New York, New York
When Mary learned that the cancer had returned, she texted her daughter: “Please call Mom…” Then she deleted the note.
She wanted to do this by herself, this journey to death, or this trip to Saburia to try to change that final date, finally dying alone down some forgotten trail in the Shenandoah Valley like a wounded animal.
In her visit to Dr. Bains, he disagreed. “You need to update your family. If something happens to you, you don’t want them to hear about it from a stranger.”
Her daughter, Leslie, was her only child, married to Bart, spelled like the California train system. They were an ambitious working couple with two kids. Mary didn’t like to bother them in their intense sphere of existence.
She had asked Leslie to do something simple for her passing. “Big services are too much work, and besides, I’ll be gone by then.”
“Mom,” Leslie protested, “these rituals are for the living, not for the dead. I treasure my memories of Dad’s service that you worked so hard on.”
When her husband was alive, they hiked the Blue Ridge Mountains. Sometimes Mark went ahead, leaving her alone to rest. A large, powerful man, he then returned with a big smile and sunnier words, encouraging her to keep going.
In dreams, she still followed him down a sunny forest path, feeling such joy that she knew she would never return. They would find the shell of her body, and there would be that funeral.
After her visit to the doctor, she returned home, a flat inside a stately brick building on a thoroughfare in Manhattan. Then she called Leslie. Leslie would be hurt to not be told sooner, then would painstakingly research all the details of her care with youthful energy that Mary could not match. An argument had erupted recently in which she told her daughter that “you belong to this judgmental younger generation.”
Bad luck, her call did not go into voicemail.
“Hi, Mom, what’s up?”
“Nothing major, just let’s meet for an early breakfast this week? You like morning coffee after your workout.”
“What’s going on?”
“Dr. Bains …he thinks I need to talk to you.”
“I’ll come over now.”
“Oh no, it can wait until the morning.”
But Leslie was unstoppable. An antique wooden elevator took visitors directly into the lobby of the flat. Soon, Mary heard her door open.
Upon seeing her, Leslie’s expression turned grave. They sat at the kitchen table with its west-facing windows. Mary had put out Leslie’s favorites: Manchego cheese, rosemary crackers, grapes and a mug of herbal tea, always laid out the same way on a wooden tray from the farmhouse — painted chinoiserie, exotic flowers on a black background.
Gazing at her child in the waning summer light, treasuring resemblances to her husband and grandmother, even as she steeled herself for disagreement, she described the international medical center where an experimental vaccine was available.
“You plan to travel to Africa?” Leslie was incredulous.
“It’s someplace on my bucket list before I go,” Mary explained. “Blackest skies, the stars of the Milky Way like a sparkly ribbon and wild animals calling to the depths of your soul.”
Mary opened medical files on her computer.
“Honey, I already bought the tickets for Saburia next week,” she disclosed. “I didn’t want to upset you until I decided I had to do it. We can still talk every day. The clinic has state-of-the-art communication.”
Leslie stared at her, tears in her eyes, searching for words. “Mom, don’t go alone. I wish I could come…” She had the same expression as her father, lips pursed, jutting her chin.
“Of course, honey, but you have other commitments.”
Mary did not mention Bart, who appeared to find his mother-in-law’s health issues inconvenient, like a perplexed passenger experiencing delays on his namesake train.
“Maybe a nurse could go with you, Mom? I’m going to call Dr. Bains.”
“No, please it’s not needed, the clinic provides personal assistance every step of the way.”
Leslie unfolded her very large phone. “Well, it does say that Saburia is one of the safest places in Africa. They keep it that way for tourism. Majestic scenery. Even mountains on the border. Endangered wildlife. After the latest regime change, they renamed the capital Ramses like the Egyptian Pharaoh.
“For women, it’s Islamic: you should keep your head and body covered in the more remote areas of the country.”
“Do you have new pictures of the kids?” Mary asked.
Before leaving, Leslie hugged her —as always lightly around the shoulders. “Bart’s mom says that one of the hardest things about growing old is losing control to one’s children — reversing roles with them.”
The Saburian clinic’s arrangements started with a handsome suited young man who came a few days later. Speaking excellent English with a hint of an accent, he loaded her luggage into a waiting car. Then he opened the rear door. She stepped into the dark wine interior.
“Champagne? Coffee?” he asked.
She smiled and shook her head. Then they were on their way.
She appreciated his silence inside the humming car, hard to find in help these days. Raised with people who worked for her family, she believed in boundaries, that the help should speak only if spoken to, blending instead into the background. She grew up knowing that everyone who worked for her family would also know all her personal business.
Outside the car window, the familiar lights of Manhattan streets rolled by. Mentally, she began to tally the cost of everything so far for this trip. Eventually she would compare that total dollar figure to how much she had paid the clinic and determine their profit margin.
Her father would say, “People deserve to be paid for their hard work, but it’s always good to know how much money they’re makin’ off of ya.” After he met his second wife, he adopted an irritating tic of underlining paternal advice by flipping on the country accent of her stepmother’s rural relatives.
He also said that “inherited money becomes a curse when it takes incentives away for people to make something of themselves.” Was he referring to her mother? Or to her?
In the car, Mary called Leslie to say goodby.
“I’m proud of you, honey,” she said. “I was one of those kids with trust funds who didn’t work and here you are, you and Bart work and support yourselves and don’t ask for money.”
Still, Mary had made the down payment for her daughter’s new home. Like the farm Mary had spent childhood summers in, it also bordered on woods. There, her grandchildren could now disappear into the trees to play — like she used to — seeing wild animals and befriending strays.
Making this the third generation of their family at their New York City private school, Mary also paid for her grandchildren to attend the same one she and Leslie had attended. Someday, everything would be passed down, including the Manhattan flat, but not yet.
Then there was Bart, loyal, just a bit dull, a good father and husband. Compared to the melodramatic marriages among the children of others she knew, things could be worse.
One of the first to board the plane, Mary had an upholstered berth to herself with a privacy curtain, snacks and a mini-bar. Handing her a glossy guide, the masked attendant thanked her for being a “Travel Saburia First-Class Club” member. Grateful that the young woman did not press her for conversation either, Mary drew the heavy drape and poured herself a cold seltzer.
Behind the curtain, she could hear the muffled voices of other passengers boarding the plane. After texting Leslie that she had boarded, she looked out the window at the tarmac and New York City beyond, already feeling homesick. “The fairest city of all,” she murmured.
As the plane took flight, she watched the receding face of Manhattan below her, its lighted skyscrapers fading under clouds. Mary opened her brochure to read about her upcoming journey, first to ancient Athens and then even further back in place and time to an East African city now named after an Egyptian Pharaoh, near the birthplace of the human species. From there, forgotten generations had ventured forth in waves over tens of thousands of years to reach this island she called home.
“Goodbye,” she whispered to her world that now disappeared under her. “Thanks for all the courage you stand for. Going back to where it all started, and I will see you again.”
In East Africa, the Drukker plane carrying David Campbell bounced on the tarmac of Ramses International Airport. Heat blurred the morning air outside where the only signs of civilization were a few planes and open runways, amidst a desert of dirt, rock and sand.
Pickup trucks appeared, carrying men for unloading the Drukker machines. Back in San Francisco, he had overseen them being lifted onto the plane, wrapped in foam and bungee cords, beside crates of military ration units. The MREs would be cheap meals for the workmen. They grew little food here in Saburia.
Looking for Sheraton, he turned around. She was the only woman on the plane besides the sweet young attendant of the coffee pot. He saw her and waved and she waved back.
Exiting the plane, she was behind him. He asked, “Have you been to Saburia before?”
She shook her head. “I have done research on it to prepare. I like to be respectful of local customs.”
“I watch ‘Black Shadows,’ he said, “their most popular show. It has English subtitles.”
“That’s just propaganda. I want to see things for myself.”
“Me,” he said, “I’m looking forward to a drink on a balcony overlooking the ocean. The coast is pretty and cooler than inland.”
He walked past the thick frosted window in the cockpit door and watched a shadow of the pilot move across it, its head appearing disproportionately large and spherical like an astronaut’s helmet — or the head of an ant. Was it just a refraction of the light? Was he dehydrated? He swigged his water.
Dismounting on a steep mobile staircase, he waited for her at the bottom. She descended, an amorphous cloak now over her head and body like the local women. They walked together to the main building, where they patiently sat under the awning.
Next, a giant loader approached the jet cargo area directed by two Saburians. In the warming early morning, the metal skin of the airplane reflected the colors of the dawn sky, turning rose with flecks of gold.
Campbell squinted. Why were clouds, dappled pink, blue and orange, reflected on the metal? Puzzled, he looked up — no clouds — and then back down to the plane, colors fading into a flat aluminum gray.
Campbell oversaw the workers with a translator. The loader went back and forth, plane to the trucks, then back again, directed by shouts of sweaty men.
Finally, he returned to Sheraton. They shared their history in the various labs they had worked in, from exciting discoveries to steamy politics.
After he fondly described his roots in Texas, he asked about her family.
“I’m divorced,” she said.
The plane whirred, buzzed and sailed away down the runway.
Where the air currents had dislodged it, she pulled her scarf back over her head, Out of a designer handbag, she removed lipstick and a compact mirror, touching up her lips over perfect white teeth. Then she adjusted some stray, dyed bronze hair with ringed hands and replaced the elephantine sunglasses on her nose.
A pistol in the bag briefly glinted and he debated whether to tell her they would take it away at the base. She said, “My ex-husband left me for a younger woman about five years ago. Our kids are now in college.”
She dabbed her eyes with the back of her hand. He found that two strangers like them in an unfamiliar place opened up to each other in ways they might not with people they knew better. Would her words now flow to the nearest listener — him?
There was the enchanted queen in a story who fell in love with a donkey. Was he that ass now, the first creature she sees — her eyes wet with the magic of memory — and she would pour her heart out to him?
Instead, she looked away and said, “Michael plans that you and I’ll be working together here in Saburia. So you may as well know I am here because of unexpected turns in my personal life…and all the unplanned bills.” She waved around her dismissively at their bleak surroundings.
“Otherwise, why would I end up here? I suppose you’ve got a story too.” She did not sound interested.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to bring up a sensitive subject.”
Her face, the make-up over fine wrinkles, reminded him of his own mother when she was younger. But Sheraton was working and supporting her family, unlike his own mother who was now his responsibility after all the other men had discarded her, neatly tucked away in a Texas condo complex for her age group, precisely gridded with tennis courts, a pool and a new group of friends.
“What about you, are you married?” she inquired.
“I’m not married…yet.” He pictured Lucky.
“Better do it soon,” she teased. “Or you’ll be too set in your ways. You know our boss is my age, and he has no wife.”
“Your type?” He laughed.
“Oh, no.” Mock horror. “I wasn’t suggesting that. Now you will get me into trouble. David, I’m good at my job but not men. Right now, I’m just paying for the kids’ expensive education. Then I’ll enjoy doing the things I like.”
“Maybe, you haven’t met the right person yet, hmm?”
Would he stray like her ex-husband? Unlikely. Feelings for other women would not dislodge him from the mother of his children or his secure place in dream home acreage.
The airport was now quiet, an occasional breeze ruffling the heating air. Waiting, he escaped into his own memories, following Lucky around Pandolf, from the glitter of its newest buildings to the old call rooms with only bed-frames, where a lonely lock might hang idly for years until Housekeeping cut it.
“Here,” Lucky had told him, “forever ago, doctors used to try to catch some sleep.”
Pandolf Housekeeping would have quite the time locating that Indian doctor with the unpronounceable name before cutting his lock, Dr. Arjun Jagdishwar Bhattacharya, the oncology expert for Soria Clinics.
“They will recheck the spelling first,” Kochanski had joked, “to make entirely sure that this doctor no longer works there, then try to reach him anyway and finally forget about it for a while. Some Polish names are like that too.
“David, do you think that maybe ICE profiled Manny as having a connection to a terrorist drug group that they monitor, like with roots in South America and the Russian Mafia and training camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan?
“It’s terrible that someone would think bad things about our Manny, but his behavior has been erratic lately, even cagey. It worries me, David. Scientist psychology can be temperamental and complicated. I’m grateful that you’re a grounded man.”
Campbell looked down at the backpack between his knees.Would Soria corporation give him legal help if he was arrested, say for being a mule for the mystery drive in the heavy purple case?
Garcia seemed perfectly balanced to him. It was men like Kochanski who could not be trusted, “lots of nooses in his family tree.”
It appealed to him that a scientist like Garcia could pursue his own theories. But in the thrill of the scientific pursuit, he may have entered an unregulated, international zone.
Here I am, he wondered, an idiot carrying files across international borders that I don’t know everything about? Still, gamely pushing the edges of scientific exploration, this was more exciting than anything he had done before.
He heard the sound of idling motors, and then another pickup truck roared in. “Time to go,” he told Sheraton.
They climbed into the second row of the armored vehicle. Behind them, the loaded flatbed vehicles pulled up, There was much shouting again among the workers in languages he did not understand. To examine the cargo one last time, he got out and walked around.
Recognizing it by the serial number on its crate – a Drukker 3-D printer — he frowned. Why did they need that? Was it to print proteins and polysaccharides for the vaccine?
He returned to the truck. Windows rolled open, their Chinese driver had the air conditioning on full blast, an improvement over sitting outside in the boiling sunshine. As they gained speed, the gritty dust bit into their eyes, their clothes and their lungs.
Elise popped out her plastic contacts, threw them away and changed into her prescription sunglasses, thick and large like bug’s eyes. Once outside the airport, the driver finally closed the windows. The car quickly filled with filtered, chilled air that powered out of the fan.
“If I knew Chinese,” Campbell shouted over the vehicle engine. “I would have asked her to close the windows sooner.”
She shrugged and yelled over the motor. “I’m sure she knows English very well.”.
He caught the driver’s face in the rearview mirror; her eyes were unreadable behind her own wraparound sunglasses.
“When in doubt, be kind,” his MIT girlfriend had advised him once. He had just moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts and expressed frustration about its international crowd, coats of many colors, how sometimes people did not disclose they knew English or even the local American customs, sometimes they honestly did not know and sometimes it was somewhere in between.
“The driver is here to drive,” he told her. “Maybe all she wants to do is her job, not to make loud conversation over a large engine to foreigners while on a rutted old road.”
“I have to return to their local airport tomorrow,” she groaned. “All this motion makes me carsick.”
“For Mary? That soon?”
“Mary from New York, New York.”
She shot out the city’s name in its brusque, nasal accent and added, “She’s going to fly from Ramses to the local town. For security, they won’t let her fly directly into the base.”
She continued, “In this country, women doctors generally take care of women. It’s one of the reasons they recruited me. But isn’t it odd though that Mary’s in her 70s, and I’m a pediatrician by training?”
She paused. “I didn’t get a detailed job description for my work here in Saburia…still the one year contract pays as much as working for three years back home. For one thing, I don’t need malpractice insurance.”
“Children get cancer too,” he said. “Maybe Soria plans to include pediatric cancer patients.”
Outside the truck window, dust rose up off the road beside them. She appeared enthralled with the endless desert view on her side. Had she noticed that three minute time discrepancy when their plane descended a short while back?
He was about to ask her when she let out a scream and clapped her hand to her mouth. He leaned over her to the window and then the rear windshield. In the receding view of the roadside before the curtain of dust closed over it, he saw a small body and its shroud of flies in the dirt. The driver did not slow down.