AFTERWORD Borneo Is Green BY DAGOBERTO GILB New York IHAD RECENTLY ARRIVED from the desert, where I live, where it gets cold in the winter too, but the sky is all around and above. Bright baby blue in the daylight, dark navy blue and twinkly after the sun sets. Unlike New York City, where the night sky, which is only straight up, was as black as the streets below. And it was so cold. Cold with a wet, scalding wind so mean I imagined it must be blowing in off the infamous East River, where dead bodies are always disposed of. No, I was not at my happiest this particular evening. I was walking those blackened streets, and trash was flying up and along and by. Shards of cardboard boxes and plastic wrappings, styrofoam and paper cups, those pretty store bags and the most and least gourmet of disposable plates and take-home containers, from the delis and pizza houses and those multi-exotic restaurants, now all mashed and stained into side walk tile. I pass a soleless shoe, cigarette wrappers and butts, a broken umbrella, a crushed pen, a flattened stereo speaker, gum, half a suitcase, beer bottles. I pass a blond man, hunched and angled into the black wind, in a black trenchcoat so long it catches on the laces of his black shoes, his huddled scowl ready to snap like a yard dog. On an abandoned cobblestone street, I pass a hungry blackened man under a frayed knit watchman suddenly jack his head out of even blacker shadow like a macabre harlequin, then as suddenly bob it back into the unseeable darkness. I go up a trembling elevator, through a long, dimly lit hall. Another visitor, from Holland, is sitting at a table drinking coffee, black. He is with a black woman from Brooklyn, and she too is drinking her coffee black. There are no cockroaches in Holland, he is telling her, because they are not al Dagoberto Gilb, the El Paso writer, visited New York City in December, and it was cold, very cold. He read a version of this essay on National Public Radio’s “Fresh Air.” Gilb’s novel, The Last Known Residence of Mickey Acuria, is available in paperback from Grove Press. lowed. If a cockroach would be discovered in someone’s home, that person would be required to call a government agency which must investigate immediately. A Dutch swat team, I contribute. The woman from Brooklyn laughs. This subject is brought up because she told him her last job was as an exterminator, and he thought she said terminator, as in the movie of that title. There is no such occupation in Holland. Both the woman from Brooklyn and I are astonished by this information. He says the thought of cockroacheshe has never seen oneterrifies him. She used to be disgusted by them too. But after a few years on her job, she explains, she came to understand what they were, where they came from, why they behaved as they did. She exterminated them calmly. With knowledge, she says, the disgust goes away. She knows their varieties. Did we know that cockroaches, impregnated only one time, will continually have babies the rest of their mature life? Did we know that cockroaches, if they need to, can change their sex in order to reproduce? The Dutchman groans. He shakes his head. I never want to see a cockroach, he says. After some contemplation, the woman from Brooklyn says, I bet Holland doesn’t have cockroaches because it is such a green country. The Dutchman thinks with his hand over his mouth, moving his blue eyes, and speaks from under his palm: I love concrete. I hate green. Borneo is green. HE CRIED FOR the first two weeks. He wished he’d never gone. The first thing was the leeches. They were this big. No no, bigger. They were the darkest green. They had eyes, and they watched from the trees. They stared, and waited. Every day he and his partner would walk in wet clothes, with insecticide powder all over the body and especially on the face. Except on the forehead, where the powder would be left off because it would roll down in the sweat and into the eyes. The welts the mosquitoes gave there were big, but that he got used to. Like he did to their roar at night. But never to the everyday fish and rice, the same fish, the same rice. One night his guides made him something. It looked like spaghetti, and it looked good, until he saw that the spaghetti also looked back at him with two eyes. Another night it was the yellow meat of an iguana. It stunk, it stunk so bad he ate rice. The Dutchman and his partner would arrive in a village and, because they carried a big first aid kit, they would be considered doctors. Maybe a woman had stepped on a stone fish, and her leg had gangrened above her knee. She would be dead by the time they returned. They would smoke the villagers’ pipes because they couldn’t say no. The Dutchman wanted to pretend to inhale, but a native would get on the other end of the pipe and blow it down his throat. The chief would send a young daughter. There was no option. There were dried human heads strung above him. The first time he didn’t know they sat around ritually watching. He was stoned, and he’d be stoned for at least five hours. When he and his partner left, the natives gave them dried meat. He loved meat, but he never could eat their meat, never. Danger and pain were everywhere. The Dutchman learned to wrap his genitals with plastic because in the rivers there are tiny fish attracted to urine. Get careless and they will go up the penis and lodge themselves and swell. They can be removed only by surgery, and they must be or else, though there is no surgery in the jungle, and no time once it happens. He and his partner had two sets of clothes, wet and dry. At night, they would powder their bodies and put on the dry clothes to sleep. One morning his partner was changing back into the wet ones and began to howl. He hadn’t powdered his genitals, and now his testicles were crusted green. Without knowing it, he’d slept near an absent boar’s nest, and hundreds of hungry ticks who thrived on boar found his warmest flesh. Clenching her teeth, the woman from Brooklyn says, Our worst bugs are cockroaches. The Dutchman shivers. I hope I never see a cockroach here in New York, he says, because I think New York is such a beautiful city. And right then I felt so much better, and I said, It is, it really is a beautiful city, isn’t it? Did we know that cockroaches, if they need to, can change their sex in order to reproduce? 30 FEBRUARY 23, 1996
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