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Bharati Mukherjee

The Middleman and Other Stories

For Clark


THERE are only two seasons in this country, the dusty and the wet. I already know the dusty and I’ll get to know the wet. I’ve seen worse. I’ve seen Baghdad, Bombay, Queens — and now this moldering spread deep in Mayan country. Aztecs, Toltecs, mestizos, even some bashful whites with German accents. All that and a lot of Texans. I’ll learn the ropes.

Forget the extradition order, I’m not a sinful man. I’ve listened to bad advice. I’ve placed my faith in dubious associates. My first American wife said, in the dog-eat-dog, Alfred, you’re a beagle. My name is Alfie Judah, of the once-illustrious Smyrna, Aleppo, Baghdad — and now Flushing, Queens — Judahs.

I intend to make it back.

This place is owned by one Clovis T. Ransome. He reached here from Waco with fifteen million in petty cash hours ahead of a posse from the SEC. That doesn’t buy much down here, a few thousand acres, residency papers and the right to swim with the sharks a few feet off the bottom. Me? I make a living from things that fall. The big fat belly of Clovis T. Ransome bobs above me like whale shit at high tide.

The president’s name is Gutiérrez. Like everyone else he has enemies, right and left. He’s on retainer from men like Ransome, from the contras, maybe from the Sandinistas as well.

The woman’s name is Maria. She came with the ranch, or with the protection, no one knows.

President Gutiérrez’s country has definite possibilities. All day I sit by the lime green swimming pool, sun-screened so I won’t turn black, going through my routine of isometrics while Ransome’s indios hack away the virgin forests. Their hate is intoxicating. They hate gringos — from which my darkness exempts me — even more than Gutiérrez. They hate in order to keep up their intensity. I hear a litany of presidents’ names, Hollywood names, Detroit names — Carter, chop, Reagan, slash, Buick, thump—bounce off the vines as machetes clear the jungle greenness. We spoke a form of Spanish in my old Baghdad home. I always understand more than I let on.

In this season the air’s so dry it could scratch your lungs. Bright-feathered birds screech, snakeskins glitter, as the jungle peels away. Iguanas the size of wallabies leap from behind macheted bushes. The pool is greener than the ocean waves, cloudy with chemicals that Ransome has trucked over the mountains. When toads fall in, the water blisters their skin. I’ve heard their cries.

Possibilities, oh, yes.

I must confess my weakness. It’s women.

In the old Baghdad when I was young, we had the hots for blondes. We’d stroll up to the diplomatic enclaves just to look at women. Solly Nathan, cross-eyed Itzie, Naim, and me. Pinkish flesh could turn our blood to boiling lust. British matrons with freckled calves, painted toenails through thin-strapped sandals, the onset of varicose, the brassiness of prewar bleach jobs — all of that could thrill us like cleavage. We were twelve and already visiting whores during those hot Levantine lunch hours when our French masters intoned the rules of food, rest, and good digestion. We’d roll up our fried flat bread smeared with spicy potatoes, pool our change, and bargain with the daughters of washerwomen while our lips and fingers still glistened with succulent grease. But the only girls cheap enough for boys our age with unspecified urgencies were swamp Arabs from Basra and black girls from Baluchistan, the broken toys discarded by our older brothers.

Thank God those European women couldn’t see us. It’s comforting at times just to be a native, invisible to our masters. They were worthy of our lust. Local girls were for amusement only, a dark place to spend some time, like a video arcade.

“You chose a real bad time to come, Al,” he says. He may have been born on the wrong side of Waco, but he’s spent his adult life in tropical paradises playing God. “The rains’ll be here soon, a day or two at most.” He makes a whooping noise and drinks Jack Daniels from a flask.

“My options were limited.” A modest provident fund I’d been maintaining for New Jersey judges was discovered. My fresh new citizenship is always in jeopardy. My dealings can’t stand too much investigation.

“Bud and I can keep you from getting bored.”

Bud Wilkins should be over in his pickup anytime now. Meanwhile, Ransome rubs Cutter over his face and neck. They’re supposed to go deep-sea fishing today, though it looks to me as if he’s dressed for the jungle. A wetted-down hand towel is tucked firmly under the back of his baseball cap. He’s a Braves man. Bud ships him cassettes of all the Braves games. There are aspects of American life I came too late for and will never understand. It isn’t love of the game, he told me last week. It’s love of Ted Turner, the man.

His teams. His stations. His America’s cup, his yachts, his network.

If he could clone himself after anyone in the world, he’d choose Ted Turner. Then he leaned close and told me his wife, Maria — once the mistress of Gutiérrez himself, as if I could miss her charms, or underestimate their price in a seller’s market — told him she’d put out all night if he looked like Ted Turner. “Christ, Al, here I’ve got this setup and I gotta beg her for it!” There are things I can relate to, and a man in such agony is one of them. That was last week, and he was drunk and I was new on the scene. Now he snorts more JD and lets out a whoop.

“Wanna come fishing? Won’t cost you extra, Al.”

“Thanks, no,” I say. “Too hot.”

The only thing I like about Clovis Ransome is that he doesn’t snicker when I, an Arab to some, an Indian to others, complain of the heat. Even dry heat I despise.

“Suit yourself,” he says.

Why do I suspect he wants me along as a witness? I don’t want any part of their schemes. Bud Wilkins got here first. He’s entrenched, doing little things for many people, building up a fleet of trucks, of planes, of buses. Like Ari Onassis, he started small. That’s the legitimate side. The rest of it is no secret. A man with cash and private planes can clear a fortune in Latin America. The story is Bud was exposed as a CIA agent, forced into public life and made to go semipublic with his arms deals and transfer fees.

“I don’t mind you staying back, you know. She wants Bud.”


I didn’t notice Maria for the first days of my visit. She was here, but in the background. And she was dark, native, and I have my prejudices. But what can I say — is there deeper pleasure, a darker thrill than prejudice squarely faced, suppressed, fought against, and then slowly, secretively surrendered to?

Now I think a single word: adultery.

On cue, Maria floats toward us out of the green shadows. She’s been swimming in the ocean, her hair is wet, her bigboned, dark-skinned body is streaked with sand. The talk is Maria was an aristocrat, a near-Miss World whom Ransome partially bought and partially seduced away from Gutiérrez, so he’s never sure if the president owes him one, or wants to kill him. With her thick dark hair and smooth dark skin, she has to be mostly Indian. In her pink Lycra bikini she arouses new passion. Who wants pale, thin, pink flesh, who wants limp, curly blond hair, when you can have lustrous browns, purple-blacks?

Adultery and dark-eyed young women are forever entwined in my memory. It is a memory, even now, that fills me with chills and terror and terrible, terrible desire. When I was a child, one of our servants took me to his village. He wanted me to see something special from the old Iraqi culture. Otherwise, he feared, my lenient Jewish upbringing would later betray me. A young woman, possibly adulterous but certainly bold and brave and beautiful enough to excite rumors of promiscuity, was stoned to death that day. What I remember now is the breathlessness of waiting as the husband encircled her, as she struggled against the rope, as the stake barely swayed to her writhing. I remember the dull thwock and the servant’s strong fingers shaking my shoulders as the first stone struck.