by J. Patrick Hart
Excerpt from J. Patrick Hart’s Savarona, pages 73-78
The golf course called Kemer lies beyond the Belgrade Forest, in the coal mining region in a one-half-hour’s drive from Istanbul. Trucks heaped with coal billow clouds of exhaust as they make their way to the peasant stoves of Istanbul and back again, where other trucks, loaded with garbage and gasping like dying beasts, merge to form a herd. It’s an awful drive to the links. A mile before the golf course, a mountain of trash rises five stories high, exhaling like a volcano. Seagulls swarm the ash like flies, so numerous they obscure the sun, while three-legged dogs, teats flapping, rummage for food rejected by the more discerning human scavengers. The smell of burnt toxin is jarring. It’s hard to imagine any person could bear this place, yet it wasn’t so long ago that several families were killed here, buried alive by an avalanche of garbage that caught them sleeping in their makeshift homes.
Having safely reached the links, George feels the sense of anywhere that exists on golf courses everywhere, a sameness in the artificial bumps and bunkers that is comforting to anyone who has lost his roots. It could almost be the public course in Akron, but for the din—steel pounding steel, the searing scream of torn metal, a Turkish pop station turned up too loud. The fairways are passably green, but just out-of-bounds a miniature city vomits from the dirt—vacation houses gray and squarem each as perfectly ugly as the next, rising from the earth not individually but as a clamoring mass.
Ambassador Hutchins has a mean slice. With a jagged swing, outside-in, he propels his drive toward the deep, rough, momentarily threatening a groundskeeper who is on his knees. The little Turk is unperturbed: he rocks gently, dipping his forehead to the earth and back again, eyes closed, fingertips above his cheeks. His lips quake gently. For an instant the ambassador’s Titelist, too, faces Mecca; then suddenly it veers right in a lively arc that takes it bouncing, long and low, across the fairway in the wrong direction, coming to a rest, still spinning, in a narrow gully that’s been dug for no reason, then abandoned amid piles of fresh dirt. Shovels sprout like stumps.
“You can take a drop, Harry,” says Phil. Is it his four handicap or his position as chief of station which gives him the right to address the ambassador by his first name? “That’s ground under repair. They’re putting in a sprinkler or something.”
George walks separately with Priscilla, who hasn’t handled a club since the second hole, when she sculled a seven-iron into the ambassador’s golf bag. How she hates hosting these little Istanbul golf weekends for Hutchins; if only there was an adequate course in Ankara. “Have you spoken to the parents yet?” she asks George.
“I called them from Gelibolu. And I talked to the father again this morning.”
“Moore… Cedrick Moore?”
“Should I know that name?”
George shrugs and Priscilla lets it go.
“I presume he wants the remains sent home?”
“Yeah, The department wired us the money yesterday. Very fast. Zimmerman’s office was involved.” They pause while Ambassador Hutchins swings; it’s a high floater that returns to earth with a thud. Though the fairways look soft and lush from a distance, they’re actually rock-hard and ill-watered, more suitable for shanks than divots.
“The body’s going home today. Our mortician sped the paperwork through. It normally takes several days. But paying the bakseesh always helps.”
“Good. And the police… where was it? Gelibolu. What kind of follow-up have you had?”
“A lot.” George wants to stop talking now; he has a bad lie with at least two hundred yards to the green, trees to the left, water on the right.
“And?” She has no golf etiquette. George swings badly and watches the splash.
He sighs. “And they’ve gotten nowhere. Not much to go on. He was found maybe twenty yards off the highway; there was a little hole started, like they were going to bury him but got interrupted. None of the hotels or bus stations in the area remembered him, so the cops think he was killed somewhere else, then driven there and dumped. A big city drug deal gone bad, which rings true with what the professor told me, the drug dealing part…” George doesn’t bother fishing for his ball. They stroll to the next tee as the ambassador putts out.
“And you just happened to be passing by.”
He shrugs. “I know. It’s a strange coincidence.”
“I don’t believe in coincidences,” she says sharply. “We’ve not told the police about the professor’s theory? Good. What have you told the family?”
“Just the facts. How he was found. That the police are investigating.”
“That’s fine,” she says. “We don’t go calling their son a drug addict, or for God’s sake a PKK sympathizer, based on a few loose stories.”
“I agree,” says George, realizing too late that it’s presumptuous to expect her to care. “But the family’s going to want more. I mean, who wouldn’t? And the police probably won’t deliver.” George knows the Turkish cops well. Their standard approach is to seize a suspect, apply “pressure,” and decide if he’s telling the truth. It’s not so much that they’re sadistic—though some of them certainly are—but rather their lack of forensic technique that makes them so dependent on testimony. Frankly, they’re not half-bad at what they do. But in this case there are neither witnesses nor confessors, nowhere for the police to begin, short of shaking down all the usual suspects in western Turkey.
“Let’s not borrow trouble,” says Priscilla. “Let the police do their job.” She thinks for a moment. “You could meet with the prosecutor.”
Ambassador Hutchins steps up to the tee, taking honors despite his triple bogey. “Goddamn fade!” he remarks. The ball careens wildly out-of-bounds and settles near an old Turkish woman stooped in the weeds, gathering salad. She’s built much like Hutchins, a formidable little man with powerful arms and an immense torso that’s barely rounded with age. His jagged nose, left uncorrected from his days and a Marine Corps boxer, is a source of amusement for the embassy staff, who chucle from a safe distance at his bull in the china shop manner and his Texas-accented Turkish. Rumor has it he accepted this job thinking the embassy was in Istanbul. When he discovered that the government had been moved—some seventy years ago—to dusty old Ankara, he called the president personally to request a different country. Sierra Leone, he learned, was still open; also Papua New Guinea. Suddenly, Ankara had looked pretty good.
Phil tries to engage him in conversation. “Looks like Semra Hanim will join coalition talks with Fikret. That’s something I’d like to see. Social Democrats and Nationalists in the same government!”
“When I see that Semra, I don’t know whether to demarche her or ask her out on a date,” snorts Hutchins. He opts for a mulligan, taking extra practice swings, which makes it awkward for Phil to go on. “Won this driver in a pro-am with Fuzzy Zoeller,” he says proudly when he’s off the tee. “Shot eighty-four that day, just watching that man swing. Haven’t broken ninety since.” He hunches over and rubs his legs. “Goddamn these knees,” he says.
George chuckles. He doesn’t share the contempt for Hutchins that most in the embassy seem to regard as an obligation. True, the ambassador to Turkey should probably be a career officer, given Turkey’s strategic importance. But Hutchins has been sensible enough to rely heavily on his section chiefs, and even his detractors have had to concede that he is quick-witted and shrewd in the matters he cannot delegate. Not just any schlep can build a real estate empire from scratch. At any rate, the Turks seem happy to have him, knowing full well that a career officer would have no access to the president at all.
Hutchins hits another high one; it rests safely in the middle of the fairway, maybe two hundred yards out.
“Nice shot, Mister Ambassador,” says George.
“Don’t blow smoke up my ass, son,” says Hutchins. “I can hit it better than that.”
Maybe the sting shows. Hutchins follows George to his ball. “You’ve got a good swing,” he says. “Very smooth. Where are you from?”
“Southern California. Near San Diego,” says George. In fact, he’s not really from anywhere. Chula Vista is where his father paused the longest, so it seems the best answer. “What makes a boy from Chula Vista,”—he summons his best Texas drawl—”want to become a diplomat?”
“To see the world, I guess. And to work toward something, some kind of goal, some ideal, beyond a simple paycheck.” To do more in life than chase a buck, he wants to add, but doesn’t, suspecting that Hutchins has devoted his entire life to exactly that. And so he says instead, “My last job was as a bartender, Mister Ambassador. So I guess I joined up for the money. “
They laugh together. But when George stops, Hutchins goes on. It’s a millionaire’s laugh now, lonely bu powerful, strictly off-limits to someone making thirty-three thousand a year.
“Never forget where you came from,” says Hutchins when he catches his breath. “Or you just might forget who you are. First assignment?”
Hutchins nods. “You one of those fellows who joined for life?”
George hesitates. State Department orthodoxy requires him to say yes, but Hutchins is outside of all that. “I don’t know,” he answers honestly.
“I don’t know,” repeats Hutchins. “Now that’s something I don’t hear every day. Goddamn is it’s not the first time I’ve heard it all year. Never had so many people around me act like they know every last thing, whether they do or not’s a different story. You stick with that answer, son. It’s working for you.”
Having dispensed his wisdom, the ambassador ambles off. Phil trots to his ball and bumps it for a better lie. When he swings he finds the green.
“Phil, is it worth talking to MIT? About Taylor? Maybe they…”
“Know something? Look, like I told Priscilla… “ he waits for her to catch up. “There’s nothing to go on here. No corroboration.”
“But what if we checked out this Euphrates center…”
Phil spins on his heels. “Bad idea. MIT has the place under surveillance. Anyway, what’s the point?”
George shakes his head; there is no point; only a lingering sense of disquiet from his conversation with—what was her name? Nazan. The way she had laughed at the whole drug angle. He lets it drop.
On the green, Phil bends low to line up his putts. George turns his thoughts to the ambassador’s question. Why did he become a diplomat” It’s not a career that makes much sense to anyone outside the Washington beltway. The few times he’s run into people from his past he’s been forced to explain, ad nauseum, exactly what he does. You mean you’re like a park ranger? is what they invariably ask him, forcing him to clarify: Foreign Service.
As a student, language had been his only real interest. No doubt it was a little unhealthy, his sitting alone at his favorite crummy bar booth with his happy-hour pitcher, mouthing subjunctives as the Young Business Leaders of America passed by with their suits and briefcases. How did they get there, and what in God’s name did they do all day in their giant glass containers? Their lives seemed beyond his—not above, yet unreachable in a way that implied some kind of failure on his part. What they had was not what he wanted; still, he wished he could join them for just a moment, to prove that he could, to see what they saw, and then to reject it all.
So the disconnect was always there; maybe that’s how he came to be here. Maybe that’s why top-ranking diplomats, ambassadors even, have nowhere to go when they finally retire. After being wined and dined by ministers, feared by their staffs, surrounded by sycophants, they return to the department to pace the sanitized halls, to beg for temporary contract assignments. Newly deflated, they lose the familiar jog in their step, neglect their posture, stop starching their shirts. Yet still they hang on, hoping for a call that will never come, as if they can forever postpone their fall to irrelevance, their return to life’s void, to a normalcy that they’ve never known.
Was this what Margaret wanted? Normalcy?
He knew it was precisely not what he wanted, not if normalcy meant never seeing another Open Assignments List, the state department’s semi-annual recruiting tool with jobs in every corner of the world, from Guinea Bisao to Papua New Guinea to Amsterdam. It was how foreign service officers identified their onward assignments, and in the moment of its release, every job on the list was fair game. This was the essence of foreign service. The list spoke, and what it said was that you could do anything and everything—report on the next coup d’etat in Liberia, counsel American businesses in Ottawa, process refugees in Vietnam. It represented, quite literally, a world of possibilities.
What better for the discontented, the dissatisfied, the perpetual seekers od something more? The list offered the hope, the illusion perhaps, that the perfect job—the perfect life—was still out there. All it took was to find it. No need to huddle with the workaday masses, the rabble who could pack their lives in a box from beginning to end, and wrap it up tightly, the parameters well defined and drained of mystery, leaving little to chance, not now, not later. No need, said the List, ever to ask, is this all there is?
George stares absently as Hutchins three-putts. Golf courses everywhere always make him philosophical. It’s a game of Zen, they say, like fly-fishing, archery.
“George,” says Priscilla, bringing him back into the world. “Phil’s right. Stay away form the Kurdish house. I don’t want a big flap with the Turks.” Her cell phone rings. Surprised, she hands it to George.
“George, it’s Zeynep. You must come back quickly.”
“Why?” He lowers his voice. “You shouldn’t be calling on…”
“We are finding the mortician. To tell him he is not sending the body.”
A moment later George hands the phone back, stunned. How will Priscilla react to the news? Does the ambassador need to know? How will Representative Zimmerman react if his constituents show up at the funeral home, only to find themselves collecting the remains of a stranger? When does the flight depart? All of these question and more run through his mind after Zeynep’s revelation.
“The dead boy is not Taylor Moore.”
J. Patrick Hart, who has worked as a golf course starter and a bartender, is currently a US Foreign Service Officer.