Authors: David Rich
atching the flames did not help me focus on Dan or figure out my plans; everything was too vague and formless. My mind drifted back to Kabul and the start of my trip as a Pashtun villager from Lashkar Gah, traveling to Karachi to look for work. The story was that my wife had died and her family was looking after my daughter. I moved along slowly, practicing my story on everyone I met, watching them carefully for signs of suspicion, and listening to their stories carefully for new idioms and for subtleties of the accents. I stayed away from NATO forces completely. The last week, I spent most of my time in a mosque, making sure I was adequately versed on the rituals of praying. It would be hard to sell my act without that. If anyone suspected me, prayer time would be a major test. Praying is bad enough without having people watching you and judging you so you end up praying only that they like the way you pray enough that they don’t kill you. It’s the advanced version of what I used to pray for as a kid: get me out of here. Two foster families made me go to church on Sundays, one Baptist and one Presbyterian, and
Marion the Bitch tried it out a few times. Of course, I wanted to get out of there, but I didn’t hate it completely. I enjoyed watching people there. For kids, church was destructive, just a way to control them, and for about half the adults it was just a phony thing they did to hide who they really were, but for the other half it was a good thing. I could see they needed to be there, and the connection and the prayers and the sermon made them feel less like the louses they knew they were and that maybe there was some way to hope the world was not going to end soon.
Muslims pray enough for everybody. Five times a day. So religion has to be all about the afterlife because even they can see they’re not getting a big payoff in this world. It was easy to find a mullah to instruct me. I just told him I wanted to get my head right at last, and I had some money to pay him.
They make a big deal of the idea of being clean before you pray, but that’s a relative kind of clean. You have to be cleaner than you were before you started. The physical part is precise; the verbal part gives you some options. It starts with facing the Ka’aba in Mecca and stating your intention, as in “I’m going to say the noontime prayer.” Then you put up your hands, palms out, thumbs touching ears, and say “Allahu Akbar” which means god is great. Next you hold your left wrist with your right hand and recite the first chapter of the Koran. It’s short and easy to learn, but if you can’t learn it, they give you something else to say. Then you have to bow and say some more short praises of god before you get down on your knees on some kind of a rug or anything that isn’t the dirt road. When you kneel, the drill is palms down, forehead down, bottom of the toes down, heels up, elbows away from the body, abdomen away from the thighs. More praise of god. You sit up, and
your left foot gets tucked under, right foot stays out with the sole showing, hands on knees, fingers spread out. Depending on the time of day, you repeat this a number of times. And you finish by looking right, at the angel in charge of your good deeds, then left at you know who, and you tell them both to go with god and then sort of wipe your face with your hands and you’re done for a few hours. It reminds me of tai chi mixed with yoga and a chant. Very peaceful.
I crossed the border into Pakistan without problems. My passport passed muster and no one thought to pay too much attention to me. I guess by then I smelled right. Karachi is huge and spread out, biggest city I had ever been in. They say Karachi is the most convenient port for us to land supplies, which must be military talk for Karachi is the only port because it’s completely inconvenient and it brings Pakistanis into the stew, which already has too many ingredients. The work is done by Pakistanis and Afghans and supervised by Americans and other NATO troops.
I worked my way down to the port, past some of the magnificent buildings constructed by the Brits when Karachi was in India and the sun never set. For a moment, I almost understood why we are chasing all this so hard. It’s all still grand, exactly the way empire is supposed to look. The muscle shows in every slab. And if you are king of the world, it must seem logical to want to show your muscle, too. Kind of like rich people who have their kids tested to see if they’re geniuses; the next stage after having lots of money is proving you’re special. But in books, the pain is buried beneath glory and nostalgia. We have resurrected the pain, but I do not see us leaving behind the structures, or enjoying the conquest.
My contact was a short, smiling Pakistani man, Jaffar, in a warehouse office filled with men shouting, begging, eating, sleeping,
arguing, coughing, praying, everything but fucking. I was posing as an Afghan, and for about ten paces I felt slick until it occurred to me that half of them were Taliban posing as friendlies and the other half were thieves posing as honest. No one would believe my story on its face, but unless I gave provocation no one would question it too closely.
I fought my way to the desk and presented my paperwork to Jaffar. He looked everything over, including me, and said, “You’re too late. All positions are filled.”
“I was told to report today.”
Jaffar repeated his mantra a few times. I got the letter back from him and the envelope. I left the building and went to a café, and in the bathroom I took out two hundred dollars and put it in the envelope. When I handed it to Jaffar, he just fingered it a little while he looked me over. Finally he glanced inside, just to make sure. He directed me to the staging area where I was to find the driver I would be riding with.
Rashid was a twenty-four-year-old cocky know-it-all lounging near his truck with his friend Mansour, the guy who already had the job I thought I was getting. Mansour probably already paid Rashid for the chance. I had plenty to outbid him, but this was not a high-paying job and suspicion lurked just below the surface. Rashid dismissed me with an arrogant flick of his hand. I hesitated. Mansour got up and came toward me. He wasn’t a big guy, but I let him chase me away.
The next day, before the caravan was scheduled to leave, I waited near Rashid’s truck, but out of sight. Mansour did not show up. Rashid got nervous, paced around, asked everyone if they had seen him, made a million phone calls. I knew Mansour would not
be there on time because he had been caught having sex with a prostitute in a park the night before. That kind of behavior is frowned upon in Karachi, so Mansour was locked up. The prostitute got away, with only the slightest help from me. I suppose Rashid figured his friend got cold feet. We never discussed it. I offered him one hundred dollars to take me on at the last minute and he accepted. I was in.
he jeep had a compass. The wind was blowing Dan’s smoke east. I turned south. Phoenix was south of most places and that was where I thought I might try to start puzzling out Dan’s clues. The wind bombarding the open jeep felt like progress, though I wished for sunglasses against the glare and the dust. After a few miles, the U.S. Highway 95 sign told me nothing helpful except that I had never been there before. The gas tank was full and it occurred to me that I did not have to worry about that anyway. McColl was having me followed or watched somehow. A GPS in the jeep for sure, and some sort of backup. If I broke down beside the road, I’d be rescued. Far off on the right, mountains formed a wall up to the sky. On the left, the sky fell all the way down to the brown and gray rock. The road was straight as a rolled-out carpet. It was twenty miles before a car appeared traveling north. A few minutes later, a car came up fast behind me doing at least ninety. I caught a glimpse of a woman at the wheel of the blue Honda as it blew past me trailing blue smoke. I slowed down to let
the oily smell dissipate. Twenty minutes later, the Honda was pulled onto the shoulder, hood up. The woman stood beside the car.
She wore shorts, tank top, and flip-flops. Her hair was cut in bangs and pulled back, which made her look younger than she was. I guessed thirty-five. Her skin was smooth and the thin glistening of sweat reminded me of how parched I was. If McColl sent her as bait, he made a shrewd choice. She held her cell phone in her hand and held her ground as I backed up.
“Thanks. Called the tow truck. They’re on the way.”
“I’ll take a look if you like. Maybe save you some money.”
“No thanks,” she said, and she tensed and moved backward against the dusty door of her car.
“What would you have done if I’d gone north?”
“Look, you can go now. Leave me alone.”
I asked, “You know how far it is to the next town?”
“Fallon is about twenty miles that way.” She pointed south. I looked up and down the road and imagined a series of women stationed in all directions, a few on each roadway, there to lure me. If I didn’t stop for the first one, the next would appear, more needy or more alluring. The picture made me laugh. The woman got into her car and locked the door. It must have been hotter in there than my cell had been. I realized I probably looked pretty frightening, and there was a slight chance that I was wrong about her reason for being there. I drove away.
First stop was Walmart for some clothes that weren’t slashed or bloody. They carried that. I bought sunglasses, jeans, two T-shirts that said “49ers” to give anyone I ran into something to remember other than my face, two plain T-shirts, a pack of underwear, socks,
antibiotic cream to put on the cut across my chest, and a backpack to carry it all. The first fast food chain I saw was Burger King; I ordered enough to put me to sleep.
Fallon proved the point that Nowhere and Anywhere have merged in a slurry of chain stores, restaurants, and hotels. For a small town, Fallon is very crowded: most of us live there. I chose the Holiday Inn because they had the sense to claim they were number one in all of Fallon and McColl wouldn’t have left me so much money if he wanted me to scrimp.
I sank into the bed and worked at understanding who McColl expected me to be. Greedy. He would get stuck on that and I was stuck there for now, too. It was dark when I woke up, nine p.m. The air conditioner buzzed and coughed, but it kept the desert out of the dreary room. I showered and dressed, planning to eat more, then start for Phoenix. The motel had no restaurant. Two replicas of Pongo and Perdy marched through the lobby as if to remind me that the real ones were still lurking somewhere out there. The desk clerk directed me to Dollard’s Steakhouse, located in Dollard’s Casino, home of the Dollar Deals.
The air conditioning wasn’t working too well, or the management was too cheap, and the air was thick and close. I walked quickly through the sad, smoky casino to the steakhouse, on the lookout for anyone who might be with McColl’s gang. The gamblers, dealers, pit bosses, and waitresses all watched me with that hungry drooling-for-fresh-meat look, though none of their fangs were showing. Maybe McColl sent them all. A fat woman, so fat she had two stools pushed together, rubbed a quarter and licked her lips, but I couldn’t take that personally; salivating was like breathing to her. Three blackjack tables, one sparse craps game,
and a poker table of five players comprised the action, all of it in slow motion. A few players were cowboys. No one, not even Dan, was a deceitful enough salesman to make Fallon a tourist destination. I figured the rest of the patrons worked at the naval air station a few miles down the road.
The hostess must have been on break, so I took a table at the rear of the steakhouse where I could see anyone coming in. The waitress was a thin, energetic woman in her fifties. She hustled over with a menu. I ordered a draft beer. She turned and said, “Anywhere, hon.” And when she moved away, I saw the woman from the blue Honda decide to take a booth on the right side of the room. I joined her.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “if I was scary this afternoon.”
“And are you sorry that you’re scary now?”
The waitress delivered my beer. I said, “She liked this table better.” The woman ordered a beer, too.
“How’s your car?”
“You work at the naval air station?”
The waitress brought the beer. “Y’know whatchu want?”
“Another table,” said the woman.
“Anywhere, hon.” The waitress walked away. The woman looked the room over.
“They’re all gonna be the same,” I said.
She sat back and sipped her beer and looked me over. She did not seem to be afraid of me. “Why me, with all the beautiful women in this town?”
“They’ve already turned me down.”
She smiled and showed a slight gap in her front teeth, and I noticed for the first time freckles on her cheeks near her nose. “You can buy me a hamburger.”
“You know what would be a nightmare?” I said. “Getting stuck in Fallon because your car has a cracked block and you don’t have enough money to pay to fix it and you end up working here. Forever.”
“You sound like you’re a traveling auto mechanic.”
“How long have you worked for McColl?”
“The guy you work for.”
“How long have I worked for him?”
“Pick up your phone right now and call him and tell him I know he’s following me and I’m going to find the money for him so he doesn’t have to send women out onto the highway or thugs into hotels to keep me company. Call him. Call him and I’ll let you come with me.”
“How many beers have you had?”
I got up, paid the waitress, and walked out. I had just started the jeep when she opened the door and slid in. “Are you gonna be a hard-ass about everything?”
“Only as long as it works. Did you call him?”
“If I call him and say that, he’ll know you made me, which he did not want. And I will be stuck in Fallon with no car and no money. Please. Take me with you.”
I pulled out without answering her, but it suited me just fine. Even if she told McColl that I knew who she was, it still gave me a conduit to feed him the information I wanted to.
“What’s your name?”
“Shannon. You still owe me a hamburger,” she said. She already knew my name. McDonald’s was right next door. While we waited in the car, she said, “Who are you going to see in Phoenix?”