Today we’re happy to share a story by the great Deb Olin Unferth, which originally ran in McSweeney’s 41.
A man in fatigues stepped out of the brush and onto the gravel. He must have come off a small path of some sort because no branches snapped when he came out. He turned and pointed a machine gun at them—maybe more like toward them. He called out something neither of them understood.
“Now what,” said Jane. “What’s this soldier want?”
Max lifted a hand in greeting. “Hullo, we’re waiting for the bus,” he called.
The man in fatigues walked over and said some sentences in Spanish. He kept the gun casually pointed their way. He was young. One of his boots flapped on the ground.
“Maybe it’s about the chairs,” Jane suggested. Max had borrowed the chairs from the coffee farm off the road. She had told him not to, because there might not be time to run them back when the bus came, but Max had done it anyway.
“You can take the chairs back,” Jane said to the gunman now. She stood and pointed at her chair.
The gunman didn’t seem interested in the chairs. He moved the gun from side to side, explaining. He wore an army cap pulled low over his eyes.
“We’re waiting for the bus,” Max said. “The Tuesday bus?” He sighed. “They give these kids these weapons to go out and wave around like hands.” He slapped his thighs and got to his feet. He was at least a full head taller than the gunman.
The gunman waited, listening. He spoke again, louder this time, and gestured with the gun toward the place in the trees he’d exited from.
“You want us to go with you? Take us to the station, is that it?” Max turned to Jane. “Could be there’s a hurricane coming through. An evacuation?”
“Hummm,” said Jane. She studied the sky for a storm. “Too bad he doesn’t speak English.”
They’d argued the night before because she wanted to stop in the next country and take a language. Six weeks. Spanish school. Learn something. Hordes of people were doing it and it looked like fun. But Max detested school—being rooted to the ground, potted. He’d been to fifty-eight countries and never learned a language other than his own. He was no good at language. He never had a problem making himself understood. He could pantomime. “Besides, everybody speaks English these days,” he’d said.
So they would accompany the gunman. But now what were they supposed to do with their packs? Max and Jane stood over the packs, deciding. The gunman waited. If they weren’t going to be long, they could just leave the packs here. No one came down this road. Max and Jane had been walking up and down it for days and had seen hardly a soul. Even if someone did come along, Max didn’t think they’d make off with the packs. On the other hand, Jane said, the two of them might be kept awhile at the station.
What damn luck.
The gunman interrupted them irritably.
Max and Jane looked up. “We’ll probably miss the bus, you understand,” Max said. “The Tuesday bus?”
They got their packs on.
The three of them entered the rainforest in the same spot the gunman had come out. Indeed it was a very small footpath, so small it could overgrow itself in days. It must have been well used despite its thinness. Max, then Jane, stepped through the trees, the gunman behind. Max and Jane walked easily, without the usual timidity of the tourist. Wet leaves hit their faces and arms. The rainforest hung in loops around them.
In fact they’d been stopped by the authorities before, many times—mostly in order to be herded back onto the tourist tracks or pumped clean of any cash they were carrying, and once in Morocco to make Jane put on more clothes (she’d been wearing a [really rather modest] bathing suit). Never been delayed more than a few hours but it would be unfortunate to miss the bus, Max thought. On the other hand these military men might arrange a ride back to town for them, might even bring them themselves in a jeep. You never knew. Might as well make the best of it. Was Jane listening to all these species of bird?
“How close are we to the river?” Max called back to the gunman, who didn’t respond. “We saw a waterfall yesterday that couldn’t be beat. I say, my dear, was that a waterfall?”
“All right,” she said. “Okay.”
“Would you believe,” Max called back to the gunman, “I have a wife who complains about being on a tropical vacation? Other women say, ‘You never take me anywhere.’”
“Vacation?” said Jane. “Who takes a vacation for eighteen years?”
She’d been sixteen when they met, an English schoolgirl. He liked to say he stole her from her father and it wasn’t a big stretch. He’d been working on an oil rig twenty miles out on the ocean. Three-month shifts. All men. The boss, her father, had brought her on board. What sort of a dull-headed move was that, to bring your sixteen-year-old daughter out to a place like that?
Oil rig: square island, salt and steel, concrete, fish, everything the color of water.
Max had been thirty-four at the time, married with a daughter in Sussex. He was thirty-six and divorced when he took Jane away. The first place they’d gone was Africa, where they’d stayed for years, far from anything she’d ever known, Max the only familiar object for thousands of miles, anyone else days away. It was like being the last two people on Earth. It was like you yourself had sent everyone off, except for the man with you—the only man left on Earth. It was like being in one of those movies about that, about you being the only ones who had ever done this, your great idea, and his. At first.
But then the movie keeps going, five years, eight years, twelve. Eventually you want a movie like that to be over, you want to see a different movie, change the channel, but it keeps going. Then one day fifteen, sixteen years in, you’re suddenly sick of it—not horrified, not scared—just annoyed and sick to death of it, sick of yourself, sick of him. It was like waking up in someone else’s bed and knowing just how you’d gotten there.
They’d been going like this for eighteen years, half her life, never stopping.
The gunman prodded Jane with the gun when she stopped behind Max. “Ow,” she said. “Max, he just stabbed me with that monstrous weapon!”
The gunman said something angrily in Spanish.
“Hey, watch where you direct that thing, kiddo,” Max said, and moved Jane, rubbing her elbow, around him. “You go ahead of me.”
They all continued walking.
Of course they stop, Max would counter. They ran out of money every few years. Remember she’d been a postal lady in New Zealand? Carried sacks of mail. And she’d swabbed decks on a ship like a man, all the way across the Indian Ocean. Spirited girl, always had been. One of the first things he’d liked about her.
And how about the time they became citizens of New Zealand? he’d say. You have to hold still for an honor like that. Nobody just throws citizenship papers into the airplane after you. Remember they got to meet the president on New Year’s Day? They got to shake hands with the president.
His favorite defense. How about the time in New Zealand?
Yes, but they left the next day! The very day after they received their citizenship, they left, Jane would say. And now they didn’t even own anything other than the belongings in their packs and it might be nice to.
Didn’t own! Max said. They still had some carpets in New Zealand, remember? They’d gotten them in India and brought them along, left them with the neighbors in Wellington. They could go back and get those carpets anytime they liked. Is that what she wanted? Carpets?
She didn’t want carpets.
Citizens of New Zealand, he’d say. Hands in pants. Looking around. As a matter of fact, this is a nice spot. Maybe they could be citizens here too.
They were deep in the rainforest now, dense damp foliage, vines like arms crossing in front of them, sun blocked by a canopy of leaf-knotted trees meters overhead. Bugs whipped past them, loud as motors, biting their hands and getting caught in their sweaty hair, sticking to an eye. Jane brushed
God she hated this now. She could almost imagine another story for herself but she had no faith in it. No faith in herself. She couldn’t really imagine what that other story might be. It had been seven years since she’d seen her father. Nine since she’d seen her sister. Imagine going nine years without seeing your sister.
Max thought she didn’t even like her family. He certainly didn’t. But why not invite them out if she missed them so much? Meet up in Peru for some hiking. Like his daughter had done that one time. That had been good fun.
Was he referring to the time his daughter met them in Africa and got so sick she nearly died, and so afraid she flew home halfway through the trip? The time his own daughter had to fly six thousand miles and risk death to see her dad?
She used to not like her family.
Yes, well, she used to be a teenager.
The three of them rounded a corner, stepped into a clearing, a gathering of huts. “Ah, here we are,” said Max. He stopped and surveyed the patch of border trees, the tents strung between the clotheslines, the overturned crates. “Not much of a station. What is this, an outpost camp?”
The three walkers rounded the corner, stepped into the clearing. The gunman looked around and stopped.
He was thinking (in Spanish): Where the fuck did they go? Fuck.
He kept his gun trained on the Americans.
The bus comes on Tuesday, Max thought. All the people at the coffee farm had told them that. Mimed it. Mimed Tuesday.
Jane was thinking: Shit.
The gunman was thinking: Shit. They’d gone off without him, the bastards. What, they’d woken up, seen he was gone, and left? Or, worse, had they not even noticed he was gone and just marched off without him? And here he’d been so crafty, bringing back two Americans, surprise, surprise! Now who’s the champion? But no one was here.
He took out his cell phone.
He told the Americans to shut up.
And another thing was America. The argument always went like this: Max despised first-world countries, but Jane wanted to go. Might be fun to ride a tandem bike across America. Picnic basket on the back.
Oh no, Max always said. They’d been to America once already and they weren’t going back. America had been exactly as they’d expected, exactly as they’d always heard. First thing that happens, they buy a cup of tea and the lady says, “Have a nice day!” Just like an American on the television. He and Jane got on a bus and a fight broke out between a young man and the driver. The two of them screaming at each other until the man got off the bus, cursing. Violent country. He’s surprised they didn’t get killed.
Jane: They spent one day in America on their way to Mexico. Nineteen hours.
Max: And it was just as they thought it’d be. No reason to go back.
Jane thought, Shit. That is, she was thinking about shit. She couldn’t see a camp like this one—strung canvas, fire pit, encroaching foliage—without the image coming into her mind of a camp they’d stayed in at the edge of the Sahara. The latrine had filled to the top and then run over. People had to stand on the seat to shit into the pile. Soon the latrine was so full of shit, you just shat nearby it. It became a sort of “latrine area,” and you tried to get your shit in the vicinity of it on the ground there without getting too close yourself and stepping in it and tracking it back into the camp. Then, of course, the rains came and drained all that shit right into the camp. It all came floating in, getting into everything. The tents, the mosquito nets, the clotheslines. It got onto hands and smeared onto hair.
The gunman now very decidedly had the gun pointed at them, which was unfriendly, for one, and dangerous, but Max and Jane were both determined not to make a thing of it. It wasn’t as though they’d never had a gun pointed at them before, and to complain like an American usually made things worse.
“He’s asking to see our passports,” Max said. “Here you go, then.”
The gunman took the passports. He noted they were not blue and didn’t want to think about that. He put them in his pocket and paced. His boot flapped. Too big. He almost tripped. He’d been given a fucking mismatched set of shoes. He told the Americans to stop looking at him and go sit by the pit. He had to make some calls.
The gunman said something in Spanish. Max and Jane didn’t understand, but they understood the waving gun and went where the gunman said.
Yes, they’d been captured before. In the late nineties, by a tribe. In order to pass through certain territories you had to ask permission of the head of the tribe. Usually it was no trouble. But one time a tribe took the opportunity to
lock them up. Jane had been certain it was the end. But Max had charmed them all, chattered away in English—which none of them understood. The tribe leader had offered Max a dark mixture, the kind of thing that could kill a man not used to it, but Max had drunk it down and asked for more, and by the end of the night they were all singing songs.
They squatted in the dirt with their packs on. A line of ants was re-forming itself around them. The gunman poked at the tents with the gun, making agitated sounds into his cell phone.
Jane slapped the bugs. The ground was burnt moss and forest and soot. The sun coming on full by now, breaking into the clearing. Sweat was coming down their faces and arms. They took off their packs.
The gunman came back over to them with something else in his hand.
The gunman was thinking they had to be at the main camp by now. Were they not answering on purpose? He didn’t have a second piece of rope, but in his experience, Americans were an obedient bunch, as long as you had a gun. They’d just stare, or weep—though they always talked, you couldn’t shut them up. He couldn’t herd these two fourteen kilometers, he knew. When were those assholes coming back?
Yes, Max could talk all day to people who didn’t understand him, but with tourists who spoke English, he did just shut up. He let her take over, had never been much for small talk. He’d nod out on the stair or watch the light play on the plaza tile though the trees—who knew what he was thinking—while she talked to the tourists about wristwatches that stopped in the tropical air, places to use the bathroom. All travelers love to talk about shit and bugs. He didn’t need anyone but her.
Last month in Nicaragua, they’d met two sisters who had been too scared of getting robbed to do anything but hide in their room, mosquito nets lowered around them. Max and Jane had brought the sisters along with them for a few days, showed them the ropes. They’d been in awe of Max—in the old way. (People used to be so impressed with Max.) Last fun he and Jane
What she herself had been in awe of at one time, she couldn’t quite reach anymore when she looked at him. She’d been thinking for two years now about leaving him.
But what was left for him without her? Middle age giving way to old age and the difficulties of that, disenfranchised family, cemented-in views that were now outdated, no friends, no money, no hobbies that one could do while sitting still, no abilities of any kind other than not speaking fifty-eight languages, a keen knack for spotting animals no one else could see in the trees, a knack for drinking the locals’ water anywhere in the world (this last was no cheap trick, you had to be determined, unafraid of illness or death, although in most places consuming water wasn’t considered a special skill, you don’t get a paycheck for being thirsty).
All either of them had was this thing they’d created, this two-ness between them. If she left (or made him leave, rather—there could be no question of her walking off and leaving him somewhere, unimaginable, he, the walking man), what was left for him?
Did he think about that? What did he think about? All these years with him and she still didn’t know.
For her, sure, there was enough. She was still young enough to create more for herself, to make it someplace, find someone. An adequate life, a job in retail, maybe, or being a company rep or an exec or something. Maybe she’d find that life exotic after the one she’d led. Or nicely quaint. So far she hadn’t done it, because of what it could become in the long run—what they’d always feared, what they’d always been running from, the drab, the dull, the stupid, and then death. She’d always said she could never go in for a regular job, house, kids, vacation a few weeks a year. Avoidance of this had been their mainstay, their mythology. But now this option seemed inviting compared to what Max would become by himself, alone, aging. Might as well be dead.
So that’s how Jane thought of him, and Max, in a place deep inside himself, knew it. And knew, too, that she might be right. But he also knew it didn’t matter, for he had already done the one great thing he would do (not travel all over the world, anyone could do that—didn’t even need the resources, just the desire): he’d loved this one woman for eighteen years.
The gunman held the piece of rope in his hands. He put down his gun and began to forcibly tie Max’s hands together behind him.
“Now is this really necessary, mate?”
Jane looked on, uncertain. All right, no, they’d never had their hands tied before, but that didn’t mean they should get excited, right? She couldn’t stop him somehow, could she? How? Grab the gun? “I wonder if this is a stitch-up,” Jane said.
Max was nodding. “They’ve mistaken us for foreign intruders. These fellows are trained to think that anyone near the mountains is trying to take over their government.”
They were sitting facing each other by the fire pit. The gunman was sulking by the clotheslines with his phone. Jane was parched.
“You know,” Max said, “I don’t think this is a military man. I believe what we have here is an insurgent. A rebel of some kind.”
They both looked at the gunman.
“I’m sure I’m right about this,” he said. “Look at the uniform. It’s not a proper military uniform. The top and bottom don’t match.”
“That doesn’t mean anything. Who can tell who wears what?” Jane said.
Max considered. “What war do they have going on here? Do they have one?”
“I thought it was over ages ago.”
“Insurrections, maybe? Mountain revolts?”
“Well, if we read the paper,” said Jane, smartly. “If we spoke Spanish.” She couldn’t resist.
“Hey,” Max called to the gunman, “are you a revolutionary or a soldier? We can’t tell.”
The gunman didn’t know he was being spoken to.
“Some new revolution,” Max said, looking back from the gunman.
“No doubt,” Jane said. One they hadn’t heard of, since they didn’t read the papers, since they didn’t speak the language, since they didn’t care what was going on around them other than what they could see before them. Only way to know a country is just to be in it, he’d always said. Walk the land. Be among the people. The political stuff was so boring. It changed every month.
“This is the stupidest thing that’s ever happened to us,” she said.
“Get off,” Max said. They’d been through worse, Max thought. This wasn’t going to be something they always talked about. Besides, what was this—a situation? Were they being kidnapped? If so, Max wondered whom
this guy thought they were going to call for money. No one in Max’s family was going to donate to the cause. And these revolutionaries or whoever they were better have someone who spoke a little English, because if you thought Max was bad at languages, he doubted his family believed other languages existed.
Things had been better in Africa, Max was thinking. Things had been better in New Zealand. Only the Americas. The Americas got them all right. Every time.
“Cállate,” the gunman called to the American, who blinked at him and stopped talking for a moment but then went on talking. The gunman went over and punched the American in the face and came back.
As for the gunman, we may wonder who he was and where he came from. He was much like a regular gunman for the insurgents: he’d been born not ten kilometers from this spot and loved it here, despite the rain, the poverty, the fighting. He’d grown up doing gunman activities and wanting to do them. He’d learned how to shoot at age nine (he was now nineteen), he knew people who’d died by bullet, he’d shot people he hadn’t known, he loved the cool nights of the dry season, he’d had his share of fistfights and knife fights and preferred fists because knives were too psychological and fistfights ended fast. He believed in no land tariffs. He believed in school for kids (he himself had gone three years). He’d buried his mother and two brothers.
He was different from a regular gunman in that he’d been to the States once, had hated it, and had not wanted to stay. He preferred to stay here, where he had the hope of one day being a leader, though he knew those who knew him would say there was little chance of that: he lacked charisma, they would say. And maybe he was different in that he didn’t hate all Americans, though he wished those two over there weren’t there.
One other fact about the gunman: he’d never loved. He wasn’t a psychopath or anything so ugly as that. He’d had women (and once a man) but he couldn’t say he’d ever felt love, and he understood this was strange, since the men he knew were always loving their heads off all over the place. He just felt dry. He had desire and lust but never longing, and this bothered him.
But it was only a fact about him, not a defining characteristic, one short fact among others—another being that he could fall from anywhere and not hurt himself, had been like that since he was a kid, could fall out of trees, off roofs. He was known for it, had earned nicknames.
What was that sound? That faint roar in the distance? Was that the bus?
Jane looked over at Max. He’d heard it too. But what were they going to do about it?
The gunman listened for his men but heard only the Wednesday bus, a day early this week apparently.
As for Max, he’d already done the great thing he would do.
They were quiet, all of them, contemplating the glassy future. “Look,” said Max at last. “There’s going to be a moment when you can get away. I want you to take that moment and do something with it.”
“What am I supposed to do with it?”
“How? Where? What about you?”
“Don’t sit there asking questions like that when the moment comes, okay?”
Jane was thinking: See? He had a plan. If this fellow with his gun thought a piece of string would hold Max back, well, he had another think coming. There wasn’t a knot Max couldn’t untie. It was as if he’d been a sailor. And Max had vision. He knew how to see monkeys in the trees. When no one else could see anything but green, Max would spot dozens.
Max was brave, had always been brave. She knew that. He had talents. A punch in the face was nothing to him. She’d seen him stand still when the gorillas came after you. That was brave. They had gone to the gorilla preserve in Tanzania some years back, the one people make films about. The gorilla experts, they say to you, “Okay, listen up, folks. This is what’s going to happen. The gorillas are going to come after you. They’ll make a big noise and run right at you. It’s something they do, the gorillas. It’s a test. You have to just wait it out. When they charge, don’t move—stay where you are.” They tell you that and you repeat it in your mind, Don’t move, don’t move, but then when this five-hundred-pound gorilla charges at you, you just throw up your hands and run screaming. Supposedly it took months to learn how not to. Only way to make friends with the fellows, the guides said.
Max was the one who hadn’t run. Even the experts—the newer ones, anyway—ran. The scientists ran, but Max didn’t. Jane had been amazed. Everyone had been.
Maybe she’d go back to England, see her sister. Maybe she’d go back to New Zealand, where she had friends. She wouldn’t go back to Africa, though things had been better there.
Jane looked up and realized Max had scooted to his feet, hands still behind him, so fast she hadn’t heard him. The gunman strode over shouting and Max shouted back. The gunman raised the gun to his face. Jane was screaming. But she got up and ran screaming into the forest (didn’t sit there asking questions) because what else was she supposed to do? He’d told her to do that and if he had told her to, it meant that this was his plan for her and so he had a plan for himself, too—which was what? That he get punched in the face again? That he get shot? That he get himself killed? That he not care about himself as long as she got away? What kind of a plan was that? She realized she was still screaming so she stopped. Then she heard a shot and started screaming again.
He would one day love. By the time he got around to it, this day with the two Americans would have been long ago (two years) and so much would have taken place in the meantime (he’d leave the insurgents, move to the city with his uncle) that he wouldn’t even think of them anymore, except when he had to use his right arm (constantly), because that’s where the American (Brit, actually, and New Zealander, but the gunman would never know that) had shot him, and the place still ached after all this time. The American had brought out his hands, untied, and grabbed the gun with a grip the gunman never would have expected—not so hard that he couldn’t have wrenched it away, he was trained for this sort of thing, after all, had killed a man in four minutes with his hands. But the problem was the shoe. It was too big, his foot slid in it and at the very moment he needed to have it he couldn’t get a good grip on the ground and the American toppled him over and shot him in the arm and then stood over him, staring like a fucking American, gun hanging at his side. The last thing the gunman saw, before the blood made him lower his head, was the two of them running, turning away, the woman pulling the man’s arm.
Later that image, the two of them in that instant, would come into his mind again and again, but it would no longer be there when he finally did love, because his own image, his own love, came back at him instead. But the Americans (New Zealanders, rather) stayed in his mind for longer than most things.
You would have thought that going through something like that would keep them together and it did for a while, but humans go through all sorts of things, and it doesn’t always settle their hearts.
At the end of it all, after she’d left—well, after he left (because she made him) and, not knowing what she was doing, she left too—and after they both found themselves in countries far away from each other, in places that didn’t have the energy or beauty the two of them had once found in such places together (although there is nothing unique in that, the world dims over time—though maybe it wouldn’t have had the evil tint that it eventually seemed to Max to have, or the lifeless, meaningless tint that it seemed to Jane to have, if they hadn’t parted ways)—after all that, each of them installed on separate continents, she wrote a letter to no one of significance: one of the sisters they’d met in Nicaragua with whom they’d traveled for a few days. Jane wrote to explain, felt she had to explain to this stranger why she’d left him (or made him leave, the walking man) and what it had felt like.
It was like leaving him in the clearing with the gunman. That’s how it felt. Like she’d been given a chance to get away, and he hadn’t. He’d given her a chance and she’d taken it, knowing where she was leaving him and in what condition, knowing the fear and loneliness he must have felt, but she’d done it, run on a bed of leaves and needles, under a canopy of trees (didn’t ask questions)—or that had been the plan, though it hadn’t turned out that way.
At first she was running. She realized she was still screaming and she closed her mouth. She heard the shot and started screaming again. She was moving away, running over beds of leaves, the sun coming through the branches.
Then she slowed, and stopped. She didn’t move, thinking.
She turned and went back.
She could see a break in the trees and was moving toward it. Should she go in there? She didn’t know who had been shot—Max or the gunman. She was pushing away the branches, she was pushing herself through, and then she stepped out to greet him (I came back for you) or to be shot