Hilary Plum

In those days the story everyone wanted was the story of the mistress shared by the General and his son, but no one had anything. Once a week or so, an editor or copy-editor or all-around no one at whatever service would ask, or I'd get a furious text message claiming that someone else had a scoop, get on it, that someone had seen her getting into a car in one of the old bourgeois neighborhoods or leaving a resort in Switzerland or the Sudan. None of this ever panned out. Do they have resorts in the Sudan? we'd joke in the basement the hotel manager had given over to us, after a photographer had been shot on the balcony two years ago, the glint of his lens catching the eye of a tank gunman. The tank gun swiveled so quickly, everyone who had seen it said. One maid had been deafened. So we hunkered down belowground, our sat phones in wild competition, calls getting through in slow motion, so it seemed, in the corner our tower of beer cans like a monument to the fallen West. I was in Sudan for two years, one guy said, Khartoum. I have often forgotten that about myself, he added—It was after the embassy bombings, but you have no idea how little happened after that.

We were all hounded about the mistress and we sympathized with one another, but we all wanted her, we tried everything stupid. Charlie—who was Vietnamese and had chosen this nickname for himself when he got his doctorate in Moscow, he explained to the Americans who didn't want to use it and found long-winded alternative ways to address him, which I think gave him more pleasure than anything—had what we agreed was the worst story. Following a lead, he had gone looking for someone in one of the old Jewish neighborhoods, the neighborhoods none of the present-day residents referred to this way. He'd heard that a man lived there who had been a handler of sorts for the mistress, had escorted her to the General's stronghold up north, the one rumored to have had the most opulent bedroom of them all, though there was no way to verify even this, it had been stripped bare immediately after the overthrow. But the man had turned out to be no one—a former football player, Charlie said, now blind in one eye. The man said he knew nothing, sometimes there was a woman at the games who was said to be her, but no one had ever known anything. The son of the General had earned international notoriety for his torture of the football team after they had for the third year in a row failed to make even the regional championships. Which admittedly had been a real disappointment to many. Charlie said the man cursed him and shouted him out of the house, the man's children trailed him down the street waving pipes and shouting slurs that Charlie, with his proficiency in languages, understood perfectly. He translated them for us and together we considered whether they contained any seeds of wisdom about interracial relations.

We spent a long time that night experimenting to see how much the loss of an eye might affect one's game, taking turns shooting goals at the beer can tower until the ball, which had been soft at the start, was limp and disc-like. We determined that it was a serious disability, but certain head movements could nearly compensate.


I learned all I was to learn of the mistress six months later, when the inquiries had dwindled, the son already hanged. By then I had rented a room not far from the hotel. The hotel had gotten less desirable from the journalists' perspective by renting out a large block to subcontractors' fixers, men who were essentially hustlers but worked directly for no one, they claimed, and brought in whore after whore at night, no old-fashioned elegance or discretion, despite the lobby's still intact chandelier and ornate balustrades. Half the girls were barefoot and the sounds from the rooms something we started to be able to hear from the basement. I left, as did most, though a few of the old diehards stuck it out, as though to insist that there was no experience they wouldn't have in this new country.

My new landlady lived by herself, which was unusual for a woman of her class. The rooms were clean and the neighborhood usually quiet and my time there was on the whole the most peaceful I had those years. The house had a garden, bare but shaded, and the story between my rooms and the landlady's remained unoccupied.

The landlady and I rarely spoke—it was clear she thought too much sociability would be inappropriate—and often only her scent in the stairwell or the nearly indiscernible sound of the radio betrayed the fact of her presence. But I discovered her on the terrace one day, I had left my bag there, having gotten a phone call mid-smoke and needing to run up to my computer to dispute some idiotic correction to a draft. When I came back down an hour later, she was sitting at the table and looking at my passport, holding it close to her face.

Picture's not very good, I tried to joke, and of course the name is a fake.

She looked at me and arched her eyebrows. She said, The name is yours, and she tossed the passport down onto the table, not replacing it in my bag's inner pocket as I expected her to.

She said, It's a bit cheaply done, for such a rich country.

I said, I had no idea.

I stood for a moment, meaning to gather my things and leave her, but that too seemed impolite.

She gestured me toward the chair across from her and I sat; she poured half the contents of her tea cup into the cup I'd left on the table. I offered her a cigarette, which she lit with matches that had been tucked onto the corner of her tea tray.

I used to make glue, she said. She laughed at my look of surprise, a squawking laugh that shook the vacant twigs of the lemon tree above us. She said, Glue for passports, and tapped mine lightly, pushed it back toward me. She said, My husband worked in the passport and visa office, and so it was a sort of favor, or useful thing to do. During the bad years people would come in, important people, businessmen or dignitaries, and they'd all be shouting about their passports, how their passports were falling apart though they were brand new, the photos peeling off, they would never last, on and on. We couldn't use the good glue because of the sanctions. There was some ingredient in it. I don't know how that worked. But I started making some glue, homemade, you know. It took a few tries and then it was very good.

She looked at me, tucked her scarf back around her hair, away from her cigarette.

Then, of course, you make it on the side, and you're very good, everyone comes to you. Everyone wants to get out of the country, but they can't get a fake passport, not with the right glue, it turned out to be sort of special, particular. I know these things do not seem important. But it was very brittle, so that the pictures would all start to crack a little in the same way, and could not be peeled off, but you could see the little cracks in them. I'm sure you cannot imagine. So I started doing this for the black market, which paid much more. I sent whole families out of my country, they paid me in old jewelry, cash, deeds to tracts of land in the south, and there I was, taking it all, holding their babies as they counted out the fee, singing little songs to shush them.

She ashed her cigarette and I opened my passport to its photo, closed it when she resumed: The fighters came too, very suspicious, they would deal only with me, and every time they came they would tie my husband up and gag him, it was terrible. We think this very much added to the strain on his heart. I made them what they wanted. They came here from all over the world and now they live among us with nice family names.

Do you still—?

She shook her head.

I stopped once the occupiers arrived, I didn't want to be caught. But the whore came to me then, in those last days. You know who I mean, yes—she waved a finger at me, nearly smiling—the one they say the father and the son both had, kept in the palace they built after the massacre of the northern villages. The whore was there, sitting in my basement, a neat pile of cash and a European visa prepared, very hard to get. She was very young. This is what you thought when you saw her, not that she was beautiful, but that she had the sort of face, very far-apart eyes, that you could rely on to look like the face of a woman who had had no experiences. The strange thing is—this was after I sent my children and my family abroad, meaning to follow them shortly after, but then my husband died and I had to tend to his affairs and to his people alone—the strange thing is that her real name, or the name on her passport, was the same name I had used on my daughter's. Either the same fake name, or we had chosen for my daughter a name which was truly the whore's. The whore, the one in the sunglasses, the infamous one!

She paused, then went on: I said to her, you have the same name as my daughter, and she nodded, though of course this was not something she could have known. Nor should I have said anything, surely her guard could have struck me. I worked tenderly and well on her passport for this reason, and because—this is the part you will not believe—because she and my eldest daughter, they also wore the same perfume.

She leaned forward, brushed ash and fallen leaves off the table.

What visa? I asked.

She shook her head and smiled.

I told this story to Charlie a few days later. Charlie clapped me on the shoulder and shook his head. He was neither discreet nor indiscreet, and if there had been more of a story, I'm sure he'd have told it widely and as though it had happened to him. But I don't think he did. There were so many stories in that city, and by then even the journalists were dying at unprecedented rates, which seemed to multiply the stories that circulated among us, so that most of the time you felt as though your work could never end.