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The Watch

By
September 3, 2013

Everyone is hoping that the just declared new country will be lucky, that the rioting and murdering will not break out as predicted by the expat at our bar the night before.

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Image from Flickr via Trygve Berge

It’s a very nineteenth-century tableaux: three tall well-dressed young men in various poses: elbow-to knee, foot on the step, hand leaning on rail, and a single short young man who stands near a bare table where two women, older, chins raised, are seated. The outside that surrounds them shimmers with the red dust of an African capital well into century twenty-one but still very asphalt-challenged. The dust in the air from such a challenge hangs, never settles against the hyper-photogenic sun about to douse itself behind the carefully stacked container hotel, backdrop to this tableaux and the dark skin of the men, the glowing white of the women.

The short man had contacted the minister for me, and there I was, a mere three hours later, face-to-face with the second most powerful man in the country.

Being one of the women, I know that the attentions of young men produce such a glow in women our age, but we also suffer a burn from yesterday’s intense sun against the cracked windshield of the minister’s Land Rover. That is the vehicle that delivered us earlier today to the new nation’s vice president who was waiting at the airport for the president to arrive in his cowboy hat. I had wished for my own cowboy hat then, the sun leaking inside the car. The trip was hot and also long, but not in terms of distance. The minister and ourselves circled the airport in that hot Land Rover, circled it again and again, waiting for a signal to turn in.

I did not question or complain. The short man had contacted the minister for me, and there I was, a mere three hours later, face-to-face with the second most powerful man in the country. I knew the vice president had a particular fondness for women of my race, and I sat close to him on his couch. He was delighted. Together we examined the book I was presenting him, my translations of poems by his own people gathered years earlier, the presentation my way of celebrating his new nation.

Payback to the short man for the hook-up required attendance at this container hotel meeting. Why he wants the two of us here is not at all clear, like many of the details of the meeting that is now unfolding. He has an advanced degree in peace and conflict, which has something to do with how he managed to put together a wrestling demonstration the night before, with security, for ten thousand attendees. The three tall men are in on the wrestling deal. As advisors? As investors? Advertising? Cousin to the wrestlers?

Partners, he whispers.

His shortness puts him at an extreme disadvantage to the three tall men. It signals that he escaped the country much later than the others, missing the nutrition of the First World, which means he is unlucky. Everyone is hoping that the just declared new country will be lucky, that the rioting and murdering will not break out as predicted by the expat at our bar the night before. Everyone is leaving, the expat declared, meaning everyone expat. You must leave immediately. My friend, a poet like me but prone to hyperbole, downed the rest of her drink in a quick gulp. I said we had tickets on a plane for tomorrow. Not soon enough, he said, and he ordered another round.

On arriving, the tallest man, with exquisite manners (Ma’m), shakes hands with us, the largest, heaviest watch possible thudding against his wrist. He’s the one with an Australian accent. The others have American accents but lapse into African Britishisms (we will converse with you) during their own long and elaborate greetings. They all know our names. The short man has prepared them or they have their sources. Such sources and courtesy, repeating our names with every exchange, unnerves me, as does their lack of sweat. All the tall young men gleam without sweat leaking from beneath their suits, suits that are made of light wool, of the lightest alpaca or maybe an animal even rarer and more expensive. While the short man sweats and collects dust like iron fillings to a magnet over his cheap cotton sports jacket, nothing remotely mote-like falls or sticks on the other three. They move their long limbs with a smoothness, as if deflecting weapons or blows or—

You are not getting away, says the casual flick of a thumb.

Our luggage sits inside our vehicle, ready for the baggage handlers at the airport. I decide that the short man wants us at this meeting as shields, and not, as my friend originally suggested, trophies. A vain miscalculation on her part: the harsh sun sets our wrinkles in relief, my platinum hair has now gone white, her low-cut top shows age spots on the decollete. I have spent much more time in this country than she has, although she has celebrated Hanukah twice in New York with the short man—she calls him Mike, although surely he goes by something less Christian here—and she paid the balance of Mike’s peace and conflict tuition in a sort of adoption arrangement. During my interview with the vice president, she interrupted to suggest that he might hire Mike. It is a new country, she said, after all, there should be openings. Of course, of course, the vice president told her with the smoothness of a politician who has survived more than election.

Now she compliments the young Australian immigrant’s huge watch. My son has one very similar, she says, and lays a perfectly groomed hand over his. She wears no jewelry—she is smart enough to leave that in her luggage—but she radiates entitlement. No one can contradict, or even less probable, hurt me, is what this entitlement says—and now I see this as more trouble. I have not known her long, or long enough. We met in a neighboring, more peaceful country where her tie to Mike made contact with the vice president possible.

No one seems to be worried about the riots and murders that lie so close in the future, they have seen so many in the past. What about the guns hidden inside the suits these men are wearing? Why else wear these suits in this heat?

The two of us sit on plastic chairs that hardly hold us, so ruined are they by the harsh sun and the difficulties of this country. The stacked shipping-containers-with-doors-and-air-conditioners loom on either side. Our driver has chosen to enter one of these doors, slipping away with great discretion I decided at the time, but now the possibility of being out of the line of fire also occurs to me.

But I have seen no guns, no weapons at all so far, not even in front of the vice president’s airport suite. No one seems to be worried about the riots and murders that lie so close in the future, they have seen so many in the past. What about the guns hidden inside the suits these men are wearing? Why else wear these suits in this heat?

One of the three men has a Harvard degree. He hands me his card with this information printed across it during our introduction. I must radiate intelligence to protect us, I decide, to deflect my friend’s look of wealth. Smart people are always necessary to new regimes, I say to him. What I don’t mention is that other smart people might object to our slaughter.

The other men do not offer cards—they are at the printers!—but the third one has a large gold filling that he flashes with his smile, and cufflinks to match.

Despite the Australian tapping on the table, Mike does not produce the wrestling competition money, and about the time I expect to hear excuses, the taller men’s tones in Arabic, in their own language, and in the local dialect, begin to sound less than agreeable, and all the men become restless, and start rearranging themselves.

My friend leans forward and kisses Mike on the cheek.

We freeze in tableaux.

The night before, when a man arrived to fix the air conditioning in our hotel room, my friend greeted the repairman in her towel, fresh from the shower. He showed us the remote in its box beside the door, an object too incongruous-seeming to operate the a.c. vent attached above the door, and switched it on for us—averting his eyes from the top of her towel during her effusive thanks.

This is turning into an epic, she says to Mike now. Surely something can be done.

He takes a step toward the Australian. I hear there’s a job in finance, he says. But the Australian shrugs his shoulders as if Mike has already spoiled this opportunity with this kiss from his wealthy pretend mother. Mother, as the Australian calls her with all the age-deprecation our culture holds, we shall see.

She shrugs and gives him a gorgeous smile, her remaining finest, if weathered, feature. You have so much to accomplish here.

Do any of you wrestle? I ask.

Mike doesn’t say she should mind her own business the way an actual son might, he turns to the guy with the gold tooth who jokes, as if prompted by Mike’s shift in attention: Your friend, the vice president, is printing our money?

Why, that explains it, she says, throwing up her hands in happy exclamation.

Everyone else looks off to the side.

Do any of you wrestle? I ask.

In my region, says the Harvard man, you—he used the pronoun in a way that belies any relationship with my—battle with sticks.

Cudgels really, interrupts the man with the Australian accent.

The sun is suddenly exiting, its last light caught on the filling, the gold rings they all wear, the cufflinks, and of course, the big expensive watch. Are any of you fond of Chinese food? she says. I saw a café. Young men are always hungry.

The Chinese have eaten us, says the Australian whose degree he’d mentioned is in economics.

Tomorrow we will finish our business, says Mike. Today you go to the plane.

From inside our vehicle, I watched the Australian fold his long body into his Lexus, the generous yet sleek lines fitting him well. The old Benz, I thought, would also work.

Oh, yes, yes of course, she says. I wouldn’t want to miss that. She laughs so as to sound casual but it comes out nervous and she looks it, taking up her pocketbook, standing, shaking every hand, arrowing with the rest of us through the lot to their cars and ours, the borrowed Land Rover with its cracked windshield.

From inside our vehicle, I watched the Australian fold his long body into his Lexus, the generous yet sleek lines fitting him well. The old Benz, I thought, would also work.

After we turn out onto the road, Mike adjusts the rear view mirror from the passenger’s side, not so the driver can better use it but—so he says—he can watch for someone tailing us. You know the minister who accompanied you on your visit to the vice president? he asks my friend.

The one who insisted I change my clothes before our meeting, that idiot of protocol? she says, brushing red dust off her lap.

The one who saw the g-string through your skirt, he corrects her.

The skirt was black, she says. The sun was too bright, she says, in accusation.

That minister who brought you to the vice president—he says, looking out the window—was sacked just after we left him. The Australian guy said he wasn’t jailed, that they are actually interviewing to replace him.

See, the vice president did have jobs, she says to me. She knows how annoying her question was during my presentation. But she doesn’t take her eyes off the dusk of ragged marketgoers, two tumbledown pharmacies, the goats running alongside us as we creep in and out of the darkening pot holes. You’ll get this settled. When you return to America—

The driver interrupts with his own comment, weaving between motorbikes the Chinese sell here in vast quantities, and Mike translates what the driver is so anxious to tell us: the wrestlers from the night before are now in jail. For their protection. Those translations, the ones you gave the vice president—they incited a riot.

I can’t believe it, I say.

The wrestlers are from a part of the country that will never be freed, he says. They have too much oil. He makes a quiet sound that could be rueful, practical, or cynical.

The anthem of the opposition was in the book. The vice president read it over the radio.

She turns to me, lips compressed, then turns back to Mike. Aren’t they after you too?

The wrestlers are from a part of the country that will never be freed, he says. They have too much oil. He makes a quiet sound that could be rueful, practical, or cynical. That’s why everyone came to the competition, that’s why we could stage it and charge what we did.

I’m sorry, I say. I had no idea. When I collected those translations they were just poems.

She runs her well-manicured finger against the cracked window.

Mike watches the mirror, he answers his phone again, talks in Arabic, beats his head with his fist.

We’re nearly to the airport.

He slams his phone shut. I have failed, he says. Forget me and the names of everyone you saw, he says. The meeting didn’t happen. Fly away! Fly away!

They are going to arrest you, I say.

Worse, he says. You know that Harvard guy? He says the CIA only wants candidates with degrees from Princeton. Now I must be someone else.

That’s a disappointment, she says. But he already has his phone open.

G

Author Image

Terese Svoboda is working on a biography of the anarchist feminist modernist Lola Ridge. Her most recent book of fiction is Bohemian Girl which was named one of the best ten Westerns of 2012. Both her fiction and poetry has appeared in Guernica.

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