Vultures in the Playground, Page 2A. Sparrow
“Oh! What happened to you, boss man?”
“Mugged,” he said. “My key, please. I’m getting my things and leaving. I have to say, the security in your establishment leaves something to be desired.”
“I said, give me my key! I’m checking out. If you can’t keep these damned kids from breaking into my room, you don’t deserve my business.”
“But sir, you have reservation for three nights. We have a penalty for cancelling reservation.”
“No way am I paying any penalty. I want my key, now. Give it.”
The clerk’s eyes flickered with anger. He pursed his lips and snatched Archie’s key from a nook, slapping it on the counter.
When Archie reached the room he found the door jamb splintered and the lock dangling loose. He didn’t even need the key. How both the clerk and security guard hadn’t noticed any hanky-panky was beyond him. Were they both sleeping? Or were they accomplices?
He pushed the door open with a simple nudge. As he had feared, the courier bag holding his laptop was missing, but at least his toiletries remained in the bathroom. He grabbed them and stormed back out down the hall, tossing the key on the front counter.
“Sir, if you leave now, you must pay for half a day.”
“Fuck you. I’m not paying you a cent. You should pay me.”
“Then I shall call the police.”
“Go ahead. Call. I’d love to talk to them.”
Outside, Archie was glad to see the taxi still waiting. He threw his toiletries in the back seat beside his suitcase and climbed in front.
“You got enough gas to get back to Robertsfield?” He hoped to stay at the former Hilton the airline crews still used, right across from the airport. It was expensive, but had provided a good refuge in past troubles.
“I … don’t tink so, boss,” said the driver. “My tank, it is almost empty.”
Archie sighed. He didn’t want to stick around Monrovia. Most of the other hotels were flea bags of the worst sort. But he remembered one he had seen on the way in from the airport, near the old rubber plantation.
“There’s a new hotel this side of Harbel. You know which one I’m talking about?”
“It is called … Hibiscus?”
“Yeah. I think that’s it. Looks like your needle’s not quite pegged. Think you can make it that far?”
“Maybe.” The needle of his fuel gauge was well into the red zone near the big ‘E.’ He sucked air through his teeth and bit his lip. “We try.”
“Good man. What’s your name?”
“I am called James.”
“James, I’m Archie. If we run out, I’ll help you push.”
“If we run out you give me fifty dollar … plus the full fare … for staying overnight.”
“Deal,” said Archie.
They made it to Harbel with the engine coughing and sputtering in the final throes of fuel starvation. James coasted into the lot, rolling to a halt behind a row of cars lined up before the reception area. The place—the Red Hibiscus—looked promising. Every letter of its lighted sign still glowed. Its brick walls were freshly painted, the ornamental shrubs well tended.
Archie felt a smile lift the corners of his cheeks. This was just the kind of refuge he needed after his rough welcome to Liberia. He hoped they had a vacancy.
The place wasn’t nearly as nice-looking inside as out. The mirror in the lobby had a huge crack like a lightning bolt. The carpets were grimy and the dining room looked like it had been vandalized—broken chairs and tables heaped in one corner.
But business seemed to be thriving. The bar, at least, seemed lively enough, thronged with a mix of Lebanese expatriates and well-to-do Liberians.
“Any rooms available?” he asked the petite woman behind the counter, who was fussing over a sheath of invoices.
“We have,” she said, without looking up. “But only standard singles. The deluxe rooms are all taken.”
“Are they air conditioned?”
“They have fans, self-contained toilets.”
“That’ll be fine. I’ll need two rooms, please. My driver will be spending the night as well.”
She handed him two registration forms, but once she looked up, she couldn’t stop staring. “What happen to your face?”
“Oh. It was just an accident,” said Archie. “Um … I’ll have to get James in here to fill this out. I only know his first name.”
“Don’t worry about it,” said the woman, her face fixed in a grimace, as if merely looking at him pained her. “Put them both under your name.” She clasped her hand to her chest “Do you need bandages?”
“Um, maybe,” he said, remembering that his first-aid kit had been packed in his stolen courier bag.
His stomach sank when he reached the line asking for his passport number. He knew the number by rote. That was not the issue. He had just forgotten it had been stolen and did not look forward to the rigmarole he faced in getting it replaced.
The woman opened a drawer and pulled out a tube of ointment and a box of children’s band-aids replete with sparkly stars, dragons and faeries. “Take whatever you need,” she said.
“Why, thank you!”
She placed two keys on the counter, each wired to a hefty slab of mahogany.
“I don’t know where this porter has gone. I can help you with your bags.”
“Oh, no need. I only have but the one.”
Archie went outside and found James reclining in the front seat of his cab. He reached through the window. “Here’s your key.”
“Oh no … That is okay. I will sleep in my car.”
“Is better. For security.”
“I don’t think that’s a problem. This place seems pretty well lighted. And there’s a guard over there.”
“Is better I stay with my car.”
James looked serious and determined. Archie thought better than to argue.
Archie’s room was clean but spare. It smelled a bit like a moldy basement. The bed was one of the narrowest twins he had ever seen, its sheets ghosted with the dim outlines of old blood stains and body oils, like a modern day Shroud of Turin. The bathroom provided two towels, but they were made of a polyester blend that seemed only to repel water.
Still, it was a refuge, set far back enough from the main road to soften the rumble of passing trucks.
The water that dribbled out of his shower was cold, but refreshing. He tended to the wound on the side of his head, picking bits of crusted blood and road grit out of his hair. To close the wound on his wrist, he improvised a butterfly with the sticky part of a glittery band-aid. The porcelain ran with streaks of reconstituted blood.
He was lucky the knife had been dull and that his watch band had interfered. Otherwise, it would have severed an artery. He couldn’t imagine what that man had been trying to do to his hand. He couldn’t have stealing the watch. It was a cheap-ass Timex Indiglo.
He turned on a window fan and sat naked on the bed, his scalp throbbing beneath a lump over his ear as thick as a wallet. He opened his suitcase, the contents of which seemed mercifully undisturbed. It felt good to slip into some clean clothes. He tossed the shirt and pants he had been wearing into the trash. Slashed and scuffed, they were beyond salvaging.
He sat and stared at the mirror above the bureau through a fog of fatigue and pain. He looked awful, but couldn’t blame it all on that brick to the head. The face in the mirror did not match the one in his mind’s eye. That soaring forehead. Those creases angling down from his nose. He was starting to look like his freaking father. No wonder he hated looking into mirrors.
Archie made it back to the restaurant just before it closed. He had gone looking for James, hoping the cabbie would join him, but had found him in the parking lot scraping the last of his rice and palm oil stew from the bottom of a large bowl.
“Don’t worry about me, boss. You take ca
re of yourself.”
He found a table on the patio that didn’t wobble as much as the others and ordered a large Club beer. Its white on green shamrock logo made him wonder how the Celtics were doing in the playoffs. Inside, he was still an Eastern Connecticut boy, even though he hadn’t lived in the state since high school.
The waitress didn’t bother bringing him a menu. Turned out, the kitchen had only one item available that night: grass cutter stew over rice—the same dish James had enjoyed. The lack of a choice didn’t faze him. At least it arrived promptly with some fried plantains and a fiery relish of onion and chopped pepper. With a tall beer to wash it down, it certainly hit the spot.
The perfume of rubber trees permeated the smoky air. Giant termites swarmed the street lamps. He ordered a second Club and pondered his situation. Here he was, with no passport, no credit cards, and no netbook. He had planned to hire a car and spend a full day up-country, but that would have to wait.
He had built a day of wiggle room into his schedule and it looked like he would be spending it at the US Embassy. Maybe some of his hosts from Global Change for Children could come down and meet him in Monrovia. He only needed a few hours to go over papers and transfer the money.
He wondered how quickly the embassy could get him a new passport. He doubted they could arrange one by Thursday when he was scheduled to fly to Accra. The last time this had happened to him, in Nigeria, he had been stuck in Lagos for two extra weeks. Of all the places in the world he could be stranded, Monrovia was near the bottom of his list.
Liberia hadn’t always been this bad. Founded by former American slaves, it had neither benefitted nor suffered from colonialism, though the Americo-Liberians who dominated its politics managed to cultivate their own brand of oppression.
In the late 80s, when Archie had first started coming here, it had been a pleasant enough place to visit, dictator or not. Sure there had been the usual corruption, bureaucratic hassles and road blocks, but the people had always had a laissez faire attitude towards visitors.
But that was before the civil wars, before the fall of the old despot Samuel Kenyon Doe and the depredations of Charles Taylor, the new despot. He found it difficult to reconcile the friendliness and humanity of West Africans with the brutality that could explode in their civil wars.
Since then, everything that had been bad about Liberia had been made worse—the cities grittier, the people poorer, even the dogs more desperate.
Archie thought it would be good to call work and let them know what had happened. He turned on his trusty old Siemens GSM slab phone. Puzzled when it failed to locate a network, he opened up the back and saw that it still held the Claro SIM card he had installed in Peru. He had forgotten to swap in his global Mobal chip before he left.
No biggie. He could purchase a local SIM in the morning. There were ads all over the streets for up and coming mobile companies. At least some areas of commerce were burgeoning.
It meant, though, that he would have to wait to share his predicament with anyone back home. Not right away, anyhow, not while he had this tremendous urge to vent and commiserate with someone who cared. But who was that, these days? Who gave a damn what happened to him on the other side of the Atlantic?
Not Trudy, his ex-wife. Not anymore. They were still friends, in a sense, on a remembering birthdays and Christmas cards basis, but Trudy had her own life now out on the West Coast.
His estranged younger brother Karl might be amused by the story of his mugging, but why give him the pleasure? Karl had never forgiven Archie for staying in Angola when mom was in her last days, fading with emphysema. But mom had understood. Why couldn’t he?
Three years had passed since mom’s death. One would have thought that Karl would have gotten over it by now. Of the old nuclear family, all they had left was each other.
Who else was there to call? No one. He had let too many friendships fade after he and Trudy were no longer a couple. He had acquaintances here and there, and colleagues from work, but no one with whom he would feel comfortable sharing a breathless, beer-fueled outpouring of his soul.
That realization sent an icy pang down his core. As time went on, he seemed less self-sufficient yet more isolated—a potentially terminal divergence. He took a swig of his beer and looked out at the pair of distant tail-lights heading up the road to Robertsfield.
Melissa, the neighbor who fed his cats and watered his plants, deserved a call. She only expected him to be gone two weeks. The way things were going, he might have to tag on at least another week or two. He certainly would not be making it to Ghana any time soon, where the bulk of his work awaited. It looked like the Global Fund monitoring and evaluation team was going to have to start without him.
Melissa, at least, might offer a sympathetic ear. She was one of the few people in his life who seemed genuinely interested in what he did, draining entire pots of coffee listening to stories of his travels. She would barrage him with so many questions it could feel like an interrogation.
It was mostly trivia she asked about—what the hotels were like, the restaurants, the food. And she was a sucker for wildlife. She had to know about every snake or monkey he spotted crossing the road, his infrequent encounters with hippos and hyenas. She would gawk at the pictures and wish she had been there.
Talking to Melissa always perked him up. Sure, he was lonely and she was young, pretty and female, but there was more to it than that. She exuded this joy for the simplest things that couldn’t help but infect him with the notion that sticking around this world might be worth the bother.
He swigged down the last of his Club. He still felt wired, despite all the beer, but it was nothing a Benadryl couldn’t neutralize. First stop in the morning: the US Embassy.
Traces of ink on his forearm had survived the shower. He pulled out a pen and copied the number onto a napkin. These Xtraktiv folks might be interested in knowing that one of their employees mugged foreigners in his spare time. Who knows, maybe if he could get the management to intercede on his behalf, he might recover his old passport and not have to wait for a new issue from the embassy? Otherwise, it would be a royal pain to re-acquire all the visas he needed to finish his tour. He stuffed the napkin into his pocket and went back to his room.
Despite the Benadryl, Archie spent a fitful night. He was plenty groggy but he couldn’t sleep. Roaches swarmed the walls and traversed his blanket like herds of wildebeest crossing the veldt. Mosquitoes whined in his ear and pricked his brow. He could have deployed one of the bed net samples he carried in his suitcase, but couldn’t muster the energy to bother. It wasn’t till dawn had begun to show that he managed a few contiguous hours of slumber.
He dragged himself out of bed with the sun beating strong on the palms outside his window. His linens looked like a murder scene, smeared with streaks of blood and ointment. Embarrassed, he pulled off the pillow cases off and rinsed them in the sink. He didn’t want any maids freaking out at all the blood.
The restaurant was bustling compared to the night before. He was the only Caucasian among the otherwise diverse patrons, including a couple of Francophone businessmen from Côtes d’Ivoire and an African-American family. James nodded and smiled from the doorway. Archie waved him over to the table and they shared a couple of egg sandwiches with finely-chopped hot peppers.
“So … Is there petrol today?”
James beamed and nodded. “Yes.”
“And it is good we stay in Harbel. The queue was much shorter than it would be in Monrovia.”
“Was? Did you already get fuel?”
“Excellent! Listen, I promised to fill your tank, plus a retainer for hanging around overnight.” Archie peeled off a hundred dollar bill from his roll and handed it over.
James folded and pocketed it, looking quite pleased.
“Want some more coffee?”
“No thank you.”
“Let me settl
e my bill and we can head to the embassy, alright?”
Archie went to the front desk. The same lady from the night before remained at her post.
“And how you feel this morning?” Her hand flew up to her cheek. “Oh! Your face looks so swollen. Are you sure you do not need a doctor?”
“I’m fine,” said Archie. “Just a little sore. Hey, uh … would you happen to know where I can get a SIM for a mobile phone?”
She slid open a drawer. “We have Comium.”
“Never heard of that one. Must be new. Do they have good coverage?”
“Then I’ll take one, plus twenty bucks of air time.” He slapped another hundred on the counter and received a new SIM, a scratch card and a wad of grimy, threadbare dollars in return.
Feeling empowered by the caffeine buzzing in his veins and his restored ability to communicate with the outside world, he strode off towards his room.
“Meet you out front, James. I’m just gonna brush my teeth.”
Chapter 3: Embassy
Archie went to his room and set up his phone with the new SIM, filling the account with scratch card minutes. He needed to report his travails to the HVI office, but with the four hour time difference, it was way too early to reach anyone, even though they tended to be early birds. Instead, he called ahead to the US Embassy to try and get things rolling on his passport reissue.
The phone rang about seven times before someone answered.
“Good morning! So sorry for the delay there, I was hoping our receptionist would pick up but it looks like she’s not in yet.” The woman spoke with a mild southern accent. Northern Virginia, if he had to guess.
“Yes, uh … my name’s Archie Parsons and—”
“Hang on, I think she’s here. Oh wait, it’s just Jeffrey. You know we’ve had a skeleton crew here since the nonessentials got evacuated, but everyone’s starting to filter back. We’ll be back to normal soon. Not soon enough. So how can I help you?”
“Yes ma’am, you see, my passport was stolen and I need—”
“Oh, that’s terrible,” said the woman. “But I can’t say it’s unusual for Monrovia these days. Sometimes the police confiscate them and hold them for ransom. Can you believe it? The police!”