Up That Hill

“So they haven’t stormed your hospital yet?” Jon asked carefully.

There was no change in his brother’s expression on the other side of the blurry laptop screen. “No, we are still kind of besieged, though, and our canned beans are running a little lo—”

“—Daily goods!” a little voice interrupted.

Jon adeptly guided his young son’s hand away from the keyboard, which wasn’t easy because Michael was wriggling around on his lap like a worm.

“Daily goods!” Michael exclaimed again, a tinge of disappointment in his six-year-old voice.

Jon shook his head. “Say something to Uncle Dave. He’s all the way over in Mali. He’d like to hear you tell him about the song you learned in school yesterday.”

But Michael’s recent word-obsession was relentless, and he tried to get at the laptop again. Presumably, so he could type ‘daily goods’, too. In all available text fields, from the Google login form to the URL bar.

“Maybe we should talk later?” Dave suggested at the other end. “I could sure use some daily goods, though.”

“It’s just a random thing,” Jon said. “Next week it’ll be something else. With autism you always get surprises.” He smiled, but it wasn’t unfriendly. Just tired.

It was quiet outside on the road; people hadn’t come home from shopping or bowling or wherever they went when they had the day off.

And when they did, it would be quiet again, because they would go inside their houses and eat and watch TV and then collapse on their beds after a long nice day out in the open and that would be it. Or so Jon imagined. He could sure use some collapsing.

It was as if Dave read his thoughts, even though there was an ocean between them. Arizona-Mali.

How far away could you get?

Never too far, though. It had always been like this with his brother.

“—Daily goods!”

“Michael! You’re going to have to go to your room with Emma if you don’t calm down.”

Michael’s sister who had so far been sitting without a word beside them, hands neatly folded in her lap, looked at her father in a way that only a nine-year-old who doesn’t want to do something can look at you.

“It’s just until Mom comes home.”

“Where is Carrie, by the–?” Dave asked and then interrupted himself to talk to someone off-screen. In the background, Jon could see something that looked like a deserted hallway with big glass-less windows. A strong light cascaded through them and revealed the dust even on the white walls.

Jon knew it wasn’t daylight. It was about 11 PM in Northern Mali right now. Probably projectors so they could operate in the yard …

“Carrie is over at some new friend of hers,” Jon said. “Michelle. She just moved to town and my better half is giving her the 101 on all the exciting sights in Yuma.”

Dave grinned and Jon felt a sting inside. Michael was indeed calmer now, and close to his chest, half-lying over Jon’s knee, looking at the screen.

He could feel the warmth and pulse of the little body that had so much nervous energy inside; so much he wished he could make go away. But perhaps Emma didn’t need to—

“You will have to make her repeat them all for me when I come back.” Dave ruffled his hair and beard as if something was itching everywhere. It looked like he hadn’t slept or taken a bath for a very long time. And Jon knew that that was likely the truth.

“Well,” he said, “when will you come home?”

“The negotiations have started at least.” Dave folded his hands in front of his chin, looking pensively at nothing in particular. “But we keep trying to be optimistic. MNLA can be reasonable, sometimes, and they know the French are coming. So there is that deadline.”

Jon glanced at Emma. “Maybe you should take Michael to his room, and play some games on the computer with him?”

Emma just looked like it was an affront her father could even suggest that. She had been in a particularly foul mood, probably because of school this week. And it didn’t help that Jon had been up on the early shift from 5 Am to noon while getting next to no sleep before that. So much for Saturdays …

“It’s … complicated,” Dave said. “But the MNLA seems to be pissed about the hotel attack, and have attacked a faction of the Islamists, the Macina Front, I think.”

“I googled it,” Jon said, giving up on Emma. “I thought they’d be happy that somebody hit at the government, or at least in the capital.”

“Like I said,” Dave smiled but without joy, “it’s complicated. There is a lot of squabbling between ostensible allies out here in the ‘bush’, and it never gets reported.”

“And you are out there …” Jon said, drawing out the last word.

“Yes.” Dave’s voice became firm. “You always said it was good that I finally found some … a mission. Like you and the troopers.”

Jon snorted. “My job is just a job.”

“That’s not what you said after Iraq.”

“That was a long time ago, bro.”

“Okay. Never mind,” Dave said, “this is what I have now. It’s the best thing that I ever did. After all that flailing around.”

“Flail!” Michael exclaimed, grinning.

“See,” Dave smirked, “my nephew understands.”

“He just found a new favorite word,” Jon said drily. “When are you coming home? Will we see you for Christmas?”

Dave looked away from the screen for a moment. “There’s a lot to do here …”

“Bro,” Jon leaned as much forward as he could with Michael still halfway on his lap. “You should come home soon.”

He turned to his daughter who had gone all quiet again, as if she didn’t want to be discovered listening in, even though she was right beside Jon and Michael on the couch. “What do you say, Em? Wouldn’t it be great to have your uncle home for the holidays?”

“Yes …” Emma looked down.

“Jesus, it’s a conspiracy!” Jon took Michael away from his lap, and placed him in the farthest corner of the couch, like a sack of potatoes. Michael crawled away a micro-second later, having spotted a lump of bread on the floor.

“No, don’t eat that-” Jon reached for his hand. “It’s old. Emma go get him some more bread from the kitchen.”

This time Emma moved without protest. But she was still too quiet for Jon’s taste.

“You’ve been texting again?” It was a statement. Jon looked at his brother. “On that, what is it, Messenger-thing?”

“She’s not old enough for Messenger.” Dave began shuffling with something under the desk where his laptop was placed.

“She is using my wife’s goddamn phone,” Jon said sharply. “And you are telling her about how fantastic it is to go overseas and get your ass shot off, aren’t you?”

Everything went quiet in the twilit living room.

A candle in the window sill seemed to flicker. Otherwise: Nothing.

“Emma is very conscientious,” Dave then said. “She wants to do something with her life when she grows up.”

“She is nine years old.” Jon was not shouting. Not yet.

On the floor, Michael was happily chewing away at the half-slice of bread that hadn’t quite found its final resting place under the sofa.

“Emma, get in here with the bread, and water, too!”

“I am coming.” But she didn’t come. She just rummaged with something in the kitchen.

Jon was aware that he was standing now, so he sat down again so Dave could see him. Jon wanted to take the bread. But there was also Dave.

“Okay, bro, we’ll have to talk about this later. You always were the idealistic one. But my kids have a little growing up to do first.”

“It was nothing,” Dave said, obviously ill at ease. “Carrie can show you the thread. I sent her photos of a camel.”

“Very good,” Jon said, forcing his voice steady. “We’ll talk later. I’m glad you can get out of there soon.”

“Power’s up again.” Dave tried to sound jovial about it. “What more can you ask for? Except maybe some toilet paper.”

They small-talked a little more and then Jon turned off Skype.

For a long time, he sat on the couch, watching Michael work the lump of bread. But he didn’t feel like going into that battle. Not now. He had just vacuum-cleaned yesterday. Michael would survive.

Finally, Emma came in from the kitchen with a plastic plate in Michael’s favorite color and a fresh lump of bread. She also had his water bottle. 

“Here, Dad.”

“Give it to him.”


When Emma had directed her little brother to take the fresh bread and drink some water, and he had begun humming, she began her withdrawal.

Jon held up a hand. “Emma, do you really want to go and do the work your uncle does, when you grow up? It’s okay if you say yes.” Jon felt like he could sleep for a million years, but he forced himself to give his daughter a smile.

“I don’t know, Dad. But Uncle Dave told me about that time he went to juvie, when … ” She looked away again. “And how he wanted to keep doing good things from then on, instead of stealing someone’s car.”

“Ah,” Jon nodded in understanding. “That story. You two talk pretty well, don’t you?”

“Uncle Dave is always funny talking to.”Emma waited by the door with her hands folded below her waist. She rocked a bit from side to side. “But he really understands things. He is also good with Michael.” She nodded at her brother. Michael just went on chewing the new piece of bread.

“Yeah,” Jon said. “He should have had kids himself.”

“Are you … mad at Uncle Dave?” Emma regarded him intently now.

Those lovely clear eyes, and he knew they would one day see other people, all over the world. See them just as they were. And accept them. 

Whereas he … he was just getting older. And tired.

With some effort, Jon got up from the couch again. He patted Michael’s curly head on his way.

“No, I am not mad,” he said, “I just love him.”


JON & DAVE, 21 NOV 2015



Cover Photo by Vitolda Klein

Vegetable oil in Timbuktu dust – photo by Christian Jaberg on Unsplash

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