With my eyes closed, I am lost in an icy mountain river. A river somewhere I have never been. The water collects in my brainpan, short-circuiting things. It creeps down my spine like cold spiders.
With my eyes open, the river is gone, but the sensation lingers, pooling between synapses, making my thoughts dull. I shiver under blankets for an evening, then the next day I am better, then the next day it is like there never was a fever.
IT GOES like this, having the fever then not having it, for weeks.
The fever outlasts the Flagyl and other antibiotics they give me. The Flagyl pills taste like plastic. Their only function de facto is to prevent me from drinking alcohol. Then the head nurse tells me my immune system will just have to sort out this drug-resistant strain. In fact, she tells me this so many times, I begin to think she is trying to impress me with her mannish callousness. This sorting out could take weeks or the rest of my life, she explains.
Suspicious, I ask: Can I have a copy of my medical file? A second opinion might be prudent.
Of course not, she says.
I try to picture the Giardia entering my blood from the contaminated water. Sometimes I imagine them as worms. Long alien tapeworms with hooks for lips. Sometimes I imagine them as skulls-and-crossbones floating among the pink platelets. In truth, Giardia lamblia in the free-swimming trophozoite phase look like jellyfish crossed with menstrual pads.
SUNNY DAYS become overcast days where the sky is low and domed and the color of dirty bathwater. The fresh hotel bedspread is clean and soft against my back. There are cedar trees outside my window. The branches sift in the breeze, breaking up the sky. The leaves are wilted in the humidity of a Washington DC indian summer.
Somewhere out there, through the Venetian blinds, is autumn– crouched, watching, poised to strike.
There is a walkway over the interstate. It is important you know that. The walkway begins near the asphalt side lot and landscaped hemlock of the hotel the government houses us in. Also on the near side of the walkway, Arlington National Cemetery. The walkway arcs over six lanes of I-395 traffic and comes down on the opposite slope beside a Best Western.
There is a shattered ketchup bottle on the far steps of the walkway. I do not know how it came to be there. A trail of dried red on three steps that ends in the broken glass skeleton of the bottle.
I know this because I have studied it many times trying not to think of what happened to Abi and Elias and how things ended badly for them. The ketchup, dried and cooked, has cracked in the sun.
Eventually my appetite returns.
If you want to go to the grocery store, you must cross the walkway. If you want to go to Blockbuster or Subway, you must also cross the walkway. If you want to go to the discount cigarette place, you can cross the walkway or you can take the long way around past the Metro entrance. If you want to see the courthouse where they are trying a famous sportscaster – for biting the back of his mistress while cross-dressing and other, worse things – you must cross the walkway.
If you climb the hill behind the hotel, you pass a convenience mart and apartment buildings. It is best as dusk falls and the temperature begins to cool. Then the humidity is not so bad and my clothes do not stick to me and it feels good to be wearing a machine-laundered cotton shirt again.
After two hundred paces, you reach the Quarterdeck bar. The building rises from the summit of the hill. Birchwood beams support an outdoor deck and a sunken roof. The whole structure looks like a delightful mass of code violations. The sun sets behind the Quarterdeck like light through cranberry juice. The place always has customers, many of them federal employees from the hotel. The government uses the hotel for more than us.
I meet ex-CIA men at the bar some nights. They drink their pensions up through wrinkles, liver spots, and white stubble. One of them wears a creased T-shirt covering skeletal ribs that reads, ‘Cu Chi, Vietnam Ops, 65-74’. At first I liked the Quarterdeck and meeting the CIA men because it made me feel like I was someone exciting. Now I like it because it is somewhere familiar to go, and there is nowhere else.
One night, I order a Jameson whiskey. I look at it there on the bar. Caramelcolored liquid in a smudged shot glass. A mixture of malted and unmalted barley, Hordeum vulgare. I drink it down. I have not had it in so long that it burns my throat but tastes like candy. I consider the bluish smoke folding from the Marlboro in everyone’s lips, from the one between my knuckles. I have not smoked American cigarettes nor had anything besides rotgut arkhi to drink in months, and I am very happy not to be in Asia anymore.
Peace Corps issues us an allowance of twenty-two dollars per day. Because it is the federal government, they call it a ‘medevacuee per diem’ instead of an allowance. It is cash. I slip a form through a cashier’s window in Peace Corps headquarters on K Street and the man hands me the money. I spend it on cigarettes, drinks at the Quarterdeck, and dining out.
I eat at all the places. I eat calzones brushed in olive oil, filled with spinach, oregano, basil, and four imported cheeses. I eat croissants stuffed with tuna, fresh dill, pickle, celery, hardboiled egg.
Peace Corps discourages per diem expenditures on alcohol or cigarettes, and the nurses tell you this and we receive memos reminding us, and they encourage your suitemates to rat you out if they catch you doing it. They mention this rule so many times I become paranoid they are surveilling us. But this feeling passes. It is, in the end, after all, my money.
They house all of us who have been medevacked from around the globe in the hotel.
IOWA ANDRE steps through the door of my suite with a broad grin, hunched beneath the weight of his backpack and duffel bag. I know the bags must be notably heavy because he is a weightlifter. Over a closely shorn skull, he wears one of those Mongol hats like a fez. He is so big he has no fear of so egregiously flouting American fashion. He still smells like Mongolia – the odor that still clings to my unwashed sweaters and unused tugrik money. The smell of decay and mutton frying in dirty oil. Andre is from my team.
Hiya, captain, he says, baring his teeth. He calls me captain for unknown reasons.
I did not know Andre well in Mongolia. In fact, after the orientation, I only spoke to him that one time. But when he walks through the door of the suite, it is like instantly we know each other on friendly terms. I am happy to have any company besides the Californian from the Morocco team who lies on the carpet and watches ESPN all day.
What were you evacuated for? I ask Andre.
Long story. I hit my head, he says. Holy shit, this is a nice suite. Definitely has potential.
Later I show him where to catch the van that drives us to Peace Corps headquarters across the Potomac. I show him the Quarterdeck and the walkway. We walk to Blockbuster and rent a VCR and some videos. He cries during Platoon and tells me we did not suffer enough in Asia after all. We watch the scene where Sergeant Elias, Willem Dafoe, succumbs to his wounds and throws his hands in the air as the American helos bank overhead. We exchange a look.
We leave the suite, walk around for a while, then eventually Andre is better and we pause on somebody’s front stoop to have a smoke. Then we walk again and joke about the Californian who watches ESPN all day. Andre hates him already. It is the three of us now in the suite.
THE NEXT day, we walk to the grocery store with both the girl from the Uzbekistan team and the Schaumburg girl from the Ethiopia team. Halfway there, we are tired of the Schaumburg girl. She only talks about how much she likes Peace Corps and how badly she wants to be cleared to return to duty. She was assaulted by Ethiopian Moslem boys. They broke a Coca Cola bottle over her head and raped her on her own living room floor, is the story. Afterwards, they helped themselves to the food in her refrigerator, I heard. It saddens me to consider her trauma but we do not like her topics of conversation.
Later Andre beats me at pool in the yellow basement of the Quarterdeck. The girls outright refused to enter the bar. The only other people in the basement are the Mexican waiters and chef. They lean in close over the worn green felt when they shoot, and they hiss and conspire together in the shadows. Faces visible in glimpses, their eyes are hollows, then pulling back into shadow.
CYMBA LARGER than the cavum, Abigail had observed, slightly drunk, touching my ear. Wow.
What’re you talking about?
She laughed, graceful eyes squishing, and shook her head. The hollow of your upper ear is larger than the hollow of your lower ear. You know how rare that is? You’re like a fucking mutant.
I’ll skip the obvious retort.
She dipped her shoulder and posed. She swiped her hair from her eyes and tucked it behind her ear. Even mutants have their uses, she said with a sly grin. She lifted her face and bit her lower lip. Her black cowgirl boots kicked up behind her, her only clothing.
There are pretty girls, and there are girls that seeing them smile is unto a state of grace.
ONE NIGHT, Andre and I walk for a long while because the night air is perfect, so warm it feels like an extension of self. In the darkness, everything seems closer. In the gloom, the smell of freshly cut grass. Engines revving. Break lights smearing. We walk up the slope past the Best Western. Past the Blockbuster. Then past the Boston Market and the courthouse where they are trying the famous sportscaster, we discover a new bar.
The new bar turns out not to be as good as the Quarterdeck. The cinderblock is decorated with mock graffiti in fluorescent paint glowing beneath blacklights. The effect is forced and cannot be mistaken for naturally occurring glowing graffiti. But the bar brews its own micro-beer and has good pool tables and we are there, so we stay. But I know we both feel we are being disloyal to the Quarterdeck.
Do you remember how Elias and Abi snapped at each other? Andre asks. Abigail, she was something. God what a tyrant. I miss her. I have a photo somewhere.
I say nothing. Of course I remember. It was not that long ago. But compared to Arlington, Mongolia is on a different planet.
Abi said you were an angry Anthony Michael Hall who never spoke and who read too much, he adds. She meant all those manuals.
Sixteen Candles, captain.
That – I say, using one of the fingers gripping my pint to aim at him – was unkind.
Abi was right about the manuals. I read the five hundred page How to Survive Extreme Cold Emergencies twice, even though the colophon revealed that it was acquired by Peace Corps from the Exxon Corporation, which even Warren mentioned was suspicious.
Do you remember that food kiosk across from the Hotel Ulaanbaatar? What was that place called? Andre asks. The place where they tried to sell those things with fried eggs and ketchup that were supposed to be pizzas?
I tried to avoid Ulaanbaatar, but I think I remember. It might not have had a name.
You remember Chuluunbold?
I remember him.
I never talked to him like I should have, Andre says. That guy was more irritating than Warren.
No. He learned to stay away from you.
Do you remember the stench from that shower water? I can smell it now. You ever catch rashes from that shit? Once I went through half a tube of penicillin cream. It did nothing.
That’s why I missed that one day of classes, I say. Could hardly move my legs, it hurt so bad. That water fucked me up good.
Yes it did, Andre says. Nice job on the whole water cleanliness thing, Mongolia. It’s such a difficult concept. Potable water over here – he gestures with two flat palms – and animal feces over here. He wags a finger. Distance between the two, that’s the tricky part.
Then he studies his pint as if trying to form words, then drinks.
In Mongolia, we drank either arkhi or bad Chinese beer laced with formaldehyde. The brand name of the least unpreferred beer translated to Five Star. It had an aftertaste like how antifreeze smells. Because of the altitude and the formaldehyde, it took you only one or two of those beers to get drunk.
Do you remember that funny looking homeless boy? Andre asks. The one that wandered outside the State Theater? Elias and I ran into him all the time. Abi said she once caught him peeping on her. The one with the lopsided shoulders, like this.
I remember. I caught him in my ger in Dalanzadgad once.
What? You caught him in your ger in Dalanzadgad? Was he robbing you?
Why was he there?
Sometimes I can’t tell when you’re joking. Andre eyes me quizzically. That kid was creepy. He had those sores on his face, he says. Plus he had that smell, like bad milk. Andre shakes his head. And those scars. My God those scars. Do you remember all those children with the… oh, forget it. You’re not listening. Then Andre eyes a pool game and broods for a moment. I miss Abi, he says.
Abigail’s parents took out a second mortgage to send her abroad for college, and she earned a bachelor’s in biology from the University of Évry Val d'Essonne. Yet upon returning to the States, she found no work except as a receptionist. Sometimes she also gave piano lessons to pay the bills, she’d said. As her debts mounted, the odds of medical school went from unlikely to near-impossible. Evenings evaporated, spent watching liars on television, as clinical depression set in. She figured the Third World couldn’t be any worse than finishing an eight-hour shift to go teach some Inner Party member’s scion the notes to Hickory Dickory Dock, she’d said.
I look at Andre and remember what he looked like at Chicago O’Hare, where I first met him those many months ago. He looked different then, uncorrupted. White teeth and a Caesar haircut.
He says: You saw what they did to her.
Asia is still there but all we know is we are never going back.
IN THE laundromat of the hotel, the Schaumburg girl from the Ethiopia team talks about the headscarves the native women wore. We share a marijuana joint. She talks about the fire alarm someone is planning to pull in the hotel tonight. She had broken her wrist on purpose, now has it in a cast. She wears a skirt of native design, a pattern of alligator monsters and blossoms. She and I were born in hospitals only two hundred miles apart, I learn.
Eat me, drink me, esprit de Corps, she breathes. She touches my neck, my face lightly.
I grip my laundry bag. I look at her and think about it. She is not pretty.
Two tiny symbols, a crescent moon and a fishhook, have been seared into her calf. The scar-lines are raised slightly on the tight skin. Maybe the rapists branded her.
I take the elevator upstairs. I walk into the suite then into my bedroom. I dump the contents of the laundry bag onto my bed then fold the clothes precisely. I hang my Dockers in order of lightest to darkest. I do the same with my Polo shirts. Wittily-patterned boxers go in precise stacks on the top shelf, beside the Ziploc containing the scuffed, laminated IDs of seven Mongol policemen.
Andre shouts for me to come play gin rummy. I step into the living room and sit opposite him. The tall Californian from the Morocco team is laying on the floor watching ESPN. He has the volume maxed and has positioned himself as far from Andre as possible. He knows that Andre is sick of seeing the same basketball scores again and again and is looking for an excuse.
Soon I have all the wrong cards and am losing. The air-conditioner is on full blast and smells of freon as it bats the Venetian blinds against the long window overlooking the six lanes of traffic on Interstate 395. When the blinds hit the window, ladders of sunlight cross the sofa, the fabric chairs, the carpet, and the cards in my hand.
The phone rings. I put down my cards and answer it. It is one of the Peace Corps nurses. She says a name I have never heard before. I tell her I do not know who she is talking about. She tells me he is in the suite, the one from the Morocco team. I tell the Californian the phone is for him. He glances at me then looks back at the TV and waves me off. I tell the nurse he is busy. I suggest that she call back later. She asks me if he is drinking. I lie and tell her no. She says softly that it is very important that she speak with him. I tell the Californian it is very important. His face is boyish and his hair is combed precisely. He waves me off again. I tell the nurse that he is not going to talk to her. She sighs. The line is silent for a while then she tells me the results of his spinal tap are back and he has Lyme Disease.
You have Lyme Disease, I tell him.
I put the phone down on the glass endtable. Andre looks at him and he does not move. He is frozen staring into the TV. The backs of the cards are printed with a Caribbean beach scene. Andre discards the eight of spades but I do not need it. I mention to him the fire alarm someone is planning to pull. Andre is thumbing a folding knife. He is flipping the blade open then closing it. He asks me if I want another bottle of beer. I say yes and pick up my cards and wonder how long the nurse is going to wait on the line. It does not matter.
ABI PRESSED her small palm against my sternum and said, Trey?
Her head was against my shoulder and I felt the softness of her breasts. I looked at the curve of her hip, the slope of the back of her thigh.
Trey? Tell me, Trey. Trey?
Outside the window, a layered, dusty haze was spreading. Amid dangerously low-drooping arcs of electric wires. The toy engine of a small, Russian car revved along the street below. The boxy buildings of Dalanzadgad. The mineral spills of the Gobi beyond. Two strange sandstorms had circled the town that month, and possibly another was brewing.
I don’t care.
She sat up and lit a cigarette. In that mild Texas drawl – which, in all fairness, had been irresistible – she said: You can be so aggervatin and horrible.
Is that wise, smoking?
You’re such a hypocrite.
That doesn’t – I began, then thought about it further – that doesn’t even make sense. Are you sure?
Yes. Cigarette pinned between her lips, she tapped the Bic against her other hand and reconsidered. No. If Peace Corps finds out, though, those weasels’ll send me home.
What are my odds?
I took the glass of water from her endtable and drank. Of what do you think? Being the lucky winner.
Standing, zipping my khakis, I said: You’re a maiden, pure as alpine meadow, of course. But tell me, what are my odds?
Of being a total douche? Two hundred percent.
I tilted my head and thought about this.
Boy, you best pray that I bleed real soon, she said, quoting one of her favorite Tori Amos songs.
ANDRE AND I grow bored waiting on medical appointments that are either rescheduled or cancelled.
My cancelled appointments: an epidemiologist, a skeletalmuscular radiologist, a shrink in Bethesda, a substance abuse specialist in Georgetown, a Tarot reader.
Andre’s cancelled appointments: a neurologist, a hematologist, the substance abuse specialist in Georgetown, Genghis Khan, the shrink in Bethesda.
We decide to see the coast.
I think the coast is not far away. I am a Midwestern boy and do not know any better. Iowa Andre doesn’t either.
We take the Metro eastward as far as we can. It doesn’t cost much.
After many underground stops, the tunnel grows brighter then the earth peels away like a diver surfacing and we are on elevated tracks above Baltimore or somewhere. A sports stadium on one side, endless grids of row housing on the other. Baltimore, if that’s what this is, is asphalt, chain-link, and sooty smokestacks. Baltimore is the ugliest American city I have ever seen. But not as ugly as Dalanzadgad nor Ulaanbaatar. Not even in the same league.
The conductor announces something on the intercom. Her accent is so heavy with ebonics that I do not understand her. Andre explains she said the last stop is coming.
The train slows to a halt. The doors hiss open. We get out.
The Metro station is outside half built into a slope. I can see we are in the suburbs. This is as far east as the Metro goes. Andre starts toward the turnstile, but I ask him to wait. We lean there against a concrete divider.
Through the portholes, we see the conductor’s torso stroll from one end of the train to the other. Then the train starts again from the other end. The train is lazy for a second then it pounces. It is gone in a rush. After the slipstream dissipates and the newspapers float to the hexagonal tile, Andre asks why we waited.
Don’t know, I say. But I know. It feels good to see something First World again like the Metro after we had been out on the gray-green Eurasian steppe then the chalky Gobi wastes for so long. Someday the Metro and all trains will be gone.
We exit the station into bright sunlight. Since we see no indications of beach nor ocean, we decide the coast is farther east. We figure the street runs east, so we follow it. We walk through a subdivision then it is nothing but trees then another subdivision. Then a housing project. Now woods again and we are tired, so when we see the bus stop we are happy. We wait on the curb for the bus. We crouch on the balls of our feet like the nomad herders did. Andre takes out a chocolate bar and hands me half.
I am thinking of Chuang Tsu, the fourth century Taoist who wrote:
Once upon a time
I dreamt I was a butterfly
fluttering hither and thither
Suddenly I awoke
Now I do not know whether
I was a man
dreaming a butterfly
or am a butterfly
dreaming a man
Across the street, another housing project. Three thugs gather at the opposite curb to stare. I wonder if this is going to provoke Andre. It does not and they leave. Our bus never comes so we start walking again. I buy an egg salad sandwich at a gas station. I plan on eating it on the curb, but Andre wants a sub from the Subway across the street. That suits me because the Subway is air-conditioned.
The cashier tells us we have a long ways to go by car before we reach the coast. He says this with a look of bemused disbelief. He turns to one of the other customers for solidarity and shakes his head.
So we give up and go back. We are tired and my neck is sunburnt.
DAYS LATER, Andre’s parents visit and we ask them to drive us to the coast.
His parents are tall and their faces dark. They are healthy Iowa folks. They bring their sheepdog. The sheepdog is a good contented animal in the last years of its life. It lays down in the back of the SUV and licks your hand if you reach over the back seat.
Andre’s father passes me a cigarette over the driver’s seat. It is good First World tobacco. It does not fall apart after the first puff. Andre cannot smoke in the Blazer because his parents do not know he took up the habit in Asia. I make faces and blow smoke at him.
He does not talk to his parents during the long ride.
At the coast, we stop at a restaurant across the street from two fishermen on a pier cleaning giant tuna. Andre’s parents tell us to go ahead. We look through the windows of the restaurant watching them talk. Then they come in and buy us burgers and potato salad. It tastes like heaven.
After driving again for a while, we reach a beach. Andre’s father parks in a hotel parking lot. Andre takes off his shoes. I do the same. He and I walk through a break in a wood fence to the sand. His father stays behind to feed the dog out of the hatchback and his mother follows us. The white sand swallows my feet and feels clean and warm. The wind picks up and we see there is a storm on the horizon, a dark nebulous mass. Drips of ink in an elixir. It sends whitecaps detonating against the shore. It will be a good storm when it arrives. We look at the ocean. Andre tells me in slow Mongolian that he wants Abi. Abi a wee.
His mother puts her hand to her face. She goes back through the fence and we hear her say that Andre is different. I am embarrassed for him. Sitting with his elbows on his knees, he looks at the distant storm and seems not to mind.
The drive back is quiet. When we reach Arlington, his parents drop us off then they go to their hotel.
Andre and I have more burgers on the Quarterdeck patio. Beneath the buzzing florescent tube, he looks ashen, eyes sunken.
WHEN I wake at night, I am in my ger in Dalanzadgad in southern Mongolia. Flying roaches strafe my face. The only thing I can do is pull the infested blanket over my scalp and feel the bedbugs bite the fresh skin. Plumes of sand look snowblue and cast rolling moonshadows across the far, curved wall; and across all my jarred specimens, Stipa borysthenica, Kalidium gracile, Digitalis lanata, Olgoi-khorkhoi, and the rest; and all my books, filled with lies. I listen to the grit pepper the canvas.
I do not know when the homeless boy will step from the gloom again. When he does, I ask, Where have you been?
He wipes the drool from his moonlit, slackjawwed lip and says sweetly, Roaming the earth and going back and forth through it. He tells me to go into the Gobi without water. I cannot remember my Chuang Tsu. I try very hard but cannot remember a word.
When I truly wake, I am in my bed in the clean hotel suite in Arlington.
I stand and walk to the bathroom, legs like rubber. The linoleum feels cool underfoot. I splash water on my face.
Inside the medicine cabinet: prescription bottles of Prozac, Zymprexa, Paxil, Xanax, Depakote, Elavil, Valium, and Trazodone, Disney Band-Aides, a marijuana joint laced with liquid animal tranquilizer, no aspirin, and three freestanding Percocets.
Most of the names on the prescription bottles I do not recognize. We inherited the suite from other medevacuees before us and they from those before them, like some ancient tribe. Generations of medevacuee ghosts watch me piss from their hiding places in the bathtub and sink.
I return to my bed. Outside, a ghostly blue glow over the National Cemetery. For an instant, I think the boy has followed me and am afraid. Then I realize it is some weird effect of the eternal flame at Kennedy’s grave.
Oh John Fitzgerald, you were fucking everything that sashayed when your back wasn’t out, and in establishing the Peace Corps, you enabled us to cast ourselves from the mother tree like seeds into the void, and in so doing secured your place as a man of hope in this sad world.
I hear the sporadic rush of cars on the interstate. The hum of the air-conditioner. No other sounds.
In the morning, Andre’s parents visit to say goodbye. He has breakfast with them early then they and the sheepdog are gone.
ONCE, ELIAS pulled me aside in a bar in the Sukbaatar District of Ulaanbaatar to ask earnestly: What does everybody say about me?
I looked at him. He held a bachelor’s in philosophy from UW-Madison and once declared Sartre correct about everything. When he drank, he spoke of wrestling for the university team and how he planned to follow his father into the field of law. He wore the rugby jersey of a British team he had heard of once.
Nobody cares for you, I admitted. It would be the last time I saw his head intact.
SO YOU’RE going to keep it a secret, then?
Outside, particles slapped the panes.
Don’t worry about it, Abi said. Your life of crime will remain virtually unaffected, except for the crushing guilt.
I turned and looked at her. Sandy hair. Light freckles clustered at her cheeks and sporadically down her untanned breasts.
You really want to know? She drew on the cigarette. You, she said. And Elias. But that wasn’t-
I’m going to throw up. I was already feeling kinda sh-
And somebody else. But-
Somebody else? How do you even have time to teach your classes, Abi? I was braced with one hand against the wall now. A sensation that in a living man might be termed sorrow.
What can I say, Trizzle? Your skills are fair to middlin, at best.
That’s crazy talk. I’m fantastic. Somebody, as in a Mongol? Do I know him?
Why? What’re you going to do, nerd him to death?
I don’t really care, I lied. But a fella deserves to know.
It’s… confusing. She swept her hand. Il marche parmi eux, mais n’est pas l’un d’eux, or something. I forget how it goes.
‘He walks among them, but not….’ That doesn’t make sense.
Just get out.
On my way out, I slipped one of her packs of L&M brand cigarettes into my pocket.
The door clicked shut behind me gently, because I am not one for fits of anger.
Down the hall then down the dim stairwell. The wind caught the outer door and pinned it open with a warbling clang. Grit swirled all around, peppering the exposed skin of my face and hands, and actually stung. I pinched my shirt then pulled it over my nose and shielded my eyes with the crook of my other arm.
The buildings of Dalanzadgad were fading in the surges, which were growing ever denser. I would’ve been more concerned if I didn’t have only four blocks to go until my ger in the poorest district at the outskirts of the city. I missed my turn, so I cut down an alley, increasing my pace. A handicapped girl shambled in the opposite direction. She wore a ragged, hooded del like some wayward acolyte. We turned our heads and watched each other pass.
THE SAND became a boiling sea. Now it whipped in smokelike snarls all around. Formed two masses like sailing ships that passed on both sides. This trip had taken too long. The initial spike of adrenaline hit when I realized that I’d overshot the ger and had wandered into the desert. That frigid instant you realize a mistake is a grievous mistake. Oddly, I thought I heard timber creaking and sails snapping and waves lapping from far away. Again pulled my sleeves over the skin of my hands, being lashed raw. Then I froze as the three-masted sailing ships veered apart and spat smaller, oared craft toward the vortex. Then a shadow denser than the rest fell upon me, and I ran to dodge the keel of a third ship.
Headlong into the howling wind, I came upon a rise.
Mind reeling from arkhi and disbelief and the onset of fever, and through teary eyes, I watched the smaller craft hit the beach and disgorge infantry. Some in plumed, conical helms, all in thick coats, all coalesced from the dust.
Especially since my ancestor governed at heaven’s command, innumerable countries from afar disputed our power and slighted our virtue. The first shot was a whistling signal arrow from the defenders to respectfully denote the bravery of such brazen invaders, as form dictates, and at this the Mongols laughed raucously and ordered the Chinese and Korean auxiliaries ahead. The defenders were still mustering behind flat, rectangular shields. Dense volleys of arrows began from both sides. Gongs sounded. Drums beat the rhythm of my heart. Goryeo rendered thanks for my ceasefire and for restoring their land and people when I ascended the throne. A strange, human chain disembarked onto shore to be pushed before the invaders, and an outraged roar rose from the Japanese positions as they realized these were the women of Tsushima and Iki islands, who’d been pierced through the palms and a rope threaded through. The Japanese archers paused at this merciless human shield. Such insult was unfathomable. Then trebuchet-launched gunpowder bombs, a science they’d never seen before, tore shrapnel through their ranks in eruptions of flesh and scattered scale. Horses reared. Screams from the dying. Our relation is feudatory like father and son. We think you already know this.
Then the wicker shields parted and a detachment of samurai poured forth. The cavalry in elaborate, lacquered yoroi armor, the infantry at their flanks in simpler do-maru. We think all countries belong to one family. How are we in the right, unless we comprehend this? The samurai captain on the lead horse trailed a silk bow fastening his cuirass and a billowing banner. He drew his naginata, then lofted the blade above the kuwagata of his helm.
For an instant, he regarded the hundreds of ships closing upon this beachhead, and the first enemy cavalry landing in their scaled lamellar armor, and he regretted that he would be slain before he could reach such worthier opponents. He vaulted the hostages then crashed into the Mongol ranks, and the first crisscrossing halberds and spears pierced the flesh of his horse.
Nobody would wish to resort to arms.
The tenth lunar month of the eleventh year of Bunei.
THE CORRIDORS of Peace Corps headquarters on K Street are oddly desolate even at midday like a front business for the mob.
I hear from the Uzbekistan team girl that Andre has been sent home. He had an incident in the waiting room of the Bethesda trauma specialist’s office and Peace Corps promptly fired him, she explains. ‘Separated from service’ is the lexicon.
Andre was angry because the shrink had missed their last appointment but instead had reported to K Street that Andre skipped it. This sort of thing Peace Corps takes very seriously. Now at the reschedule, Andre had been waiting a long time. He was beginning to think the shrink had blown him off again. Then a man walked in with his young son. The man sat down and the son climbed in his lap. The boy looked at Andre and began to cry. The boy sobbed on and on and the father made no effort to quiet him or take him from the lobby. Andre was subjected to the full force of the continuous wailing, the tone fluctuating and broken only for gulps for air. Then he leapt up and had the incident which got him separated from service. This is all I know.
Now I wonder illogically if the son looked like a homeless boy of my acquaintance.
Then the girl tells me the Schaumburg girl from the Ethiopia team is threatening to go to the morning talk shows if Peace Corps does not reinstate her.
Later the head nurse calls me into her office. She looks at me for a long time without speaking. I feel no need to be the first to speak. All I see in the window behind her is sky and flat clouds.
People are saying you’re talking, she finally says. I advise you to cooperate. You were exposed to the blood tea?
What do you mean?
She sighs. I have a brother who owns a newspaper in Anchorage, she says. She looks at me and shakes her head. If you cooperate, I can get you a job there. Maybe you can write about… agriculture?
I make one last genuine effort to comprehend this drama. I look her directly in the eyes and ask, For the love of God, what the hell are you talking about? Abi and Elias?
Have it your way, she says. She rises from behind the desk with a syringe. We need some more blood, she says.
I watch as this strange woman sinks the needle into my arm. If she wanted to, she could inject me with air right now, and if the embolism lodged in my cardiac muscle, would cause a heart attack.
So I return to the hotel, enter the suite, and Andre’s backpack and duffel bag are gone. It is true. They have sent him home to Sioux City. The bureaucracy sprang so quickly I wonder if they had been waiting for any excuse, in anticipation of a potential lawsuit. It was a ridiculously hardass thing to do to someone who had seen what he had. It occurs to me they will do the same to me once it can be established on paper that I am fit to travel. It does not matter. I do not care.
He forgot one of his books, on Jiu-Jitsu, on the couch. I look at it, at the fabric chairs, the TV, and the long window that overlooks I-395.
After everything I have seen and done, after the deaths and the Giardia, my only friend is gone and I am just one man standing alone in a hotel suite amidst a city of millions.
Andre left a note on the glass endtable. I pick it up.
It reads: Capt-- We are infected infectious infecting.
I envision what he looked like writing the note, his backpack and duffel packed. He must have been sad at the anticlimax of it all. I remember what it was like in the hotel the weeks before he arrived, with just the Californian. The Californian’s friends from the Morocco team are professional shirkers and they are not really wounded. One of those girls showed us her tits while we were smoking up. I don’t know why. One of her small, brown nipples was pierced.
I turn and walk out. I exit the hotel, then cross the walkway, and traverse the shadow of the USA Today towers. I walk to the Metro station then ride the train into the city. The White House is on Pennsylvania Avenue behind a green lawn and a tall black fence. I look at it and feel nothing.
Down the hill, a theater with an old-fashioned marquee is playing Rent. Outside the theater, hippy chicks sit crosslegged in a circle smoking cigarettes. Their hair is shampooed and mussed, spiked and braided like neo-tribeswomen, and they are pretty. I walk toward the Washington Monument. Sweat worms down my face.
I duck into a deli. A dry-erase board advertises a ‘$5 Promise Keeper Box Lunch Special’. I do not know what a Promise Keeper is, but I order the special anyway and a Coca Cola. Outside, at a metal mesh patio table, I open the little cardboard box. Inside is a tiny turkey sandwich and a bag of chips. It does not taste good.
I continue toward the monument.
I begin to hear the babble of a crowd and it intensifies closer to the National Mall. The Washington Monument is surrounded by men. Tens of thousands of men turning pink beneath the hot sun. A rolling ocean of humans flooding the plaza. More or less they all look like copies of the same man. Bald or receding hairlines, some hidden by Promise Keeper ball caps. Bellies slung over waistbands. The smells of sunshine and body odor everywhere. A garbled megaphone voice preaches to them. It calls them to give up pornography. The men cheer at intervals, a roar that begins far away then sweeps back to me in a wave.
I stand outside sawhorse barricades and watch for a while. A group of them approaches me. Suddenly they shout, We love Jesus! Yes we do! We love Jesus, how bout you? I blink in disbelief. They are very close to me but do not seem to notice me. A group on the other side of the barricades turns and returns the chant.
For one clear instant, I want to hurt them all. Or, more realistically, the ones in the immediate area– all the mayhem I can inflict before getting away. Punctured lungs hissing froth. Opening slices of sunburnt vessels like hams, drooping polyps of gelatinous fat, while they chant of their suicidal Savior. But I lack the tools. No knife. No rifle. I am not strong enough to use just my hands.
I realize only meaningless man-law forbids the curbing of the human disease. You probably think I am bad. But do not rule out that someday you will feel the same. I say it is likely.
Eventually it is too hard to stand there so I leave.
They are all walking dead anyway.
TWO NIGHTS after the sandstorm, the homeless boy stepped from the gloom toward the side of my bed. He lifted a china teacup with both hands then sipped staidly. Then stared and regarded my lashed flesh. Moonshadows scrolled across his lesioned face like a current.
If you don’t do it, I’ll take you home with me behind the sun, he said serenely. I’ll drive thorns through your eyelids. His voice sounded like waves lapping. At your deepest, most secret wounds, I shall strike with terrible wrath.
You act like it is of any consequence, he added. You know there were dead-ends in your evolution, Homo erectus, Neanderthalensis. What makes you think Homo sapiens is any different? He pressed his eyes shut and his smile curled rubbery past his ears to his forehead.
I was very sick, this was certain.
THE METRO slams through the tunnel, accelerating. The staticy voice ticks off the station names followed by a chime.
In Mongolia, the Giardia kept me from retaining water. The amoebae progressed from colonies to establish a thriving civilization in my intestinal walls. I would drink a sip of water and moments later would be so sick that I would vomit. The Giardia went untreated for days then weeks. The inside of me felt scraped out. I could feel the life beginning to slip from me.
This dehydration was unfathomable. I had thought of drowning, fighting not to inhale then the cold weight of the water inside. I had envisioned death by gunshot, the split-second resistance of flesh and bone followed by a piercing. Death by explosion. Falling. Hanging. But nothing as alien as this.
I wonder about truly dying. Does it feel like freedom, like renting your first apartment? Is it like running through the Illinois prairie of my youth, arms wide, the sun warm on your back?
At the hotel, I do not go inside. If the Californian is there, I do not want to watch him staring at ESPN, slowly malfunctioning.
The sun is almost gone and the air is cooling. Around the side lot, up the concrete steps to the walkway. My hand slides along the high sidewall. The wall is made of fused concrete sections. Each section must weigh a ton. I stop before the shattered ketchup bottle. The pulp is black and nauseating and reminds me of something else.
I look down at the blurred traffic. The smell of tar and heated tire rubber wafts off the interstate. All the cars filled with people heading to somewhere else. I imagine one of them is a taxi from the airport racing my girl to me. Everywhere, apartment towers.
I remember Andre when he saw what they had done to Elias. How he shook his head, half-disbelieving, half-disgusted that anybody could let such a fate befall them. We came upon the body shortly after it was done. We were the only two to step forward from the gathering crowd.
Andre examined Elias’s teeth jutting from the black pulp. His shirt was torn. One of the attackers had used it to clean the blade. I remember both of us purposefully not examining his groin because amongst the piss stain there was a strange wound, vaguely feminine. The oft-touted winning record on the wrestling team at Madison had apparently failed him. Andre knelt and examined the symbols scraped across sternum and both hairless pectorals, the grooves still wet but drying into blackish greenish purplish discolorations like snakeskin. The symbols were the cursive swirls of the old Mongol script which had originated in a howling primordial waste and which the Russians had sought to cut from the culture like a cancer. Neither of us knew precisely what it said.
But I think it meant, ‘Blood’.
Days later, I would read the autopsy report.
Then one of the other foreigners in the crowd asked, Where’s that one blonde girl… Abi?
Did anybody see anything? Andre asked the crowd. Some of the Mongols looked away.
Then Andre looked into the Khentii Mountains that cradle Ulaanbaatar and stated loudly that he hoped the Chinese would invade. He said he hoped Chinese bombs would cleanse all Mongol life from the steppe.
I asked, Was- was Abi with him?
Mongolia was roaches on your wallpaper and the smell of greasy frying mutton. Mongolia was rashes from contaminated water. Fevers. It was lesioned orphans surviving the winters by the warmth of decaying sewage. It was desperate students who thought I was saving them by teaching them my language of ad slogans and torts. It was everything a hunter and everything hunted. Using my hands to collate greenhouse inventories, then later using those same fingers to turn on the Stravinsky CD, then sliding them into the tight, shaved, aromatic cunt of a girl whose name sounded like singsong. It was praying to multi-eyed Lamist demons no professor had ever taught me. Cities that foreshow the end of the world. It was the trailing whistle of the Trans-Siberian railroad, the only moving thing on that lonely contoured moonlit oceanscape abandoned even by the wolves. It was rows of Thalidomide babies’ remorseless skulls. Two nightclubbers on October Street beset by a swarm of marauding, arkhi-drunk satyrs who were, in fact, off-duty tsagda, and the girl was Abi and they halfheartedly defiled what had not been a particularly well-guarded treasure, and her perfumed, aerobicized arms pinned over her head and all her pluck and assertiveness doing her no good as she was laid out like some surgical experiment. In truth, they treated her more reverently than one of their own. Then some of them ran Elias down and treated him with prejudice because he had proven himself a coward.
Mongolia was nights so absolutely still they were a tangible weight on your skin. Stars like tracer fire across the void. It lives now in my blood.
Myself and I think several of the other American men including Andre spoke valiantly there of avenging the deaths. There was little risk of arrest unless you were captured during a crime and even then.
I found myself wondering if Elias screamed how he was always the first to be offended if anyone in word or deed was insensitive to the Mongol, as they cut out his pineal gland.
I wondered, in his dying panic – that mechanical survival instinct frenzied like cold spiders and him tasting it for the first time, his nerves uncomprehending the unrelenting touch of these stonefaced men who strangely held no fear of his father’s influence – if he cited to them Wisconsin statute on homicide.
I asked around and Chuluu agreed to broker me a stamped Russian Kalashnikov for thirty-two thousand tugriks and the 7.62 millimeter hollow-points for eighty per. Later he showed me how to use it, and – aside from the retainer chuck sticking when trying to release the receiver cover – it was childishly simple.
In the end, Andre was not a killer, and I ceased to care and was motivated by different things then. First I did not care about Elias, then I did not care about either of them. I tried not to care. I tried so hard not to care. Thoughts washing away into the river.
I do not think there is any way to accurately emphasize to you how little I care now. I do not care about my student in Dalanzadgad who cooked for me her only vegetable, an extravagant, imported bell pepper, so my chicken – another unprecedented luxury – could have some spice. I do not care about the toddlers, literally toddlers, reeking of shit who swarmed me as I walked toward the most expensive hotel in town to spend an outrageous fifty cents on a cup of coffee. I looked around to see where their parents were, then realized they had none. I do not care about the centuries-old epidemic of Mongol mothers unintentionally suffocating their children when swaddling them against the cold, because they do not comprehend the human respiratory system. I do not care if your family suffered hardships in generations past and I find you ridiculous if you expect me to.
After a while, I came to realize that of course I did not care about these two overeducated vessels who signed up for some storybook adventure without the capacity to defend themselves, then were too stupid to comprehend how much danger they were in.
I do not care about you and I do not care about me.
May no God above care about us. May He shine no light upon us.
If this is to be an honest confession, and one wherein you might come around to my way of thinking, see that my life is likely no different than yours, I must admit: I did think of a single spermatozoon – notoriously incompetent, according to family legend – penetrating a moonlike ovum.
I had passed beyond things by then. But truly this was the spark used to ignite my evolution.
If there was any mass revenge had, it was in the colonizing of Mongol wives and daughters. Sometimes, no joke, they were taken in pairs. Clark in Ulaanbaatar claimed in all seriousness to have once had three at the same time. Sometimes I wonder if there are any blue or green-eyed Peace Corps hybrids destined for the shelter of Ulaanbaatar sewers. A First Worlder could fuck like a rockstar in Mongolia, albeit one who is determined to contract HIV. But for some inexplicable reason, I held in my heart some clemency for the heathen in that regard, and so a different parasite got me.
As for the specific revenge had, in the following weeks, the tsagda in question disappeared, as if they’d winked out of existence. Twice, poison was employed, condemning the perpetrator to eternal, vast dishonor.
My understanding is no trace of these men has ever been seen again, with one exception. A single, jawless skull discovered by Italian paleontologists in a lonely, limestone cave in the Gobi. 43° 34′ 13″ north, 104° 25′ 34″ east. Too compact to be mistaken for that of an earlier hominid, it lay beneath Paleolithic fingerpaintings of eyes, zigzags, and flying deer, and amid fragments of stelae. Later study concluded that the strange marks on the cranium suggested some profound ritual abuse, perhaps a human sacrifice.
Now, the clouds and jet contrails converge somewhere beyond the apartment towers and the Watergate and I think this is all a memory best to forget. I want a burger at the Quarterdeck.
HE WHISPERED how her torment would be endless. How the Queen would lay eggs like hundreds of tiny eyes, and the larvae would erupt through the soft flesh of those ripe breasts. He also told of other, worse things.
What would I have to do? I choked, teary.
Hakata Bay. Kamikaze, the homeless boy answered in a whisper. And I do apologize for my vulgar threats. Now I can see that those were unnecessary. He was smiling again. He leaned, then pressed two fingers through my forehead. Our relation is feudatory like father and son.
And when thyself with shining foot shall pass. Among the Guests starscattered on the grass…
A QUICK knock at the door of the suite. Then I hear the scrape of a cardkey in the lock. The tiny green lightbulb winks and the door opens.
The duo wear all black. Except for this, the boy is your standard-issue hippy granola American wannabe Rasta. He has a goatee, freeflowing sideburns, and wooly hair in dreadlocks. His pupils are fiercely dilated. The girl is short with straight brown hair and heavy mascara. Her eyes are pensive behind the thick-rimmed glasses of an intellectual. Like maybe she was once the hottest girl in Honors Lit but then went wicked.
So we’re your new roomies, she says. Who’re you?
Alex Storey the Third, but call me Trey.
Trey Storey? the boy says. Is that like French? Chez Storey? He pronounces Storey like Stor-ee-uh, in the caricature of a French accent.
Uh-uh. I shake my head. As far as I know, it’s as American as Ted Bundy.
Ted Bundy? He looks at the girl then smiles big. I like this guy, he says.
The girl holds out her hand to shake. I’m Camilla.
When Camilla holds out her hand, her sleeve falls back, revealing a web of old scars beginning at the wrist and with two perfect, charred divots of cigarette burns. Like someone had grafted a strip of an old maniac’s limb to the underside of her smooth young arm. I glimpse a scar smiley face and pentagram. Not registering that I care or even notice, I shake her hand. Her grip is delicate, skin tight, soft, dry.
What team you from?
I step aside. They enter and pile their backpacks and suitcases on the carpet. The door clicks shut behind them. Rasta produces a bottle of San Pellegrino then spends a while twisting the cap on purpose while Camilla holds eye contact with me. Bob Marley glances at her and wants her but will never have her. I shouldn’t judge– she’s out of my league too. She lights a cigarette with a quick snap of a steel Zippo. Rasta drinks then wipes his mouth with the back of his hand.
You seem like the sort of guy who would appreciate this, Trey, he says. So I’m going to let you in on a little secret. Camilla and I learned things in the Carpathians. The fabric of his T-shirt folds and I glimpse the pink mat of scars beneath the crewneck. They’re trying to kill us all, you know?
We think we learned things, Camilla corrects him. She turns and looks away. You can never be sure, she murmurs. Her pants are very tight and I see the slope of the backs of her thin thighs, and this has always been my favorite part of a girl. Something stirs inside me.
Right, Rasta says. We think we learned things. Special forgotten things. Ways to get powers. Capital-P Powers.
We can share them with you, if you like. There’s a tea called Sânge you should try, Camilla says.
Camilla. Of Homo sapiens. Hominidae, Primates, Mammalia. New subspecies, approximately two hundred thousand years old, origins unclear, data incomplete. Beta predators. Design vulnerabilities: Spine, eyes, carotid, femoral, genitalia. She is obviously postmenarchal. Hidden estrus. Indicators suggest peak fertility.
Sânge, it looks like blood, she adds, staring at me again, and leaks smoke from her lips and nostrils.
Source quale achieved, October 4th, 1997.
And then things get sick.