"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, April 21, 2011

‘Crystal’ Conclusion


In the remaining months I had in Madras, I got to know Sam Hanks far better than either he or I would have thought.  We seemingly had nothing in common, but there was something, perhaps a bit of the curious, in both of us.  He knew no more what I could possibly be like than I him.  I found, strangely, after a number of weeks, that I no longer cared whether what he told me was truth or fantasy.  His whoring in the brothels of Haiti, his getting cut up by a native’s brother in Abidjan, his riding camel-back by moonlight out to the Sphinx, his three mulatto children in Dakar, Guayaquil, and Ceylon, were all attractive enough o me that I didn’t need to know whether or not they actually happened.  It was enough to know they could have.

‘Oh, Christ, Hugh’, he said. ‘She was something else.  a big, strong woman, with a broad back and long, powerful legs.  She’s wrap those legs around me and almost take my breath away, hollerin’ for more, bouncin’ up and down on the bed like a crazy woman, pantin’ and groanin’, creakin’ the springs until I thought they was about to bust, flappin’ those big, black tits into my face.  Oh, Lord, that was sumpin’…and what a beautiful baby it was, too.  All chocolate cream color with big, black eyes, and light, curly hair.  Loved to come into my arms and coo into my ear.  I hated to leave that kid.’

‘So, why did you?’, I asked.

‘What the shit am I going to do with a big, black African momma and a little kid? Why the woman didn’t even speak English.  She lived in an old, ramshackle place on a dirty, rundown street outside of town.  Now, would it make any sense for me to stay with a woman like that?’

‘And the States?’

‘The United States of America is more foreign to me than any of these places I’ve been telling you about.  Why, what would I do there? Where would I go? I’m used to the boondocks by now.  I like these hot, tropical nights and the warm beer and the singing of bugs and the smell of everything around me.  I can’t be shut up in some office or even some little old house.  I’m used to servants waiting on me, and a huge house with big, sweet trees hanging their branches over me.  A come-and-go way of life.  I like lagoons and hot food and drinking gin and tonics on my porch and being drunk before noon.  Good God, shut me up in one of those cities and I’d go crazy.  Life is different out here.  I can’t go back, and I don’t want to.’

Two weeks later I went to Delhi on a business trip and happened to meet one of Hanks’ colleagues working in the same organization.  ‘So you met Sam Hanks’, he said.

‘Yes, a fascinating guy’.

‘You didn’t believe anything he told you, right?’

‘Not everything, no’

‘Don’t believe anything.  That man can’t tell the truth.  What kind of a past did he concoct for himself this time?’

I told him what I could piece together – teaching in Mexico, Korea, Africa, Ceylon…’

‘It’s bullshit.  Every goddam bit of it.  Hanks has been hanging on to this organization for years.  If it weren’t for the fact that it’s a so-called “do good” agency that thinks, mistakenly, that it has to do good even for worthless employees, Hanks would have been out on his ass years ago.  He could have been in some of the places he mentioned, but either briefly or as a third-rate administrator with no life.  He was drunk most of the time, and could hardly make an appearance at the office.

‘What about Ken Strickland? What’s the story there?’

‘He’s a court jester, a clown.  A big story-teller.  He keeps the group amused.  He’s a marginal character.’

On my trip back to the South, I kept thinking of Hanks and my relationship with him and what the Delhi colleague had said.  I thought for a moment of not seeing him.  Somehow the old Protestant background insisted that even if fantasy were acceptable, a deliberate attempt to deceive was an entirely different story.  Yet, I knew I couldn’t.  Some kind of relationship had been established, no matter how tenuous.  And, after all, why should anything change? I knew that much of what he had told me was untrue and had come to even enjoy the fact. So why change?

A few days later after my arrival in Madras, I got a phone call from Hanks. ‘Where you been, you sumbitch?  Why haven’t you called? Runnin’ out on your old friends? Come on over to dinner tonight.  Let’s get it on.''’

When I got there I saw the familiar sight of Hanks swaying on his porch balcony, drink in hand, leaning over the side.  ‘How’re they hangin’?’

‘Wait till you see what I have cooked’, he said.  ‘Fresh brook trout frown in special from Kodai.  I’ve got a friend with Indian Airlines, and he brought it over just now.  It can’t be more than a few hours out of the water. That, and a fine Riesling smuggled off the Port of Tangiers stranded at the docks. Some fresh Malabar almonds, crisp broccoli from the hills, mangoes from Bangalore…it’s a goddam feast.  Get yourself a drink before the ice melts.  Did I ever tell you about the time I was in Bihar in May? Oh, Christ, the temperature was well over 120F and the goddam Biharis were droppin’ like flies.  Old people keeling over in the streets, strong women dying of dehydration.  I remember just where I was, at the New Light of Asia Hotel.  Oh, what a dump that was.  The electricity wouldn’t stay on for more than ten minutes at a time, the ceiling fan just about twirling when the juice went off.  I had the shits, and had ‘em bad.  There I am dying in the heat, barely able to move, and I got to roll out of bed to squirt.  Then twenty times I blow my guts into the shitter, stagger back to bed, and swig down quart after quart of water.  The trouble is, the water is bad, and each time I guzzle, I am inviting a million amoebas, bacilli, giardia, asterisks, pin worms, and all the rest to have a good feed.  Guzzle and shit, shit and guzzle.  I was going to croak….

‘I was saved by this sweet Catholic nurse who had heard I was sick and came over from the Provincial Hospital.  Five days I was in that hell-hole of a place’.  Hanks went over to a make-shift cabinet under the cane bar and began to bring out his silver and crystal and to place it piece by piece on the rattan mat on the floor.  He set each place perfectly – two wine glasses, salad fork, dessert and coffee spoon, embroidered napkin and ring.  ‘Now look at that’, he said, standing back and admiring the gleaming bone china, shining silver, and glinting cut glass.  ‘Isn’t that something?’

After a number of drinks more – I was getting very drunk – we sat down, cross-legged on the mat in front of the elegant settings.  Hanks picked up a dainty silver bell from the mat and rang.  In a few seconds the Tamil servant appeared.  ‘You can serve the fish now, Peter’.  The white-suited servant padded quietly down the stairs on bare feet.

‘I don’t think there’s anything strange in serving food like this in such a beautiful way, do you?’, Hanks asked.

‘Not at all’, I said, biting into a roll, thinking only of the food to come.

‘Neither do I.  I suppose it’s a bit like the British who used to insist on tea at four, gin and tonics at seven, stiff upper lip and all the rest.  Divide and rule was only part of their game.  Tradition was the other.’  I mumbled in agreement and let him go on.  ‘And I like the elegance.  Delicate glasses, highly-polished silver, bone china you can see through.  I love it.’

The servant brought the food.  The trout were served on a large, engraved, silver tray, simple and tasteful.  They were sprinkled with browned almonds, and I could see the butter glistening on the bottom.  There were sprigs of fresh parsley on the sides.  ‘Please’, said Hanks.  ‘After you.’  I helped myself to fish and vegetables and waited for Hanks to do the same.  After he did, he said, ‘Now the wine.’  He took the bottle and with a practiced gesture put in the corkscrew and pulled out the cork.  He poured half a glass for himself, then held it up to the candlelight.  ‘Look at it’, he said.  ‘The color is so clear and rich, a kind of golden amber.’

Drunkenly I dug into my fish, taking great hunks and swallowing wine to wash them down.  Hanks ate slowly and deliberately, chewing each piece of fish carefully, enjoying each bite.  I picked up my wine glass, swallowed the remains, and set my glass down heavily on the bare floor at the end of the mat.  As I did, I felt the delicate stem crack and tinkle to the floor.  I held up the broken pieces and looked at them, then at Hanks.

‘You broke it’, he said.

I shrugged my shoulders slightly, tightened my lips, and said, ‘Sorry’.

‘You broke it’, he said again, reaching over to take the pieces from my hands.  He fondled them, almost caressing the long stem, and running his finger along the rim of the glass.  He took the two pieces and fitted them together.  He held both up to the candlelight, smiled, and put them down.

‘Now, where were we?’

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