The JRB presents an excerpt from Animal Behavior, a work in progress by Po Bhattacharyya.
In the beginning, I’m stepping off a plane, hobbling on scrunched-up legs toward the arrivals hall of Hendrik Van Eck Airport. Twilight has washed the tarmac purple. A breeze moves in from the lowveld. The scents of a great many trees. The date is May 29. The year is 2010. It is the first day of my new job.
At my back, a year-long tryst with unemployment, the soupy remains of my college education gathering in my parents’ basement in Princeton, New Jersey, along with the rest of my things: my piles of books approaching the slit of the hopper window; my gym shorts shed like snakeskin on the carpet; suitcases lying unpacked; and, on the nightstand, a succulent with a lone purple leaf. I was there as recently as yesterday, chewed up and spat out by the Great Recession, making the most of my New York Times subscription. ‘The individual stories are familiar,’ one article begins. ‘The chemistry major tending bar. The classics major answering phones. The Italian studies major sweeping aisles at Wal-Mart.’
As for me, I can scarcely believe my luck. Here I am, half a world away. The arrivals hall has whitewashed walls, a floor scuffed tan with use. Cobwebs dangle from the ceiling above me. Cobwebs spun by African spiders!
My new job is the wildlife-ecology apprenticeship at EMDES Ltd. (Go ahead. Google it.) The pay is cranberries—5000 rand a month, the equivalent of about 470 dollars. But the job description includes tasks such as ‘visiting wildlife reserves,’ and ‘conducting fish surveys in crocodile-infested rivers.’ Plus, they’ll provide room and board. It was the 143rd job I applied to. Of course I said yes.
The pamphlet on the WildernessCareers subreddit ran to seven-and-a-half pages. ‘WORK WITH US IN AFRICA!!!’ it announced. Under a section titled ‘Our Philanthropy’ lay a rhinoceros with a hot-pink towel draped over its eyes, followed by this:
And so it went, for paragraphs on end, a treatise of flowery syntax and billowing promise, in Comic Sans no less. My heart lub-dubbed away as I read.
My new boss is a man named Conrad Venter. We’ve agreed to meet in the airport’s outdoor courtyard. ‘Look for the weird art,’ he has told me, and sure enough, there it is: a pool flanked by copper beaten into animal shapes. A giraffe on awkward feet bending down to take a sip. Two antelope at the water’s edge, as still as if alive. A hyena frozen in a sprint. A baboon perched high on a rock at the pool’s center. A man stands apart from it, beside a group of women in long skirts and elaborate necklaces. He’s holding up a handmade sign that says NEIL.
‘You must be Mr. Venter,’ I say, walking over and extending my hand.
A flicker of something—surprise? excitement?—passes over his face. ‘Welcome to Africa.’
An ice cube puddles in my gut. Two weeks ago, when my boss described himself as ‘ancient’ on the phone, I’d imagined a face for him: a late-stage Clint Eastwood, all wrinkles and stubble, a mountain man gone to seed. But the person in front of me is barely thirty-five, clean-cut, boyish, even pretty. His olive-green khaki shirt is unbuttoned at the top. His tight shorts, also khaki, end inches above his knees. The skin on his sinewy forearms has been tanned to a baconesque crimson.
‘Please, call me Conrad,’ he says, looking me up and down. ‘And I should call you Neil?’
I avert my gaze from the parting of his shirt, from those collarbones that curve like the Pyrenees. All at once, I’m aware of how gross I look: the unkempt hair, the swamps at my armpits. I haven’t brushed my teeth in almost twenty-four hours. The rot of airplane food coats my tongue.
‘The name on my birth certificate is Nityananda,’ I say, trying to inhale instead of exhale as I speak. ‘It’s my Sanskrit name, but no one really calls me that.’
‘And why not?’
‘It’s hard on white teeth.’ The sarcasm doesn’t land; for the best, perhaps. In the background, a boy runs laps about his harried mother. A pendulum of snot dangles from his nostril. Scrawled across his back are the words MISTER TROUBLE.
‘One more time, please,’ Conrad says, theatrically, cupping a palm to his ear.
After that, he tries to pronounce my name a few times. ‘It’s like a magic spell,’ he says, eventually.
We walk to the end of the room, where the check-in luggage has been stashed by the windows. I’m looking for my blue-gray Osprey, which I packed with austerity: jeans, tees, sweatshirt, fleece, five pairs of socks, and as many sets of underwear. A zippered pouch of toiletries. The only indulgence among my things is a mystery package wrapped in newspaper—an extremely early birthday present from my parents, who, after a quarter-century in the U.S., have not yet warmed to the idea of shipping.
My fellow travelers throng the luggage pile. A man stands in front of me, blocking my approach, picking at his ear with a house key. I step to the side, falling in behind another man who is also hard at work, scratching his groin through the hem of his pant-pocket. I can relate to the impulses driving both of these men, but it doesn’t stop me from judging them. Who are these people, I think. I would never do that, I think. Not in public, surely!
Alas, as the seconds tick on, another truth cuts through the noise: my backpack isn’t there. Families make off with their suitcases and children. A dreadlocked hippie claims his technicolor woven sack. I look on as the pile dwindles down to a handful of bags, none of them mine. I can’t help but marvel at the cliché of it: losing my bag upon arriving in a foreign country for the first time. The most banal omen of all. When I deliver the news to Conrad, he is unfazed. ‘Like I said, welcome to Africa.’
At the airline counter, a woman with elaborately painted fingernails motions me forward. ‘Can I help you,’ she says. A statement, not a question. Her eyes are glued to the computer in front of her. Cornrows crisscross her scalp.
‘I like your nails!’ I say, in my friendliest voice. And it’s true—I do like them. They’re yellow speckled with black, slicing the air like orchids. But the compliment falls flat. In fact, the woman appears not to have heard me at all. She doesn’t look at me, doesn’t move, doesn’t even flinch. I can feel Conrad’s eyes boring into my skull. On my smartphone (another present from Ma and Baba), the bars have dropped to null. At the bottom of the screen, a text to my parents that the airwaves have failed to transmit: ‘Landed safely!’
‘I can’t find my backpack,’ I say, after an interminable silence. I inform the woman that I’ve traveled all the way from New York City. I describe what my Osprey looks like, what it contains. She continues staring at her computer as I speak, the dark, taut skin of her face gleaming blue in the screen’s reflected light. After I’m done, she hands me a complaint form, points to a slot in the far wall, and yells ‘Next!’ This, even though there is no one behind me.
If this were America, I would know what to do next: demand better service, and, if that failed, ask to see the manager. But this isn’t America, and I’ve reached the end of my script. I’m about to turn around and walk away—give up, as it were—when Conrad steps forward. He coaxes the complaint form from my hands and pushes it back across the counter. Now, finally, the woman looks away from her screen. Her eyes pass over the countertop, over the boxy fields on the unfilled page. When she meets Conrad’s gaze, he winks.
There is a pause, and it is an easy one. A flash of fingernails, then a ballpoint pen clicks into place. ‘Boarding pass passport please,’ she says.
Things move smoothly after that. Conrad takes my documents and slides them toward her. When he speaks, it is deliberate, drawn out, as if he’s talking to a child. ‘We need it back. Very important!’ He loops me in to provide a detailed description of my backpack, then goes on to promise a further reward upon its safe return. By the time he’s done, the woman is wide-eyed, nodding vigorously. I already know it’s going to work.
‘Come along, Neil,’ Conrad says, a minute later. His neck is a tree trunk, the neck of a wrestler. At its base is a tattoo: a barcode, like the ones they put on items at the grocery store, except pared down—an abstraction that improves upon the original. I follow it into the nippy evening air.
Conrad’s car is an old, dust-caked Land Rover that he introduces as ‘the bakkie.’ He unlocks it mechanically, by jamming his key into the door. The inside smells vaguely of rust. A thin layer of red dust coats its surfaces. At my feet, bolted to the car’s frame, is a plastic trash bin, the kind that’s usually found in bathrooms. Next to it, a plume of hand tools protrude from a jar.
‘Why did you speak to the woman so slowly?’ I do not ask. Instead, as the car begins to move, I choose to focus on myself. ‘Can we please stop at a general store on our way?’ I say, as the car begins to move. ‘I have no clothes, no toothbrush, nothing.’
But he brushes me off. ‘Save your money! We have extras of everything at camp. And I can just give you some of my clothes for the time being. We’re about the same size, aren’t we?’
We travel on sparse roads. After a few blocks of tidy dwellings and manicured lawns, the neighborhoods begin to fall away. We speed past gas stations, diners, roadside tea stalls. As we merge onto the R40, the last remnants of civilization vanish. The night leaves a lot of room for the imagination. In its nothingness, I am Isak Dinesen taking her first flight over Kenya. I see rolling hills and wooded hollows, leopards stalking prey, raptors napping, elephants drinking from subterranean fountains, or perhaps I see nothing at all, because the highway is impossibly straight, impossibly dark.
Conrad talks in fits and starts, telling me about things that I apparently need to know: his gated community, Hornbill Reserve, where a hundred families live in the middle of their own private clumps of bush; his home inside Hornbill, where he lives alone (‘Until now, of course!’); his expectations of me (‘You’ll have your hands in everything.’); how I’ll be paid (‘In crispy cash!’); his philosophy as a mentor (‘We’ll be friends, but not best friends.’). All the while I ride shotgun in silence, thinking about my academic advisor in college, Dr. Liu, who confided in me once that the first meeting with a student was like the first pancake: ‘A little goopy, not quite there yet.’ But after that, things usually picked up.
About forty minutes later, the bakkie begins to slow. Conrad swings the wheel and drives us off the tar. We follow a dirt road up a hill, directly into the bush, moving up ridges, along them, and then down again into troughs. Our headlights sweep the land, casting steel-cut shadows. The trees lining the road are oddly stunted. When our beam falls on them, they seem to cower. We pass wire fences, owls, a gate with a lone guard. Eventually, we stop. When I step out of the car, I am standing beneath a giant hippopotamus skull balanced atop a pole. A cabin looms to my left. Beyond it lurks a consummate darkness.
‘The seat belt sign has now been turned off,’ Conrad says. ‘Have a pleasant stay, and thank you for flying Venter Airways.’ I can tell that he’s always wanted to say this. Either that, or this is what he says every time he brings a stranger home. Men who look like him must bring a lot of strangers home.
- Po Bhattacharyya is a writer and designer based in Oakland, CA. He is an NEA Fellow, and his work has appeared in Wilderness House, Peregrine Journal, the Wire, the New York Times and elsewhere. Animal Behavior, his first book, is a thriller-ish novel set in the South African hinterland. He is represented by the Laura Gross Literary Agency.