As the alcohol assumed its rightful place in my bloodstream, it became clear to me that I did not very much care about Sam Bowman – if he was a real secret agent, death was part of the game, and if he was a fraud, sic semper bolonis. Nor did I care if Knanda Ndoro got his, or if his royal treasury was lost forever. Royal treasuries are fun, but this one looked to be more trouble than it was worth, and farther out of reach than any grapes to any fox, as far as that went.
Nor, finally, did I really care about the missionaries. The only bothersome thing about Sheena’s annihilation of them was that Plum and I had walked in on its aftermath. Had I been in New York at the time, they could have died in the news without upsetting me a whole hell of a lot. A missionary, after all, assumes much the same sort of an occupational risk as does a secret agent or an African dictator. There is always the possibility that martyrdom will pave the road to sainthood, anyway.
I filled the cup and looked at it like Hamlet at Yorick. I sipped, and shuddered at the stuff, which I had perhaps not diluted as much as I’d intended, and swallowed, and shuddered again, and then basked in the flow of warmth from my middle. The alcohol brought an awful clarity of vision. I was in Modonoland, I realized now, for no good purpose whatsoever. The whole venture was stupidly negative. I had come here because I had not liked where I was, and because everything had been getting worse, and because I wanted to go someplace warm. I had fled from the implication that I might have ambivalent feelings toward my ersatz daughter, Minna, and had retaliated by taking a fourteen-year-old mistress. I had-
I had gone off, I saw now, on a particularly witless tangent.
And it was time to get back on the main road.
My mind worked as quickly as it could, stumbling now and again but plunging on undaunted. First things, I decided, first. I would begin setting my house in order and making some sort of logical pattern for my life. I would get out of the jungle and back to civilization, and I would find a place for Plum, and I would return to New York and marry Kitty and adopt Minna and move out of the mad jungle that was Manhattan. I could picture myself in some clean and neat suburban community in Jersey or Connecticut, say. A comfortable little ranch house. Steaks grilling over charcoal in the backyard. A power mower shaving the grass in front. Children gamboling like lambs over the back lawn.
I drank again and thought of Peter Pan. If you grew up you couldn’t fly. Well, it was time I grew up, and maybe it was time I stopped flying. A house in the suburbs, a wife, a family, a station wagon, a snow blower, a freezer, a power hedge trimmer, a dishwasher, a family room, a color television set, a breakfast nook – I closed my eyes and saw all the trappings of the good life fitting themselves into the picture, explaining and defining me. No more a ratty apartment on West 107th Street. No more crazy-quilt political organizations. No more chaos, no more anarchy.
No more trips to places like this one.
After a while I capped both jugs and slipped out of the building without waking Plum. There was no moon in view, but the sky was bright with stars. I was just beginning to get used to the southern skies, just beginning to recognize the various constellations. I looked up at them now and imagined myself in my spacious tree-shaded back yard in, say, Paramus, gazing up at the stars and contemplating the merits of pre-emergence crabgrass killer.
It sounds, I suppose, like a joke, but it was a joke I had given off laughing over long ago, and old jokes tend to become new truths. I had always wondered why sooner or later everyone packed it in and went to the suburbs. Everyone did this because sooner or later everyone realized that it was the only sensible thing to do. Sooner or later everyone realized that one had to put points on one’s compass and chart the course of one’s life. If it had taken me rather more time than usual, well, that might even be all to the good; it would give me things to look back fondly on in old age.
My head buzzed with plans. Cancel the League for the Restoration of Cilician Armenia; substitute the Parent-Teacher Association. Cross out the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization and write in the Flat Hills Country Club. I could see it all now, and it all looked good. Charge accounts, color-coordinated bathrooms, labor-saving devices – all the little human touches that separate us from the apes.
If any doubts attempted to surface, I was too involved with my vision to pay them mind. I went back for the alcohol, cut it with some water, drank. I drifted outside again and wandered beneath the stars, only to return again for another drink. After quite a long while of this, the birds began singing their heads off. It was still perfectly dark when they did this, but I guess they knew something, because after about fifteen minutes of tweet-tweet-tweet the sky turned light with dawn.
Shortly after this happened, Plum woke up with a start. That’s not one of my all-time favorite expressions, but it’s what she did. Heretofore she had always awakened rather gently and comfortably, I’d usually been on hand when she woke up, and of late I’d often taken an active part in waking her, in which case the mornings started out very pleasantly for both of us.
(And this, I told myself now, would have to stop. In a sense, it constituted anticipatory infidelity to Kitty, my bride and helpmate to be. Furthermore, it struck me that the recurring carnal knowledge of a fourteen-year-old Welsh-African hybrid did not quite jibe with my new role as suburban pillar.)
This morning, as I said, she woke with a start. There was this sudden thrashing about, accompanied by a volley of small yelps. I held onto her and said things like, “Easy, easy,” and “It’s all right,” and the yelps and thrashing eased off and stopped.
“It was a dream,” she said, blinking. “Everyone was being cut into bits and raped and killed and-”
“It was a dream.”
She put her hand between her little breasts. “How it pounds! I cannot catch my breath.”
“Are you all right?”
“I think so. What is that, Evan?”
She was pointing to my cup. “Oh,” I said. “Well, it’s vodka.”
“Vodka? In a mission?”
I explained that I had made it out of alcohol and water, a process at least as praiseworthy in her eyes as the transmutation of water to wine. She asked if she could have some, and I told her she couldn’t.
“You’re too young,” I said.
“I am old enough to be slept with but too young to have a drink?”
I considered this carefully. “You’re too young to sleep with, too,” I said. I spoke carefully, too, because my tongue seemed thicker than usual. “But, you see, it’s a case of the smaller boll weevil.”
“The lesser of two weevils,” I said triumphantly.
“What is the matter with you?”
“I’m a pillar of the community.”
“Are you drunk?”
“I suppose I am.”
“You’re talking so funny.”
She reached for the cup. I drew it away from her. A pillar of the community would not serve alcoholic beverages to minors, I told myself.
She said, “Have you been drinking all night? And you did not get to sleep at all, did you?”
“Well, I had a few hours sleep-”
“Oh, Evan, you must be tired!”
I poured out the cup of vodka, capped the two jugs, got to my feet. This last process was by far the most difficult of the three but I managed it, swaying rhythmically to and fro. I wasn’t all that drunk, I decided. I was somewhere in that good gray area of insobriety, neither as sober as a judge nor as drunk as a lord. A full meal and a chance to walk off some of the alcohol would clear away the cobwebs.
“Evan, we ought to go now.”
“Breakfast,” I said.
“I am not hungry. The sky is light, it is morning, and I think-”
“Hungry,” I said. “Eat first, then we’ll talk.”
“You said last night that it was dangerous to stay here.”
“It is. A person could get drunk around here.”
“There’s nothing to worry about, Plum.”
“But you said-”
“Never mind what I said. What do I know?” She blinked at this. “Come on,” I went on. “I’ll cook us something and then we can get started.”
“There’s a kitchen in the far building.”
“I do not want to go.”
“What will we eat?”
“Oh, I’ll find something,” I said lightly. “With all those bodies out there-”
She had turned green again. I assured her that I was joking and she looked up at me, glaring balefully. I left her there and went to the kitchen, or, more precisely, the cooking area in the far building. I stepped over bodies and parts of bodies without reacting to them at all. I don’t know whether this was a result of the alcohol or if I was simply becoming accustomed to their presence, as one learns not to notice the wallpaper in a rented room.
Sheena’s men had found the kitchen before me, and had done what they could to kill it. The food they hadn’t carried off was now decorating the walls and floors. A great many eggs and melons had been smashed almost beyond recognition. I ignored all this, whistled a happy approximation of a tune, and found a couple of eggs and a frying pan in which to scramble them. I couldn’t find any salt or pepper or milk or cooking oil or, indeed, anything but the eggs, and the result was nothing James Beard would have wanted to hear about, but then he wouldn’t have been too happy with anything we had eaten since leaving Griggstown. Neither, as far as that goes, were we. The eggs were better than starvation, I decided. The smaller boll weevil.
I dished them out on two presumably clean plates, scared up a pair of forks, and went off in search of Plum. She was where I’d left her but she wasn’t how I’d left her. Her eyes were glassy and she had a stupid grin on her face.
“Whee,” she said. “Shmells like eggs.”
“They’re eggs, all right. Hey-”
She ignored the fork, took a handful of egg, stuffed it into her mouth. “Ughhh,” she said.
“I’m sorry if you don’t-”
“Yummy,” she said. She scooped up another handful of egg and pushed it in my face. “Eat, eat,” she said. “Later we’ll talk.”
“You’ve been drinking,” I said.
“Jusht a little tashte.”
“You’ve been drinking alcohol.”
“I’ve been drinking alcohol,” she agreed owlishly. “Fourteen yearsh old and I’m depraved. Drinking alcohol and running around in the jungle-”
“How much did you have?”
“-and fucking. Theshe eggsh are terrible. Are you shtill drunk?”
“I think sho. Damn it to hell. I think so. They aren’t that bad.”
“Dry and no tashte. I shouldn’t have had that drink, I shupposhe. It’sh bad for both of ush to be drunk, ishn’t it?”