As soon as they called the First Class passengers I stepped to the head of the line, hurried down to my seat and braced myself for the crowd that came slumping past minutes later with their loose, swollen bags. Any of them could stop, pretend to cough or adjust a strap, and a runty hand could pull out a cobbled together shank which he’d stick into my chest, my neck, my cheek where it would clatter against my teeth, again and again, sinking through the soft meat of my eye. I left my seatbelt unbuckled, ready to fly up and fight my way back to American soil. When the stewardesses began their pantomime of safety, I was able to relax a little, probably only because by that time I’d finished two vodka tonics. I was hoping to drink myself to sleep, but as we reached cruising altitude and the ice in my drink tumbled under the collar of my shirt, I knew I wouldn’t be so lucky this time.
When I was first told they were sending me to this country to do an accounting of the Canadian mining firm’s books, I told them I couldn’t. I said, “My wife is sick.”
There was silence on the other end of the line and I was suddenly unsure if I’d ever met the man to whom I was speaking. I’d assumed he was the same Steve we’d had over for dinner a few years earlier. My wife had made enchiladas with mole sauce. Steve had picked around the plate, ate half his salad and a few scoops of refried beans, leaving two perfectly formed enchiladas like a big old fuck-you to his hostess who’d spent hours in the kitchen, lifting the skin off broiled peppers.
The man on the phone eventually said, “I’m sorry to hear about that.” Another pause, as though this made what came next acceptable, “Your flight’s tomorrow, at seven.”
“A.M.” he explained.
As turbulence wobbled the plane I leaned my head into the oily leather seat and breathed deep, but this made the pressure in my chest expand into a lead weight.
Half-way through the flight the woman beside me turned and grinned until I stopped pretending to be asleep. She was an American, a Mississippian, she clarified, and was going down to visit her daughter, who was about to marry a young man from the country’s elite. She wore a beige suit like an ill-fitting exoskeleton. Every inch of exposed skin –face, neck, hands – was layered with foundation and powder so a smell of petroleum oozed out from beneath gusts of perfume. Her eyes were small and a beautiful blue, startling to find rooted in that puffy, twitching face.
“They’re very nice people,” she said, then admitted that in fact she’d never met them. “But they own three coffee plantations. The wedding is going to be at one of them.”
Despite her grin, she was clearly horrified that her daughter was about to be swallowed up by a family of brown people, no matter how rich they might be, no matter how comforting the word plantation.
“You know, they’re not actually Hispanic, they’re Spanish. I mean, they have no Indian blood at all.”
Eventually, she left me alone and began searching through her cavernous plaid handbag, setting off an incessant clinking of lipstick cases against her cell phone, wallet, makeup case, the tinny rattle of loose change. At one point she pulled out a photograph in a gaudy metal frame. In it a beautiful young woman in a tight fitting white dress leaned against a stone wall. The woman stared for a few minutes then, with an elaborate sigh, dropped the frame back into the purse.
I’m sure I looked like a compatriot, an overweight, middle-aged man with thinning hair gone white expect a few strands of black that looked permanently wet. The starched collar of my button-down shirt, the faint pinstripe on my suit pants, and the shine of my black shoes all suggested not only that we were both Americans, but that back home we might even have been friends, would’ve invited each other over for dinner parties where we’d drink too much, flirt clumsily at the fridge, then turn our energies to moaning about our ingrate children, the awfulness of youth in general, and the folly of anyone who disagreed with us about anything. And, I knew, we were compatriots of a sort, but I was too tired, too angry at being on that plane when I should’ve been home with Joyce.
I’d promised no more trips after she got sick. I told her I’d work from home, or at least from the American headquarters of the firms I audited. But, it turned out, this wasn’t possible, and so every few months I was off again – Zimbabwe, Peru, Bolivia, South Africa –in each place working to make sense of the tangle of fraud that constituted the local office’s financial records. I had a particular talent for this, an ability to see through bureaucratic madness and to articulate a legally defensible financial record. Typically, I went down to the capitals of these godforsaken places and took a limo to my hotel – the nicest in the country, holdovers from colonial days – and the next morning another limo would ferry me to the offices that were always staffed half with gringos who looked like they’d had too much local rum, and half by locals who hadn’t quite learned how to smother their bitter scent. I was given my own office, usually that of some recently fired executive, and I would make sense of the confusion they’d all bred in their frenzy to pull minerals from the earth.
We descended through a scrim of clouds. The city clung to a tangle of ravines at the foot of sheer, black mountains, the lower slopes of which were smothered with shanty-towns. The downtown was marked by dull gray buildings and a few half-finished concrete towers. Our plane touched down with a jolt, the seatbelt cut into my gut, then we seemed to be rising again before slamming down a second time, the engines whirring, the smell of burning rubber filling the cabin. Then we were there, trembling on the runway.
– This story was originally published in The Antioch Review, and can be read in the Spring 2011 issue of that magazine. The story was selected for inclusion in Best American Mystery Stories 2012.