Down and under

In 1995 I worked for an actuarial firm in Cape Town. The job itself was as dull as a mortality table, but I couldn’t really complain. That this firm had taken the risk to employ me in the first place had been a miracle. When I interviewed with them I had just spent the previous three years on a farm in the middle of nowhere, leading a moneyless and wholly unactuarial existence. I owned only T-shirts and had to borrow an old suit of my father’s for the interview. My mother hastily shortened the legs and overdid it, but there was no time for the sleeves and so they hung past my hands. The only tie that matched the suit was a wide atrocity that my father had last worn in the seventies. I looked like a pinstriped clown. Minutes before the interview, as I crossed Bree Street without looking, I stepped in front of a Volkswagen Beetle driven by an old Jewish man on his way to Synagogue. Even though he wasn’t going very fast I was scooped over the windshield and did what I’m now sure was a momentary headstand on the roof of the car. Then I landed in the road on the seat of my father’s suit. Two women rushed from a parked car and helped me up.

“Are you OK?” one grunted as they steered me toward the sidewalk. “Is anything broken?”

My one leg hurt but nothing felt broken.

“Do you know where you are?” she pressed on.

I wasn’t sure.

“You should look where you’re going,” the other one suggested and wagged a finger at me.

“I have to ask,” the actuary who interviewed me said a few minutes later, after some introductory pleasantries, “is that a ponytail tucked into your shirt?”

He had introduced himself as Rod. Rod was a name that I thought went very well with his profession.

“It is, Rod,” I mumbled. “I lost a bet with friends almost three years ago and I’ve had to grow my hair since then. But I can cut it on the twenty-third of March.”

He shook his head in disbelief and pressed on, “And the suit?”

“Well—” I hesitated.

“It’s all torn,” he said and pointed at me and at the suit. “Is it even your suit?”

I gave up and told him everything. It was over anyway. There was no point in lying.

“Are you OK?” Rod asked when I was done.

“My right leg is stiff,” I said. “And my hair hurts.”

“You’ll be needing a better tie,” he announced and slapped his knees.

While passing the interview was surely a miracle, my continued employment with this firm was an act of faith on their part. I sat in my little office overlooking Bree street and played around on what was then the beginnings of the internet as we now know it, enthralled by things that had no tangible intersection with the expectations of the people who paid me. Even so I was invited to join five actuaries to attend a conference, hosted by the American firm Towers Perrin, in Washington D.C. The conference was billed, rather optimistically, as Flexible Liability. I didn’t really know what that meant, but I didn’t care. They could’ve called it Permanent Astrology and I still wouldn’t have cared. I had never been to America and this was my chance.

“Don’t fuck around,” Rod warned me after he’d explained why we were going. “These people could become our partners.”

“I won’t,” I said.

Rod nodded slowly and appeared to examine my words for their individual meaning.

Don’t,” he emphasised.

Then he remembered something.

“In D.C. I’ll take you to see the most beautiful woman in the whole world.”

To get to Washington we had to fly via Johannesburg, Isla de Sal in the Cape Verde islands, and New York. The trip took thirty-two hours. In the muggy terminal building at Isla de Sal a sweaty official warned us not to drink the water and invited us to buy a Dr Pepper from a small table. I was thirsty but I wasn’t going to be told what to buy and so I drank the water anyway. As it turned out, this water was a key ingredient of an accelerated weight loss programme. I arrived in Washington at two on a Friday afternoon, haggard and gaunt. I was jet-lagged but I wanted to see the city and so I went for a walk. I walked from our hotel in Foggy Bottom to Lafayette Square so I could see the White House. Then I walked all around it so I could see it better. I felt like an ancient Greek visiting slightly less ancient Rome, gawking at the newfangled excess of it all, but near the Washington Monument I was reminded otherwise.

“You from Australia?” a street vendor asked with what sounded like regret.

I had decided to find out what a Dr Pepper tasted like after all, and had simply asked for one.

“I most certainly am not—”

“Yep,” she went on and handed me a can and a straw. “Down under.”

“No,” I insisted as I returned the straw. “South Africa.”

She handed me the straw again, now warming to the challenge, and jutted out her chin, “Where’s that?”

“In Africa,” I said, suddenly aware that this might not qualify.

She leant back and folded her arms. I mimed south with the straw and added, “You know, at the bottom?”

“Like I said,” she remarked as she turned to another customer, “down under.”

From there I walked to the Lincoln Memorial, and then all the way back along the expanse of the Mall past the Smithsonian Museums to the Reflecting Pool near the Capitol building. By then it was getting dark and I was ready to eat again. An old man was selling hot dogs from a cart with a sign that advertised Dogs with Everything. The Dr Pepper had not tasted much better than the water of Isla de Sal, and so I pinned my hopes on an American hot dog.

“I’ll have a dog with everything,” I announced.

For a moment the old man seemed pained, as though I’d said something slightly obscene, but then he moved slowly into action.

“You sound funny,” he observed as he lay a thin, wrinkled sausage into a roll.

I had expected that a dog with everything would start out with more of something.

“To me, you sound funny,” I replied. “Will that become a dog with everything?”

The old man smiled wistfully and squirted some mustard and ketchup onto the sausage, obscuring it.

“Ireland?” he ventured.

“Irish? How can I—”

“No, wait,” he said and held up the unfinished hot dog, apparently resampling the few words I had said. Then he shook his head, scooped some relish from a container, added some fried onions, and looked into the distance.

“New Zealand,” he tried again.

“No,” I said, “I’m—”

“That’s everything,” the old man cut me short and handed me a smallish hot dog. “Definitely Australia then.”

“I’m from South Africa,” I tried again. “You know, it’s—”

“I don’t really mind,” he chuckled as he turned away. “I’m from South Dakota.”

As I sloped off in the direction of the Peace Monument, he called after me, “I liked it better when you were Irish.”

The next morning I was awake at four and couldn’t get to sleep again. I turned on the television and discovered to my dismay that American ad breaks were significantly longer than the ones I was used to, and significantly sillier. I had three hours before the dining hall opened for breakfast and so I pored over a map of Washington I was given when I checked in. It was a colourful map, almost childlike in its three-dimensional depictions of major landmarks. I planned various routes along the laid-out grid of the city, a grid made simple by its use of numbers for streets running north-south and letters for those running east-west. The only complication I could see were avenues that cut across the grid at forty-five degrees and connected various circles. It wouldn’t matter if I got a little lost, I thought, as I had a whole weekend ahead of me. If I could avoid having to do some stupid tour with the actuaries, the capital of the free world awaited me. I was going to walk across Key Bridge to Arlington Cemetery and the Pentagon. I wanted to retrace my walk of the previous afternoon and visit the Smithsonian Museums. I wanted to take a leisurely stroll along the Potomac. And perhaps, I thought, I could hang around outside the White House again, but this time for so long that the Secret Service would open a file on me.

As I was about to leave my room and go down to breakfast, I remembered something—I was not going to stand accused of being Australian again. By coincidence I had brought along what I was sure would put an end to that. It was a T-shirt that depicted the mountains of Cape Town—Devil’s Peak, Table Mountain, and Lion’s Head—with the words Cape Town in large lettering beneath them. I changed into this T-shirt and stepped into the day.

The hotel had a single elevator. It took forever to arrive and even longer to move between floors. In the elevator on this morning were two older women. One was very short and nearly spherical, with thick glasses and a vast bosom that undulated gently. The other one was thin and tall. They stood closely together. As we slowly descended I tried my best to ignore the mental image of a first grader’s letter d, with the short woman as its bowl and the other one its stem.

“Guten Tag,” Bowl broke the silence and beamed up at me. “Wie geht’s?”

It was now obvious that she was quite squint too.

“Guten Tag,” I hesitated. “Alles gut. Mit Sie?”

Bowl and Stem exchanged a bewildered glance.

“Aw!” Bowl exclaimed. “Now you got me! I dunno more German than that!”

“Why German?” I asked, wondering if I somehow looked German on top of sounding Australian.

“Cape Town,” Stem observed with Holmes-like satisfaction, and pointed at my T-shirt.

“What about it?”

Stem and Bowl exchanged another glance.

“It’s in Germany,” Stem said.

We trundled downward in silence for a second or two while I tried to come to terms with this new intelligence.

“Does it sound German?” I asked.

“No—” Bowl hesitated.

“It doesn’t,” I said, “because it’s not. Cape Town is in Africa. At the southern tip.”

“I don’t think so,” Stem objected and shook her head slowly.

“Nope,” Bowl nodded.

“Look,” I said, “I was there forty-eight hours ago. Unless they’ve scooped the whole thing out and moved it to Germany, I assure you that Cape Town is in South Africa.”

Stem pursed her lips the way people do who disagree with you but don’t feel like arguing.

“Take a look at a map,” I suggested.

Just then the elevator came to a shuddering stop at the ground level.

“Well,” Bowl guffawed, “what do we know! We’re from California!”

With that they marched off, now looking like a b as they made their way to a table near the window.

A few minutes later I was staring at a soggy waffle when Bowl summoned me.

“Psst!” she hissed from their table and waved her arms to attract my attention. “Come here,” she mouthed and beckoned.

Having talked in the elevator we were clearly now friends. I took my coffee and walked over. Stem had the same map I’d studied in my room spread out across their table.

“We want to see the White House,” she got to the point and tapped the map. “But should we go like this,” she said, tracing her finger from our hotel toward Dupont Circle, “or like this?”

The rather large picture of the White House was visible to the east of her hand, nowhere near the two routes she was considering.

“I’d go like this,” I said, unable to stop myself, “to Dupont Circle, and then further north along Connecticut Avenue.”

“How far to the White House?” Bowl asked and eyed the map with her good eye.

“Well,” I said, “it’s going to feel like you’re not getting there. I walked to the White House yesterday and it took a long time.”

“Was it worth it?” she asked and glanced at Stem.

“It was totally worth it,” I said.

“That’s settled then,” Stem snapped and folded the map away. “Thank you.”

I spent the Saturday as I’d planned, getting lost here and there but generally finding my way in the end. The T-shirt seemed to work and I was asked instead whether I was from England. A cashier in a CD shop, once we’d established that I was from Africa and not Brittany, as she put it, told me that she knew someone who lived in Utopia.

“You mean Ethiopia?”

“Of course,” she agreed. “It’s around there, ain’it?”

I was baffled to be among people who had had all the benefits of scale and yet had turned out to be so small. How was this the capital of the world when it knew almost nothing about it?

The next morning, as I entered the dining hall, I heard an eerily familiar sound, “Psst!”

It was Bowl again, but she looked less friendly than she had the day before.

“Did you see the White House?” I asked when I reached their table.

I was hoping that they’d gotten lost and as a result had found their way to the White House despite my misdirections.

“Yes,” Bowl said unhappily and adjusted her thick glasses. She glanced nervously at Stem and continued, “But it was very far away.”

This was not what I wanted to hear.

“How far?” I asked with some trepidation.

“It didn’t look like the White House,” Stem remarked darkly.

“But it was smaller than we thought it’d be,” Bowl added quickly.

From this I took it that Bowl wasn’t the brains of the outfit and instead took care of public relations.

“Where did you go?” I asked.

Stem unfolded her map. “Here,” she said icily and dragged a bony finger along Connecticut Avenue, “like you said.”

I wanted to run away but I was trapped.

“Like this?” I asked to buy some time as I traced the same route and hovered a finger north of Dupont Circle. “How far?”

“It was very far,” Bowl sighed. “I was very tired.”

“And you found the White House?”

“Yes,” Stem hissed and paused for effect, “and quite frankly, it was extremely disappointing.”

For a moment I considered saying how I, too, was disappointed, but then it occurred to me that I might see them again, and that this could drag on.

“Actually,” I said instead, “it’s not along Connecticut Avenue at all.” I pointed at the large icon of the White House on the map to the south-east. “It’s here.”

Stem tapped the icon while she considered this. “No,” she concluded and shook her head, “it’s not.”

“Look,” I said again.

“It’s not,” Stem insisted.

“Perhaps it’s in Germany,” I smiled.

Bowl giggled nervously but was silenced at once by a withering look from Stem.

“What does this say?” I asked and traced the words The White House that were clearly printed below the picture of the White House.

“But we saw the White House,” Stem countered with an air of finality.

It was becoming clear to me that the geographic incompetence I had experienced of Americans was more pronounced in those who were from California, where they seemed to laminate their ignorance with certainty.

“You saw some white house,” I tried, “not the White House. This is Washington. Everything is white.”

Stem frowned and tapped the pictures of the White House and Dupont Circle with her index fingers, apparently still unconvinced that she hadn’t seen the White House.

“You played a trick on us!” Bowl exclaimed.

“I did,” I confessed.

“But why?” she asked with childlike wonder.

“You said I was from Germany,” I mumbled sheepishly. “I thought you’d figure it out.”

“But we’re from California!” she brayed and sputtered until her bosom heaved unevenly.

The rest of the Sunday was spoiled by the actuaries. They intercepted me as I was about to leave for the day.

“Where have you been?” Rod asked with some irritation. “We’re late.”

“For what?”

“It’s in the the itinerary—”

A van pulled up to the curb outside the hotel. It bore the ominous sign UCDC.

“What itinerary?”

Rod stared at me for a moment and then he said, “Don’t fuck around.”

We got into the van and went on a paid tour of the city to see the the things I’d already seen. After a mind-numbing dinner at a restaurant on K street, during which the actuaries cracked jokes about funds and factors, Rod insisted that we visit 20-twenty, a strip club on 20th street.

“You’ll see Kerry,” he cried hoarsely and knocked back a cognac like one would a tequila, “the most beautiful woman in the whole world!”

He waved a drunken hand to include what passed for the world. “You have to see her.”

I could think of no reason to see Kerry. I would rather have watched two hobos argue over a soiled mattress than visit a strip club, especially one rumoured to contain the most beautiful woman in the whole world.

“I’m going back to the hotel,” I announced as we stepped out onto K street.

“But what about Kerry?” Rod cried. “What are you, a pussy?”

“I’m tired,” I called back to them as I walked off.

“You’ll be sorry,” Rod called after me.

The week dragged on painfully. My worry that Stem and Bowl might see me again was totally warranted. They worked for Towers Perrin and were at the hotel for the same conference I was, in charge of its administration. Somehow, this was a function they performed as an inseparable, bipolar duo. On the first day, Stem announced lunch in such a matronly tone as to suggest that stool samples would be collected later. Bowl beamed beside her and nodded eagerly. They presided over the rationing of refreshments, the keeping of time, and the agendas of sessions. It was from them that I first learned of the existence of the breakout session. Until then it had not occurred to me that people at a conference could want to stay at the conference for a nanosecond longer than was absolutely necessary. I was therefore flabbergasted to find that some people would intentionally sequester themselves in a smaller conference, under intensified scrutiny, only to regroup and then reprise what had been discussed as though they were revenant explorers of the unknown.

When Stem announced the first breakout session, I snuck off. It was around three in the afternoon and I figured that no one would miss me anyway.

“Are you lost?”

It was Bowl.

“The breakout rooms are that way,” Stem pointed with her bony finger. “Where it says Breakout Rooms.”

“I was just—”

“We’ll show you,” Bowl purred as they steered me back past the Breakout Rooms sign and down a dingy corridor.

The next day they caught me again as I was about to escape the finer points of flexible liability. They guided me to a room where Rod and four people from Towers Perrin were discussing, as far as I could tell, how the liability of an employer with regards to its healthcare insurance differed, fundamentally, from its other liabilities. Sitting there, listening to Rod and these people, I had what I can only call an out-of-body experience. I wasn’t floating above my own body, mind you, but it felt as though I was floating above theirs. The more I looked at them, and the more I listened, the more I became convinced that they were hand puppets, with a voiceover provided from somewhere outside the room, possibly by Stem and Bowl. As I was thinking this, Rod leant forward and whispered, “Don’t fuck around.”

“What?” I whispered and I smiled at the other four.

Don’t,” Rod hissed.

Stem and Bowl caught me again on the Wednesday and Thursday, despite what I thought were cunning plans to escape the hotel. The Californian ineptitude of earlier had been replaced by a spatial awareness I couldn’t compete with. To add to my misery, the actuaries teased me about Kerry whenever they could.

“You missed out big time,” Alan said at supper on Thursday.

Alan was a runt of a man, even for an actuary, and it was clear from how he said this that he was extending to me what had started out as a private regret.

“Why?” I asked. “What did you get?”

“We got to see the Grand Canyon,” Rod said, “so to speak.”

They all laughed at this pun.

“Is she a stripper?” I asked.

“Oh God, no,” Alan sighed. “She does the door.”

“I don’t like redheads,” another actuary reflected, “but for Kerry I’ll make an exception.”

This was not what I had wanted to hear. I loved redheads, without exception, and now it turned out that Kerry was only the maître d’.

“She is simply the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen,” another actuary recapped dreamily.

Rod smiled. “I see we have your attention.”

“I thought she was a stripper,” I mumbled.

On Friday I tried one last time to escape the inevitable breakout sessions that were announced, as glumly as all week, by Stem. As a ruse, I followed some others to one of the breakout rooms. I had no intention of attending this session and instead planned to walk past the room and somehow find a way out of the hotel. But Stem and Bowl had anticipated this.

“You don’t seem to know your way around,” Stem observed as they stepped from behind a pillar. “How will you get to the venue tonight?”

“What venue?”

“Oh dear,” Bowl giggled. “The closing dinner.”

“There’s a bus for those of us from out of town,” Stem admonished as they escorted me back to the breakout room. “Be on it.”

The venue for the closing dinner was the Washington Convention Center, a thirty minute walk from the hotel. There was no way I was going to be bused to something I could walk to. As I skipped down the entrance steps of the hotel that evening, I was intercepted once again by the actuaries.

“Where are you going?” Rod demanded.

“I’m going to walk,” I said. “It’s not too far.”

“But the bus leaves in fifteen minutes. You’ll be late.”

“He wants to swing by 20th street,” another actuary suggested.

“I’ll be fine,” I said as I headed out. “I don’t even know where that club is.”

“Don’t fuck around,” Rod called after me.

As it turned out, it was easier to find club 20-twenty than it was to find the Washington Convention Center. At the north end of Lafayette Square I got confused and headed farther north instead of east, and soon was lost. I took a turn in K Street that I thought would thread me back to I Street and New York Avenue, and thus to the Convention Center, but I ended up on 20th Street. When I walked a block along it, I found myself in front of the rather muted entrance of club 20-twenty. By then I was late for the closing dinner. There was no harm in seeing Kerry, surely? What if she was indeed the most beautiful woman in the whole world, despite the actuaries saying so? What if she was beautiful in that haunting way that only smart women who are troubled can be? If she was at the front desk, I would not even have to go inside.

The maître d’ at the front desk was not Kerry. I could tell because he was a man.

“Welcome to 20-twenty,” he said before I could turn around. “Will it be just you tonight?”

“Uhm—” I hesitated. “Is Kerry around?”

“Who are you?” he asked with narrowed eyes.

“I’m no one,” I stammered. “I just thought—”

“You sound funny,” he cut me short. “Where are you from?”

“I’m from Australia,” I blurted.

“Well mate,” the maître d’ replied with undisguised satisfaction, “Kerry doesn’t work on Fridays.”

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  1. Jesus Christ, man! Kerry doesn’t work on Friday’s!???
    And a red-head!!!???
    Fuuuuuuuck…all that flying, actuarial seminars and you end up with that???
    This is like a modern version of Dante’s Inferno…are you sure that the main character wasn’t dead and in actually in Limbo?

    Or was it?