Books

Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

The Middleman and Other Stories

by Bharati Mukherjee

“Bharati Mukherjee, in this astonishing second book of short stories, zeroes in on uneasy terrain that no one has looked at with quite so clear an eye since approximately World War II, the queasy crucible in which the American identity itself is alloyed.” –Chicago Tribune

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 208
  • Publication Date October 18, 1999
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-3650-3
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $13.00
  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Publication Date December 01, 2007
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-9634-7
  • US List Price $13.00

About The Book

Bharati Mukherjee’s work illuminates a new world of people in migration that has transformed the meaning of “America.” Now in a Grove paperback edition, The Middleman and Other Stories is a dazzling display of the vision of this important modern writer. An aristocratic Filipina negotiates a new life for herself with an Atlanta investment banker. A Vietnam vet returns to Florida, a place now more foreign than the Asia of his war experience. And in the title story, an Iraqi Jew whose travels have ended in Queens suddenly finds himself an unwitting guerrilla in a South American jungle. Passionate, comic, violent, and tender, these stories draw us into the center of a cultural fusion in the midst of its birth pangs, yet glowing with the energy and exuberance of a society remaking itself.

Praise

“A consummated romance with the American language . . . a romance with America itself.” –The New York Times Book Review

‘stunning . . . her characters stand on the shaky ground where East meets West and the sound of cultures clashing could shatter glass.” –Los Angeles Times

“Bharati Mukherjee, in this astonishing second book of short stories, zeroes in on uneasy terrain that no one has looked at with quite so clear an eye since approximately World War II, the queasy crucible in which the American identity itself is alloyed.” –Chicago Tribune

“With remarkable skill and grace the author has added a brilliant new chapter to the ongoing pageant of writing about the immigrant experience in America.” –From the citation for the National Book Critics Circle Award

“Intimate stories on the “new” America . . . Mukherjee’s ability to get inside a range of characters is astounding. . . . Her knowledge and insights into the lives of “outsiders,” her keen eye for detail and irony, and the political realities documented in her writing make this collection important reading.” –San Francisco Chronicle

Awards

Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award

Excerpt

THE MIDDLEMAN

THERE are only two seasons in this country, the dusty and the wet. I already know the dusty and I’ll get to know the wet. I’ve seen worse. I’ve seen Baghdad, Bombay, Queens–and now this moldering spread deep in Mayan country. Aztecs, Toltecs, mestizos, even some bashful whites with German accents. All that and a lot of Texans. I’ll learn the ropes.
Forget the extradition order, I’m not a sinful man. I’ve listened to bad advice. I’ve placed my faith in dubious associates. My first American wife said, in the dog-eat-dog, Alfred, you’re a beagle. My name is Alfie Judah, of the once-illustrious Smyrna, Aleppo, Baghdad–and now Flushing, Queens–Judahs.
I intend to make it back.
This place is owned by one Clovis T. Ransome. He reached here from Waco with fifteen million in petty cash hours ahead of a posse from the SEC. That doesn’t buy much down here, a few thousand acres, residency papers and the right to swim with the sharks a few feet off the bottom.

Me? I make a living from things that fall. The big fat belly of Clovis T. Ransome bobs above me like whale shit at high tide.
The president’s name is Guti”rrez. Like everyone else he has enemies, right and left. He’s on retainer from men like Ransome, from the contras, maybe from the Sandinistas as well.
The woman’s name is Maria. She came with the ranch, or with the protection, no one knows.
President Guti”rrez’s country has definite possibilities. All day I sit by the lime green swimming pool, sun-screened so I won’t turn black, going through my routine of isometrics while Ransome’s indios hack away the virgin forests. Their hate is intoxicating. They hate gringos–from which my darkness exempts me–even more than Guti”rrez. They hate in order to keep up their intensity. I hear a litany of presidents’ names, Hollywood names, Detroit names–Carter, chop, Reagan, slash, Buick, thump–bounce off the vines as machetes clear the jungle greenness. We spoke a form of Spanish in my old Baghdad home. I always understand more than I let on.
In this season the air’s so dry it could scratch your lungs. Bright-feathered birds screech, snakeskins glitter, as the jungle peels away. Iguanas the size of wallabies leap from behind macheted bushes. The pool is greener than the ocean waves, cloudy with chemicals that Ransome has trucked over the mountains. When toads fall in, the water blisters their skin. I’ve heard their cries.
Possibilities, oh, yes.
I must confess my weakness. It’s women.
In the old Baghdad when I was young, we had the hots for blondes. We’d stroll up to the diplomatic enclaves just to look at women. Solly Nathan, cross-eyed Itzie, Naim, and me. Pinkish flesh could turn our blood to boiling lust. British matrons with freckled calves, painted toenails through thin-strapped sandals, the onset of varicose, the brassiness of prewar bleach jobs–all of that could thrill us like cleavage. We were twelve and already visiting whores during those hot Levantine lunch hours when our French masters intoned the rules of food, rest, and good digestion. We’d roll up our fried flat bread smeared with spicy potatoes, pool our change, and bargain with the daughters of washerwomen while our lips and fingers still glistened with succulent grease. But the only girls cheap enough for boys our age with unspecified urgencies were swamp Arabs from Basra and black girls from Baluchistan, the broken toys discarded by our older brothers.
Thank God those European women couldn’t see us. It’s comforting at times just to be a native, invisible to our masters. They were worthy of our lust. Local girls were for amusement only, a dark place to spend some time, like a video arcade.
“You chose a real bad time to come, Al,” he says. He may have been born on the wrong side of Waco, but he’s spent his adult life in tropical paradises playing God. “The rains’ll be here soon, a day or two at most.” He makes a whooping noise and drinks Jack Daniels from a flask.
‘my options were limited.” A modest provident fund I’d been maintaining for New Jersey judges was discovered. My fresh new citizenship is always in jeopardy. My dealings can’t stand too much investigation.
“Bud and I can keep you from getting bored.”
Bud Wilkins should be over in his pickup anytime now. Meanwhile, Ransome rubs Cutter over his face and neck. They’re supposed to go deep-sea fishing today, though it looks to me as if he’s dressed for the jungle. A wetted-down hand towel is tucked firmly under the back of his baseball cap. He’s a Braves man. Bud ships him cassettes of all the Braves games. There are aspects of American life I came too late for and will never understand. It isn’t love of the game, he told me last week. It’s love of Ted Turner, the man.
His teams. His stations. His America’s cup, his yachts, his network.
If he could clone himself after anyone in the world, he’d choose Ted Turner. Then he leaned close and told me his wife, Maria–once the mistress of Guti”rrez himself, as if I could miss her charms, or underestimate their price in a seller’s market–told him she’d put out all night if he looked like Ted Turner. “Christ, Al, here I’ve got this setup and I gotta beg her for it!” There are things I can relate to, and a man in such agony is one of them. That was last week, and he was drunk and I was new on the scene. Now he snorts more JD and lets out a whoop.
“Wanna come fishing? Won’t cost you extra, Al.”
“Thanks, no,” I say. “Too hot.”
The only thing I like about Clovis Ransome is that he doesn’t snicker when I, an Arab to some, an Indian to others, complain of the heat. Even dry heat I despise.
‘suit yourself,” he says.
Why do I suspect he wants me along as a witness? I don’t want any part of their schemes. Bud Wilkins got here first. He’s entrenched, doing little things for many people, building up a fleet of trucks, of planes, of buses. Like Ari Onassis, he started small. That’s the legitimate side. The rest of it is no secret. A man with cash and private planes can clear a fortune in Latin America. The story is Bud was exposed as a CIA agent, forced into public life and made to go semipublic with his arms deals and transfer fees.
“I don’t mind you staying back, you know. She wants Bud.”
Maria.
I didn’t notice Maria for the first days of my visit. She was here, but in the background. And she was dark, native, and I have my prejudices. But what can I say–is there deeper pleasure, a darker thrill than prejudice squarely faced, suppressed, fought against, and then slowly, secretively surrendered to?
Now I think a single word: adultery.
On cue, Maria floats toward us out of the green shadows. She’s been swimming in the ocean, her hair is wet, her bigboned, dark-skinned body is streaked with sand. The talk is Maria was an aristocrat, a near-Miss World whom Ransome partially bought and partially seduced away from Guti”rrez, so he’s never sure if the president owes him one, or wants to kill him. With her thick dark hair and smooth dark skin, she has to be mostly Indian. In her pink Lycra bikini she arouses new passion. Who wants pale, thin, pink flesh, who wants limp, curly blond hair, when you can have lustrous browns, purple-blacks?
Adultery and dark-eyed young women are forever entwined in my memory. It is a memory, even now, that fills me with chills and terror and terrible, terrible desire. When I was a child, one of our servants took me to his village. He wanted me to see something special from the old Iraqi culture. Otherwise, he feared, my lenient Jewish upbringing would later betray me. A young woman, possibly adulterous but certainly bold and brave and beautiful enough to excite rumors of promiscuity, was stoned to death that day. What I remember now is the breathlessness of waiting as the husband encircled her, as she struggled against the rope, as the stake barely swayed to her writhing. I remember the dull thwock and the servant’s strong fingers shaking my shoulders as the first stone struck.
I realize I am one of the very few Americans who knows the sound of rocks cutting through flesh and striking bone. One of the few to count the costs of adultery.
Maria drops her beach towel on the patio floor, close to my deck chair, and straightens the towel’s edge with her toes. She has to have been a dancer before becoming Ransome’s bride and before Guti”rrez plucked her out of convent school to become his mistress. Only ballerinas have such blunted, misshapen toes. But she knows, to the right eyes, even her toes are desirable.
“I want to hear about New York, Alfred.” She lets herself fall like a dancer on the bright red towel. Her husband is helping Eduardo, the houseboy, load the jeep with the day’s gear, and it’s him she seems to be talking to. ‘my husband won’t let me visit the States. He absolutely won’t.”
‘she’s putting you on, Al,” Ransome shouts. He’s just carried a case of beer out to the jeep. ‘she prefers St. Moritz.”
“You ski?”
I can feel the heat rising from her, or from the towel. I can imagine as the water beads on her shoulders how cool her flesh will be for just a few more minutes.
‘do I look as though I ski?”
I don’t want to get involved in domestic squabbles. The indios watch us. A solemn teenager hefts his machete. We are to have an uncomplicated view of the ocean from the citadel of this patio.
‘my husband is referring to the fact that I met John Travolta in St. Moritz,” she says, defiantly.
‘sweets,” says Ransome. The way he says it, it’s a threat.
“He has a body of one long muscle, like an eel,” she says.
Ransome is closer now, ‘make sure Eduardo doesn’t forget the crates,” he says.
“Okay, okay,” she shouts back, “excuse me,” and I watch her corkscrew to her feet. I’m so close I can hear her ligaments pop.
Soon after, Bud Wilkins roars into the cleared patch that serves as the main parking lot. He backs his pickup so hard against a shade tree that a bird wheels up from its perch. Bud lines it up with an imaginary pistol and curls his finger twice in its direction. I’m not saying he has no feeling for wildlife. He’s in boots and camouflage pants, but his hair, what there is of it, is blow-dried.
He stalks my chair. “We could use you, buddy.” He uncaps a beer bottle with, what else, his teeth. “You’ve seen some hot spots.”
“He doesn’t want to fish.” Ransome is drinking beer, too. “We wouldn’t want to leave Maria unprotected.” He waits for a retort, but Bud’s too much the gentleman. Ransome stares at me and winks, but he’s angry. It could get ugly, wherever they’re going.
They drink more beer. Finally Eduardo comes out with a crate. He carries it bowlegged, in mincing little half-running steps. The fishing tackle, of course. The crate is dumped into Bud’s pickup. He comes out with a second and third, equally heavy, and drops them all in Bud’s truck. I can guess what I’m watching. Low-grade arms transfer, rifles, ammo and maybe medicine.
“Ciao, amigo,” says Bud in his heavy-duty Texas accent. He and Ransome roar into the jungle in Ransome’s jeep.
“I hope you’re not too hungry, Alfie.” It’s Maria calling from the kitchen. Alfred to Alfie before the jeep can have made it off the property.
“I’m not a big eater.” What I mean to say is, I’m adaptable. What I’m hoping is, let us not waste time with food.
“Eduardo!” The houseboy, probably herniated by now, comes to her for instructions. “We just want a salad and fruit. But make it fast, I have to run into San Vincente today.” That’s the nearest market town. I’ve been there, it’s not much.
She stands at the front door about to join me on the patio when Eduardo rushes us, broom in hand. “Vaya!” he screams.
But she is calm. “It must be behind the stove, stupid,” she tells the servant. “It can’t have made it out this far without us seeing it.”
Eduardo wields his broom like a night stick and retreats into the kitchen. We follow. I can’t see it. I can only hear desperate clawing and scraping on the tiles behind the stove.
Maria stomps the floor to scare it out. The houseboy shoves the broom handle in the dark space. I think first, being a child of the overheated deserts, giant scorpions. But there are two fugitives, not one, a pair of ocean crabs. The crabs, their shiny purple backs dotted with yellow, try to get by us to the beach where they can hear the waves.
How do mating ocean crabs scuttle their way into Clovis T. Ransome’s kitchen? I feel for them.
The broom comes down, thwack, thwack, and bashes the shells in loud, succulent cracks. Ransome, Gringo, I hear.
He sticks his dagger into the burlap sacks of green chemicals. He rips, he cuts.
“Eduardo, it’s all right. Everything’s fine.” She sounds stern, authoritative, the years in the presidential palace have served her well. She moves toward him, stops just short of taking his arm.
He spits out, “He kills everything.” At least, that’s the drift. The language of Cervantes does not stretch around the world without a few skips in transmission. Eduardo’s litany includes crabs, the chemicals, the sulfurous pool, the dead birds and snakes and lizards.
“You have my promise,” Maria says. “It’s going to work out. Now I want you to go to your room, I want you to rest.”
We hustle him into his room but he doesn’t seem to notice his surroundings. His body has gone slack. I hear the word Santa Simona, a new saint for me. I maneuver him to the cot and keep him pinned down while Maria checks out a rusty medicine cabinet.
He looks up at me. “You drive Do’a Maria where she goes?”
“If she wants me to, sure.”
“Eduardo, go to sleep. I’m giving you something to help.” She has water and a blue pill ready.
While she hovers over him, I check out his room. It’s automatic with me. There are crates under the bed. There’s a table covered with oilcloth. The oilcloth is cracked and grimy. A chair by the table is a catchall for clothes, shorts, even a bowl of fruit. Guavas. Eduardo could have snuck in caviar, imported cheeses, Godiva candies, but it’s guavas he’s chosen to stash for siesta hour hunger pains. The walls are hung with icons of saints. Posters of stars I’d never have heard of if I hadn’t been forced to drop out. Baby-faced men and women. The women are sensual in an old-fashioned, Latin way, with red curvy lips, big breasts and tiny waists. Like Maria. Quite a few are unconvincing blondes, in that brassy Latin way. The men have greater range. Some are young versions of Fernando Lamas, some are in fatigues and boots, striking Robin Hood poses. The handsomest is dressed as a guerrilla with all the right accessories: beret, black boots, bandolier. Maybe he’d played Che Guevara in some B-budget Argentine melodrama.
“What’s in the crates?” I ask Maria.
“I respect people’s privacy,” she says. “Even a servant’s.” She pushes me roughly toward the door. ‘so should you.”
* * *
The daylight seems too bright on the patio. The bashed shells are on the tiles. Ants have already discovered the flattened meat of ocean crabs, the blistered bodies of clumsy toads.
Maria tells me to set the table. Every day we use a lace cloth, heavy silverware, roses in a vase. Every day we drink champagne. Some mornings the Ransomes start on the champagne with breakfast. Bud owns an air-taxi service and flies in cases of “pernay, caviar, any damned thing his friends desire.
She comes out with a tray. Two plates, two fluted glasses, ch”vre cheese on a bit of glossy banana leaf, water biscuits. “I’m afraid this will have to do. Anyway, you said you weren’t hungry.”
I spread a biscuit and hand it to her.
“If you feel all right, I was hoping you’d drive me to San Vincente.” She gestures at Bud Wilkins’s pickup truck. “I don’t like to drive that thing.”
“What if I didn’t want to?”
“You won’t. Say no to me, I mean. I’m a terrific judge of character.” She shrugs, and her breasts are slower than her shoulders in coming down.
“The keys are on the kitchen counter. Do you mind if I use your w.c. instead of going back upstairs? Don’t worry, I don’t have horrible communicable diseases.” She laughs.
This may be intimacy. “How could I mind? It’s your house.”
“Alfie, don’t pretend innocence. It’s Ransome’s house. This isn’t my house.”
I get the key to Bud’s pickup and wait for her by the bruised tree. I don’t want to know the contents of the crates, though the stencilling says “fruits’ and doubtless the top layer preserves the fiction. How easily I’ve been recruited, when a bystander is all I wanted to be. The Indians put down their machetes and make signs to me: Hi, mom, we’re Number One. They must have been watching Ransome’s tapes. They’re all wearing Braves caps.
The road to San Vincente is rough. Deep ruts have been cut into the surface by army trucks. Whole convoys must have passed this way during the last rainy season. I don’t want to know whose trucks, I don’t want to know why.
Forty minutes into the trip Maria says, “When you get to the T, take a left. I have to stop off near here to run an errand.” It’s a strange word for the middle of a jungle.
‘don’t let it take you too long,” I say. “We want to be back before hubby gets home.” I’m feeling jaunty. She touches me when she talks.
‘so Clovis scares you.” Her hand finds its way to my shoulder.
‘shouldn’t he?”
I make the left. I make it sharper than I intended. Bud Wilkins’s pickup sputters up a dusty rise. A pond appears and around it shacks with vegetable gardens.
“Where are we?”
“In Santa Simona,” Maria says. “I was born here, can you imagine?”
This isn’t a village, it’s a camp for guerrillas. I see some women here, and kids, roosters, dogs. What Santa Simona is is a rest stop for families on the run. I deny simple parallels. Ransome’s ranch is just a ranch.
“You could park by the pond.”
I step on the brake and glide to the rutted edge of the pond. Whole convoys must have parked here during the rainy season. The ruts hint at secrets. Now in the dry season what might be a lake has shrunk into a muddy pit. Ducks float on green scum.
Young men in khaki begin to close in on Bud’s truck.
Maria motions me to get out. “I bet you could use a drink.” We make our way up to the shacks. The way her bottom bounces inside those cutoffs could drive a man crazy. I don’t turn back but I can hear the unloading of the truck.
So: Bud Wilkins’s little shipment has been hijacked, and I’m the culprit. Some job for a middleman.
“This is my house, Alfie.”
I should be upset. Maria’s turned me into a chauffeur. You bet I could use a drink.
We pass by the first shack. There’s a garage in the back where there would be the usual large, cement laundry tub. Three men come at me, twirling tire irons the way night sticks are fondled by Manhattan cops. “I’m with her.”
Maria laughs at me. “It’s not you they want.”
And I wonder, who was she supposed to deliver? Bud, perhaps, if Clovis hadn’t taken him out? Or Clovis himself?
We pass the second shack, and a third. Then a tall guerrilla in full battle dress floats out of nowhere and blocks our path. Maria shrieks and throws herself on him and he holds her face in his hands, and in no time they’re swaying and moaning like connubial visitors at a prison farm. She has her back to me. His big hands cup and squeeze her halter top. I’ve seen him somewhere. Eduardo’s poster.
“Hey,” I try. When that doesn’t work, I start to cough.
‘sorry.” Maria swings around still in his arms. “This is Al Judah. He’s staying at the ranch.”
The soldier is called Andreas something. He looks me over. “Yudah?” he asks Maria, frowning.
She shrugs. “You want to make something of it?”
He says something rapidly, locally, that I can’t make out. She translates, “He says you need a drink,” which I don’t believe.
We go inside the command shack. It’s a one-room affair, very clean, but dark and cluttered. I’m not sure I should sit on the narrow cot; it seems to be a catchall for the domestic details of revolution–sleeping bags, maps and charts, an empty canteen, two pairs of secondhand army boots. I need a comfortable place to deal with my traumas. There is a sofa of sorts, actually a car seat pushed tight against a wall and stabilized with bits of lumber. There are bullet holes through the fabric, and rusty stains that can only be blood. I reject the sofa. There are no tables, no chairs, no posters, no wall decorations of any kind, unless you count a crucifix. Above the cot, a sad, dark, plaster crucified Jesus recalls His time in the desert.
“Beer?” Maria doesn’t wait for an answer. She walks behind a curtain and pulls a six-pack of Heinekens from a noisy refrigerator. I believe I am being offered one of Bud Wilkins’s unwitting contributions to the guerrilla effort. I should know it’s best not to ask how Dutch beer and refrigerators and “57 two-tone Plymouths with fins and chrome make their way to nowhere jungle clearings. Because of guys like me, in better times, that’s how. There’s just demand and supply running the universe.
“Take your time, Alfie.” Maria is beaming so hard at me it’s unreal. “We’ll be back soon. You’ll be cool and rested in here.”
Andreas manages a contemptuous wave, then holding hands, he and Maria vault over the railing of the back porch and disappear.
She’s given me beer, plenty of beer, but no church key. I look around the room. Ransome or Bud would have used his teeth. From His perch, Jesus stares at me out of huge, sad, Levantine eyes. In this alien jungle, we’re fellow Arabs. You should see what’s happened to the old stomping grounds, compadre.
I test my teeth against a moist, corrugated bottle cap. It’s no good. I whack the bottle cap with the heel of my hand against the metal edge of the cot. It foams and hisses. The second time it opens. New World skill. Somewhere in the back of the shack, a parakeet begins to squawk. It’s a sad, ugly sound. I go out to the back porch to give myself something to do, maybe snoop. By the communal laundry tub there’s a cage and inside the cage a mean, molting bird. A kid often or twelve teases the bird with bits of lettuce. Its beak snaps open for the greens and scrapes the rusty sides of the bar. The kid looks defective, dull-eyed, thin but flabby.
“Gringo,” he calls out to me. “Gringo, gum.”
I check my pockets. No Dentyne, no Tums, just the plastic cover for spent traveller’s checks. My life has changed. I don’t have to worry about bad breath or gas pains turning off clients.
“Gringo, Chiclets.”
The voice is husky.
I turn my palms outward. ‘sorry, you’re out of luck.”
The kid leaps on me with moronic fury. I want to throw him down, toss him in the scummy vat of soaking clothes, but he’s probably some sort of sacred mascot. “How about this pen?” It’s a forty-nine cent disposable, the perfect thing for poking a bird. I go back inside.
I am sitting in the HQ of the Guerrilla Insurgency, drinking Heineken, nursing my indignation. A one-armed man opens the door. ‘maria?” he calls. “Prego.” Which translates, indirectly, as “The truck is unloaded and the guns are ready and should I kill this guy?” I direct him to find Andreas.
She wakes me, maybe an hour later. I sleep as I rarely have, arm across my eyes like a bedouin, on top of the mounds of boots and gear. She has worked her fingers around my buttons and pulls my hair, my nipples. I can’t tell the degree of mockery, what spillover of passion she might still be feeling. Andreas and the idiot boy stand framed in the bleaching light of the door, the boy’s huge head pushing the bandolier askew. Father and son, it suddenly dawns. Andreas holds the birdcage.
“They’ve finished,” she explains. “Let’s go.”
Andreas lets us pass, smirking, I think, and follows us down the rutted trail to Bud’s truck. He puts the bird cage in the driver’s seat, and in case I miss it, points at the bird, then at me, and laughs. Very funny, I think. His boy finds it hilarious. I will not be mocked like this. The bird is so ill-fed, so cramped and tortured and clumsy it flutters wildly, losing more feathers merely to keep its perch.
“Viva la revoluci”n, eh? A leetle gift for helping the people.”
No, I think, a leetle sign to Clovis Ransome and all the pretenders to Maria’s bed that we’re just a bunch of scrawny blackbirds and he doesn’t care who knows it. I have no feeling for revolution, only for outfitting the participants.
“Why?” I beg on the way back. The road is dark. “You hate your husband, so get a divorce. Why blow up the country?”
Maria smiles. “Clovis has nothing to do with this.” She shifts her sandals on the bird cage. The bird is dizzy, flat on its back. Some of them die, just like that.
“Run off with Andreas, then.”
“We were going to be married,” she says. “Then Guti”rrez came to my school one day and took me away. I was fourteen and he was minister of education. Then Clovis took me away from him. Maybe you should take me away from Clovis. I like you, and you’d like it, too, wouldn’t you?”
‘don’t be crazy. Try Bud Wilkins.”
“Bud Wilkins is, you say, dog meat.” She smiles.
“Oh, sure,” I say.
I concentrate on the road. I’m no hero, I calculate margins. I could not calculate the cost of a night with Maria, a month with Maria, though for the first time in my life it was a cost I might have borne.
Her voice is matter-of-fact. “Clovis wanted a cut of Bud’s action. But Bud refused and that got Clovis mad. Clovis even offered money, but Bud said no way. Clovis pushed me on him, so he took but he still didn’t budge. So–”
“You’re serious, aren’t you? Oh, God.”
“Of course I am serious. Now Clovis can fly in his own champagne and baseball games.”
She has unbuttoned more of the halter and I feel pressure on my chest, in my mouth, against my slacks, that I have never felt.
All the lights are on in the villa when I lurch Bud’s pickup into the parking lot. We can see Clovis T. Ransome, very drunk, slack-postured, trying out wicker chairs on the porch. Maria is carrying the bird cage.
He’s settled on the love seat. No preliminaries, no questions. He squints at the cage. “Buying presents for Maria already, Al?” He tries to laugh.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” She swings the cage in giant arcs, like a bucket of water.
“Where’s Bud?” I ask.
“They jumped him, old buddy. Gang of guerrillas not more”n half a mile down the road. Pumped twenty bullets in him. These are fierce little people, Al. I don’t know how I got away.” He’s watching us for effect.
I suspect it helps when they’re in your pay, I think, and you give them Ted Turner caps.
“Al, grab yourself a glass if you want some Scotch. Me, I’m stinking drunk already.”
He’s noticed Bud’s truck now. The emptiness of Bud’s truck.
“That’s a crazy thing to do,” Maria says. “I warned you.” She sets the cage down on the patio table. “Bud’s no good to anyone, dead or alive. You said it yourself, he’s dog meat.” She slips onto the love seat beside her husband. I watch her. I can’t take my eyes off her. She snakes her strong, long torso until her lips touch the cage’s rusted metal. “Kiss me,” she coos. “Kiss me, kiss, kiss, sweetheart.”
Ransome’s eyes are on her, too. ‘sweets, who gave you that filthy crow?”
Maria says, “Kiss me, loverboy.”
‘sweetie, I asked you who gave you that filthy crow.”
I back off to the kitchen. I could use a shot of Scotch. I can feel the damp, Bombay grittiness of the air. The rains will be here, maybe tonight.
When I get back, Ransome is snoring on the love seat. Maria is standing over him, and the bird cage is on his lap. Its door is open and Clovis’s fat hand is half inside. The bird pecks, it’s raised blood, but Clovis is out for the night.
“Why is it,” she asks, “that I don’t feel pride when men kill for me?”
But she does, deep down. She wants to believe that Clovis, mad jealous Clovis, has killed for her. I just hate to think of Maria’s pretty face when Clovis wakes up and remembers the munitions are gone. It’s all a family plot in countries like this; revolutions fought for a schoolgirl in white with blunted toes. I, too, would kill for her.
“Kill it, Alfie, please,” she says. “I can’t stand it. See, Clovis tried but his hand was too fat.”
“I’ll free it,” I say.
‘don’t be a fool–that boy broke its wings. Let it out, and the crabs will kill it.”
Around eleven that night I have to carry Ransome up the stairs to the spare bedroom. He’s a heavy man. I don’t bother with the niceties of getting him out of his blue jeans and into his pajamas. The secrets of Clovis T. Ransome, whatever they are, are safe with me. I abandon him on top of the bedspread in his dusty cowboy boots. Maria won’t want him tonight. She’s already told me so.
But she isn’t waiting for me on the patio. Maybe that’s just as well. Tonight love will be hard to handle. The dirty glasses, the booze and soda bottles, the styrofoam-lidded bowl we used for ice cubes are still on the wicker-and-glass coffee table. Eduardo doesn’t seem to be around. I bring the glasses into the kitchen. He must have disappeared hours ago. I’ve never seen the kitchen in this bad a mess. He’s not in the villa. His door has swung open, but I can’t hear the noises of sleeping servants in the tropics. So, Eduardo has vanished. I accept this as data. I dare not shout for Maria. If it’s ever to be, it must be tonight. Tomorrow, I can tell, this cozy little hacienda will come to grief.
Someone should go from room to room and turn out the lights. But not me. I make it fast back to my room.
“You must shut doors quickly behind you in the tropics. Otherwise bugs get in.”
Casually, she is unbuttoning her top, untying the bottom tabs. The cutoffs have to be tugged off, around her hips. There is a rush of passion I have never known, and my fingers tremble as I tug at my belt. She is in my giant bed, propped up, and her breasts keep the sheet from falling.
“Alfie, close the door.”
Her long thighs press and squeeze. She tries to hold me, to contain me, and it is a moment I would die to prolong. In a frenzy, I conjugate crabs with toads and the squawking bird, and I hear the low moans of turtles on the beach. It is a moment I fear too much, a woman I fear too much, and I yield. I begin again, immediately, this time concentrating on blankness, on burnt-out objects whirling in space, and she pushes against me murmuring, “No,” and pulls away.
Later, she says, “You don’t understand hate, Alfie. You don’t understand what hate can do.” She tells stories; I moan to mount her again. “No,” she says, and the stories pour out. Not just the beatings; the humiliations. Loaning her out, dangling her on a leash like a cheetah, then the beatings for what he suspects. It’s the power game, I try to tell her. That’s how power is played.
Sometime around three, I wake to a scooter’s thin roar. She has not been asleep. The rainy season must have started an hour or two before. It’s like steam out there. I kneel on the pillows to look out the small bedroom windows. The parking lot is a mudslide. Uprooted shrubs, snakes, crabs, turtles are washed down to the shore.
Maria, object of my wildest ecstasy, lies inches from me. She doesn’t ask what I see. The scooter’s lights weave in the rain.
“Andreas,” she says. “It’s working out.”
But it isn’t Andreas who forces the door to my room. It is a tall, thin Indian with a calamitous face. The scooter’s engine has been shut off, and rain slaps the patio in waves.
“Americano.” The Indian spits out the word. “Gringo.”
Maria calmly ties her halter tabs, slowly buttons up. She says something rapidly and the Indian steps outside while she finds her cutoffs.
“Quickly,” she says, and I reach for my pants. It’s already cold.
When the Indian returns, I hear her say “Jew” and “Israel.” He seems to lose interest. “Americano?” he asks again. “Gringo?”
Two more Indians invade my room. Maria runs out to the hall and I follow to the stairs. I point upwards and try out my Spanish. “Gringo is sleeping, drunk.”
The revolution has convened outside Clovis’s bedroom. Eduardo is there, Andreas, more Indians in Ted Turner caps, the one-armed man from Santa Simona. Andreas opens the door.
“Gringo,” he calls softly. “Wake up.”
I am surprised, truly astonished, at the recuperative powers of Clovis T. Ransome. Not only does he wake, but he sits, boots on the floor, ignoring the intrusion. His Spanish, the first time I’ve heard him use it, is excellent, even respectful.
“I believe, sir, you have me at a disadvantage,” he says. He scans the intruders, his eyes settling on me. “Button your fly, man,” he says to me. He stares at Maria, up and down, his jaw working. He says, “Well, sweets? What now?”
Andreas holds a pistol against his thigh.
“Take her,” Ransome says. “You want her? You got her. You want money, you got that too. Dollars, marks, Swiss francs. Just take her–and him–” he says, pointing to me, “out of here.”
“I will take your dollars, of course.”
“Eduardo–” Ransome jerks his head in the direction, perhaps, of a safe. The servant seems to know where it is.
“And I will take her, of course.”
“Good riddance.”
“But not him. He can rot.”
Eduardo and three Indians lug out a metal trunk. They throw away the pillows and start stuffing pillow cases with bundles of dollars, more pure currency than I’ve ever seen. They stuff the rest inside their shirts. What must it feel like? I wonder.
“Well, se”or Andreas, you’ve got the money and the woman. Now what’s it to be–a little torture? A little fun with me before the sun comes up? Or what about him–I bet you’d have more fun with him. I don’t scream, se”or Andreas, I warn you now. You can kill me but you can’t break me.”
I hear the safety clicking off. So does Clovis.
I know I would scream. I know I am no hero. I know none of this is worth suffering for, let alone dying for.
Andreas looks at Maria as though to say, “You decide.” She holds out her hand, and Andreas slips the pistol in it. This seems to amuse Clovis Ransome. He stands, presenting an enormous target. ‘sweetie–” he starts, and she blasts away and when I open my eyes he is across the bed, sprawled in the far corner of the room.
She stands at the foot of their bed, limp and amused, like a woman disappointed in love. Smoke rises from the gun barrel, her breath condenses in little clouds, and there is a halo of condensation around her hair, her neck, her arms.
When she turns, I feel it could be any of us next. Andreas holds out his hand but she doesn’t return the gun. She lines me up, low, genital-level, like Bud Wilkins with a bird, then sweeps around to Andreas, and smiles.
She has made love to me three times tonight. With Andreas today, doubtless more. Never has a truth been burned so deeply in me, what I owe my life to, how simple the rules of survival are. She passes the gun to Andreas who holsters it, and they leave.
In the next few days when I run out of food, I will walk down the muddy road to San Vincente, to the German bar with the pay phone: I’ll wear Clovis’s Braves cap and I’ll salute the Indians. “Turtle eggs,” I’ll say. “Number One,” they’ll answer back. Bud’s truck has been commandeered. Along with Clovis’s finer cars. Someone in the capital will be happy to know about Santa Simona, about Bud, Clovis. There must be something worth trading in the troubles I have seen.