Short Story: The Humanitarian

This is one of the stories in my upcoming collection, In the Big City. IN THE BIG CITY

The lone American in the East African bar cut his eyes over to the entrance. A young white woman entered, dressed in worn hiking pants and a t-shirt. The American chuckled a little to himself. He thought about talking to her, but he wasn’t in the mood to chase a woman. He was here to gather material. He was a perfect mirror to the girl in his khaki suit and tie.

The girl sat down a few seats away from him and asked the bartender for a drink.

The African gave her a look and handed her a bottle of beer. She sat there sipping it, eyes flicking around the bar.

The American laughed, this time too loud. He looked around, hoping no one had noticed even though he knew people had. But what did it matter? He thought, staring into his drink.

“Something funny, Mr. Caraway?” the bartender asked him.

“I’ve been in here before, friend. You know I just laugh sometimes. I’m a little crazy; it’s not something they like in America.”

The bartender nodded. “You should tell your jokes.”

“They’re not that funny and they usually get me into trouble.”

“Mhm, I don’t want trouble in here. There’s enough of it going around already.” The bartender looked up. Some customers knocked on the door and he went over to unlock it.

The girl leaned over. “Are you an American?”

He played with his tie. “What are the charges?”

She looked over his outfit, a tan suit and white shirt. “How can you wear all that?”

He cocked his head to the side. “Hubris, I guess.”

She gave him a dirty look. “Why are you here?” she whispered.

“Why are you whispering?”

She looked around the bar and then straightened up. “I don’t know. I’m just worried about being here. I just got here.”

He nodded and started to back to his drink. Here we go, he thought.

“Wait,” she said.

“Hm?” He only turned his head slightly.

“Why are you here?”

“I’m a writer.” He said feeling a little embarrassed. “I came here to do research. Get material.”

“Don’t you think…” she trailed off studying him. She only vaguely recognized him.

“Don’t I think what?” he said, downing the last of his drink and setting some money on the bar. He nodded to the bartender. “I’ll see you later, Mr. Kono.” He started to walk out, forgetting he had to wait for the bartender to unlock the door.

The girl followed him. He had his back turned so she couldn’t see the look on his face. Mr. Kono smiled a little. “You have an admirer.” He uttered.

“Yeah, I guess so.” Caraway said. He didn’t want to turn and look at her.
The bartender unlocked the door and the writer went out into the hot dirt street. He hoped he could mix in with the passerby but that was a non-starter for obvious reasons.

“Mr. Caraway?” It was the girl.

He turned slightly. “Yeah?”

“Are you really a writer?”

He nodded. “I came here to get material, pure and simple.”

“You aren’t a diamond merchant or something?”

He shook his head. “I’m no good with numbers.” He studied her. “What makes me look like a diamond merchant?” he snickered.

She didn’t respond.

He looked her over while she walked beside him. She recoiled a little.

“Do you need someone to walk you home?”

“No…” she muttered. She kept glancing down at the dirt. One of her arms was draped across her chest, the other at her side.

“You act like the people around here are going to chop your head off.” He chuckled. “Well, maybe in the seedier parts of this country. But not here.”

She wrinkled her nose and kept looking at her shoes while she walked.

“Since you asked me, what are you doing here?”

“Teaching English,”

“I tried that in the Far East for a little while. It was a living.”

She gave him a look.

“What?”

“You’re like a…” she hesitated. “A joke I guess, like a movie character,” She glanced around at the other passerby just walking along and going about their business. “Sorry I said anything. I didn’t…”

He grinned. “Of course,” he knew the game. She didn’t want to upset him. Lest I leave her here and she has to—he cut himself off, shaking his head and flicking his eyes over at the girl.

“What?” she asked.

“I’m doing you a favor, remember?” he smirked.

The girl went back to pouting to her shoes.

They walked along a little further and Caraway stopped at a little shop. He bought a pack of cigarettes and a Coke for the girl.

He handed the bottle to the girl. She looked at it like it was a bad Secret Santa gift.

“Why did you get this?”

“A taste of the old country, I guess.” He stood in front of the shop putting the cigarettes into a leatherette case. He started to walk again but she stopped him.

“What is it?” he took her hand off of his arm. He gave it a dirty look.

“The kid,” she pointed to an emaciated child sitting under the shade of the shop’s awning.

Caraway made a noise. “Poor bastard,” he muttered. He felt a little cold at the near skeletal child.

The girl looked down at the Coke and then up at the child. She popped off the cap and stepped towards the kid. Cold perspiration coated the glass bottle.

“Don’t.” Caraway said.

She looked at him in disgust. “How can you say that?”

“You’ll kill him.”

She scowled and narrowed her eyes at him. “How can you say that, don’t give this that poor child? You have an expensive suit on and you just stroll down the streets…typical.”

Caraway bit his lip as the girl went over to the starving child. The young boy looked up. The girl held the bottle while he drank from it. The boy drank the whole thing after a minute or two. Caraway looked on, letting the scene transpire. He wanted to stop her, but could he make a scene. He took a breath. He couldn’t make a scene like this.

The girl came back over to him and put her hands on her hips. “I’ll be back for him later, with some of my other humanitarian worker friends.”

The writer cocked an eyebrow. “He’ll be dead, you know.”

She ignored him. “I’m here to help people.”

They started walking again. The little shops and dirt streets started to give way to paved roads and some skyscrapers. It was similar to any other city in the world.

“You don’t seem to care for the people much.” He said. “You have a family, husband or kids?” It was hard to tell her age.

She looked away. “Where are you headed?”

I get it, he thought. “My hotel.”

“Is it nice?” she said it a little scornfully.

“It’s nice enough.” He looked at her. She had the kind of “I know I’m right” type of expression on her face Caraway hated. “What’s your name?”

“Eileen,”

“How much did you pay?”

“What?” She crossed her arms as she walked.

“How much did you pay to teach English here?”

She looked down at her shoes again. “Well I paid.”

Caraway grinned.

“What’s that stupid look on your face for?”

“I’m just smiling.”

“Sure.”

He stopped at the door to a decent chain hotel. “I’m going now. Do you want me to call a cab for you?”

She snapped her head around at the other people on the street. Her arms were still crossed over her chest. She chewed her lip.

“Eileen?”

She looked up. “What?”

“Do you need me to call someone to take you back to wherever it is you’re staying?”
She sighed. A thought flickered across her face. “I um,” she looked around. “Can I be honest with you?”

“Sure, I’ll probably never see you again.”

Her face hardened at the words. “I don’t feel safe in cabs here.”

“Have you ever taken one?”

She shook her head.

Caraway glanced up and breathed out. He couldn’t believe what he was attempting. “Do you want to stay up here for a little while? I have a suite room with a couch and a TV. It’s not for what you’re thinking.” Although that only made him sound more suspicious, he thought.

“I guess so.”

They went up into the hotel. Caraway went into the bedroom part of the room and shut the door. He set his jacket on the bed and took off his tie. He sat down on the chair and took a breath. The girl’s a real pain in the ass, he thought. He flashed on the kid in the market. I could think of worse ways to die, he thought. But then he decided he’d rather not to have to deal with starvation.

He girl knocked on the door.

“What is it?” Jack called out.
“It’s me.” She sounded quieter than she had at the bar or during their walk, and not because of the door.

“I know that.” He said. “What do you need?”

“Can I come in?”

He rolled his eyes. “I guess.” He looked wistfully at the papers and notebooks on the little desk on the other side of the room.

She opened the door. “Were you in the middle of something?”

“No, but I was about to be.” He got up and dug his computer out of the loose papers on the desk. He stopped and set the device down. “When you said I was being typical, what did you mean?”

“I, well, I thought you were—are—were a little selfish and…chauvinistic.” The words were probably meant to get a rise out of him, but he wasn’t going to get worked up over her comment.

“I never said I was here to be a good person. I told you I was here for perfectly selfish reasons, gathering material for my work.”

“But how can you just see the problems in this place and ignore them?”

He snorted. “I don’t ignore them. I observe them, just like I do the people and the wildlife.”

“But you must have money to help people.”

He studied her. “I have a little money. I have money to take these kinds of trips and buy decent suits and own a decent apartment in the States. But I can’t save people. I’m just me, here for selfish reasons.”

“That’s awful for you to say.” She rubbed her face. “You would have left that kid to die on the street.”

He shrugged. “I hadn’t really noticed him until you pointed him out.” He didn’t want to fight with her. “I know you were trying to do the right thing. What you thought was right, at least.”

She winced. “So he would have just sat there.”

“Look, Eileen, I’m not getting into this right now.” He said it calmly. “You’re welcome to stay here and relax or whatever it is you need to do. But I’m not going to debate morality with you. There’s a telephone right on the side table if you need it.”

She sat down on the bed. He started writing something in one of the notebooks. The room was quiet for a little while except for the air conditioning. He kept just looking over his shoulder at her. She was tired and she looked even more tired in her worn t-shirt and torn pants. Her shoes were caked in dust and sand. What a girl, he thought. She might have been interesting to him if he hadn’t known so many like her.

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