By Jeffrey D. Boldt
“The horror! The horror!”
—Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
The divorce hadn’t come as a huge surprise, but my somewhat clichéd reaction to it — reaching out to old friends — did. Isabella had gotten bored with our life in La Crosse, Wisconsin, a pretty but stagnant little college town on the Upper Mississippi at the Minnesota border. Through the magic of Facebook, she’d rekindled an old romance with a former flame back in Quito, Ecuador, where she’d grown up.
As our married years went by (an unlucky baker’s dozen), Isabella had grown more rather than less homesick. We still loved each other, but the sorrow of this indisputable fact — the grief of which stretched down the Mississippi through the Gulf of Mexico and along the Pacific to Ecuador — had overwhelmed all of our best efforts to make our marriage work.
She came to me in tears. “I’m so sorry; you know how much I care. I’ll always love you, Ed. It’s just that my life is there.”
“Of course it hurts—” more than I could say, “But I understand, I really do, and I’m very sorry we couldn’t figure it out here.”
Six months later I was back in New York, looking for my old friend Willie George. Over the years of our marriage and the time that I’d left New York for the Midwest, I’d lost touch with a number of close male friends but none better than Willie. Oddly determined to find him, and Columbia-trained English scholar that I am, I’d started with his letters to me.
The last one was dated September 26, 1983. Characteristically droll, he’d thanked me for my “gracious hospitality and delicious (and dioecious — look it up, dude) herb.” Willie loved using obscure words, which had sometimes slowed down the narratives he wrote for my writing workshop.
Of African descent and a native of British Guyana, Willie was a talented if self-taught writer who wanted to be nothing less than the ‘Black Conrad.’ When I’d known him thirty years ago, he’d wanted to put his tiny country in Caribbean South America on the map of world literature.
His love of literature was largely driven by his need to tell the story of the legacy of colonialism from the perspective of one whose family had been plucked out of West Africa and brought to a land so obscure that its primary place in the world’s imagination had to do with the mass suicide of foreigners whose deaths informed the phrase ‘drinking the Kool-Aid.’
The letter continued that he’d especially “enjoyed the Chekhov play at the Guthrie in Minneapolis, and smoking the peace pipe above the mighty Mississippi. You drew some stories out of me there that I hadn’t told anyone and, of course, I trust you to keep it between us. Becoming a North American has been a wild ride— there was a name change and a marriage that the INS questioned along the way.”
That was one clue that finding him could be harder than I thought. There was a second, in plain sight in his letter to me, in a dashed PS. —I have completed the certificate program in International Banking and am being considered for trainee spots on three continents. Three continents — where to begin?
Google yielded nothing but false leads, and Facebook led only to one angry e-mail in capital letters and a crazed font demanding that I STOP SENDING ME FRIEND REQUESTS! So I had no choice but to go back to New York.
“Speaking,” replied a polite Caribbean voice. “How can I help you?”
“I’ve lost track of my old friend Wilfred George, a banker by profession, a gentleman of about 50 from British Guyana — you wouldn’t happen to be any relation?”
“No sir, but Wilfred George is a very common name in our part of the world. If your friend is from Guyana, I would direct you to the web aggregator and Yellow Pages of New Yorkers from Guyana. Good luck and good day.”
I spent the next hours poring over the Directory of Guyanese on the Internet on my iPad. I was happy to be back in New York — it was an almost sensual delight to feel the City’s great big pulsating body next to mine; the tall buildings gave me the same feeling of scale as the Upper Mississippi bluffs, like my little life wasn’t that important in the grand scheme of things.
Soon I had two promising leads. The first was a plumber in Jamaica Queens whose wife said he had a cousin named Willie George; the second was a Jeremiah George who I was meeting in a bar in Prospect Park Brooklyn at 7pm that night. The latter claimed to be Willie’s brother and said he’s heard many stories about me, the white English Professor!
There were some at least reddish flags that didn’t ring quite true in the latter’s story — references to a Shakespeare class I’d never taught, and to a sister I’d never heard of before. But Willie had always been a little dodgy and maybe I simply hadn’t remembered things right. It had been thirty years.
Why had I set off on this unlikely quest? Oh yeah, our divorce.