Jeannie wished Walker would share his thoughts more. He’d abandoned college teaching. He didn’t write, didn’t even read. Why? He said Socrates hadn’t read or written anything, Jesus either, and Homer was blind, though hardly illiterate. Since Walker wasn’t Socrates, Jesus, or Homer, Jeannie struggled to see the relevance.
“Your theory is that true thought and poetry don’t come from reading and writing?”
“Not a theory. Just a fact sometimes.”
She had been his student at Monroe College in Blue Ridge, Virginia, the first girl he slept with during his disastrous marriage to someone precariously like her. Fifteen years later she remembered his fascination with Afghanistan. When she wanted to see the world, that’s where she headed.
“What is so important about you seeing the world?” he asked in that precise, pedagogical way of his, turning the discussion away from himself toward her.
“I’m still trying to overcome my poor preparation in the Wheeling public schools. You went to prep school and Harvard and Columbia. I barely finished Monroe College.”
“Did coming from West Virginia really put you at such a disadvantage? You certainly remembered what I said about heading for Afghanistan.”
She laughed and agreed it was easier to recall what you heard than what you read. Why was that? The context of the place where you heard it? How much more you absorbed through the physical presence of the speaker?
“Want to make love?” she asked.
She was an almost manly woman through the shoulders and in the features of her face–her large unpretty mouth, her bumpy nose. Functional, strong. But this was exactly the kind of woman who came to Afghanistan in the post-Soviet years, and Walker had been there long enough to realize that you could only survive if you submitted to its terms. The very idea of submission, pure Islam, made obeying these terms easier, though Walker, a cultural geographer who didn’t believe in God, had to find his own personal sacrifice. One winter in an interlude between conflicts, he realized what that must be: he stopped reading and writing, the predicates of his existence. He had read the way you had to read to earn a doctorate. Then he rewrote his dissertation into a book. But he realized that long before he became a scholar, he was imprinted with reading and writing by what his father read to him as a boy right up to the point when his father ceased to be necessary. At ten or eleven he could do what his father did for him more quickly and efficiently and all week long, not just Friday night through Sunday night when his father was home from work in Boston, joining him and his mother (and older sister Renée before she left for boarding school) in their bungalow near Mt. Monadnock.
Still, it began with his father reading aloud Thoreau’s account of spending a week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers and Emerson’s essays and in inexplicable contrast (what kind of man was his father?) Prescott’s bloody histories of the Spanish conquests of the Incas and Aztecs.
His mother insisted they have dinner at a local inn on Friday night because she’d been alone with the children all week, but his father hurried the waitresses so he could get back home, light a fire, take a book off the shelf and cleanse himself of the Boston banking business of loans, interest rates, and reports to the Board, men “with real money” as opposed to his father, who apparently thought he was rich only when aligning himself with authors he hoped Walker would join in moral striving. His father didn’t even get out of his suit; he sat in his own mother’s rocker and picked up where he’d left off the Sunday evening before.
But in Afghanistan after the Soviets left and he could see the Taliban emerging, Walker asked himself how much book-learning a man needed. Afghanistan’s terrors and disasters were master professors. Had to be accepted. Had to be embraced.
He made his living different ways–teaching English as a second language always worked — but his favorite method became running boarding houses he always called the International Center for Visiting Scholars because he used the same brass sign every time. Jeannie found him in the third such establishment he’d leased from a frightened Afghan hiding out in Dubai. They hit it off because of their past and he still had places he wanted to visit in Afghanistan and asked her to come along. That was the big test for newcomers to Afghanistan, male or female: suffering incidents hostile to your illusions of control. They traveled to raw villages and urban ruinations of stuccoed stone where reading and writing were irrelevant. You couldn’t do either or you’d miss the oldest man you’d ever see leading a burro with an entire world lashed to its back. And Jeannie was talented hiving off with the women and reporting things Walker couldn’t know as a man. Traveling to the next place, she’d tell him everything, though disconcerted by the fact that he wasn’t taking notes.
“Where’s our ‘research’ leading?”
He said not to publishing another book that sold two hundred copies.
“But two hundred copies might generate two thousand library readers.”
He said he had no way of knowing that.
She asked if he felt responsible for not having pushed his book toward more sales?
He said if anything stymied sales, it was the fact that the book was about Afghanistan.
“Does that upset you?”
“Jeannie, if no one else came to Afghanistan, it would be okay by me and good for Afghanistan.”
She said she only was trying to get close. “Sometimes it wears me out, but being with you is the most exciting thing I’ve ever done in my life.”
He said he was glad. She just didn’t know how glad.
One day she found some unopened letters in his night table, including many from his sister. She mentioned this, and he invited her to open one. It turned out that someone addressed the letters for her because his sister’s writing was impossible to decipher. Pages of scrawl and scribble. She had had a stroke.
“That’s heartbreaking. Were you close?”
“I suppose I loved her more than I loved either of my parents.”
“But if you can’t read her letters, how do you respond?”
Walker said he didn’t. He visited her once in an assisted-living facility after the stroke, and his impression was that the brain damage affected not only her motor control but also her sight. He doubted she could read.
“And I don’t write anyway, as you know.”
“What about calling her?”
“Jeannie, we’re in Kabul. You have to be looking right at her to communicate, and it takes a lot of time even then. You can’t rush her. We’d be forever.”
“Yes, but at least you would hear each other’s voice.”
“I don’t think it would make either of us feel better.”
Jeannie had to ask: Were these upsetting letters from his sister the real reason he’d stopped reading and writing? Had he abandoned communication with everyone he couldn’t speak to face-to-face?
They passed an unhappy moment. She knew she had been falling in love and had to find some moral union with this man; it was what she was working on without realizing how difficult it would be. When he didn’t answer, she pressed:
“Why even keep the letters if you don’t read them? Do you expect to go back to reading and writing sometime?”
He looked at her as if asking how she could not understand how much pain the letters caused him. “They arrive, I put them in the drawer, and I close the drawer. I do love her, so I don’t want to throw them away, but you’ve seen yourself: they’re illegible. I suppose it’s all a way of reminding myself that this is how I’ve chosen to live. She’s on one side, I’m on the other.”
They took another trip. There was a village they couldn’t find and couldn’t risk another day’s walk to nowhere. But on retracing their path, they noticed a crevasse that was surely an entryway–Walker said it reminded him of Petra in Jordan– and they got into the village and endured its wariness, including a man lunging at Jeannie and being struck by another man for his bad manners. Walker said if she could swallow it, the attack was aimed more at him than at her.
“Because as a woman I don’t count?”
“The guy took you for my whore and I was polluting his village.”
“Thanks for pointing that out.”
“It’s the way things are here, always have been, always will be.”
A mining consortium invited them to the Intercontinental for a dinner. Jeannie said she’d like to wear the dress Walker had bought her in Herat.
“Remember the one you asked, ‘When are you ever going to wear it?’”
“I like you best in blue jeans and I can’t stand the Intercontinental or showy business dinners.”
“I thought you liked me best without any blue jeans on at all. See, made you smile. I’ll take them off right now if you say we can go.”
The consortium’s vice president gave a speech in which he joked that their motto was “Jobs for gems.” Good for the consortium, good for Afghanistan. Walker and Jeannie sat at a table with Canadian and Australian diplomats and the country manager for the Afghanistan project, a Brit named Harry. Jeannie had used large rollers to make her blonde hair unfurl in a billowy cascade and she wore her lapis-colored dress with intricate silver brocade encircling the neckline and darting along the shoulders. Walker wore his threadbare French naval officer’s jacket, black wool trousers, and a new white silk shirt Jeannie bought to rescue him from looking like mannequin in a used clothing bazaar.
Harry the Brit was a quick-speaking, intense fellow with a small nose and ratty mouth. He wanted to know a lot from Walker, especially about this Taliban. “Pretty innocuous moniker, isn’t it? Calling themselves ‘the students’? How far do you think they’ll get?”
“Be nice,” Jeannie whispered. “I bet he’s going to offer you a job.”
Walker didn’t like the idea of a mining consortium any more than he liked the prospect of the Taliban. To estimate the Taliban’s prospects, he suggested considering how far the Moors got in Spain circa 700 c.e. They took three quarters of the Iberian peninsula, were more or less stopped by the northern mountains, ruled as they pleased and lasted 800 years.
Harry hadn’t gotten the risk assessment he wanted, but he wouldn’t be in international mining if he were faint-hearted. “I take it you are underscoring the fact that Islam is a powerful force and Afghanistan won’t elude its grip.”
“I’d say that’s a safe bet.”
“Islam being identical with the Taliban movement in this case?”
“No, the Taliban is an Islamic revitalization movement that’s ethnically limited to the Pashtuns but we can’t forget the Hindu Kush getting in their way. So there’s room to consider them failing. Geography doesn’t lightly give up its say.”
Harry returned to chatting with Jeannie and said he’d like to meet with Walker in a more
businesslike setting. Did he have a phone number? Jeannie said no. Then how did people get in
touch with him? Jeannie said they knocked on his door or saw him rambling around Kabul.
“You see,” Harry persisted, “I’d like to arrange some consulting.”
“Yes, but things don’t work the ordinary way with him.”
“How did you get in touch with him?”
Jeannie laughed her country laugh, a happy honking hoot. “Just like I said: I came here from West Virginia and knocked on his door.”
Harry reached into the pocket of his tuxedo jacket and extracted an electronic instrument the size of a can of Spam.
“Here’s a satellite telephone for you. You can make and take calls anywhere in the world with it. We’ll pick up the bills.”
Jeannie had never heard of such a thing. She said she couldn’t accept it.
Harry persisted. He showed her how it worked by calling his secretary in London so that Jeannie could ask about the weather. Fog and drizzle, the secretary said. As you would think.
“Yours,” Harry said, taking Jeannie’s hand and wrapping her fingers around the satellite phone. “My treat.”
Walker had been noticing this by-play and actively began listening when Harry quizzed Jeannie about a certain valley in the southwest, which Jeannie said was on the border between the Baluchs and the Iranians.
“Maybe not a trouble spot?” Harry asked.
“You’d have to talk to Walker.”
“You see, that’s precisely what I’d like to do–talk to both of you, invite both of you to assist us with the ministries, go along when we meet the local poohbahs. All that.”
“That sounds exciting,” Jeannie said. “Who knows where it might lead?”
Exactly, Harry said, excusing himself because he had to see the vice president up to his suite. But he’d call. Count on it.
Walker and Jeannie took a cold stroll home that night. Their footsteps scraped sharply on the cobblestones. You could see brilliant stars in multitudes. Kabul didn’t pollute the night with light. Didn’t have the juice.
Walker said, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if things stayed this way forever?” But perhaps in a year, he continued, the bottom would fall out. No doubt it would. That was why for now he just wanted to breathe the chilly air and enjoy the final moments before the Taliban arrived, the miners arrived, and God knew who else showed up.
He sounded so sad to Jeannie. She said he might be wrong. He said no, all that would happen, it was happening now, had already begun. He’d end up in Peshawar for a while, just like when the Soviets took over Kabul.
Did that include taking her with him? Jeannie wondered, but she didn’t say this out loud. After two months together she still couldn’t read Walker. They went to dinner and he was one book, and they came back from dinner, he was another. Amused to begin with, melancholy at the end.
Having let themselves in the International Center for Visiting Scholars and gone upstairs, Jeannie tried, “What about this phone that guy Harry gave me? Could I actually call my mother, do you think?”
“I wouldn’t know.”
She knew Walker didn’t like the phone, but she couldn’t stop herself. On the second try she succeeded. Her mother was so excited that she had to turn things off on the range, plump down in a kitchen chair and forget about dinner. Jeannie was clear as a bell all the way to Wheeling. Her father came on. Then her mother again. Jeannie talked and talked. She had thought she was happy these last few months, but she was so much happier right now that she could barely stand it. It got the better of her. How could a phone like this not be a good thing? It was so wonderful, hearing her parents’ voices and telling them what she was doing.
“I ran into an old professor of mine. He has a study center in Kabul, and I’ve got a room there. That was going to be the midpoint of my trip around the world, remember? I’m halfway there, Papa. Dig in the back yard and you’ll find me if you go deep enough.”
She lowered her eyelids and let her mind fill with images of her parents sitting in the kitchen in Wheeling. Finally, she said she’d be in touch a lot now with this phone. Absolutely. Definitely. Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye. So many goodbyes.
But when she she hung up, she saw that Walker hadn’t been following her conversation and sharing in how happy it made her. He had slid under the sheets and blankets and was asleep. He didn’t want a turn on the satellite phone and wasn’t going to call his sister or let Jeannie help him work his way toward it. Which meant he wasn’t really going to talk to Jeannie, either. Wouldn’t or couldn’t. Whichever, she left him alone. He’d get up tomorrow, and she’d be gone. What else could she do? It was what happened in Afghanistan and in some strange way why he was there.