Timmy the bully, he terrorized me! Every day at recess, he'd strip me naked and kick me around the playground until I had to be sent home, while all the other kids pointed and screamed. But actually, the joke's on Timmy: he only exists in my mind!
Let's say Liam is the name of the kid kicked around by Timmy. I like how all of Liam's troubles only exist in his mind. I know some of us have real troubles, but I think a lot of us are just like Liam. Anyway, that was one of the classic Jeep Thoughts written by my freshman roommate Liam Bosco. We call them Jeep Thoughts because they're stylistic imitations of Jack Handey's Deep Thoughts, and because Liam wrote most of them while smoking pot in the back of a jeep. I think a lot of my favorite Jeep Thoughts have something to do with being naked. Liam once described the Sahara Desert as "a slowly undulating carpet of gigantic naked body parts." That wasn't a Jeep Thought; that was in a letter he sent me describing his trip to Niger with other Peace Corps volunteers based in Benin, West Africa. He wrote,
"Just to get to Malanville at the border with Niger could require a twelve hour taxi ride, if you're posted in southern Benin. As you travel north, the palm plantations and crowded, overhanging branches recede like a green tide. You pass the scenic hills of central Benin speckled with squat trees and white outcroppings, and you leave those too behind. You continue north, and the cornfields give way to yam mounds and eventually fields of millet that make you thirsty just to see them. Finally arriving in Malanville, you see camels for the first time. The camels see you for the first time as well, and then they look away, uninterested. People fill the streets, selling unwrapped baguettes from baskets, transporting live chickens hung upside down from bicycle handlebars, drinking bowls of steaming millet porridge, or rolling out prayer mats and bowing low toward Mecca.
"You cross the Niger River into Gaya, Niger. You ride for four hours in a taxi to Niamey, the capital. You walk in the dust stirred up by oxcarts. You feel as though you've traveled back in time. If you were about to give birth, you'd look for swaddling clothes and a manger. Women walk single file, each carrying water or firewood in two buckets hanging from the ends a branch weighing into her shoulder. It looks painful. Why don't they carry things in basins balanced on their heads like the Beninese women do, looking so graceful and lithe? You're fired with loyalty to Benin. The Beninese national anthem runs through your head.
"You've taken a 14-hour bus ride east to Zinder. You don't know where the time went. You only remember eating dates (after checking each one for small green worms) and standing in line to use the latrines in the small villages along the route. There's a field of boulders in Zinder between the Peace Corps hostel and the imam's palace. You come upon a chasm that looks too wide to leap. A dozen young boys, who'd seemingly crawled out of the crags all at once, show you around the easy way. Your friend Veronica decides to leap anyway. She makes it look easy.
"Zinder already seems like home when you depart for the final taxi ride. You ruffle the petticoats of Queen Sahara as you travel the desolate highway to N'guigmi. Macabre, spindly trees, emerging from the dust like pterodactyl fossils, eye one another suspiciously from safe distances. Arriving in N'guigmi, within thirty miles of Lake Chad, you have trouble finding food other than melons and tea. The dogs look the same as they do everywhere else in Benin and Niger (hence the joke, there's only one dog in West Africa), but instead of being silent and docile like every other African dog you've seen, here they snarl and threaten attack. In a panic, you hurl a hard-found loaf of sweet bread at a menacing dog. You miss. Out of ammunition, you cower behind Veronica, who growls back at the dog. A villager grabs the dog by the ear and reprimands it. A small child hands you your dusty bread.
"A procession of camel riders passes regally by. You and a rider stare at each other with the amazed innocence of children. A smile creeps over his face and he laughs, and you discover that you're doing the same. You don't know what language he speaks. You don't know his life story. He continues onward toward the setting sun, his life never to enter yours again, and you marvel, and you wonder.
"You spend the night in a Frenchwoman's house, which, evidently, is usually vacant and generally accessible to tourists. The live-in staff, Moussa and his family, make you dinner. It's brown and mushy and tastes like the desert. It's delicious. You sleep in silence, and the green countryside of Benin seems like a childhood memory.
"The next day Moussa rents a truck and drives you into the Tahl Desert, the foothills of the Sahara. Just as you'd been told, there's a sharp line after which all vegetation ceases. The towering dunes call to mind a slowly undulating carpet of gigantic naked body parts. You run breathlessly up and skid giddily down, and then soberly become aware that all you see is sand in every direction, and if your footprints were erased, you would wander lost forever...."
In fact, there's more to the story. Yoo hoo, remember me? Your loving narrator. Still here. We'll get back to Liam's letters, but I'd like to get my two cents in. Liam doesn't provide all the details, and I have to piece this together from a variety of sources, but apparently, that night, while he and the volunteers he's traveling with are standing in the darkness of the dunes, they all start running through the desert, flinging their clothes off as they go. It's dark and they're laughing and scattering in all directions, and Liam looks and sees Veronica running in front of him, and he's breathing harder than he should be for such a moderate jog, and Veronica hears him and looks back with a smile, and he's thinking about exploring his heterosexuality, among other things, and he's just about to tackle her when he looks back, and it's Moussa, and Moussa's naked, and Moussa tackles him, and the three of them go down in a splash of sand. Like I said, I don't have all the details, but let's leave their secrets out there in the Sahara, where the wind sweeps all footprints away. Man, I'm starting to write like Liam.
But speaking of camels (okay, okay, we weren't speaking of camels, but deserts make you think of camels), Liam wrote a poem called "Camels Must Start Rowing" shortly after his boyfriend broke up with him. They'd stayed together across that long, long distance for almost the full two years of Peace Corps service, but two months before Liam was to return home, he got a letter that broke his heart. Hence, "Camels Must Start Rowing," which I think is in the style of Edgar Allen Poe, though what do I remember from English class; I'm just an engineer ("A helluva helluva helluva helluva hell of an engineer!" Thank you, Walter):
If you hear the wretched wailing
Of a man at his impaling
Or a sailor who is sailing
Where the heavy ice is hailing-
Then that's me.
And if you see a distant flowing
Of a stream of tears that's growing
So that camels must start rowing
Till the rising tide starts slowing-
Then that's me.
And if you sense a pained repeating
Like a goat's incessant bleating
When its head's forever meeting
Rocky walls it can't stop beating-
Then that's me whom sobs are eating.
If the heart gives grief first seating,
Then that's me.
But enough about camels. Liam lived in the gentler climate of central Benin, in a town called Parakou, in a neighborhood called Banikanni. In the local Dendi language, Banikanni means "good health," or more specifically, good health like the iron in the earth that can't be bent by passing clouds of apparent hardship. Ironically, no pun intended, Liam's health was anything but good. He liked to say, "I don't get the runs; I get the sprints. And sometimes the false starts." I'll never forget his comment that for months at a time, he could pass all his stool through a strainer. In addition to intestinal parasites, he suffered from fevers, coughs, colds, sore throats, headaches, heat rash, warts, weight loss, depression, insomnia, nightmares, and to top it all off, like the cherry on a poop sundae, erectile dysfunction. This he discovered when his boyfriend visited him after his first year in Benin, roughly ten months, remember, before they broke up.
Which brings us to his final letter to me, written on the flights from Cotonou to Ouagadougou, Ouagadougou to Paris, and Paris back home to Atlanta, with no boyfriend to meet him at the airport. Instead of hand delivering the letter, he mailed it just for tradition's sake, which is a good thing, because otherwise, and for reasons you may already guess, I never would have received it. I've begged Liam to write a book about his Peace Corps experience, but he says everyone and their uncle write a Peace Corps book, which he thinks is funny, because his uncle actually was in the Peace Corps, and he actually did write a book.
Emmanuel Bosco was in the Peace Corps in India in the late sixties. The title of his book is Sugar in Milk, which apparently is a reference to history. Apparently, the Baha'i were fleeing persecution in Persia. Or maybe the Zoroastrians, not the Baha'i. Shoot, I forget. Let's call them the Zorobaha'i. So, the Zorobaha'i leader sent a letter to the king of one of the northern provinces of India, requesting permission to immigrate. The king sent back a glass full of milk, meaning his province was full and had no more room. Now, don't ask me how they transported a glass of milk hundreds of miles without refrigeration. That's not the point. The point is, the Zorobaha'i leader added sugar to the milk and sent it back, meaning his people would sweeten things without getting in anyone's way. So the king let them in. I don't know why Liam's uncle chose that reference for his title. Is he saying he's the sugar? That's pretty arrogant, if you ask me.
But I digress, as Sophia always said on The Golden Girls. Without further delay, Liam's final letter:
"The palm trees and corrugated tin roofs shrink then fade beneath the clouds, and the plane is returning me to an old way of life, returning me to a new way of life. But all I can think about are the knots in my stomach and knives in my heart. Remember how Charlie Brown said that nothing ruins a peanut butter and jelly sandwich like unrequited love? Nothing beats unrequited love at ruining a triumphant homecoming, either. I hope Charles Schulz has joined Dr. Seuss and Jim Henson in repose, on the roofs of doghouses, in the shade of Truffala trees echoing with banjo songs. One by one the stars have winked out in the constellation that guided my generation to maturity.
My heart goes out to Sara ..."
Okay, I -- sorry to interrupt -- I need to explain that in my last letter to Liam I'd mentioned that my sister Sara's boyfriend dumped her. Liam replies:
"My heart goes out to Sara. Actually, my heart, in mashed clumps, goes out to everyone, in all directions, having been hurled at Mach 7 against a granite wall. My friends tell me I'm eligible now. Eligible for pain and loneliness, I say! The grand conjunction has ended, and the real world has fallen out of alignment with my dreams. I think back to the last time I was truly happy, when I lay with my lover -- my then-lover -- in Parakou. We rested together in my house and gazed out at the bare termite hills rising from the tall grass. We said they were groundhogs inspecting their shadows, heralding the spring. I guess those damn groundhogs were wrong."
Last interruption. But I have to warn you that Liam's about to inspect his own shadow. And by the way, he got it backwards: it's an early spring when the groundhog doesn't see its shadow. So, I always squeeze Walter tighter when I read this next paragraph. It's a peephole into bitterness and fury that I never knew in Liam, and it creeps me out, because I somehow feel that it's a peephole into the bitterness and fury hidden in us all. Anyway, have you already guessed the identity of Liam's ex-boyfriend? ("Can I give a hint?")
"I'd always longed for my tenth-year high school reunion to speedily approach, so that I could have the last laugh. No more would I be picked on, rejected, and reviled. Now, how best for a dorky loser to get the last laugh? This is interesting. Showing up with lots of cash and a great career is what they'd expect of an ass-kissing nerd. Even showing up buff or with a karate black belt would be unsurprising; the solitary laboring of a social misfit. There's only one solution: to arrive at the reunion with a hot lover, the best revenge for getting picked last in gym class week after week, year after year. Although Walter and I wouldn't resemble the traditional Homecoming couple, we would glow in each other's adoration, adoration everyone craved so desperately in high school. Now, I guess the joke's on me. What does it matter that I was happy once? In my memory, the bare termite hills rising from the tall grass look like the broken columns of an ancient civilization."
So, Liam, wherever you are, I wish you banikanni, good health, like the iron in the earth that can't be bent by passing clouds of apparent hardship. And I hope you're not imagining that I'll show off Walter at my high school reunion, or display love and happiness like trophies no one else has won, or brandish joy to avenge the team captains' icy sneers. Do you think anyone would even notice if I were trying to take revenge on them? Everyone else is changing diapers, wiping spit up off their shoulders, paying doctors' bills, and saving for college. They're not playing an eighteen-year-old's game anymore. They're playing a twenty-eight-year-old's game. So the vengeance would just be in my mind. And in a lot of ways, Liam, the joke would be on me.
But actually, the joke's on Timmy.
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