May-June 2011 | Fiction


A short story.

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The plumber doesn’t tell me his name, even though it’s the first thing I want to ask, a compulsion as sudden as the rush of hot Malawian air that follows him inside before I slide the glass door shut. Only later, after I’ve led him to the bathroom and watched him stoop to peer into the toilet tank, do I decide that enough time has passed for me to ask.

Tall and well-built, his dark face still glistening from the heat outside, he looks up at me and answers, “Nobody,” with a shrug of his shoulders. For a second I wonder if he’s being rude—if he doesn’t want to answer my question, he should just say so—until I grasp that his name really is Nobody. I sit down on the edge of the tub, willing my hands to stay still in my lap as I deliberate over the gift of a new name to add to my notebook.

“Where does your name come from?” I ask, in as casual a tone as I can muster, hoping he’ll give me a story to tell Philip tonight.

But there is no story. “My grandmother named me,” he answers. “I don’t know why she chose Nobody. She named my younger sister Somebody.”

I lean closer toward him. “Does your sister live in Lilongwe, too?”

“Yes, madam. She works at your embassy. It’s through her that I found this job,” he explains, his voice so devoid of enthusiasm that I’m not sure what to say next.

He wipes his hands on a rag, which he throws into his toolbox before closing it with a loud snap. “I found the problem but I need a part to fix it. I’ll fetch money from the embassy to buy it and return later today.”

After he leaves, I pull out the notebook that I use to record peculiar local names and carefully spell it out: Nobody.

When we first came to Malawi, names were a recurring topic of conversation at dinner with Philip. Most Malawians, we learned, are given two names—one in English and another in the local language. Sometimes the English ones are plain Christian names, but other times they’re unusual, even amusing, like Philip’s embassy colleague, Address, and the government official he met who was named Square. We tried to guess where these strange names came from, made up silly stories to explain them. When he came home with the news that they’d hired a new driver named Tonic, I joked that he probably had a twin named Gin. Philip never asks these people about their names when he meets them. He claims it would be rude and culturally insensitive, though I don’t agree; who doesn’t want to tell their story if they have one to tell? But then, that is like Philip; he’s never been one to talk about himself and he assumes the rest of the world feels the same.

Lilongwe would not have been my choice for a first posting, but Philip explained the need to prove himself before he could be assigned to a European embassy. I’d never had any interest in going to Africa, but I was excited about being a foreign-service wife. I fancied myself the vital anchor, lowered anew at every port, ensuring a safe and happy haven for our family-to-be. A kind of international Martha Stewart.

Before our trip, I bought The Taste of Home Cookbook and 101 Family Craft Projects. Then, in a frenzied afternoon of shopping two days before the movers came, I added a bread-making machine, a state-of-the-art Cuisinart, a handcrafted Amish quilting frame, and a sewing machine imported from Switzerland. I stuffed four shopping bags with oil paints and brushes, colorful packets of mismatched glass beads, and papers and stickers for a scrapbook that would capture our adventures.

When we first arrived, I took my projects seriously. I taught our cook, Rose, how to make elaborate, four-course meals. I painted a series of still lifes of the bougainvillea that grew along our 7-foot-high fence, until I’d depleted my supply of magenta paint. I convinced Philip to take me to Mvuu Camp, snapping hundreds of pictures and gluing only the best ones into the scrapbook—shots of sable antelopes, brown-breasted barbets, and elephants bathing in the Shire River. I formed a quilting bee with other expat women, sewing bright African cloth into patterns with names like Morning Star, Patience Corner, and Bright Hopes. One of them still hangs on the bedroom wall as a testament to my initial enthusiasm, my steadfast belief in our new life.

I realize now, 18 months after our arrival here and, most likely, according to Philip, another 18 before we leave, that I was nesting, creating a home for the real project—our baby. In preparation for my pregnancy, I took care of myself. On temperate days, I played tennis and rode horses at the Lilongwe Golf Club. In the hot months, I jogged on the treadmill in one of our extra bedrooms, cranking up the air-conditioning, much to the pleasure of Cooper, our Labrador retriever, who sheds about a pound of hair a day when the heat is sweltering. And finally I gave up drinking beer, even though Malawian Carlsberg, advertised in cautious superlative as “probably the best beer,” was one of the few things that tasted like home.

At dinner, I tell Philip about Nobody, even though there’s nothing to tell, really, since there’s no explanation for the grandmother’s choice of name.

“It makes you think, doesn’t it?” I add. “About the power of names, I mean. How a name like that can leave a psychological imprint. It can hardly be a coincidence that Nobody is less successful than his sister Somebody. After all, they come from the same family, so it can’t have been their upbringing.”

“I suppose you’re right, Ophelia,” Philip answers, clearly distracted as he dabs at his goatee with a napkin. Even though he’s been growing it for more than a month, I still haven’t gotten used to the contrast of those coarse, dark hairs against his pale face. “But more importantly,” he asks, as he places the napkin back on his lap, “did he fix the toilet?”

“Actually, no. He had to get a part and didn’t come back.”

“I’ll be sure to mention it at the embassy tomorrow,” he says, eating another forkful of the beef stew Rose has prepared, a recipe I’ve taught her, that I’ve watched her follow exactly down to the pinch of salt. Somehow it never tastes as good as when I used to make it, even though the ingredients—ripe tomatoes, fresh parsley, onions, and garlic—look the same as back home.

We spend the rest of the meal in silence—what Philip would call a companionable silence. He is by nature an introvert—the main reason we never entertain and only attend embassy functions when he says it’s important. In the last few months, I’ve finally come to understand what his mother meant when she told me, shortly after our engagement, that Huffington men aren’t talkers. Even so, I can’t help but wonder, when he tells me that he’s thankful for the respite he finds at home, whether this isn’t just a nice way of telling me: Don’t bring me your problems or ours.

Nobody doesn’t come back the next day or the next. When the embassy finally sends another plumber three days later to finish fixing the toilet, he’s an older, heavyset man who, when I ask for his name, tells me it’s George.