/ Language: English / Genre:prose_contemporary,

Mortals

Norman Rush

The greatly anticipated new novel by Norman Rush—whose first novel, Mating, won the National Book Award and was everywhere acclaimed—is his richest work yet. It is at once a political adventure, a social comedy, and a passionate triangle. It is set in the 1990s in Botswana—the African country Rush has indelibly made his own fictional territory. Mortals chronicles the misadventures of three ex-pat Americans: Ray Finch, a contract CIA agent, operating undercover as an English instructor in a private school, who is setting out on perhaps his most difficult assignment; his beautiful but slightly foolish and disaffected wife, Iris, with whom he is obsessively in love; and Davis Morel, an iconoclastic black holistic physician, who is on a personal mission to “lift the yoke of Christian belief from Africa.” The passions of these three entangle them with a local populist leader, Samuel Kerekang, whose purposes are grotesquely misconstrued by the CIA, fixated as the agency is on the astonishing collapse of world socialism and the simultaneous, paradoxical triumph of radical black nationalism in South Africa, Botswana’s neighbor. And when a small but violent insurrection erupts in the wild northern part of the country, inspired by Kerekang but stoked by the erotic and political intrigues of the American trio—the outcome is explosive and often explosively funny. Along the way, there are many pleasures. Letters from Ray’s brilliantly hostile brother and Iris’s woebegone sister provide a running commentary on contemporary life in America. Africa and Africans are powerfully evoked, and the expatriate scene is cheerfully skewered. Through lives lived ardently in an unforgiving land, Mortals examines with wit and insight the dilemmas of power, religion, rebellion, and contending versions of liberation and love. It is a study of a marriage over time, and a man’s struggle to find his way when his private and public worlds are shifting. It is Norman Rush’s most commanding work. Amazon.com Review Surely someone has already pointed out the irony of the surname Rush for a writer who can devote a long paragraph to uneven paving tiles. Mortals—the follow-up to Norman Rush’s National Book Award-winning Mating—is a complex, unhurried tour de force; the beautifully rendered story of the end of a marriage. Ray and Iris Finch are white American expatriates in Botswana. A school principal and Milton scholar, Ray is also a contract agent for the CIA. But Ray’s new boss doesn’t want to see the gorgeous reports into which Finch has channeled all the talent and ambition that might otherwise have gone into poetry. He is asked to submit only his notes. This is clearly a demotion, and it occurs at the same moment that Ray’s adored wife begins to develop feelings for her doctor, a charismatic black American with dangerous political ideas. Like many brilliant novels, Mortals has an Achilles heel. The book is too long by as much as 200 pages. Those pages aren’t without interest, and if—like the author—you find the narrative voice of this novel compelling in itself, you will not mind the lengthy anecdotes, hair-splitting, and digressions that Rush indulges in. Other readers may do a little judicious skimming in the second half of the book and still experience the pleasures of this masterful and psychologically acute novel. —Regina Marler From Publishers Weekly From the beginning, the tone of Rush’s eagerly awaited new novel is edgy and febrile-a harbinger of the unsettling events that will ensue. Ray Finch, a Milton scholar who teaches in a small secondary school in Botswana during the 1990s, is having an identity crisis. After many years as an undercover CIA agent, he has lost his emotional equilibrium, and he’s strung out with suspicion and fear. Is his adored wife, Iris, on the verge of an affair? What’s with Iris’s warm relationship with the brother Ray despises-gay, witty Rex? How long can Ray suppress his growing disillusionment with the agency’s arrogant and ruthless methods? When Ray’s chief sends him into the interior to hunt down the idealistic leader of a fledgling rebellion, Ray’s fears transmogrify into living nightmares, and the novel, already a textured, erotic portrait of a disintegrating marriage and a society in flux, becomes a political thriller infused with violence. Ray is acutely aware of the cultural dissonance introduced by Western society. According to Iris’s lover, a black American doctor, Christianity has wrecked Africa; the AIDS epidemic threatens another kind of destruction; and idealistic attempts at reform are doomed to failure (the Denoons, from Rush’s prize-winning novel, Mating, show up here, their crusading ardor much diminished). The decadent excesses of rich Americans compared with the disciplined simplicity of life in Botswana add an element of satire. Rush’s attempts to meld political reality with domestic tragicomedy occasionally make the narrative unwieldy, and suspense is sometimes fractured during the action sequences in the desert as Ray’s inner turmoil spins into tortured mental riffs. Still, the richness of Rush’s vision, and its stringent moral clarity, sweep the reader into his brilliantly observed world. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

Norman Rush

MORTALS

A novel

For my Muse and Critic, with gratitude for the last ten years of extraordinary forbearance, creative impatience, unfailing love.

Elsa, you are unique.

And for Isis, Angus, Monica, and Jason, beloved people.

Map

I. UNREST

1. Paradise

At least whatever was wrong was recent, Ray kept telling himself, he realized. Because he’d just done it again, turning in to Kgari Close, seeing his house ahead of him, their house. Whatever was going on with Iris was different from what had gone on in earlier episodes, minor episodes coming under the heading of adjusting to Africa. This was worse because what was going on was so hard to read. He needed to keep in mind that knowing something was going wrong at an early point was always half the battle. And he knew how to stop things in their tracks. In fact that was his field, or one of them. Anyway, he was home. He loved this house.

He paused at his gate. All the houses on the close, in fact all the houses in the extension, were identical, but, for Africa, sumptuous. They were Type III houses built by the government for allocation to the upper civil service and significant expatriates like agency heads and chiefs of mission. The rooms were giant, as Iris had put it when they moved in. Throughout the extension the properties were walled and gated on the street side and separated internally from one another by wire-mesh perimeter fencing that had to be constantly monitored and kept in repair because there was a network of footpaths through the area that the Batswana insisted on using to get from Bontleng or the squatter settlements to their day jobs or for visits with friends or family living in the servants’ quarters each Type III house came with. The quarters were cubicles set well apart from the main houses, which had possibly been a mistake because it made monitoring the flux of lodgers and visitors that much harder. If the quarters had been connected to the main houses there might be less thousand clowns activity in them, although you’d lose yet another piece of your own privacy. The perimeter fences were constantly developing holes so that the paths could keep functioning as they had before the extension was built, and it was a fact that their African neighbors were consistently more lax than the expatriates who lived there about keeping the wire fences fixed up.

The houses stood on generous plots and there was nothing wrong with a Type III house. They were single-story cinderblock oblongs faced with cement stucco. Their house was salt-white inside and out. Every third house in the extension was painted tan. The floors were poured concrete. He’d had to push Iris into the house the first time they inspected it because she thought the floors were wet, they were waxed and buffed to such an insane lustre. They had the best plot on Kgari Close, the largest, at the apex of the horseshoe the close made. They had six rooms.

He would admit that their moderne type furniture was on the ungainly and garish side. It was from South Africa. It seemed to be made for very large human beings. On the other hand it was provided free by the government of Botswana. Their bed was firm, and was vast. The corrugated iron roof, painted red to suggest terracotta tile, was a mistake, but only in the hottest part of the year, like now, when it converted the unshaded parts of the house into ovens, to which the answer was the airconditioners they had in their bedroom and living room, at least, at opposite ends of the house, except that unfortunately Iris saw herself as acquiring virtue by abstaining from using them exactly when the justification for using them was greatest. She always denied her attitude had anything to do with solidarity with Dimakatso and the other servants in the neighborhood out in their hot cubicles or with the un-airconditioned population in general, but he thought otherwise. She claimed it was because the airconditioners made too much noise for her. She was very sensitive to noise. Also she could be willful. For example, everything in the house could be locked up—regular closets, linen closets, cupboards, cabinets. The assumption was that you were going to be stolen from. The drill everywhere else was that the maid came to you to get the key when something had to be procured, and brought the key back to you afterward. But Iris kept everything unlocked even though their first maid had complained about it because she was worried that if anything went missing she’d be blamed. So nothing was locked, which was fine, she always did what she wanted. What was wrong now? He was tired of it.

Sometimes the yardman opened the gate, but usually it was the watchman, who came on duty at five. He overlapped the yardman’s tour by half an hour or so, but the yardman could be anywhere, doing anything, including napping someplace. The watchman would normally be at his post under the thorn tree to the right of the gate, sitting on a camp stool and having a cup of Joko tea and eating the very decent leftovers Iris provided—a chop, chicken thighs, and the sweets without which no meal is complete, to a Motswana. On weekends it could happen that there wasn’t much for lunch and he would think about the procession of chops and drumsticks that had gone out the kitchen door to Fikile that week, but he’d never complained about it. The watchman was coming. Ray liked Fikile, a short, energetic man in his forties. He wore the military jacket and service cap the Waygard Company supplied, but with them he wore heavy black woolen dress slacks too long for him and rolled up into tubes at his ankles. His ankles were bare. He was wearing shoes so cheap the leather of the vamp gathered up like the neck of a sack where the laces were drawn tight. They exchanged greetings and Fikile opened the gate. Ray walked into the yard. It was possible Fikile was illiterate. When he’d first come to work for them he’d always seemed to have reading matter with him, and then Ray had noticed that it was the same worn copy of Dikgang that they were seeing day after day. Then he had stopped bringing anything at all to read. Ray’s theory was that having the newspaper with him had been for the purpose of making a good impression and that now that Fikile knew they liked him and were going to keep him he was excused from having to pretend he could read. His English was minimal. Naturally Iris wanted to do something, but she felt blocked because to ask him if in fact he could read or not, after he’d clearly gone out of his way to give the impression he could, might insult him. Ray suspected that behind her agitation over Fikile was a short story she’d broken her heart reading in which one of the wretched of the earth is tricked into thinking he can learn to read by staring at a mystical diagram and repeating a nonsense mantra he has paid some charlatan his last nickel for. And to hand Fikile some piece of reading matter of their own, in Setswana or English, would seem like a test. Iris seemed to want her fiction to be excruciating. But that was the way she was and he was sorry he’d asked, when she’d given up right away on something light he’d recommended, probably Tom Sharpe, Isn’t it excruciating enough for you? He was always on the lookout for decent books for her, but being in Africa made it difficult and she made it difficult because she was cursed with good literary taste. She knew good writing from bad.

Here they had everything. He looked around. There were two discs of grayish struggling lawn flanking the flagstone path to the house where it diverged from the driveway leading to the garage. They were being kept alive by hand-watering. Someday the drought would be over and they could use the hosepipe again. Except for flowerbeds and the grass areas, the yard was bare red sand textured like a Holland rusk. The sand was raked every day in deliberate, sinuous patterns. He liked that. There were five palm trees spaced around the house, which he liked except when dead fronds dropped and banged on the roof at all hours. He loved his neighbors, and especially his immediate neighbors, for their lack of interest in him. One was the widow of the leader of an out-of-power Zambian political faction the Botswana government was partial to. Mrs. Timono was an actively furtive person. His other immediate neighbor, the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Education, was never at home. It was nice that no one had ever wondered, at least in his presence, why someone who was supposed to only be the head of the English Department at St. James College had been assigned housing in Kgari Close. He thought that was because the housing allocation process was known to be mysterious, and also simply because they’d been there so long. And he had been careful to let it be understood around that they were paying a serious premium for the house, which they could manage because Iris had received a small inheritance, lalala.

It was fun to put one of their uncomfortable metal lawn chairs in the center of one of the microlawns and sit there in the imperfect, lacy shade of the thorn trees. The trunks of the trees in the yard were properly lime-washed to protect them from termites, except for the palms, which had some natural resistance. There was a crate by the wall to stand on in the event something interesting seemed to be going on in the street. His wall was pink. He even liked the street itself. He liked the broad, clean, faintly convex roadway and the astringent odor given off by the gum trees planted along it. If he’d kept on teaching in the U.S. they might well have ended up in a university town someplace in the Southwest that looked pretty much like this part of Gaborone.

It always made him happy when the gate clicked shut behind him. Paradise was from the Persian for walled garden, probably the first fact anybody tackling Milton learns.

He thought, I ask them, What do you think the word paradise means? and they say various things. Their definitions of paradise are so modest: They reveal themselves: They begin to think about it: Odd that nobody in Gaborone knows what paradise means except me and my students and Iris. He lingered on the stoop. It was time to go in. If he waited Iris might stop whatever she was doing and come to let him in. If he waited the entire lower sky to the west would turn burnt orange. Ray liked working in the heat, being conscious of it. It was tonic for him, for some reason. Fikile was wondering why he wasn’t going in, by now. You get a slight continuous feeling of virtue from working in the heat, on a level with wearing wristweights all day, he thought. He should go in. The best heat was now, in December. The west was solid orange and the peak of the sky was apple green. Woodsmoke drifting from cooking fires in Bontleng and Old Naledi would color the air for the next couple of hours, fading in and out, never overpowering, more a perfume, to him. Fikile would start toward him in a minute if he didn’t go in. I would have been nothing in America, Ray thought. When he imagined what he might have been if they hadn’t come to Africa it was painful. Not that Iris would credit any scenario in which his qualities went unused and unrewarded. She adhered to the great man theory of marriage. She loved him. Coming to Africa had been essential, but he had to be alone in knowing it and knowing why. That was the deal. It was unfair that something was going wrong with her just at the moment you might say all the moving parts in the machinery of his life were in order. He could walk to work. His health was fine, his weight was perfect. He thought, I love Africa, but not like the idiots who come over here and say Boy! Women with mountains of sticks on their heads. Look, an ostrich crossing the road!

Nothing is more useless than dwelling on grievances, he reminded himself, feeling himself about to twitch in that direction. He’d earned the right to some satisfaction. The easy part of his life had begun unannounced like a dream two years ago and he had a right to enjoy it. No one could know about it, obviously, but he was living in a state of triumph, and had been ever since Russia and all its works blew apart overnight. Before that he had been part of a war. What he was in now was more like a parade. Of course nobody knew who he was, except for Iris who had to know generally. She had no details. But when somebody wrote The Decline and Fall of the Russian Empire and Everything Connected with It he would be there between the lines. He couldn’t generate the right metaphor for amazing 1989. He had an image of something like a metal claw sunk into half the planet suddenly disarticulating, but that was a weak image. Or it could be like this, he thought: You have a goliath of an enemy dressed in armor about to smite you who sits down suddenly and looks faint and when you open up his armor you find only his face is normal, the rest is sickly, mummified, and then he dies in front of you and it’s all over.

This moment was what Iris was suddenly taking away.

The event was too huge for any image he had been able to come up with. It would take someone as great as Milton to come up with the appropriate image right off the bat. He felt he had no time to think, lately. Iris was full of mental homework for him to do that he didn’t want to do, such as answering the question of why they had been so attracted to one another when they met—but it had to be aside from the purely physical reasons she knew he was going to overemphasize.

He stood in the foyer. No one was around. He heard the kitchen door close. That was Dimakatso leaving for the day.

He entered the chill bronze gloom of the living room, where the airconditioner was laboring for his benefit, obviously, since no one else was on hand and the room looked as though no one had made use of it that day. He walked over to the main double window. The louvers of the blinds were tilted downward, almost to the closed position. All the windows in the house were barred and tightly screened. He was fanatical about the screens. There was malaria nearby. He was the force behind both of them continuing to take chloroquine. Iris got worse headaches from the chloroquine than he did, so he understood why she resisted him. There was still no one.

But I’m fine, he thought, trying not to relive a moment from the walk home that had made him feel fragile. Near the school was a rundown property whose occupants kept a goat. The goat had run up purposively to the fence as Ray came by and for an instant Ray had thought something monstrous was happening, because the goat’s tongue seemed to be a foot long. He’d been frightened until he’d realized that it was only a goat eating a kneesock. Iris could be asleep. He would look for her, softly.

2. Iris

Ray moved silently through the house, coming to the shut door of Iris’s workroom, her study. He knew everything about her study, every detail. He kept silent.

She was in there, at her worktable, doing something with papers, airletters, probably. Three times recently he had come to the door in silence and been privileged to hear her reading aloud to herself from letters sent by her sister or, once, his brother. Privileged was the only word for the way he had felt. Obviously, reading aloud was a sign of loneliness. He couldn’t deny that. She animated her correspondents when she read aloud, bringing them to her. She read with feeling, theatricality, even. The transom over the door was always in the open position. He wanted to hear her read aloud again. There was something rare about it.

Yesterday she had gotten sunburned. He could hear that she was intermittently picking up a sponge or cloth from a bowl of ice, wringing it out, and touching it to her face.

Storage dominated the small room. Metal filing cabinets came to chest height along three walls and were topped with a double tier of uniform cardboard cartons, each carton marked with a code number. The one break in the tiers of boxes was utilized to house a portable phonograph and behind it a tight rank of longplaying record albums. A postal scale stood on top of the block of albums. There was no decoration on the exposed white upper walls or anywhere in the room, and no rug or mat on the maroon linoleum tiles of the floor. A copy of the International Herald Tribune folded twice would be aligned with the upper right-hand corner of the table. Through the transom came a remnant scent of cleanser.

Her room was hot and dim. There was no table lamp. If Iris found something she wanted to read closely in a letter, she would slant the sheet to catch the dying light from outside. There was one double window, and the short side of her worktable was pushed to the wall directly underneath it. The wings of the window were normally cranked out to their maximum extension. She would be sitting with her left side to the screened and barred view of the servants’ quarters fifty feet away. An arbor supporting a system of dead vines framed her view. On the tabletop, in addition to the newspaper, was a dust-hooded bulky typewriter set to one side and a tray of office necessities, like ballpoint pens, Wite-Out, type cleaner, and postage.

As he’d hoped she would, she began to read aloud.

“We are house-sitting in Sausalito for a public relations couple (People of the Fib) vacationing in Lappland. I should say ‘estate-sitting.’ It’s going to be a long three weeks. The man I’m with, Joel, I chose for this because he was verbal looking. He really isn’t verbal. People around here are being extremely social toward us. This is an area with many children deformed by utter wealth. In the next house we heard a child screaming because a swimming pool, which they have, isn’t enough. He wants them to get a water bloom (fountainlike thing). He is on strike and won’t go into the water. We heard his mother try to explain that water blooms are just trick things to make people satisfied when all they can have is (lowclass) aboveground pools, whereas they have this splendid in-ground pool. But he won’t go in the water. Sausalito would be a good place for you to adjust to the fact, when you come back (and you are going to come back), that you now rather often see vanity in the faces of young children. I mean of the permanent, adult sort, not the fleeting kind any child gets when he or she figures out that he or she got the best Xmas present in his or her circle of friends that year. You see it more and more, and in children of both sexes. I feel I must prepare you. And it’s not only in Marin County. By the way, isn’t my handwriting more appropriate now? You complained that I was writing too bigly for airletters and sort of cheating you of information. But that is my natural handwriting and look how small I’m making it for you herewith.

“There are many hazards in this place of wealth. This morning Joel came out of the bathroom scowling and saying ‘Ow, I just burned my ass on the towel warmer.’ Joel is normally very silent, except when he hurts himself. I think I deserve someone more verbal than he.

“I myself live a very moral life, of my own sort. I try to live as though there’s never anything good on television. That’s why I get so much more done in my waking hours, which is a necessity because I’m self-employed. I am thinking of starting a new religion for the self-employed. It would be based on the never-anything-good-on-TV premise and would have as its main sin not returning telephone calls. I’m out of a job, incidentally, in a de facto way. I was working for a patter service, an outfit that mass-produces clever lines for politicians and celebrities to pretend they thought of themselves. I was doing pretty well with them and then I just turned noir and then went dry. I tried to produce things the rabid right could make use of. One was ‘Homebodies are Somebodies.’ The service thought I was being mocking. I think I got in a rut out of rage at the Roman Catholic Church. Everything I thought of was quasi-antireligious, which nobody is buying these days. Here’s a discard: ‘Aside from that, Mrs. Iscariot, did your husband enjoy supper?’

“Here’s a little tip for when you return: NEVER ask professional people whose children are probably out of college a while what their children are doing, or even how they are doing. The chances are overwhelmingly high that their children are dysfunctional. And you can be sure that if a child is doing anything that suggests some degree of coping THIS WILL BE VOUCHSAFED TO YOU. Last night a proud father was bragging that his son was working as a sommelier. He was telling EVERYONE.

“That’s all for now. My love to you. You belong in America. Rex.”

She turned to an earlier letter.

“Nothing good is happening. My commode runneth over. We went to a thing of French chamber music, and how boring was it? So boring I decided to occupy myself by making up an imaginary program of the works of the widely unknown French composer M. Prépuce Joli. First on the program was his Ratatata Cantata (drum corps and Vienna Boys’ Choir). Then a piano work the composer wrote in Italy, the Polonaise Bolognaise. Then his Valse Gauche (Waltz for the Left Foot). Then his majestic Hymne Interminable. And finally his rather depressing Marche Inutile. Then I fell asleep.”

The reading stopped. She must have realized he was there.

3. Iris and Rex

Here I am,” Ray said, and waited for the scrape of chair feet on the linoleum. Do not touch the door, he instructed himself. He wanted to know if she had locked it. Occasionally, these days, she did. There was a knob-controlled bolt lock on her side of the door that operated quietly, so that it was hard to hear the bolt being retracted. He stilled himself. This was her room of her own and the door could be locked if she wanted and that was fine. If something should happen to her in there when the door was locked, he could break in, so there was nothing to worry about. She was taking her time. She liked referring to her room as her den, lately. She needed a decent worklight on her table but it was clear she was going to stick to her claim that all she needed was the ceiling light, despite the fact that she was on record saying that she hated fluorescent light and that it was like gray dust. She was putting something away.

She was stubborn. She could call her cell anything she liked, den included, but the truth was it wasn’t a room of her own in the full sense. She could only accept a room all for herself if it was actively in use for some other purpose as well. That was obviously why she was still finding things to box up and store in there. Which was unnecessary because there was plenty of space in the garage. It had been his idea for her to take one of the side rooms for herself, and now she used it all the time. He was going to put a circulating fan in there, and she could take it and put it in a box and seal it up and put a number on the box if she wanted to. But he was going to put a fan in there. He could do the same thing with a table lamp. He thought. No, it was bright dust she compared fluorescent light to. And the linoleum was ugly, it was the color of raw liver and had sunwelts in it. He could get her a reed mat at Botswanacraft. She was coming to the door.

He stood against the wall opposite her door, listening. There was no indication the door had been locked. It opened smoothly and she came out to embrace him.

It never changed for him, seeing her again after a day’s separation, or even less. He felt a flowing, objectless gratitude so strong it weakened him. He wanted her touch. It was permanent with him. She put her hands on him and slipped one hand through the unbuttoned top of his shirt. She was wearing a plain white sundress and she was barefoot. The shape of her heavy hair against the light and the scent of it as he put his face into her hair were perfections, were absolute things. He was forty-eight. She was thirty-eight. A pleasure he had was catching flashes of surprise in people’s expressions when she told her age, which she was always truthful about. He often had the satisfaction of seeing people look at him, obviously wondering what it was about him that they weren’t seeing that made it reasonable for a woman of this quality to be with him, be his. He had always looked his exact age. And he also liked seeing them being given pause by someone at her level of physical beauty dealing with people so much more nicely than she should be, on their past experience of great beauties, which she was, which she was. These were instantaneous moments, but real. She was a democrat, a spiritual democrat. And then with women, and gay men too, sometimes, he would get the moment when they tried subtly to ascertain if they could possibly be right in their first impression that Iris was wearing hardly any makeup. There was a way they widened their eyes briefly and then focused again. Iris wore next to no makeup.

He wanted the touch of her breath on his throat. When they embraced after being separate that was what he wanted first.

“You are so beautiful,” she said.

“So say we all,” he said, being wry.

A line came to him, I am the mirror you breathe on. It wasn’t quite right, though. If he wrote poetry what he would want would be a line that united holding a mirror up to the mouth and nose of a particular beloved to see if she was still alive with the mirror being the fixed register of her personal beauty. Could the line be I am the mirror your breath is for? He thought. No because it’s slightly sinister. No because it’s stupid. This was why genius would be so handy if you had it. Iris had no real appreciation of how beautiful she was. She was sealed off from that by her past, complications in her past, and he lacked the genius to strike through and say Look what you are! Look! and have her believe it.

Her hair was black and shining. She wore it centrally parted, with the wings caught together in a heavy shell clip low on the nape of her neck. He put his hands into her hair. The top of her head came to just under his eyes. Her immaculate part bisected an oval of highlights at her crown. Africa was too hot for hair this long, but she knew he loved it that way. She was almost a type. Euro-patrician would be the type, although her eyebrows, which were straight, like dashes, contradicted it. She wouldn’t tweeze her eyebrows into arcs. People often presumed she was French. Her face was too graphic and lively for the type, also. And that was another thing he enjoyed witnessing, the slight shock registering when people met her for the first time and she was absolutely normal toward them and not fixed in the modes of underlying vanity or distance the culture had taught them would go with a presence like hers. He moved his hands to her back, under the broad straps of her sundress. Her nose was of the essence of the type. You could easily forget that it was a biological organ. Also it was euro-patrician that she flared her nostrils when she got incensed over something. She was getting too much sun. Her teeth were ideally white and almost childishly small. Her gray eyes were perfect, or their axis was, the tilt slightly upward from the root of her nose. The line She makes the female face seem nude was also not quite right and was also from the days when she’d inspired him briefly to wrench himself toward poetry, got part of what he felt and part of why he needed to protect her. Her underchin was taut. Age seemed to be touching her in only two spots—her mid-throat, in the form of a single fine line across it, and just under the corners of her mouth, in the form of incipient softness.

“Look how you dig me,” she said.

“I think someone could see us here,” he said.

“Not unless they put their face against the screen.” But she closed the door to her room.

Her voice was another thing that went against her type, because it was too clear and strong or unregulated, sometimes. Her clowning went against it, too.

She pressed against him. He moved her away, saying “May I?” and pulling the yoke of her dress out so that he could look down at her small, plump breasts. They disagreed about her breasts, but she was wrong. She had never nursed. They had no children. Small breasts are best for the long haul. Even if it was nobody’s fault that there were no children he felt guilty because not having them had left her perfect for him. Their sex had zeal in it. He didn’t mean zeal, he meant something else. Their life together was erotic in a longitudinal way, he meant. The erotic was always there, not sporadically there in little segments set aside. At least that was the way it was for him, and unless it was an incredible act, it was that way for her too. But why should it be an act?

“Are you up to something?” she asked, and then fell against him, ending the episode.

Nobody knows who I am, he thought.

They were together in the kitchen. He was being companionable while she got the food onto the table. The lights were on in Dimakatso’s quarters. Ray had a feeling the meal tonight might be vegetarian. They seemed to be drifting that way, which was ironic in a country with the healthiest, best-tasting grass-fed and cheapest beef in the entire world. Botswana beef had an odd taste. It was sweet.

The light in the kitchen was a trial for both of them. The room was lit by a fluorescent donut that belonged in an industrial museum. The house was all-electric. The fluorescent fixture emitted a fizzing sound from time to time that suggested it was about to malfunction. It would capture their attention and then the sound would quit and life would go on.

Iris said, “Everything spoils so fast in Africa, I hate it.” She made a face as she unscrewed the lid of a mayonnaise jar she’d just taken out of the refrigerator.

“This needs to go directly to the Mayo Clinic,” she said.

“Haha,” Ray said, stating the laugh to show he was less than amused.

She looked at him for an explanation.

God damn me, he thought.

“What do you mean by that Haha?”

“Nothing.”

“What, though?”

“Well I just wondered if you’re trying to be funnier than usual for my benefit. I mean are you trying to be funnier?

“You don’t have to, you know.” God damn me, he thought.

“What are you talking about, Ray?”

“I don’t know, I felt for a minute that maybe you were trying to mimic my brother. I mean he presents himself as such a wit. His letters to you are all about what a wit he is. What I’m saying is you don’t need to be more amusing than you already naturally are. You can relax. You don’t need to keep me amused.” He thought, Anyone would hate this, I have no right to do this, But I had years of his wit to live with and that was enough.

She stared at him. Plainly he had hurt her in several ways.

“Oh boy. I’m sorry. I think this is what it is. I think I’m aggravated about Rex’s sudden interest in writing to you all the time. His sudden desire to be your pen pal. You don’t know him. You may think he’s clever but there is, believe me, nothing there, he’s useless, he…”

She broke in. “Well, you remember the potato salad I made last week that you praised to high heaven?”

He was in the pantry, searching for a new jar of mayonnaise.

“Can you hear me? That salad was made with baked potatoes instead of boiled potatoes.”

Ray emerged from the pantry with the new jar of mayonnaise, which he handed to her.

“You mean now Rex is sending you recipes?”

“It isn’t a recipe just to comment on a potato salad he had at a fancy buffet somewhere. He thought it was delicious so he asked the host what there was about it, that’s all, and he passed that along, and you enjoyed it, I’m pointing out.”

Dinner tonight would be deviled eggs, rice salad, Swiss chard, and slices of grilled daikon radish with some indecipherable toppings on them.

“I’m careful about the sun,” she said.

If all was well he would normally pour his predinner Castle lager into a glass and drink it sitting in a chair, watching his wife cook, like James Joyce, sipping. He was restricting his alcohol intake. Tonight he drank from the can, standing up. She understood these things. She was no fool.

He was waiting for her in the living room. He was on the sofa, his feet up on their vast glass coffee table. Somebody had made an error in allocating this coffee table to them. Glass coffee tables like it were standard government issue for expatriate houses, but their table was larger than any he’d encountered anywhere, larger than the one in the ambassador’s residence. The stupidest thing in this house was the pleated ivory Naugahyde room divider mounted in the archway between the living room and the dining room, which they kept belted to one side, permanently out of use.

“Are you ever coming in here?” he asked loudly toward the back of the house. She had left the kitchen for the bathroom and closed the bathroom door. There had been a time when he’d occasionally helped her shave her legs. But that had been on the impractical side because of what it inexorably resulted in. It was too provocative. It had turned him into a nuisance rather than a help. Her hair was true black. She covered the little bit of gray that was coming in with a rinse. She could be a fountain of gray if she wanted, as far as he was concerned. He considered his own hair to be midpoint intermediate between blond and gray, a noncolor, which was fine. Here she was.

She was bringing in a pitcher, their best green glass pitcher, of iced bush tea. She sat it down and hauled the armchair around to her side of the coffee table, opposite him. She wasn’t going to be joining him on the hard, rouge-red sofa as she normally would. Her expression was less than open. It was too pleasant. He thought, Hell is that expression.

She sat down but immediately got up to correct the setting. She turned out the light in the dining room and adjusted the floor lamp at the end of the sofa to its dimmest setting. When they were relaxing in the evening they both liked there to be only one light source in the room, and a mild one. She sat opposite him, with some finality this time, put her feet up on the coffee table, and pushed the lap of her sundress down hard between her thighs as she settled.

“Would you mind if we talked about Rex?” she asked.

“God no, it’s fine.”

“You don’t mean it.”

“Oh God. Yes I do!”

“Really, what’s all this God this and God that all of a sudden if it’s so perfectly okay with you as a topic?”

“You don’t understand. I want to talk about the man because I know you love him. You love him! His wit, his… whatever you love in the man. You love his letters. You know nothing about him except what he prepares for you. Concocts for you. Well, go ahead, Iris.”

He could see her getting more composed by the second. She drew her feet off the coffee table. She sat up straighter.

“Look, I enjoy your brother. His letters.”

“But you don’t know the first thing about him. You have no framework for him. None.”

“You two never got along, I know that.”

“That isn’t quite right. First we did and then we didn’t, due to him.”

“Could you say what happened?”

“This is the way the week ends for me. Hell. Too bad I don’t drink scotch anymore.”

“Well, you can, as you know. Go to the bottle store and get something and come back and let me watch you drink yourself to a point where nothing you say makes sense. Where I ask a question and you take an hour to answer it simply because you’re contemplating what the best possible answer would be, naturally, and I deserve only the best, you’re only being sagacious, you ———.”

“Forget I said that. I’m sorry, Iris. Truly and no kidding.”

“All right.”

“Okay, when I say you don’t know anything about Rex let me be concrete. Here’s what his favorite reply to something you asked him to do was—Nokay. That gives you a hint. Nokay, and he would look at you I guess in order to see whether you thought he’d said yes or no. I guess that was a moment he enjoyed.”

“That’s so trivial, Ray.”

“Maybe it is, but it’s indicative. He was unremitting with stuff like that. You know the song with the line The guy behind you won’t leave you alone? That’s what it was like. Or here, relate to this. He became a master at pronouncing disgusting or insulting words so that they sounded so much like an innocent word you couldn’t be sure whether you were being insulted or not. You had to concentrate when you didn’t feel like it. At mealtime, he might say, Oh this is excrement!, smiling, his facial expression all full of appreciation, making excrement sound like excellent. He would make it seem as though it was the fact that he was chewing something that was responsible for your misunderstanding what he was saying. Good evening, labia genital was a line he got away with because he said it so fast when he was the toastmaster at his senior dinner. Heil there, he used to say to a gym coach he hated. Some of his little pals tried to copy him but, not being so expert, they got caught out. He was relentless. Anyone could be the target, he was no respecter of persons, just so he could keep his game going. You can smile but you didn’t have to live with it. Our poor mother. Who was someone he loved, insofar as he loved anybody. But the poor woman. She liked to play the piano and sing for us in the evenings. He’d say Mom—he had this way of dragging the word out to make himself sound plaintive… Mom… can’t you play Old Fucks at Home for us? He’d use a fake breathless rapid-fire delivery for camouflage. I’ll think of more examples, now that you’ve got me started. And by the way he liked to make a big deal of my mother agreeing to play a couple of songs out of the Golden Treasury of Old Favorites, or whatever it was called, and he would excitedly go and inform my father about the treat we were all about to have, who of course had to pretend he loved it whenever she would do this. It was not a great experience. The woman was self-taught. So Rex would rush to wherever my father was, doing paperwork or reading his antiques magazines, and force him to come and listen. I say my father, but I mean our father, obviously. The more I look back on it the more harassed I can see my father was, in general. I’ve told you about his antiques business. The fiasco that was.”

Iris nodded.

“Oh, also for mealtimes… Is the soup dung yet? Or, This soup is really swill, for swell, obviously. But sometimes Rex wanted to be understood. Say we were having franks and beans for dinner, and I noticed that Rex was finding a lot of excuses to refer to what we were eating as frank and beans, so I asked him. Oh that was just because he had observed that my mother had only cut up one frankfurter for the whole dish, so the dish should be called frank and beans. So he was just being precise and in the process reminding all of us that the family was eating like the poor, yet again. He projected innocence but he kept everybody off balance in an unpleasant way. So, for him, everything was perfect. We were pretty frugal. The entrée we ate most when I was growing up was creamed tuna on toast, which I loved, in fact.”

“I could make that,” Iris said. “But no doubt she put butter in the cream sauce and that’s why it tasted so good.”

“Who knows? By the way, what is butter?”

She waited for him to resume.

He said, “Wait, I had something else about Rex that fits in here. Let me think for a second.

“I know what it was. Tell me this wasn’t diabolical. He goes to any kind of performance, the gamut, from school assemblies to recitals, what have you. What he loved to do and what you could count on him trying to do was to start a half-assed standing ovation whenever he could. He would stand up and begin clapping maniacally like someone overcome with the dance or the accordion solo or the talk or whatever. And then he would stare around in disappointment at the rest of the audience. And then he would subside, looking crushed on behalf of the performer. Sometimes he’d get a handful of other people to join him and the effect would be even worse. The point was to show that the audience didn’t really like the performer all that much, except for Rex. I hated to sit next to him at anything. And I’d grab his knee to try to force him to stay when I thought he was about to erupt. And of course if I left a bruise it’d be displayed later to my father. And I would be in the spot he loved me to be in. How could you explain using force against someone who had merely wanted to jump up in a moment of enthusiasm? He bruises very easily. You grab him with ordinary force and in fifteen minutes his skin looks like paisley.

“And Rex was always doing cartoons. One I remember showed a guy supposed to be me rushing downstairs his arms spread and shouting Dad’s dead! And sitting there in the living room with his back to the stairway, reading, this character who’s Rex, who says I’ll say!”

Iris said, “But didn’t you find any of this amusing, at all?”

Ray thought, This is a mistake: She thinks he’s funny: One person can destroy a family: You can destroy a family through the exercise of your sovereign wit, she doesn’t get it: I was his enemy, I was the traitor, I was in the Scouts, I was a traffic monitor…

“But all these things happened when you were still children. We’re talking about a child, here.”

“But not every child sets out to torment his family members to the brink of distraction. I didn’t. There was something wrong with him. He was younger than I, but he sure wasn’t following in my footsteps. In Rex you’re dealing with a person with an absolutely gargantuan ability to resent things. Such as that I was named after our father. Rex thought there was something unfair about it.”

“Oh, so were you Ray junior? I didn’t know that.”

“No, I wasn’t. I’m not. I was Ray, my father was Raymond, simple as that. But my brother’s sense of injustice was so exquisite he actually complained about the situation.”

“It can be sort of strange with children and names. I knew a family there were four girls in and their names were Ruby, Pearl, Opal, and Doreen.”

“Why do I think that sounds like something from Rex’s cabinet of stupid marvels?”

“It isn’t. It’s mine. They lived in our neighborhood in Seattle.”

“Maybe the parents couldn’t think of another mainstream precious stone to name the fourth girl after.”

“In case you’re interested, your brother is house-sitting in Marin County. Talking about names reminded me of what he said about children’s names around there. It seems the boys have lastname firstnames like Foster or Tuttle, like companies. The girls have romantic firstnames. He knows a little girl named Sunset and one named Autumn. He’s house-sitting with a new boyfriend. You’d enjoy his letters. You would.”

“Are you trying to convince me that I have no power to communicate with you whatsoever? Something critical is not coming across. I don’t know what it is that I’m leaving out. When he was tiny but old enough to be in the bathtub by himself what he loved to do when his hair was lathered with shampoo was twist up his hair into two horns. In itself it’s nothing. Like everything. This is nothing—he’d take a very fine crowquill pen and draw escaping pubic hair in bathing suit or underwear ads in my mother’s women’s magazines. Or axillary hair. But he would do it so faintly you might almost miss it. You notice the sexual angle here. He also drew fly vents on women’s panties. His favorite comeback when he was mad at you was Oh eat hair! I know I’m all over the map. But that’s because all this is pointing toward something that turned out to be ruinous for us, ruinous…”

She was pensive. “You mean something I know nothing about?”

“Right. Something I’ve never brought up, I guess partly because it has his trademark of making you seem stupid when you try to describe any event he precipitates. Everything reduces to Rex being an innocent surrounded by bullies and fools. But I promise I’ll tell you about it sometime. I have to gear up for it.”

It was evident to him that she wanted to hear about it now, but that because she loved him and could sense his upset she was going to let him postpone it. He had to postpone it. He needed to be at a lower emotional register before he began that story. Rex was fascinating her. It was revenge, more revenge on him. Of course all he was was friendly Rex keeping her cheered up in weird yet boring Botswana, as she would construe it. But the idea would be to disaffect her. Ray was absolutely certain about it. The point was to disaffect her in her African captivity.

Any second she was going to say he didn’t have to tell the story now if he couldn’t bear to. Why was she still so transparent? He remembered saying to her, at some point, You give everything away with your face and you need to learn to take a couple of beats before you judge something or commit yourself or confess you don’t know something. Look around, he’d said. Realize that sometimes you know more than you think you do, he’d said, so don’t be so immediate about confessing ignorance. He’d given examples of her being premature on matters he proved to her she knew something about many times. The line from her ear, down her neck, to the point where her shoulder was cut by the sundress strap, was an example of the bodily sublime, in this amber light. He hated the memorializing impulse, or rather what it meant that he was having it so often. He thought, Foreboding comes into your life in your forties, if you let it… comes into your thought like a stain, if you love your mate, especially: Abandon hope, all ye who enter a happy marriage… The foreboding getting stronger if you let it, like guys who take naked pictures of their wives, I understand it, poor bastards, Let me take a picture of your neck, your knee, your foot… She mocks me when I freeze in mid-act when she asks me something or says something, I freeze so I don’t miss a syllable, I can’t help it, “Close the refrigerator! You can listen to me and close the refrigerator at the same time,” “Come in or go out!”

She was about to speak. He could preempt. “I have one more classic Rex example.”

“But not the enormous one you were talking about?”

“No, but classic. Classic in the sense it shows how consummate he was as a breeder of disequilibrium. I’ll make it short.”

“You don’t have to.”

“I love you. The background to this is that my father had decided we should belong to a real church, the whole family should. This was after he was out of Ethical Culture for good, which is another obscure matter I wish I knew more about. Anyway, he wanted us to join a rather snooty Episcopal church in Piedmont. A Marxist interpretation of why he wanted us to join would be that membership would do him no harm when it came to his antiques business. He’d just opened the shop in Piedmont and it was near the church. And he was also interested in moving to a house over there. North Oakland, where we lived, was in the process of turning black. He wanted to sell our house. Rex hated going to church and he put up an argument, but my father was adamant. We had to get into the car and drive forty minutes to get over there, which added to the lack of enjoyment. I wasn’t crazy about going but I didn’t say that much. I was becoming a fatalist. We all had to go to church and that was it. Rex was eleven.

“Why are we using that pitcher of tea as something to look at? Let me get some glasses.”

“No, I will.” She did. They served themselves.

“So, one Sunday we went as usual and sat through everything… this was for services, not Sunday school… and got on line the way they expect you to after the service. You line up to shake hands with the priest.

“We got up to the priest and I noticed that my brother seemed to be wearing a large rustic homemade-looking wooden crucifix around his neck. That in itself was startling enough.

“But as he’s standing in front of the priest he does something completely astonishing.

“He eats the crucifix.

“He eats it! Or rather he crams it into his mouth and starts chewing it up. What he’d done was take two big pretzel sticks and tie them together with string to make a crucifix, and then he’d threaded it on a string and put it on and covered it with his suit jacket until the right moment came.

“He just… ate the crucifix, with a staring expression on his face.

“It looked demonic, of course. Eating it insanely, with chunks and crumbs falling out of his mouth. I suppose people just thought Rex was a crazy person, but there was an electric pall cast over everyone. My father was stunned. There was terrible misery over it when we got home but Rex said he’d only done it because he thought everybody would think it was funny. He was full of apologies. Another one of his talents was that he could weep on cue.

“So he got exactly the outcome he wanted. My father was too ashamed to ever go back there. He knew that whatever he did he was going to be the father of the kid who ate the crucifix. Brilliant.”

They sat in silence.

Iris asked, “Isn’t it funny that I never met your brother? What does he look like? Like you?”

“Ask him for a snapshot. But no. He’s bald, must be by now. Shorter than I am. He has a very small mouth. He had a trick he could do when he wanted to show that he was hearing something that was incredibly stupid. One of his subtle things. He could flatten his nose, sort of, and flare his nostrils out and make his upper lip puff out, shelve out. He knew it cracked me up. Also… well, he looked sort of feminine. His skin was very pale. These areas under his eyes got bluish when he was tired or sick. He resembled my mother’s side of the family. Big extremities, big feet, big limp hands that look like paddles when they’re lying in his lap. He had hips.”

“So you’re physical opposites.”

“One other thing, because I think maybe it had some occult effect on the way he turned out. He had rather prominent, almost Dracula eye-teeth. I’ve wondered if maybe he was swimming in a sea of negative associations that people have for prominent incisors, thanks to the movies, and maybe he adapted to that. I don’t know. It’s a theory. He got them ground down before he went off to college. It should have been done sooner. It was never discussed. He was an awkward person. He looked awkward.”

“So, pretty much, you’re physical opposites.”

I hope so, Ray thought. He felt that he didn’t really know how he looked, though, or how he ranked rather. There was no question about his weight. He was lean. Iris kept telling him that he was handsome, that he was beautiful. But he was forty-eight. You have such great legs, give me your legs and take mine, she would still say. She thought her thighs were too soft. He couldn’t convince her she was judging herself by some unreal standard. They had been married for seventeen years and statements made in the context of marriage about how the other looks were statements of a certain kind, except that in his case he was telling her the absolute truth. When he’d had to start wearing glasses she’d said he reminded her of the distinguished types they choose for display portraits in opticians’ windows that show how glasses make no difference in the attractiveness of the truly handsome. You look like what you are, you look like a scholar, she’d said. He was used to the bush shorts and shortsleeved shirts and kneesocks he had to wear in Africa, but he didn’t love wearing them. His arms were average. His legs were a far cry from the mighty instruments you could see walking up and down the mall. It had been a while since she’d said Your hair must be German because it’s thick, blond, and obedient. Now he was going gray. No, what she had actually said was You look like what you are, a scholar and a fine person. Then she had tacked on that he was beautiful.

She said, “We can postpone talking about the main event until another time. I appreciate you, Ray. You’re being very open. This has been your secret, really. I love you. I know you don’t enjoy talking about these things. About Rex. I do appreciate you.

“I wish you could love your brother.”

She had brought things to a close.

She pulled the lap of her skirt free and smoothed it out across her thighs. She began slowly inching the hem up, looking steadily at him.

“You seem to be a whore tonight,” he said.

“Always,” she said.

4. Thank God This Isn’t the Only Thing I Do

Sometimes Ray started his patter for the occasional groups of overseas educators who visited St. James by saying Welcome to the only completely circular campus in the known world. It was true, so far as he knew, but he had noticed that lately the rector was showing a clear preference for not having the school described primarily in terms of the ways in which it was very unlike what the visitors were used to. And there were so many ways in which it was very unlike. But it truly was interesting that when the All Saints Trust had gotten permission to build whatever it liked in the broad, rock-ridden depression in the raw bush west of the capital, somebody had chosen to lay out the grounds in the shape of the ancient Greek world-serpent eating its tail, which happened to be his own private metaphor for the educational process when he was feeling down. But there was no one still around from the founding days in the sixties who could say why it had been done. His guess was that it had been an attempt to cohere symbolically with the universal preference for the circular in Tswana culture, as in the kraals and huts. He liked to point out the circularity of St. James because it was interesting, but the place was so extensive that its circularity was only noticeable from the air. The circle had been filled in solidly with distracting features—nethouses, rondavels, ovaldavels, completely rectilinear ablution blocks, sports fields, a chapel in the form of a rondavel with a bell tower stuck onto it, fig tree groves, the piggery… The most southerly baobab in Africa grew on the grounds.

The four people in the group waiting for him to begin were obviously impressed with his office. He had his own oversized rondavel entirely to himself. They liked the zebra skin on the wall behind him and the jennet kaross covering a good deal of the floor. His desk chair was thronelike. This group was from Cyprus, two men and two women. They were very courteous. They spoke English, but hesitatingly. He had a circulating fan grinding out a breeze for them. It was trained directly at them and they were grateful. They had glanced uneasily up at a white spider pod the size of a doorknob clinging to the thatch directly above one of them. They probably liked, without knowing why, the pleasant dissonance between the associations they had for the primal versus the refined aspects of his office—the primal thatch smelling subtly like bread and the primal skins and the spider pod versus the refined glass-fronted bookcases and the orderly array of books and periodicals they displayed. When they were gone he would knock the spider’s nest down. The sad, comradely feeling he had for this group was real.

He began, “St. James College isn’t a college… nor is Moeding College in Otse a college, nor is the other one… Moeng College, in Moeng, of course. A college.” He heard himself sounding more British than usual. He’d just almost said And nor is. Sounding British happened to him at work if he didn’t watch himself. Four senior staff members and the rector were Brits.

“We’re a senior secondary school,” he said, and went on to explain that they might be considered a somewhat elite school because not all secondaries awarded the Cambridge certificate as they did. Beginning by saying St. James wasn’t a college always led to the temptation to tell about the Peace Corps volunteer teacher who’d taught for them for a year and then left after undergoing a breakdown and who in his terminal interview had said It looks like a bank but it isn’t a bank, It looks like a post office but it isn’t a post office, It looks like a restaurant but it isn’t a restaurant. That had been his explication of why he had never adjusted to Botswana. The discrepancy between what he thought institutions were supposed to be and what they were in Africa had been too much for him, among other things about the country. There were aspects of St. James that would fit into a litany about things not being what they seem. St. James was denominational but the All Saints Trust that sponsored it wasn’t a denomination. It was a peculiar institution. There were authentic religious involved in it, but a lot of the lay element in All Saints seemed to be ex–British military. The emissaries from the trust who came out to inspect every year all were. The trust was famously generous with bursaries in their schools in southern Africa, although he was picking up tremors and rumors that budget cuts were coming. Cuts would hurt. He would be all right. His position at St. James was good for as long as he wanted it. That had been arranged at a level far above the rector.

He handed out copies of the school brochure. There was a little conversation about the honors class he taught over at the university. They reported that Mr. Curwen the rector had told them how proud St. James was to have a scholar like him amidst their staff, a Miltonist! That was true. Curwen seemed genuinely glad he was there, culturally flattered, too, that an American seemed so interested in a poet he himself had been taught to revere but found unreadable. As the group left the office they could hardly miss the run of Milton Studies in which Ray’s two articles and four research notes were buried. It was displayed at eye level in the bookcase just to the right of the door.

The group was rising. They had been seated around a conference table set endwise against the front of his desk. The men were in coats and ties and the women in skirts and sleeveless blouses. The women’s forearms had left damp-prints in the finish of the table. He watched the damp-prints fade, annoyed because there was something he was forgetting to do. Curwen was outside, with an escort of Form Ten boys. One thing he had forgotten to mention was that the school was coeducational now, since a year ago. He heard Curwen’s enthusiasm.

At the last minute he remembered to present the cyclostyled handouts giving the last examination results for the school. He went out into the heat to watch them go, Curwen gesticulating. Curwen had put his robes on despite the fact that there were only four in this group. The man was endearing. They were headed for a tour of the ablution block.

Ray thought, How can he keep doing it?… But we all do and we all do it the same way, by not thinking about it. About half of the last graduating class at the university had failed to get placements with the government, which represented a severe public shock no one had gotten over. Batswana used the Boer term for the government of the day or reigning power, Domkrag, which meant lifting-jack. Some of us are doing our best, he thought, but Domkrag is broken, Domkrag isn’t working… But we do our best.

The other thing was to keep in mind what education was like not that far away, where the killing was still going on, Angola, students without limbs, from the land mines. He thought, Please raise your hands, Oh, sorry. He couldn’t think about it.

Thank God this isn’t the only thing I do, he thought.

5. Crimes by This Family of Finch

They were in bed together, naked under one sheet, sitting up and talking. It was late.

“I gather you want this to be about my brother again,” Ray said.

She nodded, and he said, “Fine, but before I forget, let me give you another example of his, what shall I call it? his drive to be irritating. This is the kind of thing he was always doing. He was continually annoying his classmates by acting like a completely innocent literalist in the way he pronounced their names. Two examples: A girl named Margot became Margott. And someone named Lloyd he called Luh-loyd, pronouncing both l’s. This is a small thing, but it’s Rex.”

“That sounds like someone who’s bored.”

“It was more than that. He got other people, other kids, to go along with it. That turns it into harassment. He had a claque. He created claques. Anyway.”

“By the way he’s starting up a new gay column. I think he said it’s going to be in a free newspaper. But he still gets paid.”

“His old columns weren’t that funny.”

“Yes they were. There were clever things in them.”

“Such as?”

“Come on, nobody can remember exactly what it was that made them laugh. But there were things. Joke definitions. One of them was, Man is the only animal that prefers brand-name items.”

“If that amuses you, okay. I think it’s routine. It’s patter.”

“And maybe he’ll get inspired and get more work with the patter service.”

“I thought he decided he was too far left for them.”

“You keep trying to say he’s so left. Why? He mocks everything. He thinks there is no left. In his old columns he even had a department called Life in the Afterleft. You want to think he’s so subversive. He makes fun of anyone. He makes fun of… that very famous… now I can’t remember his name. But he was famous in the sixties and went to France in 1968 during the student revolution and appeared at the Sorbonne at the height of everything and got up on the stage and shouted Le peuple au poivre! Rex makes fun of everybody.”

“He’s left. I know him.”

“You don’t know him now.”

“I know what he is. He’s culturally left.”

“I don’t even know what that means. I don’t think it means anything. You just let your animosity control you. I can’t stand it. I can’t stand it because I love you both.”

“Good luck loving Rex.”

“Please, Ray! All right. Let’s be calm. Now. All right, tell me about this event he precipitated when you were children that was so titanic and let me just listen. Start where we stopped the other night.”

“May I put on the airconditioning?”

“Sure, but then you’ll have to shout.”

“So obviously I won’t put the airconditioning on. But if you don’t mind I’ll just rinse my face before I get into this.”

Ray went into the bathroom. He cooled his face with a wet washcloth. He thought, This may be for the best… it might help… it may help us: It won’t, I may cut my throat, which might help.

“I adore you,” she said as he got back into bed.

“Thanks.”

“I do, Ray. And you’re gorgeous.”

“I am? Hm. May I call you angel-tits, then?”

“Stop that. But listen to this, before you begin. This is wonderful. The other day when we were talking about why we’re so attracted to each other…”

“Yes, the nonphysical reasons, if we could think of any. Yes indeed.”

“Don’t be so mocking. Anyway I realized something about you. This isn’t exactly nonphysical but I bet it had something to do with how I felt. What I realized is that you look like the actor who played Woodrow Wilson in that biographical movie they made about his life and I realize I have just uttered a redundancy, so don’t bother. But that was absolutely one of my favorite movies of all time. I saw it in high school and I thought it was wonderful. Woodrow Wilson, or the actor, rather, was extremely handsome in case you don’t know. The same actor played Wilson young and then older. I’m comparing you to the younger Wilson. Can that movie be as good as I remember?”

“I never saw it, but this is horrible news, isn’t it? You went for me because I reminded you of an authority figure you really loved? And I look like Woodrow Wilson? Didn’t he look like a bank president or a leading Presbyterian, something like that? I believe he looked very boring. Also wasn’t he a great failure, by any standard? War to end war and the League of Nations and all that? I’m not crazy about these associations, frankly.”

“He was one of the four great presidents. He tried.”

“Oh God and also in the end didn’t he turn into a vegetable and his wife was discovered to be running everything? I hate these associations.”

“Well, I can’t help it. I think it was one of the first big Technicolor movies. That can’t be right. I think it wasn’t a recent movie when I saw it. We saw it for social studies. Well. Sorry I brought it up.”

“I’m glad to know about this. And I have to report that I haven’t thought of anything other than your supernal beauty that originally knocked me out about you. I’m still trying. Something will come.”

“I don’t want to hear about my beauty as an explanation for everything.” She spoke seriously, but was half smiling.

“I know, I know. You forgot to say my supposed beauty, the way you usually do, by the way. Okay, no more.”

“You know we have this difficulty,” she said, still smiling.

“We do. I look like a movie star and you don’t and never did. Okay. That’s all on this subject. I’m sorry.”

They sighed heavily in unison, and with the same impulse, they joined in pulling the sheet up to their shoulders.

Ray began again. “We were living in North Oakland and my father wanted to move the family to Piedmont so he could be nearer his store. Where we were was still very white middle class but the writing was on the wall. Blacks were well established on the east side of East Fourteenth Street by then and a certain amount of panic selling was under way in the better neighborhoods. Probably he was just being prudent in wanting to move, but there was a problem. My mother was tepid to lukewarm about moving but Rex was absolutely determined against it, so when she saw how upset the idea made Rex she turned against it in solidarity with him, still wishywashily, though. My position was that I was happy to move.

“Our house on Kingsland was really a peach. A building contractor had built it for himself, so it was only the best. It was a big mock Tudor, parquet hardwood floors upstairs and downstairs, hilltop site. The house was on a very sizable triangular lot surrounded by a retaining wall. This was late fifties. Rex was in junior high and I was in high school. The house sat up very high and you looked east at Skyline Drive and then the hills that hadn’t been built on yet. There was a lot of open space in reach and a few vacant lots right in the neighborhood where kids could build forts and play nasty if they so chose.”

“What about friends, did you both have friends around there?”

“Rex did. My social life was based around school by that time. But yes, in fact he had a particular friend, as it developed. His friend Michael. He did not want to leave Michael behind.

“So there we were. Now let me see if I can remember exactly how this got started…

“We each had our own room, did I mention that? We were opposite each other on the second floor. My room you could walk into anytime. Rex was totally secretive and kept his room locked. He started out only keeping it locked when he was in it, and that was accepted. And then he had to have the right to keep it locked when he wasn’t in it and my mother would have to petition him to go in there for any reason. There was a battle royal before that was agreed to and he had to agree to let her look in from time to time, escorted by him, to see that he was keeping his room in order, before it was settled. But he got his way. Naturally I thought he was being ridiculous, but I was probably annoyed at the perquisites he was working out for himself that I was forbidden to have, just because of the way things had come about. I was hardly going to give him the satisfaction of seeing me copying his demands. I was the older one, after all.

“His secrecy annoyed me.

“I’m not sure of the exact order these next two items occurred in. First I should say that we were excessively frugal as a family, or we were supposed to be. My mother was the enforcer. Don’t use too much soap when you do the dishes… return the milk carton to the refrigerator immediately after you pour your milk… and so on. We got screamed at if we left the milk on the counter for ten seconds or if we drank our milk before we put the carton back. Always do that first. Don’t ruin things. Someone set a pot from the stove down on some new Formica and it left a semicircular scorch mark. She would have little seizures of agony every time she looked at it, for years. No one ever admitted doing it. In any case. Two things happened in some order or other. I was accused by my mother of using too much heavy duty aluminum foil when I wrapped leftovers up to store in the refrigerator. We were really kitchen slaves. I got good at it, or rather I got fast at it, so I could get out of there. She had just opened a new box of this foil and she discovered that some untoward amount of it was gone, so since I was the one who put things away most of the time I must be the guilty party. I said I was innocent, but no, I was slapdash, I rushed through things, I was guilty. I had to be. Now shortly after this, something strange was going on in Rex’s room. I was hearing sounds of strange typing. Very slow typing, you know, hunt and peck. Late at night, this was. And the typing had a banging quality, tinny.

“I figured there had to be a connection between the typing and the missing foil. I decided to find out what Rex was up to, and, to make a long story short, I went up on the roof when he was away and hung over the edge so I could look in his window, albeit upside down, and see what there was to see. And this was what he was doing. We had this old Remington that he’d appropriated and he had set the thing to stencil mode and he was typing out some imperishable text, obviously that was the point, on some of the aluminum foil he’d pinched. I couldn’t read it. But I did notice one other thing before my head filled up with blood, and that was a long, metal, screwtop canister photographers use, I guess about eighteen inches long. It was on his bed. Don’t ask me how I knew, but I knew it went with the imperishable text and that he was making a time capsule.

“So I was in possession of an interesting piece of information. What did I do with it?

“In my defense, remember that I was ticked off over the missing aluminum foil business.

“I decided I had to know what the subject of his document was.

“I couldn’t get into his room. Also I was bound by a certain protocol toward him that he had bullied the family into generating. I was never to touch him. Never ever to lay a hand on him for any reason. There had been some physical conflict between us, provoked by him, and of course I was in the wrong, being the older and bigger and wiser party, so we had all agreed I was never to touch him. Of course in a less well-regulated family I could have taken him by the throat and made him tell me what he was doing.”

Iris said, “You mean you were so certain that what he was doing was injurious to you or so nefarious in some way that you had to find out what it was. You couldn’t just let him go on with it, do whatever he was going to do with it, and forget about it. You couldn’t.”

“I don’t know why I couldn’t. I was convinced it was threatening.”

“This is vintage you. You become immovable. You’re still like that when you’re convinced for no reason that you’re right. The other night when I nudged you when you were snoring and…”

“I wasn’t, though.”

“May I finish? You were. You woke me up with it. I nudged you and you woke up furious and denied it and said… are you still denying this? I was under the impression you’d dropped this absurd… I can only call it a canard and I’m getting furious by the way all over again if this is still your position, that I had dreamed you were snoring? You meant it. You don’t take it back, right?”

“Iris, you won’t like to hear this but it is logically possible it happened that way. It is something that has happened before in human history, a person dreaming another person snored. Also the period when I was snoring is over with.”

“Oh, good point.”

“Look, you agree I ended that period of snoring.”

“Well, until then, you had. But all right, you ridiculous person.”

“I’m losing the thread. Okay. Lalala. Okay, so I had to find out what in hell this thing he was creating was.

“First I asked him. I wouldn’t say I menaced him, but I caught him on the stairs and blocked his way down. I was going to make him tell me. He got enraged. I didn’t tell him I’d actually peered into his room. I said I’d figured it out purely by the sounds coming from his room that he was typing something unusual and that he’d better tell me. Something for school, he said. I told him he was lying when he couldn’t say what, exactly, his school project was. It got extremely tense.

“He was murderous but he was in a forked stick because I wasn’t touching him and because he obviously didn’t want my mother drawn into this, if he could avoid it. Then I pretended to lose interest. I acted disgusted and made as if to get out of there, leave him alone. He shot upstairs to his room then, clearly with the idea of securing his time capsule and keeping it out of my hands by any means necessary. He was clearly terrified I would get hold of it.

“I spun around and as soon as I heard him get his door unlocked I shot up there with the idea of forcing my way in after him and seeing what I could see before he started screaming for help. I was in the grip of the moment. I don’t justify any of this. It was craziness.

“I did it. I pushed my way in just as he was practically falling across the typewriter to protect it and at the same time rolling this sheet of text down so that I couldn’t read it. He began screaming immediately. But I saw the title, all in caps, on the handwritten draft he was working from, which was CRIMES BY THIS FAMILY OF FINCH, and then our address and the date.

“Instantaneously my mother was there. It was clear I had violated the rules and was in his room against his wishes, so that was all she needed to know. I was ordered to go and sit in my father’s den until he got home. She wasn’t interested in any explanations from me. She liked to hit, I was afraid of her. She’d caught me in his room and that was sufficient. It was so stupid of her.”

“Why?”

“Because as soon as I was in Coventry he was free to bury his time capsule and cover his tracks. He did exactly what I would have done. At first, later, he claimed he’d thrown everything out, down a storm drain, destroyed it, when my father got around to questioning him. Hours later. Then, I don’t know what it was, but he didn’t stick to that position. Maybe it was just some instinct of defiance he couldn’t control, but he said that in fact he’d buried the thing on the property, or hidden it on the property, rather. I think he implied he’d buried it. You understand that when my father came home and questioned me I told him everything.

“And Rex was astounding. He realized how upset everyone was about it, but he was like a prisoner of war refusing to supply anything but his name, rank, and serial number. He would only confirm what we already knew. He acknowledged the title of the thing he’d written, but he refused to say what he meant by it and he refused to reveal what the document said. My mother was pathetic. She was trying to get him to say that it was a story he’d written. And that was the only other substantive thing he would say… that, no, everything was true that he’d written. It was all true.

“I was pretty dumbfounded myself. I couldn’t really imagine what this document was about. I thought maybe it was primarily calumnies against me, coming out of our terrible sibling situation. Or maybe it was a compilation of all Rex’s grievances against everybody in the family. The situation was a Rorschach for everybody, I guess. Something about it drove my father particularly insane. I couldn’t figure out, I still can’t, if the original idea had been for Rex to privately express his paranoid feelings and then to bury them and then get rid of them that way, without intending any of it to come to the attention of anybody in the family… that is, perform a totally private therapeutic act in the form of a childish plot to get the satisfaction of somebody far in the future finding this account and thinking badly about the Finches, Rex excluded. I couldn’t fathom it.

“It led to hell.

“I could feel it developing into hell that first evening. My father was in some way deeply wounded and maddened by this thing happening. My mother was frightened. I was horrified at what I’d wrought by bringing the whole thing to light in the first place. And Rex was becoming more obdurate by the minute. He had been given a role that was perfect for him. He was somehow able to play it as a free speech matter and take the position that what he had done was his private business. I had broken into his room. We were the ones who were acting insane, was Rex’s message. I think he even seemed to get smaller, more compact. He was afraid of what kind of punishment he might get. But inside he was overjoyed, I know.

“My father kept shouting out new scenarios of what Rex was damn well going to do and what was going to happen to him if he didn’t. He gave one deadline and then another deadline and so on. You have to look at it from his standpoint. Here he has an absolutely uncontrollable eleven- or twelve-year-old kid who has concocted some kind of slanderous document and secreted it someplace on the property. But he was also working himself up. There was something untoward about his intensity over this, and that got my mother and me more upset than we already were.

“And you have to keep in mind the family culture that made this so exquisite. Supposedly we were very against violence. We were liberals. My father was ex–Ethical Culture. No guns for toys, for us. That kind of thing. Don’t hit back in school. Hitting was stupid—except for her, of course. Let the bullies demean themselves by hitting you. That reminded me of the only thing I could think of that might be in any way considered a crime of the Finches. There had been hysteria during the last year of the war when my father’s draft category came up, and I had an inkling that he’d done something not quite right through a friend to keep from getting called up. This is the Second World War I’m talking about. But Rex was too young to know anything about that, if there was anything to know. On the other hand Rex was kind of a snoop. Maybe he knew something I had no clue about. He was definitely a sort of a snoop. And he was precocious. So there we were. It ended when Rex produced a coughing fit. He’d been crying, of course. He was asthmatic. It was a complete impasse, and we were all exhausted so we just stopped talking to one another and ate cornflakes for dinner. Except my father. He didn’t eat.”

Iris said, “You’re sweating. But please don’t blot yourself with the sheet. This story is very extreme. You’re upset.”

“I am. Let me get a towel. I’m perspiring. Put on the airconditioning for a few minutes. I’ll be right back.”

Iris attended to the airconditioner. Ray went again into the bathroom.

When they were back in bed, Ray said, “After all this time you still hold your palm over your shame when you walk around naked.”

“Only sometimes.”

“What governs when you do it versus when you don’t?”

“Search me. But I think I know why I did it just now.”

“Why?”

“I want to hear the rest of this story and I think I didn’t want to distract you.”

“But what about your breasts, which are twice as distracting?”

“Well, if I covered up everything it would have ended up calling even more attention to the, um, ensemble. I guess. Besides I don’t know if my breasts are twice as distracting as my shame. My breasts are not what they were. On the other hand my whatnot is exactly what it was and it was always very good at distracting you. But I think the discussion we’re having right now is unwise, I mean, on this subject matter.”

“It distinctly is. But your breasts are perfect. And that’s all I’ll say.”

“Let’s be wise. We’re talking.”

“Right.”

He waited. “Well, notice something about this situation Rex created. It was another manifestation of his genius in arranging events that are basically indescribable. Like eating the crucifix. Suppose my father had wanted to talk to a child specialist of some kind. Was he supposed to say that the problem he was having was that his son had written a criminal history of the family and buried it somewhere on the grounds? Impossible.

“So, dinner. We’re all emotionally ravaged. My father had been savage, emotionally. Not something any of us had ever seen. We all drag ourselves to bed, ostensibly. But a little while later I hear something and I go to my window and someone with a flashlight is out there—my father, digging. No, the digging was later. That first night he’d had the inspiration that Rex had pushed this canister into one of the drains set into our retaining wall. There were about twenty of these and he was out there probing them with a broomstick. It wasn’t a bad idea to check them. My father was out there for a long time. And no luck. It was the middle of the night.

“No, the digging was later. We had a big lot and only the parts close to the house were really landscaped. There was a patio on one side, the lawn and fish pond were on the other. But the bulk of the lot was given over to ground cover, ice plant and some other creeper that gives you purple flowers in the summer and attracts hordes of bees. The digging was sad because my father felt he could only do it at night, when he wouldn’t be seen by the neighbors. He was afraid to do it during daylight. And people would have wondered. He had never done any part of the yard work. We did it, Rex and I, what there was. Lawn mowing.

“And the digging was going on, of course, because Rex was still absolutely defiant. Rex knew this was going on in the middle of the night. How could he be so cruel? This went on for… at least a week. Maybe two weeks. My father sits down opposite Rex at breakfast, stares at him, tells him in a steely voice that today is the day Rex is going to tell him where the tube is. Then he changed it to saying Rex was, that day, going to bring the tube to him, and then it was leave the tube in his den… Rex was mute. He was mute a lot during this period.

“Then it was the gamut of punishments you’d expect. Cutting off his allowance, no playing with Michael, stay in the house all weekend, like that. But Rex kept doing the things he always did to earn his allowance, like cleaning up in the kitchen. He was even extra sprightly about it. Then there were threats to send him away to boarding school, which were absolutely pointless because we all knew there was no money for it. The store in Piedmont was on a knife edge.

“The next stage of this was really bad. It was brutal. My father turned his attention to the house. The tube had to be in the house somewhere. It’s a big house with lots of crawl spaces, a big attic, a big basement. He would come home from the store and change into work clothes and plunge into the business of rummaging around inside the walls upstairs, cursing, loud curses we could hear. He tore up Rex’s room like it was a prison shakedown. Rex was shocked, but I thought he’d asked for it. My mother got very protective of Rex at this point, was on his side again, and to tell you the truth I think my father never forgave her for that. That was one of the aftereffects. There were plenty.

“Next up, a campaign of kindness, fatherly kindness. This was a process of erasure and it fooled nobody. There would be kindness and then there would be an appeal for Rex to please turn the thing over, slipped in. Then the kindness would continue. Rex went along with acting his prior self. I mean, he was still the same nasty, intricate person he’d been, but he was willing to be civil.

“Before it ended there was one return to total terror. My father shook Rex and yelled into his face like a madman. It went on for a long time.

“What triggered this last resort to brute terror was a feint my father tried that didn’t work out. One evening he announced that he’d found the time capsule. Announced it triumphantly. He called it the crime capsule. He did his best to show that now all his worries were over. I think he also implied he hadn’t read what was in it, whatever that was, and that he was going to destroy the whole thing unread. All this was a crude trick to get Rex to go out and check to see if this was true. Rex did something cruel, being Rex, like slipping out after dark and fooling around near one of the storm drains near the corner, which caused my father to pounce and embarrass himself, fishing around on all fours and finding nothing. Rex had seen through the trick. We all had. It was pitiful.

“So then there was an all-day armageddon of threatening. I think he might have hurt Rex if my mother and I hadn’t been there. It took place all over the house. My mother and I stayed with them, wherever they went, so nothing would happen. I don’t know if Rex was trying to provoke my father into some damaging act or not. Maybe the secret point of the whole exercise was to drive my father into violence, proving that he was a hypocrite or a brute. I don’t know. He kept shaking Rex, hard. My mother intervened. Then it was just verbal for hours. My father had a very nasal voice when he was infuriated, pretty unattractive. And it was all fruitless.

“Then it was dropped. I guess I have to give my father credit for grasping that he had to accept defeat and let this go if we were going to continue as anything remotely resembling a happy family.

“But it was never the same. He took our house off the market. To be fair, I don’t know if this was because of the time capsule. Rex got to continue his friendship with his beloved Michael, until Michael’s parents interfered with that. Michael moved. We were somehow wrecked. I don’t know. The store didn’t work. He was conducting business for a long time from the house. The house filled up with antiques. It was like living in a warehouse and you had to explain to your friends. I think we all wanted to escape, after that.”

“I have many questions,” Iris said.

6. The Codukukwane Hotel

Ray wanted this to be quick. He had other things to do with what was left of his Saturday. This wasn’t his normal sort of work, anyway. He was filling in. He didn’t mind doing it but he wanted it over with quickly. It was a simple enough assignment. He was taking attendance, in essence.

He breathed on the front lenses of his binoculars, then wiped them clean with a tissue. He raised the binoculars and got a hard focus on the ridgeline of the low red hill above the donga where the Codukukwane Hotel dumped and occasionally burned its trash. His situation was perfect. His exit route back to the VW parked at the closest corner of the parking lot was a short straight line. He felt like reminding somebody that there were things he was very good at. This site was tricky. Here was a hotel stuck out all by itself in raw bush ten miles from Gaborone. The hotel proper, laid out flat against the road, was a thatched, one-story unpainted cement structure like a couple of boxcars set end to end. In its shadow, spaced irregularly around the back patio, were nine dank rondavels, or as the staff insisted on calling them, chalets. The site would be getting trickily active shortly.

His cover was perfect. The hotel was to his west. He was deep to the rear of it, behind a block of vacant utility sheds, backed by the main shed and nicely masked eastward by a bracket of clothesline loaded with freshly hung laundry, bed linen for the most part. I’m hidden, he thought. He liked being hidden, the moment, the act. He could admit it. Also he was well outside the fun zone developing around the patio and he should be long gone before the braai and the disco joy got too unrestrained. The hill he was studying was two hundred yards farther to his east. Parting the sheets anywhere gave him safe quick vantages of the rendezvous point his targets thought was so secluded, somewhere toward the end of the highest terrace on the hill, where it dipped and made a shallow pocket. The sun was where it should be, in their eyes instead of his. He loved Iris. She was on his mind too much. It was a problem. Being obsessed with someone you had been married to for seventeen years was probably a first. He needed her to recede a little, was all.

He scanned the red rock and parched brush below the hill ridge until he found the hollow brake of sickle bush he wanted. His group was there, assembling in the blaze of noon. He was supposed to confirm attendee identities, one in particular. But his eyes began to burn and interfere. He had an odd impulse. He knew this group was doomed to go nowhere. It was in the cards. And his stupid impulse was to let them know, so they could all do something else. They were known. Stupidly he wanted to tell them. He needed a pause, was all.

Ray paused. The thing to do was calm down and realize that the problem with his eyes was something local, from something local. He clenched his lids shut four times, slowly. There must be something in the vicinity he was missing. He could be reacting to something chemical in the laundry drying all around him, a residue, fumes. Otherwise it made no sense.

He got up. This was too much crouching. He moved to a different point in the line of sheets and crouched again. He was safe here for now. But drunks or guys who found the men’s occupied could conceivably wander down into his bailiwick for relief, later. Or a dog could materialize because there was no goddamned control over dogs in Botswana or any part of Africa that he was aware of, none, the idea was in Africa’s future.

He tried the binoculars again, but his eyes were still tearing. He put the glasses down, cocked his fists, and dug at his eyes with the backs of his wrists. Don’t forget how good for you bananas are, Iris had said to him at breakfast. The bananas were for potassium, but why had she said it that way? Was there an unstated annex on the order of Remember about bananas when I’m not here to remind you, that is, when I leave you? Stop it, he said to himself.

He thought he smelled smoke. Smoke would be comforting. He inhaled hard. Smoke could be responsible for his eye situation. For braais, the Tswana sometimes used morula wood, which he would be willing to bet was loaded with resins, a greasewood almost. Also, they might have jazzed up the pit fire by slopping kerosene into it, speaking of fumes. He must be swimming in irritants. Just then the kind of music he hated most began to jolt and blare from the patio, right when he needed to concentrate, naturally.

His eyes were streaming. If he could dredge up the funny side of this, very fast, that might be brilliant. That was a thought. Something was making this happen. If sadness of some kind had anything to do with it he should try to get down to the hilarious side that everything supposedly has. Not that sadness did. There was another reason he should try this, something he could almost remember, something he remembered feeling uncomfortable about when Iris mentioned it, which should remind him. He almost had it. He had it, Iris reading a clipping to him proving that if you force yourself to smile your brainwaves change after the fact, proving you’re happier no matter how rotten you felt when you started smiling, what shit, but true, apparently.

But what was something funny? It was like amateur theatricals, sticking his head out when he jerked these sheets back and forth. That was amusing. What else, lately? The goat eating the kneesock doesn’t count, he thought. But the panic had been real, when he’d thought the goat had a gargantuan tongue, and when he’d tried to formulate what the panic was all about, the answer seemed to be that it related to some fear of his that the world wanted to be abnormal, or rather was abnormal.

To hell with it, he was going to go home.

7. Doctor Morel

Another thing he could take pride in was this. To find out if something of interest to him had turned up in Customs, all he had to do was drive out to the airport mid-lunchtime on Tuesdays and Fridays, roll past the arrival/departures hall, and notice if a whitewashed cobblestone in the ornamental collar encircling one of the thorn trees shading the scatter of tables near the curry and pap kiosk had been displaced inwise enough to reveal a black daub on the stone adjoining. All his contact had to do was come out a little early for his platter of bangers and mealie, disarrange the landscaping a matter of millimeters with a nudge of his foot, and nudge everything back to normalcy later on. All Ray had to do was park, go up to the prefab kiosk, and commiserate with the poor woman who was baking to death inside it while he bought an orange Fanta from her. Then he would wander along the cyclone fence to the back gate of the Customs warehouse, always being careful to have in his hand an envelope or folded sheet of paper to suggest that he had legitimate business in Customs, which he often did, in connection with shipments of schoolbooks or supplies for St. James. Clearing schoolbooks through Customs was a chore he had volunteered for on the second day of his employment at the school.

He was proud of all his systems. He had five signal or drop arrangements in play around the city at the moment, all of them simplicity itself, and foolproof so far. The airport was an ideal nexus because it was such an active setting, usually so crowded. A lot of people drove out to the airport for lunch. The airport management had yet to figure out that concessionaires are supposed to charge more for food sold at the airport, not less. The curry was extremely cheap.

Today the black mark was showing, so he drew into the parking lot, parked, and locked his Beetle, not forgetting to take along his paperwork dummy, a kraft envelope.

A new and bigger airport was going up on a site farther from town, near Mmadinare. He would have to adapt. He preferred small airports, or was it just that he was so used to this one?… its homely khaki main building with the black, white, and blue national colors painted in stripes across the front above the window… the presentation of various national flags over the main entrance unchanged and untended since the day the flags were raised. He wondered if anyone had ever complained about the sunbleached, bedraggled condition of the flags? Probably not, since all of them were getting equal disrespect. He liked the faint permanent insult of kerosene in the air. From the kiosk, he looked out at a nondescript escarpment wavering in the distance behind the heat waves rising from the runway.

He bought a pine nut soda and drank half of it leaning against the railings around the Independence Monument, a boulder set in a bed of white pebbles and bearing an enameled representation of the national logo, a medley of black and white hands seemingly pulling in opposite directions on a quoit. I belong here, Ray thought.

He went around to the back of the Customs complex and waited. Victor would see him.

His man was hardly the only asset in the airport. Ray was pretty sure the British had their own contact in Customs, as they did in the Air Botswana office. The Russians had tried to line up someone in the control tower. He wasn’t quite sure how it was done, but the Americans, the Brits, and the Russians, at least, had regular and early access to the air passenger lists. Two other intelligence services had contacts in Immigration. The Chinese had assets in the maintenance staff. It can’t be helped, he thought, airports are of interest… it looks like an airport but…

He felt cold for a moment. A good idea was not to let the image of a society invisibly occupied at certain key points by people who aren’t what they purport to be get out of hand. And it was important not to forget the South Africans, who were in here somewhere.

His man, Victor Mfolwe, was an elder in the Zionist Christian Church and looked the part, in his gauntness, the gravity of his manner, and in his unvarying costume, an aged but immaculate black business suit with a Zed CC medal and swatch always pinned to the left lapel. All Ray’s payments to Victor, in South African rands at Victor’s request, were referred to by both of them as church donations. The Zed CC was an enigma.

The main body of the church was across the border in the Transvaal. It was well known that they had an accommodation with the South African government. But he had no reason to distrust Victor, who had been productive for him. He shook the gate to attract Victor’s attention. He meant to find out more about the Zed CC when he had the time.

Victor arrived, inwardly on fire over something, his eyes alive.

Ray was let in fumblingly. Normally Victor was deft and quick.

Ray couldn’t see any need to run, but they were going to, apparently. Victor never showed excitement, so this was puzzling.

The interior of the warehouse was divided into cagements that locked individually. The cage Victor had led them to was one of the larger ones. Again Victor was having difficulty addressing the combination lock. He stopped to dry his hands on the tails of the dustcoat he wore over his suit. The sides of the cage had been draped with blue tarpaulins and a worklight had been dropped over into the cage. They entered.

Victor closed them in, composed himself, and remembered that he had neglected to greet Ray.

“Dumela, rra,” he said.

“Dumela.”

“O tsogile jang?”

“Ke tsogile sentle, wena o tsogile jang?”

“Ke tsogile sentle.”

Victor made a slight involuntary hunching movement revealing his relief that the ritual exchange of greetings had been accomplished.

There were ten shipping cartons, the maximum size, all marked as containing personal effects. They were here because although they had originated as seat freight, the last leg of their transportation had been via air, from Durban.

Well thank God for the South Africans, Ray thought, they make it so easy for us, they probe into everything. Every carton had been opened and contemptuously and halfheartedly resealed. Stickers had been applied stating that the examination of the cartons had been undertaken for reasons of security. The South Africans hadn’t just sampled the shipment. For some reason they’d opened all ten boxes. That was interesting in itself. Why had they wanted to be so thorough? This kind of thing was so routine with the South Africans that the government of Botswana had given up protesting. It was time to get to work. What they were going to do was called, in the trade, canvassing.

“It is most bad, rra,” Victor said, presumably so bad that he had to hold up his hand to block Ray’s advance on the carton that had been pulled to the middle of the enclosure as the prime exhibit. The top flaps of the carton were standing upright.

Victor delicately extracted and gravely handed to Ray a framed art reproduction the size of a serving tray. The glass was webbed with fine cracks. Even before he was able to fully make it out, Ray knew he was being handed something wonderful, by which he meant promising in some unknown intuited way. Victor held the worklight up so that Ray could see what this was. Victor’s hand was shaking.

He loved his men. His private name for his string of informants was his catena, his chain. He loved them. At that moment he loved them all, but he loved Victor for being transfigured in this way and for finding something that he was sure, for no good reason, was going to be more than interesting. He was grateful and he was having these moments of gratitude lately a little more frequently than he was comfortable with, but in this case it was justified. He had a sense.

Of course, catena was an indulgence prompted by his lack of opportunity to make use of his little Latin and less Greek. Victor wanted him to react. He had more to show. The carton appeared to be solidly filled with books and papers. Victor had already made a little selection.

The oil painting reproduced was of a surreal subject, a body on a beach, a reverse mermaid, a figure with human female legs and genitals and the head and body of a fish. There was a suggestion that this chimera was pregnant. This was a quality reproduction. This must be obscene, Ray thought. He felt it was. The figure was lying on the beach and there were breakers in the background. There was a title label on the frame, reading Collective Invention. This was a Magritte. He had never seen it before. He knew who Magritte was, but this painting was unfamiliar. Victor wanted him to be upset. He wasn’t, but he showed distaste sufficient to release Victor to continue. The painting was a joke, of course. But it did point backward to a sensibility that was interesting and basically unpleasant. Why did the creature have to look pregnant? If the picture was meant to be hung in display, the Batswana would get a sort of bemused jolt out of it. There was something arrogant about it.

The heat in the warehouse was intense. There were no fans, nothing. Victor needs God if he’s going to work in here, he thought. Ray was sweating heavily. He would have to stop at home for a fresh shirt.

“We must be more fast, rra,” Victor said. “There are many many of this.” Victor was handing him books. “And this.”

Ray was looking at a thick trade paperback, The Ghost Dance: Origins of Religion, by Weston La Barre, self-evidently an attack on or deconstruction of religion from the standpoint of anthropology. The jacket comments confirmed that. There was a slip of paper inserted into the book. On it was an extract copied from the book’s epigraph, a quotation from Lucretius. It read… primum quod magnis doceo de rebus et artis religionum animum nodis exsolvere pergo deinde quod obscura de re tam lucida pango carmina… Beneath it, in pencil, was somebody’s translation, which read… I would teach of high matters and imaginings, and proceed to loose the mind from tight knots of religion. The translation could be improved on, Ray thought, but the point was clear.

There were ten copies of this item in the shipment, and the same number of another and more recent work by this same Weston La Barre, Shadow of Childhood: Neoteny and the Biology of Religion, this from a reputable publisher, the University of Oklahoma Press.

Victor handed him, gravely, a copy of Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary.

Something was coalescing here. The shipment was for a Doctor Davis Morel, a medical doctor coming in as a working immigrant, according to the code entry Victor pointed out on his copy of the doctor’s immigration paperwork. So they were not dealing with an accredited scholar or teacher of any kind. This was something else. Doctor Morel would be located on Tshekedi Crescent, in their neighborhood, or almost. He looked again at the code entry on the immigration carbon. Morel had been granted indefinite duration, a rare thing these days.

Somehow Victor had listed everything. There was a separate listing of all the books and pamphlets—many pamphlets—present in multiple copies. La Barre was at the head of the list, followed by The Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity, by Hyam Maccoby, at nine copies, and then by The Illusion of Immortality by Corliss Lamont, at seven copies. Victor was no fool. One look at the titles of the pamphlets alone, which were from a miscellany of free-thought sources, would have been all it took to convince him that the shipment constituted an arsenal of irreligion and that Morel was the Antichrist if not the Great Beast himself. Some of the pamphlet titles struck Ray as fairly inflammatory… Is God a Jew? The Church & the Nazis, Hinduism and Paranoia. This was more than some crank’s personal collection. Multiple copies meant that the point was propaganda. Victor had seen that straight off.

Victor was presenting him with sheet after sheet of inventory, one sheet at a time. That was to emphasize how very many sheets there were, of course, and it was unnecessary because Ray was aware that a huge amount of effort had gone into this. He was considering how much extra he should pay Victor for all this. He looked at Victor’s typically Tswana handwriting. It was painstaking. The individually printed letters in their roundness and the way they were spaced recalled the school copybook style you were expected to outgrow. He loved Victor, he loved the man for his work. Probably Victor had never gone beyond Standard Four, like most Batswana, which might be an explanation for the pervasiveness of this unsophisticated penmanship among literate Batswana.

Ray could only skim the lists. Morel was a sexophile or sexologist of some kind. There were numerous books on the history of sexual customs. Victor had put stars next to these titles. There were books on the history of imprisonment, of punishments. There were histories of freemasonry. And this was very nice, a little collection of popular books unmasking the CIA, so they claimed. He was noting titles at random. Everything had a resonance he didn’t like, such as Bodies Under Siege: Self-mutilation in Culture and Psychiatry by Armando R. Favazza, M.D. Ray’s image of Morel was darkening. Ray wasn’t altogether sure why Morel excited him as a prospect, but he was indisputably a person of interest. They would certainly see that at the agency. Ray refused to use the acronym, POI, when he was in discussions at the agency. Acronyms embarrassed him.

He would take the lists and go over them in detail later. His visits to Customs had to be kept brief. He had decided on sixty rands for Victor’s payment. It was very generous. He had the bills ready.

Victor had checked the manifests on Morel’s professional effects and discovered that there were two expensive photocopy machines in the shipment. They were state of the art machines, in Ray’s judgment. He thanked Victor for everything, but there was more, something more Victor wanted him to see. Ray tried to be patient.

His feelings about the emerging character Morel appeared to be were complicated. He looked at this image from two angles. From one angle Morel seemed unexceptionable, a sort of educated proselytizing crank, flamboyant, who might even add a little texture to the intellectual life of the expatriate community, which could use it. Ray would hardly describe himself as religious in any acting-out sense, which wasn’t what he meant. He meant he wasn’t an observing religious type in any way. So he had no personal animus against what this Morel obviously had in mind to do. Ray felt, if he had to put it in a capsule way, that the Christian religion had worked out fairly well as the medium for a tolerable and variegated and improving set of societies. He had no profound thoughts on the subject. Maybe religion was going to evolve away ultimately and maybe not. Maybe decent societies could have been based on something else. He couldn’t say. But as it was, Christianity had done about the best. Christianity gave us Milton, not to mention Bach and all the rest. And there was Botswana, which was a decent and placid country that was doing all right as it was. There was something goodhearted about Botswana. And it was a religious country, evangelized from top to bottom. It didn’t need a Morel. By the numbers, Botswana was doing better than any other country in Africa. Christianity or the mindset bound up with it at least was helpful to the country, so far as he could judge. He’d never thought of himself as a limb of Christendom but of course in a way he was, and so be it. There was some potential for religious friction down the road. The Hindus wanted a temple. The Bahai were around. There were enough Muslims in town to support a mosque, and a mosque had been put up, and there was already some unhappiness with the volume the recorded muezzin calls were being played at. There had been a shortlived attempt, crushed by the government, by Domkrag, to insist that a live muezzin give the hourly calls, because of course that could bother nobody, human lung power being limited. But the Muslims had been able to prove that live muezzins were being phased out everywhere in Islam. So there were these recorded calls to prayer and the difficulty was that the Muslims were claiming that they were keeping the volume down when the experience of householders in the vicinity was that they weren’t, in fact. He was lucky they didn’t live in the vicinity. Iris would freak. The point was that Botswana was working, in a continent where almost nothing else was. It was developing a stratum of people who could communicate with you in your own vocabulary. Rex had been so precocious that he’d decided at eight or nine he didn’t want to have pets because you couldn’t converse with them, ergo they were a waste of time. Ray had wanted pets but he hadn’t been willing to have them and be the only one responsible for pet chores. They had let Rex refuse to bear any responsibility. And the goddamned dogs they’d had early on loved Rex. So ultimately there had been no pets. What was his point? The heat was getting him.

“You are just dreaming, rra,” Victor said.

“Sorry.”

Victor was handling a framed eight by ten photograph. It was a professionally done portrait, head and shoulders. He was holding it up for Ray.

Davis Morel was black. Ray could see that Victor harbored some additional disapproval over that. Morel was black, though lighter skinned than an African, in the medium range. It had to be Morel because the subject was seated at a desk and there were medical reference books on a shelf behind him. If the photograph was recent, Morel was in his early forties. He was conventionally handsome and was giving a rather dry smile and overall a rather standardly forthright expression. Ray thought the expression was detectably self-consciously forthright, but maybe not. He was looking for slyness, without luck. Morel had an athletic bearing. He had a strong neck and wide shoulders. His hairline was very good, his hair close-cropped, not graying. He was an advertisement for his services, if nothing else. There was no jewelry on show. His suit was expensive. Sometimes Ray felt he could get deeper into a photograph if he looked aside from the main image slightly. He would say that, as faces go, Morel’s seemed to be on the large side. He was square-faced and his grooming was perfect. His chin and his nose-tip each showed a distinct cleft. The flesh under his eyes was tight.

He returned the photograph to Victor, who resecured it in the bubblepack swathings it had come in.

Ray was a little unhappy and he knew why. He had been looking for something in the photograph that probably had to do with an old fantasy of his. At some point after getting into intelligence he had realized that something was lacking. His great enemy, some great personal enemy, was missing. He had no great antagonist. He knew this was literary and adolescent, and when it came to his mind, he had always laughed it away. But the truth was that the people he dealt with and processed and wrote up were in general not very smart or interesting and many of them were essentially just venal, which was unsatisfactory if you let it be. You could find it boring. The Russians and their creatures had been a blank system to him—and he noticed he was referring to them nowadays in the past tense, which was a sign of truth as to how things stood in the world. He had never had to work very hard to corrupt his targets, when that had been necessary, and it had been slightly bitter to learn that. The element of hard struggle was pretty intermittent in his work. Of course, he had chosen to work at a certain level in the game. He wasn’t a thug. In fact he took pride in the certainty that he had never directly injured anyone in all his years in intelligence, not once, directly. And of course he had chosen to work in the borderlands of the struggle. He saw himself as a provider of truths that others would make use of, for good or ill, the morality of what they did with them being their problem and not his. It was where he was comfortable being, which was why this great enemy notion was so regressive and why he rejected it. It was essentially literary. But literature has power over us, he thought.

Ray wanted to look at the photograph again, but he was sweating, and it was late, so he decided against it. Victor had one last thing for Ray to see. He was rooting around in a different carton.

Morel looked disappointingly average, or did he mean above average? It was going to be interesting to find out why he had come to Botswana when everything about him suggested that he could get whatever he wanted out of life easily enough in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the venue he was departing from. He was smart, smart enough to get a medical degree of some kind, at least, he was black, he was presentable, a man for all races so to speak, and the way the apparatus of opportunity was configured right now in the United States meant that someone like this would have to take courses to learn how to miss the boat. Morel represented a commodity in short supply, unlike white male middle-aged academics in the humanities with degrees from nonstellar institutions, a category of commodity he knew something about. Morel appeared to be in his prime, moreover. American professionals coming to Africa to perform benefactions during sabbaticals or when they were past their prime made one kind of sense. But Morel had to be in his peak earning period. And he appeared to be coming to stay. And he was, according to the immigration paperwork, coming unsponsored, which meant that this was a personally driven and personally funded choice. And there was the question of choosing Botswana, which had its attractions but which was not picturesque, except up north. Something was off center. There was something here to pursue. The agency would see it his way.

Victor was gesturing at a jumble of shoes he’d pulled out for Ray’s inspection.

Ray went over to look. They were all either high shoes or low boots. In every pair the inner heel, the inner right heel, had been built up significantly. There were many more shoes in the carton and they were all like these, Victor assured him.

Perfection is rare, Ray thought.

8. The List

He had a free period. It was three in the afternoon. The school was quiet. The phone rang. That was another thing that could go on the list. The call was going to be from Iris, who was calling him more often at work lately, which could mean she was feeling a need to keep better apprised of his movements, which was a new anxiety with her. And it had to be coupled with something else that was new… her requests that he let her know definitely if he was coming home for lunch or not.

He picked up the phone and said, “Here I am and I still love you.” The caller gasped. It was definitely Iris.

“How did you know it would be me, you fool. Don’t do that. I could have been anybody.”

“I knew it was you.”

“You couldn’t have. My God. Please don’t do that again. It’s not like you. Don’t be strange.”

“I live on the edge,” he said.

“No you don’t. Please don’t do it again.”

“I may, I may not.”

“Quit it, please.”

“Okay. It’s a deal.”

“I don’t want you to be strange.” He thought that was interesting.

She said, lightly, “I just wanted to touch voices.”

“I love you to say that. But tell me about lunch, your lunch date,” he said.

She sighed, and then was silent.

He said, “I take it my recommendation wasn’t great.”

“Well, it was an example of why you could get lonely in Gaborone. We ate at the President, in the Grenadier Room no less. I dressed up. It was fine. Her name is Lorna, but she insisted I call her Lor, which felt awkward. I guess because she’s married to an American I assumed she was too, but she isn’t. Well, she is, she’s a citizen, but she’s Australian. Getting me to call her Lor and not Lorna seemed to be the main thing on her mind. They’ve been all over. She loves the embassy people. We had nothing to talk about, really.

“But, well she’s nice and she’s livelier than a lot of other embassy wives I could name. It was funny, she drank quite a bit of Cape Riesling during lunch, but the main effect it had on her was to stir up lots of umbrage about how much drinking there is in embassy circles. She managed to refer to the embassy staff as Alcoholics Unanimous a couple of times. She seems to think there’s too much daytime drinking, particularly.”

He thought, The fact is that I am talking to the most beautiful white woman in southern Africa, outside of the movies, and someone getting more beautiful, not less… these token signs of age make her beauty more acute, other women must hate her: How can she have friends? She needs friends, outside of me: Nothing can be done. The fact that he could give her pleasure, that life allowed him to, was immense to him. It was like gold.

“What?” he asked, he had missed something.

“I said, Lor and I are both insomniacs. Thank God, because that was basically our only subject. So we were talking and I tried to be entertaining by relating something you said the other night, don’t worry, nothing embarrassing, but I thought it was a funny story. It was when I complained because you had just turned over, like that, flopped over and said goodnight when I was still my usual wide-awake self… It happens, it’s no big problem, this is me. But this was early, even for you. You know how it is when I’m abandoned to myself… my own devices, at night.

“So then you remember I had an attack of pique and kind of yelled at you, ‘I have no rights around here!’ meaning, of course, that I have an unwritten marital right to sufficient notice before you go to sleep. And you said, when I said I have no rights, you said, ‘You have the right to remain silent.’ Well, it was funny. Still makes me laugh. But she didn’t get it at all and I was drawn into one of those explanations, explications, that ends up making you sound like a complete idiot. Her interpretation was just that I was a tyrant and you were a policeman.”

“That was pretty amusing of me. She didn’t get the humor. Maybe because she’s Australian, they don’t have Miranda.”

“It was a misfire,” she said.

“Bad recommendation, I guess.”

“It’s not your fault. She’s fine, really. But she’s not going to be exactly a friend. I don’t know what I mean, exactly… am I pathetic? I guess what I mean is she’s not an answer.”

“She’s part of the problem, you’re saying.”

“I wouldn’t go that far. She’s okay.”

“If she’s not an answer, what is the question?”

“Ah,” she said dryly and not happily.

“So what is the question, Iris?” He knew his tone was wrong. It was what she called his bearing down tone.

“Oh please don’t get all relentless. Please.”

“I didn’t mean to be. I’m sorry. I thought you were initiating something and clearly you weren’t.”

“On the phone? When you have to get back to work? I don’t think I was.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Me too.”

“Okay.”

“Also she was wearing the most painful accessory in the history of jewelry. It was a choker made out of white plastic petals, pointed petals all awry and pointing in different directions. It was sticking into her throat, into the flesh. I couldn’t take my eyes off it.”

This is the way she retreats, he thought.

“It made a teeny clacking sound when she swallowed.”

“I do apologize. If I’d known she was Australian I’d have mentioned it. It’s another culture.”

“Yes, it is. And I don’t transcend cultures at all well. I’m not good at it.”

Uh-oh, he thought.

“But Iris, you are good at it. You’ve done it here and in Zambia beautifully, and before that.”

“No I haven’t. You’re confusing two things, Ray, one being that I don’t complain and the other being your interpretation of that as how well I’m doing. Those are two different things.”

“But you make African friends,” he said, unnerved at how large these declarations were. Usually she was more incremental. A bitter feast was steaming hot and a mouth must be found to eat it, he thought. It was a quotation whose author he couldn’t come up with. That was what he was facing, though. There was something unfair about quotations lasting longer than the names of their creators. He saw her recent declarations as thrusts or lunges, not tentative anymore. And this was going on over the phone and it was unfair, unless she was in a more extreme state than he’d guessed. Maybe she was. It was his brother’s influence. She wanted liberation of some kind. It was Rex. Liberation was fine, he agreed with it, but all he knew was that at the heart of any kind of liberation worth anything there still had to be someone grabbing someone else and saying I’m yours, I love you beyond expression, something like that, embraces, berserk embraces, in his humble opinion. But maybe not, according to her, according to all this, according to his brother. It was unfair. He couldn’t laugh at her anymore when she said something funny she hadn’t intended to say. There was a recent example. She had complained that he was being parsimonious with some piece of gossip or information he had, and she had said something like It’s like pulling hen’s teeth getting anything out of you. So he had laughed, and although she’d realized immediately what she’d said, she still hadn’t liked his laughing, even after he explained that he’d been mainly laughing appreciatively at how appositely the mixed metaphor worked. Well, he thought: Wife is unfair… as somebody said.

Now she was asking him what real African friends he thought she had in Botswana.

“Well, you have a lot of acquaintances…”

“But no close friends, Ray.”

“Sure you do. You must. Maybe not right at this moment. One problem is that compatible people come and they go, if they’re foreign service, say. It’s standard. And you have African friends from Zambia you write to…”

She groaned.

“Let’s stop talking,” she said.

He shook his mechanical pencil to see if the lead reservoir was reasonably full. And he was not going to smoke. He hung up, then took the receiver off the hook.

Ray confronted his pad. There was a polished sheet of stainless steel exactly the size of the pad that he kept between the final sheet in the pad and the cardboard backing. He slid it out and inserted it under the top sheet as a preventive against leaving impressions on the next sheet down as he wrote. He tended to press hard when he wrote. Now he was ready. He decided to chance setting the receiver back in its cradle.

The phone rang. It was going to be Iris, and putting the phone back in use had been the right thing to do because this was going to be an apology and if she’d kept on getting a busy signal it would have led to frustration and the need for some kind of explanation later on. Also, knowing that she was trying to call him would have wrecked his concentration. He had had no choice.

He answered the phone.

“I’m sorry too,” he said. He knew it was Iris.

It was. She sighed. “That’s what I wanted to say, Ray. I hate myself.”

“Don’t hate yourself. We’re both sorry. It’s all right. I appreciate you.”

“I know.”

It was important that she hang up first. He waited.

She said, “Before I forget, there’s one thing I found out that I wanted to tell you. Yesterday Fikile was looking up at one of our palm trees and smiling, so I asked him what he was looking at. He said it was rats. Apparently that place on the palm where the dead fronds hang down and form a kind of mass is where a certain kind of rat, tree rat, makes its home. He had seen one of them peeping out. He said we have quite a few. They’re small, though.”

“That’s nice. Well. Is this something that needs to be attended to or do we just keep cohabiting with them?”

“No, that’s not why I’m telling you. I don’t think they bother anything. But I thought it was interesting because it might explain certain sounds we hear on the roof at times that we can’t figure out. We thought they were caused by birds, but it seemed strange because it was nocturnal, remember?”

“I do.”

“I was afraid I’d forget to mention it. I’ll let you go now. I love you. One other thing is that I think my sister may be pregnant and not telling me directly, or that she plans to get pregnant. But I can tell you about that later.”

He became alert. He wanted to know about this. Her sister was unmarried. The relationship between the sisters was strained and important to Iris.

“Wait, I want to hear this. You’re not saying she’s gotten married, are you?”

“No, not at all. This is all reading between the lines, really, but I think she’s going to stay single and just do it. But see what this sounds like to you. This is from her last letter. I’d better summarize it instead of reading it. She eats lunch in a playground near her office every day and eavesdrops and reports things the children say that are cute enough but are not the wisdom of the ages in the mouths of babes she seems to think they are. This is only one example. She overheard some children arguing over whether there could be good monsters as well as bad ones. She drew some great significance from it. Now I can’t find what I wanted to read you. But in every letter there’s something about how profound children are if you only listen.”

“When you answer, tell her that yes there are good monsters.”

A silence fell.

“Well,” she said.

“Well, but you do think she may be planning to reproduce? I find that reckless and also typical of her.”

“Don’t be so hard. Some child said It’s noon o’clock, and she thought that was wonderful. And here’s another thing she seems to think is beyond darling. She was visiting a friend of hers who has a two-year-old daughter, very delicate and sensitive and very resistant to going to bed. So four adults were sitting around and they decided to all yawn at the same time to show how tired they were and by implication how tired she should be. So they did it and the baby burst into tears because she knew it was so unnatural or manipulative or something. Ellen raves about the child. Oh, and, lest we forget, her friend is a single mother.”

“I have to go. I have to sit revision,” he said. He thought, Maybe I can cancel revision. He needed a list.

The International Postal Union was his enemy. It brought Rex and Ellen into her life, and his.

Curwen himself would take over Ray’s revision group, as a favor. He loved Curwen for always trying to be like Christ, an idea of Christ, a cartoon but a completely benign cartoon. He even half envied Curwen whatever the restricting cultural history was that had led him into feeling that copying Christ was a fulfilling thing to do with his mortal life. The whole teaching staff exploited Curwen, the Marxists worst of all. Ray didn’t like to do it, and he tried not to. Iris thought of Curwen as an ideal good guy on the basis of Ray’s anecdotes. But Ray didn’t, because there was a difference between good acts resulting from adherence to a model of some kind and some other way to be good, some more natural way, that for example women had. Women seemed not to need these models to kneel to and copy. It was true that Curwen got less appreciation than he deserved because you could predict his acts of goodness so infallibly. Curwen wanted to be loved, and Ray wanted to love him, but Ray knew that there was condescension in his attitude to Curwen that he couldn’t do anything about and that wrecked it as a form of love. Life is unfair, Ray thought, unfair to Curwen.

He centered the writing block on his desk and adjusted the point length of his pencil lead. He wondered whether he should begin by generating categories first, as against putting down everything that came to him in no order, chaotically, which might be better because the project was making him feel chaotic.

He couldn’t decide. This was difficult. It shouldn’t be. He had done hundreds of profiles in his time, which was all this was. But of course very few profiles had been of women, almost none.

It came to Ray that he didn’t like to think about women—the subject of women, he meant. He was surprised at himself. But of course the subject of women was not the same thing as individual women, which he thought about just as much as the next man, that is, all the time, off and on, depending on the mood or circumstances he was in, or what a particular woman might be up to. He wasn’t counting involuntary trains of carnal imagery.

And of course, because something confusing was going on with Iris, she was on his mind constantly. So he did think about women, just not as a subject.

There were other things besides women he preferred not to think about. For example… death, say, and unidentified flying objects. But these were things you could decline to think about without feeling guilty. It was human not to want to think about death, about being mortal. And it made him irritable to think about unidentified flying objects because, as a phenomenon, it was in the hands of charlatans and clowns. He had seen something odd in the sky, once, so of course he was interested. The subject was completely surrounded by liars, unfortunately. And flying saucers were more and more irritating as a phenomenon in that they kept recurring, and the claims of what they were doing kept getting more elaborate. And of course if it was true that they existed, then the whole human enterprise obviously needed to be redirected toward finding out who was flying these damned things, especially since their occupants had supposedly taken up molesting hordes of people in their bedrooms at night and stealing fetuses and other absurdities. He wondered if there was some quality common to death, women, and UFOs that made him want to not think about them. He considered the question. They were all similar in a way, ontologically. They were all entities that nothing could be done about.

Was that it? Probably not, although in a cheap way it seemed to fit. He wanted not to be superficial. His life, or at least his life with Iris, depended on it. The problem was that he had thought until fairly recently that he had solved the woman question, so to speak, by getting happily married. And the conventional idea that he had been raised with was, roughly, that if everybody did what he did and got happily married there was no woman question, which now turned out to be an incorrect idea. He had been operating with simple, oversimple, ideas, obviously.

When Iris had said to him, hurting him, had said to him, Ask yourself sometime if you talk to yourself the same way you talk to me, and then tell me… that had been rough. It had been like being flayed without sufficient warning, or something. They had barely been able to discuss it later. The implication of the question was that he was talking down to her or shaping what he said to her in order to keep her pacified or in a cheerful frame of mind or something like that. Something good if painful had come out of it, he thought. He had concluded that it might be true that his manner of talking to her was less direct, or more processed or something, than he liked to admit. And he had stopped. Or he was trying, at least. The implication was that he was trying to control her.

Something else had come out of that moment. He wanted to sigh when he thought about it. He had noticed that the level of language he used on himself… was questionable, and limited, suggesting the influence of some force inside of himself acting to keep him… acting to keep him within certain borders. But that was a new subject…

The question of women as a subject came down to their unhappiness. And what was happening was that the general unhappiness of women was turning into a force and developing institutions and mandibles whereas before it had been a kind of background condition like the temperature, as he had thought, something that rose and fell within certain stable limits. He thought of his mother’s unhappiness. Iris was not what he would call a feminist and yet, if he was anywhere near understanding what was going on with her, she was part of this great unhappiness. Just his luck. But then his luck had never been good, except for finding and marrying Iris, paradoxically, which had saved his life.

What was the general unhappiness of women about? He would have to concentrate… except that he wouldn’t have to at all! The answer was in the category of answers you possess without knowing you do. He had the answer, he realized. Sometimes you carried the answer to an ultimate question around with you like something in a parcel, wrapped up.

Unwrapped, it was simple. It was like this. What they wanted, he gathered, feeling pleased with himself, was for their own personal rational deliberation to replace what?… to replace tradition and custom and instinct, what men called instinct, in arriving at the nine or ten major decisions life presents all of us with. That meant when to mate, of course, but not only when to mate, it meant whether to mate or not, and with which sex, even… what to be professionally and whether to have children. It was banal, but an insight can be banal and radical at the same time, apparently. It had a Freudian tinge to it too, as in Where id was, ego shall be. It was other familiar things. It was our friend the Enlightenment, still rolling merrily along, for instance.

He didn’t know how he felt. It was immense, of course, because the only kind of societies the human race had ever been able to build were ones in which half the population was being very accommodating to the other half. Now it was going to be… Where id was, contracts and negotiations and taking forever to work things out are going to be. How was it going to work? Life was going to take longer. Everyone would have to adjust.

He felt better, strangely enough. He thought: God moves in a mysterious way, when he moves at all. It annoyed him that he was using one of his brother’s bons mots, but it seemed to apply, a bit. The world ahead was going to be seriously different. He had a sense of it. He felt that if he kept his mind still he might sense even more of how it was going to be. It was going to be a world full of divorces, for one thing, and you could forget about people joining nunneries. That was about all he could think of. He had his limitations as a seer, obviously. But he was getting a presentiment of the magnitude of the change that was coming.

He felt, what? He felt uneasy. He felt melancholy, in fact.

He needed to get this over with.

Now to the list. He was dealing with fragments. He should assemble fragments.

One, she was more profane lately. She was saying Shit more than he remembered, and this was in the context of informing him that intramale sexual profanity could be intimidating to women in the vicinity. Probably there was no conflict there. But she was more profane lately. One, Shit, he wrote on the pad, at the top.

She was noticing things and making a point of mentioning them, and they were things that seemed to imply she was undergoing some deep revision of what she had assumed up to that point. It was on the order of going to the barber and getting your hair cut in a new way and looking into the mirror and discovering that, although you hadn’t noticed up till then, you have a very small head. She had said I bet you don’t know you have a tic of just almost imperceptibly hefting each forkful of food as you start to raise it to your mouth, as though you’re weighing it, when you’re feeling defensive about something. It had been a neutral observation, not meant to make him stop weighing his food. She included herself in these discoveries.

Three evaded him. He sat waiting for Three.

There was an exercise he sometimes did that was reassuring. He had put his head into a ten-year-old girl’s bedroom back in the States, just glancing in, years ago. This had been during training. The point had been to memorize at least a dozen discrete items of decor. He still had every one. One, cat motif posters and knickknacks including a cat piggy bank. Two, painted decorated rocks. Three, Charlie Brown stickers on dresser drawers. Four, horse sculpture. Five, miniature watering can. Six, multicolor raffia-ring curtain covering doorless closet. Seven, music stand. Eight, pennants. Nine through Twelve, Heidi, Stuart Little, Black Beauty, a Laing Fairy Book. Thirteen, flocked riding helmet.

Three was about losing things. She was more absentminded recently, and she was losing things to the point that he had referred to their bedroom as the Lost and Found. There had to be a better Three.

Three could be Rex, instead, and everything connected with Rex. Or Three could just be the implication he was getting more and more often from Iris that he should find everything Rex wrote hilarious. He was loaded down mentally with quotations from his brother. He seemed to be cursed with total recall for everything Rex produced. What had there been along those lines lately? He remembered something from a sketch Rex was writing, about someone who’s trying to be more decisive and aggressive and who writes a note to himself that reads Consider starting to make an effort to try being at least a little less half-assed about things. He wanted to forget Rex, not anatomize everything connected with him.

Four could be Iris’s feeling that he, or they, he and Iris, were no longer as funny with each other as they had been. She’d said We used to say stupid things more than we do now. She had examples. One was when she said, after he’d been repetitious, You must be History because you just repeated yourself, and his instant comeback of You must be Power because you abhor a vacuum… cleaner, which had been an allusion to her lack of love for housecleaning, which by the way was a problem Africa had solved for her.

Then Five came to him. He didn’t want this Five. Five was Iris saying to him apropos of nothing, saying, and looking steadily at him when she said it, to separate it from everything else that had preceded it, saying I know this sounds stupid but one thing I want in this life is to have nothing to do with… with cruelty. She had looked at him as though he was supposed to make some kind of vow back to her. This was Five, and it was Iris being suspicious of his work or her notion of his work. It was an assault. He resented it. That was Five.

9. The Mobashi

Ray was enraged. This was reckless, and Victor had never been reckless before. This was sheer recklessness.

He was enraged as much at his own flux of panic as at the stupid act that had provoked it. There was an obvious flaw in the system he had developed for Victor. He had told Victor never to call him on the phone. So the flaw was that if something turned up that Ray needed to see urgently at some point between his scheduled visits, Victor was stuck with waiting. This had never happened before. Victor was obviously taking himself more and more seriously in his work for Ray. And then it had probably been a mistake to increase his remuneration so sharply the last time. No doubt Victor was seeing Morel as a treasure trove he had to plunder expeditiously before all of Morel’s goods had moved through.

Ray went to the door of his office to reassure himself that he was locked in. The curtains were secure across both windows. He returned to his desk.

He turned on the tensor lamp and again sorted through the contents of the packet Victor had so goddamned recklessly gotten a courier to bring to him, paid a courier to bring to him, a mobashi. Probably that was the dumbest part of a dumb maneuver. The courier had been one of the ragged street children, the bobashi, one of them, a mobashi, than which or whom or whatever nothing could be more conspicuous standing next to the main gate into St. James as the students in their neat uniforms streamed past on their way to first period. And the packet itself had been absurd, an outer mailing envelope overlarge for what it had to contain, and a flat sweets box wrapped in two layers of kraft paper and that parcel tied with string and the knots sealed with crimson candle wax. And Ray’s name was on it in pencil, presumably so it could be erased and the paper reused at some point. His name had been printed on the envelope and the inner parcel, both, in block letters.

He was calming down. Ray felt a kind of joy, handling the exhibits. Victor had been right to think that they meant something arresting about Davis Morel, although what they meant, exactly, it was difficult to say. They were at the very least suggestive of Ray’s idea that Morel was planning to set himself up as a part-time Antichrist of some kind.

There were four exhibits. Three were printed cards. Victor had noted on each one that it was a sample taken from a quantity of the same card. There were several hundred of each kind. Ray was relieved that Victor hadn’t gone on to make an exact count, which was the kind of thing he might well have done, for which Ray would have been obliged to praise him a lot.

The cards were four by six, on heavyish white stock, and professionally printed. Ray supposed that they were for handing out, primarily, although the typeface was large enough to permit display in the privacy of your own catacomb, say on your bedside table, or stuck into your shaving mirror. The cards bore free-thought slogans loosely speaking.

One read The Creator, A Comedian Whose Audience Is Afraid to Laugh, H. L. Mencken.

The next read WHAT YOU MUST LEARN ABOVE ALL ELSE IS WHY YOU SAY YES, Der Jasager, Bertolt Brecht.

The last one was, to Ray, weird. It read SYSTEMS UNEQUAL TO THEIR WASTES ARE EQUAL TO ONE ANOTHER. There was no attribution line. Ray felt that this was probably Morel’s own creation.

The remaining exhibit was different. It was a listing. It was for display, but probably for personal display, for Morel’s own personal display needs. The listing was, according to Victor’s note, in careful—probably meaning calligraphic—handwriting. Victor hadn’t, thank God, felt free to send the original, so he had recopied it in his own peculiar hand.

Piacocas, Punaxicas, Quibuquicas, Quimecas, Guapacas, Baurecas, Payconecas, Guarayos, Anaporecas, Bohococas, Tubacicas, Zibacas, Quimomecas, Yurucaricas, Cucicas, Tapacuracas, Paunacacas, Quitemocas, Napecas, Pizocas, Tanipicas, Xuberecas, Parisicas, Xamanucas, Tapuricas, Taos, Bazorocas, Pequicas, Parabacas, Otuques, Ecorabecas, Curacanecas, Batasicas, Meriponecas, Quidabonecas, Cupiecas, Ubisonecas, Zarabecas, Curiminacas, Chamaros, Penoquicas, Boros, Mataucas, Otures, Veripones, Maramoricas, Morotocas, Caypotorades, Guaycurus.

This is a pure mystery, Ray thought. He read the list again. It related to nothing he could think of. It seemed vaguely Latin American, but that told him nothing. A job, he thought. He was pleased. He locked everything away in the top drawer of his desk. His top drawer locked frontally and also from the left via a special bolt arrangement activated through a side drawer. It was his own arrangement. The top drawer was lined with galvanized iron, which he had fitted himself.

The mobashi had asked for him by name. The boy, not more than ten years old or so, had been pathetic, with an injured hand in a filthy improvised dressing, a train of scabs along one leg, arms like laths.

It had been unwise but he had given the boy money, which had prolonged the exchange between them and exposed Ray to more attention than had been necessary. It was certain that Victor had already paid the boy.

Sending the boy had been an error and being prodigal with him had probably been an error. He had given him a five-pula note and the boy had been stunned. Ray hoped he wouldn’t start hanging around.

But enough pity and terror for one day, he thought.

He wanted to know who was responsible for doing something for the bobashi. Someone had to be. It was terrible. There was something wonderful on poverty, in Herrick, but he couldn’t remember the whole thing. There were better quotations Morel could have used. Come to me next time, he thought. What was English Literature for, if not to constitute a midden of thought-gems so acute, so beautiful, so apt… But you needed a guide to get the best ones. On every side of every issue there were gems. He thought, Take Herrick: Poverty the greatest pack: To mortal men, great loads allotted be, but of all packs, no pack like poverty. Marxists don’t even know that it’s there. He should look it up. That also would calm him down, his books, sometimes just touching his books.

10. Facing Boyle

Well here I am at the foot of the cross again, Ray thought as he entered the mall at its lower end, from the west. The phrase was a tic he was tired of but that was evidently going to be with him forever. He had once given directions to somebody re how to find the American embassy, describing it as being near the foot of the cross, which was to say that it was at the foot of the cross-shaped layout of large buildings enclosing the pedestrian mall that constituted Gaborone’s semblance of a downtown civic center and embassy row all in one. The mall was in the form of the Latin cross but with the arms three-quarters of the way up the shaft shortened to stubs. The transection of the shaft and the arms constituted the main plaza.

Today he had to deal with Boyle.

He proceeded up the shaft of the cross, away from his destination, the American Library annex of the American embassy. He was early, and since he was agitated, he thought that keeping in motion was a good idea and that he would head on up to the plaza, look around, and be back for his appointment in plenty of time.

He knew something about crosses, now that he came to think of it. During training one of his exercises had been to study, for three minutes, the twenty main historical variants of the cross, and their names. He could probably still put most of the names and shapes together, if not all of them. Some were easy. Lorraine, Greek, Maltese, Tau. Anyway, here I go, he thought: The twenty are… Latin, Calvary, Patriarchal, Papal, Lorraine, Greek, Celtic, Maltese, St. Andrew’s, Tau, Pommée, Botonée, Pattée… Avellan… Moline… Formée, Fourchée… Crosslet, Quadrate… Jerusalem. He supposed he could still match shapes and names. They had been pretty amazed. I perform, he thought. Whether Boyle appreciated his performance was another matter.

He had twenty minutes.

Every meeting with Boyle felt urgent. They didn’t know how to approach each other. Boyle liked to be called Chet, not by his whole first name, Chester. Ray couldn’t make himself address Boyle as Chet. His whole being wanted to call Boyle Boyle, but since Boyle was his superior he couldn’t. Boyle called him Finch, however, or occasionally Doctor Finch or Doctor. He had called him Doctor Finch only once. It had been hostile. Ray’s solution to the problem of what to call Boyle was to call him Chief, just once at the onset of each meeting, and then to use You throughout the balance of their meeting. A meeting could be quite long.

Ray’s mouth got dry just thinking about all this. Chief was a substitute for sir, which was impossible. He could manage Chief probably because Chief contained a slight hint of burlesque, very slight, in fact, almost nonexistent the way he said it, in fact probably nonexistent. Ray suspected that he was being called Finch because he was only contract and not staff.

Noon was approaching. The sun was intense and he slowed his pace as he passed through the bars of shade cast by the intermittent arcading. The crowds were as usual. Students from the nearby secondaries would be arriving any minute now, bound for the takeaways and the porridge and sweet reed vendors in the central plaza. The crowds were about twenty percent non-Tswana… whites, Indians, Chinese. The Batswana were on the slighter side, physically, which was a fact never mentioned.

Passing the Notwane Pharmacy, he was reminded of another coup coming out of his training period. This had been another flash memorizing exercise. They had given him two minutes to look into a medicine cabinet and study the contents, a typical medicine cabinet. And he had gotten all the prescription medications right, twenty of them, or fifteen, something he would still be able to do.

He hated Boyle, but not really. Boyle was new. Boyle was Boyle and not his predecessor, the beloved, to Ray, Marion Resnick, which was Boyle’s fault. Besides, Ray had survived other substandard chiefs of station. Marion had been the kind of person other people spontaneously referred to as a lovely man, which was indicative. Where had Marion gone? It was a peculiarity of his vocation that it would be held against him if he inquired at all searchingly about it. But the fact was that he felt he wanted to know where Marion was, now, in the world. He couldn’t ask Boyle, God knows. Marion was too young for retirement, so he was undoubtedly still out in the field somewhere.

Ray had reached the paved part of the mall. Like the development process itself writ small, the paving of the mall was a process of improvement that never seemed to get finished. Progress in extending the pavement from the plaza outward was slow and would halt for months at a time while parts of the already paved section were redone. The cement flagstones they were using tended to fracture. But worse was the problem of soil subsidence, which, combined with subterranean ant and termite activity, lent a funhouse aspect to walking on the flagstones as one or another of them would sink or tilt underfoot. Something seemed to find the grouting between the flags delicious, since it was always being sucked down and replaced by little tumuli of red silt. The paving was like The Tower of Babel by Brueghel, where half the edifice, the front and upper half of it, is solid or under construction, and the bottom part of the edifice, toward the rear, is falling into ruin as fast as the top tiers are being completed. The image of the Tower of Babel was fresh in his mind because Morel had a framed reproduction of it in his effects, which Ray had taken note of during his second canvass of Morel’s things, out at Customs.

To someone like Marion he could have pitched Morel’s taste in art as, in a certain way, a subject of interest. There was a theme. Another framed reproduction was of a blown-up detail from Signorelli’s The End of the World, with Renaissance Italian men in the street staring up at the sky in terror. What was that? There was no feeling that the individual pictures had been chosen one at a time just because Morel liked them, the way he or rather Iris chose their pictures, since that was her province. A true collection of art, the sign of its being a true personal collection, would be that it was motley. Theirs was. Not that they had a collection. They had an assemblage. Iris was very catholic in her taste. She liked Van Eyck. She liked an American landscape painter named John Beerman and had nicely framed a cover reproduction from a catalog of one of his shows, and she tore out anything of his she found reproduced in ARTnews, to which she subscribed. She liked Persian miniatures. They had some on postcards from the Metropolitan and she currently had three of them taped up on the wall above her side of the bed. Iris had stopped buying things for their walls, now that he thought of it. But there was no reason it had to mean anything. There was already a sufficiency of items to worry about. For a while Iris had been interested in the reed baskets produced by the Bushmen or rather Bushwomen in the north, and she had studied the meaning of the symbols in the designs, Tears of the Giraffe, Knees of the Tortoise, Urine Trail of the Bull, and so on woven into baskets. But she’d lost interest, synchronous with the Germans seizing commercial control of basketmaking and stamping all the art and individuality out of the baskets by making the basketweavers stick to the handful of templates the Germans knew would sell best. It was hard to stop thinking of the Germans in Botswana as West Germans. Reunification was still unbelievable to him. Already German external intelligence was getting more active in southern Africa, as befits a country getting back into the saddle as a major power. He knew who three of the main German agents in Botswana were. One claimed to be Dutch. German marketing was hoping to do to Botswana baskets what they had done to soapstone carving in Kenya. He thought, But that’s the way the world wags, long may it wave. The Germans simplify the baskets and more sell and more money comes into the villages hence more mabele and more chibuku so three cheers. Some of my best friends are krauts, or they were, when I could still have friends.

If he let it, the mall could bring out a certain cultural feeling in him that was fairly standard, to the effect that the mall, the buildings, the technology involved, the infrastructure generally, the whole business was a gift from the white West and that what was being done with this gift was dubious. That was the image. Here was sanitation and technology and the buildings in which people were hanging around in order to get paychecks. All this had been provided to Africans who were only one generation away from herding cattle and chasing witches and going broke raising mealie on patches the size of tennis courts. The question of what was ultimately going to be done with all this by the Batswana was always just under the surface, and the question was kept hot by the steady fixation the Batswana seemed to have on beating back the white tide and getting expatriates down to reasonable numbers preparatory to, some fine day, getting them out en masse. Because as of now the white presence was going up, not down. In the meantime it led to a certain unpleasant amount of Schadenfreude among the representatives of the donor countries and the businesspeople in regard to the Batswana and their shortcomings as clerks and tellers and as functionaries in general. He thought, If the Batswana could understand that in our culture impatience is almost a virtue it might help, and it would help if there could be more jobs, any kind of jobs, almost, because unemployment kills and is humiliating and it won’t stop, or we don’t know how to make it stop—and the Tswana know we don’t.

The mall hardly represented his idea of the West at its best, so to speak. The mall buildings were standard commercial modern, poured-concrete shoeboxes stood on end, with brick cladding or grooved or fluted or stippled or pebbled plaster facades, all or most of them about the same color as the sand they were built on. Only three or four of the buildings rose to the level of requiring elevators. The British High Commission did, at the head of the cross, and so did the President Hotel, dominating the whole left side of the plaza, looming. And there were three other buildings that did, actually. The mall buildings were less than magnificent. Now he was sounding like an asshole. And the buildings were not wearing well internally. Because people were expected to run up and down five or six flights of stairs routinely, and because doing that rapidly was some kind of fun for a lot of people, there were streams and blotches of handprints and hand grime on the walls of the stairwells at each landing, where people checked themselves on the downward race.

Nor was there anything magnificent about the street-level shops with their oceanic windows and their displays featuring pinspots, half-scrolled sheets of Mylar, and, in the clothing stores, the new faceless and raceless manikins. They were peculiar. Their heads were like grapes. It was the units of the South African chains that were pioneering them and they were now virtually universal. The heads on the manikins modeling women’s clothes seemed to be slightly narrower than the heads on the manikins modeling menswear. Most of the manikins were beige. Some were gray. Some were clear Lucite.

All this could be hell for some and not others, he thought. It would be hell standing up all day in a bank and leafing endlessly through carbon copies of unalphabetized deposit slips. He was passing Barclays.

He felt sorry for the Chinese and Indian bazaars wedged between and fighting and losing against the chains. The bazaars had been there first. They had been all there was, with their bins and racks of merchandise shoved out into the right of way, their hellish repetitive reggae ambiences bulging out over the sidewalks as well, and with their supremely incoherent inventories. The one next to the American Library seemed to specialize, as best he could make out, in sandalwood room dividers, sporting goods, chutneys, and marital aids. Boyle hated Sirdar Varieties and Goods and wanted them out, away from the library, so Ray guessed that they were probably doomed. But Ray thought Sirdar Varieties and Goods added color. The owner’s wife was a heavily scented matron who wore her hair swept back except for a fringe of oily fishhook curls across her forehead. Her husband was obese. He was bearded and when his fat cheeks bunched up in a smile it was like seeing cue balls rising out of a sack. Boyle liked or needed to project terribilità off and on. Ray thought that the habit of doing it might have gotten ingrained in Boyle in his last couple of posts, places where heavy events were more standard than here. Boyle had been in Guatemala and liked it, was the story. And he had been in Kinshasa. Boyle would sometimes allude to Kinshasa, but to Guatemala, never.

He had reached the central plaza, which was about as far as he had time to walk before turning back. In the plaza you were, to a degree, back in village Botswana. A few big cloud trees original to the place had been allowed to remain standing, and under them were tracts of reed mats each one occupied by a vendor presiding over mounds of pigeon peas or groundnuts or pots of fried mopane worms, which he had taken for pots of tiny pretzels the first time he’d seen them. There were vendors selling mealie porridge from washtubs, two vendors today, doing okay. The crowds were thickening. There were beggars around, more these days than before. Some informal system of regulation kept them confined to the forecourt of the main post office and the sinister alleys that pierced the mall rampart at intervals, connecting that mall to the parking strip that ran between the outer face of the mall buildings and the surrounding arterial roads. Beggars in Gaborone weren’t aggressive. They didn’t trail along after their targets or cluster around them the way beggars did in West Africa. They stayed put, looking piteous, which they were, holding out their cupped hands. They were orderly.

There was always something worth noting going on in the plaza, even if it was only something as minor as a new face in the team manning the Botswana Social Front’s literature table. It made things easier that there was only one significant opposition party in the country to keep track of, and that they were so artless. There were two people running BoSo’s table today and he knew who both of them were. The table was in a new location, a better location. Before, they had been by the walkway running past the Capitol Cinema, in the sun. Today they were in a shady alcove next to Botswanacraft. It would have to be seen how long the permission for that lasted.

He turned to go back. There was no time to climb the grand stairway that led from the plaza up to the second-floor terrace café of the President Hotel. It was loud but pleasant up there, under the awning.

It was an open balcony-terrace and you could survey the whole plaza. In the old days someone from one branch or another of the South African security services had almost always been undercover there from noon through seven. You could set your watch by the Boers. How it would work now was going to be interesting. He liked the terrace, whose staircase had been useful to him for crisscross quick-turnover message drops more than once. For old times’ sake he went up the broad steps as far as the first quarter turn and for luck touched the pediment of the newel lamp mounted just where you would put your hand for steadiness if you were hurrying. It was easy to slip something into or out of the slot under the base of the lamp particularly if you planned the crisscross for a moment when the stairs would be packed.

The Capitol Cinema opposite the President Hotel across the plaza was considered magnificent by most of the population. It was still the only movie palace in the entire country. The presidential family had a box permanently reserved for it. The theater was the size of a hangar and its facade glittered with bits of mica and broken glass. A problem was that the atmosphere and protocol established in the audiences who attended the kung fu movies that ran six days out of seven carried over when pictures like Tess of the D’Urbervilles or Chariots of Fire were being shown. Then the foregathered serious expat moviegoing public would be in a state of agony as, say, displays of sadness by white characters were being hugely jeered at. But the Capitol Cinema had its usefulnesses, too. The permanent uproar made it a good place to meet.

For a while the Libyans had used the popcorn seller to pass interesting items to certain people, including a handgun, which unfortunately had spilled out onto the floor along with the popcorn at the feet of a local constable when somehow the recipient of the gun was tripped up by person or persons unknown. He thought O Libya, Libya, give up. There were so many stories about the absurd Libyans that would never be told.

He had to get going.

He was nervous. Admittedly he was nervous. I have this feeling, Iris had said, I have this feeling of wanting to apologize to the world. Then there had been a baffling discussion that he had not been in need of.

He entered the American Library. There would be a wait. Lillian, the librarian, was occupied. The library was empty. He sat down at a reading table, on one of the tubular chairs whose Naugahyde seats were the precise color of Pepto-Bismol.

The discussion with Iris had gone weirdly. When she said she wanted to apologize to the world did world mean social world or natural world, the earth? She wasn’t sure, but mainly she had meant the natural world, maybe. The feeling was with her a lot. Well, why did she think it was? Was it vocational, which was about all he could think of, in the sense that she wasn’t doing anything significant with her inner potential?… but that would be the social world, wouldn’t it? Well yes and no, but it was more the natural world because for example every tree that you saw was a representation of something in nature doing its best. There was something about the environment here, she’d said. It was so difficult for everyone, for everything. It was a very severe place. Then she had introduced a discussion about the term entelechy, discussion about doing your best by your entelechy. No tree is a failure, she had said, and neither were the saplings that don’t make it, they’re both just trees living out their programs, do you wish I were a tree, my dear? Everything was a bucket of fishhooks lately, that he had to get something from the bottom of.

How much Lillian knew about him was open to speculation. He was pretending to read, now, while he waited.

What he meant when he thought the words Nobody knows who I am, which he was doing a lot lately and which had a soothing effect on him, was that anyone who judged him as wanting in any one of the several capacities he was at work in would be judging in ignorance. That was the thing. No one who knew him knew everything he was doing. In order to judge him fairly it would be necessary to know what his whole array was, which no one did, so whatever judgments were being made of him he could take with equanimity.

He was an array. He was an ensemble. He was three things, on the surface. He was a scholar who was also a teacher. But he had another subtler task, which was to vindicate the art and genius of a supreme poet, the maligned and ignored and throneless John Milton. Ray saw himself as an agent for Milton. When Auden said that when Yeats died he became, he Yeats, became his admirers, he was talking about what Ray was for Milton, too. Milton had become the shrinking circle of his true admirers, and they had become Milton. Ray was an agent for Milton because he perceived something about Milton… there was a secret in Milton.

So.

And then of course he was a member of an intelligence agency, but a particular kind of member. He wasn’t an officer, he was contract, which meant he could go or stay, which was a sort of freedom, a good thing. He was engaged in the overall business of bringing out into the light designs that for their own usually bad reasons certain people wanted kept hidden. He would defend his country as a decent package of forces. He had thought about this to the point of exhaustion. America represented a decent package of forces. Of course all governments were evil, or had a level of evil within them, but in the case of America wasn’t it fair to say that being evil was forced on it by lesser and more corrupt other governments, would-be empires, fragments of old imperialisms, thug states, actual lunatic-run states like Libya, and so on? It was his feeling that now that it was over with Russia, America could relax into its natural shape, couldn’t it? And when it came to working for the agency and judging the agency itself within the scheme of things, there was the consideration that working for the agency resembled working for a giant pharmaceutical more than anything else. Sometimes the pharmaceutical giant got it wrong. It put out the Dalkon Shield, say. But the overall effect of the pharmaceutical was to provide help against disease and suffering, wasn’t it? So there it was. And of course he was a patriot. He exchanged his automobile magazine for a copy of the Partisan Review.

It was a good idea to review all this because there was not the slightest doubt he was going to be put through one of Iris’s great inquests, in which the foundations of everything they had agreed to do together would be excavated. A point she’d needed to understand was that each of the kinds of work he did depended on the others. It was a conglomerate. He knew all the questions that were looming up: Why were they still in Botswana or anywhere in Africa, for that matter? Couldn’t he teach in the U.S. so that she could pursue some kind of career, could be near her friends and her sister? What exactly was it he did for the agency beyond the little he had been willing to tell her, and didn’t she have the right to know a few details, for example how much danger might he conceivably get into, and so on, like that. And he would have to swear again that he had never killed anyone.

So another great inquest was coming. He could feel it in his bones. These things were cyclical and got more harrowing each time, but undoubtedly the collapse of Russia, the astonishing collapse of all that power, was telling her it was the moment to dismiss what he did, did for the agency. He knew what she was thinking. She was thinking that the war was over, the game was over, so he could flap his wings and relocate his talents, which she mistook for something they never were… probably his fault… but take his talents and liberate them in some venue she would like much better. She was feeling that for the first time she had on her side historical argument he would be forced to agree with.

In his work for the agency he was an array, too. Because he was more than a collector. In the course of providing useful information he produced art. He was a writer. Back in McLean at the Biographic Registry, they knew it. They called what he wrote Profiles, but he called what he wrote Lives. He knew that his Lives had been used, at one time, as examples during agent training. Blessed Marion Resnick had said so. And he knew it from others. And his Lives existed materially and would be kept and someday might even be found, when the true history of the world was written, but that wasn’t important. No matter what kind of cretin took over some station or other temporarily, his Lives would slide past him and into the chute and into the archives and there would always or someday be someone to see what they were. It was probably happening occasionally now, as people referred to them for one utilitarian reason or another. He had access to unique materials and had been given unique latitude and he was turning his reports into something of clear literary merit, something more important than their immediate function. Marion had understood the art in what he produced because Marion was civilized. But enough on that. Except that Iris didn’t appreciate what it meant to him, the ways in which it was right for him as an artist. He had given her Aubrey’s Brief Lives to read, once, and she had never finished it. Basically, what he wrote went straight to posterity, is the way he liked to think about it, without needing to be nastily reviewed in the Washington Post, say, or the New Republic. And there was no being overlooked when the prizes came out, no sweating over grant applications, no begging for the attention of literary agents, no being remaindered… He sighed heavily, drawing a look from Lillian.

Where was Boyle?

But an inquest was coming. Fortunately, she loved him. She always returned to the subject of why he had gotten involved with the agency in the first place, and he was always fairly frank about it. At the start, a lot of it had probably been the being asked, solicited, by someone he respected, a genuine scholar, someone for whom it was obvious there was no contradiction between the agency and everything that high, humane scholarship was supposed to mean. But ninety percent of it, he thought, was his sheer aversion to mystery, and that went with his curiosity about how things worked in the world, and he would definitely talk more to Iris about that. Knowing how power worked was a form of power. It was seductive. She loved him.

There was a lot to say on the subject. He had an earned right to object to the mysterious. His childhood had been warped by mystery. Why his own brother hated him so violently was a mystery. What had given Rex the right, Rex who was younger, the right to always call him a baby, repeatedly? There were other examples. His father had died mysteriously. He had driven their Hudson into a tree in Contra Costa County, not far from the eastern end of the tunnel that goes through the Berkeley Hills. The accident site had been an approach road to one of the parks in that area, probably Tilden, so why his father had been going fast on it, fast enough to somehow lose control and crash, was mysterious. It had been foggy but not that foggy. And there had been a mystery guest in the car, a young man, at least that was what the first guy on the scene had reported. There had been a shaken-up young guy in the car, who left the scene of the accident during the time it took for the motorist who found the crash to hunt up the police. The theory was that the young guy must have been a hitchhiker. He was never found. That had been it. His father had been lavishly insured, as it developed, so that the family got to feel guilty at being better off with him gone than they had been before, which had been nice for them. And then his mother’s almost instant remarriage, or engagement, rather, and then remarriage, had been mysterious, marrying a mystery man who picked her up at her own husband’s funeral, a guy who had wandered into the wrong service, supposedly. His father’s service had been held in one of the massive funeral homes where there would be four or five funerals going on at once, and Milo had taken a wrong turn and ended up standing in the back at the wrong funeral and being struck dumb by the widow’s beauty. Milo had been younger than his mother. And he knew the lawyer who was managing the insurance claim, they’d found out much later, at a point when no one but Ray thought that was interesting in any way at all. Then there had been the long so-called engagement and then, bingo, the marriage. Milo had been a surety agent, as he preferred to be referred to, rather than bail bondsman, which is what he was. In fact he had been the leading bail bondsman in San Francisco, very successful, with franchises operating in Modesto, Sacramento, and San Diego. There was money. His mother had adapted completely to Milo, but overnight adapted to someone who carried a snubnosed revolver and from the neck up looked more like the comic strip character Mandrake the Magician than anything else, with his slicked-back hair and pencil mustache. Where in hell had he come from, really? After they got married they went on vacations incessantly. And mysteriously Milo had liked Rex, and hated him, a complete reversal of the existing sibling-preference situation, caused by nothing he could think of that he’d done, nothing. He’d continued being earnestly himself, so far as he could reconstruct. He still wondered if there are funeral gigolos, a type, certain types who go to funerals on the off chance they can get next to the widow. In any case, next it was Milo shot to death in his office by somebody who was never caught.

That was almost sensationally mysterious. And then it had turned out that Milo was also insured to the hilt. And then, mystery of mysteries, his mother, now ensconced with a certain amount of splendor in a deluxe retirement community in Corte Madera, had, after a lifetime of inaction, taken up golf, at which she had become stellar. She played in tournaments for senior women amateurs and won trophies regularly. Her face appeared on magazines! Her whole life, now, was golf. And she had been actively mocking about sports of all kinds, as far back as he could remember. He could still hear her distinctive, hacking laugh. Her attitude had even been influential with him, to tell the truth. He had never really cared about sports.

Possibly Iris could find it in herself to be understanding about his developing an interest in the linings of things at a tender age. Of course she already knew a lot of this.

So.

So there Ray was, if you could find him, in one or another of the communicating cabinets that he constituted or that constituted him. And he had even left out a part of the array of cabinets. He knew why he had left it out. First, it was hard to articulate, and anyway it was nobody’s business. Secondly, it was a late part of the array. It was wrong to say it was new. But it had come to him in thunder recently and not, he hoped, just because Iris was getting labyrinthine and unhappy. This part of the array was himself as a perfect husband, to trivialize it, or as Compleat Husband preferably, except that Rex had contaminated even the most playful mental use of capitals for him. Thank you very much, he thought. But it was like this… in saving himself he had been saving Iris in the only way, an admittedly complex way, the only way he had been able to figure out.

It came to him then that probably one of the best things, or at least one of the simplest good things, you could do with your mortal life would be to pick out one absolutely first-rate deserving person and do everything you could conceive of in the world to make her happy, as best you might, and never be an adversary on small things, be more forthcoming than might be comfortable for you, hide anger and even justified irritation… always wait sexually… and think of Thomas Wyatt and Patiens shall be my song. It was right.

And the idea was to let this single flower bloom without notifying her of what was going on. Because it would be on the order of a present because it was only fair reciprocation for someone who enthralled you and who had incidentally saved you from your demons. Or the idea was to so charge her life with his appreciation that some morning she would sit up and say What the fuck is going on with us, I am so happy. The idea was to let this single flower bloom until it was something monstrous, like an item in a Max Ernst collage, something that fills the room and the occupant says Oh, this is you, this is you, my beloved friend, my love, now I see, something along those lines. He was going to float her in love and she would be like those paper flowers that open up. Water rising around her. She didn’t know about him that he could get an erection just thinking in passing about her and that on one occasion he had had to claim he was having a hamstring problem, sitting facing Boyle was when it had happened, sitting facing Boyle and saying Ow and massaging his Achilles tendon so he could sit there until it was decent to get up. Boyle was divorced, or rather separated, since he was a Roman Catholic. He was in some null state with his wife, was the story. A lot of regular officers in the agency were divorced. A divorce would kill Ray. Maybe the evaporation of Russia would make this easier. He wasn’t sure what he meant, unless it was that a certain pressure had gone out of that sector of his work. He couldn’t believe it was over with the Russians, leaving only bullshit antagonists on the horizon, it looked like now. Maybe they could all relax some. And the joke of it was that Russia had gone up in mist not because of anything the agency had done, really. The agency had been amazed, startled. All this would probably never lead to a verbal event, where she says Good God, I seem to be floating in love. It would be enough if she just thought it, or something like it. No, he had been too average in his attitude and all that toward her in the past, and now he knew it and so would she, soon enough, although she would feel it before she truly knew it, but he was repeating himself. So this would be his new secret work. It would be like adding, say, potted blue hyacinths, one pot at a time, to a shelf or a ledge in the living room, one at a time, until the atmosphere was paradisiacal.

* * *

Lillian was looking at him with a kind of horrified expression. He must have been talking to himself. He needed to concentrate on Boyle, who was certainly taking his time.

When Boyle had taken over, all the procedures had changed. The flexibility had gone out of the relationships, his with Boyle, at least. He assumed it was the same for the others. All the irony went away, what there had been. Boyle’s mission seemed to be that everyone needed to be reminded that all their activities were life and death, at some level. The cover at this embassy for the chief of station was consular officer. It always had been. And with Marion it had been perfectly okay to pop by upstairs on ostensible school business, say to discuss arrangements for student scholarships in the U.S. that the consular office had a lot to do with, pop in and talk about the real stuff, his assignments, how they were going. Marion had always let him read the Foreign Press Intelligence Summary cables that kept piling up. Now all that was dead. When he turned things in, Boyle never had much to say. Calls at the consular office had to be based on dire emergency only.

Now there was a whole new drill around seeing Boyle face to face. The embassy, a narrow three-story building, looked outward onto the parking lot flanking the mall. The American Library was built into the side of the embassy building and opened on one of the alleys that cut through from the parking lot to the concourse itself. The American Library had always been a physically separate entity. Somehow Boyle had arranged for the construction of a secret spiral staircase, housed in a tube stairwell, to connect his second-floor offices to the library’s inmost conference room. In fact, the old conference room in the rear had been divided in half for the purpose of creating a new, secret meeting place for Boyle’s use. Boyle’s access to the room was by way of a secret panel rather than a conventional doorway. Ray had never seen Boyle enter or exit the back cubicle. He was always in place, set to go, when Ray was let in. There was a new keypad lock on the door to the main conference room, and two keypads for the lock on the inner door. Ray had the combination to the first door only. Lillian had to punch him through. He understood that the tube stairwell was a tight fit for Boyle, which wouldn’t be surprising. Boyle tended to look flushed, often, when they met in back. In fact, he always did.

A few Batswana students had come in to read magazines. Ray wanted to get started with Boyle, but nothing was happening. Finally there was a signal. Lillian murmured something to Ray about picking up the photocopies he had come for. That was standard. He was glad to be leaving the reading room because a fine, gnawing, sourceless hum hung in the air, and something smelled powerfully of solvent. Lillian was thin, cold, and officious. She was a Motswana. She had studied library science in the United States. She had been posted to Dar es Salaam prior to coming home. She was about forty, he guessed. He always skipped offering her the traditional greetings, unless there were Batswana present, because he had gotten the distinct impression that she regarded the act as being condescending. Looking at her now, he wondered if Lillian was a genuine Motswana. She was very Nilotic, very elongated, with what the Batswana call “long eyes.” She had arrived in the country simultaneously with Boyle.

Boyle looked like a composite. His body from neck to hips was pyramidal. There was a fat-distribution problem. His face tended to gauntness. He had once been much fatter, judging by the loose skin of his underjaw that hung like a keel fin from chin to throat. He would tug on this when he was annoyed with himself, Ray had noted. From a distance, Boyle’s face had a healthy look, but the Celtic ruddiness in his cheeks, seen close-up, came from concentrated traceries of broken capillaries. He was in his early fifties. His rather golden hair was worn crewcut and was dense, like lawn. His eyebrows, too, were blond and dense, tousled, the right eyebrow interrupted by a vertical blank space, a scar, evidence of some encounter threatening to his eye, and a little intimidating, as all facial scars hinting at personal combat tended to be. His eyes were blue, a dull blue. Boyle was supposed to be a Knight of Malta, if that meant anything. Ray recognized for what it was Boyle’s soft, heavily manipulative style of speech. Boyle would drift into speaking so softly at certain times that Ray would be forced into asking him to repeat something, which made Ray look bad instead of Boyle, of course. The point of speaking unduly softly was to keep the listener in a state of tense hyperattention and, in Boyle’s case, to keep him subject to the startle effect produced by the occasional shout or loud groan of disgust.

Lillian had ushered him to the conference room. He looked away, up at the ceiling, while Lillian pressed the combinations in. That was the protocol. He entered the conference room and closed the door behind him. Ludicrously, a panel in the wall of the conference room slid open. He passed through, into the secret space.

Boyle was there. The room was more a cubicle than a room. The blond oval conference table was stupidly oversized, given the dimensions of the cubicle. Fluorescent panels overhead provided dull, even light. Ray took his seat, facing Boyle across the widest part of the table. Boyle’s chair was thronelike. Ray had a folding chair. Weak airconditioning was at work. Boyle’s thick hands were at rest on a folder in front of him.

Ray had fantasized about doing a Life of this man. He could do a classic. Boyle was a field of signs indicating that he probably thought of his physical emanations as very bad things. He used a cologne and an aftershave. The two scents were separable. He used breath pastilles once or twice during every meeting. His nails were groomed. His nostrils were hairless and scoured-looking.

Boyle nodded, but before Ray could say anything Boyle opened his folder and began writing something on a sheet of paper inside it.

Ray waited. Boyle was mostly faithful to the Western business dress mode, to suits and ties, which was possible for him because he existed in an unbroken regime of airconditioning. His BMW was airconditioned. Boyle dressed expensively. His only apparent concession to the climate of Africa was that he wore, on occasion, peculiar mesh shirts with stiff collars, still technically dress shirts, of a kind Ray had never seen on any other human being.

It was Ray’s idea that another key to Boyle’s presentation of self was a need he felt to project physical threat, to remind you that he was a True Man. True Men could hurt you, physically. True Men needed you to keep it in mind that they are caged panthers. But Boyle, at least since the onset of his weight or glandular problem, was not going to be credibly able to imply in any way that he might be able to spring at you if you offended him. But he was used to having the power to do that, so he had shifted the threat to things that he did with his face, his eyes, his voice. The idea was to prevent the rise of any notion that Boyle was, in fact, only a former True Man. This was reminding him of discussions with his mother on the subject of manhood, true manhood.

Boyle kept writing.

Ray observed that they had finally gotten around to carpeting the cubicle. The rug was the color of celery.

Ray reminded himself to be smart about how he put things to Boyle today. He might throw in a little jargon, for example. Boyle loved team talk and Ray avoided it. Marion Resnick had shared his ironical attitude toward it. If he wanted to cinch getting Boyle’s okay for making Morel a person of interest, it might behoove Ray to throw some jargonese at him.

Boyle was writing and writing.

When it came to team language, there was a lot of it. How up to date he was was also a question. Radish meant a left group that the agency had created from the ground up. Hull was a more generic term and applied to groups under control, of whatever political complexion. Sources who gave you information for their own reasons and without accepting any kind of payment were called chums. In the old days the term for someone under control through the mechanism of blackmail was orphan. He hated this language. Then there were the noms de guerre certain agents were known by, certain agents who were specialists, dangerous people. There was the Seraph. There was the Cat in the Hat. Boyle ate and drank this pulp aspect of the agency, you could tell. Skit was the term for a major operation, something world-shaking, something where specialists took over. Skits were rare and had nothing to do, usually, with the contract arm, for which he thanked God. Skits were for line officers, specialists, and, a lot of the time, proxies from friendly other services. Skits were not his province. He had never seen one.

Ray couldn’t believe what was happening. But he had to be steady and he needed to be pleasant while this was happening to him, because those were the rules and he had to be able to act if some notion of how to undo this should come to him. One thing Boyle did that Marion never had was to announce at the start of every meeting just how long you had. Boyle had given him twenty minutes and more than half of that was gone and there had to be enough time within the twenty minutes for Ray to get paid. It was payday.

Boyle was saying no to making Davis Morel a person of interest. He was being adamant. He seemed to be saying that it was no, even to making him a provisional person of interest, which was unheard of if the case being made was as strong as his was.

It was taking a chance, but Ray decided he had to put the proposition to Boyle again, from a slightly different angle. Whatever I thought was interesting, Marion thought was interesting, which let me in for moments like this, that eat shit.

Ray put it conditionally. “If I wrote him up it wouldn’t have to be a full-dress thing. I can keep it crisp. And I could drop it if it turns out to look like what you say it is. It would be a probe, or a preprobe, you’d be authorizing.”

Boyle shook his head.

What Ray couldn’t believe, especially, was that Boyle the ultra, Boyle the Knight of Malta, was uninterested in what looked like it might be the start of a Pagan Liberation Front. Why was he uninterested in a fount of irreligion being set up? Maybe Ray had to broaden his picture of the stain that might spread from Morel if nobody stanched it and so on and so forth.

Ray went on. “Summing it up, it goes like this. You have this character and you know he has some kind of definite campaign in mind. We see the offprints he has ready to go. We see these handout cards. And the evidence is pretty good that he’s planning to make tapes. He brought a shit-load of blank cassette tapes with him. We know that. So that even the illiterates can get the message.

“Even if the only question we had about him was who in hell he thinks he is, it would be worth getting the answer. But anyway. There’s also the list of peculiar names he had. Well, as I told you, I did figure out what that is. It’s a list of South American tribes exterminated by the Christian soldiers of Spain, just in one part of South America. So the implication is pretty clear. Africa has tribes, Botswana has tribes, the white man cometh, you see the point. It’s a litany of murdered tribes. It’s not so hard to imagine where this kind of fragment might fit in, is it? By the way the list comes from a book called Land Without Evil, and the guy who wrote it was a Brit who was friendly with the KGB.

“So okay, and the operation he has in mind, from what little we know from this distance, the operation has the potential to get all the religious groups in the country upset, once they hear about it. The Muslims are already upset, for other reasons. And don’t forget that this character is going to be identified as what he is, one of us, an American, which may be something we don’t particularly need on our plate, this part-time Antichrist being one of us.”

Ray was going on too long and he knew it, but he couldn’t make himself stop. He had to put everything out. He hated the slings and arrows of staircase wisdom. Also it was getting to be so tough to get face to face with Boyle that he had to seize the moment. Boyle wasn’t liking this, which wasn’t fine. But he had to lay it all out.

Ray said, “Another piece of this, and I’m sure you know all about it, is that Doctor Morel has two patients in the cabinet. The Secretary for the Office of the President and the Minister of Local Government and Lands. You know, we’re not the only people in Gaborone aware of this. Everybody knows it. You mention Morel’s name and people tell you how he saved Montshwa, or rather how first he saved Fabius and then Montshwa. They were in the delegation that went to Boston. This is the story that’s around. Fabius had some sort of leg problem and somebody sent him to Morel. And then Montshwa’s back seized up and Fabius had liked Morel so much he brought Montshwa to him and the rest is history. They walk, they run, they dance…”

“Lookit,” Boyle said, hard, which only showed Ray how long Boyle must have been out of contemporary U.S. culture. Lookit was a class-descriptor… lower class, and anyway it was long out of use. Even he knew that. Of course now Boyle was trying to be hard with him.

“Now lookit,” Boyle said. “None of this matters, and…”

Ray interrupted. “Wait, I’m not saying this character is Rasputin or Stephen Ward. I don’t think he is. But. But. Wait, I lost my train of thought. I think it was… he just gets here, he hardly gets here and he has friends in high places and people are noticing him and… sorry, I lost it.”

“Lookit,” Boyle said.

Again Ray stopped him. “Wait, before I forget this… I didn’t mention this before and you might want to consider it.

“Okay, let’s set aside all the friends in high places and think about this. I mentioned how one of the subjects our friend seems interested in agitating around is circumcision. I did mention it, didn’t I? But what I didn’t mention is bogwera.

“Bogwera is a ritual. See, at one time the Tswana circumcised their young men in these bogwera camps when they reached puberty. Well the tradition died down until very recently and now it’s coming back, the same as traditional medicine is. It’s part of a cultural revival. You can read notices announcing bogwera camps in Dikgang. They’re big.

“Right, so someone coming out saying that circumcision is for idiots is not going to be popular. I mean, my guess is that the arguments that are going to be made against it are going to be that it’s medically stupid, primarily. And there’s one more point, just quickly, about circumcision, which is that most of the Tswana tribes, maybe all of them, used to do it, but the Zulus, and there are a lot of Zulus in the mix in this country, some of them doing quite well, and the Zulus don’t do it, they think it’s stupid. There’s bad blood, historically, over the issue between the Xhosas, of which there are plenty here, especially around Mahalapye, and the Zulus. And this was because Shaka stopped circumcising his guys because it took them out of circulation just when they should be getting into shape for warmaking. The Xhosas actually see the Zulus as unclean because of it. It’s serious. Down in the Republic it’s part of the problem between the Zulus in Inkatha and the ANC, which is mostly Xhosa. Anyway, we have both groups intermingled up here. So potentially any kind of open campaigning on the issue is going to be inflammatory in a number of directions. You see my point.”

Ray was parched. There was never ever anything to drink available in the room. He realized that the room had been made smaller by the newly installed soundproofing that Boyle had ordered. Ceiling and walls were now covered with porous sheathing, a good idea if Boyle was going to have free use of his shouting option. The room ate sound. That was why Ray was parched. It was voice-strain. He should always get a drink of water before he saw Boyle.

Boyle’s long, slow sigh was meant to say that Ray was being taxing. That was fine. He had said everything he could. Ray gathered himself.

Boyle began. “Okay, let me just say it so you understand it. I don’t give a fuck about this chiropractor. Wait till he sees it here. I know these guys who want to save the world, believe me I know them. This fucker will go home in six months when he sees it here. More like six weeks. This is some kind of prima donna who thinks he’s too good to be a fucking chiropractor, so he decides he should be some stupid intellectual savior instead. I know him. Don’t bother me with people like this shithead. This guy is black. He was living in Cambridge, for Christ’s sake, so wait until he sees it here. Cape Town, someplace like that, he might end up in, not here. With these black characters it’s a romantic black bourgeoisie thing about Africa and it takes about six weeks until they say uh-oh. Cambridge, Boston, places you can have a lot of fun. Believe me I know enough about this character to know he means nothing to us, and I mean nothing, zero, zero squared. These cards he’s going to hand out. I wish I could be there and see the expression on the faces over at the takeaway. It’s a joke. Believe me that this is a guy who likes to eat out. He was living on the best street in Cambridge. I know his story. He was up against all the local geniuses they have around Cambridge. So out here he’s the biggest genius around. Fuck him. It’s a safari, believe me. Over here in the bulrushes he’s going to be Moses, a light to the nations, whatever. This is a man with his head up his own ass and finding it very interesting in there, very interesting, gee.”

Boyle carried a menthol inhaler which he dug out now and applied to his nostrils.

Boyle went on. “Believe me, when he was in Cambridge what he was was a chiropractor. Now he comes over here and he’s the light of the world. But tell me something. Why didn’t the light of the world write a book instead? He never published a thing, so far as I know. Why not? Believe me when I say this guy is going to self-destruct. Besides I know twenty ways to get him out of here if he fucks around to any degree. I don’t need to know a thing about this guy I don’t already know. I…”

Ray couldn’t help himself. He broke in again.

“Yeah, but you’re leaving out Fabius and Montshwa. They swear by him. What about his protection? What about…”

Boyle said, “You know, words fail me with you. There is no protection I can’t break. You don’t know a thing about what I can do. I don’t mean to beat up on your idea, but I don’t think you understand a lot of things you should.”

New times! Ray thought. Boyle was normally laconic, and laconic at a completely standard middle-class level of word choice. He was playing a rougher class. The profanity, or the profusion of it, was new times too. There was more of it than was necessary to make Boyle’s point, which was that he was tough at the core, so watch out. And there was no way for Ray to miss the implications of Boyle’s allusions to academics as pains in the ass and problems in general for the true heroes of the world—the hard men, the practical men, less overeducated men like Boyle himself.

“So then you don’t want me to pursue this in any way.”

“Shape or form. No.”

“Even if I pick up something.”

“No. Nope. Don’t pick anything up. Don’t. Don’t touch him, don’t think about him, don’t have dreams about him. I’m sorry if you think he’s fascinating. He isn’t. Anyway there’s somebody else I need you for, if I can ever get to it.

“Also, and this is a minor thing, but this is the way I want it, I don’t want anything on paper necessarily, from you. Unless you want to come in here and write it here and hand it straight in. I guess that would be okay except that it ties up the room. I guess we could try it. The fact is what I would prefer, and I think we are going to get to this, is for you to come in when you have something and just tape it here. Put it on a tape, it’s the fastest way. You can abbreviate. What I don’t want is you working on profiles on paper outside this room, because you know and I know what can happen. Now. I understand it’s not going to be as polished. It’s not the same thing writing it in here out of your head or taping it. But I don’t want you hit by a truck and there is all this interesting material, you know, in your backpack. I don’t want that. The people here do not know how to drive. I love them but they cannot fucking drive. Maybe in fifty years. And I know how careful you are and how you keep all your notes safe when you write. I know all that. I know you have your burn box, I know you always use it. But I want to get away from paper.”

Ray felt his face getting hot. It was possible he had brought this on himself by fighting to get Morel. That would mean it was a punishment that might be reversed at some point, if he what, if he what, if he could think of something to get it reversed, like what? Boyle was dropping back into his more middle-class presentation of self, showing collegiality now. Everything is a trap, Ray thought.

Boyle wouldn’t stop. “I see your stuff and your stuff is beautiful, I grant you. And Marion told me all about it and how they love it at McLean. I looked at your file and it’s beautiful. You know. So I don’t say categorically don’t write, but it has to be in here, and how you can fit that in I don’t venture to say. You need to shorten up anyway, if you want to write. But the fact is that if I have it on tape I can do something else while I listen. You know. I have my problems with time the same as you do. Whatever I need to do I can do. I can replay if I need to. I can listen to you on the can and get two things done at once. You know. And. We might make an exception and you could tape either here or in back, sometimes, upstairs. I could fix it up as an exception. Part of it is that I have more stuff I have to read than I can handle. I’m buried in it. So as I say we’re definitely going to tape only, fairly soon. It makes sense because you get more on tape faster and anyway we can go from tape to text through a machine if we need an extract.”

I need to comprehend this, Ray thought. If he thinks he can make me quit with this shit I have news for him because patiens shall be my song: He may have been lying about Morel, why Morel is nothing to us, or he may not, why would he though?… I can’t think in here.

From left to right on the table in front of Ray were an open pack of Rothman’s brand cigarettes and a pale blue desk blotter in a leatherette holder, on which rested the file folder Boyle had brought. Boyle’s thick hands rested overlapped on the folder, right hand on top, Boyle’s absurd involved gold Knights of Malta ring, if that’s what it was, gleaming on his middle finger. It was impossible not to be curious about what the ring meant, but it was also impossible to show you were curious because that meant you were someone unable to place such a ring, correctly identify its provenance, the device on it. So the task was not to fixate on it while it glinted away at you, big, big enough to have a secret compartment, like a Borgia ring. Boyle was waiting for him to assent, Boyle invariably had an open pack of cigarettes on display. It was there as a memento mori, in a way, and signified that time was fleeting and that Boyle couldn’t wait to get upstairs and have a smoke. There was no smoking in the conference room. There were no ashtrays. You always knew you were keeping Boyle from having a smoke. You were intended to remember that, because it would keep you crisp and succinct.

Ray thought, I hate your fucking face, and said, “We can manage this. I um I appreciate… your time problems… your…” Then he didn’t know what else to say. This is obedience, he thought.

“We’re fine,” Boyle said, just as Ray said, “No we’re fine.” Ray was embarrassed.

Boyle appreciated obedience, and was showing he did, Ray understood, by considerately opening the folder he was pushing toward him and swinging it around so that Ray could begin reading immediately. Boyle relapped his hands, this time with his ring hand underneath, his seal of power withdrawn, a sign of collegiality restored because Ray was being good. All of Boyle’s inlays were gold, Ray had noted during one of the few times he had experienced Boyle laughing at something. He had no idea why that had come back to him.

Ray opened the folder, acutely aware that it behooved him to show there and then that he could absorb like a demon. He had to be in control. He had to kill his grievances for the time being, but truly kill them, including the recurrent feeling that life was just one goddamned unannounced test after another, which hurt because given the state of the world, he had a right to relax, they all did, the entire agency, not only himself.

The subject was a Motswana, Samuel Kerekang, forty, single, recently returned to the country after a protracted, successful, and, reading between the lines, heroic pursuit of a doctorate in civil engineering from the University of Edinburgh no less.

His hatred of Boyle was interfering. An itch between his shoulder blades began to gnaw. Another thing about the new improved inner sanctum he was trapped in with Boyle was that it was hotter than before, despite the fact that it was supposedly served by the same airconditioning system that cooled the rest of the installation. He was seeing himself as the assistant who gets into the slotted box the magician pushes swords through from every conceivable angle, and who has to defeat the tangle of swords through sheer contortionism.

Boyle was watching him read, watching him rather than turning to some little piece of makework as a courtesy, such as reading something himself. Maybe it was possible Boyle would change as time went on. He was not completely unadaptable. Somehow he had figured out that he should stop wearing the stupid bolo ties he had showed up in during the transition with Resnick. Maybe Resnick had said something. And he had stopped going around in the totally inappropriate guayaberas he had brought with him from Central America, flimsy things that let his mat of chest hair show like a dark shield, dark not blond or red blond like his hair, by the way. Without looking up to check, he knew that Boyle was studying him.

The room was oppressive, its windowlessness especially. He was seized with the desire to tell Boyle something he wouldn’t want to hear, to wit, that everybody knew his secure room had a secret connection to the embassy upstairs. Somebody with the contractors had let it out. So Boyle had created a farce, like a set for a farce on a stage, French farce with doors opening and closing and people popping in and out. It struck Ray that this was a piece of true intelligence, a secret blown, true news.

Ray was finding Kerekang admirable, so far. His odyssey through various polytechnics in the U.K., the struggle for bursaries, and his final triumph at the University of Edinburgh, it was all admirable. The man was a prize, from the standpoint of the country, a jewel. This is pointless, he thought.

Softly, and as though in passing, Ray said, “At some point I may come back to Morel…” He waited for a murmur, a grunt, anything, from Boyle, but nothing came, only a penetrating silence. My life is important, Ray thought, appearances notwithstanding. He read harder. Boyle would give him nothing.

The feeling of confinement afflicting him came as a surprise, because, so far as he knew, he was especially resistant to that problem, judging by his occasional misadventures in tight places like crawl spaces and closets. Boyle would be amazed to know that Ray wanted to approve of him. It was a general rule of life that things went better if you liked whomever fate happened to give you as your boss. So now Boyle was launched on a program to make that permanently impossible.

He was dealing with a miscellany, not a coherent, unified profile. Even so, all he would normally need was one pass at a collection like this. But something there was that didn’t want him to perform. He was retaining proper names, but not much more. He was going to have to reread, selectively and only a little, but it was still rereading, which Boyle would detect. This was a rag rug. He had to hurry. There was a stopwatch feature on Boyle’s Rolex. This ragbag he had been handed was one more test, Ray thought.

Various British entities had been tracking Kerekang, MI5 and an office Ray had never heard of in the Overseas Development Ministry, but there were also some data from American sources. There was a skimpy contribution from the American consulate in Edinburgh. The American interest had to be explained by Kerekang’s two trips to the University of Michigan at Lansing for special certificate study. The prose in the biodata piece was laughable, below the level usually found in the most routine profiling done by political-economic officers in American embassies. Apparently the British were losing their grip on the English language as fast as the colonials were. He was still failing to see what was wrong with Kerekang. The transcripts showed good to very good academic performance. Naturally there were gaps in the transcripts for the periods when Kerekang had been forced to pause and get work. And he had managed to find work, off the books, piecework tailoring for dry cleaning establishments. So there was another skill the man had. The fact that he had gotten work off the books was noted without comment. To Ray, it only demonstrated tenacity and ingenuity. Kerekang had taken a six-week course in barbering in one of the interstices in his odyssey, so presumably he had picked up extra change cutting the hair of other students. There were periods for which there seemed to be no documentation on Kerekang whatever, but they hardly added up to the Lost Years of Jesus. He didn’t see anything sinister. And they could be artifacts of the reporting process, such as it was, easily.

“We want him,” Boyle said.

Ray didn’t reply. He needed Boyle to be quiet. He hated Boyle and he didn’t want Boyle to explain what he meant by wanting Kerekang. That could mean several things. He was going to interpret it as meaning that they wanted leverage, ultimately, on this poor, hardworking devil, who had lived over a fishmonger’s shop in Edinburgh for his last two years there, which must have been fun. Somebody had gone around to check out his lodgings. The top floors of the building were described as a warren of tiny rooms let exclusively to foreign students. The author of the report had taken the trouble to note that the owner of the building was a Jew, a fact not necessarily revealed by the landlord’s last name, which was Brown.

Why was Kerekang not a pearl of great price? He wanted to tell Boyle that Kerekang represented a truth about Botswana he was probably unaware of, which was that some huge percentage of Batswana sent abroad for advanced training returned to the country when their studies were over. People wanted to come back. The Batswana liked Botswana. They were patriots. And they seemed to like each other. This dry, peculiar country, who could love it? But they did, and they mostly came back to be there. There was something in the social nexus, something there, comity, something, We stand outside it, Ray thought. Boyle has no idea he is outside anything… He thinks information gets him inside, I hate his fucking face, he knows nothing, he is destroying me: These people do like each other… Well, there are certain exceptions… They don’t like the Bakalanga that much, and they think the Bushmen are a nuisance… There are always exceptions. Nothing is perfect, he thought.

Boyle was chewing another pastille. Ray could hear it cracking.

The material on Kerekang’s Botswana background was between thin and pathetic, although it did contain the information that Kerekang was a graduate of St. James’s, before Ray’s time. Otherwise there was only paucity. In England Kerekang had been under mail cover. There were a few sample intercepts in the folder. A note advised that the samples were perfectly representative. The mail cover summary showed nothing out of the ordinary, with principal correspondents being family members in two locations, Chitumbe, far in the north above Maun, and Mahalapye, not so far from Gaborone, to the east. Kerekang’s father, who was dead, had been from one of the senior lineages of the Tawana tribal group, a significant man, apparently. Kerekang’s mother was still alive. She was part of the Xhosa enclave in Mahalapye. Clearly there had been a divorce or separation. His mother had raised him. The marriage between a Xhosa and a Tawana from different ends of the country was odd, but such things happened. His mother operated a small general dealership in Mahalapye now, but she had previously worked as a seamstress. There was an interesting story somewhere in Kerekang’s parental background. He used his mother’s surname. Again, everything looked innocuous to Ray. It was possible, he supposed, that Kerekang was illegitimate. But that counted for nothing here.

Boyle said, “You notice he graduated from your school.”

“I see that.”

“He wanted to work for the government. That got fucked. Now we hear he’s up to something over at the university. We don’t know what. We want to know. Get whatever you can. He’s been seen over there.”

Ray kept reading.

Boyle said, “What I gave you, that-there, isn’t everything. More’s coming.”

“Then that might explain something,” Ray said.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean there isn’t much here against the man.”

Boyle didn’t like it.

“Don’t worry about it. There’s plenty in there. Lots. And as I say, there’s more. Go ahead and finish. Everything you need is in that-there. Go ahead.”

Ray knew he had gone a little far, forgetting just for a second that these were new times for him. But he hadn’t really forgotten. It had been a test to see if what was happening to him was in fact happening, and it was. Insubordinate was the word Boyle was wanting to apply to Ray, to his slightest and mildest gestures at shaping what was going on here. Merely proposing that they focus on Morel was going to be insubordinate of him. This may be hell, he thought.

Kerekang’s political history, looked at rationally, was barely even interesting. Where was his leftness? He had been briefly a member of a British Trotskyist youth organization that no longer existed. He had been expelled from it, which, depending on the reasons for the expulsion, could easily be a recommendation for him. There was no information about the expulsion, but the likelihood was that whoever prepared the report was operating with information provided from within the youth group, otherwise it would only have been noted that Kerekang had dropped out of the group. It would have been useful to have some indication of why Kerekang had been expelled, but Ray’s guess was that it had something to do with a paper critical of the Trotskyist Unity Movement in South Africa that he had produced for a political science seminar but which had gotten into other hands where it had caused umbrage. There was no copy of this paper in the folder, stupidly. On the evidence, it looked to Ray as though Kerekang had been eighty-sixed as punishment for a certain mental independence. But it had all happened seven or eight years ago in any case, and there was nothing else anywhere to suggest a subsequent physical affiliation with any kind of political organization of the left. In fact, the records of his borrowings from two university libraries showed a clear drift away from politics and into the purely technical literature surrounding his discipline, mechanical engineering, with excursions into rural sociology, ecology, African ethnology. He was on the mailing list of the Schumacher Society. Someone had given him a gift subscription to Living Marxism, which was read by three-quarters of the British intelligentsia, but he had allowed the subscription to lapse. His only current subscriptions were to something called the Herald of Permaculture and to the Arid Lands Newsletter, with advice on how to squeeze blood out of stones in places like the Negev. He had a real interest, according to the register of library borrowings, in Victorian poetry. He loved Browning, apparently. He loved Tennyson. Boyle might not find that endearing, but Ray did. In fact the temperament that was declaring itself in these fragments was positive. It was attractive. There was nothing to show any connection with South African liberation apparatuses, no ANC or PAC connections at all, which was in its own way a little strange. He had put up a traveling member of the Black Consciousness Movement for a week or so, in Edinburgh, but this was someone who had been in exile in Botswana for years, a personal friend, apparently longtime. And there was absolutely no sign of any connection with what passed for the left in Botswana, the MELSians, the purists of the Marx-Engels-Lenin-Stalin Society, or BoSo, the vaguer and bigger but still essentially hapless Botswana Social Front. So there was nothing, really, although it had to be said that there were so many holes in the records that it was slightly hazardous to be as definite as he felt. Where was his sex life, for example? Whatever anyone had on that was missing. Unless there was nothing, and Kerekang was a complete ascetic, a celibate, which was a little hard to believe. Ray was nearly through.

There was one last item of recent date that Boyle undoubtedly thought bore heavily on Kerekang’s supposed leftness. Mounted on a separate sheet was a photocopy strip, the product of one of the new microcopiers, copiers the size of a matchbox that were very popular with the Brits, who issued them to freelance intelligence scavengers called scouts. MI5 loved the microcopiers and loved scouts, a lot of whom were graduate students. The microcopiers had been developed for scholarly use, for copying bits of text from volumes too unwieldy for normal copying or from books in delicate condition. They were popular with scholars working in restricted archives, too, and were responsible for a fair amount of protected information making its way into the light of day. The note that accompanied the strip described it as a lift from the first page of an article this scout had seen Kerekang reading in the International Review of Social History, Volume Five, Number One, 1960. This was not the kind of thing that would turn up in Kerekang’s checkout register, obviously, because it was something he had taken off an open shelf. Some pest tracking Kerekang had dashed over when Kerekang left his reading momentarily to go to the lavatory or out for a smoke. Not for a smoke. Kerekang was not a smoker. In any case, it had been a hurried take, diagonal, picking up only a part of the title and a swatch of text below it.

KARL MAR

 AND THE REVO

 I

 German liberals of 1848 failed

  hence incapable of managing the

   come dogma. We tend to suspect

    because it fits the “practical re

     euvering safely among existing f

      ideals and hope. In his recent a

       Theodore S. Hamerow has shown th

         liberals of 1848 failed not becau

It was a botch, actually. It annoyed Ray to find it there. It was more nothing, or it was nothing much, although, since it was dated to 1991, it was clear Boyle was going to take it as proof that Kerekang was a closet Bolshevik at heart. There was an additional note stating that Kerekang had been observed taking copious notes as he read this particular article. And that was everything, except for the photograph.

He had saved the photograph for last for a reason. Faces influence us unduly, was the problem.

“That’s him,” Boyle said.

Ray picked up the identification photograph. It was a passport photo, very clear, blown up to eight by ten. Letting a photograph speak to you was an art, of sorts. You had to let whatever was in it flow out to you in the first seconds you handled it. You could call the moment metaphysical. The point was to give in to the impulse to have the image utter something. Ray thought of it as a feminine mode of perception.

He studied the photo, not getting much. Being watched made it difficult.

Boyle muttered something Ray made himself ignore.

Ray received Kerekang as a person of force and intelligence.

He looked judicious and he looked intelligent. But judiciousness he should set aside as a possible artifact, a bleed-over from his knowledge that Kerekang was an engineer and thus presumably someone with a practical intelligence. Intelligence was there, in the eyes, somehow. How you could determine intelligence by looking at the naked meat of the eye was a deep part of the mystery of faces. Its presence seemed to have nothing to do with any relationship between the eyes and the rest of the face.

Boyle was murmuring and doing something.

Kerekang looked less than forty in the photograph. He had good, symmetrical features but was probably not particularly vain, since there were two or three white hairs at either end of his toothbrush mustache that he might easily have plucked. He had a good, unlined brow. The whites of his eyes were very clear, which could mean clean living. The bridge of his nose was higher than standard for a Motswana and it looked beveled or carved, the result of a repaired break, was Ray’s guess. The cut of his eyes was interesting. There was a very slight epicanthic valencing visible. The lip-line of his mustache was a little ragged, which also told against vanity. His ears were small and almost flat to the skull, the lobes curved under toward the head. There were very faint initiation scars, like cat scratches, three on each side, fanning out from the ends of his eyes. He had a good, dense head of hair, recessed over the temples about standardly for his age. There was no vanity in the haircut, no shaping—it was just evenly cropped, top and sides. Kerekang was wearing a cheap tweed jacket and a dress shirt with long collar-points, one of which was a little scrolled. The shirt was an antique. The dark knit tie he was wearing was far from new. The knot was shiny. Kerekang’s skin color, Ray decided, was what he thought of as medium black. It was funny how hit or miss the description of skin color still was, although possibly in some byway of physical anthropology some crank or other had proposed some scheme for descriptive standardization. Every paint company had different proprietary names for the identical colors, whereas you would think it would be in some general commercial interest for everybody to work from the same palette, but no.

Ray closed the file and was astounded that Boyle pulled it back instantly and swept it away to one side of the table. They were about to go on to something else, immediately.

They were not going to discuss it. If Ray wanted to demur he could fuck himself, was what Boyle was demonstrating.

Ray was breathless. He thought, You come here, you cocksucker, and you do this to me: You cocksucker: You don’t know me: You do this like you’re doing some minor thing, some nothing, but I will get you, I will fuck you, because this is you trying to kill me, you fuck, this is what I do in my life and you don’t even know me: This is stupid, you stupid fuck.

Boyle was going to pay him now. He had taken out an envelope and was extracting rand and pula notes from it. Today was payday.

Boyle was laying out too much in one of the two piles he was making. The buy-money pile looked correct, the usual five hundred pula and two hundred rands, but unless he was getting more small-denomination bills this time, there was too much in the pay pile.

“You get a raise,” Boyle said. He slipped a rubber band around the stack of buy money, but set another rubber band down next to the pay stack, so that Ray could count it and be delighted and band it up himself.

Boyle pushed two receipts over to Ray for him to sign, which Ray did without looking at them, pretending to be in the midst of thought. Boyle would never see him count his money.

“I got you a raise,” Boyle said.

Ray took out his wallet and put the buy money into it.

“You’re up a notch,” Boyle said.

“I am?”

“You do a lot. You give us a lot. I don’t like to be cheap.”

“I try.”

“Yeah. We appreciate it.” Boyle’s yeah was turning into the Boer yah you heard everywhere in Gaborone, unless Ray was wrong. He wanted to believe it. He banded his pay stack without counting it and set it in front of him. Boyle was showing nothing, no reaction to Ray’s refusal to count the money. He was keeping his face dead.

Ray thought, It’s genius to injure and reward, or demote and promote, in the same stroke… I am dealing with a genius.

Ray put the money into his wallet, uncounted.

He thought, This is adolescent.

What he was facing was the certainty that, under Boyle, the way it had been for him with the agency was completely over. He was a writer they were turning into a clerk. He was being mechanized. Now what they wanted from him was his notes, not his finished work, but not even his notes, really. They wanted what he knew and what he could find out, but in a checklist. Boyle was grotesque. Just now, waiting for Ray to say something appropriate, to succumb nicely, Boyle had found a piece of lint on his cuff and was scrutinizing it as though it were filth and in a second he would flick it away, in disgust. I create, Ray thought. Boyle wanted him to go now.

Ray sat there. It was essential not to beg.

He couldn’t help it. He said, “I’ve never, never once, the whole time I’ve been working, never once lost control of any material, of my material. It just couldn’t happen and it never has happened. I’ve never had a question on security from any quarter, not one. I have my drill down. And they know my stuff at Registry.” This was begging.

“They’ll miss me at Registry,” Ray said.

Boyle said, “They’ll get over it.” He eased his chair back from the table. That was the signal for Ray to go.

He felt incapable of moving. He had to get home. But she can’t know, he thought, she can’t, this is killing me and she can’t know: Also I can hear it, I can hear it when she says it’s perfect. It’s perfect, you quit… You quit, we leave, it’s perfect, we go: But I can’t. He wanted to tell her.

Ray got to his feet. By way of acknowledging the raise, since he had to do something adult, he patted his hip pocket.

The library proper was still unpopulated, so he sat down at a corner table, with his back to the room, and opened whatever magazine he had pulled off the rack as he passed it. It was Car and Driver.

What he was facing came in two parts. Part one was the vocational part, so to speak, which was bad enough. Part one said he was through doing any significant writing and that targets would be assigned to him like to a clerk. He would have nothing to say about who was of interest, nothing. As for the case of the great enigma Davis Morel constituted, he could forget it, the best enigma of his career, but he had to do nothing, find out nothing, and be quiet. That was the vocational part.

Part two was larger and, in a way, worse. No Quarter would be a name for it. It was a dark thing, if it was true. But it was going to be true because it would explain, among other things, assigning Boyle, someone like Boyle, as chief of station in Gaborone.

Part two was a premonition or presentiment. Ray thought, Part one is my clerkship, Part two is why I can’t have Morel, but it goes beyond that and it explains why they do care about Kerekang and don’t care about Morel. It says we don’t get to relax, now that the Russians are down, it says Never Again! this is our Never Again campaign and it says we, the agency, but not only the agency, beyond it, above it, something is saying this is the task, whatever is left of the red menace you uproot, hit them while they’re down, get them out of here, fuck them, never darken our door again. The moment of relaxing and enjoying the spectacle of this ancient enemy disintegrating practically unaided would never come. He felt he knew what had to be going on in the collective mind of the victorious West. This is what they think, he thought, we look at everything that went wrong in the world, since socialism became a serious proposition, as a gigantic bloody detour forced on capital and entrepreneurship and the reality principle and the parliamentary system by these red bastards, because without socialism getting hold of first one sovereign state and then a bloc of them, there would never have been, one, fascism, which was a reaction against socialism, fear of it, and, two, there would never have been the long huge waste of resources the countries of the West had had to bear once the socialist states turned into military monsters like us: This is the way they see it, the sane forces of the world plunged into distraction for almost a hundred years, one distraction after another before normal history could begin again… First we were stuck to fight fascism, and that was close, and there never would have been any fascism without the goddamned socialist states we had to deal with and fuck next, because they were fucking with us from the start, that would be the history. Certain bastards had distracted the world with their system that didn’t work on its own anyway.

So Never Again made sense. He could see Boyle as a perfect vector of this view of things. Boyle was almost a lens to him, through which he could see this imperative articulating, swelling up. All Boyle wanted was a new heaven and a new earth, someplace all clean and nice.

Where was it the Greeks had sown the earth with salt after killing everybody there who annoyed them? It was like that. Pulling up root-stocks, pouring boiling water down ant holes, grinding the earth clean, cautery… This was what was going on. His head ached. He felt unsteady. He had the hopeless idea of going back in and talking to Boyle again, trying to. He might still be there. Boyle always stayed sitting until Ray left the room. You mainly saw him sitting, like Roosevelt. There was something wrong with one of his knees. Of course Boyle made sense being in this part of the forest, of course. Because somebody had to do something about the last real pocket of popular Marxism in the entire world, South Africa, where the South African Communist Party was recruiting like crazy and pulled plenty of strings in the ANC, which was going to govern, no question about it. Of course he had to be around here in case a black majority communism got going in a country loaded with diamonds and platinum and gold, in case Johannesburg turned into the Vatican of a new race-communism. Of course Boyle would see it differently than beloved Marion Resnick, who thought the South African Communist Party would wither away once the struggle-elite in the African National Congress turned its attention to getting rich. He didn’t know why Boyle hadn’t been sent straight to the Republic of South Africa, although there was plenty of work for him here. Botswana had been a main rear area for the ANC and there were still plenty of live connections to the ANC on the ground and under it. There were rumors of oil under the Kalahari. And Botswana was stable, but how stable?

He needed to be with Iris. He had to tell her about Boyle, but there was no way he could. But he had to see her. He could go home. He could tell Curwen he was sick, tell Curwen something, Curwen loved him, for some reason. He’d have to tell Iris he was coming down with something. Maybe he could stand to return to St. James.

He left the library and went unseeingly out into the alleyway and then into the main concourse of the mall, where nothing had changed. He looked up at the sky. A string of clouds like bloated checkmarks was passing overhead, north to south. It was a short string, amounting to nothing, not part of a system. He thought, You feel hope when something dims the sun, you hope for clouds, for rain, because you become part of the thirst when the drought goes on as long as this one. His throat was dry, but water seemed irrelevant.

He had to get home.

He was not calm. He felt like marching, oddly enough.

He would go home, but Boyle would regret this. Because the fact was, he realized, that he was not going to obey. He would show Boyle what Morel was whether he liked it or not, and he would write his best Life, and it could be done. He had power—he had his powers.

He stood on the curb, waiting for the traffic on Queens Road to slacken. Normally he was patient enough with the unrelenting traffic that flowed in the streets surrounding the mall and accepted the necessity of being poised to dart through any plausible opening, since the etiquette of the drivers, especially of the government vehicles, was a little intermittent when it came to the pedestrian right of way. But today it was intolerable, the racket, the diesel fumes, the jammed minivans blasting reggae and socca. That people wanted to take the mufflers off their cars in order to let the true power of their engines be heard was something he could understand, but he could not understand why nothing was ever done about it by the police. It was hardly a violation that required deep subtlety to detect. And there were police in the area who did intervene occasionally in traffic incidents and snarls if they were severe enough. He had to get through. No break occurred.

He wanted to part the traffic with his hands, with a sweeping motion of his hands, irrationally. It was taking too long. Finally the flow of traffic did abate a little, but still he stood there. He then stepped off, and plunged through. What had finally made him move was a seizure of vivid, unasked-for images from his early life, images linked with succulence and moisture, himself standing in some garden after a rain and staring at nasturtiums with leaves as big as soup plates, and then once standing in an East Coast snowscape, listening, after heavy wet snow had fallen, for the rare sound wet snow makes falling in clots into new soft snow beneath. He was parched but not thirsty.

Okay, it was definite. He was going to Kgari Close, and Iris. He could call Curwen to report in, or Iris could, although that would magnify things, which he didn’t want. He disliked lying to Curwen.

Walking was helping. He was deciding something enormous as he walked and he knew that when he got to Iris it would be final.

He was in revolt. It was simple. How it would work was hard to say. No one could know, but he was. He would unmask Morel, one. It would help if when he got home he took off these shorts and this shirt and these socks. In Africa we’re all in costume, look at us, he thought.

This felt right. It was strange. Things he had had to put up with in the past without understanding why felt better now, in retrospect, certain painful things. He could feel a sort of, what, concordance, taking place inside him. I am rising, he thought.

He had a faint ringing in his ears, he noticed, now that he was in the quieter streets near his house. And then that passed. He felt clear.

But when he got home and let himself in he found the house empty. There was no one on hand, anywhere. And there was no note evident saying where Iris was. No note meant he could assume she had been expecting him home at his usual ETA. He could hunt up Dimakatso and ask if she knew anything, of course. But he wouldn’t. He was aware that Dimakatso had a tendency to decamp and attend to her own business whenever the coast was clear, which was just about what anybody in her situation would do, because the struggle for personal free time was a universal, besides which she was a hard worker when she worked. One part of why he didn’t like the idea of bothering her in her quarters was that he had guilt feelings over how modest the accommodations provided her were, not that there was anything that could be done about it. The other part of his reluctance came from not wanting to advertise that he had no idea where his wife might be, the implications of which, the man-in-the-street implications of which, he had no interest in unleashing. Also Dimakatso had been clearing her throat obtrusively lately. She smoked dagga for her chronic upper respiratory complaints. Often when she came in after lunch her eyes would be like rubies or little taillights, and he didn’t relish impinging on Dimakatso while she was at it, smoking away, in her cloud of unknowing.

He went through the pantry and into the garage. The VW was there, so Iris had walked wherever she’d gone. They were in walking distance of ninety percent of everything of interest, and she believed in walking, so she could be roughly anywhere.

The house felt dead without Iris, dead and clean and cold. There was a saucer with two cherry pits in it. The house felt like the Mary Celeste, except that Iris would be found. He remembered that he needed to call Curwen immediately.

He got through to the school and worked everything out smoothly but talking too fast. Mild food poisoning had been a good excuse. Curwen himself had had a touch of it recently.

He could use the time to his advantage. Unease about Iris was putting Boyle and all his works in perspective, a little.

It was conceivable that Iris was having another go at lunch with Lor. He had urged her to give it a third try. She needed friends. He took off his shirt and his shorts, his costume. He sat down on the living room sofa in his underwear, kneesocks, and shoes. Iris liked to tease him about his attachment to his classic undershirts because, as she pointed out correctly, they were bare under the armpits so that you sweated directly into your shirt but they covered up areas where you hardly sweated at all, and raised your body temperature to boot. He couldn’t help it. He was used to them, and both his father and his stepfather had worn them. And he could get very decent classic undershirts easily, too, because they were still popular in South Africa with the time-lagged Boers. He couldn’t sit there for more than a minute because Dimakatso was going to turn up at some point.

He proceeded to wash up. He put on a fresh shirt and bush shorts. It was seeming less likely to him that Iris had gone again to lunch with Lor. Their second lunch had been more of the same, the usual. Iris had repeated samples of the conversation to him, in Lor’s voice: It’s really so frightening nowadays in Joburg, especially Hillbrow, where we always stay… Because of the unemployed people everywhere living in alleys and on stoops and in every foyer, everywhere, running after you and forcing these unnecessary services on you, running along to open any door you approach, even automatic doors, standing there with their arm extended, ushering you into places of business they have nothing whatever to do with… Or if you parallel-park you’re directed by people using big arm movements as though without them doing that you might crash into something despite the fact you have oceans of room… And the high-rises with laundry fluttering from every balcony… And all the squatters taking over and all the buildings to let or for sale… And the begging, so constant…

He went into the breezeway and contemplated his yard. For two days Rex’s most recent letter, a jumbo with many closely written pages, had been left out, naked, on top of the credenza in the breezeway, out of its envelope, like bait or like the trap itself. He was ignoring it. It was right behind him.

Something moved along the shrubbery at the left-hand edge of his field of view. It was Fikile, early again. He was early today because on other days recently he had been late. Apparently he could offset his late arrivals by coming absurdly early on other days. Of course there was no need for watchguarding during the middle of the day. And there was doubly no need for it when he overlapped with the yardman, who came three days a week though not today. Ray suspected that Iris had said yes to this arrangement, it would be like her. If those oscillations kept on, Ray would say something.

Ray wasn’t interested in any more exposure to his brother. He had made it explicit that he had no desire to follow every kink and dogleg in Rex’s travesty of a career. The thick letter represented another unwanted task. He had too many tasks as it was. Iris presented him with more tasks than she knew. He was conscientious, and out of love and conscience he took as tasks many things, wishful things, things she might waft at him completely innocently. When she said Why is the French noun for war feminine and why is the French for vagina masculine, it wasn’t as though he physically had to go and jerk somebody’s hem at the Alliance Française or hunt around in his reference books, no. But he loved her and anything he could satisfy her on right off the bat became a kind of ghost task for him whether she meant it to be or not.

Ray hefted the letter, not looking at it.

These letters were getting longer because Iris was encouraging it, and encouraging it, it had to be, by being forthcoming about herself and her problems, a.k.a. their problems, their his-and-hers problems. He had no idea what she was writing to Rex, beyond what he could infer from what Rex wrote back. What she was writing to Rex was not something he was going to obsess on. He should remember that there were harmless models for what she was probably doing here. Rex was providing a gay ear. There was nothing dangerous about that. So many major women were linked to gay men as confidants that in a way Iris was only joining a procession. Iris was major. She didn’t know it, but Ray did. Of course, in this case the bastard listening to her was his own queer brother, his enemy. Rex was spying on him through Iris. Revenge was going on.

Every ongoing relationship contains a quid pro quo somewhere, he thought: The task is identifying it. How intimate was Rex being in these letters? Very, Ray had gathered from hints dropped here and there by Iris. So.

He could scan, he could read excerpts, or he could read the whole thing.

He picked up the letter and began to read it, leaning against the wall.

My Dear Iris:

We are still in Mexico, but in Oaxaca, in a weird hotel right on the zocalo. Our room has an actual balcony you can go out on to endure the musical performances blaring from the bandshell it overlooks, or purling up from the strolling mariachi groups who afflict the street-level cafés until late at night, or rising repetitively from the blind or otherwisely decrepit solo guitarists with their overlapping tiny repertoires.

Mexico is frightening. It’s as frightening as Grace Jones and frightening in somewhat the same way she is. It’s sort of beautiful but you get the feeling it wants to bite you. It’s a nightmare that Joel is enjoying very much.

I’m up early and have come downstairs alone to have breakfast and write these lines to you in privacy. It’s a glorious morning and as usual one part of God’s creation is eating another part of it for breakfast. I hope to join in but I am growing faint. The service in Mexican restaurants is obsequious but slow. But to be absolutely fair the waiters in these arcade cafés have other things to do than bring you your food. For example they have to keep the doves off your table. Some can scare them away with a deft snap of a filthy towel they carry. Others have developed a peculiar screaming cry that seems to do the job, sometimes clearing several tables at once. Bending over your place setting to blow dove-molt off it is another task they have.

It is truly early. A detachment of the Mexican army marches into the zocalo every morning after waking you up at six-thirty with their reveille. Except that possibly you are already awake because another nighttime activity that begins at just about the time when the cafés finally close is the de-limbing, with chain saws, of the tule trees that are planted throughout and around the zocalo. Pollution is killing them. I don’t know why the de-limbing is restricted to the small hours, unless it’s because the government thinks tourists would be upset at the spectacle. But in my opinion tourists who come to Mexico are very hardy indeed.

When I say Mexico is frightening what I mean is that almost every aspect of Mexico that you confront contains something frightening, like the bus driver who is all smiles and courtesy until you get to your destination and he won’t take your suitcase out of the storage section in the bottom of the bus unless you give him a huge tip. I do hope you know who Grace Jones is. It occurs to me you may not. I’ll send a picture. You go to the museum to see the antiquities and these turn out to be mainly horrific representations in stone of skulls and rattlesnakes. In the last earthquake, in Mexico City, an innocuous building collapsed—I think it was the post office—and what do you know, there was an operative torture chamber in it.

So now here we are in Oaxaca, where we can enjoy my kind of travel. There are basically two kinds of travels, my kind, vegetative travel, where you go someplace and vegetate and stay in your room and sigh looking out at the palm fronds if need be, and the other kind, activist travel, where people trudge out to every ruin, plant themselves for a half second before every painting in the museum, in short push their way into every nook and cranny of the Other in order to suck out the genius in all the loci they can get to. So I should be happy. But am I? No.

Do you know the Emily Dickinson poem that begins “A Day! Help! Help! Another Day!”? That’s almost me. I need you to help me with Joel, or rather I need you to help me with certain impulses I am developing toward him, impulses I disown but need help in curbing. I suspect that what is happening is my own fault, in a way. Lately Joel is finding himself irresistible. Somehow all my loving efforts to build up his selfconfidence have born monstrous fruit. He has begun to really love himself. He feels he is too good for anything. Here is an outburst he had. He started to put on a shirt with his monogram on it, a gift from his mother, but then stopped and tore it off and threw it on the floor, saying I HATE MY INITIALS. Suddenly he is too fine for them, or something. Later we were getting on the bus for a day trip to Monte Alban and he was in a fine mood, looking forward to it, we had a nice little lunch packed, and he turned to me and said, “This is going to be neat. Now don’t let anything I do ruin our day.”

Now he is preening himself and is on the verge of flirting with other people. In fact he was flirting the other night, in a sidelong way and over his shoulder, with a clot of tenured fauves from the UC Berkeley Art & Musicology Departments.

As you know, and as Ray will have emphasized, I am not prepossessing, physically. I could be described as pudgy. Also I am being driven bald at an accelerated rate lately, through anxiety, I believe, or possibly by something in the water in Mexico. I am not saying I am repulsive. Let others say that. But on my best day I rise to the average. Joel seemed always not to notice. So we got on famously until I succeeded in convincing him that not only is he attractive but he is worth knowing and worth treating nicely. The problem that is emerging between us is teasing. I have a tendency to want to tease, which I am basically in control of. But I began teasing more as his rehab progressed, I think. I don’t know why. Possibly I am seeing him as a duckling getting ready to fly, and if he is going to fly away it might be better for me if he does it now, before I get further attached to him. So that would be one Surmise. Or the impulse could be to tease him as a way of showing I still have some kinds of power he doesn’t. His attempts to tease back are pathetic. Or the fact that I am footing the bill for everything could be involved. One thing I do to make a little money now and then is to sell one of the business names I’ve copyrighted. I have a list of these names, in different categories, and I sold one, Bodysmith, to a gym chain, and here we are, spending my fee together. We never discuss money. We used to. He used to actually express gratitude now and then. Or possibly I tease because teasing was the worst thing ever done to me (ask your husband what I am talking about) and I have some perverse drive to make Joel experience at least a dilute version of what I went through. I don’t even know what I mean by this. I am trying to think of everything. I am drifting toward wanting to humiliate Joel and I reject myself for it.

I see that my breakfast is here. On a plate with a dollop of refried beans and a piece of toast like a section of planking is a sunnyside up fried egg with a major bloodspot in it. The coffee is like ink. This may be a diet day for me. I have had many diet days in Mexico.

Joel makes me wonder who I am.

By the way, we must be Proud of our identities these days, we must be fierce, insulting, even, as we proclaim ourselves, flaunt our teeny individualities. A woman who teaches English at one of the junior colleges in Marin told me that a student requested she not be required to do a paper on a certain writer because he smoked. She explained that she felt strongly on the subject and would be much more comfortable expositing a nonsmoker. Believe me that this happened. This is not the sort of thing a normal mind could make up.

One thing that tempts me in re teasing is that Joel is truly a virginal mind. Teasing can be a form of instruction. And Joel is a dummy, in fact, but so beautiful that if it weren’t for his accompanying stupidity he would be totally beyond my reach or grasp. I no longer say “A penny for your thoughts” to Joel. I hate being overcharged.

I want you to know that I don’t blame Joel for his defects, by the way. He is the product of several tragedies larger than he is, so to say. He has no relationship whatever to the written word, for example, which is now common. All his referentia are audiovisual.

This is what I think is happening with American children in a very general way, and what I think happened to Joel. I think people are finding their own children boring. And this is due to two factors. Factor one is that by the time a child normally would be a developed persona, a real individual, he or she has become a kind of playback machine for various media tropes and loops: he or she has become what he or she beheld, that is, your child is old television, a rerun. Your child is things you have seen yourself and have outgrown. Then factor two comes into play, to wit, that when the parent looks at his boring child he knows that on television or video, even as he looks into the face of his child, there is bound to be something on that’s more interesting than the child before him.

This is my Joel. His parents were bored by him. Add to this that they made their livings in media themselves and were, I would say, themselves boring. Even his beauty failed to interest them, I feel safe in saying. Both parents were goodlooking, so he was expected to be beautiful.

This is my television-as-the-root-of-all-evil general theory of American civilizational decline. You will observe that it explains a lot, including why children are out of control to the point of bringing guns to school and scribbling their initials all over the material landscape. By the way, I never wanted television in our house. Ask Ray. It was purely visceral with me. I didn’t know why, but I hated the thought of it. Ray wanted it. So we got it.

I can pretty well re-create what happened finally between Joel and his parents. They didn’t mind that he was gay, apparently, but they hated it that he was so childish. He tried to be a model, but something childish showed through in photographs and it didn’t work out for him. I feel responsible for him. I’m not sure there are hordes of people who would want Joel once they got past his fleshly envelope, if you know what I mean. He has a little trouble with his fricatives, for example, not a real speech defect but kind of embarrassing and, I think, one of the reasons he got into the habit of not talking much. He has had the experience of being tossed away after something in him seemed not to live up to his exterior. Also, Joel is afraid of life, but in an adorable way. For example, every morning he makes me read the obituaries to see if anyone younger than he is has died. He doesn’t want the names, just the ages, if there are any. And these days there often are. At this point I should mention a shining virtue of his. He is faithful. Fidelity is natural to him. Even if he flirts now and then, this is true of Joel. So, to continue. Joel gets an oversupply of attention for his exterior and I get a paucity of attention for mine. I have a rich interior and a poor (face it) sort of exterior. He has a rich exterior and internally he is a mixed bag, say. Nobody knows what I am because of what my exterior oh so wrongly suggests. So in a way we make a perfect object together.

I badly want you not to misperceive me over Joel. I sensed in your questions that you might be, thus I want to emphasize what I love about him. He is the kind of man who can be loved. He is loyal. He is still maturing. He is less precipitate in conversation than he was. And he is beautiful. With him I have an experience of sublime beauty beyond anything I ever thought I would have. His innocence, when it isn’t driving me insane, is probably good for me. And I think I see more, now, of what he sees in me. It’s my mind and my wit that attract him, those things and my talent for striking back. I get revenge. He has seen me in action, my fangs and talons out. He sees me as an armed thing. He is, by nature, a disarmed personality, which has been a disaster because his beauty has attracted the unjust in greater numbers than the just.

Ray stopped reading, feeling coldness blossom inside himself. He thought, This is for me, warnings for me, these letters are acts of war… He is striking at me through her. Ray continued reading.

Also, there is a fact of gay life that comes into this that you may not appreciate. I can have my beautiful man and enjoy him intensely as long as I can and not worry about the things I would be worrying about if we were planning to reproduce. There are gay men who want to adopt and so on, a minority, and go for it, I say, if you want that. But there is a certain freedom to enjoy beauty per se that straights must lack, with their great mission of reproducing our species, and so having to consider other qualities, such as brains, for example.

Ray had to stop. He thought, I’m surrounded, this is demonic… The idea is to suggest that Iris is my Joel, my ornament, my toy… We have no children, et cetera, that’s the subtext, that’s it! The bastard!

Now he had to finish the letter. He had to see what else there was that was like this. His hands were shaking. He hadn’t eaten. That had been a mistake.

But getting back to what Joel sees in me, there’s a little more to it. Joel is developing what I would call stirrings of personal ambition, a new thing. He sees me as a writer and a sort of facilitator. He has an idea for a screenplay. In fact he has two ideas. In the first screenplay, there is a pet uprising. Pets attack and kill their owners. And those fortunate enough not to own pets are killed by wild animals who sense their moment of opportunity and rush in out of the woods to do the deed. Farm animals kill their owners also. Snakes leap up out of toilets, of course. That’s the entire thing. He has made a few notes, mainly of clever ways that the smaller and more innocuous pets might dispatch their much larger human owners. I’m trying to be encouraging to him. By the way, there is no reprieve for humanity in this movie. The pets win. That’s the first screenplay. The second screenplay is what he refers to as a screwball comedy. He doesn’t really know what a screwball comedy is, but he thinks he is conceiving one. In the second screenplay a standard plot (he is vacillating between a western and a film noir) proceeds. The comic element in this western or film noir is as follows: everyday objects employed in the film, like guns or hammers or knives and forks, keep changing in size. In one scene a fork will be a tiny implement like a pickle fork and in the next it will be the size of a pitchfork. A character will, as Joel envisions it, charge around in shoes the size of coffins. Or he will attempt to charge around. Sometimes it will be impossible! The action will be totally impeded by this unreliability in the size of objects, but nobody will ever allude to it. Hence the comedy. And there will be no suggestion as to why this is happening. And that is the screwball comedy. He thinks we could collaborate beautifully on this. I do, in fact, think there is something funny in this idea. It’s certainly high concept.

Just one of Joel’s virtues, not so far mentioned, that I want to touch on. He is kindness itself. A great graphic artist named Posada is from here, a nineteenth-century artist. There is a little museum and gallery devoted to him. Posada was a genius who did upwards of fifteen thousand engravings and woodcuts. But of the original plates and blocks only about four hundred and fifty survive. The bulk of the graphic work was in periodicals that were destroyed or that moldered away years ago. There is no record. My Joel got tears in his eyes when he heard all this.

Why should I feel I want to humiliate this good, boyish man who seems to love me, almost? When you write me, give me any help you can, but also know that it has been helpful just to write this and know that you will be reading it.

My regards to Ray, who, I know, would like to see me humiliated in any way possible. This is something he has always wanted and which was always as mysterious to me as my own feelings now about Joel are. It could be genetic but I don’t really believe that. Ray hates me because I’m not a True Man. I think he has always felt this way toward me. But if what he thinks is a True Man is a True Man, then he isn’t one either.

Ray paused, thinking Ah, the True Men. Their mother had been an expert at discerning True Men, separating them from counterfeit True Men in the flux of male celebrity. Gary Cooper had been a True Man, as had Gene Tunney, General Douglas MacArthur, and, oddly, one singer, Robert Goulet…

You may tell him I said this. I would love to hear any response he gives you. A True Man would never be gay like me, he thinks. What is a True Man? you ask. I’d say that at the heart of a True Man is a sort of hunger to get as close as possible to the act of obliterating some other True Man, either directly (war) or indirectly and symbolically (nowadays via sports… action-adventure fantasy products… killing animals as surrogates for killing other True Men and using the tally to show everyone how high you rank as a potential obliterator of actual men). You really have to distinguish between the voluntary and the involuntary contents of the mind of a True Man. True Men have to think about work and business, too, in order to eat. Fortunately there is scope for a lot of transferred aggression in economic life, especially at the entrepreneur level. So men have to think a lot about work and making it and turning their firms into killers of other competitor firms. Plenty of True Men are gay, by the way. But I’m not one, and neither is Ray, mon semblable, mon frère. Ask him. He was never in a war. He hates hunting. He would rather not be outdoors with the True Men. He’s not interested in sports. There’s a psychological thing called the Bem scale. Tell him to take it and see where he registers. I dare him. But I am willing to go on record as saying he will find some way never to do this. I know him.

Ray stopped reading, not out of annoyance but because he was being watched.

11. They Played Games

Ray always knew when he was being watched. He was being watched now. It was a faculty he had and not a product of his connection with the agency.

He saw who was watching him. It was Dimakatso. She was standing just within the extreme right edge of his field of view, just visible outside the frame of the breezeway window overlooking the front yard. She had come around that side of the house. She was in and out of sight, but mostly out. He had seen her without moving his head or looking up. He continued ostensibly reading. He had caught her without any movement, he was sure, that would have let her know he was aware of her. Now only her little paunch was showing. He wanted to know why she was behaving so furtively. He couldn’t remember her being furtive in any of her outdoor activities before. She was the opposite. There were times when you had to look away, in fact, like when she pulled up her skirts and rinsed her legs at the standpipe or when she was rubbing the soles of her feet against a piece of log she had, to get rid of calluses.

Something was going on.

He moved closer to the breezeway window. His view comprehended the drive forking from the gate and most of the gate. An overgrown rubber bush half obscured the gate. He was sure Dimakatso had gone back around the house and was now out there somewhere to his left.

He moved even closer to the breezeway window, pretending to be reading with more absorption than before, moving only to get better light.

He wanted to know why nothing, nothing, ever, was straightforward for him in the last year, say. Blame it on a guy named God, he thought.

He thought, Okay! Because there she was, standing, waiting for something. He had caught her edging out from behind the garage. She was poised to go to the gate. She had already made one false start and drawn back, looking in his direction. He kept his head down, which was hard because he was looking into brightness without being able to shade his eyes.

It was clear what this was. He could, of course, go out and see what she had to say. But there was no question about what this was. She was waiting to intercept Iris coming back from wherever she’d been, to warn her about what, though?

It looked like the universal conspiracy of women, stanza nine billion, on the face of it. She was out there to signal to Iris that he was on the scene, contrary to what she expected at this time of day.

He hated it.

The question was whether she would try to signal from the wings or actually run out to give the message. It would be the second. There was something urgent about this business.

Too much is enough, he thought, I have too much to deal with, I have Boyle, I have no more writing, I have my orders, my POI is not Morel, no, it’s whoever the most virtuous character in Pilgrim’s Progress is, Kerekang is his equivalent, my POI is, if you can believe that.

Dimakatso made another false start.

He thought, Then on top of that include the bastard my brother that no one has ever been able to do anything about: I have to do something, though, from Africa no less, but what?

Dimakatso was in motion, rigidly sauntering up to the gate. As a piece of acting, it was pathetic. Iris had to be coming.

He went out onto the patio, still holding the letter, trying to look idly okay.

Dimakatso met Iris at the gate. He had been right. The point had been to alert her, and it could be completely innocent, the reason being a considerate desire that her mistress not be taken off guard. Iris liked the incredibly sour Dimakatso. Or the reason could be sinister, for want of a better word, except that the word had never applied to anything Iris did and couldn’t. Iris saw him.

Iris struck a pose of comic surprise, hands up to shoulder level, palms out. Dimakatso sidled briskly off, looking at the ground. He heard the kitchen door bang.

He loved his wife, shimmering there all in white. She was dressed up, he would say, that is, dressed up for her, dressed up a little more than usual for going downtown. She was wearing a long white rough linen skirt he particularly liked her in, a longsleeved white silk blouse with shoulder tabs they both thought were funny, her best sandals, but with stockings, which was unusual, and one of her conical Lesotho sun hats, one of the extreme ones with a sort of raffia sphere sitting on the peak. They were ungainly objects and she had to keep this one on her head with cords run through a slip bead and cinched under her chin. The cords left faint, transient grooves in the flesh of her jaw that he liked to press away. Generally, she was well covered up for the sun, as she was supposed to be, except that she wasn’t wearing her sunglasses, which he ought to upbraid her about at some point. A line of brass buttons closed her skirt along one leg. He wanted to unbutton her and tell her everything, which was impossible. Now would be a good time for one of the imaginary crude pickup lines she used to laugh at, whatever they were, like Gee I bet you look tremendous naked, or Let’s go take each other’s pants off.

She came up to him, looking concerned. They were going to talk first about him, about why he was there, at home, and that would leave the delicate question of whether or not she was going to volunteer anything about where she’d been. Or would it be up to him to ask? Questions of her whereabouts had never been an issue, but now that he thought of it, her whereabouts were a gray area, something like opening mail addressed to her before she got to it. Neither of them ever opened letters addressed to the other, although either could read any mail opened and left around. Of course they were both aware he belonged to an organization that gave him access to diabolical machines that could flush out and print whatever was inside an envelope and never leave a sign.

“Is anything wrong?” she asked.

He said that he had felt lightheaded after leaving one of his meetings at the embassy, so he’d come home instead of going back to St. James, and that once he had gotten home there had been an episode of diarrhea, that he was feeling better, now, but Curwen had told him to take the rest of the day off. It was almost identical to what he’d told Curwen. Her breathing was a little rapid, he felt, even allowing for exertion, for hurrying.

She looked somber. She undid the chin cord tie and took her hat off. There were the marks in her jaw flesh. She was wearing her hair straight back, unparted, held by a white bandeau he didn’t think he’d ever seen.

He said, “I feel okay, now. It was quick. Whatever it was.”

“Are you sure? You look a little green. God, I wish I’d been here. I was out walking. Why wasn’t I here? Did you think of calling me to come for you?”

“No, I just hoofed it. I’m fine, Iris, fine, nothing to worry about.”

She touched his forehead with the back of her hand. She was lying.

At least it was possible she was. The way she had tried to slide across what she’d been doing and over onto an adjoining subject was bad. And she was wearing stockings, she would never wear stockings to take a walk. Now this, he thought.

“Come inside,” she said.

If it was a lie, he was entering a new world here, a cold place. He hated this place. He shivered, and she noticed it.

“You aren’t well. Look at you shivering.”

He knew he was putting her through something, but there was no way he could avoid it. What he was putting her through was the generic fear of falling ill in Africa, where small things turned fatal because the medical system was what it was, so full of gaps, and because if you started shaking it could as easily be malaria or sleeping sickness as some kind of minor electrolyte imbalance.

He was, now, actually beginning to feel unwell, obviously in sympathy with the story he had told. You could call it a talent, he thought. But of course he hadn’t eaten since breakfast, so that was part of it. Undoubtedly stress was pouring buckets of acid into his stomach. Her lie was the worst thing, it was the worst. He had been okay until she lied, physically okay.

There was no proof she had lied. But he wanted to know since when was she taking walks in the middle of the day, for example? If they walked, they walked in the cool of the evening. If she was out in the midday sun wearing stockings it stood to reason it wasn’t for exercise or for the breeze. There was no breeze. She wasn’t carrying anything, which would fit with walking for its own sake. She had her waist pack on, twisted around to the back, the way she preferred to wear it despite the fact that it was less secure than wearing it on the side. But she wouldn’t wear it on the side because she didn’t want to bulk out the line her hips made. She was entirely deluded about her hips. She was womanly, was all. She was so obstinate, in ways. My hips fill the universe, she liked to murmur as she was getting undressed. And then he would reassure her. It was a routine.

Still carrying Rex’s letter, he followed her into the house. She had noticed the letter in his hand but, obviously, had decided not to mention it at this juncture. He thought that must be because she didn’t want to go down any byways right now. She was thinking. He could tell. She needed time to think her way into her lie. If it was a lie. She needed him not to engage with her for a while. I know you so well, he thought. She would try to stow him away while she thought. That would be next.

“You need to get off your feet,” she said. “And let me get you some cold tea. Also your pulse, I want to take your pulse. We’re sure this is something you ate, right? That would be the best thing for it to be…” Now she was looking pale herself. Before she had been flushed, in fact. It was happening. He was frightening her.

“Excuse me a second,” he said, and stepped into the bathroom. He ran water for a moment, then stood immobile while the water ran. He did it not to deepen his act but to get more time to think, himself. He was in turmoil. Lying is murder, he thought, she is killing me, she has a lover.

Iris insisted that he lie down in the darkened bedroom, which he did. She began naming the teas he could have.

“Give me anything. Give me orange pekoe, then. Or Earl Grey. And tepid is fine. I don’t need it to be freezing.”

She was in favor of an herb tea.

“You gave me a choice and I chose. Orange pekoe is what I want.”

“All right, all right.” She signaled to Dimakatso, who was in the doorway, waiting for instructions.

“Are you angry at me?” Iris asked him.

“No, no I’m just not feeling that great.”

“Did you get something at one of the takeaways? King’s?”

“A drumstick, in effect. I had some chicken peri-peri at King’s before my meeting. I didn’t finish it. It tasted all right.”

“Usually the takeaways are safe. They overcook everything so drastically.”

“I know.”

He declined a warm compress.

She sat next to him on the bed and took his hand. Tea came. He drank some, then lay back, closing his eyes, trying to drive the word whore, which was unfair, out of his thought-stream.

She got up carefully. “Stay here,” she said, leaving.

He wanted to sleep, not that it was conceivable. Dreaming of dreamless sleep was somebody’s line and not bad. An interval of blankness might help him. He had to get through this. Nothing was going to be right until she admitted she’d lied. She had gone someplace she didn’t want him to know about and then she had lied about it.

He didn’t know how he was going to be able to sound normal when he talked to her until this was cleared up. She had seemed guilty, or evasive, at least, out on the stoop.

So, had all her unhappiness and discontent lately come to a point in sex with someone else? Or had the sex not happened yet, which would be something, anyway. It could be in the preliminary stages, in the flirtation stage.

But why would she do it if there was nothing the matter with their own sex life?

The last time, she had asked him, Do you want to know what it feels like to a woman when… What it feels like when you come really hard? And she just had. And he had said of course he wanted to know. And she had said, Well, part of what it feels like is like this, that you’re just a drop of oil on a white tablecloth, just a tiny, still drop of oil, and then in a flash you’re expanding outward in every direction, evenly, turning into a stain, a little drop expanding into a bright stain that covers the universe, the process of that, the expanding… that’s part of it…

Anyone in his right mind would take that as a compliment from his wife.

Of course, she was unusual. She had an appetite for sex that was probably unusual. She liked it about herself. She was humorous on the subject. When he had said, and this was a compliment or at least an appreciation, when he had said Don’t you think you let yourself be felt up more than the average woman does without complaining? she had answered I have no idea how much the average woman complains.

What was he supposed to do? What?

He was accommodating, also, in his opinion. They did what she wanted. They played games. They had fun. There were so many examples. What was her problem? There were so many examples, even recently. The last game, how had it started? He couldn’t remember, but there had been a discussion of what it would be like to have sex with someone who was in the hospital. Now he remembered. It had come up because someone they knew had done it. They had speculated about the mechanics of it and she had gotten mildly aroused and what with one thing and another she had asked him if he could imagine himself making love to her when he was in the hospital, when of course there was no lock on the door to his room. And he had described himself doing it to her when she came to visit him in the hospital during this imaginary convalescence. And then to amuse her he had gone into the bathroom and wound gauze rather obscenely around his naked torso and then come back to her, and it had amused her, and she had gotten into the spirit of the game, though afterward she had teased him for the gauze, for being so literal.

One last thought and then he would stop thinking along these lines, but the fact was that at thirty-eight the conventional wisdom was that she was at her peak, or just getting there, and she had always been sexually lively. And then the last thought was that, of course, the point of some of the games was for one partner or the other to be somebody else, so maybe games led to an appetite for a real somebody else, which would constitute an argument against too many games.

Where had she been? Who was there for her in walking distance? But since anything could be a lie, it was possible she had been picked up anywhere and dropped off down at the corner. Or she could have walked one way and been driven back afterward and dropped off. Or was it conceivable the whole thing was to trick him into thinking she had done something she hadn’t, make him jealous so that she could dissolve the whole thing by proving that she’d been someplace innocent? But that was ridiculous because she’d had no idea he would come home early and find her gone.

He heard the shower. Iris was in the shower.

That’s nice, he thought. Normally she showers in the morning, so why is she showering now? Morning or evening, always, unless she was rinsing the evidence off, if there was evidence.

There was no point in pretending to sleep. He was too agitated. He had to be doing something.

Perfect, he could read some more Rex, as much as he could stand, anyway. He skipped onward from where he’d stopped, by a few pages.

At the market in Mérida there was a madman Joel found fascinating. This was an emaciated indio who sat on a straw mat for long periods holding up a hand mirror at various distances from his face, sometimes holding it close up and sometimes at arm’s length. Then at intervals he would go into an apparent state of rage and violently shake the mirror to get his image out of it, presumably. He shakes it so hard you think he is going to get hurt. The moment is frighteningly violent. And that’s the climax of his act, after which he starts another bout of staring. Now Joel is finding an increasing number of things to complain about, like the absence here in Oaxaca of anything as picturesque as the madman in Mérida. And about the absence of something which is, so far as I can tell, totally unobtainable in Mexico, which I tend to take as a sign that he wants us to go home to dingalingdom quite soon. He needs Toll House cookies.

Well, time to cease, for now. I’ve been at this so long, Joel will be fuming.

Later. Definitely, we are coming to the end of things here. Now Joel is tired of the processions, which formerly were his chief delight. Many, many processions empty into the zocalo, either at the Cathedral next to us or at the Gobernación across from us, behind the bandhouse or pergola or whatever it is. I myself like the processions.

From your balcony you look down one of the streets that end here and you see, for example, what looks like a column of giant lollipops approaching. But it turns out to be women, matrons, wearing taffeta party dresses and sporting sunburst headdresses and keening something. Political processions go straight to the Gobernación and graffitize the walls of it (while the army & police look on benignly) and then as soon as the processions disperse, a special team comes out of the Gobernación with paint rollers and paints over everything. They use extremely fast-drying paint. They have to, because there are sometimes two political manifestations in one day. The peasant demonstration yesterday afternoon, someone explained to me, was because gunmen secretly connected to the government were killing them, of all things. The banner they were carrying was a sort of naive art masterpiece, huge, and featuring a rosette of red fists around some monogram or other. Joel likes the religious processions better, or did until one night when a very short procession arrived consisting of a flatbed truck with a hideous effigy of a saint on it attended by little girls dressed as angels and mechanically making their hands do falling leaf motions to, I guess, show adoration. Joel rushed down to see and arrived just as someone in the truck began tossing cherry bombs down among the feet of the few watchers. Now Joel doesn’t like religious processions at all. Now, in fact, to this man who was formerly nonstoply snapping his fingers and grooving generally, to this man Mexico is “too noisy.”

Well, dear friend, that will be all until next time. I don’t have them with me, so I can’t comment properly on the limericks you wrote.

What limericks?, Ray wanted to know: Which limericks?

Ray and Iris had collaborated on limericks. But that had been long ago. He put the letter down.

The droning of the shower continued, which he didn’t like. Iris was always economical about showering because the geyser that heated the water ran on electricity and electricity was expensive. This was the longest shower she had ever taken, it seemed to him. Thanks, he thought.

He couldn’t deal with more venom, more Rex, and he couldn’t keep lying there doing nothing. He had to deal with Morel, was the main thing he had to do, but he couldn’t think about it, not now while he was being lied to.

He had to occupy himself with something practical.

Valentine’s Day was coming and he had his traditional poem to do. He did one every Valentine’s Day. He would force everything out of his consciousness except that. He could work on his poem and make it sing.

He didn’t have much, so far.

Does Julio love a sunlamp?
Does Tarzan love a Vine?
Does dumda love a dumda?
Are you my Valentine?

The title was going to be It Goes Without Saying. If he could think of something that implied the sentiment without stating it, he’d use that instead. Or it could be untitled.

Everything is so delicate, he thought. There were cases where wives fucked outside the hearth just once or twice and then regretted it so much they became even more doting than they’d been before. These were in literature. So one route would be to remain passive, just agree to be deceived for some period and then see. This is fantasy, he thought, I am injured, literature is not life.

Did Nero love a fiddle?
Does Yeats not love a Trine?
Does dumda love a dumda?
Are you my Valentine?

He thought, But why am I doing this if I think she’s betrayed me?… because she may not have, except that I smelled fear on her… that’s the thing, unfortunately.

The shower went on. The length of this shower was important.

Or I could make it the best valentine I ever wrote, he thought, shame her and remind her. There had been a decline in complexity, a decline in the amount of effort he put into the project, over the years. And there had been a drift to the more humorous and away from the grandiose, as he now considered them, the grandiose efforts of the early days of their marriage, his efforts at real poetry. Although it wasn’t all his fault that he’d stopped attempting a certain kind of valentine. She had complained about some of the early ones. That wasn’t true. She hadn’t complained but she had noted that they seemed to contain a despairing tone not exactly appropriate to the occasion. One of his lines, The last light slips from the highest peaks, had led to a discussion he had come away from depressed, he remembered, or deflated. Also, now she was writing limericks herself, apparently. What could he do?

The shower-sound stopped. A dense silence replaced it.

There were other things in their past… like the game of Baseless Admonitions, where one of them would shout completely arbitrary or inappropriate injunctions and warnings and accusations at the other, like You love only gold! or Be true to your school! or… what others? This means war! Christ, there had been dozens of these canards and where were they now? You mate with any beast! had been another one, thank you very much. Why had the game dropped away? This was an interesting question, and so was the question of who had been the first one to stop initiating these exchanges.

Last year’s valentine had been the shortest.

Rude Time won’t go away
But neither will my love for you,
So that’s okay.

But she had claimed she liked it, loved it, and now this…

Iris came tentatively into the room, wearing a bathrobe now, a towel around her neck. It meant nothing, necessarily, that her eyes seemed red.

“You’re awake,” she said.

“Well, the shower…”

“I’m sorry.”

He reassured her that he was better.

She came to him, took his hand, and looked imploringly, he thought, down at him. Something was coming. He pulled himself up against the headboard. She had something clutched in one hand, a card, white, a note? It was going to be relevant. What was it?

She sighed, looked away from him, then reached over and pushed Rex’s letter out of the way, as though she wanted the zone around him empty of any distraction. She tried to begin, twice. It was clear she didn’t know how to begin with whatever was coming and about to kill him, no doubt. She patted his hand, which was the worst sign possible. He was numb.

“Your voice sounds so hollow in these rooms… because of the high ceilings,” she said. He shrugged.

She was circling. She couldn’t bear it, either, which was something. He thought, Does Gallo love his wine?

She mastered herself, swallowing. “Anyway,” she said.

“Anyway… Did you know that my father once told me he wouldn’t read Conrad because Conrad was a Jew, something he concluded from the jacket portrait on The Portable Conrad I’d given him for a present. It was frightening. I was stunned. I’d never known he was an anti-Semite. But you repress things. I’d forgotten about it. It was out of the blue.”

Ray was listening. It was clear that this was deeply fraught for her. She seemed to be in a state of upheaval. Life is insane, he thought.

“You can probably tell I’ve been talking about this kind of thing, Ray, and…

“And anyway, I’ve been seeing someone…” She rushed it out, squeezing Ray’s hand and moving closer to him.

He couldn’t speak, at first. He could groan.

“Oh God,” he said finally.

“Wait, but what’s wrong. I haven’t…”

“What’s wrong? You said you’re seeing someone, I mean this is the way the world ends…”

She broke in with “Oh please can we discuss this without literary quotations coming into it, please please please. No I’m sorry.

“No, I’m seeing a doctor, a very fine, well, therapist, but he’s also a doctor of medicine, which I know is important. Oh my darling, no. A doctor, which is where I was today when you came in, and of course I hadn’t told you and I didn’t want to tell you. But. But. Ray, I have been unhappy. Oh but God you’re an idiot!” She stopped to compose herself a little.

“I’ve been three times. It’s very helpful, Ray. He’s just around the corner. It’s been really important for me, really good. Amazingly good. And I didn’t tell you because you have enough on your plate and I thought I could go a few times and, well, feel better, and I could avoid bringing you into it because you know the way you are. You hover and worry and you hover and you worry about me if I… Well, you know. You want me to be happy so much. And that’s what I want, for your sake, really. Mine too, though.

“And I didn’t even go originally because I was unhappy, really. This is true. I went because I thought my urine looked too dark. Which I mentioned to you and you thought I was being absurd I guess. You said it was chloroquine, but we’ve been taking chloroquine for years and I never noticed that effect. But you didn’t look, you just insisted that we all fluctuate or whatever you said. So.

“My urine is fine, by the way.

“But anyway he’s, well, quite holistic I suppose is the term, and he asked about whatever else might be bothering me. He could hardly not see it.

“And, well… So I go to him now. I was going to tell you. It’s just that you surprised me today and I wasn’t ready to.

“So that was stupid.

“Also he’d told me to tell you.”

What she’d been clutching was an appointment card. She handed it to Ray.

“This is the man,” she said. “You’d approve of him.”

The card read Davis Morel, M.D., 16 Tshekedi Crescent, Gaborone, Eclectic Medicine. Her next appointment was for the following Tuesday, at noon.

Ray reached for her and, trembling, embraced her fiercely.

She relaxed.

12. He Knew Astonishing Things

Two days had passed.

Tonight dessert was half a papaya each, perfectly ripe papaya that deserved to be savored bite by bite, he knew. He had tried to eat companionably, at her desultory rate, God knew he had, but there were things to do. She seemed to have forgotten that they were going out for a walk this evening.

Surely now she was finished. The scraped papaya skin was a flimsy thing, like a silk scarf and like the platonic idea of the color orange. Idly she held it up to the light to get the pure orange effect the skin yielded when she did that. She was sensitive to color. She was an aesthete, a genuine one. She stopped to notice aesthetic events there was really no time for, fleeting conjunctures and juxtapositions of things. Later you were glad you had bothered.

He got up. They could go out in a minute.

One thing did bother him about her seizures of meticulousness, and that was that there was another explanation for them, and that explanation was boredom. Elongating simple tasks like eating half a papaya into protracted, meticulously executed exercises. Peeling carrots and destringing celery earlier, she had arranged the carrot peels and celery strings into the letter I on the counter as they talked. When she was starting to sauté something for supper, she had drizzled some symbol or other, maybe her initials, with oil, in the pan before it got hot. He thought, This could be boredom, and boredom kills, and what can I do?

She was in back, getting ready to go out. Their toilet flushed thunderously, which was its way.

He thought, Remember you overinterpret. A case in point was his recent alarm over a band of cursive doodling in ballpoint pen on the kraftpaper jacket of their address book. At first glance he had taken the band of doodling for something like a border decoration in Islamic or Greek art. Iris was always doodling. He had never paid attention to her productions, which in a small way was funny because doodles were something he had been trained to be interested in. And he was certainly well aware of the lengths the agency had gone to in the past, and presumably was going to even now, to retrieve doodled-on materials from certain persons of interest in certain settings, which he hadn’t thought ridiculous when he’d heard about them. The idea was that someone who doodled was leaking signs and hints. I’m not boring, he thought: Except that a lot of me is like the storage areas in a good museum.

But the decoration, the arabesque, on the phonebook jacket, which she had taken the trouble to continue across the spine and around across the back, in her very neat way, had frightened him because, if you looked closely at it, it seemed to be saying No over and over. In fact he would take a look at it again, while she got ready to go out sometime before cockcrow.

He went into the living room and, locating the address book, got a surprise. The cover was gone. The book was its chipped, cheap black plastic self again. He looked around to see if possibly the cover had simply fallen off. But there was no sign of it. The cover had been discarded.

Iris had said that that was a design she had been doodling since before she remembered, and she could see why he thought it looked like No’s, except look how many of the o’s look like lowercase e’s. She had reassured him… Said it was nothing.

Handling the phonebook, he noticed that of all the doodling on the former jacket, only the Nonononono had left an impression on the plastic cover. She had been bearing down.

Asking where he was as she approached, Iris came to a halt in the living room doorway and stood there waiting for a little appreciation. She was ready to stroll. In honor of the occasion, she had gotten herself up a bit. She had a bright look he slightly distrusted. She was made up and wearing earrings. She had put on a longsleeved chiffon overblouse, despite the heat, because she was attractive to mosquitoes, unlike him. The blouse was a shade of orange just a degree lighter than the illuminated papaya skin.

“You look like a movie star,” he said.

“That was the point.”

Fixing herself up was for him, only for him. There wasn’t much chance that they would run into somebody they knew when they went out. He wanted her to be happy.

“You’re too beautiful for this joint,” he said, not knowing exactly what he was implying. It was a line out of the ash heap of dead movies lining the bottom of his mind, of course, her mind too. Probably it was also an apology of some kind.

She beckoned him to come along.

One difference between them was that he had seen more movies in his life than she had, especially in his young life. So he had more referents. He thought, One of us is closer to death than the other and we really have no idea which of us it is.

Abruptly, he was overjoyed to be going out to walk with her. Abruptly, he loved the idea. The prospect filled him with emotion and reminded him of the answer a famous philosopher whose name he had forgotten had given when he was asked for an example of an absolute or unalloyed good, and he had said Having coffee with my wife.

That was what it had been like, in the old days, going out walking. Going out walking now was a reminder that things were no longer the same. They were trying to recapture something. She knew it too. Up until two years ago they had been fairly constant about going out to walk, so how far back were the old days anyway? He fought to hold on to his feelings of pleasure and anticipation. The fact that he was suddenly seeing this as being in the same category as pathetically renewing your marriage vows was beside the point. She was ready to be festive. He could be, too.

Fikile ushered them out into the roadway and stood in the street so that he could watch proprietarily until they turned the corner. They both liked the weight of the night, these hot winter evenings. There was a red nail paring of a moon. Nights in Africa were easier than days, because you weren’t fending off the sun every minute you were outside.

He could tell she was enjoying things by a certain softness that was coming into her movements, and by her breathing, too. He wanted deeply to talk about anything except his brother or her sister. He especially wanted to stay off the topic of Ellen because the woman appeared to be seriously considering single motherhood, which would be a gigantic mistake, but one that was apparently becoming as popular in the United States as it was in Botswana. At least in Botswana there was a purpose to it other than reckless self-indulgence. The point in Botswana was for a woman to produce a child prior to marrying, as an ad for her fertility, once she had reached the age of twenty or so and hadn’t been chosen yet. Apparently Ellen was being influenced by having met a darling child. Iris had read him some of the child’s bons mots, and they had been cute enough. But was Ellen under the impression she could pop out a stellar child just because she thought she deserved one? We contain monsters. The most darling child can flower into a monster. Rex was an example. He couldn’t make this point. He would also rather not talk about the future. Anything else was fine.

Petty crime was up, but mainly in the form of housebreaking. He was alert, though. No one seemed to be walking tonight but the two of them.

“We like to do this,” Iris said, as they settled into their steady-state stride.

He smiled. No reply was required, because the line was resurrected from their past, specifically from the prattlings of a precocious child, speaking of precocious children, they’d known. They both knew what it meant. It was a parajuvenile way of mocking what they were doing, in a gentle way.

This was the stride they liked for strolling, aerobic but not so fast that they would slight any interesting detail in the passing parade, although in truth there was less to see now, as the formerly common wire frontage fencing was replaced with solid walls like theirs. It was more like going strolling in upper-class neighborhoods in Mexico, that is, more a tour of blank walls and gates with the tops of trees as the main points of interest. The standard wall was getting higher, too. Also, it was embarrassing to be seen overtly exercising. Sauntering was fine with the Batswana, but jogging was a thing for ridicule. The Batswana would pass comments when joggers went by. And the Batswana thought heel-and-toe walking was a hilarious form of lunacy. The one heel-and-toe walker in the extension was the deputy chief of mission at AID, and he was secretly famous for it all over the country. He was a paradigm of lunacy. Walking together was nice, but there was a practical cause for letting it lapse as they had. There had been something artificial about their constitutionals, except for the company. They both walked a great deal during the course of the day.

“We like to do this,” she said again.

The subject matter of her sister was en route, and this unconscious reaching back to a precocious child in their own background was the signpost. It looked as though he wasn’t going to escape. Mainly he hated it because it led back, by implication, to their own childlessness.

“We like to do this,” he said.

“My doctor. Weren’t we just talking about him before?”

“Not that I recall. Unless I missed something. Maybe you were having a mental dialogue of some kind.”

“Maybe I was. I do that.” She seemed blithe enough, saying so. Depart this subject, he said to himself.

“So then, I take it another one of his specialties is South Africa, I mean, he is an eclectic, after all.”

It was dark, but he could make out the familiar quizzical but good-natured look she was giving him that was meant to ask What is your problem? So far they were dealing lightly and fairly openly with his skeptical, as she read it, attitudes toward Doctor Morel.

Ray had no problem. If he had a problem it was the oversupply of experts on South Africa that just being in the region seemed to stimulate, the superabundance of people who thought they knew everything, but knew, in actual fact, nothing… people just off the plane who had talked to one alcoholic exile in the airport bar and thought they knew the shape of the future.

Iris said, “He knows a lot about everything. He’s a polymath. Like you. Very much like you.”

Ray said nothing.

“He’s very attuned to words,” Iris said.

Ray waited. They walked in silence for a few minutes.

She said, “He’s attuned to what we’re really saying when we talk and why we select the particular words we do.”

“Who would this be?” Ray asked, knowing who she meant.

She smiled, tightening their arm link, drawing his arm snugly into the side of her breast.

It was quiet for a Friday evening. Very florid stereo music pulsing in a couple of the houses didn’t necessarily mean that any social festivity was going on, because the preferred way to listen to stereo music was at high volume, not only among the Batswana but among the younger expatriate audiophiles as well. It was universal, or becoming universal. Bringing a torch might have been a good idea. The streetlights were set at wide intervals, not all of them were functioning, and those that were delivered a weak icy blue light muffled, especially in this season, by swarming insects. Luckily they were past the peak of the termite mating season, when the melee around any available light had to be seen to be believed. He couldn’t think of a metaphor to describe the dense, shimmering, heaving fluxes the termites created as they swarmed in midair. Getting used to Africa was getting used to termites. He remembered eating dinner with Iris in a hotel in Serowe during the worst of a particularly ferocious mating season. An attempt had been made to keep the insects out of the dining room. There were screens at the windows being pummeled, was the word for it, pummeled by the insects trying to get in. And then as people went in and out, no matter how quickly they tried to manipulate the screen door, clouds of termites had come surging in to join their mates in the swarm dance already going on around the ceiling lights. He and Iris had hunched over their plates to keep the falling, shed wings from getting into their food, their plates of goat stew and samp. The floor had been treacherous with their slippery, silvery wings, which formed a cover something like the artificial snow no longer on the market that people mound up around the bases of their Christmas trees. The Serowe trip must have been a considerable time ago because he remembered it seeming exotic to them, not nightmarish, the way it would now.

The increase in the guard dog population made walking out at night less tranquil. Many of the houses, maybe most of them, now had guard dogs and warning plaques on their front gates saying Tsaba Ntsa! Beware of the dog! Iris was trying to make herself heard above the howls of the dog they were currently irritating. She was saying something about South Africa.

“It’s interesting, isn’t it, how the South Africans cleverly got away with using the term unrest, as in unrest area—for a township that was actually going up in flames. All during apartheid an unrest area was a place that was actually in active revolt. There were lists of unrest areas in the paper.”

This nitpicking about the term unrest annoyed him, no doubt mainly because it was the sort of aperçu he was used to having her pick up from him. “There still are unrest areas,” Ray murmured blankly, caught in himself, in a grievance he could normally keep down. He was running through the panoply of ignorant experts he had to deal with on a regular basis, while he projected his deep interest in what they had to say, which was his lot. Usually he was fine with his lot. But there was a rub, if he let himself feel it. One of the tensions he was supposed to live with unflinchingly was knowing more than he could show, just in general. His lot was to play the intelligent but naive guy always ready to receive the wonderful opinionettes and insights and whathaveyou blowing in from the permanent passing parade of blowhards and parvenu commentators on everything. That was his role and gosiame, he accepted it. That was how it worked. That was what worked. While in point of fact he knew astonishing things, he knew genuine secrets. He possessed astonishing information. It was his. Just off the top of his head, there was the way, for example, the South African Defence Force had been selling field radios, hoppers, they were called, to every army south of the Sahara, that contained a secret feature that let the South Africans listen in to everything that got transmitted by every army in every action or maneuver undertaken over the last twenty years, radios sold specifically because they were guaranteed secure with their waveband-hopping capacity, which was why they were called hoppers. Every army was an open book to them and it would be interesting to see just how quickly the ANC would decide to let everybody in on this naughty little truth when they got control of the SADF, which would be soon.

He got sympathy over this recurrent experience now and then, but always when he needed it, from Iris. She knew what he was, who he was, and when he overdid his dumb act, she let him know it. He knew how much she would love it if he just once jumped out of his role and wiped up the floor with a member of the cretinate, just once.

“What?” he asked.

“Nothing,” she said.

They had come to the point at which they often turned to go back home, at a crossroads, and outside a house Iris liked to consider mysterious. The property the house sat in was walled and gated, but the solid wooden gates were often left ajar, revealing a front drive flanked on one side by a tall, heeling hedge. The main house was small and gave only intermittent evidence of occupation. It was his lot to share in her puzzlement and speculation about the house, but in fact he knew all about it. This was a safe house paid for by the Libyans but used on a courtesy basis by an assortment of freelance thugs who did odd jobs for Zimbabwe and a couple of other countries. The house was wired. The groundsman was in the pay of the agency and provided service on the surveillance systems. There was an old story around regarding a body buried on the premises, which he doubted was true.

They had decided, without discussion, to prolong their stroll. They crossed the main road and turned north toward the embassy compounds.

They were being too silent. He didn’t know what to do. A thing Iris was afraid of, she had told him a number of times, was becoming part of one of the married couples you see in restaurants, saying nothing to each other the whole time they ate their dinners. The last time they had eaten out, at the Carat, he had pointed out to her that that particular fear was a good example of fearing a thing that had never shown the least sign of happening with them. They always had plenty to say. Although it was true he sort of mobilized himself when they went out to eat. In fact he would probably like to collapse into dull silence more than he was able to, in restaurants.

“Wait,” Iris said, and he thought he could detect a trace of relief in her voice at finding a topic.

“Wait, I bet I can tell you something amusing you don’t know about one of our neighbors. You don’t know everything. Want to bet?”

It was utterly clear to him. Right now the main effort of his life had to be to become again what he had been to her before, although before exactly what was still a question. But everything else on his plate had to be secondary. And that was what he had to do, and would do with all he had, so they could have their life again. And anything that stood in the way of that would be leveled. He felt clear.

She said, “A certain dispute? Heard anything about a certain dispute in a house one street up from us?”

“I’m glad I didn’t bet,” he said.

“A dispute between Hedda and what’s his name at DVS? I’m surprised if you don’t know about this, in certain circles it’s a famous incident. Among women, for example, if women are a circle. Are we?”

“Hedda and Maret,” he said. “Maret is the head of the Dutch Volunteer Service, he’s the director. Yes, Maret… so?”

“Maret, Maret, Maret. I know you disapprove of me when I forget names. Maret, yes. Anyway, Maret went to a DVS conference in Nairobi without Hedda. I think the Nordic volunteer services are rather strict about that, leaving the wives out of it on the theory evidently that the conferences shouldn’t be fun. They try to hold them in cheap hotels, too. But there was a mix-up about bookings and the conference was transferred to a very nice place on the Indian Ocean, Bamburi Beach Hotel, a very euro spot just above Mombasa, euro in that there is topless swimming going on and that sort of thing. I think there has been rather a plethora of conferences lately to which she has not been invited. So that’s the background. And while he’s away she gets a call from him informing her of his good luck about the change of venue to Bamburi Beach. He raves about the cuisine. They are having parrot fish for lunch that day. Apparently this is a true departure from the rough venues, the rundown convents out in the bush and so on, that he’s used to. So anyway while he was away she decided to do some renovating. She painted the breakfast nook or something. And Maret was always grumbling about the living room furniture, which dated back to the sixties and had probably been comfortable at one time but was becoming shall we say very ratty, so Hedda wanted to do something about that. It was regular overstuffed South African bourgeois seating. For some reason DVS doesn’t get staff furnishings from the government. They have to go out and buy it. But Hedda was in a bind because there was no money in the budget that year for amenities like decent furniture. But she got an idea. She decided to replace the living room suite with furniture made in a workshop that DVS sponsors, the one out in Mmadinare. I guess she was tired of the old furniture, too. She had to throw madras prints over the sofa and stuffed chairs, had to keep straightening them out incessantly and they still looked like hell, so she was tired of that. You know the furniture workshop they have in Mmadinare, where they teach people to make benches and refectory tables and other furniture, all out of wood? It’s very severe, very Lutheran. The sofas are more like pews than sofas but they do have these pads you can tie to them with straps, you know the place, right?”

“I know it,” Ray said.

“So visualize this. This is the furniture the DVS is proposing the rest of Botswana should sit on, and Hedda could get it for nothing, virtually, and she would be supporting the project and advertising it at the same time.

“So for his homecoming she threw out all the old furniture and installed the workshop products.

“Which produced a veritable explosion. Maret was furious because the new furniture was excruciating, in fact, and because, unbeknownst to her, he had been deeply attached to one of the armchairs, despite his constant complaints. How was she supposed to know, for God’s sake?

“And do you know this about the Dutch, this custom of working their fury off by driving a stake into the ground? Apparently it’s a folk thing. If you’re enraged you sharpen a hefty stick or pole or something and you take a mallet and drive it into the ground. So he was reported as doing that, by the next-door maids. The DVS people don’t have maids, so we have to rely on next door!

“But unfortunately he remained furious and his ongoing response is this… to go out and sit in their Beetle every night, evening I mean, to read Dikgang and drink his preprandial Amstel. And Hedda stands in the doorway, fuming, until she has to get his dinner, I guess. His ritual was to read the paper and sip lager in his armchair, but now he stalks out and sits in the front seat of the Volks. He claims it’s their only comfortable seating now. And of course he’s stuck. He can’t get rid of the furniture without it being a critique of his own project. Also they get evaluated by their own volunteers, staff gets evaluated, on how close to the level of the people they’re managing to live. So I suppose their incredibly uncomfortable furniture could be good for them in that way.”

“‘Like diamonds, we are cut with our own dust,’” Ray said.

“Webster. I love that.” She was pleased with herself.

She said, “It’s very Dutch, his reaction, somehow. I think of them as very rigid. Actually, I don’t know for a fact that driving a stake into the ground is a peasant thing. It might be from some school of therapy or other.

“So there you have it. They’re in a feud that every woman in the extension knows about, plus one male, you yourself.”

“I’m grateful,” Ray said. “He’ll get over it, though. But I didn’t know about it and I do find it interesting.”

“My pleasure,” she said.

“This is far enough,” Ray said, and she nodded.

They turned to go back. He could sense that there was something she wanted to broach and probably would, before they got home, something not comfortable. Walks had a way of inducing things to come to the surface, repressed things. He had no theory as to why that was so, but wondered if it had something to do with sheer locomotion itself, the conjuncture of expelling something weighty or unpleasant and simultaneously leaving it behind physically. He thought, You escape your words as you go, in a certain way. He was close to bringing up Morel, the eclectic. Ask nothing about Morel, he said to himself, sternly.

They both spoke at once.

“Your doctor,” he began, as she said, “My sister.”

“Sorry, what about her?” he asked.

“No. Go ahead. What about my doctor?”

“No, you first. It’s nothing.”

“No, you.”

“No you, because… because ladies first.”

“No, you first, because the fact is you’re obsessing on him. There. So. We should get this out.”

God I am stupid, he thought. His theory of why walks induced secrets to exfoliate had left out the most obvious explanation for why the situation would apply to him, at least. It was the fact of surveillance. Outdoors was safe, or safer.

“So go ahead,” she said.

“No I’m just being stupid. You go.”

“No, because, Ray, you are obsessed with this man.” Her voice was rising.

“I am not. You go.”

“You are. You show it in so many ways, including your pauses. Your pauses when you wait for me to amplify something I might say about seeing him that you think should be more exhaustive. If his name comes up you turn into a kind of crouched thing, a crouched listening beast, listening for what everything I say might mean, beyond the simple thing I said itself, you know what I mean, like you are going to crush every word I speak and then treat the dust. You turn into a beast of attention. I don’t know if you think I’m in love with him or what, if it’s something as stupid as that. You know this man is helping me. Maybe that’s what you can’t stand. No, I take that back. But this man is helping me, it’s helpful, to talk to him. And you don’t even know you’re doing it. You even breathe differently, softer, so you can hear better, I guess, I don’t know, I don’t really know. This is my experience. I’m sorry, but you’re reading me. Scanning me. It feels like suction when you do this. It’s the worst thing, I love you…” She had broken their arm link.

He said, “I wonder if we could pipe down. And I wonder if rather than going nuts on me in public you could talk about your sister. Please.” Ellen is the lesser evil, he thought.

She was silent for a long interval. He was doing everything wrong. She gave a sigh bordering on a groan. Her sighs kill me, he thought.

“Okay, I give up,” she said. “Maybe what I said is all I have to say, all I need to say, about my doctor. Maybe you heard something you needed to hear. But we need to talk about Ellen anyway, so okay.”

She relinked with him. She is saving my life, he thought.

The mouth of Kgari Close was in view. She asked, “Do you mind if we keep walking up and down before we go into the close, during this?”

“No, that’s fine.” During this definitely meant there was something to undergo.

“Ray, I’m worried about Ellen. No surprise to you. But she’s pregnant, definitely pregnant. And we have to think about my going back for her delivery. I know you don’t like it. Groan all you want. I may have to. I can see myself there for two weeks, or at most for a month, that would be the worst case. You have to get used to this, love. Don’t have an attack.”

“Why is she pregnant?”

“It’s very overdetermined. You know most of it. She’s thirty-five. She’s tried harder to find somebody to marry and go the usual route than anyone I know. But she had no luck.

“She has no luck in general, just in general. Listen to this. And this is an example of trying everything, which she has. Listen to this, she joined a trail club. This is all by way of prologue to why she got pregnant, because you really have to understand. She joined a trail club thinking that might be a good way to meet someone maybe a little older than the men she usually went with, a little older but still in good shape, maybe someone divorced. Ray, she deserves credit. She has no great love of the great out-of-doors, but she joined up and was enjoying it okay despite the fact that there seemed to be no one, no men anyway, who were plausible for her. I guess they were mainly quite a bit older. So she decided to stay with it in hopes there might be some turnover. But she got along with the older people, who were nice, including one woman about sixty-five she liked. Ellen has had more unnerving experiences than she deserves. This was a woman who owned her own business, a normal person. Also I suppose Ellen was thinking that even if these people were older they might have younger friends and all of that. She might be invited to dinner. Poor Ellen. So she stuck it out. Then on one outing they climbed a mountain and arrived at the beautiful view they had come for. And when they got there, at the top, her friend led Ellen off to one side and pointed into the distance and said, ‘All that over there is hell.’ She was pointing at some distant valley where there was an industrial chimney, and she apparently believed that that was where hell was located, biblical hell. And then that was it. The woman resumed being herself.”

“Maybe it was hell. Maybe the woman was right. But no, if you couldn’t hear the screams of the damned, it wasn’t.”

“Maybe it was out of earshot.”

“Well it’s definitely here someplace. I think it moves around, though.”

“Anyway, that was all. My sister questioned the woman gingerly, or shouldn’t that be gingerlily, just enough to confirm that this was actually what the woman believed. Yep, she was just being informative. It was just something she thought Ellen might want to make a note of.”

Ray said, “There are certain interesting syndromes in which people are completely normal in their belief structures except for one narrow little niche, where they believe something odd. If you believe that a member of your family has been replaced by an exact double, you have Capgrass syndrome. People who have it are normal in every other way. I forget what they call it when you think you have somebody else’s internal organs.”

“This isn’t really funny,” Iris said. “Well, it is, but it’s part of a very sad picture. She’s tried everything. She advertised in the New York Review of Books.”

“I know. You wrote the ad.”

“I edited it. She wrote it. Ai! Something bit me. If you keep your arms moving it seems to help.

“I forget why she didn’t marry the advertising guy she was living with. The one after the shirt model. I know what happened there. A certain percentage of guys she goes with decide they’re gay, which has to be tough. But she lived with the advertising guy for quite a while, it seems like.”

“He was a drunk, she stuck with him for too long. He was tremendously goodlooking, like she is, she attracts people physically on her level. And very goodlooking men are a dubious proposition most of the time. That’s what she attracts.”

“She didn’t have your luck.”

“Why bother? You know you’re a handsome dog.”

“So you say. Except that the other day you said I look like Woodrow Wilson.”

“Please let me finish about my sister and then we have to go in. I mean, I love this feeling of parting the night as you go, but another something just got me on the neck.”

“We like to do this,” he said.

“We like to do this.”

Then they were silent again. Cars passed by, not many, two sedans and a bakkie.

He said, finally, “Anyway you don’t need all this propaganda, which is what it is, for abandoning me when your sister gives birth. Okay if you want to shatter our Guinness Book of Records record for people not being separated, married couples, okay, then go. I’m only kidding. It’s okay if you go, of course. You don’t need me to say that anyway, you know it. Except that these things have a way of dragging on. Don’t they?” He thought, Every arrow being fired on the planet is curving up and over and into my heart, Boyle, her sister’s needs, my brother’s what, his bile… but what was it she said the other day about some woman?… ah yes, she said I feel sorry for anyone so self-pitying. He thought, her pity covers the earth, like Sherwin-Williams paint. It might not be necessary for her to go, something might happen, God forbid, how vile am I, how stupid. He didn’t want her to go, and if she went it would mean she was blind to what was going on with him, which of course was the condition he was trying to keep going, never to be pitiful to her. She was saying something he was missing.

“… definitively pregnant and the way it happened is not what you think, not what you assume. Not coldblooded, in other words. Not asking an old male friend and not going to a sperm bank.

“What she did is go from a high-achieving hopeless alcoholic to an underachieving very bright but hapless…”

“May I just guess, very goodlooking also, just by chance?”

“Yes, very nicelooking…”

“Not goodlooking, nicelooking in this case…”

“Well goodlooking if you will. A hapless man and a very bright man, but goodlooking. That seems to be a constant. Anyway, Frank is very bright, a very good writer, no a very good mind. He’s fortyish. He works in a bookstore. He’s a very good writer, but he has an imprimatur problem, as Ellen put it. He’s published a few things in small-circulation magazines, but the main thing he’s been working on is an encyclopedic thing about American intellectual life that everyone who’s seen it says is brilliant and radical but needs to be revised, as in seriously cut. And he agrees with them. But when he starts to revise he also sees things he needs to add, new developments in the culture that just make his thesis even stronger. Also he’s what used to be called an independent scholar. At one time they were respected things to be. But he has no academic affiliation whatever. He has a B.A. in modern European history from prehistoric times, but that’s all.”

Ray thought, This could be me… this poor fuck could be me… the reverse, I mean.

“Frank is also shy. She met him in the bookstore he works in when she was hunting for something in the children’s section. He was very knowledgeable, and they got to talking, and that’s how it started. It became a platonic friendship, strictly, in which she got interested in taking him under her wing and getting him marketed, or rather first she wanted to get him to break off from his magnum opus at least for a while and write some pieces that could get published and generate some interest in him as an intellectual persona. He was going to waste, she thought. And there was still time. Obviously she was transposing herself going to waste, into his situation, something like that.”

“So you’re telling me this wasn’t love. And of course the question you want to ask is why this investment if love wasn’t involved. Why not put this time into those things she was doing you told me about. Going to meetings of the War Resisters League? Esperanto? Amnesty International?”

“Well, that’s a good question, but nobody is just one thing. She never went to Esperanto, she just asked my opinion about it and I told her. Try to be fair.”

“Go ahead.”

“Well, she read through his immense manuscript. It was erudite and complicated and utterly brilliant. But it was hopelessly complex. It had numbered paragraphs and instead of notes it had sections in a minute typeface that represented expansions of the main argument. And she objected to that and he said it was a terrific way to condense things and he had gotten it from a book by Nikolai Bukharin, not that he was a communist, he Frank. It was just that this was the way things had to be done. So this is a hapless person, hapless in every way. Here’s another example. He went down to Washington to use the Library of Congress and borrowed a friend’s apartment to stay in while the friend was out of the country. Now Frank is someone who’s very distressed about the homeless. On the way to the Library of Congress he passes a blind homeless person begging and Frank reaches into the pocket and drags up all the change he has in it and dumps it in the guy’s cup, then goes a block and realizes that he put the apartment key—he only had the one key—into the beggar’s cup along with the change. What should he do? He sidles back to the blind man and hovers there and sees that his key is right there in the cup. So he tells this man what he’s done, nicely, but gets no reaction because this poor fellow is deaf as well as blind. So he decides to reach in and subtly pluck out his key. Unfortunately for him the beggar wasn’t mute because he screamed out that he was being robbed and he screamed and screamed. A crowd of other homeless people—he described it as a lynch mob—gathered. There were no police in sight and he was being converged on by frightening people and he had his hand in this man’s cup. So, there are no police, and he’s being converged on by something he described as the Elizabethan underworld, giants, dwarfs, ragged people waving crutches and so on, so he runs away. He ran off. Now, and here’s the most pitiful part, he realized he has no means of getting in touch with his absent host, knows no one in the building, he can’t find the super. So he spends the next two nights sleeping in his car. Or three nights. I don’t know.”

Ray grunted. By being minimal he hoped he was encouraging Iris to get through this story. He wondered if what she was doing was trying to fill the air with narrative to occupy the space that questions about Doctor Morel would rush into once she stopped, since she knew they were coming.

But he remembered a car trip he’d taken with a cousin going through a cruel divorce, whom he’d asked, just by way of conversation, what he’d been reading lately, which had produced an almost line-by-line retelling of The Autobiography of Lincoln Steffens, a late literary discovery his cousin had made, a lost classic, and so on. The object had been not to talk about the main ingredient in his collapsing life. It had gone on for two hours.

They had come into Kgari Close.

“So she found this man touching. And you do understand that up to the point I’m describing, they weren’t lovers. I think he had tried, clumsily, to start something intimate. I’m not clear when that happened.

“She loved his mind, not his body. She had a program for him. She had a campaign. She was serious about getting him into print. For example she had him get business cards printed so that he wouldn’t always be scribbling his name, address, and phone number in matchbooks, and this plays a part in what happened, by the way, as you’ll see. She was maternal toward him. That’s her word. What she had done was this. He was a brilliant conversationalist and she decided she would freeze, that is tape, without his knowledge, one of his arpeggios and then confront him with it and tell him to write it down, turn it into an essay, I guess.

“Well, astonishingly this worked. He had a product. It was an essay comparing certain people, one a Japanese who killed and cooked and ate his girlfriend but got a light sentence and moved to France, where he became a popular celebrity, another someone named Howard Stern who is, I gather, a disgusting radio personality, and the third a famous reactionary named Joseph de Maistre. She said it was absolutely brilliant.

“She got to work and a party was planned where Frank was going to be placed in the path of the editor of the book section of a big paper, this would be a place it would be worth being noticed in. She considered Frank a natural reviewer.

“The plan was just for Frank to engage in his usual conversationalism with the book section guy, but of course Frank is shy, she knows this. So she talked to Frank beforehand and extracted from what he was saying the best, funniest topics, four or five of them. And she drilled him on how to bring them up. She coached him. Now remember how shy this man is.

“She told me what the topics were but the only one I remember now was that in England somebody had just developed a process for putting advertising on eggs, and he had a riff on this. They were cultural topics, striking things.

“It’s too horrible. Keep in mind how shy Frank is. So the party transpires and Frank does as he’s told and brings up his topics one-two-three, and makes an impression, clearly, to the point where the editor asks him if he might want to consider doing something for them, to which Frank says yes and hands him his card. He thought. In fact, and without Ellen’s knowledge, he had prepared a pony for himself, not only listing the topics he was supposed to take up but giving the little stage directions Ellen had thought up. He had written this pony on a card. He’d been afraid of forgetting something, losing one of the topics. And when he thought he was giving his business card to the editor, of course he was giving him this embarrassing aide-mémoire. He discovers this after the party is over and Ellen is congratulating him.

“Well, you can imagine. He was beyond deflated. He was suicidal. He was certain he was never going to hear from the book section editor again. And he didn’t. So what was her role? Well, what with one thing and another, she slept with him, sort of right on the spot.

“It was to cheer him up and convince him he hadn’t done anything so cataclysmic as he thought. She was claiming this guy was just going to be puzzled, not think anything about it. I guess also she was feeling responsible for sponsoring this thing that had turned into such a humiliating event. Also, as they talked, they were consuming nightcaps, from nervousness. Neither of them had been able to imbibe during the party out of anxiety. We know the way that is. So she ended up screwing him and without a condom, and don’t say what you’re going to say.”

“I wasn’t going to say anything. I’m just astonished at her.”

“Well, don’t be. In the first place she knew his life inside out and he had been celibate for five years. She was properly hysterical about it the next day, though, she made him get an AIDS test as soon as he left work so she could kill him if it was positive. And then, strangely enough, he was offended to the quick. This was a breach of trust. He had told her his whole life in detail. He had never been so disappointed. He got the test, but that was it for them. The test was fine, but they were over. So then when she missed her period she felt that events were making her mind up for her and she should become a single mother. The father has no idea. I don’t know if she’ll tell him or not. Neither does she. She was leaving Chicago in any case because she had enrolled to take Montessori training in Florida, in their main training center. You know about that. She’s out of advertising forever and she’s going to be a Montessori person. She thinks she’s going to be a teacher, but she’ll end up administering because she’s so talented. But let her start as a teacher… So that’s where we are now.

“Now. My mother is useless for this kind of thing, like being around for the delivery. And she disapproves of single motherhood. And she hasn’t offered. And Ellen needs to know someone is going to come. And that’s me.”

They walked in silence up to their gate. Fikile was nowhere around, so they let themselves in. They had just entered the house when the phone began to ring. He had never acclimated to the standard ring pattern in Africa, the two peremptory short burrs and a long interval.

Iris started toward the phone but stopped herself when she sensed Ray wanted to take it. He did.

It was one of his notification calls, with the information he needed coded into the wrong number or wrong resident name the caller would claim to be trying to reach. Iris had a good sense of when one of these calls was coming through. It was odd. She would hesitate. She would look at him as if she knew in advance what kind of call it was, not always, but often enough to be odd.

A voice he knew said, “Dumela, rra. Is this number 5412, 5412?”

“Dumela. Sorry, rra. No. Tsamaya sentle.”

It was good news. His man had successfully removed and unloaded the tackhead microcam Ray had taken the risk of having installed in Samuel Kerekang’s bedroom in his dismal lodgings in Bontleng. He would have the footage tomorrow, ready for reviewing. It wasn’t a good idea, but he could get hold of the footage now…

“Finally you look happy,” Iris said. “But are we through with my sister for tonight?” She didn’t like his wrong-number calls. She was showing it more than usual tonight. He did his best to keep them to a minimum. But there was only so much he could do about it.

“I don’t know, are we?”

“We are if everything is clear about my trip back. Because I definitely am…”

“We have no argument, my babe. You’ll go. Of course.”

“You’re not enthusiastic. I wish you were. I need you to be.”

He could see she meant it. She was distressed about something he’d just done, or about the call. She turned away rather abruptly and left him, heading toward her study. He assumed she wanted more enthusiasm about their separation. He started to follow her but decided against it and waited. He didn’t know what to do. He wanted to see the footage. He was tempted, but it wouldn’t be right. It would wreck the night. There was a chance, a minute chance, that this might give him something that would satisfy Boyle that Kerekang was nothing to them. And that might untie his hands for the question of Morel.

Iris was back, bearing a clutch of photographs, papers, and index cards.

“May I just show you a few things from Ellen to win your heart, Ray? I’m after your heart. I need you to want me to be with my sister. This is the last thing I’ll bother you with on the subject, I promise.”

He couldn’t go out, which was what he wanted to do, and he didn’t want to go through the pictures, the miscellany she was bringing to him, because he was tired and because it was supernumerary, and because in effect he had already agreed she could go to the States, that she should go. She had won, and this was a way of gilding the lily of his defeat, it felt like to him.

He said, “Suppose we do this at breakfast instead? I’m tired. I’m flagging. I’ll get us up in time to go through your things. We won’t have to rush. That’s a promise.”

She seemed to Ray to be flattered that he was so unhappy at the prospect of being left alone in Africa. She acceded graciously to the postponement, but then she was always gracious.

Later when he couldn’t sleep, he decided that breakfast would be the wrong time too. She had a pile of things to get through and he was agitated about the Kerekang tape, which he could handily secure and review before noon, thus getting it off his back. Then at lunch he could be himself. So now it had to be lunch.

13. A Personal Ritual

Ray felt triumphal over what the footage had given him. But it was subtle and he had to formulate the meaning of the captured images, the ritual, so that Boyle would grasp it. What they had was Kerekang performing a personal ritual. What he had would be the capstone of a Profile, a Life, if he were still writing them. That day could come again. At moments like this it was a curse not to be able to discuss something like how to present this to Boyle, how to phrase it with Iris. She was subtle.

Lunch was a leftover pork chop with applesauce, brown rice, and fresh peas. Iris had laughed at him when he had shown himself dutifully prepared to eat with a fork the roast garlic puree served to him in a ramekin. It was a garnish, not a dish in itself. He knew that. They had had it before. He had forgotten.

Iris said, “I think what happened is that Ellen fell in love with this darling child of her next-door neighbors in the condo. She’s very precocious. An only child. Ellen’s downfall was baby-sitting for this child, Catherine.”

Iris dealt out three Polaroid photographs of Catherine.

“Completely adorable,” Ray said.

“She is. Everyone is always suggesting she should be taken to a modeling agency, hideously enough.

“So in any case Ellen decided that Catherine was indeed adorable, and not only physically. Ellen began writing down her little bons mots. At first she just included them strewn throughout her letters and then later she began printing them sort of calligraphically on these index cards, which I now have a small archive of. The child is barely four.”

Ray pulled the stack of cards toward him. Was sampling enough? Probably not.

“Are these in chronological order?” he asked.

“I don’t think I’ve kept them in order, actually. They’re from when Catherine was two or three. Some Ellen wrote up after the fact, from stories Catherine’s mother and father told. The order doesn’t matter.”

Ray browsed. Some cards recorded brief anecdotes. Others seemed to record examples of a precocious ability to classify things.

Catherine was given an Etch A Sketch for her third birthday. She produced two jagged parallel lines right off the bat and said “I have drawn a crevasse.”

Of course you cannot drink bathwater, it is not a beverage.

Catherine’s parents note Catherine’s fixated gaze at a passing wheelchair, the first she’d ever seen, in which was seated a visibly spastic child about her own age. As the wheelchair drew abreast of them, Catherine said, “Interesting chair!” Then she said, “I feel sorry for ghosts. If I ever saw one, I wouldn’t be afraid. I would try to comfort it.”

Iris said, “They’re not complicated. And you don’t have to memorize them, either. And you don’t have to read all of them. Give them to me and I’ll try to pull out the best ones.”

He returned about half of the pack to her, but continued his own browsing.

It was friendlier to read them aloud.

“I like this.

“Catherine went to the zoo. She said of the elephants, ‘They have no knuckles.’ Later, when her parents said to Catherine that it was time to go to bed, Catherine said, ‘Unfortunately, I don’t want to.’”

Iris said, “Listen to this. These.

“Her mother wanted Catherine to wear her Birkenstock sandals but Catherine preferred to wear her sneakers. She pointed to the sandals and said, ‘I won’t be nimble in those.’”

Iris was looking dreamy to him. This exercise was depressing her, he could tell. It was involuntary. He was sorry.

She said, “This is the last one. I guess it’s very recent. It’s a poem Catherine wrote.

“Two people were walking down the road
They saw two insects down below
One was a flea
And one was a bee
And the flea was wearing clothes.”

Iris was very inward now. Mechanically, she squared up the packet of cards.

He tried to be brisk. “Well you can see what happened here. Of course you have to go to be with her. It’s fine with me, Iris, it really is.”

Iris said, “I should mention two other things about this. She thinks the mother is much too cavalier about this child. For example, the parents make no effort to get these gems written down. You know how precious these things are when your child gets older. I mean, we can imagine it. So she began writing these bits and pieces down and then, as a gesture, gave them to the child’s mother, who was, I gather, put off by it, basically. I guess she felt criticized. So Ellen sees her own qualities as a mother going to waste, and the rest is history. The other thing is that she thinks the father is evil because, when they were having terrible trouble with Catherine over her bedtime, he proposed the idea of having her hypnotized and giving her a posthypnotic suggestion that it was time to go to sleep. They’d snap their fingers and she’d go off. I’m sure it was completely in jest, but Ellen can’t stand him now. So there you have another thing that might incline her to leave the father out of it. There’s much more of Catherine in the letters.”

Sadness will kill you, he thought. He got up. He had to find time to rehearse what he was going to say to Boyle. He thought, It could go like this, we have three weeks of taping at Kerekang’s place, we covered two rooms, bedroom and kitchen, the only two places he could use for meetings, and we did both sampling mode and straight coverage of six through twelve every night… now this was all during the time you were convinced he was having meetings there twice a week, at least… we know from our other sources when he got home each day, all during this time, and there are no meetings going on… But what is going on?… He has one thing that he does before bed without fail every night, which is what?… He goes up to his bookshelf and touches his books and then he turns the light off and goes to bed early, and what books does he go up and touch?… Not Das Kapital, nothing by Trotsky, no, he goes up and touches his Complete Poetical Works of Tennyson, Cambridge Edition, and his little Everyman Palgrave… He sleeps in his underwear… There is nothing for us here.

“What if I like it better there when I go back?” Iris asked softly.

He was startled.

“You won’t, my girl,” he said, and thought, She can’t.

He walked around the table to stand near her. He put his hands on her shoulders. Down, misery! he thought.

14. You’re a Better Man Than I Am, Kerekang, So Bravo, That’s All

Why was this so sudden and urgent?” Iris wanted to know.

She and Ray were walking, at a good pace, to the embassy residence. They were hurrying because the invitation had come late and without much warning.

“You are verging on running, Ray. And it’s too hot to run. And it’s Sunday, it feels odd to be sprinting down the road on Sunday.

“And why is this a command performance anyway? Why is the ambassador suddenly back from Wankie after just leaving to go there, and why all these reminders about dressing appropriately for a memorial service? They emphasized it when they called the second time on the radiophone. Was that meant for me? Do I go around like a gypsy? What is all this pressure about? I know how to dress for a memorial service. I’m not an idiot.”

Ray said, “All I can tell you is this,” thinking in passing that here was a good title going to waste. A lot of good titles were going to waste…

“Will you complete your thought, please,” she said.

“All I know is that this is an emergency event and what the premise for it is. Walk faster. What I know is that the embassy has a problem. You know about Dwight Wemberg’s wife being killed last week, the accident. You didn’t know Dwight. He’s an older man and he was just coming to the end of his AID contract at the agricultural college when his wife was killed. They lived in Sebele, on the grounds of the college, and they never came into town much. Go faster. They stayed out in Sebele and were apparently pretty happy there. They got along with the locals. I should say that he wasn’t around Gabs that much, but Alice was. She was a volunteer with a church group that works with the bobashi, I think. She was rather a saintly person, one gathers.”

“I know who she was.”

“Part of the problem is the way she died. She was stopped well over on the shoulder on the Lobatse Road and she got out of her car and a CTO truck swerved over to avoid something and killed her, smashed her to death while she was locking the car door. And then the Ministry of Transport mishandled it. The driver was taken into custody and let go without being tested for alcohol. And then there was the statement saying it’s always better to get out on the side away from traffic, which is implicitly blaming her, of course. There were many stories about what the CTO driver was prudently trying to swerve away from.

“So anyway, Dwight was out in the bush, way out, at a project the college has in Hukuntsi. Melon cultivation. He was out of reach, out of touch for three days, doing his job. The rest you know. He comes back hysterical and discovers that they’ve buried her. There were no bad motives involved. I know she was very messed up. But somebody wasn’t thinking ahead and didn’t inquire into the law here, which says you have forty-eight hours to get a body out of the country, forty-eight hours only, after which the body has to be interred. Which leads to the rub. Which is that once the body is buried you can’t get it exhumed unless you go through an impossible bureaucratic procedure that can take you years. He wants to take his wife’s body home. The government won’t make an exception. He’s griefstricken and enraged at the same time and he’s made a number of scenes at various government offices, trying to get them to let him have the body, Alice’s body. He’s insulted certain senior people directly to their respective faces, which you cannot do. So it’s a tremendous mess and to top it off his contract is up and he’s going to be out of a job. He has his passport and his visa is good for another year. The embassy wants him to go home and let them handle the exhumation application for him but he doesn’t trust them. He’s off the deep end. He doesn’t trust the embassy and he’s right. He may not know something else that’s relevant, which is that right now our relationship with the Ministry of Health, which controls the exhumation, is shall we say negative, for other reasons altogether. But that’s another story. Or maybe Dwight does know something about this, now that I think of it.”

“How terrible this is. And he’s not young.”

“So, anyway, the event. It’s not exactly a memorial service. I think they’re calling it a remembrance. I knew they were going to do something, but they hadn’t decided anything the last I heard. This event is a psychological operation to convince Dwight to go home. You hear them talking about closure. It’s supposed to produce closure and get him the hell on the plane.”

“I wonder if I should’ve worn black. I don’t think so. I think this is fine.” She was wearing a dark blue sleeveless dress with a full pleated skirt. She had tried and rejected several sun hats as not right. Over her shoulders she wore a white lace shawl, rather sprung in places. She had a number of tortoiseshell clips in her hair.

“Everything black I have is in the party category. I think this is all right.” She had very little interest in clothes, which he loved in her. He was wearing one of the few safari kits he owned that had full-length pants, a rust-colored outfit he hated.

She was wearing half-heels, which she was unused to. They were now almost jogging. Somehow her sunglasses hopped off her face and he was able to catch them as they fell.

“Are we a team?” he asked her.

“We are,” she said. “A track team.”

They had reached the residence compound. They could slow up. There was a backup of stragglers ahead of them at the gate.

Iris said, “I put too much sunblock on. My face is slippery. These things happen when I’m pressed. I never want to be rushed like this again. I turn into a fool.”

“You never do,” he said.

They got seats in the next to last row of chairs protected from the sun by the canopy erected over the ceremonial area on the side lawn.

“This is an outpouring,” Ray whispered to Iris. “The idea was to get everyone so that Dwight can see how seriously his situation is being taken. They have shaken the sack. There’s a buffet after.” Even the seats behind them that were exposed to the sun were filling up.

Ray sat back. He liked the moment. There was nothing for him to do until this was over, in fact nothing he could do while they were there, waiting for the event to begin and end. Probably he would have liked being a commuter, if he liked this.

He counted the crowd. He estimated two hundred and ten, so far. There were tricks to crowd-counting. He would say that the attendance was about fifty-fifty black and white, which was excellent. The overflow crowd of standees was irregularly distributed among the gum trees and silver oaks lining the compound wall, wherever there was a chance of shade.

Last-minute improvisations were under way. The podium needed to be moved forward so that the speakers would be in shade as well as the listeners, so the first two rows were being emptied, chairs were being taken away, and a complex process of negotiated reseating had begun. They themselves were not going to be affected, so it was interesting to watch the negotiations. He could see Maeve, the ambassador’s wife, showing distress about the lawn, which was not robust in the best of times and which was taking a beating today. Iris had taken to referring to the lawns in their neighborhood as brownswards.

Almost all of the final arrivals were Batswana. Almost all the people who had gotten seats in the shade were white and almost all the standees were black. That hardly looked good. There were no more than nine or ten Batswana in the seated crowd, not enough.

He turned around to see if it was really as bad as he thought. It was. The news photographs of the event would be strange, showing black people standing back in flowerbeds, the glass shards set into the top of the wall behind them glittering in the sun. The grounds here were in worse shape than his. The empty swimming pool was carpeted with dead oak leaves. There should be a photographer, or at least someone on staff detailed to take pictures for Dwight, as part of the operation, something for poor Dwight to take away with him. I should have been an ambassador, he thought.

The ambassador hadn’t appeared among them yet. Ray thought, You become an ambassador and you think Great, and then they send you to a place like this, a desert…

They waited. Iris took his hand. He closed his eyes. I envy no one, he thought.

“My hips are out of control,” Iris murmured.

“I certainly hope so,” he said lewdly. He knew what it was. She was noticing someone whose hips were too big. Lately she would ask him if she resembled overweight women her age that they passed in the street, asking if her upper arms were as far gone, if her waist was as thick.

He looked to see who it was she was comparing herself to. She was fixing on the DCM’s secretary in the row ahead.

“Not even close,” he whispered to Iris. “You’re a ridiculous woman.”

“You see nothing, you know nothing, and you lie,” Iris said.

“If you say so.” He closed his eyes again. But I see everything, he thought, I am a camera… The worst image for a life has to be the one bad poets love the most, a candle, burning for what? giving off light for what?… There is no image for life. Life is a sexually transmitted disease, according to my brother. That aphorism had made Rex a bit well known, briefly. People used it. It would get into anthologies of bright sayings.

Iris nudged him. “Open your eyes. It doesn’t look good to seize this opportunity for a nap.”

Programs were being distributed. One reached them.

“There’s going to be music,” Iris said.

“Oh yes. Of sorts. They were trying to get hold of a woman in Molepolole who plays the zither, a Peace Corps volunteer. And there’s a choir group from the Anglicans. They probably have something on tape, too. The big speakers are hooked up over there.”

“What about the refreshments. I’m starving.”

“You go from being stuffed to being starving so rapidly it’s pathological, do you know that?”

“I know.”

“I believe the collation is going to be fairly deluxe this time, not just samoosas being waved about by fleet-footed servers. Samoosas yes, but piled up in platters in one place so you can get at them. Many many salads. Chicken salad.”

He opened the photocopied program and flinched.

“What?”

“The notables, the Batswana. They shouldn’t have put this in print. Two of them won’t come, no matter what they said. The Health permsec will not come. Not a chance. Matsila may or may not, or he may come so late it amounts to the same thing. They hate us at Health. This thing should have started by now. I can tell you exactly what’s going on inside the residence. The ambassador is arguing with somebody about whether to start now or wait until everybody they have on the program is on the premises. I could write the script. But Segoko won’t come. If he does, I will kiss your introitus numerous times.”

“Are you insane?”

“You obsess me.”

“Clearly.”

“Nobody can hear me. Besides, nobody around here knows what introitus means. You can ask them.”

She crossed her eyes at him. She should have let him rest. During the reception part of this, there would be work to do. Everybody was here. Boyle was, radically misdressed in a white linen suit and wearing a red bow tie and, apparently, a leather baseball cap, and holding a handkerchief folded into a pad in one hand, at the ready to tamp away any offending fluids he might produce. The menthol cigarettes Boyle favored came from some outlaw manufacturer in India, probably the last source in the world for these lethal products.

Iris was saying something. She was asking him so softly that he could barely hear her why, by the way, was kissing a certain area of hers a penalty of some kind.

“I’ll explain later,” he said. They were both playing. But actually she had a point. He had to think about it.

This event had to be about to begin. The amount of life you wasted in waiting for things to get under way was enormous. In one of his letters to Iris, Rex had written on the subject of starter tabs on toilet rolls, an innovation in the States. Now they invent these things, referencing his lost hours picking at toilet rolls to get them started.

What had been in his mind was to impose on himself a penalty that was in fact a pleasure, in saying Kiss your introitus. But of course the fact was that she would know very well that he had been doing rather less of that than when they were younger. Although she was as forthcoming in that way as ever, she liked it. He was forty-eight. She was thirty-eight. He wished he had never mentioned it. She would come back to it. But there were other sexual, what? festivities of theirs that had dropped away, like her purposely giving him erections in potentially embarrassing public circumstances. She could do it in a second without touching him any time she wanted, still. I came out of the shower and we were late for breakfast, he thought, remembering… It was at her friends’ place in Carmel and they were waiting for breakfast and she got me hot the way she does, whore that she is, and then I said Now how am I going to go out there? and she said Backwards? She liked to be called a whore during sex. You have the heart of a whore, he would say.

She was waving at someone behind them. It was the man, undoubtedly.

“Is that your doctor?” he asked.

“Yes, it is,” she said, her voice betraying something, some extra lightness. He wasn’t going to swivel around to look at the man. She wanted him to.

Their huge ambassador was at the podium, giving his usual broad initiatory smile but then quickly thinking better of it. He was six foot five and enjoyed his toweringness in this country of small men enough to add to it by routinely wearing cowboy boots with significant heels. He was a man who had been reckless about his exposure to the sun all his life and was now paying for it. He looked dappled. His jaw and cheeks were marked with the sites of excised basal skin cell carcinomas. It was a continuing thing. The last tranche of cancers had been removed by a South African surgeon, who, out of some misplaced aesthetic impulse, had scoured out the sites in the shape of perfect circles. Ned Van Ness had spent too much time in the sun first as a developer and builder and then as a yachtsman, and now he was out in the sun too much here. His big bald pate bore spots of another kind, liver spots, probably. Van Ness had to be missing Galveston, where he was said to be the maximum leader of the city elite, and where you could go yachting. His face was pear-shaped, with full, soft jowls.

Because of his age, Van Ness couldn’t be blamed for being reckless about sun exposure, since the bad news about photodamage had only started getting around in the last five years or so. Ray himself had always been, by instinct, sun-averse. But he had been the only one in his family. His impression was that Rex still went regularly to tanning salons. The explanation there was that having a nice tan would give him his only good feature, physically, so he blocked out the bad news about ultraviolet. His brother was not attractive. He deserved credit for persisting with things as he had, coming on to people, looking for boyfriends despite everything. But why, now, Van Ness couldn’t seem to adapt to the African sun was puzzling. He wouldn’t wear hats. The consequence of it all was that his head looked increasingly like a decorated thing.

The microphone gave a keening sound. The ambassador made a prayerful gesture, his head bent briefly, then resumed his manic smile of welcome. He couldn’t help himself. He was an odd man. He was an awkward man. Ray liked the ambassador because he sensed that the man was having fun. He was a political appointee, here for the status that having been an ambassador gave you for the rest of your life. He would go back to his former life still odd. There was something carefree about him, and it showed in his odd, abrupt, ringing, undiplomatic laugh. Ray had seen Batswana flinch at that overwhelming laugh. He was certain that Van Ness found Africa funny. And the ambassador was transactionally odd in other ways. He was a perfectly amiable character, but when he reacted to something said to him there was often a lag in his response that could be unnerving. He tended to consider you with a long stare, while he thought, and when he responded it was normally sensible or reassuring or whatever was required in the situation. But in the meantime you had been unnerved. Ray liked the idea of patently odd men holding positions of power. He was interested in trying to scope out what it was in them that allowed them to escape the marginalizing juggernauts that crush the standard odd man, the average odd man. At some point in his past Van Ness had worked with a professional to rid himself of his Texas accent. This struck Ray as a strange thing to have done, since presumably his cronies in Galveston all spoke traditionally. Yet he’d bothered. The result was a neutral, actually foreign-sounding style of speech. His wife Maeve still had her accent. They had been married since high school. So when they were together there was always an unspoken question hovering, which was If you’re both from Galveston why does one of you sound like you learned English in central Europe? Whatever the prescription was for the lenses in Van Ness’s glasses, it had the effect of magnifying his eyes, which you couldn’t help but notice when he was staring at you.

There was another balk. The ambassador was waiting now as his wife tenderly escorted Dwight Wemberg to the seat reserved for him in the front row. Ray had a proviso to his inclination to like the odd in positions of power. They had to be odd but decent. Boyle was fairly odd, but he was not a decent person. Maeve Van Ness was the reverse of odd. She was a hive of industry. She never rested. She was a rather hunched woman with a hard, intelligent face and stiff, bright blond hair. She had her hands full with Wemberg, who seemed distraught and recalcitrant.

The ambassador repeated his prayerful gesture, then startled the gathering with one of his laughs, a blasting, baffled laugh prompted by Maeve dumbfoundedly standing and sitting and standing again as Dwight Wemberg got rigidly up and left his seat to make his way around to the rear of the seated crowd and over to a place among the standees at the wall. Most of the expatriates sat frozen, watching Wemberg talking to himself, saying something over and over.

This is somebody’s fault, Ray thought. The embassy nurse began sidling along through the crowd at the wall in order to be nearer Wemberg. Iris dug her elbow into Ray’s side to make him turn back around.

It was going exactly as Ray had known it would, excruciatingly. The eulogies had been wooden albeit fulsome. The thing was lifeless. Everyone was reading from prepared texts. The order of presentation was a shambles. No one had come from Health. The choir of five young women provided by the Anglicans was being overworked in attempts to buy time for speakers or guests not yet on hand. Their repertory was small. They had sung “Ke Bona,” twice. Ray wondered what the model was for the slow, strained, nasal style that Batswana female choirs uniformly employed. Nothing was going well. The podium would stand unoccupied for disconcertingly long moments while, obviously, the ambassador was inside the residence imprecating, trying to get people to make something come out right. Twice Ray detected raised voices coming from the residence when the ambassador was away from the ceremony. Then there had been some sideplay around the discovery that the two Portosans hired for the occasion had been delivered in a locked condition and that the man with the power to unlock them was missing. Food had been brought out prematurely and then taken back, but not before a presence of hornets had been achieved. Worst of all were the cooking odors washing out toward them. What must have happened was that the crowd to be fed was larger than anyone had anticipated and so extra frozen samoosas had been scared up and these were now being deep-fat-fried. The light had gone dull. A high, milky haze was overspreading the sky.

“What’s happening?” Iris asked. A murmur was passing through the assembly.

Ray didn’t know.

There would be a substitute speaker, Doctor Kerekang, representing the gleaners, a project very close to Alice Wemberg’s heart, as the ambassador put it.

Ray started to explain more about the gleaners to Iris, not getting much beyond the basic facts—that they were destitutes who lived at and, actually, on the municipal rubbish tip, and that most of them were solitary homeless children but that there were women and a few whole families among them, too.

Kerekang incarnate was the medium-tall, spare, serious man Ray had expected him to be, but there was more to him. There was something immediate about him. And he had something else… aplomb. That would be the word for it. He was at the podium, still collecting himself after self-evidently being hustled over to perform without notice, but he was already taking control of the restive audience. Ray wondered if women would find Kerekang attractive. He thought probably yes. Kerekang’s hair was fuller than in his photograph, fuller but not to the point of bushiness, and it was grayer. His hairline was deeper at the temples, also. But there was something confident about his hairstyle, or actorly.

Ray realized that he was full of expectation, for no obvious reason. He thought, There is very little magnificence in life, at least in my life, by which I mean external magnificence such as being there when the greatest actor in the English-speaking world gives his greatest Hamlet or when Nijinsky stays so long at the top of one of his leaps that people in the audience gasp… Or being present for the Gettysburg Address, although the story is that Lincoln got almost no applause. When he thought of himself as being ready for something magnificent, he didn’t know exactly what he meant, because 1989 and 1990 had been magnificent, the Berlin Wall coming down, all of that had been magnificent, but in a generic way, and then, of course, he hadn’t been present, he had been in Africa. And Mandela’s release and everything following that, up to CODESA, all of that had been wonderful, and he had been closer, physically, to those events, but still he hadn’t been in the Republic, he’d been in Botswana, onlooking from there, from where he was, from where he still was. And of course he had Iris, had Iris and her love, but that was in a different category. It was a given. It was lifelong. It wasn’t climactic, he guessed he meant. The truth was that he didn’t know what he meant. But he knew that wherever he was, Boyle was unhappy right now. Boyle was away from his seat.

Kerekang lifted his hand, half in greeting and half as a signal that he should be given full attention. When he had that, he beckoned softly and then urgently in the direction of the gate. The hush he had created deepened. Eight ragged children, bobashi, their eyes downcast, filed in. Three of them were shirtless. Kerekang directed them to stand together to his right, a little back. Ray didn’t know what Kerekang was doing but he suspected it was brilliant. There was a phrase in Setswana that meant waking people up to the truth of a situation and it translated, if he remembered correctly, as Throwing salt in their eyes. He had invited poverty to come to the feast. Good, Ray thought. White or black, everyone present had more or less escaped poverty, except for the bobashi, and poverty was alive in Botswana, getting stronger, this was good! It had been come-as-you-are for the bobashi. There had plainly been no time for them to be gotten into proper dress, what would be considered proper dress for this, if indeed that could even have been done.

“Who is he?” Iris whispered. “Do you know?”

“Not really,” he answered.

She wanted to know why the children’s heads were shaved.

“Lice,” he said. There were two girls in the group. They were wearing headscarves, but their heads, too, had been shaved. The children looked clean enough. And they were thin, but not emaciated, not the worst off. There was a feeding scheme for the gleaners that was doing something, at least.

Ray looked in Wemberg’s direction. Someone had put a chair under him and he appeared to be asleep. The embassy nurse was shielding him from the sun with a placemat.

Kerekang introduced himself and identified the children by name. In terms of type, where did Kerekang fall? Ray let himself free-associate about Kerekang. He could be the reliable uncle in a family, doing some sober job, the one to go to for school fees, emergencies, unmarried, too wounded in an affair of the heart to try again, someone like that, or he could be the one decent teacher in a boys’ school, unflamboyant, meek, a coward even, the one who turns heroic when the Germans occupy and the gym coach is revealed as a shit and a collaborator. What would we do without literature? Ray asked himself, feeling a little dumb.

Ray could see that Kerekang was unhappy with the microphone. He didn’t like being mediated by it, that was Ray’s guess. Certain men, or people, rather, had a sort of presence that made itself felt almost in a vibratory way. What Kerekang had, Ray had seen the counterfeit of a thousand times. People said that D. H. Lawrence had been that way. He was getting ahead of himself here, of course. He was trying to remember the description of Gandhi giving darshan, if that was the word, in something by Vincent Sheean that had made a gigantic impression on him when he was young and stupid. In the scene he remembered there had been a silent gathering and Gandhi had just been there, sitting or standing, raying out something that people felt in their bodies, their nervous systems, their fillings, maybe. Or it could be called glamour, not in the modern sense, but in the sense in which Malory used it. You’re still stupid, he thought.

Kerekang bent the microphone, on its stalk, away from him and out of play. His eyes were moist. In fact, as he began speaking, two tear tracks showed on his cheeks. But his voice, an enviable, strong, low baritone, was unaffected. Immediately Ray wondered if Kerekang had voice training in his past. It sounded like it, training either for singing or the stage. There was nothing in his dossier to suggest it. They were always arresting, small men with voices larger and richer than they were supposed to have. Not that Kerekang was small. For a Motswana, he was on the tall side. But he was shorter than Ray. A small man is any man smaller than you, Ray thought.

He looked at Iris. She was transfixed, he would say. She sought out Ray’s hand and squeezed it.

When Kerekang’s eulogy was over, Ray felt vindication. He had been right. It would be too strong to say he’d been rapt, but what he’d felt had been close to it. He could tell it had been the same with Iris.

“Amazing,” he said to her. She was still dabbing at her eyes with sodden wads of tissue.

It had been artful, and not only in transmitting feeling. Kerekang had also covered the waterfront in terms of essential information. Ray had learned certain things he hadn’t known. Apparently Alice Wemberg had worked faithfully on her own in a vegetable gardening project for the gleaners, the vegetable gardening project, rather. She had been a principal. This fountain brings up both bitter and sweet was from Jonson and could be about the West bringing wealth and poverty at the same time, wealth for the swift, and so on. And she had given significant time to this even up to, as he had put it, annoying her husband. Who was another very very good man. So he had learned today that Kerekang was also significantly connected to the gleaners, not just casually.

The assemblage as a whole had responded about as he had. Not that they had been able to get everything, for example, Kerekang’s bravery in bringing up Dwight’s rebellion within the Agency for International Development over the hybrid maize seeds the agency was pushing. He could imagine the AID people saying that this was not what they needed to have shoved down their throats at a memorial service. Dwight had changed his mind about the hybrid maize seed. The hybrid seeds had to be bought new each season and couldn’t be saved over. But some people, in desperation, following custom, had saved them and then done what they always had when they were desperate, eaten them instead of saving them, and then, because the hybrid seeds were treated with mercury, had died, poisoned. It still happened, in bad years. So when Dwight had understood this, he had turned against the hybrids, which was not what AID had sent him to Africa to do, which meant that AID had its own separate reasons for wanting to wave goodbye to him. Kerekang had praised Dwight and Alice equally, as examples of whites who had come to Africa to be of genuine assistance, in contradistinction to many other whites who came to Africa and, in the guise of helping, took more than they ever gave. They were not to be classified with the white ants. That had gotten Ray’s attention. The White Ants was a pamphlet in which the agency was interested, very. It was an inflammatory parable comparing whites in Africa to termites, but the truth was that literarily it had a certain grace and force, which was not an observation Ray could share with Boyle. The White Ants seemed to be everywhere.

And all this had been packed around a splendid thing, a virtuoso reading, not a reading, a rendition, because the performance had been from memory, of a poem by Tennyson, a fairly long one, “The Golden Year.” Tennyson was not a poet Ray considered interesting, but during the rendition he’d kept thinking Bravo. Somehow Kerekang had penetrated Tennyson and found something splendid there. And although the Tennyson had been just one ingredient in the eulogy, it had been the heart of it, for Ray. It was what had rapt him away. He was sorry to say that this didn’t happen to him much anymore. It could still happen with Milton, if he got rolling, reading late, alone, on an empty stomach, oddly enough. Or if he was tired. Then it could happen. It had happened the first time he’d touched Milton. It was the whole point of literature, or one of them, anyway. Absent awhile from my designs was a line from somewhere that described that feeling of being extricated from yourself in a flash, in a liquid way, without struggle. Movies lacked the power to do it for him, certainly never movies on tape. He felt in his breast pocket for a handkerchief and in the process switched off the microcassette recorder he carried there. Kerekang was on tape, if he wanted to hear this again. The quality would be poor, probably, due to distance, although this was a new machine and the damned things were getting more miraculous all the time. Gerard Manley Hopkins had been a revelation, a jolt, the first time through. But Hopkins was too rich, unlike Milton, who was just rich enough, just bejeweled enough. Knowing how to distribute his effects was a great secret Milton had, one of many.

“What was that thing he read?” Iris asked. Ray wanted to keep thinking about it, not talk about it.

“Tennyson,” he answered, “‘The Golden Year,’” letting her see that he didn’t want to talk.

She didn’t see it. “Get me some Tennyson, then. That was wonderful.”

“You won’t like it,” he said.

“Well, what if I do? I think I might.”

“I don’t think you will. What we just heard was exceptional because of the performance part of it.”

“I liked Milton and you were certain I wouldn’t.”

“Well, I was selective. Also I don’t think you liked Milton a lot, did you?”

“I did. I loved Areopagitica.”

“That isn’t poetry, of course.”

“It’s Milton.”

“Okay! I’ll get Tennyson for you, I will, I will.”

“If I wasn’t up to Milton, I wonder if there was anybody around qualified to remedy that pathetic situation.”

“You mean I should have been your tutor.”

“Who better?”

“I don’t know. Maybe you’re right. We could try again, I guess.”

“Please don’t overwhelm me with your enthusiasm.”

He didn’t want to get into the vexed question of her literary education and what, exactly, his responsibilities in this area were. The ideal observer would say that since he taught Milton at work, he had a right not to have to teach it again when he got home. Or was it that, in not bringing Milton to Iris, he was trying to protect himself from a declaration from Iris that Milton was… less than she expected?

Also, he didn’t like the way one thing led to another when the subject came up of what she should be reading. For example, since he claimed to love the novel, why didn’t he read more of them, and why, when he did read them, did it seem he read so few novels by women? Did his interest end with Jane Austen? The problem was that they had a fundamental difference over reading, revolving around the proposition, her proposition, implicit, that whatever you read should be discussed and dissected with your mate, which created a certain pressure to read works of a certain caliber and to read with a certain mindfulness you might be in the mood to escape from. Right now he didn’t want to think about it.

The gravamen, roughly, of the poem Kerekang had recited was that those who strove for the coming of universal justice should never be downhearted, because, as Ray was reconstructing the sentiment, in the act of virtuous struggle you are somehow partaking of the Golden Year even though it hasn’t temporally arrived yet. He would have to listen to it again, or read it, but that was about right. It sounded lame in summary, yet it had been thrilling, especially during Kerekang’s complete, heroic embrace of the Welsh accent in which the heroic member of the hiking group expressed his defiant positiveness about the future. Sections of the poem were still with him.

When wealth no more shall rest in mounded heaps,
But smit with freer light shall slowly melt
In many streams to fatten lower lands,
And light shall spread,
and man be liker man
Thro’ all the season of the golden year…

And then the windup, in the voice of the old, indomitable do-gooding Welshman in rebuttal to the pessimism of the younger men in the party about the possibility, ever, of justice, general justice, being achieved.

What stuff is this!
Old writers push’d the happy season back,
The more fools they, we forward: dreamers both…
Then something he’d lost, then something ending with
That unto him who works, and feels he works,
This same grand year is ever at the doors…

Ah yes, and just before that, Leonard, the old man, has broken his walking staff in fury at the younger man’s pessimism… and then came the conclusion to the whole thing with that blast in the slate quarry, for emphasis, how great!… Now tell me literature is dead… Look around!… The true voice of feeling, exhilarating!… Okay it was Victorian, but in the best way… Splendid man, and I rest my case, and Boyle must have seen it, he had to see it, how could he not see it? Victorian, but fine stuff… the best kind of Victorian, here by time machine… You’re a better man than I am, Kerekang… So bravo, that’s all.

And then, crowning the already perfect climax, Kerekang had turned to his tatterdemalions and, like a maestro, summoned from them a great shout of, of what, of defiance, the shout standing for the quarry blast, Ray supposed. The poem had described it and the children had embodied it. And the shout had expressed farewell, too, as the children had raised their right arms in a mass salute aimed at Wemberg, the fascist salute actually, although that was obviously a completely accidental resemblance not affecting the impact of the thing. He thought, Anyway the fact is that there are a limited number of physical gestures available for the expression of the emotion of solidarity, which is why dance, thanks to the limitations of the silent, lumbering body as a means of articulating anything, constitutes the lowest rung on the ladder of art, in his humble opinion, dance with its grabbing motions to signify desire and its pushing motions to signify aversion and its grabbing then pushing then grabbing again to show ambivalence, for crying out loud. Iris missed the ballet. He didn’t. The cry of the children had been the perfect opposite of the pinched, supplicating noise of the Anglican girls’ choir.

And then there had come the terrible, perfect conclusion, the answering cry of sorrow and ruin their act had torn from Wemberg, at the end.

Iris was gone. She had been affected too. He shouldn’t have been annoyed with her over Milton. He was too selfish. If God were a reader he would have brought the shade of Tennyson back for this moment. But it was time to find Iris.

He hesitated. He would find Iris shortly. But he wanted to say something personal to Wemberg, not that he had any particular history with him, but the impulse was there. What he wanted to say came down to something like We’re all dying, don’t worry, an impossibility, but something. It wasn’t just a cliché about universal mortality he wanted to impart. What he wanted to do was acknowledge that something he feared himself, dying in Africa and leaving a mate to figure everything out, had somehow cruelly happened to this unfortunate man, in spades. It was the fear of being left alone in Africa, where nobody loved you. Iris was afraid of it too. And she was going to leave him in Africa so she could visit her sister, not the same thing but it had a certain relationship to the real thing. She was definitely going. She had her ticket. He was divided. He also wanted to say something to Kerekang, pat those children, register something, which was not a good idea because he knew better than to give Boyle any opening to think of him as aligned with Kerekang. The crowd bulged toward the buffet.

Wemberg seemed to be gone. Ray couldn’t find him.

More late arrivers were appearing. It appeared that the embassy had lost control of the gate long enough for this to happen. The strong cooking smells that had afflicted the end of the ceremony had come from frantic lastminute deep-fat frying of extra samoosas, as he had conjectured.

Someone had compiled a tape loop of various largo movements from the classical symphonic repertoire. Between repeats of the loop the Moldau played. The sound coming through the public-address system was too loud, but no one was paying attention. It was the kind of thing Iris would take care of, but where was she?

When he found Iris letting herself out of one of the Portosans set up in the back drive her eyes were red.

This was bad. “What is it?”

“Nothing. Come look at this. Someone urinated on the wall of the Portosan while I was in there, can you believe it? I guess the same guy who tried so hard to get the door open while I was in there. I was terrified. He went around to the back and peed on the Portosan. I heard every drop.”

“That’s disgusting. But that’s not why you’re upset.”

“Nothing is organized here. They should have the toilets gendered, but they just set them up and it’s a free-for-all.”

“I know. But what’s wrong? Do we need to leave?”

“This will go away if you stop asking me about it. Can you do that?”

She was never like this.

She relented. “I guess it’s nothing. I was very moved and then… then just stupidly started thinking about, this is so stupid, my own death. But not even that. My own funeral service or memorial or whatever I get when I die, what that would be like.”

He guided her to a more private spot beside the garage.

She was continuing. “And what I was thinking was what a joke it’s going to be. I have done nothing. There will be absolutely nothing to say. Nothing.

“But of course people will say things. They have no choice. But it will be lies and it will be nothing like what that man just did, that wonderful thing we just saw for Alice Wemberg. No one will feel that way and why should they, for God’s sake?

“Everything will be lies except for what you have to say.

“This is pointless. I can’t be doing this. It’s idiotic.”

“My darling girl, everyone has something like this at memorial services.”

Something was making it worse for her. She was distraught. She was weeping and not trying to contain it, now.

She said, “And look at you. Half of everything you do is secret…”

He shook her lightly, alarmed. He pointed back in the direction of the Portosans, to remind her that she had to quiet down, that there might be listeners.

“I know. But what would I say about you? I only know half of your life. Even I don’t know about your other involvements, your what, your other accomplishments, Ray. I’m sorry…”

“Maybe we should go home.”

No.” She was vehement. He reached out to hold her, but she stood away from him. She fought to compose herself.

“We don’t have to stay beyond this,” he said.

She was adamant. “No, I want you to meet my doctor, meet Davis, like a normal human being, like my normal husband.”

He groaned. “Is this the best moment, Iris? My God.”

“I’m fine,” she said. She was recovering. It was okay if she looked like she had been crying here. The rapidity with which women could recompose themselves was something.

“You know nothing about him, Ray.”

“I’m happy to meet him,” he made himself say. Look bright, he thought.

She said, “I want you to be normal when you meet him. Don’t be formal. Don’t be frozen, the way you can.”

“I hear and obey,” he said, not as lightly as he’d meant to.

They found Morel standing under a silver oak, his back against its spindly trunk, batting now and then at the parched dead leaves that occasionally drifted down past him. Feet spread apart, he was truculently posed, Ray thought. Morel folded his arms across his chest as Ray and Iris came up. He was undergoing a harangue, but managing to radiate goodnatured skepticism for the benefit of the small miscellaneous crowd loosely gathered around him.

Morel was jaunty, which for some reason surprised Ray. And he was definitely in the handsome dog category, alas. His safari suit, which was black, with a shortsleeved jacket-shirt, was custom-tailored and clearly expensive. His arms-folded pose nicely presented his cultivated biceps and the ponderous wristwatch he wore. The man looked solid as a horse. He had the kind of overdone upper body development paraplegics determined to overcome their disabilities have, and undoubtedly the motive for it was to compensate for his short-leg condition, undetectable as that was, thanks to the genius of his bootmaker. Ray knew charm when he saw it. But charm goes with vanity, he thought. Vanity was there. The cut of Morel’s attire was toward formfitting. Wrists as thick as those could only come from hours of boringly squeezing grip-builders, a pair of which Iris had given him several years ago, Ray now remembered, and which he had never used.

“Say hello,” Iris muttered to Ray.

He was going to.

He disliked Morel, genuinely, which came as a relief since up to now his attitude toward him had been based on assumptions. Morel was lighter-skinned than he had appeared to be in his ID photograph. Plenty of Batswana would interact with him as a lakhoa. He would have something to work against. American blacks could be the most disappointed people you came across in Africa. I hate arrogance, Ray thought, and inward arrogance like his I hate the worst. Ray judged himself to be marginally taller than Morel, although it was hard to see why he bothered to care about it since he knew that in fact Morel’s height was a function of his orthopedic footwear. He felt stupid for caring about it, but he couldn’t help it. And only one of Morel’s shoes was built up anyway. He put his hand out. He kept his gaze up, not to show any interest in something he was supposed to know nothing about, Morel’s invisible disability.

Iris said hello, tentatively.

Morel’s hair was close-cropped and dense. In general he was as represented by his photograph, if just that much softer at the edges that a couple of years of passing time would guarantee. Ray thought, Age operates in one of two modes, it either withers you, or it puffs you out… I am withering.

Morel shook Ray’s hand with average force and smiled at him and Iris. There had been nothing to notice in the moment of acknowledgment, which had been casual and quick because Morel was busy being upbraided in Setswana and English by someone Ray knew about, a character, the head of the Star and Arm of David group, one of the thousand offshoots of the Zionist Christian Church.

Unless he was a superb actor, Morel had had no particular reaction to seeing Ray for the first time. It looked as though Ray could relax a little. Of course he had been impossibly positioned to pick up anything in Iris’s expression that might have been there when Morel greeted them, because she had been almost behind Ray as they approached, hanging back, which was unlike her.

The harangue stopped as a young woman, someone associated with the moruti’s group, arrived presenting a plate of food gathered from the buffet. Morel declined, saying he was fasting. Probably this was an evasion. The food was as usual—leaden-looking samoosas, fried chicken… drumsticks only. There were small paper cups of oily bean salad, but no forks, so that eating the beans involved a maneuver more like drinking. Only Morel and the moruti were offered anything. The young woman attended her moruti, wiping his hands for him with a paper towel when he was through. He asked her to find him some tea and she went off to do that.

Ray moved forward, intending to say something more to Morel, but the moruti subtly blocked him. He was a heavy man, all in black, in his late fifties, Ray judged. On a ribbon around his neck hung a medallion of some kind, which he kissed brusquely before resuming with Morel.

“Should we go?” Iris whispered.

Ray was definite that they shouldn’t.

The moruti was proceeding in Setswana. The harangue part one had been mostly in English with short deviations into Setswana, or so Ray had gathered as he’d approached the group. Morel was listening, with his head down, respectfully, and then, startling Ray, he replied to the moruti in Setswana. Woodenly, maybe, but in Setswana. This was new information. It changed the profile. Even Boyle would surely see that.

Not learning Setswana was something Ray held against himself. His original rationalization, because that was what it was, for not learning any particular African language had been that there was no telling where in the continent he might be posted next. He had known it was a rationalization but he had never been able to make himself go beyond learning the basic necessities in the local language anywhere, and in a certain way it had been useful, because host-country nationals would say things to one another in frankness in front of him in their own languages and feel comfortable doing that, and sometimes he had had the option of taping them and securing material somebody else could translate, useful material, often enough. He was normally set up to tape at the drop of a hat. He was today. So over time the original rationalization had gotten stronger. Also, foreign languages had always been difficult for him, a subject outside his best aptitudes. Working in foreign languages, for him, had been like working underwater. He was thinking of his struggle with Latin, which he had been forced to master out of fealty to great Milton, fealty and love. And had been unnatural and difficult for him and he had discovered in himself a mental tendency to forget what he’d learned, like the body expelling a foreign object. And that had led to a defect in his embrace, his total embrace, of the body of Milton, as compared to that of the show-off Latinists in the field, the others. Certain things were not in him, and he had paid for it. Some of his resistance to learning other languages could be attributed to chauvinism about English, some hard relic of his upbringing. Undoubtedly there were other relics as bad or worse he had never had the time to fix. Iris would know. She might have a list. There were seven hundred thousand words available in the English language and in the next closest, German, only four hundred thousand. Someone had written a very funny poem saying that German was originally the language that gargoyles spoke. And as for French, he couldn’t wait for it to become a dead language, since no nation, a nation of peacocks, had ever deserved it more. It was coming, they knew it and were hysterical about it, but adieu, adieu. But still he should have learned Setswana.

And if he wasn’t going to go ahead and learn Setswana, it was certainly stupid of him, and also indefensible, to have pretended to Boyle that he was fluent in it. How base was it to make himself into a liar to Boyle, and how pointless was it to do it over something that didn’t actually matter to his work, to his productivity, and also how stupid was it to try to impress Boyle by claiming a skill Boyle wouldn’t have the sense to value?

Comma Lesole was there in the crowd around Morel. Comma had recently been promoted to chief of maintenance at St. James and Ray couldn’t remember if he had congratulated him or not. Guiding Iris, he moved next to Comma Lesole and touched his shoulder.

“Dumela, rra,” Ray said to him. “Can you say what this is going on about?”

“Dumela, rra, when he can stop I shall say it to you.” But he wanted to be able to listen closely for the moment.

“Very good. But the moruti is…? His name is what?”

“He is their bishop, rra. He is called Bishop Tsatsilebe and you must call him your grace every time.”

He didn’t think Iris had ever met Comma. She was going to be curious about the name. Ray wouldn’t be able to help her because he had never asked Comma why that particular name, his registered Christian name and not a nickname, had been given to him. Odd names were commonplace in Tswana town culture. Questioning people about them was gauche and stamped you as a greenhorn. You just could not overreact to the recurrent necessity to address someone you worked with as Toboggan or Judas or Substitute.

The bishop’s tone was angry. Morel was listening, but saying less and less. He was having trouble knowing when it was appropriate for him to respond. The bishop left large intervals between the points he was making, presumably to allow them to register, but the intervals were just that. A sequence of pronouncements was in progress and the bishop was making it plain that Morel’s attempts to respond to each point were premature and unwelcome. Ray didn’t need to know Setswana to recognize that a good deal of the bishop’s presentation involved emphatic repetition of the same statements.

There was a pause as the bishop was handed his tea, extended by consultations with several of his followers as to whether an umbrella should be held above his head. A woman who was probably his wife pushed a tam-o’-shanter into his hands, which he tossed angrily away. He declined the umbrella. A follower retrieved the tam-o’-shanter.

Morel had a trait which, in Ray’s experience, was common among important or self-important people. This was a reflex tendency to be aware at all times of who in the immediate area of the important person might be more important to talk to than present company. It was a scanning reflex. Morel was doing it now.

Ray decided to bother Comma Lesole again.

Still reluctant, Comma Lesole said, “I cannot tell you all what-what he has said, rra. This chap.” He indicated Morel. He said, “He has said many things, many things. Well well, it was not good. Ehe.”

Ray liked the standard local pronunciation of “said,” making it rhyme with “aid,” as “says” was pronounced to rhyme with “gaze.” It elevated what was being reported, somehow. Maybe it had a biblical ring. The American “sed” sounded vulgar and inferior to him, if he thought about it.

It occurred to Ray that possibly he was being unfair to Morel, who really was trapped. The scanning Morel was doing might not be the one Ray hated, the one that made every conversation with the self-important party provisional and interruptible. After all, Morel was under pressure and all his scanning might be driven by simple fear that somebody like the ambassador might happen by and notice that Morel was agitating a valued guest. That might be. We shall see, Ray thought.

Iris crowded closer to him, clutching his arm. This scene wasn’t what she’d had in mind.

Comma said, “You see, I don’t know him well. In fact, I don’t know him. But this lakhoa is saying such as how we must say bogwadi is no more true amongst us.”

The word meant nothing to Ray, but he noted that Comma was indeed seeing Morel as a lakhoa.

“Can you tell me what that means?”

Arduously, Ray wrested out of Comma’s reticence a semblance of an account of the exchange between Morel and the bishop up to that moment. There was widespread belief among the Batswana that widows were a source of certain diseases. AIDS was one of these diseases. AIDS was something that the Batswana had known of for many years. The bishop had given this information to Morel for him to understand, so he would not be misled. The Tswana name for AIDS was bogwadi. The idea was that widows, resuming sexual relations after the long period of abstention that followed the death of their husbands, would release toxins stored up in their vaginas. These toxins caused diseases. That was why it was so urgent not to be the first man to sleep with a widow after the death of her husband. This the bishop had said many times. But the doctor had said it was not true, at first. But then the doctor had said only that he had not heard of this cause, after the bishop began mocking him. That was the point they had come to.

This was new to Ray. Comma confirmed to him what he suspected, which was that bogwadi was considered curable by the sangomas. So here was another nightmare that somebody at the agency and at the embassy would have to incorporate. He would pass it on.

AIDS was murdering Africa. He hated to think about it. Ten percent of the population in Botswana was seropositive. The percentage was higher in the towns. So here was another obfuscation to deal with. The agency was already exerting itself against another popular belief, which was that AIDS was a piece of white biological warfare against Africans, which somehow was associated with the belief that AIDS was a trick to make Africans use condoms and reduce their population growth. And there was yet another belief that only makhoa could contract AIDS, that the Batswana themselves were immune. It was a mess. The picture of AIDS in Botswana was incoherent and the disease was galloping. A small campaign had begun. Posters were up here and there, saying DON’T SURMISE! CONDOMISE! The posters were frequently torn down or defaced. The agency was interested in knowing who was doing that.

Comma said, “In fact this man is apologizing very much. You can see.” Comma seemed greatly relieved. Ray understood it. Here, Morel was seen as a white man. Batswana arguing with Batswana was one thing. Batswana openly arguing with whites was another. There was something distinctly unusual about it. The past was still alive. Antagonism expressed obliquely was closer to the norm than confrontation, and antagonism denied or concealed in evasions and the lie direct was the norm, although that was putting it harshly.

Apparently it was over. Morel was doing a certain amount of bowing and scraping. The bishop was collecting his people. Ray would be able to do a supplementary on Morel with just what he had so far. Morel was injudicious… insensitive to the prerogatives of people with status or blind to the self-evident status certain people possessed… and then there were the implications of his command of Setswana.

Now he could say something to Morel, interact more adequately with him from Iris’s standpoint, as he’d promised he would.

Ray was cordial. Morel was cordial in the way professionals are cordial, Ray thought. To a member of the free professions everyone is a potential client, and they present themselves within certain limits.

“Excitement,” Ray said.

“All my fault. How are you?” Morel asked.

“You tell me, Doctor,” was Ray’s answer. All smiled.

To Iris, Morel said, “Hello my dear,” rapidly and lightly, avuncular. Ray didn’t like it. It was provocative. It was Morel formally asserting a role toward Iris that surely Ray couldn’t be expected to take seriously. Ray told himself not to bridle.

Iris was herself in the few words she spoke to Morel next. There was nothing guarded that Ray could see. They seemed to be coming to a standstill too soon for Ray. He wanted the exchange to continue a little longer.

Ray said, “That man was a bishop, in case you didn’t know.”

“A bishop?”

“In one of the Zed CC splinter churches.”

Morel had a good but not great voice, tending toward tenor. Stress was probably driving his pitch higher. His speech was accentless, purified. The man could be a radio announcer.

“He got upset with me. He even… I think this happened… not sure. I think I was referred to as the Antichrist. I think. Not directly but to some of his people.”

Comma Lesole came forward to verify what Morel had said. “In fact, he says you are, very much.”

“This is more than I deserve,” Morel said, shaping his tone for Iris and Ray.

The ambassador’s wife was suddenly striding toward them, making scooping motions to urge them toward the buffet, to Ray’s disappointment. He wanted more time with Morel. There was more to see in him. And what he wanted to see was the hardest thing there was to see and be sure about. He wanted to see, to know, if Morel was a settled man. It was his own term. A settled man meant something different than a True Man. A settled man was… a sound man. Applying the category to Morel was difficult for him. He wanted to know how he, himself, would fare if comparisons were ever to be made between them in that category. And beyond that, he wanted to know what kind of man Morel would be for Iris, to Iris, if the unthinkable happened. A settled man could still be an enemy.

They were moving toward the buffet. He could mention the Antichrist matter, if he did a supplement, except that he had his doubts about whether it had really been said. He felt it was likelier that Morel had said that the bishop’s notion about bogwadi amounted to a calumny against innocent women and that it was un-Christian to falsely condemn them and that the bishop’s reply to Morel had been misconstrued by Comma. Although he could be wrong. African Christians tended to be fairly promiscuous with allegations that their critics were Satans and Judases and so on.

He hoped he’d done what Iris wanted. He certainly hadn’t been able to bring himself to any sort of expression of gratitude for all that Morel had done or was doing for her, whatever that might be.

It’s a battlefield, Ray thought. Today, so far, he was winning. Surveying the scene, he felt a familiar passion flow into him, not a passion exactly but a passionate appreciation for the riches the scene held for him. It was more than just a carnival of egos to him. He knew more. He brought more knowledge of the secret histories the star egos were impaled on, usually, and the brighter the star, the more he tended to know. He liked the feeling. He couldn’t help liking it. Weigher of souls was what he said to himself when he felt he was liking this feeling too much. There was the rub. He tried to mock himself when he needed it, and there were times when he did need it, because he had to be his own critic. He had a master but no colleagues. He was alone in his work. Nobody knew the extent of this. He couldn’t have friends. He had no friends.

They had joined a queue. Morel had left, saying he’d be back shortly.

“Just eat the tomato salad,” Iris said.

“They have some kind of frikadellen that looks good,” Ray answered.

She looked pleadingly at him.

“Ray, you have no idea what’s in them.”

“I’m sure they’re fine, but if you say so.”

She worried about him. Iris was his one great friend, his sufficing friend, his pivot and anchor, all of that. She was perfect. But there was a lot he couldn’t tell her. Aside from Iris, it was fair to say that he had only enemies, or adversaries. Even his little helpers in the game were adversaries in the sense that they were there to produce as little as they could and still get paid, and he was there to induce them to produce more than they wanted for what they got. And those associations were fundamentally mercenary in any case. When it came to his family, he had only critics and adversaries. Rex was his enemy. His mother was neither friend nor enemy. He wasn’t present enough in her consciousness for her to have an attitude toward him. She had stronger feelings about the game of golf. In his opinions on Milton, in his publications, he was alone. He had no seconders. He belonged to no particular school of interpretation. Sometimes his views were objected to, briefly, and set to one side. He could deal with it. That was the world. He would like to get a closer look at Samuel Kerekang. He liked him. He felt a dim bond with him through the man’s evident love of English literature. Kerekang would inspire friendship, Ray thought. When he thought of the world as a spectacle of enemies, he tried to be resigned about it, telling himself that the lives of most men could be shown to resemble his. How unusual was it for men not to have close friends of the same sex except in the context of athletics, of team life? But even that didn’t scan. Team life was riven with rivalry, especially at the professional level. He had had a few friendly superiors in his career, the greatest of them being Marion Resnick of blessed memory. But of course that’s what Marion had been, his superior. That said it all. They had been business friends. And of course real social friendship outside of the agency had been structurally ruled out for him. The feeling of affinity that had overwhelmed him the first time he encountered Milton had been a form of friendly feeling, he supposed, but different, naturally, because Milton was dead and was alive to him only in lines of text. But he loved Milton and had recognized, with some surprise, an element of personal sympathy or pity in his feeling, part of a sense that in some way he could help Milton, help him to be better apprehended and loved. This was nonsense, but he wondered how other English specialists chose their men, chose their people, wondered if there was something like what he had just recognized, if choices were made on the flaws, certain flaws in the achievements of the artist, certain appealing flaws that you might help with. That he had been feeling sorry at some level for the sublime Milton was good for a laugh. The idea of friendship with the dead, in itself, was also good for a laugh.

They were falling back in the queue as Iris let people slip ahead. She was under the impression she was holding a place for her doctor.

“He’s not coming back for this,” Ray said.

“He said he was.”

“He also said he was fasting.”

“But then he got on line.”

“No, he let himself be put on line by Maeve, out of courtesy. That’s all. He’s not coming back.”

She looked distressed. “I thought he’d changed his mind about eating,” she said.

“Is he a vegetarian?” Ray asked.

“He favors it.”

“But is he?”

“Pretty much.”

“Does he have an explanation for the rise in age at death as populations consume more meat?”

“You want the frikadellen.”

“I’m hungry. I’m seeing white. I’m having bizarre ideation.”

“Eat whatever you want, you poor thing.”

“Remember when you said Don’t come to me when you fall over? During one of our first shall we say discussions about meat?”

“You remember my formulations when they’re simple, don’t you? They stay with you. Anything simpleminded.”

“That wasn’t simpleminded. I knew what you meant. You meant when I fell over with a heart attack.”

“The cute me. That’s what you like. That’s all right.”

Don’t come to me when you fall over dead, however she’d put it, had seemed amusing when she’d said it. His talent for making things worse was making itself felt.

The queue stalled.

“Wait, I need to tell my doctor something. I think I see him in the house. I’ll be back.”

That was fine.

The line had stalled because the frikadellen had run out.

He thought, Liberation is what she wants… I have it… What is it?

Wemberg, it appeared, was missing. The man the present event had been created for was gone. He had evaded his handlers, which was surprising because he had seemed so inert. That must have been an act. This was looking to everyone like an escape. People were reminding one another that the Wembergs had more friends among the Batswana than anyone.

The substrate of confusion under today’s enterprise was starting to show. There was awkwardness everywhere. The ambassador had managed to pack together a little delegation of local clergy, including the bishop Morel had offended, with the idea that they would offer a group condolence to the bereaved. Now Wemberg was nowhere. The ambassador was striving to keep the group of clergy entertained while somebody located Wemberg.

Ray didn’t mind scenes of great confusion, things falling apart, just so long as he bore no responsibility.

In a minute the ambassador would have to release the group he had drawn together. He was deflecting his embarrassment into blasts of staring affability directed almost randomly. His height made him so conspicuous.

Ray had loaded his plate with tomato salad, nothing else.

Iris beckoned to him across the lawn. She was part of a constellation consisting of herself, Morel, and Kerekang that was drifting, each star remaining at a fixed distance from the others, across the lawn, in the direction of a horseshoe pitch in the lee of the main house and receiving some shade from it. This was the group he wanted, excellent! Iris was carrying two plates of tomato salad, one of them probably intended for him. He raised his own plate to show her that he was already eating an abundance of damn tomatoes.

Signs of disorganization continued to multiply. It was deadly bright and hot, and people had packed themselves into the seats under the canopy to eat. One man was standing and eating at the podium. A presentation of flowers, gladioli, had just arrived late and were being set up. A low hiss emanated from the public-address system speakers. Staff people who should have been in evidence were not. Obviously many of them had been hurled into the search for Dwight Wemberg.

Following Iris, Morel, and Kerekang toward the shade were the gleaner children, in a body, moving carefully and attending to the full plates they were carrying. Ray watched them settle in the horseshoe pitch, at Kerekang’s feet. Morel and Kerekang, now lounging against the wall of the main residence, were in mid-conversation. He was going to go over there. Iris was kneeling among the children. The children shifted, moving even nearer to Kerekang. It was vaguely like a scene from the Gospels.

Ray was set up to tape. His wife was beautiful but he wished she were standing. She could be careless about people interested in looking down her front. She had one top with sagging, too generous armholes that he wished she would eliminate from her wardrobe. She was careless.

Going by the gestures in play, Kerekang was engaged in a verbal attack on Morel. This was not Morel’s day. Ray couldn’t imagine what the issue might be. He had to hear this. He tried to call up anything he knew of Tennyson’s beyond what everyone knew from Locksley Hall. Nothing was coming.

Halfway there, he was invisibly deflected. Boyle crossed in front of him and gave a double cough that meant Ray should follow him, mark where he was headed, and then find a discreet way to get there and meet with him. Boyle had studiously not looked at him as he was crossing his path, which was usual. Anyone who had intelligence business with Boyle was to avoid public contact with him on pain of being considered something between an absolute idiot and a walking threat to the continued existence of the Central Intelligence Agency as an institution. Ray wondered if anyone had figured out that a good way to winkle out who was doing Boyle’s work would be to make a list of the people who were always feverishly scuttling out of Boyle’s neighborhood at gatherings like this one.

Ray was furious. He should be with the constellation. Boyle was using a cane today so maybe there was hope somewhere. I curse you, he thought. If Boyle was descending toward immobility there was hope, unless because he was so invaluable he would be kept on even if all he could do was sit in a chair and concoct actions. The agency loved Boyle.

Normally he would feel pity for anyone moving along with such evident difficulty as Boyle. He wished Boyle would fall. That way this mission he had been summoned to the same way a dog is summoned by his master’s whistle would abort, presumably, and he could go where he should be. Boyle was heading for the Portosans.

He had to hurry. He signaled vaguely to Iris, not sure she was getting what he was trying to convey. He handed his plate of tomatoes to the wife of the embassy’s communication officer, who was there making herself useful but who seemed nonplussed at his act.

Boyle led him past the Portosans and around to the back of the residence garage. There was a door in the rear wall and Boyle would have a key. He had keys to everything. He gave Boyle time to let himself in and light up his Santos Dumont. He would be ready for Ray when he could address him from the center of a cloud of smoke. This was going to have to do with Wemberg.

Ray entered the garage. Boyle, in his flowing white linen suit perfect for the temperature but wrong for the memorial service, was there, glimmering and smoking.

It was about Wemberg. It was urgent, supposedly. Boyle handed him a notecard with five license plate numbers scrawled on it. He had nobody else to send on this errand, which was to go three blocks away to a parking area and ascertain which cars with the license plates indicated were not there. Ray could tell that Boyle saw the Wemberg situation as not much above the level of a nuisance, but that since he had been brought into it he was certainly going to clear up the mystery before it got worse.

There was no time to talk because people would be leaving. It had been established that Wemberg was not back at his flat or at any of the other likely locations. Somebody, some group sympathetic to Wemberg’s complaints against the government and the embassy, had given him sanctuary, was Boyle’s guess. The idea was to move fast. If this was an ad hoc thing, the faster they moved the sooner they would find Wemberg and get him on a plane. The ambassador wanted Wemberg on a plane tomorrow, or at least no later than the next day.

I have no interest in this, Ray thought: Let me alone before I miss everything. He had to get back to Iris and Morel. Mine enemy gleams, he thought. He was sounding rather high-romantic to himself and wondered what that was about.

Just as Ray was about to go, Boyle stopped him. He wanted to be certain Ray could read the scrawled license plate numbers, so he took out his penlight and held the beam on the card while Ray read the numbers aloud for him. Ray had been able to make out the letters and numbers perfectly, using available light. It was all a waste of precious time and it was typical of Boyle. Boyle was insane.

Securing the license plate information had taken less time than Ray had anticipated, but locating Boyle once he was back with the information had become nightmarish because stupidly they hadn’t fixed on a rendezvous point in advance. So he had had to find Boyle, who was busy machinating someplace, without showing to anyone the slightest interest in where the man might be. He had found him after a tedious period of wandering through the dissolving event. Finally a crisscross pass had been arranged by the usual winks and nods. When it was done he was tired of life.

Poor Iris. Her lot had been to wait and watch patiently while he came and went, circulated, self-evidently doing nothing. She had known roughly what was going on. She had waited, abandoned, sitting in the horseshoe pitch on an upturned wastebasket, feigning interest in a fashion magazine, which had probably been for his benefit. There was no subject she hated more than fashion. Morel had gone. Kerekang and his urchins had gone.

He collected her.

“I am dying,” she said. “You abandon me.” They were walking home, although dragging themselves home would be closer to it.

She went on. “You abandon me. You aren’t supposed to.”

“I know,” he said.

“I should be used to it. I guess it hasn’t happened for a while because it hit me this time with a sort of shock, like the old days when it happened all the time. Which led to an understanding, you may recall. You would not let this happen to me unless it was an absolute emergency.”

“Which this was. Well, it classified as an emergency.”

“I won’t ask you what it was. You know I was out there in suspended animation for a whole hour. I considered holding the magazine upside down as a distress signal, would you have noticed? I won’t ask you what the emergency was because I know you can’t tell me.”

He considered violating the house rules. She would appreciate it if he did. And this situation was something she had undoubtedly put together for herself already.

He said, “I’ll tell you what it was. But please tell me you won’t ever do anything like that magazine trick. People notice things. Say you won’t.”

“I never have, I wouldn’t, but I wanted to. I wanted to hold the thing upside down, and wave it in the air every time you passed.”

“Good Lord.”

“Don’t worry.”

“Anyway, you noticed how Dwight was nowhere to be seen. Well, they have him set up for a flight home tomorrow at noon. He was supposed to go back to get his bags, which Maeve had packed for him, and then come back and stay the night at the DCM’s.

“He’s a missing person. And he didn’t just wander off somewhere.

“The theory is that he prevailed on somebody to hide him out so he can continue his campaign. He kept saying he wouldn’t leave Africa without Alice’s body, and he meant it, apparently.

“So now we don’t know where he is. He has a wide circle of friends, Batswana friends, and so did Alice. They need to find him right away, so I had to go and check some license plates. They know he left in a car. I had to check on which cars had been parked in a certain place and no longer were, if you see what I mean. I had no choice. There was nobody else to do it. Everybody else was tasked up.”

She was listening closely. She looked at him with an expression distinctly combining gratitude and surprise.

“Thank you,” she said. “I mean it.”

He thought, If she thinks this is the thin end of the wedge, she’s wrong…

“And all the wandering around mysteriously, what was that?”

“It was part of the deal.”

“I know, but it seemed so strange and protracted…”

“It wasn’t very strange.”

After a silence, she said, “I know who you report to, by the way.”

This didn’t surprise Ray very much. He shrugged.

“And I’m sorry for you. I knew before today, so don’t worry that it’s anything you did this afternoon. Anyway it’s the new consular officer and I pity you, I do.”

“Are you saying that because it’s always the consular officer? Because it isn’t always the consular officer.”

“No, everybody knows. He’s awful. All the people I know, know. I just look interested. I play dumb, don’t worry. Also if your previous boss was that very nice Marion Resnick, I’m sorry for you. What a contrast. You can confirm my guess by pulling your earlobe if you want to.”

“I can’t say anything about this.”

“But you do understand that everybody knows.”

“Maybe they only think they know.”

“Oh I don’t think so. But that’s all right.”

She stopped, spun against him, and locked her arms around him in a hard embrace, there on the street. Immediately he felt calmer.

He noticed that he was hungry. He hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast.

On impulse, he said, “Should we go someplace for coffee?”

She said, “I like the idea, but it’s Sunday. One of the hotels would be about it. I don’t want to get caught in the braai at the Sun, but we could go to the coffee shop. Everything else is closed, the regular places.”

The hotel they were nearest to was the Sun, but she didn’t love going there. She disliked it because the tone of the place was corrupted by the casino, the types it attracted. The Sun was off his normal beat, for obvious reasons. He was a schoolteacher. But when he had a plausible reason to go there, he went. He liked it for the same reasons that Iris didn’t. It was a sink of vice, so you saw temptation winning or losing, loss of composure, certain extremes.

They decided it would be a good idea. He was touched that she was agreeable to going. They changed their route.

She was splendid, fundamentally. They were going to the Sun for his sake. There were plenty of reasons she would usually prefer to avoid the Sun, the gauntlet of prostitutes you had to run in order to get in the door being one of them, but that was usually only a nighttime problem. There were the beggars who assumed that everybody leaving the Sun had broken the bank. There were the Boers who had come up for black sex where nobody they knew would see them. But it was the hawkers, the lace sellers, who upset her the most. There was a vendor encampment extending along the road paralleling the Sun’s frontage. The lace sellers dominated the encampment and completely controlled the choice area directly across from the entrance gate. Their lace goods were displayed along fences or on makeshift racks, or carried out into the traffic by the hawkers, hardlooking matrons, and unfurled for pedestrians and slower-moving cars. For occasional shelter from the sun the hawkers would repair to lean-tos crafted from sticks, cardboard, and burlap sacking. The encampment was a hell of dust, shouting, and carbon monoxide pumped out by the idling engines of vehicles pulled up on the shoulder of the road for the purpose of browsing. The ratio of sales to stopped cars was pitifully low.

Iris had a history with these people. She had tried to help them. The bedspreads and tablecloths and mantillas and runners being sold were items that united incredible craftsmanship with appallingly cheap materials. That was the problem. The shawl Iris was wearing constituted a case in point. She was forever fiddling with it, gluing up broken threads, tightening it up in one way or another. Iris had spoken to several of the lace-makers about the mismatch, and they had seemed to understand. As he remembered it, she had gone so far as to locate a source for better linen thread for them, and they had seemed interested. What was the point of constructing these intricate and potentially beautiful objects out of what amounted to packing twine? But there had been no outcome.

It occurred to him that Iris had spoken to the wrong people. There was a hidden government among the hawkers. There always is, he thought. He could delve. There was a top woman, who occupied the prime spot in the encampment and whose lace stand was shaded by golf umbrellas, new ones. She was probably the one to speak to, not that it would do any good. He could find out, if Iris wanted to pursue it. She liked to correct things. She thought the world was more pliable than it is. Every time she saw the cordon of prostitutes around the entrance to the Sun, her mind ran in the direction of what could be done for them. She had a general impulse toward social helpfulness that somehow never resulted in organized action, like working with the gleaners the way Alice Wemberg had, actually getting out of the house and going to the site of the iniquity. He knew what she would say about that. She would say, if they were ever able to discuss it honestly, that he discouraged it, in part because it would raise their profile, which was always to be avoided, and in part because… he needed her so inordinately. For example, he always wanted to know where she was and that wherever she was it was a reasonable place to be, a safe place. Because the fact was that without her the world would be unintelligible to him. That much was true.

“Did I miss anything?” he asked her.

“Oh, only a fascinating dispute between the man who spoke so beautifully, Mister Kerekang, and a man who’s still not your favorite person, I gather.”

“Tell me.”

“Well I didn’t get all of it, remember. Possibly because I had to stop and concentrate on particular things I knew you’d find interesting, like the reasons Davis gave for wanting to be in Africa…”

He felt taut. It appeared that what she had was Morel’s mission statement, or what he was interested in having people think was his mission statement. He was taut because the underlying burning question of what exactly was going on with her over at Morel’s was with him constantly, like indigestion. That question would be coming up and into the light sometime soon, if not tonight. It would happen before she left for the States, that was certain. It could be tonight, depending on what she had to say about Morel in the next segment. Going to the Sun rather than going home was a way of postponing the conversation, for him if not for her. Was she cooperating with his struggle to postpone the Morel question, the full-dress moment? She seemed blithe enough. He was the one with the problem. He was the one with the full plate. They had to be at home when he picked the moment to thrash the thing out, or was it thresh the thing out? For an instant both words seemed equally correct in the phrase, a sign that he was getting old, proof positive.

“Let’s see,” she said. “Let’s see how I do with my memory palace.”

“Your memory palace.”

“You know what that is?”

“I think I do,” he said. Of course he knew. “You mean where you visualize a building you know every detail of by heart and then use different features of it to pigeonhole pieces of information so you can recover them by association.”

“Davis suggested the idea to me. It’s a simple concept. I must’ve heard of it in the past but just never paid attention to it or never thought it was relevant to me. He mentioned it when I was complaining about my short-term memory.”

“You think your short-term memory is worse lately, but it isn’t. You’ve always had an erratic memory.”

“Well, I beg to differ. But it doesn’t matter. It was bothering me, so I included it in my long menu of objections to myself and my body. And Davis made this suggestion, which I’ve been employing for a few weeks and which, well, which I think helps. I could be wrong. Do you notice any improvement?”

“Maybe so. I don’t know. You’re variable.” There was nothing wrong with using memory palaces if you needed to. This device had been covered during training. But he never used it. His memory worked without tricks. When he absorbed a scene or a sequence it was an effortless process. It was a form of becoming the scene, surrendering to it. He was unusual, when it came to memory, it was a gift. In the agency he was regarded as a prodigy, or once had been. He was pleased if using memory palaces was genuinely going to work for her. They would see.

He wondered what template she used for her memory palace. It would be one of the houses she’d lived in when she was growing up, undoubtedly. That was what he’d used when he’d tried the technique out. He was curious to know.

“I’m curious,” he said. “I’m curious to know what edifice you’re using for your memory palace. I don’t mean to be intruding.” He realized that he wanted it to be the house they were living in.

“Oh nononono. There’s nothing secret about this. Please. Actually I have two I use. One as you might expect is our house, going in the front door, to the right and then to the left, room by room, and I can start with the driveway, the yard, to expand it. That’s one memory palace. But I have another one for less complicated sequences.”

He broke in. “Ensembles,” he said. She might as well know the technical term.

“Thank you, ensembles, then. So for less complicated ensembles I have another one that works very well, even better. I use it all the time. It’s dynamite.”

Ray was used to acting as her spare brain, her spare memory. He remembered the titles of books she’d read, and their authors, for example. She had relied on him, deferred to him, when a question of authorship came up, or the question of the title of a movie she could remember the basic plot of, and not much else. He might know who wrote the background music, not that anyone ever plumbed him for that. Amazing things from the tail end of movie credits would stick with him. Directors, he always knew. His remembering one thing or another for her had never been the occasion of any sort of fireworks or notice. It was just that he remembered the passing world better than she did, in more detail than she did, and so what?

He asked, “So what is the other template you use?”

“Hm,” was all she said.

“Oh come on.”

“I’m having second thoughts, I think.”

“Now I’m interested. Come on.”

“Hm,” she said again. She was being coy.

He said, “To my coy mistress, please tell me.”

“Okay,” she said. “I use yow.”

“In what sense?”

Yow. I use your body. You naked.”

“Good God.”

“If I dress you up, say, and put things in different pockets and so on, it doesn’t have the same power.”

Eros, he thought… Oh my.

She said, “I tack different items to different body parts.”

“My naked body.”

“Yes.”

“And this was your own idea, not something the good doctor suggested.”

“No, my very own.”

“Using my body as a sort of bulletin board. I guess I’m flattered. And so where on my body would you tack say the most important thing in an ensemble that you wanted to remember?”

“Try and guess. Where would I put the seminal item?”

“Shame on you. Ahem. Well. You were going to give me your doctor’s mission statement.”

“Don’t call it that again, if you don’t mind.

“It wasn’t something he was eager to talk about. It wasn’t an announcement. And how would you like it if someone was being so bold as to ask you why you were in Africa, you yourself, why? You wouldn’t like it. You’d be taken aback. But of course it’s a legitimate question to ask any non-African who’s hanging around in Africa. It’s just that it doesn’t normally get asked, people are too polite. The answer to the question of why people turn up in Africa is never simple. Look at us. But he was asked, so he answered.”

“Don’t be defensive.”

“I’m not. And one other thing, just refer to him as Doctor Morel or just Morel if you can’t stand to call him Davis. You’ve met him now. He introduced himself to you as Davis. I don’t particularly want to hear good doctor or your doctor anymore. So call him Morel, which is probably what he is to you. Call him that. Calling him Morel has a slight touch of hostility to it, which you have toward him, so be up front. It’s fine with me.”

“Done,” he said.

Pointless hostility I might add.”

Say nothing, he thought.

“So. What he said. There are three gifts, donations was his actual term, three donations the white world has given Africa, three poisoned gifts that have wrecked or distorted Africa’s own course of development, however that might have come out if Africa had just been left alone a little longer. These are perduring, his word, donations, things persisting long after the physical occupation of Africa ended, persisting long after independence.

“The three donations are, one, plantation agriculture… two, the nation-state… and three, the Christian religion.

“There was a parenthesis on slavery, the Atlantic slave trade, which would normally be included among the main poisoned gifts. He leaves it out because, even though it stimulated local slave-trading into something much more monstrous than it already was, it’s over with. And there were even worse sponsors, like the Muslims. The Arabs, that is.

“This he sort of rushed through. He sees himself in some ways, at least, as a beneficiary of white or Western civilization, an African beneficiary to boot. And he feels an obligation to do something about what the West has done to Africa.”

Ray contained himself.

“And he thinks Africa is dying.

“Obviously nothing can be done about the nation-state system.

“And nothing can be done about plantation agriculture. And here there was a little exchange with Kerekang, who wanted to know if Davis was including extractive industries, like mining and timbering, in the category of things that nothing can be done about, to which the answer was yes. I would say also that Samuel Kerekang was reserving his position on whether or not something could be done about agriculture, if somehow or other export agriculture couldn’t be supplanted by something else, but he agreed that it was a titanic problem.

“But something can be done about Christianity, which Davis thinks has had the worst effects of the three. So the major thing he is pledged to do… in addition to his medical work… is to lift the yoke of Christianity from the neck of Africa, help to. I don’t exactly see who he’s going to be helping, since nobody else is doing it that I know of. But that was his formulation.

“Also, I know from things he’s said at other times, not today, that he probably should have included the standard Western urban diet as another one of the poisoned gifts, and also one of the things he wants to do something about, in a lesser way. But I know what he thinks of the town diet the Batswana are adopting, the Simba chips and the orange Fanta, the grease and sugar way of life, the reduced food palette…”

Ray said, “It’s funny to think of bush diet as a palette. People desperately scrabbling through the landscape for tubers and insects…”

“Yes, but you know what he means. In the bush the diet has hundreds of vegetable items that disappear in the town diet. You don’t disagree with this. People move to town and in old age they become obese, they gain mass, instead of getting leaner, which is healthier, and which is the norm in the countryside.”

“But he didn’t bring that up today, you said.”

“Right, he didn’t. Anyway, he laid some stress on his deciding to come to Africa and do this work particularly because he’s black, which brought a smile to Kerekang’s face because Davis is pretty light. His mother was white. I think he saw it wasn’t going down especially well, so he dropped it. But he has a perfect right to mention it. His background is Caribbean and everybody who’s black in the Caribbean was once a slave, even if his family somehow did very well in Montserrat and then when they came to the United States.

“His father was black. It’s an interesting family. His father taught at Harvard Divinity School for many years. Davis refers to him as a Protestant divine. His father also owned the company that produces the prewritten sermons Protestant ministers use when they don’t have time to write their own. It was enormously lucrative, I understand.

“I knew you’d find this interesting. His mother was an actual Boston Brahmin. Davis was close to her, but not to his father.”

“I wonder why not.”

“I don’t know, but this brings me close to the end of what I know about Davis. He trained for the ministry but not for very long. He switched to medicine.”

“Thus overthrowing his father.”

“I suppose. And then in medical school he fell in love with a Nigerian exchange student and married her and that didn’t work out…”

“What went wrong?”

“There was a divorce.”

“But over what?”

“His wife betrayed him, which almost killed him. There was a bitter divorce. There were no children, thank God. So then he finished medical school and went through a process of disillusion with conventional medicine, and he developed his own ideas of what goes on in healing…”

“Eclectic medicine.”

“Right. And that’s the story up to the present. He had his practice and he met these people from Botswana, government people, and he decided to come here.”

Ray said, “He tells you everything.”

“No he doesn’t. He tells me what I get out of him. You know how I am.”

“Well pardon me if I find this unusual. He could resist your curiosity if he wanted to, great force that it is. I would think. He could draw lines, right? He’s the doctor, you’re the patient.” Contain yourself, he thought.

“Well one thing he thinks is wrong is the conventional doctor-patient relationship.”

Great, Ray thought. “But tell me, was his wife unfaithful with a white guy or a black guy, what race, just out of curiosity. Just to fill the picture out.”

After a silence, she said, “That’s really all I know.”

“No it isn’t,” he said flatly, surprising himself.

“That tone. You are so certain sometimes.”

He said, “You don’t have to answer the question. That’s your prerogative. But don’t deny I’m right, that you do know.”

“You are uncanny. And you are oppressive. You are… And I don’t lie to you, and you know that. You rely on it. You exploit it. You want me to tell you something you know I’d rather not, and you take unfair advantage of me to get your way.”

“I don’t deny it,” he said.

They proceeded in silence. Why was this something she wanted to withhold?

“I don’t really know this for a fact,” she said. “I didn’t hear it from him. It’s from someone else, so when I said I’d told you all I know, that was actually true. This is a different quality of… of information. It’s gossip. I think his wife left him for a woman. And what her race might be I have no idea.”

Now he knew what her impulse had been. She had been trying to protect Morel’s image. It was humiliating to lose your wife to a woman. She hadn’t wanted him to know. He didn’t like it. Why should she be protecting Morel’s image? What was it to her?

“God,” he said. “No wonder he wants to overthrow Western civilization.”

“Don’t trivialize. Nobody said he wants to overthrow Western civilization. Anyway, what’s the connection?”

“Well. I can’t think of much, offhand, that would more completely unhorse me and make me want to pull down everything within reach. I guess I’m speaking for myself, but I’d sure want to do something about my fate. I can get with that. Western civilization is our fate. So. Ergo. Look, you have at least two betrayals going on at once. You’re betrayed as a person, and your gender is being betrayed… and then add to the picture that your wife is Nigerian, you’re being betrayed by an African. That makes it worse, somehow. So you think that something cosmic has to be wrong with the world that’s doing this to you. So…”

“Listen, do you want to hear what else I have to report about the day’s events? Because there is a bit more. Or do you want to keep on psychologizing, something I thought you hated, by the way.”

He couldn’t quite let it go. “I do want to hear, but don’t tell me psychologizing isn’t in order now and then. If something like this happened to me, I… well… I might very well decide to do something… amazing… instead of slitting my wrists right away.”

She sighed hugely.

“I’m sorry I told you.”

“Iris, don’t be. It’s interesting. In a way it’s no crazier or more Promethean or whathaveyou than any other kind of missionary activity over here. It’s just a new annex on a familiar edifice, isn’t it? But it is interesting.”

“I don’t know how much of this is just talk, Ray. It’s his medical work that’s really important. I think.”

“Okay, so what else was said? And who was the audience?”

“Those children, myself, your friend the engineer, Kerekang. Toward the end there were other people coming over who wanted to exchange pleasantries with Davis. He has a following. Patients and people who’ve heard about him.”

“Now this is after his mission statement?”

“You’re getting the wrong picture. This wasn’t something he declaimed, some grandiose statement he was just waiting to unveil. You could tell he knew it was going to sound grandiose. And it was said more or less man to man, to your friend. I happened to be there. He wasn’t being portentous in any way. Okay, I would even say there was some irony in the way he said it, although at that point I was pretty much in an eavesdropping position. My point is that it wasn’t something being declared for the benefit of one and all, and certainly not for my benefit. What I think happened is that your friend…”

“Stop calling him my friend. I don’t know this man Kerekang.”

“Well, but you seem to like him. So do I…”

“And I don’t keep referring to him as your friend, do I?”

“No, but you obviously like him. So did Davis. He’s very appealing. You approve of him.”

“Well let’s call him Kerekang, for simplicity. I call your doctor by his last name and you and I call Kerekang by his last name. Or for even greater simplicity we could both refer to your doctor by his last name. No? Jesus, what is this? Everything is getting in the way.”

“I know, and it’s not coming from me. Anyway.

“Anyway, they went back and forth about Christianity for a while. I think Davis was trying to feel Kerekang out on the subject, find out where he stood. They were sizing each other up. It was fun to watch.

“I’m now, for this discussion, in a different memory palace, by the way.

“Kerekang seemed to be taking the position that even though Christianity wasn’t exactly true, Africans had some things to be grateful to certain Christians for. And he mentioned how Livingstone and Moffat had run guns to the Batswana so they could repel the Boers. And in a more general way he was saying that he didn’t see that it was so terrible for people to have in their minds a model of someone unfailingly kind, acting kindly. And then the discussion got a little miscellaneous on his part and he alluded to the role Christians had played in getting cab horses treated decently in London in the nineteenth century and also to the part they played in stopping the gladiatorial games, although I had the sense that Davis had some alternate explanation for that that he couldn’t quite lay his hands on, or didn’t, anyway. And then Kerekang went on to the work of Christians in ending the slave trade, although he did say that Christians had participated in it and profited from it from the beginning. And Kerekang also admitted that Christians in Europe had basically forced the Jews into being slave traders during the Middle Ages by making it one of the few trades Jews were allowed to engage in.

“So then Davis wanted him not to rely on single instances, but to look at the larger effects of the doctrine in Africa, and not to look at this or that good act by white Christians here and there in Africa. He wanted him to focus on what Christianity had done to Africans, to the African minds it had penetrated and was still penetrating. Wait a minute.”

She closed her eyes.

“Okay, then Davis gave as an example what Christianity had done to homosexuality in Africa, making the point that universally there was no stigma attached to being homosexual within the traditional cultures, but that Christianity had brought persecution of homosexuality with it, introduced it where it hadn’t been. Kerekang took this for a good point.”

The flagpoles of the Gaborone Sun were coming into view.

“Then, and this was very sotto voce between them, they talked about abortion and how all the churches were united against legalization, which is true. And then they came to AIDS.

“Davis is passionate about it. He hears things through the medical grapevine that other people don’t know. In the morgues in Zimbabwe they are stacking the AIDS corpses three to a tray, for example. The Catholics are against condoms and the Protestant churches are barely in favor of them and the independent African churches are bastions of insane folklore remedies for AIDS, which is galloping unbelievably. He thinks seropositivity is almost twenty percent here.

“Then Kerekang tried to take a sort of evolutionary position. This was that people would progress from animism and local gods to monotheism, the monotheisms, and then to Deism and finally out into post-religion. We would all someday be like Sweden, where nobody believed anything having to do with religion anymore. He’s visited Sweden. But Davis was absolute against that view, saying that it’s the liberal denominations that are declining into unimportance and the fundamentalist branches of religion that are gaining strength. And he wanted Kerekang to admit that this was especially true in Africa, which Kerekang did admit. Davis said Kerekang was a religious Menshevik, thinking that religion was going to turn into secularism the way the Mensheviks thought capitalism was going to evolve itself into socialism. For some reason this was a big hit with Kerekang. He has a wonderful laugh. How am I doing as a rapporteur?”

“You’re astonishing me.”

She was very pleased. He loved this flushed, sturdy creature. All this was for him, all this effort.

She said, “Then… what?… I think a reprise of the question of white Christians doing good things, which Kerekang couldn’t quite escape from, ending up in this exchange… Kerekang saying Some people come to Africa to help us very much. Davis saying So did I. Kerekang saying They came to build things up. Davis saying Like me. Kerekang saying They came to create things. Davis saying Yes and the things they came to build are falling on the heads of Africans all around us.

“And then I believe this is the end of it. And I learned something I didn’t know. Davis pointed out that Kerekang, who’s a Xhosa, should appreciate that Christianity was behind the destruction of his people. In this way. In 1856 a prophetess ordered them to slaughter their entire national herd, half a million cattle, as a sacrifice, which they did and which impoverished them, it ruined them, it’s so horrible. The prophetess…”

“Nongqawuse.”

“You see, you know everything.”

“Not quite, babe.”

“But that’s really impressive.”

“No it isn’t. It’s one of the main events in the history of the region. The Xhosas who settled here in Botswana came north after the cattle massacre. There’s a big settlement near Mahalapye, which is where Kerekang comes from, if my guess is correct.”

“Well in any case she was a Christian convert who had decided that all the cattle had to be killed because they had been reared by people who practiced witchcraft, as the Xhosas had for generations, which meant that the cattle were defiled because the Christian god hated witchcraft. They were in a period of stress at the time. I don’t know if it was drought or what. They were continually under pressure from the Zulus. So the prophetess promised that their tribulations would be over once they’d killed off all the cattle. He made the point, Davis did, that most people think of this act of destruction as something arising from primitive tribal craziness. But this was not a thing the pre-Christian tribes had ever done. It was Christianity that did it to them. Did you know that?”

He hadn’t. He hadn’t known that Nongqawuse was a Christian convert. “I may have known that, once. Maybe not. No, I don’t think I did. No, I didn’t.”

“Any last comments on my report?”

“Impeccable, my dear girl. Impeccable, Iris.”

They had reached the ring road. They turned up it. A quarter of a mile ahead of them on the far side of the road and occupying a site at the top of a long, slow rise was the Sun.

“So that was all. Davis gave Kerekang a card and invited him to a lecture he’s planning to give. And then as a last afterthought he grabbed Kerekang before he could leave and made the point that it wasn’t only Christianity he was concerned about, it was all religions, all religious belief, in case that hadn’t been emphasized enough. And I believe Kerekang invited Davis to come have a look at the gleaner camp. And now I want something cold to drink.”

He was full of gratitude toward her.

A realization he had suppressed came back to him. He had almost done something unforgivable. It had almost happened. During her recital, he had unthinkingly reached toward his shirt pocket to activate his microrecorder. But he had caught himself. He would never tape her. The temptation to do it then was understandable. The impulse was an artifact of the intensity of his focus on his enemy, Boyle, his preposterous enemy. Someone forgive me, he thought. Priest could be his code name for Morel, if Boyle could be made to see reason.

They were in sight of the hawker strip. Their approach galvanized the hawkers, who began heaving themselves up from the ground or struggling out from their cardboard and burlap hutments. The hawkers would mob them in a minute.

A heavy, owl-faced woman with a withered leg, the hawker closest to them, was toiling painfully toward them, determined to be the first to present her goods.

“That woman is crippled,” Iris said. “Oh God.”

They had to buy something. It was distressing. Hawkers from farther up the line were racing at them, overtaking the crippled woman. He suspected that word had been passed along that Iris was wearing one of their products, which made her a serious prospect. The crippled woman was in desperate haste. As her competitors came past her, she began unfurling her goods, pitching them out toward Iris and Ray, trailing them through the dust as she forged forward.

“Buy the biggest piece she has,” Ray said. “Buy the bedspread.” It was unlike him, but he was hot with gratitude toward Iris. He was usually careful with money.

“You know how they overcharge for these,” she said.

“Get the bedspread. The tablecloth.” It was blocked gratitude speaking. Of course they overcharged, for what they gave you. But he also knew that she’d get more pleasure buying this dubious object than she would buying something for herself that she really wanted.

“You’re great,” she said.

“Not yet,” he said.

15. I Would Like to Reassure You About My Penis

She was going to think he was perverse, getting into a hot bath on a hot night after a hot day… but sometimes there was a need. A scalding bath like this was for moments when everything hurts, from the soul outward, from the folds of your soul to the soles of your feet, and what the burning lake did was unify miscellaneous pains into a single physical one, briefly, which then turned into pleasure as the water temperature became bearable, something like that. Everything hurts, he thought, and there he was. But he could see the future. Iris would drift in, take note, say nothing, and convey everything by body language, as in rolling the eyes.

She would roll her eyes. And with some justification. From her viewpoint, there he would be, a Dagwood in his bathtub, but in darkest Africa. She would react, because what he was doing was odd and because if she wanted to talk more, which she did, she would be physically uncomfortable there, she would think he was deliberately creating a milieu uncongenial to conversation, which he would be hard pressed to deny, although it wasn’t true. And what was the name of the actress who had been trapped into playing Blondie film after film by her physical appropriateness for the part, a good actress but never able to escape that one role? Singleton had been her name, Penny. And there had been others in her situation, including the poor fuck who’d fallen into playing Superman forever, on television and not even in the movies, and who’d finally shot himself to death, sick of it. And then in fact hadn’t something similar happened to the actor who’d played Zorro? He thought so. Money made them do it. I do nothing for money, at least, he thought. Sometimes he wondered if his affection for the Zorro movies had any connection with his attraction to the dual life he had ended up leading and enjoying, for the most part. He had loved Zorro. Or he had loved the Janus metaphor underneath Zorro and the others, the introvert who had an armed and dangerous alter ego who could hurt you but wouldn’t kill you, he would just tie you up and expose you to ridicule. He thought, We can never get down to the slurry of narratives we took in through our pores when we were growing up, and that sits in us, sloshing around in our foundations. Iris was coming in. She was nearby. He could sense it. And someday someone would come up with a process like psychoanalysis but devoted to ripping up the rotten subflooring of cultural junk in our depths, getting it up so it could be hawked up and spat out, genre, clichés, ads, commercials, formulas of all kinds, all of it. Women don’t spit, he thought. Men hawk and spit. Iris claimed not to know how to hawk. She suffered from postnasal drip from time to time seriously enough that he had tried to teach her how to clear out the back of her sinuses, just to help with keeping ahead of the flow, but she couldn’t do it. The process repelled her. He considered his legs, his lower self, in the faintly tawny water. If you like them lean, come to me, he thought. Iris was getting wider through the hips, fractionally, but it was happening. The water was perfect. Sweat crawled down his scalp. The concentration of chlorine in their tap water varied from day to day, and sometimes the odor could be distractingly strong, but tonight it was minimal, vaguely medicinal, like the ozone tinge produced by the electric coil in the geyser mounted high on the wall where it would crush his feet if it ever came down when he was in the tub. Every expatriate male he knew had talked about the damned menacing geysers and they all did what he did, which was to tug compulsively on the brackets that held the massive things in place whenever he was in the room. Africa, danger everywhere, he thought, mocking himself.

“Aren’t you suffering in there?” Iris asked from the hall.

“In a good way,” he answered. “I like it.”

“It can’t be good for you.”

But she didn’t pursue it when he didn’t reply. He heard her withdraw… toward the bedroom, he thought.

If she wanted to join him in the tub room, there was a problem. There was no place for her to sit, except the uncomfortable rim of the tub. There was nothing in this cubicle but the tub and the washbasin. The toilet sat in its own cubicle, if a cubicle could be taller in the vertical dimension. If she was determined to come in and chat she could drag in the hamper from the toilet room, or bring in a chair, though she had never done that. He ran fresh hot water into the tub.

He thought, All hail the monster bathtub, the one true good thing the British left in Africa: Oversized because the imperial classes were so large in stature they hated to be hunched up when it came to bath time and time to relish their conquests that day.

Iris was back. He turned to look at her in the doorway. She was down to her bra and panties now, fanning herself. She still wanted to talk. We have talked our extinction to death was the one line he remembered from the whole corpus of Robert Lowell. He thought, Nobody talks about Lowell these days. The fading of great reputations was a hazard for people doing English… He was lucky with Milton. She wanted to talk about Morel and so did he, as much as you could want something to happen that you simultaneously dreaded, for no good reason.

“How long might you be in there?” she asked.

“I don’t know. This is a treatment, I.” She was going to be surprised at that. The use of I as a nickname for her, or a diminutive, one or the other, had fallen away years ago. It had been his earliest nickname for her. She’d never liked it much, actually.

“Treatment for what?” she asked.

“For what ails me.”

“You’re going to dissolve.”

“That would be okay,” he said, reaching for a tone that would suggest to her that he was midway in a process of some importance to him that he wanted to continue with, but that wouldn’t sound unfriendly. They were going to talk. Of course she was already paying someone else to talk to her, if he wanted to be childish about it. He was certain she was well into some sort of talk therapy with Morel. He thought, Every man whose wife goes out to get help of this sort from a male, another male, feels something like this. He knew he was being a cartoon, but it made a difference that the therapist was male, whether it should or not. It was a stupid fact, but a fact. She was getting therapy, but therapy for what? What was the subject matter? His guess was that a certain proportion of what he was paying for was what could be called general conversation or general thoughts on how difficult life was, that kind of thing, and why couldn’t she get that at home? But no, she wanted to warm her hams at the fire of another intellect, Morel’s intellect and not his… This is a good place to have unworthy thoughts, he thought.

Silently Iris entered the bathroom, carrying a camp stool. She had put on a dark green silk kimono, his favorite out of the four or five kimonos she owned. These costume changes were about something. She was very deliberate in the way she opened and lowered the camp stool, setting it down at the foot of the tub. By being so delicate about it she was giving him space to object, he supposed. It was comical.

He arranged his washcloth over his genitals, for no reason. Apparently this was going to begin.

But instead of seating herself, Iris went to the basin, posted herself there, and proceeded with brushing her teeth. After a moment she said something that sounded to him like “I can’t stand the world.” Then she left the room, still brushing.

She was one of those people who have a need to walk around while they brush their teeth, in whom the act of brushing sets up a tension over the basic nullity and boringness of the procedure that they have to release by strolling while they do it, holding one hand cupped under the chin as they go. People in that category were always assiduous brushers. More nominal brushers like himself could stay in one place until they finished.

She passed by the doorway and said something unintelligible, completely unintelligible this time. She was under the delusion that she could say whatever she wanted while she was brushing her teeth and that it would be comprehensible to him because of the care with which she enunciated. It was his fault, because during their life together, since he had usually been able to divine what she was trying to say, he had never revealed his true feeling about it, which was that it was annoying and uncouth, like talking with your mouth full of food. So he had led her to believe she was being normal. He was unable to translate what she had just said.

At the basin again, she concluded by brushing her tongue.

“I couldn’t make out what you said, your last thing,” he said, when she was done.

“Just as well.” She extended her tongue and studied it in the mirror.

It would be hostile to add more hot water to his bath at this point. He asked her to sit down if she wanted to.

His offer went unacknowledged. She said, “I do everything I’m supposed to…” The tone of grievance was there. He waited.

“I read somewhere that it’s good hygiene to brush the back of your tongue when you do your teeth, so I do that. I sterilize my toothbrush, same reason. Nobody we know does that. The same with our diet. Whatever, if you’re supposed to do it, I do it.”

“I don’t exactly follow you,” he said, but in fact he had an idea where this was going. What was unstated was the conclusion her declarations implied, something along the lines of “I do all this and what does it get me?” she meant, get her in general. She was all over the place with her declarations of dissatisfaction, which was what this amounted to. Not that she would put her dissatisfaction as nakedly as he had.

She sighed, turned, and said musingly, “Do you know that I don’t know if your penis is particularly large or not?”

It is, by God, he thought, outraged. But what was this? It was pure provocation.

She said, “You claim it is, but how do I know, really? I’m almost a virgin, I mean I was almost a virgin when I met you.”

He was agitated. He had to keep himself under control. The tone had to be light. This was new. He could say “Gulp he said,” but that was witless. Anxiety was doing this to her. She was flailing. She was being random.

She left the room, which was not possible.

“Iris, come and sit down,” he called after her.

“It’s so hot in there.”

“Please, though. Please.”

“The heat is too much.”

“It’s cooling down,” he called. He wasn’t going to give his treatment up. He needed it. “Please,” he said. “I would like to reassure you about my penis. I think that’s important.”

“I have to come and sit in that steambath? All right, I will.”

He listened intently. She was doing something.

She came in naked, and sat on the camp stool. “I hope you don’t mind,” she said.

He thought, on the contrary. But somehow it was completely apposite that the discussion they were going to have would be conducted with both of them stark naked. She was comfortable naked. Maybe that should worry him. Her breasts were small and full. She had never nursed, of course, but her nipples were on the tan or darker side, away from pink, which he assumed went with her coloring. And she had larger areolas than you would expect for someone who had never nursed, he thought. He was glad she was sitting down. The body of a naked woman standing in front of you could be a face looking at you, the breasts, the navel, the pudendum. He needed to be serious. She was intelligent about her nudity. She rationed it. She kept it a treat. She always wore something to bed. That was strategy, it was smart, and he loved her for it. But this just now was nudity for political reasons. It was coercive, to show what she had to put up with in order to come to grips with him. Sometimes after a bath his cleanness would provoke her into immediately sucking him off.

She said, “You know that was just kidding, about your penis. Just to get your attention.”

“I know,” he said. And he did know.

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. There is the fact of your limited exposure, due to marrying me when you were a child bride. That’s real.”

“Well, and I also never saw my father naked. And of course I had no brothers, and then I was in girls’ schools. Men have endless opportunities to check the full range of breasts and everything else in the movies, and magazines, and nudes in paintings. There’s no parity. And of course in pornography the men they select would represent an extreme. So. And nude paintings are mostly females… and of course if it’s a male, it’s a flaccid male…”

“Men are shy,” he said.

“I was just stirring things up.”

“No, forget it,” he said. He knew he was fine. He was better than fine. He had observed enough to know that. The men in his family happened to be well endowed. He had seen his father’s penis. And when his brother reached puberty, it became clear he was going to be in the money too. She could write Rex and ask him, if she wanted to, they were so close. Or he could get a medical book and let her look him up, measure him and look him up. There was a sexy idea.

Now they were going to talk about Morel. Somehow the die was cast. He felt it. She felt it.

But she got up, yet again, and said, “I have to do something about the light if I’m going to stay here. I’ll get a couple of candles, if that’s all right.”

He nodded vigorously. She left the room and he added a little more hot water to the bath. The geyser rumbled the way it did when a new demand was placed on it. Crush me, he commanded it.

She was sensitive to lighting. She hated the overhead light in this room. He was sorry for her. He wanted to help. She had a way of making things worse. Now the idea that he was going to hear something much worse than he’d expected was growing. She was in love with Morel. Or she was falling in love with Morel. Or they’d done it and now she was sorry. Never, he thought. He was being extreme. Or they’d done it and she wasn’t sorry. It had been wonderful and now she didn’t know what to do. He would have to help her. That was going to be his role. All her preambling was making things worse.

She brought in two tall candles in a candelabrum, a wobbly craft object from Uganda. She tried different floor placements for the candelabrum, finally settling on a spot to his right, near the wall. She turned out the ceiling light.

They sighed together. “This is mysterious,” he said. The new lighting tended to make the scene more extreme. She was mainly a shape to him. Half her face was in shadow. Her hair looked wild, as though it were swelling outward as he looked at her. She had taken her bandeau off. The Medusa effect he was seeing had to be an optical illusion or a consequence of the steamy atmosphere.

He asked, “What are those paper flowers that expand from nothing into complex blooms when you put them in water called?”

She was blank. “Paper flowers was what we called them. I don’t think I ever knew any other name for them, like expando flowers or something like that. Paper flowers.”

He said, “But of course there are all kinds of paper flowers.”

“I know.”

The wavering light the candles produced was fundamentally unhelpful.

Go first, he thought, but too late because she was saying in a constricted voice that they had to talk about Davis now, it was the right time.

Resentment drove him to say, hotly just under his breath, “Son of a bitch.” She didn’t hear it. She was continuing. This was not something she was enjoying, at least.

“Ray… I want to go two or three times a week to Davis, go on a regular basis instead of off and on the way I do now. I have really decided. That’s one thing. So it’s going to cost something we need to budget for.”

He made an ill-considered dismissive gesture, to show that the money was nothing, ill-considered since his arms were underwater and the gesture splashed water out of the tub, alarming her instead of the reverse.

He apologized.

She said, “The more I go the sooner it’s over. I don’t plan to be going to him forever. So that’s one thing. I love you. And now the other thing is that I need it to be agreed that I don’t tell you anything about what we discuss, our sessions. This is standard in therapy, but it’s going to be hard for you, for us, because it’s so unlike the way our life together has always been. And I know you’ll be curious, but I want you to promise you’ll just leave these sessions as terra incognita. I know you. I know the way you try to get things out of me. You do it almost automatically, you can’t help it. So I need you to promise that you won’t. I want a pledge. That you’ll try.”

“Is this pledge something your doctor proposed?”

She didn’t want to answer.

“Why?” she asked him.

“I’d just be curious to know who it emanated from, him or you?”

“Both.”

“Okay, that’s fine, but you give me pause in a certain way. And we should discuss this now, I guess. Because what I see is, okay, you’re going into therapy, psychotherapy, and the money is not an issue, you understand, that’s all fine. But here’s a consideration. I’d like to understand how this… process… this process can be useful to you if you have to observe certain limits in what you can tell him about your life. That is, our life, your life with me.” He thought of Boyle’s chamber.

He continued. “He would consider me a spy.”

“You are a spy,” she said.

“Well,” he said. Despite the heat of the bath, he felt a sensation of cold in his chest, like a lozenge the size of a bar of soap.

“I apologize for raising this, but I can’t help it. Is this correct?… that a whole constituent of your life and the problems it causes will be left out. We’re agreed on that? I mean, I know we are, but I seem to be asking for reassurance…”

She was silent. He needed to be able to see her face better. The abominable lighting was against him.

Finally she said, “I don’t see that as a problem.”

“Okay, you mean you accept these limitations… And you don’t think that leaving all that out will, well, moot the process you’re… paying for?”

She was slow to answer. He thought, In the States the agency has its own roster of cued-in shrinks for this kind of thing. Talk about sinecures.

“I accept,” she said.

“Then it’s fine.”

Maybe I shouldn’t do this, he thought, saying, “Maybe I shouldn’t ask you what I’m about to ask you. But it will just be this once. I would just like to know in a general way why you’re going to him, need to go to him.”

“How can you stand this?” she murmured, meaning the ambience, the heat, and not that she was relenting or showing sympathy toward him.

She was trembling slightly. “You know why. At least you know why I went to him initially.”

They went through it. She had thought her urine looked too dark. Ray had been dismissive. She had gone to Davis Morel and Ray had turned out to be right, but Davis had discovered something else. He had looked at her and seen something and had questioned her.

Ray sat up straight in the tub. This was new.

He held his breath while she talked, so he could hear everything. Because Davis had listened to her and gone beyond the original complaint that had brought her to him he had discovered that she was suffering from hypoadrenia, which was not something Ray should worry about and which was essentially being taken care of. Davis had questioned her about her energy level, about which she had complained listlessly and endlessly at home. Because Davis had listened to her he had found something that Ray with his congenital optimism had never acknowledged. She was telling him more about hypoadrenia than he needed to hear. What it was was obvious. Her energy had been low. She’d been having adrenal insufficiency due, most probably, to the universal cause, stress… although stress included not just emotional but physical, chemical, and thermal varieties. He had tested her for the Ragland effect and it had been positive. Now she was taking glandular supplements and heavy B complex and malic acid and magnesium and she was enormously improved. The whole thing had been fixed so rapidly that she hadn’t bothered to mention it to him. The extra supplements she was taking fitted in with the regular vitamin pills they took. So that had been the physical side of why she began with Morel.

He could read between the lines. His attempts to buck her up and tell her to rest had been a mistake, a form of letting her down. She didn’t have to say so directly. It had been a mistake to judge her by his own condition, which was that his energy level went up and down too. His policy was to ignore his fatigue. He thought, I could be Bartleby in ten minutes, little does she know… I could stop, freeze… I could permanently relax… terminal relaxation, retire physically, stop exerting. But he couldn’t retire. They hadn’t figured that out yet, but it was coming up. Candles are perfect for this. He thought, I am guttering… at fifty she’ll be fine but at sixty I won’t unless I relax. It was time to think about retirement. It was almost too late, in fact, so it was definitely time. He needed a new way to get significantly ahead.

He said, “What you’re telling me… this is good. It’s great. And you do seem fine. Of course you always did, but, this is wonderful. Kiss me when you get a moment. I love you. I’m grateful to this man, truly.”

“He really does go beyond,” she said. “You may not want to hear this but it illustrates something.”

She hesitated, then said, “He really studies you. Okay, he smells you, studies that aspect. He feels your hair. He smells your breath, something no doctor I ever heard of does. He looks at the whites of your eyes…”

“Okay, okay, I get it. I’m not crazy about it. It’s a little theatrical for me, but what do I know? So. So does it involve any touching along the way? Just curious.”

“Oh please. He feels your trapezius muscles for a second. But listen to this. The way he deduced I might have hypoadrenia was by looking at my hands. People who are the most likely to experience adrenal problems have certain physical characteristics, such as being long-waisted like me, and miscarriages, a history of miscarriages. But a main indication is that the index finger is more rounded than the others and longer than the ring finger. Which again is me. Realize that this is not an extended process. It’s brisk. There are people around, in and out all the time. Also, if I may say this, the fact is that regular doctors do not look at you. They look at your history while they’re talking to you. There is nothing intimate about this examination he does. It’s the same for men, I’m sure. That’s it. I wanted you to know about this from me before you hear about it from someone else, because it’s different, what he does, and it’s going to be talked about, God knows. That’s really it.”

He thought, I am burning with love, what can I do?… She loves him, I think.

The fact was, he loved talking to her, the sheer talking, whatever the subject was. It didn’t matter that they were at odds and that she was extracting his heart from his chest like an Aztec. Her voice was a gift to him when it was aimed his way. “I am leaving you!” she could be saying and he would still want to hear it.

“So in effect this is a onetime thing he does, not something that gets repeated time after time, as I understand you.”

“Of course not.”

“So that part of this is in the past.”

“Absolutely.”

“I love you.”

She loved him too. He said, “So that covers the physical part, I guess. So now we come, briefly as we can, to, to, anything you can tell me about these sessions…” No way could he say what he wanted to say, which was What is wrong with me that this is happening, for God’s sake, and what was the Hauptsache, the main thing, a German term that came to him from his Introductory German, for God’s sake. Maybe we are lost, he thought. He continued his thought, “… I won’t ever ask you again, but anything you can say about why you are going and what I should assume you’re talking about in the most general way, I would appreciate, Iris, and I beg you to God to forgive me for asking you this. But anything you can tell me about what is going on here, tell me, and I apologize. But tell me…”

“It’s conversation.”

“But what should I assume? Conversation about what? About your disappointments in life?”

“It’s conversation. It’s partly about philosophy. He gives me things to read as part of it. From time to time. Homework.”

“That’s interesting. Are those things I could know about, your syllabus, the things he recommends.”

“I don’t know. I can tell you what I’d prefer.”

“Not to. Not to tell me.”

“Right. And if you see me reading something, since I’m not going to put brown paper jackets on everything, just let me proceed with it without any commentary being elicited.”

“That’s fine. I don’t know a lot of what you read normally, anyway. You go into your sanctum.”

“I’ll tell you what I’m doing, what I want.” She got up and stood away from the tub, her arms folded. She wanted him to understand the seriousness of what she was about to say, although the stance she was taking, with her legs slightly apart, meant that the bottom of her pubic fringe was backlit. It was the main feature in the silhouette she was presenting to him. He didn’t need to be reminded that they were a couple of animals, however civilized they were in a situation like this. He turned his gaze away, up toward the geyser, again willing it to fall and crush him.

There was a substantial pause while she calmed herself with a breathing exercise he’d seen her perform a couple of times lately, a new thing.

“This is what I want. What I want for myself is like that line in the Bible, ‘Let your yes be yes and your no be no.’ I want my life to be like that, this is yes, this is no. Yes I am your friend. No I’m not your enemy. I want clarity. You remember when everybody was talking about that religious fanatic who’s dragging a cross around the world, when he showed up in South Africa? He’s been at it for years. This is supposedly his mission. But in the photograph in the paper, it was obvious there was a twelve-inch wheel attached to the foot of the cross, meaning he isn’t really dragging his cross around the world, he’s rolling it, which a person might think was still pretty admirable… but it isn’t the same thing. Nobody referred to the presence of the wheel. I want clarity. And I want to feel really good, not just physically. This is turning into a collage, isn’t it? And I want us to get to a new level, which I don’t have a definition of. But I want us to be at a new level. And I want to stop chopping ashes…”

She was so animated. “Chopping ashes?”

“Kgabatlela melora. It’s what the Batswana say about someone who’s doing something really pointless. I guess our closest equivalent would be ‘pounding sand,’ but that doesn’t really capture it in the same way.”

“Everything you want is what I want, Iris.”

“I know. I believe that.” She returned to her seat at the foot of the tub.

He said, “Could you, though, give me just an indication of the kinds of things he’s giving you to read?”

She sighed at him.

“Literature,” she said. “You are so relentless.”

“Okay, that’s fine. I love you.”

“But I’ll tell you something he wanted me to read that I absolutely gave up on. It was Thoreau’s Journal, Volume Six, and I said no after I’d read fifty pages because I’d gotten the point. Davis thinks it’s the greatest literary work of art of the whole period, I don’t know, since Shakespeare. I got the point, which is that Thoreau is really paying attention to the world, in detail, seeing everything there is. I said to him that there was no development. Maybe he thinks I’m shallow, I don’t know. He was nice about it. And please don’t give me your opinion of Thoreau or get into that whole thing you have on English Literature versus American Literature.”

“I won’t. Okay.”

“Also, out of fairness I ought to tell you that some of what he’s giving me is writing of his own. Chapters, drafts, for something he’s writing, a book of essays called Idol Meat.”

What? Meat? Idle?”

“It’s i-d-o-l meat, Ray.”

He felt like a fool. And the title hurt him. He liked it. He thought of his own unwritten books, with pain, his book plans, all embryonic. He had ideas. There was no time.

She said, “Idol meat is…”

He interrupted her, saying, “I know what it is.”

He hadn’t meant to say it the way he had. “Idol meat is the leftovers, isn’t it? The burnt offerings made by the pagans and the Jews, cooked animals, meat, that Christians weren’t supposed to partake of if it came their way. Taboo meat.”

“Right.”

“Are you making suggestions as you read?”

“If something strikes me. But don’t get the idea I’m editing him or anything remotely resembling that.”

“He appreciates your contributions, though.”

“He seems to.”

“I’m not surprised.”

He wondered if they had come to the end of the discussion. Apparently not, because she was still sitting there, unhappily. There was more, then.

She said, “One of the areas I’m trying to improve in is telling the truth, not being as politic as I have.”

“So you have something more you want to tell me.”

“Yes. God help me, though.”

“Say it. Say it.”

“I know you know about this, Ray. There were certain schools of Greek philosophy where doing this was part of achieving virtue or enlightenment. It was called parrhesia. It means saying everything.”

“The Stoics,” he said.

“No, the Cynics, the Cynics. Parrhesia.”

“The Cynics, not the Stoics, are you sure?”

Parrhesia, the Cynics. I’m completely sure. The Cynics are very misunderstood. In fact the Stoics are a dilution of the Cynics. Well, in my humble opinion they are.”

“Obviously I have to go back and look at my Phil One notes.”

“No you don’t. That’s not what I want.”

The truth was that he remembered not that much about the ancient Greeks. He hadn’t found them interesting, partly because what they seemed to find most interesting was pederasty. How great had they been? They had given their empire away by stupidly fighting among themselves and then their superbly civilized upper classes had invited the Romans to take over when the plebs made the slightest trouble. As he recalled, Stoicism was about numbness, being numb, their great object. What else was it that she was going to say? He had references, he could look up the Stoics. He could deal with this. He was not a child.

“I never took philosophy in college,” she said. “Did you know that?”

“Philosophy is a joke,” he said, hotly, trying to think of what his actual position was. She was making him suffer, without intending it. She could not come to the point, obviously because it was going to be too painful for him. What else could explain this? What was it?

He knew what he wanted it not to be. He did not want it to be about their failure to reproduce, again. That was settled. It had to be a settled thing. A solid scab had formed over the issue. And of course it was exactly the kind of issue that was going to turn up once she began free-associating through the universe of her disappointments. Why they had no children was complicated. There had been delay and bad luck involved. They hadn’t started trying early enough. They had been living in Africa. Getting it definitively established that she was infertile had taken years more. They had stuck with different regimens for too long before that, before facing the truth. He didn’t think he had been halfhearted about having children, despite certain reservations he might have had. Inwardly he knew that he would not have enjoyed being his own parent, being a parent to the child he had been. He had never been captivated by the idea of reproducing himself. But he had wanted it very much, for Iris. He had, despite the fact that children exposed you to hellmouth, which was the opening up of the mouth of hell right in front of you, without warning, through no fault of your own. It was the mad gunman shooting you at lunch and it was the cab jumping the curb and crushing you. It was AIDS and it was the grandmother, the daughter, the granddaughter tumbling through the air, blown out of the airplane by a bomb, the three generations falling and seeing one another fall, down, down, onto the Argolid mountains. With children you created more thin places in the world for hellmouth to break through. Morel was hellmouth for him. Hellmouth was having the bad luck to be born in Angola anytime after 1960. And hellmouth was Bertrand Russell coming home from a bicycle ride and announcing to his wife that he had decided he didn’t really love her, like that. That was hellmouth, too. When it had come to adoption, he wasn’t opposed to it. It had been Iris who dropped it. She had been so determined that it be his flesh, his child. Now at forty-eight he was at the limits of eligibility, if he hadn’t already crossed them, unless they went for a half-grown child, which was not what she had wanted. Now her sister was fanning the flames. And Iris was going to be with her, in the middle of it, while an actual infant was produced, to feel and hold. Was there going to be some state of the art nostrum Morel would give Iris?

She began to speak and he saw that he had been wrong. It was something else and it was worse.

She seemed to be saying that she felt he ought to know that she felt a certain attraction to Morel. She was talking about it because it was important for her to tell the truth about things, for her own sake and for his. Ray was numb. He went over what she had said so far. First of all, she was going to go to Morel despite, as Ray understood it, this attraction she felt. Nothing had happened between them and nothing was going to happen. She had determined in her mind and heart that nothing was going to happen with Morel and nothing was going to happen with their marriage. But, as he understood it, she didn’t want to go to Morel under false colors, false pretenses. He, Ray, was the only one who knew this attraction existed. Morel had no idea. There had been no flirting, no exchange of vibrations, none, and there would be none. All this had come out in a rush, involving a divagation about men feeling attraction for the women they worked among all the time, and wives knowing, seeing it at parties and in other transactions and having it denied to their faces. Her plan, he gathered, was to proceed smartly through her course of therapy and get what she needed to out of it and then remove herself still unstained, better, happier, a happier self, for him, for Ray. The thing was that telling him was killing him. It was good she was going away for a while, or was it? He didn’t know. This is the spit on which we turn. Time is the fire in which we burn, was a fragment of his attempted poetry, from the deep past. This moment would pass. He knew something about the therapy relationship that she didn’t. One thing he knew that Iris didn’t was that a woman named Daddario whose first name would come to him in a minute had done a doctoral dissertation showing that thirty percent of women who sought counseling wound up having some form of sexual contact with their therapists, from kissing and petting to sexual intercourse. Linda was Daddario’s first name. It was odd that he remembered that.

“Ray, don’t tell me you haven’t been in situations where you felt attracted to someone. And don’t say yea or nay if you don’t want to. I know you have. I’ve seen it. Married women are used to that.”

“But I don’t,” he said. “I don’t look, I don’t flirt. I don’t.”

“I didn’t say you flirt. But you look. But that’s not what I want to talk about.”

She was getting distraught. He wondered if it could be as simple as telling her not to go, telling her to forget it, saying he wouldn’t pay for it, taking the choice away from her… as if he could do such a thing. Then the idea would be for her to go to someone else. Except that there was no one else. They were in Botswana. It was a total fluke that someone with Morel’s credentials had bobbed up in Gaborone, available for her. The idea that what she wanted was for him to command her to desist was a fantasy. Alas, he thought. There was no one else for her. There was the Italian head of the mental hospital in Lobatse whose English was a national joke.

Something nice was happening. She was joining him in the tub. He hadn’t proposed it. “Take me in your legs,” she said.

* * *

It was still about Morel, on the subject of religion. Ray hadn’t been listening. He had to listen.

“But this is what he says. How he says it. That… That, separate from any problems the particular narrative your denomination has decided to believe in might have, might have regarding ordinary reality, the virgin birth or whatever, there’s the problem of how it articulates with the rest of what’s in this sort of narrative heap, the Bible, which is somehow both internally contradictory and holy. To the naked eye the Old Testament disagrees with the New Testament, very much. So the Bible is put in your little hands and the fact that it doesn’t add up is supposed to be beside the point. So in church you’re undergoing modeling in overlooking contradiction, being trained to push contradictions out of your consciousness just like the respectable adults who run the church do. They seem to thrive on it. But you slowly turn into a dunce, of sorts. You could call this the original sin of religion, is the way he puts it. You become a Christian by ignoring contradictions, not only between the magic-contra-reality elements in your own denominational story but between it and the other weird flowers in the folly garden you got it from.”

He thought, She has no idea how obvious the novelties in her vocabulary are, like contra and folly garden and narrative, the way she just used it.

“I think he’s right about this. Ray, I was such a serious child. I was so good. I wish I could remember more about my wretched time in Sunday school. I was so good while all this was leaching into me. I wanted my parents to love me, obviously, which is why I went along, obviously. The thing is that I think I liked Sunday school, being a dunce, and even looked forward to going. I don’t know. I think I was even sort of thrilled when I had confirmation. We were Episcopalians then.”

“So you were a believer for how long?”

“Well, a believer… I don’t know. I went to church, I was in a club called Chi Rho. What I mean is I don’t know how actively I believed. I try to recapture it and I can’t.”

“So you were an Episcopalian and what happened? Because when I met you there was no sign or real residue of that, at least so far as I can remember.” His cheek was against her temple. He was speaking against her skull. They were bone to bone, almost. If only his love could travel into her mind physically, by pure resonance in some way, straight in, so she would feel it and know it. Her hair was perfect. Her body was heaven to him, the pastures of heaven, perfection.

“It was funny because I think once I was confirmed and had gotten into adolescence it was as though my parents lost interest, almost as though they had done their job by exposing me to Jesus. And I suppose thought it had taken, I was inoculated to be good, and so that was that and they could go back to not going to church once that seemed to have taken place satisfactorily. It was like what they do to cattle here, for ticks, run them through a spray, or like orthodontia. My parents stopped going, my father first. Then my mother. And then I kept going to church, and then just to Chi Rho, and then I stopped going to that. There was never much discussion around it.”

“Did your family say grace?”

“We did for a while at Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner. I remember it as feeling awkward.”

He pressed his cheek harder against her. Her breath was empty, neutral, which meant ideal. He was cupping her breasts lightly, protectively, was what he was aiming for. Getting erotic was wrong for this juncture. He asked if her family had tithed.

“Tithed? No of course not. I don’t know. I don’t think Episcopalians tithe. I think Jews do, and Mormons. They did put money in the collection plate, but secretly from me. It was always already in an envelope, so I have no idea how much they gave. Parents are odd. They were odd. They never got in line to shake the minister’s hand on the steps after services. They slid around, somehow, nodding. Of all the events the church gave, we only went to the massive ones, where the crowds were. Don’t get an erection, I beg you. We’re not doing anything tonight. Don’t get an erection and make me feel guilty.”

“I’m trying,” he said.

“Well succeed.”

Touching her between the legs at times like this was something they liked to call getting away with murder. He was never absolutely sure when she was going to permit it, when they were in casual mode, which was a good thing, no doubt. Take nothing for granted was what it said.

“Even after my religion went away I kept putting Episcopalian on the line that asks for your religion on application forms, like a robot. Then I began putting Protestant. And then I started leaving it blank and to my astonishment discovered that nobody cared if I did. What I really wanted to write was None of your business. But I never did. I’m sure the reason we were Episcopalians was because St. Michael’s was the church closest to us in our neighborhood, walking distance.

“So there went my religion…”

“Your shackles turned to dew,” he said.

She was struck. She swallowed. He felt it. She sat up a little.

“That’s a beautiful line, what is it?”

There was a problem. The line happened to be his own. Let your shackles fade like dew, or as the dew, he couldn’t remember which, came from his delusional period as a would-be poet. What he did not need just now was admiration for his aesthetic ejecta, leading to questions about what else he should be doing with his great talents rather than working for the agency.

She sat up fully. He kissed the nape of her neck.

“What is that from?”

All he remembered about his poem at this point was the struggle to get it right, which he had lost because he hadn’t found the right image for shackles turning to dew and then subsequently rising away like mist, dew in the morning sun, something like that. Fade was wrong.

“I don’t know what it’s from. I don’t know. I’ll try to think…”

“I have to know,” she said. “Can you track it down for me? I’m asking you to.”

“Tasking me. I’ll try.” May your shackles turn to dew, had been the original line…

“I’m going to remind you,” she said.

Then he understood. It was for Morel, for his use, for his armamentarium, he knew it as clearly as he knew anything. She loved it as an image of liberation and she wanted to bring it as a gift to her mentor, which was what he was becoming, not that she would ever admit that that was why she wanted it.

She said, “Because I would love to pass it on to Davis. For his writing. He’s constantly writing.”

She sank down again, to her former position, drawing his hands back to her breasts. Everything is a wound, he thought. He didn’t know what to do. Everything with her was Morel, not that she could help it. He was afraid. He wanted to know if behind all this declared attraction something worse was moving its slow thighs, something like individual vacations, something middle-class decadent like open marriage, whatever that was. He was afraid of conceptualizing what he was afraid of. Something was coming. He thought, She’s wounding me, I could die… She doesn’t know. His heart was beating rapidly. She should be able to notice that, unless she was dismissing it as sex, which she didn’t want, tonight. Was it because Morel was black? Was Morel using that? Would this be happening if Morel were white? Injustice to blacks had been a preoccupation of Iris’s. Of course suppose the Africans had had the Renaissance first and then gone off to conquer the world, how different would it have been? Every race is as bad as its power permits it to be was his opinion.

“You’re hurting my breasts,” Iris said.

“God I’m so sorry. It was unconscious.” He took his hands off her, but again she caught them and pressed them to her breasts.

Something was coming that he didn’t want to hear and it was coming at the worst moment, because in a way everything was perfect. The color of her skin in the color of the bathwater was perfect. The water in the tub was the exact shade of something… Jasmine tea was what it was. He thought he knew the particular cup of tea, even, and the restaurant they’d been in when it had been served, years ago, before Africa. The scent from the citronella candle burning in the hallway was contributing to the moment… the scent was enough like perfume for her, enough not like perfume, closer to an astringent, for him. Physically nothing was hurting. It was excruciating.

He had to know what was coming. It was, and it didn’t matter why it was coming, it didn’t matter why it was coming, whether it was the issue of their childlessness aggravated again via her sister cleverly devising to get pregnant by an absolute fool, or if it was the first cold wind of menopause beginning to blow, or if it was boredom with him versus the black glamour of the black bastard he had the power to destroy utterly, if he was careful. She prefers a jackass who says contra instead of versus, as if that made any kind of difference: she wants to mate with a larger vocabulary, he thought. But larger vocabulary wasn’t what he meant. He meant gaudier vocabulary, flashier.

Do it, he said to himself. “What do you want?” he asked, his tone strange to his ears, realizing as he spoke that this was clumsy and would only baffle her.

That was the effect. “What do you mean?” she asked. He had succeeded in baffling her.

“Iris, I don’t know what you want, if you want us to have an arrangement… something like an arrangement…” He could barely hear himself.

She sat up and torqued herself violently around in order to look hard into his eyes. She seemed amazed. It seemed genuine.

She had covered her breasts with her hands, reflexively, as though she had suddenly found herself in the presence of a stranger. She was staring at him, shaking her head minutely.

Anyone would want her. She was interesting. Yesterday she had raised the question of why there was a single term in English for affirmative head movements but that for the negative you were forced to use three words? He had no idea why there was no one-word antonym of nod. Her questions came from nowhere, you were never prepared. She was good company. There were her peculiar dreams, her amusing dreams, many of them lately, he realized, about getting rich. A few mornings ago she had said to him, “I dreamed I got rich on a doohickey I invented that would let you put your hair up in a bun shaped according to your religion, cross, crescent, star of David, a little Buddha…”

“You poor thing,” she said. “I am in pain if you thought I was thinking of anything like that. Please. Oh my poor thing.”

He thought, She wants Morel, despite all this she does, she won’t do it with him, but this is where we are… she prefers him… I’m more interesting… I am, not that she can see it, but I am.

Still regarding him steadily, she said, “We love each other.”

He flinched. He felt weak. It was too much.

“I mean us, us,” she said, clearly alarmed. She touched his face.

“Give me a minute,” he said.

The pose she was holding was impossible. She turned and resumed her previous position, but bracing her heels on the tub above the tap, she drove herself more forcefully against him than before, which he took as a declaration combining love and punishment for idiocy.

He began, mechanically, to soap himself. “You just nearly killed me,” he said.

“You’re an idiot,” she said. She made a spiral pattern in the lather on his right kneecap.

She sighed heavily. A pause followed. “But don’t you think it’s interesting, an interesting thing to realize, that our wonderful huge white civilization is all a big misunderstanding? I mean, Jesus was not a Christian, at all. And that’s only part of it. I know I’m going on and I’m sorry. Hate him if you have to, but I learn interesting things from this man you hate. It’s like your first year of college, before it turns into a drag. But there is something so staggering about it, first the Church stealing Jesus from the Jews, claiming him, and then libeling and killing the people who gave them Jesus. Fantastic. You have Judaism and you have Christianity and Islam, these two heresies, coming out of it, and you have these heretics trying their best to kill the people that produced them! There is something astonishing about the magnitude of the lying going on. What you have is this image of a huge upside-down pyramid which is the denominations, all the denominations, and churches, and the mosques, and they’re all balanced on a point, and the point the whole pyramid is standing on is… is lies! Certain untruths… and nobody telling… Jesus was never anything but a devout Jew, you know, he was never a Christian at all. And the Jews didn’t kill him. It was the Romans.

“So it isn’t just There is no God with Davis. It’s about lies. But I promise you I am not going to keep talking about him. I’m sorry. Also I don’t want to be restricted for no reason. But don’t worry.”

Essentially it was over, this episode, he supposed. She had a bingo. She had everything she wanted. She had carte blanche to see Morel, and to what? flirt with him was what it came down to, with her husband’s approval, although calling it flirting was probably unfair. It would be fun for her. He wondered how she would like it if he proposed a deal like that for himself, except that he was forgetting it was her opinion that men as a class already had a de facto right or privilege to flirt and worse without anyone taking notice of it let alone assessing damages. Love is a strain, he thought. Now was probably not the best time to establish exactly how many sessions per week she was going to have with Morel. But he had to know that.

“What do you think brought him to Africa?”

“Well, Africa is the one part of the world where you’re getting four new Christians for every two you’re losing in the rest of the world. He has the figures. Don’t sound so grave.”

“I’m not grave, I’m pensive.”

“Why should the subject of religion make you so pensive? We aren’t religious, I thought.

“Do we believe in God, for example?

“Was that a shrug I felt?”

He was tempted to be perverse, which would be a mistake.

“Well, yes and no.”

“What do you mean?”

“Indirectly.”

“What?”

“Well, you might say I believe in someone who obviously did. Milton.” This is stupid, he thought. “Without his religion there would’ve been no Paradise Lost, no… none of it.”

“You think it’s impossible that he might have written something else great, as an unbeliever?”

“No, nothing like what he did write, of that… stature. And he couldn’t anyway because in his time any declaration of unbelief got you locked up. Where Paradise Lost is, there would be nothing, believe me.”

“I believe you and I love you. You don’t know how much more we love you than you love us, in general.”

“You mean, how much more women love their men than men love their women, how ridiculous. How unsupported can you get.”

“How many women know their husband’s Social Security number versus how many men know their wife’s? Venture a guess.”

“Fifty-fifty.”

“Wrong. About seventy percent of women know their husband’s. The figure for men is thirty percent.”

She would never know how tired he was of her facts and figures, courtesy of the good doctor. Now they were doing something interesting together, he and Iris. They were collaborating on a fiction. The fiction was that what had eventuated between them had been a very small thing and that all was well. It was remarkable about how few collaborations in making fiction worked out at all, Ford and Conrad excepted, and the two women who wrote novels about Irish country life. What she wanted from him was childish, on the face of it. She wanted, as he understood it, to see Morel and have fantasies about him and not have to feel guilty about it. That was on the face of it. But there was more going on. The more was a new Mode of Being, or, better, a New Mode of Relating, and his brother was right that there was a larger place for capitals in writing and expression generally than the times were permitting.

She said, “I didn’t mean to get into that and I’m sorry. It’s marginal. I want to say just two main things. I’m going to see him and nothing is going to happen. I love you and you’re my husband. But I’m going to go to him and when he’s helped me I’m going to stop. Helped me, to my satisfaction. But I just don’t want you sensing something you don’t like, suspecting something untrue, and my being forced to deny it over and over.”

He was going to say something he shouldn’t. “You’d tell me first if something was… was starting? You know what I mean. Not that this should be any kind of condition for your going to him, but you would, you would tell me?” He felt like a fool. She was silent.

He said, “I feel vacant. This is making me feel vacant.”

“I’m very sorry if it is. It shouldn’t.” He was hearing a tough tone that was new toughness.

I am nowhere, he thought.

She was brisk. “Nothing is going to happen. I am swearing this to you. I swear it.” She pressed her palm to her sternum, like a diva, but in all seriousness.

Nonsense was pushing its way into his mind. They began to begin to be gone, he thought, three times, making himself stop when he felt the phrase entrenching itself. He needed to steady himself. He had to keep in mind that she was going to be away in the States, which would postpone everything as well as giving him time to strike back at Morel.

She said, “I really want you to understand how helpful he’s been to me. In the smallest ways.

“For example. He taught me to spit, how to hock up mucus, rather. Everybody knows how to spit. But how to hock up mucus from the back of my throat, when my sinuses are going crazy.”

“Hawk, I think you mean.”

“No, it’s hock. He says hock. I think hawk must be a corruption of hock. Because it’s hock. He showed me in the OED.”

“Ah, lucky guy. He has the OED? Are we talking about the real Oxford English Dictionary, not the microscopic edition you read with a magnifier?”

It was the real OED. Ray could tell she was feeling sorry for him. She wanted him to have his own OED, the real one. He hated the microtext edition. He loved the OED. But it was a tool he could use at the university library if he needed to. And he rarely needed to these days. And the real OED was too massive a possession for people as mobile as they had to be prepared to be. He could afford an OED. That wasn’t the problem.

No doubt he had only himself to blame for this moment arriving. Although what he could have done differently at any point in his earthly life so far was a question he would love to thrash out with someone as sapient as the great all-seeing eye she was paying through the nose to visit, although in fact the fees were pretty low. On the other hand was it possible he should construe her confession of attraction slightly differently, as in its being a way of stopping herself, preempting herself by alerting herself and him too, something done as an act of love? Of course that was slightly too self-congratulatory to be true, probably. She was in a malaise, was what this was about. They both were. Maybe this was simple, florid feminism of some kind. Brute feminism, and with no way he could go into it, but was it something like an attempt to undo something she disliked that was a fixture of regular life, such as the truth that men feel more threatened when their mates show interest in another male than women do when men partake in the more or less general reflexive sizing up of the world of women? some impulse like that, such as wanting to make everyone suffer equally? But he had never much gone beyond the golden mean in noticing other women… Although when he had, she had been quick enough to object, in fact. What was he supposed to do? In his work it was important to blend in. His work was in the male world. Was he supposed to walk around at gatherings like a parson? The sexes are different, he thought. Seeing someone you’re interested in naked for the first time would be an example of how it was different for women and men. For men it was the act of getting inside the mystery, the secret that clothing hides, the package, the getting to see, and then if what you see is splendid, then so much the better. But his guess was that with women it was different and revolved around the fact that a particular man wanted passionately for them to take their clothes off. Urgently. That was what they loved. What they loved was men wanting them to the point of begging them to strip now. Of course what they saw when the importuner himself took his clothes off had to fall within a certain range, physical qualities did go into it, had to go into it, but with a woman a short leg would be nothing if the male had counterbalancing stuff, like power… or intellect. Women who talked about buns and dick size were to an extent faking and going along with the male model, which might truly be triggered by bigness in the shoulders and so on, but it was essentially like claiming they liked to watch football on TV as much as their mates did. Where am I? he thought. He had no idea.

She said, “Anyway, he has been concretely useful with problems I had. Or have. I told you about the hypoadrenia. Another thing, and something you may not know about, is how routine it is for me to get mild cystitis after we have sex. Not every time, I don’t mean that. But it’s a thing to deal with and he had a suggestion which I haven’t really had a chance to discuss with you… but now I will. I just lived with it because it wasn’t much and it went away. But. Anyway, he thinks if you were careful to wash yourself with mild soap just prior, just before… it could be that. It’s variable. It may be that when I don’t have the reaction it’s because you were by happenstance very clean at that time, just out of the shower. And this is not to say you’re not a clean person, Ray. It’s just that there may be certain salts on the body, something like that. And also I didn’t want to mention it because it goes against spontaneity. I don’t know, maybe there’s a scintilla of urine or something I’m sensitive to.”

“My God,” he said. “I will certainly… hear and obey. Good God. Who knew?”

He was enraged at Morel.

“You’re not offended, Ray?”

“No, I’m delighted,” he said, but very fast. He should be feeling guilt, obviously, but why was he hearing about this only now? I am apparently foul, he thought.

“It’s just an example of something practical, another example.”

“No, live and learn. So what kind of soap should I use. How mild is mild. I want to get it right.”

“Oatmeal soap. I have some for you.”

“Oatmeal soap it is, then.”

“It fades pretty fast if I drink a lot of water, so I’m not trying to say it was the end of the world.”

“Say no more. We can do without it.” He thought, Crush him: Find a way.

“God I love you,” she said. In a minute she was going to offer to wash him with this correct soap, he thought. He was picking up slight shifts toward softness. She might not even be aware she was tending that way. It would be instinctual to wrap something as bitter as she was handing him in sweet sex, coat it. She was idly touching her breasts.

She said, “About cleanliness, this is interesting, since so much in religion is about ritual purity, getting clean, being clean before God…”

So I am foul, apparently, he thought.

“I’m trying to reproduce what Davis says on this. Yes, it’s why ritual purity is so universal in religions, which is because the father, the generic father, won’t handle the child or baby if it’s soiled, nasty. God is a stand-in for the father figure. By the way do you know that the Peace Corps had to let their messenger go because he refused to carry stool samples from the Peace Corps nurse to the laboratory?”

“I hadn’t heard.”

“Men here will not handle feces. Women have to collect the cow dung they use to plaster the floors with in their huts, in the countryside. Of course the men are completely willing to walk up and down on it.

“Once you look at it, almost everything people do in religion fits one way or another with the attempt to recapture a moment when there was an all-powerful protector-lawgiver figure in our lives, and we go through motions in this regressed state that deep down we believe are the kind that ought to attract the corrective attention of this all-powerful person. This comes from neoteny, the long period of dependency human infants have. When we get into a crisis, we want to regress into the power of a fatherlike entity, a patrimorph is what Davis calls it. Then we recapture the endorphins we got from being taken care of or attended to, historically. It’s a theory. It’s partly from Freud except that Davis doesn’t think this collapsing back is sick, a pathology, the way Freud did. He thinks it’s normal, and even, in a way, healthy. But it’s also a joke, and silly. Everything really fits with this. Confession. All the kinds of self-mortification, to make yourself more like a deserving injured or perfect child, all that. All the born-again symbology. Purity and obedience. Making yourself either pathetic or into the simulacrum of a deserving child covers just about everything from fasting and rending your garments to all the thousands of mortifications of the flesh, to being celibate, meaning you’re making yourself into a simulated presexual being, like a baby.”

She was intoxicated with this stuff. He needed to be respectful, or not disrespectful. Of course there were any number of retorts to such a simpleminded view of religion, there must be. “And then, and this is the last thing I’m going to mention, his theory is that the contradictory and absurd notions we embrace when we’re religious amount to a variation of the same thing. When we embrace the absurd we are doing something the equivalent of mutilating our common sense, as a sort of goodwill offering. The most ridiculous varieties of religion, the fundamentalist ones, seem to be thriving right now. Davis thinks that things are happening, societal things, that are making people regress.”

This too shall pass, he thought. He grunted.

He guessed it was a good sign that she was adding fresh hot water to the stew they were in. She wanted to be with him. That was real.

He needed to remember that there had been previous enthusiasms of hers to deal with, for example when she’d decided that Ken Russell movies were supreme examples of something or other and she’d made him sit through The Devils twice, at the Capitol Cinema.

This was different.

He gripped her shoulders and began kneading her trapezius muscles with his thumbs, which brought back Richard Chamberlain as Tchaikovsky doing the same thing for his new wife and then, when his wife says Yes to the question You’ll stay with me forever, won’t you? converting the massage into an attempt to strangle her, until he comes to his senses not a moment too soon. Iris and he had laughed afterward and had replayed the scene for laughs themselves how many times?

She said, “Never forget how truly grateful I am to you. I never want you to think I’m not.”

He didn’t much like the tone of what she was saying, since it had faretheewell written all over it whether she was aware of it or not.

“Here’s an example why. I feel like a parasite on your knowledge sometimes, which doesn’t mean I’m not grateful. But as an example. Your knowledge of Greek. In Crete. Remember?”

She had no idea how marginal his command of Greek was, at least at this stage, after years of disuse.

“You have no idea what I’m talking about, is that possible?”

“No, say more.”

“This goes back to our Crete vacation in ’83, the incident… When we went to see the pornographic movies in Heraklion?”

He concentrated. He did remember generally, and elements of the evening came back to him, but only in step with her retelling. He remembered the torso of the event, so to speak. They had gone, purely on impulse, as a lark, to see what a pornographic movie would be like in Greece, in Crete. Pornography had been legalized fairly recently, they had gathered. They had walked in on the last tenth of a movie about a licentious Orthodox priest, which the audience was watching in total, fixated silence. Apparently it was a genre. He remembered the priest hanging himself at the end. And then he remembered clearly the suddenly different, rowdy, raucous response to the second feature, a piece of French pornography. The premise of the French film, beautifully photographed, as he recalled, had been odd. It was about a superbly beautiful matron, possibly a widow, who would only allow her lovers and suitors to perform cunnilingus on her. All of them were willing to do it, but they also, naturally, wanted to have follow-up regular intercourse. But all she would permit was the other, and there was no reciprocation from her, oddly enough for a pornographic movie. She rejects all the penises aimed her way. That was his recollection. He was remembering more. The woman was not a widow. Her husband was a society dentist who relieved his frustrations via other female characters who had more reasonable attitudes toward the penis. The dentist was getting it from the other sluts but not from his maddeningly spectacular creamy blond wife. He remembered thinking it was a slightly off-center premise for a pornographic movie. But the main thing she was reminding him had happened was that there had been a claque of young guys in the audience shouting out, at each instance of cunnilingus, Mathe, Vassilios! Mathe, Vassilios! Now he remembered that. And each bout of yelling had been followed by roars of laughter. And he remembered translating what they were saying, for Iris, when she asked. That he remembered. And the next thing he could remember was being back at the Cretan Sun and having memorable sex with Iris, in their freezing room.

“And you don’t remember my begging you to wait a second and wanting to wait around in the lobby?”

“No. But I remember it was freezing.”

“And you don’t remember being with me in the lobby, unwillingly, but waiting there with me, anything about that?”

“No.”

“And you don’t remember when finally after everybody else had left, after they were turning out the lights, dragging himself out was a poor physically fucked-up person, one leg dragging, this pitiful man with very white skin, an obvious sort of outcast, dragging himself out past us?”

“No, what I remember is the next act, same night.”

“Which was?”

“Well, back at the Cretan Sun. Making love there. Our room overlooked the market and we were right above the spice vendors.”

“And you don’t remember we exchanged looks when we saw this poor devil, this physically unfortunate man, or neighborhood idiot, or whatever he was? And we were sure he was Vassilios?”

What he remembered was hating the Cretan Sun, the cheapest hotel they had ever stayed in, the poster of Delphi above the bed with the line Il y a des poux dans cette chambre penciled neatly along the bottom margin, the miserable shower that gave two minutes of warm water.

“And you don’t remember we exchanged glances… And by the way, when you tell people about our adventures in Crete I would appreciate it if you’d leave out the note on the poster about lice being in our room.”

He was obviously blocking out what should have been cognized as the main event, apparently, of that night. Sex was the reason. Somehow getting aroused, which he had, at the movies, had arced over to the sexual event, events, back at the Cretan Sun, and obliterated the interim for him. It had been that night at the Cretan Sun when he had come up with the affectionate term nethers for her pudenda, which had come from Netherlands, and which he still used from time to time.

He said, “We didn’t discuss this at the time, that night?” She shook her head.

“And we didn’t discuss it the next day, either, did we? That is, we never got into a discourse about it.”

“No, we were too stunned, I thought.”

“I remember noticing an oddlooking guy. But that’s all.”

He thought, Here it is, a thing that has never been an issue: But here it is courtesy of the female mind for which there is nothing dead that can’t be made to live again. He had failed to recognize the situation at the theater as the burning emblem of man’s inhumanity to man it obviously was for her. Then it hadn’t come up the next day due to their katastrofi, when she stepped into a hole in the pavement and cracked her ankle and then the nightmare come true of trying to get medical help in Crete had begun. He remembered every detail of that. He loved her, that was why. But here it was again, the past that lives forever, in detail, with women, like the women in Joyce, “The Dead,” ruining everything. Then at the museum in Heraklion they had been unable to see the murals because the galleries were closed due to a recent katastrofi. And then there had been the katastrofi of the side trip to Anoja in the White Mountains where the insane monster winds had blown his pitiful, hobbling wife flat into the sides of buildings and walls time after time.

She pushed herself to a standing position and got slowly out of the tub, distractedly, not punitively abandoning him, apparently. She was through. She was keeping her back to him, which could be just accidental.

He got out of the tub and dried himself off very thoroughly. He followed her damp footmarks into the bedroom. Once there, he malingered, dragging out finding the right pajamas and selecting a bathrobe from his oversupply. He had four, all gifts from Iris and all too expensive and all more appropriate for some rich parasite than for him. Why she kept buying him bathrobes that lacked pockets was a mystery. He settled on a black silk robe he thought he looked pretty good in. He combed his hair. Iris was in bed. Still naked, looking at a copy of the International Herald Tribune he knew was at least a week old.

It was so clear and so dumb, what was happening. He was being cast as the incarnation of Secrecy. It was inevitable because he worked for the agency and the agency was what, Secrecy Itself. And at the same time she was casting Morel as the dry light of the mind that goes everywhere, anywhere, as Truth with the bit between its teeth, the maypole of Truth she was traipsing around like a berserk Isadora Duncan, flinging her arms around like a jerk, naked, flutes and ribbons all over. That was the scene he was trapped in.

But at least his costume was perfect. He was uncomfortably warm, a natural consequence of dressing himself in a daze, putting pajamas on without reference to what season it was. Black matched his mood. It was his fault that she kept giving him pocketless robes. The first robe she’d given him had been pocketless and he’d praised it. The absence of pockets had seemed to him like a fairly central objection, especially considering the effort she’d gone to, delegating her sister, transatlantic phone consultations. And it had been when they were starting out, when she was insecure about buying things for him. So now all he needed was a cocktail shaker and a Santos Dumont in a cigarette holder and it would be clear he had wandered in from an adjoining farce, a Noël Coward farce. In fact they were both costumed perfectly for the scene, layers and blackness for him, and for her… nudity, symbolizing fearless disclosure.

Now she was sitting on the edge of the bed, her back three-quarters to him, examining the sole of her foot. The great aesthetic absolute, he thought.

She caught him looking too raptly at her. “Why are you looking at me that way?” she asked.

“I’m not looking at you, I’m beholding you.”

“Well this is the wrong moment for it. By the way, I think you have mild priapism.”

“That’s the best kind.”

“Well don’t,” she said, smiling a little.

She was going to sum up. He could tell. She held her mouth in a certain way.

She said, “First, nothing is going to happen to us. Second, I’m going to go and be with Ellen and I’ll be back in six weeks and everything will be okay, I promise.”

“When did we say six weeks?” he asked, not calmly enough.

“Well six weeks at the outside.”

Do not resist, he thought, saying, “Well six weeks then, although… it wracks and harrows me.” He was surprised at himself. Somehow he had decided to be slightly poetic just then. It was insane. She was looking at him with a certain heightened interest, he thought, although it might be concern and not interest. There were still moments in his life when he felt capable of poetry. When the impulse was there he was normally afraid of it, for the simple reason that he wasn’t a poet. The Irish, or some of them, felt free to burst out with it. But even in the case of the Irish talking gorgeously he knew they were working from a fixed menu of tropes and images and not engaging in individual invention. What was he doing? He wanted to send her away with an absolute knowledge of how lovely she was to him, was all. But this had been like a deacon suddenly breaking into a juggling routine. You can’t just wrench yourself into some new and cuter state, he thought. He was embarrassed. They were both going to ignore it. He thanked God.

“I don’t think we should have sex tonight,” she said.

He couldn’t agree more. Having sex would dishonor their differences.

“I couldn’t agree more,” he said. His tone dissatisfied him and he added, “I mean that. I seriously do. And if you would slip into something less comfortable it would be a help.”

She was amused. He went to the closet and got out his favorite robe of hers, a blue and white yakuta they had bought in Paris. He draped it over her shoulders and she got properly into it in a rather piecemeal if not exactly teasing manner, he thought. He was a little surprised to realize that the blue elements in the pattern were winged seeds, on the order of locust seeds, and not the Horus eyes they had been in his mental picture of the garment for years. Lately he was looking too closely at everything around her. It was fear. It felt valedictory.

How could he tell that they weren’t, even now, through yet? It was in the eyes. What else there could be was beyond him. He was probably safe in assuming that they were down to odds and ends, that she’d started with the more offensive items and was working down, the way he would have. There was no guarantee about that, though. Now he was scaring himself.

He said, “Look, the best thing now would be if you would just tell me everything that’s still on your mind, if anything is, because… because here we are.” In hell, he thought.

“I don’t think there’s anything special,” she said. She was undecided, he could tell. Was she trying to gauge what he could take at one sitting?

“This is truly minor,” she said.

But it wasn’t. She could barely bring it out, which could mean that it was about what, their sex life, as in too much or too little…

“I think I want to take a break from reading novels… by men. I don’t know why. I just feel like it. Don’t be so stunned. You know how grateful I am to you for your help and effort getting me good books. I’ve depended on your recommendations and they’ve been wonderful. Maybe it’s that I want to take a break from novels per se in general.”

Injustice never sleeps, he thought. Finding decent and reasonably current reading for her in Africa had been a major task, a career. Help and effort was right, especially effort. It took work to develop literate social contacts, who inevitably got reassigned. Taste among the embassy people ran at the level of James Michener. The paperback leftovers that turned up in the jumble sales departing embassy officers gave were an embarrassment to the United States. The American Library had no budget and what it had it spent on Young Adult titles.

“Look, my function has been to cultivate my contacts to get you things that are current and good and that you wouldn’t be able to get very easily on your own. Or things that you asked for specifically. You know what the public library is like. I doubt I’ve been biasing my selections toward male authors. Have I? I get you every Iris Murdoch as it falls crashing from the press. I think the last novel I got you was by A. N. Wilson, a man, unfortunately, but you liked it a lot, I thought. I think you wanted more by him. I got you every Barbara Pym there is, somehow.”

“I love A. N. Wilson. But I think I don’t want to be worrying about the problems of male narrators anymore. I do not want to be worrying about the problems of men, sad as they may be. It’s similar to not wanting to read novels about the drug life or other kinds of self-destructiveness. I’ve read them. And I don’t care how sensitive they are, I don’t want to read about drunks.”

“Hey, fine,” he said. He could tell it was distressing her to do this. She was in the grip of something.

“You don’t think it’s fine.”

“I do. I guess maybe you’ve had enough of the Male Gaze, as they call it. I can understand that.”

“I have no idea what the Male Gaze you’re talking about is. I don’t know if…”

He interrupted. “It’s not complicated. It’s feminist. It’s a concept that says, sees, that in the arts, especially the movies but also books, everything, even by women, gets expressed in the male viewpoint, in what interests the male psyche.”

“That seems too simple. It may be the novel per se…”

But he knew what it was. He thought, So much for my syllabus: Her new one is from a darker hand.

She said, “I think all it may be is this. I think I’ve gotten too automatic when it comes to novels. I think I have a dependence. I get panicky when I don’t have a good one on hand. You know. Maybe it’s novels by anybody. Don’t stand over me like that. Come sit here.” She patted his place in the bed.

He took her hand. Why was it he was absolutely sure there was something more? There had to be, because her breathing was still tight.

“Ray, I love you and I want to be completely fair with you.

“About Davis, maybe you already know this. It’s a problem with you. I don’t know what you know.

“But I think I do need to mention this last thing. About him. I gather from things he says that a main reason he left the U.S. and came here is because of objections he has to the CIA. As a citizen.

“It seems like everything I’m saying to you tonight is causing you pain, and I am so sorry, but I can’t help it. He thinks the agency does terrible things and operates with impunity. Or has done them. It’s historical, but of course it would have to be historical because whatever the agency is doing now is secret. I sound stupid. You see what I’m saying.”

Beware, he thought. He spoke evenly. “Please. He knows nothing.”

“You’re probably right. It’s mainly the agency in Central America he objects to.”

Ray said, “He thinks he knows something he doesn’t.”

“Well. Guatemala and Nicaragua, specifically, if that’s any comfort.”

“I don’t need any comfort.”

“I know. It’s the contras, most of all, and the fact nobody cares that sixty thousand Nicaraguans died, paid for by us, and nobody was punished. He makes a case. It’s my fault for bringing it up, or causing it to be brought up, rather. I was naturally curious about why he came here and wants citizenship. He plans to be here forever, if he can, can you believe that? I got off the subject immediately when I saw what he was saying, believe me, Ray. I just listen and nod when the subject comes up, which is rare anyway. This is not something that’s going to get any kind of response from me. You know you can trust me about it. You do know that. I’m sorry it came up.”

“What he thinks he knows hardly matters, Iris. You know me and you know whether I would ever do anything dishonorable.” He felt false. He had said this before. Of course Nicaragua had been wrong and brutal and no way would he have been part of it. But this was Africa.

She said, “Don’t hate me.”

It was odd. Twice in the past when he was undertaking critical operations that had turned out to be mortally dangerous for him he had gotten a distinctive feeling in his hands and here it was again.

“What’s wrong?” He didn’t know what she meant.

“You’re wringing your hands,” she said. He stopped.

She was not the villain here. Nothing was her fault. He had to keep her from regretting doing this.

She said, “I never want to hurt you, Ray, my good love. I’m just so sorry if any of this has. Please don’t worry. And about my reading, I think I’m in a phase. Reading novels is… I feel like… it’s like waiting, a form of waiting.”

“I understand everything,” he said.

“I don’t know what we’re doing, Ray, that’s all. I don’t know what we’re doing but I want to stop.”

When had she been this unhappy? He couldn’t remember a time.

They embraced, trembling equally.

16. Milton, We Are Surrounded

Iris was sleeping in. He would be alone at breakfast, which was for the best. He was never precisely himself early in the morning, but today he was particularly off, still raggedly adjusting to last night’s announcements. He felt frail.

The thin orange drapes on the yardside window had been closed against the sun. He disliked the hell-flush they imparted to the atmosphere of the room, but not enough to do anything about it. He looked into the kitchen before taking his seat. Dimakatso was at the stove, muttering. He knew he should run through the formal greetings, but he decided to let himself skip it. She seemed to have her hands full. This was not a standard compilation she was working on. Obviously, Iris had left instructions for her to prepare something more elaborate than the usual. It was a gesture.

He realized that a funny thing had been going on recently, involving the issue of the International Herald Tribune that Iris had been reading or pretending to read last night. She had been subtly flourishing the damned thing in front of him for a few days. It was here, on the table opposite him, where Iris would normally be sitting, folded to the width of one column and doubled under in order to expose some particular article. He knew his wife. There was something in the paper that he needed to know about that was likely to displease or depress him. She preferred not to be seen as bringing it directly to his attention for fear of seeming to endorse it or to be taken as wielding it against him, especially in these tense days. And clearly she had been gathering that since he hadn’t mentioned whatever this was, he hadn’t seen it, which was right. She had her ways. All this was the fruit of her tenderness.

Dimakatso was at his shoulder, carrying the tray with his breakfast on it. She stood there while his meal cooled. He knew what she wanted. He got to his feet.

He said “Dumela, mma. O tsogile?”

“Dumela, rra. Ke tsogile sentle. Wena o tsogile?”

“Ke tsogile sentle.”

“Gosiame.”

“Gosiame.” He could sit down. The Batswana were so exacting about etiquette. Maybe it was admirable. It was better than the reverse, which Iris was going to not enjoy in the land of the free soon enough.

His breakfast was royal. There was streaky bacon, the only cut in that part of the world at all like normal American bacon, two strips of it cooked as crisp as it could ever be gotten to be. There was an egg over easy, and two heated buns. He had switched from sunnyside up to over easy earlier during their time in Botswana as a way of lessening the starkness of the daily encounter with the unnatural amber color of the yolks of the local eggs. There was a ramekin of chopped parsley he was expected to strew on his eggs. That was Iris’s idea. She admitted it was notional. She’d awakened from a dream with the absolute conviction that eating parsley at every meal would guarantee extreme longevity. They had laughed over it together. But parsley was making suspiciously frequent appearances as a garnish. There was a tumbler of pear nectar, not chilled. There was a lump of leftover potato rissole. There was brewed coffee.

He ate for a while, then reached for the paper. He was meant to read a review of a new book on Milton. Christopher Lehmann-Haupt was the reviewer and the author was a woman, Marianne Wormser, whose work he remembered seeing and dismissing years ago. Now apparently she had produced the book that would change forever the way Milton should be read. He steeled himself. The word magisterial would no doubt show up. So, Milton was the laureate of obedience, generic obedience. He had to get through this rapidly, because it was going to be painful in every way possible. At the heart of Western culture was this unfortunate epic of obedience deified, disobedience condemned. Milton was the subjugator of women in his own family, which no one disagreed with, although some allowance for the demands of a disabled genius frantic to complete his masterpieces might have been granted. Reading on, he thought: The old refrain: Milton says, “Service to God is perfect freedom,” and since God is male, need we say more… Women hate Milton because of Eve, the portrait of Eve, which they misunderstand, especially where her first thought on biting the apple is that she might someday be Adam’s equal and her second is that she might be his actual superior. What they fail to see in Milton would fill a book… Ah here it is, of course… Women are to blame for both sin and death, because a female, Sin, was born from Satan’s brain in the thought of rebelling against God, and seductive Sin was raped by Satan, and she gave birth to Death, so women are to blame for both Sin and Death… Ah she thinks Death is also a daughter, a female?… This has to be wrong… It’s absurd, a reading so tortured. Could Wormser be right that Death was female? He would have to check. It was something he should know like the back of his hand. How could he not love Iris, who was trying to arm him against his colleagues in case he had missed this? But he had no colleagues. Their minds were elsewhere. Little did she know.

He read more. Wormser restating the obvious… It was Satan’s rebellion against God’s appointing his Son as his vice-regent that had started the whole human ball of doom rolling. That was the premise, of course. He thought, Regurgito Ergo Sum, we have heard it before, goodbye. Next it will be the angel Raphael lecturing Adam and Eve against speculative thought… and here it is! The book had won prizes. The pillars of Milton studies were being shaken. Paradise Lost was reduced to symbolic recantation for Milton’s participation in regicide and republicanism plus fear and hatred and vilification of the female. Christian civilization was a galley ship, poor blind Milton was beating the drum for the galley slaves. Calumny never sleeps, he thought.

It was intolerable and it was wrong and, worst of all, it was shallow. Where had Marianne Wormser been publishing? What he would give to have time to rebut this shit! It was important that Iris not accept this cartoon as having anything to be said for it. He had to find time for that before she left. He had to. He could see where she thought Lehmann-Haupt had placed him in yet another category of error.

He thought, There are two Miltons, they only see one… Empson saw them both… The true man, the suffering man, is both rebellion and obedience, the ecstasy of apostasy and the hell of inevitable compliance… We are all of us Milton, rebelling and complying and rebelling and complying until we die exhausted.

I saw this thing, he wrote across the top of the review.

He got up. Milton, we are surrounded, he thought. Sometime he wanted to write a short story beginning with the sentence Day fell.

17. So, My Boy, Now You Have Him

He was in awe over Marion doing this for him, with some awe left over for himself, his temerity in reaching out to Marion and asking for this help, his own ingenuity in setting up everything on the technical side of this secure connection. It was going to happen.

If he was tense, it was understandable. He was in a vacant house, crouched over the phone he was going to use, trying not to worry about the phone accoutrements he had put together. There was a certain amount of jury-rigging involved. It was twilight, which meant it was still morning where Resnick would be calling from, Washington or thereabouts. In a minute he would hear the voice of a civilized man.

He was sure he was safe. He was in an empty house for rent, in Broadhurst, which was a quiet district. He was showing no light. He was in the pantry off the kitchen and he could close himself in if there was some difficulty with the volume control on his descrambler unit, which was the only possible weak point in the work of art his technical setup constituted, in truth. Where he was positioned, he was out of sight. In the unlikely event of anyone noticing him in the house, he was a prospective renter sent there by an estate agent. He had some paperwork to justify his presence. He had the house key with the estate agent’s tag on it. All the utilities were on, but he had a torch in case the electricity went out, which could always happen. Explaining why a long extension had been spliced into the house-phone cord would be a little tricky in the event anyone made note of it. He would claim ignorance, be puzzled himself. Splicing in the extension had been the only way he could get the phone into the pantry where he needed to be. By the time anyone could get physically into the house he would have all his accoutrements and tools out of sight, packed away in his knapsack. He heard a crackle in the descrambler.

He could get mournful at the drop of a hat, thinking about Marion’s downfall, but he knew very little about why it had happened. He had been an imbiber, which in the agency was part of the culture, a little like the use of chewing tobacco in professional baseball. People were cautioned or sent off to dry out, and their careers continued. Marion. Marion was a red wine maven, a Bordeaux maven. He called his glass of wine red joy. Why had Marion fallen? Marion was in the agency, whereas he was of the agency, which was perfect because it meant he had nothing to fear from the wars of the ins and the outs back in Langley, the fights between the Brahmin liberals and the papist ultras like Casey, which he didn’t care about. And now he was hearing about a Mormon beachhead in Clandestine Services. Marion had run the station well, as far as Ray knew. And how could anyone hate a man who was a Scrabble master and a collector of ancient Roman brothel tokens, sprintriae, they were called. But someone had hated him and now he was spending his mortal life running a Magic Marker through sensitive passages in documents going out under FOIA. He was a clerk.

The descrambler was emitting definite crepitations. He rested his hand on it, a small model in black plastic about the size of a cigar box, to feel if it was warm. It was. These machines were astonishing. Anyone cutting into a transmission would get pure static. The smell of ammonia in the pantry was fairly strong. People are the same everywhere, he thought. The pantry shelves had been scrubbed, all except the top one, which Ray had checked out by standing on the first shelf.

It was too bad that when the call came it wouldn’t be Marion’s natural voice. The descrambler had a way of flattening out tones and, depending on the setting, stretching out the delivery. He would cope. Also he would cope with the fact that this had to be a one-way transmission, Resnick to Finch. His role would be to signal that receiving was in progress by pressing a confirm key at intervals. It was remotely possible that Marion would employ a voice mask as an extreme added precaution. He hoped not. Ray was ready. The handset was clipped into place and he was holding down the hook switch. He was unsure how Aesopian Marion was going to feel he needed to be. It was normal prudence to avoid using the proper names of key parties in these communications, but he might go further. The phone rang. He released the hook switch. A sound like a weak moan came from the descrambler speaker. It was Marion.

Marion began. It was too loud.

Ray had to do something. It was much too loud. He stripped off his shirt, wildly, and bunched it against the speaker. It was still too loud. You can never relax, he thought. He needed something like a towel or blanket, which he didn’t have. The house was unfurnished. Desperately he thought of getting out of his bush shorts and adding them to the mufflage the shirt was providing inadequately.

The sound wasn’t blaring, but it would be audible outside the house at this level. He couldn’t bear the idea of terminating the call.

God save me, he thought, and struck the volume knob with the butt of his flashlight. It worked. Something did. It brought the volume down.

“Hello my darling,” Marion said, startling Ray. It was possible he was drinking. If he was it was a measure of the risk he had been asked to assume and Ray could forgive it, forgive everything.

“Hello my boy, are you there? Can you hear?” Ray tapped the confirm key. Marion’s voice was metallic but it was recognizable as his. There was no voice mask.

Methodically, Marion went through the basic biodata, part of which Ray already had. Marion was reading from notes. It was good to get exact dates.

In sum, the subject’s paternal family was of very haute black bourgeoisie origins, upper civil service, in Antigua. Then it had been Baltimore and then Cambridge, where the subject’s father had become a fixture at Harvard Divinity School, Professor of Christian Morals. There was more that Ray already knew. Subject’s mother, now deceased, was white, a birthright Quaker. There would be more about her. There were no siblings. And so on.

As an only child, and only son, much had been expected of the subject, despite the disability he was born with, monobrevipodia, one leg shorter than the other. The subject’s mother had brought money, more money, into the family. Now the prep school list was complete.

Mine eyes dazzle. She died young,” Marion said, quoting John Webster for no reason apparent to Ray, until he realized it must refer to the early death of Morel’s mother.

“Our subject was always a holy terror to his poor parents. He was precocious. He was enrolled in the divinity school for six months but quit and somehow slid over into the medical school, where he developed shall we say an outspoken attitude to the imperfections of orthodox medicine.

“The man is trouble. He left divinity school announcing that he was going to convert to Judaism because it was clear to him how dastardly Christianity had been to the Jews. He was threatening to do it out of solidarity, you understand me, not belief, because he had become, better yet, an atheist.

“There was some violence between father and son.

“Circumcision came into it. There were fights with his father when he said it would be easy to become a voluntary Jew, since he was already circumcised.

“He was something. I can give you his IQ, by the way… 170.”

Ray didn’t believe it. He would stake his life on it that this was a fluke or wrong. It was unnecessary information! But of course Marion had no notion of how Ray was involved with Morel or why he should be tender in anything he reported.

“Now we have some events florid enough for anyone, God knows. The subject’s mother dies after refusing to eat. It could be true. The subject’s mother left senior over his entrenched womanizing. Then senior remarries… wait I forgot to say junior had married a Nigerian woman. She was living with the subject but in senior’s very nice house. She divorces our subject and marries senior. How long before the divorce something had been going on is unknown.

“Junior gets his medical degree anyway.

“You would be amazed at the way this was handled at Harvard. There was a fistfight in Widener between father and son that never happened. There were other incidents.

“By the way when subject’s mother left the hearth, she became an administrator at a Quaker conference center, Powell House, far from Massachusetts. This was much earlier.

“They’re slick, at Harvard. The factors managed everything. Tap and show you can hear me, my boy.” Ray did.

“Our subject graduates, does his residency in internal medicine.

“So then our man becomes a public nuisance in Cambridge. He opens a practice in Cambridge, and over in Malden a storefront not for his practice but for, let me look at something, his organization, the Giordano Bruno Society. He founded it. They hold meetings attacking religion.

“He is the published author of two books, here they are, dEaTHICS, with the title done in clever typography, small d and small a and the rest caps, you get the point. And the other Theolatry, Mankind’s Curse. Both of these are published by Diagoras Press, Diagoras being the first atheist on record, as I know you know. He is, by the way, the founder of Diagoras Press and its only author.

“Someway he finds time to get qualified in chiropractic, certain varieties of massage, and medical hypnosis.

“His practice develops. He has a female following, largely female, which is not so surprising since this is unorthodox medicine. Does he miss his ex-wife, now his stepmother? Doesn’t look like it. He has girlfriends, several, from his patient population.

“You know how fucked I am here, by the way. I won’t go into it. I’m almost through with this. I’m almost out. Not a decade too soon. Please you’ve got to hit the confirm key every once in a while. You know how to do this. They hate me. You know how this works, hit the thing. Good. Thank you.

“I shouldn’t be doing this. I don’t care. They’ll never find out.

“I am the fox.”

You are and so am I, Ray thought.

“Harvard, speaking of Harvard, did you know that the people who invented the idea of giving points for alumni parents were the factors at Harvard, so they could cut down on the number of Jews they would have to admit?

“I’ve got to tell you something annoying I hate. My wife joined Al-Anon, you know what that is. Just to put pressure on me I don’t need. She thinks I’m an alcoholic. The whole world runs on somebody being able to have a drink once in a while.

“Let me tell you something. My mind is wandering.

“One thing I can let you know. At a certain place of work, you can forget Jews. Believe me and prosit, you will never see us at the top here again, not until they drive Israel into the sea. Then maybe.”

This was about the Pollard case and its ramifications. Marion should leave this alone. He willed him to get back on the subject, so to speak.

“This is what I did for you. I talked to two of his girlfriends…”

Ray was amazed. No doubt Marion had contacted them by phone on the pretense of doing a full field investigation for some nonexistent government job for Morel, which was the way it was done and which was highly illegal. Marion was surrounding the news with silence so that Ray would appreciate the significance of it. He did. He was not in a position to do anything in return for Marion, which Marion knew. This was more than he deserved. Ray hit the confirm key.

“So what I got was that the man is a gentleman. They had nothing but good things to say. Both of them were academics and they both volunteered that their relationships had come to an end because they were relocating, essentially. Both had married other people. They seemed to miss him. They were both ex-patients and they both seemed to think he had fixed up whatever it was they went to him for in the first place. I couldn’t get off the phone with one of them. She wanted to talk about the man. So.”

Ray pressed the confirm key. A pause began that worried Ray. It went on. It was impossible not to wonder if something had gone wrong. He reviewed Marion’s delivery to date. Marion had been careful.

People had no idea how careful you had to be these days if you wanted not to be picked up. In a way he found it hard to believe himself, how amazing the seining operation being run from New Zealand, Echelon Dictionary, was, in what it could do, which was to process the entire spectrum of nonencrypted communications of every sort… phone, radio, fax, electronic… worldwide. He wasn’t supposed to know about Dictionary, but Marion had told him about it, mainly to make fun of it. Marion thought seining was stupid. It cost billions. What it did was capture and scan any and all digitized communications for key words, like Arafat or bomb or Mandela, store the ones of interest, use them to trace down the senders. But all you needed to do to defeat Dictionary was to camouflage your referents, use a little circumlocution, as Marion was doing adequately so far. Dictionary was run by the National Security Agency but the Central Intelligence Agency was a partaker, in a big way. There was a race angle to Dictionary that Marion hated. It wasn’t just all the noncommunist White Guys International, oh no. It was Anglo-Saxon—the U.S., Britain, Australia, New Zealand. It occurred to him that Marion’s bad luck in the agency might have something to do with indiscretions in other quarters about Dictionary. Marion had felt strongly about it, he knew that. The pause was continuing. It was distressing. Of course Dictionary was monstrous. He thought of Gerard Manley Hopkins and Christ compared to the air we breathe. Make it The State compared to the air we breathe, he thought. Marion was back.

“Let’s see. I ought to mention his radio program, half anti-God and half against aspartame. It gives you brain damage if you take it with MSG, if you’re a rat. It was alternative radio. Got nowhere. He stabs at things, now this now that. Trying to find a nerve, I guess. He organized some picket lines against circumcision at Harvard General. Nobody got arrested. He’s clean up and down. Not even a traffic violation.

“You can see the picture emerging. He’s out for trouble. He wants to be a Jew, doloris causa, and put his father out of business.

“So at the same time he’s evolving as a professional irritant he’s making a mint with his practice.

“I think the man is a devil. There are people around you could call devils. Divils, the Irish call them.” Rex is a devil, Ray thought.

“I think the point was to make himself a spectacle in Cambridge, under his father’s nose. That was the original thing, I believe.

“Then. Father dead, stroke, in 1989. Religious ceremony at the funeral, of course, subject will not attend. Who knows if it played a part that his ex was the grieving widow.

“Not only would he not attend, but he mourned his father outside on the sidewalk by giving out copies of a pamphlet, Was Christ a Nut? during the funeral service. I have one. Should you want it.

“But it gets even worse. The papers covered it. Somehow it had been arranged for the flyers to, well, fly down on the mourners inside the church, courtesy one of the subject’s followers, no doubt. I forgot to mention that senior died on vacation in the Caribbean, on a beach, and that a certain columnist wondered if the stroke was sun-induced or son-induced, s-o-n. The papers have it that the widow came out and spat in the subject’s face, and she did, but she missed.

“Man, he was being notorious! What fun! But it was getting to be more than that. The widow, by the way, is with… a major international financial institution. She’s an economist. She’s no longer in the Cambridge area.”

Ray realized that Marion had started to identify Morel’s ex-wife’s workplace as the World Bank, something Ray already knew, but had stopped out of prudence.

“Senior I should add was a majestic figure, patrician, fine head, fine voice, very tall, both legs the same length.

“So with senior gone, and senior’s wife relocating, he continues his practice. And I have to say that as a healer, people swear by him. They still do. He had to limit his clientele, because the way he proceeds is to talk to you in extenso about your probably defective view of life compared to his. You get a reading list and a pamphlet casting doubt on the existence of God along with your foot rub and recipe cards. He calls it eclectic medicine. You have to deal with his notion that God-belief is toxic, something it’s better not to swallow, credulism is his term, I believe. All he asks is that you contemplate his proposition, not that you accept it as a condition of treatment. He was especially good with musculoskeletal problems. Headaches too. I’m trying to see if I missed anything… Yes, he went to Taiwan for six months to get a certificate in Chinese herbs.”

Marion’s theory was that Morel, with his father and ex-wife off the scene, had suffered a certain deceleration. There were only two notable events in the period between senior’s death and the subject’s great encounter with a particular African gentleman and subsequent decision to leave Cambridge for Africa forever. One event had been a shortlived lawsuit against the Catholic Church for consumer fraud or false advertising. The subject had encouraged a young woman whose psychological reaction to an exorcism performed by a priest, an employee of the diocese, had been severe, to hold the church liable. It was very convoluted. The church sponsored various spots on television, which the subject had attempted to construe as advertising for a package of doctrines of which many were manifestly false, such as the assertion that demons existed. That had gone nowhere. The only other event was obscure. He had irritated a certain group not of interest to the extent that they broke the windows of the subject’s storefront. But this was a group notofinterest. There was a pause.

Ray was puzzled. Marion was letting him think. Ray saw it. The emphasis on not of interest had been meant to signify the presence of an acronym, NOI, Nation of Islam. He hit the confirm key twice, hoping that Marion would understand he was signaling that he got the message.

Marion began recounting, with extreme circumspection, the coming together of Davis Morel and the chronic bad back of the Minister of Local Government and Lands of the Government of Botswana, Petrus Tshenelo. There had been an investment promotion exercise at Harvard starring Tshenelo, the scheduled main speaker and presenter at the event. Ray knew a lot about Tshenelo. He was a power in Domkrag. He was bright. His back had gone out on the eve of the seminar, immobilizing him. Regular medicine had failed to help him. Then it had been exit-orthodox-medicine-pursued-by-a-bear, and enter Doctor Morel, recommended by a porter who had been restored to paid servitude by him. Tshenelo had been magically restored. Marion added a stray detail about Morel’s fees. Apparently you paid only if you felt he had helped you. You could pay above a reasonable minimum if you chose to and could afford it and many of the overprivileged did.

“Thus the famous bond begins, which you know more about than I do, since you have it in front of you. Suddenly, Africa interests our man greatly. In six months it was bon voyage and over to you.

“That’s about all I have, my boy. But I want to say something. You get these guys pretty rarely. He goes to extremes. He does that. But don’t look only at that. What I want to say is… the man is real. You know the Quakers during the war who wouldn’t cooperate with selective service? They called themselves absolutists. He’s like that…”

Marion had injured him. Ray hated the idea that Marion was implying a distinction between the two of them, Ray and Marion, what they were, and Morel, of the kind that he seemed to be implying. I know what I am, he thought.

“As a historical type he reminds me of Tommaso Campanella, although he probably won’t spend twenty-seven years in prison, although that might be what would make him happiest, you never know with these guys. Anyway, he was a relentless, amazing man.”

It was time to hang up. Using the word prison had been a departure from the level of prudence established from the beginning. He didn’t like it. Marion was liable to very… what, very flowing presentations.

“The key to the man is his mother, poor woman. I would say. She died of what the Romans called inedia. She ate less and less and then stopped eating altogether. For a long time, she concealed what she was up to and kept working at this place I mentioned. She was an extremist, in her way. She came from a famous antislavery family, abolitionist, people always on the right side of the issue when the Quakers were temporizing, some of them. It seems she conceived a horror of the world, or something. Imagine that. Her friend says she died of her disillusionment. She never asked for custody. She was in bad shape after the breakup. I saw the medical records. She was very petite, a very fine person. Very active person in the civil rights movement before she married and for a while after. His aunt had possession of his mother’s ashes and he went to some trouble to get a portion of them to take along to Africa.

“So, my boy, now you have him. Leaving us was no gesture. He has nothing here, no property, not a dime in the bank. He sold all his stocks. He’s not a tourist.”

That seemed to be all.

“Goodnight, my boy. Be good.”

“I will,” Ray said. He turned swiftly to the task of packing up.

He hadn’t thanked his friend. What was wrong with him, not to have clicked?

“Goodnight. Thank you,” he said to the device now cooling in his hands.

18. The Piggery Had Its Uses

It had taken a certain amount of art to get Ponatsego Mazumo properly disposed toward the mission Ray had for him. Money alone might have done it, of course, but that would have changed the relationship between them forever, and Pony was a fixture at the school and someone he had to work smoothly with for as far into the night as he could see. How much Pony believed of the rationale for Ray’s proposed operation was beside the point. What was important was that they both have an unsordid rationale they could coexist in respectably with one another. Rationale was a subheading in the Acquiring Assets segment of the agency training program he’d gone through. He’d done well in Rationale, but then he’d done well in most subjects, not excluding Flaps and Seals, which was boring.

Pony was in a considering state, still, gazing up into the thatch. It was nearly dusk. They were seated across from one another at the conference table in Ray’s office. Pony was pursing and unpursing his lips. Ray had the feeling Pony was enjoying being there and might be prolonging things just for that reason. Not very many of Ray’s colleagues had been invited to visit Ray’s office. There was almost a deal. But Pony was obviously savoring the ambience. No place smelled better than Ray’s office. It was furniture polish, books, thatch, the pipe tobacco in the humidor whose lid he left cocked for a few minutes from time to time to remind him of the pleasures of the vice he had overcome.

The deal would come. Cash hunger was overwhelming in this part of the world, or rather cattle hunger was, which was what the cash was for. The Scandinavians wanted there to be a cooperative movement in the worst way… hypermarkets, sorghum mills, garages. In theory it was a good idea, an excellent way to get prices down for the marginal farmers who were at the mercy of the transplanted Boer businessmen. But the movement was perpetually collapsing because petty cash was always disappearing and these were not undertakings that could run without a petty cash system. So the Danes and the Swedes were endlessly topping up the co-op cashboxes and finding themselves reluctantly having to bring charges against various pillars of the community, the big cattlemen who had joined the cooperatives precisely because there was sure to be loose money around, cash, the pula they could use to sustain their herds during the drought. Cattle ownership equaled manhood. It went deep. People would rather let their cattle die during drought times than sell them while they still could to the abattoir. It was subtle. Selling the cattle diminished the numbers in a way that letting the buggers die naturally did not, somehow. It was important to be known in perpetuity as having been the owner of a herd of maximum size. This was the famous insoluble offtake problem they kept complaining about over at AID. Pony’s cattle post was at Pandamatenga, north of Francistown, far from Gaborone. Ray didn’t know how many beasts Pony had. It was impermissible in the culture to ask that question, but Batswana seemed always to know that about each other, somehow. It was occult. Apparently anything could be a fundamental object of desire to somebody… yams, pigs, beadwork, extra wives, real estate, gold, shoes.

Pony was twenty-five. He was slim, very dark-skinned, with good presence and good English. He was a definite blade. He was unhappy working for the bursar as a clerk, or as he described it, as a scribe. He dressed above his means. The cream-colored safari kit he was wearing today was pricier than anything Ray owned. It was tightly cut, according to the mode. The breast pocket of Pony’s shirt jacket bore a monogram so lavishly worked that it stood up off the cloth like a brooch. Pony was guarded, like most Bakalanga. He was a defiant Kalanga, keeping the nail of the little finger of his right hand long, out two inches or so, and filed to a point, for use as a nosepick, was the story. Ray had never really seen it employed in that way. The Kalanga had a right to be guarded, since they not unreasonably saw themselves as a minority tribe not popular with the majority Bangwaketse and their allies, as scapegoats-in-waiting should something go seriously wrong in Botswana, especially something wrong in Botswana’s intermittently tense relations with Zimbabwe, where the other three-quarters of the Bakalanga lived uneasily in a condition of similar underappreciation by the Shona and the Ndebele who ran the show there. In Botswana, the Kalanga were denied the use of their language in the schools, which rankled. They were a nation, in fact, or a micronation.

For some time, he and Pony had been what he would call attuned to one another. They had gotten into conversation in the school library and Pony had remarked that Kyle Innis, the head of the maths department, was violently of the opinion that the collapse of Russia had been the result of a conspiracy among the capitalist powers to destroy the great homeland of socialism before the Russians had a chance to integrate computers into the running of the collective system, which had been all that was lacking to make the planned economy fully competitive with capitalism. This conspiracy had involved the Poles and the Pope. What was interesting to Ray was that Innis’s Marxism had always been, up until then, totally crypto. It had been the debacle of the Soviet system that had brought it out, obviously. Ray thought there were probably others like Innis, keeping quiet and waiting for Mother Russia to ripen into true socialism someday soon and then getting the message, Drinks, gentlemen! and the pub was closing for good. Pony had asked Innis if by socialism he meant communism, which had made Innis glare at him before answering Of course.

Ray decided that they should go for a stroll, to wrap this up. Pony was agreeable.

Outside, Ray steered them in a direction that would take them away from the frequented parts of the campus and toward a feature of the place that could always be expected to be clear of humanity of any kind, the piggery. The stench of the facility, which was being incompetently managed, guaranteed privacy. They kept hiring and losing people who claimed to be competent as pigherds, or whatever the correct job title was. The wire-fence enclosure containing the two remaining pigs, sows, was in need of replacement, although in their present state of lethargy, the pigs hardly seemed to need containment at all. The piggery had its uses, and Ray had voted against closing it, the last of the school’s small-stock projects, siding with Curwen, who had a sentimental ruralist streak stemming no doubt from his jolly childhood on the great estate in Northumbria his family owned. The piggery was raggedly shielded by a horseshoe planting of dry gray elephant grass reaching to a height of seven or eight feet. As they approached the site, Ray noted that Pony put his hands in his pockets to raise his pants cuffs well clear of the pismire, which was what it was, extending far outward from the pen, which had been moved around the area in the past.

There were two parts to the deal with Pony. One had to do with a bad investment he’d made in a haulier. Pony had advanced money to a friend for the purchase of a used Bedford. The truck and the friend had slipped south across the very porous border with South Africa near Ramotswa. Pony had information that the truck had been licensed and registered for business in Mafeking instead. In exchange for Pony’s help with his project, his operation, Ray would cover Pony’s four-hundred-pula loss, as a grant, in addition to arranging, through unspecified friends at the American embassy, for Pony to receive exact information on his absconded friend’s whereabouts, so that a face-to-face meeting could occur, something Pony desperately wanted.

For Ray’s part, he decided to tell Pony he was asking for help because certain people at St. James’s were concerned that, through Rra Innis or others, there might be formed at the school a cell of students sympathizing with the very unclear and possibly dangerous ideas of one Samuel Kerekang, who had recently founded a cyclostyled journal, Kepu/The Mattock, copies of which had been spotted circulating among the upper forms. There had been, as Pony knew, a confidential struggle, long-standing, to keep another, older, political group, the Marx-Engels-Lenin-Stalin Society, out of St. James’s, if only to prevent the students from attaching themselves through hot feelings and idealism to an idea whose time had come and gone and in the process being stamped with an association that could dog them forever, when, as many of them would, they applied for government posts. The school had been successful to date in the struggle against MELS. An aspect of this problem involved the Bakalanga students in particular. As Pony well knew, they faced enough difficulty in working themselves upward in government without taking on anything else that might come to constitute a drawback. Pony understood clearly. That had been an important touch.

That was the larger design. His object being to secure Pony without nakedly making him a pure asset, this design had seemed best. There was a light breeze coming from the west. They maneuvered to keep themselves upwind of the pen.

The school needed to know much more about this person Kerekang, but he was very secretive in the way he was forwarding his program. He was closely vetting the people he invited to his little meetings here and there. It would be unwise for Pony to go directly into these meetings, even if it could be arranged. The school was anxious to learn all it could, even if only to determine that this man’s materials were innocent. But indirection was needed. The idea was that Pony should be brought together with Kerekang by seeming accident, in another venue he was lately being seen in, lecture meetings being given by an American against God and religion. Kerekang was active in these meetings. Ray wanted Pony to become an attender and to secretly tape the colloquies and presentations, especially those where Kerekang made some points. Even if Kerekang was not present, Pony should tape these proceedings, just to supply background. They needed a full picture. They needed to know what the relationship between these men was. In any case, Pony would form a connection to Kerekang, enough of a connection so that the school could determine what he was about. And when he became known to Kerekang, Pony would consult with Ray and they would see what should come next. If there was more to do, Pony would be compensated for his time. But it might all be done with very quickly. There was nothing complicated about the taping process. The recording unit was a Sony M5 the size of a deck of cards, something Pony had seen Ray use in preparing students for declamations and recitations, except that this model happened to be voice-activated.

There was one last element to the deal still outstanding. It had to be finessed. They were inside the elephant grass hedge, effectively hidden. The sows were asleep. Ray hoped they were asleep. The wind had relented.

Pony wanted to sign something, by which he meant he wanted something signed, a letter in his file saying that he had attended these meetings in behalf of the school and not because he was drawn to them for any other reason. He wanted to sign something, or rather he wanted to put his signature chop on something. Many educated Batswana signed documents and letters with complex ideograms only distantly related to the letters composing their names. Pony’s chop was the most extravagant Ray had ever encountered, a vast scrawl executed in a flash and always, strangely enough, identical, document to document. Pony had a need for that act. It would have to be circumvented, for obvious reasons. The operation had to be traceless. The operation he was constructing served his own needs perfectly. He would be able to mollify Boyle with the appearance of circumspect action against Kerekang. And he would have the beginnings of what he needed for his private campaign against Morel. Boyle would surely see the supposed logic of all this. He would frame it differently for him, of course, but Boyle would have to go for it because he wanted Kerekang so much. Ray would get Morel, and sooner rather than later. He wanted his essence. He wanted Morel’s essence on a stick, proof of what he was. Pony was referring to the authorizing document he wanted from Ray as a charter.

Pony said, “So you can see, rra, why I must have this charter.”

Ray answered, “Of course, rra, just as I would in your place. But consider that, as to material in the files at school, really how safe is anything from prying eyes… you see?”

“Rra, I take your point.” Pony thought for a moment. “So then I might take this for my personal holding, someway like that?”

“No, because no matter how safely you think you have hidden a thing, strange things can happen.” Ray was improvising. This had to go away. He was thinking of fantasy solutions like drawing up a document in vanishing ink. He would have to come up with a stall.

He was being reflective. While he reflected, he extracted a packet of pula from his hip pocket and slid half the packet into an envelope. He was going to offer two hundred pula, half of the amount agreed on, as a down payment or rather surety, as they would call it here.

Ray said, “May we do this? Once you attend for a time or so and bring me some material, we can sit down and see if you still want some kind of charter. You may not. There may be nothing to any of this. In the meantime I can think of what’s best, whether I should hold some document for you in my files, or what. And meantime let me give you surety, now, for half what we agreed on.”

He had surprised Pony. The breeze was up again. They danced to a new position on the other side of the pen.

Ray said, “Of course, I can find someone else if you say no. I think I can.”

“No, rra, that will be just all right,” Pony said. He waited for Ray to press the money on him.

They left, hurrying. Pony was ashamed. Ray loved him for it.

19. Two Pieces of Intelligence

Ray had two pieces of intelligence for Boyle, one that Boyle would want but that Ray was not going to give him, and one that Boyle ought to want but wouldn’t and that Ray was going to try to force on him. Both pieces of information had come to Ray via sheer luck, with the assistance in one case of another force he distrusted, intuition. And both pieces of information had left him shaken. He had something critical on Kerekang, an extension and confirmation of what he had already concluded, but new.

It was doubtless the suggestion of guidedness in human affairs that luck and intuition stood for that he hated. There was no design, no occult design. Odd conjunctions not even rising to the status of coincidence also annoyed him, like the odd fact that the previous chief of station had been a collector of ancient Roman whorehouse tokens and the present one was secretly notorious within the agency for his practice of founding high-end whorehouses as part of his collection regime wherever he was posted.

What Boyle would not get out of him was that he knew where Dwight Wemberg was. He couldn’t believe the way he had come to know this fact. Something had told him to go over to the university library to see if he could find the complete original copy of the International Review of Social History, Volume One, Number Six, from which the palm-copier sample reading that was in his file had been taken and used to impugn Kerekang, who had made the mistake of abandoning his reading long enough to go and empty his bladder. At the side of Ray’s mind had been the shadow of an intention to see, at the same time, if he could look up any of Marianne Wormser’s early papers on Milton, to reassure himself that he had been right that she was unpromising. So he had gone there, following his whim or whatever it should be called. He had never gotten to Wormser.

Boyle had agreed to see him, in the consular office, this time. Ray was in one of the holding cubicles, in a box, essentially, in a tan wood-veneer-over-chipboard box, sitting in an Eames chair, with the fine hum of the fluorescent lighting for entertainment. When Boyle was ready for him a buzzer on the door would sound and a red light set in the wall would begin flashing, a light concealing a CCTV minicam and an audio ear. The miking of these cubicles had always struck Ray as pointless. The surveillance in the cubicles was being imposed on people who had already passed through two metal detectors, so what could anyone possibly be expected to detect?

For the record he was there on school business, carrying his permanently pending file of names to be proposed for Phelps-Stokes fellowships. It was time to redo the file. Some of the candidates on it were dead. That file and the exhibit he had especially prepared for Boyle on the Kerekang matter were contained in the red rope portfolio on his lap, and he noticed, now, that his palms were sweating enough to leave marks on the portfolio. He dried his hands in his pockets, irritated at himself, because the sweat marks were just the kind of small thing Boyle might pick up on. The fact was that Kerekang was not a communist, not a socialist, not a follower of Karl Marx. He was a follower, if that was the word, of someone else altogether, Karl Marlo, a thinker of a different kidney completely. Ray had the proof in his hands.

My life is taking forever, he thought. At the university library he had found bound volumes of the International Review of Social History in the stacks, but only from 1980 onward. The card catalog entry was partly illegible, but seemed to say that the earlier years of the journal were in one of the storage areas. He knew the library and was known there. He had made his way to the box rooms, as the storage rooms were called. In the first one he entered, he’d found what he’d come for. The box room was in chaos, with slopes of vandalized, hurt, and deaccessioned books reaching from the overburdened worktable surfaces to the edges of the room. He had had to walk on books to get to the wall shelving, where, displayed at eye level, he found the back issues, unbound, of the International Review of Social History. The lot was tagged as scheduled for microfilming, but the order was dated May 1981. Nothing was happening with these periodicals, he’d decided. He’d slipped the number he wanted into the waistband of his bush shorts, under his shirt.

At that point, he had found Wemberg’s hiding place. A smell, a faint rankness, had arrested his attention. On three sides, the space between the top of the main worktable and the floor had been walled with stacked books, the walling partially masked by the drifts and dumps of spilled books lying against it. On the fourth side, the space was closed with a sheet of cardboard, which he shifted to the side. He’d had to strike matches to see inside the cave. He had cursed the Lion matches for the flimsy, sputtering, unreliable product they were. Inside the cave he had found a pallet, a sakkie containing soiled clothing, a water bottle, and a framed photograph of Alice Wemberg. On impulse he’d taken all the bills he had in his wallet, about fifty pula, and tucked them under the frame of the photograph, obscuring Alice Wemberg’s face so that Wemberg, in his distraction, wouldn’t miss seeing the money. Then Ray had left. Thinking now about Wemberg was upsetting him, again. There was nothing he could do for the man without too much danger to himself. He felt for Wemberg. He identified with him, another poor bastard going mad over a beloved woman. With Iris away, he was feeling more of a bond with Wemberg than before. He was worried that leaving the money had been stupid, that it might startle and unnerve Wemberg and lead him to abandon his hideout, which was a sensible hideout, well located because that end of the library building faced rough, blank bushveld, so that Wemberg would be able to duck in and out without being observed, especially at night. He had to turn his thoughts away from this. There was nothing he could do.

Boyle was taking his time, per usual. Ray took out his exhibit and shuffled through it. If he did say so himself, it was conclusive against the idea that Kerekang was any kind of socialist or revolutionary. The whole misreading had begun with the sloppy job of copying the article’s title, slashing across it to yield

Karl Mar

  Socialism

   Revolution of 1848

when the correct full title was “Karl Marlo, Guild Socialism, and the Revolution of 1848.” In Marxian terms, Karl Marlo had been a reactionary. He had been a defender of the guilds. He had been an opponent of industrialism. He had wanted the extension of the guild system, with its masters and apprentices and its slow, merit-based upward mobility and employment stability.

The whole thing was interesting. And Marlo had hated the liberals, who were for the industrial system, more than anything, which ought to recommend him to the liberal-hating Boyle, except that the historical context was so wildly different. What Kerekang wanted in Botswana was something like what Marlo had wanted. He had been influenced by Marlo and by an American named Borsodi. He wanted households to raise their own food and have fruit trees and raise small stock and sell any surplus on the open market. What was so terrible about that? There was a cosmic joke going on here. The reason Marlo had hated liberals was because they wanted to open everything up to the market, which he knew would mean doom for the guilds, and he had been right. Kerekang was an individualist, rightly judged. He wanted every family to be allocated an equal plot and house and access to water and he had schemes for raising a variety of agricultural products and taking the surplus for sale, which would sustain the family. You would have a base and you couldn’t be turned out into the street, like the homeless, but you could do wage work on the side, to the degree you chose. It was yeoman democracy, more than anything. It was Jeffersonian. It was innocent.

Ray had photocopied the entire twenty-page article. And he had made a separate presentation sheet consisting of excerpts, highlighted, because he knew Boyle would never read the original piece. Ray was doing this out of principle. It would be against his best interest if Boyle paid attention, because of the scheme he had going with Pony. But if Boyle decided to forget Kerekang, Ray would send Pony for a couple of visits to Morel without authorization. Ray would have what he wanted, Morel au naturel, talking the talk.

Of course there was an unusable aspect of Marlo that might endear him to Boyle if he ever looked into it. The great expanded guild system Marlo had proposed was for everybody but Jews. It wasn’t that Marlo had been anti-Semitic, but he had been a man of his time. Boyle had no excuse for his own attitudes and he had no idea how much Ray knew about them thanks to the beloved Marion Resnick. Boyle was Jew-fixated. He blamed the Jew Kissinger for leading Nixon to break the wall around China, which had led them to go capitalist enough to become an enormous economic as well as military threat. The idea was that they should have been left alone to doldrum along with their inefficient communist system. Boyle was an ultra. Ray thought, If you’re politically insane, things will leak out no matter who you are: and Marion can’t be blamed for talking about Boyle. Boyle hated the African National Congress not because blacks were going to come to power through it but because Jews, some of the greatest stars of the ANC, were, and of course communism was the invention of a Jew and Jews had been prominent in getting it going in Russia, and Lenin was a Jew, or half-Jew… That was Boyle. He had to live with him.

The waiting he was being put through was deliberate. He decided to read through his exhibit, sampling it.

“If the guilds were to play an important part in Germany’s future they would have to stand for more than simply the selfish demands of their class… the road back was closed; the future demanded more than nostalgia; it would not accept mere selfishness… the guildsmen were aware of the need for a more general appeal and a wider vision; that they were was largely due to the efforts of one Karl Marlo—the social theorist of the German guild movement during the years of revolution.”

Learn something new every day was Resnick’s line. Socrates, when he was about to drink the hemlock, made everybody in the room shut up so he could hear the end of a song, new to him, being sung in the street. Ray knew the name of the singer, if he could remember it… Stesichorus.

“Marlo was not a guildsman; he was a chemistry teacher in a trade school in Kassel, Kurhessen.” He had been a technician, like Kerekang.

“Marlo’s native province was a land of small villages surrounded by carefully cultivated fields and inhabited by peasants and the master tailors, smiths, bakers, carpenters, and shoemakers of the guilds, who, with their journeymen and apprentices, formed a comprehensive guild system as yet undisturbed by free enterprise and still protected by ancient monopolies and a determined insistence on prerogatives and precedent. It was here that Marlo carried on his social research and here that he found an ‘organization of labor’ whose principles he hoped to see embodied in an economic order which would protect Germany from the ravages of the Industrial Revolution.”

And here was Marlo himself speaking despairingly. “Nothing remains for even the most intelligent to do, but to surrender his social independence and put himself in the service of the capital-rich entrepreneurs, and leave to them the greater part of the fruit of his labor.” Ray could see clearly why Marlo appealed to Kerekang.

Here was the core of it. “Industrial and agricultural enterprises would be limited to a certain number of workers, and each merchandising firm would be given a monopoly over a part of the national market… Those who amass more capital than is needed for their enterprise will be able to lend it to those who lack the money but not the competence to exploit their share of the national market. The state must keep interest rates low, and must also assure to each citizen ‘a sphere of activity’ equivalent to his abilities. Would not, Marlo asked, such a state be able to ward off the wild struggle for markets and capital, the destructive competition, and the dangerous concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few which have transformed modern societies into vast arenas in which occur chaotic struggles for survival?… Every citizen will be expected to contribute to health, old age, and life insurance programs…”

It sounded to Ray like Sweden in the fifties. And the outcome for Marlo was that his advanced ideas had enraged the liberal revolutionaries who wanted to break the guilds, and the socialists who wanted to vest ownership of everything in the state, and he had been tried for treason when the reactionaries came back to power after the crushing of the revolution.

Ray thought, Outcomes are funny: Imagine that somehow Marlo and this renovated guild system had won out in Germany, what might have been next? Well, for one thing, no German Marxism burgeoning up enough to drive the ruling classes crazy and no ruling classes putting Lenin on a train to Russia and no Russian Revolution and no Stalin and no Red Army carrying fire and blood and doom to what was left of the crazy old regime, thank you very much: We outsmart ourselves!… How can I possibly get this across? We destroy moderates at our own peril, something like that: He won’t get it, he’s Boyle.

When it came to Kerekang’s political life in Britain, reading it correctly took only the smallest amount of sophistication and goodwill. Kerekang had never taken out physical membership in anything. He had been sampling this and that in the nonparty left, over there. He was a pilgrim. There was no evidence of anything more. Yes, at the very beginning of his time in the U.K. he had fellow-traveled with a couple of Trotskyist sectlets or groupustules, Boyle’s tweaking of the standard derogatory term for miniature left groups, groupuscules, but Kerekang had clearly found them wanting. He had rejected them and gone elsewhere, which ought to count in his favor. He had been a sympathizer with something called the Commonwealth Party, now defunct, a precursor to the Green Party. The man was a seeker, and where he had come out was, if looked at without jaundice, innocuous. But Boyle was Boyle. He remained Boyle. What was wrong with him? What was wrong with the world?

It occurred to Ray that a prime reason people want power is so they can say no, have that pleasure, exercise the power to prohibit. It was how some people made the world simpler, people who hated the confusion of the world. It was primitive.

The buzzer sounded, the red light flashed, he rose up wearily.

20. He Didn’t Like What He Was Suspecting

With Iris gone Ray could eat anything he wanted, and he had planned a transgressive meal for himself for tonight, which, now that he was sitting down to it, he didn’t have much appetite for. He had to get past Boyle’s No, Boyle’s brevity with him on top of it, Boyle’s expression when he had examined Ray’s case for making Morel a POI and his attempt to show what effort it was taking to keep disbelief from turning into a horse laugh.

He had a fine clod of fried steak before him, with baked potato and salad, flageolets dressed with oil and vinegar, a salad by British standards only. It was a thick steak, silverside. Cliffs of beef, he thought. The garnish of sautéed garlic and onions was less thoroughly caramelized than he liked. Iris would have done them perfectly. As a cook, his weakness was impatience. He was doing his own cooking. Dimakatso had offered to take over, but she was a rotten cook and he would have had to praise everything.

He was on his second Ringnes beer. The brand was just lately available in Gaborone and it was wonderful, and strong, which was why he liked it, of course.

He missed Iris cruelly. She would call tonight. He was hoping for a call less consumed by the detail of what was going on with Ellen and her new baby girl than the previous calls had been.

He should be happier right now. He was set up to read and eat, a combination he liked, a pleasure in itself that a happily married man generally experienced only when he was eating away from home. He had two Times Literary Supplements still in their glassine sleeves. He didn’t mind eating in the kitchen, despite the too-bright overhead light, because everything he might have forgotten to put on the table was close at hand.

The phone was on the table. It rang and he picked up the receiver. It was her voice. He wanted her back home. He wanted to kiss her mouth, feel her open it under his kiss. He pushed his plate aside.

“Oh God I can hear you,” he said, which was not how he had meant to begin. Somewhere he had a list of things he wanted to mention. It must be at work. There were key things on the list. The point was to attract, to attract, for want of a better word. One item was that they had fennel now, at the Chinese greengrocer’s in White City. But that was the least interesting item on the list.

She thought he was referring to the phone connection, obviously.

“I can hear you too,” she said, twice.

He wanted to do something, talk French to her, something, attract her, remind her of how much he loved her but without just saying it over and over.

“I love you,” he said.

“I do too,” she said. He knew what she meant. It was fine. He didn’t know what he wanted. He wanted something stronger.

She was proceeding with the news about the baby, still unnamed, fully recovered from the mild case of jaundice she’d suffered from when she was born. Iris was keeping Ellen as calm as possible. The baby was at home with them now. It was good that she had come. Did he have any suggestions for a name for a girl, keeping in mind that it had to go well with Gunther.

“Not right now,” he said, realizing that he wanted urgently to escape the subject. The last time he’d been engaged in baby-naming exercises was during one of Iris’s false pregnancies, long ago.

“But please help us, Ray. Think about it. You have good suggestions. Anything with a little literary feeling to it would be welcome to Ellen. She’s getting the most absurd suggestions from her friends here. I hate them. That’s another subject. I’ll tell you later. Just rebarbative is what I’d call the whole bunch of them. But there seems to be a trend going to find a name that’s got trashy associations like Lulu or Lola or Ruby. I don’t understand it. Or she’ll be enthusiastic over a name that’s just plain weird, like Merle. Of course there was Merle Oberon… But the worst is that she keeps muttering that if black people can make up any sort of name they want for their children, then why can’t she? Who knows what she might come up with. Ladeeda or Ladido or something.”

“I think the father should have some say in it, Iris.”

“The father. No.”

“I don’t understand that.”

“Ray, he knows about the baby, she told him, he just doesn’t know she’s been born yet.”

“Shouldn’t somebody inform him, Iris?”

“Of course! But this is the way Ellen wants it. He’s in another state. He got married. I don’t know how this is going to work out, but she wants me to help with an insane letter she wants him to sign. He’s getting his mail at a post office box. It’s all a mess. He works in a bookstore. He has nothing. He’s in terror of his wife finding out. He always calls, when he calls, from a pay phone. And he always whispers. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. I might call your brother…”

“Now why in hell would you do that?”

“For advice.”

“What in the name of hell does he know about legal… the legal realm?”

“There’s no reason to be upset. He might know someone I could talk to. He knows amazing people. Did you read the sort of joke guidebook for returning to the States he sent me? I was going to show it to you. It turned out to be useful, really. He seems to know people in high places, gay people. The number of people you would never think of being gay that he can identify is pretty staggering. He reminds me of that diabetic woman at the embassy who named all the secret diabetics she knew about in Washington. Your brother can be very helpful.”

“Call him, then.”

“I did, once. But not to talk about this. Just to say hello.”

“How is he?”

“I think he’s all right. I couldn’t tell. He’s so funny. He has a new motto for the CIA. Do you want to know what it is?”

He was silent. If he kept silent long enough it might remind her that there was a rule. He hadn’t been able to tell her about Dictionary Echelon but he thought he impressed a general rule of caution about certain references.

She sighed. “I know what I did, Ray. I’m sorry. But don’t you want to know?”

“Okay, what is it?”

“Peek and ye shall find.”

“Very amusing.”

“Anyway these names she likes are, this is a guess, from movies we haven’t seen, with cheap women as heroines. Arva is another one she likes, and Thelma. My sister is excitable right now. I think it’s stress and postpartum and I think she’ll be better. My mother can’t come. She’s in a wheelchair with gout. Also she’s so out of it. She’s not leaving Michigan. Since she heard there’s no father on the scene or even in the wings, she really has nothing to say to Ellen. I am overwhelmed here. It would be heaven if you could be with us, but you can’t, I know that. If I didn’t give you the tourist reentry thing your brother wrote, go and look on the second shelf of my nightstand. It’s brilliant…

“Ray, I want to talk to you forever. Can we?”

“You know we can.”

“But you didn’t ask for this expense with Ellen.”

“It’s all right.” He was attracting her, which wasn’t the right word, still. He was getting something going…

“Ray, how are you, are you eating decently?”

He said, “I don’t have much appetite,” to his surprise, because it wasn’t true.

“No appetite?” she said. “Why is that? Then go eat out…”

He had committed a mistake. She felt criticized.

“You don’t want Dimakatso to cook, so okay. She is perfectly adequate. I don’t want this on me. I don’t want to hear about how only one person can feed and nurture you the right way. I’m sorry. I’ll tell you what to do if you have no appetite. Don’t eat. Don’t eat for one day. I bet your appetite might come back. Do you have any idea of the insanity I am dealing with here, a tiny infant child, my sister, her friends, do you have the slightest idea? Wait, I’m sorry. I’m sorry. Oh God. I’m marginal. Oh Ray my darling. It’s stress. Pay no attention.”

It was his fault. He had been tempted to go for sympathy by the stupid Ringnes. That was enough Ringnes. The pleasant feeling of having a little extra space in the top of the skull was declaring itself nicely. It was excellent beer, Norwegian. He liked Norwegians. Swedes he could take or leave.

“Please forgive me,” she said.

“Come on. Nothing to forgive.”

“I have so much to tell you, Ray.”

“Tell, then.”

“I think it’s good my sister had this baby. I know it’s a mess with the father, but still. They love Ellen at the Montessori Institute. The job part of her life looks solid. She likes doing publicity. They pay pretty munificently. They think she’s brilliant.

“She needed this child. She was volunteering to baby-sit for all her married friends and she was falling in love with their children. They could do no wrong. She would baby-sit for a twenty-one-month-old holy terror who would go through the apartment dismantling it. But after each depredation, like tearing the knobs off the stereo, he would toddle over to her holding out the thing he had torn off as a gift, giving this darling smile. Or he would go into the bathroom and grab a container of shampoo and come out and give it to you as another gift but leaving a trail of spilled shampoo all through your living room. Of course Ellen doesn’t keep the caps screwed on. But anyway the child would be picked up and she would slowly discern her apartment was in ruins. She had been in a dream. I met one of the children who pushed her over the edge, a darling little girl, just a toddler. When she came over to be baby-sat she brought along a whole menagerie of stuffed animals. Going to sleep meant collecting them into a heap and lying down on top of them. She had fantastic names for them. When I asked her about her animals she said, ‘I use them as friends.’ Ellen wrote the names down so she could refer to them correctly on the phone. They had a phone relationship. Look at this. I’m at her desk now and here’s a card with the names of the animals. Here they are… Snartz, Gwinty, Pobeel, Woot, Fard and Dardena. Don’t you love Dardena? How is St. James College?”

He knew what he wanted from this conversation. He wanted to attract her and he wanted some evidence that he was succeeding. He wanted to hear that she was keeping her personal footing in all the upheaval around having a baby, particularly as the proposition might apply to her. He wanted her to miss Botswana, if that was possible. He wanted to hear what it felt like to be back in the States, if she liked it there. It was probably fortuitous that she had gone to Florida, which, if he was any judge, she was going to find boring and extreme, culturally. That was what he hoped. He had to say something about school. There was nothing attractive going on. The pigs were dead.

“School is fine. No big changes.”

“I think she’ll be a good mother. My fingers are crossed. Do you know what cradle cap is?”

“Some type of bonnet for a child? No idea.”

“No it’s a scalp condition. It’s like a crust. It’s unattractive. Newborns get it. You’re supposed to leave it alone, not be scrubbing it or oiling it every minute. Ellen can’t leave it alone.

“She just has to calm down about this baby. I think she will. Her breasts are immense. She was never large-busted, Ray. She was like me…”

So far, her attitude to the new baby wasn’t alarming. It was unromantic.

“What is going to happen to this child? I suppose it’s a good thing it’s a girl. They say they’re easier. This child is not a good sleeper.”

There was one other item he needed from this conversation. He needed to know if there was any chance that she had been in contact with Morel, any sign suggesting it.

“Well, anyway. America. I have to say Davis was right about one thing, unless it’s just this particular neck of the woods. I think it’s all over. He was right about credulism reigning and spreading. That means religiosity…”

“I figured,” Ray said.

“Credulism,” she said. She seemed to love the word. “The country is in a religious frenzy of some kind. Everybody has Jesus bumperstickers saying one thing or another. Anybody who thinks religion is going the way of the goatee is in for a shock. I don’t know how happy Ellen is going to be, living around here. The local people have a feeling against single mothers, I gather, that she’s run into, because the day she put a sticker on her bumper saying God Is a Single Parent someone twisted her windshield wipers so that they had to be replaced. She sees a connection, but who knows. Also the kind of religion that’s around is kind of gruesome. One sticker has the image of a hand with a nail through it and the text says His Pain Your Gain. On Monday if you go someplace for fast food the cashier just automatically reaches out for your church bulletin so they can give you your ten percent off. Is anything happening at the embassy?”

“Not a thing.”

“Have they found Dwight Wemberg?”

“No.” That was a true statement.

“I think about him. I wish you could find him.”

“What would I do if I did?”

“Well, help him. Put him up. I don’t know.”

“Concretely, though…”

“Find out what he needed you to do. Intervene for him.”

“Well, it’s a fantasy.”

“It’s so pitiful, love coming to an end that way, the way it does. This separation from you is so painful, Ray, because it brings up… you know what I mean. It’s like a rehearsal.” She was insanely truthful.

He was in pain. He said, “You mean the final separation. I know, I know. Look, don’t talk about it. I want you back here, my good girl, my love…” An odd sound came out of him.

“Stop, I’m crying,” she said. “Wait a minute till I find some Kleenices… I know I had some, a new packet.”

The love of a woman with a funny mind is the definition of paradise, he thought. The word Kleenices was, of course, plural for Kleenex. It was an old item between them, but he hadn’t heard it for a while.

“Here we are,” she said. “I knew I had some. I put them in my purse, unbeknownst to me. This is what I want. If I die first, this is what I want you to do. Take my ashes and put them in an urn on the coffee table and then every now and then lift the lid and shout the latest down into it, whatever is going on.”

“Then you do the same.”

“Don’t say it. I can’t stand it if you die first. It’s worse if you die than if I do.”

“Please don’t say that and please let’s not have this conversation when you’re there where I can’t hold you.” Save you, was what he meant.

“I’m wretched without you,” she said, her voice very low.

His breathing was easier, distinctly.

She was irreplaceable. That was the problem. She was uniquely funny. Now his mind was flooding with moments and episodes that proved it. They had stayed overnight at the Tshwaragano Hotel in Serowe where the management was bell-mad and rang a ship’s bell for every meal, including breakfast at seven. And they had dragged in dead tired at three in the morning and gotten to bed and then for no reason someone had begun banging the bell at five-thirty, waking them, and he had asked why in hell they were doing that and she had said, “They’re practicing.” And when he had noticed in the paper that Belfast and Beirut had become sister cities, she had said, “What do they do, exchange rubble?” He remembered being with her in a diner when they were dating, before he’d had any notion about how funny she was, and when she was being offered a second cup of coffee by the waitress she’d said, “Oh no thanks, if I drink that I’ll be up all day,” making the woman laugh. And when he’d wondered aloud what the correct name for a male ballet dancer was, she had said ballerino. And then when he’d mentioned that physicist who had concluded that the universe was made up of just three kinds of matter, she’d said, “Yes, I know, ether, phlogiston, and ectoplasm.” She liked to deny that she ever farted. And when he’d been passing by the bathroom when she was in the tub and he’d heard something suspicious and said, “Did you fart?” she’d said, “Certainly not. I was just submerging my head to belch.” And when he’d once remarked, “Wasn’t that a particularly virtuous lunch we had,” she’d said, “It was more than just virtuous, it was actually unpleasant.” And then she’d said one morning, “If I make us stop drinking coffee and only make tea, will you start hating me?” and he had said no and then she had said, “Well then, if I keep making us coffee and forget about tea, will you stop hating me?” That one was slightly ineffable. They had an idiom together. That was it. She was the author of it. He was never funny. Except that she had laughed when he described her chest as the Globe Theatre, a literary nothing, his pinnacle. He had to escape this.

He said, “Before I forget, we can get fennel now. They have fennel at Notwane Gardens.”

“I lost you. We can get what?”

He raised his voice. “Fennel. Fennel.” This was not what he wanted, to be shouting fennel to his darling girl. And she was a girl. He was forty-eight.

“Well, eat some,” she said.

His hunger was coming back.

“Are you eating okay, not too much meat and potatoes without end? And you’re keeping up with the garlic capsules. If you don’t take anything else, take those. Let me see if I can put Ellen on for just a sec. I think she’s still asleep. Let me check. She sleeps more than the baby.”

He waited.

She returned. She said, “Still out. Which gives me a chance to tell you something else I don’t want her to hear. Her friends around here. They’re mostly arts and crafts, and some who consider themselves artists. There’s a little antiques store and art gallery enclave where they all love her. She buys so much crap, is why, crap of theirs. I won’t ever complain about the embassynians again, I promise. We went to a couple of openings and at one of them I got into an argument in a flash with a woman who got a certain disappointed expression on her face when we were introduced and she understood that I was using my husband’s last name. This was a big disappointment to her since I was Ellen’s sister, Ellen being a paragon of freeness, being unmarried and having this baby and all. This woman’s given last name was Johnson, paternal last name. So I merely observed that she was choosing to privilege, that’s a very popular term with them, privilege, the name of a male, her biological father, over the name of her presumably beloved chosen husband, accident over choice. And of course her dumb name also incorporated somebody being the son of some ancient John. It was hardly as though she had dumped all her nomenclature in favor of something completely invented, like Dora Violin Moon-leaf or something. By the way, all the people in this milieu have the most blinding white teeth. Everyone over a certain income is getting bonding and capping like crazy. Even my sister bleaches her teeth at night, every night. Even in the hospital. So that was round one. Round two was an artist whose work was on display under gigantic lenses. In the catalog she was described as a micromuralist, which does not mean that she was a very-small-in-stature muralist. I pray God Ellen can’t hear this. No this was a person, you will not believe this, who inscribed little primitive scenes on pebbles and in a couple of instances on actual lima beans, dried limas. And I couldn’t help but wonder out loud why anyone would say mural in connection with these little… scratchments on pebbles. I wanted to know what they had in common with murals, with big, broadly executed, jammed, huge wall pictures. Now if the artist had carved a tiny figure with its back to us at the bottom edge of these scratchments, as though the figure were looking at the image, there might have been a case. I didn’t make a big scene. I just asked one or two people, but it got around. They make you want to act philistine.

“I’m going on like this not because it’s interesting but because I can’t let you go. You’ll be gone when I stop telling you things. So I’m telling you everything I can think of.”

“I love it,” he said.

“I love you, Ray, meboy. Oh do I. I miss you. How’s your penis? How’s your trusty penis?”

“My rusty penis? That it is.”

“You heard me.”

“I think this is phone sex.”

“I know. We’d better stop. It isn’t fair to Ellen. What if she heard? Okay, so what else can I tell you. Well. Thinking. Even around here there are homeless. And another thing you see is people laying out displays of belongings, clothing and personal items, on the sidewalk. It has to be done quick, before the cops come. And this is not a poor neighborhood, either.

“And I have to tell you that Davis was right about something else in this country. It’s not his idea but it’s true. He gave me an article about the exteriorization of the self. It’s pretty self-explanatory. You see it everywhere. People advertise what they are, young people especially, by sign-age, essentially. People advertise what they are, their affiliations. They wear tee shirts with messages instead of plain, like we wore. They wear violent personal ornaments and tattoos. The idea is that when people dressed more or less all the same, within the same middle-class spectrum, you demonstrated who you were in the things you revealed when you talked to people, what you read, what you knew. Now nobody knows anything different than the next guy. It’s all music and media boilerplate on the inside. So therefore why not get wondrously overmuscled or put metal studs in your eyelids? This I’ve seen. This article calls it a panic over differentiation. And it’s true. Well.

“I love you I love you. And speaking of Davis, Ray, could you do me a favor and call him?”

Now this. Ray had been about to take a surreptitious bite of steak. He put his fork down.

“Call him?”

“Yes, would you?”

“Call him and say what?”

“I’m about to tell you. Call him and say I don’t think I’m going to get much homework done on this trip.”

“What kind of homework are you talking about?”

“Well, a journal I was supposed to keep. And also a book I’m supposed to read when I have a free moment, Homo Hierarchicus, by an anthropologist. It’s something you might be interested in, but it has absolutely nothing to do with me. It’s about the caste system in India.”

“Couldn’t you send him a card? I’m sure he’d love to hear from you, not me. Or you could call him.”

“A card takes too long and I don’t want him to think I’m doing something I’m not doing. And I feel awkward calling. I don’t think this rises to the importance of a phone call, and I don’t want to spend the money for that when you can just give him a ring. This is already costing a fortune, this trip. I don’t like to think about it.”

“I will, then. Tomorrow.”

“Ray, it’s only partly that I have no time, to tell you the truth. When I start writing in my journal it turns into reams of hysterical stuff I already know and don’t want to think about, mainly regarding my mother and also Ellen, who has a sneaky side to her personality. And I write about you. I write things about you you wouldn’t mind reading. But I just don’t want to be doing this now. My job is to keep my act together. I have to cope. But I said I would do this stuff and now I’m not going to.”

She was in anxiety. Why was Morel back in this conversation, he wanted to know. It was bitter. It was bitter.

He didn’t want to talk anymore. She disliked the silence he was making. He could sense it.

She said, “What about the CODESA talks, Ray? Where the ANC walked out? Is this very bad news?”

He was a little startled. He said, “No it’s only going to be temporary. Don’t worry about it.” But he felt it was odd that she had brought it up. It just happened recently. She wasn’t getting the New York Times, there in Florida. It was big news in Botswana and the Republic, of course, but it was odd that she had heard about it, or was it? Of course she was always nervous about the chance that things would go badly in South Africa and that danger and disruption would come back across the border to Botswana. He didn’t like what he was suspecting, which was that she had in fact just been in touch with Morel and that everything she had said in that connection had been a deception, which would explain asking him to do something that was, in the circumstances, going to be unpleasant for him, calling a man she knew he had negative feelings about, contriving to show, by that, how minor a presence Morel was for both of them, how unthreatening Ray ought to find him, to desensitize, to desensitize. His thoughts were racing. He hated this.

“Where did you hear about it, Iris? Are they covering it on TV?”

“No, not really. In the paper.”

“The local paper there?”

“It must’ve been. Ray I didn’t ask about Dimakatso. You know to give her my love. But how is she doing?”

It was possible it had been in the paper, but he didn’t believe it. And now she was showing regret, showing she wanted to get off the subject and he didn’t like that. He could be wrong. He could be. He wanted to be wrong.

He had made himself too unhappy to continue.

“I haven’t eaten,” he said.

“Well for goodness’ sake go and eat. I’ll talk to you tomorrow or the next day.”

“Right, and my love to everybody. I love you. Get a name for that baby. I’ll talk to Ellen, one of these calls, tell her.”

“I love you,” she said.

He said, “And so, goodnight.”

21. The Apostles of Reason

Pony had overproduced, at first. Ray hadn’t been prepared for it and had even run low on replacement cassettes at one point. And then there had been a change. A trajectory was developing in Pony’s attitude that was making Ray uncomfortable and wary. The issue of a chartering letter, which had come up twice, sharply, after Pony had begun this work, was now gone, dropped. And information on the whereabouts of Pony’s debtor, the absconded haulier, very preliminary information at that, had been received perfunctorily. Pony had gone from tense volubility, from presenting Ray with full lists of attendees so that all the voices on the tapes could be identified, to a new mode of dreaminess and diffidence. And when it came to identifying participants Pony had gotten vaguer and vaguer, claiming forgetfulness, claiming not to have been introduced to half the group attending. Nor was Pony pressing for supplementary payments, Ray realized. He had the money for him. Something was up.

But then something was always up. Even if Pony was planning to exit the assignment, that would be manageable, because he had been so copious to date that Ray was dealing with more material than he’d had time to get decently through, much less decently assess. Critical information had come out of the tapes. Morel was creating two groups, a public group called the Apostles of Reason, and an inner, esoteric group, cadres, whose name Ray had yet to discover. Morel was recruiting cadres, which was why the tape he was going to listen to tonight, for the second time, was worth better attention than he’d been able to give it. It represented a sort of catechism session of a young fellow from Mahalapye, an assistant pharmacist, Themba Kise, someone being groomed to go out and beat the drum for irreligion in the northeast part of the country, a sort of franchise being given to him. Apparently the way it worked was that the most promising contacts, the ones considered eligible for the inner circle of proselytizers, would come and stay with Morel for a residential immersion lasting a week or so, ending in catechism.

Dark of night galvanized him. It was very late. He was at ease on the sofa, his bare feet up on the vast plain of glass that was their coffee table. The living room blinds were tightly drawn. The odor of charred garlic was heavy in the air, heavy and sweet. That evening he had cooked his third steak dinner of the week. He could get frozen fish tomorrow, hake. The best parts of his thesis had been written in the middle of the night, before he’d met Iris. Now that she was away he was being reminded how much he liked to work at night. Maybe he was regressing in a general way. He had a craving for creamed chipped beef, a dish he hadn’t had since high school, a specialty, if you could call it that, of his mother’s. At night your enemies are asleep, he thought. Working for the agency did provide him with more occasions for solitary late night work than the usual job would. He shouldn’t complain. But marriage and teaching can’t help but nail us to the light of day, he thought. He was happy tonight, he supposed. He put the earphones on.

He had to bear down on this tape, not let his mind drift. It was important. His periphery was reasonably clear. Iris was all right. It was obviously a piece of luck that her landfall in America had been Florida, which was turning out to be more floridly, so to speak, part of the Bible Belt than either of them had realized. She had reported hearing a young girl’s call to a religious radio talk program. The child had been anxious to know if it was allowed to sleep late in heaven. Ellen had settled on a name for her daughter, Mame. He didn’t care. It had been between Mame and Mitzi. It was good that Wemberg had shifted his hiding place out of the university library and to someplace unknown. That had been a relief to Ray. There was a story around that Wemberg was sleeping rough in the maize fields in Sebele.

He was ready to begin. Hearing this taped session the first time had brought home to him how little interest he had in changing anyone’s mind on any subject, any important subject. He thought about that a little more. He had been part of a war all his adult life, but he had never felt impelled to try to change the views of any of his opponents, ever. He had tried to trip them up, dismay them, undo them, but the idea of attempting to convert any one of them to his own views was embarrassing to him. So Morel, who was making a passionate vocation out of changing the minds of other adults, was what, a horse of another color altogether.

Part of the prologue was missing. They were a little way into the catechism. Morel’s voice was without much color. He was tense. His voice was high. He was working to keep himself at the right level for his listeners. He was conforming his speech pattern to what he thought was appropriate for his English-as-a-second-language Batswana audience, speaking more slowly and formally. We all do the same thing, he thought.

“So, then, what do we say to the question, Who was this man Jesus? We accept that he was real, unlike Moses, he was real, and he walked the earth of ancient Palestine.

“A Jew. Always a Jew. Up to the end, a Jew. And is there anything about his name that might be mentioned?”

“I forgot. His name in truth was Jeshua, which is saying in Hebrew that Yahweh is soon to come back. Yahweh the God of the Jews.”

“So go on with more. How else do we know he was still a Jew?”

“Rra, because he wore the boxes on his body…”

“Yes, those are called phylacteries. It’s good to use the correct name if you can remember. And what are phylacteries?”

“Rra, they are foolish small boxes with Jewish writing on little scraps.”

“But remember, Themba, we try never to mock… as we go. We describe… And what else shows that this Jesus was a Jew?”

“He said go to the temple many times if you have done something wrong, and give taxes…”

“Let me interrupt, rra. The tax, which he agreed all Jews should pay, was one thing. It supported the temple, maintained it. But he also said that Jews should be dutiful and pay the fees for atonement for particular sins. You might purchase a dove to sacrifice, to make up for some wrong you may have done. And of course it would have to be a dove that was perfect, which we are coming to.”

“Ehe, and he wore earlocks, although we are not sure. Yet we think so.”

“These earlocks, they are called…?”

“I forget what.”

“Just a minor thing. Peyot. They are called peyot.”

“Peyot, ehe. And fringes to his sleeves.”

“Good. And they are called…?”

“Tzitzit.” But he had hesitated over the last syllable.

“Themba, if you are unsure as to pronouncing a word, a foreign word, it’s best not to try, because there may be someone who will catch you on it to destroy your greater message. But tzitzit is correct. Now, and what is it that is recorded that Jesus said, that shows him to be a faithful Jew?”

“What he said? As when he taught in synagogues? Synagogue is not the same as temple, it is smaller, but we know he went because it is set down as to his being in synagogue on a Sabbath, at which time a man presented him his withered hand to heal. As well we know he himself paid the temple tax because of a coin found in a fish caught by Peter that was the right amount for both of them. But as to what he said at those times, I am not sure.”

“No, I wasn’t asking about what he may have said inside the synagogue or temple, no. What is it reported he said generally about the Law of Moses?”

“Ehe, he says he is among them to fulfill the law and that no one must change it by a jot.”

“Tittle or jot, is the whole phrase. And do you remember he says, ‘I was sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, and to them alone.’ Which is Matthew 15:24. And this is one chapter and verse you will need to remember. The same statement is in Mark. In Mark. Now you remember I said that when you quote scripture you can start just by being sure you have the chapter right, so you might say only Matthew 15. But then as you speak more often, the verse number will come to be fixed in your mind. But there are some statements you will want to have by both chapter and verse. This is one of them, because it shows that even when the followers, later followers of Jesus, were trying to make it seem that his message was for the gentiles across the world, they were forced to admit, because it was so well known even then, that he was speaking purely and solely to the Jews. And do we have some other proofs of this, in his own words?”

“Ehe.”

“So… well how else do we know that his message was meant solely for his fellow Jews?”

“It is because when it comes up to gentiles they are mere dogs or swine, as he calls them. And when he sends his disciples off to carry his message about, he says Oh do not go, please, among the gentiles, and never among the Samaritans. And this is strange because the Samaritans were believers in Moses and his books but not some other books and scriptures. But he said to shun even these people.”

“Good. Great, Themba.”

“And once when a Roman soldier asks to have his servant healed and Jesus does so, we believe now that the servant was in fact a Jew. Except for a Syrian woman he called a dog, all the healing and casting out demons were done for Jews, only.”

“Good. Now, so he was a Jew, and what else would we say about him?”

“As to his… his lepele…?”

There was a moment of laughter, and someone said “Ncucu,” and there was more laughter.

Finally, Morel understood. “Ah lepele—his penis, you mean. Oh you mean his circumcision. Yes, that he was circumcised on the eighth day after his birth. That can be mentioned. No, I was asking a different question. When I said he was a Jew, but what else would we say to describe him… Do you see where I’m going?”

“Nyah, rra.”

“He was a special kind of Jew…?”

“Ah. Oh. Ah because he says emunah is everything we must do?”

“Nonono. Yes, in a way, but that comes later. No. He is a mad Jew, setsenwa, a mad person. We would say he is delusional, a doctor would say. And we have to be very careful when we say this. But why would we have the right to say it?”

There was no answer given.

When he was tired of waiting for it, Morel said, “All right, just think about it for a minute. I’ll come back to it. I want to stress something for us. We establish that Jesus was wholly a Jew who is stolen and refashioned by the Christians after his death. But it has to be shown that not only Jesus was stolen from the Jews but everything else, every piece of furniture in the new church. What did the Christians steal from the Jews? Oh… well… angels, devils and demons, the Devil himself—who was in the Jewish belief a character named Mastema who was a, a, forensic officer, a kind of inspector general sent out by God to see how well individual believers were holding up under temptation… Of course, those who failed the test would be condemned to eternal damnation, but it was nothing personal with Mastema. He was an employee of God, a civil servant.

“What else did the Christians steal from the people they then decided to torment for two thousand years? How about monotheism, or rather, as we talked about, henotheism, which says, okay, there may be more than one God but you only worship the best one. In this case, Yahweh. What else did the Christians steal from the Jews? Well, heaven… hell… eternal torment… virgin birth—except that in the Jewish scriptures the most God did was make barren and over-the-hill women able to conceive miraculously by their very own flesh-and-blood husbands… but it’s close, I think… The Christians improved the idea by making an actual virgin give birth. What else? Baptism, copying the conversion-baptism of the Jews. The Eucharist came from the Passover meal, probably. The resurrection of the body, women as a source of pollution, and sex as a source of pollution. The end of the world and the replacement of all human institutions by a supernatural regime of endless perfection. The Incarnation, the Ascension, the Holy Spirit, except that it was called Sophia by the Jews. The Trinity also comes from the Jews, but it would take too long to explain that right now. The Book of Life. The only thing the Christians contributed to Christianity was priestly celibacy—or so it was thought, until the Dead Sea Scrolls came to light and it turned out that they had some celibate priests, too. Faith healing, also.

“So you can see that Christianity, so called, is nothing but a heresy of Judaism, a Jewish heresy whose most striking peculiarity is that it commands its followers to hate the Jews! Hate its authors, its inventors!…”

There was something off about Morel’s intervention. It was like a striptease stuck into an opera…

He thought he knew what it was. It was Morel showing off, in all likelihood showing off for Kerekang, trying to keep his attention if the catechism was proving to be a little slow for him.

Here was Morel again. “Before we go back to our question, very important to remember about the beliefs of Jesus is that his brother James, who succeeded Jesus as the head of the group, which was called the Jerusalem Church, was also completely a Jew, always present at the temple in Jerusalem, observant in all ways, he had knees so callused from kneeling and praying that they were compared to the knees of a camel. Yes, James seemed to believe that his brother might return when the messianic age came. But the outcome he expected was the same as what Jesus expected, and that was that the Jews would be the teachers of the world. Under Yahweh. And what they would be teaching was their religion, of course. Judaism. Okay… So. Themba…”

“Ehe. We are saying now why can we call this man mad?”

“Good. Right.”

“It is because of the kingdom, what he was saying as to the Kingdom of God coming definitely very fast, at any time.”

“That’s right. You can say it like this. Jesus was convinced that in his lifetime he would see God come downstairs and establish a physical kingdom upon the earth. It would be a Jewish kingdom, brought about exclusively by the devotional activity of Jews. All the tribes of Israel would be reassembled and the twelve apostles of Jesus would sit in judgment on them. You remember that the name we gave to his belief that the Kingdom of God was coming almost at once was imminentism? And it, imminentism, is in fact supposed to be the main belief, the basic belief, of Christians, if they understand their own scriptures—and not only of the evangelicals, who are galloping in their numbers in many places in the world, a mighty horde, really.

“And it is entirely mad to think that at any minute a giant fatherly presence is going to bring history to an end and set up his kingdom. Jesus was mad.”

“So these evangelical men who say they are born again are becoming born again as Jews, rra. It makes me laugh that they don’t know this,” Themba said.

“Right, and how do we know that this mad belief in the imminent end was held by Jesus?… aside from the clues given in his statements and acts, which are turned around and softened by certain people today who say there will be no Second Coming, no physical kingdom, because in their view Jesus was catering for a spiritual change only… We call them immanentists, not the same word, the ones who say that the Kingdom of Heaven was already present in the world in Jesus’ time and forever, and that it consisted of human beings acting charitably toward one another, and nothing more supernatural than that.”

“Em, ah, rra, we say Jesus is mad and expects the end of the world because of what he says and because his teacher John the Baptist tells that this is to come, and Jesus becomes John’s follower. Yes, and as well, Jesus’ closest followers, Paul and James, say this is to come, the end of the world, ordered by God, is to come—although they disagreed on other items. And next in time to follow Jesus came Mark and Matthew and Luke. And in all they wrote is the belief that the end of time is coming soon, as Jesus said.”

“Perfect!”

“Ke itumela, rra.”

“Now, under this kingdom… no, first, what was the name for all the other people of the world?”

“The nations. The goyin.”

“No, goyim, with m at the end.”

“Sorry.”

“It’s nothing. And what did Jesus say would become of these goyim, the nations, when God came down?”

“They will bend their knees to Yahweh. For some very long time, up to a thousand years whilst being judged. And some people from among the goyim nations would be fine as to entering heaven when there is heaven. You see, there is not yet heaven, at that time, though there is hell. Some must be pushed into hell, even from amongst the Jews.”

“Who is likely to be cast into hell?”

“Rra, it is confusing to me, very much. Some we can say with ease will be pushed, such as those who offended Jesus in time past. And if once you have eaten meat with blood, you will be pushed, we can be sure. But as to the gentiles, most of them will find themselves in hell. I can study more as to these rules, rra. These rules of Noah by which some gentiles could pass through into heaven after all the judgment is finished.”

“No, you are right to be confused, because in the Bible the text is confused. And it is confused because the original question had to do with Jews, first and foremost. And very little thought was given to the gentiles.

“Now, what else can we say about this age, the age when Yahweh has created his kingdom on earth, the messianic age?”

“Em, well… still yet we do not see Yahweh ruling, I believe. The Christians began to say that in this time it would be Jesus ruling over the world for God. They were the followers of Paul.

“But as we saw when you spoke, it was a Son of Man who would rule, riding on clouds. We cannot say if Jesus was saying he was this Son of Man. Very likely he thought, yes, I am that man, because he was saying often to the apostles that he would sit on the right hand of his father, God. So, but perhaps that Son of Man can be Elijah. We cannot say, only that he rides about on clouds at times. But I must study these laws of Noah because to Batswana if you say Rra, Jesus says if you have eaten blood, Jesus of old, in his true doctrine before he was stolen by the Christians, if you taste blood you are going to the pit of hell, well, my word, all Batswana have tasted blood, as in puddings of blood, and other ways at the cattle post, expressly when they are ill. So you can see it will raise their eyes on this matter. They will listen.”

“Themba, we have to be very careful with this. I would leave it alone.”

“No, because you see up to this day at the butchery where they say they are halal, ‘we are halal,’ they say, ‘and our meat is drained, you must eat this or you will be condemned someway’… it is from these same words of Noah and it is a curse on the Batswana… These Muslims say your meat is not clean, rra, except as you eat what is halal.”

“No, but this would be the wrong way to approach it. At the Muslim butcheries… No. Maybe at some future time, Themba. But your point is correct. But just not now.”

“Ehe, rra.”

“So we are in the messianic age and they have finished judging. God’s judges have. Then what?”

“Em, ah, oh yes, you must have a new kind of body to last forever and ever. The dead are all raised, I believe, and they, well, I believe they would be most in need. They would be rotten, rra. Ai! E bodile…”

“No, no,” Morel said, to one or two people who were laughing.

“So, but rra, you must have a new body of spirit or electric or whatsohaveyou because it must be such as to let you fly and repose in the blue sky. Em, and as to the dead gentiles, nothing is said, if they are brought up, the saved ones, for new bodies or no, so it is confusing.”

Morel made a reproving sound. Themba was playing to the crowd, which was not wanted. Ray knew what Morel, that asshole, was after—when you destroy some poor bugger’s belief system, become a technician, neutral, like a doctor bringing sad news but not being involved yourself, Ray thought. You had to have the demeanor of a funeral director.

“And then, in heaven, what happens? The Jewish heaven.”

“At all times you are not to work.”

“What else?”

“At all times you must not play after young ladies. At all times you must wear a crown and sit upon a throne. It is one man, one throne…”

Morel was making Themba wait. This last little thrust had earned him a touch of the silent treatment. No levity allowed, Ray thought. Morel was strict.

“And when the Jewish Sabbath comes, Themba, how should we understand it?”

“Ehe, for one day you are to live as it will be in heaven, with no work to do, no amusements…”

“Themba, let me read from our great scholar, Vermes, you have this, page 125… On the Sabbath ‘abstinence from all work of the occupations of the children of men, and a total devotion to worship by means of offering incense, gifts and sacrifice in the sanctuary, symbolize and mystically achieve God’s reign on earth.’”

“Ehe, and you must sit and receive from God his shining forth.”

“See if you remember what we call that, or rather the Jews did.”

“I forget what.”

“Shekinah. Radiance of God.”

“Ehe, and, em, whilst you receive this shekinah you must in no way look straightaway at God. Even if you are in your new body, it can kill you to see his face.”

“Such is the Kingdom of Heaven, Themba. Not much moving around unless there is some scheme to shift thrones so that all can have a chance to sit near God.”

There was a ripple of amusement among the hearers. Morel is not playing by his own rules, Ray thought.

Themba said, “I think the Batswana can never be Jews, if there shall be no cows in heaven.”

Someone in the audience said “Ke dunetse,” meaning he agreed.

“So this heaven you describe is the great, final end that the Jew Jesus was urging all his people to work and die for, we see. And we are talking only about what we can tell were the beliefs of Jesus himself, in the time before Paul, and before the four Gospels were written—beginning about how many years after the death of Jesus, would you say?”

“We say Mark is written down about the year seventy, rra. Paul was writing earlier but still it was fifteen years after Jesus was killed, but Paul tells nothing of the life of Jesus and he tells only some few words of the beliefs of Jesus, which is strange.”

“Right! This is the important thing to emphasize. Great feats of scholarship have taken place in the last thirty or forty years, so we can now extract and separate, this is the point, the original ideas and beliefs and instructions of the Jew Jesus, take them out of the books of the Gospels of Mark and Matthew and Luke, where we find other beliefs and interpretations alongside them, coming from Paul for the most part, added to and plastered across them, obscuring them. And Themba, all of you… it is from these encrustations and superadditions and plasterings that Paul and his followers turned a dead Jew into a God for the gentiles, a new God, at the same time twisting, Paul was twisting the sacred writings of the Jews to make them say that they prophesied the coming of a divine Savior for the Gentiles… for everyone. And that way lies Christianity, invented by Paul.

“But we are not coming to that, yet. No. People do not like to hear any of this, really. So we must first make clear to them that we are talking about the original and pure beliefs of the Jew Jesus. And the first thing you must make clear is the answer to the question of how Jesus came to believe that the world was to come to an end at the hands of Yahweh. He thought he knew what had to be done to make Yahweh bring an end to the world as it was and create his kingdom. And other Jews of Palestine were also seeking ways to make God descend. But they were saying there were other ways to make him come, three ways. You remember the three ways?”

“Ehe, rra. Em, in Palestine the Romans were oppressing the Israelites very much. And the Jews were saying it must cease. This must cease. And they had from their scriptures stories telling of God coming to their aid, as when they came to the promised land and found it stuffed fat with enemies and vipers, and God helped them to kill their enemies…”

Morel said, “Yes, you remember we said that such a God might be called a serial killer, in fact. But this is among ourselves. When we discuss this, we say only that he killed many opponents of the Jews.”

Themba said, “In Palestine in past times, some victories would come when Yahweh would strengthen the captains of the Jews but would cause the walls and towers of their enemies to fall down. Or he would send angels to aid in the killing. So in their belief they ask how can we make Yahweh come to us once again.

“The Romans were their enemies. So they were saying, if we take up arms against the Romans, Yahweh will come down to help us. But the priests of the temple were saying they must not bother the Romans. These priests were in the pay of the Romans, of course, much as like the Zed CC saying we must not bother the Boers.”

Morel was quick. “Well, but rra, it would be best not to make overmuch of that. We have many Zed CC followers in this country and they would be, well, aggravated if they saw us criticizing their brothers in South Africa when they themselves are blameless, you see. So it would be very much the best not to make such a comparison.”

“They are tiresome,” Themba said.

“I know, but they must not see us attacking them. This is what we must do, remember. We try to enlighten about beliefs, but we must let the holders of those beliefs see for themselves what our criticism means about their churches, you see? Do you see what I mean? And as to taking one denomination and saying you are particularly in error… no.” Morel was being very deliberate.

Themba said, “Still, it is true. They are tiresome. They will listen to you less than anyone else, and when you finish they say if you only will drink salt water you will change and see God. This is what they stated to me, rra.”

“Proceed, Themba.”

Themba said, “The worst were the daggermen.”

“Who were called… by what other names?”

“Sicarii.”

“Yes, and they were called Zealots, also. And they, the daggermen, would assassinate not only Romans but Jews as well… Jews who were helping the Romans…”

Themba said, “And those men were for war against the Romans and they would say that when the Jews made an uprising, at that time God would come down as with Joshua and give them the victory over the Romans.”

“And what ways were some other Jews proposing for bringing divine intervention?”

“Ehe… at the Dead Sea lived some Jews in caves. Essenes they were named.”

“Well, no, rra… They lived in camps, and in regular buildings as well. Their writings were found in caves where they had been hidden, found only in recent years, you remember.”

“Yes, rra. And these Essenes were quite fools, who said if only they might become as clean as angels, God could come. The Zealots believed war would bring God, the Essenes believed cleanliness would bring God. Every rule of cleanliness these men would observe many times over, as to washing and putting women to the side. And in their thoughts they would be pure. As well they would be training as an army at the ready, to join with the angel-army God was sure to send when at last they have become clean enough. And so the Romans would be thrown down. So this way was through cleanliness…”

“Okay, good. But I don’t think we want to call any particular groups we discuss fools, do we?”

“But rra, they are long dead. There are none to offend.”

“Just the same, Themba. It’s best to avoid those words.”

“Yes, for fear they will give offense at times. My word, I would not do it. But here we are free, isn’t it?”

“Within these walls, yes. But we must train ourselves here to be always prudent. So. Now. So far we have violence and purity. What other means did Jewish believers propose to bring God to intervene on earth?”

Themba said, “So we come up to the followers of John the Baptist, who is stating God will come only if many Jews repent of past sins.”

“And, if you remember, there was a name for this repentance.”

“It is…”

“You may consult your study cards. And Themba, as I recommended to you, the best place to keep your study cards is in your Bible, as bookmarks, your Bible, which you will be consulting in any case. And that way you avoid having to search your pockets for them. And then as you search out things in the Bible you pass your eyes over this material and are helped to retain it.”

“Ke itumetse, rra. I will do that. And when you repent it is called teshuvah. Teshuvah is saying sorry. And Jesus was for a time following John the Baptist. And it is teshuvah when you are pushed into the water and washed, when you are baptized. But in fact, there was no coming down of God from all these teshuvahs of John the Baptist, and time was passing by. And so Jesus turned away from John. He was impatient. And then the king put John the Baptist to death, so as to teshuvah, it was the end.”

“And then what did Jesus do?”

“Jesus said if you cannot summon God down by means of war—although these daggermen were still raising up from time to time, if you cannot summon God by washing and bathing, and if you cannot summon God by repenting all past sins you have made and going into the water for a sign, then perhaps, he said, the Jews can summon God down by emunah.”

“Okay, good, and does Jesus continue with baptizing?”

“No, we do not see that. Only in one place in the Bible does it say so, but we think that is wrong.”

“And how would you explain what emunah is and what it meant among the Jews of that time? I know you have this in large letters on your study cards. It is important. In fact you may feel free to read off the definition anytime until you have it in your memory,” Morel said.

“Ehe, rra. Emunah is complete trusting faith, complete trusting faith, as children have it. It is becoming as a child in every way. It is to never question but only always believe. You take no thought for yourself, and in that way you show your trust in God to care for you. I remember very well what is in this book of Vermes. Emunah demands the total commitment of the soul to God. You must do away with all things in yourself that would make God hate you, were you a child, bothering him. You must wish him to be left in peace even when his eye falls on you. You do not pester him with oaths in his name, because when you take the name of God in an oath you are forcing him to become a party in some little disputes you have with your neighbors. So as well, you must avoid ill-doing because all people stand as your brothers under God, and God the father is best pleased when there is no fighting in his home. He hears everything, the God of Jesus, so we can see why these oaths pelting him like rain must be displeasing, very much. And when it comes to stories told by Jesus, we see that so many of them are about God, and are saying he is above everything a father who is greatly pleased, most pleased, when one of his lost sheep or sons who has been erring is returning home. And these he loves much more than those who have stayed in the fold and been obedient toward him for the most part. But that is the nature of a father, Jesus is saying to us…”

Morel said, “Well, but stop there because we are going to go through the proverbs and parables later, to see how they show this craze for childish devotion, for emunah, every one of them. Maybe that will be after we eat something.”

There was a sound of chair feet scraping and then of boo