter stories about people she ran into in stores and social-service agencies, usually involving some kind of sharp exchange. She didn't as much tell her stories as relive them, like a defendant on a TV judge show: she gestured wildly; she recited, word for word, the passionate parts of the conversation ("So he said, 'Ma'am, you can't do that.' And I said, 'Oh, you just watch me!'"). In particularly dramatic parts, she turned her head toward the side window, as if addressing the person under discussion.
He saw right through her. She pushed Peter where she wanted him to go, and where she wanted him to go now was far from the hospital. She'd take care of the unpleasantness. She'd ask the hard questions, place the difficult calls. Peter's job was to snap out of his funk.
Neil, kicking away the burger wrappers at his feet, could not fault her for summoning another life into being. Yet, all the same, the content of her imagining--Disneyland, staying up past Letterman, Blizzards at the DQ in Hoquiam--revealed her vulgar turn of mind. Peter was just sitting there like a lump, his hands folded across his stomach. His hair had been blown every which way when they left the apartment, but he hadn't bothered to drag a comb through it or pat it down. He was breathing through his mouth, and he hardly moved his eyes. The perpetual child, Neil thought, unwilling and unable. All that lardbutt-ism. And then he found the word he'd been looking for ever since Jenny had attacked him in the living room: she was his caretaker. She petted her husband when he needed petting, she prodded him, she scolded, she ordered, she probably wiped his face when food dribbled down his chin.
And Neil thought something more: was that how Ray had been with their mother? So passive? It seemed likely, and the likelihood made him angry. You had choices. You didn't have to keep all the cards you had been dealt. People like his brother and father: they pulled at your heart, but they'd suck the lifeblood right out of you if you let them. All you could do, really, Neil thought, as a decent and successful person, as the white sheep of the family, was try to guide people like that into accepting a level of dignity.
Neil leaned forward, inches from his brother's ear. Peter was too mopey to notice, and Jenny kept chattering on, jutting her jaw forward like a bulldog when cars tried to pass. He tested. "Peter," he whispered. There was no response, so he opened his lips slightly, as if mumbling. He moved his tongue, he formed words inside the cave of his mouth, but he didn't make a sound. It was like an appeal to magic, he knew, speaking without speaking, pantomiming actual speech. But Peter was so vigilant with him, so ready to take offense ... so yes, subterfuge was reasonable, even necessary. One had to be a kind of spy sometimes, creeping without creeping, doing without doing, influencing events in subtle and invisible ways.
Peter, Neil mimed in his own mouth, Peter, when you're at the service, when the casket's behind you, Peter, get off your ass and stand up. Do it for yourself and do it for Ray. Stand up and walk to the podium, cough if you want, but look out at all the faces and talk about Ray. But don't talk about his life. Don't you dare. Give him some dignity. Assign him some. Assign it to him and to yourself. No one can know another person's life, but you can at least make something up. You can. Look out at everyone and tell them that a long time ago Ray began to disappear into his body. Tell them he was engulfed and gasping. Tell them his every breath was a hero's act.
"Are you trying to say something?" said Jenny, frowning into the rearview mirror.
Neil leaned back and cleared his throat. "Just talking to myself," he answered. "Passing the time."
No one responded, so Neil leaned to his left, out of range of the mirror. He waited a moment and then continued.
There was nothing anyone could have done for him, right, Peter? Nothing. He must have imagined himself, Peter, as a man drowning from the inside out. That image must have sustained him with the dignity of his own suffering. There's dignity in that, isn't there? Sure there is. Peter, you know there is. Let's say Ray was in a boat before he drowned, even before he got married, Peter. Say he was in a boat and something happened, something no one could see, and then he was in the water. Say that, Peter, tell everyone he was a man treading water, just trying to stay afloat, and the water was a raging ocean, and in the hospital he felt his limbs grow numb and cold, and at the end he opened his mouth and let the water rush in, and when he gurgled and closed his eyes, his arm rose, yes, he lifted his arm off the bed and raised it straight as a mast, for just a moment, for one ferocious and inspired moment, and then it was over, Peter, just like that, and Ray's arm collapsed back onto the mattress and he drifted down and down, and then he was gone, and there was nothing anyone could do.
If his mimed words had any effect, he couldn't tell. Peter blinked a few times, but mostly he seemed focused on turning his head to where Jenny was cursing at some slowpoke driver or other. They were pulling into the hospital parking lot. Were all the parking spaces taken? she complained. Was everyone freaking sick? Jesus H in a handbasket, when would their travels ever cease? At the reception desk, she loudly announced their presence, and they all took the elevator to the ICE ward. What a sight, Neil thought, taking up the rear: the fat man and his pudgy boor of a wife, trailed by the professor. No one spoke. It was a short walk, and by the door to what Jenny said was Ray's room, a young nurse was flipping the pages of a clipboard. She looked at Peter and Jenny, Neil thought, with disapproval.
He wouldn't have known it was his father if Peter and Jenny hadn't stood on the side of the bed and stared with recognition at the patient. There was always an aura of theater about hospital rooms, what with their sci-fi tubing and soupy, plastic overhead bags and shiny metal machines that sometimes made noises like people breathing. It was hard for the bedridden not to look already dead. But Ray was only asleep--Neil saw his belly rise and fall--and his saggy arms were pocked with little marks from needles. His mouth was open. One of his front teeth was missing.
Neil took up his position on the other side of the bed. "Ray, Ray," Jenny said. Peter pressed his fingers into the mattress. When Ray opened his eyes, Neil jumped a bit and took a step back. Ray's eyes were fluttering. They were milky and clouded, and as they opened and closed without reason, Neil could not help but think of cartoon shades going up and down. He pressed his lips together.
Ray said something then. He spoke clearly, though he didn't seem to be talking to anyone in particular. He didn't seem to recognize who was in the room. "What body of water is this?" he said, and Neil straightened.
Jenny leaned in close. "There's no water, Ray," she said. "That's the drugs talking. You're in the hospital. The medication's wearing off and you're waking up in the hospital. There's just a parking lot outside. There's no body of water."
Neil looked first at Jenny, then at Peter. Neither looked back at him.
"Today is Tuesday," Jenny said. "You're nowhere near water, Ray. That's the drugs talking. There's just concrete and cars outside."
Blood rushed to Neil's face. It was too much. He wanted to shove Jenny away from the bed. He could not bear to hear any more. Peter should have been shushing her; he should have been leaning down and whispering into their father's ears that he was quietly drifting in Puget Sound, and the water was endless and warm and clear. He wanted his brother to say that the summer sky was bountiful and clean, far as you could see. The water was everywhere, he wanted him to say, and it was deep and blue and peaceful, and wherever you looked you saw thousands of fishes. He wanted Peter to say it to Ray. He wanted some doctor to rush into the room and say it, some nurse, some orderly, anyone.
How could Peter let his wife speak to their father like that? What was wrong with him?
"What, Neil?" Jenny said. There was irritation in her voice. "Do you have a comment? You're a member of the family. You can talk, you know."
Neil shook his head. He didn't say fanciful words into his father's ears. He didn't say anything to Jenny. He felt hot and thirsty, and he looked over at his brother and caught him with his mouth hanging open, stupidly, mute as a piece of furniture. If Peter had been standing next to him, he would have hit him, hard, and dropped him to the floor. "We're a million miles from water, Ray," Jenny said. "You're in a hospital bed, okay?" For all Neil knew, what Jenny was saying might be the last words Ray would ever hear. Yet still his brother allowed this woman to tell their father he was dying in some dingy hospital overlooking a parking lot.
When the professor was finished, he pulled out a handkerchief and wiped his dripping hand. He was composed now, and he shook the handkerchief vigorously and stuffed it back into his trouser pocket. Neil regarded his host with formality, nodding, and the professor nodded back, and then they stood silent a moment, listening to the falling water. They stared out at the highway, toward the valley, and from around a bend of road they had already traveled they saw the pickup coming their way. It was the truck from before, just a small dot now, but its cargo of soldiers seemed to move in tiny, jerky motions, as if awakened by some commotion. The professor then addressed Neil. It was true, he said: last week, his father and sister both passed away. He wished to apologize now, if his guest would accept it, for his failings as a host. He hadn't been himself, he said. The strain of the past week had been too much.
Of course, Neil said, oh of course, and he took a few steps forward and shook the professor's hand. Please, he said to the professor. Please. But he did not know how to finish his sentence. They lingered in their handshake, pressing firmly, their hands like a knot. Yet there was in the gesture an incompleteness, as if by coming clean, the professor had led Neil from a tidy and claustrophobic room into a buzzing, dark field, and in the field were troubling sounds, too faint and rattling to identify. There was courage in what the professor had done in his presence, and because of that it seemed to Neil they had been given a gift of time and opportunity. They would arrive in Bujumbura in a mood of harmony, at least for a while, but all the time and opportunity in the world could not excuse everything, and Neil was conscious now of an overweening smallness and disappointment being held at bay only by their isolation.
The professor, too, seemed to sense it, and he pointed suddenly to Julien and his companion. "You see these two?" he said. The boys were tossing a piece of fruit back and forth, making fancy catches. Julien caught one behind his back, and the other boy whooped. His nephew, the professor said, was Hutu. His friend was Tutsi.
Neil nodded, and then from around the bend the pickup nosed forward, its gears grinding. The soldiers in back were fiddling with a transistor radio, knocking it sharply against a long metal box, and the weapons at their sides bristled like antennae. Julien and his companion stopped playing catch. They all stood there--Neil, the professor, the two boys--as if in a diorama, a wall of rock at their backs, the truck in front. The driver slowed and with a somber expression looked everyone over. He slapped his hand, hard, against the cab of the truck, and a couple of the soldiers turned their heads. Their expressions revealed nothing. The pickup slowed to a crawl, and Neil heard something metallic and heavy scrape along the truck bed. Then one of the soldiers raised his automatic weapon over his head--in greeting or in warning, it was impossible to say--and the truck suddenly roared to life and disappeared around the bend.
No one said a word for a moment. Then Julien and his friend began chattering loudly and ran to the roadside, watching the truck grow smaller and smaller. They pointed. They held their hands to their hearts and shrieked. They laughed, and they wouldn't stop. The professor followed, slowly walking out to the side of the road, watching the truck. He turned to Neil. "You still accuse me. Us."
For what? Neil asked, throwing out his arms. He wasn't accusing anyone of anything. What did he mean?
The professor resumed following the truck's path and then bent down to wipe something from his nephew's shirt. When he stood again, he told Neil he wanted to tell him something more. His father and sister, he said, had been killed in Paris. On holiday. "Not here," he said, pointing a finger emphatically at the ground. He waved his hand in the air, a shooing gesture, and his arm fell to his side.
"Do you understand why I have told you these things?" the professor asked. He snapped his fingers at the boys, signaling for quiet.
Neil stuck his hands into his pockets. Bujumbura was down there, in the wide valley, climbing up the sides of some mountain off to the north. It was just minutes away now. He would meet his new African family soon, and they would want to know what kind of muzungu he was going to be. They would want to know if he thought them brutish.
"I understand," he said.
And then the professor at last began to ask the questions Neil had been expecting ever since he arrived. He talked like a man who had not talked for days. Was Neil married? Had he always lived in California? Where did he receive his doctorate? Had he traveled much before?
When the professor asked him about his family, Neil didn't answer at first. He pictured the hospital room in Tacoma. After Jenny finished speaking to his father, he had stepped out with Peter into the hallway. Jenny went the other way to quiz a nurse about something. Neil turned to his brother and asked if there was going to be a service before the funeral. Peter shook his head. "No service," Neil said to him. He crossed his arms. "Don't you care?" The words came out too loud, and some passing teenager hunched his shoulders, as if witnessing a collision.
Peter looked stricken. He stared down at his shoes and brought his hands up to cover his face. Then his whole body seemed to sag. His arms flopped to his sides, and he turned and slowly began walking toward the nurse's station. After a few steps, he just stopped. He didn't even seem to be breathing. For a long moment, Neil watched for movement. Was it possible? It happened to horses sometimes. Their legs would lock and they'd die standing up, then fall over. Had his brother just died? It was absurd to think, but had he just killed him? He held out his arms and called Peter's name, loudly, and as he did, Jenny raised her head and motioned for her husband to hurry up. Peter's legs seemed to tremble then, and he let out what sounded like a swallowed sob. Then he began to shuffle forward again, toward her voice.
When Peter and Jenny dropped him off at the airport the following day, they didn't get out of the car to see him off. Ray was still holding on, so full of drugs he didn't know what was happening. Peter wrote a telephone number on the back of an envelope and shoved it at Neil through the open window. He looked Neil in the eye, and when he spoke his voice was hard and sharp. "We're done," he said. "You want to know anything, call the hospital, not me." Jenny leaned her head out. She said if he wanted a service so bad, maybe he should have stuck around and done it himself.
So Neil told the professor his father was floating around in a boat in Puget Sound, near the Canadian border, where the water was quiet and warm. It wasn't just his father out there, he said, it was his brother, too. He had a father and he had a brother. He told the professor how beautiful the water was, how the summer sky was so clear you could make out a star or two, even in the early afternoon. The water was everywhere, he said, and under the boat you could see thousands of fishes, orange and striped like tigers, and on the shoreline lumbering beasts were emerging from sleep and stretching in the bright and dazzling sunlight.
He said this, and as he spoke he saw the professor looking at him in confusion, a smile frozen onto his face. At some other time, Neil might have said that words do not speak louder than actions. He might have noted, with polite contempt, that it was too easy to use fanciful words with some foreigner, some stranger you had just met. But it was not easy. He was already falling from a dream: he would not walk proudly among the Africans. He would not be admired. This would not be a fresh start. Somewhere behind his smile, the professor was arriving at a decision, and in the weeks to come he would tell a mocking story about Neil to his colleagues, and over lunch or tea Neil would be questioned by his new African family about what he had said to the head of linguistics today, and at year's end no one would mourn his absence. The fish were bright and iridescent, Neil said to the professor, and his father and brother were probably leaning over the boat and jabbering and pointing, having a fine time. All you had to do, he said, if it wasn't asking too much, if you could trouble yourself for just one goddamn minute, was stand on the shore and let them know you were there, that was all, just shout something out and wave your arms around. Do you hear me? Just let them know, and they could stay out there all day and into the evening, and even into the day after that.
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|Article Type:||Short story|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2008|
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