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Tuesday
Jun272017

V. Toastie-Press

Kimbe Town market, where locals sell fruit and vegetables from their gardens.

 

The main grocery store in town, called Anderson’s, will close at the end of June, making it harder to find food in a country where it can already be hard to find food. Kimbe expats were excited when Anderson’s opened nearly a year ago, as it imports familiar Western items not much carried by the other Chinese-run markets. The shop seemed to thrive, so no one quite knows why it’s going dark. Maybe because the expatriate community is small. Or maybe—more simply yet ever so complexly—because wrong is how things go in PNG. The country’s own tourist board calls it “land of the unexpected.” Here, more than any other place, the law of entropy seems to function with one full magnitude of greater force. It’s like a terra-based Bermuda Triangle, but instead of disappearing, possessions and structures and even humans get destroyed. Trucks and boats are forever breaking down, often with Pete, Tina or Theresa in or on them, and then their research stops while a new part is located or an engine banged on. One day their captain, Blaise, a man born and bred in PNG, steps on a stingray—because, of course, underfoot on a clean patch of sand there suddenly appeared a stingray. Pete and crew eventually get him to the hospital, after first scavenging to find a working van. If degradation feels inevitable, after time it can be tough to keep caring.

I haven’t yet been to Anderson’s, but when I go, on the next town run, I’m buying all the cheese. It comes in two flavors, cheddar or colby, both the color of butter and molded into massive blocks that we stack in our fridge like bricks. We’re down to a brick-and-a-half, and with Anderson’s closing and end of days upon us, I’d like enough to build a fallout shelter. Anderson’s also has a gourmet-cheese cabinet apparently kept locked, as its varietals are well out of the common woman’s means. I’d think this were a myth, except one night I ate a wedge of brie that Ema said came from “the special box.” Just how costly is this cheese? No one will give me a straight answer.

“It’s expensive,” says Theresa.

“Yes, I know, but how expensive? What kinds of figures are we talking?”

“It’s very expensive,” she says, looking away from me, toward the ocean. 

We keep bread in the freezer, butter in tupperware, tomatoes in the crisper. These, along with cheese, are the four ingredients needed for a Toastie. The fifth and arguably most important element is the sandwich-maker, an ancient box-shaped appliance that opens like a clamshell. A metal lid comes down over a hot-plate base, melting to perfection two slices of bread stuffed with maker’s choice of toppings. Toastie-Press originally lived at JCU house, the cabin a five-minute walk from ours rented at various times by researchers from James Cook University in Queensland, Australia. Theresa did her PhD at JCU. On previous trips to PNG, she stayed in that house. She knows where they hide the spare key when the place is vacant. One afternoon, Toastie-Press takes a trip next door. 

When lunch consists of ramen noodles, hardboiled eggs, or a packet of dry beef-flavored crackers, a local specialty, the joy felt at first bite of a gooey grilled-cheese sandwich is hard to overstate. Some evenings, if writing has gone well and I feel tired and satisfied and I know it’s time to stop because there’s still a small bit left in me and that’s the thread I’ll pick up in the morning, I make Toasties for the divers who have just returned. The water takes away your heat. It pulls it from your body, when you’re under it for hours at sixty feet. Pete comes home, and his hands are cold on my hot face. I give him a Toastie, and when Tina or Theresa get out of the shower I hand them each a plate and a mug of gin and tonic, and they sit and eat, for the moment too tired to talk, and it’s not wrong to say the molten sandwiches heat up their chilled cores, and that’s also where our hearts are. 

JCU returns on a Tuesday. This time, they’re a crew of three: Chancey, a PhD student from New Zealand. Petite Kara, the only adult female I’ve met with feet smaller than my own (size five to my five-and-a-half). She’s completing her Master’s. And Gus, an Australian undergrad with blonde hair to his shoulders who studies coral bleaching. It takes Chancey a day to notice something missing. “What happened to our sandwich maker?” he asks Tina and Theresa over drinks at the Walindi bar.

The girls are masters. They put him off for a week. 

“I was on my way to your place, but then I saw the most beautiful orb-weaver spider, she was the size of a small dog, and I had to stop and watch her eat the moth she’d mummified in her web, you understand,” says Theresa. 

“I just want to give it one more scrub,” says Tina. “Cleaner than new, that’s how you deserve to get it back.”

Finally, evasions exhausted, Toastie-Press gets unplugged. Pete puts it in a market bag, big and sturdy, near the front door, to be delivered, no excuses, the next night. But when they return from diving, bag and contents are missing.  

The JCU boys don’t believe we don’t still have it. They’ve heard every line. Pete asks Peter, the Australian director of Mahonia, if someone could have come to borrow it while none of us were home, but Peter says that isn’t likely. “It’s just taking a little journey,” he tells Pete, as though that’s what electric sandwich-makers do. “It’ll turn back up.” 

Toastie-Press, it seems, has gone walkabout.

Three days of cold cheese sandwiches. I top mine with thin cucumber slices, I lay the cheese atop a ketchup blanket, I grate instead of slicing and sprinkle it with chili sauce. I feel unsatisfied; I remember that all things are fleeting. I thank Toastie-Press, wherever it may be, for the reminder. 

On the fourth day, I’m writing alone at the kitchen table. The screen door opens and a New Guinean I haven’t met but will soon know as Lydia, the shy woman who cleans our cabin, comes in carrying an object, big and sturdy, under one skinny arm. A flash of tarnished metal. She puts it on the counter and rushes back outside. She doesn’t say anything. The experience has the surreal quality of a dream. I’m almost sure I manufactured a hallucination—early onset Toastie Mania, perhaps—until I get up and walk to the counter and open the bag. Toastie-Press feels warm, and I identify several new scratches. Wherever it’s been, the journey home was not without peril. 

JCU crew flies out two weeks later. Some field-stint stories are short stories. The night before they leave, we throw a goodbye party. We play Texas Hold ‘Em and take turns plugging phones into Gus’s speaker, listening to songs from home. Pete buys a bottle of Bombay Sapphire and a case of SP Lager. And he and I stand in the kitchen, drinking our first of the night’s many gin and tonics, grilling Toasties to order, round after round, to make up for lost time. 

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