Joyce Dyer was at the kitchen table eating fried plantains off a sheet of aluminum foil when Laura got back. Joyce had curly cherry hair and gray eyes; the rest of her was the color of snow.
“Who is this guy you’re supposed to meet?” Joyce asked.
“Something Larz—I don’t know. I’ve got it written down,” Laura said. “He’s the head of the Guardia.”
Joyce ran her tongue over her gummy teeth and swallowed. “Is it Tomas Larz? I had a run-in with a Tomas Larz once.”
“I wrote it down it somewhere.”
“Tomas Larz is an asshole. I hope you get a better Larz.” She shut the lid on the container. “Any word from Jonas?”
Laura shook her head.
A moment later Julion walked in with a bag of groceries, barefoot in shorts and a dirty t-shirt that read NO FUMAGICION!, his Medusa-hair crowded into a knit Rasta hat. He stood for a moment hiking a bag onto one hip.
“Julion,” Joyce called, “who is the guy we met that time, the Larz guy? Wasn’t it Tomas?”
He cocked his head and a little snake of dreadlock fell loose. “You’re eating my lunch,” he said.
Laura went into her room and shut the door and lay on her bed. She picked up Bonhoeffer and put him back again. Time was strange, the way it pooled and seeped, oozing night into day until she lost track of the seam, the moment when one folded into the next. She stood and moved around her room, picking things up and putting them down again. Something had dissolved, purpose, a sense of direction. Without God this is what you get, she thought. You stand in a room and touch things, the weight of your soul equivalent to whatever object you happen to find in your hand. She knew she needed to steady herself. Doubt is a virtue. She’d had these conversations with Jonas and with herself. Remember Christ calling out from the cross? Doubt keeps us vigilant. It’s what the fundamentalist lacks, Laura. She settled onto the bed, shut her eyes and lay as still as possible. Doubt means you’re fighting to believe. It’s certainty you have to avoid. Certainly means you’ve given up. You’ve faced the chaos and constructed this artificial meaning; you’ve faced it and decided to make shit up. She tried to pray but the blackness closed off her thoughts, and, at least for the moment, it was easier that way.
When she walked out of her room, Joyce and Julion were slicing more plantains and smashing them in a press.
“Where you headed?” Joyce called.
“Out,” Laura said, opening the iron grille that led to the street. “Just for a bit.”
“You want me to come with?”
The asphalt steamed, and walking toward the avenida she felt out of place in a way she never had, naked and vulnerable to the honking horns and passing motorbikes, discomfited enough to flag down a taxi and collapse into the back seat.
Mostly, she thought riding downtown, her father was an angry man, a brutal and unyielding pillar of the church. Laura’s mother tried to avoid him, but Laura knew that her mother could not understand the hell he saw in the darkest attic of his mind, could not fathom what must have waited in the spaces between sounds, the interstices of fear that flickered white hot while he passed the offering plate or rung up a new set of post-hole diggers. How when he plowed the garden on his little Cub Cadet it would return to him, the diesel exhaust and the up-down of the Higgins boat as it plowed through the waves. How wind chimes must have sounded faintly of bullets striking the steel of the landing door.
He left the battlefields of the Pacific to go home to Indiana, but had left something on those ragged atolls, and what he had left was one of the reasons Laura knew she could never go back, that no matter what the need—“There’s poor people in America, too,” her mother always reminded her—no matter what the want, she would remain a stranger in a strange land.
She cracked the taxi window and could smell stagnant water, dank and rich, a billion acts of organic putrefaction. She wanted to pray, but knew she couldn’t, not here, not now. Or maybe it’s that I want something more than prayer. That felt closer to the truth. The taxi crossed the river and she looked at the spooling current, as bright and glossy as mother-of-pearl, and knew that what she wanted was nothing less than the presence of God. She wanted to hold God with the lightness of a dancer, close enough to absorb the radiance. She wanted God descending, slow as a feather. She thought of those moments as a little girl back in Indiana when she would listen to her mother pray, her mother’s communication with the divine like a court docket, each need to be summoned in an orderly manner. When she had exhausted her petitions Laura’s mother would cut off the lamp and shut her eyes and sleep.
Life could be remarkably simple if one allowed it to be, she thought. For those incapable, other answers had to be sought.
She got out in front of several office buildings. Behind her in the park a man in a yellow kimono led a group of women in tai chi, moving with the awkward grace of a marsh bird, arms tracing some imaginary circumference. She stood and watched him loop his arms in an elegant arc, his hands defining what appeared to be a tiny halo. Grace. Bonhoeffer and his endless insistence on grace. Grace is the self-communication of God. Not a gift from God, but the gift of God.
She started walking toward the City Ministry Building while around her the wind gathered, whipping plastic Budweiser pennants strung above the patio of a cantina. She passed the tables and chairs, the napkin dispensers and tin ashtrays and bottles of hot sauce. She thought of trying to call Jonas, but instead bought a bottle of water and sat watching the street. The noon stillness. The long fingering shadows, the spires and warped filigree of balcony railings.
The notion of apocalypse had come to her the night before Jonas left. In a shabby hotel room in Bogotá, she had come while making love to him, something that didn’t happen so often anymore, and in that moment of shuddering, that moment of flying together and flying apart, she felt death very near. For weeks there had been a growing sense of finality, but it seemed to have taken physical shape that last night, and walking, she took a moment to think her way through it. She thought hard. She felt greedy. If there was indeed to be nothing left she wanted to memorize every detail, then walk away and never turn back, to vanish into the lure of what Buddhists called Unbeing. To travel the Eye of the Needle, stripped to hair and bone and nothing so encumbering as this thing she called ‘Laura.’ It was like a seduction, the notion holding such sway over her, the idea of easy nothingness, that she had to resist it constantly, to descend into whatever it was she considered ‘self,’ before climbing back out on a chain of prayer.
Since Jonas’ departure she had struggled with the sense that these were her Last Days, that her private apocalypse was very near and very real. That she had escaped death in la Florida seemed only to confirm her suspicions. Part of it was his absence. She missed him, but wouldn’t bother to call him, even if she had known how to reach him. That had been their agreement: limit the calls, limit the longing, understand that their suffering was miniscule compared to the suffering they were working to alleviate. When loneliness invaded it was important to remember they were never alone, never really apart, that corporeal distance meant nothing so long as they remained connected through God the Father. She knew he was right, knew he would soon return, but still felt far from comforted.
By the time she reached the City Ministry Building she had sweated through her blouse. She stood outside and squinted at the glass façade. The sunlight hurt, and she realized she had spent a good portion of her lifetime staring at painful things.
She passed through the revolving doors and into a front of cold air. Her sweat began to freeze, and she was shivering when Tomas Larz’s receptionist told her the Minister would not be able to see her. Instead, Laura was led to a conference room air-conditioned into cold efficiency where she sat opposite a man with a gray suit and acrylic eyes. Some minor functionary. Another useless bureaucrat. When he exhaled his cheeks shook. She watched the wattle of his throat, the wavy indifference.
“I understand you were involved in an incident in the campo,” the man said.
“At la Florida. A village was attacked. We’re expecting Guardia that never showed up.”
“There is no village at La Florida.”
She looked at him. “Not now there isn’t.”
“Not now, not ever,” he said. “No one from la Florida is registered with this office.”
“So they don’t exist?” She shook her head. “Is that the policy?”
“The policy is this: there are metrics for ascertaining existence.”
“What the hell are you saying?”
“I hope all Christians do not speak as you speak, Ms. Riley.”
“We were told there would be Guardia in the area.”
“I have always considered Christians pious.”
“Not me,” she said. “Never me.”
He nodded as if accepting a difficult truth. “There is no need for Guardia,” he said. “No one is in la Florida.”
“Send someone and find out.”
He looked at her like a patient, if exhausted father. “Why would we send someone to find out what is already known? I can show you the papers if you like.”
“That’s your census,” she said.
“If you like.”
“Your headcount. You’re talking about meaningless numbers when your job is to protect these people.”
“Everyone south of the city must register with the Ministry. That is the law.”
“Some of those people have never left the campo,” she said. “Some of them have never been more than a few kilometers from their homes. You expect them to come here and register? To initial your little forms and check your boxes?”
“I expect them to obey the law. For their own good, yes.”
“Then let me register them.”
He batted his acrylic eyes. “Please, Ms. Riley.”
“Let me register them. I could do it in a week. That, or send someone from your office. I’ll be happy to take them.”
“But, Ms. Riley.” He put both on hands on the table, palms up so that she saw the map of his hands. He appeared to be pleading “Why would I send someone from this office? There is no one registered in la Florida or anywhere else. If anyone was in la Florida they would be registered. Do you understand what I am saying? We are not in the habit of sending Guardia into harm’s way when lives are not at stake.”
“You mean unregistered lives.”
“I am afraid we are talking in circles.”
She leaned forward. She could feel sweat weighting the waistband of her underwear. “Effectively,” she said, “you don’t care about the campesinos.”
“What sort of photographs do you send home to your donors, Ms. Riley? Do you ever send photos of our thriving middle class?”
“You don’t care what happens in the campo. They’re poor. They don’t vote.”
“Do your donors believe we all live in mud huts, Ms. Riley? Are we all stock characters with bare feet and no teeth? Do your villains stroke oily mustaches?”
She took her forearms off the table and watched the moisture dissolve. “If we focus on certain people it’s only because you have ignored them. This situation—”
He raised a hand to stop her.
“You are posturing now,” he said. “Please. This is moral posturing.”
“‘Effectively.’ No,” he said, “‘effectively’ is the wrong word. I am almost certain of this. Nor is it a matter of caring or not caring.” He relaxed into his chair. A frog—that was what he put her in mind of, bulbous and wet and crouched in his chair. “But I am curious about your presence in Colombia. You are here on a tourist visa—this is correct? Renewable every three months?”
She felt something in her throat not unlike thirst. “What are you implying?”
The smile had bloomed, the slight incision now parting his swollen face. She smelled eggs.
“I imply nothing,” he said. “Only that I wish you well, Ms. Riley, and that I wish you would stay out of the campo. The campo is a dangerous place.”
“I keep hearing that.”
“As well you should. We must be mindful—that’s all. There is violence with the guerilla and we cannot expect it not to spill into parts uninhabited.”
“Like la Florida.”
“Well, that’s why I’m here. I’m here to serve.”
“And not merely to see the sights?” He smiled. “Now I am joking,” he said. “I do joke on occasion.” He put both flabby hands flat on the table in a way that indicated the interview was over. “I am not the bad man here, Ms. Riley,” he said.
She said nothing.
“Something larger than all of us is happening and I am trying to stay out of its path. I am trying to be prudent. If I am forced to avert my gaze from certain things it is only because I know nothing is to be gaining from staring. Staring is a preoccupation best left to the rich. As for me, I am focusing on self-preservation—that’s all—and I’m advising you to do the same. I would certainly prefer it another way, but I remind you that it is your government funding these wars, buying these drugs, sending the military aid.”
He opened the door for her. “In the end, Ms. Riley, you are still just another gringo down here telling us how to live.”
He dropped his chin and blinked three times. “Forgive me for saying as much. But I am not the bad man, no matter how you choose to look at me.”