Authors: David Shafer
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Without whom zip
he little room was so hot that Leila tried not to move inside her clothing. She’d chosen the plain tan shirt with the piping on the pocket because bureaucrats are swayed by even the smallest impression of martial authority. Ditto the shiny black shoes. But the lady who took in Leila’s laundry had really gone to town on the shirt, and the result was like a suit of armor made from paper bags. Leila could feel a line of sweat trickle south down her back. A large beetle somehow injured buzzed and rattled in a corner of the stifling room.
It had been nearly two hours since one of Colonel Zeya’s underlings had instructed her to
Wait here, someone will come for you! You please must not leave this room!
Fine, she’d thought then. Leila Majnoun could wait. She wasn’t going to fall for that make-the-Westerner-sit-until-she-is-undone-by-her-own-impatience trick. She pulled out her notebook. She favored Gregg-ruled steno pads; went through them at a rapid clip. She wrote in a swift and flattened cursive that was nearly illegible to anyone but herself and maybe her big sister, Roxana. She wrote mostly in English, but she also used Pashto, and some stenoglyphs that she’d invented along the way. Leila was no Luddite, but she trusted her paper notebook over any of her electronics. They usually let you keep a notebook even when they took your passport and pocket computer. Though in a secure airport interview room once, they’d taken Leila’s notebook from her hands. That’s as dicey as it had ever gotten for her. Soon after that, she’d done a job that put her in proximity to commando-type soldiers, and one of those guys had his instructions in a sort of sheet protector Velcroed to his inner wrist. The commando wrist slate—that’s the kind of personal organizer she could use.
Leila let the tedium flow around her like lava while she filled her pad with notes that would help her get through the next week of this frustrating job. Her title was director, in-country, Myanmar/Burma. But back in New York there was a country director, Myanmar/Burma. The silliness of the titles should have been her first clue that Helping Hand was a bush-league NGO. Though deep-pocketed, apparently—HQ was two floors of a skyscraper in midtown Manhattan. They’d hired her to do the advance work on what they said would be a twenty-year commitment to public health in northern Burma. She was supposed to be
establishing a country program!
—and her New York bosses said it like that, like she was a general in a tent or something, when what they really meant was rent an office, buy some desk chairs, and find out who else was working there and what wasn’t getting done. But beyond that, her two or maybe three New York bosses couldn’t even agree on what the Burma mission was. One of them thought Helping Hand should be identifying strong female candidates for full-ride scholarships to the school of nursing at Boston College. Another one thought the organization should be setting up village-based primary-care health clinics. Mainly her bosses sent her conflicting e-mails and sabotaged one another’s goals.
And in truth, Leila had herself underestimated the difficulty of achieving anything in a place like Myanmar. She had done war-torn, she had done devastated, but this living-under-tyranny thing was a super-bummer. The Myanmarese (Myanmartians, she called them in her head; the stenoglyph was an
with an ovoid helmet and antennae) spent all their energy protecting what little they had or avoiding persecution; there was nothing left over for hope. And no one on the outside cared that much, or was even sure of its name. Was it called Burma, which had something to do with Orwell? Or Myanmar, which sounded like a name cats would give their country? The rest of the world just avoided this place, as on the street you’d avoid a stinking, pantsless drunk—because where would you even begin?
And where was that stupid little colonel? Leila was running low on anti-impatience techniques. The room seemed to have been designed to distill boredom and discomfort and focus it on the occupant. It was like being under some sort of time-stretching ray. There was the stippled layer of dust on everything; there was nothing to read but the No Smoking sign; there was one plastic fan in the corner, its electrical cord shorn off as if with a serrated knife. Smells seeped from the wooden benches and plastic blinds—cigarette smoke and greasy food and the vapors emitted by anxious humans.
Once she had done all she could reasonably do on the work flowchart, Leila just sat and thought about her family. A low-level concern for them had been rising in her lately. Roxana had written that their kid brother Dylan’s new GF was a battle-ax. Dylan hadn’t mentioned a girl to Leila. Also according to Roxana, their mother had had two suspicious falls in the last nine months, the second one resulting in a broken wrist. Leila couldn’t tell by e-mail how exactly Roxana had meant
Like, neurologically? Or alcoholically? She noted again that no one ever informed on Roxana like this. Birth order did seem to trump the other personality predictors, Leila thought. Would that be forever? What about after their parents died? How far away was that? None of the Majnoun children had spawned yet. Was that breaking their parents’ hearts? Her mom’s, yes, probably. But her dad was a beloved middle-school principal in Tarzana, California. Maybe that job satisfied some of his grandpaternal needs?
Leila decided she would wait ten more minutes and then go in search of someone, maybe Colonel Zeya himself. Though good luck finding that guy. He must have an office in every dingy little government building in Mandalay, and a henchman to keep people out of each one. This was the third time that Leila had been promised her shipment, a shipment that represented six months of work on her part. But this was the first time she had actually been brought to the airport. On the previous occasions, she had been summoned to the terrestrial passage entry station behind the clamorous bus depot, and those had turned out to be shakedowns—demands for the payment of newly discovered taxes and import duties. Most NGOs allowed for a certain amount of this. But Helping Hand was not playing along. New York said that to do so would “abet endemic corruption”—or perhaps this was just Boss 1 screwing with Boss 2—and at first refused to release the funds that might win Leila her shipment. Only by haranguing Boss 3 was Leila able to convince HQ that the extra money was in this case a cost of doing business.
Still; still. Leila had moved similar shipments hundreds of times. This was a container of palletized medical equipment—fourteen short tons—that she’d coaxed without incident from Miami to Doha to Yangon and then to Naypyidaw, the bizarre new capital that the generals had erected suddenly in the middle of the country. But then her shipment had been waylaid and effectively ransomed by an invisible mafia of Myanmarese customs officers who could be reached only by phone, and even then only via their underlings’ phones. Once Leila figured out which government building contained the Department of Leila Antagonism, she and her driver, Aung-Hla, took the half-day trip to Naypyidaw and attempted a frontal assault. But the stupidly hatted officials she located—though shocked that she’d found them—only asked her to return with obscurer forms and more exact change.
She worried that her shipment was getting picked through and pilfered from. It was high-end stuff. If the bozos at HQ had their way, the crates would probably be stamped
SORRY ABOUT COLONIALISM
. Worrying about it kept her up at night.
Though there were other things that kept her up at night also. The subtropical heat, the mouse-size cockroaches, the regretful thoughts about Rich. And how much regret are you allowed when you’re the one who did the dumping? And the loneliness. Sometimes—often—her day was a screen, a phone, a couple of merchants, and three meals by herself. That wore thin.
A man was coming toward her. One of Zeya’s underlings, but not the one who had deposited her in the infernal waiting room. She recognized this guy from an earlier fruitless wait; he’d brought her a Coke once. She did not stand up but tried to look unbothered as he approached.
“Follow me, please,” he said. It was five degrees cooler outside the little room, and that relief slipped down her collar and into the humid biome beneath her shirt. Leila could hardly wait. By the end of the day, she would have the crates de-palletized, inventoried, and stacked in the storeroom she’d rented beneath her office. She was having an effect; she was causing things to happen. Huzzah!
She tried to tamp down her excitement.
Not until you see it. Not until you touch it.
And was there something troubling in the way this lackey was walking through the little corridors of the big building? Some slump in his shoulders?
Shit. He didn’t want to get where they were going. He was actually slowing down.
And then her worry bloomed into certainty. Somehow she knew. That huzzah had been premature.
the colonel had screwed her again;
her shipment had not arrived or would not be released. The hot wait was just a two-hour insult, and she was an idiot for sitting through it. What the fuck? She was trying to help this place, and she had a way to be of help.
They entered a room and passed a klatch of officers taking tea at a plastic table, and Leila could feel their eyes on her. At every door, there was a boy with a rifle, sweating under a helmet. The menace was present in everything here; it was like walking by a man holding a stick, the man silent, the stick raised above his head.
They arrived at the underling’s desk, and he indicated a chair where Leila should sit. She didn’t sit. “My boxes aren’t here, are they?” she asked the lackey in Burmese. She didn’t know the word for “shipment.”
He turned around, shook his head minutely, failed to meet her clamped gaze. Yeah, he hated this. “You will sign?” he said in English, pushing toward Leila a sheaf of papers. She’d seen those before. She’d signed them already.
She picked up the papers on the desk. Oh, fuck it. If they weren’t going to release her shipment this time, she was going to make trouble.
Leila leaned in to the man’s desk. She was too small to loom over anything, but she could lean in. In English, and too loudly, and in her best imitation of importance, she said, “I am an officer of an agency recognized by the UN”—a meaningless statement, but it had
in it. “You cannot prevent me from taking custody of my shipment.” She actually stamped her foot.
The underling blanched and receded. At the far end of the room, the klatch quit stirring its tea.
Then Leila said very quietly, in Burmese, “I know this is not your fault. I will leave you. But tell me where Zeya is now. He is the one I need to speak to.”
Leila worked alone; she had to be both good cop and bad cop.
The man squinted at her. She often got that squint when she used Burmese; her accent was probably pretty bad. But then his eyes widened and softened, and she thought that he was going to take this deal.
In a quick and quiet utterance, in a mix of two languages, he said to Leila, “It is day three. He is with the bird people on day three.”
The Burmese numbered their days of the week. He meant Tuesday. But what the fuck were bird people?
Sticking to Burmese, Leila said, “How do I get my boxes? Why does Zeya make it so hard for me?”
And the underling, in English, and looking sorry to report it, said, “Lady, they do not want you here. Maybe, if you pay the taxes, and you do not bring in too much, you will get your boxes. But I think they do not want you here no way.”
Leila refused to return to the city with the Ministry Department driver who had brought her to the airport. She thought if she could make her way to the passenger terminal, she could find a taxi. That terminal was half a mile away; she’d noted the distance when they drove in. So she stomped out of the hangar and walked back the way she’d been driven. It was not a road for walkers; it was a dusty hummock with ditches on both sides, the ditches trickling with sewage and trash. Her shoes were all wrong now; they made her gait scuffly and her progress dusty. Still, she was free of all those clownish apparatchiks.
Well, not free, exactly; a teenage soldier in baggy pants and an M1 rifle followed fifty paces behind her. But sulkily; more kid brother than armed goon.
The paper-bag-armor blouse was brutal. She thought of unbuttoning, but then reconsidered. She was alone except for the boy soldier at her back. She’d gone this long without getting raped, and it was her daily, specific intention to keep it that way.
She looked back to check on the boy soldier, and her eye caught something behind him: a small plane was landing. But it was a snazzy white jet, Leila noticed, not a Burmese military aircraft or one of Air Mandalay’s goofy French turboprops. The jet came to rest in the middle of the tarmac. Then three big SUVs emerged from the hangar in which Leila had just wasted two hours; they zipped toward the jet in tight formation, like cockroaches racing across a kitchen floor. Two men—soldiers—got out of each vehicle, and each pair received a metal crate that was lowered by winch from the rear door of the jet. The crates went into the SUVs, two men lifting each crate. A set of stairs sprouted from the front of the aircraft, and three passengers—male, was about all Leila could determine—briskly descended and got in the back of the lead SUV. Then all the vehicles sped off, and before they’d even disappeared around the corner of a distant building, the little jet had turned its nose and was taxiing to a takeoff. The whole operation took less than three minutes—the most efficient maneuver Leila had ever seen in this country. Those crates were probably full of Johnnie Walker and porn on VHS, headed to a general top-heavy with medals. Meanwhile, her medical supplies were rotting in lockup. Leila was pierced by that mix of anger and sorrow that can make a person give up on a thing. What outright bullshit, she thought.
At the passenger terminal, Leila made directly for the taxi queue. But coming from the wrong direction, she snuck up on the taximen, who were lounging in the shade of the tall, mimosa-looking trees; they roused themselves to semi-alertness for her. How did they keep their shirts so white? she wondered. The men here wore brilliant shirts and long, faded sarongs—lungis, they were called in Burma, big-knotted in the front so that each man seemed to be wearing a sort of codpiece. She briefly hoped that Aung-Hla would be waiting with the other airport men. But, no, Leila didn’t know any of these guys.