“The Middleman” is told in the first person by Alfie Judah, a Jew who is a newly naturalized American citizen originally from Baghdad, Iraq. He has temporarily left the United States because he has been involved in some shady financial dealing and is fighting extradition. He is currently living in an unnamed Central American country, where he has just started employment on the ranch of an expatriate American named Clovis T. Ransome. Ransome fled the United States with fifteen million dollars in cash that he appears to have appropriated illegally in some kind of financial scam. Alfie has attached himself to Ransome in the hope that he can gain some advantage from the situation. He is the “middleman” of the title; he manages to make a living “from things that fall.”
There appears to be plenty of opportunity for such graft; an insurgency is going on in the country, and the president, a corrupt man named Gutiérrez, pays retainers to various armed groups, and also to Ransome, to protect him. Alfie sits at the side of the swimming pool and confesses that he has a weakness for women. He mentions that a young woman named Maria, Ransome’s wife, lives on the ranch. At the pool, Alfie chats briefly with Ransome, who is waiting for his crony Bud Wilkins to drive over in his pickup. They plan to go on a deep-sea fishing trip. Ransome invites Alfie to go with them, but Alfie declines. Maria, who has been swimming in the ocean, comes to join Alfie, while Ransome loads up the jeep with beer. Bud arrives, and he and Ransome drink beer together. Eduardo, the houseboy, loads up Bud’s pickup with crates which Alfie suspects contain rifles, ammunition, and possibly medicine. Then Bud and Ransome drive off into the jungle in Ransome’s jeep. Eduardo kills two ocean crabs that have found their way into the kitchen. He is upset over something, and Maria and Alfie take him to his room. Eduardo has crates under his bed, and Alfie wonders what is in them.
But Maria replies that she respects Eduardo’s privacy, and Alfie should, too. Alfie sets the table, and Maria brings a tray of cheese and biscuits. She says she is hoping he will drive her to San Vincente, a small market town, in Bud’s pickup. Alfie does not want to, but he agrees. He does not want to know what is in the crates that are piled up in the pickup. The crates are labeled “fruits,” but Alfie knows he has been recruited for a gunrunning operation, when all he wanted to be was a bystander. They drive the rough road through the jungle to San Vincente. After about forty minutes, Maria tells Alfie to turn off and head for a village called Santa Simona. She says she was born there. Alfie knows Santa Simona is not a village; it is a guerrilla camp. Alfie and Maria get out of the truck and make their way to some shacks. Alfie knows that this is not the intended destination for Bud’s arms shipment; the load has been hijacked. He would have preferred that Maria had not involved him in this little adventure. A tall guerrilla soldier comes toward them; he and Maria embrace.
Maria then introduces Alfie to the guerrilla soldier, whose name is Andreas. The three of them go inside one of the shacks, which is the command post for the guerrillas. Maria offers Alfie a beer, and then she and Andreas leave. Alfie opens his beer and takes it with him to the back porch. There is a caged bird by the laundry tub, and a boy of ten is teasing it. The boy, who later turns out to be Andreas’s son, asks him for gum. Alfie gives him a cheap pen to keep him quiet and returns inside to drink his beer. About an hour later, Maria returns and wakes him up. She says they have finished unloading the guns and it is time to go. Alfie, Maria, and Andreas, who is carrying the bird cage, go to the truck. On the drive back to Ransome’s ranch, Maria explains what is going on. She indicates that Bud has been killed because he refused to let Ransome in on his illicit arms-dealing business. They arrive back at the ranch, where Ransome is sitting on the love seat on the porch. Alfie asks him where Bud is, and Ransome replies that a gang of guerrillas shot him only half a mile down the road. He wonders how he got away, but Alfie knows that the guerrillas were in Ransome’s pay. Alfie observes that Ransome notices the crates are gone from Bud’s truck, so Ransome knows he has been betrayed. Maria sits down on the love seat next to her husband while Alfie goes to the kitchen for a beer.
When he returns, Ransome, who has been drinking heavily, is snoring. His hand is inside the bird cage, and the bird is pecking him, but this does not awaken him. Maria asks Alfie to kill the bird. At eleven o’clock that night, Alfie carries Ransome up the stairs to the spare bedroom and leaves him fully clothed on the bed. Alfie then returns to his room. Maria comes to him and they make love, and Maria tells him of the beatings she received from Ransome. At about three o’clock in the morning, a man rides up on a scooter. Maria thinks it is Andreas, but it is another man, a tall Indian, who enters Alfie’s room. Maria says something to the man and he steps outside. She and Alfie quickly get dressed; the Indian comes back into the room with two more Indians. They demand to know where Ransome is, and Alfie tells them. A group of guerrillas, including Andreas, open Ransome’s door. Ransome is awake; he keeps cool and tries to bargain with the men. He says they can take Maria, and he also offers them money. He says they can take Alfie, too. Andreas has three Indians and Eduardo take a large stash of dollar bills from a trunk. He says he will take Maria as well, but he does not want Alfie. While Ransome remains politely defiant, Andreas hands his pistol to Maria. She shoots Ransome, killing him instantly. After aiming the gun at Alfie’s genitals, she smiles and returns the gun to Andreas. Alfie is relieved. Maria and Andreas leave, and Alfie plans his next move. He decides that in a few days, he will walk to San Vincente and befriend the Indians there. He is sure that someone will be interested in the information he has to offer about the guerrilla camp and about Bud and Ransome. He thinks, “There must be something worth trading in the troubles I have seen.”
Ira Mark Milne – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 24, Bharati Mukherjee, Published by Gale Group, 2006