June 16, 2010

Peace Corps Moment – Lenny (Part 2) – Sri Lanka 1997

In a few weeks, Lenny and I fall into a pattern. I lounge around the small villa and Lenny works his typical 12-hour day in the blistering heat. During my second week, I thought it might be fun to help move some rice bags, but that sends my host mother in a panic to usher me back inside. A few days later, I sneak out to help him move cinder blocks from one corner of the yard to another; my skin glows lobster red after just an hour in the sun and I retreat to a cold shower. After that, I resign myself simply to watch.

It’s not like I have nothing else to do. My host sister escorts me around the village to meet people I can’t understand or to drink gallons of tea I really don’t like. I also sleep a lot. There are certain real responsibilities, too. Like studying my Sinhalese or preparing lesson plans to teach English beginning in January, but I can’t seem to focus on those necessities. So mostly during the day I watch Lenny out of an intense curiosity of his lifestyle and a somewhat frantic boredom with mine.

Lenny sleeps on a wooden bench in the back courtyard, wrapped in burlap to keep the cloud of mosquitoes off. Each day he gets a single meal of a large bowl of rice and curry. Every night he sits in the back corner of the den on a low stool with his bony knees jutting upwards as he watches television with the rest of the family. Every morning, at 5 o’clock, he washes himself at the outside well which is beside my bedroom window. Sometimes, if it’s an especially crisp morning and there’s a chill in the air right before the heat of the day, he sings. Under my mosquito net I listen. The song sounds religious. He’s not a good singer but, unlike when talking, his voice booms.

I grow accustomed to Lenny’s total lack of coordination. His movement looks as if he’s always about to stumble forward. It’s not uncommon to see him walk straight into something. Yet, a large part of the problem is me. Lenny’s bumbling becomes especially pronounced whenever I’m around. His eyes glaze over and often I catch him staring at me, while I’m staring at him. I suppose he’s fascinated with who I am and my sudden appearance in his life.

Often during these weeks, I wonder if maybe I might help him. What exactly I could do is a mystery. It’s not like I could send him someplace. Or give him a lot of money. There is a certain childlike necessity of this man; I don’t think he could survive alone. Yet at the same time, in many ways, he seems trapped.

Near the end of my 2nd month, I watch him in a tireless struggle to remove a tree stump from the front yard. What’s left of an oak is at least five feet in diameter, and the work is intense: digging with a long iron pike to isolate the roots in the clay soil and then hacking at them with a small hand axe. Lenny is methodically working counterclockwise around the stump and after three days he isn’t even halfway done. It’s mid-afternoon and I’m sitting in the shade drinking glass of tea made by my host mother. Three heaping spoonfuls of sugar only makes me more sleepy.

And there is Lenny, sweating and grunting and determined to single handedly get that damn stump out of the earth. I don’t want my thoughts to drift in that direction, and I deliberately try to stop them, but in the end … I do feel pity for him.

It’s with this thought that an intense prickling pain overwhelms my ankles and toes. I’m barefoot and have absentmindedly rested my toes atop a nest of red ants. Fire ants are what we would call them in the South. Their attack is well coordinated as they swarm first and then simultaneously bite and sting. It’s like acid needles stabbing your skin.

I jump, spilling tea all over, and slap my feet with a yelp, hopping from foot to foot, swiping to get the goddamn demons off of me; I flop around like a dervish. It’s takes a minute, but I’m finally rid of them.

I pause to catch my breath and there is Lenny, motionless, staring at me.

Of course. All these days, wrapped in my concern and sympathy, I’ve neglected a few realities. Lenny can buy a Coke without having to resort to elaborate hand signals. Lenny can withstand the 110-degree heat without feeling dizzy and sick. Lenny doesn’t get so sunburned that he is restricted to bed for two days. And Lenny knows better than to step in a pile of red ants.

His laughter echoes across the yard.

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