by Katherine Jamieson
Wildcard by Katherine Jamieson

Pat was the tannest and, in her forties, one of the oldest volunteers among us.  Indifferent to the risks of exposure, she insisted on biking at noon, her long, floral print dress billowing out as she pedaled to her job at the health clinic. I’m not going to keep these women waiting, she said the one time I met her on the road on a visit from the city, as if I were trying to hold her back.  I stepped aside as she sped off, her muscular legs working hard against the soft dust, her wiry gray hair flying up against the brilliant blue sky. She was from New Hampshire and had been divorced; for months this was all I knew of her.

Pat had gotten a reputation during the first months of training for being erratic and temperamental.   The specific gossip eluded me, but her group referred to her, always with a slight, fond shake of the head, as “Wildcard.”  “Wildcard” lived in a small pink cottage in Crabwood Creek, Berbice, a rural region separated from Georgetown by a massive river.  “Wildcard” would not host new volunteers who came to the area, and refused to attend group meetings in the capital city. Sometimes she would see other volunteers in the market or on the ferry, the only other familiar face among thousands, and ignore them.

Our group of volunteers was so young that we kept calling our final induction ceremony “graduation.”  Most of us had finished college a few months before. And this felt right: youth was favored in this rigorous place.  We healed quickly and well.  We believed that time was spacious and forgiving.  Guyana was just a warm-up for real life, an in-between period rife with adventure, and lean on responsibility.

But Pat shared none of our optimism or naivete.  She was unlike Norman, a volunteer in his late sixties who had been a volunteer in three different countries, and seemed content to live on a small stipend and date young Indian women.  Pat did not have a sheen of enthusiasm or satisfaction, just a determination for grinding hard work, which we mistook for drudgery.  She was agitated, and unhappy, and she reminded us of what could happen when, or if, we took on the mantle of adulthood.  When the rest of her group returned home, Pat decided to stay on another year.

One night I went out with a group of other volunteers and ran into her on the street.  Katherine! she greeted me with a strange smile, her eyes drooping.  She was dressed in tight jeans and a black halter-top, her hair pulled back in a severe-looking clip. Wrapping her arm around my shoulders, I felt her body pressing into mine, her breath all rum.  She seemed at once much younger and much older than me. I felt scared, though I couldn’t say if my fear was for her, or for myself.

You have a girlfriend now, she whispered in her gravelly voice.  I had started seeing Ardis, and the story was rapidly making its way through the volunteer gossip channels.  Pat was leaning on me as we walked under the broken street lamps, from one bar to the next.  Great, so great, I think that’s great, she slurred, We made snow angels…my girlfriend once… it was beautiful… we made snow angels… we made snow angels in the snow. Her eyes were far away in our country, where there was such a thing as snow.  She kept repeating snow angels, and mumbling other things I couldn’t understand.  She stumbled over a pothole, and I grabbed her waist to steady her.  You’re sweet, she said, looking at me again.  Her eyes looked fogged and vacant, but I noticed for the first time a rough prettiness to her face.  Her body was lithe and strong.  She was not that old. At the next bar she swerved away to another table.  That was the last time I ever saw her.

I heard the stories later from one of her friends.  Pat had started drinking and coming into the city more often.  She would flirt with other volunteers, twenty years younger, and one night she tried to hire a prostitute at the bar, a beautiful black girl who was confused by her advances.  She would insist on leaving Georgetown at 3:00 AM, running out of bars to find a minibus to take her speeding three hours along the unlit road, and then wait two more hours in a deserted shelter for the ferry back to her town.  This went on until a taxi driver raped her one night after drinking.  She woke up naked from the waist down, wearing just a tank top, and could remember nothing else.

Pat left then, returned to the States and detox and counseling.  The Peace Corps nurse grilled her friends: why didn’t you tell us she was drinking so much?  But we were all drinking so much; we didn’t know that it was our place to stop her.  No matter how old, she was one of us.   There were so many tragedies in Guyana already.  It was as if we couldn’t stand knowing that we had brought another one into the country.

A graduate of the Iowa Nonfiction Writing Program, Katherine Jamieson’s work has appeared in The New York Times and The Best Travel Writing 2011. Read more of her writing at katherinejamieson.com.