For Carlos, for our hunger
As a boy I was hungry, bam. I came home running, jumping, and my mother would say: “Cut it out! Don’t move so much or you’ll be even hungrier,” but I said to her: “No, lady. You cut it out, you’re trapped, you cut it out: I’m a pirate and you, my whale,” bam, bam. My mother was confused: “What game is that? I don’t like it, I don’t like that game at all,” to which I responded: “I’m going to grill you whole, whale, and then I’m going to fill up on meat with you, make a broth of ribs with your ribs,” bam, bam, bam. My mother didn’t like to play along, she said: “Well today you’re having bread and oil, look,” and bam! My stomach started to shout: “Bam, bam! Bam!,” as she broke the bread in half, poured oil over the two parts, and gave me the bigger half. I bit into the bread and my hunger got worse. Such little food wouldn’t calm me, the piece of bread just got me worked up. It was such a little piece, but my mom said: “Boy, eat slowly, enjoy it, break it up, break it into little pieces, look, like this, little bitty,” but I shouted: “No, no, no! I’m hungry!” And I kicked the walls, and I cried, and my stomach shouted “Bam, bam, bam!” Sometimes my mother got furious, she grabbed my arms, she shook me. She said: “This is what there is, don’t you see? This is all there is! Why is that so hard to understand?” and I cried, and cried harder and she cried, and she broke her bread—her already broken bread—in half, and she said: “Here, take it,” and she put it in my hand, sometimes, and sometimes she shoved it into my mouth.
When I stopped crying and we calmed down, I dreamed of pots and plates: pots and plates full of food. The pots piled up in the kitchen and the plates piled up on the table, and as we ate, more pots and more plates appeared, full, overflowing with food. More and more appeared and the piles grew and they filled the whole house, and there were so many pots and so many plates that they didn’t fit inside the house, they rose up through the ceiling and they slid off the roof and scattered everywhere: the street was full of pots and plates and the pots and plates reached the corner and continued their journey down the rest of the streets in town until they made a faraway mountain that protected or looked after us, a huge, enormous pile of pots and plates: pots on top of plates, bam, plates on top of pots, everything on top of everything, and then, at that point of abundance, I started to imagine what was in each pot. I imagined potatoes with parsley; pumpkin and salted meat; fried pig skin and peas, rice with cheese and plantain. The pots were full of noodles with tomato and onion; full of suero and yam, stewed chicken thighs. There were meatballs and lentils: a thousand lentils for each meatball, a thousand meatballs per pot. There were cooked garbanzos. And on the plates, a ton of fish: mojarra, snapper, hake, grouper, bocachico, sierra . . . There were lemon slices between each fish; tomato salads, lettuce and cucumber; coconut rice and raisins. There was also fruit—corozo and guava, sapote and mango, watermelon—I squeezed them with my hands and in my hands they became the most delicious juices. On the plates and in the pots there were sweets: honey and coconut, flan, cream, and tres leches. I ate everything, I ate so much, bam, that I got so fat I turned into a ball. And I got fatter and fatter until I turned into a balloon. And I started to rise up off the ground, bam, and I rose up, and up. And I rose up and up, bam! And from the air I apologized to my mother: “Forgive me, mama, forgive me! I didn’t leave you any food. I didn’t realize, forgive me, it was so little food.”
Years went by and the hunger continued. I had no memory of that childhood by the time I met Franky. In those days I wanted to love. The first time we spoke I’d just been fired from a restaurant, the only job I’d ever had: a lunch counter called Big Mouth. “The food is for the customers,” the owner, doña Eulalia shouted, and my stomach shouted back: “Bam, bam, bam!” She said to me: “Finish cleaning and leave, don’t come back,” so I took off my apron and I dropped it on the floor, and, trying to make myself feel something—annoyance, anger, anything—or maybe as a sign of protest, I threw the broom and mop as far as I could in the direction of the bar. “Eat shit, doña!” to which she shouted back: “You’re the one who’s going to eat shit, you stupid kid,” bam, bam. I shouted at her, I shouted some more. I left the restaurant and of course I started to get hungry, bam, or maybe I was confusing hunger with the emptiness of anxiety.
“You look weird without your apron,” someone said in the street, weeks later, and bam, something opened up inside me: an emptiness that wasn’t hunger, bam, bam, bam! Someone I hadn’t seen had seen me. Then I saw his beard—black—his black eyes, the freckles on his face. He said: “A while ago, a Sunday, at Big Mouth I ordered a coffee with milk, but you brought me an orange juice.” I thought: “Maybe I was craving orange juice and that’s why I got mixed up.” We laughed. I looked at him and looked at him trying to make up for all the time I hadn’t looked at him, surprised I hadn’t noticed him, even when I’d talked to him. Then he said to me: “I’m hungry,” and again. “I’m hungry.” All I could think to say was that if I still worked at the restaurant, I’d give him an almojábama with milk, on the house—in those days I wanted to love. But he repeated: “I’m hungry,” bam, without thanking me for my imaginary gift. “I’m hungry.” Bam! “I’m hungry,” bam, bam, hugging his stomach.
The more he mentioned his hunger, the less he looked at me. And as I looked at him, he looked at his stomach, bam! I was hungry too. I thought: “I have ten big bills left.” I did the math. I said: “Let’s eat, it’s on me.” He smiled for a moment, looked back at me. He said: “Let’s go, yeah, let’s go now,” and he took me by the hand—bam—to guide us down the path to food.
“It’s called Buena Mala. They sell meatballs, stewed chicken, garbanzos. Doesn’t it sound good? I want everything. You’re not hungry? I want to eat everything.” I listened to Franky as we walked: I was hungry, bam, bam, but I was thinking about the ten big bills. “How much will it cost, I wondered, as he, not looking at me, continued: “They also sell bean stew and fish soup. I’m so hungry! I want everything. I’m so hungry!”
We turned the corner and bam! Even hungrier: the place was closed, bam, bam, bam! He bent over and shouted: “It can’t be, no! What am I going to do? I’m hungry, I’m so hungry!” I said to him: “We’ll go somewhere else, I’m hungry too,” but then he pulled away without looking at me: “You don’t understand, look. Look!” and he pulled up his shirt to show me his belly, pulsing—bam, bam, bam!—and across his flesh, a long trail, rough, also made of flesh: a pink trail, purplish in parts, flesh forking onto flesh. His belly looked like skin pulled tight over a huge heart—his stomach—about to burst, bam: to break through the skin and shoot out, bam, and crash into me, bam, crash into me. I asked him: “What is that, why is it like that?” to which he responded: “It’s my hunger,” and then: “The scar,” and then, bam, bam: “My stomach is bigger than me.”
Then it was me who took him by the hand. I said: “Let’s go this way, follow me,” and I didn’t let go of his hand—bam, bam—his soft hand, bam, bam, until we got to the spot: a restaurant, very expensive in my opinion, serving fried stuff and fast food. There was an empty table beside the coals and the pot of boiling oil and before we sat down the smell of meat overwhelmed us, bam, it made us even hungrier. “I’m so hungry, dear God!” he shouted. “Everything’s so delicious, I’m so hungry!” bam, bam, bam! I was hungry too.
We ordered corn with shredded cheese and mayonnaise; we ordered beef croquettes and cheese empanadas. We ordered a chicken skewer each: each skewer came with fries, peppers, and onion. I looked at him as he looked at the raw chickens that slowly became less raw over the coals. I looked at him as he looked at the raw dough turning into arepas in the pot.
“Bring us two tangerine juices,” he ordered the waiter when the first round of food arrived. He picked up a piece of corn, I picked up the other one. He ate, ate, ate until there was no more corn, bam. Then he continued with the croquettes, he ate and ate. I told him: “Take them all”—in those days I wanted to love. He said: “Okay,” and he took them all, bam. He ate and ate, bam, bam.
I was still on the corn when the empanadas arrived. He took his. I asked him: “How’s your hunger?” He said: “I’m hungry,” bam, and then I gave him the kernels that were still left of my corn. He ate, bam, he ate. I bit into the empanada. “Do you like it?” he asked without looking at me, and still very hungry I said, bam, bam, bam: “It’s good, yes, but I’m getting full.” And so I gave him and he so bit into that second empanada, bam.
The juice arrived with the chicken skewers and the fries. Each bite he took was a bite he swallowed with a sip of the tangerine juice. He ate, he drank, he ate, he drank . . . I was already thinking that I’d have to give him half of my chicken too, or my fries, but finally he said: “Ahhh, how delicious!” and his belly agreed. “How delicious!” he belched, and continued patting his belly, bam, bam, bam. Now satisfied, he looked at me. “You eat like a little bird,” he laughed, as I chewed the last onions and the last peppers off the skewer, and although I thought: “I’m still hungry,” I said: “Yes, I’m not a big eater.” Then he said: “Let’s go, birdy. I have an invitation for you now, let’s go to my room,” bam, bam, bam. I called the waiter, I paid quickly: I gave him one of the ten big bills and he brought back the littlest bill and four coins: bam, bam, bam, bam.
We went to his room holding hands: he slammed the door, he looked at me, he locked it, he looked at me, bam. Franky said to me: “Now I’m much, much hungrier,” bam, and as I, truly hungry, took off my shoes, first—he looked at me—then my shirt, bam—he looked at me—my pants, bam, bam, my socks, my underwear—he looked at me—he bit me gently. He nibbled my cheeks and said: “Chubby cheeks”—he looked at me. He bit my nose and said: “Big nose”—he looked at me. And when he bit my mouth he said: “Big Mouth,” bam, bam, bam. We both laughed at the reminder of doña Eulalia.
His belly wasn’t pulsing when he took off his shirt: it was flat and no longer looked like a heart, or a heart attack waiting to happen, bam, bam. His skin was still marred by the long, long trail of flesh, and the trail didn’t look like a forked artery anymore, bam, about to burst, bam, but like a photo of a river from above. I was getting hungrier, my hunger hurt me, my hunger twisted me, but he looked at me and I looked at him. We looked at each other calmly. In those days I wanted to love.
As he nibbled at me, I bit him—with my teeth, bam, with my teeth. I bit him with my teeth, until he said, without looking at me: “I’m sleepy,” bam. “No more,” and he lay down to sleep, bam, and immediately began to snore. With each snore, a bam, bam, bam.
I also went to sleep. I lay down next to him, I hugged him and I hugged his stomach, bam, my index finger tracing his scar, my finger thinking it was a tongue on Franky’s scar. I slept. I slept some more, but I opened my eyes before he started to say: “I’m hungry.” His stomach was growling—bam, bam, bam!—and his belly was once again an enormous heart, a heart—his stomach—about to burst, bam. He kept saying: “I’m hungry,” and naked he went to the kitchen, and screamed, and slammed the door, and kicked the walls, bam, bam, bam. “The fridge is empty, I’m hungry!” And his heart, meanwhile, his stomach, looked like it was about to burst through his skin and shoot out, bam, and crash into me, bam, into me, bam, into me. “Let’s go out!” he shouted. He didn’t look at me. “I’m hungry!” I said to him: “Let’s go out, okay,” and we fumbled for our clothes, bam, and we got dressed, bam, and we took off.
We got to a café—“The sun is an egg,” it read over the entrance—and before we even sat down, he started ordering: “I want oranges, and an orange juice; a plate of chorizo, botifarra, and blood sausage; scrambled eggs, two, and also two fried eggs, the house tamale, the one with chicken and pork, and a basket of bread with pineapple jam. Bring me a coffee too, a lot, and on the side, a glass of milk.” Then he took a breath and without looking at me asked: “Do you have money? I forgot my wallet.” When the waiter turned around, he called him back: “Wait, he needs to order,” and he pointed to me without looking at me. I said, hungrily, and mentally counting my bills and coins: “One fried egg, a glass of milk, and a slice of toast.”
Each plate the waiter brought was a plate Franky put his arms around, bam, or built a wall around, bam, as he swallowed and swallowed. I said to him: “Calm down, I’m not going to steal your food,” just to make small talk, or as a joke, but he continued eating without looking at me or talking to me. I ate in silence. I ate, ate, ate: there was no more toast, I ate, no more egg either. I drank till the glass of milk was empty. And still, bam! I was hungry. I asked him: “Will you give me a bite?” pointing to the tamale and the blood sausage. He said: “Look,” and he lifted his shirt: his belly was alive. I said to him, “It’s all right, you eat.” In those days I wanted to love.
When he finished eating, he started looking at me. I looked at him and looked away. I was hungry! The waiter said: “Here’s the check,” and bam, I had to give him two big bills. I told him, “I’m leaving, see you,” worried about my money, worried about my hunger, but then he said: “Where are you going? We just had breakfast.” And, before going back to his room, in case we got hungry, we went to the plaza to buy groceries.
Weeks went by and the hunger continued. I wanted to eat. The days were always more or less the same: I ate very little, and with very little money, and when his heart, bam—his stomach—woke up, he ate, ate, ate, and didn’t stop eating. I began to lock myself in the bathroom when this happened: I lowered the toilet seat, I sat down, and took peanuts and raisins out of my pockets—I wanted to eat, bam, I wanted to eat. In the kitchen, meanwhile, Franky scraped pots and licked the plates saying, shouting: “I’m hungry and I want yucca. There isn’t any more yucca!”
One night I locked myself in the bathroom when he wanted to eat. I wanted to eat too. From my pockets I took a smashed bag of potato chips and a caramel and guava cake, also flattened. I was hungry. In the background, far away, I heard the bam, bam, his uncontrollable heart. “The peas are delicious, but there aren’t enough!” I heard him shout. Bam, as I swallowed the chips.
Suddenly, silence. I thought: “He went out to get food,” and, relieved, I opened the door, with half the cake still in my hand. There he was, stomach pulsing. “What are you doing in there?” he screamed, “What were you doing?” I said: “Nothing.” And he said: “You were eating, give it to me. I’m hungry!” I said to him: “No, I’m hungry too.” Bam! He said to me: “You don’t understand, look!” And his heart beat, bam, and the trail of flesh opened wider and wider, bam, and it beat, beat . . . He said to me: “Look!” And I said to him: “They’re my chips!” And he kept saying: “Look, look, look!”
He lunged to rip the bag of chips from my hand, bam, my chips, bam. My chips! I pushed him, I told him: “They’re mine!” bam, but he kept saying: “You don’t understand, I’m hungry!” and I said to him, bam: “They’re mine, they’re mine!” I gripped the bag and he pulled it and I pushed him as he said, bam: “Look at this! Look!” and the trail of flesh was opening wider and wider and I said to him: “Let go! I’m hungry, let go!” as the flesh opened and opened and he shouted: “Give me one! At least one!” and I insisted: “No, you already ate. No!” and the trail of flesh opened wider and wider, bam, and his flesh opened wider and wider, bam! And it opened wider. He shouted and I shouted: “What’s wrong with you?” but he shouted louder, and his stomach—his heart—“Bam!” And his stomach and my heart! And my stomach and his heart! Bam, bam, bam!
From the light fixture in the ceiling hung pieces of flesh. On my breath and in my clothes, strips of his stomach or heart. Before crying over him—in those days I wanted to love—I thought of my mother, bam, and of the game she didn’t like: she, the whale; me, the pirate. Bam, bam, bam! I remembered her soup, her rib soup. Then I looked at Franky’s ribs, bam, bam, bam! In those days I wanted to eat.
This vinegar is exactly ninety-nine years old, if the calculations I jotted down on my calendar of motivational quotes are correct, because the perfume was produced exactly a week before the enormous concrete head of Saddam Hussein hit the ground. The proverb of the day was: The kangaroo keeps her young in her pouch, the perfumer keeps his in his nose. The city was in chaos. The syrup factory workers were rushing home on their motorbikes, carrying empty tins that were no use to anyone and would be sold a few days later to a nursery as containers for growing carnations; as for the syrup, they’d left it oozing in the press. All of Basra was being pressed, and the syrup of agitation and anxiety was dribbling out of it; number one on the list of the top ten things being squeezed just then was the president’s head under the feet of the citizenry, while the factory’s syrup came in last. Numbers two to nine were large noses under angry feet.
I was sold it by one of the employees of the National Snot Bank, a rotund young man who has a nervous habit of fiddling with his collar and twitching his neck when he speaks to you. We’ve developed a close relationship, and he’s become my agent, so I no longer need to review the bank’s biannual report. He visits us and collects our snot reserves in insulated containers; the snot extraction process being highly delicate, and governed by strict legal terms and conditions, Salman Day By spends three hours with us each time—for that is indeed his name: Salman Day By. It’s said that his great-grandfather was deaf and mute as a child, and spent the hot afternoons on the banks of the Tigris (the Tigris was a small river which some theologians have speculated never existed and was in fact dreamed up by sinners, rakes and watermelon-juice drinkers). Day By Day, to use his full name, always clutched a lighter in each hand, the pockets of his dishdasha full of other, broken, lighters and his fingers ragged and torn from constantly flicking them alight. Between you and me, this great-grandfather was a simpleton nobody paid any attention to – but then he became famous in a matter of weeks when a short video of him speaking for the first time, to two American soldiers accompanied by an Iraqi interpreter, went viral.
The Day By Day clan went on to produce some of the most well-known businesspeople in the country, and amongst their descendants they count a TV presenter famous for his acerbic interviews of politicians, a gynaecologist, a pop producer, and a diminutive actor who appeared in one of Peter Spike’s films (in a five-second scene showing a confrontation between two great armies in the third century BC). And here, in the heart of Basra, we have the famous Day By Day mosque, now around 70 years old. I can’t imagine it will ever disappear, or its name change: the Day By Day mosque is a weighty icon in the citizenry’s collective memory, and you often see it on TV as a backdrop for whichever local media personality is appearing as a guest on the BBC. It was designed by a prizewinning British architect of Iraqi origin and is shaped like a rectangle; sprouting from the top by way of minarets are two palm trees, which incline slightly towards each other such that the azan comes out in stereo – the architect of the noble Day By Day clearly wanted to play with the symbolism of unity, harmony and longevity – and now, Salman’s family name no longer refers to the kid with the lighters but to these twin minarets. If he ever boasts to us, while draining our noses, of his remarkable professionalism or the bourgeois elegance and tact he brings to bear on the process of mucus extraction and storage, we don’t interrupt and give him the pleasure of listening to a human with a blocked nose, we just defy him by mocking the slogan of the National Snot Bank: ‘Ever tried singing with a blocked nose? It’ll make you happy, lucky and rich!’
Salman is in love with his boss at the bank, a woman in her fifties responsible for drawing everyone’s attention to the crook in his neck and his habit of fiddling with his collar and the second button of his shirt whenever he wants to speak: she rebuked him for it once, and kicked him out of her office, standing in the doorway as she spoke so as to be sure all the employees could hear her. After that, Salman’s tic became chronic; he’d do it unconsciously once, then on purpose dozens of times, to the point he became renowned for it. And not only did his boss reject him, she also insulted him and made fun of his face and his appearance, and even his family, mocking the fact they used to sell honey, vinegar and homemade hot sauce, leaving out the great mosque and the other more illustrious facets of their history.
This is the sort of thing Salman confides to me when we sit alone in the garden. I don’t like my children to hear when I’m evacuating my nose, and prefer the neighbours to listen instead: I actually want my neighbour to hear, as I’ve been trying to convince him for a long time that the sound of a man’s nose is a good indicator of his health and virility. Once, Salman got so annoyed at the sight of the neighbours’ heads popping up and disappearing again behind the wall that he packed up his metal containers and left, while I myself was pleasantly surprised.
Today I took out the vinegar I bought from him. The last of the children left earlier on the Euphrates train, with a warning that I mustn’t go back to licking the vinegar jar, and I swore I wouldn’t, knowing full well I’d slurp up a whole tablespoonful the moment he left the house, which is indeed what I did. And what a long and tedious farewell! He kept telling me I really ought to try the Euphrates train for myself, that it was so fast it would catapult him to the Gulf of Oman in just fourteen minutes, convincing passengers that the government’s decision to convert the dry riverbed into a tunnel hadn’t been so pointless after all. Once he’d said that, one eye on my index finger which was twirling in the air and dipping itself in imaginary vinegar, he left.
The snot is transferred from small vessels to large aluminium containers and transported north to the Gulf of Basra – the Inversion Project, which will convert south to north, is still in progress, by the way; I heard recently that workers are finding large snot reserves there, and that the project is running behind schedule: all that’s been achieved on the ground is the upending of the ground, while the hardest task of all still remains, namely to work out how people will be able to walk one way when they think they’re walking the other, or turn right when they’re turning left, by which I mean to say that the holdup is in the psychological preparations. They’re having to run opposite-direction induction workshops to train people in the new schema. Next comes the biological stage, which is slightly easier: take your stomach and your reproductive organs to your family doctor and have them perform a topical ointment massage and irrigation, and you’ll soon notice your body rotating to adapt to the new orientation – or at least that’s what the brochures and billboards and the posters in public toilets are promising.
Once that’s all over, I’ll be able to relax, and I’ll stop complaining to people, and everyone will understand that I’m just a regular guy who loves the inspirational sayings written in calendars. I’m just one in a long line of employees whose responsibility over many decades has been to draw the direction of the qibla in the Day By Day Mosque (should I have mentioned that sooner?), though I know my appearance might not be that of a lowly employee of the Day By Day family – and in fact my salary comes from the government, because the mosque belongs to the Ministry of Endowments.
But first, a week of intense work lies before me, because it’s me who’ll be responsible for reversing the arrows which mark the qibla after the enormous earthen prayer mat on which I and two hundred million other citizens reside has been flipped back to front. That said, compared to the fish in their marble pools, who will suffer immensely as the respiratory functions of their gills are inverted, my task should be quite fun; I used to do something similar as a child, when I’d scour the walls of streets frequented by lovers, and scrutinise tree trunks in search of their arrows, the kind they draw when no-one’s looking, and when I found them, scrape off their tips and make them point the other way. The fish and donkeys, with their innate sense of direction (not to mention their owners), will have a much harder time of it when their turn comes.
Salman Day By’s not scheduled to come tonight, so I won’t have the chance to show him I can drink an entire bottle of aged eau de toilette vinegar. Nor will I get to make fun of him for the fact his great-grandfather heard George Dubya’s first speech (“Day by day, the Iraqi people are closer to freedom!”) and uttered his first words – “day by day,” straight from the President’s lips – for two soldiers who got a kick out of poking fun at fat little boys, and in so doing became instantly famous. But all that’s become a fatuous refrain I repeat to irritate him and shut him up; I ought to summon up the spirit of the retired arrow-tip chopper instead and give him a free session on how to tie his shoelaces when the new orientational system comes into force.
*This story is taken from: “Iraq + 100: Stories from a Century After the Invasion”, ed. Hassan Blasim, Comma Press, 2016.
Yasha Hein woke up while it was still dark – long before the alarm clock rang – because of a strange quietness that was filling him up from within.
During the evening of the previous day he had already felt a little unwell: a sort of pre-flu state. All of his joints and muscles had ached, he had had a headache, he had kept coming over dreadfully weak. The thermometer had showed 37.2 – not exactly a high temperature, of course, but subfebrile, which is even worse. At bedtime Yasha had taken two effervescent soluble aspirins, put some nasal drops in his nose to be on the safe side, even though it wasn’t blocked for the time being, and asked his wife to draw iodine grids on his chest and back – so that he didn’t develop a cough, because there was no way he could rest up in bed the next day, he had to get to work without fail, no matter what.
And so now Yasha was sitting in bed, wrapped up in a blanket, feeling appalling. It was as if his chest and stomach – but not just his chest and stomach, his whole body – were filled with congealed, sticky cotton wool. Or cold apple jelly. But the main thing was – this quietness… This strange quietness. Something inside him was clearly out of order, and out of order in a serious way. Now Yasha had to find the broken cogwheel that was preventing the whole complicated mechanism of his thirty-five-year-old body, faulty at times, but nonetheless relatively orderly, from working normally – find and eliminate the fault. By medicinal means. Perhaps even with antibiotics – he had to get to work at all costs.
Yasha stretched out on the bed and lay motionless for five minutes or so, listening closely to himself, feeling himself over, as it were, from within, carefully studying every organ to see if it was healthy.
His throat wasn’t sore. There was no cough or blocked nose, and his eyes weren’t hurting at all. Even the headache of the previous day had completely gone – in short, it wasn’t like a cold at all, not like flu really either. More likely there was something wrong with his blood pressure – ups or downs of some kind… Yasha’s health was dependent on the weather. Or his heart – he had had tachycardia since he was a child, after all.
Yasha reached out for his watch. He waited until the second hand was on the twelve, and took his left wrist in his right hand to check his pulse. Then he put his hand to the artery on his neck. Then to his chest.
Then he touched the bony shoulder of his wife, who was breathing heavily beside him, and said quietly:
‘Ira, I think I’m ill.’
‘A-hm,’ came a mumble of suffering in reply, and she rolled over onto her other side.
‘I’m ill,’ he said more loudly.
‘You’re always ill. If it’s not one thing, it’s another. Let me sleep,’ but she did open her eyes. ‘What is it this time?’
‘There’s something wrong with my…’ Yasha said haltingly, and licked his cold lips with the tip of his tongue. ‘My heart doesn’t seem to be beating.’
‘Good Lord, what sort of nonsense is that?’ with an effort Ira forced the words out through a heavy yawn, and closed her eyes once more.
* * *
Yasha got up and went into the kitchen. He pressed his hand to his chest once again. Quietness, absolute quietness from within. He switched on the electric kettle – it began hissing malevolently, demanding water. Yasha filled it and switched it on again. And it was then that he was seized by genuine panic. ‘If my heart really has stopped,’ thought Yasha, ‘that means I’m about to die. In a second. Well, in two seconds. I won’t have time to drink my tea. I probably won’t even have time to take the cup off the shelf.’
Yasha pattered across to the kitchen cupboard and grabbed a cup. Well then, I did have time. But what does that tell you? Absolutely nothing. It could happen any time all the same, at any moment. If the heart isn’t beating, that means the blood isn’t moving through the veins, and that means… what? Some problem with oxygen. A shortage of oxygen must develop, and so a man can no longer breathe and soon dies. Yes, a man stops breathing… Yasha held his breath. And suddenly realised that he didn’t actually have to breathe at all. That is, he was capable of breathing, but solely out of habit, and if he wanted, he could even manage quite happily without doing so – as long as he liked.
‘An ambulance! Call an ambulance!’ He ran back into the bedroom where his wife was asleep.
‘What are you yelling for?’ She finally woke up fully and looked weary and bad-tempered.
‘I need an ambulance! I’m not breathing!’
‘You need to go to the madhouse, Yasha. What’s all this nonsense you’re talking? Don’t addle my brains.’
Yasha leant against the chest of drawers and covered his face with his hands. She climbed out from under the blanket, stuck her bony feet into slippers with plush pompons and gave him a look that was almost sympathetic.
‘If you really need one, call it yourself. Ring them and say exactly that: “Hello, I want to call an ambulance, because I’ve stopped breathing, and my heart’s not beating either.” Maybe someone will come, too. They may even give you sick leave, on account of your disability. When you’re sick in the head, that’s serious too, after all. How can a man like that work? A man like that…’
At this point Yasha switched off as usual, stopped listening. The loud, steady drone, moving around with his wife (back and forth across the bedroom, then into the bathroom, the kitchen, and back again into the bedroom), sounded almost reassuring – meaningless words like husks, devoid of any sense, devoid of any core.
Coming up for fifteen years before, Yasha had married this woman, not really for love exactly, but for something of the sort. Or maybe not for love, but simply because of being young. Or being stupid. Or because that was the way everything was heading, and she was ten years older than him, and her mother was thirty years older than him, and both of them knew very well how to deal with a twenty-year-old, long-nosed boy. In short, the motives by which Yasha had then been guided weren’t very clear to him now. However, if he had wanted to clear the question up, he would, of course, have done so with no difficulty – and if he still hadn’t done so, it was solely because he didn’t feel any such need. And whatever there had been there, at the beginning, there was now a lot that bound them – the years they had lived together, the things they had bought together, the rows during which they had sucked one another dry – day and night, like demented vampires – their shared tiresomeness, shared irritation, and very much more besides.
Just a year after the wedding, swiftly and inexorably – the way Cinderella loses her expensive accessories at midnight, the way a werewolf grows a coat of hair at full moon – she had turned into her mother. And her mother was a highly strung and touchy individual, and unbelievably garrulous.
Take flight? Yes, in his time Yasha had cherished a dream of liberation. Yet not one real attempt at escape had he actually undertaken. Instead, he had developed a simple means of psychological defence, a sort of know-how; whenever she spoke for longer than a few seconds, he would press an invisible little button in his head that was responsible for the perception of human speech. The sound of her voice remained – but in such a form that it meant no more than, say, the noise of surf or the squeal of car tyres when someone put the brakes on sharply.
Upon mature consideration, Yasha decided not to call an ambulance after all: by the time they’d arrived, by the time this and that had been done… he could be late for work. Apart from that, who said competent doctors worked in ambulances? Those gloomy fellows, tired and short of sleep after the night shift? The best thing now, thought Yasha, is to calm down a bit, have some tea and go to work. And then in the evening go to a private health centre and see a good specialist.
The indignant buzzing that filled the entire room and was insistently trying to filter through to him, finally swept away all the obstacles in its path and at last invaded the zone of Yasha’s perception: ‘… what, can’t you hear… as if… cook some eggs… can’t you hear… like a statue… some eggs… as I’ve got up anyway… get cold… as I’ve had to anyway… go…’
* * *
The magazine called Fun Magazine would first open, then close, then open, then close, like a faulty lift stuck between floors. And this had been going on for about three years.
Nonetheless, people continued to work on FM. The instability of the situation got on the staff’s nerves only to begin with – they gradually got used to it and settled down. ‘Do you know, has he already found it?’ colleagues would ask one another quietly. ‘Apparently, yes.’
Their financial director was something of a magician. At least, he certainly possessed one magical quality: he always found finance.
Yasha arrived in good time for the emergency meeting. To do so, he ran all the way from the Metro, and then ran down the long, boring corridor of the editorial offices too. In actual fact, it wasn’t so much punctuality that made him resolve upon this heroic race, as the secret hope that such a warm-up might have a stimulating effect on his heart, but… In his chest there was still that same cotton-wool quietness.
The editor-in-chief, Vladimir Vladimirovich Stayomov, conducted the meeting very briskly, finishing in five minutes. It was only a couple of weeks before that FM had enjoyed its latest resurrection, for which reason Stayomov (or, to friends, simply Stay-home) was clearly in a good mood: his shiny button-eyes looked at his subordinates in a friendly way, and with what a dashing movement did he toss back onto the crown of his head the unruly forelocks which dangled down to the left in long, black strands, reluctant to cover the moist editorial bald patch.
After the meeting, a lot of people headed for the canteen, as usual, for a bite to eat. Yasha dragged along after them at first, but changed his mind halfway there. The memory of his recent breakfast was still too fresh… the tea pours into his throat in a warm, unbroken stream, washing down the last slippery bits of fried egg… it doesn’t have to be swallowed at all… the liquid flows freely down the oesophagus… with a slight gurgling sound – like a spring stream through the bars of a drain-hole…
Yasha stood there for a while, then moved off slowly down the empty, yellow-walled corridor. Clambered clumsily into the little plywood box of his workspace. Turned on the computer. Something inside the case gave a painful bleep, and then a disenchanted squeak, and the room was filled with a loud, oppressive buzzing. Yasha opened Word. Stared miserably at the flickering screen, lay his hands on the grey, beslobbered keyboard with repugnance. Felt with his index fingers in the customary way for the little ridges on the ‘f’ and ‘j’ keys – the celebrated ‘touch’ method. Today he had to write a big to-order exposé (commissioned, actually, by FM’s new investor). It would run under the rubric ‘Topic of the Week’. And then he would be given a bonus.
‘The main thing is not to think about your breathing,’ Yasha said to himself, ‘not to think about your heart. Think about taxes. And about corruption. I’m writing about taxes, using the ten-finger method, writing ever so quickly, writing – and not breathing… but it’s all right, I’m simply over-excited. I’m writing very quickly – and not… writing quickly, and going to see a doctor straight away.’
The white screen chirped irritably and was plunged into darkness. Jolly green seaweed appeared against a black background. Little yellow fish swam up from out of a distant, otherworldly ocean and stared at Yasha senselessly from the monitor.
* * *
The working day was already almost over, but Dr Zuckerbaum was in a bad mood. His impending liberation from the cramped white office where he had been conducting his surgery promised nothing pleasant: frozen vegetables or ravioli for dinner, an empty evening, an empty home, an empty bed. Dr Zuckerbaum had recently lost his wife.
Dr Zuckerbaum may not have been the best cardiologist. But on the other hand he did have a big heart. By virtue of this latter fact, he often married his patients, weary Balzacian ladies with heart defects. And by virtue of the former, he often lost them, and was greatly upset every time. However, it is worth noting that the unfortunate former fact was a hindrance to the doctor only in his personal life, and told on his work not one bit. His attitude to his work was a serious one. Zuckerbaum sympathised sincerely with all his patients, and the utterly human warmth of his manner compensated in full for his professional incompetence in some matters. The patients liked him, and in the commercial medical centre ‘Heartmed’ he was considered the top specialist.
Yasha Hein liked and respected Dr Zuckerbaum too, and, although Zuckerbaum’s consultations weren’t cheap, he went to see him from time to time about his tachycardia.
Tachycardia would have seemed a pleasure to him now – better a hundred and fifty beats a minute than none.
In the registry, Yasha was informed that Zuckerbaum had already finished his surgery.
‘Mine is a very very serious case Miss a question of life and death,’ Yasha began jabbering in alarm, ‘Miss you don’t understand Miss I really do very much need…’
The withered, fifty-year-old Miss raised her wise eyes to Yasha, examined his distrustfully and said:
‘Wait, I’ll just give it a try – if he’s still in the office… Hello! Lev Samuilovich? It’s the registry here… There’s a patient here bursting to see you… And I’ve already told him it’s finished… He says it’s very urgent – although, to be honest, it seems to me… Just a minute… What’s the name? His name’s Hein. What? Very well, he’ll be up right away…’
Yasha grabbed the ticket from her hands and rushed to the office.
Dr Zuckerbaum was a responsive man, and that day he had no desire whatsoever to go home either, so he had decided to stay a little late. Particularly as Yasha’s was such a simple case – banal sinusoidal tachycardia. Listening to the complaints, taking the pulse, prescribing Isoptin and walks in the fresh air – it would all take about ten minutes, no more.
But Dr Zuckerbaum was mistaken.
An hour later he tried for the last time to take Yasha’s cardio-gram – on a different, newer machine; without any particular hope of success he fingered Yasha’s wrist, then decisively detached the sticky suckers from his legs and chest. He stared sadly at Yasha and said:
‘I’m very sorry, young man…’
‘What’s the matter with me?’
‘Yakov Markovich! You and I are grown-ups, are we not?’
‘What’s the matter with me?’
‘Unfortunately, it comes to all of us sooner or later…’
‘But what’s the matter with me, Doctor?’ Yasha asked again, and for some reason giggled.
‘I’m very sorry. I’ve done all that I could.’
* * *
‘What is there to think about? First of all, you need to go to the Registry Office,’ Klavdia Mikhailovna declared, plunging Yasha into a state of agonising déjà vu.
The last time his mother-in-law had pronounced those same words was fifteen years before. She hadn’t very much liked the youthful, useless Yasha with the traces of recent adolescent zits on his forehead. More than that, she hadn’t liked him at all, and had even found him repellent – like all the rest of Irina’s admirers who had ever had the misfortune to drop in for half an hour to have some tea, and to squeeze into the narrow space between the table, the fridge, the windowsill and the wall.
However, it was the very time when Yasha had been invited to tea that maternal instinct and common sense had unexpectedly united in Klavdia Mikhailovna in the most unhappy way for Yasha, and won certain victory over her personal sympathies and antipathies. In other words, Klavdia Mikhailovna had finally come to the conclusion that it was high time her daughter set herself up with, firstly, a family, and secondly, an apartment.
Yasha had an apartment.
Squashed into the stuffy corner of the five and a bit square metres of his beloved’s kitchen, Yasha had felt like a luckless little insect, stuck fast in the middle of a small, but sound and very professionally spun spider’s web. The wall of the kitchen beside which the guest had been made to sit was furnished with a gigantic radiator (a peculiar bonus for the residents of five-storey apartment blocks of the Khrushchev era), and the heat rising from his back to his head had deadened his consciousness and plunged Yasha into a state close to fainting. The spider-mother had looked into his eyes with a fixed and angry stare. Under the table, through a hole in his slipper, the spider-daughter had been stroking the big toe of his right foot with her elegant, hairy little one. He hadn’t had the strength to resist.
‘…First of all, you need to go to the Registry Office,’ Klavdia Mikhailovna had said then.
‘Very well,’ Yasha had submitted.
Over the following fifteen years, her attitude to her son-in-law hadn’t undergone any particular changes – as before, she didn’t like him. Maternal concern and common sense had remained with her too, and so at the family conference, urgently convened by Ira in connection with ‘the unpleasantness Yasha was having’, Klavdia Mikhailovna declared:
‘…First of all, you need to go to the Registry Office. And draw up a death certificate – so that you can register your entitlement to inherit the apartment.’
‘What, go with him?’ wondered Ira.
‘You can do…’ Klavdia Mikhailovna began, with doubt in her voice. Yet after some reflection she added, ‘But actually you’d do better to go by yourself. After all, the case isn’t very… sort of… typical. And all they ever want to do is find fault. And in general, what use is he? He’s an intellectual, isn’t he, can’t even stake a place in a queue: he’s too shy to ask whose turn it is before him,’ his mother-in-law glanced quickly at Yasha, who was sitting in an armchair and pretending to watch the game show The Weakest Link, ‘that is, he used to be too shy, I meant…’
Yasha coughed nervously.
‘Well, all right, you mustn’t speak ill of the dead,’ again she gave her son-in-law a sidelong glance, ‘may he rest in peace… although… that’s not clear either…’ Klavdia Mikhailovna fell into an embarrassed silence. But, as ever, not for long. ‘Incidentally, about rest. Do forgive me, Yasha, for indelicacy, but we ought to give some thought to the funeral too. Because this isn’t the way these things are normally done somehow.’
‘But how can you give him a funeral?’ exclaimed Ira in annoyance. ‘I mean, he’s sort of… it’s not as if he’s actually deceased.’
‘What, want to bury me alive, do you?’ Yasha interjected. Klavdia Mikhailovna ignored her son-in-law’s comment. She gave her plump mouth a scornful twist. Then she started jabbering in a falsetto, mimicking her daughter:
‘Oh dear, really, how can we, it’s not as if he’s, I mean, he’s sort of… What is he then, in your opinion?’ she asked, in a normal voice now.
‘I don’t know.’
‘“I don’t know” what?’ Klavdia Mikhailovna grew angry.
‘It’s a moot point.’
‘Aha, a moot point…’
‘Why do you keep on repeating things after me, Mama?’ Ira grew angry in her turn.
‘Who’s dragging the whole team down?’ the television presenter enquired.
‘Because I’m lost for words, that’s why I’m repeating them,’ the mother-in-law snapped. ‘And so what are you going to do with him?’
‘Well… let him live here for the time being. And later on maybe everything will sort itself out… well, later on, that is, we’ll see.’
‘Well, thank you,’ Yasha butted in once more, ‘I’ll never forget it.’
‘Who gets frightened by elementary questions? Who’ll have to leave with nothing?’
‘Why are you acting the goat?’ his wife pulled him up. ‘Now why are you acting the goat? This is no joke, you know! It really is a serious problem! It really isn’t clear what’s to be done with you! What do you yourself suggest?’
The telephone rang in the kitchen.
‘Well, what are you standing there like a statue for? Go and pick it up,’ his wife commanded.
Yasha left the room.
‘Statistically, the weakest link in that round was Mikhail,’ a pleasant male voice filled the silence that had arisen, ‘he answered only one question. The strongest link was Arkady. He gave the greatest number of correct answers and banked money. However, we shall see…’
‘He has no business being here,’ whispered Klavdia Mikhailovna, nodding in the direction of the kitchen, ‘this isn’t the way these things are done at all – letting the deceased stay at home.’
‘Olga, why do you think it’s Mikhail that ought to go?’
‘Well, I don’t know, Mama…’
‘Well, Mikhail seems kind of overtired to me. I don’t kind of sense any potential in him somehow. With some of his answers to some of the questions he’s kind of bringing the good name of the team into disrepute, and he’s got no sense of its spirit…’
Yasha returned to the room, his face grey with worry.
‘Who was it?’ inquired his wife.
‘You are the weakest link. Goodbye!’
‘Turn that bitch off!’ said his mother-in-law in exasperation.
‘From work,’ Yasha replied quietly.
‘… but all the same, Olga really upset me, because I don’t know why she had to get personal and be so rude about me bringing the team’s name into disrepute and…’
Ira turned the volume down.
‘In any event, it’s no use our thinking about a funeral for at least a month now,’ said Yasha, not without malicious glee.
‘And why’s that?’ his mother-in-law narrowed her eyes.
‘Because I’ve been…
* * *
That ill-starred day when Yasha was hurrying to the doctor’s, he had submitted his article without reading it through. And so he had failed to notice a dreadful blunder he had committed in his haste. The section editor had failed to notice it as well; perhaps he had been late getting away somewhere too, or had been thinking of some matter of his own, or, most likely, had simply trusted Yasha and read his text inattentively. The publishing editor had failed to notice it too, because he trusted the section editor implicitly. To be fair, it should be added that Yasha’s blunder was noticed by the proofreader, yet he considered quite reasonably that it was nothing to do with him, because his business was spelling and punctuation marks. And Yasha had put all the punctuation marks in correctly. In short, the article went out quite happily in its original form. And the name of the investor (Spichkin was his name – but does that really matter very much?) who had recently undertaken to fund the magazine, and who had actually commissioned this very article, accidentally migrated from a list of oligarchs who meticulously paid their taxes into a list of inveterate tax-dodgers.
The denial that was published a day later looked pathetic and unconvincing.
Spichkin was upset. He called the financial director an idiot, the editor-in-chief a two-faced bastard, and Yasha a bloody Yid, and he left for Tibet to take his mind off it. But for some reason he became even more upset in Tibet, got depressed, came back a day later and stopped his funding. Fun Magazine closed down.
Not entirely, however. Once again the financial director briskly set about searching. At an emergency meeting of the editorial board it was decided to continue publishing FM for the time being in a heavily cut-down electronic version.
And after the meeting, Stay-home rang Yasha Hein at home and inquired irritably why he wasn’t at work. Yasha briefly explained the situation, apologised, and promised to bring his death certificate in to the personnel department in the very near future. Stay-home’s bewilderment was palpable. He paused for a while, breathing hard into the receiver, and was already on the point of saying goodbye, but then changed his mind and decided to say what he had phoned for after all. Clearing his throat well, he informed Yasha that, because of ‘the business with Spichkin’, he, Yasha, was, firstly, dismissed at his own request, and secondly, before leaving, had to work out a month’s notice in the office in accordance with his contractual obligations.
Yasha was silent. Stay-home waited, breathing hard, for a little longer, then sighed heavily and finally forced out of himself, half-questioningly:
‘But… in the light of your circumstances… your sad circumstances… you probably won’t be able…’
‘No, no, everything’s in order. I’ll work out my notice. Of course.’
Yasha was a responsible person and considered the fulfilment of contractual obligations to be his sacred duty.
‘Well then,’ Stay-home became perceptibly more animated, ‘if you really can?…’
‘Yes, I really can…’
‘All right. See you soon, then… er, er, er… and… please accept my condolences.’
* * *
The gaze is intelligent and stern. And a little tired as well – because of the dark rings under the eyes. The long, uncut, wavy hair is in some disorder, but the hairstyle doesn’t spoil the face at all, on the contrary, it lends it a certain charm, a sort of mysterious quality, perhaps. Or maybe it’s just that black-and-white photographs are always a little mysterious. It’s a good photograph. Big, glossy. But the wreath, on the other hand, is a cheap little one. Some revolting plastic daisies and bluebells…
Yasha was standing in the vestibule of the editorial offices and examining his own photograph, framed in black, with sorrow and pride. This must be the way an elderly father feasts his eyes on the photo of a son who has recently left for the front.
Since the previous day, an astonishing calm had set in in Yasha’s soul. Yes, in the evening, after his mother-in-law had gone home, after that awful discussion of the impending funeral, he had had another panic attack: and what if this isn’t a dream after all? But the attack was shorter than the previous ones, and this time Yasha didn’t even think of pinching his nose, biting his fingers, and banging his head against the wall in order to wake up. Instead he took some valerian drops, walked to and fro around the apartment, sat in front of the television and fell asleep.
Yasha was received well at work and he was very touched. Firstly, a fine obituary was put on the Fun Magazine website. Secondly, his colleagues greeted him cordially, despite the fact that, thanks to him, they found themselves once more ‘in a state of suspension’. They all expressed their sympathy – regarding both his dismissal and his sudden demise. The men shook Yasha’s cold hand warily, and with particular solicitude somehow, while the women offered him some handmade chocolates. Then everybody went off to the canteen (for some reason he wasn’t invited), and Yasha remained alone in the room. He turned the air-conditioning off. He used his mouse to prod at a small black rectangle with the inscription: ‘A special correspondent of the magazine dies [read more].’ He read it through once again.
Then he opened the news feed: it had been decided not to give him any more responsible tasks, and his duties in the coming month included the regular posting of fresh news on the FM website.
* * *
‘In Kamchatka the All-Russian Alpine Skiing competition “The Volcanoes of Kamchatka” is starting…’
‘In the Koryak Autonomous Area fifteen reindeer-herders are missing. The search for them goes on for a sixth day…’
‘In the capital of Indonesia an international forum on questions of infrastructure opens…’
‘In France a coach carrying Belgians has crashed…’
‘Federal benefit receivers want to receive benefits…’
‘In Novgorod the Great a memorial athletics meeting has taken place in memory of Marshal Meretskov…’
‘In Saransk the Russian Greco-Roman wrestling championships have come to an end…’
‘Madonna and Roger Waters have sung for victims of the tsunami…’
‘In Hong Kong there have been races for solar-powered cars…’
‘The corpses of the fighters in the ruined building may have been destroyed by fire…’
It had been for two weeks now that Yasha had been obediently appearing day after day in the offices of the closed Fun Magazine, delving into the news feeds, posting things on the website – but utterly mechanically, without any pleasure, ‘without zest’, as the editor-in-chief would sometimes say.
The news of this transient world no longer engaged him.
Over the past two weeks, an invisible slender crack between him and all other people had grown menacingly, it had turned into an insurmountable obstacle. Yasha had become absent-minded, and, coming in to work, he had forgotten to ask colleagues how things were, then had stopped offering his hand, and then completely stopped greeting people at all. His colleagues, in their turn, had been looking at him strangely somehow. Yasha remembered how, a year before, everyone had looked in exactly the same way at the secretary Olya, whose time had come to take maternity leave, but who had just kept on coming in with her huge belly, and it had already looked even indecent somehow… And every day, when meeting her, the staff had been more and more surprised, and had enquired ever more persistently after her health, and had looked almost censorious. She had been an irritation. You couldn’t smoke when she was there, she mustn’t be upset, but the main thing was, her time had come.
People stopped smoking in Yasha’s presence too, although he didn’t ask them to at all. And they spoke in muffled voices. And looked at him as if… as if his time had come too. His time had come.
Everything had changed at home as well. Without waiting for the conclusion of the red tape over the inheritance, his wife had organised refurbishment of the apartment so as, in her expression, ‘to freshen everything up’. There were newspapers spread out on the floor now, soiled with lime, glue, and God knows what else, there was the stench of dust and paint, and standing proudly in the middle of the living room was a battered stepladder. There too, next to the stepladder, stood the folding bed on which Yasha, banished from the conjugal bedroom, now slept. (‘You can go to prison in Russia for necrophilia, you know,’ Ira explained calmly, putting an old, striped mattress that bulged in places on the folding bed, ‘and apart from that, you’ve been snoring too loudly of late. At least I’ll get a good night’s sleep this way.’)
Running into one another in the kitchen in the mornings, Yasha and his widow experienced a certain awkwardness – and every time it seemed to Yasha that he was something along the lines of a house-sprite.
Then the gloomy, hung-over hulks of the decorating team would arrive. They felt no awkwardness, and simply paid Yasha no attention. They unceremoniously caught him with their elbows in passing. They drank vodka in front of him without embarrassment (when his wife was out, of course), and gloomily stole salami from the fridge. And didn’t speak to him as a matter of principle. With the exception of the one instance when the red-faced foreman Lyokha, breaking into a disarmingly genial smile – from which, in the course of the previous night, the two front teeth had disappeared – asked Yasha for ‘a loan’ of twenty roubles. But Lyokha the foreman had been in such a drunken state at that moment that he could quite easily have addressed the same request to a cupboard or, say, a light fitting.
‘They probably reckon my time’s come as well,’ Yasha thought in anguish, and didn’t give him the twenty roubles.
* * *
There was an interesting programme made by the BBC on the ‘Culture’ channel – American astronauts were talking about how they felt in a vacuum – and Yasha settled down to watch, although really it was time to go to work.
‘For the first two days you feel awful nauseous,’ a round, ruddy physiognomy, seemingly specially destined to be put into a spacesuit, reported joyfully, ‘because all the fluid in your organism is freed from the effects of the law of gravity and comes up; so we always have bags with us… But sometimes they don’t help,’ the physiognomy gave a vile smirk, ‘and then everything flies all over the place. And then it floats around the ship until the end of the flight, and you get to feel real awkward, well, you understand…’
‘An exercise room’s essential on the ship,’ declared a shaven-headed beanpole with unnaturally thin lips, ‘it’s real important in space to maintain your physical shape. Doing sport in conditions of weightlessness is much easier than on earth. There’s only one problem – sweat. Water behaves completely differently in space. It doesn’t flow down, but turns into these little balls, you know? And you’re sitting there, pedalling away on the exercise bike, and these little balls are crawling over your back, and at every abrupt movement they fly off in different directions…’
‘The closet.’ The first physiognomy occupied the entire screen once again. ‘I’d say the main problem for any astronaut is specifically the closet. In conditions of weightlessness it’s real hard…’
Yasha switched off the television, went into the corridor, put on his boots and started to cry.
Something had suddenly torn inside him. The continual hassle, the stress, the humiliation, the craziness of recent weeks, this awful inescapable dream (or was it a dream? – yes, of course it was), this refurbishment – up until now he had somehow endured it, with difficulty, and yet he had, but space… Beautiful, radiant space, without beginning or end, which had attracted him since childhood and was his most beautiful dream… Now he had been deprived of it. It’s nice rocking about in weightlessness with a book in your hand, floating here and there in the ship’s cabin and, finally, clinging to a porthole and spending a long time gazing at the distant Earth, at the fiery tails of comets rushing by… But no, of course not! Gripping a smelly paper bag in a trembling hand, dodging the little balls of sweat flying past, nausea, headache, a toilet with straps and a ventilator – that’s what there was there, in infinity!
It wasn’t that Yasha was intending to go into space – it’s obvious that he wasn’t intending to go there at all. Nevertheless, until now space had seemed to him something like a final opportunity, like an emergency exit in the very last resort. When there was nowhere else to go.
‘What a life,’ Yasha thought out loud, and went into the living room with his boots still on. He leant his head against the steamed-up window. ‘It’s time to go to work… What a life… What a stupid dream… But I suppose I can probably do the same as the one in that film, Groundhog Day, now,’ Yasha opened the window and clambered up onto the ledge, ‘what’s his name… it starts with an M…’
Yasha closed his eyes and jumped from the eleventh floor.
The morning street greeted him with its customary, deafening, grating sound. How many days was it now that there had been some mysterious work going on around the apartment block, either building work or repairs, and the whole building proved to be surrounded by a deep, man-made ditch, across which, here and there, rotten little wooden bridges had been thrown. A short distance away, the lightly frozen autumnal earth was bulging with formless brown heaps.
Yasha got to his feet and brushed off the yellow leaves that had stuck to his trousers. Balancing with his arms and looking straight ahead, he carefully crossed over a bridge. And only when he found himself on the other side did he look down squeamishly. In the bottom of the pit, some little Tadzhiks in orange uniforms were swarming about. In a cloud of steam and dazzling sparks, one was drilling into some rusty pipes that poked out of the ground like a fragment of the charred skeleton of some gigantic prehistoric animal. The others were unhurriedly digging.
Digging, digging the earth.
When he was already at the entrance to the Metro, Yasha suddenly decided that he wouldn’t go to work. Not today, not tomorrow, not ever.
He stood for a while.
Two frozen girls were frenziedly thrusting some bits of yellow paper into the hands of passers-by. A fat woman in a green beret was cheerfully selling sausage rolls. But for some reason there was the smell of rotten fish and seaweed, like after a storm at sea – even though there was no sea anywhere near the Metro. Perhaps it was from the upturned autumnal earth, from the holey sewage pipes that this distant smell came…
‘It’s time I went,’ Yasha thought, and drew the air in through his nose, ‘to the sea somewhere… travelling.’
* * *
And for long years he wandered over the earth. He lived in various countries and various cities, and hundreds of women shared their beds with him. With some he remained for a long time, and they aged and died beside him; while from others he parted, leaving it to them to age and die in solitude.
And different peoples gave him different names. Many, very many names did he change. And for so long did he wander that he could remember no more who he had been first, and who he had been afterwards, or whether he was alive or dead, or what held him so firmly on this tedious earth.
And so long did he wander that all the peoples aged and vanished from the face of the earth, and the cities turned into sand and stones. He saw the earth settled by astonishing new animals. And he himself remained the only human amongst them.
*This story is taken from: An Awkward Age by Anna Starobinets, Hesperus Press Limited, 2010. First published in Russian as Perekhodnyj vozrast © Limbus Press, St. Petersburg (Russia), 2005.
My son’s Tamagotchi had AIDS. The virtual pet was rendered on the little LCD screen with no more than 30 pixels, but the sickness was obvious. It had that AIDS look, you know? It was thinner than it had been. Some of its pixels were faded, and the pupils of its huge eyes were smaller, giving it an empty stare.
I had bought the Tamagotchi, named Meemoo, for Luke just a couple of weeks ago. He had really wanted a kitten, but Gabby did not want a cat in the house. ‘A cat will bring in dead birds and toxoplasmosis,’ she said, her fingers spread protectively over her bulging stomach.
A Tamagotchi had seemed like the perfect compromise– something for Luke to empathise with and to look after, to teach him the rudiments of petcare for a time after the baby had been born. Empathy is one of the things that the book said Luke would struggle with. He would have difficulty reading facial expressions. The Tamagotchi had only three different faces, so it would be good practice for him.
Together, Luke and I watched Meemoo curled in the corner of its screen. Sometimes, Meemoo would get up, limp to the opposite corner, and produce a pile of something. I don’t know what this something was, or which orifice it came from – the resolution was not good enough to tell.
‘You’re feeding it too much,’ I told Luke. He said that he wasn’t, but he’d been sitting on the sofa thumbing the buttons for hours at a time, so I’m sure he must have been.
There’s not much else to do with a Tamagotchi.
I read the instruction manual that came with Meemoo. Its needs were simple: food, water, sleep, play. Meemoo was supposed to give signals when it required one of these things. Luke’s job as Meemoo’s carer was to press the appropriate button at the appropriate time. The manual said that overfeeding, underfeeding, lack of exercise and unhappiness could all make a Tamagotchi sick. A little black skull and crossbones should appear on the screen when this happens, and by pressing button A twice, then B, one could administer medicine. The instructions said that sometimes it might take two or three shots of medicine, depending on how sick your Tamagotchi is.
I checked Meemoo’s screen again and there was no skull and crossbones.
The instructions said that if the Tamagotchi dies, you have to stick a pencil into the hole in its back to reset it. A new creature would then be born.
When Luke had finally gone to sleep and could not see me molesting his virtual pet, I found the hole in Meemoo’s back and jabbed a sharpened pencil into it. But when I turned it back over, Meemoo was still there, as sick as ever. I jabbed a few more times and tried it with a pin too, in case I wasn’t getting in deep enough. But it wouldn’t reset.
I wondered what happened if Meemoo died, now that its reset button didn’t work. Was there a malfunction that had robbed Luke’s Tamagotchi of its immortality? Did it have just one shot at life? I guess that made it a lot more special, and in a small way, it made me more determined to find a cure for Meemoo.
I plugged Meemoo into my PC – a new feature in this generation of Tamagotchis. I hoped that some kind of diagnostics wizard would pop up and sort it out.
A Tamagotchi screen blinked into life on my PC. There were many big-eyed mutant creatures jiggling for attention, including another Meemoo, looking like its picture on the box, before it got sick. One of the options on the screen was ‘sync your Tamagotchi’.
When I did this, Meemoo’s limited world of square grey pixels was transformed into a full colour three-dimensional animation on my screen. The blank room in which it lived was revealed as a conservatory filled with impossible plants growing under the pale-pink Tamagotchi sun. And in the middle of this world, lying on the carpet, was Meemoo.
It looked awful. In this fully realised version of the Tamagotchi’s room, Meemoo was a shrivelled thing. The skin on its feet was dry and peeling. Its eyes, once bright white with crisp highlights, were yellow and unreflective. There were scabs around the base of its nose. I wondered what kind of demented mind would create a child’s toy that was capable of reaching such abject deterioration.
I clicked through every button available until I found the medical kit. From this you could drag and drop pills onto the Tamagotchi. I guess Meemoo was supposed to eat or absorb these, but they just hovered in front of it, as if Meemoo was refusing to take its medicine.
I tried the same trick with Meemoo that I do with Luke to get him to take his medicine. I mixed it with food. I dragged a chicken drumstick from the food store and put it on top of the medicine, hoping that Meemoo would get up and eat them both. But it just lay there, looking at me, its mouth slightly open. Its look of sickness was so convincing that I could practically smell its foul breath coming from the screen.
I sent Meemoo’s makers a sarcastic email describing its condition and asking what needed to be done to restore its health.
A week later, I had received no reply and Meemoo was getting even worse. There were pale grey dots appearing on it. When I synced Meemoo to my computer, these dots were revealed as deep red sores. And the way the light from the Tamagotchi sun reflected off them, you could tell they were wet.
I went to a toyshop and showed them the Tamagotchi. ‘I’ve not seen one do that before,’ the girl behind the counter said. ‘Must be something the new ones do.’
I came home from work one day to find Luke had a friend over for a play-date. The friend was called Becky, and she had a Tamagotchi too. Gabby was trying to organise at least one play-date a week to help Luke socialise.
Becky’s Tamagotchi gave me an idea.
This generation of Tamagotchis had the ability to connect to other Tamagotchis. By getting your Tamagotchi within a metre of a friend’s, your virtual pets could play games or dance together. Maybe if I connected the two Tamagotchis, the medicine button in Becky’s would cure Meemoo.
At first, Luke violently resisted giving Meemoo to me, despite me saying I only wanted to help it. But when I bribed Luke and Becky with chocolate biscuits and a packet of crisps, they agreed to hand them over.
When Gabby came in from hanging up the washing, she was furious.
‘Why’d you give the kids crisps and chocolate?’ she said, slamming the empty basket on the ground. ‘I’m just about to give them dinner.’
‘Leave me alone for a sec,’ I said. I didn’t have time to explain. I had only a few minutes before the kids would demand their toys back, and I was having trouble getting the Tamagotchis to find each other – maybe Meemoo’s Bluetooth connection had been compromised by the virus.
Eventually though, when I put their connectors right next to each other, they made a synchronous pinging sound, and both characters appeared on both screens. It’s amazing how satisfying that was.
Meemoo looked sick on Becky’s screen too. I pressed A twice and then B to administer medicine. Nothing happened.
I tried again. But the Tamagotchis just stood there. One healthy, one sick. Doing nothing.
Luke and Becky came back, their fingers oily and their faces brown with chocolate. I told them to wipe their hands on their trousers before they played with their Tamagotchis. I was about to disconnect them from each other, but when they saw that they had each other’s characters on their screens, they got excited and sat at the kitchen table to play together.
I poured myself a beer, and for Gabby a half glass of wine (her daily limit), then, seeing the crisps out on the side, I helped myself to a bag.
Later, when my beer was finished and it was time for Becky’s mum to pick her up, Becky handed me her Tamagotchi.
‘Can you fix Weebee?’ she asked.
Becky’s pink Tamagotchi was already presenting the first symptoms of Meemoo’s disease: the thinning and greying of features, the stoop, the lethargy.
I heard Becky’s mum pull up in the car as I began to press the medicine buttons, knowing already that they would not work. ‘It just needs some rest,’ I said. ‘Leave it alone until tomorrow, and it should be okay.’
Luke had been invited to a birthday party. Usually Gabby would take Luke to parties, but she was feeling rough – she was having a particularly unpleasant first trimester this time. So she persuaded me to go, even though I hate kids’ parties.
I noticed that lots of other kids at the party had Tamagotchis fastened to the belt loops of their skirts and trousers. The kids would stop every few minutes during their games to lift up their Tamagotchis and check they were okay, occasionally pressing a button to satisfy one of their needs.
‘These Tamagotchis are insane, aren’t they?’ I remarked to another dad who was standing at the edge of the garden with his arms folded across his chest.
‘Yeah,’ he smiled.
‘My kid’s one got sick,’ I said. ‘One of its arms fell off this morning. Can you believe that?’
The dad turned to me, his face suddenly serious. ‘You’re not Luke’s dad, are you?’ he asked.
‘I am,’ I said.
‘I had to buy a new Tamagotchi thanks to you.’
I frowned and smirked, thinking that he couldn’t be serious, but my expression seemed to piss him off.
‘You had Becky Willis over at your house, didn’t you?’ he continued. ‘Her pet got Matty’s pet sick ‘cause she sits next to him in class. My boy’s pet died. I’ve half a mind to charge you for the new one.’
I stared right into his eyes, looking for an indication that he was joking, but there was none. ‘I don’t know what to say,’ I said. And truly, I didn’t. I thought he was crazy, especially the way he referred to the Tamagotchis as ‘pets’, like they were real pets, not just 30 pixels on an LCD screen with only a little more functionality than my alarm clock. ‘Maybe there was something else wrong with yours. Luke’s didn’t die.’
The other dad shook his head and blew out, and then turned sideways to look at me, making a crease in his fat neck. ‘You didn’t bring it here, did you?’ he said.
‘Well, Luke takes it everywhere with him,’ I said. ‘Jesus,’ he said, and then he literally ran across a game of Twister that some of the kids were playing to grab his son’s Tamagotchi and check that it was okay. He had an argument with his son as he detached it from the boy’s belt loop, saying he was going to put it in the car for safety. They were making so much noise that the mother of the kid having the birthday came over to calm them. The dad leaned in close to her to whisper, and she looked at the ground while he spoke ,then up at me, then at Luke.
She headed across the garden towards me.
‘Hi there. We’ve not met before,’ she said, offering her hand with a pretty smile. ‘I’m Lillian, Jake’s mum.’ We shook hands and I said that it was nice to meet her. ‘We’re just about to play pass the parcel,’ she said.
‘Yes, and I’m concerned about the other children catching…’ She opened her mouth, showing that her teeth were clenched together, and she nodded, hoping that I understood, that she wouldn’t need to suffer the embarrassment of spelling it out.
‘It’s just a toy,’ I said. ‘Still, I’d prefer…’
‘You make it sound like…’ ‘If you wouldn’t mind…’
I shook my head at the lunacy of the situation, but agreed to take care of it.
When I told Luke I had to take Meemoo away for a minute he went apeshit. He stamped and he made his hand into the shape of a claw and yelled, ‘Sky badger!’
When Luke does sky badger, anyone in a two-metre radius gets hurt. Sky badger is vicious. His sharp fingernails rake forearms. He goes for the eyes.
‘Okay okay,’ I said, backing away and putting my hands up defensively. ‘You can keep hold of Meemoo, but I’ll have to take you home then.’
Luke screwed up his nose and frowned so deeply that I could barely see his dark eyes.
‘You’ll miss out on the birthday cake,’ I added.
Luke relaxed his talons and handed Meemoo to me, making a growl as he did so. Meemoo was hot, and I wondered whether it was from Luke’s sweaty hands or if the Tamagotchi had a fever.
I held Luke’s hand and took him over to where the pass-the-parcel ring was being straightened out by some of the mums, stashing Meemoo out of sight in my pocket. I sat Luke down and explained to him what would happen and what he was expected to do. A skinny kid with two front teeth missing looked at me and Luke, wondering what our deal was.
I had to wait until Monday to check my e-mails at work. There was still nothing from the makers of Tamagotchi. At lunch, while I splashed Bolognese sauce over my keyboard, I Googled ‘Tamagotchi’ along with every synonym for ‘virus’. I could find nothing other than the standard instructions to give it medicine when the skull and crossbones appeared.
Half way through the afternoon, while I was in my penultimate meeting of the day, a tannoy announcement asked me to call reception. When a tannoy goes out, everyone knows it’s an emergency, and when it’s for me, everyone knows it’s something to do with Luke. I stepped out of the meeting room and ran back to my desk, trying hard not to look at all the heads turning towards me.
Gabby was on hold. When reception put her through, she was crying. Luke had had one of his fits. A short one this time, for him, just eight minutes, but since he’d come round, the right side of his body was paralysed. This was something new. It terrified me that his fits were changing, that they might be developing in some way. I told Gabby to stay calm and that I would leave right away.
When I got home, the ambulance was still parked outside, but the crew were packing away their kit. ‘He’s okay,’ one of the ambulance men said as I ran up the drive.
Luke’s paralysis had lasted 15 minutes after the seizure had finished, but now he was moving normally again, except for a limpness at the edge of his mouth that made him slur his words. The ambulance man said this happens sometimes, so we needn’t worry.
I hugged Luke, burying my lips into his thick hair and kissing the side of his head, wishing that we lived in a world where kisses could fix brains. I stroked his back, hoping that maybe I would find a little reset button there, sunk into a hole, something I could prod that would let us start over, that would wipe all the scribbles from the slate and leave it blank again.
Gabby was sitting on the edge of the armchair holding her stomach.
‘Are you okay?’ I asked.
She nodded, taking a tissue from the sleeve of her cardigan and wiping her nose. Gabby’s biggest fear was that Luke’s problems weren’t just a part of him, but part of the factory that had made him – what if every kid we produced together had the same design fault?
The doctors had all said that the chances of it happening twice were tiny, but I don’t think we’d ever be able to fully relax. I knew that long after our second kid was born, we’d both be looking out for the diagnostic signs that had seemed so innocuous at first with Luke.
A letter came home from school banning Tamagotchis. Another three kids’ Tamagotchis had died and could not be resurrected.
‘People are blanking me when I drop Luke off in the morning,’ Gabby said. She was rubbing her fingers into her temples.
The situation had gone too far. Meemoo would have to go.
When I went to tell Luke that he’d have to say goodbye to Meemoo, he was sitting on the edge of the sand pit injecting the sand with a yellow straw.
‘No!’ he barked at me, and made that frown-face of his. He gripped Meemoo in his fist and folded his arms across his chest.
Gabby came outside with her book. ‘Help me out will you?’ I asked.
‘You can handle this for a change,’ she said.
I tried bribing Luke with a biscuit, but he just got angrier. I tried lying to him, saying that I needed to take Meemoo to hospital to make him better, but I had lost his trust. Eventually, I had only one option left. I told Luke that he had to tidy up his toys in the garden or I’d have to confiscate Meemoo for two whole days. I knew that Luke would never clean up his toys. The bit of his brain in charge of tidying up must have been within the damaged area. But I went through the drama of asking him a few times, and, as he got more irate, stamping and kicking things, I began to count.
‘Don’t count!’ he said, knowing the finality of a countdown.
‘Come on,’ I said. ‘You’ve got four seconds left. Just pick up your toys and you can keep Meemoo.’
If he’d actually picked up his toys then, it would have been such a miracle that I would have let him keep Meemoo, AIDS and all.
‘Stop counting!’ Luke screamed, and then the dreaded, ‘Sky badger!’
Luke’s fingers curled into that familiar and frightening shape and he came after me. I skipped away from him, tripping over a bucket.
‘One and a half….one…come on, you’ve only got half a second left.’ A part of me must have been enjoying this, because I was giggling.
‘Stop it,’ Gabby said. ‘You’re being cruel.’
‘He’s got to learn,’ I said. ‘Come on Luke, you’ve only got a fraction of a second left. Start picking up your toys now and you can keep Meemoo.’
Luke roared and swung sky badger at me, at my arms, at my face. I grabbed him round the waist and turned him so that his back was towards me. Sky badger sunk his claws into my knuckles while I wrestled Meemoo out of his other hand.
By the time I’d got Meemoo away, there were three crescent-shaped gouges out of my knuckles, and they were stinging like crazy.
‘I HATE YOU!’ Luke screamed, crying. He stormed inside and slammed the door behind him.
‘You deserved that,’ Gabby said, looking over the top of her sunglasses.
I couldn’t just throw Meemoo away. Luke would never forgive me for that. It might become one of those formative moments, something that would forever warp him and give him all kinds of trust issues in later life. Instead, I planned to euthanize Meemoo.
If I locked Meemoo in the medicine cabinet, taking away the things that were helping it survive: food, play, petting and the toilet, the AIDS would get stronger as it got weaker and surrounded by more of its effluence. The AIDS would win. And when Meemoo was dead, it would either reset itself as a healthy Tamagotchi, or it would die. If it was healthy, Luke could have it back; if it died, then Luke would learn a valuable lesson about mortality and I would buy him a new one to cheer him up.
It was tempting while Meemoo was in the cabinet to sneak a peek, to watch for its final moments, but the Tamagotchi had sensors that picked up movement. It might interpret my attention as caring, and gain some extra power to resist the virus destroying it. No, I had to leave it alone, despite the temptation.
Meemoo’s presence inside the medicine cabinet seemed to transform the cabinet’s outward appearance. It went from being an ordinary medicine cabinet to being something else, something… other.
After two whole days, I could resist no longer. I was certain that Meemoo must have perished by now. Luke was insistent about being there when I opened up the cabinet, and I did not have the strength for an argument.
‘Okay,’ I said. ‘But have you learned your lesson about tidying up?’
‘Give it back,’ he said, pouting.
I opened the cupboard and took out the Tamagotchi. Meemo was alive.
It had now lost three of its limbs, having just one arm left, which was stretched out under its head. One of its eyes had closed up to a small unseeing dot. Its pixellated circumference was broken in places, wide open pores through which invisible things must surely be entering and escaping.
‘This is ridiculous,’ I said. ‘Luke, I’m sorry, but we’re going to have to throw him away.’
Luke snatched the Tamagotchi from me and ran to Gabby, screaming. He was shaking, his face red and sweaty.
‘What have you done now?’ Gabby scowled at me.
I held my forehead with both hands. ‘I give up,’ I said, and stomped upstairs to the bedroom.
I put on the TV and watched a cookery show. There was something soothing in the way the chef was searing the tuna in the pan that let my heartbeats soften by degrees.
Gabby called me from downstairs. ‘Can you come and get Luke in? Dinner’s almost ready.’
I let my feet slip over the edge of each step, enjoying the pressure against the soles of my feet. I went outside in my socks. Luke was burying a football in the sandpit.
‘Time to come in little man,’ I said. ‘Dinner’s ready.’ He ignored me.
‘Come in Luke,’ Gabby called through the open window, and at the sound of his mum’s voice, Luke got up, brushed the sand from his jeans, and went inside, giving me a wide berth as he ran past.
A drop of rain hit the tip of my nose. The clouds above were low and heavy. The ragged kind that can take days to drain. As I turned to go inside, I noticed that Luke had left Meemoo on the edge of the sandpit. I started to reach down for it, but then stopped, stood up, and went inside, closing the door behind me.
After dinner, it was Gabby’s turn to take Luke to bed. I made tea and leaned over the back of the sofa, resting my cup and my elbows on the windowsill and inhaling the hot steam. Outside, the rain was pounding the grass, making craters in the sandpit, and bouncing off of the Tamagotchi. I thought how ridiculous it was that I was feeling guilty, but out of some strange duty I continued to watch it, until the rain had washed all the light out of the sky.
Citizen Jabir Sabeel awoke to the alarm of his Nokia mobile phone at exactly 6:05. He tried, like every morning, to cover his face with a pillow, but he felt an awful weakness. He could not move. The ringing of the alarm hammered and hammered louder and louder in his head. Eventually, he decided to reach over to the bedside table and silence the alarm; then he would give his heartbeat a few minutes to settle down before getting up. But he felt debilitated again. He had no sensation in his hand, in both hands, in his head, his legs, his whole body.
Citizen Jabir Sabeel had a shocking realization: he had turned into something else. He was no longer the person who had fallen asleep late the previous night, physically exhausted after a long evening at work. As he mentally gauged his rigidity, he became certain that he had metamorphosized into something metallic. Something stiff and hard lay in his place on the bed.
Citizen Jabir Sabeel spent some considerable time trying to get used to the hard, stiff body that had replaced his body of flesh. He then became aware of the voices of children racing through the streets on their way to school and the shouts of the sellers of vegetables, household items, and milk calling out their cheap goods. He had a strange feeling that the sunlight had started to seep into the room through a crack in the ceiling. In a panic, he remembered that he was very late for work at the government office and that a deduction from his wages and a rebuke from his stern boss awaited him. He made an effort to stand up quickly, but his heavy metal body failed him and pulled him back to the bed. In a panic, he thought, “I’m made of iron. I’ve turned into iron.”
Citizen Jabir Sabeel managed, after furious efforts, to fall out of the bed. In fact, he flung his whole new iron body onto the concrete floor. With the loud clang he made, he discovered that he had the equivalent of two long thin legs. He somehow willed himself to prop himself upon them, and he tottered over to the full-length mirror set in the middle of his wardrobe. He discovered something else: he had what appeared to be a single, seeing eye. Its sight was powerful and it led him with great accuracy towards the wardrobe.
He stopped for a few moments before lifting up his thin iron legs and positioning himself in front of the mirror. As he looked at the reflection of his new iron self, Citizen Jabir Sabeel could not stop himself crying out in a strange voice of shock and fright that made him spin around like crazy. Bullets sprayed from a tube sticking out of his front and lodged in the walls and furniture as they flew all over the place.
Jabir Sabeel was devastated to see that his new body had turned into a machine that looked like a cross between a DShK machinegun and a four-barrelled howitzer. Its sights were telescopic, like a deadly eye; its muzzle blazed like Hell; its two sturdy supports seemed to have been made to bear death. His sense of devastation worsened when he sensed the deadly bullets continue to fly out of his blazing body in every direction. His body jumped around erratically and led him into the street, leaving a trail of death and destruction all around.
On Thursday Anna found out that she was pregnant. When she came home from work, she didn’t start dinner but instead sat at the tiny kitchen table, put her gaunt hands on the new oilcloth, and stared at them in a stupor.
Nikolai came home as usual at 9 p.m.
Anna heard him taking off his coat in the narrow, over-furnished hallway. Then she walked up to him, threw her arms around his neck, greasy with ground-in diesel fuel, and held him tightly.
“Kolya, I can’t go on anymore. We have to do it.”
Nikolai sighed and delicately brushed his lips against her pale, thin hair.
“Everything will be fine. Don’t be scared.”
Her arms, like two pale snakes, crawled along her husband’s bony shoulders.
“Why are you trying to calm me down? Did you read yesterday’s ‘Truth’?”
“Of course I did.”
“So what are you waiting for? For them to come for us? Or denounce us as ‘spitters against the wind’?”
“Of course not. I’m just thinking.”
Anna turned away from him.
“You’re thinking… meanwhile He is still on the windowsill. Everyone sees Him.”
“Don’t worry. We’ll do it today. For sure.”
Twilight flattened the city into an uneven multicolored plane of flames that held up a strip of evening sky. The sky, squeezed in between the city and the paint-chipped window frame, quickly grew dark, filling up with acrid fog. The darker it became, the sharper and clearer His profile stood out against the gloomy plane of the city.
Nikolai had noticed before that His knobby, pale rose flesh seemed to light up against the background of the deepening darkness.
Twelve years ago, a tiny rose-colored tuber pushed its way up through the black earth that was packed into a silver flower pot shaped like an enormous wine glass, and Nikolai had been amazed at how quickly it brightened when twilight fell.
That evening the family had been celebrating the Day of the First Sprouting. They’d had to move a chest of drawers to seat everyone around the table. Nikolai remembered turning out the lights, listening to the Anthem and his now deceased father giving the Main Toast. He remembered how they drank wine and took turns shaking drops of wine from the glasses onto the unctuous black fertilized earth.
“Grow for our happiness o’er the centuries! Grow for the death of all our enemies!” Father proclaimed as he turned over his glass third, after the two fat representatives of the DSP (Directorate of Selectional Propaganda) and then quickly leaned over to kiss the tuber…
In three years, He grew by 13 centimeters, and Nikolai could make out the outline of the Leader in the knotty body, which was like an elongated potato. One morning he told his mother. She laughed and pushed Nikolai onto the bed.
“You silly boy! Did you think we didn’t notice?”
And then she added mysteriously, “Soon you won’t believe your eyes!”
And indeed, a year hadn’t gone by before the top part of what seemed at first glance to be a shapeless tuber became round, the lower part widened, and two protuberances pushed out on either side and slanted downward.
Then Father gathered the guests together again, cut his right hand, rubbed his blood into the top of the tuber and announced the Day of Formation.
Over the next two years the tuber grew another 10 centimeters, the rosy head became even rounder, a thick neck took shape, the shoulders became broader and a belly stuck out over the knobby waist.
“It’s the miracle of selection, son!” his father exclaimed, fiddling with his prematurely gray beard. “Only our miracle-working people could have invented it! Just imagine – a living Father of the Great Country! On the windowsill of every family, in every home, in every corner of our boundless state!”
Soon a meaty nose pushed out of the round head, then two swellings indicated eyebrows, a chin jutted forward, and ears appeared. His body, which was in the potting soil up to His waist, broadened and strengthened. A few pockmarks and warts gradually disappeared, and the knobbiness smoothed out.
After another year, lips appeared on the rosy face, brows majestically furrowed and pushed the bridge of his nose in, and his forehead became domed. A ridge with a short tuft of hair appeared at the top of His forehead. His neck was tightly encased in the collar of His field jacket, and his belly was even more solidly rooted in the earth.
Nikolai had already graduated from school when dimples appeared on the Leader’s cheeks, ear cavities were carved out and slight folds appeared in the tightly fitted jacket.
Two years later Nikolai’s father died.
And a year later they celebrated the Day of Enlightenment —two dark little beads pushed up the puffy eyelids. Nikolai had to lead the celebration. He powdered his face and sang the Anthem to the gathered guests. His mother poured a cup of family spit they’d saved up into the pot of the Leader. From that day on they only fed Him spit. And every twelfth day Nikolai gave Him his sperm.
When little bands of military ribbons appeared on His jacked and the end of a pen peeped out of His pocket, it was the Day of Complete Growth. They celebrated it without Nikolai’s mother.
Soon Nikolai married Anna and went to work at the factory.
From her first day in the house, Anna tended Him with great care. Every morning she wiped off the dust, watered the tuber with spit, raked the black soil and polished the silver flower pot until it shone.
And so it went for almost two years.
But on the twelfth June morning terrible news spread across the Land: The Great Leader had died.
No one worked for two weeks — everyone stayed home in a state of shock. At the end of two weeks, after the deceased had been buried, the new Leader ceremonially accepted the Helm. Unlike his predecessor, the new One was tall and thin. He gave speeches, wrote addresses, and spoke to the people. But none of his speeches so much as mentioned the previous Leader who had been at the Helm for 47 years. That frightened people. Some people lost their minds; others jumped out their windows holding on to their potted tubers.
After a month, the new Leader gave an address to the nation in which he mentioned “the former One at the Helm, made former due to necessary but sufficient reasons.”
No matter how Nikolai and Anna struggled to grasp the hidden meaning of those words, it eluded them. The people understood it in two ways and immediately paid for both: people who took their tubers off the windowsills were immediately arrested and people who left them on the sills received a warning. For some reason they forgot about Nikolai and Anna – they weren’t sent the red postcard with a warning and the image of a person spitting against the wind. But that didn’t make the couple happy; it upset them.
A month and a half went by in this information vacuum and tension. Their neighbors continued to be arrested and warned. Soon a directive was issued banning suicide. And the suicides stopped…
Nikolai didn’t notice Anna walking up behind him. Her hands touched his shoulders.
“Are you afraid, Kolya?”
Nikolai turned around. “What have we got to be afraid of? We have the right. We’re good people.”
“We’re good people, Kolya. Are we going to begin?”
Nikolai nodded. Anna turned out the light.
Nikolai got a knife and poked at the tuber to find the waist, and then, after he steadied the shaking of his wiry hands, he made a slit along the waist. His body turned out to be harder than a potato. The tuber weakly cracked under the knife. When Nikolai cut Him, Anna grabbed Him and delicately carried Him in the dark, like a child, to the table. Nikolai got out an eight-liter glass jar with a wide mouth. Anna lit the stove, filled a bucket with water, and put it on to heat.
They sat in the darkness, only illuminated by the weak gas flame, and stared at Him lying there. Both Nikolai and Anna thought that He moved. When the water came to a boil, Anna put it on the balcony to cool, poured it into the jar, added salt, vinegar, bay leaves and cloves. Then they carefully slipped Him into the jar. As He displaced the steaming water, He bobbed as if He wanted to crawl out of the jar. But Nikolai pushed down his head with the metal lid, grabbed the sealer and began to quickly and deftly tighten the lid.
When it was all done, the couple picked up the jar and carefully lifted it up onto the windowsill in the same place. Anna carefully wiped the warm jar with a towel. After a moment of hesitation, Nikolai turned on the light. The jar stood on the sill, its glass sides shining. His bobbing in the water, surrounded by a few bay leaves, was barely noticeable.
“Beautiful,” Anna said after a long pause.
“Yes,” Nikolai sighed.
He embraced his wife and lightly placed his hand on her belly. Anna smiled and covered his hand with her wan hands.
The next morning Anna got up as usual, a half-hour before her husband, and went into the kitchen, turned on the stove and put the kettle on. After that she would usually water Him with the spit that they had saved up over the day. Sleepily scratching herself, Anna automatically reached for the spit cup standing on the shelf and froze: the cup was empty. Anna glanced over at the windowsill and saw the jar with the tuber. She breathed out in relief as she remembered the procedure they’d done the night before. She walked over and put her hand on the jar. She looked out the window. The city was waking up and lights were going on in the windows. But something had changed in the city. Changed significantly. Anna rubbed her eyes as she looked: On the windowsills the silver and gold flowerpots that she was used to seeing since childhood were gone and in their place were glass jars with rose tubers.
I’d only been married six years when I started feeling tired and out of breath, especially when I was going up stairs. At first I thought it was a passing problem that would just go away. But it didn’t go away. In fact, it got worse. After doing all sorts of tests, I was told my heart muscle was weak, and that I’d have to get a new one, or else…!
There was a serious decline in my performance of important duties, the most serious of them being my marital ones.
Even the kids’ loving mother got in the act. “Get a heart transplant,” she said ominously, “or else…!”
I waited for the operation for over two years, during which time my condition got worse. Then somehow or other I got the message that I’d have to bribe the hospital officials if I wanted them to expedite a new heart for me, or else…!
I decided as a matter of principle that I wouldn’t try to bribe anybody, even if I croaked on account of it. It was my right to get the spare part my body needed by honorable means, and I was damn well going to hold onto it! So, things got complicated, and it looked as though it was going to be nearly impossible to get what I wanted.
Around that time, my dad discovered he had a relative who’d been buffeted about by one storm wind after another since the first Palestinian Nakba 1 until he’d finally washed up on the shores of Denmark.
My dad sold the last piece of land we owned. Then, with the money from the sale plus donations from good-hearted folks, I took off for Denmark to see his relative, and my wish came true faster than I would ever have expected. Somebody crashed his car into a snowplow and his brain stopped sending and receiving signals, so they removed his good heart and transplanted it into me, in place of my lousy one.
While I was in the hospital, I received a visit from the girlfriend of the heart’s original owner, whose name was Felix. She figured that from now on she had a share in my body, so she started hugging and kissing me, and I returned the sentiments quite enthusiastically.
From the time Felix’s heart was planted in my chest, I lost control over my feelings, which started overflowing every which way. I noticed that unlike before, I’d started falling with the greatest of ease into love’s snares and temptations. When I remembered my sickly, dried-up old heart, I’d think ruefully, “Damn you! You stood between me and happiness!”
As long as I live, I’ll never forget the favor that Dane did me. After I left Denmark, his girlfriend went on emailing me. She’d ask me how her boyfriend’s heart was doing, saying, “I hope you won’t be too hard on it, Abdul!” She’d send him a birthday card every year, and on the anniversary of their first physical intimacy, she wrote, “This was the night when we first made love, Babe, and we were happy even in a snow drift!” As weird as it sounds, when I read her letters, “his” heart would start racing and nearly leap out of my chest. It was like having an island with self-rule inside my body!
I started liking Danish canned meat and fish, as well as Danish dairy products. It wouldn’t even have occurred to me to crave things like that in the days of the old heart, and now I was addicted to them! But the real turnaround involved football matches. After siding automatically with teams from Third World countries like Cameroon, Iran and Egypt, I found myself rooting with a vengeance for the Danish team. This irritated friends and relatives, who viewed it as a step backwards ethically speaking, and as a sign of hostility towards liberation movements. As such, it was clear evidence that I was biased toward the European Union, with its wishy-washy position on our cause. Not only that, but if I saw a bottle of vodka on some store shelf with a picture of a couple of stags on its label, my mouth would water as though I knew what it tasted like. But for the grace of God, I would have gotten hooked on the stuff!
My fellow countrymen, pessimistic as usual, expected me to kick the bucket right away. They’d say naïve things like, “That Scandinavian heart won’t work in Abdullah’s body. After all, he’s an Arab!” I found out that a poet friend of mine had started composing an elegy for me so that my death wouldn’t take him by surprise. He also wanted to make sure it was worded just right when he delivered it at the memorial service he was going to organize for the express purpose of having a chance to read the poem. But I disappointed the poet and my esteemed compatriots. In fact, I started attending their funerals one after another, and earning a heavenly reward for each one. I’d often hear somebody say with my own ears, “We expected this to happen to Abdullah, not to so-and-so.”
To spite these folks who’d expected my rapid demise, I went to a big-time insurance company and took out a policy on my heart. In fact, I insured every one of my body parts. In the process, I learned that insurance companies hold Scandinavian hearts in high regard, and that they’re prepared to insure them for five years renewable provided that you get them retested. By contrast, they refuse to insure Taiwanese or African hearts despite the fact that studies have shown African hearts to be of high quality even though they’re cheap.
News got out to the effect that secret negotiations had taken place between the African Union and the German conglomerate Siemens, which had plans to establish a monopoly over African hearts given their low prices, and then use them in heart transplants for Europeans and Americans.
I started grooving to Danish music, which I hadn’t been able to stand before that, and I got all excited about hearing the Danes compete in the Eurovision song contest. Then one day, and without any prior planning, I walked into the Danish Embassy and started shouting like a madman at the top of my lungs, “Birruh biddam nafdik ya Andersen! (We’d give our heart and soul for you, Andersen!)” It turns out that this Andersen guy was a candidate at the time for the position of Speaker of the Danish Parliament. In any case, I didn’t snap out of it until the embassy guard, thinking I was getting ready to commit a terrorist act, intervened. I was insulted and slapped around, and a file was opened on me, and the only reason I ended up being released was Felix’s heart. The Danish Ambassador in Tel Aviv put in a good word for me and gave me a warm hug. And once he understood what had motivated me, he kissed me right on the scar from my heart transplant.
But on my way home I got into a horrible crash that put me in a coma for two weeks. The accident smashed me to smithereens and nearly every part of my body, even the family jewels, went out of commission. The insurance company went to work without delay, and started sending me to all sorts of places for treatment. My first stop was the United States, where I got a basketball player’s legs, and left nine centimeters taller. From there I hobbled to the UK, where I got myself a pair of arms that were in good shape apart from the fact that the left one had a naked girl tattooed on it. I also got a pair of kidneys of Indian origin. The family jewels came from a Dutch guy who’d given them up to join the female camp. The tongue had been pulled out of a French hooker’s mouth, and I was supplied with magnificent amber eyes that had belonged to a Samba dancer in Brazil. So, I went back to the way I had been, or maybe even better than before.
The only problem I hadn’t anticipated was that I started being slow to respond when my name was called. I noticed a lot of people complaining, saying, “Why don’t you answer? Don’t you hear us calling you!?” When I heard the name Abdullah, I’d start looking around, thinking Abdullah was somebody else! After some consultation, my friends and loved ones made a decision: The only solution was for them to start calling me Abdu Felix. Then I’d know who they were talking to! And sure enough, my heart would leap when I heard this name, and I’d snap to attention right away.
Over a period of months, people got used to the new me. Even my mom and dad, who put up fierce resistance at first, had to resign themselves to the status quo in the end and started calling me by the new name: Abdu Felix. When my dad uttered it for the first time, we locked glances, my Brazilian eyes fixed on his misty Arab ones, and there was a sad quiver in his voice. As he listened to my French way of pronouncing things, he trembled as though he were grasping hot coals until I thought he was going to throw up. I knew then that he realized I wasn’t the same old Abdullah, the son he’d always known, the fruit of his loins. And every now and then I’ll hear him ranting, “Abd Felix, Felix … Felix Abdu, Felix Felix!”
*Published in al-Quds al-Arabi and Kull al-Arab newspapers.
I made a request of no crying, for I had the grand task of handling the cat.
No crying, I said. Do whatever it takes to wait until I’ve gone.
He agreed to blame his contact lenses and to leave once I’d passed through security, but not before. Just in case the cat didn’t fly.
This cat can fly, I said. He will.
Like a superhero, he said. The sort of comment I could count on him for.
I said “this cat” to avoid saying “our” or “my.” That dog looks concerned. I had said this earlier as I stacked my bags by the door of that home. Don’t forget to water that plant.
This street is still asleep.
These neighbors haven’t woken yet, he said.
I looked at him and snort-laughed, swallowed stones. The cat curled drugged and dense inside the fabric carrier. I sought to bring him on the plane surreptitiously, to avoid explaining the fact of him. It could lead to talk of my oneway ticket. It costs eighty dollars each way to carry him aboard. Someone might say that up and back costs a pretty penny, and then what? I’d have to correct them. No no, just up. Then the panic might set in.
I was ready when the wide-belted woman by the metal walkthrough hollered that I must remove the animal from the carrier and walk him through. I had thought ahead and worn white because I knew I’d have to hold the great fluff to my chest. I unzipped the bag and glanced over to my husband, who fooled with his contacts on the other side of the security lines, rubbing and blinking his eyes. I looked forward to pressing the soft whiteness to my chest. I planned to push him hard into my solar plexus to keep that hot swell down.
I pulled him out of the bag. It was snug on him. It was as if he wore the bag more than the bag held him. For a week I’d take a measuring tape to his hugeness as he slept, willed him to lose some length, some girth. He was supposed to be able to stand up and move around in there, but come on, what good’s a cat so small he can turn around in 16x9x10? Besides, I knew his ways and his ways were not that active, so I bought the bag and told him to hunker down for a few hours. Catch some Z’s, I said.
I clutched him into my chest. I thought of ten years earlier when we found him in the basement of a highrise in which our friends lived—our friends who were a “one-cat couple,” they said, when they were still a couple—and whose one cat used the toilet and fetched the paper from the hallway, no lie. I thought these friends were the sort to look up to. I had slipped the gray kitten inside my coat and we walked the ten blocks home and thought of names for it. My husband suggested Concrete or Slate, but after we washed him we started to lean more toward the clean and banal, like Cotton or Snow. I pressed my face down into the cat’s nape when I thought of this time, and when I thought of the name on which we had finally settled—the name of the month in which we had met; the month in which we had married. That cat was like a calendar. Friends teased us by mixing it up, calling him January, September, ridiculous months like July.
The detector buzzed when we crossed under. The wide- belted woman ran a wand over me—my front, my back—and then over the cat—his collar, my left hand holding the softness under his arms, where my ring shone through his downy fur. I knew it was his ID tag that did it, but how appropriate, I thought, if the ring had sounded an alarm.
All right, she said. Let’s see him in action.
Did she want him to dance? I bounced him and then stopped. He’s not a big performer, I said.
Put him in the carrier, please.
It’s regulation, I said, leaning over and using the cat’s paw to point to the tag that said, Compliant with Aviation Standards.
I’m checking the fit, Ma’am. Place the animal inside the case.
I looked over toward where my husband stood, but couldn’t see his face through the people in line. I caught sight of a bit of his shoulder, though, and wanted desperately to tap it, say, What of the fit? How many points off for an ill fit? He’d know. It’s the sort of thing I could always count on him for.
Ma’am, she said. Place the animal inside.
I held the bag beneath the cat’s rear; his rear that slung like a potato sack due to the sedative. Why was I here? Why was I taking our cat?—my cat, that cat? Why had we decided this was the way? Every morning the cat waited to eat until the dog was ready. Who would he wait for now? We had no children, we had decided, so now’s the time to separate, reassess our situation for a year or so.
If ever there’s a time.
It was the or so that killed me. It woke me at night. Me and that cat, shoving his nose into my eye telling me to wake up already.
The cat’s arms stuck straight out as I slipped the bag over his enormity. I tucked his paws inside, zipped the front. I shook the bag as if he might settle into some mysterious crevice, make some room for him in there.
Nuh-uh, the wide-belted woman said. She shook her head. Her eyes wide like saucers.
He likes to be contained, I said, and pushed the palms of my hands together to show what? To show, held together. To show, held.
Nuh-uh, she said again.
To show, Please.
I felt a thumping in my chest. I looked over to my husband, who had committed to the parting, who said the pain of the very moment of leaving would subside, yet the continuation of stagnation would last forever.
I had asked him if he might graph that for me.
Now I saw him rubbing his nose as if it had wronged him.
You got someone who can take this cat?
What? I asked.
You got someone—
I can take him, I said. This cat can fly. Like a superhero, I added.
This cat can’t fly, she said. This cat too huge—
He likes to be contained, I said.
This cat too huge to fly. She shook her head, reached for the cat that slept so unaware inside his carrier. You got someone—
I got someone, I said. I do, but when I looked he seemed so far away I said, He’ll never reach! And what I meant was that his body—so hunkered now and shaking—it could never reach out and grab the cat that couldn’t fly. Not unless I threw the cat, or left the line and started over. Not unless I missed my flight and stayed instead within stagnation. We’re young, we said. We have no children. Now’s the time.
Now’s the time, I said to her. The cat is fine. He likes to be contained.
He ain’t happy in there, she said.
What’s happy? I said. Nothing’s happy. Nothing’s more or less OK with what they’ve got, and what we’ve got is quite OK. It’s really very much OK.
OK ain’t compliant, she said.
She grabbed the handles of the carrier, started to lift him somewhere different.
You’ll see it when you return, she said.
It’s a one-way! I said, maybe shouted, waved my boarding pass.
Ma’am, this is not the place to lose it. She held the cat up, away from me and headed for the place where confiscated items went.
I looked toward my husband. I caught a wisp of hair and what seemed to be his hand upon it. Is OK fine? I wanted to ask. Is OK perhaps the final goal? Where might familiar factor in? Where might: we like the same ice cream. Where might:
I know you.
I grabbed at him, the cat inside the carrier. I grabbed at him and said, Don’t take him from me!
Ma’am! she said with some conviction, although she looked away from me, toward another, who locked me then within his eyes as he walked forward. Is there a situation here?
Yes, I thought. No, I said. My husband by now had noticed the hold-up and had maneuvered himself into a position of receiving the cat over the black zip-line. I saw this in slow motion and something burst behind my rib cage; as it did my body filled with dense, hot liquid that added weight, that gave me a gelatinous pull upon the earth. I felt too heavy to move toward gate 34, let alone to lift up off the ground and fly to the place I had previously thought of as home, where my new life—temporal, or so—awaited my landing.
Hands guided me away from the security line and I heard myself tell the wide-belted woman of the cat hole my mother had so kindly cut into her basement door, and now for what? I looked back at my husband, saw the weight in the bag tipped him to the left. His eyes looked very sorry. He stretched open the palm of his free hand to show, what? To show he had nothing. I envied that cat. I, too, felt too huge to fly. I wanted to be contained. Just reach for me. Grab for me over the zip-line.
When we planned the wedding nearly a decade before, I had argued with the caterer because he insisted we provide more main dish choices than we had wanted to.
We’re not looking to feed these people for the entire weekend, I had said. We’re young and can’t afford it. I looked at the man who would soon be my husband, and he agreed, although he did so non-committed-like, with a nod and shrug of his shoulders. Who are you people? I thought then of men.
Perhaps you should wait until you’re older, the caterer suggested, until you can do it correctly.
I felt defiance well up within me. Had I not been doing it for love I would have married out of spite at that moment; but later I remember waking at night and thinking of it, only in my half-sleep state I heard the caterer grumble that it’s a long life—not a long reception—and people get hungry.
Perhaps you should wait until you’re older then. Until you can do it correctly.
My husband had turned away by now. He walked with that cat slung in that bag toward the exit door of the airport. We’re still young, I thought, as I saw the lovely leanness of my husband’s waist, as I slid my own weighted legs over the slick terrazzo, toward gate 34.
There once had been a superhero doll weighted just like this, his rubber arms filled with a gelatinous goo that stretched when you pulled and reformed when you let go. If you pierced the skin with scissors it would leak. What was he called, that heavy, stretchy superhero? He wasn’t the caped sort—he was earth-bound and tortured. He did good things reluctantly, not due to bravery. It hurt his body to do what needed to be done. It ripped his clothes and made him feel very much alone. What was he called?
He would know the answer, I thought. As I pulled my weighted legs over shiny terrazzo and walked passed the twenties, toward the mid-thirties, I made a mental note to ask him about this later. We’re from the same time and all— he and I. For years we had counted on the other for just this sort of vital, vital, vital thing.
*Licensed from Press53, LLC. Copyright 2018 by Walk Back from Monkey School by Kate Hill Cantrill
I’ve started grocery shopping at one of the new, big places that takes up an entire city block, but claims to support the environment and our health and world peace and all of that. It’s one of those multi-billion-dollar chains that claims to be making a difference in the world, but you still feel just as lost in the glare of the floors as you would in any other grocery store. I can barely afford to walk away with half a bag of groceries each week, but it’s a habit I can’t break. I go there for the produce. They’ve got a woman there who cries over all of the produce—row upon row upon row of all the organic stuff that they ship in from across the world (and perhaps the galaxy). African Butternut Magpie Berry Fruits. Japanese Dancing Mudpie Banana Nuts. Okay. So maybe I’m making those particular names up, but the names are outrageous all the same. And this woman that’s been hired to cry over all of this crazy expensive produce wears one of the stiff- collared shirts with the tight company logo stitched right above the heart. She seems pretty efficient, scurrying from row to row.
She cups her hands beneath her eyes when she’s walking from one display to the next so that she doesn’t waste any of her tears. She lets them fall gently between her fingers and rain down onto the butter lettuce and the red kale. I’ve never seen a single tear end up on the gleaming floor. I guess someone could slip and fall and sue the place if that happened. And I bet it hasn’t, because why would she still be working there? She cries. And each of us has our own little modern looking cart with smooth, silent wheels. We move around each other silently. But she’s always making noise, the woman who cries on the produce. Usually it’s just soft, little sounds. Lots of sighs. You get the sense that there’s some kind of melancholy and longing in her heart (just below the store’s logo) for something distant. Maybe something that she’s forgotten about in a way. But then there are days when I shop there and she is standing over the flawless tomatillos or the crisp sea beans just wailing and letting out gut-wrenching sobs and little shrieks and screams. On those days, she’s crying about something specific and raw and very real. We all push our silent carts and pretend not to notice. We brush by her shuddering shoulders in order to get to the choicest kumquat, the most perfect star fruit. Those are the best days. I swear you can see the stuff growing more beautiful right before your eyes. Firmer or softer. Plumper or tighter. I have to fight the urge to fill my cart to the brim on those days. I make my choices and then I head toward the checkout area as slowly as possible. I hate to rush it. Sometimes I browse new, expensive products that I’ll never buy or understand. I take my time scoping out the free samples. And then I look for the longest checkout line. But, oh, the feeling. The cloth handles of my designer shopping bag (no plastic in that place, of course) press into the crook of my arm during the long walk home, leaving behind a woven indentation that I wish would never fade away. When I get back to my apartment, I take my time. I really do try to. I put things away. I wipe down the counter, even though it is already clean. I sharpen the sharp knife. If I could, I would press pause on the entire world before slicing into it. But I can’t. I slice into it, then, when there is nothing else to do. The magnificent glistening there. The deep, sweet smell before you even see it or touch it or taste it. The very center of her grief.
When grandpa was naked, I didn’t see his doohickey. I was on the porch an’ his belly hung big an’ low like a melon.
Mama said, “For the love of God, Charlie…” She called her dad Charlie ‘cause she said he weren’t no dad o’ hers.
Cliff, Mom’s sleep-over friend, said, “Is he drunk?”
It weren’t that simple, mama said, on account o’ grandpa bein’ off his rocker an’ it weren’t a real sure read to say liquor was come to play.
So mama hadn’t seen Charlie for ten years but his showin’ up naked in the twilight of the front yard was just another rusted link in the great chain o’ misery. Some people never laugh or smile. My mama never knew surprise from ordinary after daddy left. He took off with the savings an’ the red-headed hairdresser at Veronique’s Cuts and Shaves. For three years, mama turned down the sheets regular-like an’ set an extra place, admittin’ no surprise. Then Cliff come an’ moved into the spaces where daddy used to be an’ the neighbors said there’d be no surprise in that house.
“What are you doin’ here?” mama said to her daddy.
“I’m readyin’ to fly.”
Mama didn’t say pea turkey ‘bout that. She said, “Missy, get fixin’ for bed.” And I knew better to argue.
Cliff didn’t say pea turkey but when he was hungry or annoyed. “What are yuh gonna do with that old, naked fart?”
I bust a gut when I heard that. Old naked fart! Cliff looked at me like one of those lions that kills the babies o’ him that was before.
Mama said, “He can sleep in the barn. More blankets than Frank Junior needs.” Frank Junior was our horse. He was born o’ the union of his mama, World’s Fair, and a traveling salesman named Frank. My mama says there’s no other explanation. Three hundred an’ forty days later from cock’s crow to cock’s crow. She wasn’t surprised.
We left grandpa cross-legged an’ naked in the yard. He’s got teats like a boar hog an’ long white bunches o’ hair an’ arms an’ legs skinnier than a cricket’s.
Of a sudden, grandpa raises his fist at the lot of us, says, “I don’t give a dried apple damn!” Hallelujah, I think.
So, I’m out an hour later sittin’ with grandpa under the crab tree. I get naked ‘cause fair’s fair.
Grandpa looks at me and says, “I can hear the nymphs. I hear their song from the earth.”
That’s just crazy luck, ‘cause my teacher, Miss Johnson, told us once that nymphs are beautiful girls asleep in trees an’ things. But grandpa says I got my nymphs all wrong. He’s talkin’ bugs an’ he tells me the story of the cicada nymphs that spend seventeen years underground eating tree roots before livin’ as winged adults for only a few weeks. “I’ve been lost for seventeen years,” he says, “and now I am come home to be re-born.”
I tell grandpa that mama says he’s been away for ten years. He seems puzzled by this, like he figures the number of spokes in the wheel was a done deal.
“Missy,” he says, “nothin’s true but believin’ makes it so.”
“Halleluiah,” I say. “Jane Piccolo stole my butter pecan once an’ her sayin’ it was hers a thousand times made everyone think it were so.”
“Missy,” he says, “you and I are gonna make a world of myth and Jane Piccolo and her lies can go to hell.”
What with a word like myth, grandpa sure has a funny way o’ talkin’. His eyes bug out an’ he’s amazed. I take a shine to grandpa. What with daddy gone, and Cliff and Sneaky Pete down the road, I was thinkin’ like mama that men were last in line at creation. They got a bolt o’ lazy and a pound o’ selfish which means they’re always in a bad mood on account o’ wantin’ things an’ never liftin’ a finger to get ‘em.
But grandpa’s different. “Missy,” he says, “it’s time to build the temple.” So, he gets up an’ walks over to the barn to fetch what it is he needs. It’s dark as molasses in there, but I can hear him movin’, and movin’ things. Sure enough he comes out dragging’ a tangle o’ chicken wire an’ God Almighty he’s got cutters, too.
That’s when all hell breaks loose. I was jus’ thinkin’ about Sneaky Pete an’ there he is in the road before the yard with a fishing pole in one hand an’ a jar o’ leeches in th’ other. He’s out for catchin’ more o’ them cats than he should, sneakin’ ‘em away in the dark. Anyway, he looks at me an’ grandpa an’ then runs an’ grabs me by the arm an’ pulls me toward the house raisin’ a god awful racket.
And mama and Cliff come down and everyone’s angry as the devil. Cliff an’ Sneaky Pete say grandpa’s a pervert an’ I shouldn’t be naked with ‘im.
Mama says, “He’s a lot o’ things, but that he ain’t.”
Cliff says, “A man’s desires change.”
Sneaky Pete says, “Temptation is what made the crow fly.”
I can go to my room or take a lickin’. From my window, I see Cliff in front of grandpa an’ I hear the words son of a bitch an’ Cliff pushes grandpa, leaves ‘im sittin’ beside the wire an’ the cutters, like he wouldn’t piss on ‘im if he was on fire. Big show, I think. Big show, Cliff. I can barely see mama. She’s standin’ tall with one hand to her mouth, like a trunk cut through with lightning. I can’t see her face. I don’t imagine there’s any surprise, anyway.
The next morning, I’m listenin’ in secret to mama. She’s tellin’ Cliff in the kitchen that her daddy ran a junkyard an’ fancied himself an inventor, used to be handier than a pocket on a shirt. Story had it he was God-fearin’ once an’ then he stopped believin’ when the last o’ the litter was born without arms an’ legs an’ a brain. He took to talkin’ to himself an’ walkin’. And walkin’ and talkin’ got ‘im lost for ten years.
“Everybody breaks different,” mama said.
I scarf my cornmeal an’ grab my book bag for school an’ go outside and God Almighty grandpa’s built himself a huge bug statue outta wire. He’s sittin’ in the middle of it naked like it were a flying machine an’ I remember what he said about fixin’ to fly.
“Good morning, Missy,” he says. “You’ll be seeing a few changes around here. Hurry home if you’re of a mind to witness the transformation.
I loved my teacher, Miss Johnson. She showed me to write himself for hisself, said I could go to college ‘cause I sop like bread. She was young an’ she came from the city to replace Miss Carswell who had a breakdown. Miss Johnson dressed in clothing that was soft an’ colourful an’ she smelled like lilac. And all the boys were in love with ‘er, too. Even though they were mostly stupid an’ mean, all she had to do was look at ‘em an’ it was like Sunday School, Jesus puttin’ out his hand an’ tossin’ the demons outta the pigs.
Anyway, that year, Miss Johnson taught us about evolution an’ I was real curious ‘cause Jill Patterson piped up an’ said that her daddy said that evolution is a lie an’ anyone who believes it is a prostitute.
Well, Miss Johnson bust a gut when she heard that an’ because we all wanted to please Miss Johnson, we all bust a gut. But Miss Johnson stopped quick an’ said she was sorry. I never heard a teacher say that. And Miss Johnson said we needed to keep an open mind about evolution.
And it was the most amazin’ thing. We pushed the desks back an’ she brought a kiddy pool out o’ the coat room an’ filled it with water that she coloured green with dye an’ then we all got a chance to throw seeds in, bird and corn an’ the like, an’ then Miss Johnson put a green paper shade over the desk lamp an’ asked me to turn out the lights an’ then she said to get the dinosaur an’ animal toys that we got from cereal boxes at the Hardware on Main an’ stand ‘em up around the floor an’ while we did that, Miss Johnson put on a record called “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” that came all the way from South Africa an’ we all sang the “wimoweh” part an’ it was the right song, what with family startin’ in the swimmin’ hole in Africa for all of us.
“The world was once a big bowl of soup over 4.5 billion years ago,” Miss Johnson says. “All life evolved from the sea. Natural selection meant that the stronger species survived.”
So, we’re all dancin’ an’ singin’ wimoweh to “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” an’ some o’ the boys are playin’ animal fights around the big soup to see who would live an’ who would die an’ then Principal Early comes in an’ asks to talk to Miss Johnson an’ she goes away an’ comes back forever later. And you could see that she had been cryin’ an’ the rest of the day was like a funeral for God knows why.
We didn’t get a lotta evolution after that. Miss Johnson told us that God created the earth in six days an’ that the sun was created after an’ the whole thing took about 10,000 years. And then there was the garden an’ Adam an’ Eve an’ lickety-split a whole heap o’ trouble on account o’ God hoggin’ the apple tree for himself. You could see that her heart wasn’t in it. She read time to time from the same book I seen in Sunday school.
I asked Miss Johnston if she believed in the idea of the soup or the idea of the garden. “What’s goin’ on, anyway?”
Miss Johnson bit her lip an’ hesitated. Finally, she said, “I will speak the truth.” The truth had some relationship with the door ‘cause she kept lookin’ at it while she talked.
“People create what are called myths” she said.
I hollered, “My grandpa’s makin’ a myth! He thinks he’s a grasshopper!”
It weren’t exactly true, but Miss Johnson was dead serious. “Myths are stories that people believe in to comfort themselves. People are afraid. They need to believe there is an obvious reason for everything. There was no garden,” she said. “No Adam and Eve. No apple tree of special importance. It’s just a myth. It’s not true.” And then Miss Johnson reaches into the cupboard under the sink, her eyes never leavin’ the door. Out comes a kinda model with monkey an’ human-like shapes on pins. An’ from one end to the other they get taller an’ straighter.
Miss Johnson clears her throat and says, “Today, I am going to tell you the story of Lucy.”
The day grandpa come, I was walkin’ home cryin’ ‘cause Principal Early said that Miss Johnson went away an’ she wouldn’t be coming back. Miss Johnson had important business back in the city. We knew that was a bald-faced lie, ‘cause there was adults goin’ in an’ outta the school an’ meetin’ with Principal Early an’ they looked like packs o’ wild dogs. An’ Miss Johnson wouldn’t leave without sayin’ goodbye. An’ God’s my witness Principal Early smelled like hooch.
And if that don’t beat all, I turn left at the John Deere, and there’s a mob in the road at my house, like it were a fair or a funeral. I drop my book bag and skedaddle. Grandpa’s crouched naked an’ high in the apple tree. An’ he’s painted himself like the cicada. He’s mud-black with orange body stripes ‘cept for his back where the stripes don’t meet but sorta wander south toward his butt. An’ God Almighty, he ain’t alone in that tree. It’s covered with adult cicada jus’ like he said. And folks are sayin’ it’s not to be believed. They come once every 17 years and this makes 10, tops. And Sneaky Pete says, “There’s only one way to explain it.” And grandpa sees me an’ he waves like it were a picnic.
“Missy,” he says, “I waited for you. The time has come.” And he tells me matter of fact that when he wore pants, he had pockets with the right papers in ‘em ‘bout the myth of the cicada. And I should read up on it when he’s done his two weeks o’ singin’ an’ flyin’.
And I look behind me at mama and Cliff. Cliff’s got his lips puckered like he were gonna spit crab apple juice, but mama? She jus’ stands there starin’ at her daddy like he’s a ghost.
An’ God Almighty if he don’t start singin’! An’ Sneaky Pete says, “That sparks o’ the real Mckoy. That’s real good. It’s your male,” he says, “that’s got the mating sounds. The female don’t got a voice.” He adds, “There’s two weeks o’ peace in the home.”
An’ then the whole tree is alive with the song o the cicada. An’ grandpa, maybe once in 10 or 17 years, has got ‘imself a place in this world.
An’ I’m watchin’ mama as grandpa prepares to fly. An’ what I hear next is an awful smack and – I’m sure of it – one less voice in the chorus. And what mama’s got on her face ain’t nothin’ like horror or when your breath goes with sadness or shock. Mama looks surprised, like all her expectations were contrary an’ the fact of it were hard up against her feelings ‘o doubt. An’ God if I didn’t know it outright, but Cliff’s days were numbered. Hallelujah.
In March of a much later year, the almond trees slumbered beneath a hoarfrost whose delicate embroidery threatened but did not subdue the bees and the blossoms; my second son called Charles was born in the company of his father and my mother; and Miss Patricia Johnson tapped me on the shoulder in the Easter chocolate aisle of Walmart. Oh, how my heart leapt! She was as a cordial to my supplicant in the temple of childhood worship: a soul in bliss, sweetly perfumed, elegant as Roman antiquity, principled as rain.
“Missy,” she said. And we remembered high school graduation when she was still as a picture against the gym wall.
Of course, inevitably, our talk turned to Principal Early. The gardens darkened in her eyes and the declension of her lips was immediately twisted with the stabbing and thrusting of her wet tongue.
“Oh,” she hissed, “he screwed me over, he did.” And even though I stop listening, I still hear the words, son of a bitch.