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state: first draft
last update: 1999 May 17

The Confused American

Chapter 1 - Gone Native?

By Kevin Kelleher



"It's a foreign country, and that's the main thing," Heap told himself. He pushed through to the street, which he thought would be less crowded. But he was wrong. In spite of the occasional car that shot like a cannonball through the blind pack of farm workers, and despire the frenzied cyclists that collided so frequently with the peasants, people filled the street.

The crowd surged and pulled, and Heap felt his wallet slip from his pocket. There was nothing he could do. He couldn't even see who did it. His watch vanished at some point, too, and anonymous fingers traced his intimate anatomy. But there was nothing he could do. There were just too many people.

Heap wondered, "Is it like this every day, or is this some sort of protest?" Was it uncommon to see so many of the farm people downtown? Or maybe they were mountain people; Heap couldn't tell.

It seemed impossible to fall down in such a dense crowd - it was impossible to raise one's arms - but somehow someone knocked Heap to the ground, and as he struggled against panic and fear, and tried to keep from getting stepped on or mauled, his shoes were plucked from his feet.

By the time he struggled to a standing posture, his shirt was open. He did not fight as it floated off his body.

Heap was beginning to fell he was losing control of himself, but a stunning blow interrupted that process, and he lay dazed in the street, he was stripped of his pants, underwear, and jewelry.

"Naked I came from my mother's womb," he quoted to himself numbly, and wondered whether he would die today, trampled underfoot. However, now that Heap had nothing left to lose, or nothing left to be taken, the peasants and city people were kind, and did him no more indignities, though they regarded him with curiosity and interest as he sat in the gutter.

At last, two small, soft hands took his arm and gently urged him up. Dazed, he complied, and followed his rescuer as she deftly cut her way through the melee.

Heap saw only that she was short, with black bowl-cut hair, and that she wore a shiny blue silk dress.

She led him to a shop, then quickly to a back room, where she sat him on a bed. Then she put on water for tea.

She came and put his head against her breast and held him, and he held her, until the tea kettle whistled and shook as if it would explode. She pulled away and brewed the tea.

While Heap sipped the pleasant, homey beverage, she chattered in that language he never came to understand as she searched methodically through the stacks of boxes that stood against the wall.

At last she returned with a set of clothes large enough for Heap. Laughing, she indicated through gestures that he was much too tall, although Heap was short by American standards.

The clothes fit well, though they felt like heavy pajamas. "Are these silk?" he asked.

"Silk," she said, "First quality."

"You speak English!" he cried.

"First quality." Her eyes twinkled.

"I can't pay you now," he told her. "My wallet's gone."

But she replied in her own language, and Heap realized that he'd heard all the English he was going to hear.

She then found a pair of sandals that miraculously fit, as well. Again, she indicated by gestures that his feet were too impossibly big.

Heap inspected his garments. "Is there sand sewn into the hems?" he asked.

§

The American ambassador, "Lucky" Samuel Bouganvillea perspired. It was becoming his specialty. He glared out the window at the white-washed walls of the buildings across the street. He cursed the wind that never blew and the fetid air that stank of sweat. Of course, to Bouganvillea's mind, the sweat that stank was not his own. It was the native sweat that fouled the air.

He shut the window - it made no difference; the air was bad everywhere. He glared again at the bright white walls opposite. "Like a full moon in the daytime," he muttered. "A full moon in my front yard." Lucky noticed a smudge in the middle of an otherwise clear windowpane. "Damn, if someone isn't pressing their nose against the glass!" And he went to the desk to hunt for a tissue. But when he got there, he couldn't find any. Instead, to his dismay, he found a folder marked URGENT in red ink, with a note on the front from Potts, in the information office downstairs.

The note read, "By rights I should have given you this information personally, but your phone was off the hook all night. PLEASE READ IMMEDIATELY." Lucky sighed and opened the file. It contained three sheets of paper: The first was blank. The second was Potts' typewritten memorandum. The third had a cartoon clipped from a newspaper taped to it, with Potts' handwritten note, "Thought you should see this - from this morning's Daily Star."

The drawing was decidedly sordid. It showed a fat, perspiring American with a huge, greedy smile cleaning his posterior with Sarkhan's flag. The caption was written in Haidho, which Lucky couldn't read. But the likeness! The likeness was too speaking, too close for comfort. Bouganvillea was gazing at a contemptuous caracature of himself.

"Goddam Communists!" he bellowed. "That damn Potts could've at least told me what the caption says." He scowled at it for a while. The cartoon did exaggerate his bulk, but not by much. He was gaining weight in this tropical backwater's capital. What else was there to do but eat? He ate from frustration; he ate from boredom.

At last he turned to the third sheet, which was presumably Potts' reason for marking the folder urgent. It was the terse report of a beating and possible death of an American the night before. Ralph Heap... damn! Bouganvillea cursed silently. Why so early in the morning? Why does this stuff arrive before my coffee does?

He buzzed for his secretary, barked for his coffee, and - after an afterthought - bent the ear of the head of security, who dispatched an MP to pick up John Calvin, the powdered-milk man.

Calvin had come to Sarkhan four years ago - had it been that long? - in an attempt to introduce beef to the predominantly Hindu population. He believed that the hill country would make good pasture land, since the hills were low and rolling.

Calvin's plan was to introduce dairy products first: milk (via powdered milk from the US), and then, when milk caught on, he would ship cows to Sarkhan, produce fresh milk, expand the dairy line to butter, cream, cheese (perhaps) - and finally, beef.

Lucky thought the scheme asinine. Besides, it wasn't working. The few clients he had were among the Europeans and Africans, the wholesale traders, who shipped the powdered bulk out of the country, since Calvin's prices were low.

Still, John did have his backers in the states, and in the government, too. Lucky had some suspicions about Calvin, but could never make those suspicions into something more concrete; his intelligence sources told him nothing about the man.

After three-quarters of an hour, Calvin appeared. Bouganvillea realized right away, much to his disgust, that Calvin had smoked some opium before he'd come. Probably first thing that morning. The dilation of the pupils, the state of unnatural calm, and something about the way Calvin held his shoulders and arms gave it away. Bouganvillea was actually a little frightened, as if Calvin could contaminate him by his presence. After some banter with Calvin, Bouganvillea asked, "Do you know Ralph Heap?"

"Sure."

"Is he a friend of yours?"

"Yes, I'd say so."

"How did you meet him?"

Calvin's thoughts drifted off to the cafe, to the day when Heap arrived. "The cafe; a chance meeting."

"What did he talk about?"

"The weather, the water, his trip. You know. Some car backfired, and he thought it was a grenade."

Bouganvillea didn't laugh. He'd made the same mistake himself, and not without reason. Calvin continued, "What's this all about, anyway? Your man was pretty rude -"

"Sorry."

Calvin opened his mouth, then stopped. "Is Heap dead?"

"I don't know. I've tried to call the hospital, but the lines fell during the night. I've sent a messenger, who hasn't yet returned."

"What happened?"

"He was beaten, rather badly, by some locals."

"Over a woman?"

"I didn't say so."

"I'm asking you."

"I don't know. In any case, he was found wearing one of those pajama-like suits -"

"Gone native, huh?" Calvin chuckled.

Lucky froze, very disturbed by Calvin's remark, and his inappropriate laughter. He didn't know why it bothered him so, yet it did.

Calvin spoke again, "I don't know why anyone would want to hurt him. He's such a harmless guy. Pretty confused, but harmless."

"Yes," Bouganvillea agreed, "a confused American."

"But what's this got to do with me?" Calvin asked.

"He was found," Bouganvillea said impressively, "He was found with his pockets filled - spilling out - in fact, his clothes were lined with it -"

"With what, for God's sake?"

"Powdered milk," Bouganvillea replied, and coolly studied the face of his companion.


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