Pictures of MakisSeptember 7th, 2009
by Don Mitchell
In the white shimmering overexposed one he’s looking through his chrome camera at Niagara Falls in late December. This was before black cameras were the common things they are now, so the only black in the print is Makis’ face, though little of it shows above the fur collar and below the knit hat. It’s 1978.
In another he’s holding what we christened the world’s largest chicken, a stupendous fowl as big as a small turkey. He cradles it in the crook of his arm as if it were a baby. We couldn’t decide whether to boil it village fashion or to roast it whiteman style. In the end we roasted it because we had neither bush spinach nor coconut milk, and anyway, what’s the point of bogus village cooking?
But the one I’ve got on my wall, the one I brought down from the attic in 1996 when I heard he’d been murdered – that’s the one I like best. Christmas Day. He’s holding the Elvis calendar I gave him. I want you, I need you, I love you, it says along the top, above the picture of Elvis in a cowboy hat.
“This is a good one,” he said in real life. In the picture he says nothing. He’s just sitting on my Beluchistan rug, in front of my Japanese wedding chest, bottom of the Christmas tree at the top of the frame, wrapping paper spread around him. There’s a big can of Foster’s Lager, still in red tissue paper, which I got to make him feel at home. I couldn’t get any South Pacific Lager. Solomon Islands, Beluchistan, Japan, Christian holiday, Australian beer, and old Elvis, wreathing them all.
It took me a while to find those pictures. I keep my past in the attic, even though it ought to be in the basement. That would be more appropriate for a prehistorian: the past below, the future above. Now is somewhere in the middle, but of course when I hold a picture in my hand the whole thing gets confused. There’s the past right in front of me. I looked on shelves and in old boxes. I looked in envelopes. I finally found them in a drawer under a gyroscopic top and some chrome surveying tape clamps I used in the village.
“Hey Makis,” I said, “hey wantok,” a little catch in my voice, tears starting to my eyes. “Hey, it’s me. I’ve been looking for you.”
“Shit,” I said in English, “sonofabitch. Those fucking assholes!” I had to curse them, ineffectual as it was. What else could I do? I didn’t know who they were, the guys who killed him, even though I knew how it happened: two guys in ski masks (in ski masks? this is Port Moresby, only a few degrees off the equator) burst into his house, backed his wife and kids and his brother into a corner, and waited for Makis to come home from a peace conference in Lae. When he did, they blew him apart with shotguns, and when his brother leapt at them they knifed him to death. All this in front of Makis’ wife and kids.
The government put out the story that they were robbers. How could they imagine anyone would believe them? They were killing all the educated Bougainvilleans over there in Papua New Guinea, killing them as fast as they could. Nobody cared. Nobody was interested in a small corrupt country in the Pacific, a country that – when Makis was murdered – had a rebellion on its hands, one small but mineral-rich island that wanted to secede, and Makis, for all that he was a peace-seeker, was the revolution’s black face in the capital city.
Makis made his way to Buffalo out of a little village in Buin, to the Catholic high school at Kieta, into the University at Port Moresby, and then into graduate school in Ottawa, which was where he was when he came to visit me. Getting a Ph.D. in Development Economics. Before they assassinated him he became the Director of the research unit at which I used to work.
He came on the bus and I went across the Peace Bridge to Fort Erie to get him and bring him to Buffalo.
“What is your citizenship?” the US border guy said.
“US,” I said.
“Papua New Guinea,” Makis said.
“Pull over there, go to Immigration.”
Makis and I laughed about it, wondering which countries wouldn’t have to go to Immigration. Canada for sure. Maybe everybody else did, but I doubted it. I’d seen the guys in the booth looking at passports, though I’d never seen them stamping them. My passport was stamped SEEN AT PORT MORESBY, TERRITORY OF PAPUA NEW GUINEA, but Makis’ had no United States of America stamp in it yet. Once it did we pulled out, drove through the west side and on to my house.
“You know,” Makis said, “I never fool around with officials, the government. It’s dangerous and you can’t trick them anyway. My passport says Papua New Guinea on it and it’s got that Canadian student visa in it, so I am what I am.”
I said, “There was a cartoon character who said ‘I yam what I yam,’ but he didn’t look like you.”
Makis said, “Yes, I believe that was Popeye The Sailor Man. I don’t have forearms like his. But in Ottawa when I’m dealing with regular people I tell them I’m from Gambia, and sometimes I tell them I’m the Gambian Ambassador to Canada, and they believe it. No one in Ottawa can tell the difference between a Bougainvillean and a Gambian.”
I laughed. “What made you pick Gambia?”
Makis said, “I just looked at an atlas for a small African country. Burkina-Faso was too hard to say, and I liked the sound of Gambia. That’s how. So some of the people in the bars in Ottawa think I’m the Gambian Ambassador.”
By that time we were home.
“This is where I live,” I said to Makis, “this is my house.” And I was aware that to him, coming from Canada instead of the village, it would seem ordinary. I was sure he’d find some differences between student apartments in Ottawa and big doubles in Buffalo, but not much, not really.
I said to Makis that it seemed unfair that when he came to see me I couldn’t show him anything unusual, anything really strange to him. It was just an ordinary house in an ordinary northeastern city in winter. Nothing he hadn’t seen before.
“You know,” I said, “when I went to Bougainville and walked into a village for the first time it seemed strange to me because it was strange. I hadn’t ever lived in a leaf house in a village in a clearing in the rainforest. And I could hardly speak the language, either, and I was really overwhelmed.”
“True,” he said.
“And now you’re here with me and I’m wishing that I could have offered you something really different,” I said, “but I can’t. Except that you get to see me in my actual house. Well, Niagara Falls. That’s about it. I think I even wish I could overwhelm you, because it would be fun, and payback too.”
Makis said, “It doesn’t matter, but it would have been fun. You should have seen me when I first went to Sydney and saw what a really big city was like. I was amazed at the scale of the thing, but now I’m used to it. So you’re right. There’s not much new here for me, but it’s OK. I can learn your neighborhood. Neighborhoods are always different.”
The Gambian Ambassador and I went down to Cosentino’s Deli to get beer. At the cooler I said to him, “Why don’t I pretend you’re the anthropologist and I’m the informant, and I’ll introduce you to our local poisons. You can do participant-observation.” I got him a six-pack of Iron City, a forty-ounce bottle of Colt 45, some Genesee, and some Koch’s Holiday.
Mr. Cosentino was minding the counter, and I was thinking about the Gambian Ambassador thing, but while I was thinking, Mr. Cosentino looked at Makis and said, “You’re a Solomon Islander, aren’t you? I was there in the war.”
Neither one of us thought of saying No, he’s the Gambian Ambassador to Canada.
When I was a little boy my favorite waking dreams involved time travel and modern weaponry. In these dreams I was transported to scenes where my heros were besieged by enemies of their own time, enemies who had triumphed in historical time, but would fail in dream time as soon as I arrived with my favorite weapon, a fifty-caliber machine gun. I sat, legs braced against its tripod, spewing unexpected, astonishing magical death: the invincible boy, as terrifying and devastating to the enemy as any spirit or demon or alien could be. We would not be overwhelmed. We would not die. Of course I understood the falsity of these dreams. I had not changed history, witnesses being my teachers and the books in which good died and evil lived. I dreamed anyway.
Makis, I’ll be at the compound gate because I know there’ll be trouble tonight. No heavy machine gun; instead I’ll be your bodyguard, skilled in martial arts, cat-quick and lethal. Let one assassin raise his shotgun and before he slips the safety, before he can raise it and point, I’ll leap and kick. Only roofing iron will die. I’ll subdue them while you watch, amazed. You didn’t know I could do this. You’ll move to protect your kids, your wife, your brother. But you won’t need to because I’ll already have the knives and guns. I’ll hurt the ski-masked thugs, those bloody redskinned Highlanders, until they tell us who sent them, and why.
You’ll say, “Thanks, mate.”
I’ll say, “I do what I can, Ambassador.”