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Authors: Stephen Becker

The Outcasts

BOOK: The Outcasts
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The Outcasts

A Novel

Stephen Becker

To Mary again with more love

1

Not many go to the ends of the earth for their heart's desire; not many make new ways. Certainly not many men of forty-three cursed by a surly and nervous nature. The last leg of the flight was an agony; they stuttered over sea and jungle beneath indifferent stars, and saw no faintest spark of light or life below. This for endless hours, in an ancient aircraft dragging along behind two archaic propellers. Morrison despised flying. It was unnatural, uncomfortable, and doubtless impossible. He was at the mercy of a pilot, and his life hung on the man's ailments and demons. His fellow passengers enraged him. They were of all human colors but identical in their composure, their silk suits, their plastic pens and important papers, their cuff-links and spectacles and tie-clips and shoes. They were imbecilically calm. The black man beside him read a novel in Dutch while Morrison jittered and twitched. At last he saw lights, first a glow and then clusters pricking out the utter night, and then a pattern of reds and greens and whites that rose to meet them, and tilted away beneath one wing, and rose again; and the aircraft bumped and skidded, earth-bound. Morrison was immediately exhausted. He was revived by the metallic voice of the captain, assuring him that the temperature was ninety-four, that the time was four-thirty, that there was no fighting either at the airport or in the capital. Of such consolations is happiness wrought.

On the tarmac he paused. In the night-heat of a country he had never seen, on a continent he had never trod, panic brushed him. The lights of the runway struggled against the dark immensity, dying abruptly in a final confusion of red and green. The sinister caress of a hot breeze raised ghosts of failure and sorrow: dead men in ditches, a woman betrayed, flood, fire, famine, plague. He retreated quickly toward the terminal building, a long low wooden shed floating in its own yellow light. He stumbled; sweat came in a rush, and he went on more carefully. South America? Possibly Africa? Or tropical Asia? How could he know? A few degrees off course. A faulty instrument. The faces (black, brown, olive) and traces (British, Dutch, French) would be similar. Wherever you are, keep your papers with you at all times and do not antagonize the authorities.

Within the shed light glowed through swirls of smoke, and a dispenser of soft drinks stood like an idol. Languid bystanders lounged, measuring Morrison without expression. Behind lecterns two officials stamped and nodded and gestured and smiled. A policeman—white trousers, blue jacket, blue cap—stood sleepy guard. Moths like swallows swooped at naked bulbs. The shed was musty, hot, barny, as though nests of hay were lodged in shadowed corners, or stolid bullocks ruminating old baggage checks. The two officials wore white uniforms with brass buttons. Closer, he saw that they wore pistols. Morrison had fought a war but had never worn a pistol. One of the two took his health card, the other his passport.

“There is no cholera here, you know,” the first said.

“I know. But your government suggests the inoculation. In case we pass through choleric regions on the way.”

The man smiled. “That is very good. Choleric regions. You will find that we have those. Yes, indeed.”

The other stamped Morrison's passport, scribbled initials; now Morrison had truly arrived. With many more, he waited. They were like prisoners, too hot even in their light suits, shifting and uneasy before the placid, uncaring natives. Natives: he was not to use that word. He himself was a native of New York State but that was different. Barring a few of the passengers every man in the shed was black. No. He saw that there were distinctions. He was standing at a long counter waiting for his bag, and the customs agents seemed to be Indians. Hindus; were they called Hindus? How could he know? He knew that there were many Indians in this country. Some Orientals. Some Portuguese. Englishmen. The signs would be in English and Dutch and French. That was immediately confirmed by a door that welcomed
MEN HEEREN HOMMES
.

They were all too quiet. Only the moths rustled and fluttered, huge and gray. The men stood, hot and sleepy, remote one from another and wary, as if none knew which side the others had taken, or even what the sides were. As if they were waiting for a leader to allot parts and fates: capitalists and communists, satyrs and eunuchs, butterflies and crocodiles. Meanwhile they stood. The policeman yawned a cavernous yawn, and his sigh hummed through the shed; they all looked up at that annunciation, and he brooded back at them with the indifference of authority, a small man, young and weary, above him clouds of cobweb.

The baggage arrived, borne by men and not by wagons. The inspector was listless, with a small nose and a thin mustache. He smelled of cologne. “Any firearms?”

“No.”

“Political books or pamphlets?”

“No.”

“Occupation?”

“Engineer.”

The man nodded, pushed the suitcase at Morrison, and waved him off with both hands, like a farm woman scattering fowl.

A voice stopped Morrison's hand: “Mister Morrison?”

“Yes.” The man was very black, Morrison saw, and not noble: a flat nose, thick lips, and the whites of his eyes heavily red. He wore sandals and khaki trousers and a red-and-white sports shirt. He seemed sullen. But then Morrison too felt sullen, hot and thirsty, and what did this man think of him? “Hello. You have a car?”

The man paused in odd astonishment. “Yes. Of course.”

“Good. There is just the one bag, here.”

After another and longer pause—the man seemed to be memorizing him—Morrison said, “Let's go.”

The man altered then, subtly but visibly, and Morrison saw, in the so slight droop of his lids, in the so slight slump of his body, in the so slight fall of his jaw, that the man was mocking him. Ah, spare me pride before dawn! All I want is my hotel. Please, no human credentials. No fraternal assurances. No spiritual negotiations.

“Let's go.” His weariness should have been obvious.

“Oh yes,” the man said. “Yes, sir. This way, sir,” and plucked the bag from the counter in one contemptuous swoop. He was stocky and powerful.

In the far doorway Morrison hesitated. Do you remember coming to a strange city in deep night when you were young, eighteen? Three in the morning, and the streets like black velvet and the gleam of fallen rain like precious stones. And no knowing who watched from which windows, who waited in which doorways; far off a whisper of life, but nearer only the echo of your own steps and the blank gaze of shadowed store-fronts. Until soon it was a dream, and you and your bag were the Wanderer and his Pack, and in the blind windows and blind doorways were ravens and foxes. Yes. Here were no streets and no stores; just a dusty road, a circle of light, half a dozen black men; and for one wrenching moment Morrison was in love with the night.

But he was a hairy creature after all, with too much flesh on him and prey to easy melancholy. He moved grudgingly to the Land-Rover and arranged his graceless limbs and masses in tentative comfort. The man stowed his bag; he moved deliberately and seemed to see nothing; his eyes drooped still, and his face was closed. He wore an expensive wrist-watch, and Morrison thought, restraining scorn, that it was an unwarranted luxury.

“How far to town?”

Again the answer was slow. “Twenty miles, sir.” Their lights leapt at the night. The road curved between walls of heavy scrub, and soon there were no lights but their own.

“Good of you to come at this hour,” Morrison said.

The man was silent.

“Did you wait long?”

“I had just arrived,” he said. “I was a fraction late.”

A fraction late. Morrison smiled. “Terrible. I almost had to carry my own bag.”

“That would not do at all,” the man said.

All right. At five in the morning Morrison did not propose to discriminate finely among tones of voice. The voyage was well begun; that would suffice. No shooting at the airport: an omen. He did not believe in omens but was, as you know, surly and nervous, and far from home. He rocked and swayed with the car. A protuberance of metal hammered at his left knee; he rearranged himself and let his eyes close. The breeze was merely warm now, and soothing. “What's your name?” he asked sleepily.

The silence persisted. Morrison was thinking, a strange one, maybe he hates whites, when the man answered.

“Philips.”

For many seconds Morrison merely sat, burning away, a flame in the skin illuminating every pimple and cruelty of his life, every indifference, every theft, every blind murder. To look at the man was impossible. To go back to the baggage counter was impossible. Morrison crumpled, in a weary, familiar resignation; his three Fates, all gums and warts and boils, danced in delight. We hurt or we are hurt, and he could not tell just then which was worse.

“If I were a man of courage I would simply shoot myself,” he said. “Fortunately I am a coward, and I have a bridge to build, and I have half an hour or so to make my explanations and frame my apologies.”

“None is necessary,” said Philips stiffly.

“I'll tell you something,” Morrison said, almost too tired, too ruined, to dredge up the words; “that is not for you to decide.”

Not many go to the ends of the earth for their heart's desire; not many make new ways. Asked to do both, he had answered in simple outrage:
“Where?”

The old man told him again.

“With all respect,” Morrison said, “you're insane. Cats that eat people. Frogs with hair. Vipers. Malaria.”

“Treacherous porters,” the old man said with zest. “Chamois bags full of diamonds. Various undignified cruds. The White Goddess.”

“I'm forty-three years old.”

BOOK: The Outcasts
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