An Excerpt from “Art of Life”: Discovery

Posted by on Jun 9, 2014 in Twenty Years On

An excerpt from the book Art of Life by Jennifer New.

No one remembers exactly how the bag arrived at Mike Eldon’s home in Nairobi, only that it took several weeks after Dan’s death to get there. It was a black nylon military bag, something he’d come by in a trade with a Marine, the same way he’d accrued several pairs of combat boots and other military paraphernalia. Mike put the bag in the middle of Amy’s bedroom floor. Along with Donatella Lorch, a New York Times reporter who had been stopping by the house regularly since the news hit on July 12, they slowly went through its contents.

passportAt first Amy Eldon was reluctant to open it. As with so many things she couldn’t help but think, “ This is the last time…” The last time she’d unpack her brother’s bag. The last time these things would be sent. But then the converse feeling set in, the almost desperate need to tear into it, to touch and smell what was inside. She had already been in Dan’s bedroom, laying her head against his pillow and sifting through his belongings. These things, however, had been with him last and bore the freshest remnants. What had been merely a toothbrush or an old pair of sandals now carried new significance; if one looked hard, they might reveal some truth or message.

The leather vest was on the top. Dan wore it so often that it had become his trademark – surely it had been too hot for Somalia. A pile of carefully folded T-shirts was also there, including several of Dan’s own design and a well-worn Tusker beer shirt. Underneath, she found a kikoi, some blue jeans, and a pair of sunglasses, a cheap copy of the Ray Bans he always wore. She fished out some books farther down: Goethe, Vonnegut, and the explorer Wilfred Thesiger. Opening the latter, she saw that Dan had been underlining passages, one of which caught her eye: “I have often looked back into my childhood for a clue to this perverse necessity which drives me from my own land to the deserts of the East.”

Next to Amy, Donatella was rummaging through a box of cassette tapes that had arrived with the bag: Somali music, reggae, Dan’s own mixes, and Edith Piaf. Donatella laughed at the sight of the Piaf tape recalling how Dan had brought his small boom box down to the hotel cafeteria and they’d all sung along to “La Vie en Rose.” Such funny music for a guy his age, she’d always thought. Amy stopped her excavation, remembering how the previous Christmas she and Dan got caught in a rainstorm on their way home from lunch in downtown Nairobi. Dan’s Land Rover no longer had a top – he’d had it cut off – so they were thoroughly soaked as they cruised through the streets as Edith purred, “Je ne regret rien.” Donatella smiled at the image. She was getting a fuller sense of the person she had known only in a war zone. Earlier, Amy had shown her photos of Dan’s girlfriends and, to Donatella’s amusement, there were dozens. Seeing Dan’s bedroom had also been enlightening; in so many ways, it was still a kid’s bedroom. She had to remind herself how much of a kid she had been at twenty-two.

As though to cast a smirk on the high-mindedness of the books, some Somali daggers – additions to a weapons collection Dan had started in his G.I. Joe days – and several packs of Marlboro Reds were toward the bottom of the bag. Amy took the cigarettes and shoved them under her bed when her father wasn’t looking. She had hidden Dan’s habit from their parents for years, and although they both knew about it – the war in Somalia had made him a chain smoker – her gut instinct to protect him remained. Going through her brother’s pockets, she pulled out wads of cash, not just tens and twenties, but fifty- and hundred-dollar bills.

“Yes,” her father said, showing her several more bundles of cash he’d found. “It must be from the postcard and T-shirt business. He was doing well.” Mike smiled at his son’s innate entrepreneurial habits. Dan had started the business on the side about six months earlier, selling items he’d designed and had printed to UN soldiers and aid workers. It nicely augmented the money he made from his work as a stringer photographer for Reuters. Donatella added that everyone carried pretty hefty wads of cash in Mogadishu. It took a lot of money to buy one’s way around, she told them, recalling how hardly any bargain was sealed without a few hundred-dollar bills changing hands.

On the very bottom was something Amy and Mike both could have predicted would be there, though they had forgotten until now. Amy held the large black-bound journal in her lap. It was eight by eleven, the same size Dan had been using for years. This one was still thin, not yet stretched by the sheer mass of objects, glue, and paint with which he layered the books. Gently, she flipped through the pages. About fifteen of them, not even a quarter of the book, had photographs pasted in, either in a single five-by-seven image of a series of smaller photographs. And then the pages went blank. Amy snapped it shut. The bareness, even the unadorned photographs over which he had yet to draw or glue more layers, was too strong a reminder of the life that would not be lived, the life that previously had been the inspiration for filling page after page. Suddenly, the pages had come to an end.