in Harmattan Season
The ping-pong table stands beneath an aluminum awning, next to a patchy brick wall that lets the hot, dusty wind roll uninterrupted down the covered walkway, to the four-fauceted trough where the trainees brush, comb, and shave. Gusts blow through with the regularity of a subway train, this one snatching up the serve and hurling it at Jeff’s chest. Jeff rocks back on a heel and backhands. Patrick returns, a slow shot that sinks in just past the net. Jeff lunges, slams, overshoots, and the ball bounces away on the concrete, rolling into the gutter of a garden lining the walkway, in which only weeds seem to grow.
Patrick scrambles after it. More than once, one of them has stepped on a wayward ball, crushing it like an eggshell. Some of these can be re-inflated in boiling water; some can’t. Now they’re on their last ball, and one stumble means an end to the game.
“Your serve, huh?” Patrick asks, tossing the ball. Jeff catches it on his paddle, taps it over into his left hand.
“1 serving 4.” Down early, but Jeff knows he’ll make it up. He serves fast, but Patrick has it right back to him, deep, and they volley until Jeff nicks the front edge on Patrick’s side. Patrick leaps forward, bringing it back up and over, but Jeff’s waiting with the slam. The ball shoots back, ricochets off the table, and Patrick scuttles after it for the second point in a row. Jeff watches with satisfaction. Again, it isn’t him. He hates himself for the pettiness of the thought, but he can’t deny it’s there—a smaller version of what he feels every time he scores that twenty-first point, and he hasn’t lost since a second-week bout with dysentery. Giardia kept Patrick away from the table the same week, the complications earning him the nickname Poopy-Pants Patrick. Jeff's glad that his own accidents occurred in private.
2-4, 3-4, 3-5, 4-5, 5 up. Patrick’s serve. They pause. Patrick takes off his hat, his hair leaping up like an uncut lawn. Jeff wipes away the sweat that beads his eyebrows and forehead. He hears laughter to his left, and turns to see Caleb across the sun-drenched courtyard, sitting down with two of the Bambara professors. Patrick follows his look.
“Caleb’s in pretty good, huh?”
Maybe if I had the magic ability to learn Bambara overnight, I’d be in good too, Jeff thinks. He looks to the hangar where a dozen trainees nap in the sand, to the feeble library with its language books, Peace Corps health manuals, and the single, worn Absalom, Absalom, to the banging aluminum doors of the latrines that just this morning he learned how to build. In the afternoon sun, all these things are impossibly distinct, as if cut from the dusty background by razor blades. Jeff can still remember when harmattan was only a word, back in his college-freshman dictionary phase: a hot, dry wind blowing across the Sahara desert. Now it rushes across his neck like the opening of an oven door.
“Serve,” he says.
Soon Sarah stops to watch them, squeezing between the ping-pong table and the brick column supporting the awning. She yawns and fiddles with her T-shirt. Between serves, Jeff eyes the sweat soaking its front, tracing her nipples. He wonders what her village would make of stains like that, but by now he’s seen enough bare-chested women here to doubt they’d care. He feels the sweat drenching his own shirt, doesn’t even want to look down. Still, he knows his arms look good when he plays ping-pong; one of his friends used to have a mirror by the table.
“What’s the score?” she asks, fanning herself by flapping the shirt’s stomach. The wind rushes around them again. It helps, a little.
“12-up,” Patrick tells her. “You’re slipping”—waving the paddle at Jeff—“slipping…” Jeff’s beaten Patrick in 9 games today, Tim in 7, Dan in 2, Susan in 3, and Jared in 1. He hasn’t left the table for hours, not even for lunch.
“Some women in the village did henna for me last night,” Sarah says, after Patrick serves straight off the table. Jeff has to push right past her to switch sides, and he feels that the contact they make is a little more than accident, on both their parts. The thought reassures him—being for a moment pressed up against an American girl, her nipples evident but invisible—and he feels more grounded, suddenly, than he has in weeks. He taps his new side with his paddle, twirls the handle, grins at her. He and Patrick always switch at 25 combined points; the edge of one table half juts above the other and they aren’t sure who it favors. And then there’s always the wind, carrying over the weak shots or blasting them forward. Jeff’s even had shots clear the net, change direction in midair, and land back on his own side.
Sarah twists a foot up, holding her ankle like she’s stretching for a run, and Jeff examines the henna. The black squares and triangles always look Aztec to him, somehow, though he guesses they’ve been doing it here since God knows when. He blinks at the pungency of her sandal-sweat. He wonders what she might smell like elsewhere.
“That’s one culturally assimilated foot,” he says, and she smiles. Patrick scores the next point off him, and another when Jeff misses an easy backhand. He’s getting tired now, feels the calories draining from his muscles. He switches to a short serve that Patrick dribbles back, unreturnably: 12-15.
“Jeff’s finally going down,” Sarah observes with a little smile. He hates that; hates being the best at this; hates loving being the best; hates them all waiting to see him fall.
He switches serves again, to what Tim calls his panic serve, slamming the ball down on his side to send it over with the arc of an intercontinental ballistic missile. Patrick fumbles the return, then smiles awkwardly.
“There’s the Jeff I like to see!” Jeff tries to smile back, but feels himself grimacing instead. He turns away and wipes his forehead with the bottom of his T-shirt.
“You know, there’s probably some guy version of this,” Sarah says, looking at her feet again.
“Penis henna,” Patrick agrees. She ignores him.
“If you just walk around the village for a while, somebody’ll always grab you for something.” The last time Jeff walked around the village, an old man with a face like a walnut shell called to him, hobbling over from a crowd. An impossibly large and purple tongue worked in the man’s mouth as he spoke. Jeff stared, fascinated, as the man jabbered faster and faster, immediately escaping the limits of Jeff’s rudimentary Bambara. The man repeated an insistent and impossible question, prodding Jeff’s leg with his cane, and finally began to laugh. Jeff turned to go, but even then he could hear the man calling the same question over his shoulder, and this time the crowd laughed with him. He went back to his hut, put on his headphones, and seethed in his mosquito net for the rest of the afternoon.
Jeff fumbles another return, almost losing his paddle. He hears them laughing at him, wheels in anger, but it was just the professors again—Caleb pantomiming a student stumbling over his Bambara that might be, just might be, Jeff.
Tim sidles in next to Sarah, audibly sucking in his gut to fit beside the table. “Score?”
“Hey Nic, Nasha, come here,” Tim calls.
Patrick serves. Jeff wings it testily back.
“16-18,” he corrects. 17-18. 18-up. But then he swings clean past an easy return. The wind again, dropping the feather-light ball before it has any right to go down. He fights the impulse to yell. He’s trying to cut back on his profanity.
“Oh? Oh? Can it be happening?” Patrick calls. Jeff hammers another ICBM serve that slips right past him. Nic is here now, and Michelle, and Nasha, then Amy, Greg, and Caleb, half the training group, watching and joking. Jeff doesn’t look at Sarah now, but he can feel her eyes following his paddle as he slams another serve, then whips Patrick’s return straight at the net. It strikes just below the edge, hangs a moment, then its momentum carries it to the other side, where it falls and rolls.
“Point-19,” Jeff says. No one speaks, but he feels their excitement buzzing around his ears like the mosquitoes in his hut. Patrick takes the ball now, and serves it slow and easy. Jeff aims his shot close, but Patrick darts forward for another short return.
Jeff sees his chance, wings the ball for the peeling white line at the back, and he feels the shot in his wrist, dead on, enough to clip the table and continue unreturnably to the concrete, and put Patrick out of the game. Then he feels the wind slipping around his chest, nudging the ball into open space. Patrick catches it easily.
“And he’s still in the game!” he cries, throwing his arms high like a boxing champ.
“Take him down, Poops,” Tim says, Michelle nodding behind him. Sarah watches Jeff with a cold smile.
This wasn’t how ping-pong was meant to be played, Jeff wants to scream at them. Ping-pong is for a closed environment. Rec rooms. Air conditioning. Cold Dr. Pepper. Pink Floyd on a parents’ stereo. Friends who speak your goddamned language. A country where your snot isn’t black with dust and your ankles aren’t swollen with mosquito bites and you never get malaria and you don’t fall asleep to a donkey braying ten feet away and wake up at 4 AM to rooster crowing at your door, a country you can be a human being in, and he will be goddamned if he lets a hot, dry wind blowing off the Sahara desert take this last thing from him, too.
He says nothing. Patrick holds his serve until the last gust dies away.
“Point-point.” Their house rules require no lead to win. Patrick takes a deep breath, widens his eyes in humorous tension, and serves.
Jeff volleys back with an angry, vicious control: short, then deep, forehand, then back. His shots box Patrick in, give him less and less time to respond on each. “Dammit,” Patrick says, diving for a pick-up at his back edge. The ball comes back fat and slow, hanging in the air like a softball pitch. He will not miss. He cannot miss.
“Game,” Jeff cries, and slams. The ball smashes down onto the green, and rockets out into an alien sun.