A GAME IN THE SUN AND OTHER STORIES by John Coyne (Ethiopia)

 

I set this story, “Game in the Sun” —  one of three “Peace Corps” stories in my collection of ten short stories in this book — in Dessie, Ethiopia. At the time — and this was about 1965 —  there was an American couple running a religious mission in Dessie. I knew them slightly, and they were well known to the PCVs in the town. They were, I believe, a a nice couple and nothing like the missionaries in this story. Also, to my recollections, there were no Peace Corps couples in Dessie. — JC

 A Game in the Sun

Betsy was not allowed to play croquet with her husband and the Reverend, so she sat in the shade of the trees at the top of the mound. The mound overlooked a lush African rainforest which grew thick and dense to the edges of the Mission Compound. The view was compelling and frightening to Betsy. The close steamy jungle made her feel insignificant and as she half listened to Mrs. Shaw’s chatter, she watched the bush as if it were alive.

The Reverend and Mrs. Shaw had started the Mission twenty years before. Landscaping woods near a village of mud and cattle-dung huts, they cut into the underbrush, leaving only the ancient acacias and gum trees for shade, and planting lawns and gardens. The African laborers had instructions to keep the lawns neatly trimmed during the rainy season, well watered the remainder of the year.

The Shaws had been the only white people in the district until Betsy and her husband arrived with the Peace Corps to teach in the government school. It was their second year in-country and as Betsy had calculated that morning, she had only eighteen more Sundays left in Africa.

“You really won’t know Africa for ten years. It takes that long to get a feel of the land,” the Reverend had said when he first dropped by to say hello and welcome them to the village. He had crowded himself into their doll-like house, held onto his father’s straw hat, and looked with alarm about the inadequate place. “The Peace Corps’s not giving you much cooperation, are they?” He shook his head , frowning over the lack of facilities.

He was a big fleshy man, dressed in worn jeans, a tight-fitting plaid shirt, and heavy-duty boots. His face was burnt from the long self-appointed days in the African sun. Only his forehead, protected by the straw hat, was chalky. His eyes were tiny and squinted against the sun. Dark lines clustered at their corners. The rest of his face was soft and slightly moist. He kept a white handkerchief folded in the palm of his hand and continually wiped the running sweat off his red cheeks, as if he were polishing them.

“Look, kids, I want ya to come to our place anytime. Anytime. Come tomorrow for lunch, a game of croquet.” He glanced again about the house. “You’re going to need all the comforts of home you can get. But with the help of God . . . with the help of God.”

Before the game the Saw’s houseboys, barefooted and in starched white uniforms, moved like tropical birds among them, serving iced tea. The two men talked about the week, the news from the school and Mission, while Mrs. Shaw took Betsy through the gardens, the beds of exotic flowers which grew in the heat and humidity, brilliant and thick.

Mrs. Shaw wore farm gloves and with a gardener’s eye clipped flowers and presented them to Betsy. Mrs. Shaw was also concerned about Betsy and her husband living in the village, in a mud-and-dung house, in among the Africans. The flowers were to pretty up Betsy’s life.

Mrs. Shaw lay her scissors on the lawn table and pulled off her gloves, then she rubbed baby lotion thoroughly into her hands. The scent was stronger than the flowers and reminded Betsy of her home, of growing up as a little girl.

“I learned years ago that baby lotion was the answer. Just ordinary baby lotion keeps me just fine. The weather is so cruel on people, women especially.” Unlike her husband, Mrs. Shaw looked as if she had never been in the African sun. Her skin was milky under the protection of a wide brimmed bonnet and deep in the shadows her eyes flashed like those of a cornered animal. “After a while you learn these little hints. It takes time, of course, but with the help of God.” Her voice bore inward like a drill.

Betsy was no longer listening. She had crossed her eyes and was leaning back in the lawn chair, resting. She knew she must not begin to cry in front of these people. She must not be vulnerable. There were, after all, only eighteen Sundays left in Africa. She had gone that morning into the bedroom, to her homemade calendar behind the door, and crossed off another day. Briefly she had felt lighthearted, gay, but that exhilaration had slipped away in the hot bedroom, in the heat of the day. Betsy sighed and then, unexpectedly, shivered.

“Are you all right, dear?” Mrs. Shaw reached over. Betsy could feel the damp fingers, the baby lotion sticky on her own arm.

“No—nothing. I’m fine.” She gathered herself together, managed a thin smile, blinked away a rush of tears, said quickly, shading her eyes and looking over the lawns, “Are they finished?”

“You’ve been remembering your quinine, haven’t you, dear?” Mrs. Shaw wouldn’t let it go.

“Oh, of course, it’s nothing really, Mrs. Shaw. We’ll be into the rainy season soon. Perhaps I’m feeling the first chills. You know how cold it suddenly seems?” She talked rapidly.

“Yes perhaps even in the hot sun one can feel chilled.” And Mrs. Shaw let the subject slip away, as if it were an error.

On the lawns before them the game was drawing to a close. The Reverend was ahead as always, banging his mallet against the wooden ball, moving quickly from one wicket to the next, looking awkward, too huge for the grass game.

“I’ve gotcha, Jesse. I’ve gotcha again.” His voice was buoyant.

Jesse behind him, struggling, hit the ball. It bounced erratically across the grass, hapless. He followed, thin and undernourished. Jesse had lost weight in Africa and now his trousers were baggy. He laughed at his miscalculations, amused by his inability. She watched him with eyes bled of color, gray and watery, studied him with detachment, as if watching a stranger. Who was this person, she wondered.

The game was over. They came to her through the heat, haze, and sun, their bodies shimmery. Perhaps she was sick. Tentatively she touched herself, felt the clammy skin of her forearm. Her fingers were cold and around her the lawns and gardens were airless.

“Had enough for one day, boys?” Mrs. Shaw grinned. “I’ll have lunch ready in minutes.” She clapped once, like a single piano note, and the dark houseboys stepped from the shadows and carried food to them on the lawn.

“How’s the little lady?” the Reverend asked and spread himself into the lounge chair beside Betsy. “You’re lookin’ peaked, honey.”

“I was just saying so myself, Walter. She doesn’t look at all well. Don’t you agree, Jesse?”

They wouldn’t let her alone. All of them gauged her with worried looks. Her husband stared. His mouth had flopped open, as if half his mind had been blown away. He touched her and she jerked away.

“Betsy, why don’t you lie down a while, until the day cools?” Mrs. Shaw was at her side.

Betsy would have to get away from these people. Part of her mind told her she did not know them. And these lawns, the enclosing rainforest, had not happened to her. She would go somewhere cool, somewhere out of the heat. She could hardly breathe. Why won’t it rain? The smell of baby lotion again and the touch of warm flesh.

She let herself be guided from the hot gardens into the house where curtains were drawn and there was a bit of air. The bedcovers were soft silk, not the coarse linen from the village. They let her sleep . . .

The rains began the next day. Standing at the windows of the Third Form, Betsy watched it soak into the dry football field. She reached out the window and the cool water soaked her arm. It felt refreshing and she smiled for the first time in weeks.

That afternoon Betsy was going to tell Jesse she wanted a divorce, but he had come home after school—wet and muddy into the tiny house—said something silly about her hair, something she knew was meant to cheer her up; and she had gone into the bedroom, slammed the door, and cried herself to sleep.

It was raining again when she woke. The rain pounded on the tin roof, deafeningly. She jerked the sheets around her without getting up, and slept. When she woke a second time it was dark; he had lit the lamp and made her soup.

“You’ll feel better after this.” Jesse held out the cup like an offering. His face carried a blankness, like a birthmark. He did not comprehend subtleties, or his wife. She took the soup without speaking, without looking at him, and sipped it. The cup in her fingers was as warm as a small bird and she kept both hands tight around the porcelain, afraid to let it go.

Jesse kept talking, incessantly, afraid of the silence, He had met the Reverend in the village and the Shaws asked about her, wanted to know if Betsy would like to move into the Mission for a few days, until she felt better.

“I feel better.”

“Yeah, sure. I told the Reverend you were okay. Told him it was just the heat, you know, Sunday.” Jesse perched tentatively, as if he didn’t belong, on the edge of her bed.

They had requested a double bed from the Peace Corps early in their tour, but it had never come, and now she was glad of the privacy. If she could only be alone. That was the problem: she couldn’t get away.

“I want to sleep.” She handed back the cup, careful so their fingers did not touch.

“Again?” He sounded lonely.

She did not respond, but pulled the sheets around her and turned away, dismissing him with silence. This time, however, she did not sleep, only watched the dark room, the dung walls, whitewashed with lime. Jesse left with the shaky yellow lamplight. Betsy could hear him in the other room trying to be quiet, moving carefully, not making noises. She sobbed into the sheets.

Betsy did not go to school the rest of the week. Every morning after he left for school she would wrap herself in a robe and, wearing boots, slip and slide through the mud to the outhouse and throw up whatever little she had eaten into the deep smelly pit. And then, trembling, she’d sit there among the cobwebs and the stink of the tin outhouse until her strength came back and she could make it again through the slush.

Betsy woke from another faulty daytime sleep and found the Reverend and Mrs. Shaw at the foot of her bed, filling the room like massive furniture. They stood tensely, afraid to touch the surroundings. Mrs. Shaw had a giant bouquet of flowers, flaming like a torch in the dark room. The room was as disheveled as a drunk—drawers left open, clothes scattered. It also had a close stale smell. The smell of unwashed bodies.

“My dear, my dear!” Mrs. Shaw rushed through the mess to Betsy, felt her temperature, began fussing with the linen.

“I’m fine; I’m fine. It’s just the weather, that’s all. I’m feeling better every day.” Betsy slipped a smile on and off her face.

“The Reverend, with one hand mopping the sweat from his red cheeks, said from the end of the bed, as if calling from a great distance, “We want to see you Sunday, Gotta get you in a game.”

Betsy did not respond. She let Mrs. Shaw wipe the perspiration from her face and neck.

“Walter, you go ahead. I’ll stay a while with Betsy.” She smiled at her patient, then began with busy efficient hands to tidy the covers and make Betsy presentable.

When Betsy woke again, Mrs. Shaw was gone, the room straightened, and her husband home from classes, moving about in the other room. He seemed to bang into everything. Why was he so inept? How did she not know that about him, she wondered. He appeared in the narrow doorway, cautious as a child.

“Bring me the calendar,” she ordered, though her weak voice lacked authority. Jesse was happy to help; he hurried to find her magic marker and homemade poster board.

She took the calendar without thanking him, though he waited for the words, hoped to hear a bit of kindness. She couldn’t say thanks, couldn’t give him a civil remark. Why didn’t he take control, be demanding, take care of her? She slashed black lines through the dates while he stood beside her bed like one of Mrs. Shaw’s houseboys.

“I want you to beat the Reverend at croquet,” she said, finishing with the calendar.

“Beat the Reverend?” Jesse frowned, moved to look at her face. “But I can’t beat him!” His voice touched the edge of alarm.

“You never try. That’s your problem.” She tossed the calendar aside and continued not to look at him, but to gaze across the room, eyes locked onto a small patch of wall where a chunk of dung had swollen and the whitewash had peeled away, like a scab. “If you had tried we wouldn’t need to be in the Peace Corps. You could have gotten out of Vietnam another way.”

“It’s not a question of trying!” Jesse stuck his small hands into the pockets of his baggy trousers and began to pace. “And you wanted to go too, remember.”

“I’m sick of going out there, week after week, talking to that old woman, watching you get beaten—“

“It’s a game, Betsy, for God’s sake!” He moved to the end of the bed to catch her eye, but she kept turning away. “You know he likes to win. Croquet is his big deal—the way he takes care of those lawns, sets the wickets.”

“You could beat him just once, that’s all. No! You’re such a damn weak sister.” The sentence spilled out, uncontrolled. She watched him hunch up against the words. “Him and his dumb wife, God! How have I stood all of you?” Tears stopped her and she clamped both hands across her mouth to keep from screaming.

Jesse’s arms went tentatively around her. He smelled of sweat and the local soap. She did not like his odors. He only washed casually, one bath a week. It was too much trouble hauling and heating water, taking a sponge bath in the kitchen, using the metal tub. There lingered about him a close stale odor, reminiscent, she suddenly realized, of the young sweaty boys in her classes.

“Get away.” She pushed him. “Why don’t you wash?”

He left, slamming the door. Later, before falling to sleep for the hundredth time that day, she heard him heating and pouring water in the washtub.

Betsy stared across the lawns toward the rainforest, watched the close, creepy jungle while Mrs. Shaw wrapped a shawl about her shoulders, made her comfortable in a lawn chair. Mrs. Shaw’s voice rang in her ears. She was full of chatty news from the village, stories of conversions to Christ. Betsy turned her head slowly in the direction of the voice, and Mrs. Shaw’s face shimmered.

Betsy felt cold and clammy and the wool shawl was a damp cloth on her shoulders. There was again the oily smell of baby lotion, mixed with the scent of carnations and roses. A gift of flowers, wet with rain, lay abandoned on the table. There were seventeen Sundays left in Africa and Betsy knew now she could not make it.

Bright-colored balls shot over the lawns, trailing sprays of water, and the two men followed from wicket to wicket, halting, swinging fiercely, then hurrying to catch up. The Reverend was ahead, banging the painted balls, shouting, poking fun at Jesse fumbling behind.

Mrs. Shaw leaned over the flowers and whispered, “Dear, are you with child?”

Betsy could feel the breakfast of eggs and toast, of weak tea and lemon, catch like gas in her throat. Mrs. Shaw pressed forward, like a parent. “You’re showing all the signs. I told the Reverend. I said, Betsy is with child. I know. I’ve had an uncanny knack for such things.” Her eyes flashed.

Tentatively Betsy touched her abdomen, sensed it growing there like fungus inside of her. The Peace Corps had not sent the pills. Days and weeks had passed. She’d kept away from him, begged to be let alone while he panted like a stray dog. It was she who woke one humid night in the single bed, stripped herself naked in the heat, and padding along the house to the refrigerator, drank a cold glass of water that cooled her like rain. She touched the tip of her breast with her wet fingers and shivered. Then she went to Jesse’s bed, pulled away the sheet, and woke him with her hands and mouth seeking.

“I’ve gotcha, Jesse!” The Reverend smashed the ball against the final pole, then turned to her husband still among the pattern of hoops. The Reverend wiped his cheeks with the handkerchief and, laughing, took off his straw hat. He waved to her. “I’ve got’m, Betsy. I’ve got’m again. In ten years maybe, in ten years—“

She came running wildly down the soft slope, her face flaming with rage. They dropped the mallets, glanced at each other as if there was some mistake, raised their hands to justify, but she had reached them with the scissors.

 

4 Comments

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  • Looks like a winner! Will look for the book via Amazon Thanks for the heads up John. I didn’t know about your movie–where can one see it?
    Congratulations Best regards, Cynthia Scott Francisco,

  • In route to a three day hike to Lalibela from Mekele, I spent a night in Dessie with a missionary couple and their preteen daughter. The arrangements were made by a volunteer in Dessie. The couple were polite but not over friendly and showed no interest in my PC service nor my experience as a black man in a land of black people. The evening meal was very frugal with small portions and no offer of seconds. After the meal, I was shown to my sleeping area without any attempt on their part to share their missionary experience with me. I believe that they were Mennonites. At times, I think of their daughter who is now (if alive) probably a grandmother and wonder how her early years in Ethiopia may have affected her life.

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