An Excerpt from True East
Download a PDF of this excerpt from the Prologue and the first two chapters, or read it below. You can purchase True East online, and where all fine books are sold.
In 2004, paleontologists, led by archaeologist Thomas Sutika and others, unearthed in a cave in Flores, Indonesia, bones of a miniature human determined to be 18,000 years old. Playfully nicknamed “the hobbit” because of its three-foot stature and oversized feet, the find was classified as belonging to the Homo genus and believed to be a descendent of Homo erectus, the earliest of our species to migrate out of Africa. Upon further scrutiny, however, various archaic characteristics of its anatomy became evident, similar to those of the 3.2 million-year-old Australopithecine known as “Lucy.” If an older skeleton can be found, this hobbit might be the sought after “missing link,” although how it traveled to an isolated island in Indonesia remains a mystery.
Evolution of Our Species
(A brief history)
Most anthropologists believe the Homo genus arose in the Afar region in Africa around two million years ago in the species known as Homo erectus. Probably evolving from Australopithecine afarensis (Lucy), Homo erectus overtook Australopithecine’s habitat and in a relatively short time replaced the more primitive species. H. erectus dominated the countryside until the arrival of our species, Homo sapiens, some 200,000 years ago. Then it too succumbed to the same fate as Lucy: extinction.
– Scientific American, Volume 22, Number 1
Shrouded in her terrycloth bathrobe, the woman in the kitchen is staring so intensely into her soap-filled sink that when the phone rings, she recoils as if touching a hot burner. Yet even before that first ring fades, she knows the timing of the call is no coincidence. The caller, whom she already loathes, is squatting in an office cubicle in some swarming metropolis in India. She pictures this despicable runt of a man, bowed legs laced with scabs, with his telemarketing manual open to the spiel he is preparing to deliver. Mouthing his lines, he is confident, since sales, like comedy, is more timing than content—and 6:00 pm is the miracle hour in the most wanting country on earth—America.
As the pause between rings lingers, Katy scrutinizes her hands. “Why are Americans so obsessed with cleanliness?” she muses, resurrecting with a shudder the memory of her trek through an Indian jungle. Andrew had given the honey gatherers two-months’ salary so he could shoot Bengal tigers in Nepal. Tigers in that region make a habit of feasting on straggling honey gatherers and yet the villagers had been reluctant to take them along. They believed the tigers had mystical powers that would make them invisible to Andrew’s camera, not to mention the revenge they would later ravage on their village. The tigers did prove elusive and the one-week excursion, bankrolled by a German travel magazine, stretched to six. Katy didn’t shower those six weeks; a quick dip in a leech-laden pond was her only relief from the jungle’s crawling grime. Now, as Katy stands over her stainless-steel sink peering at her spotless hands, she wonders if tigers, after devouring a honey gatherer, lap the spilled honey for dessert.
Braced against her refrigerator, Katy starts to itch. The dirt hadn’t bothered the honey gathers. Dirt was part of their life. Bacteria, viruses, even the orange-and-black snakes whose venom kills you in minutes, are all part of being—a cycle of life and death that goes on with or without you. Americans believe otherwise. We foolishly think we are masters of our fate and we exist in a privileged realm beyond the caprice of chance.
Katy knows otherwise. Maybe it was because of her upbringing on the empty plains of Oklahoma, where farm animals were slaughtered and eaten for dinner rather than depicted as the cute critters drawn in storybooks. Maybe it was her years of scientific schooling, which preaches the universe is cold and indifferent to our yearnings. Or maybe it was how her world, once precious and prized, so swiftly unraveled as she stood on the sidelines, a mere spectator to her total collapse.
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A second ring brings Katy back to the greedy telemarketer whom she envisions counting his rupees from the anticipated sale. He is humming a tune, knowing the perfect American wife will be preparing dinner, her blue-eyed children having washed their hands, her faithful husband strolling in the front door grumbling about gridlock. The family’s golden retriever will have ambled over from napping on the couch to take a spot beneath the kitchen table, hoping the food gods will be generous tonight.
As the second ring fades, Katy smells the curried stench of the telemarketer’s breath as he prepares to offer her happiness in the form of material wares. But what the man in the cramped cubical half a world away doesn’t know is that the woman he dialed has no children washing their hands, no dog begging for table scraps, and no husband coming home for dinner, although the demographics of her zip code would persuade him to think otherwise. Yes, the monster at the other end of the line has no idea that the woman propped against an empty refrigerator has spent the day feasting on a diet rich with pharmaceuticals, a colorful assortment of pills that have increased by three green ones since her husband went missing. The chap with the impeccable turban doesn’t care that the woman reaching for the phone rarely leaves her house, hasn’t tended her garden since the tulips poked through the snow, and hasn’t traveled these past eighteen months to any of the exotic locations the nature magazine she writes for infers she has. The solicitor from Bombay, Calcutta, or Delhi with the flawless American accent who will call himself Joe or Pete or maybe Dan, and who knows it is drizzling in Concord, Massachusetts, doesn’t care that the woman he’s disturbing has her doctorate in anthropology, went to Harvard on a full scholarship, or is on the short list for a Pulitzer. The man who can lower his voice a full octave to sound like an average American, doesn’t fret that he sent an electrical shock racing up the spine of this fragile, thirty-two-year-old woman, a woman who two years ago was crisscrossing the globe like it was her private playground, but who now is a recluse, a hostage of her own taking, squirreled away in her bedroom.
Katy’s eyes lock on the murky figure glaring back at her from the door of her spotless refrigerator. The door, which should be covered with gooey finger paintings and schedule reminders, emits a constant hum, a hymn echoing of the emptiness residing within her. Andrew and she had purchased the stainless appliances at the start of her third trimester; the cheery salesman with the striped bow tie and clashing orange shirt had guaranteed the couple these fixtures would transform their chaotic world into a tranquil nest.
Katy thirsts to lash out at the telemarketer intruding on her solitude. If Katy’s head were not swirling, she would ignore the ringing and race upstairs to gulp down two purple pills nestled on the nightstand for just such an emergency. She would chew the pills, feel their tranquilizing effects mainline into her body. At a moment like this, she understands the craving of an addict, how putting something—anything—into your body, even death, is better than the despair gnawing from within. But the prospect of a third ring, the panic of sinking deeper into the horror, forces Katy to grab the receiver with both hands.
Besieged by waves of static, the kind that years ago infected long-distance phone calls from third-world countries, Katy gasps. Is Andrew attempting to reach her from a remote jungle in Indonesia? She presses the phone tighter. Woven in the static are the faint voices of two women chatting. They are speaking in Portuguese about an upcoming parade.
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“You should see the outfit they gave me,” one giggles.
“A couple of sequin daisies pasted to my privates.”
“But the flowers keep popping off.”
“Have you tried glue?”
“It’ll make them erect.”
“Are you telling me they’re sagging?”
“I’m saying don’t show too much skin to the schoolboys skipping class.”
“An education is an education.”
“One they’ll learn soon enough on their own.”
Katy sifts through the nine languages she speaks fluently and the other twelve she can understand. Often Katy has more difficulty determining the origin of a language than understanding it since her amazing gift for language allows her to understand words she has never heard before, a skill that had made her indispensable in the archaeological digs in East Africa where dialects vary withtopography.
The women slip into silence, leaving Katy listening to the erratic rhythm of her breathing. She hears a series of mechanical
switching. Was an Indonesian operator trying to connect her with Andrew?
“Anyone there?” she whimpers, the far-off echo of her voice her only answer. She presses the phone painfully against her ear. “Andrew?”
“Mrs. Givens?” the voice materializes with such clarity that it startles her.
“Who are you?”
Was it the telemarketer? Again, the line infects with a gush of static.
“Who cares about tits? These days it’s all about asses.”
“But my tits are . . .”
“Tits—that’s all you young girls think about. How big will they get? Will they fill my bikini? But tits can be bought at Walmart. It’s asses that men crave. Speaking of asses, what does Ramon say about strutting your ta-tas in public?”
“What Ramon doesn’t know, Ramon doesn’t nag me about.”
“You go, girl. Keep that caveman in the dark along with that pack of Neanderthals he hangs with.”
The woman giggles. “I sometimes let Ramon down in the dark, if you know what I mean.”
“Oh I know, girl. Memories don’t sag with the rest of one’s body.”
“But my boobs are my calling cards; they got me on stage.”
“As if you’re the first woman whose tits mesmerized a judge?”
“And not an ounce of silicone.”
“You flaunt them, Leona. You’re a diva and don’t let them forget it. You get to strut but once, so salsa like you’re about to lose it.”
“Naughty and nice.”
“Carnival—a ride of lifetime for the young and beautiful.”
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The voices fade as Katy churns the word “Carnival” spoken in Portuguese, then narrows in on the accent—Rio. The women are from Rio de Janeiro and she fills in the missing piece: Fat Tuesday is in six days. However, the brilliance of her detective work evaporates with a shudder. Andrew can’t be in Brazil.
Katy grips the telephone with both hands as if to wring out an answer. No, Andrew is on assignment on the Indonesian island of Flores, covering an archaeological dig for Terrestrial magazine. He sent photos and she already wrote the accompanying piece, having spent weeks on Google Earth scanning the Indonesian countryside from her perch high on a satellite. Her article is a masterpiece of creative writing, describing pathways she forged through but never hiked and lakes she crossed but never paddled. Pirated off the Internet from photographs posted by vacationers or amateur naturalists, her article is written without leaving her bedroom. And for this Mark tells her she deserves a Pulitzer?
“Mrs. Givens,” the voice in the phone resurfaces.
Gyrating back to the telemarketer, Katy blurts, “You have no right calling me like this. What crap are you hawking today? You should chuck your trinkets into your God-damned Ganges with the rest of your rotting corpses.” Katy’s words stream so unimpeded from within that she doesn’t realize she is screaming, releasing the vitriol that has infused her these eighteen months.
“Mrs. Givens?” the voice calls out from its fractured universe.
Katy takes a deep breath, preparing to send this reptile back to the sweltering hellhole where it burrows. She opens her mouth, but nothing comes out. Frustrated, she raises the receiver over her head, sending it plummeting towards its cradle.
If she could have stopped midway she would have. But an object placed in motion stays in motion, so when the muted voice tells her, “I’m afraid, Mrs. Givens, but your husband is . . .” it’s too late, his last word crushed by the crash of the phone.
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With “your husband is . . .” ricocheting through the synapses
of her brain, Katy fills in the missing word. “Your husband is dead!” Once spoken, it’s a sorcerer’s spell that can’t be retracted. Desperate, she grasps for another word, substituting “arrested,”
“injured,” even “kidnapped.” But dead is the only word that fits. Her thoughts gush to that day eighteen months ago when the smug resident in the emergency room said, “I’m sorry, Ms.
Givens, but I’m afraid your boy is dead.” He, too, said “afraid.” She wanted to rip his throat with her fingernails, show him the primal meaning of “afraid.”
But she stood silently by, quiet as that shy school girl from Oklahoma who already knew her boy was dead.
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Standing with the cord coiled around her waist, Katy aches to rush upstairs to her two purple pills, but picks up the phone and pushes caller list. Sorting through thousands of area codes embedded in her brain, she stops at Rio. But, no, Andrew can’t be in Brazil, she sobs; he’s in Indonesia taking photos of an
archaeological dig for Terrestrial. She has pictures to prove it. Brazil revoked Andrew’s visa. He was escorted out of Brazil at gunpoint, freed only because he had done pro bono work for
Amnesty International during the Darfur war. A picture of sleeping Masalit boys flashes in her head—Andrew’s photo that won him a Pulitzer. Except the boys weren’t asleep, just like her son wasn’t asleep. “A mother should know,” she whimpers, thirsting for those two pills with every cell of her body.
Staring at the digits flashing on the screen, she returns the call. A recording in Portuguese announces the number is no longer in service. She fuses the number into memory and hangs up, leaving her alone with the voice reverberating in her head, “Your husband is dead.”
Later, after devouring four purple pills, the spinning slows and her breathing returns to normal. Katy picks up the phone. “Mark, this is Katy. There may be a situation with Andrew.”
The voice on the other end is calm. “There’s always a situation with Andrew; he thrives on it.”
“This is different. I just got a call from Brazil.”
“Brazil? Are you sure?”
“Don’t act dumb, Mark. Where’s Andrew?”
“I don’t know. That’s the truth.”
“What is Andrew doing in Brazil?”
“I didn’t know he’s in Brazil.”
“You’re his . . . you’re our fucking editor; you should know his God-damn whereabouts.”
“But I don’t.”
“Terrestrial doesn’t know where he is?”
The sound of Mark tapping is a bad sign. “In this case we don’t.”
“He was on assignment in Flores, wasn’t he?”
“He was, but . . .”
“Nobody has heard from him in over a month.”
A pause slips into the conversation as Katy processes Mark’s time line. “An American working for a major magazine doesn’t just disappear.”
“Andrew’s more creative than most.”
“Is he in Brazil?”
“I told you, I don’t know.”
Katy’s fingernails dig into the cord. “Then tell me something you do know.”
Mark’s tapping stops. “Listen, Katy, about six weeks ago I got a call from Andrew in Flores. He said things were breaking.”
“What’s breaking? Where?”
“He didn’t exactly say Brazil, but that’s what I gathered.”
“You do know he’s banned from going there.”
“Christ, Katy, of course I know. I pulled every string on my violin to get him sprung last year. The Amnesty International ploy was my idea.”
“Then why send him back?”
Mark’s drumming begins again. “I didn’t send him back. We merely provided him with money.”
“I haven’t heard from him at all,” Katy cries. “Money for what?”
A short silence follows. “I hoped he was in touch with you.”
“Listen Katy, no one has been more on your side these eighteen months than I have. Christ, I’d be selling magazines door to door if the press got wind that you write your articles from home. Who issues you those doctored visas? Who gets their friends at the State Department to stamp your passport?”
“Do you do the same for Andrew?”
“I process his passport in a way so he can travel incognito. But it was to Peru, not Brazil.”
“As if the Amazon has borders!”
“I’m not certain what Andrew confides in you, but . . .”
“But Andrew has been slipping in and out of Brazil for years.” Katy’s silence answers for her. “It’s just this last time he got caught.”
“And what has he been doing there . . . these years?”
“I’m not completely certain.”
“You’re lying, Mark. You don’t let your photographers go gallivanting around willy-nilly.”
“Andrew’s different. He has instincts.”
“How much did you give him?”
Again a pause, accented by a finger roll. “A hundred thousand . . . this time.”
“You’ve given him more?”
She hears Mark get up from his chair. “A million over the years.”
Stunned by the magnitude and Andrew’s deception, Katy replies. “That’s impossible. I would have . . .”
“Known? Listen Katy, this isn’t a story about snake charmers in Calcutta. Andrew’s onto something, something big. Terrestrial takes him at his word when he says it’s the story of the century.”
“Then who’s been sending me those photos from Flores? Andrew and I are a team, Mark. I know his work.” Katy races through the list of articles they have collaborated on. Was it all a sham?
“Andrew flies to an assignment, and after getting his shots, he’s off. I assume he emails them from his laptop from wherever he is.”
“You mean from Brazil?”
“Andrew believes in his story.” Katy hears a match strike, then Mark exhaling from his pipe with impatience. “Listen, Katy, we don’t want to start a family feud over this. We’re worried too. Andrew has never gone this long without contacting us.”
Katy’s fury blurs Mark’s words. Does Andrew’s deception have to do with a woman? It wouldn’t be farfetched. They haven’t slept together in two years. “You’re keeping something from me, Mark. I’m his wife.”
The silence shifts to Mark, a silence that Katy fills with provocative poses of other women. Katy’s imagination, the same talent that allows her to describe jungles she has never set foot in, gyrates towards the sordid.
“Katy.” Mark’s voice shakes Katy out of her descending agony. “You know I think the world of you. Your writing is first rate. Christ, if I didn’t know better, I’d think you were knee-deep in the muck of those jungles you describe. You should have a Pulitzer by now.”
Katy mellows slightly with the compliment, but then catches herself and yanks on the phone cord. “Don’t placate me, Mark. Is Andrew having an affair?”
“Then why lie?”
“Maybe Andrew wants to protect you from something.”
Katy hears hesitancy in Mark’s voice and pounces. “Protect me from what?” she yells. “It’s another woman, isn’t it?”
“Don’t give me that crap. You’re his friend and friends cover up.”
“That’s not Andrew’s style.”
Katy senses Mark on the defensive and gouges her fingernails deeper into the cord. “Is she prettier than me, Mark?”
“No, that’s not . . .”
“Does she do things to him that I don’t . . . can’t?”
“Stop it, Katy!” Mark shoots back. “Andrew keeps this from you because he knows you can’t handle it. Christ, Katy, you’ve been a basket case ever since you lost your baby.”
Mark’s words suck the breath out of Katy. No one has ever talked so bluntly.
“Yes, my baby died, died as your buddy Andrew stood by emailing his fucking photographs of a cheetah. So what do you want me to do?”
“Katy, you know I didn’t mean it that way. Andrew knows you couldn’t handle his return to Brazil. Think about it. Could you?”
Katy knows no color of pill would get her through a night drenched with such fears. “I want to go,” she utters, “to Brazil. Andrew’s in need and I can help.”
“In your condition that’s ridiculous. What could you do?”
Mark’s question catches Katy off guard, but without hesitating she blurts, “You forget, I, too, dodged poison darts in the backwaters of New Guinea for that magazine of yours, and I had Andrew’s back when he shot those photos in Darfur. Just because I can slip into a size six dress, doesn’t mean I’m not tough enough to take on the Amazon. I didn’t screw my way to the top like half the women at your rag.”
“Christ, I wasn’t attacking your fortitude, Katy. It’s just—you’re not fully healed.”
“Get me the God-damn visa and I’ll show you who’s healed.” Katy grabs her tablet and clicks on an icon for travel. “A flight leaves for Rio tomorrow evening at eight. I’m going to be on it. Understand?”
The unsettling silence on the other end of the line is broken by the swirl of ice cubes colliding with glass. Mark is churning through the complications, the implications of her demand. When put to the test, Mark is capable of miracles. He has a Rolodex larger than a Ferris wheel with connections in every city on the globe, can call any senator, Republican or Democrat, at any hour of the night. In a polarized world, Mark and Terrestrial stand above the fray, and as such they still have the sway to get things done.
“Understand?” Katy snarls.
“Your visa will be at the American ticket counter by four.”
He even knows the airline, Katy ruminates.
Mark drones on, like a well-prepared diplomat. “When you land, the American consulate in Rio will see you through customs. I’m betting the Brazilian authorities will want a word or two with you. You’re not on their radar, but they know who you are. They’re not third-world thugs, but Andrew has a way of pissing off the wrong people. A struggle is brewing between the government’s oil profits and the indigenous’ land.”
“Is that what this is all about?”
“Christ, Katy, in Peru they drill on the bones of sacred Inca burial grounds. The Texans run the rodeo down there, and it’s as sloppy as a pig barbecue. Brazil is different, complicated. They might play loose with the rules, but it’s a country of law. If you want to go, I won’t stand in your way.”
“You won’t regret this.”
But Mark isn’t finished. “What baffles me is, if Andrew is being held by the Brazilians, why haven’t we heard about it? Even the jungle is silent. Something’s brewing. I might have grown pudgy cruising the cocktail circuit of D.C. fundraisers, but I can still smell a stink—my gut tells me something is rotten down there and my mantra is always follow the money. Rumors of unlimited oil reserves in the Amazon have recently surfaced and those longhorns are aching to sink their spurs into the mother lode. You’d think the Brazilians would drill themselves. Hell, Pegasus is larger than BP.”
“Maybe the government doesn’t want to get its hands dirty.”
Mark scoffs at Katy naiveté. “Maybe Sitting Bull still owns the Dakotas.”
“But I’ll have the legal backing of Terrestrial, right?” Katy asks, as Mark gulps the remainder of his scotch.
“Be careful, Katy,” Mark replies without answering her. Trillions are at play, which makes this a game worth winning. Who was it that said ‘Money changes everything?’ ”
“Hopefully not us.”
“Follow the money, Katy. It’s usually where the shit hits