A letter from the U.S. — March 2004

    March 2004

    Dear Michael,
    Pensak, are you out there? I’ve been thinking about damp nights on my step, watching the lightning. Remember? We’d call it television, and watch while we catalogued open sores and thumbed through Where There Is No Doctor. The rash could be Erysipelas (p.212), and the headache, Meningitis (p.185). Maybe we were schizophrenic. The French doctors — the ones who rolled the joints that looked like ice cream cones — we knew that they could save us.
         What were we? 23, 25? Next week, I’ll be 45 and it’s not like 23. I don’t watch lightning anymore because I draw the blinds when it gets dark and television — please don’t get me started. A couple hundred channels and I just watch C-Span. Reality TV, not for idol wannabes, it’s for cynics. Or it’s making me cynical. Pensak, remember that outhouse of yours where you kept the Newsweeks? It was at the edge of the street alongside that sand brick building where they kept the prisoners. I never understood their freedom to be about, in their striped outfits, unattended, with machetes. The thing about the striped outfits was the bright, bright red.
         And I remember the color of the inside of ripe mangos, the pink of His palace on the edge of town, the bleu-vert-jaune of the flag, and the infinite palette of faces in the classroom, against the white and khaki uniforms.
         I was in a classroom the first time I heard a woman wail. She was walking past the windows carrying the body of a toddler like a tray. I thought about this in ‘96 when my father died because, a couple hundred people in a church, and they didn’t make a sound. He came to Gabon. Meeting Bob Nikola soothed him, gave him hope we weren’t hard-core, left-wing freaks. The one thing he didn’t like was the big market in Libreville because of the smells. I don’t really remember smells beyond dried fish and palm wine. And blood. There was a heavy, metal smell to the blood that oozed from bug bites, once scratched.
         But anyway, Pensack, what I’m trying to say is that we failed to plan for being 45, on those nights on my step or at the boite when we tried to talk over the music. Look at us now: post-regab, peri-menopausal, pre-death. I’m not being maudlin, just wanting to know if you know that middle age, technically, has probably come and gone. Actually, given the life expectancy in Gabon, we were middle aged when we were in Tchibanga. So this, then, is my second relative go-round with it. This time, the color is fading away, the world is turning gray. It’s the color of the C-Span suits, the color of some of my hair until last week when, for the first time, I did it. I chose a honey-something brown. You know, neutral, but nice enough.
         But it’s not just the color. At the Shop ‘N’ Save, the mangoes are stone hard. And nothing smells, not even the rug in the living room in spite of one big dog, two cats, and a guinea pig because I buy Febreeze and we don’t eat dried fish. Nobody wails, but the buzz-cut kids being schlepped through Wal-Mart do whine, and their mothers shush them. Some of the women whine too. This town is home to the Brunswick Naval Air Station. When their boys (they call them “their boys”) get deployed, wives whine and write plaintive letters to the editor like, for God’s sake, what? They didn’t read the freakin’ job description when the boys they married enlisted? I still don’t suffer fools very well. Maybe it’s why we understood each other. The biggest fool is this woman who drives a killer SUV with the words, “Support Our Troops and Shut Up” scrawled across a back window that is bigger than a football field.
         Anyway, Pensak, what I’m writing to tell you is that Africa is pulling me back. My kids want to go, even though I thumb, once again, through Where There Is No Doctor, with the oozing chancres, the herniated everythings, and the no-guess depictions of disease transmission. Still, they say they want to go. So, I ramp it up, and describe how flies cluster in the corners of some peoples’ eyes and dogs get kicked in ribs you could count from a kilometer away and not many old people have very many teeth, but the women can smoke their cigarettes backwards. I tell them these things, because I’m afraid that their only frame-of-reference for thinking that they want to live in Africa is the Fetes, where grown-ups drink beer for breakfast and it’s not quite clear which kid belongs to what parent and there’s just all this time, you know, to sit down and talk to people.
         But I want to go, too, and it’s been causing me to think of you. If I go, we won’t write to one another. We never have. We haven’t even talked in five years, maybe six. But I think of you, Michael, and, every time I do, I’m glad that I did Tchibanga with you.


    Melinda Porter (Gabon 1982–83) is a consultant specializing in workforce education and development. She lives in Maine with her two children. Tchibnaga is the name of the Gabonese town in which she lived, as did Michael Pensak, a Fisheries Volunteer. Melinda has lost touch with Michael Pensak and has no idea where he might be in the world.