(Page 2 of 6)
Virginia hung up the phone and opened the french doors to the balcony, which overlooked the hotel pool. She was in the dead center of the country but she could swear that the breeze smelled like it had blown in off a cool ocean. Perhaps the pool had that effect. She lit what she hoped was a secret cigarette. It was nine in the morning in California when she finished her martini and crawled between the sheets of the tall hotel bed. Before she fell asleep, she imagined her brother’s day, beginning with the greeting of his first patient as he warmed a stethoscope in his palm and ending with the kiss he pressed into her nephew’s round cheek before eating a salami sandwich and joining his wife, Penelope, who complained that he made the bed smell like a deli.
The morning after her suitcase had been gnawed and she rewarded the gnawer with his strange gift, she was awoken by a man in a khaki vest. She had been dreaming of something that had happened in Malibu, or that, in the dream, had happened in Malibu. It was a poorly put-together dream, a hack attempt at a postmodern short film with the same five or six images flashing in looping succession: a woman spreading her beach towel beneath a sky bulging with storm clouds, a bottle of white tablets next to a soggy clove cigarette. If it had been a film, she would have said it was trite and full of overwrought images and mean clichés.
The man in the khaki vest was a reporter. Meme, their guide, had sent him to wake her up because she knew the reporter had been on television, and that Virginia was in movies, and she figured it was basically the same thing, so they ought to know each other. “I can see the logic but it’s not like I’m Ted Koppel,” he said, as they walked toward the big tent for breakfast.
“Who are you, then?” she asked.
“Some freelance nobody from Michigan. I don’t do television anymore. I’m here for a magazine,” he said.
“I meant, what’s your name?”
“Karl,” he said, and shook her hand.
The refugees were sitting in a clump under a shelter made from reeds and thatched grass. There were approximately thirty of them, all crouching, draped in bright colors. Karl waved good morning to them, but they seemed not to notice. They were all concentrating on something they were doing with their hands, but she couldn’t tell, with their brisk motions shrouded among all those colored wraps, exactly what it was.
In the meal tent, which consisted of a table and four chairs, a fire pit full of charcoal briquettes, a stack of tin flatware, and a large, silver chest, a woman was making their breakfast. It was like camping, Virginia thought. She had not been camping since she was very little, but she had vague memories of beef jerky and black marshmallows that were ash on the outside and creamed on the inside, and of pretending to play pioneers with her brother.
The woman making their breakfast was Meme, whom she had met the day before. Meme was a thin, dark woman with cattish eyes who was not unpleasant, for a government employee, and spoke a little English. When she saw them enter the tent, she poured them each a cup of coffee from a pot that had been simmering over the fire pit.
“I feel guilty having all this food,” Virginia said.
“Yeah. They only have the sorghum,” said Karl.
“It’s like a grain. They make, I don’t know, some kind of porridge or something out of it.”
“Oh. They aren’t starving?”
“Not in the literal sense. And we’ll be moving on to the big camp in a day or so, where they’ll get some dry fruits and meats. Really, don’t feel too guilty. What are you making today, Meme? Toast? Toast and peanuts?”
Meme smiled, showing her large, astonishingly perfect teeth. Virginia wondered if you just had to be born with teeth like those, because she’d had Invisalign twice and had her front teeth capped to make them larger and her mouth was still not as excellent as Meme’s.
“See? We don’t get a lot of nutritional variety either. It’s the water you’ve got to worry about here. But we’ve got plenty of that.”
“We do? Do they?”
“More or less. When we move on to the big camp, it’ll be fine. We’re waiting for the word that they’ve cleared a space for us. Or for them, rather.”
Meme brought them toast with warm strawberry jam and a handful of peanuts on a tin plate. She sat with them, still smiling.
“Why didn’t someone just bring me to the big camp in the first place?”
Karl shrugged. “This is a good experience. These guys need exposure, too. It’s not like the big camp is the only place people are suffering.”
She was inclined to believe him, if only because he had that trusted news anchor look. The way his head nodded slightly when he said “good experience,” his bland handsomeness, the graying hair just above his ears, all made him seem earnest. He sipped his coffee.
“You’re awful fair,” he noted. “You better keep yourself covered up out here.”
After breakfast, they walked past the refugees again, who were still crouching. This time, Karl didn’t bother to wave, but forced a cordial nod in their direction and walked to his own tent. They had their hands folded now and held them below their lips as if praying. She noticed that some of them were wearing leather wristbands and suddenly felt stupid for helping the man slice up her valise. Of course they weren’t starving. Not all displaced people were hungry; that was a myth of Hollywood, or of some other place where myths were manufactured. She searched their faces, looking for the one that had been in her tent the night before, but she couldn’t pick him out. They were all unnervingly thin and dark, with uniformly short, stiff hair. From where she was standing, she couldn’t have picked the men out from the women. They also moved as a collective, which didn’t help at all in differentiating one from the other.
She realized that she was returning their stare, and, feeling rude and awkward, affixed her eyes to the ground, where her hiking boots kicked at the dry earth. Things will be easier when the translator gets here, she thought.