Michael Washburn: The Swindlers

marathonlitreview —  June 13, 2013 — Leave a comment

They came up from the ocean. They were taller than many of the men on this island, leaner, more agile, with addled looks, naked except for scraps of cloth at their loins. Their muscles were taut as if denied a long-sought release, and I wouldn’t have gotten in the way of these men for any sum of money. I knew how choppy the waters were above the clusters of rock ringing the island, and I knew that once you got beyond the rock to the deeper waters where there were fish, you might also encounter sharks.

“They’re coming back empty handed once again,” I said to the young man lying on his back on a bright red towel on the ash-colored sand.

Anders peered at the procession making its way up the beach through the lenses of his round glasses but didn’t reply. I doubted that his mind was here at all. We were both hungover from our time with Gayle and Colby the night before, and Colby had been really coming onto him. The 23-year-old blond boy from Cologne was more competitive than myself in the looks department, I’ll grant. Not that Colby was the most discerning person when she’d had a few . . . The procession of native men continued past us until they began to disappear into the trees whose leaves hung motionless in the tropical blue. On the far side of the trees, there stood, like the remains of a bombed-out city, a perimeter of shacks and hovels and houses made from rice stalks, and then, further toward the center of the island, the mines. The last of the men, a 25-year-old with a winding scar on his chest, trailed the base of a spear in the sand as he followed his fellows, not even glancing at us, up through the tree line.

I asked Anders whether he’d seen Chad. Chad had stayed on the boat all night, playing cards with three or four of the natives, Anders informed me. He might have some more takers tonight, I mused. Those native fishermen wouldn’t be home with their families. Well, they could come and party with us.

We heard a woman’s voice call to us. Gayle came gliding down the beach from the direction of the tents the five of us had pitched. She’d tied up her light brown hair in a bun and a wreath of multicolored flowers fringed the lime green cloth clinging to

strategic points on her toned body.

“Anders and Guy, my two favorite men in the world,” she called.

She moved so lithely down the slope of the beach that I thought that with a bit of a gust, she’d glide right off into the reaches of the Pacific. I wanted to think Gayle’s radiant smile was more for me than for the handsome boy next to me. She sat down between us in the sand and reached into a bag at her waist. Seconds later, Gayle was lighting a joint. She held it out to Anders, who shook his head. When she held it out to me, I accepted. Anything for Gayle. She told us about the party the next night, an event distinguished by the fact that the hosts would be a pair of Australians she’d just met, Bill and Sarah. I had begun to think the five of us were the only whites on the island. Gayle told us she’d spotted a noddy bird on her approach to the beach. There was scant reason to believe all the hype about them becoming extinct, she said.

I’d kept my mouth shut. Anders never sounded like that, or Chad. But Gayle smiled and slid her right arm across my back, her fingers curving around a sensitive area inches below my armpit, and then she leaned forward and kissed my left cheek.

The tide was beginning to pick up now. Way off on the edges of the ocean, I could just barely make out a dark shape whose progress toward us in the glare was not detectable to the eye.

On the night of the party, Anders and I followed Gayle and Colby through half a kilometer of bush to a cave containing the opening of a disused mine. When the mine went bust, they’d converted the area into a warehouse for the one airline operating on the island, then into a nightclub, and now it was not officially anything as far as I knew. Inside was a mess of crates and boxes, and along one wall a counter where they’d once served mixed drinks to clusters of kids without regard for any drinking age. We moved through this area toward the mouth of the old phosphate mine.

Bill was an engineer from Brisbane. He was adept at locating phosphate deposits at points within the roughly eight square miles of the island. After 10 months on this rock with his wife, Sarah, his regret boiled down to how much Chinese takeout people here ate. Not terribly audacious, Bill felt. As for Sarah, she looked lovely with her short blonde hair and her breasts swelling gently beneath a navy blue pullover. She kept smiling at me, Bill or no Bill. Looking around at the other men inside this dim space, I figured they must be junior engineers. I sensed they were too young to be very knowledgeable about geology and mining, and they definitely lacked the physique of a miner. The natives demanded that job, anyway. I took a bottle of Coors and wandered toward the opposite wall of the cave. Where some people might have expected to find hieroglyphics disclosing secrets of the origins of the universe, there were only obscene limericks mocking one or another islander. I sat down on a crate and the beer tasted so cool and fresh after a day in the equatorial sun. Figures moved in the dim light before me. Natives. Since my arrival here, equipped with a grant giving me leisure to study the natives’ way of life and promote cultural understanding, I’d spent little time in their company, admittedly. Bill sauntered over in my direction, a grin spread across his rugged middle-aging face.

“Awful glad you could join us, mate.”

I didn’t really feel like talking to him, but I said, “It’s good to see locals mingling with us. I’ve gotten the impression people here have been on edge over the last few days.”

Bill snorted.

“Well, you’re quite right about that, mate. I guess you haven’t heard?”

I shook my head.

“The burning issue is whether the government here will recognize Taiwan or mainland China diplomatically.”

Lord, I had been out of it.

“Guess they can’t recognize both?”

“Of course they can’t recognize one without alienating the other. This little country having a seat at the UN is an absolute game changer in terms of its influence. I guess I thought you knew all of this,” he added.

Once again I nodded, pondering the implications of what Bill was telling me.

“You, ah, you are here on a research grant, am I correct, Guy?” he asked.

“That’s the case.”

“So what do you do most days?” “Lie on the beach and get stoned.” His grin broadened.

“I’m joking, Bill. I’ve been watching the islanders and learning about how they live. I am a bit of a shy person—”

Now to our mutual surprise, we saw two pairs of dancing figures work their way toward our side of the cave. Here were Gayle and Colby, each of them in the arms of an islander. Both of the male dancing partners wore Polo-style shirts, chinos, and loafers, and though separate in age by at least five years, they both had stubby dark hair. They were well-off guys who blasted the air conditioners in their Saturns and Nissans as they cruised the perimeter of the island, which they had ample time to do, since even a nominal share in the investments supported by the sale of phosphate made them rich. Already I could see Colby pressing her lips against her partner’s neck and cheeks, grinding against the fabric of his chinos, rotating her buttocks across his crotch. Gayle was taking a bit of time to get to know her partner. I could just make out the friction of their lips as they whispered back and forth. Techno music was playing from somewhere in the outer part of the cave, as the air grew dense from cigarettes or joints. When I turned my head again, Bill had disappeared. Shapes drifted in and out of the haze, until I got up to fetch myself another Coors, pondering rumors that Chad, handsome grinning Chad, would at last venture down from the boat to acknowledge that we were worth a bit of his time. Chad had to have something going on up there, in the boat, a secret so wonderful it made him jealous of his time. Anders, where was he now? Well, I didn’t want to follow him around like a little kid. More figures had moved into the space now, I could tell from the sounds around me, though I couldn’t make out much. I savored another cool drink. Now someone was coming toward me, it could have been Bill but the posture was different, anyway I never found out because the shape broke away, revealing the dancers again. Well, they had been dancing. Now I saw a man, it might have been one of the junior engineers, kneeling before one of the native women, but I couldn’t tell which way she was facing. He had his palms flat against the lips of one of her secret places and through the haze I could discern that he was pressing with all his force, left with one palm, right with the other, so that the aroused woman had a growing gulf into which he could peer with the curiosity of an old-time entomologist studying a butterfly. He pressed his face closer, peered as if the half-light frustrated him to some extent. The woman, somewhere between 20 and 30 and with long stringy dark hair, threw her head back and laughed shrilly so that now I could not mistake which way she faced. Soon another man took the place of the kneeling one, and I’m fairly sure it was Bill.

I heard Gayle laughing. I drained the rest of the bottle, tossed it somewhere, followed the sound. Behind me people were calling—could I have heard Anders’s voice?

—beckoning to me to come and explore the mouth of the mine with them. But I would find Gayle and Colby. Find them I did, over on a couch a few feet away from the bar counter I’d observed coming in. Here were two more good-looking native men, not the ones I’d seen the women dancing with. No, these were young guys, 22 or 23, sitting with polite looks as Gayle asked them questions of a suggestive nature. Gayle kept laughing and stroking someone’s leg and passing a joint back and forth with Colby, who smiled and made room for me beside her on the couch. At once, Colby’s hand began to wander, moving over my lap, above the band of my pants, then down, as the others were distracted.

Gayle screamed. It was as if someone had driven a nail through one of her wandering hands, so abrupt was the sound, which drew curious looks from the others on the couch, laughter from the smoky depths of the cave. Reluctantly I got up, walked around in front of Gayle, kneeled. She screamed again, making people in the depths of place burst out again in titters. She looked as if the skin on her face wanted to slither away and hide from what was in front of her, but I was the only thing in front of Gayle. I talked to her. I soothed her, telling her that she was at an age when the person she was now would appear like a stranger to her when she was older. She sobbed but didn’t look at me, and I’m not even sure she heard me. Suddenly Colby pushed me aside and locked eyes with Gayle, began exchanging whispers with her. I’m not sure Colby got through either but at least there were no more screams. To some extent Colby succeeded in making this moment one that Gayle wanted to inhabit. I drank many more beers, too many to count, so I have only sporadic memories of the rest of the evening.

The next morning, I woke up in the tent I shared with Anders and theoretically with Chad. Anders was not like some roommates. I never woke up or walked in to find him in bed with a woman, never found a mass of cans and butts around his hammock. Anders was here for the same purpose I was, under the auspices of a government agency back where he came from. How serious he really was we couldn’t quite tell. I stood up, rubbing my eyes, moving my groin around to relieve the stiffness and stickiness I felt down there. I walked outside to piss, came back in to shave and throw on a t-shirt and a pair of shorts such as you’d see at a squash club. It occurred to me that maybe I could have caught up with some of those fishermen we’d watched yesterday, pressed one of them for an interview. But we might not have had all that much to talk about.

Can you move the population of an island? Just pick them up and dump them someplace where you can fish and you can still grow stuff in the interior? Well, a lot of them were rich from the phosphate, so no one need bother with such questions, I figured.

I walked out into the milky white morning, sauntered down in the direction of the beach. On my way, I passed a cluster of naked children, whose father was off somewhere in the bush relieving himself. Down at the beach, the shape I’d spotted on the horizon the other day had grown into a vessel, a great long trawler engaged with the double scaffolding on which rail cars full of phosphate would move to dump their deposits into the ship’s hull. My eyes scanned the vessel for a flag until I spotted one, a Spanish flag if I wasn’t mistaken, right outside the crew’s cabins. Well, a lot of Spanish farmers would be getting some grade-A fertilizer. Strolling up the beach, in a northeastern direction, I mused once again about how many towns all over the world have larger populations than this island but no direct representation anywhere, no way to make the wishes of their

10,000 or 12,000 citizens, or a majority thereof, influence a deliberative process. Here was this island with a seat at the UN. I continued up the beach until I came within sight of the airport. If I’d dragged myself out here just a bit earlier, I might have seen the action: delegates striding down steps from a plane, shaking hands with the prime minister and members of his cabinet. Then all of them climbing into a pair of limos that exhaled dust onto the ivory-white tarmac as they careened away up a road through a cluster of beige buildings with orange-gabled roofs, leaving the frustrated fishermen and the kids with bloated bellies far behind. The emptiness of the airstrip mocked me now. I sauntered past it, moving along the beach in what was segueing into a fully eastward course, the sun coming down now with the relentlessness of a blacksmith’s hammer. Soon I would skirt the edges of the district of Aiwo, where you could almost imagine that you were in Brooklyn when you encountered the mosaic of shirts, tunics, and pants on clotheslines between squat houses and stunted trees. Then I’d reach a cluster of rocks where teens hung out and kissed or got really daring. But before I got too far east, I took a detour through the bush and found my way to the public library. It will be hard for some readers to fathom, but there was no internet station at the library. Those wishing to catch up with the world had to refer to the Sydney Morning Herald or a Guam newspaper from last week. On leaving the library, I weighed going back toward the beach, then decided to cut across toward the lake, well it was a pond really, the only source of fresh water on the island. It was serene there, away from the crashing waves, the looks of hungry kids. As I neared the grotto, I could hear a number of voices, gay voices, like a cluster of people who have a dog running between them and catching things in its mouth. But there was no dog, and in fact it was only a misjudgment of distance that led me to imagine the voices were by the pond in the first place. No, they were off to my left, not far from where the wooded area began to give way to raw naked rock in the seven square-mile core of the island. I walked through the bush into a clearing.

Here were people I knew. They stood outside a weathered shack. Gayle, Colby, Anders, and a few natives within a year or two of our age. Here was also a native of about 30, in a blue t-shirt and a pair of dark trunks, with a map of stringy black hair, the only thing that seemed out of place, as if it belonged to a professor too caught up in theories to mind his appearance. This fellow was gesturing and explaining things to the whites or to his fellow natives, who laughed and tittered or drew tighter together the way people do when they’re in on something great. Finally Colby agreed to pay the man a few dollars, which he accepted with a grin before disappearing into the shack. Colby waited briefly, then opened the door and joined the man inside. I walked over and began talking with Anders. When Colby came back outside some 15 minutes later, she was giggling and clutching something to her chest. The others pressed around her, asking to have a look. She showed them and they joined in her mirth. I walked over, asked to have a look. Colby shied away.

“No, Guy. No. You wouldn’t get it,” she said, as Gayle moved protectively in front of her. As if Gayle were in a position to protect anyone!

“Come on, it’s just a game, isn’t it?” “I said no, Guy.”

“Well you let them see the fucking thing, didn’t you?” I gasped, feeling rage rise in me.

“Don’t try to tell me what to do, Guy. You’re far too fucked up,” Colby said, locking eyes with me.

“For God’s sake I made a simple request. What’s it got to do with ‘telling you what to do’?” I pursued, and maybe it was the heat but I felt a little sick.

“Get lost,” she hissed.

“Fuck you and that little fuckrag,” I said with a nod toward Gayle.

I turned and walked back toward the beach, thinking if I never saw any of them again, that was fine. I started to turn toward the tents, then went resolutely on with my trek toward the beach at the south end of the island. How much of it had I really seen by now? Maybe three out of eight square miles, if I had to guess. Even people who went to live on the planet Mercury would fall into habits eventually and ignore things around them. Somewhere off in that cool municipal building, the delegates sat twitching, exchanging guarded looks with the ruler of this island, who was getting ready for his speech, the one he sounded so important giving: We cannot recognize two Chinas . . . And in other parts of the island men sat at screens studying the stock prices, the returns from the phosphate.

I wandered until I found a path leading to the parking lot of the Menen Hotel. Here in the blaze was a row of shiny Citroens, Nissans, Mercurys, and Fords. I strode through the lot, up the ramp, into the conditioned air of a lobby where a man in tacky clothes, with an Australian accent, was complaining to the girl behind the desk. I had no idea what I was doing here, but it had the negative virtue of not being a number of other places. I could hear air conditioners humming, vacuum cleaners on at least two floors. The girl’s eyes flitted between me and the man in the piss-colored button-down shirt and red shorts. The man was saying, “You don’t treat anyone that way.” I turned, walked back outside, in the direction of Topside. I’d not yet seen the mines, and I was here to study, to learn all about the way of life of these people, after all. I staggered through the bush and for just a flash recalled the shifting shapes in that cave filled with smoke. The shapes, the laughter, the babble wanted to come back, but now it seemed that when I tried to recall a remark or its context, the grass and rocks and branches in front of me shimmered and moved closer and receded, the glare of 2:00 p.m. demanded my attentions. I walked in the direction of the mines, then thought that the light refracted from the smooth naked rock would blind me, that we were not so far from the Equator, after all. I stopped. Blinked. Saw white. I had the humiliation of my foot knocking something and my body pitching forward without quite toppling. Were there eyes in the tangles of green and the sticks around me? Naked kids? Madmen? Girls who’d taken me for a joke since day one here? I plodded ahead on a zigzag path, toward Topside, then off to the east again, into scrub where the bright became mottled, expanded again across the breadth of my vision, then broke up once more. I wanted to go to the pond but I couldn’t stand company. Glancing up, I saw spots where light broke through, and then there flashed through my mind an image of something like a giant dome, with tender writhing bodies inside it, hiding from my view. The dome opened from the bottom rather than the top and I could just make out huddled feet. I felt a foot strike another rock and this time I fell. I got my hands out in front of me but my right knee got a scrape. I picked myself up, wiped my mouth with a dirty hand. This is a spec of an island, I thought. Once you start traversing it, you’re on the other side. Force your way through. March.

Now to my surprise I recalled someone’s words pretty clearly. After I’d spent a weekend getting ripped on beer at the pricey liberal arts college my parents had paid to have me attend, where I’d had some academic problems but somehow never flunked a course or wound up on probation, I’d sheepishly apologized to a nice girl toward whom I’d made some half-assed advances. I’m not sure of everything I said but please don’t judge my conduct in the full light of sobriety. By the way—how did I behave? The nice girl laughed and told me that the ether in beer is a neurotoxin that, in concentrated doses, can impair or inhibit neural transmission. So, events from my weekend might be hidden away in some corner of my brain but they might come out in due time. The truth of this was clear enough to me now, standing here in the miserable heat with a dry mouth and a stinging knee. There came to me now an account someone gave me, I’m pretty sure it was Bill, at some point in the revelry. Bill knew Colby better than I could have dreamed.

Colby was one for scoring and smoking pot, all right. My mistake was to assume such habits developed during her time on the island, when in fact Colby had been into the party scene on the private charter boats that plied the waters between atolls. The ships were not cruise vessels but ferries, with crews of maybe five and room for 20 passengers, belonging to companies based in Hawaii or California, and if I recalled correctly now, Colby had taken a cruise from Maui to Oahu. Colby loved to mingle with the passengers who typically included a single businessman or two, the type of man who isn’t shy about flinging money around when there is a loose girl present. When there was no rich guy for Colby, well, there was the crew. Stocky lads in tight blue outfits. They were happy to talk to Colby or share a joint when the resident Ahab didn’t need their help. Now, I remembered quite clearly as I stumbled through the glare, Bill had shared with me the intelligence that on the voyage in question, a few of the other passengers, kids in their early 20s, scored from Colby, and then when she was talking to a handsome crewman, a guy with a quarterback’s physique, straight blond hair parted down the middle, Colby felt an overwhelming urge to move her hands all over that toned body. But she had to slow her advances to match the guy’s giddiness as he took one drag on a joint after another. So she sat with him, their backs pressing against the rail on the upmost deck, where the aroma of the joint got swept right up into the winds. She gazed at the stars while moving her right hand up and down the guy’s left leg, not aggressively but not perfunctorily either. She didn’t feel thrilled when a girl, a 19-year-old from Santa Cruz, came up to try to score. Colby gave her some weed. The kid took a seat on the railing facing them. Something like two hours elapsed. They looked up and she wasn’t there. Colby and her new beau had been too wasted to care, and too busy making out to notice, when the girl slipped backward from the top of the railing and fell smack into the ocean, without even the awareness to doggie-paddle. Suddenly the crewman was speaking to Colby with gravity. If anyone asks, we’ve been alone up here all night. I distinctly recall asking Bill how he could have come by such intelligence. Amazing what people will say when they’re high, was his answer. Bill and I discussed more than this matter, but I could not choose what to remember. I told him I’d tried to be a writer once and had submitted a story to a journal that rejected it because of its ending. A deus ex machina never, ever forms part of the music of a narrative, the editors said in their rejection letter. Consult Aristotle on this point. Well, it had been a night of revelations, they were trickling back now. Trickling.

. . . and Gayle got kicked out of her college after they found her lying naked in a fetal position on the floor of a student lounge, licking the inside of a pizza box. There had been some “streaking” incidents before then, mind you, but she’d gotten off. If you can consider someone with a father like Gayle’s, a father of such appetites, to have gotten away with anything in this life.

The suicide rate among the natives is climbing, mate. Last week one of them swallowed potassium cyanide and when it reacted with the water in his body, he swelled up like a water balloon . . . Yeah they may be rich from the phosphate, some of them anyway, but still . . .

Look none of this is really worth your worries, mate. Some lunatic in the States just shot up a crowded movie theater.

I continued my zigzag meandering, ever further into the island’s interior. I thought of a character in the d’Aulaires coloring books I’d had as a kid, what was his name? The guy who has to spend eternity in a waist-high pool, near a branch with luscious fruit on it. Whenever he tries to satisfy himself, the water recedes or the branch jerks away from his grasp. But this island was not so big and that was the bottom line. Not so big. I pressed ahead wiping my forehead insistently, trying to match the scenery with my mental processes. I could hear noddy birds singing in the branches above me and on my flanks. I wanted to cry. I was utterly lost on a torrid rock near the Equator . . . I spun around and asked how the wilderness dared to refuse a Western man what he longed for. Then to my amazement, a structure appeared ahead of me in the glare. At first I made out only shingles and part of a drainpipe, and then as I lurched over the stony soil I began to discern a long yellow wall with windows at intervals of eight feet, air conditioners humming in two of them. It was all I could do not to dash up to the structure, wrap my lips around the mouth of the drainpipe, and begin pounding on the walls like a preschooler. Still the glare punished my eyes. Unsteadily I ambled along the perimeter of the wall, thinking the entrance must be around the corner. When I found it, the door was maddeningly flimsy in appearance like a prop in a high school play. Just moments into my acquaintance with this structure, I couldn’t believe it. I walked up, banged on the navy blue door. No sound, nothing inside acknowledged the 30-year-old impertinence outside. For another 10 minutes I stood there, sweating, knocking, listening desperately.

It occurred to me that in three hours I’d still be standing here and the shadows fringing the bush would have grown just imperceptibly longer. I was sweating and growing weaker and thirstier by the second, while in England there stood great musty old clocks and in Japan there were exchanges where digital screens displayed precisely aligned red columns and in the bush on this torrid rock, shadows crept insidiously. I waited. I heard not a footstep or a voice. Still I waited. My bowels had a feeling like a tunnel flooded and then only partially drained, with sloshing and shifting and unpredictable developments. Once more I raised my fist to pound on the door, and found myself framed in a cinematic moment, thinking right now was when someone would invite me in and divulge, if not the secrets of the universe, then perhaps of money laundering on islands where banks did not report to anyone.

I began to walk off toward the bush. On an impulse, I seized a rock, turned, and flung it at one of the windows, hearing the glass shatter as I stole away into the green. No prim executive in a blue shirt and glasses would emerge no matter what I did. As I moved off, it occurred to me to wonder, absurd though it might be, whether the officials had brought the delegation to this part of the island. I could see arguments for and against it. For here dwelt Ariel. I lurched further into the bush uncertain of any point of the compass now. Suddenly I lost control of my bowels, without getting my pants to my ankles quite in time. Fortunately leaves were one thing I had no shortage of. Soon I forced myself up over a crest, then down into what would have been a swamp in more depressed, less arid lands. In the universe of green and mottled light, I heard not one voice, not one reaction of the branches or stones. The artlessness of the mishap that fouled me compounded my crime with the rock. The island was a spec, how could one possibly even begin to get lost here? Pushing away branches, I spilled forward, as whispers of unspoiled sources of water in the hinterland flitted through my memory. Can you move the population of an island? No one would entertain such thoughts in a place that had a future. I forced myself onward as the spots of light above swelled and converged. I thought I was going to cry until I found mercifully resurgent green. I blinked, impressions of light dancing in the intervals between sight. I paused to re-fasten my belt. Up ahead, off to my left, I could detect an area where the green was more consistent. I moved that way, but then my right foot hit a boulder, I pitched forward, and my head slammed hard into another rock.

By a conservative estimate, I was out for three hours. When I woke, green mottled with light pulled hard at my eyes. All I’d wanted, for God’s sake, was to find fresh water and lose myself in its glistening depths. But now as I stared at the extremities of the trees, I was aware of a presence at the top of the slope to my right. With an effort, I rotated my head until my eyes detected a man standing under the leafy canopy. He studied me with the indulgent curiosity you might have for a bundled beggar sitting amid the spill from an overturned cart. He was a thin fellow, about 35, with clipped brown hair and a stiff bearing inside his short-sleeved button-down blue shirt and beige shorts. I was aware of fluidness, motion, on the slope and then I was on my feet again, wobbly, clinging to the stranger’s arm. In the exchange that came now, I learned little more than that he was here on business and was staying at the hotel I’d visited earlier. He helped me up the slope, escorting me through a tangle of trees and vines for some 100 feet before we emerged onto a white and empty road. Empty except for a spanking new Jeep.

We took the road through columns of what he referred to as the better behaved trees until we were on the thoroughfare running all the way around the island. My escort had donned a pair of shades. The wind ruffled the hair above his composed features. He asked where I’d like to go. I wanted this stranger to fold me into the order of his spreadsheet-and-briefcase universe, to escort me a million miles from the paths I’d trod in the hot noon, but reluctantly I named a spot about midway between the southern harbor and my tent. We drove there. There were hills in this region with patches of green between rough white surfaces, where time had worn the lime phosphate into all manner of strange protrusions. I longed to find a spot in the shade where I could work things out with Gayle and Colby. Maybe if I tossed in a tale about how Russian mobsters were hot on my trail all afternoon, they would come to like this down-market James Bond who was sharing a tent with their friend from Cologne. (For the record, I could not watch more than a few seconds of a Bond film before the idiocy of what I was seeing made me want to rip my eyes out.)

I thanked my escort, who drove off into the fading glare. Then I turned to amble up the hill in the direction of a plateau where I thought my acquaintances might be hanging out. But there was only white rock scored with vine staring back at me. I climbed the hill until I reached a sort of platform where you could look out over the huts and the road ringing the shore, at the sheets of luscious blue between here and the Solomon Islands. Up on this perch, the wind came softly, caressingly. I eased my aching body onto the rock and feared the wind might lull my senses to sleep once more until I heard a woman’s voice call my name. Gayle came up from somewhere, as warm and charming as that day on the shore. She wore a white t-shirt with no bra, a dress with images of flowers, and, as if that didn’t quite do it, a wreath of flowers around her neck like a woman in a Hawaiian tourism ad. She sat down and threw her arm around me as if we’d always been the most intimate of friends. As her body moved, her breasts jangled inside the loose-fitting t-shirt. I wondered whether she’d resist if I lifted the shirt and began kissing those breasts. Gayle moved her forearm back and forth across the base of my neck as we talked. I could not tell you when but at some point as the light finally dimmed, Colby segued onto the scene and began passing a joint back and forth with Gayle. We talked. Though we said little of consequence, we swore we’d die for one another if it came to that. I seized the opportunity to venture a question. Would they tell me about that secret place in the interior, about that man with the mop of dark hair? Without hesitation, they divulged the nature of that place, explaining that my notions were mixed up, that in spite of what I’d imagined, the spot was at the exact geographical center of the island, where the rock formations were the oldest, where the elders of the island would not permit the younger people to go, hence the absence of hungry little mouths. Inside the flimsy structure superimposed on a terrain ill designed for it, you’d find the mouth of a cave in whose depths, some on the island believed, there dwelt a spirit with which it was possible to converse. Not in the conventional way, of course, but along the following lines. The man I’d seen there, Vincent something, invited a guest inside, then the guest spoke into the gaping hole about his or her life, turned around, and left. Vincent took time to communicate in his own, undisclosed, fashion with the spirit before rendering a depiction with charcoal of images the spirit imparted to him.

“Vincent charges money for this?” I spat.

“He does indeed,” said Colby.

“Why?” Gayle asked.

“It’s a freaking joke—a dime-store gimmick.” “How do you know if you’ve never tried it?”

“I swear that’s the most indefensible use of money I’ve ever heard of.” “I doubt that,” Colby interjected.

“Do you still have the rendering he did for you?” I demanded.

No, she did not. But Colby and Gayle went on to describe a number of the prophecies for which Vincent had helped render a likeness. Vincent had a way with a stub of charcoal, he could render exactly what the presence in the depths of the island described to him. In the stillness of the shack, he had produced a likeness of a radiant woman of about 30 years. The youthful freshness of her features had not waned but had a gained an air of wisdom, of studied control. You could not see what she cradled in her arms but the look on her creamy features as she gazed at it was easy to construe. The picture delighted Colby. But here was what had cracked everyone up. A rendering of a stern-faced professor with spectacles and nearly parted straight hair, leaning forward to make a point. It was a portrait of Anders in a few years. Well, I decided there were worse things than being cheated out of a few dollars. Already I was curious enough to explore the depths of that cave, I mused as the sweet aroma from Colby’s joint filled the air around us.

As Gayle and Colby chatted, I picked up a rock and lobbed at the beach just to see how far I could throw it. The cool flesh of Gayle’s hand moved up and down my leg. Already it had caused a stirring of the kind that, once begun, will not desist in its

demands . . . but now Anders strode over to our little party. He sat his backpack down in the dust and unzipped it as I told him about the fellow who’d given me a lift, leaving out anything before that point in my day. He didn’t seem enthralled, but he had an opinion about the stranger.

“He’s from one of the global law firms, Guy. He’s here to try to negotiate financing for an infrastructural project of one kind or another. All the big firms want a piece of the action, but I’ll bet both my legs that the prime minister will say no because his cut of the deal isn’t enough.”

“There’s an awful lot of negotiating going on here.” “I should think so. Take a look at this, Guy.”

He pulled from the backpack an opaque plastic rectangle with an orange lid, like something you’d take to a picnic. He popped off the lid and I gazed at the contents.

“Anders, why are you showing me a tube full of dirt?”

My acquaintance looked at me as if I were a fifth grader who’d snuck into a graduate seminar.

“This here is a soil sample. Taken today, at 12:46 p.m., at the deepest level of Topside. What do you see here, Guy?” “Exactly what you see.” “Describe it, please.”

“I see a lot of soil with maybe some flakes of phosphate.” “Some flakes of phosphate,” he repeated.

I nodded. As a realization crept over me, I said, “But that can’t have been at the lowest point on Topside, Anders. How can you even assess—”

“The Australians have done many geological surveys, but they’ve failed to make a simple deduction. This is from the most depleted area. All the deposits they’re mining now are on higher levels than where this came from. Which means—”

I wanted to interrupt but now we heard titters and several voices approaching in the dark. I guessed that Gayle and Colby had run into a few native girls earlier and had invited them to come and hang out. I was right. Here were three young women, not in traditional garb but in shirts and shorts worthy of the discount rack at K-Mart, giggling as if the weed had already done its work. As soon as they saw me, one of them broke away, came over, and sat where Gayle had been before. This woman was more daring than Gayle. At once her hands started moving around, playing upon the arousal kindled earlier, and she began whispering in my ear about all the things she fancied doing to a youthful fellow from one of the exploiting countries. I was about to ask her to stop, to clarify, explain, elaborate, tell me why on earth she was coming on to me, but now her right hand had pushed down behind my belt, and darted like a hare. Soon she found confirmation of what she’d read in my eyes. She kissed me, and though her lips were large, the impression was of exactness, of a precisely calibrated giving. She gave more. She kissed my ear, cheek, neck, returning again to my lips, then pressing with such intensity that I could not draw breath as her palm moved below like a cloth battling a stain. It could not have occurred to either of us to wonder about the others watching, but on some level, I felt that what we sought required a tent around us. As we got up, I caught Anders in my peripheral vision, and I thought his look was trying to communicate something but I pressed straight down the slope with my arm locked in the girl’s. I was the stud, the hero I’d never come close to being in high school or college. We spent all night in my hammock, and I took sweet revenge on my past.

In the glare of the next day, I woke up alone. I’d overslept. It was already past noon. I stumbled outside. Now there were not one but two dark specs on the horizon.

Looking around, I got the impression that the party the night before had grown until a few of the revelers split off toward this area, for here were discarded cans and butts and wrappers, but they had not made enough noise to distract me and the girl I was fucking, or maybe we had crashed out by that point. I paused to piss, then walked up the beach once again in the direction of the phosphate loading station. Now I heard it. Yes, I heard a woman weeping. My first thought was that I must have gotten too rough with the girl, or maybe she was more of an ingénue that I’d imagined. Then again, it didn’t sound like her.

No—it sounded like Gayle.

I walked about three-tenths of a mile until I came within sight of a plaza with a few benches just off the road. Sure enough, there was Gayle with her face in her hands. Knowing I was no good at the type of commiseration she needed, I stared at a sheet of some kind on her lap. Though it was face down, I realized that the parchment bore one of the charcoal renderings from that strange place in the island’s center.

“Can I see?” I ventured.

But Gayle went on weeping without acknowledging me.

“You do know that man is a rip-off artist, don’t you?”

Still she ignored me. I reached for the parchment. She withdrew a hand from her face and yanked the drawing away. Again I reached, but again Gayle thwarted me. Then with a darting move, I snatched the parchment and turned it over so that I was face to face with the rendering. In horror, I dropped it and stole up the road in the direction of the north harbor. I thought Gayle would scream and curse but I heard only sobs behind me. Before reaching the harbor, I turned in at one of the shacks where you could buy a fast-food entree for two dollars. With a drink and a side order, a meal might set you back four bucks. This spot was popular with guys who came over from Fiji, Guam, and the Solomons to work in the mines. I bought a burger, fries, and a Coke, sat at one of the rusting deep green tables, started wolfing down my cruddy little meal. Before long, a native girl, 12 or 13, appeared before me, asking to share the table. I nodded. She had straight dark hair and a prominent nose whose flaring nostrils could give the impression she was indignant about something. Yet she was a cheery, friendly girl who began asking with unfeigned interest about my work here. I told her about my commission and the demands it put on me. I wanted to explain matters in terms that would make sense to her. Work all the time. Hard to find much time to play, I said. She seemed impressed in the way that only children can be when you tell them about adult matters. She was finishing up her Coke. I offered her about two-thirds of my fries which she accepted with delight. Then I saw him. A native with a hard physique and jet black hair down to his shoulders. He’d been regarding my exchange with the girl as if watching a big male cat sniffing a vulnerable kitten. I saw the scar on his chest, remembered him from that sad scene on the beach, and realized what Anders had sought to communicate the night before. From this native’s viewpoint, foreigners endangered more than the supply of phosphate. I’d stolen his woman the night before.

I raced away from the benches, past the shack serving greasy crud, past a cluster of squat houses, and into the bush. He followed. I heard a few people gasp and cry at the spectacle, but above all I was aware of the steps of the fisherman coming after me. His initial underestimation of how fast I was gave me a slight edge but he was closing the distance fast. I darted through what felt like four acres of bush, climbing a modest hill where I knew there were caves. He could have cursed and taunted me but was too smart. He conserved his breath. I ran and ran. The land danced and bounced before me and I felt a stab in my lungs each time a foot landed on a rock, but I got within sight of the caves. I didn’t think he could see me. I darted to the right, in a westerly direction, and crept into a cave that Gayle had shown me once. I didn’t get to feel her up on the occasion but at least I knew about this. A few feet into the mouth of the arid dusty space, I turned, crouched, scanned the outside frantically. No, I felt quite sure he hadn’t seen me enter. Now the paradox of this island struck me as a blessing: It was so small, yet you could pass the better part of a day looking for someone or something if you didn’t know precisely where it was. I struggled to retain control of my bowels, crouched lower, and waited all day and into the night. He must have run right past the area, I thought.

If I stayed here, he might find me by process of elimination. So I moved my position to a second cave with a much lower mouth, a place Gayle and I had observed while skirting around it but had never entered. Here I had to crouch, and crouching of course is tiring. I lay on my belly fearing I’d fall asleep. Some time in the night, maybe

10:00 or 11:00, I heard something utterly extraordinary. A man’s voice, calling out my name. It was not a native, nor was it Anders or Bill or any of the junior engineers. It was someone I’d barely seen for weeks. It was Chad. He called my name repeatedly but I just lay there listening.

“Guy! Guy! I know you’re hiding out here. What the fuck did you do? They burned the boat, man. They—they killed Anders. I’m pretty sure they killed him. Strung him up by his ankles. Raped the women. You have to come out right now.”

But I didn’t say a word.

“You have to come out, Guy. Tell them it wasn’t me that fucked the native. Tell them we’re not trying to steal all the fucking phosphate. Whatever is driving them to murder is a deception, a great big fucking swindle—I know you can hear me, Guy. Come out!”

He said more in the same vein but his voice slowly grew more distant. I didn’t know how to tell him that if they had in fact killed Anders, they’d killed the wrong foreigner. So I lay there inhaling the musty air as the desperate voice grew fainter and fainter. If I went out now, I’d either trip and crack my head open on a rock or get ripped apart by enraged natives. I decided to hide out until morning and then try to make my way to the tiny police station at the south end of the island, a few clicks from the hotel.

When the blackness outside began to segue into a deep blue, I searched the floor of the cave until I found a rock like a jagged baseball. I ventured outside. Way off in the distance were the lights on the scaffolding where they loaded phosphate onto ships, but I couldn’t make out any vessels in the harbor. Somebody must have warned those two that were approaching to turn away or hold off. I waited for light. As I did so, I couldn’t help thinking of the likeness of Gayle I’d seen on the parchment I’d snatched from her hands. It was a Gayle whose features had, how should I say this, grown horizontally rather than vertically from age 25 to age 35. The face that had stared back at me sagged with the weight of folds of flesh, and lines scored it like cracks in a San Francisco shanty in an earthquake, but it had gained no wisdom or knowledge of anything since the day of the Gayle that we knew. I thought, also, of that prim professional who had escorted me out of the wild. I realized now that he was bitter but what was frustrating his efforts here? In my imaginings, the prime minister and his train drove contemptuously past desperate natives whose wealth was dwindling, who could no longer find work in the mines, and who longed for infrastructure projects and the jobs that went with them.

Well, I could ponder all of that later, if there was a later. I pursued a path through the bush in the direction of the southern end of the island. My mouth felt like the inside of a skull at the bottom of the Grand Canyon in July. I forced myself to press on, as sweat began to free up my shirt from my back and neck. I wasn’t that hungry or thirsty after about 18 hours on the lam, and the vigor of my movements surprised me a little. The island was a spec, in any event. I could get across it in no time and talk to the police. I got to the bottom of the hill and ran through several acres of rock and brush, feeling the sun on the exposed strip of skin below the U of the thin brown hair at the base of my neck. I stumbled, picked myself up hurriedly, and navigated toward a pass between clusters of brambles until something in my peripheral vision made me jerk my head to the left and there he was. The man’s eyes wounded me. He leered and seethed, gauging my potential for flight before he could rip me apart. I hurled the rock with all my might. This was the last thing he expected and the stone caught him between the eyes and made a billiard-ball clap like knocking a brain loose inside its shell. I felt a surge of pride, but I didn’t stay to survey the damage. I didn’t know who else or what else was out there in the bush. I ran on breathlessly for about 30 minutes until I reached the south end of the island, where to my amazement a fleet filled the horizon. Here were dozens of ships. On the cruisers, destroyers, and aircraft carriers I saw the flag of the People’s Republic of China. Speedboats filled with soldiers, semiautomatic weapons glinting in the glare, were heading for shore. I required no briefing as to the outcome of the recent rounds of meetings on the island, and I knew that within minutes, order would prevail.

 

Michael Washburn is a novelist, short story writer, journalist, and editor based in Brooklyn, New York.

No Comments

Be the first to start the conversation.

Leave a Reply

*

Text formatting is available via select HTML. <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>