(from Glimmer Train)
She says without greeting, “Charles, I need a favor.”
“You’ll have to speak up,” I tell her. “I don’t think we have a good connection.”
“Charles, don’t start. I need you to take Eric this weekend.”
“Anthony and I are doing a wedding upstate. I need you to take Eric. –Camping or something, you’re always promising to take him camping.”
“Gee, Nariss, I’d love to help. But I’m tied up.”
“Where are you?”
“Where am I?”
“Yes, Charles. Where. Are. You.”
well . . . right now I’m in
“Yeah. I do international maritime law, Narissa. You know, boats and water.”
“You dialed the number.”
I have a talent for finding the argument-stopper. It’s my gift. So I already knew that she had got the maid to call my office and then dial this number before touching the phone herself.
truth is that I was in
after I get rid of Narissa
and her ridiculous drone, the way you do
And what a dump.
I look around.
And what a stinking dump.
I can say that because my
Filth, Human Misery, and Contamination, Incorporated—owns everything
sight. Really. We own the airstrip, the island itself,
two hundred ships in various stages of disassembly, the trucks, the
acetylene torches, the infirmary such as it is, the dead fish, the
miles of shoreline, and mineral rights. It’s
all in my briefcase, printed on eight and a half by
sheets. We own the dump and most of the
human beings who live here. On the
island at the end of the earth, whose name
present remember. And we own the
terminal building in which I am sitting. And
of course we own me, down to the pinstripes and
So I’ll say it again because these little moments don’t last. And because I like saying it. We own this part of the world. We are the parent, the tribal elder, the proprietor, and savior of this island. We are God, and this is our Earth. It is our lump of dirt until it outlasts its usefulness, a moment which, unfortunately, arrived about six weeks into our last business quarter. Which is why I’m here.
Anyhow. This particular building reminds me of a subway station, except that it has an oily teakwood floor and a few windows the size of portholes. Nevertheless the air is subway air. I know it when I see it. And there’s rust blossoming on the walls, like the mineral gardens in caves. I’ve never seen anything quite like it—great cankerous rust flowers, as crenellated as carnations, growing on the walls of a building. The place smells like a fish market and echoes like a cathedral. I keep expecting someone to walk by and use the word aeroplane. That’s the sort of thing that pops into my mind when I’m not thinking about the fact that I am seven hundred miles from the nearest aspirin. And the fact that no one in this room has ever heard of Robert N’mburo. And the further fact that my wristwatch is missing.
Did I say International Filth, Human Misery, Etc.? I believe I meant to say International Recovery Systems, Inc., a Fortune Five Hundred company of sterling reputation whose major concern at the moment is that I make those two hundred ship carcasses disappear. Before, of course, they generate further unfortunate publicity and a verdict or twelve. And the really interesting thing is that I can do it, or, at least, I can make them disappear from my client’s side of the table. In any event, my name is Charles Metairie Allemand.
And it is my sincere belief that the only truly happy people in the world at this instant are the two little boys, as black as bear cubs, who have been rolling-poling, climbing, and chasing each other through the one big room since we got off the plane together. Their mother is a dignified young woman who watches them, and me, with equal calm. And I watch them because they have just found the one oddity about this place that even irony and sarcasm cannot explain. It is a marine compass, of the kind they used to have on sailing vessels, bolted to the floor near one of the windows. Twice as large as a fire hydrant and as shiny as a medallion. And here is the human hope for all of us. It is a universal and ineluctable fact that no two boys anywhere in the world will ask why there is a marine compass in an airport. They will simply run to it and climb like monkeys. They will strain to lift it from the floor. Try to make the needle move. They will fiddle and finagle and go belly-polishing over every inch of brass until one of them has clambered to the top and thrown his arms up like a champion. That’s what I like about this pair. They’re not lawyers.
I wonder which of them has my watch.
Ten minutes ago, when the phone rang in my briefcase, every person in this building stopped to listen. Every one of them heard me lie to a woman who was not my wife, for a reason that I cannot, even at this moment, explain.
“Where are you?” she said. Just a disembodied voice from very far away, like a conscience.
“Where am I?” I said. “Do you mean right now? Where am I right this minute?”
And the voice said, “Charles, for God’s sake. We need. . . .”
While no one even blinked.
My greatest fear is of dying at sea. Of being swallowed by the ocean itself or by one of its creatures. I dream about it after watching the History Channel or one of those World War II sagas. I have nightmares of being trapped in the bowels of a torpedoed ship as the first foam rushes the deck and steel doors go slamming and no one waits to hear the hammering of my fists. I think of that from time to time and how easily the sea erases any hint of our passage.
Or, I think at times of drowning within sight of shore, drifting into some sharp crevice between brown rocks or floating face down in a tidal pool like a tourist diver who’s lost his mask and fins. Dying there and being inflated by my own pompous gasses, only to be punctured by an inquisitive crab so that I might become a holiday for the millions who feed from the bottom up, a bounteous plantation of limpets and filter feeders, a pink crust of coralline algae outlining my form like chalk marks at the scene of a crime. These are the images that flood my mind as I contemplate the young man suddenly standing in front of me.
I’m trying to comprehend his words. It sounds as though he is saying, “I have come to take you to the ship.”
“Mr. N’mburo sent you, yes?” I say.
“Yes, yes. Robert. I will bring you directly to him. Everything is arranged. I hope you had a decent and comfortable flight.”
He is stick thin and just under six feet, a boy really, whose face has never seen a razor and whose white shirt is buttoned to the collar. “There has been a mistake,” I say to him. “I am supposed to meet Mr. N’mburo here, at this place, now.”
“A mistake with many apologies, Mr. Allemand, which most assuredly is being met with correction, as everything is now in order. I have transportation immediately outside.”
“What is your name?”
“Call me Sammy, that is the easy way. I will drive you immediately to your arrangement.”
The absurdity of being driven anywhere by a twelve year old does not occur to me. “Sammy, there is no need for anyone to be on a ship. In fact, I’m here to close down the shipyard. As a protection, for the workers. It’s already decided. This meeting with your representative is just a formality really. A signature is all that’s required. There won’t be any more ships.”
“Yes, I will take you. It is immediately arranged. I am an utmost excellent driver with apologies for this slight change, although I must believe that there will be more ships.”
For a moment a flicker of fear crosses Sammy’s face, and I want to say to him of course there will be more ships. There will always be rotting horror and putrification. But what I say instead is “I need for Mr. N’mburo to be here.”
“Here? At this ship?”
Now he has confused me, and I have to stand and start over. Several people have come to stand with me and to offer help in several dialects. “No,” I say. “Not a ship. I need you to bring Robert N’mburo here. To sign papers only.”
“Here?” Sammy says.
The people nod, and I nod. “Yes. Here.”
“To this ship?”
Everyone looks at me.
I look at the rust on the walls. The oily teakwood floor.
Sammy takes my hand and
outside, several dozen yards out onto the airstrip itself where we turn
look and see the whole of it—a silhouette which still reminds me of a
building at some small airport upon some New England coast. Although now of course the
details bring out the truth. There
is the horizontal stripe, faded but still visible,
terraced array of windows, some with wipers still attached. Stanchions like a row of unthreaded needles
picketing the open deck. Boom and
funnels at the aft. The twin flags of
The boy looks at the terminal building and then looks at me, smiling at the colossal joke. “I am thinking that you are finding this very hard to believe, the way things are done.”
“Sammy, for the right money . . . , I’ll believe anything you say.”
is something he
which unleashes a flood of enthusiasm. “Gbambhala
is a most logical place. We are not part
I don’t contradict him. “Gbambhala? Has it always been called that?”
“Yes, always I believe. And now you are still wishing to meet here?”
I stare toward the harbor, but all I can make out are wild sea oats and a scattering of palms and bilinga. The sun is low enough to make the beach road look like a strip of silver. “No—. No, I just need a minute to, ah, get oriented here, Sammy. I just need to . . . get this over with and then . . . . When did you say was the last flight, to the mainland?”
is a flight to
late. Usually or
perhaps . And
a ferry boat to
“That’s fine. Let’s try to get me on that plane. But first let’s make the call on Mr. N’mburo, wherever he happens to be.”
are no large
anywhere in the
What is left after a ship has been broken is too small to be counted, unless you count lives. The liquid residue becomes a sludge along the coast. The powders will be invisible, occurring only as a haze hanging over the yard—asbestos, silicon, steel filings, wood ash, and PCBs. When the cloud settles on the water, it shines like a mirror for days, killing all marine life for several miles out to sea. Workers clean the shore by shoveling contaminated sand into levees and connecting them into one long road which parallels every shipbreaking operation in the world. Such roads can run for miles at six or eight feet above the gradient. I once drove the shore road at Alang, drunk, late at night when it was most spectacular, speeding from one end to the other, just to watch the places where the sand was on fire, like the road into hell.
Sammy tells me that Robert N’mburo is supervising the lifting of the propeller shaft from one of the freighters. So we drive by wrecks that look like toppled buildings until we reach the high tide line and then begin to walk. Someone has made a path of palm fronds in honor of my visit. Everything has been arranged.
Farther out to sea are silhouettes of another hundred vessels, all waiting for a vacant slot on the beach, some anchored, one already building up cruising speed. We stop and listen to the radioman fifty yards below us. He’s directing the captain and engineer on a tanker which seems to be headed away from shore. “Sendai Maru, what is your heading?”
“Very well. Your distance from the port ship?”
“Eight cables. Eight cables.”
“Zero-four-zero. Ahead one half.”
radioman drives a blinking
into the sand as the huge ship begins its turn and gathers speed. Someone calls off course changes in
degrees. A few men in lungis and
turbans wander down to our section of beach to watch.
After ten minutes the radioman gives a new
set of instructions. “
“Course one-one-zero. Ahead two-thirds. We are continuing to ballast, and we have your light.”
“Very well, call out your course.”
The ship seems to grow shorter as its bow swings to face us; then, for a long time, it seems not to be moving at all. There is another exchange of numbers over the radio and an acknowledgement from the captain that he is giving maximum revolutions. The ship itself appears to be no closer to shore than it was twenty minutes before, though its shape has changed to a dark and bulging V atop a churning foam. Soon the bow wake resembles a cat’s paw flicking at the water ahead. Then it becomes more of a sound pushing the men back from the wavelets. They plod upslope in twos and threes, as if to prove that they do not yet need to run. The rushing torrent of my imagination gradually becomes a jet-like roar competing with the engine’s deep thum-thum-thum, both sounds merging at last into a concussion that seems to have swept in from some battlefield, a sound that is not so much sound as it is a physical pressure in the lungs, a rhythm in the stomach. As the V expands into a mountainous slope of metal, the wake itself reaches us as a fine mist which we inhale and then wipe from our faces. When the keel strikes bottom, there is not the shriek that I expect but rather a totally unexpected slippage to one side as if the Sendai Maru had suddenly decided to avoid an unpleasant puddle.
Some of the sand spills to either side like a huge furrow being cut into the face of the earth, but most of it simply disappears under the broadening shadow of the hull, now rising impossibly high above us. A shallow depression forms for thirty yards on both sides of the prow, which the tide and the ship’s own bilges immediately fill. Long after the propeller loses its purchase the Sendai Maru continues her course inland, her plates groaning under an earthly weight that they were never designed to bear and revealing a crusty underside that no one is meant to see.
I have heard that, from time to time, a man will break away from the crowd and rush down the shore as one of these ships emerges from the water under full power and is no longer controllable by the hand of any pilot. Whether from an excess of bravado or out of a desire to commit suicide it is impossible to say. He stares out to sea, indifferent to the danger or hypnotized by something better and far away. Then, when the ship makes that final sideways lurch, he is either spared by chance or else simply annihilated, ground into the sand by abrasions above and below. In either case, he is rarely seen again.
We reach Robert N’mburo’s wreck after wading to a rough scaffolding. Sammy takes off his sandals and throws them on the beach. I roll my trousers and tie my shoes to the briefcase because I remember that most deaths in the shipbreaking industry actually occur from infections which began in simple cuts. I will return to my shoes as soon as I reach deck and then will watch my step thereafter. From that one thought arises a mild concern which grows, as we ascend the scaffolding, into a unreasoning fear that no one in the world knows where I am. I could slip and fall into the sea at any moment. I could be electrocuted by one of the land lines snaking from arc-lamps on deck down into the water and across the beach to a sputtering generator. I could step onto a metal gangway that collapses like a rusted fire-escape. No one would know, because I’ve lied to Narissa and put myself into the hands of a child.
Finally we go over the railing and onto the deck with slow and careful movements.
Below us a man climbs the anchor chain with no more effort than someone climbing stairs. He disappears into the hawse hole; and after a moment comes the crackle of an acetylenetorch and the haunting glow of blue-white light, as if he had been a ghost opening the door of another world. Already the ship has been relieved of her wood, her glass and plastic, her rubber, porcelain, canvas, hemp, copper, brass, and silver. What is left is a world of iron and a world of iron sounds. We have to shout now because most of the “cutting” at this stage is done with sledge hammers. Acetylene torches are rare and precious here; and they are dangerous, slicing into pockets of every vaporized chemical that can be hauled by ship, and not infrequently exploding. This ship, like most, is simply being beaten apart and hauled away by hand, a process that takes up to a year for the supertankers. As we stand on the half-deck and peer into the canyon beneath us, it is like looking into a village which had been bombed from the air.
We step through a maze of cables and descend the first stair to a point perhaps twelve feet below the scuppers, a place that’s shadowed by the uppermost hull plates and where we pause to adjust our eyes like men stepping into a darkened theatre. In this twilight we have to be careful to step over buckets of bolts, coiled electrical wires, and one-inch steel plates stacked like rusty playing cards. Below us are more landings and more metal stairs, all taking odd turns and occasionally hanging like catwalks where former walls have been stripped away. The infrequent shafts of light coming from portholes resemble spotlights focused on the backstage machinery of an experimental drama, and I feel like an actor descending to some unseen production by M.C. Escher. The hammering, which somewhere echoes like gunshots, becomes no more than a faint tinkling, perhaps muffled by the insane geometry of the demolition or perhaps simply swallowed by the immensity of the ship. It is like walking into a skyscraper that someone has left lying on its side. I go with one hand on a railing and one, where possible, flat against the inner hull. Down and down, past cabins and storage holds, at each level getting a glimpse of the ant-men at work, some banging with sledges, some hauling out miles of intestines, some carrying away iron slabs like leaf-cutters deep in the Amazon.
reach a narrow passage
two iron hatches to the orlop, a half-deck just above the bilges where
spills into the open ocean twenty feet below. The
entire stern of our ship has already been cut away,
unguarded view of the outer harbor, in less dangerous circumstances,
looked like early evening from one of the antiseptic balconies of a
ship. There are the murmuring breakers
us, the quaint commercial vessels at a distance, and a reddening sun
to be setting
While someone behind us says, “It looks like an amphitheatre, doesn’t it?”
The unexpected accent startles me more than anything thus far, and I turn to find a dark giant. Much taller than Sammy, and far more substantial in body, he resembles in my imagination a professional athlete or an American celebrity who has dressed in the local costume for an afternoon of touring.
“Whenever I look up from this point,” the man continues, “I always think of one of those paintings of nineteenth century surgeries. Do you know what I mean? The ones with the medical students peering down into the pit, yellow light playing off the surgeon in his bloody apron . . . and of course the very pale lady on the table.” He chuckles at some private amusement and extends a hand.
“Charles Allemand,” I say. “You must be Mr. N’mburo.”
“Yeah. For about a year now. Before that I was a white guy like you.” He waits to see if I will laugh. Studies me with an intensity that would be considered rude, even insulting, in most African cultures. “You look a little wet,” he says. “Why don’t you chuck that overboard,” he nods at my briefcase, “and let’s sit and talk for a while. I’ve got a feeling you’re going to miss your flight.”
His words are both casual and sinister, like those of a soldier who’s grown indifferent to death. When he comes closer, I see that fate has in fact touched him. There is a bandage hanging loose at one palm like a boxer’s hand wrapping. A gray scar over his left eye. And as he walks it becomes apparent that he favors one leg, as if he’s gradually being bent under whatever weight he has chosen to bear. Still, there’s nothing wounded about his voice, and he speaks like a man who expects his words to be heard. He lowers himself to his haunches and rests his elbows on his knees the way I have seen the Bassa people doing in pictures.
I say to him, “Maybe you’ll forgive me for suggesting that you’re not exactly what I expected.”
“Used to be. Used to be a lot more than that.”
“I doubt that, chief. I doubt you have any idea what you’re seeing.”
“Look, Mr. N’mburo, or Mr. . . . .”
you believe that? Somewhere
along the line my family must have been owned by the only slaveholders
“I appreciate that. But I want you to understand that I’m not here to do anything other than. . . .”
“I know why you’re here. I even have an idea of how much you’re getting paid to cradle your little briefcase. I could tell old Sammy there, but he wouldn’t believe that there’s that much money in the world. This is a strange place, Chuck. A very strange place indeed. I want you to think about that. Then toss your goodies out into the surf there. And then listen carefully.”
“I’m afraid I can’t do that.”
“Let me ask you something. Have things been going well for you since you got here?”
“How do you mean?”
“Me, I had a headache for weeks. Sinus, diarrhea, heat exhaustion. It takes a while to adapt, let me tell you. Then, after you adapt, it’s a pretty good sign that you’re going to end up like everybody else around here. —Seen anything yet that makes you want to stay?”
“If I could just get you to sign these papers. . . .”
“Chuck, listen to me. I’m the guy they sent out here before you.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t. . . .”
“Listen to what I’m saying. I want you to toss the papers. Tell them nobody’s signing anything. Tell them the breaking yard is staying open.”
“For God’s sake why? This place is a disaster. It’s killing every man who works here and the environment too.”
“You’re right. You are right. And, besides, you own it, don’t you?—or at least your clients own it. And they can shut it down, make a few bucks by selling off the scrap, and win the corporate clean-up award all in one afternoon. Is that still the plan?”
“It doesn’t make any difference whether you sign or not. If you’re the guy they sent out here before me, then you already know that.”
“It can delay things, and that’s all we want.”
“It won’t make any difference in the end.”
“Nothing makes any difference in the end, Chuck. It’s the middle that counts. And, whatever else happens, it’s better than starving to death. Right? Every man out there understands that, except here’s what he understands that you don’t understand. When he starves, his family starves, and not just his immediate family either. Ever watch anybody starve to death? It’s like cancer without the tumors. But for every man who dies in the breaking yard there are ten trying to take his place. —Why? Because where they come from it’s worse.”
“Damn right I am.”
“You’re preaching to the wrong person.”
“No, I’m preaching to the right person. You’re a scumbag, Charles. I want you to do what scumbags always do.”
“Look out for yourself. Switch sides. Drop a monkey wrench into the corporate make-over. Lose your luggage. Whatever would cause a delay, that’s what I want you to do.”
“Wouldn’t that be a slight conflict of interest?”
“Not if you came over to our side.”
“Simple as that, eh?”
“Simple as that.”
“And the reward I would gain for myself out of all this scumbaggery would be precisely what?”
“If we can get a delay, we can form a corporation under Liberian law, a genuine co-op where the workers would own principal interest. Then we could begin modernizing, cleaning up, and paying a guy like you.”
“It could work.”
“Maybe in the Land of Oz. Not here. You’ve got real problems out there, Robert. And I’ve got a plane to catch. So maybe next time. We’ll do the whole world peace thing together. Nice meeting you. But, don’t get up; I can show myself out.”
“That’s what we thought you’d say.” A door bangs shut.
When I look up from the pit of the amphitheatre, I see faces looking back. And it occurs to me once again that no one knows where I am. I stand very still, looking at Robert N’mburo for a long time, trying to imagine him organizing documents at a conference table. I try to imagine him in the finest suits and sitting in leather chairs. Summoning his morning coffee with the push of a button, like me. It is a leap my mind cannot make. Robert is too scarred and warped, too taken by the life he’s chosen, and probably, I realize, quite simply insane from the suffering he has seen. So I take a slow breath and consider my options. I do not sit. I do not make sudden motions. I do not look down at the churning sea.
begin with little things,
the warp and
woof of life among the lowly. I promise
I promise him medicine, tools, and fuel. Then books and building materials. Fresh water. Maybe a school. Whatever, in a word, might sound reasonable to a man who has lost his reason. But it is not enough. His darkened face grows darker; and I see the sadness that precedes some violent act. When he starts to stand, I know we’ve reached the end. I’ve tried and found no argument-stopping words. Now it’s the shuffling mob or the foam beneath the stern.
Robert looks at my briefcase, raises his eyebrows in silent question and seems unsurprised that I find the courage to shake my head. But it’s all I’ve got. We both know the gesture won’t help. And he starts to walk away.
Then from some deep well I hear a voice, quite clearly, proclaim, “Okay—. Okay.” I do not recognize the voice, but I feel the shaking hand next to my leg and I feel the sudden air in my lungs. “Okay,” the voice says. “Then . . . give me Sammy.”
It stops him and turns his head.
then that voice, so
similar to my
voice, is saying, “There’s a plane
to Marrakech. Passports if you know the
right people. Maybe I can get him into
He looks at Sammy and then looks at me, the muscles knotting at his jaw.
“I can do it,” I say.
“Give you Sammy?”
“I can make sure he has a decent chance. If you let me go.”
looks at me the way the
before it rips flesh. He parts his lips
and whispers one syllable that cuts the tendons of my legs. “No.” But before
I collapse he continues. “All the way. To
“Okay. All the way.”
“Do you have a child?”
“I swear on the life of my son.”
“And watch over him. Until he is a man?”
“Until he is eighteen.”
Robert N’mburo looks at the ocean, at something just beneath the waves and very far away. “And you believe I should trust a man like you?”
his gaze, thinking of