The Volunteers

by Julie Christine

Format: Short Story | Genre: General Fiction

 

Colorado, 1993

Half a mile into the ten-mile drive between Paonia and the scraggly five acres east of Hotchkiss, Meghan cranks down the window. The midnight air, sharpened by piñon and frost, kisses her skin. She clenches and releases one hand and then the other, wincing. Her wrists throb with dull heat from hours of carrying oversized plates to packed booths of hunters, their eyes glazed with fatigue and beer. Meghan can still smell their sweat over the aroma of lard and onions that coats her skin and hair.

The Corolla totters through potholes in the driveway. Meghan pulls up beside the toolshed that’s been converted into a kitchen. Running water and a wood stove. An electrical spool for a table. Two walls lined with boxes and plastic bins, holding the paraphernalia of four lives. A kerosene lamp glows through the sliding glass door and the hollow light flickers with the image of Erika pushing her toes against the cement floor to rock the cast-off recliner. Exhaustion rolls over Meghan, flattening her legs to the car seat. Her hands slip from the steering wheel to her thighs. She hopes for a moment alone, in the cold and stillness and moonlight, before walking up to the custom-made tipi she and her husband share with Erika and Sherry, their three Australian shepherds, and a collection of half-feral cats.

The two couples had left Seattle on the same day six months earlier, Heath and Meghan in a shuttle to the airport, Sherry and Erika in a 20’ U-Haul, parting with embraces and promises to stay in touch. Sherry’s arms were stiff as they encircled Meghan. A year-old friendship had burned bright, but she and Heath would be away for more than two years, maybe longer if they re-upped as volunteers or traveled Africa after their assignment. Then graduate school in the Bay area or Chicago or London. Visiting the homesteading couple tucked away in Colorado’s Western Slope seemed unlikely.

Meghan flashed to the week they’d spent camping on the Oregon coast. Hadn’t Sherry picked at her for not knowing how to stake out a tent or build a fire? Hadn’t she spit at Erika in rage when they got separated in Portland and failed to meet up at Powell’s at the appointed time, the three of them running into each other in the Pearl District before running into Sherry’s wrath. Erika soothing her, no we haven’t all been together this whole time without you, we just met up by chance. Meghan stepped out of Sherry’s awkward embrace, relieved. She’d stopped writing to the couple about three months in, though Heath had still sent them the occasional word.

Four weeks ago, she and Heath left Africa, less than a year into their stay. Early Termination. They forfeited the benefits earned by volunteers who complete the full-service contract. Returning to the Northwest while being embarrassed of their failure, without savings or the nods into graduate school they’d counted on, wasn’t an option.

Heath made the call from Chicago during a long layover on their return to the States. Meghan slumped to the floor beside the bank of payphones outside a Cinnabon when he nodded and smiled and gave her the thumbs up, the receiver pressed to his ear. Sherry and Erika, who’d bought a sloped scrubland in the months before Heath and Meghan left for Africa, offered them a place to stay and asked only that they contribute to groceries and utilities until they got back on their feet. Inhaling butter and sugar and the burned rubber of recycled air, Meghan imagined golden mesas and snow-covered peaks along with boozy, laughing dinners in the flickering light of a campfire. Rest.

Now she considers just waving on her way to the outhouse, but through the glass she feels the waiting tension in the push-tap of Erika’s rocking.

Sliding open the door, Meghan says, “You all right? Why are you up so late?” Erika’s eyes are blank moons behind her glasses and her breath forms tiny white clouds. She lifts a thin book from her lap and holds it to the light. Meghan recognizes the light blue fabric cover. “Where did you get that?” Trembling, she recalls tucking the journal inside her pillowcase that morning, as she does every morning.

Rising, Erika places the journal in Meghan’s palm, where it falls open like a hymnal. “You have to leave in the morning.”

“You read my journal?” In her mind, she flips through the pages, scanning her scrawl for what she had written that causes Heath and her to be cast out. She presses the journal to her chest, a shield of ink and paper. “Where are we supposed to go?”

“There are cheap apartments in Montrose or Delta, and better jobs, too.” Erika names the flat, brown towns of the Great Basin – that enormous arid watershed stretching from Utah’s high desert through Colorado’s Grand Mesa, coming to an abrupt halt at the Western Slope of the Rocky Mountains – but Meghan dreads the burned expanses and endless skies. She craves the cool, shadowed, watery lands of her former home in the Pacific Northwest.

Pushing her glasses up the bridge of her nose, Erika scowls at Meghan. Then her face softens. “Look, I’m really sorry. You just have to go, Meghan.”

“I work the lunch shift tomorrow and Heath’s not back from the ranch until one,” Meghan says. “We don’t have time to find a place to live. It’s my first week. Erika. I can’t call in sick.” Her voice sounds hollow, lost in the space between outrage and shock.

“Heath made a reservation for you at the Wagon Wheel Motel in Paonia. You can walk to the restaurant. I can’t take you to town; Paula’s picking me up for the swap in Delta.” She exhales a long, white breath. “You can use the Corolla tomorrow, but it has to be back before Sherry gets home. She can’t know.” Erika passes into the dark, leaving the door agape.

Outside, the Corolla ticks in the November air. The cold feels solid. It braces Meghan upright when it seems her knees will give way. Mist slips down the slopes of Grand Mesa, hiding the North Fork Valley from the moon that tips light onto Landsend Peak. The tipi rises like a giant white bonnet from the hard, black ground.

The interior of the tipi is as cold and dark as a sepulcher. Meghan pauses to orient herself to the snuffles of dogs arrayed hopefully near the small wood stove. The stove has gone unlit for three days – something to do with a faulty flue. Each morning, frost creates delicate patterns on the blankets that cover their sleeping bags, and gathers in their hair.

Her waitress uniform puddles on the floor and Meghan drops the journal in the middle of the small pile. She shimmies into the long underwear, socks, and wool sweater she keeps bundled beneath the pillow and crawls into the down cocoon of their zipped-together sleeping bags, seeking out Heath’s warmth. A month ago, she would have cringed at his touch, the damp heat of the Sahel heavy in her lungs, her skin slick with sweat and mosquito repellant. But tonight, her body aches for her husband. They’ve made love once since leaving central Africa, in the airport hotel outside Paris on their way back to the States. Afterward they lay in bed, examining the rashes that scored their thin, ropy arms and legs and their bloated bellies. Their sweat still reeked of the Sahel. They smelled like goats.

Now, in the frigid Colorado night, Heath turns to Meghan. “I know,” he whispers. “It’ll be okay.” He kisses her ear. “Get some sleep.”

Heath and Meghan had been married just four months when they received their volunteer assignment. They stared at a sheet of FAQs shot out with bullet points that fell below a black-and-white map of a country whose name meant nothing to them. The nation was a cipher with an ominous geographic designation that they breathed out simultaneously like an incantation: Sahel.

The Sahel, a vast belt of grassland, savannah, and steppe that spans Africa’s bulging center south of the Sahara until it sinks into a wet band of equatorial forest.

When the volunteers stepped off the Air Afrique jet into the lemon light of the desert, men wearing mirrored sunglasses and holding semi-automatic rifles ushered them across the spongy tarmac to a small, cinder-block terminal. The group was silent. The heat roared.

The volunteers were housed for training at a former medical compound erected by the French in the early ’60s – a collection of squat cinder-block buildings with metal roofs and glassless windows and cracked cement floors. But the classrooms had electricity, the showers had running water, and the pit toilets had a steady supply of toilet paper.

Three weeks in and they were summoned to the capital city. The Ambassador was about to leave on his annual holiday and wanted to meet the new volunteers. Less than a month in the country, the volunteers were still relatively clean and hale. They weren’t yet craving cold apples or hot chocolate. Washing their clothes in plastic buckets was still a novelty. Honeymoon stage. They were in Africa. A swim in the embassy pool and an overnight with expats would return them to a world they’d been pretending they weren’t a part of anymore.

While on a six-hour bus ride from the village to the capital with thirty volunteers, Meghan curled into the seat, her head in Heath’s lap, craving solitude. Heath sang along to the impromptu medleys and stroked her hair. They tumbled out, bladders heavy, into the city’s market center, met by a group of their native teacher-trainers. First came a walking tour of the capital and a stop-in at the volunteers’ center where they would stay when they were en ville.

In the center’s shaded courtyard, just outside the kitchen where cockroaches clambered over the dishes piled in the sink, a veteran volunteer lay stretched out on a wooden bench, reading a paperback copy of Siddhartha. While the other volunteers were oriented to the neighborhood, Meghan and Heath sat with Robert. As the sole married couple in the group and among the few with classroom experience, they had already received their assignments: teaching at the country’s only university. They had no need of the dime tour. In a few weeks, the capital would be their home.

Robert’s skin was the color of mud banks that lined the Chari River: a sullen, damp yellow. He scratched at a mosquito bite on the scuffed surface of his elbow, raking off dead skin and raising blood from the bite’s nucleus. In contrast to their long-sleeved tech shirts, khaki pants, and Merrell boots, Robert wore a sweat-stained tank top, loose jeans unevenly shorn mid-thigh, and flip-flops.

“I’m gone in two days,” he announced. “Made it eighteen months, but I’m wasting my time here. Gave up a good job in construction for this.” He jerked his bent arm around, exposing a patch of damp armpit hair.

“What was your assignment?” Meghan wished they’d joined the others.

“Water-San. Me ’n’ Scott lived in the same village not far from Mondar. We built pit toilets for villages in the area. After Scott left, they didn’t send anyone else down. Three months on my own and I asked to be moved, like, ten times. I finally said, “Screw this, I’m gone. Back to Galveston.” He chugged a plastic bottle of Bubble Up and squashed it in one bony fist. “Y’all know they don’t pay the teachers here, right?” He squinted at Meghan and Heath, his lips twisted in a grin.

“What are you talking about?” Heath picked mud out of his boot tread. “They can’t not pay us.”

“No, dude,” Robert snorted. “I mean the locals. The government doesn’t pay its own teachers. It runs out of cash, or claims it has, so the teachers go without pay, then they strike. Government throws ’em a bone of a few weeks’ pay, they go back to work, and it starts all over again. And here come the shiny new American volunteers, ready to teach for free.” He pulsed air quotes around the last word and grinned, revealing gray teeth. Meghan rose and wandered off, deciding to wait on the crumbling front steps of the building painted basketball orange.

The center’s concierge sat on a plastic chair in the shade of the entrance awning. He wore mirrored sunglasses and held a tiny radio to his ear. A sports match was under way, emitting from a neighboring country where there were stadiums and green pitches. Cameroon perhaps. Meghan felt his eyes watching her from behind the windows of his reflective lenses as she folded onto the step. She’d stepped in an open sewer on the walk here from the market and the toes of her boots were damp with human waste.

That night, after a speech from the Ambassador about the importance of promoting a positive world view of the United States, two polite U.S. Marines accompanied Heath and Meghan in a Toyota Land Cruiser to the home of a defense attaché for dinner and a night in an air-conditioned home.

“It’s so hard to find help you can trust,” the attaché’s wife said, after a white-gloved black servant left the dining room bearing their scraped-clean plates.

Later, at a volunteer-training session, Meghan said, “Why are we teaching English when these kids can’t read or write French? French is a national language. English isn’t. I spend half my lesson explaining the directions in French.”

The other stagiares – teachers-in-training – nodded and murmured in agreement as Meghan spoke. Lisa, who was ending her twenty-seven months of service by preparing the new volunteers to teach in cinder-block classrooms with no blackboards, textbooks, bathrooms, infirmary, or lunchroom, sighed heavily and glanced at her watch.

“We can’t change the entire system, Meghan. The U.S. contracts with each country, and assignments are decided a couple of years in advance. Learning English will be a tremendous advantage for these kids,” Lisa replied.

“Anti-malarial drugs and the measles vaccine would be an advantage for these kids,” muttered Barry from Memphis. Meghan tried not to sit any place he’d been sitting. The tail of his ironic dress shirt was splattered with diarrhea.

Lisa ignored him and turned back to the whiteboard, a luxury of the training center that no volunteer would see in a real school. “Besides, none of us speaks French well enough to teach it,” she said over her shoulder.

“I do,” Meghan said. She sucked in her lips and pulled at dried patches of skin with her teeth.

“We have fifteen minutes until lunch,” Lisa said, wiping the board clean. “Why don’t you share your lesson plans with your table?”

At Meghan’s mid-point evaluation the following week, the training coordinator, Cecil from Brooklyn, wondered aloud why she had started out with such potential but seemed to have developed an attitude problem in recent weeks.

 

Recalling Africa in the chill of a Colorado dawn, Meghan burrows deep into the sleeping bag. She is the only one still in bed, the tipi is empty, but she hears a voice calling to the dogs and so she waits. At last, she hears Sherry’s F150 choke down the pitted drive. She pulls a down vest over the clothes she slept in and shoves her feet into unlaced boots. Outside, a rime of frost clings to the wild serviceberry.

She sits on a stump near the woodpile and raises her face to the starched blue surface of the sky. It is the blue of Grecian seas, of forget-me-not meadows. She can’t get enough of the blue. Blue never happened in the Sahel, where a nuclear orange glowed morning and evening. During the breathless hours in-between the rising and sinking of the sun, the sky pulsed with white heat, cloudless but somehow never clear.

She takes her journal from the inside pocket of her jacket. She started it the day they left Africa and, in a month, she had filled half of its lined pages. In a few enthusiastic entries at the beginning, she gushed over the beauty of Colorado, the raging clean of everything. She reported assiduously, mortifyingly, the details of her bowel movements. Heath and she returned to the States with giardia and amoebas squirming in their intestines. They still fill vials and take them to the local health clinic once a week for testing. She wrote paragraphs on the consistency and frequency of her poop.

As the days pass, she returned to Africa, writing about their life in that landlocked, unknowable country. She wondered if Alison and Matt ever got together. If Jason was finally out of the hospital after his crash on the forbidden motorcycle. If Maureen would return to her post after traveling to Missouri for her father’s funeral. Maureen was unhappy in her village, so lonely and sick.

She wrote of Abakar, the chair of the university’s English department, elegant in his long, white boubou, unfolding his woven rug to heed the muezzin’s call to prayer that sounded from the loudspeakers set around the city. She wrote of his gentle correction of her strangled Arabic. She recounted the evenings in the volunteer compound, where they’d meet up when volunteers came into the city, drinking, smoking pot, dancing to Pearl Jam and Francis Bebey in the open courtyard under a full moon. Believing they were necessary.

Meghan runs a finger down each page, searching for Erika and Sherry’s names. She did not mention them. She wonders, as Colorado fades from the pages of her journal and her longing for the Sahel rises, if her crime is one of omission. What would hurt more when reading someone’s journal, to find yourself maligned or not to be mentioned at all? The slim book, with its empty pages and its pages filled with longing, now feels cursed. Meghan drops it into the round black maw of the compost toilet.

Sherry catches up with Meghan and Heath late in the afternoon. They already checked in at the motel. They’re now walking along the highway after leaving the Corolla beside the tipi, trying to cover the nine miles between Hotchkiss and the motel before dark. The F150 rumbles up behind them. It seems Sherry is out the car door and barreling toward them before the engine has stuttered out.

“I forbid you to use our car and you go ahead and use it anyway. Who the hell do you think you are?” Spittle flies from her lips.

Heath – thin, tired Heath – steps between Sherry and Meghan. His voice is that of an old man, raspy, measured. “Hey, it’s okay. We’re done, everything’s out. You don’t need to worry about us.”

“I’m not worried about you,” Sherry huffs. “I told you,” she jerks a finger in Heath’s face, “you were not to use our car.” She leans around Heath, aiming her finger at Meghan. “You couldn’t hack it in Africa, and you won’t hack it here.”

And then it is over. In a screech of gears and rubber, Sherry is gone.

They continue walking toward the motel. Meghan shakes, but she does not cry. Heath points out a buck standing in a field. The animal stares as they pass, before dipping his head to pull at the sweet grass underneath the shorn hay.

 

“There’s nothing in my journal about them, Heath,” she says that night over sandwiches and cans of PBR from Don’s Market.

“You don’t have to explain, Meghan. It doesn’t matter what you wrote.”

“I just wanted you to know. You can read it.” Then she remembers the outhouse, her words drowning in waste.

“I don’t need to see your journal.” Heath places a hand on her leg and studies it, as if he’s never seen his hand in quite that place before. “They asked me to donate my sperm so Erika could get pregnant. They want to have a baby.”

The thin, sour beer threatens to flare up Meghan’s throat and she swallows it back with an audible click. “What?”

“A couple of weeks ago, when I helped Sherry take Riley to the vet in Delta, she asked if I would be a sperm donor. I thought she was kidding, but when I laughed, she actually cried. She said they had plans, that the four of us would build a house together on their property, raise a family, our kids, theirs …”

Meghan’s sore hands settle limply in her lap and she notices for the first time how pale they are. Her desert tan has faded. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I knew you’d want to leave and we just needed more time – you hadn’t gotten hired at the restaurant yet. So, I pretended to take it seriously and said I’d talk to you about it. We needed more time,” he says again. “I had to stall them.”

“Why are they angry at me?”

“Sherry gave me a ride home from work yesterday and she asked me again. I told her you’d said no. That you wanted to go back to the Northwest. She got quiet and went straight up to the tipi when we got home. I wanted us out of there before I told you.”

“What does this have to do with my journal?”

“I don’t know, Meg. Maybe someday it will make sense.” He pulls on his beer, drains it, crumples the can. “We’ll be okay. We always are.”

On the muted television, footage of tanks grinding through the torn up and burning streets of Mogadishu plays out in the screen-in-screen next to Connie Chung’s sleek head. The two-day battle had occurred during their journey back to the States and it’s still in the headlines.

Mogadishu’s streets look only slightly more beaten up than those they’d walked a month before. Before they’d fled, betrayed by their own false hopes. Meghan looks away, seeing instead two friends, poring over the pages in her journal, looking for the reason why she had denied them their dream. And finding nothing but an inexplicable longing for another life.

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JULIE CHRISTINE

Julie is the award-winning author of the novels In Another Life and The Crows of Beara (authored as Julie Christine Johnson). Her short stories and essays have appeared in several journals, including Mud Season Review and Cirque: A Literary Journal of the North Pacific Rim, and in the anthologies Stories for Sendai; Up, Do: Flash Fiction by Women Writers; and Three Minus One: Parents’ Stories of Love and Loss. Julie is also a freelance manuscript editor and writing teacher. She lives on the Olympic Peninsula of northwest Washington state. Julie blogs at www.chalkthesun.org. Follow Julie on Twitter (@juliechristinej) and Instagram (@juliechristine_pnw).

www.juliechristinejohnson.com