Kari Middleton
Selected Fiction

Migration

When my brother-in-law came back from Tanzania, Jack and I picked him up at the airport. He was wearing jeans and a faded green t-shirt, and he looked this way and that along the terminal. I had told Jack I thought we should meet him at baggage claim, but Jack said that Paul preferred this, and anyway this was easier: we would arrive sooner at the party Paul didn’t know about. I wasn’t sure the party was a good idea after two years in a small African village, eating corn porridge and beans, and hearing Swahili songs and old trucks rumbling on their way to somewhere else, were you ready for a houseful of family and Costco cake in the suburbs?

“He’ll be fine,” Jack said, and added a moment later, “Don’t you think so?”

“He’s your brother,” I told him.

We had driven around the terminal twice without seeing him. Now, trapped behind an idling black Toyota, Jack honked. Paul looked straight ahead of him, fingering the strap of his backpack from where it hung on his lanky frame; he looked down at his shoes and closed his eyes.

“Is he sick?” Jack asked.

We tried not to think of all the things one might contract halfway around the world.

“You’ll have to go around,” I said.

Jack jerked the car left and veered around the Toyota, stopping several feet from Paul. In the afternoon light, his hair, cut very short and uneven as if someone had clipped it hastily with a razor, looked almost white. At last he looked up. His eyes were for a moment perfectly blank—then finally, he smiled.

“Hey. Did you guys bring the KFC?”

It was a joke. Sometimes he had sent emails about what he wanted to do first when he got back. Eat at KFC. Take an impossibly long hot shower. (That’s the word he used: impossibly.) Fish along the South Platte, except we didn’t think he fished anymore. To Jack he had once said something about taking a beautiful woman to dinner, or that’s what Jack said he said. Paul had kept in regular but occasional touch with his family, a little less maybe than he had when he was a student spending a semester in Ecuador. I hadn’t seen much of him even before then, for he had lived a half-dozen states away, attending a private college on scholarship. The smart one, Jack used to say. Sometimes when he said it, he smiled.

Once Paul and I exchanged hugs and put his luggage in the trunk—Jack stayed at the wheel, the car idling—and Jack pulled out, we began to ask all the obvious questions. Did it feel weird? How was he? How was the flight?

“I’m exhausted, of course,” Paul said with a grin and leaned back in his seat as Jack accelerated to beat the woman in the next lane so he could merge, tapping his fingers on his knee.

“About that…” I began. Jack threw me a glance.

For a second nobody spoke. My eyes met Paul’s in the rearview mirror. Two years ago, at twenty-three, he might have lapsed into silent surmise and said nothing. When I met Paul he was a junior in college who had quietly drunk too much at Jack’s and my wedding reception, then pulled himself together to ask my shy cousin, looking uneasily about her, to dance. Now, faintly, he smiled.

“I can last a while longer,” he said.

“You look good,” I told him, ignoring Jack’s sideways look.

Paul settled back in his seat and looked at the open four-lane highway and the prairie that flanked each side of it until a series of exits took us into the tangle of suburban Denver, and strip malls and restaurants replaced the grasslands. He rubbed his chin.

The family crowded the house: Scott, who was the oldest of the three brothers; his wife, and their two young sons; the adult brothers’ parents, whose home it was; and Paul, Jack, and I. After that first flush of parent-mandated hugs and hellos from their long-lost uncle, the nephews sped downstairs to the basement rec room to do something secret and suitable for eight-and ten-year-old boys. Paul’s parents hugged him, and his mother, Madeline, wept a little. Paul smiled gently and put small things on his plate—a chicken wing, a scoop of potato salad, a deviled egg—and ate some of them. Asking questions, we learned that Paul had traveled for about forty hours straight, thought wildebeests were charming, and yes, there were a few people in particular whom he would miss. Jack’s father opened a bottle of wine, then another.

Well into the party, Scott asked Paul, “Get it out of your system?” He was six years older than Paul and four years older than Jack.

“What out of my system?”

Scott shrugged.

“Making the world a better place,” Jack suggested to general laughter.

“There are homeless people right down the street,” Paul said.

“What, on Spruce Street?” Scott answered. “I don’t think so.”

Paul turned to me. “Will someone get this man a map?”

“Hadn’t you broken up with a girlfriend when you signed up?” asked Scott.

“No. I did have a friend die while I was there.”

We all paused, wondering. AIDS? Hepatitis?

“She was hit by a bus in London. She’d been back home for about a week.”

“That’s awful,” I said. “I’m sorry.”

“You mean she lived in London?” Scott asked.

“Yeah. Until she got hit by a bus.” Paul smiled pleasantly at his brother.

The boys came tripping upstairs, shouting about cheating. Scott stooped over them. “Now, who’s cheating?”

Paul looked at me and spoke quietly. “How can you cheat at Wii shooting?”

When the boys had quieted and, chastened, been sent to play again, Jack asked Scott if he was still thinking about expanding the printing business, and the conversation turned to other matters. Scott didn’t mean to be rude; he just didn’t know what to say to Paul.

“We are so glad to have you back,” Madeline said when we were ready to leave. It was only eight o’clock, but Paul was drooping, the bags under his eyes deepening, answering more slowly and more briefly, listening to the family news about work and what the kids were doing and missing the jokes that turned on details that had occurred when he was in another country. He stopped asking for context, and a few times we didn’t give it to him. Paul was staying with Jack and me for the time being, so when I said it was time for us to go, Paul said he supposed, yes, we had better get going or he was going to start talking in Swahili.

The half-hour car ride was quiet.

“Mom looks older,” Paul commented.

Jack shrugged. A fit man of average height, next to Paul he seemed strapping, a fuller and handsomer version of his younger brother. “I guess.”

“She’s only in her sixties. Your dad, too,” I said.

Paul didn’t answer. We watched the lights pass from the surrounding streets, the streak of yellow lamplights illuminating tidy two-story houses and fenced yards. Jack and I lived in an apartment complex in a small town just inside the urban boundary—we had to drive only a few minutes to see rolling prairie and the profile of the Rockies in the other direction, a tumble of gray and white peaks that framed one horizon. Turn your back on the mountains and you saw pale yellow grass growing up gently sloping hills, horses grazing where it was fenced and deer grazing where it was not. At night, coyotes yelped and sobbed, and sometimes my skin prickled in spite of myself. You couldn’t tell anything about that now, passing suburban neighborhoods. I had seen the pictures Paul had posted on Flickr: a grassy plain that went on forever, hyenas slouching through the brush; small, brightly colored, rectangular buildings that looked like they were made of concrete and tin. They were buildings that in the States wouldn’t house a doggie daycare.

For the next few weeks Paul settled into a routine. He was gone part of each day but generally returned by evening. Sometimes he made dinner for the three of us, once surprising Jack and me with spanakopita and a bottle of red wine. He seemed busy, but nothing much in his life seemed to happen. We knew better than to ask already what he was going to do next—the Peace Corps brochure Madeline had shared with us said that former volunteers might feel pressured, confused—so we didn’t, but still we wondered. It wasn’t that he was in the way. Paul slept in our small spare room, he cleaned up after himself, and after some initial awkwardness I found I liked having him around. In the evenings, he and Jack talked about Jack’s start-up company and things they had done as kids, and in the afternoons, if I needed a break from work, Paul talked with me about photography. He had a sharp eye for structure: the form of a picture, its separate elements and how they fit together.

At the time I was working part-time at a local museum while pursuing photography on the side. I had saved enough money to be able to do that, and Jack was supportive; his own small start-up required risk and a lot of hours, and he understood that my work required the same. He’d leave for the office, and when I wasn’t in the field, I’d scroll through and edit the pictures, some for myself or publications and others for events, work I’d taken on to make some money. My parents liked some of the artier pictures, such as the photograph of a coyote peering through the window of a ruin abandoned by Native Americans centuries before, its brown face neatly framed by orange adobe bricks. They weren’t so sure what to make of some of the pictures that came later, of a truck stuffed with crates of live chickens—you could see the little white feathers sticking out here and there—or the tracks of a wagon wheel in the dirt. I assumed—though I didn’t know—the chickens were being trucked for slaughter. That’s why my parents didn’t like the picture. They passed over it and a few others in silence and exclaimed instead how cute the coyote was, while they wished the one in the neighborhood suspected of snacking on cats to be gone. But Paul showed the same interest in these as in the portraits and event photographs I took of solemnly smirking adolescents at bar mitzvahs and graduations, of beaming newlyweds.

In Tanzania, Paul’s job was health and AIDS education. That meant he did things like form support groups, teach people to wash their hands after using the bathroom, and try to convince men to wear condoms. About five percent of the national population was infected with AIDS, but in communities such as Paul’s, which was a stopping point for truckers, the infection rate was much higher. He didn’t talk or write about people dying or infected babies or orphaned children, but I suppose that’s what he saw. Peace Corps volunteers earned vacation, too, and Paul had taken the time to visit Zanzibar and Kilimanjaro. He had also spent a single day in the Serengeti and saw the beginnings of the Great Migration, thousands of brown wildebeests crossing the plains with their long-legged rocking gait, tasseled chins bobbing. As with any migration, the wildebeests were supposed to come back: after a long, difficult, and perilous journey, they intended to return to the same place they started. But many of them died en route, killed by lions or dragged down by crocodiles into rivers frothing with hundreds of hooves and fraught with snapping jaws.

One afternoon, I returned home late. I had traveled hours to photograph a lake and a field where I had heard there might be cranes and I didn’t know what, missed the cranes, got drenched in a downpour, and took a picture of a little boy bending over to peer at something in the dirt. I had spent thirty dollars on gas and driven a hundred miles and eaten fries and a chicken sandwich at a greasy fast food place whose food was no better for being independently owned—and for this I had gotten one photo that might perhaps be okay. I climbed the stairs to the apartment. The place smelled of Sloppy Joes, reminiscent of white bread and diners.

“Do you mind?” Paul said. He turned from the kitchen, a red-stained wooden spoon in his hand.

“Mind what?”

“I thought I’d make dinner. Jack called and said he had to work late.”

“He could have called me.”

Paul shrugged. “Do you like Sloppy Joes?”

“I thought you weren’t eating red meat.”

“I had a craving.”

“For what, middle school?”

“Take a lot of nice pictures?”

“No. Sorry.”

I pulled off my shoes and drank a full glass of water before allowing myself to open a beer. I got out plates and napkins and put the Brita water pitcher on the table, then flung my wet stuff into my bedroom and changed my clothes and washed my hands, and when I came back Paul had taken white buns out of their package and was spooning Sloppy Joe mix onto them.

“Thanks for making dinner. I’m sorry I snapped.”

“No worries.”

Paul passed me a plate with a sandwich, and we sat. He had placed a bowl of ready-made salad and dressing on the table. He was filling out; he didn’t look so thin, and his hair was longer. It grew unevenly, rakish. “Rough day?” he asked.

“Not really.”

He raised his eyebrows. I bit into my sandwich.

“It’s okay to have a bad day,” he said, “even if you’re not living in a developing country.”

“I know.” A second later I added, “It was a long day with nothing much to show for it. How about yours?”

“Fair to middlin’. The library’s a pretty comfortable place.”

“Are you doing research?”

“I’m rediscovering Dashiell Hammett.”

“The mystery writer?”

“I can buy coffee for a dollar and a quarter and ensconce myself in the library lounge in front of a gas fire. Libraries are underrated.”

I didn’t know what to say.

“Want another Sloppy Joe?” Paul asked.

That night I asked Jack if he thought Paul was all right. “Sure,” Jack said, and when I questioned him further, added, “He’s always been in his own world. In tenth grade he said he was going to be a monk.”

“Really?”

“Didn’t I tell you that? He had it all worked out. He was going to be a Jesuit. He took some sort of modified vow in silence until he decided to sell my and Scott’s things. You know, things we left behind when we moved out that we were probably never going to want again, but still thought of as ours. Books. Transformers. Some old music.”

“Didn’t he ask you? Or your parents?”

“No. He just started doing it. Scott just about had a heart attack when he found out Paul had gotten rid of his Social Distortion LPs. Here’s the kicker: he gave most of the money to a fundraiser for some kid who’d moved here from Bosnia. He did spend some of it on a bus ticket to Chicago.”

“But why?”

“I’m not really sure. Maybe he wanted to run away.” Jack looked up at me with a grin. “You’re not missing anything around the house, are you?”

Paul stayed at our place for about six weeks before he found a job somehow connected to the real estate business; he knew someone who knew someone. Over the years we saw less of him. He arrived at our home, sometimes with a small gift—a bottle of good whiskey, a fine chocolate cake—and would ask intelligent questions of Jack’s work and want to look at my pictures. He sat at the dining room table, and sometimes if Jack was working late, we would look at the photographs I had taken. My career was doing better then, and I relied less on family photography. I had had some nature photographs featured in a few prominent publications, and though it was hard being apart from Jack sometimes when I was on assignment. I had been to new and different places, and occasionally Jack went with me.

“People want to know if I saw things there,” Paul said one evening. He talked more to me than with Jack; somehow I had become the intermediary between them, which, if I was honest with myself, was sometimes uncomfortable but also flattering. “They don’t really want to know, but sometimes they ask.”

“So what’s the answer?”

“You never did ask.”

“I figured if you wanted to talk you would.”

“I knew a few babies who died, more adults who did. What I remember most, though, are the mothers of the AIDS babies who died.” He looked at me steadily over his bourbon. “And the Western style lodges in the touristy areas. Nothing like a lion kill in the early morning and a hot tub at night.”

“I stayed in one of those lodges.”

“Lots of people do.”

“Right.”

Carefully, Paul poured himself and me more bourbon. I swirled it in the glass in the gesture that drove Jack crazy, because of the clink of the ice in the glass. Just drink it, he’d say, just drink it.

“I’m not saying they shouldn’t,” Paul said.

“So what then?”

“That the world doesn’t make any sense.”

“You thought it did?”

“That we think there’s supposed to be a moral order to things. But things just happen. Some people are in better places, with more resources. They’re lucky. Some people are unlucky.”

“But don’t you think you’re supposed to help the unlucky?”

“Supposed to? What does that even mean?”

“You know bloody well what it means.”

Paul smiled. “Okay. Do you? When’s the last time you helped the unlucky? On assignment in…what was it, Colombia?”

I drank my bourbon.

“I apologize,” he said a moment later. “That was uncalled for.”

“What is it you want?”

He raised his eyebrows. “I never said I wanted anything.”

“Well…what are you doing?”

Paul looked amused. “Just living.”

We didn’t always know what Paul was up to. Sometimes he seemed to have money, a fair bit of money, enough money to lend to Scott when he wanted to expand the printing business, enough money to donate eight hundred dollars to a missing person’s fund when his then-girlfriend’s cousin mysteriously went missing. You don’t know me, he’d posted on the website, but we are family. He didn’t seem to care much about the money. He dressed fine but not expensively, he had a nice car that was several years old, he didn’t go to fancy parties. He traveled sometimes: he had been to South America and to Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand. Once, he was dating someone who was desperate to see Paris, and he surprised her with a Christmas trip, only to find that she had made plans and didn’t mean Christmas in Paris with him. (What did he do? I heard he went by himself; Jack insisted he took a friend.) And other times he didn’t seem to have money, didn’t even seem to have anything to do. He could arrive at the house having called the day before to say he was in the area, and were we up for a visit? He’d stay a day and then he’d be gone, and once when Jack asked did he really have to leave tomorrow, Paul said quite seriously he did, and Jack did not question him further. What was Paul doing? None of us really knew.

But he would sit in the kitchen with me in the evening and look at the black and white pictures I had taken, and when we got to the ones of Tanzania, of dead elephants killed by poachers, their bodies bloated and wrinkled and gray, and a rhino with its horn sawn off, or a muddy riverbank choked with the carcasses of a dozen dead wildebeests who had failed to negotiate the crocodiles or the slick muddy bank or the journey itself, he’d put a finger on the picture and go quiet and say, “Where are the people?” or else he’d say, “That’s it, that’s it,” and tilt the picture in his hand, nodding his head, his eyes in shadow beneath the small, yellow light.

 

 

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